In September 2002 I rocked up in Bratislava with a couple of bags and just enough cash to last until my first paycheck. And so unfolded one of the great years of my life…
It was still dark when I awoke. With a thumping headache and sandpaper throat, I forced myself out of bed and shuffled over to the bathroom sink. Greedily gulping down mouthfuls of lukewarm water, it took me a beat to realise where I was. Then it all came flashing back, a whirlwind of images from our road trip across the country, followed by the more twisted snapshots of the previous night’s festivities in Košice. ‘‘Young girl, they call them the Diamond dogs!’’
Having put away just three to four hours’ sleep, my body was screaming for a return to bed and the blissful coma I’d been enjoying. And yet, peering out the window at the breaking yellow-grey of dawn, I found my myself wide-awake. Out into the Košice morning, the first blast of chilly air washed over me in a refreshing wave, going some way to hush the complaints of my aching joints. The streets were empty and silent save for the terse movements of the sparrows as they whistled and fluttered among the trees.
Revelling in the solitude of what was essentially a ghost city, I made my way down the pedestrian zone of Mlynská Street, pausing here and there to take in its impressive stone facades. Halfway down I came across an open bakery, where I treated myself to coffee and a miscellaneous sausage-bread thing that I only just managed to keep down. Sometime later I arrived at the rich, neo-baroque exterior of The State Theatre. The sun was out now and it was promising to turn into a fine day, a sheet of light blue having shouldered its way into the sky action. Seizing the moment, I caught the attention of a passing man, bicycle in hand, a loaf of bread and a newspaper nestled in its rusting basket. He didn’t speak a word of English, but thankfully knew how to press the camera button, immortalising my place in that perfect, peaceful morning.
‘‘You’re chirpy’’ mumbled Ben suspiciously, the bus cruising smoothly down another nameless motorway. The party atmosphere had dissolved into an elegiac gloom as the group struggled to recover from last night’s epic bender. A mural of red-eyes, sore heads, bed hair and general scruffiness, I looked on as Paul half-heartedly tackled a grim looking sandwich. Elsewhere Sarah stared out at the passing scenery, her head resting against the window. Bill and Mary read quietly from their guidebooks while Jordan, bug-eyed, doggedly sipped from his bottle of Becherovka. A few rows down Rich was fast asleep, head lolled back, mouth wide open.
It seemed somewhat appropriate that our first port of call was the sobering Military Museum in the Eastern town of Svidnik. Dedicated to the countless soldiers slain during the First and Second World Wars, we had a nose through the main exhibition before touring a vast open-air complex of cannons, military vehicles, rocket launchers and observation posts. With an increasing number of the group having rejoined the land of the living, we darted around the place taking pictures and consuming the info on the various plaques.
Somehow still buzzing from the resulting energy of my early rise, I clambered onto a gargantuan T-34 tank and performed an impromptu rap while Aimee, jigging around on the grass below, supplied backing vocals. It’s not what I would call the proudest moment of my life thus far. In fact, if I could go back, live that morning again and not do the rapping, I would.
‘‘Ten minutes till Bardejov’’ reported Eric to a low ripple of murmured approval. Ahead the nerds were engaging in some kind of mathematics contest, their yapping voices an interweaving riddle of perplexing numbers and cryptic formulas. Beside me, Myles was destroying a cold pasta dish he’d picked up from a service station. With the bus driver having complained to Eric about the general mess on board, Myles was improvising with a plastic bag based invention we christened The Remington Super Saver. With the handles tied around his ears and the interior hanging under his chin, he held his little box over the mouth of the open bag, which allowed any stray scraps to fall directly in. ‘‘Were you the kind of guy who needed a bib when you ate?’’ I asked, pushing an invisible microphone towards him. ‘‘Oh yeah!’’ replied Myles through a mouthful of pasta. ‘‘I used to dump that shit all over me!’’ Dispatching another forkful, he turned to me with a wink. ‘‘But now, with the Remington Super Saver…’’
Bardejov turned out to be the day’s second ghost town. But while Košice had the excuse of my visiting it at the crack of dawn, here it was early afternoon and there wasn’t a creature to be seen. As strange and creepy as this felt, it only added to the considerable allure of the town centre. A completely intact medieval square stuffed full of well-preserved gothic and renaissance houses, it was a photographer’s wet dream.
Strolling around, we passed a series of hibernating restaurants, closed down shops and curtain-drawn residences, any inhabitants presumably hiding inside clutching garlic and crucifixes. Looming over proceedings was the monumental Church of Sv. Aegidius, host to an impressive interior with no less than eleven gothic winged altars! With nobody to be seen in the Church either, Paul and I briefly discussed whether we could get one of the altars back to the bus, before regretfully concluding we were probably pushing our luck.
