I’d rather sleep in Budapest (or in Vienna)—particularly because good-value options in central Bratislava are slim, and service tends to be surly.—Rick Steves
WHAT’S UP WITH BRATISLAVA?
Coke lite, Miller Lite, Hungry Jack Syrup Lite—Bratislava is a lot like that. Compared to your average European-bucket-list cities, Bratislava is an unassuming wallflower at the party. Many tourists overlook it completely. Some stop off for a few hours before boarding a riverboat cruise and put it on their list, because it wasn’t there before, just so they can tick it off.
Bratislava is a bashful Prague Lite, and perhaps, another one of those places where expectations might lure you toward disappointment. If you arrive here expecting the party in Prague or Vienna or Paris, you may leave believing you’ve been punked. However, if you approach the town in sloth mode, saunter slowly into the sophisticated café scene, rub shoulders with its history, smell the flowers, unwrap its clandestine sense of humor, sip a snifter of pear-flavored slivovica (slee-wo-weetza), rummage through its quirky eccentricities, you just might find yourself extending your hand and asking the wall flower to dance.
The Russians weren’t the first to roll in, bully the locals, and rule this part of the world, you know. Attila the Hun and his brother led their marauding horde here in the mid-400’s; they controlled the vast area from the Black Sea to Germany. Word on the street is that Attila killed his own brother, so he could rule the empire alone. It was not a benevolent dictatorship, nor a good time to become a slave.
SLOTHING THROUGH HISTORY
As you leave the surprisingly wide, but ishly-disappointing Danube and wander along Mostova Street, you happen upon a communist-era bronze sculpture in Ludovit Stur Square. Ludovit Stur was a Slovak hero and, encouraged by his religious beliefs—he was a staunch Lutheran Protestant—led the movement to install the Slovak dialect as the official Slovak language standard, instead of the one then used by Catholics and older generation Slovaks—sort of the way Hard Rock is now being eased out by Pop. Apparently through much of history, perhaps even more so than geography or gold or lust, religion is the reason for many of those—pesky and unwanted-by-some—changes we sometimes face in life. Right up there with megalomaniac dictators, scary presidents, and Destiny’s Child.
Throughout Bratislava’s Old Town streets, you’ll happen upon atavistic lamp poles flaunting bouquets of flowers just begging you to take their photograph. Bratislava actually does this better, and on a larger scale, than Prague, or Paris, or Amsterdam. And if you love photographing buildings, or doors, keep your camera ready on its strap around your neck.
Humans started making stoneware drinking bowls here in 5000 BCE. The first Celts arrived in 200 BCE and brought their metal goblets. Then around 400 CE, the Romans were growing grapes for wine and introduced their stemmed drinking glass. Crystal has deep roots in this part of the world; the art and method of glass blowing here is over 700 years old, and fairly unchanged in all that time.
As soon as you start walking, you’ll wander past several crystal shops. I didn’t even wander inside one of them. No, I take that back. I did wander into one, but there was so much cut glass, some clear, some in bright colors —boldly tacky to my eye and palate— and arranged in such seeming disarray, crammed on shelves from floor to ceiling with narrow aisles and crowded with tourists to the point of claustrophobia, that I turned around and walked right back out.
I may be weird: I’m not a shopper, and I dislike being surrounded by a crowd of people, and glass—or sharks. I would like a crystal candle holder, a modest design of fine quality, from this part of the world—well, they don’t make Buddha statues or malas or neti pots—but I’m traveling for months. How safe is a glass candle stick in your bag anyway?
But if you’re ever in Bratislava and find yourself inside one of these stores—or maybe, a second-hand shop in Boise, Idaho—you might want to know how to tell the difference between crystal and plain glass: if you hold it up to the light and see a rainbow, you’re holding crystal; if you spit on your finger and rub the rim of a glass and it begins to chime, you’re holding crystal.
On the corner of Mostova and Palackeho, you see one of Bratislava’s most marvelous pieces of architecture, the brash and lucid, Baroque Reduta Building, now the home of the Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra. Odd, how a vase of royal blue cut-glass crystal seems gaudy, and a gaudy building like this seems majestically impressive, to some.
