It’s hard to believe that Bratislava is the capital of Slovakia or, indeed, of any country at all. Among the approximately 400,000 people living there, it seems that half of them are either indoors or perhaps on holiday elsewhere. There are no subways and trams seem to be more prominent than buses. Don’t get me wrong, no complaints here; it's just an observation. On arrival via boat from Vienna, it is possible to walk, without getting lost, the kilometre or so to the hostel. The staff member who checked me in on my arrival was so bursting with information and ideas that it seemed she hadn’t spoken to any tourists in weeks! And that is a good thing for the uninitiated in Bratislava.
The main train station is about a half hour's walk away from the hostel, and is fairly easy to find thanks to plenty of maps and easy-to-follow directions. Walking back into the old town, visitors pass by a huge building and garden, frequently peppered with playing children and sunbathers on a warm, sunny day. The building, it turns out, is the Presidential Palace, complete with two guards dressed like 19th century dragoons out front. A further ten minutes down the road and into the city and travellers are surprised to find a very low-key locale that is rather belied by the grandeur of the palace. Talk about contrasts!
My second day in the capital - sprinkling with rain and much cooler, at a rather unseasonable 20°C - I set off at around 9:00, but had seen most of the sights of the city by 11:00. First was St. Elizabeth’s Church, more commonly known to tourists as the Blue Church. In terms of which “blue”, think Sir David Attenborough circa 1970s or 1980s with his pale blue safari suits; still, the church carries it much better. About a five minute walk further was the old National Theatre, though it seemed more like halfway across the scaleless map. The old town contains a heavy concentration of older buildings, some of which are signposted only in Slovak, so consulting guidebooks carefully is essential in order to avoid missing sites. A significant number of the buildings are religious, reflecting the importance of Catholicism, the religion adhered to by the majority of Slovaks. There is a Capuchin Church, Trinitarian Church, a Franciscan Church with Monastery and a Nunnery of the Order of the Sisters of St. Clare, all within a five-minute walk of each other. Not everything is of a holier order; the same area plays host to a number of interesting palaces, public buildings and museums.
Moving further west, visitors get the chance to drink in the awesome sight of St. Martins Cathedral, rising high above the main road. Some of it was under restoration during my visit, but it was easy enough to photograph and capture its beauty without capturing the scaffolding as well. Original brickwork from the 14th century is evident near the base of part of the cathedral, which makes this place a special stop to make.
Passing under the main road, the climb up the steep incline to the imposing Bratislava Castle begins. I personally feel that the cobbled streets with hole-in-the-wall eateries and souvenir shops on the climb provide extra charm along the way, but for those who haven't the time, energy or inclination to walk the walk, there is a tourist bus available that goes near the top. At the top visitors are greeted with a splendid view of all of southern Bratislava, and a great perspective on the Novy Most Bridge, which bears a striking resemblance to a UFO, the Danube River and the growing residential areas – obviously where the people are located! From atop the hill one can also see parts of Austria and, on a clear day, Hungary as well. The castle itself, while also still undergoing restorations, is huge and still amazes with its size even when you're standing right in front of it! Inside is a museum, however, it isn't possible to see the interior of the castle beyond the museum. Also of note were the gates that provide the entrances to the castle, several of which were built in the 16th and 17th centuries.
The other major landmark in Bratislava that involves an energy-zapping, muscle-straining hike is that to the Slavin, or the Slovak National War Memorial dedicated to the soldiers who died during the Second World War. To get there requires much endurance as the road winds around and up to the highest point in the city. It is not so much steep (in parts), but more lengthy. The monument itself is spectacular, yet makes for a fairly sombre atmosphere. Admittedly, I was the only person there because it was raining, but there was still a certain eeriness. Paths around the statue are lined with plaques of soldiers killed during the war. On a more negative note, however, it seems that this grand memorial has not escaped one of the most common visible problems in Bratislava: graffiti. On the winding walk down, I discovered some steps, which successfully saved about ten minutes and one calf muscle.
On the way back to the hostel I passed again through the old town, this time directing attention to the multitudes of souvenir shops, cafes, bars and restaurants that line the streets. Another touristy concession of more recent Bratislava are the statues strategically placed around this area including the photographer snapping a scandal from the corner of a wall and the infamous “man at work” poking his head above a manhole.
All of these pieces, old and new, come together to create present-day Bratislava. Some overlook it in favour of the bigger and better, but the city truly is a hidden gem that takes only about a day to see. So why not see it? Take the trip if you're in the area; you won't be sorry you did.
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