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.



Bratislava: Ninety years young

By James Thomson

    Bratislava’a Apollo Bridge spans the Danube. The castle and the cathedral spire are visible in the background.
 Bratislava’a Apollo Bridge spans the Danube. The castle and the cathedral spire are visible in the background.
 Courtesy of the City of Bratislava

Bratislava is the first experience of Slovakia which most visitors to the country get. As well as being the capital, it has the most frequent international air, train, bus and even international river-traffic links. It is also the first place you see when arriving by road from Vienna, a mere 65 kilometres away.

This has its advantages and disadvantages. For a small city - Bratislava has around 500,000 inhabitants - it has a lot going for it. Being the capital means that it is the best-equipped city in Slovakia and has the most well-developed tourist facilities. But being so close to Vienna means that it can suffer by comparison (see 'Twin city', in this section).

Exposure to foreigners means that if you don't speak Slovak you are more likely to be understood here than in most other places in Slovakia. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries it was a proudly multi-cultural city in which many people could speak three languages: German, Hungarian and Slovak. Now English has probably overtaken German as the city's second language, though many inhabitants speak only Slovak.

Bratislava - the name at least - was only born in 1919. Before that it had been known as Pozsony by Hungarians, Pressburg by Germans, and Prešpork by Slovaks.

'Bratislava' was chosen after the Czechoslovak Legions took control of the city on January 1 1919 and secured its place within the newly-minted Czechoslovakia. The origins of the name are somewhat obscure, but it may be a romantic reinterpretation of an ancient name, Brezalauspurc.

City of kings

    A local celebrity.
 A local celebrity.
 Photos by James Thomson

The city has a surprisingly long history as a capital. After the Ottoman armies occupied Budapest in the mid-sixteenth century the Hungarian court decamped to Pressburg and the kings and queens of Hungary were crowned at St Martin's Cathedral (map B7) for more than two and a half centuries.

The first was Maximilian II on September 8, 1563. A fire which broke out at the time of his coronation led him to order that a public water reservoir be esta-blished for the city: the well (now a fountain) in the Main Square (Hlavné Námestie) (map D7)is the result.

The last monarch to be crowned here was Ferdinand V, in 1830. An (incomplete) list of those who received St Stephen's Crown in the city can be found on the wall of the Presbytery of St Martin's; a gilded model of the crown sits on top of the cathedral's spire.

The coronation ceremony is re-enacted in September each year, and has become a popular tradition. The small brass crowns you will see inlaid in the streets of the old town show the original route of the coronation procession.

The cathedral itself is an imposing building which started life as thirteenth-century Romanesque church. This was replaced by the present structure, which was originally Gothic, subsequently remodelled in the Baroque style, and then mostly converted back to Gothic after a fire in 1833. Among its four chapels, the most recent, with outstanding Baroque artworks by Austrian sculptor Georg Raphael Donner, is devoted to the memory of St John The Almsgiver, whose grave it contains. John, who came from Cyprus and is the island's patron saint, actually died in his homeland but his remains were brought to Pressburg during the Ottoman wars.

The old town...

    Michalská: Bratislava’s historical centre in summer.
 Michalská: Bratislava’s historical centre in summer.
 Photos by James Thomson

Bratislava's old town is pretty, compact and almost completely pedestrianised, making it a very easy place just to wander around. You will never be short of somewhere to take a break. In summer most of the wider streets are filled with café and restaurant terraces; in winter they turn into cosy bars. Several streets, such as Michalská, Panská and Laurinská, have courtyards running off them which are also home to such institutions.

The old town's streets also host a range of public artworks, most of them in or near to the Main Square. A bronze figure reminiscent of Napoleon features in one, leaning over a public bench; Napoleon is a running theme around the rest of the city. In more than one building (check the tower in the Main Square, and the green building on Michalská) you can find cannonballs embedded in the walls. Some people maintain these were a gift from the French emperor (whose army bombarded the city in 1809), but they are more likely to have been put there deliberately, for good luck.

