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Pressburg, Pozsony, Prešporok... Or is it Bratislava?Discover Slovakia with Spectacular Slovakia.
28 Mar 2012 Sanela Kurtek Regional News
If you look up and see a white castle in front of you and then, over your shoulder, a tower that looks like a UFO at the top of a massive steel bridge, than yes, you are standing in Bratislava, the capital city of Slovakia.
Bratislava is uniquely located on the border of two other countries, Austria and Hungary, and is spread across both sides of the river Danube. The river flows around the centre of the city, giving Bratislava a magical, romantic look in the evening, as the city lights shimmer off the water. During daytime, it also helps Bratislava show its green, natural side, with numerous parks and trees complementing the beautiful views of the wide river, flowing off into the horizon and eventually the Black Sea.
The city's strategic location has never been taken for granted. This area was populated over and over again, at least since Neolithic times. Its first inhabitants were of Celtic origin and settled on what is now Castle Hill. The area surrounding the hill became the centre of economy and power, and finally a Celtic oppidum (a pre-Roman administrative centre) was established. The Celts even founded a mint which produced silver coins, known as “biatecs”, named after what historians now believe was a Celtic ruler in the 1st century BC.
After the Roman Empire swept through Europe, Bratislava was a part of the Limes Romanus, a border defence system. The Romans brought wine culture to the territory, a tradition that remains important in the Bratislava region. Over the years the city was constantly changing its name: it was called Brezalauspurc, Pozsony, Pressburg, Prešporok, only settling on Bratislava in 1919.
A Town full of strangers
Bratislava’s Old Town is, to a degree, a town within a town, where ancient and modern intermingle and where history lurks around every corner of every building on every street.
The Old Town is not only a place where you can enjoy ice cream or cheap Slovak beer. It is an area steeped in culture, historical heritage and a unique atmosphere, where street performers provide a musical backdrop to a town scattered with numerous statues, monuments and grandiose façades. Tourists from around the world visit, and it is not at all strange if the only language you do not hear spoken on the streets is Slovak.
“The tourist who comes here can absorb a historical atmosphere as well as the air of a modern European city,” Bratislava’s Mayor Milan Ftáčnik told The Slovak Spectator.
Entering the Old Town from Rybné Square below the New Bridge, it may not immediately look particularly special. The grey steel of the bridge on one side and jaded sepia building on the other are hardly the most charming introductions to the place - but be sure to go further.
The path is flanked with trees on each side and it provides a pleasant place to start an exploratory walk. Emerging into Hviezdoslavovo Square, there's always a chance you will encounter various open-air exhibitions, installations, concerts or fairs in this part of town. There is usually a small market too on the square; little souvenir stands selling wooden toys, jewellery and sweets.
The grand, bright building with a fountain in front of it is the historical home of the Slovak National Theatre, and has stood at the end of Hviezdoslavovo Square since 1886. It was designed by the architects Fellner and Helmer, whose work can also been seen in many theatre buildings in Budapest or Berlin. Today, performances are divided between this, historical, building and the new building, which stands on bank of the Danube.
It shouldn’t take long to notice that the Old Town boasts a few interesting statues. Among them is the Schöner Náci, who stands in front of café Mayer on Sedlárska Street, greeting and welcoming visitors with a smile. The statue is based on a real man named Ignác Lamár, about whom many stories circulate throughout Bratislava. One of them tells of Lamár gradually losing his mind after his fiancé was taken to a concentration camp, leaving him wandering the streets of Bratislava in despair. Tourist guides often tell this story, adding that he even had his own table at the café, where he told stories and sang about his lost love.
A significantly happier figure is Čumil, a man peeking from a sewage hole on Panská Street. There’s a sign saying “Man at work” right next to him, which was put there after several drivers managed to hit the street-level statue, which is probably the most photographed attraction in Bratislava.
In the Main Square, one of Napoleon’s soldiers, called Hubert, leans on a bench in front of the French Embassy, providing another photo-opportunity. Hubert faces Maximilian’s Fountain in the middle of the square, which is frequently incorrectly referred to as Roland’s Fountain. There are two different stories about this fountain. The first is about king Maximillian II, who paid to build it so the people in the Old Town would have a water source near, in case of a fire. The other story is about a knight called Roland who is said to come to life on every New Year’s Eve. The story says he swings his sword at all four sides of the world and only the worthy citizen of Bratislava can see him. (But then it’s also said that anyone who has seen Roland do this probably just had the right amount to drink.)
This Main Square was once a market place, where all the citizens would meet to exchange their merchandise. Today it has almost the same function: people tend to arrange meetings here, have a cup of coffee or tea while watching the hundreds of locals and tourists alike marching by.
The square is surrounded by what were once the most important, strategic buildings in the city, all of which at one point would have had their own tower for defence. These days, only the Old Town Hall still has its tower, and it forms a part of one of the oldest stone buildings in Bratislava, finished in the 15th century, in Gothic style. As is typical, it has undergone several renovations over the years, and now represents a combination of many architectural forms. The building was not only used as a town hall but also as a prison and a mint, and as a municipal archive. Today, it hosts the Bratislava City Museum, with various exhibitions about the city’s past.
Behind the Old Town Hall on Primaciálne Square, the Neo-Classical Primatial Palace is another of Bratislava’s most significant buildings. It was once the headquarters of archbishops and cardinals, but it is perhaps more famous for its beautiful Hall of Mirrors, in which numerous political treaties and pacts have been signed over the years.
Visitors can visit the hall today, and the palace also houses an exhibition of the Mortlake tapestries from England. It remains a mystery how the tapestries made their way to Bratislava from Britain, but they are now among the most valuable art pieces to be found in Slovakia. The series of six tapestries tells the story of Hero and Leander in elaborate wool, silk and gilt thread.
If you continue forward from Primaciálne Square (and officially leave the Old Town for a moment), you will end up on the Slovak National Uprising (SNP) Square. Up the hill is a beautiful pink coloured Baroque church – Trinitarian church, which is connected to a monastery that was once the seat of Pressburg County. A few steps back, there is a memorial plaque on the ground in memory of the burning of witches during the 17th century Inquisition. Agatha Toott Borlobaschin, who was accused of witchcraft, was burned here in 1602.
Just across the street is a much happier spot, a children’s playground with a unique series of metallic tiles on the ground that produce a different tone if you step on them. By trying different combinations of steps and tiles, children (and adults) can create their own musical composition, just by jumping.
The way back into the Old Town is via St Michael’s Gate, which is the only one of four gates that has remained from medieval times. Its current appearance is the result of Baroque reconstructions and it now houses the museum of medieval fortifications and arms. The street that leads through the gate and back into the heart of the Old Town is one of the most exclusive in central Europe. Despite being very short, it nonetheless boasts numerous luxury shops.
Potential shoppers, with a little less money to splash around, should go straight forward through St Michael’s Gate and onto Obchodná Street, with a lot of markets and stores with reasonable prices and also great food. Here you can sample the national dish bryndzové halušky (potato dumplings with bryndza cheese) at the Slovak Pub or kebabs, burgers and other fast food along the way.
Religion has always played an important role in Bratislava society and on the relatively untouched street named Kapitulská, almost all the buildings are church property. The churches around Old Town present a great contribution to the aesthetics of the city. One of them is the Clarisas church and monastery on Klariská Street, with a five-edged tower adorned by rich sculptural decorations, built around 1400. Today, this space is used for concerts and boasts excellent acoustics.
One of the Bratislava’s most iconic buildings is the nearby St Martin’s Cathedral. The cathedral, these days in close proximity to the New Bridge, probably dates from the 13th century, but gained its present day Gothic appearance at the end of the 19th century. It consists of three naves, has an 85m tower, at the top of which is metre-tall replica of the Hungarian Crown placed on a wooden pillow. Eleven kings and eight queens of Hungary had their coronation ceremonies here.
This coronation tradition is a great part of Bratislava’s history and walking down the streets of the Old Town, you can see 174 little crowns in the stone paths, which marks the way of the coronation procession. Every summer this tradition comes back to life in a street procession. You can enjoy the festive atmosphere walking down the streets of the Old Town and watching plays about the coronation at Hviezdoslavovo Square.
The monarch and his or her procession would have made their way from the cathedral to the Old Town after the ceremony, where they would have been greeted by masses of excited and euphoric citizens. In front of the Franciscan church, the king would have honoured his new knights and then left the town, exiting through St Michael’s Gate to come to today’s SNP square. Here, the king took an oath to protect his country and its laws.
On the left bank of the Danube, on a coronation hill, he would have swung his sword to all four sides of the world to show that he would defend his country from all enemies. Then, he went with his followers to the castle, to celebrate.
