The D&O Diary’s Eastern European sojourn continued earlier this week with a very brief stop in Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, which is about a two-hour train ride from Budapest. With a population of only about 450,000, Bratislava is small, but it has a rich history and interesting setting on the Danube, only about 30 miles downstream from Vienna.
The city has called itself Bratislava for only a short part of its long history. Until 1921, Bratislava was part of Hungary and known as Pressberg (in German) or Pozsony (in Hungarian). From 1583 to 1783, while Budapest was occupied by the Turks, the city served as the Hungarian kingdom’s capital. In 1993, Bratislava became the capital of the newly formed Slovak Republic.
The most visible sign of the city’s long history is the Bratislava Castle which rises above the old city on a hilltop overlooking the Danube (as shown in the picture above and the first picture below). The Castle was substantially enhanced by the Austrian Empress (and Hungarian Queen) Maria Theresa in the late 18th century, but in 1809 the castle was largely destroyed by Napoleon’s troops. The partially destroyed castle was used variously as a barracks and a military depot for many years and was not fully renovated until the late 20th century.
Following World War II, Bratislava was occupied by the Soviets. The former Czechoslovakia was an Eastern Block country and inside the Iron Curtain. Even though the Soviet occupation ended several decades ago, vestiges of the Soviet era remain. On the far side of the river opposite Bratislava’s central district, there are countless tall featureless concrete housing blocks. Connecting the city’s two sides is the Most SNP (the Bridge of the Slovak National Uprising), now called the New Bridge but popularly known as the UFO bridge owing to the unusual observation deck at the top of the cable-stayed structure’s sole bridge tower. To the south, the bridge connects the city to highways leading to Budapest and Vienna, but unfortunately on the river’s north side, the bridge leads directly into the city’s historic old district. The massive and noisy roadway cuts through the old town like an angry knife.
In recent years, the city’s old town has been beautifully restored. At the heart of the old town is Hviezdoslavovo námestie (Hviezdoslav Square), a long shady plaza with several fountains and lined with restaurants and cafés. The plaza is about as pleasant a location for a morning coffee or an afternoon beverage as you will ever find anywhere. The pedestrianized streets leading off of the plaza are lined with renovated buildings and more restaurants and cafes. During the warm weather that prevailed while we were in town, the old town’s quiet streets provide a very pleasant venue for strolling and people-watching.
The best thing we did while in Bratislava was to visit Devin Castle, which is located just a few miles upriver. Devin Castle was not mentioned in our guide books; we just happened to notice it on the city map we picked up at our hotel’s front desk and after a little Internet research we thought it might be worth a visit. We took the No. 29 city bus from under the New Bridge about 20 minutes west of the city (for a fare of 90 cents each) to the village of Devin. Here’s what we concluded after our visit: it would be an absolute crime to visit Bratislava and not visit Devin Castle.
The Castle itself is built on a huge rock promontory located at the junction of the Danube and the Morava rivers. There have been fortifications on the promontory since pre-Roman times. The present Castle was first built in the 14th Century and destroyed by Napoleon’s troops in 1809. From the Castle’s ramparts it is easy to see why it was so strategically important. The castle affords spectacular, sweeping views of the river in both directions – to the South, the direction from which the dreaded Turks might approach, and to the north and west, the direction from which Germans, Austrians, Hussites, or the French might come. From the top of the castle, four countries can now be seen: Austria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovakia itself.
The Morava river (from which the Bohemian province of Moravia derives its name) forms the international border with Austria. During the Soviet occupation, the Morava was the westernmost edge of the Iron Curtain. During the cold war, Devin was under heavy surveillance, as many tried to escape to the West there by crossing over the Morava. At the junction of the two rivers, a plaque now memorializes the many people who died there trying to escape to freedom. While we were there, a large group of teenagers readying themselves for a kayak tour of the Morava were lounging around the memorial, providing quite a contrast between the former difficult times and today’s more benign circumstances.
Because of Bratislava’s proximity to Vienna, it made more sense when we left Bratislava to fly out of the Vienna airport rather than from Bratislava’s airport. The Vienna airport is only about a 45-minute cab right from Bratislava’s center city. We flew out of Vienna to our next destination. As we departed, we were well aware that in our brief visit to Bratislava, we had been fortunate to see something very special.
More Pictures of Bratislava: