Finding my bearings in Vienna and Bratislava

I have just come back from a little holiday to Vienna and Bratislava in Slovakia. In short, Vienna was not as beautiful as I had imagined, and Bratislava was poorer and more touristy, though both were full of glorious sunshine, marble, churches, trams and stags. I think, to use modern parlance, my takeaway from my five day break is that to counteract our world of pandemics, war, social isolation, and corruption, more people must be turning to each other, getting married and finding solace and escape in stag parties.

On arrival in Vienna, dismissing taxis, we launched ourselves into public transport, boarded a double level train, alighted at an underground station and dragged our Ryanair cabin bags into daylight, along streets lined with high rise buildings that seemed to have no destination.  Following Google, Joe found our Airbnb studio on the noisy outer ring road which encircled a canal with a lovely towpath full of outdoor cafes, beaches, people pedalling, walking, running.

We dropped off our bags and set off to get our bearings. It seems this is best done by sitting at a canal café, in glorious sunshine, drinking Weisstephan beer (known as dusty beer) and pinching and swiping google maps. Don’t get me wrong, I do adore google maps, and I would have seriously been lost without it and Joe who seems to be able to walk and map read at the same time. However, I do like to see and hold a paper map which gives some sort of perspective. But, really, these days, it is not cool to be seen on a corner with a map looking confused.

Anyway, that afternoon we walked along the canal, getting our bearings, which I have to say I promptly lost as we stopped for sun drenched drinks, and soaked up the vibe of the city.  

In Vienna, there are thousands of grand, old, beautiful buildings, galleries, museums, and gothic, Gaudi looking church spires, and blue and gold tiled domes in the sky, but they were all surrounded by a conglomeration of high speed avenues, traffic, and noisy intersections. It felt like a wedding cake of a city which had exploded and its beautiful detritus had landed willy nilly.

The next day, the first place we visited was Karls Kirche  (a church) which was a little too opulent for my taste. There were a lot of friezes and statues in gold and marble, and cherubs and angels cavorting about. We went up an internal scaffold in a rickety lift to see the painted dome and my stomach turned, sadly not with delight. There was too much glory, gold, and crosses for my liking.

The highlight of Vienna for me was the Natural History Museum which was full of wonderful glittering minerals, dinosaurs, and very interactive so that I found myself cavorting back in the day with my ape friends. Then we sauntered off to  the Sigmund Freud museum which was set in the apartment that the family lived in before escaping the Nazis in 1938 and moving to London. It was interesting to see how people lived.

Actually, the real highlight was the Bloody Mary’s that night in the First Floor Jazz Club. Spanish students were trying to waltz to jazz music. Well, let me tell you, after the fourth Bloody Mary, Joe and I soon put pay to that and cleared the floor!

Or maybe my highlight was the next morning, admittedly bleary and weary, we visited the Hundertwasser Museum before leaving for Bratislava. We had a lovely breakfast in a gorgeous outdoor café which replenished our spirits and provided sustenance for the museum…which was fab.

 Hundertwasser was a surrealist artist and built the museum on the values of water, wind, tree and colour. It was wobbly (not so practical with a hangover), full of psychedelic circles and airy fairy, spiritual wonder. I loved it. I loved his designs for incinerators, housing developments, churches: colourful, curvaceous, and he had a wonderful eye for the glory of beauty. He was marvellously mad and I wished he’d had more luck in his lobbying of politicians. However, he was successful in his seduction of me and I bought a wonderful hat which I’m sure will go down well in the streets of Cavan.

 (Funnily enough, we found a similar exhibition in Bratislava the next day by an artist, Peter Bartos, who drew a million sketches of a wonderfully bright future with buildings that took account of nature, people, animals, trees, weather. I particularly liked them because looked rather like my own paintings.

 Anyway, after buying the hat, we took our leave of Vienna, and after a train journey across a rather boring plain, we landed in Bratislava and Joe guided us through more noisy, sweaty, sun drenched main roads towards our accommodation. After a fifteen minute hurried walk, I was relieved to follow him under an arch, down a cobbled street into the old town which was lovely: turreted church towers, charming squares all painted pale pinks, lemons, blues and lined with outdoor cafes enticing us to come and eat traditional Slovak food: dumplings with sheep’s cheese, cabbage soup with calves tongue, garlic soup served in a role, and spicy sausages. To get to our lovely pad, we had to go through large wooden doors, into a courtyard, up a circular staircase to the fourth floor. There, we dropped our bags and stepped out to …get our bearings.

After refreshing ourselves with beer, hummus and olives, we set off around the square, up the cobbled side streets, through the courtyards, along the Danube, past the statues, in and out of the vintage shops, popping into a lovely water colour gallery, and finally found a resting place with wine, trout soaked in bread, and a plate of spicy meat and cheese.

After ten minutes, it started to rain. Fortunately, we were under an awning, so we stayed put. Unfortunately, the rain got heavier and it began to thunder massive claps and bangs. The black sky lit up with silver cracks, flashing venom and anger. Literal rivers cascaded down the marble floor so we had to keep our feet lifted off the street. The rain drummed and flayed the canvas umbrellas. People scattered, holding plates of salmon, pasta and goulash close to their chest. Lights went out. It was very exciting. When it finished, we sniffed the fresh air and ended up in Baudelaire’s putting the world to rights. I was drinking rum garnished with gingerbread sticks. Delicious! Does anyone know where to get gingerbread sticks?

The next day was a little cloudy, so we decided to hit the art galleries. Entering the Central City Art Gallery and Natural History museum was rather like stepping back into a tawdry seventies affair with badly curated exhibitions. Poor Marie Therese, the first Austro Hungarian Queen (1740 – 1780) during whose reign Bratislava reached its pinnacle of glory, was the subject of a paltry exhibition set on shiny red, wonky exhibition stands stuffed into a delipidated bare room. On another floor we threw plastic balls at a video of passing dinosaurs, who if our aim was good enough, collapsed dead and disappeared. On the top floor were three exhibits that had been donated to the gallery by the artists, along with a sign that highlighted that this was all that was really available in terms of art as the gallery was so underfunded. However, I did like the three posters of the workers smiling on the second floor as they forged Stalin’s five year plan.

At midnight, having again put the world to rights with more cocktails, I headed up to bed to toss away the hours of the techno/house music rocking the walls of the studio apartment. Joe was more sensible…he went to the disco and danced into dawn with a Bratislavian beauty.

 Our last day was a tad more gentle. We visited the 13th century castle perched on the top of the hill with baroque gardens and views across to the Czech Republic and Hungary and then came back down and again wandered around the square, watching and commenting on the waves of determined octogenarian tourists hanging onto their sticks and each other. They perambulated in the mornings and filled the cafes at lunch but then disappeared (presumably for afternoon naps) and were replaced in the afternoon by traditional, four wheeled hooded prams pushed by mummies with small children darting between legs and Dads who trudged behind. They then all disappeared as the sun set and were replaced by groups of rowdy Irish, English, German stags who told bad jokes and laughed raucously til dawn.

Some were still there, collapsed in corners and doorways as we made our way across the square at 4.30am to get a taxi to the airport to fly back to Ireland. It was a great break.

Hundertwasser Museum
incinerator model
mineral in the Vienna Nat History Museum
Bratislava Castle
view of Bratislava
The Old Town Square
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