Three countries in 10 minutes – and all for a €1 – Bargain!

Sometimes these trips go wrong. Not spectacularly wrong (yet, touch wood, fingers crossed etc) but wrong…It seems not matter of complex planning on routes, travel, weather and people can sometimes prepare you for the issues that you can face. As I am sure you have read so far, dear reader, I am prone to the occasional oversight or mistake – however so far it has not cost me dear. This trip was another example of when things go wrong, but end up all right. The plan here was very simple – visit the Ernst Happel Stadium in Vienna to see Austria play Paraguay in a friendly. After all, the stadium is a favourite with UEFA and will host the 2008 European Championship Final. It is also the only UEFA 4 star venue I have not seen a game in. Added to this a journey that took me via Slovakia into Austria and I thought I would pay a visit to some of the more well known Stadia in Bratislava for future research.

Ryanair’s daily flight to Bratislava (or Vienna as they refer to it in some material – after all its only 50 miles away AND IN A DIFFERENT COUNTRY!) is one of the first to depart Stansted airport. But how wrong you would be in thinking at nobody would be at the airport at 4.30am. In fact I would wager that the 2 hours from 4.30am to 6.30am are the busiest period in terms of numbers of people in the terminal during the day. Gone are the days when you would be one of a handful of people on the flight as well – as with flights to the exotic destinations of Brno, Kaunas and Lodz (Czech Republic, Lithuania and Poland to the uninitiated) the flight was over 80% full.

Fast forward two hours and we were touching down in another new country – country 43 by my reckoning. Then came the first problem. Whilst many of the smaller airports have tried as much as possible to “integrate” the arrival of airplanes full of Brits with bulging wallets, Bratislava gave the impression it couldn’t care. In fact I do not think I saw a smiling person all day in the country of Slovakia. You arrive into what can be simply described as a small atrium once you have passed via customs. There are no signs in English to direct you anywhere. Through a process of deduction I would a bus stop, where the trice-hourly bus ran into town. Tickets were by coin payment only….So how do you get coins….The bloke in teh small kiosk next to the bus stop wouldn’t change Euro’s, the only exchange place in the airport was closed, and the cash machine only gave notes…So what do you do? Well, if it was only me I would walk around and around until I found the solution. When there are 30 or 40 people in the same boat, you simply get on the bus and keep quiet!

The bus took us around the airport commercial centre, a place that would do the likes of Bluewater and Lakeside proud – an Ikea, M&S, Nike, Next and a host of other big name shops lined the streets – contrasted by the huge industrial manufacturing chimneys in the background. Then I noticed something….Whilst the place was busy with Saturday morning shoppers, no-one appeared to be carrying any bags – so is it that people come here to window shop before trudging back to their gloomy industrial tower blocks, or do they save it all up for a power spending spree later in the day.

Anyway, my first stop was the Tehlene Pole Stadium – home to Slovan Bratislava, Art Media’s European matches and the national team. It was here in 2003 that the England fans and players alike were racially abused in an incident that was swept under the table by UEFA. Like many such stadiums in Europe at weekends, they are free to enter and even go and play a game on the pitch (although remembering that gun laws here are different, and the conversation with the security patrols may be a tad different to those in Croydon). The stadium is similar in design to Dinamo Moscow’s – one large two tier stand sitting over the three remaining stands – only one of which offers cover from the cruel Slovakian weather. It can hardly be called atmospheric….If you are thinking of watching a game here then catch the Bus 61 from the main station. A ticket (if you can be bothered) will cost 14SKr.

Almost across the road is the Inter stadium – simply exit the Tehelme Pole stadium to the south, turn right and after 200 yards you will see it across the road. Again, the stadium was opened and I was able to freely wander in. The stadium was similar in design to the Tehelme Pole – although the running track was hardly a bonus. What I do not understand with these stadiums in countries where the weather is a little chilly and wet why on earth do they not build roofs??? Direction are as per the Tehelme Pole stadium.

