‘Man at Work’ – Čumil the Peeper by Viktor Hulík, 1997
Bratislava – Central Europe’s best kept secret!
Snuggled along the banks of the Danube River, Bratislava is one of Central Europe’s best kept secrets.
Often overlooked in favour of Central Europe’s ‘Golden Triangle’ – Vienna, Budapest and Prague – Bratislava is Slovakia’s largest city but with a population of only 413,000, it is a relatively small compared its neighbouring capitals. While Bratislava’s size might seem limiting, this is more than accounted for by the city’s rich history, relaxed pace and friendly demeanor of local residents.
Off the beaten path…
We started with a visit to Trhovisko Miletičova, Bratislava’s largest open-air market. The market is open Monday to Friday from 6 am to 4:30 pm, Saturdays from 6:00 am – 12:00 pm and closed on Sundays. Summer is probably the best time to come, but Miletičova’s worth a visit even in the dead of winter. Few vendors spoke English, French or German, but they were very friendly and eager for us sample their products. While the heart of the market is filled with make-shift stalls and plastic sheeting, wooden huts surround the market where you’ll find bargain-priced clothing, footwear, flowers and authentic Slovak street food. At the back of the market, you’ll find a small cafeteria and a pub serving local foods and beverages such as Kofola, the Slovak version of Coca-Cola. For those of you with a bullet-proof liver try ordering the Slivovica, a double shot of plum distillate which – at more than 50% alcohol – is the perfect ‘medicine’ to stave off a winter’s chill!
Our next stop was to Bratislava’s historical center and – as chance would have it – an artisan food market and a bazaar in the Old Market Hall (Stara trznica). On the main floor vendors sold artisan cheeses, meats, liqueurs and other local delicacies all offering samples to tempt your taste buds and fill your belly (woohoo – more free food!). Vintage clothing, used book and antique vendors were found of the second floor and there were plenty of tables set up for market goers to relax with a cup of coffee or a mug of Svařák (Glühwein / mulled wine)
Old World Charm
The historical district is beautifully preserved with colorfully restored building facades and full of old world charm. At the heart of the Old Town, is the Main Square (Hlavné Námestie) featuring cobbled streets, 18th-century burghers houses, the famous Roland Fountain and the Town Hall (Stará radnica) which dates back to the 14th century. You can easily spend an entire day exploring the historical Old Town but keep in mind that many shops close early on Saturdays during the winter although some souvenir shops will stay open until around 6 pm.
Travel Tip! Keep an eye out for a series of quirky yet charming statues installed around the Old Town, the most famous being Viktor Hulík’s ‘Čumil – the Peeper’, unveiled in 1997.
Towering above the Old Town is Bratislava Castle (Bratislavský hrad). Situated on a hill overlooking the Danube river, this 17th-century Habsburg castle is often called ‘the upturned table’ due its 4 octagonal corner towers. To access the castle, take the pedestrian underpass by St Martin’s Cathedral (Dom svateho Martina) and follow the signs up the steps towards the castle gardens.
As you make your way towards the castle, you’ll see a number of statues. My favourite is on the first rampart and appears to be a Rabenmutter (Raven Mother) which loosely translates as a loveless or uncaring mother who doesn’t take care of her children. While I couldn’t find any specific information about her, she might be a depiction of Hans Christian Andersen’s fabled Anne Lisbeth. Andersen visited Bratislava (then called Pressburg) in 1841. During his visit Andersen was asked if he would write a tale about the city, to which he replied that there was no need to as the city was a fairytale in itself. There is a statue commemorating the famous fairy tale author in Hviezdoslav square.
On the second rampart, stands Saint Elizabeth (1207 – 1231). Elizabeth was princess of the Kingdom of Hungary and Landgravine of Thuringia, Germany. She was born at the Castle but later raised in the Thuringian court before marrying Louis IV who was to leave her a widow by the age of 20. A devout Catholic, Elizabeth known for ministered to the sick and giving clothing and money to the poor. After her death, Elizabeth quickly became a symbol of Christian charity and was canonized a few years later.
By the main entrance of the castle, you’ll find a statue of King Svatopluk I (830 AD – 894 AD) – or Svatopluk the Great – by Slovak sculptor Ján Kulich unveiled in 2010. Svatopluk’s empire encompassed most of what is now modern Slovakia during his reign (870–871, 871–894).
Drawing back the Iron Curtain…
Occupying a unique place in history, Bratislava sits directly on the former Iron curtain which separated Western capitalist countries from the communist East until its fall in 1989.
The castle grounds offer an excellent view of Most SNP (a.k.a. Nový Most or New Bridge) named after the Slovak National Uprising. The bridge was constructed between 1967 – 1972 across the Danube river. The world’s first asymmetrical suspension bridge, Most SNP is one of the longest cable-stayed bridges in the world. The bridge spans the river linking the Petržalka housing estate with the Old Town. At the top of the pylon, 85 m above ground, is a UFO-shaped restaurant.
Overlooking the city from the castle grounds, we were overwhelmed by the seemingly endless line of communist-era concrete housing blocks stretching across the vista above the Danube river. Known as the ‘Petržalka‘ housing estate, this area is a good example of what buildings built during the communist era look like and is one of the densest residential areas in Eastern Europe.
After the sun went down, it was time to make our way back to Austria. With only a day to visit, we only scratched the surface but with so much to see and do we’ll be back soon!
Have you visited Bratislava? Please share your thoughts in the comments section!