Monday, 15 September 2008

Bratislava - The Accidental Capital

A rainy Monday is probably the very worst time to visit the Slovak capital, Bratislava. Not being the best endowed city when it comes to noble architecture and showpiece buildings anyway, a damp day only serves to enhance the considerable amount of concrete that holds the place together. Also, on Mondays almost everything is closed, including the inside of the old town hall, which enticingly offers a room of mirrors and English tapestries dating back to King James I to savvier tourists than us, who turn up on any other day of the week.

The next worst time to visit Bratislava is at the weekend, specifically Friday or Saturday night. Then the historical centre becomes filled with those excellent cultural ambassadors for the UK, hen parties and stag groups. Committed to the cause of plentiful cheap booze, they liberally spray the old town's streets with their urine and vomit, to the charming accompaniment of their shrieking and brawling.

Bratislava has only been the Slovak capital city for a short time. Previously, as part of Czechoslovakia, the country could look to Prague. In the centuries before that it was German (when it was called Pressberg) and at one time it was the seat of Hungarian royalty under the Habsburgs, although many of its finest buildings from that time have since been destroyed.

So it's not surprising Bratislava has the air of a city struggling to match up to the greatness that has been thrust upon it. The castle was once a very fine edifice and no doubt will be so again, but at the moment the place is a building site as work to restore it continues.

It's worth walking up to the castle, though, as its dominant position above Bratislava's centre affords a great view of the city as a whole. True, when Theo and I took in the cityscape, it was dank with persistent rain, so not a great advert. Among the landmarks that struck us was the ugly UFO new bridge, one of the Communist regime's gifts to Bratislava in the 1970s. We also marvelled at the rows and rows of slab-like housing blocks on the horizon. And above all was a huge Euro sign, rising above the rooftops like a prophet proclaiming the coming of a new dawn. January 2009 is when Slovakia is due to covert and you could put several thousand of the current koruna on a general twenty per cent price-rise soon after.

The Velvet Divorce - when the Czech Republic and Slovakia parted company in the 1990s - was not as kind to the Slovaks as it was to their Czech neighbours. Accounts suggest that there is a sense grievance about the parting of the ways among Slovaks, who were not consulted about the decision. The economic miracle affecting some former Eastern Bloc countries hasn't been seen to the same extent here. As you take the number 4 tram from the chemical works next to Zlate Piesky and on into the city, you are struck by how heavily graffitied it is. A sign, I suspect, of a lack of money to clean it all off.

But the Slovaks are doing their best with Bratislava. As well as the works on the castle, they've hit on a pleasing strategy to bump up the tourist experience by placing quirky bronze statues in unexpected places. A Frenchman leans on a bench, a workman peeks out of a manhole and a photographer waits to capture a snatched shot with his telephoto lens. It's all rather cute.

Bratislava doesn't need more than a day to take in its main sights and like the ubiquitous stags and hens, I have to admit that part of the appeal lies in the cheap food and drink to be had. Another part of the appeal lies in the Slovaks themselves. As a chatty Iranian checkout man pointed out to us in the supermarket, they are naturally warm and cheerful and respond very readily to overtures of friendship. He himself had chosen to move to Slovakia for that very reason.

The wonderful landscape of the Tatra mountain range is the other thing Slovakia has going for it. If you can ignore the insensitive industrialisation of the Communist era sticking dirty great power stations in areas of outstanding natural beauty, the countryside is really rather lovely.

Bratislava, although trying hard, still needs to grow into its role of capital city. And it can't help being massively overshadowed by its grand and ornate neighbour of only a few kilometres away, Vienna. We're going there tomorrow.

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