“Love is the longing for the half of ourselves we have lost,” wrote Milan Kundera in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, one of my favorite books of all time. A beautiful, heart-rending story, Kundera’s tale unfolds in Czechoslovakia during the Prague Spring of 1968, and I came to visit the place with all of those images floating in my head.
It was an unremarkable crossing, really. Since both Hungary and Slovakia are now part of the European Union, there were no border checkpoints. We didn’t even get a new stamp in our passports. Yet, I felt the weight of how difficult it would have been to drive over that bridge during the Soviet era. Documents and justifications and long, bureaucratic delays to move from one piece of ground to another.
I kept thinking some smartly-dressed Soviet officer would pop out of the bushes and demand my papers, and I went so far as to park on the Slovakian side and walk back over the invisible border on foot to take a Google photosphere. Tempting fate. Just because I could.
Angela sneezed. “Feel my head,” she said when I returned to the car. “Am I running a fever?”
Unfortunately, she was.
So we drove for the Slovak capital of Bratislava without further delay and booked a longer stay in a nicer hotel so she would be more comfortable and, hopefully, quicker to recover.
The Falkensteiner Hotel, located on the edge of the charming old town and just down the hill from Bratislava Castle, was the perfect place for Angela to take it easy. At just under €100 ($116) it was a bit over our daily accommodation budget, but she needed a couple of dark, quiet, restful nights, and that was exactly what we got.
Angela slept late the next morning, but I was up for a walk and left her resting while I went out to explore.
If you’re interested in seeing an ancient town on the banks of a storied river but you want to get ahead of the tourism curve, then Bratislava just might be the place for you.
I entered the old town as visitors had been doing for centuries, through the iconic Michael’s Gate. Although the streets are beginning to sprout venues catering exclusively to tourists, the place still had a medieval feel about it. Cobblestone alleyways and uneven sidewalks. Dramatic downspouts and cracked façades. Fountains, churches, and quaint cafés.
Bratislava is still shaking off the dust from Soviet and local communist rule and finding its old Slavic roots in mercantile shops and excellent craft brewing. Breathing the free air of capitalism and unfettered possibilities. Poking innocent fun at itself and its past through beautiful street art, gritty graffiti, and playful sculpture.
Bratislava is finding the part of itself that was once lost.
And, in so doing, it’s finding love again.