This Sort of Thing...


The Bratislava Pálava


Have you ever gone away on your holidays and bumped into a foreign head of state? I’d often dreamt of sitting next to Joe Biden on a pensioners’ day trip to Llandudno, finding Angela Merkel’s towel stealthily and strategically placed shortly after dawn to reserve for herself what had been my favourite sun lounger beside a hotel pool, or gripping onto the elastic waistband of the Speedos of Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Hosseini Khamenei, as we dance a sangria-fuelled conga on the beach in Ibiza, but until recently none of these dreams had come true.  I suppose it happens to the likes of Emmanuel Macron all the time but it’s something that had never happened to me before. And then, as if by magic, I bumped into Emmanuel Macron in Bratislava.

It was a lovely warm evening towards the close of a hot and tiring day during which Priyatelkata and I had travelled by ferry downstream along the Danube from Vienna. We’d checked into our little guesthouse studio apartment near to the Old Town district and above Lidl, enjoyed a recovery hour with the window blinds down, our feet up and our eyelids down and we’d poked about with the posh coffee maker for the customary twenty minutes that are always required to get the first cup of coffee out of a posh coffee maker in any hotel or guesthouse arrangement in mainland Europe. With energy levels back up to somewhere slightly above half full we went out for a wee explore and to find something to fill a corner of our empty bellies. We soon discovered that it’s much easier to get a posh coffee from a waitress in a café than from a posh coffee machine in a guesthouse, and with the additional benefit of being able to simultaneously enjoy a piece of posh Slovakian cake. At the excellent Pasteleria combined pâtisserie and quirky artisan pottery shop (which I would have called a potisserie, had I been the proprietor) the waitress seemed particularly obliging and smiley but even more so when I put to the test my embryonic understanding of the local language. It seemed that I had got some of it right in that my ‘May I have the bill please?’ came across as ‘May I have the key for the toilet please?’ At least I had achieved a degree of success with the politeness bits. The situation was complicated further by the fact that the Slovak for yes is ‘áno’, pronounced as ‘aah, no’ which is also exactly how Irish people say no.

After a bit of embarrassed smiling and the generously tipped waitress bursting into a chorus of ‘I’m just a gal who can’t say yes!’ we stepped outside to get the latest phase of our adventure properly underway. The streets, we found, were awash with tourists with those cursed selfie sticks and/or alcohol problems so we headed away from the city centre towards a large park where we hoped to sit and watch members of the Bratislava public at play as the sun’s rays cooled from gas mark eleven down to a more comfortable four or five. But the park gates were locked and there were police cars and police people everywhere we looked. I thought back to when I was a kid and all that was required in those simpler days was for a park keeper to walk around for ten minutes blowing a whistle to indicate that it was time for park users to clear off home.  What a sad place the world had become! We followed the length of the park’s perimeter but there was simply no way in. So we found two nice, young, friendly looking police officers (the sort who don’t have big dogs or big guns or big spaces between their eyes) and asked them what was going on. They told us that the park was not open for public use that day because there were some French people visiting the presidential palace that backs on to it.

Priyatelkata, who is French, excitedly asked, ‘Ooh, is it President Macron?’

The young policeman, who seemed very bored, nonchalantly replied, ‘Ooh, that name rings a bell?’

‘Ooh, but so does Quasimodo’, I said in a poor attempt to appear to be knowledgeable about all things French.

The young policewoman sighed but gave a little smile as she did so, as if wanting to offend neither her colleague nor us.

Reluctantly accepting the situation, we walked a bit further away from the town to find a small public garden with a large statue of a former famous politician who nobody, apart from a few pigeons doing their ablutions, seemed to care about anymore. Being good tourists we sat on a bench and with our portable telephone apparatus we searched the worldwide web for a few answers. It told us that the famous politician that nobody seemed to care about anymore was Marek Čulen who had existed until 1957 but nobody cared about him anymore, hence the transformation of the garden from a place where people would meet to discuss Czechoslovakian politics to one where they would meet to discuss which Bratislava corner shop sold the cheapest vodka. The internet also told us that French President Emmanuel Macron was at that very moment meeting with the Slovakian President Zuzana Čaputová to try to sort out what the world was going to do about the ‘special military exercise’ going on in neighbouring Ukraine. We wondered if one day, way off in the future, Emmanuel and Zuzana too would have their statues erected in gardens littered with ice cream wrappers and empty beer cans where nobody cared about them anymore. Then we wandered off to find a shop where we could buy an ice cream of our own to take our minds off the shelling of Kyiv.

