Solo Travel for Introverts Ratings
Introduction to the Region
We are the heart of Central Europe. The cities Vienna and Bratislava are on the opposite sides of the river Danube, and one bus stop away. The easiest way to get here from outside Europe is a flight to Vienna directly, or to Munich (in the West) or Budapest (further down the Danube) and catch trains from there.
While Vienna is one of the most expensive cities in Europe, Bratislava, being an emerging town from the Iron Curtain is far more affordable, and yet modern and safe. For my trip, I calculated the prices of public transportation to and from Vienna per day versus the difference in accommodation prices in the two cities, and found it saves money to stay in Bratislava for the entire time, and simply travel up to Vienna.
Bratislava is the capital of Slovakia, and although the city itself is large, the Old Town is quite small as compared to other European capitals, and a single day is sufficient to stroll around it. The major attractions are St.Michael’s tower and street, the Bratislava Castle, the Blue Church and a modern UFO tower with an observation deck.
Slovakia’s history is well-reflected in Bratislava’s food scene. One of the first places that caught my sight was a giant sign with the image of a Soviet babushka pointing at a KGB Pub downstairs. I came across several Communist-Themed pubs like these with propaganda posters and newspaper clippings from Soviet times covering the walls and the decors consisting of old Drawing Room radios and Cathode Ray televisions with antennae, along with several old toys and family photos from 1950s.
Agood place to experience old Slovak food is Slovak Pub. This place has the ambience of a medieval inn, with old wooden tables curving under weight, low vaulted brick ceilings with lamp holders, and hand-knit uneven woolen napkins.
A must-eat here is the Brindzovie Halusky. A halusky is a mac-and-cheese with potato dumplings. While Haluskies are available elsewhere, the special cheese used – Bryndza – a soft sheep cheese is what gives it it’s unique flavor. And you can choose toppings of chives, onions or bacon.
Another great thing about Slovakia is that it contains a major wine-growing region in Europe – the Carpathians, and while non-Europeans are familiar with wines from France or Italy, this region’s long-standing traditions are a treat to explore.
Unique offerings from Carpathians (aside from Vampires) include Tokaj Wines (Hungarian style dessert wine) and Ribezlak (wine from Black currents instead of grapes).
Distilled liquor called Slivowice (Slivowitz) is also popular and made in small rural cottages from plums.
Vienna in the Old Days
Hapsburg Austro-Hungarian Empire
Vienna is known to be the capital of the Hapsburg royal family which ruled from the days of the Holy Roman Empire to the First World War.
The most enigmatic ruler of this city was Empress Maria Theresa, affectionately called Empress Sisi. Sisi was the Princess Diana of her day. She considered herself a countryside-raised girl and often hung out with commoners. She gave social status to Hungary as equal to Austria and being from Bavaria herself, showed patronage towards Hungarian and Italian culture.
Empress Sisi was also considered one of the most beautiful Viennese women as she had thick black hair grown up to her knees. Many of her portraits show her with her hair open, which was unusual for portrayal of women at her time.
The above picture is the intersection of three buildings facing each other – the Royal Palace, the Church and the National Bank, often jokingly called by commoners a physical representation of the three power structures that rule humanity.
Vienna during the War
Austria as a whole, and Vienna in particular, has a dark past when it came to Nazism and involvement in the Holocaust and WW-2.
The Helden-platz (Heroes’ Plaza) corridor in Inner City is where various leaders gave their speeches, but today it is banned from everyone because Hitler had given his ceremonial speech here upon unification of Austria and Germany.
Another statue is in Juden-platz (Jewish District) remembering Jewish people forced to clean the streets of the city on their knees.
A third reminder of the war is a statue of a man turning into stone, to remember the victims of WW-2 bombing, during which several buildings collapsed on its occupants.
Vienna – Food & Music
Vienna is a city famous for the tradition of Coffee Houses. These were the intellectual centers of Europe for centuries, where scientists, philosophers, poets, musicians and politicians gathered to exchange ideas. Each of these coffee houses have signature coffee roasts and desserts which they invented. These pastries were often couriered to the royalty and nobility of neighboring nations.
Cafe Central – a Viennese Coffee House
I visited one such traditional coffee house called Cafe Central which opened in 1876. The regulars included famous (and infamous people) like Theodore Hezl (a founder of Israel), Adolf Loos (father of modern architecture), Robert Musil (modern-enlightenment writer), Alfred Adler (psychologist who coined ‘inferiority complex’), Sigmund Freud (psychologist who studied psycho-sexuality), Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Leon Trosky and Josip Tito (Yugoslavian statesman).
Interestingly, there is circumstantial evidence of Hitler and Stalin, future political rivals, being frequenting the cafe at around the same time. This was when Stalin was exiled from Imperial Russia for treason, while Hitler was a struggling artist living in a studio apartment with no further ambition yet.
Cafe Central embodies the finer side of European dining, with high vaulted ceilings with chandeliers, and several ornate pillars holding up the keystones. There is a live piano player in coat-tails playing classics like Mozart and Beethoven, often receiving a round of applause from the patrons after every song. Waiters in Tuxedos silently but efficiently, clear your table and place the menu within 5 seconds.
Communicating to patrons via whistles and clicking fingers may be the reason Viennese waiters have the reputation for rudeness, but to me, it felt like simple efficiency and quick service. For quieter types like me, I prefer silence or reading newspapers and magazines available in several languages instead of expecting a chat from the waiting staff. Viennese call it the “Bring Your Own Friend” policy.
I couldn’t resist ordering a local Austrian sparkling wine, which came in a bucket of ice, and every time my glass was empty, the waiter sneaked up behind me and filled my glass before I could even blink – all wordlessly and invisibly.
Vienna coffee is made with Vienna Roast – a moderate to dark roast. Two shots of espresso are poured into a cup and filled up with whipped cream. It is then flavored with chocolate shavings and candied orange rind. The cup is placed on a saucer, and a wrapped chocolate-toffee is placed on the side along with a teaspoon and a glass of water, all neatly arranged on a silver tray.
Sachertorte, invented in the 18th Century, is the ancestor of all modern chocolate cakes. It consists of layers of sponge with fillings of Apricot Jam in between and chocolate icing on top, served with unsweetened cream on the side, although there were highly emotional disputes among several traditional coffee houses over who had the original recipe of the chocolate-cake.
A few years later, such disputes became inconsequential when America came up with readymade-mixes for chocolate-cake and turned the rare delicacy into a common household item across the world.
Mozart, Beethoven & Waltz
Vienna has been the nerve-center for European classical music, and great musicians from all over the continent migrated here to live in close quarters to one another to create a community. Today, the former residences of Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn, Schubert and Strauss are all turned into museums with their original instruments, compositions and other personal belongings. The Vienna Phillharmonic and the Haus de Musik are also woth visiting.
For a smaller experience, you can also buy tiny hand-cranked music boxes in sovenuir shops or take a selfie with Mozart impersonators. I had gotten accosted and chased by a Mozart down the block for more Euros, which was a slightly more cultural experience than getting accosted by the Cookie Monster in Hollywood Walk of Fame, LA who followed me around for more Dollars. Vienna – 1 , Los Angeles – 0
Vienna has also been the city that popularized a form of ballroom-dancing that involved whirling – called the Waltz, and there are many Waltz courses for tourists to get a touch of the culture of the city.
Setting the Mood –
Hrdza – Stefan – Slovak folk song – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZALtzTmPz-E
Viennese Waltz – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UkpRTTpmBmo
The Sound of Music – https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0059742/
Before Sunrise – https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0112471/
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