You’ve met the older, more famous siblings– Vienna, Budapest, and Prague – in a previous post, but let me introduce some of the little sisters of Central Europe. They may not have the same prestige, but they’re distinctive and appealing in their own right and are well worth a peek.
Bratislava, Slovakia (pop. ~ 425,000) – our first little city stop – has a bit of an unnecessary inferiority complex. Our Free Tour guide must have said five times that she figured we were all there because we’d been in Vienna, an hour away, anyway. Umm, not us. We had actually planned a longer stay in Slovakia than we did in Vienna, and we were pretty psyched about our cool but affordable hotel in Bratislava (with a brewery onsite) and spending more time here than the typical day trippers.
Like many Central and Eastern European cities that used to be under the Soviet thumb, Bratislava has an older, more colorful history that was partially bulldozed by the Communists’ dreary utilitarianism. That means the pastel-tinged Old Town and the red-roofed castle grounds are bluntly divided by a futuristic bridge and dull highway that wiped out an old synagogue and a huge chunk of the old city’s narrow, twisting streets. It also explains the hulking concrete apartment blocks across the Danube River and the overbearing monuments in other parts of the city.
The good news is that this with-it city is both bent on changing its image and taking the Soviet changes in stride. There is an unmistakable pride in the unique, modern bridge, and that helps offset the frustration of losing a cherished old part of the city. Those massive residential blocks are now painted in a rainbow of colors; our guide aptly called it Lego town, and it’s a great example of turning lemons into lemonade. There are trendy brew pubs and Mac-filled coffee shops in both the old and new parts of the town, and even the manholes have an quirky, artistic touch.
As we drive from Hungary to western Austria, we pass through nearly the entire width of Slovenia, one of the most exquisite countries in Europe, in my opinion. Although I’ve already raved about the capital, Ljubljana, in a 2014 post, it fully deserves another song of praise.
This enchanting city is even smaller than Bratislava, with fewer than 300,000 residents. The core of the downtown is pedestrian only, which makes things very pleasant after you’ve found a place to drop a car. Both sides of the tree-shaded Ljubljanica River house vibrant shops, hotels, restaurants, bars, street markets, and a seemingly endless number of outdoor tables.
Bikes whiz by, performers sing on the corners, varnished wood boats glide along the river, and it appears that every single person in town is either eating ice cream or drinking a beer as the autumn sun warms the last hours of the afternoon.
Overlooking the maze of brick walkways and buildings is a medieval castle, a staple of so many of Europe’s old towns and one of the fortress triplets of today’s profiled cities. Even if you’ve seen enough castles to last the rest of your days, the towers of these hillside edifices are the very best way to get the lay of the land, and in Ljubljana’s case, that vista includes a succession of terracotta roofs, green fields and woods approaching the mountains, and the Julian Alps themselves off in the distance. Talk about a view!
Our last city stop, the smallest but perhaps best known of the three, is Salzburg, Austria (pop. < 150,000). This visit really is just a peek. We’ve had so much fun trekking in Slovakia and Slovenia that we arrive rather late in Salzburg and have to press on to our next hiking base soon after.
Husband J remembers this town as a real charmer, and he is eager to show it to me for an afternoon and early evening. As we walk into the city along the river and view it from its castle above, it does not disappoint. Up close, too, it’s a handsome and cultured little metropolis; I’m infatuated early on with the soft stone walls and the wrought iron signs, the sparkle of the water and the impeccable wool fashions everyone is wearing. I’m obsessed with the ubiquitous stag motif and drool over the giant pretzels for sale in a few semi-busy squares.
Suddenly, though, we are in pressing crowds and discover that we are part of a St Rupert’s Day celebration, an event that looks and feels remarkably similar to Oktoberfest. Those couples I thought were so cute a few minutes ago are bothering me now that they’re listing into me; she looks silly with her bosom billowing out of a dirndl bodice, and his lederhosen appear ill-fitting and stained at close range. The pretzels now seem obscenely expensive (and dry – we discover after foolishly buying one), and the shops a bit ostentatious with their Bavarian designer hats and fancy accoutrements. We beat a hasty retreat up the hill to the castle to get away from the noise, disorder, and conspicuous consumption.
Upon our descent and escape back into the quieter streets, I do another 180 and decide maybe I do love the look of the boiled wool jackets and hats on the local families, and wish I could buy both of those items, plus a stag scarf, a couple of pins for my hat, and maybe some very pricey suede boots. (I desist.)
I admire the setting sun on the bridges, conjure up Mozart and Salieri as classical music wafts out of hidden courtyards, and drink another beer as J eats a giant weisswust dinner in a cozy biergarten. Just like that, Salzburg is back in my good graces, completing a trifecta of small town visits on our Central European road trip.
This is likely my last post on our Central European road trip, which turned out to be a perfect combo of big cities, a series of excellent hiking stops and rural stays, and many smaller towns in between. For information or stories about the trip, see the following posts: