Sightseeing in Bratislava - The Hills are Alive (with the sound of wheezing) - CycleBlaze

September 9, 2020

Sightseeing in Bratislava

It was still only the middle of the afternoon, and I was keen to explore what I could of the centre of Bratislava. I'd only passed through here before, very briefly, by train - and the quick glimpse of grey tower blocks lining the Danube had been pretty offputting. So arriving in the old town on this lovely, cloudless day I was very pleasantly impressed.

The centre of Bratislava is charming, like a pocket Prague. It was reasonably quiet of tourists - likely a consequence of the virus, which the Slovaks were clearly taking very sensibly seriously - but the winding hilly streets of the old town, and the grand squares at its base were looking really attractive and full of interest.

Bratislava has a rather complicated and patchwork history. Originally named Poszony in Hungarian, and afterwards long known by its German name of Pressburg, it played a key role in the sovereignty of the Habsburgs as the formal capital of Hungary in the Austro-Hungarian empire. Between the Germanic and Hungarian influences, the Slavs barely got a look-in - up until the second world war, the Slovaks were a minority in what would become the capital. It was fairly destroyed during the second world war, and it was only upon the absorption into Czechoslovakia and the Eastern block, and the forced expulsion of the remaining German speakers, that the city became majority Slovak.

As well as some pretty scarring additions - and some pretty dreadful cultural destruction caused by the erection of the major SNP bridge - the new administration seemed to do a good job at restoring the old town and castle. I don't think the centre was as comprehensively flattened as, say, Warsaw - but I did get the sense that a lot had been reconstructed. It looks pretty great though, and clearly the medieval street plan and structures have been retained.

At the base of the hill, around my hotel, is a large flattish area filled by grand squares full of pavement cafes souvenir stands. I was somewhat disconcerted to be back in a bustling real city again after so long in the sticks. So much so that when a friendly guy offered to take my photo, I actually refused thinking it must be a scam and he'd run off with my camera (and more importantly, all my tour photos). Of course he was completely genuine, and indeed really wanted me to take a photo of him and his friends in return. A little lesson there in how most people are decent, I think.

The grand facade of the Slovak national theatre
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Your author, looking rather dishevelled, photographed by my new friends. These were my *good* clothes for town, believe it or not.
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Pavel Hviezdoslav, poet and dramatist and early proponent of the Slovak language
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Then I wondered through the narrow and windy streets of the old town, heading uphill all the time.

Classic Bratislava shot: the "Man at Work" statue
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The city is so small, embassies for dozens of countries are crammed into a few blocks. I found the UK embassy which was middling size, but in quite a nice townhouse. Some had to put up with being above restaurants and other less imposing locations.
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Bratislava is sometimes called "The Totnes of the East"
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Distances to everywhere ... in the tunnel underneath the big spire
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Old Cathedral of Saint John of Matha and Saint Felix of Valois. This had actually been fairly recently whitewashed - it's austere outside belies a grand baroque interior (which I signally failed to photograph). In many images you'll see this in its original pastel colours!
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Low afternoon sun and tram tracks, looking up towards the castle. I had to be careful for trams - didn't want to do a Gaudi...
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The efforts to deal with the history of Nazi influence were a little muted, but there were these affecting plaques. Also: world wrestling champion!
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Looking through part of the old city wall, with the gilded spire of St. Mary's cathedral behind
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The castle was looking inviting up above me, so I pointed my tired legs up the hill. Fortunately the castle ground were completely open, and there as nothing to stop me wondering in.

Cat café! Sadly closed, presumably due to covid.
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Gigantic Slovak flag, near the parliament building at the top of the hill
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The castle. A castle of this form has been on this site for hundreds of years - but the modern structure has clearly been very heavily restored. Looks good, though.
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Svatopluk the Great, rules of greater Moravia (and hence the biggest extent Slovakia ever reached). I was told there was some sort of code corresponding how many hooves an equestrian statue has off the ground with the manner of the subject's death - I don't know what two front hooves mean?
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Polly LowBoth front hooves in the air is supposed to mean 'killed in battle', I think -- but then Prof. W.I. Kipedia informs me that no-one quite knows how poor old Svatopluk met his end, so...

