I bought a train ticket in Budapest, and by mid-afternoon was in western Slovakia. My luck finding decent (read cheap) accommodation hadn’t been great of late, so during the train journey I had devised a cunning plan. On arrival in Bratislava I would stay in the first dump I came across. That would save some time at least. This was a few years ago, when my travel budget afforded the luxury of shared bathrooms, and the occasional bus station bench. Couch surfing, Air B’nB, Booking.com… weren’t things then.
Perusing the pamphlets at the information desk, I found a strangely interesting invitation to a place called the ‘Red Star Hostel’
The free taxi whisked me to the ‘Red Star Hostel’ which I had been assured was a nice twenty-minute walk from the city centre. The free taxi ride seemed quite appealing, and an ominous warning, but I had vowed not to deviate from the original, cunningly devised plan. During the ten-minute drive I took a closer look at the pamphlet from the railway station. “RED STAR HOSTEL” it shouted in bold red uppercase letters on a black background. At the bottom, the same aggressive, capitalised red font screamed this bizarre slogan:
“THE ONLY IRON CURTAIN HERE LIES BETWEEN US AND THE BOREDOM!!!” In case the reader remained unconvinced that these guys were serious (and had no idea that Czechoslovakia’s particular Iron Curtain hadn’t existed since the Velvet Revolution of 1989), in the centre of this shiny, angry looking pamphlet was a drawing of a big red, clenched fist (presumably to alleviate any lingering doubts one might have about the boredom-busting abilities of the good folks at this particular vacated university dormitory). Wow! Having stayed at a few wild places during my travels I was looking forward to some Slovakian-style crazy…
At the reception area I joined the queue of tired looking travellers slumped in plastic chairs lined along the wall. We waited to be beckoned by a young man of about twenty, sitting behind a plain looking wooden desk just a couple of feet away. He slowly and carefully explained the check-in procedure and hostel rules to each guest individually. After twenty minutes I decided to calmly explain to the spotty young gentleman that he might save us all a lot of time by doing away with the rehearsed speech (I and everybody in the room already knew it by heart), perhaps inform him that any untrained monkey or coma patient would by now have figured out that the five English guys standing at the front of the queue were in fact travelling together, before planting the hostel pamphlet firmly down his throat. But I didn’t. Check-in guy slowly turned to the next bewildered young Englishman.
“Hi! Welcome to the Red Star Hostel! We have several different styles of accommodation. May I refer your attention to…”
Fuck! Amusing myself by repeatedly banging my head against the wall I quickly scanned the room for signs that the taxi driver had mistakenly dropped me off on the wrong planet… Nope.
This well-meaning young desk-idiot was bringing new, hitherto unrivalled levels of subtlety to the science of boredom alleviation. Aha! That’s it! This must be some new experiment in reverse psychology! He was masterfully fighting boredom with boredom, perhaps using some ancient technique he had learned in the Far East. Wait… I live in the Far East! My god, I’m delirious! FUCK THIS IS BORING! A pacifist by nature, I imagined which style of cartoon-style violence (the type one always immediately recovers from) might be appropriate for this knucklehead. There’s never any dynamite or an anvil around when you need it. After about an hour it was my turn.
“Hi! Welcome to the Red Star Hostel! We have several…”
“Yes, I understand. One single room for one night please,” I interrupted as politely as I could through clenched teeth.
He appeared impressed with my ability to write my name, address and passport number in less than eighteen minutes, then positively astonished when I presented him with the correct amount of cash.
“So you already know about the daily city tax for foreign tourists?” he asked, smiling happily.
“Yes… there are signs posted… everywhere… and you’ve told… everyone”, I indicated my knowledge of this strange tax. He smiled and presented me with my room key, which was inexplicably attached to a big furry stuffed toy animal (this was part of the zany fun perhaps) that wouldn’t fit in any pocket.
I dragged my stuff up four flights of stairs to my room (the elevator was out), in which pretty much everything was pink and/or fluffy, except the towels, which didn’t exist. I dumped my bags, grabbed my toy bat/room key and went out for a walk before the excitement became too much.
As I expected, the pleasant twenty-minute walk to the city from the Red Star Asylum was just that – for those who walk for gold at the Olympic games – you know, those guys who look like they desperately need to use the bathroom, but decide for some reason to keep walking to a nicer bathroom, in the next town. I wonder how people get involved in that sport. Anyway, after a relaxing stroll along the Danube I found the city centre.
Most of the buildings in the Slovakian capital are typically grey concrete, eastern-bloc hulks of things (not unlike the Red Star Hostel), though nobody seemed overly concerned by this, and I saw a few things that made me wonder whether all the retro, socialist-stylised advertising was perhaps not necessarily so retro…
The old part of central Bratislava however, whilst a small city, is very old and beautiful and looks more like central Vienna. I mentioned this to a guy in a pub, who told me Vienna was only seventy-odd kilometres upriver, which suddenly made sense. Having travelled randomly for six weeks I actually had no idea I was only an hour from where I began.
Strolling around Bratislava over a few beers was very pleasant. The city is charming, the people friendly and the beer, as you might expect, is excellent. Cafes and restaurants are abundant and there are also a number of interesting statues scattered around the city.
I decided though to keep heading North to Prague. One night at the Red Star Hostel was more than enough for an old man like me. Any more of the kind of excitement going on there that night might have given me a rage-induced cardiac. But then I got to thinking about that slogan again. “THE ONLY IRON CURTAIN LIES BETWEEN US AND THE BOREDOM”. Given that there was no trace of an iron curtain anywhere in Europe in 2008, and that the world’s nearest (and only) surviving iron curtain remains 8,200 kilometres away on the Korean peninsula, that pamphlet had been trying to warn me all along! The complete absence of an iron curtain anywhere near the Red Star Hostel meant that there was absolutely NOTHING separating them from my boredom. I guess I should have listened.