BRATISLAVA, Czechoslovakia — I dimly remember being jolted out of a deep sleep early one morning by a tremendous clanking and shouting outside my door.
Several hours later, after I had managed to stumble out of bed and wage a losing battle with the aged plumbing in the shower at the Interhotel Carlton, I discovered what had caused all the commotion.
Surveying the damage in the hallway, where buckets had been placed on the water-soaked carpeting beneath a washbasin, I concluded that the problem was probably a broken pipe.
Similar water stains up and down the frayed hallway carpeting indicated that such mishaps probably were quite common and nothing to get disturbed about.
Lying only 44 miles east of the Austrian capital of Vienna, Bratislava offers travelers a rare opportunity to slip behind the Iron Curtain for a couple of days to experience firsthand what life in an Eastern Bloc country is really like.
Although Bratislava strikes you initially as a rather dingy gray place, especially in contrast to vivacious Vienna, the people are warm, the prices for exquisite Bohemian crystal are rock-bottom, the food and wine are excellent and the history is fascinating. One drawback, however, is that the cost of hotel accommodations is generally high.
If you time your visit, as a friend and I did, to coincide with the two-week Bratislava Music Festival in late September and early October each year, you will also be able to enjoy musical performances by noted soloists and orchestras from both sides of the Iron Curtain.
But I had a more personal reason for wanting to see Bratislava. My father's parents grew up in the city and surrounding countryside.
They never returned to Bratislava before they died, and I have always wondered whether any of our relatives survived World War II and the Communist coup in 1948.
Somehow I almost expected to be able to thumb through a telephone book and come across some far-distant members of the Capos clan. (I never did find any.)
Despite my Czechoslovakian roots, I was not quite prepared when a border guard entered our bus and called out my name in Czech. It sounded something like shop-posh rather than kay-pos , and for a moment I sat rooted to the seat, not knowing what to do.
After he called it again, in a slightly gruffer tone, I stood up and got off the bus to change my $30 U.S. into 292 korunas, the minium amount foreigners are required to exchange each day they stay in Czechoslovakia.
Otherwise, the trip from Vienna to Bratislava was enjoyable and uneventful. We had bought round-trip tickets from the Czechoslovakian travel bureau Cedok (pronounced ched-dock ) and caught the 8 a.m. bus from the Autobus Bahnhof, which lies just beyond Stubenring on the east side of the city.
One-Day Shopping Trips
The last return bus leaves Bratislava at 5:30 p.m. every day, so if you stay overnight you can shop or sightsee all morning and most of the afternoon before you return to Vienna.
The ride to Bratislava through the lush Austrian countryside with its neatly cultivated vineyards takes only an hour, but you can plan on a minimum delay of half an hour at the border while guards check passports and visas, inspect luggage and wait for the money changing.
Our first moments in Bratislava were marked by the inevitable confusion that comes when you plunge suddenly into a foreign country and don't speak the language.
It took me several minutes at the bus station, for example, to determine which toilet was for women. (I soon figured out that it was the one marked zeny .)
We somehow managed to communicate to a taxi driver that we wanted him to take us to the Cedok office in the center of the city, but it took several tries before we could find someone there who spoke enough English to advise us about sightseeing, hotel accommodations, restaurants and concert tickets.
Our first meal, which we grabbed in a working-class buffet , was a bowl of unidentifiable lukewarm soup, a few thin slices of cheese and meat, a roll and some sort of pink juice that we ate at a crumb-laden cafeteria table. The price was right, 10 korunas, or roughly $1 U.S., but it was not what you would call a memorable meal.
Time to Explore
Once we were settled at the Interhotel Carlton, after having flashed a $50 American bill to help the desk clerk find us a room with a bath, we found ourselves free to explore Bratislava.
The most impressive panoramic view of the city, which curls along the Danube River, proved to be from the ramparts of Bratislava Castle, high on a hill.
Unfortunately, the castle has not fared as well as the Hapsburgs' imperial Hofburg and Schonbrunn Palace in Vienna. The residential quarters were gutted by fire during the Napoleonic wars and any vestiges of what were probably handsome royal chambers have been obscured by new walls of plaster during restoration.