Discovering Time Travel in Bratislava

Worth knowing if you are visiting...

Guidebooks mentioning Slovakia's capital, Bratislava, spend more ink extolling the pastoral charms of the surrounding countryside — the wineries, the former Habsburg hunting lodges, the ceramics factories — than on the city itself. Sketched out in broad strokes with references to monuments like the turreted castle that looms over the Danube, Bratislava often comes off sounding like an Austro-Hungarian also-ran.

What the books don't evoke are the sensations that one is both stepping back in time and leaping into the future while strolling through the city's compact historic center.

Main streets like Panska and Michalska are lined with giddy Baroque palaces in shades of marigold and lavender. Onion-domed turrets and spires rise above churches, a grand opera house draws music lovers from neighboring Austria and fin de siècle coffee houses fill up in late afternoon.

Less trafficked lanes, like Kapitulska, look like 19th-century paintings, nary a power line in sight. The street ends with the soaring verticality of St. Martin's Cathedral, a Gothic church consecrated in 1452 that has tremendous historic importance — 11 monarchs, including Maria Theresa, were crowned there from 1563 to 1830.

Yet amid this Old World backdrop there is the buzz of a city brimming with exuberance. With its combination of well-worn cobblestones by day and well-mixed cocktails after dark, Bratislava has become a popular weekend destination for a free-spirited crowd from across Europe and beyond.

"I've been elsewhere in the region, and the amazing thing about Bratislava is that you have these glorious buildings and historic context, but then you've got boutiques like this one tucked into them," said a visiting Briton, John Strachan, who was on a shopping spree with his girlfriend at the new Dana Kleinert boutique on Venturska Street. "And the flight from London cost all of about £50," he added.

Mr. Strachan is not alone in taking advantage of cheap fares from cities like London or Berlin. Indeed, all across the city, Bratislavans are managing to attract visitors with an improbable variety of enterprises tucked into those glorious buildings.

From their courtyards, multiple doors and passageways wind through former palaces leading to lively beer gardens, shops selling etched glassware, art galleries, a wine museum or a Turkish-style tearoom that also stocks seven varieties of Argentine maté. Weather permitting, the action spills out into the courtyards and streets.

"It's amazing how far the city has come in a little more than a decade," said Juraj Alner, a Slovakian journalist who moved to the city with his family in 1948. "There used to be no life here: you didn't go out because there was nowhere to go. Now you can't even cross the streets of the old town in the summer for all the packed outdoor cafes."

Even the remnants of those dark days are up for reappraisal. The Novy Most, or New Bridge, built in 1972 by the Soviet-backed government, is easily Bratislava's most visible structure. For many, the enormous asymmetrical bridge is an eyesore that destroyed the scale and perspective of the riverfront along with some historically important neighborhoods, like the ancient Jewish quarter. But for anyone with a taste for chunky modernism and architectural audacity, the bridge holds some appeal.

Last summer that appeal became easier to savor when the discus-shaped observation deck atop its tower was converted from a kitsch coffee shop to a swanky cocktail lounge and restaurant called UFO. Most visitors there stick to the liquid menu, which includes concoctions with names like Tiger's Milk or Grapeful Dead.

While sobriety is not exactly illegal, liquor does seem to lubricate a fair amount of the local interaction. Before the napkin is in your lap, the jingling aperitif cart will have pulled up tableside at Slovenska Restauracia, where waiters wear Slovakian folk dress and trellised walls are laden with ceramics and braids of garlic and peppers. In late November, I joined the locals in quaffing a borovicka, a potent juniper-flavored liqueur served in traditional long-necked, pot-bellied shot glasses that seem designed to get as much booze into your system as quickly as possible. I downshifted to a glass of the hearty local red wine to accompany a meal of fragrant garlic soup and creamy turkey paprikash.

At neighboring tables, business deals were going down in English, Slovak, German, French and Chinese. From the number of high-end brands like D & G, MaxMara and Gucci appearing in store windows it would seem that business is booming.

"Most of those shops came in with the E.U.," one local said, referring to the Slovak Republic's entry into the European Union in May 2004.

But Bratislava, which has actually been the capital of modern Slovakia since 1968, when the Soviet-bloc Czechoslovakia decentralized into a federation, could teach a master class in European relations. The city and the country have been adapting to the shifting cultural and political landscape for a thousand years.

Bratislava, known as Pressburg before 1919, sits at a strategic crossroads between Vienna, Prague and Budapest. Home to several universities, the city has long had a rich intellectual and cultural life — as when the 6-year-old Mozart played for Maria Theresa in the stunning Palffy Palace.

The palace is now home to the City Art Gallery, which recently inaugurated "Passage," an installation by the Slovakian artist Mantej Kren, which uses mirrors to expand stacks of books into an infinite library — a fitting image for a city of learning.

BEYOND the City Art Gallery, Bratislava also has the Slovak National Gallery, which displays mostly paintings and betrays the Austro-Hungarian predilection for Dutch artists. Bratislava Castle is home to several museums, including one that exhibits relics of the region's Celtic, Roman and Moravian past; another features musical instruments, clocks, arms and armor and Slovakian furniture.

After dark, the modern-day mix of cultures gets shaken up like a good apple martini in the city's heaving night scene.

"Bratislava deserves its reputation as a party destination," said Eva Boskovicova, who runs the Botel Gracia, a 29-room hotel on a former steamer moored near the New Bridge. "We do get a lot of British stag parties," she added.

Nearby is the truly underground Subclub, a former nuclear fallout shelter tunneled into the castle foundations. It is now trance and techno-music central, where narrow tunnels lead to a large vaulted chamber in which the D.J. and dance floor take the place of whatever accommodation the communist government had in mind for itself in case of nuclear Armageddon.

Those more interested in the first two activities may want to linger after dessert at restaurants like Cajway, which practically turn into clubs when the kitchens close around 10 p.m. and D.J.'s, African drummers or jazz musicians turn up the volume and diners end up dancing among the tables.

As for the surrounding countryside, excursions can be made to the Devin Castle, a center of the Moravian Empire in the ninth century. There are also wineries and delicately painted ceramics to buy in the hamlets of the Little Carpathian Mountains.

But now that post-Soviet Bratislava is in full bloom, the surrounding hills may not beckon quite so loudly.

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