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: Rebirth of a City

Bratislava, a European capital for all of 10 years, is a city of new energy and old scars

Text by Tom Philpott

 Photo: Ján Svrček

Bratislava makes a wonderful gateway to Slovakia, a place to while away summer afternoons café-hopping in the Old Town or promenading along the Danube.

Its Old Town, a relatively quiet and neglected place just a decade ago, today bristles with life, especially in summer. Freshly painted baroque and neoclassical buildings sparkle in the sun. Bars and restaurants spill out onto the sidewalk, packed with pretty young people dressed in the latest fashions. Gawking groups of tourists walk about in packs; there's even a tour bus that snakes through the Old Town - and it draws passengers.

Bratislava acts as a magnet for the nation's educated young who flock here for college and to staff the international firms that are scrambling to set up offices ahead of Slovakia's scheduled 2004 European Union entry. They give the city a jolly, youthful, prosperous feel; the grim old days of political repression and hyper regulation seem a distant memory.

Yet Bratislava has been inhabited continuously for 4,000 years - existing as a town in the modern sense since the 13th century - and its history weighs on the cityscape.

Before World War II, the first thing visitors entering the city from Vienna saw was a grand old bridge spanning the Danube. The British travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor passed through Bratislava in 1934. Approaching it on foot from Vienna, he spotted "an enormous bridge. Its great frame, the masts and trees and old buildings congregated at the further bridgehead and the steep ascending city above them had been visible for miles. It was the old city of Pressburg, re-baptized Bratislava when it became part of the new Czechoslovak Republic. The climbing roofs were dominated by ... a huge gaunt castle, and the height of its corner towers gave it the look of an upside down table."

His enormous, great-framed bridge is gone; Nazi troops destroyed it as they were retreating to Austria in 1945. The Red Army quickly built a replacement; solid but unremarkable, it draws no attention to itself. It's overshadowed by the ultramodern "new bridge" (Nový Most) a kilometre or so up the river, whose construction in 1972 meant the destruction of a huge swath of the Old Town. The "gaunt castle" still looms, but it's not the first thing that catches the visitor's eye on the road from Vienna.

Instead, what calls the traveller's attention is the vast, monotonous tower-block jungle of Petržalka, home to 150,000 people in a city of 450,000.

Surveying the endless rows of grey and tired-looking buildings, the first-time visitor to Bratislava can be forgiven for thinking of Prince Metternich's chauvinistic claim that "East of Vienna, the Orient begins." Petržalka, which starts just a few hundred metres from the Austrian border, provides a quick jolt of Eastern Europe for the traveller coming over from Vienna, a crash course in the flimsiness and regimentation of late-Communist architecture.

But then, right across the Danube, you find the charming Old Town. And you realize, walking through the cobbled streets with their chic shops and inviting cafes, that Bratislava is a city in the throes of yet another rebirth.

Old Pressburg ...

    A statue of Napolen on the main square
 A statue of Napolen on the main square
 Photo: Ján Svrček

Bratislava has been through rapid changes before. In fact, it's only been Bratislava since 1919; for 700 years before that, it was called Pressburg.

In its checkered history, it has been the residence of the Holy Roman Emperor (early 14th century); coronation capital of the Hungarian Kingdom (1536-1783); backwater in the Austro-Hungarian Empire (1783-1918); the object of an attack by Napoleon Bonaparte (1809), cannonballs from which remain embedded in Old Town buildings; the capital of a nation essentially created and sustained by the Nazis (1938-1945); and a provincial city in Czechoslovakia (1919-1938 and 1945-1993).

Today, nearly all native Bratislavans speak Slovak as their first language, but even this phenomenon represents a change. "Until the end of World War II, this town was neither Slovak nor Slavic," says Štefan Holčík, an eminent local historian and archaeologist. "Maybe 1 percent of the inhabitants spoke Slovak, while the majority of them spoke German or Hungarian."

Holčík says that just after World War I, when the Austro-Hungarian empire crumbled and Czechoslovakia arose from its ashes, Pressburg remained for a year a part of Hungary. Its inhabitants "hoped that the city would become an independent territory like San Marino, Liechtenstein, or Luxemburg," Holčík says. In essence, Pressburg had always been a city without a nation, wedged between two great kingdoms, with affiliations to both but full allegiance to neither. Their dream ended when Czech legionnaires, backed by Italian troops, took the town by force. "The Czechoslovak Republic wanted the city, as it was the only good harbour on the Danube," Holčík adds.

Yet even after this, its German-speaking orientation remained until the end of World War II.

    Revellers in Bratislava's Old Town
 Revellers in Bratislava's Old Town
 Photo: Ján Svrček

Patrick Leigh Fermor, who noticed Bratislava's grand old bridge approaching the city from Vienna in 1934, recounted his Bratislava experiences in his memoir A Time for Gifts. The book provides an evocative glimpse of the city at the point of another rebirth: a few years before Slovakia broke off from Czechoslovakia at the behest of Hitler.

Fermor waxes poetic about the ships passing along on the Danube, with their "Yugoslav colours" and their "sooty bows [painted] in Cyrillic and Latin characters." He rhapsodises about the red-light district under the castle, a "harlots' nest" which conjured "the abominations of the books of the Prophets and the stews of Babylon." He goes on: "it was aesthetically astonishing, too, a Jacob's ladder tilted between the rooftops and the sky, crowded with shuffling ghosts and angels long fallen."

Most poignantly, in the light of what was about to happen, he frequents a glass-walled Jewish coffee house, which was "thronged to the bursting point" with "dark-clad customers ... conversing and arguing and contracting business." He revels there in the "minor hubbub of Magyar and Slovak," nearly drowned out by the voices "speaking German, pronounced in the Austrian way or with the invariable Hungarian stress on the first syllable."

Fermor's Bratislava has vanished under the weight of 70 eventful years. Cargo boats still float down the Danube, but the port has yet to recover from the hex the Communist era placed on east-west trade. The red-light district under the castle is gone, destroyed in the 1970s building project that eviscerated the Old Town.

The city's Jewish residents, of course, were rounded up by the Nazis and sent en masse to death camps in Poland. Much of the cosmopolitanism admired by Fermor vanished with them. Remnants of the culture they left behind have not been treated well. One of the city's two synagogues was unceremoniously destroyed during construction of New Bridge (Nový Most). A sacred Jewish burial ground, which houses the grave of the revered 19th century rabbi Chatam Sofer, was bulldozed to build a tramline in the 1970s.

Milan Vajda, Bratislava native and spokesman for the city's mayor, tells me that two thirds of the city's historic medieval core has vanished over the years. The New Bridge project did its bit, destroying some 226 buildings. But the economic stagnation that gripped the city through much of the 20th century took its toll as well, as many old building simply crumbled from neglect.

... New Bratislava

Even after all the changes and cataclysms, Bratislava retains some of its old feel as a city apart, a city without a nation. Many upwardly mobile young Bratislavans have travelled more in Western Europe and the United States than they have in their own country. Vienna and even Prague are closer and easier to get to than, say, Košice to the east.

Slovaks who live outside Bratislava often complain that the city hoards all the perks of nationhood for itself. Bratislava and its surroundings have by far the country's best transportation infrastructure, and this factor, along with its proximity to Western Europe, make it the first choice for most transnational companies seeking to open facilities in Slovakia. This tends to tie Bratislava into Western Europe while isolating the rest of the country.

At the same time, the influx of young people, daughters and sons of village dwellers and residents of provincial cities and towns, constantly renews Bratislava's Slovak identity. On the weekends, much of the town clears out as people return to their far-flung villages to visit their families.

And even its greatest local patriots - and I found many more of them here than I had been led to believe by other travel writers - acknowledge that it can never be a great city in the mold of Prague. Cities with outstanding cores of stunning historical architecture crowd Europe. Bratislava, with its humble and sliced-up Old Town, can never compete. And the architectural crimes of the Communist era can never be reversed; they crowd around the Old Town and haunt it like shabby ghosts.

In the end, what will most influence the course of Bratislava's ongoing rebirth as a capital city in an enlarged European Union is its young people. In the course of writing this year's edition of Spectacular Slovakia, I have encountered an array of under-30 Bratislavans with astonishing talent, energy, and cosmopolitanism. Widely travelled, well read, technically astute, versed in several languages, these people express a variety of plans and dreams. And while some of them will flee west as soon as the EU floodgates open, a surprisingly high number of them intend to stay right here in Bratislava.

It will be a pleasure to return in 10 or 20 years to see what they have made of it. In the meantime, Bratislava makes a wonderful gateway to Slovakia, a place to while away summer afternoons café-hopping in the Old Town or promenading along the Danube.

These articles and related information were published in Spectacular Slovakia 2003.

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