A detour in to Slavic territory
Today’s detour took us into Slavic territory. Just 60 km (37 miles) away from Vienna is the capital of Slovakia, Bratislava. This city of 430,000 (of which 60,000 are students) is going through a post-communist era revival that holds the potential for making it the next up-and-coming European capital.
Before WWII, Bratislava was a diverse city and was the home of 40% Austrians, 40% Hungarians and 20% Slovaks. At various tiimes, it was the capital of Prussia and Hungary. When Buda and Pest were occupied by the Ottomans, Hungary made Bratislava its capital for 200 years. Unfortunately, after WWII, the ethnic Germans and Hungarians were exiled by the Russians, and the communist party cast its veil of grey concrete ugliness all over this charming old town. The biggest, ugliest creation of all was the SNP bridge with its UFO-like saucer. Not only is the bridge ugly, but it brings the highway right by St. Martin’s church and through the old city. The Jewish quarter was raised to make room for the bridge, assaulting the memory of the 90,000 Slovak Jews who lost their lives in WWII (that almost all of the Jews in the country at the time).
These days, the old town of Bratislava is as charming as it can be, trying to capitalize on the tourist dollar and its close proximity with Vienna as well as its great location, low costs of labor and educated work force. Slovakia today is the world’s biggest car producer per capita – many automakers have plants here. Bratislava is on the verge of its own Renaissance, and that was evident with all the construction we noticed in the city.
We didn’t need but a few hours in Bratislava. We parked Nina’s car and headed straight for the old town, where we walked around and enjoyed the architecture. Many cafes and restaurants lined the streets, the weather was sunny and warming up, few tourists were around and it was all around a very relaxing experience. We noted a plaque on the ground under the sole surviving arch of the old city wall – that was marked as 0 and distances to major cities around the world were calculated from that very point. We couldn’t find LA (only NYC was on the dial) but I found Sofia – 778 km away. 🙂
A cute addition to old town from the 1990s are its whimsical statues. One shows Napoleon bent over with his hat covering his eyes – a sort of revenge from the locals for the siege of this fine city. As a matter of fact, we saw a few cannonballs still stuck in the walls of buildings here. Another cute statue portrayed a famous character in Bratislava, who lived there until the 1960s. He’d dress up in his only black suit and top hat and stroll around town, presenting gifts to the women he fancied. He called them “schoen”, which is “pretty” in German, and that gave him his nickname – Schoener Naci. He’s honored with a statue in front of his favorite cafe, Cafe Mayer, where we stopped for a pastry and a coffee after lunch.
But first, we stopped for lunch at a rather touristy location but the outdoor terrace was sunny and the food seemed delicious enough. We both slurped on traditional soups – me on Slovak chicken soup and Nina on cabbage soup. We overlooked a square with the Bratislava National Theater.
With food in our bellies, we had enough energy to take the short stroll up to Bratislava’s castle. It was just above old town and gave us great views of the city. One thing that made me sad was the Holocaust statue we saw on the way up. Had I not read about it in my guidebook, I would have not recognized it – it was in complete disrepair. What a shame!
We came back to Vienna in the early afternoon to pick up Sarah, who flew in from Florence today. We spent the evening strolling down another major shopping street in the city, Mariahilferstrasse. We dined at a hip sushi place in town – although landlocked, Vienna is surprisingly well known for fish dishes in general. The sushi, I have to say, was pretty good. Afterwards, we enjoyed a panoramic birds-eye view of Vienna from the top-floor bar of the Sofitel Hotel. Stephansdom and the Viennese city hall were wonderfully lit and dominated the skyline; skyscrapers in Vienna are banished to the outskirts of town.
It was another wonderful day of my trip, but I couldn’t help but start to feel sad as it’s coming to an end in only a few days. Time’s fun when you’re having flies! ~ Kermit the frog. 🙂