Anyone’s Alternative Destinations – Bratislava

Europe is a MUST DO for most travelers from all corners of the Earth. There are so many different cultures mashed right next to each other, creating a unique opportunity to experience several cultures in a relatively small geographic space. I’ve personally always been obsessed with this continent, so getting to actually SEE the real deal behind all the maps and books was a life changing experience. When you hear “Europe,” you might think of drinking wine in Florence or taking a walking tour along the streets of London. Sure, the big sites are absolutely amazing, and you should make them a priority at some point in your life. However, we are not limited to the major tourist attractions. Europe offers a plethora of cultures that each have something to offer. Sometimes it is far off the beaten path where we find our little slice of heaven. Welcome to Anyone’s Alternative Destinations. Throughout these articles I will be revealing some of Europe’s lesser known traveling spots that may come as a surprise to you.

The first destination I am bringing to light is Bratislava, Slovakia. Most people would never think of this as a major spot to explore, and some haven’t heard of it at all. The reality is that Bratislava or “Blava” crams a mix of vibrant culture, friendly locals, and rich history all into one pint-sized capital. And speaking of pints… Slovak beer is absolutely delicious, and most places sell for less than 1 euro. This city is among the most affordable in the entire continent and will cost you only a fraction of the price of going to Rome or Paris.

Bratislava is the capital and largest city of Slovakia, formerly Czechoslovakia. Because of its past political issues and unrest, this city is rich in history and has a story all its own. Situated right in the heart of Europe, it embraces one of the most central-European, hearty landscapes in the entire continent. Many travelers are turned off from visiting this city because of its rough past and poor economic situation, but that is exactly why you should make it your next destination. You see, there are no hoards or crowds of tourists in this city; you will spend next to nothing during your stay and find some of the most welcoming people along the way. There are also no shortages of things to do in this beautiful place.

As soon as you enter the city, you are overwhelmed with a sense of opportunity. Most travel destinations have a strong itinerary of activities one must do when they visit. This is not the case for Bratislava. You can make this trip exactly what you want. Strenuous, action-packed hiking trip? Go for it. Cultural exploration filled with museums, music, and history? Absolutely. Relaxing vacation along the banks with amazing coffee and local food? Why not? I got to experience a little mix of everything during my stay.

For about 2 euro, take the city bus to Castle Devín to see a middle-aged castle storied with the history of Bratislava and Slovak culture that has survived centuries of battle. It overlooks the vast Danube River and provides a beautiful view from overhead. More adventurous travelers can even strip down and take a dip in the river while enjoying a gorgeous afternoon. Roadside stands pepper many Slovak streets selling fresh wine for less than a euro a liter. On the opposite side of the city, take the tram to the massive Lake Piesky (zlaté piesky) that serves as a hangout spot complete with authentic food stands and bars for locals, especially during the warm summer months.

The Slovaks are among the kindest and most welcoming people in the world. Some might even invite you to their table as guests to talk about their culture, as they are not very accustomed to tourists. This will make your vacation more memorable and more concrete than ever! If you have some time in the country, get out of the city and take a bus to the Tatras Mountains for some serious hiking among some of the most beautiful views in the world! The country is small, so getting around is easy. Finally, end your night visiting some of Blava’s old taverns alongside the cobblestone streets in the central city, or catch the sunset from high on a hill on the edge of town at Bratislava Castle for an amazing view of the entire city. And don’t miss out on the food. The city’s best local food is served at around 6 euros so there’s no point in cutting yourself short and passing up the best Halusky you’ll ever have.

This city is truly a diamond in the rough. I went there on the flip of a coin, and it has become perhaps my favorite place in Europe. Only a short train ride from major cities like Prague, Vienna, or Budapest…Bratislava is worth a stop, and it might just take the cake as the best spot along your travels. Like I said earlier, check out the big destinations in Western Europe. They’re amazing, and people go for a reason…but if you want to break from the crowds and street vendors, take a chance and find your Slovak paradise!

Denali, a Park Like No Other

I can’t fully describe the excitement I felt when the plane began descending, and through the clouds I could make out the distant mountains surrounding Anchorage. I’m getting chills and a sudden craving to return—a powerful magnet drawing me back—just from writing this. We landed sometime around midnight, but the sun was still out, settled just on the horizon line like a tiny, far-off ball crossing a tight rope, refusing to fall and allow darkness to take over.

