You have two spare hours on a busy trip to Central Europe…Do you spend it in Bratislava, Slovakia?
When we meet a new acquaintance, one possible start to a potential new relationship might be to note any obvious scars and tattoos they present to the world. These will immediately give us a clue to their past, the amount of damage they have suffered along the way and perhaps some sense of how they are facing the future. The same could be said for the process of getting a sense of a new city; when we visit their main squares and piazzas…what are the memories of the past that the city has concretized in these major meeting places?
When we set off on our guided walk around Bratislava in Slovakia, we started at the New Bridge over the Danube and walked up through the large square (Rybne Namestie Square) towards St Martin’s Church. The first thing I noticed was not so much a new friend, but an old acquaintance that I seemed to be running into in every main square of the cities we visited in Central Europe. It was a Holy Trinity or Plague Memorial Column. It was not so much a scar on the landscape but a thing of beauty pointing towards the heavens, reminding the Slovak citizenry of the trials of their forebears at the start of the 18th century who had to deal with the inexplicable onslaught of the plague virus that wiped out 3860 people. It also infected half that number of citizens who recovered, not to mention the rest of the town’s families who bore the plague scars as memories for the rest of their life.
Our guide for our tour of the Old Town (Staré Mesto) of Bratislava was a lady in her late twenties who was clearly passionate about her city and seemed to be well grounded in its history. She began by giving us a background into the history of her small country by telling us that 2018 was the 100-year anniversary of the formation of Czechoslovakia. She explained that Czechoslovakia had emerged from the Austro-Hungarian empire at the end of World War I, particularly because Czech and Slovak emigres in the USA pressured Woodrow Wilson at the Versailles Peace Conference to give their people an independent state. She also told us that 2018 was also the 25th anniversary of the separation of the two republics in 1993 over power sharing issues. She also explained that the Czech Republic and Slovakia were still very good friends.
At this stage of the tour we were standing in front of a Holocaust memorial, another scar from Bratislava’s history that reminds Slovaks and tourists alike of the dark years that began in 1938 with what our guide called the Munich Betrayal. Given that Australians learn their history from an English perspective, I wasn’t surprised to hear the famous Munich agreement described as a ‘betrayal’ where England and France gracefully disposed of the Sudetenland to Hitler as a gesture of their goodwill towards him. Subsequent history showed no grace to Central Europe in the disposal of Czechoslovakia’s main defensive capability in resisting Hitler’s supposed last land claim on Europe. Our guide put the viewpoint that Hitler’s invasion of Poland was made possible by the munitions he was able to gain from his takeover of the Sudetenland.
Our guide then moved on to tell us about the first Slovak republic that lasted from 1939 to 1945 where a puppet NAZI state was set up under the leadership of Josef Tizo, a Catholic priest before his promotion to state leadership. (This is the first time I had ever heard the term, ‘clerico-fascism’!) It was under Josef Tizo that the holocaust began in Bratislava and by 1945, three quarter of Slovak Jews (105,000) had been shipped out to death camps. In the photo to the right, our guide is pointing out the outline of black tiles that represent where the 19th-century Neolog Synagogue used to stand. On the wall in the background that shuts out some of the traffic noise from the highway heading to the New Bridge, you can see the outline of the old synagogue. This memorial was a ‘tattoo’ on the landscape that was just as powerful as the Holy Trinity Plague Column that we had passed earlier in our tour.
On our way into Bratislava by bus we could see the castle that dominated the skyline of the old town. I had assumed we would at least be able to visit the exterior of this castle that dates back to the 13th century. This didn’t happen, presumably because we only had a couple of hours to check out Bratislava; however, it did get me wondering how we would have crossed the road to get to the castle. The following extract from a local paper explains the curious dividing line through the old town.