Bratislava Castle is still the city’s most representative symbol. It stands proudly on a hill upon the bank of the Danube and has played witness to all the monarchist history of the city. For years it had its greyish colour, but it was recently renovated and now wears a white outfit that some people think is too extravagant.
“I would say it is too modern to be a castle,” said Alexandre Batista Hammerschmidt, 21, a student from Brazil. “It has lost its original essence due to all these reconstructions.” (The castle burned down in 1811,and only its shell survived. It was rebuilt in the 1950s and 60s, and since 2008 has been undergoing further, extensive reconstruction.)
Its blinding brightness now certainly stands in contrast to the grey stone fortifications around it, and the whole structure can be seen from many kilometres around. For all the criticism, it is a magnificent castle set in beautiful surroundings, and offers a view not only over the city but also into Austria and, sometimes on nice days, Hungary.
The castle was built on a site of Roman fortifications and was mentioned in 907 in the landmark historical documents, the Annals of Fulda, where the castle is mentioned as the scene of a battle between Hungarians and the Bavarian army. The current layout of the castle, with a regular quadrangular ground-plan around a central courtyard, is the result of construction in the Renaissance and early Baroque days.
The biggest boom the castle experienced was in the days of Empress Maria Theresa. She rebuilt the castle and placed inside it a picture gallery, library and valuable art collections, including paintings belonging to her son-in-law Albert Teschen, who lived in the castle with his wife, Maria Christina. This collection of masterpieces was later transferred to Vienna - remarkably fortuitously. The castle suffered a series of fires and damage from invaders and yet the collection was not damaged.
The first modern reconstruction began in the 1950s, but it wasn’t until a new, massive reconstruction project began in 2008 that it assumed its current appearance.
The works on the castle’s Baroque courtyard were finished in June 2010, but reconstruction of the interior continues. When the project started in 2008 it was planned to be finished in 2013, but recent estimations suggest it may be completed as early as autumn 2011.
All in all, the streets of Bratislava’s Old Town offer a pleasant, quiet walk through history, often without the masses of tourists swamping endless tangles of streets, like in other big cities. Bratislava’s magic owes much to its intimacy.
Outside of the Old Town, in a quiet, green neighbourhood, stands a building that looks like it was made from gingerbread and candy. Although its proper name is St Elisabeth's Church, it is colloquially referred to as the Little Blue Church, and was built between 1909-1913 in the Art Nouveau style, following the design of the architect Edmund Lechner.
It was dedicated to Saint Elisabeth of Hungary from the Royal House of Árpád, who was probably born in Bratislava Castle. On the main façade is an Italian mosaic of St Elizabeth holding roses in her arms, an illustration of a legend concerning her.
According to this yarn, the wealthy Saint Elisabeth went against the wishes of her noble husband’s family to help the poor. On one occasion, when she was carrying bread for the poor in her dress, her mother-in-law caught her and asked her to show what she was concealing. It is said that when Elisabeth opened her dress, the bread turned into roses.
The church is called the Little Blue Church, because of the blue mosaic stones in its facades.
Central Tourist Point
Old Town sights
Stará Radnica (Old Town Hall)
Dóm sv. Martina
Modrý Kostolík sv. Alžbety
Sightseeing Bratislava Prešporáčik
Restaurants and cafés
El Gaucho - Argentinian Steakhouse
Flowers Restaurant & Wine Bar
St. Hubert Restaurant
Next Apache (coffee house)
Airporthotel Chopin***(€ 80)
Arcadia Hotel Bratislava***** (€ 140)
Austria Trend Hotel Bratislava**** (€ 119)
City Hotel Bratislava*** (€ 70)
Crowne Plaza**** (€ 120)
Hotel Albrecht***** (€ 129)
Hotel Apollo**** (€ 90)
Hotel Aston*** (€ 109)
Hotel Astra*** (€ 40)
Hotel Blue (€ 89)
Holiday Inn **** (€ 89)
Hotel Junior (€ 65)
Hotel Kyjev (€ 40)
Hotel Marrol’s**** (€ 100)
Hotel Tatra**** (€ 119)
Kempinski Hotel River Park***** (€ 179)
Mamaison (€ 109)
Patio Hostel (€ 23)
Radisson Blu Hotel Carlton**** (€ 150)
Sheraton***** (€ 150)
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