The city retains something that has faded from Paris and Barcelona and Berlin: it has not yet become a self-parody, and that makes it real, and that in turn makes it, for tourists and travellers at least, worth a visit.
We take to the streets at night. I am drawn to an antique archway bathed in red light, and stand there for a while, flirtatiously, before realising that I am actually in a brothel and that tourists are contemplating how much I cost – whether I accept card payments. Round the corner is the one remaining gate to the old city, and beyond, the first traces of tourism in an otherwise unselfconscious region. One bar proudly advertises itself as ‘the hottest, most sexist bar in the city.’ Across from it is an endearingly false pub where the theme is Loch Ness. Further on down the cobbled streets, the old city has apparently been given over entirely to newness and fashion: there are one or two antique patisseries but all besides is Gucci, Dolce, Armani, then after a while brands that require no brand and proffer no price tag.
In the darkness the Danube looks frightening, black, cold. Not at all blue. That waltz must have been written somewhere else. And until morning there is nothing beyond the golden light of shop windows and antique street lamps. All the bars are closed or closing with one possible exception: so we walk back to collect bottled water and try our luck at the only late-night place where the toilet seats won’t give you herpes – the Schertz.
In the morning, I set out to buy groceries – pace around the local express supermarket in search of cereal and emerge with a small loaf of unknown date and origin, some cashew nuts, a knob of butter the size of a sugar cube, and some oranges – these turn out to be my downfall as the self-service checkout has no concept of fruit beyond the pomegranate. So I head to the back of a longish queue and wait for the awkward moment when the cashier says, in Slovak, ‘funny looking pomegranates, these.’ But in fact the awkward moment comes when I confidently slide my new travel card into the reader and realise that I have forgotten the pin.
After breakfast we head out. At the far end of our street is a tasteful palace that used to belong, in vassalage, to Maria Theresa, and now houses the President of Slovakia. Whoever he is. It is called the Grassalkovich but tour guides prefer to say Presidential Palace, since the last person who knew how to pronounce ‘Grassalkovich’ died of syphilis before the First World War.
We walk on, pausing so that my travel companion, Isa, can buy some makeup, and pausing again so that I can assemble some coffee (local practice is to serve coffee in parts: espresso, water, milk, mug, and let the discerning drinker gauge proportions). Outside the coffee shop there is a red carpet of melted candles around a picture of a man and a woman: these turn out to have been a journalist and his fiancée, who were both shot dead for threatening to expose the corrupt business dealings of some local big mouth. A few weeks before our arrival there was a late-night vigil to mark the anniversary of this desperate double-murder, and the quiet rage of those in attendance can still be read online.
Already we are running out of places to walk and starting to notice familiar faces in the crowd: it turns out that the old city is about the size of a large car park. So to get a proper perspective we scale the castle. Or attempt to. First we have to get there and stay alive through a neighbourhood that Isa, who grew up in East Berlin, describes as ‘sketchy.’ But there is never any danger, except from the occasional vending machine that sells spoiled (sedimented) milk, goat’s cheese, and other savoury out-of-dates.
Soon we find ourselves outside the castle gate. Views and stray cats are the reward for we brave few who make it inside the castle walls. We are of course following in the footsteps of numberless Instagram users whose ironic brogues and crocs have, over the years, worn smooth the ancient stonework.
Dinner at a nearby Russian restaurant, the Bistro Samovar, where an air of corruption is again palpable. It is completely empty, with the occasional item of grandiose furniture and perhaps a dozen urns on shelves. For no particular reason there is also a white grand piano. Only after we have been eating for a while does it occur to us that the strangest aspect of all is the background muzak, a sort of techno-rap where the singer intermittently vomits onto the microphone. For starters we order soup: I plump for the much-recommended solyanka, essentially salt water with the occasional olive and sausage, but it tastes superb, filling, meal-like. It leaves no room at all for the main, a solid bowl of chicken and onions and mozzarella specially designed to feed ten men. Pregnant, I stumble onto the street.
After a few drinks in the Loch Ness pub (much nicer inside) we find ourselves back in the Shertz, the same jazz-cafe as the night before. Tonight they have a live magic act, a young Englishman whose real magic trick has been to survive in the gig economy and carve an interesting life for himself out of nothing but a deck of cards. He has the rare gift of being able to involve the audience without intimidating them, and at the end of the night his top-hat overflows with Euros. We play cards into the small hours.
After a few drinks there is nothing more enjoyable than trying to fathom the locked door to a new apartment complex. These particular locks are breathtaking: they have to be turned using one finger, then turned again using the key, then turned again using the other key. Then repeat. Ottoman troops actually got this far, and then found that the gates of Vienna had a similar set-up.
Breakfast at the lauded Flag Ship restaurant, apparently the place to go for authentic regional cuisine. It doubles as a brewery but the grand entranceway – all dark wood, statuettes, maps – makes it feel more like a museum or a club from the days of the Grand Tour. Inside the waiters stand around with glum contempt at the sight of more fucking customers.
