“Why are we going to Bratislava?” Someone asks the question on this route every time we board our luxury coach to leave Vienna. Why aren’t we driving straight to Prague? That’s the city that most of us came to see.
Prague is coming, yes! But Smithsonian Journeys made a good decision to weave an overnight in Bratislava towards the end of this Old World Europe tour. People won’t realize how good a decision it is, though, until they get there.
I’ve learned not to promise too much along a tour. The Warsaw restaurant that gave us scrumptious salmon last year might be serving dried-out fish this year. A terrific guide at the National Gallery in Budapest could retire before I bring my next group through in May.
Still, I feel confident about Bratislava. People have low expectations. They may have read about the city under its historic names of Pressburg (German) or Pozsony (Hungarian), but that’s about it. You’d be surprised how many well-traveled folks think Slovakia and Slovenia are the same place. (They’re not.)
Plus, by now it’s Day 13 of the tour. Our heads are spinning after intense visits to Warsaw, Krakow, Budapest, and Vienna. People are getting a bit homesick, especially for their dogs and cats. Let’s just get this Bratislava side-trip over and move on to Prague!
Then we spot Bratislava in front of us: the white castle, the graceful slopes, the bend of the Danube. The bus winds past an ornate symphony hall and stately opera house. Somehow our driver backs the coach into a narrow, neatly treed alley next to a playful fountain. Baskets of flowers decorate the plaza and tidy, wooden kiosks beckon us to come sample Slovakian handicrafts and tasty treats.
Within an hour, we’re sitting on a touristy red “choo-choo train” that hauls us up the steep castle hill. Despite our average age (well past 60), we giggle like third graders.
From Castle Hill we can see the confluence of three countries: Slovakia, Hungary, and Austria. Of course, the map hasn’t always shown these borders. Spending any time in this part of the world, a person realizes that national borders are but shifting sand—valid for a few decades or centuries, but continuously susceptible to the winds of political and military change.
Bratislava’s hilltop castle is nicknamed the “Upside-down Table.” Today, restored but still largely empty inside, its walls glisten in the nighttime illumination. The Soviets rebuilt the castle during the Communist period, repairing not World-War Two destruction—as one might guess, but destruction caused by a fire when troops were garrisoned during the Napoleonic Era. In between, the castle lay in ruins. History moves at a different pace in this part of the world.
The entire Old-Town area has free wi-fi, a magnificent side-effect of the wholesale renovation of gloomy, dilapidated Bratislava after Communism. Slovakia’s economy has done quite well since then. A good deal of the GDP is based on car manufacturing, aided by supporting industry. Bratislava today wouldn’t be recognizable to those who saw it during the impoverished decades of Communist occupation.
But primarily Bratislava is an artistic city. The list of musicians who performed in Bratislava reads like a Who’s Who of Western music. In our hotel, portraits of composers hang along the corridors—men like Liszt, Stravinsky, and Schoenberg—as well as framed pages from their works. The voices of singers warming up for nightly performances drift from the top windows of the opera house. The Viennese still trek regularly to Bratislava for opera and philharmonic concerts.
Sour cabbage soup is popular here, too. Our witty local guide Katarina cautions us to eat this soup quickly, or it will leak through the bread bowl and perfume our clothes forever with cabbage smell. She keeps us laughing with dark Soviet-era anecdotes. They provide a channel of understanding into life in Communist (then) Czechoslovakia.
She also tells us the stories behind the charming, life-sized statues that grace the squares in Bratislava. Most are bronzes, such as the Napoleonic French soldier who leans quizzically over the back of a park bench. People love to snap a picture next to him. They rarely notice that his backside faces the French Embassy.
Another endearing statue with a story portrays a rotund local hero named Ignac Lamar who lived at the turn of the 20th century. He had a sad personal history but nonetheless wandered the streets, wishing good will to all and distributing pockets full of candy to the children.
A third shows a pudgy fellow in a workman’s hat, peeking up from a bronze manhole in the street. In one interpretation, this monument reflects the Communist era when citizens spied on each other’s daily habits. But in another interpretation, his intentions were focused on looking up the skirts of the ladies passing by. The children love him and routinely sit on his head.
We end our long day in Bratislava by driving outside of town to experience a village duck dinner. Most people will say this is the best duck they’ve ever tasted. In fact, may people can’t reconcile how they thought duck tasted with this scrumptious, slow-roasted bird, accompanied by pungent red cabbage and potato pancakes.
Back to the hotel we roll, sometimes singing in a state of happiness that can descend upon a well-fed, well-satisfied group (even if we are adults). A good night’s rest lies ahead of us on the lovely linens of our hotel. In the morning I know I will hear folks saying: “This is such a nice city. . . I had no idea! Why aren’t we spending another night here?” I smile.