To our surprise there were no police officers in the ice cream shop but at the front of the presidential palace there were dozens of them. Some were heavily armed, some were chatting and smoking cigarettes and some (mostly female) were filing their fingernails and checking their makeup. Only the west Europeans amongst us seemed to be in any way interested in what was going on (particularly Priyatelkata, of course, she being French, of course) and as Monsieur Macron appeared from the grand front door of the palace to be driven away in a black limousine in the middle of a fleet of other luxurious large black cars we were able to take photographs of him without there being even the merest hint of the brusque voices of authority telling us that photography was forbidden. Security would never have been so lax where we live in Bulgaria. I remember once being shouted at by a law enforcement gorilla for innocently taking a picture of a nice shiny ornate sign on a platform at the Lion Bridge metro station in Sofia, and I’ve never seen it happen but I suspect that visiting dignitaries would be transported about the place in an armour plated Lada Niva in our country where being secure is considered much more important than being a bit flash.

When I said that I had never bumped into a foreign head of state before I was forgetting that on Easter Monday in 2016 I saw Irish President Michael D Higgins in Dublin. He was in the back of a big black car (again not a Lada) in the middle of a cavalcade of big black cars travelling along Bachelors Walk at the side of the river. At least I think it was President Higgins but it might have been the Reverend Timms who is the vicar in the Postman Pat children’s animated television series. They look so alike. I can never tell them apart.

Looking back at my photographs on another day, I realised that the image I had captured of the French leader leaving the palace also included the back of the head of President Zuzana Čaputová. So she became another name that I could add to my rapidly growing list. Perhaps it wasn’t so inconceivable that it would eventually include Joe Biden. 


Emmanuel and Zuzana

President Emmanuel and President Zuzana saying an emotional goodbye on the steps of the Presidential Palace.


We hadn’t seen the French Premier and his entourage as we travelled on the boat down the Danube from Vienna, possibly because he was swaggering about between decks with a noggin of grog and singing shanties whilst showing off his tattoos of very nautical things, or more likely because the Danube doesn’t flow through Paris. We felt sorry for him in this respect because we had enjoyed the journey so much ourselves, crossing not just an international border but also the place where the Iron Curtain was once drawn. On a clear day you can still see the runners.

For the entirety of our voyage the sun shone on the green grassy banks of this broad majestic body of water and, to my surprise, the further we sailed from Austria (a country supposedly famed for its spectacular mountains) the less flat the landscape became. Devin Castle (Slovak: Hrad Devín), high on a rock at a bend in the river, was built in the fourteenth century, much to the delight of Danube day trippers but much to the annoyance of the poor employees of the construction company who would have had to drag all those huge lumps of rock, cement mixers, hods, cheese and pickle sandwiches, flasks of tea and Daily Mirrors all the way up there every day in very hot weather or very cold weather except for a couple of weeks in the spring and the autumn when the effects of northern hemisphere continental meteorological systems are more bearable. Prior to that it had been a settlement and strategic site since Neolithic times. Neolithic people obviously didn’t see any point in overexerting themselves, not even to bring in the tourist money. For us it was the highlight of the trip and for many fellow passengers it was a good reason to give the selfie stick its first airing of the day.

The fine vessel on which we travelled was operated by the Twin City Liner Company and was coincidentally called Twin City Liner. We were told by the lady at the ticket office on the quay in Vienna that it would be moving quite quickly because it was a catamaran; not to be confused with a lemon meringue which has a flavour more citrusy and less fishy. I asked her if it stopped off anywhere else other than Vienna and Bratislava (we had fancied a trip to Linz) and sensed that in her mind she was growling, ‘It would be called Triplet City Liner if it went to a third city’ as she gave me a hard, silent stare.

