I always liked geography in school. I enjoyed memorizing rivers and capital cities and mountain ranges. I was even pretty good at it.
But when I read about our “Grand European Tour” river cruise, I have to admit I was baffled by one stop: Bratislava. As the capital city of Slovakia, I figured it was important, but I simply didn’t remember it from my student days. I finally figured out why: Slovakia, when I grew up, was Czechoslovakia, a blended country. The Slovakia we were going to visit was the result of the two countries splitting in a “velvet divorce” in 1993 after the break-up of many Soviet countries.
Well, gosh, no wonder I didn’t remember it 😉
But after our visit to this lovely city, I’ll never forget it. Bratislava is a delightful old city, without being preciously cute. You can still feel the years of Soviet influence, though. The infrastructure doesn’t seem overly modern and the town, while rigorously tidy, has a sense of working really hard to escape from a less-than-pleasant recent past.
A bevy of buses met us at the dock where the Atla sat in the Danube, the water sparkling in the cool sunshine (it’s been unseasonably cold this summer in the regions we’ve visited; I really should have brought fewer sleeveless tops). The first part of our 1.5-hour tour was a bus tour, punctuated by a visit to the old castle/fort above the city (yes, another one of those; I really think Viking should call this itinerary “Old Buildings on Hills” rather than the “Grand European Tour”).
Eva was our tour guide. She wore her years easily, sporting a jaunty black hat and carrying the de rigeur tour sign “lollipop” with a smile. While she shared many of the “facts” about her country, the highlight of Eva’s tour was her personal insight and remembrances of living in Slovakia when it was effectively a Soviet satellite state. A student in the 60s, Eva shared with us that life was limiting in those years.
Atop the castle hill, she strongly encouraged us to climb a bit further to a favorite overlook of hers. From this vantage, she pointed out we could see three countries: Hungary, Austria and Slovakia. Quietly she gestured to a greenly-wooded area abutting the Danube River below us. That, she told us, used to be a “no man’s land” where those trying to escape Communist society and rule would venture to the river and try to swim across.
“It was sad,” she murmured. “The river can be dangerous. People died trying to leave.”
And so Bratislava and Eva gave me my first exposure to Eastern Europe.
Boarding the bus for the tour’s remainder, most of us were more sober than we had been earlier that morning. We swung by the Grassalkovich presidential palace (hardly any security, it seemed to me, in comparison with what I’ve seen in Washington, D.C.) as well as a hilltop enclave of the city’s newest rich (this is where many embassies are; I took a photo of the hillside home housing the US Embassy) and a monument to WWII war heroes. We were deposited near St. Michael’s Gate and from there walked into Old Town to explore more of Bratislava.
Walking toward Old Town, I looked around and I felt it; Bratislava just had a “different” sense to it than the previous “old” cities we’d been to on this itinerary. Bordering the oldest part of Bratislava were many grey, style-less, blockish buildings. It was obvious without asking: these were part of the Communist’s legacy to Bratislava. But the people of Bratislava continued to hurry past the buildings—whether oldly artistic or grey and serviceable—and into their days. I think that’s what struck me most about this city: it’s a town that seems determined to rise above, to grab onto a life far more colorful than its recent past —and to welcome us as visitors.
I tried to help out by spending more than my share of euros in Bratislava. While it had its allotted share of souvenir shops tucked around the old town plaza, there seemed to be a higher percentage of stores selling crafts, baked goods and art. I especially enjoyed a side street store (advertised as the “oldest” in town) that carried all locally-made items, from bottles of honey wine to intricately painted and etched eggs (choose from hen, duck and turkey sizes!). And all very affordable.
This place also sold my very favorite pastry (so far) on this trip: a palm-sized crescent of golden dough, baked with a filling of honey and chopped nuts. Oh—if they had these specialties within 20 miles of me back home, I’d certainly weigh more than I do—and I’m positive my doctor would be chasing after me with an anti-cholesterol prescription! I bought one. And then another…
Cafes encircled the plaza and the sun shone on the fountain. Bratislava felt intimate and safe yet excitingly different (maybe it’s the language—I couldn’t figure out how to even attempt pronouncing half of the letters in the combinations displayed in Slovakian). Buildings weren’t perfect, but still they stood, a testament to perseverance.
In short, I liked Bratislava. A lot. It’s plucky.