Slovakia – apparently the country with the highest number of castles and chateaux per capita. A country that claims to be the geographical midpoint of Europe (however, 7 other European villages claim to host this one as well). The interest in the country as a tourist spot is increasing, and the capital has been reporting over a million visitors per year in recent years, most of them coming from the Czech Republic, Germany, Poland, Hungary, and Austria. So it’s been long overdue for me to pay our neighbours a visit, and at the beginning of September – at the end of summer – I finally had the time for doing so.
Bratislava is situated in the southwest of the country. It is the only capital in the world bordering two independent countries, namely Austria and Hungary. It is located on the banks of the river Danube and the river Morava. With a population of about 450,000 Bratislava is the largest city of Slovakia.
The history of Bratislava has been strongly influenced by various nationalities besides the Slovaks, e.g. Austrians, Croats, Czechs, Hungarians. The city has always been flourishing, mainly because of the beneficial location on the Danube and at the intersections of important trade routes. It used to be the coronation site & legislative center of the Kingdom of Hungary from 1536 to 1783, and strongly connected to Vienna economically, culturally, and politically. Habsburg Empress Maria Theresa had the castle in Bratislava rebuilt in the 18th century so she could use it as a summer residence. However, the former advantageous location of the town suddenly turned into a misfortunate position after the communists came to power in 1948. The Iron Curtain was drawn which could already be seen from the city center, dividing what had once been united in many ways. The fall of communism in 1989 made it possible to once again develop the city, and re-establish relations with their neighbours. The entry into the European Union in 2004 has further lead to growth and development.
Upon arrival at the bus station we headed straight up the castle hill to walk around for a bit in the Bratislava Castle and enjoy the view over the city. The rectangular building with the four corner towers on an isolated rocky hill thrones over the city and its surrounding. From up there it provides a view over Bratislava, Austria, and sometimes even as far as Hungary. The first fortification on the hill was erected in the 9th century and a castle was first named in 907. Since then the castle had experienced several (style) changes, starting out as a stone palace, then a Gothic style fortress (15th century), followed by a rebuilding in the Renaissance style (16th c.), and in baroque style (17th c.). During the 18th century the castle was arranged according to the needs of a son-in-law of Maria Theresa, empress of the Habsburg Monarchy, turning the castle from a fortress into a residential castle. As it was usually the case when Napoleon invaded a country, the castle was heavily bombarded in 1809, and burst into flames two years later because of soldiers’ carelessness which lead to the gradually deterioration of the destroyed castle. In 1953 it was decided to restore the castle, and long restoration works began. In 2008 the castle underwent another comprehensive project with the aim of another massive restoration.
The view from up there was really great. We could even see the windmills in Austria!
The next prominent building of the city is definitely the St. Martin’s Cathedral, a Romanesque church that was built in the 13th century. Its tower used to serve as a defensive bastion, and the cathedral is/was part of the city walls which can still partly be seen today.
In the heart of the city centre is the Michael’s Gate with the 51 meters tall tower which can be spotted from a distance away already. Its original gothic tower was built in the 14th century but remodeled into its current baroque style in the 18th century. Underneath the tower on the street that passes through the gate is one of the ‘zero kilometre’ plates. The tower is open to the public and visitors can enjoy the view over the city from the upper terrace.
Situated on the Main Square of the city is the Old Town Hall which dates back to the early beginnings of the mediaeval town in the 13th century. Also located not far away is the Slovak National Theatre is the oldest professional theatre in the country and was founded in 1920.
The statues that can be found in the historic old town are noteworthy as well as they are among the most photographed attractions of the city. Čumil “the watcher” is located at the junction of Laurinská and Panská Street. Apparently it either depicts a typical communist era worker who is not bothered about the work he is supposed to be doing, or he’s just looking under the skirts of women. The Schöne Naci standing on Sedlárska Street is an old man with a hat and apparently the only statue of a real existing person, namely Ignac Lamar who lived in the city in the 19th/20th century and was always seen in top hat and tails, greeting women with the words ‘I kiss your hand’ in various languages and giving them flowers. The Napoleon Soldier leaning on a bench can be found on the Main Square near the Old Town Hall. Allegedly he fell in love with a Slovak girl, stayed in the city and became a producer of sparkling wine. A very important Slovak poet – Hviezdoslav – ca ben found on a square named after him. A few meters further down the square there is also a statue of Hans Christian Andersen, but I have no idea why there’s a statue of him in Bratislava – he’s Danish.
The world’s longest cable-stayed bridge to have one pylon and one cable-stayed plane is located in Bratislava – the Most SNP (Most Slovenského národného povstania / Bridge of the Slovak National Uprising), or also called UFO Bridge. It is one out of 5 bridges over the Danube in Bratislava. The most noticeable thing about this bridge is definitely the flying saucer on top of the bridge’s pylon – a unique observation tower, bar & restaurant (hence the nickname of the bridge).
Devín Castle is another beautiful spot located on the shores of the Danube atop a hill, just 10km west of Bratislava’s city centre. It is located on the confluence of the Danube and Morava rivers which form the border with Austria, making it a strategic place for a royal border fort. In 1809 this castle was bombarded by Napoleon’s troops as well, and was subsequently destroyed. Paradoxically, both castles of Bratislava (Devín and Bratislava castle) were destroyed within the same two year period. However, Devín has not been restored and remains a ruin that is open to the public.
As it is often the case with a city like Bratislava (and a country like Slovakia), the local cuisine is very much influenced by other cultures that used to dominate the city at some point in history. Variety in the food during the communist area was not to be found, as filling hungry bellies was the main aim of it. Today, reminders of this era can still be found, but many restaurants have started to go above and beyond in what they are offering. Some of the traditional local dishes consist of different types of roast & grilled meat, grilled fish, fried cheese and fresh veggies.
As I was only staying for such a short time in Bratislava I only had time to try Bryndzové Halušky – thick soft potato dumplings with sheep’s milk cheese. Usually crispy streaky bacon is added on top as well, but I skipped this one. My Mom & sister had a mixed platter with my dish, Kapustové halušky (potato dumplings with cabbage and dumplings), and pirogi with bryndza sheep cheese. So a lot of bryndza cheese for the whole family!
The Danube & our boat trip
The main reason for us going to Slovakia’s capital was actually my mom’s birthday present. She’s been telling us how she wanted to go to Bratislava by boat, so my sister and I decided to take her as a surprise. We took a bus from Vienna in the morning, and went back by boat in the afternoon. The Twin City Liner is a decent priced catamaran that connects Vienna with Bratislava via the Danube, and departs 5 times a day from each city. It takes around 75 to 90 minutes to go from one city to the other, and the sights and nature along the Danube are great.
The bottom line
Bratislava is quite beautiful, but it reminded me a lot of Austria or the Czech Republic. But I already mentioned the influence those countries had on Bratislava/Slovakia, so I am not surprised to find so many similarities, especially if one takes into account the spatial proximity of Bratislava to Vienna.
I was rather surprised however to read afterwards that Bratislava had so many inhabitants as the city itself felt rather small to me. There were still a lot of things to discover and many cafés and restaurants to sit in and take in the city. The few hours that we had there were definitely enough for a tour through the historic old town.
Taking the boat was a great opportunity for us to discover the city and the surrounding from a very unusual viewpoint that we would not have gotten otherwise. It is a very unusual way of traveling from one city to another, and I’d definitely recommend it to people who have enough time for doing so (the bus or train would be of course cheaper and faster than the boat).