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Bratislava (page 1)
With a few exceptions, just about everything of interest in Bratislava is in the city's Old Town, the Stare Mesto. From their appearance you'd guess that most of the buildings in this part of the city date from the 17th or 18th centuries, but in many cases a newer facade conceals a considerably older building. Bratislava survived the Napoleonic Wars and World Wars I and II without sustaining too much damage, but surviving the Communists was a different matter. The decision to build the ugly Novy most ("New Bridge"; just down river is the Stary Most - "Old Bridge") and the major road leading up to it (Staromestska ulica) necessitated the tearing up a huge section of the Old Town, mainly the old Jewish quarter. Still, the majority of the Old Town did survive, and has been undergoing an extensive renovation since the collapse of communism. Much remains to be done, and there are still areas of boarded up or crumbling buildings, but it is evident that a massive amount of time and money has been poured into the restoration, just while we were there we saw around a dozen buildings under scaffolding with workmen all over them.
Probably as good a place as any to start a tour of the Old Town is Michalska Brana (Michael's Gate), also its most northerly point (it's just south off the western end of Namestie SNP). This is the last surviving of the city's original gates; you first walk over a small bridge over what once the city moat, now filled with gardens, then pass through a rather plain gateway. It's the second, inner gateway and the tower above it that's much the more impressive, and one of the major landmarks of the Old Town. The stretch of street between the two gates is a favourite haunt of buskers, artists, and the odd beggar. The white tower itself is a mish-mash of historical and architectural styles. The lower, gateway part dates from the late 13th century, while the green copper spire on top wasn't added until the 18th. Somehow it all blends together rather nicely though.
It's possible to climb up the tower (from the inside obviously); as you go up there's a small museum spread over the tower's floors which is an exhibition of weapons and armour, starting off with swords and axes, going through guns and cannons, with the top floor apparently detailing, for some totally obscure reason, show-jumping. Beats me. Anyway, of much more interest are the views you get from the balcony that runs round the top of the tower (not recommended for vertigo sufferers); the roofs and alleys of the Old Town and the castle look stunning from here.
Running south from the gate is Michalska ulica, probably the major street of the Old Town (until it changes its name to Venturska ulica half way down). This is one street where the restoration of the Old Town has been fully completed and the street is now a riotous collection of different coloured buildings, many of them former aristocratic mansions, and in the summer it's lined with outdoor tables from the many cafes and restaurants along it. Where Zelena ulica branches off from Venturska is the attractive pale yellow 18th century palace called the Mozartov Dom, so named on the rather dubious grounds that Mozart might have once played a concert here. It now, appropriately, houses the Austrian Embassy, and has a very nice looking doorway.
At the southern end of Venturska you can turn right (or southwest, should you have a compass) down Panska. The little expanse of green on your right (or north, to those who've come prepared) is called Rundnayova namestie, and has a few statues, one a bust of Liszt but the rest were people we'd never heard of. The big church you can see on the other side of the park is the cathedral, but we'll come to that in a minute. Keep heading towards the end of Panska; there's a rather nice looking Art Nouveau building on your left, the Salvator Pharmacy, as you go. Once you reach the end of Panska you'll find yourself in a little concrete square mainly used by people getting to the pedestrian underpass under Staromestska ulica. There are nice views of the cathedral from here though, and the strange looking statue in the middle of the square is a monument to Bratislava's Jews, many of whom were deported to their deaths in the Holocaust during World War II. Before Staromestska and the Novy Most were built, this was part of the Jewish Quarter of the Old Town.
It's from here that you get a good view, if there is a good view of the colossal Novy Most. Now I'm sure that there must be uglier bridges somewhere in the world, but then they didn't require the destruction of a good proportion of Bratislava's Old Town to be built. Apparently bridge and engineering enthusiasts marvel at the Novy most's innovative design, a suspension bridge with only one supporting column, off-set on one bank of the river. That may be so, but it's beside the point. The bridge is just plain ugly, pure and simple. For those of who you remember the BBC program "The Tripods" the supporting column, with it's cafe on top, looks like one of those. Except it's only got two legs.... Those of you who want to know why communism failed in Europe failed, here's your answer:
Well, OK, it isn't quite that bad....
