In a crowded street in Bratislava, I meet a man who doffs his hat at me. A few steps away, I meet a soldier, eager for a chat. Around the corner from him, I meet the weirdest of them all — a sewer worker just hanging out of a manhole. Cumil or Man at Work and his friends can be found on pavements in the city centre.
These statues, I’m told, were an attempt to bring some life into the city centre after the fall of communism. They certainly are popular, always surrounded by people clicking photos of, and with, them. Cumil’s is a piece of art that is open to interpretation. He could be taking a break from work, shirking work, or just there to look under women’s skirts. His friends are easier to figure out — there’s Napolean’s Army Soldier and the gentleman Schone Naci (a statue of a real person). There’s also one of the Danish author Hans Christian Andersen, who visited the city. On being asked if he would write a story on Bratislava, he reportedly said, “You want a fairytale? Your whole town is a fairytale.”
A fairytale town
A weekend in Slovakia’s capital, and I had to agree with the author. Bratislava is a fairytale-like town, with an impressive castle, colourful buildings, beautiful gardens and a bright blue church. Much of the city’s beauty can be discovered in its Old Town. I wander through the car-free streets, each of them branching out into little lanes. One of them is the city’s narrowest, Baštová Street, which is next to Michael’s Tower.
The 13th-century baroque tower has St. Micheal’s Gate — the only preserved one out of the original four that were gateways into the medieval city. It has a statue of the saint slaying a dragon at the top and, in the street below, a ‘zero kilometre’ plate listing the distances of 29 world capitals from Bratislava.
Over at Biela Street, I chance upon a quirky Obchod v Muze or Shop in the Museum. Allegedly the oldest in the city, the store is packed with souvenirs and a mini-museum displaying how shops looked at the beginning of the 20th century. There are wooden cupboards and shelves, tins, bottles, and a vast selection of cash register, scales and advertising signs. It’s a great place to pick up souvenirs and buy traditional Slovak wines and chocolates. In a neighbourhood surrounded by luxury branded stores and modern restaurants, this little store is fighting to keep its history intact.
An interesting way of learning the city’s history is by following the coronation route, which passes under the gate. The entire path — following the coronation processions of Hungarian kings in the 16th century — is marked by gilded brass crowns in the pavement. On the route is the white and red Bratislava Castle, St. Martin’s Cathedral, the oldest church in the city — Franciscan Church, Renaissance Maximiliáns fount, the statue of Knight Roland and finally, Hlavné námestie (earlier, Coronation Square) on the banks of the Danube. Every year, in June, Bratislava comes out onto the streets to enact and participate in an actual coronation ceremony.
My favourite is the Gothic St. Martin’s Cathedral. It once saw the crowning of 10 kings, a queen, and seven royal wives from the Habsburg dynasty. A present-day marking of this history is a gilded replica of the Hungarian royal crown placed on a cushion atop its 85-metre-tall tower.
Another impressive and much-photographed church is a little away from the centre. On a quiet residential street resides the Church of St. Elizabeth of Hungary or the Blue Church. Designed by Hungarian architect Ödön Lechner, it is an art nouveau building with a mosaic of St. Elizabeth on the main façade. It’s all blue, inside and outside, with a ceramic roofing in a darker shade, and white detailing. It looks like a decorative cake, and contrasts wonderfully with the dull brown building opposite it.
I find the best place to take in the beauty of the Old Town is from a height. One of the more modern structures in the city is the UFO Tower on the Most SNP Bridge (or just UFO Bridge). I make my way on the pedestrian walkway below the motor bridge to reach the sightseeing tower, which is situated atop the bridge’s pylon. A lift takes me to the open-air observation deck, shaped like a flying saucer, and housing a restaurant and observation deck. It is here, 95 metres high, that I discover why Bratislava loves this tower so much: its view is unparalleled. One side shows off the red roofs and spires of the Old Town, the castle and the spire of St. Martin’s Cathedral, against the backdrop of the Little Carpathian Mountains. There’s the Danube, whose calm waters were disturbed by floating restaurants and boats. Another highlight is the communist-built, coloured apartment blocks of Petržalka suburb on the other side of the river. And, in the far distance, the Austrian and Hungarian borders.
Bratislava has often lost out in popularity to Vienna and Budapest, even Prague. But this ‘Little Big City’ is cheap, pedestrian-friendly, architecturally rich, scenic, and a good blend of old world and modern. It has the charm of a typical Eastern European city against the backdrop of one of continent’s greatest rivers.