Rediscovering Old Bratislava

by Jill Knight Weinberger, New York Times, 19/11/00

I admit, my husband, G. J., and I at first considered our June visit to Bratislava a mere detour from our Vienna-to-Budapest itinerary, a convenient add-on to satisfy our curiosity about what may be one of Europe's least known capitals.

Bratislava has long suffered our family's benign neglect. My Vienna-born father-in- law, now 85, recalls that a lokalbahn, or trolley, ran between the two cities in his youth, but he does not remember ever having made the journey. His best friend travels every summer to the Slovakian spa of Piestany, but somehow never manages to pull herself out of the thermal baths long enough to take an afternoon's excursion to Bratislava's charming and lively main square, lined with fine old buildings and outdoor cafes.

Even G. J.'s cousins in Vienna rather shamefacedly admit they keep meaning to take the hour's drive along the beautiful albeit murky blue Danube. "Na, ja," they say, "irgendeinmal" "sometime."

Someone in G. J.'s family, we thought, ought to take a look at the place they like many other Austrians still call Pressburg, a name that is a relic of the Austro- Hungarian Empire, which ended in 1918.

Overlooking the Danube from the foothills of the Little Carpathian Mountains, some 40 miles east of Vienna, Bratislava has been all too easily bypassed by travelers intent on taking in central European tourism's golden triangle, the showpiece cities of Vienna, Budapest and Prague. And yet, it was Bratislava's geography that in great measure determined its destiny as the pawn of emperors and empires. It has served, in turn, as Celtic settlement, Roman outpost, center of a medieval Slavic empire, capital of Hungary, a favorite city of the Hapsburg dynasty and home to a fascist puppet regime during World War II.

Now the capital of a fledgling democratic nation following Slovakia's "velvet divorce" from the Czechs in 1993, Bratislava is finally emerging from the long shadow cast by its convoluted past. Its attractive and historically rich Old Town, as well as its small scale and bargain prices, are beginning to lure plenty of visitors. Indeed, on the lovely June weekend of our visit, the Old Town's cobbled alleys and squares, its myriad museums and wine taverns, and its youthful university town atmosphere appeared to charm our fellow tourists as completely as they did us.

We knew we were on to something, however, when during the hour-long train ride from Vienna, we struck up a conversation with an Austrian woman who keeps a weekend apartment in Bratislava. I offered her one of my precious stock of delectable Mozart chocolates I never leave Vienna without them and in return she gave us a sightseeing tip.

"When you get to the Old Town, look up at the top of St. Martin's Cathedral," she said in German-accented English. "Instead of a cross, there's a crown."

St. Martin's proved an excellent starting point for our explorations of the city's compact historical core, despite the traffic whizzing by on the elevated highway just yards away. Let me note here that Bratislava is no time capsule untouched by the ravages of politics and neglect. As one might expect in a former Eastern-bloc nation, the outskirts of the city are studded with huge and ugly concrete boxes designed to house the masses.

Although the restoration of the Old Town is yielding stunning results, plenty of Communist-era aesthetic nightmares remain. The most unfortunate of these is the highway that cuts through one end of the Old Town. It virtually demolished the old Jewish ghetto and cut off the Castle precinct from the rest of the historic quarter.

Despite the gilded crown atop its narrow spire, St. Martin's offers an otherwise unprepossessing facade, one that contrasts with the soaring Gothic space within. There is no hint of the interior's many Baroque features, like the magnificent high altar attributed to Georg Raphael Donner, the 18th-century sculptor.

More jarring is the realization that this rather drab exterior enclosed the pageantry of 19 royal coronations between 1563 and 1830, when much of Hungary was under the dominion of the Ottomans, and Bratislava which the Hungarians called Pozsony was the capital of the rest. An intricately lettered list of the names and coronation dates of the monarchs is painted on the north wall of the choir area, beginning with Maximilian and ending with Ferdinand V.

Perhaps the most famous coronation was that of Maria Theresa, who from 1740 to 1780, ruled a sprawling empire that included Austria, Hungary and Bohemia. In June 1741, she was a 24-year-old empress and brand new mother determined to cut a regal figure and establish her authority in front of a cadre of disgruntled Hungarian nobles unhappy over, among other things, crowning a woman as "king."

According to historical accounts, Maria Theresa won over the crowds with her Hungarian-style garb, and then pulled off without a hitch one of the most strenuous coronation rituals. Weighed down by heavy crown and mantle, she mounted a black horse and rode through the city, then charged up a symbolic mound of earth, brandishing her sword toward the four compass points to swear her eternal protection of Hungary.

Thereafter, Maria Theresa had a special fondness for Bratislava as a Hapsburg, she, of course, called it Pressburg and frequently held court in the Hrad, or castle, that crowns a hill overlooking the Danube and the Old Town. Her patronage ushered in what is often referred to as the city's golden age, and resulted in a prosperous jewel box of a town, graced with palaces, which attracted notable musicians. Haydn performed there frequently, as did, once, the 6- year-old Mozart.

Maria Theresa rebuilt the castle on the hill, completing its transformation from medieval bastion to Gothic fortress to Baroque palace. Too little evidence remains, unfortunately, of its splendor, for her son and successor, Joseph II, apparently did not share her enthusiasm for Bratislava and didn't keep the place up.

In the early 19th century, the castle could not withstand repeated assaults by the French or a series of devastating fires that finally left it in rubble by 1811. The castle remained more or less a ruin until 1953, when reconstruction began.

Local residents today justifiably describe their castle as an upside-down table because of its boxy outline and identical corner turrets. G. J. and I climbed up one turret during the hour or so that we spent roaming about, visiting the exhibits of holdings of the nearby Slovak National Museum lots of weaponry, furniture and musical instruments and checking out the views. We could hardly miss the Danube Bridge, topped mid-span by an unattractive tower with a restaurant; but the superb panorama of the old city made our climb well worth the effort.

Down the hill, we crossed the pedestrian bridge over the highway and re-entered the Old Town, wending our way through the university quarter, past handsome Baroque and Renaissance buildings, including three former palaces of Count Palffy (one is now the Austrian Embassy), on the pleasant streets called Panska and Venturska. We passed through St. Michael's Gate (Michalska brana), Bratislava's remaining medieval entrance to the Old Town.

Strolling down Michalska toward the main square (Hlavne namestie), we looked forward to a leisurely stop at Kaffee Mayer. This old-fashioned coffeehouse, pastry shop and restaurant had already become our stammlokal, as G. J. calls it in German: "our place." The staff was young and spoke English, and the pastries, coffee and light meals rivaled Vienna's, and cost half as much. Spinach strudel with dill sauce, followed by fresh strawberry tarts smothered in whipped cream, made a fine lunch.

The main square is Bratislava's showplace and, on this sunny weekend, seemed to be the city's outdoor living room. Lined with historical buildings spanning several epochs, from Gothic to Art Nouveau, it is both graceful and friendly.

Horse and buggies line up for the tourists. Kiosks display Slovakian folk art ceramics, straw figures and ornaments, as well as wooden toys. Shops on and around the square specialize in Slovakian crystal and porcelain. Kids splash in the Renaissance fountain commemorating the coronation of Emperor Maximilian, and everyone poses for a snapshot with Napoleon. This bronze likeness of the Little Emperor (who married a Hapsburg, and then went after the family holdings) leans over a park bench, as if to whisper conspiratorially in the ear of those who take a seat.

The statue reminded us of yet another significant moment in Bratislava's history. A short walk from the main square, we found the pink 18th-century Primate's Palace (Primacialny Palac). Here, in the Hall of Mirrors, Napoleon and Franz I signed by proxy the Treaty of Pressburg in 1805, the result of the horrific Battle of Austerlitz (now in the Czech Republic). Some 50,000 French, Austrian, and Russian troops perished in what was called the "Battle of Three Emperors," won by the French. Franz I surrendered not only substantial territory, but declared the end of the Holy Roman Empire to avoid ceding the title to Napoleon.

G. J. and I had the Primate's Palace to ourselves on this Saturday afternoon, at least for a while. Several rooms are given over to the municipal art collection, and we perused numerous portraits of Hapsburg and Bratislava notables and largely undistinguished 19th-century landscapes before happening upon the remarkable 17th-century English tapestries. Depicting episodes in the tale of Hero and Leander, they were discovered in the palace only in 1903, their provenance something of a mystery.

We noticed the staff watching us anxiously as we dawdled in the Hall of Mirrors, where the treaty was signed, and as we descended the grand marble staircase, we ran smack into a wedding party on the way up. The bride, resplendent in white satin and tulle, and her groom smiled warmly as we passed.

But it was our day to be in the way, apparently, for moments later, as we poked our heads into the 18th-century Chapel of St. Ladislaus, we were shooed away by a nun. From the somber attitudes of the worshipers, we surmised a private memorial service was in progress.

Heading back to the main square, we found a festival in full swing, the plaza now dominated by a stage and amplified music. Trying not to trip over thick sound-system cables, we watched while children had their faces painted and shyly accepted balloons from clowns.

A group of youngsters assembled on stage, dressed in embroidered blouses and shirts, and to the jolly rhythms of an accordionist, performed a traditional folk dance. The crowd cheered heartily, but no sooner had they left the stage than an ensemble of preteenage girls took over, and with the Gothic Town Hall as a backdrop, whipped around their blond pony tails to the beat of Britney Spears, their choreography pure teen-queen American music video.

It was past time, G. J. and I decided, to take a glass of crisp Slovakian white wine and an evening stroll along the Danube before dinner.