A little peace and quiet in Bratislava

Alfred F. Ocianas

“WHERE is that?”

“Is it safe there?”

“You might not have given it enough thought.”

I could sense my mother’s disapproving tone towards my decision to swing by the little-known city only few people go to. While she was not bothered by my staying weeks in Switzerland, France or Italy, how could she not be worried by my venturing into new territory?

“I’ve done my research, Mother. I’ll be fine,” I assured her.

Exploring on foot

As one of the oldest cities in Central Europe, with history spanning thousands of years, Bratislava is gaining popularity among travelers with limited time and a shoestring budget. The capital of Slovakia, an ancient city that treasures its past, it sits at the vast landscape of the Little Carpathians, part of the mountain range that forms the spectacular scenery visible throughout Central and Eastern Europe.

Vienna to Bratislava by train takes only an hour; hence, while in Vienna, due to its nearness, I chose to visit the city and stayed on for a day.

Arriving in a foreign land you are unfamiliar with can be seriously intimidating. Especially for a city not known to many, you will be learning on your feet, wanting to try something fresh while always being intrigued by anything new.

First off, the conventional Hlavná Stanica Railway Station is a far cry from the central stations in big European cities. Second, the generous meals on roadside eateries, delightful snacks and lip-smacking ice cream are kind on the pocket. Third, connecting with the friendly and welcoming locals, to my relief, was exciting, though in some ways, unsettling.

Focused on the joy of discovery, I headed for the scenic heart of the city.

Minutes away from the main train station is an elegant mansion that opens to a magnificent courtyard. Widely known as Grassalkovich Palace, its baroque design is its most striking feature. It is where the head of state lives. Receiving guests during the day, the beautiful French garden makes space for manicured lawns, shallow ponds and stately monuments. The Planet of Peace Fountain, in the front, is a nice spot to chill out.

Following my curiosity, I moved forward to the car-free Stare Mesto (Old Town), through the 14th century St. Michael’s Gate, Slovakia’s kilometer zero point in. The architecture in every corner is old-fashioned, out of the ordinary, yet delightfully overwhelming. The faded walls, weathered houses and cobbled alleyways add not only glamour, but are also a reminder of the time-worn structures of centuries before.

Roland’s Fountain and the Town Hall are highlights in the historic central square, the best-known section of town, full of life and spirit, day and night. More interesting are the endearing statues all around installed in 1997, an attempt to paint color, humor and vitality onto the undertones of communism.

These peculiar monuments, uncommon but deserving to be noticed, give a new lease on life. Making reference to Napoleon’s first visit in 1805, the one that leans on a bench is Napoleon’s soldier named Hubert, who fell in love with a local girl, stayed behind and produced sparkling wine. Most of the time, he will appear to be photobombing or jumping into any photo.

Another monument that stands by Café Meyer is called Schöne Náci, a silver statue of Ignác Lamár, a cheerful local resident who had gone mad due to unrequited love. Tourists stand below his top hat and react accordingly.

A fascinating little gem that has won the hearts of many is the Man at Work statue. This extremely sought-after figure is generally the most-photographed. Named Čumil (“watcher” in English) by Slovak artist Viktor Hulík, it is the only one of its kind in the world.

Old-world charm

Bratislava is an unassuming, but thriving religious and creative community. Replete with individuality, its combination of prominent landmarks, age-old churches and enthralling monuments takes you back in time. There are over 10 churches around the area, along with shops, pubs and restaurants, aimed at catering to both locals and tourists alike.

Their National Theatre stands on Hviezdoslav’s Plaza, a wooded park named after their most admirable poet, Pavol Hviezdoslav. It is also a shopping district bordered by fashionable hotels, excellent restaurants and retail outlets of traditional craft. If you are lucky, you can catch live musical performances. If you happen upon one, just sit and let its magic work on you.

The Old Town spreads to the edge of the Danube, Europe’s second longest river. Moored along the banks are big boats that cruise down to Vienna, a journey they say is a feast for the eyes. The New Bridge, extending to the modern amenities of Petrzalka, features a disc-shaped observation deck suspended 85 meters in the sky. Opposite this spaceship-looking tower, perched on a hill, is Bratislava Castle, rebuilt many times, going from once presidential residence to the Slovak Museum of History today.

Watching the sunset, I realized I reached my destination I almost called off.

That’s not all...

If you believe local legends, tracking down ghost stories and local secrets will make the experience epic. Slovakia has many enchanting castles, less-visited chateaux and haunted manor houses within the depths of its stunning natural scenery.

Intrepid travelers rave about taking part in the International Festival of Ghosts and Spirits where ghouls, witches and vampires from all around Europe convene in Bojnice Castle.

Why not? Meet up with friends and “live it up.”

My mom is all right now. She enjoys my stories and has learned from me the word gallivanting.