One of the city's finest buildings is the Primate's Palace (map D6)- not, as the name might suggest, the monkey house for the zoo but the former palace of the Catholic primate of Esztergom. It also acted as the stand-in official residence for Slovakia's first president after independence in the 1990s, while the current presidential palace (the Grassalkovič Palace), on Hodžovo Square, was being renovated.

    Hairless apes only: the Primate’s Palace.
 Hairless apes only: the Primate’s Palace.
 Courtesy of the City of Bratislava

The Primate's Palace is open to visitors, who can visit the Hall of Mirrors where the Peace of Pressburg was signed in 1805 between Austria-Hungary and France after Napoleon's famous victory at the Battle of Austerlitz. This was one of his greatest military triumphs, and took place less than 100 kilometres away, just south of the Czech city of Brno (the site is known as Slavkov by Slovaks and Czechs).

The palace has a well-preserved interior and some interesting artworks including historical paintings of the city and a rare, six-part set of tapestries which were re-discovered behind the wallpaper during a renovation in 1903. They are English, and were made near London in the seventeenth century, but no one seems to know quite how they ended up here.

In the courtyard is a statue of St George, the city's patron saint, doing his thing, and a pleasant outdoor café, the Primacial.

Next door to the Primate's Palace is the Old Town Hall (map D6), which has been extended and rebuilt repeatedly over the centuries. The result is charming. Among the vestiges which have survived are Renaissance, Baroque and the Gothic vaulting in the interior courtyard. The roof now sports a colourful mosaic of tiles.

As well as the public artwork in the centre, there are several galleries in and around the old town.

    The Danube in winter, as viewed from the Danubiana museum
 The Danube in winter, as viewed from the Danubiana museum
 Courtesy of the City of Bratislava

The Slovak National Gallery (map D8), whose main site faces the river, houses the largest collection of Slovak fine art from the thirteenth to the twentieth centuries, along with works by a range of important European artists.

The Bratislava City Gallery, housed in the Rococo Mirbach Palace off the Main Square specialises in contemporary art.

If modern art is your thing, don't forget the Danubiana Meulensteen Art Museum near Čunovo (see 'A day on the Danube' later in this section).

Unfortunately, much of the original old town (including a large synagogue and much of the former Jewish quarter; see the article on Slovakia's Jewish heritage later in this section) was demolished in the 1960s and 1970s to make way for the New Bridge (Nový Most) and its approach roads.

    Bratislava’s prettiest? The Blue church.
 Bratislava’s prettiest? The Blue church.
 Photos by James Thomson

The result, though, is not without its charms. The New Bridge (map B10), with its asymmetric cable-stayed construction and still-futuristic appearance is perhaps the most recognisable structure in the city, if not Slovakia. The round café-restaurant at the top of the main columns - inevitably known as UFO - is a trendy hang-out with great views and similarly vertiginous prices.

The first permanent bridge over the Danube at Bratislava was only built in 1891; the riveted steel deck of the present-day Old Bridge (Starý Most) was built on its remains by the Red Army at the end of World War II. It is showing its age and was recently closed to most traffic prior to renovation, which has made it a pleasanter experience for pedestrians.

The most recent crossing, the Apollo Bridge, opened in 2005 after an innovative approach was used to construct the main span on the bank and then move it across the river with the help of cranes and boats.

...around the old town...

    And gentle flows the Danube: the city in winter.
 And gentle flows the Danube: the city in winter.
 Photos by James Thomson

The old town is densely packed with buildings; the Main Square and nearby Hviezdoslavovo Square (in fact, a tree-lined boulevard) are its main open spaces. But a real green space is close by, just across the River Danube.

Sad Janka Kráľa was established as a public park on the right bank of the Danube in 1776, making it the oldest in central Europe. Its well-established trees and lawns are a world away from the city, though not as far as they used to be: the large Aupark shopping centre now stands right next to it.

