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To the Bratislava Beat

Round up of a three night stay in Bratislava and the beer-fuelled sightseeing tours embarked on in the meantime.

“Buddy, are you still alive?”

The tapping on the door had ceased. I groaned theatrically as I raised myself into a seated position, and then appealed for a moment of patience. A quick glance at my phone revealed that it was almost 11 a.m. Much later than my travel companion Mitko and I had arisen on previous mornings.

By way of Dresden, Bautzen, and Czechia, we had reached Bratislava the day before. Although our inaugural evening in the Slovakian capital had been fairly restrained, especially considering the favourable price of beer in this neck of the woods, I had had a restless night. In the first instance, I had been awakened before dawn but succeeded in reading myself back to sleep. Second time round, my slumber had been much deeper. Hence, my disorientation when it was tactfully interrupted.

Despite being showered and clean-shaven, Mitko looked only slightly less sluggish than I felt. For the first time since meeting up in Dresden five days prior, we did not have an itinerary to adhere to. With another two days and nights in Bratislava ahead of us, there was no cause to feel pressed for time.

Our two-bedroom accommodation was equipped with a kitchen and Mitko proposed that he prepare us a full English breakfast. Whilst he went out in search of the nearest supermarket, I made an attempt to freshen up as well.

A First-Rate Haul

“Buddy, I think I may have gone a bit overboard!”

I had just finished brushing my teeth when Mitko entered the apartment. As he shuffled through the narrow hallway and past the open bathroom door, he proudly presented two bulky shopping bags. Greatly intrigued, I followed him into the open living and dining area for a closer look. Both bags were filled to the brim with tall cans of beer.

As I unloaded an assortment of Slovak, Czech, and Austrian brews into the fridge, Mitko described the inspiration behind this impressive haul. The selection of brews at the neighbourhood supermarket across the way was boundless, and an urge to try the ones he had never come across before had taken hold of him. Never one to let the squad down, he had bought two of each; at least two dozen in total. In that respect, we were set for the remainder of our stay in Bratislava.

Luckily, in all his amazement, Mitko had not forgotten about brunch. Far from it! The fridge was fully stocked in that department too ˗ we would even be able to do another full English breakfast the next day. While a massive oven tray covered with slices of bacon, sliced sausages, cracked eggs and whole tomatoes was being readied in the kitchen, I loaded up the laundry machine in the bathroom.

Notable Mention #1 ˗Zlatý Bažant Tmavé (3.8% ABV)

Over brunch, we shared a can of Zlatý Bažant Tmavé, a dark beer of local origin, brewed in a small town some 50 km south east of Bratislava. Acquired by Heineken in 1995, Zlatý Bažant is currently Slovakia’s most exported beer brand. The brewery’s name translates to Golden Pheasant, which is the name under which it is distributed in the United States and Canada.

Golden Pheasant’s Tmavé, or Dunkel, complemented our hearty meal perfectly. Its caramel overtones added a dash of sweetness to the piquant set of flavours; its full body proved outstanding lubrication for the throat. At only 3.8% ABV, it also seemed the most appropriate choice for the time of day. Midday, to be specific.

A couple of beers were shared while the laundry machine ran its course, both nowhere near as tasty as the first one. Shortly after 2 p.m., our clothes had been hung out to dry. We filled Mitko’s backpack with five pairs of cans and embarked on a leisurely stroll to the city’s most recognisable historical landmark: its massive castle.

Corner view of Bratislava Castle.
Bratislavsky hrad (Bratislava Castle)

Bratislava by Foot

Bratislava truly is a city made for strolling, especially on a sunny day in early Spring. Stretching along both banks of the Danube at a point where the river has cut a gorge through the Little Carpathian Mountains, the site on which it was built is both scenic and strategic. Its cityscape is dominated by a gleaming hilltop castle overlooking a well-restored Old Town, a modern financial district, and an agglomeration of industrial suburbs beyond.

The slopes of said hill at the heart of the city have been built up with leafy neighbourhoods interconnected by steep, winding lanes. Sipping on some random Czech lager that tasted as it should, Mitko and I stopped more than once to marvel at the facade of a stately old home or the sight of a Magnolia tree coming into bloom.

When we reached the outer walls of the castle’s western gate, a panoramic view of the Danube and the borough of Petržalka on the opposite bank greeted us. A concrete jungle of communist-era tower blocks, it is the most densely populated residential district in Central Europe. The westernmost reaches of the district extend to the Austrian border, the districts further to the south bound on Hungary. This makes Bratislava the only national capital to border two sovereign states. Vienna lies a mere 50 km to the west, Budapest roughly 100 km due south-east.

Marvelling at the swift current of the river below us, Mitko and I rested our elbows on the stone parapet and had ourselves another beer.

