It's raining when we get to Bratislava; it's always raining whenever we arrive anywhere.

There's some confusion at the hostel, due largely to the language barrier. Even with the assistance of a Slovak-speaking colleague in making our reservations, they've got me down as "Graech" in their guest register and when they figure out that "Grimmelmann" is the same thing, they hastily shuffle us from one room to another, before the people who have room 7 reserved show up for real. My attempt to ask for an additional sheet through pantomime is a dismal failure, except for the amusement it affords the man at the desk who wonders why I have put my head down on the counter and am stroking my shoulder.

We've been expecting the absolute worst of post-Communist urbanity -- the sloughed-off detritus of Czechoslovakia, I suppose -- and in the rain, Bratislava looks not only small, but boring and anonymous, too.

Then we turn a few wrong corners, wander into the cobblestones of the Old City, and change our minds. Bratislava is beautiful; it's quiet, too. In Hungary, we were wary and tense much of the time: you know, watch out for onrushing trams, find someplace non-disgusting to eat, figure out the oddities of local street culture. But in Bratislava, everything's easy. Sure, Bratislava has colder weather and a different language, but it has the same organic urban beauty as Padua or Verona. Everything is relaxed and refined, you're basically tripping over good art, and the entire city seems to consist of one extended outdoor cafe filled with happy people.

Plus, they have this cream garlic soup that defies description.