Bratislava, Slovakia

Bratislava is not a well-known city internationally. If I were to ask a hundred Americans where it was located, I would be surprised if ten of them could find it on a map. I knew the city better by its German name (Pressburg), which it used for long stretches while under Habsburg rule. Bratislava has also gone by its Hungarian name (Pozsony) at numerous points in its history, and like many of the other cities in Central Europe, it has long served as an international crossroads of different peoples and different languages. Today Bratislava is the capital of Slovakia, one of the small European nations to be formed following the collapse of communism. The city sits on the Danube a short distance downriver from Vienna, and made for a convenient stopping point on my way heading back north again from Budapest. This was probably the location on my trip furthest outside the normal tourist haunts, and I was curious to see what I would run into in this city.

The train that I boarded in Budapest utilized another one of those cabin designs that I had experienced on the last trip. Each train car had a series of cabins stacked against one side, with a little pod of six seats in each one. Unlike my last train ride, this one was mostly empty and I had no trouble getting a cabin for myself. I'm sure that was due to a combination of this being a Sunday morning and Bratislava being a less-visited destination in general. The train stopped frequently at a number of small Hungarian and Slovakian towns as I headed northwest, with a running competition between them to see which one could have the most unpronouncable name for an English speaker. This was an older train without much in the way of modern conveniences. Normally I would check to see if each train had a wireless Internet connection (roughly a third of them did so), but this time I didn't even bother. This train was clearly made sometime back in the 1970s or 1980s and had seen a lot of use in the decades since.

I arrived in midmorning at the main train station in Bratislava, Central Station (Hlavná Stanica). This was a rather spartan location without much in the way of creature comforts. It looked to be a communist-era creation designed for function without any particular care about form. This was a far cry from those gleaming designs of steel and glass that I had seen in places like the Netherlands and Germany when my train entered a major rail hub. Bratislava's central station was also much smaller than the ones I had visited in Cologne or Zurich, with three or four places to shop instead of the dozens and dozens I had seen elsewhere. Still, no one travels to cities for the purpose of seeing their rail stations. I arrived on time and without fuss, and set down to the business of sightseeing in another city.

I walked to the south from the station along a road named Štefánikova, the one pictured above. It was an overcast day and there were relatively few people out and about on the streets. I hadn't been exactly sure what to expect in Bratislava, a city behind the former Iron Curtain that wasn't a major tourist draw, but everything seemed pretty normal as I walked around on the streets. Aside from the Slovakian language on signs, this could have been any city in Europe. While walking towards the city center I saw that there was a park off to my left, and it was somewhat surprisingly open on this Sunday morning. This was the Presidential Gardens (Prezidentská záhrada), a small green expanse surrounding the presidential residence. There were a handful of statues and fountains and flowers here, but mostly this was a rather low-key area. It felt more like a municipal park than the formal gardens accompanying the home of the country's president.

At the head of the park was the Presidential Palace (Prezidentský palác) of Slovakia, more formally known as the Grassalkovich Palace. Like so many other palaces I had seen in Vienna and Budapest, the Grassalkovich Palace was built in the mid-18th century by the Habsburgs during the reign of Maria Theresa. It was used as an occasional summer retreat by the Habsburg court, and Haydn premiered some of his compositions here. Following the end of the Austro-Hungarian empire the building was used for a number of different purposes by political authorities, including being the seat of the pro-Axis Slovak government from 1939-1945, and then later it was used as an activity center for school children during the communist era. Today, the Grassalkovich Palace is the residence of Slovakia's president. This meant that it was not open for public tours, or at least only on special occasions, and there was little activity around the building when I visited. There were numerous Slovak flags on display featuring the national coat of arms, the white double cross on a red shield. I'm not sure why the flags were flying at half mast on this particular day.

I headed next towards the city's most prominent attraction, Bratislava Castle (Bratislavský hrad). Just getting to the castle was a small journey unto itself, requiring the scaling of a tall hill that overlooks the Danube River on the southern edge of the city. This location has been occupied for thousands of years, dating back to the Roman and even Celtic period of history. There was a medieval castle here that changed hands many times over the centuries, which was replaced by a Renaissance castle in the 15th century. When most of Hungary was conquered by the Ottoman Turks, Bratislava became the capital of the remaining rump Hungarian state, and this castle was the location of the seat of government. This was the place where the Hungarian crown jewels that I had seen in Budapest were stored for almost two hundred years. In later eras, the Habsburgs used Bratislava Castle as one of their royal residences, and had much of the structure reconstructed in Baroque style. This mixture of several different architectural styles is what gives the castle the unique look that it has today.

