Bratislava: Brat-packers guide to a young capital

I had never tasted potato dumpling with goat’s cheese before, let alone try to pronounce its culinary name - bryndzove halušky, but then I had never been to the Slovakian capital, before. A canopy of carbs, this hearty speciality of the city was unexpectedly appealing. Much like the city itself.

For starters, Bratislava, the youngest and smallest capital city in Europe is delightfully compact and everything of interest is easy to get to on foot. It has been 23 years out of communism and since its ‘Velvet Divorce’ from the Czech Republic in 1993, Slovakia has emerged as a microcosm of Central Europe and its capital encompasses both colourful architecture in its tiny old town and austere, grey communist constructed buildings on its outer limits.

Tourists have traditionally come from the neighbouring countries along the Danube such and Austria and Hungary. But direct flights from the UK now makes the city an easy weekend getaway for Brits too, and the locals are beginning to value English as a language in preference to German.

In effect, it is a three-language city. Once known by the Austrians as Pressburg and by the Hungarians (who used to have it as their own capital) as Pozsony, Bratislava has shop signs in Slovak, German and Hungarian.

The Slovak National Theatre and opera house has ornate sculpted plasterwork and gold trimmings

The Slovak National Theatre and opera house has ornate sculpted plasterwork and gold trimmings

Eating out is agreeably cheap. You can get a three course meal with beer or wine and still have change from 20 euros. Local cuisine comprises potatoes, cheese and sauerkraut, Hungarian goulash and the full-bodied Slovak beer is, shall we say, distinctive with its thick froth and rich flavours.

The views around the city comprise a backdrop of The Little Carpathian Mountains. Their lush beauty is easy on the eye but they provide the country with some fabulous vinous sustenance. Lots of wine bars and musty brick cellars are on hand to proffer Tokaj and Reisling, Cabernet Sauvignon and Svatovarrinecke (think Pinot Noir) wines.

To get my orientation, I started my tour of the city at the 14th century Michael’s Tower (Michalska Ulica, Open 11-5pm daily). This is one of the four gates to the city, and the only one still standing. It is an arduous climb, but on each of the seven floors there’s a museum of armaments that give a breath-catching respite on the way.

The panorama from the terrace takes in the cafe life in Michaelska street, a clutch of red tiled roofs leading the eye to the castle, whose silhouette looks like an upturned table, in the distance.

Getting to the castle meant climbing a steep hill. It started life as a fortress and later remodeled as a palace, religious retreat and even military barracks. It’s not particularly beautiful but it was worth the effort for the broad views over the city and Austria just 3km away, and on a sunny day, even Hungary. Nipping into the Slovak National Museum was interesting for its eclectic mix furniture and rural crafts and elsewhere in the castle the folk museum offered up pipes, drums, wooden whistles and mannequins with strange attire.

The Main Square, or Hlavne Namestie if you want to show off, is where the action is. It is one of the grandest areas of the old town. Historically, this was the venue for all the main events from passion plays to executions. It was also the main market place, and where rulers were greeted.

Its name has varied over the years. In 1373 it was called Forum, in 1404 as Marchte and in 1434 as Ring. The Germans named it Haputplatz in 1783 and in 1850 it was renamed Franz Joseph Platz. It was once even called Hitler’s Square. In 1953 it became the 4th of April Square to commemorate the date the war ended. In 1989 it finally took its current name.

Behind this is a smaller square, the Primacialne Namesti with less grandeur perhaps, but it is home to one of Bratislava’s most impressive buildings — the neo-Classical pink-hued Primate’s Palace (Primacialny palac). It was here, in its Hall of Mirrors, where Napoloean signed the Peace of Pressburg treaty with the Holy Roman Emperor Francis II after having humiliated him at the battle of Austerlitz in 1805.

Nearby is the tree-lined piazza Hvizdoslavovo Namestie named after Slovakia’s favourite poet Pavol Orszag Hvizdoslav (1849-1921). A statue of the poet stands complete with a fountain along the square not far from the magnificent Slovak National Theatre built by Viennese architects Fellner and Helmer. In front of the Theatre is Bratislava’s most beautiful fountain, the Ganymnedes fountain, a gift from the Pressburg Savings Bank.

Bratislava by day is perfect for sauntering through medieval streets and popping in and out of Viennese cafes that alternate with baroque mini-palaces. It’s all so quaintly up-standing and regal, but the streets are enchantingly playful, ornamented as they are with cheeky bronze statues. There’s one of a paprazzo leaning around a street corner poised with a camera, another of satirical impression of Napoleon leaning on a bench near Hlavni Namesit and the cheekiest of all is that of a workman’s head emerging from a manhole in Panska street.

Visitors can bone up on Jewish culture at the Mausoleum of Chatam Sofer synagogue on Heydukova Street and the Museum of Jewish culture in the Zsigray mansion (part of the Slovak National Museum) on Zidovska street

The city comes alive at night as the youth head for the bars, jazz cafes and restaurants. A laser beam points the way from Michalska street to the main square where there’s a laser light show around the central fountain most evenings at 10pm.

The fun continues until the early hours and by 2am and falling foul of the munchies, I was delighted to find a 24-hour diner on Hviezda, Kollarovo Square, serving the dumplings that were fuelling me into the night and throughout the weekend.

Need to know

Flights: Ryanair have direct budget flights from Stansted to Bratislava.
Hotel: Radisson SAS Carlton Hviezdoslavovo Square
Tel: 00421-2 5939000
Restaurant: The only Jewish one in the city is Chez Davidm, on Zámocka Street, close to Bratislava castle
Tel: 00 421-2 544 13 824

    Last updated: 12:37pm, November 5 2009