Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Greetings from: BRATISLAVA

Many travelers I’ve encountered really enjoy this idea of “roughing it”: lugging a 50-lb. backpack across a continent, staying in grimy hotels, buying as little as possible. Traveling, for me, is a mini-indulgence; it’s not a smorgasbord of extravagance, but neither is it an exercise in austerity. And considering the impressive skills of the chocolatiers along the Danube, why hold back on this simple pleasure?

Bratislava is almost like Prague in miniature—which shouldn’t be taken as a slight. It has the historicism of Prague, but on a smaller scale: Prague’s Staré Mĕsto could eat Bratislava’s for breakfast. By the same token, however, Bratislava attracts fewer tourists and has an appealing gritty side, which isn’t readily apparent in Prague. For instance, we arrived at the south train station in Bratislava and walked to the Old Town, a walk of about 2 km. Old, lived-in apartment blocks—crumbling concrete, laundry hanging off of balconies—edged up against new, vacant construction; an urban renewal project that hadn’t begun the “renewal” part of the plan. The Incheba Convention Center, a sprawling, white monolith in the center of a vast, empty parking lot, festooned with banners proclaiming upcoming gatherings (and Disney on Ice), seemed to embody both the initial optimism and eventual failure of Communism. The bridge spanning the Danube River, crowned with a Starship Entreprise-like restaurant, rattled with automobile traffic as we crossed. On it, a young man sprayed and wiped off graffiti—a continual losing battle; as soon as a space had been cleared, a new tag appeared.

The main drag in Bratislava’s Old City has been commercialized as much as Prague’s (global capitalism, thy name is The Body Shop), but plenty of raw Bratislava remains with boarded-up buildings and disintegrating facades. There’s also a similar sense of play with the public art: a man emerges out of a sewer grate. Napoleon slouches against a park bench. A photographer peeks around a corner.

But let’s talk chocolate for a minute. I’m generally not a truffle and bonbon connoisseur (I prefer the dense purity of bars; for example, in one Vienna shop, I saw a panoply of fascinating flavors: rose and thyme, sour cherry and Kirsch, cranberry and rosemary, but these were all fillings and crèmes, rather than integral to the chocolate itself), but even I indulged in some truffles at Cokolada pod Michalska. And while the flavor combinations aren’t as exotic as those described above, they still fire off all the tongue-based endorphins at once.

Better still was the hot chocolate at Schokocafe Maximilian Delikateso. Max Brenner in New York City serves up sugary sludge compared to the thick, rich, impossibly flavorful cups of bitter chocolate that we sipped—almond for Matthew, orange for me. Nearby, an orchestra tuned up, played snippets of soundtrack music to smatterings of applause. Tourists milled around the souvenir carts ringing the square, and Matthew and I surreptitiously snapped pictures of cute boys and well-dressed promenaders. (Maybe not as surreptitious as we’d like to think.) Sunshine lit up the fountain in the square, and the cannonball embedded in the face of the church seemed to make perfect sense: the flaw that makes beauty possible.

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I know I kind of ragged on the Austrians earlier for their Asian food fetish, but we dined at Chang Asian Noodle (next to Chang Asian Duck Bar). And while this brought back some unpleasant memories from when I was nine—namely, a European tour with my parents, aunt, and uncle in which we wandered the street of Torani one evening, searching for a Chinese restaurant—I will say that in my defense, it was close to the hotel, well-populated by locals (one of whom brought in his Dalmatian), and reasonably tasty.

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