As picturesque as Bardejov was there was clearly little to do, so a large portion of the crew jumped back on the bus and headed off to the nearby town of Bardejovske Kupele for some pampering at a famous spa and wellness centre. But not all of us were keen to leave. Having discovered an Irish Pub right there on Bardejov’s main square, (and it was open, a miracle!) a few of us decided to hang back for lunch. We were the only customers and the barman was a grumpy Slovak who didn’t exactly seem grateful for our patronage.
On our way back to meet up with the others a few hours later, we came across a couple of downtrodden laborers. They were trying (and largely failing) to shift a hulking waste disposal trailer across the square. Pitching in, Rich and I loaned them some elbow grease, helping them haul it to the other side. Not exactly a story for the grandchildren, but by Bardejov standards it was probably quite the event for the people behind the curtains. Throwing Sarah my camera, she managed to grab a hasty shot of our efforts. ‘‘Lignon, you’re such a tourist!’’ tutted Rich.
Back at the base in Košice and our second evening was a low-key affair, with little appetite among the group for a repeat of the previous evening’s debauchery. Gathering for dinner and drinks, the mood was chilled and reflective. Abstaining from alcohol altogether, I retired to the hostel early, claiming the nine hours of sleep my body so desperately needed.
The next morning we sped off on the road back to Bratislava. Happily there was time for one last stop along the way, while happier still the UNESCO-approved town of Banská Štiavnica turned out to be the most remarkable stop of the trip. After a suitably wintry lunch of soup and bread at a cute little restaurant on the main square, we headed out to explore. Set amid the forests of The Štiavnica Mountains and sprawled around a series of steep, terraced hillsides; a walk along the town’s ascending pathways and winding alleys was like stepping back in time.
Historically a booming town that eventually became the biggest Mining Centre of The Hapsburg Monarchy, Banská Štiavnica fell on hard times at the end of the nineteenth century, with the last mine closing down in 2001. Looking out over its tiled skyline, many of the multi-colored buildings remained wonderfully untouched; though others were dilapidated and abandoned. With just a few hours until we had to be on our way again, my brisk wanderings took in a pretty old church and atmospheric views of a pair of nearby castles. Strolling through an impeccably kept cemetery, I came across an old lady stooping down over a marble headstone to lay a bouquet of flowers. Wrapped in a thick black fur coat and matching hat, she rose to give me a solemn nod and a shaky smile before plodding off towards the gated exit.
“Bratislava!’’ boomed Eric as we rolled through the city limits. All around me people were waking up with yawns and stretches, while nearby a wide-awake Jordan head-banged to rocking headphone music. It’s good to be on the road back home I thought, my mind already turning to Monday morning Obchodna classes with Peter and the Katkas. Wait a minute… home? I realised this was the first time I’d thought of Bratislava in such terms and, after a short period of deliberation, decided that it felt good!
‘‘Hey, what’s up?’’ called Goldblum as Rich and I bumbled through the door, dropping our bags in the hallway. We found him in the living room, curled up on the sofa with a Nick Hornby paperback. ‘‘Sir Jon Goldblum in the house!’’ laughed Rich, clapping his hands together. ‘‘Faaantastic!!!’’
Rich and I spent a good hour regaling our new flatmate with tales from the road trip. Eventually Goldblum struggled to his feet with a tiger-like yawn and shuffled off to the kitchen. ‘‘Dinner time’’ he said, fetching some cooking oil from one of the cupboards. ‘‘You’re eating already?’’ I asked in surprise. ‘‘Well… I wouldn’t exactly call it eating’’ he replied, opening the fridge. ‘‘It’s a mincemeat, egg and noodle concoction… sludge really. Pretty much all I can eat for the next four weeks’’. ‘‘Ah’’ I replied, thinking of all the hearty meals I’d so nonchalantly dispatched over the past days. ‘‘Back at the hospital I asked old Hirjak if he could open me up’’ he chuckled, rubbing his stomach. ‘‘Maybe put a steak in there and sew it back up’’.
Laughing at the resulting imagery, I poured myself a glass of orange juice and took a seat at the breakfast bar. “So… this sludge, is there enough for two?’’ I asked, watching Goldblum fire up the stove. ‘‘Sure is kid’’ he answered, grabbing a handful of eggs, ‘‘sure is’’.
‘Road Trip Part II’ is the seventh part of my short story series The Slovak Files.
You can also check out my bite sized travel reports from around Slovakia.