On the other side, where the park abuts the river, a sand-filled 'beach' is set up in summer, with beach volleyball courts and a palm-fringed bar. It sounds cheesy, but its 2008 and 2009 incarnations were very well done.

Back on the left bank of the river is the main building of the Slovak National Museum, housing its permanent natural history collection as well as temporary exhibitions. Most exhibits are labelled in English.

The natural history display is looking a bit dated in places, with stuffed specimens behind glass the norm. The glass, however, may be a wise precaution: an unshielded giraffe, exposed to the attentions of several generations of visiting schoolchildren, is looking distinctly threadbare. The temporary exhibitions are normally livelier.

One of the most iconic symbols of the capital, visible from much of the city centre, is the castle (map A7). Indeed, Slovaks voted to make it one of the three symbols representing the country on the obverse of their new euro coins, introduced in January 2009; the other two were the double cross which features on the flag, and Kriváň, a distinctive mountain in the High Tatras.

In 2009 it is undergoing major renovation. It has had a chequered history, and was a ruin (following a major fire in the early nineteenth century) until the 1950s. The present makeover is intended mainly to restore some of the interior, which had taken on a rather socialist tinge after the 1950s rebuild.

It's still worth a walk up to the fortifications for a close-up, and for the views from the castle hill.

Beyond the castle, and also overlooking the Danube, is the parliament building, of which tours are conducted in English.

    The castle looms above the city.
 The castle looms above the city.
 Photos by James Thomson

A short walk through Bratislava's wealthiest suburb, which is spread across the hills behind the castle, brings you to the Slavín war memorial, and one of the best vantage points in the city. The memorial was unveiled in 1960 to commemorate the liberation of the city in 1945. It is crowned by a huge granite column and is the formal grave for almost 7,000 Soviet soldiers who died in and around Bratislava in 1945.

Looking south from Slavín, or the castle, the army of concrete blocks you will see across the river, marching apparently to the horizon, is Petržalka.

Home to approximately 125,000 people, this was the single largest housing development in Czechoslovakia and would, on its own, be the third biggest city in Slovakia.

...and beyond

The housing blocks which comprise Petržalka are known to Slovaks as paneláks, owing to their construction from pre-fabricated concrete panels. Paneláks can be seen in every town - and many villages - across the former Czechoslovakia.

They were an effective and relatively inexpensive, if not very attractive, way to house the new urban workforce as the country rapidly industrialised in the post-war period.

They were also an expression of the communist Czechoslovak government’s collectivist ideology.

The very first in Slovakia was built in 1956, in Bratislava's Kmeťovo Square. It has more decorative features when compared to the drab style which later became the norm. A small panel (in Slovak) marks its place in history.

For anyone with an interest in local architecture or history, there is a wealth of other sights around the city, though some of them require a bit of finding.

Another set of buildings with noteworthy decorative motifs is the Mladá Garda student dormitory complex on Račianska, the road out of the city towards Pezinok. These were also built in the 1950s and reflect the Socialist Realism which was in vogue - at least in the Soviet bloc - at the time of their construction.

One of the easiest sights to get to - it is in one of the most prominent spots in the city, yet contrives to be strangely invisible - is the monolithic Hotel Kyjev/Tesco (formerly Prior) department store complex. This is slated for redevelopment but has been attracting efforts to preserve it by activists who argue rightly that it is as an important piece of 1970s Czechoslovak design and hence a valuable part of the city's history. The hotel is worth a peek inside for a reminder of what pre-1989 visits to Bratislava must have been like - for foreign tourists and senior party functionaries, at least.

    The House of the Good Shepherd.
 The House of the Good Shepherd.
 Courtesy of the City of Bratislava

Also slap-bang in the centre (across the square from Tesco) is the Manderla building, named after the developer who commissioned it in the early 1930s and it was completed in 1935. It was one of the first high-rise steel and concrete buildings in the city. To visitors it can look like one of the many slightly shabby concrete blocks hereabouts, but it remains a landmark for locals. It can be identified by the dirty red stripes running up its sides.

