Tuesday, 12 June 2012

The Glorious Danube - Slovakia

Another day on our epic voyage along the Danube with Uniworld on their River Duchess, sailing from Romania to Austria


Country number six on our grand Danube voyage (reached shortly after mid-day following another experience with the river's many locks) proved possibly one of the most surprising of all. We had certain expectations of the likes of Romania, Serbia and Hungary, but Slovakia was definitely a journey into the unknown - a country with a much lower profile, but a much higher standard of living, as it turned out.

In fact, capital city Bratislava was possibly the most 'European' of all our ports of call so far, a thriving, bustling, energetic, cosmopolitan and astonishingly affluent city.

From the medieval Old Town to the uber-modern Eurovea shopping mall - full of designer names and well-known brands like Marks & Spencer, The Body Shop, Nike, Swarovski and Tommy Hilfiger - it is a city of sharp contrasts, with a lot of new development but a heart that remains pure enchantment.

The Slovak capital has been a lot of things in its time - German Pressburg, part of the Habsburg monarchy, the capital of Hungary, one of Hitler's conquests and half of the communist regime of Czechoslovakia. Like the rest of eastern Europe, it has endured a hectic ebb and flow of empires, kingdoms and invaders. But today's Bratislava is most definitely a happening place, fascinating to tour by day and with plenty of restaurant and nightlife for the evening.
With River Duchess mooring on the edge of the Old Town, it was easy for our tour-guide-of-the-day to walk us into the heart of the original city and steer us through some 1,000 years of history, culture and architecture.

Baroque palaces are two-a-penny in the historic centre, while the 17th century (rebuilt) Bratislava Castle overlooks the Old Town like a benevolent patriarch (above). Gothic St Martin's Cathedral is another notable landmark, while the Franciscan Church and Church of St Elizabeth are even older.

The narrow cobbled streets and courtyards are full of eye-catching facades and, after our three-hour tour, we took ourselves off on an extended version, peering into smaller courtyards, finding little-used streets and back-alleys, investigating some of the churches and, of course, doing a little shopping.

Eurovea (below) came as a major surprise and wouldn't have been out of place among the designer malls of Florida, although none of those in our home state can boasts the likes of Peek & Cloppenburg, Tchibo (the well-filled local supermarket) and an elegant river-front packed with open air cafes and restaurants.
If this was post-communist eastern Europe, the local people were the poster children for modern entrepreneurial spirit, with a joie de vivre that would put most Frenchmen to shame.

Once again, the public transport system of trams and buses looked busy and efficient, giving the whole city the appearance of a population moving forward, positively and dynamically.

With the wonderful array of cafes and bars also beckoning, we also indulged in a blissful coffee stop at Cafe Mayer in Main Square. Founded in 1873, it offered a preview of those twin Viennese indulgences of fancy coffee and pastries, and we eagerly sampled a taste or two while watching the comings and goings around the Square.
We managed to see almost all of the Old City (and parts of the new) on foot before wending a weary way back to the Duchess for a typically elegant dinner, followed by yet another entertainment surprise in the Danube Lounge.

This time, Uniworld had procured the Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra for our listening pleasure. Not all of it, of course, but two key members - the musical director/pianist and lead violinist, who also turned out to be a dab hand at various Slovak folk instruments.

Together, the dynamic duo (below) staged a 1-hour concert of quite breathtaking style and vigour, turning their hand at classical favourites and Slovakian folk songs with equal relish and finishing with a version of Offenbach's The Gallop (more usually known as Le Can-Can), with the violinist high-kicking his way to a frantic finale. The virtuosity alone was worth going a long way to witness but the sheer fun and enjoyment they brought to the performance was absolutely scintillating.

To finish with, I had to make one final excursion back into the Old Town, accompanied by Hotel Manager (and local resident) Jaroslav, just to sample a local beverage and get a feel for Friday night in Bratislava. We found a typical pub, Prazdoj, little more than 5 minutes walk from our berth, and enjoyed an excellent beer at just 2 euros a head. Fine value, indeed, in this surprising, captivating city.

And we still have two days in Vienna to look forward to...!  

This ‘Imperial Capitals of Europe’ voyage can be booked at www.uniworldrivercruises.co.uk, with Titan Travel (in the UK only) at www.titantravel.co.uk or, for more on river-cruising in general, seek out the luxury cruise-agent specialists of The Cruise Line Ltd on this link.