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Imagination in Bratislava – Europe's Literary Hideaway
Doing little is the last universal luxury. Slovakia's main city. A slice of winter peace. A church steeple edged with gold like a needled Christmas microphone. Distant tower blocks in computer game colours are paused against the breeze of soft traffic. From the castle hill the rain-washed steeples bully through the skyline of taller office blocks to a percussion of tram bells on clattering tracks. The river flows a vertiginous and dark fern green. A pallid survival colour. And one's eyes are drawn down to the pavement, meandering past the faultless powdered facades of confident edifices – cream, dust orange, peach and ghostly peppermint. All this marries with the beautiful decay weaving along the old town periphery. I dare say that no-one abandons buildings quite like the Slovaks; it's a great art, and a compliment well up on the aesthetic scale.
This is Bratislava: a number one atouristic destination. A great place to read and to abandon your magazine expectations. Generating thoughts in this way will be a far more lasting experience than riding the fun bus around town at low speed. Go when the weather is at its worst, its most bitter. It's healthy to see a capital at its most deflated; at the end of winter against a galling caprice of blowing snow and battering, rising rain. Leave it to chance that you may or may not find the perfect bar and restaurant. Welcome the notion that you might or might not be satisfied depending on the weight of your mood. Visiting a city isn't a consumer activity in itself – it doesn't require an adjuvant and it doesn't owe you an experience; that's up to you.
Mention the Slovakian capital to the person who's been there and they will immediately whine: “There isn't anything to do.” But that is an attractive quality well-disguised. One way to invite boredom is surely to look for things that aren't there. In answer to the common complaint, Bratislava isn't boring – it's simply a good place to read books, and, if the impulse takes you, fondle the corpses of defunct typewriters stripped of their ribbons. Our refuge is a warm room and a sharp, incisive book. “Doing” is a portable concept for the book lover. And it's always more magical reading a well-chosen book in a place other than home. I recall devouring Crime and Punishment over forty-eight hours when in Prague.
Bratislava's streets, in winter, deliver a quiet pleasure for those not grabbing at sensations and following arrows. The stun of piano music floating through sealed windows and falling onto the soddened streets. Slush, a pulsing wind biting, spilled purple wine. A city can be beautiful even when you're desperately cold and the shops aren't open.
Café Restaurant Verne was one of those places that only the unexpectant observer will find at random. Acquaint your imagination with reassuring gold pipes above your head kicking out hot air, a menu placed before you that's cheap for everything, yet your derrière is generously wrapped in a surplus coating of maroon velvet. A battered lamp shade is reflected in the mirror – once orange, now scorched an eminent brown-black; vintage radios and extinct wallpaper to match, and pre-European net curtains conceal the delights of this basement from the cobbles above. Need I go on? Close to the Danube and comfortably busy, even on a wintry Monday night, it's a liberal establishment to be admired, with a hair-faced, conversationalist clientele, young and old. Sheep's cheese gnocchi with bacon followed by sweet pancakes, and even an office typewriter guarding the entrance to the toilet. Verne is the kind of place you could eat in every day of your life – like home, only better. And all for the price of a minibar beer or two.
Afternoons can be wiled away in an astounding, if modern, bookshop complete with adjoining café filled with decommissioned typewriters fit to entertain the eye as the seeping caffeine does its work. English books line the shelves, contrary to what I'd heard from a travelling Slovak. The spines of old friends stood out before me. Paul Auster – Mr. Vertigo. Ernest Hemingway – A Moveable Feast. J.G. Ballard – Crash. Hermann Hesse – Steppenwolf. George Orwell – Down and Out in Paris and London. Crash is 184 pages. The shorter novel is the modern get-through.
At no point was I bored in these rich and simple surroundings. Bratislava is not boring. It is a splendidly ingenious hideaway for obscure artist types, reclusives. A fine, languid city; a book-reading city, an assured city. Bratislava has gravity, of the kind that you discover there or bring with you. Are you a book fit to be opened anywhere, or a stained wine glass left in a hotel room? The romance of Bratislava in winter is the romance of wasting time exquisitely. Doing little is the last universal act of luxury. What kind of visitor are you?
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