If you head up the steps alongside Staromestska and away from the pedestrian underpass you'll come out next to the western facade of Bratislava Cathedral, or to give it its full name Dom Sv Martina. Construction of the cathedral started in the 13th century on the site of an older church, and it was finally finished and consecrated in 1452. From the 16th to 19th century this is where the coronations of Kings and Queens of Hungary (who were also the Emperors/Empresses of Austria-Hungary) took place.
The Cathedral's appearance is a little odd; the tower appears to be far to big when compared to the rest of the buildings, and it's not the most ornate or decorative of buildings, although the simplicity of its copper spire, red roof tiles, and plain white walls are attractive in their way, and there's a nice gothic looking doorway and a copper-domed side chapel on it's northern facade. Unfortunately the interior was closed for renovations while I was there (the building of the bastard Novy Most and Staromestska, and the subsequent constant flow of traffic have badly damaged the Cathedral's foundations) so I didn't get to have a look inside. Strangely enough I found that the Cathedral looked more impressive the further away from it I got, where the missized tower isn't quite so jarringly obvious, and it probably looked best of all when they light the exterior up at night when it looks a pristine white, rather than the slightly shabby grey it actually is. The best combination of these views was possibly that from our hotel room at night, although the bottle of Tokaj wine we were knocking back at the time might have added something to this.
North of the Cathedral, and running alongside Staromestska is the last surviving section of Bratislava's medieval city walls. They run for about 200 metres, and some parts (probably the defensive towers) are missing. Where parts of the wall have been reconstructed it's been done in modern red brick, so you can which bits are original. While we were here the gates allowing access to the walls were all padlocked.
From the Cathedral follow Kapitulska north. This is one of the more interesting and atmospheric parts of the Old Town, mainly because the renovation that has spruced up the rest of the Old Town hasn't fully spread to this part of it yet. As a result you'll still see the odd crumbling building next to one that has already been immaculately restored. Some buildings are boarded up completely, and these would appear to be the ones that are next in line for renovation. Although Bratislava is hardly over-run with hordes of tourists, this is the most deserted, peaceful part of the Old Town.
When you're heading up Kapitulska it's worth making a quick detour down Farska ulica (on your right) to have a look at the convent of Sv Klara (Church and Monastery of the Poor Clares). Work on the church building started in the 14th century and although the interior (which now houses a University library) is off limits to tourists you can still admire the beautiful gothic spire, complete with gargoyles.
Keep heading up Kapitulska, and then at the top turn right and follow Bastova ulica, a lovely little cobbled, narrow passageway, with spans overhead linking the buildings on both sides of it, and you'll find yourself back at Michalska Brana. No, you're not lost, I meant to do that. This time head off down Zamocnicka, directly opposite Bastova, which then joins up with Frantiskanska ulica. On your right is the Franciscan Church (Kostol Frantiskansov). The peeling yellow facade hides a considerably older building, construction started in the mid-13th century. Have a look inside the porch and you can see where they've peeled away some of the more modern plaster around the door to reveal the original masonry. The church also contains a chapel to St John the Evangelist; if you have a look around the side of the church it seems as if 2 entirely different buildings have been stuck together, the yellow plaster and white pillars of the main body of the church don't exactly blend in with the bare stone of the chapel. The gargoyle-studded gothic spire on the opposite side of the church just adds to the chaos, the result of a couple of major rebuilding and extensions. The church and attached monastery are historical significant because it was here in 1526 that the Hungarian nobles decided to elect the Habsburg Holy Roman Emperor as King of Hungary, effectively politically linking Hungary to Austria until 1918. Opposite the church is the baroque Mirbachov Palac, now housing the 17th and 18th century collections of the Municipal Gallery.
At the end of Frantiskanska turn right down Ursulinska and you'll pass another church, the 17th century Church and Convent of St Ursula's Sisters (Kostol Ursulinok).