Cross the street, and you’ll wander into an inviting, green park at Námestie Eugena Suchoňa, one of many public green spaces in town. Center stage here is the Victory Monument. We’re in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains, and if you cruise just outside town, you’ll find thickets of poplar, Douglas fir and black locust. One park, Forest Park, is actually a forest where they have discovered remnants from a Paleolithic hunter-gatherer culture that lived here over 200,000 years ago. You might run across a bear, a lynx, a wild boar herding piglets.
Hike through the grass and trees and exit Suchona square on the other side, and you’ll notice more bouquets clarifying the air.
Wander across Hviezdoslavovo namestie, the main pedestrian thoroughfare, and you’ll be standing in front of another iconic building, the old Slovak National Theatre. When opened in 1886, the rather extravagant Neo-Renaissance structure contained more than 700 gas lamps for lighting and a thousand seats.
From here, take Rybarska brana, and if you turn your head to the left while walking, you won’t have to look at the McDonald’s “McCafe” on the corner. Thankfully, they have not erected floor-to-roof golden arches here; their sign is maybe a foot or two tall. And they’ve installed wooden sidewalk tables with umbrellas outdoors, no plastic chairs. I’ve been traveling and working outside the States for 16 years, so I can only imagine this café concept is something new for them? Still, no matter how you dress it up, it’s the home of the original slider. And heart disease. What would you think if you were told someone injects their beef with polydiethystilbe-something, a female hormone, to make cows plumper? Please, don’t anyone tell me what they put in Starbucks coffee.
SOUL OF A CITY
Shuffle along Rybarska until you hit Panksa. Look down, and you discover the now highly-copied (yes, in some of those grander party towns) sculpture of Cumil: the man at work, the gaper, or the peeper, depending on who’s translating for you—your city-tour guide, a travel article, or Rick Steves.
Stroll on down one more narrow block, and imagine horse-drawn carriages while passing some quaint local cafes: Le Papillon, Antik Café, Schokocafe. You’ll feel comfortable stopping in at any of these joints if you’re feeling in need of refreshment, and remember, Starbucks lies all the way across the UFO bridge on the other side of the Danube. I ran across four Starbucks while meandering through Prague; makes you wonder why there is merely one, and only recently opened this year, in Bratislava. Prague Lite, indeed?
Just before you reach the Hlavne Namestie, or Main Square, you’ll spot a silver-ish sculpture of a renowned Bratislava resident named Schone Naci. Apparently, he was quite the ladies man. Legend states that he would wander the town as we are now, in top hat and tails, a scarf at his neck, and he’d tip his hat to all the ladies, sometimes offering a gift or a song. But get this, I checked Wikipedia for the spelling of his name, and the site translates its information into English like this: “Some people say [ Missing resource ] that his wife left him at the altar, so going mad, going out with a nicely wrapped package and the health of all women.” This is one reason why we tell our students they cannot use Wikipedia as a source to write their essays. But then, an old geezer can only hope to go out with a nicely-wrapped package.
I’m not sure when Rick Steves visited Bratislava, but I can’t agree less with his assessment of the place. I find the town remarkably friendly, the townspeople remarkably un-surly, and there are some truly marvelous beds in various classes of hotels and apartments these days at extremely reasonable rates. You can rent a room for $19, or a very nicely appointed apartment overlooking the Danube for $55 (Tiny, maybe, but still). Most everything is cheaper than the Big 10 European party towns—from goulash to symphony tickets.
And for a town that shies away from the dance floor in the shadows, Bratislava harbors a whole shedload of personality, good vibes, and humor—way more than, say, Prague where surly service seems de rigueur; but then, perhaps you’d act surly, too, if thousands of pesky tourists ravaged your city daily, forcing prices up, congesting traffic, smothering your bridges, Segwaying your sidewalks, photographing your brides, photobombing your selfies.
Still, for me, when it comes to the “unsurly-ness” of its people, roles reverse here: Prague becomes Bratislava Lite. It seems if you relax your pace and swallow your expectations, the character of Bratislava radiates into your day, slow and unassuming, the way morning sun filters into the depths of the ocean — cool, calm, consoling.
More smiles in Bratislava coming up next week in Part III.
VIEW OTHER POSTS ON BRATASLAVA & PRAGUE:
See more of Jo’s: Monday Walks
See more of Lucile’s: Photo Rehab