WALKING TOUR

Review: BIS Tour: Facts a-plenty

The history of Bratislava is one of three distinct cultures sharing a single city. At times the Hungarians, Austrians, and Slovaks lived together peacefully, while at others they elbowed for supremacy. Walking through the Old Town nowadays, it's hard to imagine that for hundreds of years Slovak was Bratislava's third language, a tongue unrecognised in official matters although spoken by a large, underprivileged class.
Bratislava's English sightseeing tour - organised by the Bratislava Information Service (BIS) and running weekdays throughout the summer - reflects much of the city's tumultuous past. Dynasties come and go, religions wax and wane, artists live and die, all in the span of one hour.

Bratislava guided tours

Where: Information Centre on Primaciálne námestie
When: 2:00 Mon - Fri
Cost:300 Sk
Rating: 5 out of 10

The history of Bratislava is one of three distinct cultures sharing a single city. At times the Hungarians, Austrians, and Slovaks lived together peacefully, while at others they elbowed for supremacy. Walking through the Old Town nowadays, it's hard to imagine that for hundreds of years Slovak was Bratislava's third language, a tongue unrecognised in official matters although spoken by a large, underprivileged class.

Bratislava's English sightseeing tour - organised by the Bratislava Information Service (BIS) and running weekdays throughout the summer - reflects much of the city's tumultuous past. Dynasties come and go, religions wax and wane, artists live and die, all in the span of one hour.

The tour begins on Primaciálne námestie (Primatial Square), where you learn that the hat resting upon a palace statue was taken from the head of an actual catholic cardinal. Built in 1781, the palace for hundreds of years was where the city's monarchs were crowned by the church.

The tour then passes through the Old Town courtyard in the Town Museum out onto Hlavné námestie (Main Square), the eclectic architecture of which reveals an evolution through several historical periods - medieval, gothic and renaissance. In the centre stands Roland's fountain, built after a municipal fire in 1572 underscored an urgent need for water. Although the name Roland comes from German folklore, the face immortalised on the statue is that of King Maximillian, crowned in the capital in 1563.

These and other such facts doled out along the tour are interesting but difficult to keep track of. A good tour, let it be said, should adhere to three basic principles: establish a narrative thread, keep things entertaining, and provide information. While the importance of the second and third rule vary according to the individual tourist, the first is a necessity.

By those standards the BIS tour fails. Despite several interesting moments, the tour spills out facts and stories come higgledy-piggledy with no frame of reference. Given Bratislava's complex history, the information would have been far more useful if presented chronologically, or within the framework of who exactly was ruling what, and when.

Furthermore, tourists are expected to have a basic grasp of regional history. Those unfamiliar with the accomplishments of Maria Theresa, the Hapsburgs, George Rafael Donner or Franz List might find themselves lost.

Making up for some of these inadequacies is Eva Ducková, the tour guide on most afternoons. Ms. Ducková is a charming veteran of sightseeing tours throughout the entire former Austrio-Hungarian monarchy, a quirky encyclopedia of historical dates and tid-bits. Friendly and exceedingly fond of the shade, she is more than willing to answer any questions that arise, or make her tour conform to the interests of a specific group.

Her personality alone does not, however, make up for the shortcomings. Granted, the task of her and her colleagues - to cover Bratislava's history in 60 minutes - is not an easy one. But even bearing such difficulties in mind, their efforts remain half-hearted.

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