At the end of Ursulinska you'll come to one of Bratislava's most impressive squares, Primacialne namestie. The big, pink building that dominates the square is the Primate's Palace (Primaciilne palic), Primate in this case referring to the Catholic Archbishop of Esztergrom, whose patch covered Bratislava, rather than to some kind of monkey (sorry to get your hopes up, Dave). The Renaissance Palace was built towards the end of the 18th century, and history buffs will probably already be aware that it was here that the Treaty of Pressburg was signed between France and Austria after the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805. Well, you never know, it might pop up in a pub quiz sometime.... The Palace now houses a museum, which includes some paintings (nothing famous), and a set of tapestries, woven in London in the 17th century and only rediscovered by chance at the beginning of the 20th century. Probably the best reason to visit the museum though is to have a chance to look around the interior of the Palace, the highlight of which is the Mirror Hall, the room in which the 1805 Treaty was signed by Napoleon and the Holy Roman Emperor Francis I.
If you can't be bothered looking round the inside of the Palace then the least you can do is go through its main arch, which takes you to a pleasant little courtyard at the centre of which is a nice enough fountain featuring a statue which we're pretty sure was of St George and the Dragon. It doesn't cost anything....
The western edge of Primacialne namestie is taken up by Bratislava's Old Town Hall (stara radnica), or at least a part of it; the earliest parts of the Town Hall date from at least the 13th century but have been added to and merged together over the years, with the result that today it is an amalgamation of around 500 years worth of different architectural and decorative styles. This Eastern side of it is perhaps the least decorative, with the exception of the intricate patterned roof tiles.
The Town Hall holds a museum, a branch of the Municipal Museum, housing a rather eclectic collection ranging from medieval torture implements through to 1969 European Cup Winner's Cup medals. Again, it's probably worth going into the museum purely to have a look around the inside of the building. The Town Hall also hosts the Wine Museum (Expozicia vinohradnicko vinirski), which tells the story of the Slovak wine industry and wine making in general. Everything's in Slovak, and there are no samples so if you're at all interested in Slovakian wine you'd be better off simply going to a bar and drinking a bottle of the stuff.
Head through the archway under the gabled window, passing the stone benches with the decorative dragon arm-rests, and you'll find yourself in an open courtyard in the middle of the Town Hall. Particularly attractive are the decorative ironwork grills over the windows and two-storied arcade, looking like some kind of Roman villa.
Head out through the archway opposite and you'll come out in the Main Square (Hlavne namestie), the heart of Bratislava's Old Town. The Town Hall dominates eastern side of the square, and it's at its most decorative here, from the elaborate, yellow, copper-topped Gothic Tower, one of the major landmarks of the Old Town, to smaller details such as the multicoloured tiles over the gabled window.
Although the Town Hall is certainly the dominant building on the Main Square, it's certainly not it's only attraction; the square is surrounded on all sides by beautiful, carefully restored buildings. Next to the Town Hall is the Jesuit Church (Jezuitsky kostol), its rather plain exterior acts as a pleasant contrast to the exuberance of the Town Hall. Inside the church, which dates from 1638, is a lot more ornate, the result of being taken over by the Jesuits during the Counter-Reformation.
In the middle of the square, as well as a collection of tat-stalls (perhaps a reminder of when this was once the city's main market place, but hawking tourist tat is not yet a fully developed industry in Bratislava) is the Roland Fountain, which dates from the late 16th century. According to tradition, at midnight on January 1st the top half of the fountain is said to rotate, although this can only be seen by those born in Bratislava, most probably the same people who can also see dancing pink elephants.
A recent addition to the Old Town are a series of whimsical statues that have been dotted around, and there's one of them in the Main Square, a man in a funny hat leaning on the back of one of the benches by the tat stalls. He may be meant to be Napoleon. I think it's traditional for tourists to be photographed sitting next to him as he leers over your shoulder, but we'd been beaten to it by a tour-group of middle-aged Americans and couldn't be bothered waiting for them to finish.
