The Slovakian capital of Bratislava might seem an unlikely stop for the Eastern European traveler. If you’re aiming to see the big league towns, such as Prague, Budapest, and Vienna, you might be inclined to skip Bratislava. No doubt this is why those cities are teeming with tourists, whereas in Bratislava the crowds of sight-seers seemed to me to add up to a handful here or there. It’s an unassuming town, with an old town center built into its hills and a 600-year-old castle on a hilltop.
Certainly, local pubs and souvenir shops have capitalized on Bratislava’s medieval appearance. Signs beg passers-by to come in and drink inside taverns supposedly old enough to have witnessed the Hapsburg era. Nevertheless, its well-preserved center does bespeak a storied history. Maybe it was the gloomy grey sky, or maybe I was just in the mood to time-travel, but there was something palpable about this low key town the world once called Pressburg.
It was once a key Danube port in the Slavic kingdom of Great Moravia. Sometime after the 11th century it was folded into the Kingdom of Hungary; as you might expect, there were dozens of attacks and battles between various factions, including the Germans, the Mongols, and the Ottomans. Where Hungary itself fell to the Ottomans in 1526, Bratislava held strong, forcing the invaders to run an end-around to advance on Vienna.
That was followed by a few hundred years of Hapsburg rule, ending after World War I when Czechoslovakia was formed. Locals wanted to lose the Germanic name Pressburg, and nearly voted to name it after Woodrow Wilson. (This would have made it the second foreign capital to be named for a U.S. president, following Monrovia in Liberia.) Instead, they chose history over novelty and went with its Slavic name that had been in and out of use since the 800s.
The 20th century was a rough one for Czechoslovakia. World War II brought Nazi occupation, followed by forty-odd years of communism and bad architecture. However, several cultural institutions were implemented during its days as a Soviet satellite, including a philharmonic orchestra, national gallery, and national academy of sciences.
The fall of communism split the country into two republics, with Bratislava as capital of Slovakia. After a rough transition during the 1990s, Bratislava has settled in as a safe and stable city.
Where I Stayed
The Film Hotel, as you might guess, has a movie motif. A giant Oscar statue greets diners in its restaurant, and rooms are named for Hollywood greats, their photos hanging above the head of the bed. I had hoped for a lovely portrait of Marilyn Monroe or Rita Hayworth; I got Leonardo DiCaprio. Even more disturbing was the life-sized statue of Jar Jar Binks on the way to the restaurant’s restroom. Nevertheless, the hotel had a certain charm to it and a polite staff. It is around 60-70 euro per night and located just outside the historic city center.
What I Ate
It’s been two years, but what I remember most clearly was Chlieb s Masťou, bread spread with pork cracklings (aka lard), the kind of leftover fat from when you fry bacon. It’s a Slovakian delicacy, and the kind of thing that would come with a Surgeon General’s warning in the U.S. The texture and saltiness was a little much for me. Overall it probably didn’t do as much damage as the pork loin I had in Serbia, which was stuffed with bacon, ham, and cheese, and served with potatoes and peppers. You can still smoke in restaurants in both of these countries, by the way.