Bratislava: little big city

Where were you for Hogmanay? We were in Bratislava, watching the fireworks from our room behind the A on the first floor of the 1930s Carlton Hotel. The balcony was carpeted with snow and it was a chilly minus 2 Celsius, but nothing daunted the Slovaks circled the ice rink below to the strains of the hits of the 1980s. With around 10 minutes to go everyone set off for the banks of the Danube for a better vantage point.

I had few preconceptions about Bratislava, so it came as a wonderful surprise to make its acquaintance. Landing in Vienna we took the first Slovak Lines bus out of there, with the fare pretty much the same as the S Bahn into the big city. There was a certain step back in time feel about the coach, compounded by the bus station – the Bratislava area may be the second most prosperous region in central Europe but investment isn’t going into their transport hubs.

bus station, Bratislava

Welcome to Slovakia!

The only capital bordering two independent countries, a short hop from Vienna but psychologically rather more, the first sight you get of Bratislava is the cute whitewashed castle, followed by glimpses of the SNP bridge as the bus drives through Petržalka, a 1970s suburb on the ‘other’ bank of the Danube. Its tourist mojo seems to be working fine, with the neatly renovated 18th century old town pretty much clogged over New Year. But there is definitely more to Bratislava than that.

Prior to 1919 the city was known as Prešporok in Slovak, but rather more familiarly as Pressburg in German and Pozsony in Hungarian. Until the 1920 Treaty of Trianon it was part of the kingdom of Hungary, serving as capital from 1536-1784, as coronation city until 1830 and as the seat of its diet until 1848, but with a definite German flavour throughout. From the 13th to the 19th century German speakers were the dominant group, with Hungarians reaching a par at around 40% apiece during the 19th century; Slovaks trailed in at 15% in a 1910 census. In 1919 the city became Bratislava, a name attributed to a misinterpretation of the name of a nearby medieval settlement and previously used only by Slovak patriots.

The old town houses a number of oversized Baroque edifices which have outgrown their role, such as the Primate’s Palace with the Hall of Mirrors where Napoleon signed the Peace of Pressburg after the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805, dissolving the Holy Roman Empire in the process. Famous visitors include Mozart, who famously played to Maria Theresa in the Pálffyho palác aged 6 in 1762, and less expectedly Hans Christian Andersen, who visited in 1841. When asked to write something about the city he said that there was no need to, as it was already a fairytale.

We liked:

  • the castle – resembles an upturned bedside table; burned down in 1811 and left to crumble for over a century, passing through in 1933 Patrick Leigh Fermor noted the “harlot’s nest” on the Schlossburg (sic)
  • St Elisabeth’s Church (1911) – the ‘blue church’; built in Hungarian Secessionist style by Ödön Lechner
  • Slavín War Memorial (1960) – a good walk uphill and flyover
  • SNP Bridge (1973) – parts of the Jewish old town were bulldozed to make way for this unique feat of engineering with a flying saucer shaped restaurant and observation deck on top
  • Slovak Radio Building (1983) – 80m high reversed pyramid, providing a contrast to the Slovak National Bank across the street

Less successful perhaps are the kitschy sculptures resembling living statues scattered through the town centre. Some recent public art has created controversy for other reasons, with the statues of Svätopluk I (of Moravia) outside the castle and of Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, Czechoslovakia’s first president, in front of the Slovak National Museum illustrating the dilemmas faced by a new nation.

Lots of redevelopment plus a large population of expats working for international companies creates a lively international atmosphere and an interest in the city’s cultural heritage. Guided tours on offer include Jewish Bratislava from Bratislava Sightseeing (who also do segways, although probably not in the snow) and Communist tours from Be Free ToursVisit Bratislava and Authentic Slovakia, who also offer an Iron Curtain bike tour, as do Bratislava Sightseeing. EuroVelo’s Iron Curtain Trail runs along the Danube marking the border between Austria and Slovakia, with remains of bunkers still visible. Bratislava is also on EuroVelo’s Atlantic-Black Sea rivers route, which includes the Danube Bike Path, the most popular holiday cycle route in Europe. Crossing the SNP Bridge all were well signposted, with separate lanes for peds and bikes.

There are notionally five bridges across the Danube, although one is out of commission for the foreseaable. As you can see from this timelapse the amount of traffic would make a Gehlite suck their teeth, but justifies Bratislava’s slogan of Little big city. (Here’s a more touristy virtual tour.) Walking over the SNP Bridge to Petržalka we were diverted onto a Soviet era flyover, which further diverted us once we had crossed the river and made locating the Apollo Bridge back a bit tricky. They do love a flyover in old ‘eastern’ Europe.

2014-12-31 15.44.49

Petržalka

On the main road from Vienna, the river bank houses some scenic old inns such as the offputtingly named Restaurant Leberfinger. Bratislava did boast a reasonable range of vegetarian options, if on the heavy side – see Zylinder’s menu, and we found a splendid spot based around the revolutionary concept of allowing vegans, vegetarians and meat eaters all to eat together…

Petržalka, formerly a grey suburb, is now practically a town in its own right, with a population of nearly 120,000. The tower blocks have been renovated and given a coat of paint, while investment is pouring into the creation of new areas such as Digital Park Einsteinova and a shiny shopping mall. Not everyone can – or wants – to live in an 18th century old town. Here everything is on hand and there is a growing sense of community – everyone knows their neighbours. There may be lots of traffic, but there are also wide pavements and bike lanes, and green spaces making the most of the river. These 1960s urbanists may just have known what they were doing.

Updates: see Words without Borders’ feature on contemporary women’s writing from Slovakia and Wish I were here, an expat blogger currently living in Bratislava, plus my Flickr album.

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