Trip to the western edge of Eastern Europe : Chapter 5 – Bratislava

This is not the chapter I had originally written, but one which evolved into this piece which was carried by Mint Lounge on 23rd May, 2015

“Bratislava? Did you buy a hotel there?” one friend laughed when I told him I had spent a couple of days in the capital of Slovakia on a trip to Europe. His impression of the city was defined, as many people’s is, by Bratislava’s appearance in EuroTrip, the cult 2004 teen movie. In it, the city is depicted as a hellhole with no law and order and completely in ruins due to the ravages of war—in reality no major war has befallen Bratislava since World War II. It is shown as a place with a comically weak economy and currency, where a nickel buys you a hotel. Hence that initial question.

In the heart of central Europe and surrounded by prime tourist cities such as Vienna, Warsaw, Prague and Budapest, Bratislava is not a city many people visit. Indian travellers prefer Yash Raj film locations such as Switzerland and Paris. Unlike them, Bratislava does not have monuments that your friends will recognize when you post photographs on Facebook.

Perhaps it was this impression that piqued my curiosity about Bratislava. A little reading online told me the picture painted by Hollywood was entirely incorrect. Also, Bratislava fit nicely into my European holiday plan as it was a logical stop between Vienna and Budapest, both on my itinerary.

I took a 7.30am bus from Vienna and was in Bratislava barely an hour later. I was surprised how close it was to Vienna—barely 80km by road and closer by ferry down the Danube river—and how different the two cities were. Vienna is a cultural hub and a true global metropolis while Bratislava is still a typical Eastern Bloc city.

Within 5 minutes of being there, I realized how small it was. Barely 10 minutes of walking and I was in the old city. In about 20, I was out the other end. The old city reminded me of the peth area in my home city, Pune; all the old buildings and heritage sights are concentrated here while the locals live in more modern parts of the city, where most business and day-to-day life unfolds.

Finding a place to stay was a concern. Slovakia’s other major popular culture appearance was in the horror movieHostel, in which unsuspecting teenagers on a trip across Europe find themselves confronted with a sadistic hostel owner who kills them in brutal ways in a fictional town near Bratislava. My mind was set at ease when I saw that the two major hostels in the city—both across the road from each other and barely a 5-minute walk from the city centre—had received positive reviews online, were well done up, seemed safe and were popular with travellers. I proceeded to embarrass myself by asking the hostel owner about the exchange rate in Bratislava (damn you, EuroTrip). He gave me a wry smile and informed me that Slovakia was one of the first countries to adopt the Euro as its official currency.

Once I got over the shame of that episode, I decided to take a walking tour of the old city, which began at its heart. The main square is called Hviezdoslavovo námestie, after Pavol Hviezdoslav, an acclaimed poet, dramatist and translator. He made Slovakia’s heritage more accessible to the rest of Europe, wrote about the state of the nation in trying times and served as the head of the Matica Slovenská, a cultural institute that kept alive the flame of Slovak literature through the dark days of Hungarian suppression at the end of the 19th century.

The square has a pedestrian-only cobbled street lined with shops and restaurants, and a large garden and fountain in the middle. We started at the statue of Hviezdoslav, walked around the square and then went to the Old Town Hall, which today hosts the City Museum. It is a stone tower built in the 15th century with a cannon ball embedded in its wall that was supposedly fired by Napoleon’s forces in 1809, during his conflict with the Habsburg monarchy. We then covered other attractions, including the National Museum and the Slovak National Theatre. In one of the old city’s lanes, the Man At Work statue, a quirky little sculpture of a man coming out of a manhole at the end of a workday, draws in crowds. We stopped to rub his nose for luck.

Next, we saw the Primate’s Palace, a lovely neoclassical structure built in the late 1700s, and had a quick look at some churches and cathedrals. Barely an hour into the tour we were done seeing everything in the old city. We ended it by walking along Coronation Road, a trail on which at least eight Hungarian kings over 300 years walked to their coronations, which took place at St Martin’s Cathedral. The road, which has crowns embedded in its stonework, starts at the cathedral and ends at St Michael’s Gate, the gate to the old city beyond which one comes to new Bratislava, where the majority of the local population now lives and works.

In Bratislava, you will constantly be told that much of the city’s history has been destroyed and that it is trying determinedly to reclaim some of its glory. For centuries, Bratislava, or Pressburg, as it was known then, was a part of the Hungarian empire and enjoyed a place of great geopolitical importance in the region. So much so that in the 1500s, when the Hungarian empire was facing defeat by the advancing Ottomans, Bratislava was made the capital of Hungary. As a part first of the Austrian and then the Austro-Hungarian Empires, Bratislava was the seat of the Hungarian crown jewels and saw concerts by Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven. It had a thriving industrial scene and was a multi-cultural centre with a mix of German, Hungarian and Slav residents.

All this changed after World War I, when the region was absorbed into the then Czechoslovakia against the wishes of the general population. The city lost its multicultural character and much of its vibrancy as industry and recuperation took precedence. Sadly, these changes continued post World War II and, in fact, got even worse as the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia seized power and Bratislava became part of the Eastern Bloc.

While Prague’s architectural beauty was left largely untouched, the communists destroyed most of the physical remnants of Bratislava’s historical and cultural heritage. The idea was to turn Prague into a centre for softer industries such as services and tourism while Bratislava became an industrial hub. A lot of the traditional and central European architecture in the city was looked down on and, in some cases, actively suppressed.

Recently there have been attempts to recreate some of Bratislava’s historic structures. The Bratislava Castle, once a spectacular piece of medieval European architecture, was served a rather unfortunate, and somewhat ridiculous, end in the early 1800s when a few still burning cigarettes thrown around carelessly by guards started a fire that burnt down most of the castle. In 2008, the castle was rebuilt, but with its pristine white walls and sparkling stone statues, with name boards written in English for the benefit of tourists, it looks obviously artificial, almost like one of those reconstructed exhibits at museums.

The physical history may have been destroyed but what remains in Bratislava are the stories. Most of the residents know their city’s history and speak with great fervour about the significance of Bratislava in earlier eras.

While its history may be the most interesting thing about Bratislava, there are other enjoyable aspects of the city. It is remarkably clean, hostels and hotels are safe and well maintained, signage is efficient and tourist-friendly, most people in the popular tourist areas speak English, and the food and drink is excellent. There are several establishments that serve delicious local food. At a place called Slovak Pub, you can get a sumptuous zemiakova placka (potato pancake), a thick red Slovakian-style goulash and a glass of Zlatý Bažant dark beer, an excellent local brew. Meals and entertainment are much easier on the pocket than most European cities.

Bratislava charms you with its little cobbled streets, small local markets and its friendly and hospitable people, who are great story-tellers.

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