Old and new, revered and jeered, Bratislava is a fascinating - if not always lovely - mixture of culture and history
Text by Chris Togneri
Bratislava is where an unexplainable Communist-era edifice blocks the view of the National Gallery’s elegant arches, where the centuries-old castle shares a hill with the cubic parliament building, where a four-lane highway slices through the town’s historical core. Bratislava is where a walk south on the Blue Danube means gazing at the decidedly brown water as it slides by the fire-spewing towers of a massive oil refinery built directly atop central Europe’s largest natural underground water reservoir.
Bratislava is a city with a prestigious past, where empresses lived and musicians like Mozart performed. It is a city that then survived World War II largely unscathed, then spent the next 40 years watching hundreds of its historical buildings being torn down in favour of utilitarian structures.
Even Bratislavans are of a split personality, at one moment speaking humbly of the city’s drawbacks, the next launching into a defensive diatribe challenging critics to name a more cosmopolitan city in Slovakia.
Bratislava is an awkward, beguiling, frustrating, and lovely city. And sometimes you just don’t know whether to love it or to hate it.
Unfortunately, this is the first impression many foreigners get of Bratislava. Approaching from Vienna, visitors drive straight through this concrete jungle. Those arriving by train from Hungary or the Czech Republic fare no better as they are greeted by the dismal Main Railway Station, where there is next to no assistance for confused visitors hoping to crack the Old Town. Don’t expect a warm greeting here. Last year when a German-speaking woman found herself stranded at the station at night, she told me: “Nobody speaks English or German there, people look at you like they want to hurt you if you ask for help, and the one person working at the information centre spoke only Slovak. It was scary.”
It can be. But Bratislava can also be wonderful. I learned this on my second day here after walking across Nový Most (New Bridge) into the Old Town. The narrow cobbled streets winding by cathedrals, fountains, statues and ancient buildings were captivating. It was my first experience with a European city centre and I was smitten, despite several disparaging comments by locals.
“Why Bratislava?” asked one man who had bought me a cup of spiced wine at the Christmas Market.
“Why not Bratislava?” I said. “It’s a nice town.”
“No, no. You should have gone to Prague or Vienna. Either would have been better, they are much prettier than Bratislava.”
“But Bratislava is beautiful too,” I said. “The Old Town is fantastic, the castle is odd but appealing, and the squares are great. Besides, everyone goes to Prague and Vienna.”
“Yes,” he smiled. “And there are many reasons why.” I had similar conversations with several locals. Few saw my point of view.
But while inhabitants boast of the city being a state within a state, they also call Bratislava “the biggest village in Slovakia”, a derogatory term applied to show that the city pales in comparison to regional capitals like Prague, Vienna or Budapest (it is also used to point out that many Bratislavans are transplanted villagers).
Consider the mixed comments of Milan Vajda, the Old Town spokesman. Born and raised in Bratislava, he gives a sober description of his native city: “Bratislava will never be a grand city. It’s not really a city at all. It wants to be a city, but it just does not compare to other large European cities. It lacks a great deal. It does not really look like a city with a capital ‘C’.”
But one minute later, his tone changes after I mention that easterners call the city ‘Blava’, and that many have never once visited their capital city, nor have any desire to do so.
“You know, as a native Bratislavan I have to say one thing: show me another city in Slovakia,” he says. “In Košice they have a great main square, but that’s it. I envy Košice for its local patriotism, but not for the city itself.
“And besides Košice, you have nothing but small cities around the country. These places may be nice to visit for a weekend, or to go for a walk around the square one evening, but to live in? In Slovakia, only Bratislava has what it takes to be considered a real city.”
German colonists first settled Bratislava in the 13th century. Starting in 1536 it was the coronation capital of the Hungarian Kingdom for 300 years while the Turks occupied Buda and Pest. Eleven kings and eight queens were crowned here, in St Martin’s Cathedral.
Until the end of World War I, when the city first became part of the former Czechoslovak Republic, the inhabitants were mostly German or Hungarian.
“After the war the city still belonged to Hungary until 1 January 1919,” says Štefan Holčík, the director of the Slovak National Archaeological Museum at Bratislava Castle. “Then Czech legionaries supported by the Italians invaded and took the town.
“The inhabitants were not at all happy about this. They had hoped the city would become an independent territory, like San Marino, Liechtenstein or Luxembourg. After all, it had its own harbour and 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 disgruntled locals were given a choice: swear loyalty to the new republic or leave. Most left. Czech intellectuals took their place.
The city finally became Slovak after World War II, when the Communist regime industrialised it and moved villagers from around the country into scores of new paneláky to work in the factories.
“All of us who live in this town,” says Holčík, “are basically newcomers.”
After four years of living in Bratislava, I decided to leave. I had just finished Spectacular Slovakia 2001 and travelling for the magazine had shown me that the most alluring parts of Slovakia were not to be found in its capital city. So I moved. Now, when I return, I view the city as a visitor.
For the most part, I like what I see. First of all, Bratislava has an exhaustive collection of museums, with exhibits ranging from town history to archaeology, pharmaceutics to porcelain, torture devices to clocks.
