The bike route from Vienna to Bratislava was incredibly boring.
Though it was only 60km long, (the shortest distance between European capitals for any trivia fans out there) the bulk of the path was a mounded berm, following alongside the Danube, and it was absolutely. Dead. Straight. And when I say dead straight, I mean that you could ride along the path for an hour only to find yourself surrounded by the exact same scenery, and the hills on the horizon seemingly the exact same distance away.
No hills, no curves, no other cyclists, just this impossibly straight gravel path.
It was by all means a great ride. The temperature neared twenty degrees and it was mid November, the sun beating down on our backs as my riding partner Hamilton and I made our way down the road leading between the Austrian and Slovakian cities. The Danube on our right, and a glorious late autumn forest, bursting with yellows, reds and oranges on our left formed our flank, and the short distance between the cities made for a leisurely ride.
We didn't really know anything about our destination. We were making our way to Zagreb in Croatia, but had no defined route. After making it to Vienna we had consulted a map and chosen Bratislava as our next stop purely based on the exotic nature of it's name, and our lack of knowledge about it's mother country, always good reasons to pick one destination over another.
With only a little difficulty, and a flat tire on the way in, we found our way to the center of the old town as the dark closed in on us. It was only 5 o'clock, but this late in the year our daylight was limited and our riding hours were being constricted more and more by the day. We had arranged to couch surf with a local named Viktor, but he was at work at the moment and wouldn't be home until late, leaving us nearly 5 hours to kill before meeting him at his apartment.
After cycling a cursory lap of the old town which could be described most accurately as “cozy”, we parked the bikes and took up residence in the old friend to travellers the world over, provider of free wifi, and endless replenisher of calories, McDonalds. I did some writing, worked on some photos and watched the bikes while Hamilton wandered the streets and then switched out when he returned to find some real food. After a couple hours however, even the warm glow of the Golden Arches could not hold our attention and we were itching to get out of there.
Still three hours to wait.
The next morning we were ushered out of Viktor's apartment groggily at 8:00am as he left for work for the day, with plans to meet back up at the end of the day. Despite arriving late last night, Viktor had kept us up proudly showing off his extensive collection of bikes, many of which he had retrofitted with electric motors, and attempting to fix an IKEA chair with a stubborn wobble, no matter what adjustments were attempted. Really, Hamilton and I were both worn out, and would have preferred to head to bed after sharing dinner with Viktor, but we were at the mercy of our host, who regaled us with stories late into the night, and boasted at how little sleep he needed to function.
Just what we wanted to hear.
So in the morning we found our way to a supermarket for some breakfast before heading back into the heart of the city for a proper exploration.
There was an air of neglect imbued in the infrastructure of the city. Sidewalks heaved and cracked before ultimately petering out and picking up on the opposite side of the freeway, cobblestone streets were uneven in places and in need of some work. But despite this small annoyances – at least to cyclists – I was deeply charmed by this seemingly backwater European capital.
Despite it's proximity to Vienna, one of the historic hubs of European power and culture, Bratislava felt remote and isolated, as if it had historically been left to do as it pleased, with little interference from the outside world. That tradition had seemingly carried on through the ages to present, where the lack of tourists felt refreshing.
Sure, the old town, generally the focal point for much of any European cities tourism, was small - I think we walked every street in no more than an hour or two – but the atmosphere contained in that quarter was quaint, warm, and quirky. It seemed to me that there was not a great deal to see in Bratislava, but that the real treasure was just to be there and experience it.
The starkly white hilltop castle and its grounds proved to be the perfect venue to relax in the late autumn sunshine and soak in the ambience of the city over which it brooded. Atop our perch overlooking the Danube, I was content to simply be. The near constant companion of mine – the insatiable urge to always be doing or seeing something when first experiencing a new and foreign city had subsided, giving way to a deep and relaxing sense of calm.
I don't know whether it was my current state of mind, the unseasonably warm weather, or some mystical quality of the city itself which led to this perspective, but within the city walls I was at peace as I had not been in a long time.
An afternoon of lazily strolling alongside the Danube and winding our way through the old town, poking our heads into those doorways which piqued our interest, led us back to the castle grounds as dusk fell. The city lit up brilliantly beneath our roost, and hours past as we observed and photographed the resplendent glow of the peaceful city, from St Martin's cathedral to the “UFO Bridge”, and out into Austria in the distance.
From Bratislava, the end of our tour was in sight. Four days hence we would be arriving at our destination, Zagreb, and from there we would be heading separate ways. I to the East, and Hamilton to the West. From our perch atop the castle it felt as though if we really squinted, we would be able to make out Zagreb in the distance, as if it were almost close enough to touch.
I was nervous about what the coming weeks and months would bring as I continued my journey through the Balkans and then on to Asia, and the days spent in Bratislava proved ideal. Sheltered in the city's gentle embrace I was able to sort through my complex emotions over the ending of one expedition and the beginning of another, as well as take a step back and reflect on the journey so far, and appreciate what we had accomplished from a distance.
It seems like there often comes a moment during a travel experience where you are given the gift of visiting the perfect location, at just the moment you need it. Often when you're worn out, run down, and maybe even thinking of packing it in and heading home. These moments of serenity can make or break trips, and often allow us to process our experiences in a way that can be hard to do while caught up in the travelling lifestyle, and reflect on our reasons for doing so. Ultimately, this is what Bratislava provided me, a sanctuary of serenity at just the moment I needed it.
I'd love to hear if you've had similar experiences with a specific place. Have there been times in your travels where you wanted to quit and go home? If so, what influenced your decision to keep going, or to go home? Let me know in the comments!
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