View of Petržalka and the right bank of the Danube taken from Bratislava Castle.
View of Petržalka and the right bank of the Danube taken from Bratislava Castle

A City of Many Names

Thanks to its favourable location, Bratislava has been a commercial and cultural centre for more than a thousand years. Steeped in history, the city served as the capital of the Kingdom of Hungary from 1526 until 1784 and the Hungarian parliament continued to meet there until 1848. Furthermore, it long held the title of Coronation City. Between 1563 and 1830, a total of 19 Habsburg kings and queens were crowned ruler of Hungary in St. Martin’s Cathedral.

It goes without saying that a place of such allure and stature would attract a diverse crowd. At the dawn of the 20th century, the city’s ethnic composition was 42% German, 41% Hungarian and 15% Slovak. By the time the first post-WWI census was taken in 1919, the ratio had shifted to 36% German, 33% Slovak and 29% Hungarian. This was mainly due to changing self-identification rather than the large-scale exchange of peoples. Many of Bratislava’s residents were multi-cultural, and bi- or trilingual, to begin with.

Up until then the city had been interchangeably referred to as Pressburg (German), Pozsony (Hungarian), and Prešporok (Slovak). It was only in 1919 that Bratislava was given its current name.

Mitko and I found ourselves a new vantage point, this one facing east with a clear view of the cathedral, and cracked open another can of Lord knows what. But it sure tasted good! Each half litre knocked back propelled us to ascend further up the hill and the remaining beers in the backpack were enjoyed inside the castle gardens. After sundown, we made our way back down the eastern slope and into the Old Town.

View of St. Martin's Cathedral with Bratislava's Old Town and financial district in the background.
View of St. Martin’s Cathedral with Bratislava’s Old Town and financial district in the background

The Old Town By Night

Once an assemblage of Gothic and Baroque architecture beseeming the capital of a kingdom, Bratislava’s Old Town was reduced to a desolate quarter during 41 years of communist rule. Its historical buildings were collectivised, and local authorities even went so far as to sell off the medieval cobblestones that paved its narrow streets to foreign cities engaged in post-WWII rebuilding efforts. For decades, locals tended to avoid this stripped-down, all but abandoned section of town.

That all changed after the Velvet Revolution of 1989, through which the communist regime of Czechoslovakia was toppled. When the Czechs and Slovaks peacefully went their separate ways and Slovakia emerged as an independent nation in 1993, the Bratislava city council had already begun returning the historical, worse for wear buildings of the Old Town to their original owners. Gradually, the area was made inaccessible to traffic, public buildings were spruced up and private owners were given incentives to do the same.

These restoration efforts have had the desired effect. The cobbled streets that Mitko and I wandered down in search of a dining establishment were aesthetically pleasing and brimming with life. With a population of roughly 425,000, modern-day Bratislava flows to the laid-back rhythm of a smaller city. Concurrently, a throbbing bassline of social activity acts as a constant reminder that the city is in fact the administrative, cultural, and financial hub of a nation.

View of Bratislava's Main Square at dusk.
View of Bratislava’s Main Square at dusk

Notable Mention #2 ˗ Šariš Tmavý (4.1% ABV)

Deftly riding these contrasting undercurrents, we settled on a traditional Slovak dinner of pork knuckle and goulash in an old cellar near the cathedral. After an afternoon dedicated to lagers and pilsners, the option of dark beer on tap was eagerly pursued.

Much like the tmavý Mitko and I had enjoyed over brunch, the Šariš interpretation is not too complex and immensely satisfying. The hue poured is of the darkest shade of brown and covered with a fluffy head which does not linger for long. Its smell is a delightful flurry of roasted malts, caramel, coffee, and yeast. Coffee is also present on the palate, along with hints of chocolate. The aftertaste is dry and pleasantly bitter. I remember being particularly enthralled by the brew’s smooth and creamy mouthfeel, which is less prominent in the Golden Pheasant’s version.

The Šariš Brewery is the largest producer of beer in Slovakia. At one point before departing Bratislava we also sampled its flagship 12 Premium, brewed from light malts through two-phase fermentation and subsequent long refermentation at low temperatures. If I remember correctly, I really enjoyed that one too.

Selection of 7 brews consumed in Bratislava.
Selection of brews consumed at the apartment, including Zlatý Bažant Tmavé (2nd left) and Šariš 12 Premium (2nd right)

Saunter, Swill, Sleep, Repeat

After dinner, Mitko and I resumed our walking tour, making our way to the eastern fringes of the Old Town. Once the food had properly settled, we grabbed another beer and circled back to the apartment. There, we resorted to our stash in the fridge. I slept much better that night.

We did have a vague itinerary for our second full day in Bratislava. My brother was flying into Vienna that afternoon and would be catching a shuttle bus from there to meet us. He arrived just before 3 p.m., ahead of schedule. By that time, strengthened by another full English brunch, Mitko and I were already on our second beer.

Once we had dropped off my brother’s things at the apartment and loaded up Mitko’s backpack, the three of us set out for the castle. The remainder of the afternoon proceeded in a fashion similar to that of the previous one ˗ engaging conversations, splendid views, and plenty of beer.