(V. much enjoying your travelling tales, btw!)
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1 month ago
Jon AylingTo Polly LowThanks Polly! Ah, yes that sounds right - I can't remember where I got this from but do think of it every time I see an unusual equestrian pose.
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View from the castle back down to the Danube. That's the SNP bridge in the foreground, with its distinctive "UFO" viewing gallery.
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Slightly confusing artwork in the castle grounds. There's a lot going on here!
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Very extensive list of rules for entry to the gardens. I would have to do my best to maintain common courtesy.
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The gardens really are being created from scratch. They're a bit rough around the edges - it's no Versailles - but it's a pretty good effort, and a very pleasant place for a stroll on a sunny evening.
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Brand new statues in the gardens
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After checking out the gardens, I descended down the other (east) side of the castle, through a series of rather secluded terraces. I'd seen lots of signs to St. Nicholas' church, and followed them, thinking it might be prominent. 

Alas, it turned out to be all closed up. But as I was turning to go, an unassuming chap quietly stepped forward and asked if I'd like to see inside. "It is normally closed up, five years it hasn't been open", he told me - "you are very lucky, there are lots of people who live here who have never been inside the church".

It really is a very unusual place. Originally a catholic church, it played an important role in legitimisation of the Habsburgs, who were crowned in Bratislava. After the war, it was taken over by the Greek Catholic or Slovak Byzantine - a denomination I'd never heard of, but are a very curious mixture of Orthodoxy and catholicism. 

The photos I have aren't particularly good - but I felt pretty lucky to get a look inside here on my offchance visit to the castle.

The guardian even led me up the stairs onto the balcony overlooking the nave - past several "no entry" signs, which he pointed at with a smile. What a privilege!

Nice crows
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Inside the Greek Catholic church of St. Nicholas - photo taken by the guardian of the church. I just wish I was a bit tidier.
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Grand alterpiece. Very orthodox feel to this.
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Typical Greek orthodox-style icons. A real meeting of east and west this.
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From the east side of the castle, it was an easy walk to the foot of the SNP bridge. My plan was to go up on to the viewing deck to watch the sun go down, on the other side of the Danube.

On this side, though, there was an affecting display memorialising the historic main synagogue of the city, destroyed - not by the Nazis, but in order to make room for the foundations of the new bridge built by the communist authorities after the war.

Another plaque near the bridge
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The old main synagogue, before its destruction, still served what remained of the Jewish community after the war
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"The broken heart of the synagogue" - photographed during the demolition
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Memorial to the destroyed synagogue
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I crossed over the bridge, and was pleased to see that the viewing platform was open. After checking out the shores of the Danube - and the cycleway which would take me back to the west and Vienna tomorrow - I payed my €9 and up I went.

A set of posters on the theme of "tolerance" were displayed along the bridge.
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I particularly like this one - Tolerance pushing out Nationalism
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Looking down the Danube, west into the setting sun, with barges and the castle above
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Looking up to the UFO viewing platform
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A pretty cool mural of ... exactly the view I was about to see
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View from the top of the UFO - looking south down the highway through Petržalka towards Hungary
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View downstream. You can what a comparatively small city it is, and the extensive parks on this side of the river
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Looking north towards the old city and castle. You can see how the bridge cleaved right through the old town.
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Love locks
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Fat old sun going down
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Sunset over the Danube
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It was now early evening and I was pretty hungry. I picked out a restaurant that could give me a hearty meal - the Slovak pub, back up through the old town.

Evening turned out to be very quiet across the old town, and the restaurant was almost deserted. It was cosy and the service was attentive though, and I was happy to get a home-brewed beer as well as some garlic soup in a bread bowl.

Slovak garlic soup and home-brewed beer, at the Slovak pub
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Then I wobbled back to my hotel. It wasn't particularly late but I was fairly exhausted - I amused myself by watching a little Slovak TV, which was alternately hilarious (lots of amateur singers all performing the same song in rustic settings) and impressive (current affairs shows where everyone, including the presenters, were wearing masks). Then a very good sleep in my first real bed since Germany.

Walking back, the old town was eerily quiet
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Kathleen JonesOkay, added Bratislava to my list.
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1 month ago
Jon AylingTo Kathleen JonesDefinitely! It's a seriously underrated destination. I hadn't really given much thought to visiting it in the past, even when in the region, and a few glances from the train window didn't do it justice.
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1 month ago