Originally published 13 May 2012.
It’s Bratislava tour time! Be Free Tours gives several free walking tours each day in Bratislava, all with a different theme. I chose the general history tour to get an overview of this city I knew next to nothing about. Our guide was Timmy from Australia, and in addition to his fabulous accent, he was really cute!
The meeting point is in the Secondary Square in front of the Hviezdoslav statue. He was a poet from Bratislava, but this statue was not the original. There was another statue of a Hungarian poet here a couple of centuries ago. His name was Ptofi (spelling? Not sure), and when Bratislava was part of Hungary for a short time, he was the Hungarian national hero. Bratislava had a couple of different names over the years when it changed hands—it was called Pressburg when Germany took over, and Pizoni when it was Hungarian. But when Slovakia and Czech became Czechoslovakia in 1914, the Bratislavans didn’t want to be part of Czech. They decided to become their own independent country for a while and called themselves “The Free City of Wilsonova”… after Woodrow Wilson! That lasted about a year or less. In 1919 Czech defeated Bratislava (The Free City of Wilsonova), and they took it over again (they were surrounded on all sides, after all!).
So when Czech and all of Slovakia, including Bratislava, decided to get along, they banded together, wrapped Ptofi’s statue up in dynamite, blew him up! They put up the statue of Hziezdoslav the Slovakian! Even today there remains a rivalry between Hungarians and Slovaks because of this very incident!
Moving right along… Also in this square we have the Historic National Theatre, which is actually still used more than the new one the Communists built when they tried to modernize the city, and Bratislavans to come together here to protest, celebrate, etc.
And then we come to more statues. Bratislavans LOVE their statues! There are so many of them, but unfortunately there are very few signs or plaques that tell what they are or why they’re there. The two I find most interesting are the Watchman (peeping out of a manhole) and the man in the top hat. The top hat man is said to have gone mad due to unrequited love in the early 20th century. He would walk around town dressed in his finest, and people would give him food. In return he would give flowers to the ladies of Bratislava.
And that brings us to the Main Square. Here we see… Napoleon! He is appropriately located just in front of the French Embassy, but it’s not all a kindly gesture. You see, Napoleon tried to take Bratislava twice, once in 1805 and then in 1809. The first time he was stopped, but not before he lodged a cannon ball into the huge clock tower—which remains there to this day! In 1809 he finally gained control of the city, but not for too long.
Now about this clock tower. It was built in the 13th century, and it was added onto several times. The building attached to it currently houses the Museum of the City History, but before that it housed the mint office, then weapons, and then prisoners. In the 1600s it was actually used as a place to torture witches! There’s a plaque a few meters away that commemorates where the first witch was burned at the stake. More on that in a moment.
From this place in the main market square, we looked back to see St. Martin’s Cathedral. This is the place where kings and queens were coronated for centuries here in Slovakia. Mr. Tour Guide pointed out that there’s a solid gold crown and pillow at the very top of the tower that weighs 8 kg (around 16 pounds). Here it’s important to point out a couple of things. Number one, this is the first time in over five years that St. Martin’s has not been under extensive repair–lucky us!
There’s a highway going right past it, where the old Jewish district used to be. The Communists took over Czech and Slovakia after WWII, and giving them possession of both capitol cities, Prague and Bratislava. They decided to keep one city pristine and preserve the history, but then modernize the other. Fortunately for Prague, they kept that one very nice. Unfortunately for Bratislava, they started modernizing. The old town portion of Bratislava is only 20% of what the city used to be. The other 80% was torn down and destroyed to make way for modernization. In place of that historic 80% now stands a new bridge with a UFO on the top (which is affectionately call the “Jetson Bridge”), a building shaped like an upside-down pyramid, and quite honestly some really ugly communist architecture. Thankfully, some of the important and beautiful buildings (like the castle and the clocktower) are still standing. Who knows how they decided what to tear down and what to save!
Speaking of the bridge, we’re close to a river. It flooded Bratislava pretty severely in 1850. The city sits on the north side of the Danube River (which is not really blue!), and in February of 1850, it froze over, which is all fine until it starts to melt. The only problem came when the icebergs, which didn’t melt as quickly, did not melt. They were actually big enough to block the river in such a way that it redirected the water uphill into the Bratislavan City Center! The flood was the worst in the city’s history, and other floods since then have not even come close to comparing with that one.
Moving right along, just a few meters away, we stood in the middle of the souvenir market! Here we learned about Slovak traditions and culture: if you cut an apple across the middle and the seeds are in a star-shaped design, you will have good luck! If you rub honey on your face, you will have good luck! If you throw nuts into the corner of a room, you will have good luck! If you hear an ambulance siren, you must bump your head against something three times to have good luck. That one sounds unlucky to me, though!
But the luckiest of all are Slovak boys on Easter Monday. They have full permission to beat up and terrorize poor little girls! Boys can throw cold water on a girl, hit her with a “beating stick,” pick her up and take her away kicking and screaming… and the only way to stop this is to give the boy chocolate or a strong drink! And when she does this, she also has to give him a ribbon to tie around his beating stick. And then he gets to do it all over again to someone else! So those are some fun traditions… or maybe not!
Back to St. Michael’s Gate! This is the only surviving gate to the city, but if one was to be saved, it’s good that it was this one, because this was also the Barbican gate! Like the Barbican in Krakow, this gate is also off-center so as to avoid a head-on attack. But unlike the Krakow Barbican which had a 45-degree angle between gates, this one has a 90-degree angle. Any attacking force would have to make a 90-degree turn, forcing them to stop and redirect the entire army. This would buy the soldiers of the city some time to put some arrows into the attackers and defend themselves!
Also important about this gate is that this is the same gate that new kings and queens would walk through to get to St. Martin’s Cathedral to be coronated. They would walk through the streets, and the path they took was marked with little bronze crowns embedded in the cobblestones. Pretty cool to still see them there.
Through the gate, we looked hung a left and took a good look at an inconspicuous plaque on the ground. This commemorates the place where the first witch was burned at the stake in 1602. Four hundred years later, in 2002, the plaque was dedicated.
And also in this spot is where we had our best view of the Bratislava Castle! Now, this castle had withstood attacks from Mongolians, Ottomans, Napoleon Bonaparte, and others, but in 1811, when Bratislava decided to hire the best Italian builders to make improvements to the castle, they had a party inside and burned it! They still joke that the castle withstood all those armies but couldn’t survive one night of Italian partying. Bummer!
And to our right was the Trinitarian Church, site of the former St. Michael’s Church. St. Michael’s actually blocked the view of incoming armies over the hills–bad plan! So whoever was in charge at that time decided to have it torn down. The only problem now… they didn’t have a church! So they built this one in its place and made it such that the view was not blocked. Flash forward a few hundred years, and in 1939, a deposed Slovak leader named Tiso called an emergency meeting of parliament here.
You see, Tiso had just been personally invited to dinner in Berlin with Adolf Hitler. Hitler proposed that Tiso should break Slovakia away from Czech and become their own country, and Tiso should be their leader. At first Tiso said no, but after several rounds of Tiso declining and Hitler insisting (promising protection if Tiso would do it and a Hungarian attack if he didn’t), Tiso conceded and called this emergency meeting of parliament. Ultimately, Slovakia conceded and Tiso became president of the country. Slovakia was now with the Axis powers, and Czech is on the side of the Allied powers. Czech felt betrayed, to say the least.
So, all that happened in March 1939. In May , Hitler went back on his word and invaded Slovakia. Hitler also demanded that Tiso give him 20,000 Slovak soldiers, which was most of their army. But Tiso gave Hitler an alternative: he would give Hitler 20,000 Jews instead to work in labor camps. But then Tiso went back on that word and offered full civilian protection of Jews. This lasted until 1944 when the major deportation of Jews occurred in Slovakia—and Slovakia had, at one time, been one of the places where they “knew” they would be safe. Of course, they didn’t really go to labor camps, they went to Auschwitz, which we now know was an extermination camp.
And so came a Slovakian National Uprising. There’s now a square called “Uprising Square” dedicated to this event, and there’s a statue of the guy who started it. (Side note: This is where Bratislavans come even now whenever there’s a national celebration or a national tragedy. They hold protests here as well. They are very active in their squares!) The people of Slovakia knew they were fighting against fascism, and they felt very strongly about that. But they didn’t really know what they were fighting for. Political leaders used this time as a platform to promote their agendas, and things just didn’t go well. There was too much confusion and not enough facts or truth for people hear.
When WWII ended, Britain asked the Czechs if they wanted Slovakia back, and interestingly enough, the Czechs did. Pretty big turn around after the betrayal they’d felt six years prior. Eventually, Tiso was demoted again and again, and he was finally hanged in Bratislava in 1947.
Moving along, we talked about how Slovakia is doing at the moment. By standards around the world, there is still a good deal of poverty in Slovakia. But there’s also a lot of growth! They became part of the EU and adopted the Euro, their economy is growing, low taxes bring in large companies like VW and others, and their strategy to getting what they want with the EU is to always be the last to decide on everything. It seems to work!
Our guide also gave us an interesting aside. Several bridges cross the Danube, and they’re currently building a new one. The people of Slovakia held a preliminary vote to come up with a name for this bridge. Some wanted to name it after Maria Teresa, who is very important to Bratisava, some wanted to name it after something else, but overwhelmingly, 81% of the people want to name it after… CHUCK NORRIS!
Now on to more historic sites! There’s this very large and interesting cathedral called St. Elizabeth’s Church. It’s blue. Very, very BLUE! It’s also done in the Art Nuevo style, so it kind of reminds people of Cinderella’s Castle. There are several nicknames for this church: The Blue Church, The Cake Church, The Big Blue Marshmallow, and—my favorite—the SMURF CHURCH!
There are weddings there every Saturday of the year, and people will be on a waiting list for years to have their weddings, christenings, etc. here! It’s actually one of the top 20 Art Neuvo sites in the world, and just across the street is… an unsightly, abandoned communist hospital. Kind of a shame, but you’ll find that type of thing everywhere, so said our guide.
It was an awesome tour, especially for FREE! Afterward, I was quite hungry, so off I went in search of Slovak food! Both the girl at my hostel’s reception desk and Timmy the Tour Guide recommended Flagship Bratislava, so that’s where I was headed! And boy was I ever impressed! It’s touted as a place with excellent food and the feel of old world Bratislava, and it certainly is. The wood work was amazing, the food was excellent, and I truly felt like I was back in Medieval Bratislava! I got the Halusky (pronounced “halushky) upon recommendation, and I was not disappointed.
It’s little dumplings in a milk sauce (not a cream sauce) with cheese and big chunks of bacon on top. YUMMY! I also got these things for dessert that looked like pierogis. They were sweet and filled with poppyseed filling, swimming in butter—kind of like part of the South over in Eastern Europe. It’s quite full of poppyseed filling, by the way. Not like a poppyseed muffin where you get a tablespoon of poppyseeds for the whole batch, it’s FILLED with poppyseeds!
I spent the rest of the afternoon getting a little shopping done (I needed a sleeveless dress–Bratislava was hot!), Skype with my mom’s Jr. High classes, and headed to bed! Stay tuned for my next post–I’m off to Devin Castle by the Danube River!