I am no longer curious about the world. I get it. Now all that is left is chasing beauty and kindness — Beth Byrnes
Some people say the Old Town Main Square is the heart of Bratislava. They also say Schone Naci hung out here in his day. Schone Naci in Slovak means “beautiful Naci.” His real name was Ignac Lamar; the diminutive for Ignac is Naci (like Bill for William). He preferred Café Mayer right on the corner of the Hlavne Namestie, the main square, but there are numerous other cafes here that you might like.
The Main Square is a salient place to watch people, to enjoy the architecture, to embrace the ambiance, to sense the magic of the place while sipping a crystal flute of local grapes or a demitasse of roasted beans.
In the center of the square, you’ll find Roland’s Fountain, formerly known as Maximilian’s Fountain. Maximilian II, the Habsburg king during the late 16th century, had it built in 1572 because the city had suffered a devastating fire—even though the river is near by, they had no efficient way to transport sufficient water quickly here at the center of the city. You have to admire a king who would build a thing of beauty with serious utilitarian value. It certainly beats a fire hydrant for artistic currency.
The fountain is rather impressive, and consists of a ring-shaped, carved-stone tank with a 30-foot radius. In the center, a decorated 35-foot-tall sculptured-stone column supports a knight in armor at the top. This knight would be King Maximilian II. Legend states that on New Year’s Eve at 12 midnight, the knight rotates —however, this phenomenon can only be observed by Bratislavans born here and only those with the highest moral character. Word on the street is, apparently, not many see the king turning, and some say, those who do see him turn may have downed a few too many stemmed glasses of that high-end, and psychedelic, absinthe at the New Year’s party.
The Bratislava Old Town Hall stands behind Roland’s Fountain and faces the main square. If you feel frisky, you can climb the tower staircase for something like five euros.
The building dates back to before the Medieval period, in 1370, and is now composed of a number of separate buildings unified into one. It was used as the town hall from the 15th century through the late 19th. At one point, it was utilized as a prison; iron bars still cover some windows. Today, it is home to the Bratislava City Museum, exhibiting items of torture, dungeons, armor. If you’re visiting during Christmas time, this is where you’ll find the Christmas bazaar and craft markets. This is also a place where you can find one of Bratislava’s eccentricities: a cannonball lodged in the stonework of the tower, fired by Napoleon’s army in 1809.
Here’s one more way I’m weird: I am not a museum person. I simply cannot savor artifacts sterilized behind lighted showcases. I’d rather study the skeleton of a ruined castle or find a shard of broken Mayan pottery in situ than stare at a pristine, jeweled sword behind glass. I will admit that I have enjoyed some fine museums: the Vatican, Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, Rijks Museum in Amsterdam, Cairo’s Museum of Egyptian Antiquities. But click here to watch two minutes more than I can stand in a museum. And you may not believe this, but one of the mummies in the Cairo museum actually communicated with me. And no, I wasn’t downing high-end absinthe nor snorting Gaza sand. Sometimes, a miracle is nothing more than reality enhancing our own self-imposed limitations.
It might be interesting to stand in the middle of Hlavne Square (pronounced Hlavne) and shoot a 360 degree panorama, or video. I didn’t do this, but if you go to Bratislava, it’s something to think about. Go early in the morning when nobody else is there, except maybe a street sweeper.
When you leave Hlave namestie, head down Sedlarska street. If you haven’t stopped for refreshments yet, you may find it difficult not to linger at any one of the cafes or restaurants or pubs you’ll find here. This time of year, you might also find guys wearing red tennies and green earphones and the now-everywhere-else-out-of-style, three-quarter, cut-off cargo pants.
When you arrive at the T in the road, turn right onto Michalska, and you’re heading north toward Michael’s Gate.
If you’re the kind of traveler who loves to rub elbows where the crowds roam, you may find yourself a little disappointed in the pedestrian streets of Bratislava. However, if you like discovering places without being jostled or hassled or hustled, or you cherish taking photographs without a troupe of tourists shooting selfies on sticks in your shot, you’re in the right place now. From here, you can glimpse the steeple of Michael’s Gate at the far end of Michalska street.
You may have no desire to take a bite out of one of these garlic bulbs, or crunch a clove in your teeth—or slip a clove into your shoe and wait for its aroma to rise through your body and enter your mouth (no really, try it). But you might enjoy the artistic display of fruits and vegetables you discover here and there.
At the end of Michalska, you arrive at Michael’s Gate. During the Medieval period, Bratislava was bordered by high, fortified stone walls, and there were four guarded gates to enter the city. St. Michael’s Gate was constructed in about 1300, and was remodeled into its present 170-foot-high baroque shape in the mid-1700’s. If you climb the seven floors to the observation deck, you’ll be treated to a panorama of the city.
Beneath the tower, you’ll find a metal compass of sorts, known as “kilometer zero”, embedded in the road and indicating distances from here to other capital cities: Vienna is 50 miles away, Paris is 820 miles away. One of the 29 cities listed is New York; it lies 4250 miles away—something for freaked-out Americans to consider if planning to abandon ship before the shit hits the fan.
You know, idioms intrigue me; I like to imagine why they may have been created. I understand “abandon ship” and “go down with the ship” and “get out of Dodge.” But when did shit hit the fan for the first time, or any time? Was it, perhaps, a ceiling fan in Casa Blanca? And here’s a problem: my fan sitting right there on the shelf is one of those new Dyson fans, without blades. I’m guessing in 50 years, all fans will be made this way—safer and more efficient, if now pricey. But in 50 years, what idiom will people be using: “get out before the shit falls through your bladeless oval.” No, just doesn’t have the same panache, does it? We’ll need to invent a new idiom at some point, something more contemporary: maybe something like—“get out before the shit hits the hadron collider.”
