Because of its proximity to Vienna, we ended up in Bratislava, the capital city of Slovakia, during our fall break. (Also known as Pressburg in German and Pozsony in Hungarian.) It is about a fourth of the size of its neighbor, but its smaller scale means that it is both charming and relaxing.
We arrived in the evening, and hopped on a tram in darkness, unable to make out much of the city. After we checked into our lodgings (we stayed in an apartment instead of a hotel or hostel) we only had enough energy to wander around the corner for dinner–Jesse came down with a cold somewhere between Budapest and Bratislava, and he was slightly miserable for the entire trip.
On Sunday morning, we were delighted to discover how beautiful the city is. We wandered to Hlavné Square to enjoy coffee and bagels. We were up before most of the other tourists, and the streets were quiet. The square is bordered by centuries-old buildings, including the town hall and private mansions that now house foreign embassies. A sushi restaurant is fittingly just a few buildings down from the Japanese embassy, although I wonder how good the sushi can be in a landlocked country!
The square is slightly touristy. It is a stop for one of the omnipresent little “trains” that cart around sight-seers in every historic city.
There were also two living statues standing in front of the sixteenth-century fountain and entertaining passersby. The one in red winked at me when I took his picture.
The town hall is the centerpiece of the square, with its colorful tile roof and soaring clock tower. Like so many buildings in Europe, it received numerous additions throughout different periods of architecture.
There is a cannon ball lodged next to a Gothic window on the clock tower. This was a gift from. . .
NAPOLEON! He stands in front of the French embassy and gets more attention than old Anonymous from Budapest. A time-elapse video of this statue would be funny. Dozens of people get their picture taken with him every hour. One boy sat on his head, which I thought was rather rude.
From the square, we could see the steeple of St. Martin’s Cathedral. The church was being renovated, so we didn’t end up going inside.
We visited the Primate’s Palace, which is connected to the town hall and was the former winter home of an archbishop. I was overwhelmed by the luxurious decorations, but I struggled to appreciate a collection of rare tapestries. They just looked faded and frayed to me.
After enjoying the Palace, we ventured to a TESCO in a shopping mall so Jesse could stock up on cold medicine. Then we continued our stroll through the Old Town. The promenade was decked out in fall glory.
I could just picture wealthy residents of bygone centuries walking up and down the promenade, gossiping and checking each other out.
The American Embassy faces the promenade, filling not one but two mansions. It is surrounded by a permanent gate that obstructs a large section of the sidewalk. At least two armed guards are positioned inside the gate. We were taken aback by the image this portrays to the world. Is a barricade really necessary around an embassy in a country with a population of less than six million?
At the end of the Promenade is the stunning Opera House. The architects designed dozens of other opera houses throughout Europe.
In front of the Opera House is a hole in the ground. In this hole you can see parts of a medieval gate to the city that has been excavated. A bit of the gate survives above ground near St. Martin’s.
During our wanderings, Jesse and I came across this banner. We both wondered fleetingly whether Dave Chapelle was coming to Bratislava. But no, this guy is a photographer, and Dave Chapelle is probably at home in Yellow Springs, Ohio.
Despite Jesse’s cold, we enjoyed Bratislava because there was so much to admire while just sipping a cup of coffee. The center of the old town was a five minute’s walk from the apartment, so we didn’t have to deal with public transportation. Our leisurely (or rather, sickly) pace allowed me to soak up the beauty and history of this capital city.
The Romans were in Bratislava. Napoleon’s army swept through Bratislava. Bratislava was formerly part of Hungary and part of the Hapsburg empire. Czechoslovakia was behind the Iron Curtain. Slovakia has only been an independent country for less than twenty years. And some of my great-great grandparents (or is it three greats?) came from this part of the world–I don’t know whether they were Czech or Slovak.
Bratislava doesn’t have any of the “blockbuster” sites of Europe. No Eiffel Tower equivalent, no Michelangelo’s David. I can’t wait to see these things, but spending a few days in a lesser-known European capital helps me form a more complete picture of Europe, beyond the hype and the stereotypes.