This week brought an opportunity for a first-ever visit to Bratislava, Slovakia on a day trip from Vienna. The two cities are just an hour apart by train. I found Bratislava shockingly and thoroughly modern, mixed with traditional Eastern European character and Soviet-era brutalist concrete.
Bratislava is the capital of Slovakia, the country that resulted from the breakup of Czechoslovakia in 1993. It is the only country capital that borders two sovereign nations, Austria to the west and Hungary to the south.
I’m sorry, but this isn’t a frothy report on cutsie, but weird and sometimes creepy Eastern European architecture. It’s my one-day impression of a totally-with-it vibrant young population of an old city, people who embrace the past as fully as they revel in all the present has to offer. Their parents may never forget having lived on the mind-numbing collectivist side of the Iron Curtain during the Cold War, but the Millennials of Slovakia have shaken off that past. Even the stultifying Soviet-style concrete apartment blocks are said to be gaining value, at least those close in to the central city.
The main part of town is where the energy is at the moment. Lots of private sector investments reflects confidence in the local economy. Great new restaurants and bars and gleaming craft beer halls contrast with traditional cafes and coffee houses. Modern Bratislava can be glimpsed in the new Slovak National Theater where our son, a pianist, performed this week with his college orchestra (and why we were there).
The nearby shiny shopping mall, literally crawling with customers, is built on the north bank of the broad Danube River that divides the old town to the north and the growing suburbs to the south.
Leaving the glitzy new offices, retail, and other developments near the river, my wife and I made our way into the meandering cobblestone streets of the old city. It’s nothing like the size, grandeur, history, and beauty of Vienna (about two million people, compared to 450,000 in Bratislava), but the streets feel comfortably old and somehow familiar in a way the big cities do not.
As we walked, I noticed busy traffic of new cars, many well-patronized trams and buses, lots of cyclists, and prosperous-looking pedestrians.
Deep inside the old part of town, mostly devoid of automobiles, felt like stepping back 200 years. Well, until I began looking into the bars, coffee houses, and restaurants. The young scene is palpable there having fun. We did our best to join in.
I couldn’t help thinking how the downtown-versus-outer-rings phenomenon reminded me of my home town of Raleigh. Life “inside the beltline” in Raleigh seems more interesting, energetic, and unique than in the ‘burbs outside the beltline ring.
Bratislava has an infamous “flying saucer” bridge over the Danube and a fairy tale castle on top of the hill overlooking it. The castle is a rebuilt tourist fantasy from 19th century ruins resulting from a fire, so we gave it a miss. I can get that in central Florida, thanks to Disney.
We walked partway up the hill to enjoy a midday feast at the famous Modra Hviezda Restaurant, famous for its local fare, such as rabbit and venison. I splurged on duck liver pate, which was as tasty as it appeared.
One sour note: The Modra Hviezda keeps a caged Brazilian Green Parrot by the bar. Brazilian Greens are among the world’s smartest birds They thrive in family flocks, soaring through rain forest canopies. I was saddened to see this parrot had plucked out all its breast feathers in lonely frustration. I stopped and whistled to it, prompting the bird to put its neck and throat up to the edge of the cage so I could scratch it. I stayed as long as I could using my fingers to massage its neck and head before my wife threatened to leave without me. If birds can look forlorn, this one did. I didn’t have the heart to take its photo.
Okay, Bratislava’s look is at first a discordant hash of pre-20th century charm, postwar Soviet Socialist Republic ugly, and 21st century sleek, but somehow it has a strange unity. The fun-loving, forward-thinking, fast-moving younger generation gives the place an electric energy that harmonizes the stylistic angles.
The sum of Bratislava’s parts surpasses individual appearances. I’m glad to have seen it, and I admire its vitality. That said, and no offense meant to the place or to its fine and friendly people, but I wouldn’t care to go back without a good reason. I’m sure many Raleigh visitors say much the same of my fair city.