In Bratislava and the heat is on
A naked woman eating an ice cream strolls past us. It’s typical of the Wickes family (and very disappointing for Stuart) that I’m the only member of the family who notices; they’re all too busy reading about chocolate fondu, chocolate pudding and delicious sounding chocolate drinks. To be fair the naked lady doesn’t dwell on us either; she’s trying to look enticing while eating a cone of melting pistachio ice cream, and avoiding tripping over Hannah and her growing collection of Smurfs.
Never too hot for hot chocolate
We haven’t really time for the side show, as we have some important decisions to make. First we have to select a chair with its own woollen blanket to keep us warm should the temperature drop below the 70 degrees it has been all day. Then we have to choose from a long list of chocolatey delights. We opt for hot chocolate as a contact on Twitter has tipped us off that the Bon Bon café in the old town sells the best hot chocolate in the world. How can we not try it? Milk, plain and white chocolate are all on offer. And then we must select the ingredients that will make our hot chocolate special to us. Matthew goes for cherries. Cameron for Caramel. And despite the heat of the afternoon sun I choose a fiery combination of chilli and whisky.
The hot chocolates don’t look much when they appear in a smalls tea cups on china trays accompanied by a glass of water, a biscuit and a pot of whipped cream. But as soon as we dip our tea-spoons into the swirling liquid bronze, we realise what a treat this is. As the others cry “Mmmmmm,” and “Aahhhh,” and pass their spoons around, my temperature goes up several notches and I idly wonder if the naked lady would like to have my blanket.
Almost enough to put us off chocolate
We were planning on going out for a pizza but by the end of our hot chocolate we’re not planning that any more. The little drink turns out to be a mighty feast which defeats us almost on the first spoonful. And is almost enough to put us off chocolate for ever.
Many times during our short stay, the city of Bratislava exceeds our expectations like this. Our English guide book isn’t so delighted with the place. Before we cross the border we are told to make the most of the last village in Austria as things are about to change. Then it bangs on about potholes, skyscrapers, graffiti and dull landscapes. But on our journey in which starts with the cycle path across the former no man’s land, the sprawl of pastel coloured tower blocks has its own strange kind of beauty, and provides an interesting contrast to the palace on the hill. We bike in along the river, and stop for a latte at the Riverside Dance Studio, where the children balance on the chairs like would-be ballerinas.
Stumbling into a folk festival
In the old town a Slovak Folk Festival is in full swing. Girls in traditional costume dance to the rhythm of violins while the audience tap their feet and clap their hands. Bratislava is out to play on this balmy Saturday night. People are tinkering with the hand made wooden trinkets for sale at the market. The open air restaurants are offering happy hour cocktails and serving plates of deer goulash, goats cheese with dumplings and various other local dishes. Teenagers on Segways blast past with their leader, street artists imitate Slovakian statues, and everywhere there are brides and grooms wandering around with their photographers; apparently the famous Blue Church is both a unique work of art and a production line for local weddings on a Saturday afternoon.
After the noise and traffic of Vienna, the old town of Bratislava is traffic free pedestrian haven. We take a walk through the old town, up to the castle, where we look back on the Danube, framed by a setting sun and realise for the first time that we are leaving Western Europe behind.
At last a place we can afford
This is brought home to us again when we stop for an ice cream from a vendor down the road from the castle and can now buy five ice creams for the price of one in Austria. We wander back to our hotel on streets lined with fountains, past people eating their evening meal outside lines of romantic looking restaurants. Candlelight gives their faces a warm glow that doesn’t come from chilli hot chocolate!
The corridors of Hotel Devin are warmly lit too, by lines of high chandeliers shining onto wood panelled walls. We follow the atmospheric light to our bedrooms where the view from our balcony brings the darkness of the river into sharp focus. There are no other buildings between us and the swirling waters and the river known here as the Dunaj. Our curtains billow in the gentle breeze as we look straight onto the UFO tower on the bridge. “Is that an alien space ship?” asks Hannah, as she drifts off to sleep faster than the river can flow.
Hotel Devin – a traditional Bratislava hotel
At breakfast I meet Hotel Devin’s Daniel Kulla who appreciates how lucky they are to have a view like this. Hotel Devin goes back to 1954 when it was one of the first hotels in Bratislava. In fact it is the longest continually opened hotel in the city, although this is about to change when it closes in the autumn for refurbishment. But Daniel tells me that the modernisation of the 1950’s infrastructure won’t detract from the character and style of the hotel, “We are commissioning new furniture in the old style. We want to keep the look that was around when it was built. We want to keep the wood panels, and wooden tables and we have found a Czech company who can produce special period armchairs. As an independent hotel we can do what we want and what our guests want, unlike the big chains. We want to be a local and authentic Slovakian hotel. We know the people and we know the culture.”
In former days this was a place where artists and politicians met, and today many local people still drop in for a coffee and iced water. But it’s the body of water outside that really attracts them, and the stunning location of Hotel Devin. “Before I worked in Bratislava, I never thought the Danube was so good for atmosphere. But when you are on the fifth floor and you look out onto the river…” Daniel smiles; he doesn’t need to say any more. I tell him that the view captivated me too.
Down to the beach
We reluctantly leave the elegance of Hotel Devin and the charm of Bratislava old town as the weather is due to break mid afternoon and we need to get some cycling done. But when we cross the river we find a man-made beach with table tennis, cafes, darts, a playground and hundreds of deck chairs and hammocks and we can’t deny the kids some beach time on their land locked trip across Europe. Hannah is pleased that the whole area is bright pink.
“Is it for girls?” she asks.
“No it’s for T mobile users,” Matthew points out the mobile phone recharging areas. We find a little group of deck chairs where the only thing that isn’t bright pink in the area is happily sunbathing on one of them.
“A grasshopper! Can we take it with us? It’ll fit into my bar bag and it’s easier to feed than a dog,” says Cameron.
“We could feed it Pez I suppose,” suggests Matthew.
“I’ve got a double lolly it can have,” says Hannah.
But the grasshopper isn’t interested. It hops off, leaving us to take his place in the sun, the green and yellow of our tandems offsetting the T-Mobile hue of pink and the ever blue Danube.
Disclosure note: Thanks to Hotel Devin who provided us with accommodation to allow us to bring you this story