Another disquieting moment in life is this: it sort of breaks your heart when you discover you are completely inept at something you’d like to master, like creating new idioms or hacking into a bank’s computer system.
From Michael’s Gate, if you head back down Michalska until it turns into Venturska, you’ll pass an elegant piece of Baroque Revival architecture, the Palffy Palace, built in 1747 by Count Leopold Palffy, a general in the Habsburg military. Perhaps in those days, war and the spoils of war were maybe a little different, and apparently, quite a bit more lucrative than they are today? But get this: in 1762, a young Mozart performed in the Palffy Palace. They’ve erected a plaque on the wall to commemorate the event—he was six years old. I was getting scolded for not remembering to feed my dog at age six; Mozart was writing sonatas and performing them in palaces—nothing to stroke your ego here.
If you’d prefer perusing atavistic architecture and quaint back-street grunge as opposed to Christian Dior and Swarovski crystal jewelry shops on Michalska, then instead of going back the way you came, take Bastova, the narrowest street in the city. You will happen upon some enduring, rustic structures. And doors and doorknobs, perhaps.
As you cruise the back streets, you’ll hook up with Kapitulska Street and follow it until you walk into Rudnayovo Square where you’ll discover St Martin’s Cathedral. To my eye, it’s not overly impressive from the outside, compared to many other less-important churches and cathedrals you see in Europe. However, the inside is rather elegant, and it served as the coronation church for the Hungarian Kings between 1563 and 1830. The coronation procession backtracked north from here to Michael’s Gate. You will find small crowns set in the road, which mark the route.
Here’s a beguiling aside: some people say the first complete version of Beethoven‘s Missa solemnis in D major was played for the first time here in St Martin’s Cathedral. But I heard the same thing about one of Mozart’s pieces being performed first in Prague and then later read a different story involving Vienna. This is one thing every traveler should learn before venturing into kindergarten: “don’t trust anyone.”
The cathedral’s 280-foot-high steeple punctures a deep blue, cloudless sky above Old Town’s skyline. You might want to visit St Martin’s underground crypt with atavistic catacombs—for me, just slightly more appealing than a museum. Another watershed moment in the life of any traveler is when you discover you couldn’t care less about something so many others find culturally enriching, and even relish.
You might just sit on a bench in the park at Rudnayovo Square and watch the ivy ravish the ancient stone wall.
From here, you’ll follow Panska Street, or if you’d rather not walk, take a detour over to Klobucnicka and board the tour train to take you back to the Danube.
You’ll soon see the New Bridge again above you. Who knows what you’ll see on the ground in front of you? But isn’t it always intriguing to note how the younger generation delineates itself: in the 60’s, it was long hair, free love and bell-bottoms; in the 80’s, it was big hair, girl bands and Cabbage Patch dolls; today, it’s shaved heads, tats and nose rings. Let’s just be thankful disco disappeared so thoroughly—who were those guys, anyway? And shouldn’t something be done soon about Rap?
As you head south toward the Danube, you’ll wander past the Holy Trinity Column, a rather ornate Baroque-style monument sculpted of stone and built to commemorate the termination of the plague of 1712, in which thousands died here.
If you haven’t paused to eat in all this time, you just may feel hungry by now. Since you’re at Holy Trinity, you might cruise into Moods Bakery & Coffee on the corner here at the far end of Hviezdoslavovo namestie, with outdoor tables beneath impressive deciduous shade trees—a fine sidewalk café with a nice view. And surprisingly good coffee.
And they do a nice job with Slovakian-style goulash even if they don’t serve it in a bowl of bread as they do in Prague eateries—but then remember, in Prague, some witless bartenders still set their absinthe on fire. Perhaps, yet one more lesson on why we shouldn’t expect, nor compare, things—and simply enjoy “what is” where we are.
You’ll also devour a worm’s-eye view of Bratislava castle from here, a fine Baroque palace with roots dating back to 907 A.D.
Today, the castle is another—right—national museum located on Castle Hill. And no, I did not pay to go inside it, either. If you love reading museum reviews or perusing photos of ancient crypts, Badfish is not the connoisseur at the top of your list is what I’m guessing.
By now, the sun is slowly slipping itself into the river, casting shadows and blushing the landscape and cobblestones with a florid afterglow. As you walk toward the Danube, you get a glimpse of the cable-stayed SNP (Slovak National Uprising) Bridge. Many people, and maps, call it the New Bridge. But most locals here call it the UFO Bridge because the restaurant at the top looks like a flying saucer from outer space. I reckon if I were going to allow myself to feel any disappointment about my time here, it would be that I did not get to the top of that UFO bridge. Funny how sometimes things that seem so important, you just never get around to doing.
I did wander along the Danube a while. Curious, how different people enjoy a body of water: some watch it, some fish it, some walk it (in thongs), some rant about its hue while humming a waltz.
Other people sail it. There were actually quite a few riverboats moored alongside the quay. Apparently, many of the tourists you see in Bratislava are touring the Danube on these boats. If you gaze long enough at these ships, flaunting cabins with floor-to-ceiling windows and balconies with lounge chairs, you might develop a rogue desire to clench a knife blade between your teeth, maraud across one of their gangplanks, saunter onboard, down a snifter of sugar-plum slivovica in the bar, stow away, and let that boat sail you anywhere it dang well pleases.
And that, matey, is how I washed up in Budapest, 200 kilometers downriver.
One more thing to think about: this is the hottest time of year in Madagascar, and also the wettest; it’s monsoon season, many roads are dirt and now impassible. Sometimes, decisions are made for you.