Bratislava Castle was mostly destroyed in an explosion that took place in 1811, and the structure lay in ruins for well over a century afterwards. The current building is a reconstruction designed to restore its appearance to the Baroque palace of the Habsburg era. The equestrian statue in front of the building depicts King Svatopluk I, a ruler of Greater Moravia in the 9th century AD, who is seen as an early national hero in Slovakia. I was most impressed by the contrasting colors used by Bratislava Castle, with the use of unrelieved white on every wall playing off against the orange of the roof tiles. Combined with the square shape of the building, it made for a very different sort of castle than I had seen elsewhere. Bratislava Castle also had extensive surrounding grounds, including an Italian-style garden on the north side of the building. My biggest disappointment in Bratislava was discovering that the castle was closed to tourists on this day. It wasn't due to the fact that this was a Sunday, there appeared to be some kind of event taking place inside that kept the facility closed to tourists. Once again I would have to be content with viewing the outside of a famous building.

Fortunately the views from the top of the castle hill were excellent. From this vantage point, I could look out over the river to the south and see the big observation tower on the other side. (Less attractively, I could also see the ugly rows of communist-era housing blocks off in the distance.) To the east was the historic Old Town quarter of Bratislava, with the green steeple of St. Martin's Cathedral poking up above the rest. That was where I was headed next as I climbed down from the castle hill. While descending, I saw more of the stone foundations of the castle complex. Some of them had survived better than the main castle itself, and were originals unlike the reconstructed palace at the top. At the bottom of the hill, I also came across the remaining portion of Bratislava's city wall, or at least the one section that still remains standing. These walls encircled the whole city at one point, the area known as the Old Town today. They were eventually torn down in the late 18th century, both to facilitate the expansion of Bratislava and because modern firearms had made them useless from a defensive standpoint. This one segment remains as a commemoration of the lost earlier era.

The most famous church in Bratislava is St. Martin's Cathedral (Katedrála svätého Martina), named after St. Martin of Tours. This Gothic structure was built in the 14th and 15th centuries, with construction often delayed for long decades due to a lack of funding. St. Martin's is best known today for serving as the coronation church of the Kings of Hungary from 1563 to 1830, as a result of the Ottoman capture of Budapest. The practice continued for several centuries after the Habsburgs had recaptured central Hungary, however, and rulers as late as Maria Theresa were coronated here in the 18th and early 19th centuries. I was a bit surprised to find that the cathedral was a relatively humble building. Unlike many other grand cathedrals across Europe, this one was relatively small and didn't particularly stand out from the surrounding buildings. Had I not known the history surrounding St. Martin's, it would have been easy to imagine that this was a fairly ordinary church in a small European town. My favorite part was the ring of stained glass windows at the far end of the building surrounding the altar, separating that small part of the structure from the rest of the cathedral. I would have liked to have more time to poke around in the church, but I was taking these pictures in between Sunday services and I was already pushing the boundaries of good taste. A relatively brief survey of the building was the best that I could achieve here.

St. Martin's Cathedral was located up against the remnants of the city wall at the western edge of the historic city. This was the Old Town (Staré Mesto) of Bratislava that I was now entering, and its cobblestone pedestrian streets were a delight to walk through. These twisting and curving routes were full of the usual small shops and cafes, and this was one place where I saw plenty of other people strolling about. At one point, I was able to peek down an alley and glimpse Bratislava Castle off in the distance atop the hill. Further on to the north, I came across this green-roofed tower surrounded by various tourist attractions. This was Michael's Gate (Michalská brána), the only one of the four gates in the medieval wall that has survived to the present. This was originally the northern entrance to Bratislava; today it has been turned into a small museum, with the current tower design dating to the 18th century and replacing a more modest older structure. I actually did not know about the existence of the museum when I visited (which contains information on the fortification system that used to encircle the city), or else I would have stopped inside and taken a look. Instead I had lunch in a bakery just off to the side of the historic gate, taking in the sights and sounds of the people passing by. Aside from the overcast sky that appeared to be threatening rain at any moment, it was a pleasant place to sit and rest for a bit.

