These articles were published in the Spectacular Slovakia travel guide, published annually by The Slovak Spectator since 1996. The latest editions can be obtained from our online shop.

Historical melting pot of cultures

By Zuzana Habšudová

 Courtesy Mayor's Office

Stefan Holčík knows Bratislava (or Pressburg, Preslava, Braslava, or Wilson City). As the director of the Slovak National Archaeological Museum - a modest getup under the Bratislava castle - he speaks passionately about the storied history of his native city and its many name changes, especially to those who evince a true interest.

The Slovak Spectator (TSS): When was Bratislava settled?

Štefan Holčik (ŠH): The town was founded sometime around the 13th century by German colonists. There were previous inhabitants, but they made no fortifications, no town hall, no streets.

TSS: What are the most significant historical sites in Bratislava?

ŠH: Most were uncovered around the Bratislava castle. Archaeologists dug up brick buildings from the 9th century. Below the castle hill, ruins of a rotund were found near the church of Saint Mikuláš. Also, the foundations of a 13th century church still exist under Saint Martin's cathedral.

 photo: Ján Svrček

Under Saint Anna's chapel are the remains of a 13th century 'karmer', used for storing bones taken from graves. There were not enough cemeteries in town, so people were often buried in the same place. When older bones were discovered during a new burial, they were thrown into the karmer.

TSS: How did Bratislava became the capital of Slovakia?

ŠH: Until the end of World War II, this town was neither Slovak nor Slavic. Maybe 1% of the inhabitants spoke Slovak, while a majority of them spoke German or Hungarian.

The Czechoslovak Republic was founded in 1918, but the city still belonged to the Hungarians until January 1, 1919. Then, Czech legionaries, supported by the Italians, invaded and took the town.

The inhabitants were not at all happy about this. They hoped that the city would become an independent territory like San Marino, Liechtenstein or Luxembourg. After all, it had its own harbour on the Danube, it could live separately without being a part of Hungary, Austria or Czechoslovakia. But the Czechoslovak Republic wanted the city, as it was the only good harbour on the Danube.

The republic became stronger and the inhabitants were forced to swear their loyalty to the new republic. Many refused and had to leave. But many others who had lived here for generations and spoke only German agreed. Those who left were replaced by Czech intellects and academics. Descendants of those Czechs still live here, but few of them even realise their grandparents were Czech. All of us who live in this town are basically newcomers.

 photo: Ján Svrček

TSS: So are you saying that Bratislava has no pure Slovaks?

ŠH: At the moment, perhaps it does. But originally it was a German town.

TSS: German? Wasn't it also a Hungarian town?

ŠH: It was the capital of the Hungarian monarchy, but that does not mean ethnic Hungarian. The old Hungary had more nationalities, and Hungarians were actually a minority compared to the Slavs, Croats, Germans, Jews, Rusyns.

TSS: During what period did the town enjoy its greatest population boom?

ŠH: One of the biggest increases was in the 13th century, when the town was very rich. However, the town was even richer from 1400 to 1450, and during that time almost 90% of the buildings in the centre that still stand today were built. People who lived here, mainly vineyard managers, traders and craftsmen, were very rich. For some reason they disappeared and only the buildings remained.

At the beginning of the 15th century, Sigismund of Luxembourg, son of the Czech King and Emperor Karol IV, became king. He later also became the Roman Emperor. I don't know why he chose to reside here in Pressburg [as Bratislava was named then], but he ordered the construction of today's Bratislava castle palace. During this same time, the main part of Saint Martin's Cathedral was also built.

 photo: Ján Svrček

Another important period was the first half of the 18th century, when the Turks were pushed out and modern day Hungary was returned to the Hungarian Kingdom ruled by Queen Maria Theresa. The town became the capital of the Kingdom and great riches flowed in. All the richest men moved into palaces here and the most important baroque buildings were built.

But then Maria Theresa's son, Jozef II, established Buda, a part of modern day Budapest, as the capital of the kingdom and Pressburg gradually turned into a provincial town.

But when it became part of Czechoslovakia in 1919, there was not a more significant industrial town than Wilson, as Bratislava was called at that time.

TSS: Bratislava was once called Wilson? Why Wilson?

ŠH: [Woodrow] Wilson was an American president. Wilson was very popular in Czechoslovakia because he influenced the split of the Austro-Hungarian empire which allowed the establishment of Czechoslovakia. Today Bratislava has a Wilson street, while Prague has a Wilson Railway Station, and between January and June 1919, this city was named Wilson.

TSS: When was it finally named Bratislava?

ŠH: In June 1919, by the Czechoslovak Parliament in Prague.

TSS: And why Bratislava?

ŠH: Because the linguist Pavol Jozef Šafárik had in the 19th century tried to find out what the original name of the town had been. He correctly discovered that the town had originally been named Braslava or Preslava, but he then added the 'ti' in the middle.

Around the year 1000, the Hungarian King Štefan I issued a coin with the engraving "Preslavva Civitas". However, the coin is damaged, which is why we don't know if the town was named Braslava or Preslava. Šafárik did not know of this coin, but he came to the same conclusion. Why did he insert the 'ti'? I don't know. I still wonder why.

So unfortunately we now have this nonsense name, which is too long, difficult to use and pronounce, and which makes many people say 'Blava'. It's similar to 'Presalavsburg', which was changed to Presburg. It was such a long name that when somebody tried to say it, he was already defeated.

TSS: When did the town suffer its main damage?

ŠH: The town did not suffer during Word War II as much as it did in 1809, when Napoleon fired on the town for several days from the Petržalka side of the Danube. Their cannonballs set the whole south side of the city ablaze.

TSS: In structures like the Old Town Hall tower on Main Square there are still cannonballs stuck in the sides. Were they fired by Napoleon?

ŠH: Yes, those are his. Now people can only see five of them around town, but 30 years ago there were about 100.

These articles and related information were published in Spectacular Slovakia 2001.

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