Bratislava New Years
*** Excerpt from “No Tourists Allowed, Travelers Welcome”, the Vagabond’s forthcoming first book.
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I had no intention of ever going to Bratislava. Actually, I’d never even really heard of the place. On a train from Budapest, Hungary bound for Vienna, Austria, Emerald and I were continuing our whirlwind tour of Europe and had every intention of spending the holiday in the Austrian capital. Why? Well we really had no idea. That’s just what the plan was. Sometimes you just make a plan and feel obligated to stick to it, which for the record, is the death of spontaneity and the effective abortion of potential unforeseen adventures.
After Budapest our spirits were a little down. We had been on the road for nearly three weeks, but you could have told me it had been two months and I would have bought you a drink for your honesty. We had spent Christmas in Athens, stayed with complete strangers in Istanbul, and been kicked out of our hostel in Budapest for sneaking two people into a one person room, our devious ploy towards saving 50% on our lodging bill. Amazingly, we had been pulling this off for months now. Once while in Belfast, Northern Ireland, at a hostel with impeccable security for alleged IRA related reasons, I purposely had to spill an entire container of pens and keys all over the hostel desk to detract the doorman’s attention from the electric-code enabled door so Emerald could make a sneaky entrance under a hooded coat. Ah, to be young, poor, and stupid.
I don’t recall the exact point at which we determined it might be a better idea to get off the train in a town we had never heard of. I do remember however, why we decided to get off of the train in Bratislava, which was that we were totally broke. Out of money, done, zilch, better-get-a-job type of nada. We were beyond out of money. We had already taken out loans from family members back in the US, had run up terribly high credit card tabs, and still had another week and a half left on our trip before our flight back into the US and reality. For some reason, the severity and irresponsibility of our financial situation sank deep into our sangria and ouzo laden brains somewhere around the pasturelands of eastern Slovakia, and it was definitely time to panic.
Throughout the entire time we spent in Europe the exchange rate of the Euro to the Dollar had been absolutely destroying us. At this point, though admitted to the European Union, Slovakia had not yet adopted the Euro as their currency and therefore offered a much more economical alternative than continuing on into Vienna, land of the Habsburgs and the over-priced Euro. Without having a clue about the city we were embarking into, really much less the entire country, we stepped off of the train in Bratislava on New Years Eve, 2004, with absolutely no idea where the hell we were.
Walking around town with our oversized travel packs, it immediately became apparent that every room in the city had been booked. For what seemed like hours, we walked in circles around the less-than-charming outskirts of this bitterly cold city, cursing our heavy packs, empty stomachs, and pathetic financial situation. After miming the Slovakian for “you don’t even have one room available?” about 14 times, darkness was closing in and it was time to make some sort of decision. In a moment of exasperation, we booked a room at a fancy hotel. We had uttered the proverbial “screw it”, and decided that the next 10 days would be better spent completely maxing out our cards and enjoying ourselves than stressing about money, or lack thereof. While I do not recommend financial irresponsibility, sometimes you simply have to maintain the positive spirit of being on the road, and trust that somewhere down the line everything is going to work out.
That being said, after many months in Europe, I had learned that when all else fails, there is sometimes only one thing left to do.
Drink some beers on top of a castle.
And that is exactly what we did. Grabbing some cheap grog, we watched the last rays of 2004 slink behind the gray horizon from a perch atop Bratislava Castle. In the distance were rows of concrete Soviet-era apartment buildings that looked like the most inhospitable places in all of Eastern Europe. Right beneath us, however, was the charming old town of the city, which was to be the stage for one of the most raucous and strange New Year’s I have ever experienced.
In Bratislava’s old town, narrow cobblestone streets serve as pedestrian-only footpaths past various shops and cafes, leading down to a large public square set along the shores of the Danube. After grabbing a quick bite at a corner café, we headed out into the illuminated public square, where DJs had begun to spin some funky Europop and vendors had started to gather for the festivities. Upon reaching the heart of the square, we made the best discovery in all of Bratislava thus far, which was that you could find a four-pack of beer for the equivalent of one US dollar. Furthermore, there were thousands of people gathering in the square, all of whom were around our age, and seemingly none of whom were actually from Slovakia. As it turns out, that since Slovakia was not yet on the Euro, apparently every poor college aged student from Luxembourg to Latvia had chosen Bratislava as their spot to ring in the New Year. It immediately became apparent that we had gotten off of the train in the right location.
Sharing a picnic table with some college students from Germany, we imbibed as if Prohibition was taking effect in the upcoming year. If there were to be a simple recipe for a hilariously good time, it would only involve two ingredients, those being beer, and Germans. As midnight quickly approached, the entire mob moved its way down to the banks of the mighty Danube. At this point we were one large group, swaying in unison, singing and chanting songs in German, with the only problem being that I don’t speak German.
That’s when things turned simply magical. As fireworks started to pepper the frigid sky, a floating raft appeared upstream on the river. Unable to tell what was built upon it, as the clock just about ticked towards midnight, an archer appeared through the middle of the mob, dressed in traditional garb out of the 1300’s, holding of all things with him a flaming arrow. In all of my travels, I have found few things more magical than fire-wielding archers at midnight. With the blow of some curvy shaped horn, and a massive draw of his bow, the midnight archer sent his fiery package square into the middle of the raft that was floating down the river, sending a massive wooden structure spelling out “2005” erupting into flames.
You have never heard a crowd cheer so loud. The evening had reached a fiery crescendo, and somewhere between the flaming arrow, the chanting Germans, and the frozen stars staring down from the pitch black Slovakian sky, I had one of those hazy reality checks that yes, take a step back, this is actually happening right now. Upon reaching Vienna the next day, we learned that the New Year’s celebration the city put together had been mediocre at best, and it just goes to show that proverbially, when things aren’t going according to plan, sometimes you just have to get off the train in Bratislava.