From the Main Square you can head south east down Rybarska brana, which will bring you to Laurinska (on the left) and Panska (on your right), basically the same road but it changes its name half way along. This is probably the main commercial road in the Old Town, and among other things you'll find the British Embassy here (on Panska). On Laurinska you'll also see a couple more of those "whimsical" statues, one of a bloke with a telescope peering round the corner (not to be confused with the Scotsman, although he does have voyeuristic tendencies, and the other possibly the best known of the lot (well, it's on more postcards than the others), "Man at Work".
Anyway, if you head down Panska until it ends and then turn left towards the river you'll find yourself in Rybne namestie, once the city's main fish market, or at least what's left of it after Staromestska ulica and the Novy most were driven through the middle of it. The group of statues, now surrounded by railings, is the Column of the Holy Trinity, also known as the Plague Column, commemorating victims of the plague, it was put up in 1713.
Stretching north east from Rybne namestie is Hviezdoslavovo namestie; this wide boulevard was built over part of the city's old moat (they filled it in first, obviously). There's a park running down the middle of the street which is popular with dog-walkers and people out on a stroll, and also has a series of fountains and statues, a couple of blokes we'd never heard of (a famous Slovak poet apparently, he must be famous as they've named the entire street after him) and one of a naked lady with a deer. Guess which one we liked the best? One side of the street is lined with bars, cafes and restaurants, as pleasant a place as any to sit outside and people-watch with a beer or three if the weather's warm. The heavily guarded American Embassy is on the other side of the street.
At the eastern end of Hviezdoslavovo namestie is the attractive Slovak National Theatre (Slovenske narodne divaldo), built in the 1880s it's still an important venue for opera, ballet, and theatre.
The fountain in front of the theatre, complete with its statue of a bronze naked bloke sitting on the back of an eagle (what was the sculptor on when he came up with that?!?) is known as the Ganymede Fountain, quite possibly the finest representation of a naked bloke sitting on an eagle that I've encountered. Recent building work uncovered the surviving foundations of one of Bratislava's old city gates, the Fishermans's Gate, under the paved courtyard in front of the Theatre. There's a glass-topped shaft over what's left of the gate so you can have a look at it.
The big an equally impressive (if slightly yellower) building just south of the Theatre is called the Reduta; it was built at around the same time as the Theatre, and holds the concert hall of the Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra, as well as a casino. From here you can head south down Mostava, going past the Reduta and through Sturovo namestie with its rather odd statue and you'll come out on Razusova nabrezie, which runs alongside the Danube. The river at this point is more of a lurid green than Strauss' beautiful blue, but the view of the Novy most from here is impressive, if not attractive.
Just to the west of Sturovo namestie is the Slovak National Gallery (Slovenska narodna galeria), housed in what was originally an 18th century barracks, which now "boasts" a distinctive (i.e. bloody ugly) 1970s extension linking two of its wings. It looks more like the outside of a football stadium. The gallery holds Slovak art of the 13th to 18th centuries by people you'll probably never have heard of, as well as a collection of general European art, but again nothing by anyone really famous. There are also displays of posters and photographs, and temporary exhibitions. A leisurely walk down river brings you to another museum, this one the Museum of Natural History (Pirodovedne Muzeum), housed in a 1920s building designed to resemble a Roman temple (it doesn't). You'll find lots of stuffed animals inside, although I doubt whether they'd be any more impressive than the big statue of the lion standing on the tall column outside the museum. Keep following the river until you reach Stary most ("Old Bridge") and then go left up the busy Sturova. On your left is the main administration building of the Komenius University, housed in what used to be a stock exchange (how all those Socialist "Worker" Students in the UK would love that!). On the opposite side of the road are some much more interesting and attractive (and green) Art Nouveau-ish buildings.
