Sleet, slush and thick coals moke fogs have returned to Bratislava, marking the arrival of winter. For four months, it will be evening all afternoon in the capital, and the smell of wet shoes will reign in office hallways.
The only known antidote to this protracted misery is varené víno, a kind of mulled wine that has become synonymous with Christmas in Slovakia.
Wine-drinking, of course, is not a new custom in the capital. The nomadic Avar tribe, which invaded Slovak territory in the sixth century A.D. and chased out the Slavs, was so fond of wine that "their unquenchable thirst was the main cause of their [eventual] downfall," according to historian František Kalesný.
Bratislava actually received town privileges in 1291 as a result of its economic importance as a wine-producing centre. Descendants of the Avars can still be seen defending their privileges every December at the Christmas Market on Hlavné Námestie. This year's market runs from November 27 to December 22, every day from 16:00 to around 22:00.
For the duration of the market, the Old Town square is lined with booths selling Christmas trinkets, CD's of dubious authenticity, grilled meat and, of course, varené víno.
The wine is drunk around stand-up trestle tables set up on the square. At around 20 Sk for a 20 ml. cup, it's a cheap and cheerful way to end the workday or begin the evening, although the cold, the boisterous market crowds and the Christmas music can embitter even the happiest of dispositions.
Thankfully, however, Bratislava's Old Town contains a number of classic pubs which offer varene víno in a comfortable, warm setting. Here are five of the best.
Ventúrska 18, Tel.: 07-5443-0360, open Mon-Fri 10:00-21:00. Varené víno 35 Sk.
A small but cute wine-cellar in Bratislava's Old Town, Klub F enchants visitors with its quiet and mystical ambience. Besides the irresistible scents of food and perfumed candles, you can almost smell the breath of medieval scholars and travelling merchants who used to drop in for a jar of fresh-brewed beer or mulled wine. Bratislava's past sleeps in this pub's stone-brick walls, giving guests a feeling of communion with drinkers of yore that can take the cold out of any dark winter night.
Prašná Bašta ("The Dusty Gate")
Zámočnícka 11, Tel.: 5443 4957, open 11:00 to 23:00 every day. Varené víno 25 Sk.
With seating for about 30 customers, dark wood interior and high-backed chairs, Prašná Bašta is one of the coziest pubs in town. The music is often outstanding, a mix of jazz and blues, give or take the occasional foolish George Michael selection. The food, too, can be surpassingly good, particularly the Armenian salad and the Edith Piaf chicken. Service is quick, friendly and multilingual.
The only problem, of course, is that Bašta is almost always full of people attracted by its many charms. So a word of advice - get there early, order a glass of varene víno and settle in for the evening. Winter never seemed so far away.
Čierny Havran ("The Black Raven")
Biela 6, Tel.: 5443 5727, open 11:00 to 24:00 every day. Varené víno 35 Sk
Tired of trotting up and down Bratislava Main Square looking for Christmas gifts? Try diving around the corner of Biela Street into Čierny Havran, a little two-storey pub in the yard of an old Bratislava house. Upstairs is an unimaginatively decorated bar with a good selection of Czech and Slovak beer, which pub regulars usually bracket with shots of domestic spirits. For greenhorn drinkers, such mixtures are not recommended. Downstairs is both a trendy tavern and a more refined non-smoking café, enlivened with a small stage where an alternative theatre ensemble performs regularly.
Malí Františkáni ("The Small Franciscans")
Námestie SNP 24, Tel.: 5443 2535, open 10:00 to 06:00 every day. Varené víno 30-34Sk.
Barely five years ago, it was impossible to find a restaurant in the capital open until midnight. Now, however, there is Malí Františkáni, a pub-restaurant open rather pointlessly until 6 a.m.. Times have changed, indeed.
Located almost opposite McDonald's on SNP square, Františkáni boasts a cheap rather than choice menu and a durable rather than diligent staff. But you can't beat it at 3 a.m. on a winter morning, when the alternative to a varene víno in Františkáni's subdued cellar is a 49 minute wait for the next bus.
Šenkvická Viecha ("The Pub Wine Cellar")
Panenská 34, Tel.: 5441 9024, open every day 11:00 to 23:00, Fri and Sat until 01:00.
After the theatre or after a hockey game, this clean and well-appointed wine-cellar is just the place to wet your whistle with either fiery borovíčka or a glass of hot wine. Good service and good wine are this place's biggest advantages.
And for those who eschew bars and traipsing around cold city markets, a new wine store has opened up downtown which offers an immense variety of domestic and foreign wines at reasonable prices. Known as "Vinotéka Sv. Urbana," and located at Klobučnícka 4 , the store is open Mon-Fri 10:00.18:00 and Sat 09:00-14:00. Tel.: 07-5443-2537.
Additional reporting by Ivan Remiaš
30. Nov 1998 at 0:00 | Tom Nicholson