As I mentioned here, in April I had the opportunity to spend a few days in Vienna. Looking for something interesting to do on my day off, I scanned a map and realised Vienna is very close to Bratislava. I admit, with several diplomas and three degrees, I should have probably been aware of this proximity already, but here we are. Obviously I took to Google and tried a search for ‘Bratislava+Archaeology’. Most of the interesting things require a road-trip along the Danube, but it turned out that Bratislava has a) an interesting Castle* and b) a rather good archaeological museum. *It also has a less interesting Castle, which, confusingly, is the home to said archaeological museum. (I will explain in due course.)
Time to plot the route! I took a train from Vienna to Bratislava, which took a little over an hour. The return ticket was 13 EUR and the machine at the station is prepared for foreigners asking it this question so it was very easy to select. I think it also allowed me free public transport in Bratislava which is a major plus. I think the first train of the day leaves at 8am, and then they are once an hour. You can check on https://www.oebb.at/en.
First I wanted to travel to this slightly-further-afield castle, and then explore the city centre. According to the internet you can take a bus from the station to Novy Most (bridge), and then nr 28 or 29 to Devín castle (mind there is a difference between the village and the stop near the castle, which looks like a random road in the middle of nowhere just after the village) (helpful, I know). I was a little rebellious and wanted a faster route, so from the station I went for bus 32 to Botanicka zahrada stop (another road seemingly in the middle of nowhere with a very lonely abandoned timetable by the highway…), and then switched to bus 29 (I am so glad it turned up). Fortunately getting back to Bratislava city centre (Novy Most) is very easy afterwards (one of those cases where most busses go there, and most people around you will be going there too). Tip: plot the route on Google Maps beforehand, to get some sort of an idea.
Anyway, Devín Castle. This strategic location has a very long history, going back to the Neolithic. The Castle comes with a little museum, illustrating this. There are some Roman ruins left, but these require a lot of imagination. After this, surviving remains include traces of a Moravian-period (c. 9th century CE) church, followed by the outline of a large stone castle (13th century). At this point the castle was in the Hungarian Kingdom, which was an area that is now roughly Hungary, Slovakia, a chunk of northern Romania, and bits of Serbia, Croatia, Ukraine and of course Austria. Owing to a variety of historical events the Castle has changed hands between Hungary, Austria and even Germany and Poland throughout the centuries. The fortification was quite important during the Ottoman Wars (15th-16th centuries) and underwent a lot of enhancements then. Afterwards it was a bit less important, so it was given away / sold / etc. a couple more times. Eventually, Napoleon (19th c.) came along and went ahead and destroyed it. Sigh! It almost survived history! However, bits were re-constructed later on. In fact, when I was there, they were still renovating. Talking about history, the iron curtain also ran along here, and there is a very touching memorial on the shore of the Danube.
When I arrived I walked around the castle first (approach castle, take a right, follow Danube, then go left until you find your way back to the entrance), which gives a good impression of its size and variety of elements added through the ages. The ticket to enter was either 2 or 4 EUR, and photography was allowed everywhere except in the little museum. The most striking feature of the castle is the so-called ‘maiden tower’, which looks like it served as inspiration for fairy-tales such as Rapunzel and Sleeping Beauty. The legend goes that beautiful virgins were imprisoned there so that no one could get to them / they could not misbehave. I write legend – but I tried to Google it and could find little evidence of these stories. Local legend, then? If you do have a book with collected fairy-tales about Devín, I would love to know. Either way, this is obviously not why the tower was built and what it was actually used for. It was quite simply a watch tower, which, I remember reading somewhere (but now cannot find where), was quite easy to reach back in the day.
Ok, onward to central Bratislava!
First, I needed food. I had not brought anything from Vienna, intent on trying tasty Slovakian cuisine (?). Hint: do not expect to find this at a relatively isolated ancient castle. There were a couple of very touristy looking bars/restaurants there which I was so thoroughly unimpressed with that I got back on the bus despite being hungry. It is a good thing no one else was with me, because I am not very nice when I am hungry. Desperate, I roamed the streets of Bratislava… but everything was so touristy and / or not vegetarian-friendly. I should have really looked up something online before leaving or contacted a local on Couchsurfing. Massive fail. That is what you get for spontaneous adventuring! Eventually however, I stumbled across… a very long line of people. Curious, I followed the line to its source: an ice-cream shop. Normally I am not a crowd-follower, but… ice-cream demands an exception. So I joined the massive queue. I can tell you, it was worth it. Maybe this place is world-famous and I am simply the last to find out about it, but I feel like I discovered treasure. Koun Gelato was sooo good. And do not tell me ice-cream is not lunch.
Slightly less hungry, I paused to look around me. It was a beautiful sunny day in April, casting wonderful shadows on the cobbled streets and quirky alleyways of the city. I could wander around there for hours. In fact, I did. I found a little market, a cool bookstore, interesting street musicians… I am not sure if it is equally enjoyable when it is raining, but I loved Bratislava and will definitely return some time for more than one day. On which note: Slovakia itself is a fairly recent development. If, like me, you learned geography in the 1990s your teachers probably still taught you where Czechoslovakia was, rather than Czech Republic and Slovakia. This was a result of the Velvet Divorce, in 1993. It is a very long and interesting and complicated history, so if you were unaware, do go have a read about it.
The next problem was finding the archaeological museum.
Before leaving Vienna, I had the good sense to study a map, so I knew roughly where the museum should be. I feel like I did not bring said map however, otherwise asking people about it would have been easier. I have a photographic memory so presumably I concluded I would be ok? Side-note: I do not have a smart-phone at this time. Right so, in hindsight, I worked out that I had failed to anticipate… elevation. I went on a very long (and lovely, sunny) walk along the river, and then took a right, expecting the museum to be there. Nothing. I asked a few people, and they had no idea what I was talking about. I entered the mentioned cool bookstore to ask (bookstore staff surely know about museums too? In my mind anyway)… but nothing.
Ok, back to square one. I decided, if I cannot find the museum, I will just go have a look at the modern castle. What else is there to do? It was very hot and I had run out of water, so, unexpectedly sensibly, I got on a bus back to Novy Most rather than undertaking the half hour walk by the river in reverse. From there, I started the horrible climb up to the castle. This was in the same direction I had just walked, but on the other side of the road, going upward. Can you feel what’s coming next? Sweating and gasping for air (mountains are not the friends of the Dutch) I reached the top and stumbled across the courtyard, looking for a place to re-fill my water bottle… when I noticed… a little sign saying ‘museum’. What? Yes. Alright then. The archaeological museum is inside the modern castle. And on the map the several kilometres (I exaggerate…) of difference in height is not very clear. Entry was something like 3 EUR or 1.50 EUR. Technically you also have to pay extra for taking photographs, but I made friends with the friendly security guard and he let me off for free. Thanks : )
The museum looked like it had recently been re-designed and the archaeological exhibition was tiny but beautiful. I really recommend having a look, if you think you can survive the climb up there (it was also on the top floor of the Castle haha). There were giant rooms and hallways with less-archaeological exhibitions about… I am not sure… war, heroes, the modern castle… the kind of things I usually, and also in this case, skip. Sorry, it had been a looong day.
Honestly I am not sure what I did after this. I had been planning to have some sort of lovely dinner in Bratislava before returning to Vienna, but considering my earlier failed quest I think I just gave up on that idea. I resolved that I loved Bratislava and would just have to come back some time (especially to take my sister for ice-cream at Koun). I took a bus back to the train station (from confused to pro in under 12 hours; yes) and returned to Vienna, very tired and very satisfied.