I blagged my way onto a tram this time – full of smiling locals. Now, if we had the quality of women on our trains from New Eltham to London Bridge in the morning I doubt if anyone would complain about standing up….But they just didn’t want to smile…The sun was shining, it was the weekend and they were stunning – but a pair of sunglasses and a frown is not a good look. After a brief walk through the old town – very picturesque, full of British Stag do’s and more than its fair share of “Club xxx” type establishments, I headed over the Danube to find the last stadium on my list – the Art Media Stadium. The club have come to prominence in the past few seasons after some amazing performances in Europe. In 2005 they almost reached the knock-out stages of the Champions League, finally putting out holders Porto to earn a place in the UEFA Cup. The stadium isn’t fit to hold European games – it has no floodlights, although it is a popular concert venue and has hosted Sting and the Scorpions in the past few months. Again, the stadium was open for all to wander in. In fact the team were having a training session ahead of an end of season tournament, and with a cold beer in hand it was the perfect place for a 30 minute break. The stadium is quite similar to some of those you will find in the UK – with three identical stands forming a horseshoe, and one old stand sitting like a sore thumb..The stadium is easily reached from the old town – either by foot (walk across the old bridge across the Danube) or by Bus number 50.

From there I had to walk to the South Station – in an exotic neighbourhood called Petrazalka. Hindsight is a wonderful things, and with it I would have known that Petrazalka means “the biggest council estate in Europe”….not the best place to be walking around with a map and my England track suit top on. But I am not one to miss a shortcut and so straight through the middle I ploughed. Whilst it doesn’t compete with some of the areas in Madrid or Barcelona for poverty (believe me there is real poverty in those places if you want to look for it), it was rough…gangs of youths couldn’t believe seeing me brazenly walk through their “hood” and I can only assume that I survived because they assumed I was some kind of bait from a rival bigger gang. The wierdest thing was that on the edge of the ghetto, the local authorities seemed to have made up for the fact that Slovakia is landlocked by placing a seaside resort there – except the sand and sea. You know the type of buildings, smart flats with balconies, wide “boulevards” with trees and pavement restaurants….Surprisingly no one was eating despite it being 1pm and 25 degrees.

Finally I reached the station in one piece and booked my €8 ticket to Vienna – total journey time of 59minutes. In order to board the trains you need to pass via passport control – technically you are emigrating to another state – although the concept of free travel within EU states must have missed the authorities. Now the great thing about the train is that in the space of 10 minutes you pass from Slovakia, into Hungary before crossing into Austria – as there were stations in all 3 I make it that for less than €1 you can pass between the three countries.

My plan on arriving in Vienna was similar to Bratislava. Check out a couple of the bigger club stadiums before heading over the Ernst Happel in the Prater Park for the game at 5pm. I had concocted a fiendishly simple itiniary that would see me do 5 stadiums in 3 hours……Unfortunately the closure of the main S-Bahn line around the city for maintenance meant that plan 1 had gone out of the window. I decided to change to Plan 2 and within 20 minutes was confidently trying to find an open gate at the stadium of FK Austria Wacker – the current Austrian cup holders located on the main ring road around the city, and a short hop from the 67 Tram. Unfortunately, my luck ran out and I couldn’t find a way in. So onto stadium 2 – the Gerald Haneppi Stadium – home to Vienna’s biggest club – Rapid Vienna. A bus and a U-Bahn ride later and I walked out into the sunshine to find fans. Not one or two, but hundreds. It was 3.30pm – 1 1/2 hours before the national team played – and on the wrong side of town. Undeterred, and under a false assumption that they were here for any other reason that I had screwed up, I marched down the road. As each step hit the ground I realised with more confidence that this small stadium (c.19,000) was in fact the venue for the game – and not as I had planned my whole trip around, the national stadium. Now it wasn’t a disaster – I had been worried I would not have enough time to enjoy my media accreditation and the facilities that go with it – but I had meticulously planned the trip to visit the Ernst Happel Stadium, and tick off another Euro 2008 venue. Still, having picked up my pass and grabbed a free beer, a free burger and a free Rapid Vienna fans pack I settled into my padded seat in the stadium to watch the match.