I continued walking around the Old Town part of Bratislava after lunch. These buildings had a surprisingly Mediterranean feel to them, and some of the plazas that I walked through gave me the impression of being in a scenic Italian town. Perhaps it was some of the colorful buildings that I came across, painted in pastel shades of yellow, green, and even pink in one particularly memorable case. Or maybe it was the churches; I came across several of them in these crowded streets, and caught the tail end of the Catholic services in one small church as it was finishing up. I wasn't searching for any destination in particular here, with many of the tourist attractions closed on a Sunday. There was a larger open area on the southern side of the Old Town, with a small public park surrounded by nice restaurants and formal buildings. This was the location of the Slovak National Theatre (Slovenské národné divadlo), pictured above with its elegant fountain in front. If I had wanted to get something fancy to eat, this would have been the area to visit.

Eventually I made my way down to the riverfront alone the Danube. The river was still running quite high from all of the rain the day before in Budapest, and the water was a choppy brown color. Fallen branches and bits of debris had washed up on the banks of the river, deposited there by the high water stirred up by the rain. There was a tree-lined walking path next to the river that made for a very nice stroll, and I imagine that this would have been even better on a sunny day when the Danube wasn't so choppy. There were fewer people walking about here as compared to the city center, mostly people exercising or walking dogs. As I walked to the west, I had good views of several river cruise ships that were tied up to the side of the walkway. The Danube is a popular place for riverboat cruises due to all of the cities that can be visited without changing ships. From the side of the river, I had excellent views of the observation platform on the opposite bank and Bratislava Castle riding up behind me on its hill. The castle is easily visible from almost anywhere in the downtown part of the city.

There was one more destination that I wanted to see before calling it a day. This was the military monument known as the Slavín War Memorial (Vojnový pamätník Slavín) located at the top of a hill a little bit to the north of the Old Town. Getting to the Slavín War Memorial was a bit of a hike and involved walking through some sleepy residential streets. The location at the top of the hill was prime real estate, however, with outstanding views over the rest of the city from its top. This place is a military cemetery for thousands of Red Army soldiers who died in the fighting to capture Bratislava in 1945. Built in grand Stalinist style, the central monument was built in 1960 and presides over the burial grounds of roughly 7000 Soviet soldiers. After seeing so many buildings from Bratislava's medieval and early modern periods, this memorial was a sudden jolt back to Slovakia's recent past. In most respects, Bratislava was indistinguishable from any other city in western Europe. The Slavín War Memorial was one reminder that this city had spent four decades under communist rule, a period that ended only recently in historic terms.

Visiting the Slavín War Memorial is a strange experience for an American tourist. This is quite literally the Soviet equivalent of the American military cemeteries in northern France, housing the honored dead who fell confronting Nazi Germany. On the one hand, these were our allies who quite frankly did more than anyone else to ensure victory in World War II. On the other hand, the victorious Soviets were only marginally better than the defeated Nazis, and they installed a puppet communist regime in Czechoslovakia following the war that offered little in the way of freedom. For that matter, Slovakia (like Hungary) was a willing partner in the Axis war effort, and the Slavín War Memorial was in some way a taunting reminder to the Slovaks that they had been defeated by the Soviet Union. And yet for all of that, I couldn't find myself disliking this place. This was a dignified memorial to the deceased, with the long list of Russian names commemorated here very similar to the Vietnam War Memorial in the US. I also couldn't help but note the many wreaths placed at the foot of the central monument, with ribbons colored in the Russian, Slovak, and Bulgarian flags. The Slavín War Memorial does not appear to be treated as a symbol of a hated foreign oppressor, but rather as a honored monument to the war dead of the past. I came away wanting to visit the Allied cemeteries in Normandy, to have a chance to view the American version of this same idea. I had debated walking all the way up to the top of Slavín hill, and afterwards I was glad I had done so.

After that solemn destination, it was a bit of an anticlimax to visit my hostel for the night. This one was located above a restaurant/bar combo, and the check-in for the hostel was located inside the restaurant itself. The upstairs had a laid-back and relaxing atmosphere that I found enjoyable. I was staying in the "Dali" room, distiguished by artwork of the infamous melting clocks on the walls. The hostel wasn't very crowded on this occasion, and my room was only about half full on this night. This had been a fairly quiet day overall, as I took things a bit slower after the breakneck pace of the last few days. That was going to pick up again on the following day, when I traveled on to Prague and attempted to cram in as much sightseeing as possible in two days. For a stopover destination between Budapest and Prague, Bratislava had made a great overnight trip.