Most great civilizations and cities have established themselves on the banks of mighty rivers. Take the Danube, for example, the second longest river of Europe – meandering through over ten countries, many a beautiful capital city lie on its banks. Some of the biggest of them, Vienna, Budapest etc have historically been drawing a lot of visitors, eclipsing some of the smaller ones. The petite capital of Slovakia, Bratislava sits alluringly close to Vienna and is still skipped by a lot of visitors; an easy train journey from the capital of one country to another, it is an offer that’s too hard to turn down. On my visit to Vienna, I made time for a visit to the Slovakian capital.
As my train traversed across the Slovakian border, it was hard not to notice the abrupt transformation in the landscape. The hitherto Alpine meadows were now flatter grasslands, billboards were in Slovak, a language totally unfamiliar to me. The scene was rapidly shifting from the big, dynamic city flavor of Vienna to an old-worldlier setting. I wasn’t sure if I would be able to find my way around the city. What was this quaint city going to offer me? Were the Habsburgs going to continue their tales here from the Schonbrünn of Vienna? Instead will the fall of the iron curtain reveal to me cold tall concrete buildings?
With a feeling of skepticism I arrived in Bratislava, still a sort of a hidden tourist attraction, often overshadowed by the bigger and more popular Vienna and Budapest. The first impression I had of the place was how ripe it was. Perhaps after all that the city has undergone and beliefs that have been created about the place, the Bratislavians seemed to want to change any preconceived notions. Any hesitation I felt in the city was immediately quashed by the welcoming people. What else could explain the innocent enthusiasm of the school kid who readily walked with me for over twenty minutes to the old town when I was lost? What could the waiter at the lovely cafe want when he asked me to tell my fellow country people that Slovakia is actually a wonderful country to visit? Or is it just that a small city simply had more time for the shy traveler in me to open up? Perhaps it’s the setting of Bratislava itself that thrusts its people into opening up to a new world.
The city is an unrestrained confluence of the past and the future. The small old town and its main square or the Hlavne Namestie is a relic in modernity. Cobble stoned pathways, pastel colored sloped rooftops, the charm that is quintessentially Europe seats itself amidst the cold futuristic concrete buildings of a Soviet style on its periphery. If the peeling walls in the old town is a reminder of what once was, a look at the aptly named UFO on the Danube is a show of communist aggression, built hastily on the old Jewish quarter. If the old buildings could speak, they are are sure to tell tales over two thousand years old. How many times has the city been annexed by one country after another, how many times has it been used as a shield to protect armies from surging. In its hey days, it has also enjoyed prominence as being the seat of coronations only to be devastated by wars over and over again.
A visit to the Bratislava Castle (Hrad), beautifully built and carefully renovated time and again tells the stories of the Celts, the Romans, the Habsburgs, the Ottomans, tales of kings and queens, treacheries, wars and conquests. It is now a museum whose highlight for me was the section dedicated to the preserves from World War I. Perched atop a hill, the castle also offers splendid views of the city and Austria at a distance. As if symbolizing the city itself, the castle has undergone a lot of brutality and indeed, as a phoenix has risen from its ashes time and again.
Bratislava will do well to have more people visiting it, though not at the cost of rapid transformation such that its soul is lost. The city has a lot to offer to the casual traveler: pleasant strolls in the pedestrian friendly old parts, walks and cruises along the Danube, Gothic churches, statues and museums. It is possible to see the city in a day or one might choose to spend more days here too. After all, it is easy to fall for the authenticity of the city and the people here. As I made my way back to Vienna, I left with a lot of emotions. A feeling of anger at the wars that have taken place and battered this land and a feeling of triumph at the human spirit to surge ahead. I do know that Slovakia is not just Bratislava, but for now, I am glad that I had the pleasure of being in it’s capital city of which I hold very fond memories.