Bratislava - Andrew - 2000
Slovakia, or the Slovak Republic as it is sometimes called, was born along with the Czech Republic when Czechoslovakia broke up after it's Communist domination.
Although not as quick to recover as it's richer half, Slovakia is slowly reintegrating itself into a Europe reborn after half a century of division. The capital Bratislava bears some of the scars of Communist rule, but the east and north of the country contains some beautiful and unspoilt mountain scenery to rival anything Austria or Switzerland can offer, and it is only a matter of time before mass tourism arrives in this country.
Bratislava - Andrew - 2000
I ended up in Bratislava almost by accident. I had planned to travel to Poland to meet Margaret Ziemianin, my pen pal from Kraków from Prague. However, at the last moment Margaret became unavailable and so my itinerary suddenly changed. I decided to head instead to Bratislava - making my trip a true Czech - o - Slovak holiday!
The journey from Prague to Bratislava is quite long, enlivened by passing through some lovely scenery and getting one of the best views available of Brno Cathedral. The journey was made slightly annoying by two people (who turned out to be Finns) being extremely noisy and drunk in the same carriage as me. It turned out they were merely getting a new entrance stamp on their visa so they could continue working in Prague.
It was something of a relief when the train arrived in Bratislava and I stepped out into another new country. The Tourist Information at the main station were very helpful and booked me into "loft" accommodation in the City Centre. I assumed, of course, this meant some cramped little attic room high up on the top floor of a building only reachable by climbing a massive flight of stairs.
So I met up with the man who owned the property outside the Opera House and was slightly taken aback when it turned out I was literally staying in a loft! To be accurate it was a mezzanine floor with a mattress on it which was reached by means of a ladder attached to the wall. Still it was only 600 Skr a night (which is about £6 I think). As my time in Bratislava passed I found that there were heads popping out of holes in the ceiling all over the place, there were at least three other "lofts" above the flat proper.
It was a gorgeous day, so I decided to head out as soon as I could. My first stop was the only good thing the Communists left in Bratislava - the amazing tower on the motorway bridge which carves between the old town and the Castle. From almost every angle the bridge itself (known rather awkwardly as "The Bridge of the Slovakian National Uprising" is an eye-sore, it cuts off the Castle from the historic centre of the City and is a muddle of ugly concrete. It is redeemed, however, by the tower with the restaurant on it's UFO-shaped top deck.
Some people, of course, would say it is also an eye-sore, but it provides some of the best views of Bratislava and a stunning view of the Danube which very very nearly looked blue on this boiling hot afternoon (of course, it could have been the tint in the glass of the restaurant!). The coca-cola I ordered, however, was the only over-priced thing I found in Bratislava, costing almost as much as one night in my "loft"!
Back down again, I got some nice views of Bridge and Castle from the banks of the Danube, although the sun was behind the Castle and thus not giving me the ideal photographic conditions - still I could try again tomorrow for that!
I went to have an Italian meal, which was superb and had for it's sweet a pizza base covered with gorgeous summer berries and cream. I just about managed to finish it! Then I went back to my digs and clambered up my ladder in an attempt to get to sleep.
The following day I woke slowly and went to the toilet. Here I noticed, much to my dislike, that unlike British (and most other) toilets where the bowl is directly underneath the person, here there was a kind of platform upon which whatever you deposited sits until you flush the thing. Thus awakened, I went to look for some breakfast in town.
Something happened this morning that hardly happened at all during the rest of my Czech/Slovak/Austrian holiday. It rained. It rained bloody hard and bloody long. For a while I tried to sit it out, but eventually I had to get out there and do what I had to do. So an umbrella became a necessary purchase. Of course, having bought it this day I never used it again throughout the rest of the trip!
I wandered around Bratislava. The Old Town Centre is very pretty and quite reminiscent of Prague with its roccoco buildings and pleasant atmosphere, although it is much smaller and has a motorway carved through the middle of it. The new town is less pleasant, although has a few hidden architectural gems amongst its more modern and more run down streets.
The only remaining City Gate is St. Michael's Gate which looks too thin to be a City gate, but that is partly due to the 18th century cupola stuck on top of it. Inside is a museum and I was treated to a one-to-one guided tour by the curator, which was quite a privilege I guess. From the balcony halfway up a superb view can be had of the Castle on the hill opposite - shame about the weather which was persisting in its moist attitude.
From here I wandered back into the old town to Hlavné Nám, the main square, dominated by the Clock Tower on the Old Town Hall (now the National Museum) on one side and Roland's, a large art nouveau café overlooking the fountain of the same name. One of Bratislava's oddest and most distinctive quirks is the street sculpture. Napoleon (who signed a peace treaty in a palace nearby) leans on a bench in Hlavné Nám. Most famous of all is "Man at Work", a superb and humourous little sculpture which is the second most photographed object in Bratislava (after the Castle).
Bratislavans (and Slovaks in general) are very proud to let you know that their city was a capital of the Hapsburg Empire before either Prague or Vienna. It was moved to here from Budapest which had become unsafe. It only moved to Vienna at the end of Marie Theresa's reign. The power base for this capital was Bratislava Castle.
Like the Castle in Prague it dominates the City. Although much smaller it has far more "castle-like" features remaining, although the "dinner table" as the locals call it in the centre is a Palace built many years after the main fortifications.
As the rain began to ease off slightly I made my way up to the Castle, passing the small and slightly disappointing St. Martin's Cathedral.
To get to the Cathedral though it is necessary to cross the motorway which crosses the Danube over the Bridge of the Slovakian National Uprising and then ploughs between the Old Town and Castle Hill. The Castle grounds give some more superb views down to the Danube, including of the controversial Bridge and in the background behind it some typical block-faced concrete tower flats that the Communists built almost everywhere they went.
The Castle contains an interesting museum. To read more about Bratislava Castle, see our Castles of Europe pages.
I had vaguely thought to cross over the Bridge and get more pictures of the Castle and River with the sun in the right direction - however, the sun was determinedly not showing itself this day, so I had to make do with the best pictures I could get. Somewhat disheartened I went to try and find a boat trip on the Danube. Incredibly no such thing was available. So I went to go into the Museum...but this was already shut.
I was stuck. I had nothing to do but go and eat and wait for the floodlights to come on for my 'floodlit walk'. This started at about 9:45, as in Bratislava it takes them a long time to put the lights on! Disappointingly the Opera House and the Bridge and the Cathedral were not floodlit, although Hlavné Nám is well lit and so is the Castle.
Slightly disheartened by the Slovak lack of enthusiasm for floodlighting I clambered back up my ladder for my last night in my "loft".
The following day I went straight to the shiny brand-spanking new second station in Bratislava (on the modern and less pleasant side of the River) where I passed through customs and then got on a train to Vienna.
On my return from Vienna, I headed first of all for a hotel. I decided to do this on foot. Mistake. There are NO HOTELS WHATSOEVER anywhere near Bratislava's main station. By the time I arrived at the Hotel Tatra I was very tired and not slightly irritable. The Hotel was nice and at that point the poshest place I'd ever stayed in (outdone so far only by the Hotel Kampa in Prague). It stands next to the Slovak Parliament buildings which are rather impressive in their own way.
I was on my way to my only Slovak destination outside the capital. The small village of Devín, about 10 kms away up the Danube. The chief attraction here is Devín Castle - a massively impressive ruin which stands high on a rock above the confluence of the Morava and Danube Rivers. During Communist rule the river-side of the Castle was out of bounds to the Slovak people (presumably lest they escape across the Danube into terrible bourgeois Austria!). Incredibly those found guilty of trying to escape were imprisoned in the Castle. Once the barbed wire was gone Devín Castle became something of a national icon and every July the Slovak people hold their "National Festival of Peace" here.
For me, as a non-Slovak, post-Communist visitor, the Castle is nothing more than a truly staggering historic monument, and well worth a visit.
As I wandered amongst the ruins dating back to Roman times I was accosted by a rather mad Ukrainian man who regaled me with tales of his wartime exploits. He was, apparently, captured and thrown into a concentration camp by the SS, then he escaped and joined the American army before liberating somewhere or another in Poland. He was now trying, he told me, to get to Austria - and did I know the way. I pointed to the River and said, "see that over there - that's Austria". Thing is though, when I finally managed to convince him I had to go he didn't ask for any money (as mad people who accost you generally do), so maybe ... just maybe ... he was telling the truth!
I walked down to the once-forbidden side of the Castle and was treated to a staggering view of the Castle Rock and the peculiar Nun's Tower which stands on it's own little pinnacle of rock. Very pleased I returned to Bratislava, had dinner in Roland's on Hlavné Nám before going back to the Hotel.
To read more about Devín Castle, visit our Castles of Europe pages.
The next morning I woke to a superb breakfast spread and the long train journey back to Prague where my holiday would finish.
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