Within five minutes of disembarkation at Vienna’s twin city we felt that we had stepped into a different world. Significantly less-than-gorgeous concrete buildings from the significantly less-than-gorgeous Communist era occupied the spaces between the beautiful buildings of earlier gorgeous eras in this place where round about 200 BC, the Celtic Boii tribe had founded a fortified town. Since then, visits by the Romans, the Slavs, the Huns, the Ottomans (or Ottomen?), Napoleon Bonaparte, the Nazis and members of English stag parties had left their mark on the architecture and culture of the place. In recent times it was one of the foremost centres of the anti-Communist Velvet Revolution of 1989 and in 1993 the city became the capital of the newly formed Slovak Republic following the Velvet Divorce and the division of Czechoslovakia. During the course of our stay we got the impression that as part of the separation deal the Czech Republic (also known as Czechia) had, metaphorically speaking, taken custody of the cat and kept all the books, CDs and vinyl records except for those by Phil Collins and the one I’m sure we all bought in the 1970s in a pedestrianised shopping centre from a man dressed in an orange robe claiming to be a close friend of George Harrison. With each step of our walk from the landing quay to our guesthouse we saw more and more features that reminded us of our home in Bulgaria and which might, in the opinions of some, be improved with either a lick of paint or a bulldozer, but which characterised our end of the continent. It had been nice to be in central Europe for a few days but now it was good to be back in the more relaxed, more friendly, less manicured and less expensive east, even though we had travelled less than a hundred kilometres to get there.

For the rest of the day, in my head I sang ‘I’m still Turlough from the Bloc’ feeling like I was the Slavic world’s very own Jennifer Lopez.

Bratislava’s a great place for wandering about. A gem of a city with impressive remains of medieval ramparts, a labyrinth of narrow quiet streets with tales to tell and a café culture that sporadically spills over into a pub culture. It has an impressive 15th century castle, built during the reign of Sigismund of Luxembourg apparently as an anti-Hussite fortress, and it’s certainly effective because during our three-day stay we didn’t see a single Hussite. There are beautiful old churches, impressive bridges spanning the Danube and high on a hill in the Slavin district to the north of the city, a colossus of a Communist era memorial to those members of the Soviet Red Army who sacrificed their lives in the 1940s to liberate the country from the Fascists. In the searing heat I scaled the west face of Ulitsa Pažického (which is Slovak for Pažického Street) in the hope of finding some evidence of the life and work of the famous classical pianist, Peter Pažický, after whom the street was named. I wanted to stop and ask local people what they knew about him, because at that stage I’d never heard of him before, but I couldn’t pronounce his name. So I walked on in the pretence that I was an authority on Slovak musicians whilst whistling all my favourite Slovak tunes, just as all the local passers-by seemed to be doing. At the peak all I found was a chronic need for a change into clothing a little less dripping wet with sweat and a giant stone edifice, a cemetery and mass graves to remind us of what super people the Russians could be if they put their minds to it. Set in beautiful gardens it commanded magnificent views of the city and the river and it had an ice cream van but there were hardly any people which I assumed was because either word had got round that Communism hadn’t turned out the way Marx and Engels had suggested it might or the ice cream van had run out of Flakes to enhance the ice cream cone experience. This was a great pity because I believe that no matter what your feelings are towards totalitarianism it’s still a momentous part of the history of that poorer side of Europe and it’s interesting to know how it all began and finished and how people coped while it was all going on, particularly for the likes of me living in Bulgaria but visiting neighbours with a similar story to tell; and it’s possible to enjoy ice cream without a huge wadge of chocolate poked in the top in that western consumerist way.


a labyrinth of narrow quiet streets with tales to tell.

A labyrinth of narrow quiet streets with tales to tell.


The Communists have gone now (probably, though not definitely) but Bratislava still lives a nervous life in the company of other threatening groups, they being members of the Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club and members of English stag parties.

