Oct 12th, 2020, 01:22 PM

Bratislava, an Overlooked Gem

By Caleb Lemke
Bronze Statue in Bratislava. Image Credit: Caleb Lemke
A traveller's guide to Slovakia's capital.

Nestled between larger, more well known countries like Austria, Hungary, and Czechia, there lies an oft missed gem of Eastern Europe, Bratislava, Slovakia. One of the newest countries in the world, breaking from Czechoslovakia in 1993, and lacking the name recognition of Prague, Budapest and Vienna, Bratislava is no less full of history and life than any of the others. A former suburb of Vienna, still only an hour away by bus and train, Bratislava enjoyed a privileged status under the Hapsburgs. Already spending two and a half centuries as the Hungarian capital and enjoying the personal favor of Maria Theresa allowed the region a somewhat easier transition to the Slovak capital under the Allied-created state of Czechoslovakia. Bratislava saw the Nazis role through its streets and their own fasicst government , until the most recent occupiers arrived; the Soviets. This is the power which defined so much of Slovakia's recent history, with the capital literally within an hour of freedom in Vienna, just down the Danube River.

Built along the embankments of the Danube River, I quickly found that most of the city was built along a steady slope. Muted greys and monotonous architecture, remnants of the city's decades behind the Iron Curtain, though these edifices of the past now seem to be crumbling. Every now and then, though you stumble across buildings that don't fit that mold, either some relic from before the communist days, or a new minimalist glass and steel building. The historic Old Town has been largely preserved and is a stark contrast to the rest of the city. New growth is visible throughout Bratislava as well, with high rises which have sprung up in the eastern portion of the city, a sign of the growth of the relatively young country. Another aspect of the city which I was surprised by was both the size and the population. While I later found larger concentrations of people, it seemed that the city was almost empty. In all of my planning for the visit, I had also never realized how physically small most of the central city was, and I soon found I could cross most of the city in just about half an hour.

View from Hrad Bratislava. Image Credit: Caleb Lemke

A constant presence in Bratislava is the looming Castle, known as the Hrad. It’s an imposing structure visible across most of the city and is one of the more popular attractions. While a fire gutted the building in 1953, erasing much of the history of the old fortress, the bones remained, and after years of standing derelict the Hrad has been rebuilt. Now, it serves as a Slovak history museum, periodically offering exhibitions as well. The inside does seem lackluster, as it’s mostly been repaired with plain white plaster, but the museum is worth seeing. Historical relics walked me through the neglected history of Slovakia and the city, and an interesting exhibition juxtaposed a Slovak Modernist’s work with old prints of Bratislava. Intriguingly, there was also a colossal wing dedicated to the Peterhof - the museum in St. Petersburg, Russia. Signs declared the old Tsars' magnanimity and patronage of the arts, but for the life of me I couldn’t understand why it was there. Once you have seen your fill of history and exhibits, don’t neglect the climb up to the top of one of the towers of the Hrad for views of the city and the Danube.

The Blue Church. Image Credit: Caleb Lemke

After the Hrad, I decided to hike East, to scout for the bus station I would need to continue onto Budapest. Underscoring the relatively small size of the city, I accidently stumbled across one of the most famous buildings in Bratislava, in all of Slovakia, the Blue Church. It isn’t a colossal cathedral, and if it weren’t for the eye-catching turquoise hue, I might have passed by without noticing it altogether. Its exterior was ornately painted and designed, in an art nouveau style. The church lives up to its moniker, since most everything on the property seemed to be blue, inside and out, save for some white contrasts. The church is still active, with regular services in Slovak, but the interior is almost always closed to tourists, though you can peer in through the front gates to see the blues inside.

It was the old communist Radio Building which I found wonderfully odd and memorable, an exception to era of conformity. While not open to tourists, it looks almost like an upside-down pyramid, with rusted metal sloping inward and downward, broken up by breaks for office windows. The design rationale was that building the Radio Tower in this bizarre fashion would maximize space and save them from needing to build onto other lots. I can’t speak to whether or not it achieved its goals, but they certainly made an exceptional impression on Bratislava’s cityscape.

Radio Building. Image Credit: Caleb Lemke

In an attempt to cease aimlessly wandering and set a definitive sight-seeing agenda, I started towards the Slavín War Memorial. In the northeast of the city, it rests on top of what seemed to be an even steeper hill than the Hrad's. Coming to the base of it, I made a remarkably stupid decision, electing to try to hike up through the series of stairs built through the neighborhoods of the hill. Admittedly, others may find it a nice hike, but it took me the better part of an hour, and several breaks, to summit the hill.

