Takeaway

Into the brew yonder

Debashree Majumdar | Updated on January 11, 2018

Set the bar: U starého bicykla — a cyclist’s pub — is surrounded by a wall of old wooden planks. It is a short drive from Bratislava   -  Debashree Majumdar

Sundowners at the Slovakian countryside. Need we say more?

“What draws tourists to Bratislava?” I ask.

“Vienna,” chimes in Juro, our friend in the Slovakian capital. We’re in a slightly creaky, Soviet-era emerald green Volkswagen van, and Juro, who runs a tour agency along with friends, speaks animatedly about the post-Socialist makeover of his hometown. While it would be sometime before Bratislava adopts itself to the opulence of its next-door neighbour Vienna, it seems fairly well-adjusted to the tourist boom in early summer.

Between his quick wit and a brief history lesson, Juro introduces us to samples of brutalist architecture that dot the cityscape — stark and unimaginative in design, harking back to the years of communism, and the Iron Curtain. These are inseparable from the glittering city that Bratislava is set to become. Juro points to the remnants of a World War II-era brothel on the edge of the city, which is now a flourishing B&B. We drive past the inverted Slovak radio tower, the Petržalka, Eastern Europe’s largest communist housing development block, but we don’t stop today because we’re on our way to sample local brews in the Slovakian countryside. The sun is starting to dim and we need to hurry.

The Danube flows right through the heart of the city, meeting the Morava briefly at Devin, outside of Bratislava. We drive along the woods that line Morava’s banks. Acres of empty meadows fill our view, interrupted by lone cottages and car factories. We spot reminders of the Jewish annihilation on metal plaques with names and camp numbers of those who died in the WWII years; a furniture dump with broken sofas and laundry baskets; and cyclists. The villages begin almost at the capital’s edge and it doesn’t take us long to reach our first pub — a cyclists’ pub.

U starého bicykla is in the middle of nowhere. Its only boundaries are rain-beaten wooden planks. Despite the makeshift façade, the interiors are rather cosy thanks to the glow of a setting sun and country music. Our group of five settles in quickly and calls for a round of the local Pivovar Litovel draught. The large glasses come for €1.95 and the pint is for €1. We are in the company of tired but happy cyclists. It takes a little while to know that the beer is the reason behind their smiles.

Our next stop is Zohor village. As we move away from the capital, the roads give way to dirt tracks. Juro apologises for the bumpy ride, which he claims will cut the travel time to our next drink. And he is right. In less than 15 minutes we drive into tiny Zohor and stop at Šenk u Kratochvíla, the village’s primary watering hole. The outside looks nothing like a pub, that too in a place which runs on a reputation of all things macho. It’s a single-storey block of concrete with yellow walls, and a grill to guard wood-framed glass doors. A neon sign announces the availability of Litovel. Juro warns us — the two women in the group — that the clientèle is not used to female company (they come to the bar to get away from the women, he adds helpfully) and asks us to brace for indignant stares.

And we get stared at. By men, mostly old, smoking, guzzling beer, and leaning over pool tables. The place is abuzz in murmurs, not noise. We buy more Litovel lager for 60 cents each. It’s peak hour and there is nary an empty table. We finally spot one with a lone drinker. Juro does the Slovak talking because no one speaks English. Our fellow drinker thinks we are foreign invaders. His teeth sooty from chain smoking, he continues drawing on a half-burnt cigarette. In between coughs — of which there were plenty — he tells Juro of his past as a saxophonist with a local orchestra. He claims his son plays for a famous rock band in the city.

Our third stop on the ale trail is in a village named Lozorno. It’s almost time for dinner when we walk into the local haunt — an unadorned room with a few chairs and tables, and a couple of gambling machines. The white-lace window curtains is the only decorative element here. A TV mounted on a wall behind the counter is showing an ice hockey match, with a couple of grim-faced, middle-aged men in audience.

They pay us no attention. We drink more lager, and manage to coax the reluctant owner to give us the key to the rest room. He insists on keeping it locked in order to prevent it from being vandalised during brawls.

Our last stop is in the town of Stupava — Stupavar, a young, hip microbrewery with blaring techno music and dim lights. The pub is buzzing when we step in and quaff on the home brew — the Indian pale ale. Sharp and bitter, it takes a few gulps for us to be able to appreciate its enduring flavour. There are revellers milling about the dark alley outside the brewery and those inside seem strung on a live wire, energetic with stories, laughter and good company.

As we drive back to the city, Nový Most, known as the UFO Bridge after the saucer-shaped viewing pad atop the pylon, glitters in the night. It’s back to urban wilderness, with a dash of the country inside us.

Debashree Majumdar is a freelance writer and editor currently based in Geneva



Travel log

Getting there

Fly to Vienna. Bratislava is an hour-long bus ride from there.

Stay

Hotels are plentiful and reasonably priced. Pick one that suits your taste and budget.

Tip

Visit the Devin Castle. And walk around the Old Town.



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Published on July 28, 2017
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