There were hundreds of Hell’s Angels about the place and we had no idea why so we looked them up on our pocket Google machines and discovered that their 2023 annual international get together was taking place that very week in and around Bratislava. We also learned that the organisation had been founded in California on St Patrick’s Day in 1947 (it’s amazing what can happen after a couple of nice pints of Guinness) and that the people who write for the American Government website really don’t like them, suggesting that no attempt should ever be made to interact with them, photograph them or even look at them because they tend to be in a bit of a bad mood all the time and have been known to beat to death people who may have accidentally glanced at their bikes or inhaled a petrol fume or two without invitation. I’ve never had any time for them myself because when they write ‘Hell’s Angels’ on the backs of their leather motorcycle jackets they always omit the apostrophe. I was tempted to point out to them this unforgiveable error of punctuation because they didn’t seem all that threatening to us; particularly the ones who were wearing sandals and white socks pulled up to just below their knees.

The twenty-four-hour party people from the stag parties also weren’t as threatening or as twenty-four-hour as we might have imagined. Having had their first beer(s) of the day with their all-day full English breakfast at eight o’clock in the morning they tended to be comatose on benches in public gardens by late afternoon. Beer in Slovakia is very strong and very cheap but probably not as cheap as in Tesco in Croydon so I couldn’t really understand their reasons for making the trip. Perhaps they just wanted to interact with a Hussite.

The local food in Slovakia is very meat based and tends to be drizzled with the bits of the animal that might be described as more fluid than meaty. After the disappointment of Viennese cuisine, we had hoped for something a bit healthier and along the lines of the Balkan food that we were accustomed to at home. In saying this I feel like I’m turning into my mother who always took a supply of teabags and a jar of marmalade with her whenever she set foot outside of England. Maybe my aversion to the tourist food of central Europe is down to the fact that I’m getting old and probably due a heart attack, though our doctor said I’ll be grand as long as I continue to eat healthy Bulgarian food. We decided that my mother’s arrangements for getting exactly what she wanted to eat and drink whilst away on foreign holidays were a bit extreme but on future trips we would take our doctor with us and a foldaway travel defibrillator and a big bag of Bulgarian pink tomatoes.

It came to pass that we gave our looking for something to eat in the evenings routine the title Operation Pig Fat and abandoned the restaurants, resorting instead to buying food in our local supermarket to prepare and eat in the comfort of our guesthouse studio room with kitchenette, defibrillator and spare bed that our doctor could have slept on. Incidentally, the supermarkets we visited during our time in Slovakia were absolutely wonderful places with wholesome and delicious food presented in an appealing way and served by friendly staff in modern, clean and attractive premises. We couldn’t understand why the pig fat people didn’t go there to buy the ingredients for the greasy wobbly offerings listed on their menus.

A week or more before we even got on the plane to start the trip I had decided that this piece of writing would be called The Bratislava Palaver. It just sounded right to me. So you can imagine my feeling of utter delight when I discovered in my favourite local supermarket that in Slovakia, on the south facing slopes of the Carpathian Mountains, beautiful golden yellow coloured wine with an irresistible aroma of nutmeg and vanilla is made from the Pálava grape. It was a perfect fit! Hence The Bratislava Pálava came to be. And I’ll wager that you were thinking I had misspelt my title!

As we sat on the train waiting for it to pull out of Bratislava Hlavná Stanica (the main railway station) ‎ we wondered if Emmanuel Macron had enjoyed his stay in Bratislava as much as we had. We wondered if the bar across the road from his guesthouse served all-day full French breakfasts at eight o’clock in the morning. We wondered if Zuzana had taken him out on the town and treated him at her favourite Operation Pig Fat haunts, or Les restaurants de Opération Graisse de Porc, as he might call them. And we wondered what his wife thought of him being away on a foreign trip to meet up with this Zuzana woman. If I was the President of France, I would take Priyatelkata with me everywhere; I would have to because she’s French and the only words of the language that I have learnt from her are the abusive ones she shouts at our cats when they’re trying to help themselves to a portion of our pig fat or bring their own food, which is often still alive, into our house.



Number of comments: 1

03/07/2023 20:26:39 - Emmanuel

Merci d'avoir raconté cette merveilleuse histoire, mais s'il vous plaît, ne le dites pas à ma femme.

Bien à vous.

:) :( :D ;) :| :P |-) (inlove) :O ;( :@ 8-) :S (flower) (heart) (star)