BEFORE he arrived in Bratislava, Shawn Whitman had to think why he was going in the first place. The young American was on a programme run by Dirk Verheyen of Berlin’s Freie Universität, which brings students around Europe each year, with a stop in Bratislava.
So one rainy October morning last year, Whitman and 72 other predominantly American students set out from Austria by boat to visit the Slovak capital for a day. No matter what he would eventually see, Whitman knew it would be a surprise.
“I had absolutely no preconceptions,” he told The Slovak Spectator.
Whitman says his initial impression of the city was mixed. Though the remnants of communism loomed large, the atmosphere and the people displayed genuine hospitality and an infectious earnestness.
“The commie statues set up everywhere blew my mind,” Whitman said. “I felt like I was being watched. But then, on the other hand, everyone I met was so friendly.”
Any tourist who had been to Bratislava during communism could fill books with what a difference 20 years has made. However, Whitman felt the city still has some details to tweak if it wants to develop greater mass appeal.
One problem he experienced was the lack of a tourist-friendly public transportation system. Only a fraction of the network’s signs and schedules are written in English, which can be confusing for foreigners.
“I couldn’t figure out where I was half the time,” Whitman said, “and every time I tried to follow a sign, I wound up going in the wrong direction.”
But Whitman admits this paradox: the more developed Bratislava’s tourism industry becomes, the more it faces losing some of the exotic allure that many tourists crave.
With the Danube, one of Europe’s most fabled rivers, cutting through the city, Bratislava is also appealing for its lack of one of the most ruinous of all pests - hordes of tourists.
“I liked that it was not like Prague, where everyone is a tourist,” Whitman said. “Bratislava felt like a real city with its own people.”
Another difficulty Whitman faced was Slovakia’s use of the Slovak crown instead of the euro, which results in tourists having to exchange or withdraw money.
“It feels kind of backwards to be using different money than the rest of Europe,” Whitman said. “It’s definitely old fashioned.”
Still, as Whitman left Bratislava, he found himself raving about the same things many tourists develop an affection for: the quaint atmosphere, the diminutive souvenir stands that populate the historical centre and the terrific view from stately Bratislava Castle, which holds sway over the Danube.
“Not only did I love the castle,” Whitman said, “but it allowed me to savor how picturesque the landscape is around the city.”
But is this really all that makes Bratislava so charming?
Dirk Verheyen from the Freie Universität said he brings 73 students to Bratislava because it is unique, peaceful and, above all, because its fascinating history is completely different from anything American students have experienced.
“You may not love Bratislava,” he warns the students before they arrive, “you may not even like it, but one thing is for sure - you will never forget it.”
“I think everyone should visit Bratislava at least once,” he says. “The statues I saw there are going to stay with me always.”
21. Jan 2008 at 0:00 | Caitlin Arnould