Bratislava Palaver

I’ve never been a huge fan of horror films.

It all stems from when I saw a pirated copy of the film Piranha through the crack of the living room door as a six year old. As a direct result of my illicit viewing, I wouldn’t go swimming for a year and made my sister use the bath water before me for fear of being eaten alive.

Fast forward a quarter of a century and an invitation to a weekend in Slovakia landed on my lap, immediately after I had read an article in Empire magazine about the graphic nature of the soon to be released gore-fest ‘Hostel’ – set coincidentally in contemporary Bratislava. I really wanted to sample one of the jewels of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but I didn’t want to live in abject fear of having my dodgy Achilles operated on with a rusty hacksaw or have a routine eye test performed with a blowtorch. I slept disjointedly on the offer and reluctantly agreed the next day.

After an atypically raucous and alcohol fuelled early flight, we dumped our bags at our concrete monolith of a hotel and headed in to the city centre. Only a few weeks before, the England football team had played Slovakia for the first time since the Velvet Divorce of 1993 and the city was still reverberating from the invasion of the boorish English underclass. The disdain for anything remotely related to Blighty was very palpable and we were already attracting some very dismissive looks from the locals. This weekend now needed to be a very successful public relations exercise if we were going to make in out the other side with our dignity in tact.

As with any trip to a continental city steeped in history and architectural beauty, a group of discerning young male travellers will naturally gravitate towards the same central point of local interest – the mock Irish pub. As we entered the bar it was very evident that a lot of effort had been made to create the aesthetic of being in a little corner of Ireland. The whole place was awash with the colours of the trídhathach, Gaelic football shirts covered every wall and you couldn’t move for oversized novelty green hats that stank of stale alcohol. It was very early on a Friday afternoon when we ordered that first round and had only a small spattering of clientele spread thinly across the establishment for company. We found a long table that we could all fit around, had the obligatory tray of Guinness delivered to us by a waitress that already knew she was in for a rough time and began the process of getting rapidly drunk.

After a couple of hours of the descent in to inebriation, things had started to get a little out of control. Our guarded waitress had already been mocked for dropping a glass, which was followed by the mandatory chorus of “Yaaaaaaaaaay!!” and patience with our collective was wearing decidedly thin. Just then, from my vantage point at the head of the table, I witnessed three extremely well built men enter the bar – decked head to toe in designer clothing and wearing sunglasses on a day that could best be described as distinctly overcast. They cut an intimidating presence amongst the backdrop of shamrocks and cartoon leprechauns – a point instantly amplified as I noticed every other customer leave the bar without finishing their drinks. I sat in paralysis as this set of obviously resourceful men took up residence on the table next to us, despite having the pick of the now vacuous pub to choose from. I struggled to even to utter a word of polite warning to my now overzealous group, as the sound of a second broken glass pierced the atmosphere. But this time the immediate company was exponentially more dangerous…

Tentatively, I was watching their every move out of the corner of my eye whilst desperately trying to quell the drunken euphoria that was emitting from our table. The three gentlemen were engaged deep in conversation, sipping tea from porcelain cups engulfed by the shear magnitude of their shovel sized hands. And then it happened – the moment that led me almost to squeal in sheer terror and drop a third glass that afternoon. In an show of very succinct disdain for our behaviour, the human colossus nearest to me gently lifted up his Armani jumper just enough to allow me to see the gun he had holstered in to his belt, before gently putting it back down again without breaking eye contact with his equally as imposing colleague. He knew I was watching them.

“We, we have to leave” I spluttered. “Guns. They have guns” It took a good few minutes for me to compose myself and to get the full attention of the group before my terrified ramblings were suitably interpreted. We all got up in unison and left an extremely generous tip for the waitress we had terrorised. It was now our turn to leave our drinks without finishing them. Retrospectively, this turned out to be a very good move as the following day we befriended a group of Belgian men that made an annual pilgrimage to Bratislava who gave us some very useful, if slightly tardy travel advice. The Irish Pub we had made an immediate beeline for was run by the Slovakian mafia and only recently a reveller had been shot dead in there for the innocuous act of spilling someone’s drink. We had literally dodged a bullet that afternoon and the rest of our trip needed to be decidedly more low key. Unfortunately, that wasn’t to be the case as the lessons we had learnt the previous evening went unheeded as soon as our blood/alcohol ratio returned to an unhealthy level.

The majority of the next evening had actually passed without incident. We had gone to a nightclub where the music being played and the outfits on show created a very Eighties ambience, without doing so ironically. The most redeeming feature of this club after yesterday’s drama were the signs at the entrance declaring “No Firearms Allowed”. And for the reveller that was packing heat that still wanted to dance the night away to Nik Kershaw, there was a cloakroom full of safety deposit boxes purposefully designed to house your weapon. Peace of mind for this particular traveller who was already on edge.

