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Michael’s Gate in Bratislava (April 2016).

After a day in Vienna, our cruise ship continued down the Danube River, arriving in Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, the following day. We would only spend half a day there touring the city and although it would be brief, we would have a pleasant, more relaxing time compared with the all-day excursion the day before.

Situated in southwestern Slovakia (not to be confused with Slovenia, which borders Italy and Croatia), Bratislava is distinctive for being the only capital in the world which is right on the border with two other neighboring countries, Hungary and Austria. That said, one can pretty much see those two countries from Bratislava, which is incredible. Definitely gives the word “borders” a whole new meaning, in that sense!

Although a lesser-known city compared with its nearby ones such as Budapest and Vienna, the city of Bratislava has had a rich, eventful history, with it having changed hands between Hungarian and Austrian rule, dating all the way back from the 10th century up until the 19th century. After World War I end in 1918, Bratislava became a part of what was known as “Czechoslovakia,” when the borders of the country were redrawn (much to the Slovaks’ discontentment).

During World War II, German troops annexed the city, along with the rest of the country, before being liberated by the Allies in 1945. Soon after, the Communist Party took over in 1948, establishing it as part of the Eastern Bloc, and remained that way throughout the Cold War period. It wasn’t until fall of the Communist regime happened that borders were redrawn again and that Bratislava became a part of today’s Slovakia. From the 1990’s until present day, the city has seen a remarkable economic increase, which actually makes it one of the more “well-off” countries in Central Europe.

I hadn’t known about all of this before visiting Bratislava, but it turned out to be an excellent crash-course in Slovakian history! It was interesting to see the gray, cubicle-shaped buildings left over from the Cold War (transformed into offices today) as my parents and I took a sightseeing bus through town during our half-day excursion there.

Heading up the hill to the Bratislava castle, we caught glimpses of various, posh houses from our bus seat, some of which belong to ambassadors and other governmental officials from all over the world. It amazed me to see just how modern some of them looked, as if I was in Beverly Hills again with the sunny balconies and elegant, white-washed houses that overlooked the Danube river. Must be a dream to live there (as well as not pay a lot of taxes, from what I’ve heard!).

We arrived at the Bratislava castle around 9h00, where we were given a short amount of time to check out the courtyard and the surrounding walls. Built all the way back in the 15th century, the castle was mostly burnt down in the early 19th century and reconstructed to its former glory in the 1950’s. Although plain and rather austere in its structure, the Bratislava castle still gave off a regal atmosphere and had a fairly-good vantage point of the Danube. From the castle, we could also see the neighboring countries of Hungary and Austria, which was mind-blowing!

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Bratislava castle.
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View of the Danube from the castle (and Hungary??).

We didn’t spend a long time at the castle grounds, just because it wasn’t open yet. After about twenty minutes, our tour bus left to take us into Old Town, where we would continue our visit of Bratislava on-foot. We made our way into the historic center, which was actually a pedestrian-only zone, so no cars (with the exception of working-permit and construction vehicles).

Considering that Bratislava had been under siege throughout much of its history, our tour guide pointed out several of the buildings which still had markings from where cannonballs had blasted into, some of them even with their shells still lodged inside! Quite unnerving, but also fascinating. Continuing on, we passed under Michael’s Gate, which was a part of the city’s medieval fortifications back in the day. At first, I thought that it was part of a church- turned out, it wasn’t!

There were also many small souvenir shops which were selling all sorts of objects, from the mole plush toy “Krtek” (actually Czech, but still quite popular among the former Czechoslovakian region) to honey wine, as well as more local specialties of Slovakian culture.

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Bratislava Old Town.

As we made our way out of the Old Town, we came across a quirky statue in front of us- or rather, at our feet: it was the statue of a worker peeping out from the half-opened gutter, hands propped on his chin and a smile on his face. According to our tour guide, his name is Čumil and funny enough, his smile can be interpreted as either him taking a break in-between work, or peering under women’s skirts as they pass him by. The latter definitely cracked me up, and it was a good thing that I was wearing long pants that day!

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Cumil, “the Peeper.”

We ended our tour in front of the old Slovak National Theatre, and from there, we were given free time to explore Bratislava for the rest of the morning. For some reason, though, my parents and I were feeling rather tired, and decided just to head back to the ship to relax for the rest of the day. Our cruise ship left at 14h00 for our next destination, and with that, we were done with Bratislava.

Just like with other cities and towns we’d previously explored on the Danube, we didn’t spend a very long time in Bratislava, for it was only a half day, at most. It was rather a small city, but an interesting one filled with lots of history, especially that of the Cold War. Although I didn’t feel that there was much to do there, I would say that Bratislava is worth passing through should you ever decide to do a tour of Central Europe someday.

Stay tuned for the final installment of my travels during last year’s April vacances. Coming up: Budapest, Hungary!

 

— Rebecca

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