I always assumed that if I made it to Vienna, I would have to add a day for Bratislava. Fun fact: Vienna and Bratislava are two closest European capitals in terms of distance, so I understand that it is a common side trip, but that was never my reasoning. I generally do not like to “gallop through Europe”, as the saying goes. I learned to not overplan from experience (although my consequential plunge into underplanning has resulted in some unintended and occasionally hilarious jams—but that is another story for another time). I like to take in the sights and go at my own pace, and I dislike leaving a place without exploring it fully. So short story long, if I am going somewhere, I am not also going somewhere else. However, what led me to Bratislava was not its proximity to Vienna, but that Trip That Never Happened 42 years ago.
To be fair, Bratislava was never going to be more than a train connection on our original journey. We always knew that we were not going to see the town. It was an almost unimaginably different world back then. Europe was still divided into East and West, and getting from East to West was complicated even with a passport. A moot point, in any case, because we had no passports. We no longer had passports because we no longer had citizenship of any country, none at all. We were put on a train heading out of the USSR, and the first stop was Bratislava. Czechoslovakia was still united, and Bratislava was not a national capital of anything.
We disembarked in Bratislava and waited for the train to take us into the *real* West, to Vienna. On that cold and lonely platform in December of 1980, I do not remember any other passengers. It was just the four of us, my mom and grandparents and I, and we stood there with our two suitcases per person for what seemed like hours. This might be an invented memory, but I remember going into the train station itself and seeing chewing gum for sale (if you ever heard how prized it was in the Soviet Union—it’s all true!). Could we have just walked into the city? Were there any guards who would have stopped us? It is impossible to know now, because the only tangible goal was to get on that train heading to Vienna. These days, the hour-long trip between the two cities is almost akin to a suburban commuter ride. Back then, one travelled from the Eastern Block to the Capitalist West in a fancy sleeper compartment, and I remember it taking hours—probably because of border control. My mother remembers red velvet upholstery; I do not.
And so Bratislava remained something I never even pictured, just a footnote to a trip to Vienna. The only part of a this visit I could envision was arriving at that train station and walking past that kiosk selling gum and sundries out into an unimaginable town. Medieval? Baroque? Modern? The important part was the station, the kiosk, the sunlit town square. None of them turned out to be real in 2022.
My persistence in going to Bratislava in the face of my mother’s mild opposition; my brisk realization that in this century, trains to and from Vienna connect to Bratislava via a suburban station and not the main one, preventing the recreation of that long ago voyage; brief panic about having to also get on a bus to get to city center—none of these are worth recounting. Well, maybe the briefest of mentions—repeatedly seeing the words “Bratislava Petrzalka” instead of “Bratislava Central” or “Bratislava Hlavna” led this sophisticated traveler and polyglot to feverishly search the interwebs for a route into the city (get on the bus in this area, alarmingly advised the web, never take the taxi). Otherwise, we would be walking out of the train station into a somewhat grim peripheral disappointment and then right back to Vienna, as per tradition.
Ultimately, I feel like I gave Bratislava a short shrift. We walked around a bit, enjoyed the most lavish meat feast I could ever imagine (allegedly for two people, but there were six meat servings), encountered another Christmas market (again, mostly meat), saw some charming medieval sites, and hightailed it back to Vienna before dark. But I think Bratislava deserves more than just a couple of hours. It seemed like a lovely town I would like to get to know better. I would have liked to visit its castle high above the city, its churches and museums, taste the local wine at a very cool cellar by which I walked, and learn more about the effect the decoupling from Czechia had on Slovakia. I could have researched and planned prior to going, but I think the existence of this town was simply too fantastic to contemplate. Now that I know that it is real, we need to be properly introduced.