“When strolling through Hviezdoslavovo Námestie, it is easy to get swept up in the square’s tranquil atmosphere and lovely historical buildings. The tree-lined, cobblestoned promenade is irresistible, while the castle in the distance beckons from its majestic hilltop setting. But suddenly, the square ends and you are standing at the side of a busy freeway. To the left, a suspension bridge crossing the Danube is capped by something resembling a flying saucer from a 1950s sci-fi film. Directly below the road is a noisy, graffiti-encrusted bus depot. Looking over the traffic to the right, you start wondering how you’re supposed to reach the castle on the other side. You wouldn’t be the first to stand at this odd collision of old and new, and wonder, “What the hell happened here?”
It has been said that Bratislava suffered more damage under communism than during the Second World War, and that a third of its historical centre was destroyed. …Roughly a quarter of Bratislava’s Staré Mesto (Old Town) was bulldozed in the late 1960s for a single project: the …SNP Bridge known also as the Nový Most – New – Bridge and the short stretch of freeway connected to it, called Staromestská.” (from The Slovak Spectator : Jeff Whiteaker)
We didn’t have time on our guided tour to enter St Martin’s Cathedral but it is an impressive, ancient building, originally constructed in the 13th century into the original fortifications of the city walls. It was rebuilt as a gothic structure in the 14th century and has been the site of the coronation of 19 Hungarian Emperors, including our old favourite, Maria Theresa.
From St Martin’s we then proceeded to walk the streets of the old centre of Bratislava, admiring the beauty of the medieval buildings along the route as marked on the map above. We weren’t quite able to leave behind the story of what happened to Jewish citizens during the war. The plaque above was on the wall of a shop on our route to remind us that the tragedy took many forms.
We arrived at Hlavné Námestie, Main Square, where a market was in full swing. Markets seem to be a necessity of local commerce these days but the noise and glitter of the market certainly interfered with getting the grand view of this central square of Bratislava that contains beautiful 14/15th Gothic buildings, particularly the Old Town Hall.
One of the things that we noticed on our stroll around the old town is that the folk of Bratislava, or at least the local council, have a sense of humour. There were lots of statues on our walking route, the one that attracted the most attention was called Cumil (the Watcher). He was supposedly a typical Communist era worker who couldn’t be bothered doing whatever his job was and preferred to watch the girls walk by. There seems to be a necessity for tour guides all over Europe to suggest that ‘good luck’ comes to those who rub certain portions of local brass statues. In Cumil’s case, he has a very shiny head from being rubbed the wrong way by passing tourists.
Another statue just off the Main Square is of an old gentleman (Schoner Naci) doffing his hat who was apparently a chap from the last century who was lost in love and decided to spend his twilight years greeting passing women and offering them flowers.
The other curious statue to check out is that of the Napoleonic Soldier, casually gazing on the folk mingling in Main Square. He seems to have become lost or left behind after the victorious Napoleonic troops marched in triumph through the city after the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805. There is an embedded cannon ball in the wall of the tower of the Old Town Hall that has been left there as a memory of this time. The 1805 treaty that concluded the war between France and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Britain and Russia was signed in the Primates Palace, which is large neo-classical building around the corner from the Main Square. There is also a coronation painting of our favourite Austrian Hungarian Empress there as well! Damn…we didn’t have time for detour!
From the Main Square of Bratislava, we walked down to the much larger Hviezdoslavovo Square, named after the Slovak poet, Pavol Hviezdoslav. It is a square with a thousand year old history of hosting significant cultural gatherings for the locals. For example, George W. Bush spoke at a public gathering here in 2005 with Vladimir Putin watching on. The most significant building in the square appeared to be the Slovak National theatre at the eastern end of the area, advertising its latest concert, “Beatles Go Baroque”!
Hviezdoslavovo Square was where our guide had asked us to meet her after we had been given 40 minutes of free time to stroll the old town and try some of the local food. After she gathered her troops, she escorted us back to the bus which would transport us for the 80 minute drive back across the border to to Vienna.
I started this article with the question… “You have two spare hours on a busy trip to Central Europe…Do you spend it in Bratislava, Slovakia?” The answer is a simple ‘Yes’; we had an enjoyable an interesting tour around Bratislava’s Old Town but of course insufficient time to do this old and scarred city the justice it deserved.