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In the new Bratislava, the Devil takes the hindmost

I was supposed to be in LA last weekend. I'd bought the ticket in February when British Airways had a fire sale and the ice lay firmly packed on the park across from the US embassy. My thoughts at the time, naturally, turned to sunshine. Apart from a handful of very good friends I would be able to see, there was really no other good reason to endure 11 hours each way in a packed jumbo jet with nanny BA flight attendants telling us what to do at every turn. I put off my trip for a number of reasons, and the airline changed the ticket to the end of May.

I was supposed to be in LA last weekend. I'd bought the ticket in February when British Airways had a fire sale and the ice lay firmly packed on the park across from the US embassy. My thoughts at the time, naturally, turned to sunshine. Apart from a handful of very good friends I would be able to see, there was really no other good reason to endure 11 hours each way in a packed jumbo jet with nanny BA flight attendants telling us what to do at every turn. I put off my trip for a number of reasons, and the airline changed the ticket to the end of May.

It was kind of them, I have to say, but now that it's sunny again in central Europe I also must admit that despite the loss of the cost of the ticket, I couldn't brace myself for the transatlantic sardine-can ordeal, not to mention the price of a private taxi to Vienna airport and back. The sun was shining in Bratislava a week last Friday, so instead of California I went to Croatia. Just to get away.

One of my favourite catchphrases by which I try to simplify my life is: "You can't come back if you never leave," and I like Slovakia so much that sometimes I need to leave her in order to know how beautiful she is. It was a great weekend, despite a traffic jam in Karlova which lost us almost an hour on Friday night and meant we couldn't see the sea when we got to the coast. On Saturday I went skinny-dipping with friends off the island of Krk, or was it her smaller sister to the south, Prvic? Good food, of course. Freshly caught fish. Hot sun. Local friends. Good wine. Old acquaintances renewed.

But it was good to come back to Bratislava on Sunday evening and slip into the Irish Pub at 9:15 for a quiet drink after eight hours of driving. I heard all about the weekend I missed, and the opening of another pub on Sedlarska, El Diablo, right next door to the Dubliner. The topic of conversation was the number of pubs, cafés, and restaurants opening in Bratislava this year. We speculated on the reason why so many new places should spring up now, apparently so suddenly, and no-one had a clear answer. My own view is that it's just a matter of Bratislava growing-up. After all, several new places opened last year, and now we take them for granted as if they've always been here.

To say that the Old Town has changed radically since 1989 is more than an understatement. I didn't get here until 1994, and the centre of town was a shambles. I can't remember a restaurant open past 9:30 at night. Bratislava was no more than a provincial Czechoslovak town, even though the split had occurred a year and a half before. Now, of course, with great credit due to the city authorities and the early pioneers of western-style catering, Bratislava resembles an historic and rather quaint capital city, at least in the centre. In fact, it's a good place to be. Most of the time.

Probably the biggest problem is the ongoing presence of the so-called Mafia. While most of the routine extortion goes on invisibly, many of us have witnessed scenes of thuggery and violence on the streets of the capital city more befitting a Western movie script. It gives most of us pause for thought, and typically, for a while, we ponder over whether we live in the right place after all.

The police appear powerless and incompetent, leaving foreign residents and accidental tourists alike with the sinking realisation that were anything to happens to us, only our local friends could be counted on to help. Usually, the cops compound the problem and seem much more interested in the victims' paperwork than in the crime itself. It's easier for them that way, but it's a great pity, of course. I wonder how long it will take to clear it up, but console myself with the thought that whatever else the government fails to do, at least it's not a Mafia organisation itself.

Meanwhile, the cost of everything is rising, including one-day excursions, as two of my American friends found out last Monday. Looking forward to a day out in Vienna they presented themselves early in the morning at the ticket booth at the railway station in Petržalka. Excitement turned to hurt and disappointment when they found out that the cost of a ticket for non-Slovaks and non-residents had risen overnight from 274 to 1,160 crowns. It's good to get away. But if we can't afford it we'll forget how beautiful Bratislava can be, when she's at her best.

Topic: Tourism and travel in Slovakia


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