From Bosnia in the Balkans, I continued my summer adventures to Slovakia in central Europe, formerly part of Czechoslovakia. During the 5th and 6th century, Slavs settled in the area and were later conquered by the Principality of Moravia to establish Great Moravia. After the dissolution of Great Moravia, the Kingdom of Hungary was formed in 1000 which also included parts of Germany, Hungary, and Poland and many Germans settled in Slovakia. After the demise of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the end of WWI, the Czechs and Slovaks formed a new Czech-Slovak state called Czechoslovakia. By 1939, Czechoslovakia became nominally independent though still actually a Nazi Germany controlled state until after WWII when it became truly independent. In 1949, the communists in the government staged a coup and introduced a full communist regime until 1989 when the communist dictatorship finally ended. In 1993, with the Velvet Divorce, Czechoslovakia dissolved and Slovakia separated from Czech Republic and became an independent state. I flew into neighboring Vienna which is only about a 45-minute drive from Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, with many more flight connections. I’ve been to Czech Republic but I didn’t know much about Slovakia prior to coming here and was actually surprised that as part of a former communist country, it is the third richest region in the EU by GDP per capita in 2017 after Hamburg and Luxembourg City. I didn’t expect it to have such a high standard of living and all the civil liberties associated with an advanced economy. I chose to stay at the centrally located Roset Boutique Hotel which is an all-suite 5-star hotel in a restored 1903 Art Nouveau building.
Brastislava is an underrated European destination compared to other neighboring central European cities like Vienna or Prague. It is often referred to as the Beauty on the Danube and was once the capital of the Kingdom of Hungary where the crown jewels were kept and where the Hungarian Kings and Queens were coronated from the 16th century. It was called by its German name, Pressburg, throughout its 400 years under Habsburg rule until 1919 when it received the name Bratislava. Because of Bratislava’s location on the Danube, it was always an important center for trade and commerce and thus has been influenced by many different cultures such as Austrian, Czech, German Jewish, Serb, and Slovak, etc.
The most attractive part of Bartislava is its medieval and Gothic old town with a maze of tiny cobblestone lanes for you to get lost in. Having said that, the old town is very small and to walk from one end to the other only takes less than 10 minutes. The main square of the old town is Hlvae namestie with many historical monuments around from small fountains to baroque palaces. Roland’s Fountain or Maximilian’s Fountain in the middle of Old Town Square was believed to be built in 1572 as a public water supply fountain by King Maximilian II. There is a statue of Maximilian portrayed as a knight in armour on top of the fountain and legend has it that the statue bows towards the Old Town Hall every new year’s eve to honor the 12 councillors who died defending the city, but only best of the Bratislavans can see this. The Old Town Hall or Stara Radnica here is one of the oldest stone buildings in Bratislava and is made up several different 14th and 15th century Gothic buildings (Jacobus’ house with the tower, Pawer’s house, Unger’s house, and the Apponyi palace). It served as town hall until the late 19th century and was at times a prison, a mint, an arsenal depository, and an archive. The most beautiful part of the Old Town Hall is the Renaissance courtyard with an arcade and gallery. The tower houses a branch of the Bratislava City Museum and you can go up there for a bird’s eye view of the main square.
Another well preserved structure in the Old Town is Michael’s Gate, one of the four original medieval gates still standing today that used to protect the city’s northern entrance. It was built in 1300 and then reconstructed in the baroque style in 1758 when the dome and St Michael fighting the dragon was placed on its spire. Its tower houses another branch of the Bratislava City Museum with exhibits about the old fortifications and weaponry.
Dotted around Bratislava Old Town are creative statues in human size placed in unexpected places. There is Cumil, a statue of a sewer worker poking out of a manhole at the junction of Laurinska and Panska Streets. Cumil translates to “the watcher” and people often say it was created to portray a typical communist era worker who doesn’t take his work seriously or that he is just looking under women’s skirts. Beneath the Old Town Hall is a statue of a soldier leaning over a bench. Napoleon and his army were in Bratislava in 1805 and this soldier supposedly fell in love with a local girl and stayed behind. His name was Hubert and he is said to become a producer of sparkling wine incidentally Slovakia’s most popular sparkling wine brand is also Hubert. Unfortunately, Hubert was vandalized and removed for repairs during my visit. On Sedlarska Street is Schone Naci representing Ignac Lamar from the 19th century who is said to have lost his mind because of unrequited love. Ignac Lamar was said to always wear a hat and would greet people and give women flowers on the street. A funny one is that of a naked man hiding in a hole on Panska Street #29 near St Martin’s Cathedral. It was supposedly placed there to ridicule the former owner of the building who like to watch people on the street from a small window above.
On the west side of the Old Town below Bratislava Castle is the gothic St Martin’s Cathedral which was the coronation church of the Kingdom of Hungary from 1563 to 1830. The church was built against the city’s defensive walls and its tower served as a watchtower when needed. There is a 300kg gold-plated replica of St Stephen’s Crown atop its spire to commemorate its importance as the coronation church.
Bratislava Castle towers over the historic center dating from the 9th century. The castle has four wings, each with a corner tower, creating the appearance of an upside down table. The castle became the seat of the Kings of Royal Hungary in the 16th century and the south-west tower also called the Crown Tower housed the Hungarian crown jewels for the next 200 years. This 13th century Crown Tower has magnificent views of Bratislava and beyond. There is also a National Museum here covering Slovakian history but I skipped it because it didn’t look very interesting.
Just east of the Old Town on Bezrucova Street is St Elizabeth’s Church or Blue Church built in the 1910s in the Art Nouveau style with a pale blue facade and glazed blue roof tiles. Even the pews inside are painted in blue with golden patterns. I especially like the stucco mouldings and blue mosaics and the blend of Romanesque and Baroque style. Whimsical is really the right word to describe this church. The church was built by Odon Lechner who was a pioneer of Hungarian Secessionism and often referred to as the Hungarian Gaudi. He also built the adjacent grammar school on Grossligova Street in the same style. The church is rarely open so do check beforehand and time your visit.
Bratislava is such a wonderful place to relax for a few days. I loved wandering around the old town, taking in its illustrious history in its old squares and medieval buildings. Next post will be on the medieval town of Banska Stiavnica in the middle of Slovakia. Stay tuned!
Thanks for stopping by!
Click the “Follow” button to signup for email subscription or keep checking back for more blog posts to come.