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Published: August 17th 2019
I very much enjoyed my short stay in the Hotel Lev, but after a coffee it is time to walk to the Old Town to meet Martin Sloboda. I know he has an extremely busy schedule, and at best I expect him to have a quick coffee with me to give me a speedy overview of the walking tour that he will do with our guests. Instead, he spends the best part of the next two hours giving me a personal walking tour and showing me the highlights of Bratislava!! I feel enormously privileged as he is such a knowledgeable and interesting man, and I see and learn much more than if I had simply explored alone.
Bratislava is the capital of Slovakia, situated in the south western corner of the country, practically on the borders of two other states - Austria and Hungary. In fact, Martin moved to Austria a few years ago as it is closer to work! It only takes him ten minutes now to drive from his home in Austria to work in Bratislava. After the split of Czechoslovakia in 1993, the city of Bratislava became the seat of the Slovak parliament, government and
president. It is also the economic, cultural and scientific centre of the country. It has three universities with a total of 60,000 students. Although the official language is Slovak, German and Hungarian are commonly spoken too.
I find the compact Old Town utterly charming with its traditional cafes, cosy courtyards and delightful narrow streets. One top tip from Martin is to think of the Old Town in thirds - one third is the street itself, one third - the courtyards and one third - the cellars or underground. He explains that many visitors make the mistake of only seeing the streets and they miss out on so much. The courtyards are truly delightful with lovely bars, shops and even small theatres inside. I want to know how I can tell if these lovely places are private or public. Martin says the rule of thumb is - if it’s open you can go in. We have an incredible time criss-crossing the Old Town through courtyards and cafes. Some of the cellars were formerly used as nuclear bunkers, but these too have been opened up and used for alternative purposes, for example, the large bunker beneath the castle is
now a nightclub - The Sub Club! Needless to say, I didn’t visit this during my short stay in Bratislava.
I pick up from Martin that whereas Ljubljana’s tourist appeal has exploded over the last 15 years, Bratislava’s growth is slower and more organic. This is partly because many visitors only stop over for half a day during longer tours of Central Europe. This is such a pity according to Martin, as Bratislava and its surroundings boast so much more than just the Old Town, including castles and a fabulous wine-growing region. Wine-tasting is becoming the tour of choice for customers of Martin’s company. In fact, when he leaves me today, he is off to lead a wine-tasting tour of the city with a cruise ship group. I certainly enjoyed the red wine last night very much.
Bratislava has a very rich history. There is evidence of settlements dating back to the Stone Age. The Romans also established themselves in this strategic position between the Danube and the slopes of the Little Carpathians. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Germanic tribes came to the region, and from the 7th century, Slavs came too.
They later established the Greater Moravian Empire. The German name for the city was Pressburg, and the Hungarian name was Pozsony, but in 1919, after the war and the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian empire, the city was assigned to the newly established Czechoslovak Republic as an important port on the Danube and was officially renamed Bratislava. 1993 saw the split of Czechoslovakia into the independent Czech and Slovak Republics with Bratislava becoming the capital of the latter. Martin further explains that Bratislava is perceived as one of the regions of Europe with the greatest growth potential. This is thanks to a high level of education, low average age, a strong economic background and its excellent location.
One of the city’s landmarks is the castle, which the locals apparently call an “upturned table” due to its silhouette. Standing on Castle Hill, 85 metres above the Danube, the castle towers over the Old Town. The castle’s Golden Age was in the 18th century during the reign of Maria Theresa of Austria, who frequently held court here as Queen of Hungary. This all changed when her successor, Emperor Joseph II, had the central offices transferred back to Buda (Budapest). The
castle gradually fell into disrepair and in 1802 the military took over. A devastating fire in 1811, caused by the negligence of soldiers, reduced the castle and the surrounding area to rubble. Work started in 1953 to reconstruct the castle and is continuing to restore the whole complex, including the grounds, to its former glory. Sadly I don’t make it there this time, but we shall visit it next year as part of the tour with Martin.
Martin is a really great guide and storyteller and shows me so many parts of the city in these two hours. Highlights include the the Slovak National Theatre, the ‘UFO’ Bridge, the cathedral, St MIchael’s Gate, the Composers’ Quarter (Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven and Liszt all featured in Bratislava), the Primate’s Palace and the main square with the Old Town Hall. It is here where they have their traditional Christmas Market, which sounds truly wonderful. There are a number of bronze statues dotted around the Old Town, each with its own legend. My favourite is Čumil - Man at Work. The literal translation for this is the “watcher”. There are two possible explanations for its name. The first rumour says that
he is a typical worker from the communist era, who is not too bothered about the work he is supposed to be doing. According to the second rumour, he is looking under the women’s skirts!! Čumil’s head has been clipped off more than once by careless motorists. So, in order to protect drivers, amblers, and most importantly, Čumil himself, the city installed a unique warning sign just above his head (see photo).
Martin spends some time describing the coronation ceremonies and processions from the past. As we walk, he points out a series of small brass crowns in the cobblestones. These mark the original route of the coronation procession, making it possible for visitors to follow in the footsteps of the crowned monarchs through the Old Town’s streets and squares. In fact, every year the tradition of coronation ceremonies comes alive on the last Saturday in June. The town puts on a re-enactment of a different one of the 19 original coronations. This is the Bratislava’s largest event, attracting thousands of locals and visitors, who become part of a great procession accompanied with feasts, tournaments and the roasting of oxen.
I have a fascinating
time with Martin and when he leaves me to lead his wine-tasting tour I decide it is time for brunch. I go to one of the delightful cafes I spotted earlier and enjoy a lovely, inexpensive and beautifully presented dish. Following this I do my best to retrace our steps so that I can find my own way around next time I am here. I have only described a part of what Martin showed me. There is so much to see here and it is all so easily accessible in this compact Old Town. But now I must walk back to the hotel and collect my case. It is time to catch the boat to Vienna! I walk back through the Old Town (I know my way very well now) to the Danube and the landing pier for the Twin City Liner. This is a recently introduced fast boat service that runs a few times a day linking Bratislava and Vienna. On the way to the boat I have one final task - to buy an ice cream at Koun. Martin says this is the best place to buy ice cream in Bratislava. I have to agree - it is
The boat trip to Vienna is just brilliant. The weather is sunny, the boat is only a third full and I take a great seat outside on the deck with fabulous views of the Danube and the numerous castles and attractive small towns that we pass. I would thoroughly recommend this mode of transport between the two cities. It is simply wonderful. We dock in the heart of Vienna - Schwedenplatz - bang on time. From here I take the U-Bahn (underground) five stops to Heiligenstadt. I still have a few tickets in my purse for the amazing (and inexpensive) public transport stem in Vienna, so I don’t even have to buy a ticket. And from Heiligenstadt I catch the 16.34 Rex train to Gmünd in Lower Austria where I shall be spending the next few days with my wonderful friends, Reni and Gerhard Janu. It is so lovely to see Reni waiting for me on the platform at Gmünd. We drive the short distance to their country home in the village of Haugschlag, close to the border with the Czech Republic. I am delighted to find out that Reni’s son, Domi and his lovely girlfriend,
Katharina, will also be spending the next few days there. On my arrival we enjoy supper in the conservatory and drink the obligatory bottle of Croft Original sherry (no Jean Eccles-sized sherry glasses in this establishment!!).
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