At the peak of the hill, the memorial is a flat, leveled plot, and as I walked across the walkways I could see back through the bare trees across the city. There was barely anyone else there, giving Slavín the quiet gravity I've found only at war memorials. Ahead, black marble rose to form an impressive mausoleum, with an obelisk rising out of it. Atop the obelisk stood a Soviet soldier crushing a swastika underfoot. Subtle. Slavín stands in memorial to the thousands of Soviet soldiers who were killed in the fighting to liberate Bratislava from the Nazis, with those thousands entombed in the hill. Exhausted by the hike, I paused and recuperated at the top of the hill, relishing the quiet.

Slavín Memorial. Image Credit: Caleb Lemke

Determined to see one more sight before nightfall, I set my sights on the Most SNP, jokingly known as the UFO Bridge. I had seen the odd-looking viewing platform from the Hrad’s vantage point earlier in the day, and I would agree that it bears a resemblance to a flying saucer. Aside from the view, the UFO platform offers a bar and restaurant which allow you to watch the city and the Danube. I was annoyed to find that there was a steep entrance fee, and that drinks are more expensive than the cheap pints that across Bratislava. While the view is a great place to watch the sun set from, the UFO Bridge only offered an alternative vantage point of the city to the view from the Hrad. Exhausted, unwilling to pay the higher dinner prices, and aware of the setting sun, I decided I ought to call it a night.

The UFO Bridge platform. Image Credit: Caleb Lemke.

My one true taste of Slovakia was at the Monastic Brewery in Bratislava, a restaurant along the main pedestrian drag in town. The only patrons were myself and few older, bleary-eyed gentlemen who were nursing beers, quietly chatting over empty plates. At the recommendation of my server, I opted for a cheap pint of stout and naše domáce bryndzové pirohy. Not knowing what I'd ordered, I was immensely pleased to find I had ordered pierogi-like, potato-based dumplings which hold local sheep cheese and bacon bits. All of that is served with a healthy dollop of sour cream, garnished with cut dill and fried potato bits. It was deliciously savory, and I was disappointed the portions weren't large enough to satisfy my gluttony, and the stout which I had ordered was strong and flavorful.

My lunch. Image Credit: Caleb Lemke

Just west of the city is a village called Devín, now a sort of suburb of Bratislava. After bumbling around trying to find the appropriate bus line, I took the thirty-minute trip out to Devín and its promise of another Hrad. Hrad Devín is the old medieval castle I’d hoped for, a towering ruin situated high above the Danube and the village of Devín, watching over its domain. I quickly picked my way through the village to the castle, and stood in awe for a few moments. The cliff supporting the Hrad must be several hundred feet in the air, and the imposing impression of the castle is difficult to express. Before trying to summit the cliff though, I decided I ought to visit the park at the base of the cliff, which runs along the Morava tributary that feeds into the Danube. Aside from a view evergreens, most of the park growth was dead, though I know in the summer it's a sight to behold. I was surprised in the park to find the Gate of Freedom Memorial, a memorial to all of those who lost their lives fleeing communism. Without realizing it, I had come to the end of the Iron Curtain, with Austria and freedom on the other side of the Danube. On a sunny, beautiful day, I got a sobering reminder that while I can travel back and forth across Europe, it wasn't so long ago that people couldn't.

The foot of Hrad Devín. Image Credit: Caleb Lemke

I was beginning to see the theme of hiking, or rather my own lack of athleticism, as I hiked up the slope to the summit and the Hrad. Entrance was cheap, reduced for the low season, and I was one of a handful of tourists summating the hill. The hike reminded me once again of how underdressed I was, as winds from the rivers and valleys buffeted me around.

Hrad Devín. Image Credit: Caleb Lemke

The path at the top splits into two, each taking you to a different side of the castle, while the central courtyard lies largely unfortified. To the left is a shorter ruin, one which hasn't fared as well over the years. A few signs are left throughout the complex, informing visitors what purposes different parts of the fortifications fulfilled, and one window offers a view over the Danube and the fields beyond. Across the courtyard, the other half of the complex still cuts an imposing image across the landscape. I couldn't help but wondering how beautiful the areas around Hrad Devín must be in the spring, when everything is green and alive, if it is already so striking in the more desolate months of the year.

I crossed to the other side of the complex, to the true castle, I scurried up the patchwork of stairs which led to the top. The few other tourists in the complex had gathered here to soak in the views over the Danube River and take photos. Across both rivers lie Austria, and just a little beyond the hills, Vienna itself. The frigid wind was strongest here, and I struggled to keep my hands steady for a photo, both from my own shaking and from the wind threatening to throw me off the parapets. The trees and lands were mostly barren, as they ought to be in this time of year, and the river was quiet. A barge was slowly battling up the current, but otherwise I couldn't see any signs of people across the river. Despite the cold winds, I found a seat for myself, so that I could stop and take in the sight for a while.

The view from Hrad Devín. Image Credit: Caleb Lemke

What I was able to do in Bratislava only scratched the surface, and there was so much more to the city. Its proximity to Vienna makes it an ideal day trip from Austria, only an hour away by cheap buses and trains. The food, culture and people merit a trip to see how life is in the relatively new country.