As we left the club, one of my friends somehow managed to upset a couple of locals who were also leaving and a very heated discussion ensued between them in their native tongues. These two men were obviously not as dangerous as the protagonists from the previous day, judged solely on their appearance. They were probably of similar age to us, but looked like living relics from the Communist era. Their hair was mulleted, full moustaches adorned their upper lips and they wore matching woollen jumpers that looked extremely itchy and had geometric patterns repeatedly knitted in to them. After a few minutes of exchanging mutually incomprehensibly insults one of them suddenly started speaking English.

“Do you like girls?” one shouted. I wasn’t entirely sure of the reason for this impromptu sexuality audit, but we decided to complete it regardless.

“Yes – we do.” was our reply.

“Then you come with us”. They turned their backs, started walking out of the club and beckoned my friend and I into a Lada that was parked immediately outside. For reasons still unbeknown to me, we got in the back of the motorised antiquity and headed out of the city centre and in to the suburbs. Following behind us was a taxi containing a few more of our group as we had the presence of mind of arranging back-up if this moment of stupidity went south. After about five minutes, we all pulled up on a dimly lit street and got out of the car. In the distance, I could make out a set of neon lights and immediately made the assumption we were heading for another type of bar – the kind that involve women bereft of clothing and all the money in your wallet disappearing. I irresponsibly discarded the empty bottle of European lager I had been drinking in the back of the Lada into the nearest front garden. It was at that point, I realised why we had parked so far away from that bar in the distance – that wasn’t our intended destination.

Instead, the bottle of lager I had dumped with contempt had rolled across the lawn and now rested at the feet of another gargantuan human specimen – what did they put in the water around here?! I quickly got on my hands and knees, picked up the bottle and grovelled spinelessly at the foot of this man mountain.

“All of you in. Quick” he ordered. Without hesitation or fear for reprisal, I did exactly as he said and we all entered this suburban Bratislavan house. Suddenly the plot line of the film Hostel started to resonate and take on a very familiar feel…

Despite the very insipid appearance of the house from the outside, the interior told a completely different story. For we were now stood in the foyer of a fully functional den of inequity, a house of ill-repute – a brothel. The downstairs had been completely opened out to contain a bar and lounge area for small talk and discussions about business transactions to take place between consumer and purveyor of illicit wares. Our two Communist tour guides made an immediate move towards their prostitute of choice and left us to it. The immovable object that had greeted us in the garden now stood by the only means of escape and ushered us with nothing other than a forceful glare towards the bar.

Behind the bar was a very attractive woman who spoke extremely good English and formally introduced herself as the owner of this business enterprise. She asked us all what we would like to drink – I think I must be the only person that’s visited a knocking shop and asked to see the wine list. She then very cordially asked if I would like a tour of her emporium. With a glass of Shiraz in my hand, I was then led room by room around the sex playground she had built from scratch. You could tangibly feel the pride she felt for each of the modifications she had made in each room to cater for the more deviant in society. There were contraptions and devices in some of those rooms that I did not possess the awareness of how they would logistically deliver pleasure to the recipient.

Purposefully, she had kept the jewel in her sex crown to the very last. I followed her down a spiral staircase in to the basement where she had perfectly replicated a medieval dungeon in exquisite detail. I was astute enough to know that the majority of apparatus down here were explicitly to derive the opposite of pleasure. Some very impressive metal workmanship had gone in to assembling the array racks, cages, chains and clamps that adorned her pain chamber.

“Do you like what you see?” She asked inquisitively.

“Oh yes. You have built up a very impressive portfolio of devices” I nervously faltered.

Back above the subterranean terror cell, things were getting a little strained. The majority of the prostitutes were now absolutely hammered and were aggressively chasing new business opportunities amongst my friends by tearing at their clothes. The hulk of mass guarding the door had now locked us in and was demanding that we no longer wasted his time or that of his employee headcount. I had the very sincere impression that he was probably part of the business alliance that we had met in the Irish pub the night before. After a very quick reality check, I told my fiends to empty their wallets and we put together a very generous severance package to release us from this tenure – ensuring just enough money to get a now extremely urgent taxi out of there.

We flew back the next morning, slightly fortuitous to have escaped a weekend in Slovakia without casualties. Despite my dodgy Achilles still being intact and the majority of my faculties maintaining to be in relative working order, I couldn’t help but think that we’d been extremely lucky not to have been involved in a story-line straight out of a horror movie.

I still haven’t watched Hostel Part 2 or 3 for fear of a retrospective relapse. Any good?

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