Notable Mention #3 ˗ Svijanský Máz (4.8% ABV)

The highlight, brew-wise, of that second visit to Bratislava Castle was an unpasteurised pale lager called Svijanský Máz. The aroma of sun-baked hay and taste of bready malts followed by a bitter finish persisted long after the can had been opened ˗ longer than the other beers we had brought along, in any case. This also applied to the citrus-laced finish, resilient in its crispness.

The Svijany Brewery has been around since 1564, making it one of the oldest breweries in Czechia. Specialised in unpasteurised lagers, most of them light, its extensive range is explicitly marketed as craft beer. Staying true to traditional brewing methods has allowed Svijany to expand its reach across national borders, all the more impressive when considering the level of competition the brewery faces at home and in the wider, Central European region.

Frontal view of 0.5 litre can of Svijansky Maz.
0.5 litre can of Svijansky Maz
Side view of 0.5 litre can of Svijansky Maz.
“Czech Craft Brewery”

By sundown, Mitko’s backpack was empty and my brother ˗ who had been saving himself for the evening ˗ was starting to get thirsty. Earlier reconnaissance of the Old Town had revealed a large selection of bars and restaurants advertising craft beer. At the mention of this, my brother conducted a quick search on his phone and led us to one of them.

Chez Žil Verne

And so we ended up at a Jules Verne-inspired craft beer pub, of all places. I say this because, not long before departing on the trip that had led me there, I had re-read 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea for the first time since I was about 13 years old. Seeing that the walls and ceilings of the pub are decorated with paraphernalia alluding to the famed French author’s works, I considered this coincidence to be an auspicious sign of sorts.

Despite being a wee bit cramped for someone of my height, as well as my brother’s, the Žil Verne has everything else going for it. Small and cosy, yet lively, much like Bratislava itself, it is the type of place where conversations with strangers are unavoidable. At the very least, you will be forced to look one another in the eye and apologise for tripping over each other’s feet when moving around. During peak hours, tables tend to be in short supply, and groups will inevitably merge. When Mitko, my brother and I placed our first order, there was only one free table left and it had been reserved. Nevertheless, we were welcome to make ourselves comfortable until Pavel et al arrived.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea-themed blackboard listing 20 brews on tap at the Zil Verne Craft Beer Pub in Bratislava.
Rotating selection of brews on tap at Žil Verne Craft Beer Pub in Bratislava (March 2024)

Boasting no less than 20 craft brews on tap and a small selection of wines, spirits, and snacks for good measure, I felt somewhat spoiled for choice. We ended up staying for three rounds, frequently interacting with the group of French expats seated at the next table. To start off with, I tried the Sour Aronia Cherry Ale courtesy of Czechia’s Zichovec Brewery. A flavoursome brew, by all accounts, but it was my next order that broke the mould.

Notable Mention #4 ˗ Funky Fluid Gelato Passion Fruit, Mango & Peach Sour Ale (5.5% ABV)

A contract brewery based in the Polish capital of Warsaw, Funky Fluid was created by three specialists with complimentary skill sets ˗ a brewer, a beer salesman, and the organiser of a beer festival. Heralded as the 3rd best new brewery in the world in 2019 by Ratebeer, Funky Fluid has gained a reputation for distinctive beers infused with all kinds of additives. Its range encompasses strong IPAs, full-bodied stouts, and think fruit sours.

Inspired by the intense flavours of Italian ice cream, Funky Fluid’s standout Gelato series is packed with fruity goodness. The Passion Fruit, Mango and Peach Sour Ale does its name justice as far as aroma and flavour are concerned. Simultaneously sweet and sour on the palate, with a creamy mouthfeel to boot, the finish is rich and invigorating.

On top of that, the Funky Fluid Sour Ale reminded me of the Pasteur Street Passion Fruit Wheat Ale, one of my favourite Vietnamese brews. When it was time for our third round at the Žil Verne, I could not resist ordering more of the same.

0.3 litre glass of Funky Fluid Gelato (l) and 0.4 litre glass of Zichovec Sour Ale (r)
0.3 litre glass of Funky Fluid Gelato (l) and 0.4 litre glass of Zichovec Sour Ale (r)

Pavel and his crew were still unaccounted for when the time had come for Mitko, my brother and I to make a move. The French crowd immediately seized the chairs we had been sitting on, jokingly proclaiming that they would take it up with Pavel when he finally showed his face.

The three of us had schnitzel and beer for dinner in another corner of Bratislava’s Old Town, followed by a night cap at the apartment. The next morning, we crossed the border into Austria, taking our sweet time and smiling while we were at it, forever moving to the Bratislava beat.

By Christopher Andel

Born in Bangkok to a Dutch father and German mother, Christopher has spent much of his life pedalling back and forth between Europe and South East Asia. A true ‘Jack of all trades’, he has worked as an environmental consultant, language tutor, and roadie for the Chippendales, just to name a few. He currently resides in the Netherlands and is patiently plotting a return to greener pastures.

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