Two Days Of Solo Travel In Bratislava
April 9, 2019
by Gita Viswanath
I arrived on a train at the Slovakian capital, Bratislava one cold morning in October 2017. When the cab driver dropped me off at the tip of a solid stone stairway, he said, “Your apartment, car not going.” He brought down my suitcase from the boot, smiled and said, “Bye bye, go down, then walk, walk.” He smiled again this time looking at my bewildered expression perhaps and repeated a bye. Bravely strapping the backpack, I lifted my 23 kilo suitcase, only to put it down quickly to contemplate whether I had been cheated or really this was the only way to reach my Airbnb apartment. I noticed two young boys at the bus stop and decided to check with them. They looked keenly at my phone and then looked up at the timer, which said there were 28 seconds for their bus to arrive. In a jiffy, one of them lifted the suitcase and said “Hurry up.” He raced down the steps, put my suitcase down and ran back as I said, “Thanks.” I was already in love with Bratislava!
Situated on the banks of the Danube and known as Pressburg until 1919, Bratislava is the only national capital that has borders with two countries – Austria and Hungary. This culturally rich city with deep historical connections with Austria, Germany, Croatia, Czech Republic, Hungary and others, has a population of just about half a million but plays host to almost a million tourists every year.
Day 1: Old Town: A Charming Place To Stay
I checked into my apartment located in the pedestrian-only, 18th-century lively, Old Town. From my window I could see the cobbled streets, narrow lanes, old buildings, souvenir stores, and people walking around without a care in the world. I quickly set out to enjoy what seemed to be a promising sensuous experience. The streets were filled with tourists and travellers. Large guided tours were being conducted around and a melange of several languages fell upon my ears. Not surprising for a city known as tri-lingual city, in which the local inhabitants themselves can switch easily from Slovak to German to Hungarian.
St Michael’s Gate
The imposing tower of St Michael’s gate, among the oldest of the town’s buildings, on Michalska Street stands like a sentinel to the Old Town, oozing antiquity what with its history dating back to the end of the 13th century, with a written record of its existence going back to the year 1411. Several changes from then were made to its structure, all of which are carefully documented and preserved till date in the museum. Today, the street leading to the Gate has global brand stores such as Christian Dior and Swarovski standing cheek by jowl with local handicraft stores filled with reasonably priced souvenirs one can happily take back home.
Several beautiful churches and cathedrals dot the city but the one that stood out for me was the Blue Church which looked like a cake that jumped out of a fairy tale book. In the Eastern part of the Old Town is the Church of St. Elizabeth, a Hungarian Secessionist Catholic Church, built in the Art Nouveau style by architect Odon Lechner. Adjacent to a school, it also serves as the school chapel. Light blue hues cover the exterior and interior of the Church giving it an unreal, picture book look.
Art On The Go
As I walked around, I realised that art in Bratislava is not restricted to museums and art galleries where it could appear remote and intimidating. The beautifully designed manhole covers that we walk by or on, crushing dry leaves strewn on them, could easily covet the title of ‘work of art.’ And yet, how many would even notice them? Statues appear in corners of streets, in front of majestic buildings or even right next to an ice cream parlour. Unlike the touch-me-not sculptures in museums, these statues blend seamlessly into the lives of passers-by, acquiring a life of their own. Children stand beside them to mimic their poses; tourists stop by for a photo-op or just stand and stare.
The most well-known and beloved of sculptures in the city is that of Cumil, a gutter cleaner. Made of bronze, the statue was installed in 1997 in Slovakia’s post-Communist period. What fascinated me about this sculpture was its invitation to participate in Cumil’s gaze. Here’s a sewage cleaner, whose life is all about cleaning filth, immortalized in bronze and grabbing the attention that was denied to him in real life. He appears just a little above ground level, resting a while and enjoying the street scenes either before entering the manhole or soon after emerging from it. To look at his face with a mischievous smile on it, you need to go down to his level. Some say, he’s simply having a jolly good time peering up women’s skirts! There have been cases when an inebriated passer-by in the night has stumbled on his head and gone for a toss! And last but not the least; you have to give his helmet-clad head a good rubbing for loads of good luck!
For me, good luck appeared in the form of a diminishing queue in front of Arthur ice-cream, one of the most famous ice cream parlours located on Laurinská Street in the Old Town. Cuneyt Memeti from Slovenia, founded the Arthur Ice Cream shop in 2015 and in a short span of two years, it was already rated as one of the best in tourist guide books. They are known for making ice creams with exotic fruits such as the hurmi kaki, which is the edible fruit of the Japanese persimmon tree. The specialty for 2017 was a black ice cream made with activated charcoal, served in a black cone. Truly a never-before experience!
As in most European towns, Bratislava also boasts of a large, sprawling castle that is a major attraction. I set out on Day 2 to this part of the town. The reconstructed white and red structure overlooking the River Danube sits pretty on a hill. It is believed that this entire area has been inhabited right from the transitional period between the Stone and Bronze Ages. In 1811, the castle was destroyed by fire and rebuilt in the 1950s in the style that existed during the reign of Queen Maria Theresa.
The newer parts of the city are no less aesthetically built. Of the many modern structures, the most prominent is the Bridge of the Slovak national uprising built across the river. Declared as “the building of the century,” this asymmetrical suspension bridge is today the defining landmark of Bratislava. On the top of this bridge, at a height of 95 meters, is the UFO-like tower restaurant. A speed lift took me up there in what seemed like a few seconds. From that vantage point, I contemplated this city where Mozart had performed at the age of six; a region where the Romans had introduced wine-making, now poised to be counted as one of Europe’s most culturally and economically vibrant cities.