Despite this being a national team match, the media area was sparsely populated. It was very evident from recently friendly results, and the confidence within the press that if it wasn’t for hosting the tournament, there would be no chance of this team competing on an international stage. They huffed and puffed to a 0-0 draw against the South Americans with ex-Sunderland and Chelsea keeper Jurgen Macho the man of the match. I decided not to stay for the press conference afterwards – my German and Spanish are not exactly fluent so hopped back on my tri-country train trip.

I should have said earlier than I managed to change €50 into 1600 Slovakian Krones. I have not got a clue want this equates to but it had paid for lunch, 3 beers, a book on Slovakian football, a one day transport pass and a return train trip to Vienna. So after clearing immigration back into Slovakia I weighed up if I had enough to get a taxi to the airport. My negotiation went like this…”Airport – How Much”….”Airport-yes we have airport”….”I know but how much to get there”….”No bus there only taxi”….”Yes I know how much”….”Five Hundred”……”Three hundred is that right?”….”No 400″…and so off we went at breakneck speed. There was still a pot of Krones left for a pizza, a beer and some water…..

A long and tiring day – made all the better by Ryanair’s fantastic punctuality record (34 minutes late), and of course the standing joke that is the way Immigration at Stansted airport work completely opposite shifts to when the flights arrive – after all we all love waiting in line for 30 minutes at 1am just to get back into our own country.

Bratislava – The Facts

The Tehelne Pole Stadium
Junacka 2, Bratislava 83104
Capacity: 30,087 All seater

The ground is located around 4.5km north east of the city centre in the Nove Mesto area. The stadium is easily reached by public transport from the city centre. The national stadium is home to Slovan Bratislava, as well as the venue for Artmedia’s European games. During the 2005 Champions League campaign, the pitch bore the brunt of the poor late Autumnal weather, and became almost unplayable in the game versus Porto. With only one covered stand, a space on the open end is not quite as appealing in the cold wet winter than in the barmy spring and summer.

How to get a ticket for the Tehelne Pole Stadium
For all domestic club games tickets are available on the day of the game. Average attendances for Slovakian football is less than 4,000 and so you will have no problem in getting a ticket for a match from either the main ticket office, or direct at the turnstiles. For big European games then information on when the tickets go on sale are posted on the club’s own websites.

The Stadium – The Pasienky Stadium
Vajnorksá 100, Bratislava
Capacity: 13,295 All seater

Very similar in design to the National Stadium, with one single covered stand, an athletics track and curved ends behind the goals, the Pasienky stadium is showing its age. Home attendances rarely hit the 3,000-mark meaning that it lacks real atmosphere.

How to get to the Pasienky Stadium
The stadium is a stone’s throw away from the Tehelme Pole Stadium to the north east of the city centre. Buses 38, 103, 113 and 118 run from the city centre to the ground. Alternatively, catch the metro to Nové Mesto station and then complete the journey by foot.

How to get a ticket for the Pasienky Stadium
Tickets for any game at the Pasienky are available on the day of the match, including those for the big inter city derbies between Slovan, Inter and Art Media. For big European nights, expect the ticket prices to double or even treble. Tickets for a normal league game start from just €8 for a place on a terrace. A posh seat will set you back around €20. Tickets can be bought on the day of the game from the booths along the Vajnorska main road.

Around the Pasienky Stadium
The stadium sits in parkland and a residential area. Around the stadium there is very little in terms of refreshment areas, although on a match day a number of temporarily bars set up shop and sell their wares. With the proximity to the stadium it is best to stick to the city centre for your pre-match drinking.