By Leah Larkin
Photos by Don Heimburger (unless noted)
“I like the changes. The town looks much better now. It’s more comfortable,” says city guide Evo Cubrikova.
She was speaking about her hometown, Bratislava, the Slovak capital of 450,000 inhabitants that is spread out on two banks of Europe’s second longest river, the Danube.
Indeed, since Czechoslovakia overthrew communism in 1989 and Slovakia split from the Czech Republic in 1993, there have been major changes and improvements, not just in Bratislava, but throughout the country.
Yet, progress has been fastest in the capital where renovation, new construction and new wealth have made their mark. Most remnants of those gray, shabby communist days are long gone, replaced by freshly renovated historic buildings now painted in pretty pastels, swanky shops, trendy restaurants and bustling cafes.
It’s not Vienna, Prague or Budapest, but it’s a pleasant, lively place to visit. Many tourists in nearby Vienna (64 km/ 40 miles away) and Budapest (194 km/116 miles) make day trips by bus or boat to the city. The opposite is also true with Bratislava visitors heading to the Austrian and Hungarian capitals, also for day excursions.
“Bratislava is a great city break destination,” notes Alison White of the British tour agency Regent Holidays which sends many visitors to the city. “You can take the hydrofoil to Budapest or Vienna. Use it as a base to explore these cities that are more expensive.”
But don’t neglect Bratislava’s sights which are easy to explore on foot as the town is not that big. Towering over the city is its castle, a perfect place to begin a visit with magnificent views of the town and surroundings. Unfortunately the interior of the castle which houses the Slovak National Museum is closed for extensive renovation and will remain so for several years.
It’s still worth the trek. You can climb the outer walls and aim your camera for overall shots of the town. Across the river is Petrzalka, a suburb of bleak concrete highrises built in the communist era. One third of the city’s population live in these apartments, which are being restored. Because of their proximity to the inner city, they are now in demand, Cubrikova said.
The first written reference to the castle dates to 907, but the first inhabitants of the castle hill were Celts, then came the Slavs who built a fortress there. It was replaced by a palace of stone in the 10th century when Bratislava became part of the Hungarian kingdom. In the 15th century a Gothic castle was built, but all that changed in the 16th century when it was rebuilt in Renaissance style. Then along came Maria Theresa who had it converted into a rococo structure for her daughter.
MOST IMPORTANT TOWN
During Maria Theresa’s reign (1740-1780), Bratislava became the largest and most important town in the territory of present-day Slovakia and Hungary. The population exploded and many new palaces, monasteries, mansions and streets were built. But the glory began to fade when Maria Theresa’s son, Joseph II took over and the crown jewels were taken to Vienna in 1783 in an attempt to strengthen the union between Austria and Hungary.
The castle burned down in 1811 and remained a hulk of empty ruins until 1953 when renovation began, continuing until 1968. From far off, it looks like an upside down table -– four towers (legs) extending from the building, the table top.
At the foot of the castle is the charming Old Town with labyrinthine streets and cobblestone squares. The prominent church at the edge of the Old Town, which was once part of the city’s walls, is St. Martin’s cathedral, a three-nave Gothic church dating to the beginning of the 14th century. Bratislava was the capital of the Kingdom of Hungary under the Habsburg monarchy from 1536 to 1783. Eleven Hungarian kings and eight royal wives were crowned in the cathedral.
Wandering through the narrow alleys of the Old Town behind the cathedral is reminiscent of Prague, with a Middle Ages ambience still in tact. You’ll undoubtedly come to Michael’s Gate, the only preserved gate of the medieval city fortifications. Its appearance changed through the centuries, but its 51-meter high tower still dominates.
Just down from the Gate is my favorite Bratislava discovery — Cokoládovna pod Michalon at Michalská 6, a chocolate café with what must be the world’s best hot chocolate — 44 different kinds, most with liqueurs. Dark, thick, sinfully delicious. I went for Indian hot chocolate, flavored with rum, cloves, cinnamon, orange peel and whipped cream –89 SKK (Slovak koruna).
Bratislava’s Old Town Hall took shape in the 15th century when several burgher houses were joined together. It, too, has been reconstructed throughout the centuries and now houses the city’s Municipal Museum. Under its tower is a unique and cozy cafe, Radnicka, which employs the disabled and is very popular. Crafts made by the disabled are also sold in the café.
CITY’S MAIN SQUARE
Walk through the passageway under the tower past the restaurant and enter the city’s main square, Hlavne Namestie, where architectural gems have been restored and now house embassies. There are also several cafes in the square including Maximilian’s, a pastry shop/café with a fountain flowing with liquid chocolate. Opposite is the Café Mayer, another noted café and pastry shop famous for “razky,” the city’s signature pastry, crescent shaped with a tiger pattern on the crust and a tasty filling of ground walnuts or poppy seeds.
Another attraction in this square is one of the town’s whimsical statues — a bronze of a Napoleonic soldier leaning over a bench. Tourists love to sit on the bench and pose next to the fellow, who was said to have been left behind by the French after they besieged the city in 1809.
More of these fun surprises are spread throughout the city, another favorite being a man peeping out of a manhole on the street. They say he’s looking up the ladies’ skirts.
On a more serious note is the Primatial Palace, an elegant, classical palace from the end of the 18th century which was the archbishop’s winter palace and now serves as the mayor’s office. Its lavishly-decorated rooms are used for official ceremonies. When none of these is taking place, you can visit and admire its Hall of Mirrors and series of six enormous, stunning English tapestries from the 17th century that illustrate the mythical legend of Hero and Leandros. According to Cubrikova, there are only three sets of tapestries in the world illustrating this legend, but only Bratislava’s set is complete.
The perfect place for a stroll is Hviezdoslavovo Namestie, a long mall-like boulevard with the Slovak National Theater on one end and a small square on the other end near the city’s famous New Bridge. Trees, fountains, a gazebo, cafes and restaurants, even the American Embassy, line the boulevard which is abuzz with people.
The restaurant of choice is the Slovenská Reštaurácia (www.slovrest.com), Hviezdoslavovo nám. 20, rich in old Slovak décor with a “Stroll Through Slovak Gastronomy” five-course menu for 790 SKK. From smoked trout, garlic soup with fried bread, goose liver in red wine sauce, a farmer’s platter and the finale, your choice of several types of homemade strudel, it’s a hearty feast. Get in the Slovak spirit and begin the meal with a shot of brandy. The restaurant serves many kinds, but silvovica (plum brandy) is the local staple. Slovakia makes excellent beer, the beverage of choice with this meal.
After a meal like that, exercise is in order. Cross the bridge, a city symbol that was built in 1972 –- a futuristic suspension bridge with only one pylon. Ride the elevator to the top of the bridge tower where there is a viewing platform and the panorama “UFO” restaurant, so named because of its flying saucer shape. On the other side of the Danube is a lovely riverside park.
The UFO restaurant (www.u-f-o.sk/en/) is pricey with gourmet offerings — a six-course menu for 3,000 SKK. You can even have a tasting of Iranian caviar (6,800 SKK for 30 grams). I settled for a cappuccino, 70 SKK.
In the more affordable category, the Reštaurácia Monarch, Sedlárska 4, offers the Demänovská Valley Delicacy, a potato pancake filled with beef strips, tomatoes, green peppers, onions and mushrooms. Cost of the tasty concoction: 320 SKK. A large beer, 60 SKK.
Slovak crafts — wooden products, painted ceramics, cornhusk dolls — make the best souvenirs. Crystal is also a local favorite. I bought a pretty hand painted plate at Folk Art, Panská 2, for 450 SKK.
Recommended hotels in the city center include the four-star Hotel Devin (www.hoteldevin.sk) at Riecna 4; a new four-star boutique hotel, Marrols, (www.hotelmarrols.sk) at Tobrucká 4, and the reasonable and popular three-star Ibis Hotel (www.ibis-bratislava.sk), Zamocka 38.
For more information, check out visit.bratislava.sk/en/.