Or, as the leaflet we got on an Austrian train put it, BratisLover.
Something as simple as getting on a train shouldn’t be stressful, but when you’re in a foreign country you can never be sure exactly what the right form is. When we boarded our train to Vienna at Zagreb Station we found ourselves in a carriage divided up into old-fashioned compartments. Some of them had Reserved signs on them, but Habiba seemed to want to ignore this and take one. There were very few other passengers around. Eventually, we went into the next carriage, which was completely empty and took two seats there. It was very nice, actually – all the seats had power outlets for people to run their computers, charge their phones etc.
We arrived on time at Wien Meidling. We then had four or five minutes to transfer to a local train for Südbahnhof S-bahn. Then we had ten minutes to walk to Südbahnhof Ostbahn. There weren’t any signs pointing people in the right direction out on the street. Habiba said, It’s this way, and we walked to a pedestrian crossing. I looked around and saw the other station behind us. We half walked, half ran there. Our train was at the nearest platform and we got on board with five minutes to spare.
We had thought that our change of train might cause problems, so Habiba had asked our host in Bratislava to meet us half an hour after we were due to arrive. We arrived on time again and waited in the cold wind outside the station for half an hour.
Our host in Bratislava (capital of Slovakia) was Lauren, whom Habiba had worked with in Seoul. Also living in Bratislava was Botond, my own friend and erstwhile colleague from Korea. We spent lots of time hanging out with them both; they were both working, though, so the daytimes were mostly our own. Lauren had a nice flat that she had shared with someone else up until the day we arrived – so we had a bedroom to ourselves (although the next occupants dropped by occasionally to leave stuff). One strange thing about the place was that you needed to swipe an electronic fob at the front door in order to both enter and exit the building. An inconvenience for us and a potentially fatal flaw in case of fire.
The area we stayed in is full of communist era panel tenements, but the old centre of the city is much more atractive, with lots of historical buildings, stone-paved streets and various cafés. On our first evening, we met Botond at the main square, Hlavné námestie, and he took us on a brief tour of the area, showing us, in particular, a series of whimsical modern statues: a French soldier leaning on a bench, a worker up to his chest in a manhole, an early 20th century charmer, Schöner Náci, and a paparazzo sneaking a photo round a corner.
Other sights that we explored in our nearly five days there included Michael’s Gate,
the Primate’s Palace (an archbishop’s winter residence),
Nový Most (the New Bridge), with its UFO crown, which spans the fast-flowing Danube,
Slavín, a communist era monument where thousands of soldiers are buried,
and I went alone to Devín Castle a little outside Bratislava on the coldest, windiest day of our travels since Turkey. Waiting for the bus (I just missed the once-an-hour service and had to wait an hour for the next one), I met a Spaniard who told me about the way Spanish women take advantage of tourists. At a bar, a girl would come up to him and say, Buy me a drink. When he asks, Why?, they say, Sorry, I thought you were Italian.
Bo also took us on an evening trip to a lookout tower in nearby Austria called Königswarte. Because of the Schengen Area, since we entered Slovenia on our way to Austria there have been no passport controls; the immigration posts that span the roads between Slovakia and Austria are completely deserted. We parked up in a small village and walked up a forested hill, passing a station with several large satellite dishes to a wooden tower. From the top you could see all of Bratislava and the countryside, including scores of wind turbines in the Austria fields. On the way back to Bo’s car, we spotted a couple of deer in the woods.
One of the culinary highlights of this leg of our trip was trying a dish called halušky, a stew of sauerkraut and red pepper with sour cream. At Lauren’s, we made a big stew and a pan of mashed potatoes that lasted several days. Lauren recommended a coffee shop called Shtoor; it had good capuccinos and nice cheesecake; it had lightshades in the shape of coffee cups and bowler hats.
Habiba and I went into an antiques shop in a small, old shopping mall in the city centre, where I bought a set of old Slovak coins – the currency before the country adopted the eruo was the koruna or crown. Eight coins cost €4 (I haggled the man down from €5.)
Our stay in Bratislava was our most relaxing yet – Habiba and Lauren got on like a very silly house on fire and we had good internet access at her place, which we took advantage of. Lauren let us use her keys, so her home felt like our home.
On Friday evening, Botond came over to drive us to his hometown – Gödöllő, about 30km from Budapest, capital of Hungary. Lauren finished her temporary job on the same day and was due to fly back home to Manchester the following day.