Five-ish restless hours of attempted airport-bench sleep later we crammed into a taxi headed to the Anchorage Walmart which opened at 6:00 am. 40 lb packs in tow, we located bear spray, a backpacking stove, and fuel—the only things not allowed on the plane or checked baggage. After an initial fear of missing our bus to Denali, we arrived 15 minutes early. Failing to find an open coffee shop, store, or restaurant in the area, we boarded the bus eagerly but sleepily. Another five hours, featuring endless mountain views and broken up only by one stop at a lodge, separated us from Denali National Park and Preserve.

The boys and I stepped off the bus, caught our bearings, and found our way to the park’s backcountry station. We watched the required video on bear safety and environmental stewardship (essentially “Leave no trace”) and then repacked all our food in the park-provided beer cans. Wait. Bear cans. Beers and bears are a bad idea. Packs ready, we almost missed the last shuttle into the backcountry. We hastily bought our tickets and scrambled onto the bus, feeling exhilaration replace our rushed anxiety.

An hour or so and a little park history later, we stepped off our second bus of the day and watched it drive away. Then, turning toward Cathedral Mountain and our backcountry unit, we walked into the sparse brush. Denali has very few developed trails, so most backpacking in the park is through “untouched” wilderness. We hiked for several hours through spongy moss and scattered trees with questionable visibility, yelling “HEY BEAR” most of the way to avoid any grizzly surprises. The trek was tough, especially with 40-50 lbs on our backs, but we eventually came to the Teklanika River and found a way down the small bluffs to its banks. This river would provide a point of reference for the rest of our Alaska adventure.

Crossing a braided stream like the Teklanika can be a challenge, and a frustration. While some braids were shallow and slow, at least three or four were close to knee deep and flowing swiftly. These rapid-filled braids required some teamwork, the three of us crossing in line parallel to the stream. Daniel bore the brunt force upstream to break the current while Peyton and I provided support. There were some sketchy moments when the river threatened to drag us down and pull us into its rush. We didn’t fear serious injury or drowning, but any fall meant we would have to deal with soaked clothes and packs which would make backpacking unbearable. Wet socks and boots that never dried out were bad enough.

We picked a flat and relatively rock-less spot to pitch the tents; then we stepped off a hundred yards downwind to mark our cooking spot. Another hundred yards away we marked a place for food storage. This is all a system taught by the park and by Stephen Herrero’s Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance to keep bears away from the tents. We cooked, ate, put away our food, and hung up wet clothes on scraggly little bushes in a futile attempt to dry them. By the time we went to sleep, it was nearing 1:00 am, and the sky was still bright in early twilight.

Day two in Denali started at about 9:00 am after the best 8 hours of sleep I had on the trip. Freeze-dried breakfast would do for fuel. Thoroughly awoken from the unpleasantness of wet boots, we set out on a day hike up the Teklanika to a distant foothill we planned to climb. I have no words that can truly communicate the sheer majesty of the surrounding snow-capped mountains, mystic alpine forests, and winding glacial streams of the Denali backcountry. No trails, no sign of human presence mar the landscape. As I said in an article for Travel Channel about Denali, “No amount of day hikes or manmade hiking trails can compare in wonder to the vast wilderness and profound solitude of the Denali backcountry.”

We experienced this solitude and wonderment along our trek to the distant hill with many river crossings, forest game trails, and abundant signs of wildlife. Boot-sized wolf tracks and bear prints could be found every few hundred yards. The day waxed late when we finally arrived at our destination, so we climbed half the hill, about 600 ft. up, and rested. After the two mile hike back to our campsite, we watched some passing caribou lumber alongside the far stream-bank while eating our supper.

Due to unexpected bus scheduling complications we had to leave the backcountry a day early, so we played tourist on our last full day. We packed up and hiked out to the Teklanika River Bridge where an inbound bus picked us up. We rode to the Eielson Visitor Center to check out some park history and watch a short film about climbing Denali. Sadly, cloud cover obscured the mountain the whole time we were there, but that’s just another reason to go back. From the bus we spotted Dall sheep, moose, caribou, and a huge brown bear who hijacked the road from us for a short stretch.

When, exhausted, we finally arrived back at the park entrance we paid for hot showers and bought a campsite at the nearby developed campground. Then we settled into our tents for a rainy night. I was sad to leave the next day and dreaded the last remaining bus ride back to Anchorage. This was the beginning of the end of the road trip. We were officially homeward bound.