Tourists don’t linger long in Bratislava, perhaps because its past woes seem to overshadow its present charms. Slovakia has endured a long history of insults: the most recent – and aesthetically displeasing – blows were inflicted by the Soviet Communists, preceded directly and unfortunately by the impact of the Nazis.
Before that, Bratislava was an unheralded addendum to the 1920 creation of Czechoslovakia after a long history under the thumb of Hungary and the Habsburgs. Its name has varied with its fortunes: the Germans called it “Pressburg”, the Slovaks knew it as Prešprorok, for the Hungarians it was Pozsony, the Greeks called it Istropolis and long, long ago, the Romans christened it Posonium.
In fact, it’s not even quite settled whether Slovakia is East or West. Some historical purists claim that “East of Vienna, the Orient begins.” But Martin Sloboda, our knowledgeable, Bratislava-boosting on-ship presenter that morning insisted that Slovakia belongs to Central, not Eastern Europe. Wandering its old-town streets, we saw evidence of both:
Slovakia has struggled for its hard-won identity and is greatly heartened by its recent economic boost as a member of the EU. But as Andrew Beattie says in The Danube: A Cultural History, “It will take decades for cities such as Bratislava to rid themselves of the visual blight inflicted by socialist city planners for whom functionality and cheapness were everything, while anything that could be seen as a nod towards an aesthetically pleasing environment in which people could live was frowned upon as dangerously bourgeois.”
There was the charming old town, and one lovely boulevard a few blocks from the river dotted with outdoor cafés; but beyond lay a distinctly unappealing jumble of Communist-era blocks looking as much as anything like the house of cards that period in history represented. Like every other guide we encountered on this trip, the one who shepherded us through the cobblestoned streets of old-town Bratislava spoke in hostile tones of Communism and what it did to Slovakia’s economy. As for the 1993 “velvet divorce” of Slovakia and the Czech Republic – well, “it’s complicated”, but we were told “most people didn’t want it.”
We are simple creatures, though, and what we will remember of our few hours there was the oft-photographed sculpture that redefines “manhole cover”,
the forbidding Communist-era Ludovit Stur statue,
an excellent capuccino
an introduction to “Bratislava rolls”,
and the earnest tinge of patriotism we felt when we saw our flag waving outside the American embassy. Our brief experiences in these countries so recently and tragically trampled by the Soviets and the Nazis, we were reminded that freedom can never be taken for granted.
We had a 3:00 p.m. “All Aboard” call, and soon we were underway again, the beautiful late September afternoon marred only by the awareness that we were heading toward our final port of call. We were sailing for Budapest!