Over the gloomy border to Bratislava
I am not sure how Isobel has persuaded me to go with her. She returned from Venice the next day, her unaccompanied journey there and back having been successful. I am not naturally attracted to illicit smuggling activities, and nor under normal circumstances would I have thought that she was either. But here we are, hitching out of Vienna on a cold, bleak winter morning, on the 9th of December, along the main road east. We get out of our lift at a junction in a small town called Gattendorf. From here, a local road leads towards the Staatsgrenze, the state frontier, into the Slovakian part of Czechoslovakia.
I look at Isobel, standing beside the road sign to Bratislava. She is wearing a white, fluffy hat, a knee-length coat showing her stockinged knees, black boots, and she looks perfectly cheerful. On the ground beside her is a holdall containing Italian woollen shirts hidden beneath her own clothing. A rucksack on her back contains more, a total of thirty shirts altogether. My usual idea of contraband is of brandy, diamonds or gold, but it seems that the shirts are valuable items in Czechoslovakia.
I take a photograph of her. It shows a wintry, foggy day with spindly leafless trees and a smattering of snow on the ground. We soon get a lift along the winding minor road to the frontier control post. Leaving the Austrian side is straightforward, and then the car drives the short distance across the usual no man’s land to the Czechoslovakian side.
Perhaps we looked like simple, innocent students on a holiday visit. The guards wave the car through after looking cursorily at our passports and don’t look in our bags. But let’s just stop and think for a moment. Supposing they had? What would happen to us if they found the forbidden shirts? Vague ideas about Communist gaols float around in my mind. This is surely a foolish enterprise. Nevertheless, the car we are in passes the frontier, crosses the Danube, and suddenly we are in Bratislava.
The very name of this city is mysterious and thrilling. Bratislava. It rings of foreign places, Eastern lands, Slavic lands, the unknown. It is the capital of Slovakia, the poorer of the two small nations of Czechoslovakia.
Our lift puts us down in the centre of the city amid a snowstorm. The streets are wet and slushy. We must get our bearings and find somewhere to stay. Isobel is paying all our expenses, but she has borrowed some money from me in order to do it. She will pay me back from her profits. My diary records a first look around the square:
I was immediately surprised by the apparent wealth of everyone compared to Poland. Most people had gaily coloured winter clothes and furry boots and hats. There were plenty of cars, possibly not as many as in Austria, but still plenty. There were cars from Western Europe too, French and Italian. The street lighting was inferior, and the clearingaway of snow practically non-existent. Otherwise, everything seemed fairly normal. The shop windows were brightly and gaily decorated, showing ample variety in goods, in great contrast with Poland. Every shop is part of a state concern here, however.
The smaller, cheaper hotels seem to be full, and not one to deny herself, Isobel decides that we must stay at the Carlton, the top hotel of Bratislava. I am most unaccustomed to staying in such places, but she is the decision-maker. The vast hotel occupies a complete block overlooking one of the main squares. She books us in for two nights, and we enter our names in the visitors’ book. Celebrated guests in the past have included Franz Liszt, Johannes Brahms, Thomas Edison and Allen Ginsberg. During the war, the hotel hosted Nazi officers, and at the end of the war, the Red Army. Now, the clientele is a trickle of tourist groups and shady characters, including two rather disreputable British girls.
We make our way to the fifth floor. The room feels very ancien régime. A large, high double bed takes pride of place, and at its foot, fixed at right angles, is a shallow single bed. The big bed is for the well-to-do occupiers of the room, and the lower one for the serving maid. Isobel naturally occupies the larger and I the smaller. We love the room with its antiquated but working bathroom of which we are in great need. The view from the window looks down over the huge square and over rooftops to a high castle on a hill.
We need to eat, and the Slovakian equivalent of the Polish bar mleczny is the place to go. The state-run eating place is smarter, cleaner and has a better range of food than the ones I’d known in Poland. My diary:
While Isobel was off on her dangerous selling/investigating jobs, I walked up to the castle and around the quieter portions of the town. The castle, square and ugly, was fortified by a series of walls now falling to bits. The interior of this huge building was bare and grotesquely plain, high, dark and forbidding, especially in the grey, snowy weather. However, it commanded a view over the whole city and along the Danube for several miles.
Then I was walking in the poorer parts of the town, and here I saw that not everywhere was there relative wealth. Many houses were propped up with wooden poles. Old women were walking along leaning on sticks and bent double sweeping away the snow from their paths or patches of pavement.
I explored the outer regions of the old town. This part is dropping into decay, and it looks like the Communist state is not doing anything about it. All the money in that town seems to be going to the rehousing schemes in the new suburban areas.
Extracted from Bridget Ashton’s new book, Cold War, Warm Hearts.