Bratislava sits in the middle of the three most important cities of a former empire – Prague to the northwest, Budapest to the southeast, and Vienna, the nearest of the three, to the west (and slightly north). A few times a week I get couchsurf requests from people traveling to Bratislava to see the city, meet locals, and experience Slovak food and culture. Every traveler who’s ever gone anywhere expects food and culture. It’s one of the givens of travel. Well, in Bratislava…welcome to the Empire. The food is Austro/Hungarian/Western Slavic, as is the culture. And the locals are ornery. Not necessarily a bad thing, but don’t expect much to be uniquely Slovak (because there isn’t much). Bratislava, however, is a great central location from which to see beautiful cities.
We were planning a weekend in Budapest, but unable to leave early enough, we decided on Vienna, which is only 70 kilometers away. While walking to the same service station south of Bratislava, Nino had the idea of defending ourselves with sticks against the local snake population. We walked the last bit armed, striking the ground and high grass with our sticks. We may have looked like idiots, but we felt very, very safe. We discarded our weapons as we arrived at the service station and the great dance of being polite to strangers in exchange for a free ride began. After thumbing for a few minutes, we grew impatient and walked over to the pumps to ask people directly, but everyone was going to Budapest. We returned to the grassy island near the exit and thumbed for about a minute, grew impatient again, and walked back towards the pumps. On our way, Nino stuck out her thumb and a passing car stopped. The dance lasted around twenty minutes, but it felt far longer. Patience and success are not always bedfellows. Our driver was going north of Vienna, but, more importantly (at least to me), he was the flesh and blood of the Empire.
His father is Hungarian, his mother Slovak, and, having lived in Austria since he was six, he is, in sum, the former Austro-Hungarian Empire. By trade, he is a dentist. A dentist from a dental empire of sorts. His father, grandfather, his sister’s husband, her brother-in-law and her father-in-law are all dentists. And he had a very loud laugh. He told us about his motorcycle trip to Norway last summer and how he gets, at thirty years old, four months of vacation a year. And then he laughed. He told us about how his girlfriend is training to become a gynecologist, and how they should offer package deals on births and dental care. She helps get the kids out, and he helps them smile. More huge laughter. He wants to visit the US, but doesn’t want to pay the $10 processing fee to get the travel visa, not because of the money but because of ‘the principle of the thing’. Again huge laughter. It was a good ride. He had studied to be an architect, but, two exams shy of the degree, he decided to stick with the family trade. He said the only way in which architecture and dentistry overlap is they both require a precise geospatial imagination. The best part of his job was that first smile by a patient who had been too embarrassed of his or her teeth to smile. He told this in a very animated way followed by the laugh. The moment felt deeply human.
Conversation usually leads to more miles. In this case, our driver treated us to what became a thirty-minute car tour of Vienna’s city center, complete with historical tidbits and explanations on architectural styles. He dropped us off in the middle of it all and drove off to his next patient. We crisscrossed the center city for a few hours before heading to our host’s apartment. The next day we walked to Schönbrunn, saw Sisi’s extravagant house and gardens, and walked home. The second morning we walked to Zentralfriedhof, the resting place of Beethoven, Schoenberg, and Ligeti (as well as Joe Zawinul of Weather Report) before heading to our hitchhiking spot. Most of my memories of Vienna are from the walks. Streets, houses, trucking distribution centers, the fruit trees that Nino is always getting excited about. There’s no such thing as a bad walk.
Our spot to get out of Vienna was less than ideal. A service station, parking lot, highway entrance and exit, and a McDonalds all build in enough space for just one of these. To get on the highway, cars had to weave through it all and either turn left to enter the highway or turn right and stay local. We didn’t like it, but it was what we had. And despite it all, it only took twenty minutes to get a car. We’re a couple, we dress like normal people, and Nino speak Russian – the three main ingredients to our success. Seeing a car from Poland, Nino talked them into taking us to Bratislava. In contrast to our ride into Vienna, this ride was very quiet. The driver and his passenger were on their way to a cowboy-themed restaurant they own in Poland near Krakow. They gave us business cards. We were dropped off in a good spot in Bratislava near the city center, and we made our way home. It wasn’t nearly as impressive as one-car’ing it from Split to Bratislava, but Nino and I were pleased with the two-car round-trip between Bratislava and Vienna, as easy an accomplishment as this is.
Nino and I aren’t great travelers; we’re just persistent. We travel quietly, spending little money and taking long walks. We rely on the hospitality of people who give us space in their cars and places to sleep in their apartments. Our travel stories are almost too simple to talk about – we went somewhere, it was beautiful (we try to go to beautiful places), we met some people, Nino took pictures, and then we came home. But what really happened, what it was really like – this is ineffable. It’s hard or impossible to share this part. I can’t tell you much about Vienna, because Vienna isn’t a story. It’s a place, vastly complicated like every city, town, or place. I’ve been there (twice), some stories did come out of it, but in large, Vienna is something a person just has to see for themselves in order to (in the vernacular) get it. Why do we travel? Maybe because we want Vienna to be more than just a word or a museum or a three-stage school of music composition (a personal association, of course). Maybe because we want to get it. Maybe travel is a gateway drug that leads for some to finding ways to stretch money as far as possible for the result of more travel. I don’t know. I do know that if we took buses and trains instead of hitchhiked, we’d have seen far less and/or run out of money long ago and never would have made it to Vienna. Hitchhiking is only a story. It’s people put in a small space together for a short time to talk and move along a road. But still, it’s all very fleeting. We’re in someone’s car, they stop to let us out, and then they are gone, out of sight and largely out of mind. The words we shared are most of all that’s left. Stories have to have humans, whether a dentist with a big laugh or Poles who run a cowboy restaurant.
I don’t have much travel advice. I let too many things – buildings, monuments, people, places, opportunities – slip by to think of myself as ‘well-traveled’. My only advice is gleaned, like all advice, empirically and imperfectly: Couchsurf, hitchhike, be persistent, don’t waste money on food / transportation / fleeting comforts / anything that only cost money because tourists are stupid (like churches or trinkets), and so on. But that’s just our way. It won’t work for you. It just won’t. Parts of it might, but not the whole. You do things your way, we’ll do it ours, and when the time is right we’ll get together, pour some wine, and talk about it.
Outbound: Hitchhiking – Bratislava to Vienna, AT
1st Car: Bratislava to Vienna – Service Station, Bratislava-Jarovce; WT: 20 minutes; Driver: Austro-Slovak
Total Time / Distance: 2 hours (including driver’s car tour of Vienna) / 70 km (43 miles)
1st Car: Vienna to Bratislava – Service Station (E58/A4); WT: 20 minutes; Driver: Polish
Total Time / Distance: 1 hour / 70 km (43 miles)
- Hitchhiking from Bratislava to Vienna and back is easy and only takes forty minutes plus wait time.
- Schönbrunn’s gardens are free and very beautiful. Going into the palace costs money and the ticket packages have kitschy names that foreshadow wasting money.
- Beethoven’s grave is easy to find. From the main entrance, walk straight until you see a sign that says ‘Musiker’. He’s right there. Schoenberg is on the corner straight ahead and to the left, and Legeti is buried a few pathways behind this corner. Schubert is also buried in Zentralfriedhof, but who really cares?
- Vienna is expensive, but the parts of town with large immigrant populations (such as where we stayed south of the city center) are much less so. Many quality Turkish, Arab, and Balkan restaurants and people.