Bratislava – a town and country tour

Walking down a narrow pedestrian lane in Bratislava, lined with many weathered storytelling buildings, you are met by a comical little character, Cumil, peeping from a manhole in Panska ut. A few yards on a paparazzi-like photographer is peeping around the building’s corner. Schoner Naci greets you in polite style, waving his top hat. To catch my breath, I sit down on an icy cold brass bench on Old Town Square, with Napoleon watching over my shoulder.

cumil

You might think it is a typical scene of mimic street actors, which is a popular scene on the Ramblas  in Barcelona. However, when strolling along the  fairy tale-like narrow curving alleys and streets of  Bratislava, many interesting  characters – street sculptures – will welcome you in  and around old town Bratislava, each telling a very original story.

Last night, while sipping some excellent local red wines of the region, I met an entertaining local in the warmth of Vináreň Pod Baštou, a very unique vaulted wine bar. Marian, the chairperson of the Slovakian Tourist Authority,  agreed to show me during the  next two days his Bratislava, as well as our mutual interest, the Karpanian Wine Region.

Dobré ráno – Good Morning to you! Are you ready to be introduced  to Bratislava?

I turn around and leaning onto Napoleon’s back, Marian starts to lead me into his country’s history  of the Ottomans and Habsburgs,  the Velvet Revolution leading onto the Velvet Divorce. The winding streets of Old Town are really a  walk into history: Michalská brána (St Michael’s Gate) down Venturska Michalska to Konkatedrála sv Martina (St Martin’s Cathedral); the Rococo Mirbach palace, Pálffy Palace and Primate’s Palace; the bastion-like Bratislavsy hrad (Castle) passing the Good Shepherd’s House, the Jewish Quarter to the asymmetrical cablestayed modern bridge spanning the Dunaj River.

Two prominent squares are featured in the Bratislava Old Town area: Hlavné Námesti, the main square with Maximillian’s fountain at the heart facing the gabled Town Hall, where we enjoyed a quick cappuccino in Roland’s Art Nouveau Coffee House. Here Marian showed me a model of the Magic Turk, an automated chess-playing invention by Wolfgang von Kempelen in 1770. Kempelen challenged the audiences to play the Turk at chess and almost all were defeated.

brat

The largest square, Hviezdoslavovo Námesti, is lined with restaurants, bars and cafés. The imposing Slovak National Theatre, home to Bratislava’s ballet and opera performances, borders the one  end of a tree-lined oblong square.

Many organised walking tours, as well as the popular red tram-trolley, depart from the Ganymede Fountain. At the other end of this heart of the city, another sculpture is facing the leafy promenade: Hans Christian Anderson, with all his fairytale-like characters clinging around his body (the drummer boy, the crowned frog, the butterfly).

During the month of December, not even the icy cold nights of Bratislava can dampen the colourful ambience of the Christmas Markets on both squares. You can see they are already preparing to erect the temporary shelters now.

A wide variety of beautiful buildings features commemoration plaques to luminaries such as Bartok, Mozart, List, Hummel and Pálffy.  In addition, set into the cobbled stones are numerous brass crowns along the streets. The coronation way will lead you all the way to the St Martin’s Cathedral, where 11 Hungarian kings were crowned.

When the road was raised and the elevated highway that is separating the Dóm sv Martina,  was built, a Jewish cemetery was buried, including the grave of Chatam Sofer, the great scholar and rabbi. Facing a small square between the cathedral and the road, a striking, but very simple wall mural and sculpture commemorates the contribution of the Jewish community to Slovakia.

As in many European cities, the best way to feel the ambience of the Staro Mesto (Old Town) is to stroll through the meandering narrow cobblestone streets on foot. While walking on the foil of fallen leaves and pointing to the grotesque gargoyle-like character of a dwarf peeping at passers-by from his tiny bay window at Panská 29.

Marian reminds me:

Always remember to notice the details both on the floor and on the facades of the historic buildings: only then, you will be introduced to the endless stories of  Bratislava.

