It was one of those cities (and Slovakia one of those countries) that I had somehow missed on my 2007 World Tour, despite it being one of those I was so close to at certains points. I was fairly close to Mexico, when in Los Angeles. I was also close to Australia when in New Zealand and also close to Ukraine when in Russia and Belarus. However those places have to date all eluded me. And in 2005 I was in Vienna, Austria and in 2007 I was in Prague, Czech Republic, BUT didn’t go to Bratislava. So once the draw was made for the next round of FIFA World Cup qualifying matches, Northern Ireland were placed in a group with Slovakia. This would mean an inevitable trip to Bratislava on the cheap. The flights were booked about 8 months in advance, and on Ryanair, costing not much more than £40. I had always been intrigued by Bratislava, following its appearance in the 1987 James Bond filim, The Living Daylights. Although it did look very very old, and probably suffered a lot during air raids during the second world war, I had expected it to be something similar to Prague. How gladly wrong I was…
Prague is one of the most over-rated cities I have ever been in, and had it not been for the amazing people I met there and the fact I went there with Lock In Lee, then perhaps I’d have hated the entire Prague experience. In my naiveity I somehow predicted that Prague and Bratislava would be very much alike. Nothing could be further from the truth! Prague is an over-priced, tourist trap, locally unfriendly run down city over-populated by travellers. Bratislava on the other hand, I found to be beautiful, none too busy, have friendly people and very very attractive females. Despite some very rundown streets and areas, Bratislava certainly outshone Prague in almost all other elements of life. My reason for going there was obviously the football, but II will recount the football elsewhere on this blog. For now it is all about Bratislava – the city and my brief stay there last month.
On the Friday night I picked up my mate Tim Beattie from his house and we stopped on route at a nice wee pub called The Whitehouse situated off the M25 at Uxbridge, at Stockley Park. The day had been a long tiring one for me, having awoke at 4 am, done an 8 hour shift at Lymington and then driven from Lymington to Basingstoke, later to find torrential rain lengthening our journey to the Travelodge at Great Dunmow, Stansted which we had booked for the night. Dinner and a pint at The Whitehouse was fab, and Tim and I discussed plans for the future of the SOE NISC and also filled each other in on our own busy lives. I love relaxed moments like this, away from work and madness. Then we got on our way to Stansted without getting lost and throught the heavy rain. I parked outside the Travelodge Great Dunmow and in we went, checked into our room and put the flegs up and enjoyed drinks with Graham and Luke Anderson who were already in the bar. I was very pleased to learn that they had Lime Bacardi Breezers as well as lager, and I devoured these while watching SKY Sports updates, and getting texts about Northern Ireland fans being attacked in Bratislava in The Dubliner Pub. Soon Tim Acheson and his brothers Peter and Jonny had also arrived and we enjoyed a last beer before heading to bed, knowing that the next morning our flight from Stansted to Bratislava would leave just after 6am.
Security at Stansted is one of the worst in the world. I have had deodorant, champagne, razor blades, continental adaptors and phone chargers all banned from getting through security in the past. This morning I was banned for having a 100ml spray on green hair spray!! I couldn’t fucking believe it, so I had to go all the way out from the check in, find a toilet and spray the whole cannister onto my hair before going back through. It was total mayhem! One positive from that was meeting John Morrow in the toilet, John had previously written articles for our fanzine “Here We Go…Again” and I had met him in the Famous Three Kings pub in 2006 to watch Finland v. Northern Ireland. He recognised me and suddenly all was well and we were in the queue for the plane! Exiting at Bratislava airport I was pleased to get my passport stamped again (some places don’t do this – Belfast and Riga for two) and also happy that the local currency was the Slovak kroner. I hate the Euro currency (YUK) and everything that goes with it, in fact I believe places such as Germany, France and Spain to be less exciting, less cultured, and much worse locations without their own “proud” (ahem sorry) currency. God save the pound. At the airport I had my first Slovak beer, a Zlaty Bazant, a beautiful local brew, fresh and cold and in a bottle. I also bought a can for the bus ride into town. We had met a young Slovakian lady called Lucie on the flight and she agreed to get us safely into the town centre and close to the hostel. I like doing this in foreign countries, it makes you feel safer, it’s always good to talk to people, I never again want to be the shy boy in the corner who kept his bake shut. So Lucie had us all waiting at the bus stop for the number 61 bus into town. There was no train, no tram, no other buses and I hate taxis. So as we waited for the bus the sun beat down and down, it must have been 30 degrees and I was hot! I enjoyed a Corgon beer on the bus, and Lucie had told us to exit well before the train station. This did confuse some of us at the time, but as fate and life prevails, turned out to add excitement.
