Bratislava a traveller's review

Bratislava may be unspoilt, chocolate-box pretty and hailed as ‘the new Prague’, but Tom Lappin also enjoyed the Slovakian capital’s refreshing irreverence

There has been an enduring quest for nearly two decades now, or at least since the Berlin Wall came down. Jaded Euro-hipsters gather and raise a mournful toast to the old Czech capital and argue about where they will find the ‘new Prague’.

The consensus is that the Bohemian jewel is now tarnished, ruined by too many goateed college kids, hyperinflation and all that free-market vulgarity that ensues when a mournful but beautifully atmospheric city shakes off the yoke of half a century of state oppression.

Various replacements have emerged. The Baltic capitals had a chance, until the first stag parties staggered down their Ryanair stairways onto the tarmac, clutching their carry-outs.


we stayed here for about a year and we loved every minute of it


For a closer approximation of the tranquil melancholy of Warsaw Pact Prague, though, near neighbour Bratislava is perfect. Slovakia was always the unfashionable part of that bolted-together convenience state Czechoslovakia. Since independence (achieved in the touchingly named Velvet Divorce of 1993) it has maintained a dignified reticence in contrast to the absinthe-swigging, supermodel-breeding, footballing geniuses of the Czech Republic.

The Slovakians slipped quietly into the EU with the last intake, but Bratislava remains a staid, even reserved Mitteleuropa city, blessed with old town squares as beautiful as any in Old Europe, cursed with the obligatory stretches of social realist housing blocks, but as yet slow to succumb to the homogenising influence of global commerce. So much so that it’s jarring to witness the only exception, a garish branch of Accessorise next to the austere medieval Michalska gate-tower on the northern edge of the old town.

It has escaped the swift free-market makeover inflicted on so many eastern European chocolate-box cities because most Slovakian tourism is still directed to the east and the hiking possibilities of the Tatra Mountains. Many visitors are just passing through the airport on their way to Poprad and the peaks. It would be easy to upset the beauty of Bratislava’s small old town with a few ill-considered developments. For the time being it has been sensitively preserved. The businesses here tend to be small shops, inviting coffee-houses, or those murkily cellar-like restaurants characteristic of all Europe east of the Rhine.

The old town’s main thoroughfare is the street that becomes Michalska after Venturska, cafes alternating with baroque mini-palaces built by the Hungarians. As Bratislava’s tourist industry grows, this will be the city’s prime site. For now it has an easy grace, tourists mingling with locals looking for ground coffee or fresh pastries.

Hlavni Namesti is still a recognisable old market square, now a meeting place and café-fringed plaza with a smart fountain at its centre. Franciscan and Protestant churches gaze across each other in friendly sectarian proximity, while the buildings maintain a kind of uniform aesthetic despite ranging in architectural style from baroque to early-20th-century art nouveau.

Behind it, the Primacialne Namesti is a less-imposing square but houses one of the city’s most impressive edifices, the Primate’s Palace. Back when the city was part of the Austrian Empire and known as Pressburg, Napoleon signed a treaty with the Holy Roman Emperor Francis II here, in the Hall of Mirrors, after humiliating him at the battle of Austerlitz in 1805. The impression remains that the Slovakians were relaxed about seeing their imperial master humbled.

Bratislava seems to have cultivated a cynical irreverence over the centuries. Maybe it’s the Hungarian influence, but sly playfulness persists in the ornamentation on the streets of the old town. The most obvious examples are the three bronze statues, one of a paparazzo leaning round a street corner with camera at the ready, one of a Frenchman (assumed to be an affectionate satire of Napoleon) leaning on a bench near Hlavni Namesti, and, most strangely, one of a workman’s head emerging from a manhole on Panska Street. Take my word for it; coming back through the deserted old town in a thick blizzard after a few Carpathian brandies (you haven’t lived until you’ve tried it, and might not live much longer afterwards), it is quite disturbing to see a snow-capped head emerging from the sewers.

One guidebook accuses Bratislava’s castle of looking like “an upturned bed” and it’s not an unfair description. The building started as a fortress and was variously remodelled as a palace, religious retreat and military barracks. Each use left its mark, as did second world war air-raids. It’s not a place to look at, but rather to gaze from, given that it offers commanding views over Bratislava’s picturesque old quarter and the regimented grids of the housing on the other side of the Danube.

You can see three nations from here. Beyond the tower blocks, that’s Austria to the west, and Hungary to the south.

The museum of folk music in the castle has a vaguely Scottish feel to it, with endless arrays of pipes, drums, wooden whistles and outlandish attire. The National Museum is more eclectic, with furniture, rural crafts and a few middling examples of modern art. If you wonder why all the Slovakians are heading for one area of the museum, they are thronging to the ice hockey hall of fame. The sport is an obsession here.

Non-hockey players get their padding from the local food. Slovakian cuisine can be a treat in cold weather, a burden in the summer. The decades of dearth encouraged a reliance on cheap staples, dumplings made from flour or potato, with cabbage, curd cheese and pancakes. More recently the Slovakians have rediscovered their Austro-Hungarian culinary influences and brought back richly sauced goose and duck dishes and freshwater fish recipes for pike, carp and trout.

For the finest traditional Slovakian meal in the area, you will have to make a little effort to travel half-an-hour out of town to the village of Slovensky Grob, which has been staging “goose feasts” for the last century or so. The Husacina U Galika restaurant observes the traditional way of cooking its goose. The bird is washed in milk, roasted with apples, then roasted again to crisp it. The result is unctuous, sweet and happily greasy.

Otherwise, Bratislava restaurants tend to incline towards the loyal pig. The restaurant boards along Michalska proudly proclaim a “hog-killing feast”. Sausages, trotters, offal and ham await inside the Im Hof restaurant. Further down the street, Lyra specialises in goulash, Hungarian or Moravian style, both designed to soak up the local beer, which might not have the purists purring as in the Czech Republic, but is superior to most of our insipid lagers.

The Bratislava culinary speciality is a daunting dish called bryndzove halušky, a potato dumpling with sheep’s cheese, a nightmare cocktail of carbs and fat, but surprisingly flavoursome.

What is upsetting is that most of the shopping now seems to take place in Tesco on Kamenne Namesti. I stood gazing at a shelf stacked with around a hundred different flavours of tea. Alongside me, an elderly Slovakian, who must have lived through decades of deprivation in the communist era, spat out a Slavic tirade of disgust. When he turned to me for a response and I feebly asked “anglicky?” he pointed out in pretty decent English that you could get the same tea in one of the small shops in town for at least 10 crowns less, but that the snobs thought it trendier to shop in Tesco. In a piquant inversion of what happens in the west.

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