The amazing thing about going somewhere you know next to nothing about, somewhere you have done little to no research on, a place where nobody you know has been, is that you have absolutely no idea what to expect; everything has the potential to surprise and awe you.
My brief stint in Slovakia has so far been just that. Knowing so little about this place has made every little thing surprise and amaze me.
At first glance, Bratislava, where I’ll have stayed for only two nights, seems to be not much more than a grimy, grungy, and gritty capital city. The two Slovaks I’ve met at my hostel, both from Slovakia’s second largest and supposedly much prettier and more charming city, Kosice, both told me with some disdain that all there is to Bratislava is its old town and city center.
First of all, the city center, essentially the area surrounding and almost blending in to the once-walled old town, is quite nice and refreshingly charming compared to the more gritty industrial streets that appear on its periphery . This dynamic of charming versus modern and industrial reminds me a lot of Bern, as if Bratislava were the more rugged, less pristine and uniform cousin of the Swiss capital.
There is also a lovely foliage-lined promenade just outside the old town, flanked by pedestrian streets lined with cafes and bars, a quieter area I really enjoyed exploring and photographing.
It also displays one of the weirdest and most eclectic collections of street art I’ve probably ever seen.
The eclecticism then is mixed with some grime and grit and, my favorite Instagram subject as of late, colors and colors galore, on the sides of the main bridge leading into the city.
All in all, I feel my choice to come to Bratislava, despite the fact that it doesn’t have the most favorable reputation and is described by Lonely Planet as “lacking charm” and home to “no unmissable sites,” I’d venture to say that Bratislava is a unique and interesting place worth a stop on a trip to Slovakia.
I also managed to go to the nearby town of Trenčín (pronounced Tren-CHEEN) today. The only thing I’d read on Lonely Planet, which was corroborated by my Slovak hostelmates, was that the town is small, relatively charming, and has a medieval castle on a hill. Castle on a hill…well, that was enough for me, I guess.
Once again, I was pleasantly surprised. After popping into the tourist office, I headed up to the castle, and the student price for the so-called “grand tour” was a mere €3.10; dirt cheap compared to other museums and other historical edifices I’ve visited.
Then, as it turns out, I was the only one to show up for the grand tour offered in English; for €3.10, I got a private and most interesting and entertaining tour of the Trenčín castle. My tour guide, a very friendly young woman with a Bachelor’s degree in politics, and a wealth of interesting information about the castle, wouldn’t even let me tip her at the end.
She told me a ton of intriguing and several hilarious facts about the castle’s history, details about the various elite families who owned it and lived there, as well as information on where to view the second-century AD (or as we Classical Studies are accustomed to designating as CE, i.e. the Common Era) ROMAN INSCRIPTION, commissioned by the Emperor Marcus Aurelius to commemorate a Roman victory in Trenčínover hostile Germanic tribes. You go to this random hotel and you can view it from a second-story window engraved into the old castle wall.
As a prospective Classical Studies major, I was delighted to learn about the role of Trenčín castle in Roman history, as small as it might have been.
Just like I’m pleased I came to Bratislava, I was really happy with my decision to take a short day-trip to Trenčín today.
As I’ve said, Slovakia has been all the more interesting because I knew nothing about it in advance, and had no preconceived notions about what it would be like based on what I’d heard from friends. And I guess, this is how I’d rationalize my visiting less famous or iconic places, especially in the last week, and most likely in the upcoming weeks as well.
I’ve heard so many wonderful things about so many places here on this fabulous European continent, but after much deliberation, I’m now feeling not at all stressed about or hell-bent on visiting “as much of Europe as I can,” as I’ve tended to assert as the purpose of this two-month trip of mine. The fact that I have the time and resources and support-system to be here at all is gratifying enough.
So, from here on out, as I plan the rest of my European sojourn on the go, I’m not interested necessarily in visiting “the BEST of Europe” or that place that everyone tells me I have to go to. I’ll go where I go, when I go there.
And if my upcoming experiences are anything like the ones I’ve had here in Bratislava and Trenčín, Slovakia, then I have all the optimism in the world that things will turn out alright.