Bratislava Central Train Station turns out to be nowhere near the centre of Bratislava, however I don’t actually find this that confusing, as Belfast Central station in Belfast is also further out from the city than Botanic or Great Victoria Street. So instead of getting the bus to there, we got the bus to the central bus station, from where Lucie would get her connecting bus to elsewhere in the country, I think she had a 4 hour journey home. We thanked her and said our goodbyes, and also remarked that some time we might pop into the Wetherspoons Pub in East London where Lucie works. For her this trip to Bratislava was more a holiday than a homecoming. That left just myself, Trevor and John Morrow to find our way to three different hotels/hostels. My room mate for the trip was Tim Beattie, who for some reason stayed on the bus with a few of the others, when we were told to get out. Tim had the full details of the hostel reservation, and I didn’t even know the name of the hostel!! I did however have my mobile telephone with me and after an excellent walk into the city centre decided to ring him and find out where the hostel was.
On the way I bumped into the Newtownards boys including the famous Stephen Rowley, a man of many many stories. I also met Richard from the London NISC as well as some familiar faces such as Bristol Skippy and Richard Henry, not to mention Shaun Schofield and his missus in the middle of one of the central squares in Bratislava. I encountered some excellent vintage Slovakian music on my walk, a lovely cello and violin filled the air, as well as clarinets, it made me think of Miriam D’Abo in The Living Daylights. I finally made my way up past several trams, wonderful buildings and a very yellow church, where I encountered a busy corner at Starometska. It was from here, down a few random streets that I found Panenska, the street the hostel was on. It was the downtown backpackers hostel in Bratislava and I immediately found it as Skin was there with a beer right outside.
Tim and I checked into our room and started on the beers in the hostel. I then met Gavin McClelland and Dave Watson in there, with stories of trips up the Danube from Vienna and Budapest. The great thing about following Northern Ireland is the diversity of places you see on your way, and the people you meet with the stories they have. I then met Lee, from Bangor who was a new face to me and we chatted away about Watford (his team) and Bournemouth (my team) as we drank Bazant in the hostel bar and away from the sunshine. It was still barely 1 pm!
At this point we decided to head to the square where not only were all the Northern Ireland fans mingling, but there was also a special Bratislavan parade on. We just happenned to be caught in the middle of it all. The massive parade came past us as we found solace in a wee bar called “Carpe Diem” the banter in there was cracking, they even ran out of pint glasses at one point. On the street we all mingled together – members of the Bangor NISC and the SOE NISC. My green hair dye was dripping down my face and I was scorched in the Bratislava sun enjoying the many and numerous ladies who walked by. I should have got some food in hindsight, but decided to stay on the beer and bought another pint for the march to the football stadium, which was a brave few kilometers outside the city. We lost the match as I’ll recount elsewhere on this blog, but not too disheartened we headed back to the hostel for yet more beers, not before I had been sick (lack of food and alcohol in the sun) and somehow made it back not too tired. In the hostel I met Bangor Boy Michael Lewis and a few others, before it was time to head out and meet the lads again for one last beer. I didn’t feel much like partying, so I enjoyed staring at the lovely local ladies on their nights out.
St. Michael’s Tower in Bartislava which is at the top of a winding hill in the old town was a lovely sight and I took some nice night time photos of the city for my album. The square and main fountain looked so peaceful on this warm night. The next morning I made my way through the square and the old town down to the River Danube. I was aware that John Morrow and Trevor were on my flight back to Stansted so I met John in the posh hotel for breakfast, where I got a free cup of tea to ease the sore throat from singing. I also enjoyed the local Kofola (a nicer version of Coca Cola) and made sure my postcard to my wee brother was posted. John and I spent a few minutes by the Danube chilling out, before Richard Cathcart from London NISC had told us that the number 13 tram went straight to the central train station where we could get a 61 bus straight to the airport.
I managed to not pay for the tram or the bus that day and we found our way easily enough to the airport in the end. I had a very quick beer there and would have to say I enjoyed the city of Bratislava if not the result of the match. The city I’d recommend. The ladies most definitely…
Where I Stayed – Downtown Backpackers, near the Old Town at Panenska.
Beers Tried – Zlaty Bazant, Bazant, Kelt, Zaklad, Corgon.
Strange Currencies – Slovak Kroners.
Nationalities I met – Slovakian, Northern Irish, English, Australian.
Favourite thing about Bratislava – The ladies. Top class.
FACT – After the war, a united Czechoslovakia emerged under the shadow of the Red Army as a totalitarian, Communist state. Waves of ethnic Slovaks were settled in Bratislava by the authorities and new blocks built. Following the Prague Spring of 1968, the Communist Party made a largely symbolic split, creating Slovakia as a federal unit in itself. However, it was another 25 years before Bratislava finally became capital of an independent Slovakia. The Iron Curtain collapsed in 1989, following demonstrations in many Central European cities, including Bratislava. Following the Velvet Revolution the Slovaks initiated the ‘Velvet Divorce’, which allowed them to be a democratic state that was independent of the Czechs. Since then Bratislava has grown steadily more prosperous as the capital of Slovakia, drawing more visitors each year.
Outskirts of town video: