With so many cities in Europe for tourists to choose from, it would be easy to overlook some of the lesser-known places – places like Bratislava; and in this post I would like to introduce you to a city, which in some ways, suffers from an identity crisis.
To begin with, Bratislava is the capital of Slovakia, a country which often gets confused with Slovenia, something which must annoy the people of both countries no end. It’s not only the capital, but also the country’s largest city, and to complicate things a bit more it lies on the River Danube close to the Hungarian and Austrian borders.
Although it’s Slovakia’s largest city with half a million inhabitants, it’s still relatively small as far as capital cities go, and being situated just 40 miles from Vienna, Bratislava has even been referred to as a suburb of its Austrian counterpart. In fact, these two cities are regarded as the closest capital cities in the world.
To add to the confusion, in 1536 Pressburg (as it was called then) became capital of Hungary, and between 1563 and 1830 a total of 19 Hungarian Kings and Queens were crowned in St. Martin’s Cathedral, including the enigmatic Maria Theresa.
Under Maria Theresa the city flourished, as did the Hapsburg Empire in general, but in order to consolidate relations between Hungary and Austria, her son Joseph II took the crown jewels away from Bratislava and whisked them off to Vienna.
With the Austro-Hungarian Compromise Act of 1867, the Empire became one of the most powerful forces in Europe. Defeat in the First World War however saw the empire broken up, the result of which saw the Slovaks and Czechs combine to form the new country of Czechoslovakia, with Prague becoming its capital and Pressburg changing its German name to Bratislava.
The end of World War II saw more changes when Czechoslovakia found itself inside the Soviet controlled Eastern Bloc, but when the Iron Curtain came down in 1989, the Slovak and Czech marriage of convenience ended with what was called the ‘Velvet’ divorce.
If this background leaves you with the thought that the city might be a grim relic of the old Eastern Bloc then you might want to think again. Ok, you might not feel the need to rush over the river to the high-rise suburb of Petrzalka, but if you allow me to take you on a quick tour around the compact Old Town, then I hope you’ll see that there’s more to this beguiling city than you might have first thought.
The obvious place to start is Hlavne Namestie (Main Square) which is generally regarded as the centre of the city.
The 15th century Old Town Hall which stands guard over the square came under attack when Napoleon laid siege to the city in 1809, and there’s a bench where you can pose for a photograph with one of the Frenchman’s soldiers called Hubert. I’ll be talking about Hubert and other life-size statues in a separate post, but if you follow the soldier’s gaze across the square, you’ll see a more traditional statue standing above the Maximilian Fountain. Maximilian II was the first Hungarian king to be crowned in Bratislava and apparently every New Year’s Eve he rotates on top of the fountain to raise a salute in all four directions. Apparently, only female virgins are able to witness this phenomenon, but if you’re here seeing the New Year in and don’t witness the event, don’t blame me.
Leaving the square by way of Frantiskanske Namestie, we come to the 13th century Franciscan Church, which would be worth taking a look at if only they turned some lights on. I’m not saying it’s dark inside, but if you forget to take your sunglasses off you won’t see a damned thing.
By bearing left at the top of the road, Zamocnicka leads to Michael’s Gate, the only one of four original gates still standing. Built at the beginning of the 14th century, Michael’s Gate lost its medieval appearance when it was re-built in the baroque style around the middle of the 18th century. I was hoping to climb up inside the 51-metre-high tower, not just for the views, but also to visit the museum of medieval weapons and city fortifications collection, but I chose the wrong day to come because it was closed.
From Michael’s Gate, two streets lead down towards St. Martin’s Cathedral – Michalska and Venturska. Small crowns set in the pavement mark the route that the coronation procession used to take, but these days you’re more likely to see a procession of people looking for somewhere to go for a drink or bite to eat.
Turning right at the bottom of Venturska brings us into Panska and the cathedral. There’s no doubting its historical significance, but I have to warn you that due to damage over the centuries by fire, war and even earthquake, its present appearance stems from the 19th century, and if you were hoping to see a medieval architectural masterpiece, then you may be somewhat disappointed.
The crown and crown jewels were kept in the castle, which unsurprisingly is at the top of a hill overlooking the river, but to get there from the cathedral involves negotiating a major road that leads to the Novy Most (New Bridge). What this means is that you need to walk under the road, up some steps, and then traipse uphill to the castle. It probably sounds worse than it actually is, but it’s worth bearing in mind that there’s not much of interest to see inside the castle when you get here.
There was a fortified presence on this hill 85 metres above the Danube as long ago as the late stone age. Conquering Magyars extended the site in the 9th century, but it was King Sigismund of Luxembourg who gave it the current rectangular shape around 1435.
During the Hapsburg era the castle changed from being a fortress to a palace, thanks largely to Maria Theresa, but not everyone shared her love of it, and her successors let it fall into decline. A serious fire in 1811 left it in ruins, and that’s how it remained until renovation work began in 1953. Even then, the next half century achieved very little, but in 2008 work began in earnest once again.
These days, the castle’s exterior looks grand, but there is still plenty more to do to make it worthy of its past history. The views from the castle are good, but the best views of the castle are from the UFO Tower at the far end of Novy Most.
Officially, Novy Most is once again called Most SNP (Bridge of the Slovak National Uprising) which is what it was called when it was built between 1967 and 1972. From 1993 to 2012 it was known simply as Novy Most, then in 2012 the authorities decided to revert back to its original name, but many people just refer to it as the UFO because of the restaurant’s flying saucer shape at the top.
This futuristic looking bridge stretches for 431 metres across the Danube from the Old Town to Petrzalka, but it came at a cost. A large swathe of the Old Town was bulldozed to make way for the approach road, and the Jewish Quarter was all but obliterated. At least somebody had the sense to keep pedestrians and cyclists away from the road traffic because they built another level under the road which makes a stroll across the bridge that much more enjoyable.
On the Petrzalka side of the bridge, a lift will take you up to the restaurant and observation deck which will cost adults €8.90 unless you use the restaurant, and then it’s free (Sept 2021). It’s worth coming up for the views alone which are fantastic, but the restaurant is good too.
Unless you have a desire to visit Petrzalka, a suburb of 100,000 people, and once called the Bronx of Bratislava, then you need to return back across the bridge to the Old Town.
Once back on the other side of the bridge, the natural inclination is to walk alongside the river, but as an alternative you can walk along Hviezdoslav Square, which is just one block in from the riverside.
This elongated square is more like a boulevard than a square and makes for a pleasant stroll. We came here at Autumn time, and although the water features had gone into hibernation for the winter, the colourful trees more than made up for it. Half way along this largely pedestrianised walkway is a statue to the man the square is named after, the much-admired Slovak literary giant, Pavol Orszagh Hviezdoslav,
At the far eastern end of the square is the impressive looking Slovak National Theatre, and by taking the road that leads off left (Rybarska Brana) we will arrive back at the Main Square.
I obviously haven’t covered everything Bratislava has to offer in this brief tour of the Old Town, and I’ve deliberately left out some of the statues/sculptures that we’ve passed by along the way as I intend to cover them in a separate post later on. That said, I hope that I’ve given you enough information to show you that places like Bratislava are worth visiting even though they don’t have an Eiffel Tower, a Coliseum or a Red Square – but perhaps more than that, I hope that you’ll never get it confused with Slovenia, Vienna or Prague ever again.
POSTED – SEPTEMBER 2021