Beauty on the Danube (Bratislava)

From Budapest we took another bus, this time to Bratislava. Bratislava is the capital of Slovakia and one of the smallest capital cities in Europe. Today, Bratislava sits in the most prosperous region in Central and Eastern Europe. This prosperity has caused a construction boom throughout the city that includes heavy renovations to the narrow winding roads of the old town. Before its boom, however, the city, like most cities in this region of Europe, has gone through a lot of rough patches. It was controlled by Nazi Germany during WWI until it was liberated by the Soviet Union who, not wanting to leave, turned around and occupied it for the next 45 years! This occupation has resulted in the country being one of the ten youngest in the world, celebrating its 25th anniversary on January 1, 2018.

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Famous picture taken in Bratislava right before the fall of Communism (Ladislav Bielik)

The night we arrived in Bratislava we decided on a place to eat and settled on a restaurant/brewery called the Slovak Pub. Little did we know, the next day on our walking tour, our tour guide would tell us in no uncertain terms that the Slovak Pub was THE best place to try Slovakian cuisine. Beside being proud of ourselves for making a great choice, the food at the Slovak pub was nothing short of amazing. We decided on a platter with several different Slovakian specialties including Bryndzové halušky, the national dish of Slovakia, which consists of small dumplings with sheep’s cheese and topped with bacon. The platter also came with a potent garlic soup which was fabulous, delicious fried pierogies, and to top it all off, cheese curds. Of all the restaurants we have been to over here I would say that the Slovak pub had some of the best food.

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We had another walking tour the next day to see some of the big sights in the city. When we arrived there was a group of old English guys talking to the tour guide who made the mistake of calling themselves a “group”. Their number was too much to accommodate on the tour so our tour guide told them they would have to split up and a few would have to go at a later time. Lauren, the goofball she is, decided she was going to adopt the other group and we were able to sneak them on the tour with us under the pretense that one was her dad. We maintained the act the whole tour, frequently referring to him as “dad”  despite him being 50 years her senior and English. This was the start of quite an interesting tour as the group was chatty, talkative, and fun, and there were a lot of laughs and joking throughout. The tour was by far the most fun one we have been on.

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Most photographed monument in Bratislava (zero cultural significance)

The tour started under the shadow of the massive Bratislava castle which looks oddly like a short coffee table laid upside-down. The castle is situated on a nearby hill that overlooks the city and the nearby Danube. Across the Danube from where we started was one of the more iconic sights of the city, the SNP bridge, also called the UFO bridge, due to the huge structure on top that looks exactly like the alien space ship from the original Men in Black. The bridge was built as the crowning achievement for the communist regime that ruled the city in the 20th century. Though iconic, it is also a point of contention throughout the city as a large chunk of the historical center of the city was destroyed in order to build it.

By LMih - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17522222
Bratislava Castle (Picture from Wikipedia, credit LMih)
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SNP Bridge from Bratislava Castle (Picture from welcometobratislava.eu)

Other sights on our tour included another cathedral, St. Martin’s, which between 1563 and 1830 served as the coronation church for the kingdom of Hungary (Bratislava has been a part Hungary for much of its existence). Later, we were shown St.Michael’s gate which I mention largely because my name is coincidentally Michael, but also because it is the last surviving city gate from medieval Bratislava.

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St. Michael’s Gate

Another of the more interesting things we see on our tour was the number of cannon balls we saw stuck in buildings across the city. The cannon balls are leftovers from the 1809 bombardment of the city by Napolean and his armies which lasted three days. Though more than 100 were once imbedded in the city walls, there are now only a handful, one of which is easily identifiable in the Old Town Hall that sits adjacent to the biggest square in the historical city center.

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Our last stop on the tour was in the quite unique Art Nouveau district of the city. Art Nouveau architecture is characterized by curving lines and shapes, as well as bright colors. One of the most famous buildings in the district is the Church of St. Elizabeth, that is painted a bright sky blue that makes the church stand out from any other church I had ever seen before. It comes complete with blue pews and is colloquially (and unoriginally) referred to as the Blue Church.

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After the tour, we stopped at a Brewery for lunch before making our way back to the city center. Our whole day in the city we had noticed they were setting up for a Christmas market that just happened to begin the day we were in the city so, even though we had not heard of it beforehand, we went. As it turns out, the Christmas market in Bratislava is one of the biggest yearly draws to the city, making it quite popular. The market takes place in front of the aforementioned Old Town Hall. It was an incredibly enjoyable experience for the both of us as the market is an intimate affair that makes it very friendly and, even though it is very popular, it still managed to have a non-commercialized feel to it. There, we sipped on some sweet mulled wine, checked out some of the stalls erected for the occasion, and watched some of the performances which included a tree-lighting ceremony, musical groups, and dancing troupes.

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I honestly had no idea what to expect when we decided to go to Bratslava. All I had heard of it, like many people, was what they portrayed it as in Eurotrip. Funny enough, studies show that its portrayal in the movie and in the film Hostel both negatively affected tourism to the city. Far from those representations, I can speak for the both of us in saying that neither movie does the city any justice. Bratislava in a charming and quirky capital city that is still intimate enough that the locals proudly call it a “big village.” It is a perfect little hidden gem to visit during a weekend to get an authentic Slovakian experience.

Tips:

  1. Take the Royal Bratislava Walk. When kings and queens were crowned in the city they took a coronation procession through the city. The Royal Bratislava Walk follows the coronation path which passes by many of the biggest sights in the city on the way to St. Martin’s Cathedral.
  2. Check out a hockey game! The national sport of Slovakia is Hockey. The city has a team, Slovan Bratislava, that plays in the highest league in Europe. Tickets can be bought for less than 20$, their fans are incredibly loud, the arena is nice, and the beers at the game are cheap. What more can you ask for!
  3. See multiple cities. Bratislava can be seen in a weekend so if you are in the area for more than a few days, check out Vienna (1 hour away by bus) and/or Budapest (3 hours away), both of which are simply amazing!

 

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