This past weekend Jacob and I realized that we hadn't left Vienna or the immediate surrounding area in 5 months. We have had the itch for a weekend trip for several months now, though every time we tossed the idea around, the actual followthrough fell like a deflating balloon.
We really have very little excuse though - leaving Vienna is not difficult. One subway stop away from our home is a train station that can take you nearly anywhere you want to go in Europe; or at the least, an airport that will get you the rest of the way. Determined to escape the city for a day, we decided to spend Saturday in Bratislava - one of the most obvious day trips from Vienna. The city lies right inside the border of Slovakia, and is conveniently accessible by an inexpensive hour train ride.
Jacob had done his research of course. He had a list of sights to see, micro breweries that offered craft beer, and a general idea of how to get from the train station into the city center. We crossed the border into Slovakia around 10:00 am, and immediately felt the difference of being in a new country.
So many countries have rather homogenous borders - particularly in the European Union where no one will be coming by to check a passport. As a result, the borders tend to blend into each other, with citizens of one nation casually driving into the other for grocery shopping or dinner out. Though this is true of Austria and Slovakia as well, the difference between the two countries was immediately pronounced, at least along the train tracks (which perhaps should not be a surprise). Vienna has long been known as the city that connects Eastern and Western Europe, and visually at the least, the change is immediately apparent.
The historical city center is filled with lovely buildings, surrounded by old and graying suburbs. The moment you cross the Danube however, you are in a land of identical, albeit colorful, concrete apartment blocks, stretching as far as the eye can see.
We missed the city center during our bus ride from the train station. We passed it without so much as noticing a downtown area, crossed the bridge over the Danube, and found ourselves craning our necks ahead, trying to see around the cinderblock sea ahead of us.
Several minutes later, and no end to the apartment blocks in sight, we reconsulted our map and realized we had needed to disembark the bus before we crossed the river. We caught the next bus in the opposite direction and got off at the stop that looked like the most logical route.
In our experience of traveling together, Jacob and I have realized some valuable things about how we operate as a team. Simply stated, without Jacob, I would have no idea where I was going. Without me however, Jacob would know where he was going, but never get there. He finds the maps, and I interpret them. The map we had for Bratislava, thoughtfully provided by the local tourism office, was just about the worst map I have ever used. Every time we followed the map we wound up somewhere that we had not intended to go, then had to compensate with Google Maps on our phones.
Fortunately Bratislava's city center is charming, small, and....closed? Though it was a Saturday, 75% of the shops, restaurants, and tourist attractions were shuttered for the day. The city was surreally quiet. As far as we could tell it was not a holiday (the grocery stores were open), however very few people were on the streets with us - for the most part, we were alone. Coming from a city that is continually bustling with tourists, walking into Bratislava's main square, only to find it completely empty, was odd.
We spent our day touring the churches and back streets, and climbing the hill to the old castle overlooking the city and Danube. In the afternoon we set out to find the breweries that Jacob had researched. We found the first one with some difficulty - but in the end, the beer was delicious. And cheap. Bratislava is known for being inexpensive (it is on the Euro), though I wasn't expecting to be able to pay for two beers with a small stack of change - the price of one beer here in Austria. (Which, is still cheap compared to San Diego. Forget paying $8.00 for a small beer in America- it's more like $4.00 for a pint in Vienna, $2.00 for a pint in Slovakia.)
Leaving the brewery, we found our bearings to head over to the next spot. From the map, it looked like the second brewery was located on a small side street on the far side of the hill with the castle on it. At that point we had been walking quite a bit, so Jacob suggested we take the next tram over the small pedestrian bridge and see where it took us. I agreed, and we hopped on to the next tram. It crossed the bridge - so far, so good. Then the tram bore to the left and took us through a long tunnel through the hill. Once we exited the tunnel, we figured, we would get off the tram and be in a good spot for a short walk to the brewery.
Jacob and I have a history of taking the most difficult route to destinations however, so I don't know why we had so much optimism. The tram exited the tunnel, bore left, and deposited us along the river at the foot of the hill: far from where we wanted to go. Feeling that our tourism map had failed us once again, we switched over to Google maps on our phones and saw that all of the roads surrounding us ran parallel with each other around the hill, when we wanted to go up the hill. We were stuck. Spotting a set of broken stairs across the road, Jacob and I set off to see if we could access another road at the top of the stairs. Rather than a road, we came across another flight of stairs: this time a 500-some step concrete staircase running at a 40 degree angle up the mountain. This, apparently, was our most direct route.
We climbed the steps, shedding our scarves and gloves by the time we got to the top. Now we were level with the castle, and on the home stretch. We found the street the brewery was located on, and followed it around behind the castle. As the GPS indicated that we were nearing our destination, I noticed that things were looking familiar. Wasn't that the copper roof Jacob had pointed out just as we were getting on the tram?
Wait...was that the pedestrian bridge?!
Yes, my friends, it was. At the point we had stepped onto the tram, we had been a stone's throw away from the brewery. Remember how the tram bore left under the mountain? Well had it born right, we would have been right in front of the brewery. It was less than a two minute walk from where we had started.
On top of that, the brewery was closed.
I'll admit that we were somewhat frustrated: our entire day in Bratislava had been marked by disorientation. The sheer ridiculousness of our route however - that is priceless. Ready to return home, we hopped onto the train back to Vienna feeling grateful to be returning to a place where we don't get lost.
That evening we had been invited to celebrate a friend's birthday at a local Viennese brewery. I looked up the directions, and we dragged our tired feet out into the rainy night to celebrate our friend. It turns out I had misread the directions. We were lost. 45 minutes of walking later, we crawled into the brewery, looking a bit like drowned rats. So much for not getting lost in Vienna.