continued from Part 1….
June 2: Bratislava, Slovakia
If the Viking Legend is any example, you don’t need to worry about table service. The wait staff, mostly Filipino, could not have been more attentive, but at the same time never struck us as fawning or gratuitous. Our favorite waiter’s name tag read “Neri.” It turned out that he’d opted for that because his real name wouldn’t fit: Aldefonso Neria. He and his colleagues were gems, always looking out for us, and soon began to save a nice place for four by throwing napkins over chair backs at a well-situated table. They told us they enjoy working for Viking, citing the relatively easy Danube Waltz schedule compared to a 24/7 cruise ship. With the passengers mostly away during the day, they have time to catch up on inventories and take a break.
Bratislava is the only national capital bordering two other countries, Austria and Hungary. Built in the 10th century as a fortress, the Castle was converted to a royal residence by Empress Maria Theresa in the mid-18th century. On a tall hill, it towers over the city and surrounding countryside. You wind your way to it through up-market residences and embassies.
She was frank about the peaceful separation of Slovakia and the Czech Republic in January 1993, which not all Slovaks are pleased about: “Nobody asked us. It was all about money and power.” (The two countries remain on good terms.) “We can understand them, they can understand us”—it also seems in these parts that most everybody speaks English. She added that they’ve been restoring the Castle for at least 150 years, and if we came back in the next century they might have it finished.
Like Hungary, Slovakia has made enormous strides since the fall of the Iron Curtain. The more distant suburbs of Bratislava reminded me of Latvia, where I bicycled the country four years after independence. A lot of ugly grey Soviet concrete is still standing, but Bratislava proper is prosperous and energetic. There was no sign of the ubiquitous Russian Ladas that prowled Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania when I visited in 1992 and 1995. Lots of up-market Skodas, BMWs and Mercs make the point that this is a high-income country with one of the fastest growth rates in Europe. Some of the houses on Castle Hill were spectacular, made yet more impressive by the marvelous view. The city itself is well brushed and clean, the locals friendly. There was little to suggest this was once part of the Warsaw Pact.
It was here that we became aware of the torrid heat that was to accompany us for most of the journey. Bratislava was 88F/31C and steaming. With a lot of walking to do, the crew handed everyone water bottles on the way to the tour coaches. As pleasant the viewing of the city, it was wonderful to get back to the ship for a leisurely air conditioned lunch and a glass of local wine or beer. A good tip if you plan a Viking cruise is to buy an insulated water bottle carrier with a shoulder strap. Take two bottles, and leave a spare on your coach seat.