Along with the Mirbach Palace in the old town, the yellow-and-white House of the Good Shepherd (Dom U Dobrého Pastiera) (map B7), below the castle, at the bottom of Židovská, is one of the city's finest Rococo buildings. It now houses a Clock Museum and a bar.

Equally outstanding, as an example of Hungarian Secession style, is St Elizabeths's - better known just as the Blue Church - on Bezručova. It was built in 1913 and lays fair claim to be the city's prettiest church.

Šafárikovo Square was the scene of a photograph, by Ladislav Bielik, of a man baring his chest to a Soviet tank barrel, which has since gained worldwide recognition. It was taken on August 21, 1968, during the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia and, despite the name of Bratislava's Comenius University being clearly visible on a building in the background, its location was frequently cited as Prague or even Budapest. The photograph appeared in a Slovak newspaper but Bielik subsequently lost his job for taking it and never benefited from its global syndication. His subject was only later identified as Emil Gallo, a local gas fitter, who never mentioned his defiant act to his family or workmates, and died four years later.

Another city curiosity is one of the world's oldest railway stations, which served as the Bratislava terminus of a horse-drawn line to Svätý Jur from 1840 to 1866, and has somehow survived successive waves of redevelopment. The restored building is at the junction of Legionárska, Karadžičova and Krížna.

Arrivals and departures

    Danube cruisers regularly moor along the embankment below the New Bridge.
 Danube cruisers regularly moor along the embankment below the New Bridge.
 Photos by James Thomson

Paradoxically, the modern railway station is looking a lot less spruce: in fact, as the main station for a capital city, it's a disgrace.

The austere main station from 1871, with its winged wheel perched on top, had a (now rather sad-looking) modern façade bolted on the front of it in 1988. Inside, a selection of odd kiosks and characters are scattered around the gloomy main concourse. You can get an extraordinarily cheap beer here but it isn't a place most people would choose to linger.

As it's well-connected by tram and trolley-bus lines you shouldn't have to. But if you do have time to kill, just around the corner is one of the city's best museums.

The Museum of Transport started out as a joint venture between the Bratislava Veteran Car Club and the state railway company, ŽSR. It occupies part of the city's first steam railway station (the first train arrived here in 1848; the grander bit of the original 1850 station is now the Railway Police headquarters next door), and the exhibits naturally include a selection of locomotives. Also among the outdoor display of railway-related paraphernalia is a gigantic snow plough.

Not quite as big, though equally monstrous, is the Soviet-built ZIL 115 limousine, favourite of the eastern European communist elite, among the extensive car collection indoors. The ZIL is in fact one of the foreign exceptions: most of the vehicles in the collection are of Czechoslovak origin. Highlights are a battered but still magnificent 1937 Praga Golden, a rare Tatra 613K cabriolet, a Škoda 130 RS rally car and a 1932 Škoda Sentinel steam-powered truck with chain-driven rear wheels. Don't miss Hall B, where many of the newer vehicles are parked.

Other parts of the museum include an exhibition of unusual motorbikes, a map of the truncated wartime Slovak railway network with most of the south of the country, including Košice, beyond the country's borders and an exhibition of black-and-white photographs of railwaymen (and women) at work.

The ambience of Bratislava's main bus station, at Mlynské Nivy, is not much better than its railway counterpart. There are plans for this whole area to be redeveloped, at which point another vestige of Czechoslovakia - the sculpted ČSAD sign advertising the former national bus company, which currently sprouts from the station entrance - will presumably disappear.

The exception to this rather sorry tale is the city's airport, east of the city. It is small, unfussy and, since the arrival of budget airlines like Ryanair, well-connected. There can be few other European airports which are accessible by public transport from the centre of the capital within half an hour and for less than one euro.

