A replica of the original, Bratislava Castle sits high on a hill above Bratislava, Slovakia and the Danube River. // © 2014 Courtesy Bratislava Tourist Board
Feature image (above): St. Martin’s Cathedral is one of the oldest churches in Bratislava and is well-known for being the coronation site of numerous kings. // © 2014 Courtesy Bratislava Tourist Board
Central Europe is so rich in history and tradition that it may surprise visitors to discover something relatively new in the region. That's the case with Bratislava. This centuries-old city, located on the banks of the Danube River, is also the new capital of a recently formed nation — the Republic of Slovakia.
That status resulted from the breakup of Czechoslovakia in 1933 after the Velvet Revolution, so named because anti-Communist demonstrations were nonviolent. Once freed of Communist rule, the country underwent a peaceful Velvet Divorce, in which the north became the Czech Republic, with Prague as its capitol, and the Republic of Slovakia was created to the southeast. What had been the provincial city of Bratislava (population 420,000) became the capital of the new country.
Known for being practical and frugal, the Bratislavians did not rush to build costly structures to house their new national government. Instead, they mainly made do with fine historic buildings.
The legislative National Council for example, presides over the country in a structure that was reconstructed after serving as a stall for horses. It’s next to Bratislava Castle. The President's office is in Grassalkovich Palace, and the seat of the prime minister is in the former Archbishop's Summer Palace. Even the United States embassy is located in a historic building on Hviezdoslav Square in the city’s Old Town. This mix of old and new means Bratislava retains the look and feel of a way of life lived centuries ago.
In the pedestrian zone of the town’s historic center, there are side streets and a plaza featuring restaurants, cafes, a few tiny hotels and a surfeit of 18th century charm. Among the attractions in and around the Old Town is St. Martin's Cathedral, constructed beginning in 1311. Between 1563 and 1839, the cathedral was the venue for coronations, including 10 kings, one queen and eight royal wives of various Hungarian emperors.
Other local sights include Old Town Hall, Roland Fountain in the main square and Michael's Gate, with its 15th century tower. Roland Fountain was built on the order of Emperor Maximilian II, the ruler of the Kingdom of Hungary in 1572, when Bratislava was the royal capital. Bratislava's Jewish population, essentially wiped out when Slovakia was controlled by the Nazis, is memorialized in the Museum of Jewish Culture.
Visitors will want to try Slovak cuisine, which admittedly is a bit on the heavy side. Some traditional dishes include bryndzove halusky (sheep cheese dumplings), kapustnica (cabbage soup), vyprazany syr (deep fried cheese with French fries and tartar sauce), or grilovany ostiepok (grilled sheep cheese).
If you're up for just coffee and a pastry, you'll want to try the city's own treat — Bratislavsky rozok, a sweet roll with walnut or poppy seed filling. This is no ordinary sweet, either. It dates back to the 16th century and was granted a Protected Designation of Origin by the European Union two years ago. The secret of Bratislava rolls is in the treat’s weight, as well as the proportion of filling to dough. A small difference in shape determines whether the filling inside is walnut or poppy seed. The shape for poppy seed is a horseshoe; rolls with walnut filling resemble the letter “C” instead. The surface of the rolls is glossy and marbled.
Funky is hardly a term commonly applied to this otherwise traditional enclave, but Bratislavians clearly have a sense of humor. One particularly whimsical example is a cast iron figure set at a quiet intersection in the city. Called Cumil, it depicts a workman emerging from a manhole cover quizzically peering upward. Why? Well, the randy chap is looking up the shirts of unsuspecting women passing by. It's one piece of local art that’s not found in any catalog of the city's otherwise more distinguished cultural attractions.