Bratislava castle, in all its whitewashed glory
Breakaway republics - just how beneficial is it that they actually break away and gain an identity all of their own? Well, think of the fortunes of the Baltic States and other countries of similar ilk, and you'll be led to believe that once they're independent, there's no looking back. On that note, just how much of a task in hand must Slovakia have had seemingly playing second fiddle to the neighbouring Czech Republic, especially considering the average tourist's preference for a trip to Prague over Bratislava. Fear not, as Bratislava has come a long way since the separation, and the city has enough of an identity all of its own to warrant a separate visit and to be treated as a country with its own identity and set of attractions.
Ornate-looking public building in Bratislava
The city proper is compact and walkable enough to get around in the space of just one full day, but it is worth pointing out that its set of attractions are multifold, and that the city's environs make it seem far more expansive. The centrepiece of the town is Bratislava castle, set along the northern bank of the river Danube, and bordering onto the Old Town, which is where the main bulk of the town's prominent buildings are located. Landmarks such as the Opera house, Saint Elizabeth church and Michael's Gate, to name but three, are sewn together with an urban fabric which is best described as enchanting and ornate, an enticing fusion of alluring colours and attractive architectural styles. The city's main shopping thoroughfare is Obchodna street, which is also one of the city's numerous tram routes, but just when you thought Bratislava had not caught up with the rest of the west, no less than 5 modern shopping malls are located there within relatively easy reach, all replete with food courts and famous brand stores.
One of the city's quirkier statues
The famous 'UFO bridge' is almost as synonymous with the city as the local (delicious) beer production, and a short trek north of Bratislava will get you to the prime dining / viewing spot which is the Kamzik TV tower, seemingly where the Slovakian countryside unfolds, and the nearby outdoor bobsleigh run, where adults can shave a few years off their age, and revel in some high-speed antics. An easily-achievable day trip from Bratislava is a train journey to the nearby spa town of Piestany
, seemingly unknown to the outside world, but packed with so very many nice touches that my one visit there firmly put it on this traveller's map. A cluster of colourful buildings, fountains, street cafes and the like then gives way to a river, connected by a bridge, and leading to an enclave of spa hotels, where spa treatment which doesn't cost the earth can be enjoyed at a pace as slack as the rest of this resort town's.
Spa hotel in Piestany
All in all, Slovakia won me over, partly due to the fact that it delivered more than was expected, and with its winning combination of fine styles, cheap and tasty eateries, excellent brews, and mini experiences along the way, this was just as vital a European travel experience as any which had come before it.