Head up Sturova ulica for a block and then turn right down Dobrovicova and then left (north) up Bezrucova which will take you to one of Bratislava's most distinctive buildings, St Elizabeth's Church (Kostol sv. Alzbeta) more usually known as the Blue Church (Modry kostolik), for obvious reasons. This ornate, highly decorated and, it must be said, blue building, completed in 1913 was the work of one architect, Odon Lechner (well, he did all the architect work, he didn't actually build it himself). It is said to have been built in the Slovakian Art Nouveau style, a style that Lechner was basically making up as he went along. The church seems to be a bit out of place in the middle of a quiet residential area, but it is an undeniably beautiful building. The wealth of detail is astonishing, from the mosaic over the main door through to mundane features like the blue roof tiles, and it's definitely worth taking the time to have a good look round. The inside is a little more traditional than the outside, but it's still richly decorated.
From the church head back to Sturova (the easiest way is to keep going to the end of Bezrucova and then turn left down Grosslingova. Sturova comes to an end at Kamenne namestie, possibly the most hectic spot in the city centre, at the junction of three main roads, the interchange of lots of tram routes, and in the heart of the commercial district. Spitalska, heading north east from Kamenne Namestie doesn't look too promising, on its left hand side is a spectacularly ugly and huge 1970s complex containing both the Tesco department store and the Hotel Kyjev but there are a couple of other buildings up here that might just make it worth a short detour. St Ladislav's Church (Kostol sv Ladislava) has quite a plain exterior, a stubby tower, and seems to be a popular spot for beggars. Much more interesting is the Elizabethan Church (Kostol Alzbetinok) just a little further up the road, with an ornate statue-studded yellow and white baroque facade, topped with a green copper spire. The inside is richly decorated, covered in frescoes.
Heading west from Kamenne namestie is Namestie SNP (Square of the Slovak National Uprising). Despite its name it's not a square at all, it's a street. On the south side of the square/street is Bratislava's Old Market Hall, which has now been converted into a food hall housing a collection of cafes. Outside the Market Hall, under the glass covers, are the excavated foundations of a pre-10th century basillica. Further along on the south side of Namestie SNP is Bratislava's main post office, an Art Deco design building from 1912. On the north side of the square is a small, triangular park containing a statue (or rather 3 statues) which comprises the Monument Commemorating the Slovak National Uprising 1944. This consists of a smug-looking bloke in distinctly un-1944 attire with two women in strange triangular hats standing away from him, one with her arms crossed and looking pretty pissed off as if the he's just staggered in after a late night with the boys having forgotten her birthday, the other one's covering her nose with her cloak as if he's shat himself to boot. I'm sure that it must stand for something....
Just north of the park is another church, the Church of the Virgin Mary's Visitation (Kostol klistor Milosrdnych bratov). This one dates from the late 17th century, and like many others in Bratislava it has a yellow and white baroque facade, studded with statues. Inside there's a big baroque marble alter and a series of paintings down the walls.
Namestie SNP comes to an end when it reaches Hurbanovo namestie, the dominant building on which is the Trinitarian Church (Kostol Trinitarov). This is possibly the most attractive of Bratislava's old churches, although unusually for Bratislava its graceful symmetric facade (which unfortunately makes it hard to see the dome) isn't yellow and white, it's yellow and a sort of peach colour. It looks nice enough though. The church was built at the beginning of the 18th century. The interior is probably the most elaborately decorated in the city, with plenty of paintings, frescoes, and lots of colourful marble.
From here head south west down Kapucinska, one of the busiest tram routes in the city. There's a very good view of the castle from the street. There's yet another church down here, the Cuapucin Church (Kostol Kapucinov), and you won't be surprised to hear that it's painted yellow. Maybe Bratislava's renaissance church builders got a job lot of yellow paint. Kapucinska crosses over Staromestska ulica and when it does you should turn left down Zidovska, (unless you fancy trying to work your way through the tram tunnel that's cut under the castle hill, which is what will happen if you carry on). Zidovska runs next to Staromestska, and gives you very nice views of the city walls and cathedral on the other side. This part of the city, between the castle and Staromestska, is one of the more interesting parts of the city, a small remnant of the Old Town that was left clinging on here when Staromestska and the Novy Most cut it off from the rest of the Old Town. This is area is also in what used to be Bratislava's main Jewish quarter (Zidovska is Slovak for Jewish). At number 17 you'll find the Museum of Jewish Culture (Muzeum zidovskej kultury) which tells the story of Jewish settlement of Bratislava and Slovakia, as well as more general information on Judaism. Also on Zidovska, at number 1, is the Clock Museum (Muzeum hodin), a collection of mostly 17th to 19th century clocks. None of them actually work anymore which is probably a good job as it would be a bugger to have to wind them all up. Even if you don't fancy going in the museum the building it's housed in, The House of the Good Shepherd (painted yellow and white, surprisingly enough) is very attractive and well worth a look.