Isa’s friend Alan has joined us. I have to hide my laughter when he orders a soup and is told, unequivocally, No. Our waitress helpfully explains: ‘You not like. It is not good.’
‘Everyone who has this…’ she trails off, and frowns.
Eventually he orders dumplings. When they arrive it is clear there has been a mistranslation: wet bread covered in yoghurt sloshes around the plate. Quietly we wonder how bad the ‘not good’ alternative must have been. My bread-bowl soup is garlic flavour and filled with strings of cheese. I think I can convey the texture and consistency if I tell you that conversation soon turned to the Czech practice of milking and cooking carp ejaculate. On television screens around the room, they’ve decided to play some kind of traditional dance that involves swapping hats: silently the dancers circle each other, curtseying, frowning like miners in old press photographs.
Breakfast over, we walk to the train station. Along the way the city seems even smaller than before: we have been everywhere and seen everything, and suddenly the impression is of walking around on a film set with a painted horizon. Along the main road the crumbling facades of grand old houses are perhaps even more beautiful than they were meant to be: years of decay have lent them a languorous corruption. Cuba comes to mind, or Malta. It feels like a place that once, long ago, had a heyday.
And it feels like the station was built a long time later. After the lustrous splendour of the old mansions there are a few dismal post-war apartment blocks, and a bus terminal, and a taxi rank. And then there it is. It looks like Cumbernauld. A sign above the door reads ‘Welcome to Slovakia’. Inside a construction worker with a pile driver blasts away the tile floor with no safety equipment; children toddle past as chunks and shards of concrete fly everywhere. We wait outside.
Our plan is to get a train across the border to Austria and then pay a visit to the tiny independent nation-state of Kugelmugel. I hadn’t heard of it, either. But Isa describes a spherical wooden house with a mad occupant who, some time ago, broke off diplomatic ties with the outside world and fenced off his garden with barbed wire. I am keen to meet him, get a visa, and make peace between the UK and Kugelmugel for the sake of generations unborn.
Vienna, when we arrive, turns out to be entirely beige. I blend in well. Most of the shops we pass are either florists or antiquarian booksellers with original editions of the Bible on sale. Outside one of these, a poster encourages immigrant workers to ‘intrude the bourgeois comfort zone, and question the endless accumulation of money and privilege.’ We pause to mumble vague agreement. But breakfast awaits in another authentic traditional restaurant.
After, we head through an abandoned amusement park in search of the elusive republic that, apparently, has a border check somewhere nearby. There are no public transport links, or flags, or signs to advertise the brave nation of Kugelmugel: only those of us who know where to look can ever hope to enter. In real life the building is a bit small. It looks like a large acorn with windows. It is fenced off, as advertised, like a concentration camp. And outside there is a noticeboard where the leader has tacked tourist information, along with a declaration of independence, and a photograph of himself. He looks at you the way waiters look at you across the border in Slovakia.
But my plan to meet the leader has encountered a small problem. He apparently had a heart attack in 2015. And because there was no healthcare in Kugelmugel at the time, he died. Since then his little house has been closed to visitors and open to the elements. But it’s still the best thing the postmodern movement ever produced, and it still offers inspiration to squirrels everywhere looking for nuts. Unable to get through the red-and-white striped door labelled ‘border-crossing’, we move on deflated.
We take a bus to the Hundertwasserhaus, an apartment complex that was completed in 1985 to the design of a local artist. It seems that he was another eccentric. Or perhaps he designed it at night. In livid contrast to the beige formality of the neighbourhood, the Hundertwasserhaus is yellow, pink, blue, grey, scattered with ornaments from garden centres, and decorated using trees that in winter make the whole block look wet and dead. On top, there is a minaret from a mosque. On the walls, there are no straight lines. Imagine Gaudi, only in crayon. Couples stand pointing up at odd details. Some of the men attempt to sound clever by mentioning Gaudi.
At night, we make our way through the classical heart of the city in search of food. I make a quick detour to a public toilet where the door hangs open in the menacing darkness: quick wave to whoever may be filming me, and run back out. All around us, the vastness of cathedrals and opera houses and lavish municipal halls cannot be described. So I won’t even try. Down a side street we find a restaurant that deals in non-authentic, non-traditional food, and look up train timetables.
Apparently, when he arrived at the South Pole, Captain Scott looked about himself and whispered, ‘My God. This is an awful place.’ This utterance comes back to me as we step off the last train to Bratislava. It is dark and cold, and above the empty platform the faded sign looks more sarcastic than ever: ‘Welcome to Slovakia’. Outside the station, over a tannoy, a shrill voice reads a long passage of text aloud – an audiobook of The Communist Manifesto, presumably. A homeless man shuffles over and asks for a cigarette: ‘Where you from?’ he asks.
‘Ah…’ he gestures at us, and at the ground, and says, ‘Why you here?’
He seems unsure about this. ‘But why here? This place is shit!’
We laugh. It’s his first time in Bratislava. He has been homeless in Paris, in Barcelona, in Berlin, and, he says, ‘here is the worst.’ I would hug him if he didn’t have an erection.