We went from overly fancy Vienna to much less fancy Bratislava. Our first thoughts rolling in on the train station left something to be desired. Bratislava is only an hour train ride from Vienna, plenty of day trips for sightseers are offered, but couldn’t feel more worlds apart. Despite its rundown facade outside old-town, there is an energy in the city that could make Slovakia an “up-and-coming” country, much akin to Estonia.
One of the most interesting things for us on this trip, especially now through Central & Eastern Europe, is learning the different “versions” of history from the different countries. In one, what is referred to as a vast empire is considered an occupation & oppression in others. While Vienna spoke so highly of their proud Habsburg Empire, we could clearly hear from our Slovakian tour guides that it was of no free choice that they were a part of it.
From what we could see, the country had not fared quite so well as some of the others after the fall of the Iron Curtain. Heavy reliance on car manufacturing & a considerably lower minimum wage than other countries on the Euro has pushed younger, higher educated workers elsewhere. Outside the “old town”, its like stepping back in time 30 years to parks & buildings not much changed since the retreat of the Soviet Union.
For us, Bratislava felt like the little brother of cities like Prague, or even more so Tallinn. Though daytrips are offered, to only spend a few hours in the city would not be doing it justice. Those focused on the old town, as almost all do, would miss some of the more recent events of the city.
There’s no mistaking a Soviet era memorial. After all our countries visited, we feel we can spot them a mile away. They also knew how to build a monument – they are all impressive. The Slavín Monument speaks to the country’s difficult past, caught between various waring powers. Over 6,800 Red Army troops are buried in 4 mass graves at the top of the hill. The fact that the Soviet Army lost so many soldiers in liberating numerous cities from the Nazis cannot be understated.
But after the fall of the Iron Curtain, when many people wanted to move on & move beyond the communist past, the memorial was a bit forgotten. Just a few years ago, an entire bottom room was just rediscovered under the monument. Left forgotten in time when no one used to visit, it is now being discussed as a possible museum. Interestingly, the Russian Embassy now pays to light & upkeep the memorial.
Not unlike most of the European “old towns” & probably even more so, this is the spot for tourists. From the Old Town Hall & city center, which hosts musical festivals, to the street performers & plethora of weird souvenir shops, it could be any number of places we’ve seen. Bratislava Castle however, is quite impressive. Completion & renovation finalized by the famous Maria Theresa (ya know one of those Habsburg rulers), it was used by her son-in-law to display great works of art. Today its undergoing major rehab after years of neglect but its an impressive site to see & worth a tour.
Apparently, like Prague, the town seems to be a large destination for stag parties or something guessing by the large groups of men strolling around in matching shirts, costumes & bridal veils…One slight difference are the numerous, er, lady “club hosts” slyly chatting them up on their nightly specials. For some reason, we were never offered these great deals.
Touring around we learned a couple of old Slovakian customs apparently still common today. One involves young men throwing water on girls they find cute for Easter Monday (its more harmless than it sounds I think), & another, people apparently keep a live carp in their bathtubs for a few days before Christmas. Come Christmas Eve you cook up the fish for dinner. We have to skillfully let kids believe in Santa Clause; can you imagine having to convince your kid the fish you are eating isn’t the one they thought was going to be their new pet? Nice.
Seeing the city as part of a day trip wouldn’t be doing the city or country justice. Its worth a night or two to see the parts outside of Old Town & understand their history. Though it hasn’t always been smooth, they are proud of their role in history. Though in many of the history books, “Velvet Revolution” is said to have begun in Prague, locals are quick to tell you one day earlier Slovak students began their demonstrations in Hviezdoslavovo námestie (Hviezdoslav Square), back when the two countries were united as Czechoslovakia.
Currently, you can see the progress Bratislava is making. New commercial & high-rise buildings are in progress, large economical strides are being made to attract new industry & talent to stay in the country. We saw & heard a lot of hope from our local guides, one saying she thinks things will be very different even in just a few years from now. She hopes & urges everyone will come back & see what the future has brought to Bratislava.