The narrow cobbled streets that wind up from here to the castle are very picturesque, in particular Ulica Beblahevo which not only has been thoroughly restored but is also lined with a few decent bars and wine bars. When the castle was still occupied this used to be the city's major red light district (that'll get me a couple of thousand Google hits!).
Before heading up to the castle it's worth making a quick detour to have a look at St Nicholas' Church (Chram Sv. Mikulasa) on Mikulasska. This small but perfectly formed Baroque building is now an Orthodox Church. Unfortunately it was locked when we went there so we didn't get to see inside. Still, the views out over the Old Town from the church are impressive, so it's probably worth the trip on the off chance it might be open.
Right then, onto the castle! The easiest way of getting there is to head up Beblahevo, which brings you to one of the castle gates (Zigmund's Gate, Zigmundova Brana). Although the earliest documented record of a castle in Bratislava comes from the 10th century there has almost certainly been a fortification on this site for considerably longer than that. The castle's current appearance is due King Sigismund of Hungary, who rebuilt it in the 15th century. The Austrian Empress Maria Theresa gave it a face-lift in the 18th century but then in 1811 the castle burnt as a result of a fire accidentally started by the pissed up garrison who were stationed in it at the time. It's the kind of thing that could happen to anyone.... What was left of the castle was abandoned after that, and the ruins were further damaged by World War 2 bombing. It wasn't until the 1950s that the communists decided to rebuild the castle (well, it's about time that they did something right) and by the time they'd finished in 1968 the castle was back and looking pretty much as it had for most of the last 400 years.
Once you've entered through the gate you climb up through a series of defensive walls, with progressively more impressive views the higher you get; from the southern bastion you get to look out over the Danube and the vast Petrzalka housing estate, with Austria somewhere in the background, while possibly the best view is from the eastern ramparts, where you can see the Old Town spread out below you (to be pedantic, the best view of all is probably from the southeast corner, where you get to see both).
Once climbed through all those defensive walls you've reached the main castle building itself. To be honest, it's a little bit disappointing. It's not the most attractive castle in the world, and knowing that it has mostly been rebuilt relatively recently doesn't help. The castle building is made up of 4 wings, surrounding a central courtyard, with a tower at each corner. When the castle was rebuilt they didn't really make any attempt to restore the original interiors, but the castle now houses a couple of museums. The main one is the Slovak History Museum (Slovenske Historicke muzeum) which includes re-creations of old rooms and workshops, authentic period furniture and tools, and decorative art. Smaller but more impressive is the Slovak Treasury (Klenoty davnej minulosti Slovenska), which has archaeological finds the highlight of which is the Venus of Moravany, a fertility symbol believed to have been carved from a mammoth tusk and believed to be around 20,000 years old, and of particular interest to readers of this site as it depicts a naked woman (albeit one without a head).
A wander around the gardens that surround the castle is worthwhile. You can try and spot the feral pussycats who live up here, and there's the odd bit of castle building, excavated foundation, and statue dotted around the place. The statue of St Elizabeth of Hungary, who was actually born in Bratislava castle, which is located by the eastern ramparts is in particular is worth seeking out. The northern range of the castle houses the Music Museum (Hudobne muzeum) including a collection of old instruments, musical scores and photographs.
Heading away from the castle and the Old Town (north up Staromestska) you'll come to the Grassalkovich Palace (Grassalkovicov palac) a big 18th century baroque palace that's now the official residence of the President of Slovakia. It looks particularly impressive when lit up at night, but God knows how the poor President gets any kip.
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