Bratislava is packed with museums; a great variety of themes to cater for almost every taste: from wine to music to cars, from dungeons to clocks to archaeology. In an otherwise very Baroque  city, several excellent examples of  the Art Nouveau movement are found within the city. The striking Blue Church (Modry kostolik) was designed by the Hungarian architect, Ödön Lechner in 1907 to commemorate the 700th anniversary of St Elizabeth, the city’s only  well-known saint.

blue brat

St Alžbeta spent all her time looking after and feeding the poor and needy. It is told that once when she was taking bread to the ailing poor, her husband, Prince Louis of Thuringa, stopped her and asked  to look under her apron to see if  she was carrying roses, as she claimed. When he lifted the apron, the bread had been miraculously changed to roses.

On the outskirts of the pedestrianized Old Town you will find: Freedom Square dominated by a huge tuliplike fountain; Slavin, the largest war memorial in Central Europe, located on one of the most prominent sites on a hill above the city; the inverted pyramidshaped Radio Building; the aggressive, yet daring dynamic architecture of  the Slovak National Gallery; and the august engineering New  Bridge marvel.

Early next morning I was  picked up by Marain at the Art  Hotel William.

Are you ready to taste the  soul of Slovakia – the Karpanian  Wine Region?

The arc of the Karpanians has  its beginning at the northern outskirts of Bratislava, stretching

for 100 kilometres into the distance. The southeast facing slopes of the hills below the forested zone are planted with vines; at the foot of  the hills, wine-producing villages were established in the Middle Ages.  Surrounded by deeply late autumn-coloured vineyards lies the small town of Saint George (Sväty Jur). In addition to its noted wines, this small town is famous for its monastery where beer is brewed.

Have you tasted any of our local. Šariš beers? Today most local beers, like Corgoň, Kelt and Zlaty Bažant, are produced by Heineken.

Next along the wooded slopes, you will find the beautiful German settlement of Limbach, renowned for its Mueller Thurgau white wines.

This road continues to the regional centre of viticulture, Pezinok. Originally, a mining  town, it became a vintner’s paradise in the 16 th century. Modra is some 25 kilometres  from the capital and, as with most towns in the region, signs of settlement reach back to around 3000 BC. The magnificent Red Rock

Castle (Červeny Kameň) is the best-preserved castle in Slovakia, thanks largely to the Pálffy family who lived here from the 15th century until the end of World War II, when they were forced to abandon their seat.

A tour around the castle creates a big impression, specifically since it has been restored to its original beauty and was declared a Slovak National Monument in 1990. However, the enormous wine cellar under most part of the castle is used at weekends in high season for various festivals and historical plays.

Just when I thought that Marian might have forgotten to let me sample some of Slovakia’s best

wines, he turned towards me  and announced:

Now for the highlight of our wine region tour! We are going to visit Vináreň u Ludvika, a wine cellar in one of Modrás beautifully renovated 17th century basement cellar, serving some 100 different wines of the region to sample!

brat vineyard

Other than the well-known cultivars, I was introduced to white wines like Devin, Pálava and Tramin and Slovakia’s bold reds like Alibernet and Frankovka Modrá. When we finally left the wine cellar, it was almost the end of the winter’s day…

Some 15 kilometres south of the city, Danubiana was established in the magical year of 2000, symbolically on the banks of the Danube where three Central European countries – Slovakia, Austria and Hungary – meet.  The blue-and-white building, shaped like a Roman galley, is the brainchild of Vincent Polakovič.This newest Museum of Modern Art, largely funded by a Dutch millionaire, displays the most influential and remarkable representatives of Slovak and international fine art of the  20th century.

When we finally arrived at Devin Castle, we were just in time to experience the most striking sunset. It is considered a vital part of Slovak history as well as an impressive sight when you arrive: to see the castle rising up on a tall crag above the confluence of the Danubeand Morava rivers. Dating from Roman times, Napoleon’s advancing troops blew up the fortress in 1809.

It later became a central symbol of the Slovak National Revival and still today remains a prominent venue for Independence Festivals and concerts.

We left the castle when dusk was turning into darkness. I was booked onto the Twin City Liner, a fast-speed catamaran travelling between Bratislava and Vienna on the Danube.During the 90-minute cruise, a young pianist was playing some of the local composer, Ernö Dohnányi’s music – almost a tribute to the Velvet Revolution. I could not have asked for a more suitable note to end off two incredible days (all set on a stage of multiple contrasts) I have spent with Marian, my new friend from Slovakia …

Relaxing in my window-seat,  with the last colours of a winter’s day painted on the western skyline, I had the opportunity to recollect every moment I have sensed, seen and experienced of the people and their country during my short visit to Slovakia. By Johann Beukes

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