The airport is currently being expanded, but should retain all its present advantages.

One other way of arriving or leaving is by water. River transport really took off in the mid-nineteenth century when steam-engines allowed riverboats to provide reliable and fast upstream transport against the strong Danube currents.

There is now a fast hydrofoil service between Bratislava and Vienna, the Twin City Liner, and numerous other shorter services during the summer: upstream, to places like Devín and Hainburg (a small town just across the border in Austria); and downstream, towards the Gabčíkovo dam. Most of these leave from the river port next to the Slovak National Museum on Fajnorovo embankmeat. Large German and Austrian cruise boats frequently stop off on their way to and from Budapest, mooring between the Old and New Bridges.

Mementoes

Bratislava's shopping scene has changed out of all recognition in the last ten years or so. The Old Town still has mainly small, boutique-style shops, which have grown in number and moved upmarket. But there are now at least four large shopping centres on the outskirts of the city, the most accessible of which is probably Aupark, just over the New Bridge. This one also includes a multi-screen cinema.

Úľuv, a shop which specialises in Slovak art and handicrafts, is a good place to pick up genuine, if pricy, local souvenirs. It has two sites in the city centre, on Obchodná and SNP Square.

Paying tribute

    Modern-day aviators salute Štefánik.
 Modern-day aviators salute Štefánik.
 Courtesy of the City of Bratislava

As well as being the 90th anniversary of the re-naming of the city, 2009 also marks the 90th anniversary of the death of Milan Rastislav Štefánik (see 'National Icon', in the section on Trenčín Region). An eight-metre tall statue of the great man, decked out in his pilot’s costume, was unveiled in front of the new building of the National Theatre (map J8)on the Danube embankment in May 2009, 90 years to the day after his death.

And in an isolated spot on the far side of the airport (which is named after him) is another memorial to him, marking the site of the May 4, 1919, plane crash in which he died. It was designed, like his grave at Bradlo, by Dušan Jurkovič and can be reached via the small town of Ivanka pri Dunaji.

Map of Bratislava click here.

Events in Bratislava

March: Bratislavský maratón
(Bratislava Marathon)

wwww.bratislavamarathon.com

April: Bratislava pre všetkých
(Bratislava – City for Everyone)

Various cultural events in the city www.bkis.sk

May: Musica Sacra
International festival of sacral music
www.choral-music.sk

June 16–September 20: Kultúrne leto
(Summer of culture)

Eleven independent festival projects and 16 program cycles with participation of artists from Slovakia and around the world on more than 20 places in Bratislava, www.bkis.sk

June: Junifest
National beer festival
www.junifest.sk

June: Wilsonic
Advanced, urban & electronic music
www.wilsonic.sk

June: Siege of Bratislava by Napoleon’s Troops
Reconstruction of the actual battle fought in 1809, by almost 200 soldiers dressed in period uniforms of the Austrian and French Empires (Park of Janko Král)
www.bkis.sk

July: Viva Musica
Open-air concerts of classical music and jazz
www.orfeo.sk

September: Bratislava Coronation Ceremony
Historical coronation ceremony of the Hungarian kings
www.bkis.sk

October: Bienále animácie Bratislava (Biennial of Animation Bratislava)
International festival of animated films for children
www.bab-slovakia.sk

October: Bratislavské jazzové dni (Bratislava Jazz Days)
Jazz festival with local and international talent, www.bjd.sk

November: Den otvorených pivníc (Day of Open Cellars’ Doors)
Wine cellars are open along the Small Carpathian Wine Route
www.mvc.sk

November: Bratislavské hudobné slávnosti (Bratislava Music Festival)
Festival of classical music
www.bhsfestival.sk

November–December: Christmas Days in Bratislava and Traditional Christmas Market
www.bkis.sk

December: Partyslava - New Year’s Eve Party
www.bkis.sk

Map of Bratislava


These articles and related information were published in Spectacular Slovakia 2009, which you can obtain from our online shop.

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