Saturday, September 24, 2016

Remembering Mamut, a badass Bratislava beer hall that is no more.

Halušky with bryndza cheese, kapustnica soup and Zlatý Bažant dark beer.

For reasons unknown, a 1991 travel vignette from Bratislava came to mind earlier today.

In the fall of 1991, I was living and teaching conversational English at the university hospital in Košice, a city in the easternmost region of what is now independent Slovakia, but at the time remained part of a unified Czechoslovakia.

My "boss" was the hospital administrator, Dr. Roland. He asked me if I'd like to accompany him to Bratislava, the Slovak capital, for his governmental meeting. While he was busy with the bureaucracy, I could walk around the city and be a tourist, then meet them (we had a driver, thankfully) back at the ministry, after which we could eat and drink at a beer hall he was certain I'd want to experience.

It was a grueling drive through mountainous terrain, somewhere between four and five hours each way. In 1991, Bratislava did not strike me as a tourist haven, but then again, most of the cities in the former Soviet Bloc were just beginning to recover from decades of neglect.

However, Dr. Roland was absolutely right, and the beer hall was well worth it. It was called Mamut (mammoth), and in a rare instance of clever Communist adaptive reuse, it occupied the former municipal malting house, Stará Sladovňa.

My memories are faint, and yet Mamut made a deep impression. It was big, reputedly the largest in the Bloc, surely capable of holding crowds comparable to those in more famous Munich establishments -- perhaps 1,500 - 2,000. It was stately and quiet on the day of our visit.

Mamut had at least two floors, maybe three, and what made it truly unique is that by the standards of the time in this part of Europe, there really was a choice of beers.

In my recollection, there were at least two serving stations per floor, each pouring beers from different breweries. Velkopopovický Kozel was there, and Zlatý Bažant -- and even Budvar.

It was kid-in-the-confectionery time for me, sampling as many of the 40-cent pints as possible and throwing back a plate of bryndzové halušky before commencing the long drive back home, during which I slept a lot.

(By the way, bryndzové halušky is a plate of pea-sized potato dumplings topped with sheep cheese and bacon. Someone needs to add it to their menu here in New Albany, as better beer food has yet to be invented).

The feel was so old-fashioned and venerable that I was shocked to learn Mamut had been a beer hall for less than twenty years.

Unfortunately, Mamut did not remain a beer hall. In 1997, I returned to Bratislava for a follow-up for a follow-up, and in all my travels I've never felt such disappointment upon seeing that the building had been split up -- partitioned, subdivided -- into a garish casino, eateries, and maybe a pub or two.

Probably mafia money; modernity won, and all Mamut's charm was lost.

Happily, Bratislava appears to be the sort of place I'd like to return and give another chance. Twenty years is a long time. A train from Vienna to Bratislava takes only an hour, and then another back to Košice, a place I truly loved.

Best Bars Bratislava

Soon, I hope.

After all, with each passing day, there is less time ahead than behind me.

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