Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Bratislava successfully reclaiming its elegant past

After a short plane ride we arrived in Bratislava. We opted for the 90-cent bus trip into town rather than the €25 taxi trip. We saw rows of huge box stores and strip malls and then some largely unattractive Soviet-style apartment blocks. After bumping along for awhile we changed to a tram that got us to our hotel on the border of the Old Town. This was a more encouraging trip taking us by some lovely old buildings but still interspersed with some quite ugly modern buildings.

World War II left Bratislava a damaged husk. Following the war, the communist leadership showed little interest in preserving the city’s heritage, razing the Jewish quarter to make way for their ultramodern New Bridge, erecting a highway that slices through the Old Town — though this at least will soon be replaced by a tunnel beneath the Danube — and even selling the city’s medieval cobbles to cute German towns, which were rebuilding after the war and trying to restore some of their elegant Old World character. We knew that Bratislava was turning things around. A decade ago, the city centre was grim, deserted, and dangerous. But we encountered a lovely old town, largely traffic-free and perfect for strolling. We stopped for a very late lunch at an old bar restaurant, where I had some traditional potatoes grated and grilled along with a small sausage. It was delicious and only €3. This was accompanied by a small beer from the part of the menu for people who didn't like to drink much. It was refreshing and had a unique fruity taste.

With the fall of communism in 1989, the new government began a nearly decade-long process of sorting out building rights and returning them to their original owners. By 1998, most of these property issues had been resolved, and owners were encouraged to restore their buildings. The city also did its part, replacing all of the street cobbles, sprucing up public buildings, and making the Old Town traffic-free. Bratislava was reborn, and life returned with a vengeance.

The bustling centre of Bratislava is Main Square, where Kiosks were being set up for a huge Christmas market and Christmas music was playing already. At the bottom of the square was a line of extremely atmospheric cafés and bars such as Café Roland, housed in an old bank building, its vault now used to store coffee.

The buildings that surround Main Square date from different architectural periods, including Gothic and Art Nouveau. When these buildings were restored, great pains were taken to achieve authenticity, each one matching the colour most likely used when it was originally built. The impressive Old Town Hall, with its bold yellow tower, stands at the top of the square. Near the bottom of the tower, a cannonball embedded in the facade acts as a reminder of Napoleon’s impact on Bratislava. Another reminder is the cartoonish statue of a Napoleonic officer bent over one of the benches on the square. With bare feet and a hat pulled over his eyes, it’s hardly a flattering portrait.

This is just one of several whimsical statues dotting Bratislava’s Old Town. Most of these date from the late 1990s, when city leaders wanted to entice locals back into the town. Standing outside Kaffee Mayer, a jovial chap doffs his top hat. This is a statue of Schöner Náci, a poor carpet cleaner who, dressed in a black suit and top hat, brightened the streets of Bratislava during the communist days, offering gifts to the women who caught his eye.

Later in the evening we had dinner in Cafe Roland, a large restaurant with very high ceilings and lots of Christmas decorations. Everywhere we went we could hear live music, whether out in the street or inside the restaurant. In Cafe Roland a lady was pounding on the piano, perhaps a little too hard, and entertaining the diners with modern show tunes. I had something to eat with cabbage and Seamus had a pork stew covered with a potato pancake, topped with cheese and accompanied by spatalese. I found the food quite stodgy. Thank goodness we did even more walking after dinner.

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