The first stop is the Castle Museum. A collection of glass and porcelain dishes is found in one room; in another, an eclectic display of exhibits donated from museums around the country. There are landscape paintings, SNP posters, primitive bikes and a Tates calculating machine from the 19th century. Just off the castle courtyard is an archaeological exhibit featuring the tiny ‘Venus from Moravia’ statue, which was found outside Piešťany and dates back to 22,800 BC.
Then there’s the Slovak National Museum (Vajanského nábrežie 2). Here visitors find minerals and rocks, stuffed animals and insects, plants and paintings, and displays of traditional costume and tools from rural Slovak village life. For a national gallery, though, it is unimpressive. The Slovak folk exhibit is poor - more extensive displays can be found in several other museums in the country. The most interesting discovery here is that the museum likes to follow its visitors. In every room there sits an elderly employee whose sole job seems to be to shadow guests through their turf.
A Bratislava ‘must-see’ museum is in Michalská Brána, one of the four original city gates. When entering from Michalská ulica, visitors are led through several floors of exhibits on the town fortification system and the evolution of guns. The tour is punctuated with a view of the Old Town rooftops from the tower deck.
By far the most interesting museum on offer is the Bratislava City Museum, in a courtyard just off Hlavné námestie. The sweeping changes to the city over the past 150 years are illustrated here by hundreds of old photographs and paintings. The Main Square is seen when its centre was nothing but overgrown bush. Scenes of the 1899 flood and the destructive fire of 1913 show how the city on several occasions was nearly destroyed, only to be rebuilt. And the Danube is shown when, from 1825 to 1891, its only crossing was a pontoon bridge.
The most intriguing pictures date from the time before Castle Hill and the Old Town were divided. It was not always this way. But the construction of Nový Most in the 1970s cut a hole in the heart of the city, separated the castle from the town and resulted in 226 historical buildings being torn down. The hardest hit were the town’s remaining Jews (most had been shipped to concentration camps during World War II). The Jewish synagogue was torn down, as was the Jewish ghetto on Castle Hill.
In the museum’s basement is a grizzly exhibit of torture devices and the various ways in which people were put to death. One picture shows a man, suspended upside-down from chains, being sawed in half from groin to skull. And for anyone who has ever wondered exactly how Slovak folk hero Jánošík was ‘hung by a hook through his ribs’, the answer is here.
Stepping outside into the Old Town, one finds construction workers everywhere. Bratislava is - and has been - undergoing a major facelift, begun after the 1989 Velvet Revolution. The process promises to go on for many years to come.
The most recent job was done on Hviezdoslavovo námestie, where the new Hotel Carlton and the old Opera House are located. During the square’s reconstruction, one of four original town entrances, Fisherman’s Gate, was unearthed near the Opera House. The remains have been preserved and can be viewed under a glass partition with a plaque explaining that the gate was pulled down in 1776.
“Empress Maria Theresa had it torn down to accommodate expansion plans,” says Vajda. “The city had become too big for the original town walls, so she wanted to expand and make a new promenade area, where Hviezdoslavovo námestie is now.”
The square is named after Pavol Országh Hviezdoslav, the country’s most famous poet. A Hviezdoslav statue is found at the heart of the square, plus a statue of Andrej Bagar, one of the country’s leading artists.
The city’s next project will be its biggest: a complete reconstruction of SNP námestie. Named after the partisans who fought the Nazis in the Slovak National Uprising of World War II, there are SNP squares in cities all over Slovakia. Most are the biggest and prettiest squares in the city. Bratislava’s, however, is an eyesore.
“Something needs to be done with SNP,” Vajda has told me on different occasions.” In most Slovak cities, it is the main meeting place for residents. But in Bratislava, it is a road with heavy traffic. Many visitors don’t even realise it’s a square.”
By the time this magazine is published, potential investors will have submitted bids for ownership in SNP Invest, the company that will carry out the project. Work should begin in 2003 or 2004 and last for four years. The project is to turn the square into a pedestrian-only area - thereby extending the Old Town walking zone - and significantly improve aesthetics by reconstructing buildings and re-paving the surface. A massive underground complex will also be built with shops, parking lots and a subway station.
One rason the city continues to reinvent itself, says Vajda, is to boost local patriotism in Bratislava. Indeed, the city’s New Year’s Eve celebration theme this year was ‘It’s fun to be a Bratislavan’.
That is debatable. One thing, however, is certain: as the city turns to the future and cleans up its ugly recent past, Bratislava is improving with each passing day, and with every project completed.
“Communism really set this city back,” Vajda says. “When you realise that 226 historical buildings were torn down to make room for Nový Most, I just cannot think of any other European city which would have such an attitude towards its cultural heritage. The Communists, I feel, were envious of the Slovak culture and past. So when reconstruction had to be done, they decided to tear down most of our Old Town.
“What they did was so devastating to Bratislava. If they had had a different approach, you wouldn’t see a four-lane highway cutting the city off from its castle. You wouldn’t see that ‘structure’ they built in front of the National Gallery. You wouldn’t have seen the Jewish ghetto on Castle Hill torn down.
“They should have revitalised areas instead of destroying them. But they didn’t. So we will continue to rebuild. Since 1990 the city has held several public polls and discussions and in all of them we see clearly that this is what Bratislavans want. We want to reconstruct and save as much as possible. Bratislavans want to feel proud of their city again.”
Zuzana Habšudová contributed to this article
These articles and related information were published in Spectacular Slovakia 2002.
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