Five reasons why Bratislava, the ‘Little Big City’, should be next on your travel list.Read more...
Bratislava - Background information
Visits to the trenches at the former Czechoslovakian boundary are extremely thought-provoking © Fotokon, Shutterstock
Abridged from the History section in Bratislava: the Bradt Guide
The Prague Spring
On 5 January 1968, the Stalinist First Secretary Antonín Novotný was replaced by a young Slovak reformist, Alexander Dubček. He encouraged civil society and freedom of expression in what was called ‘socialism with a human face’. Dubček implemented the 1960 constitution granting Czechs and Slovaks equal rights as separate yet federal states and the optimistic period of 1968 became known as the Prague Spring.
On 21 August 1968, Soviet tanks, supported by Warsaw Pact troops, rolled into Prague, Bratislava and other towns and wiped out all of Dubček’s reforms. The Czech and Slovak republics remained separate in name, but the real power stayed in Prague.
The collapse of the communist regimes of eastern Europe in November 1989 enabled the establishment of a democratic government and the restoration of civil freedom and human rights in Czechoslovakia. On 24 November, Dubček appeared on a balcony above Wenceslas Square in Prague alongside playwright, opposition spokesperson and future Czech president, Václav Havel. On 27 November, a general strike was held throughout the country and the people of Bratislava also demonstrated in the streets supporting student movements and the Public against Violence and Civic Forum initiatives. These bloodless demonstrations led to the collapse of the communist government in what was dubbed the Velvet Revolution.
After this, Slovaks were keen for autonomy and in February 1992 rejected a treaty that would have continued with a federal Czechoslovakia. The Czechs and Slovaks could not even agree on whether or not there should be an official hyphen in the name between Czecho and Slovakia.
The velvet divorce and independence
In June 1992, the left-leaning HZDS (Hnutie za Demokratické Slovensko; Movement for a Democratic Slovakia) won parliamentary elections, led by the populist leader Vladimír Mečiar, a staunch supporter of Slovak independence. Pushed on by Mečiar, the Slovak Parliament proclaimed the sovereignty of the Slovak Republic in July 1992 and the Slovak Constitution was signed on 3 September 1992.
On 1 January 1993 Slovakia celebrated the Velvet Divorce, when an independent and sovereign Slovak Republic came into being, followed six weeks later by the election of the first democratic Slovak president, Michal Kováč, once an HZDS ally of Mečiar, but now less of a friend.
For the first years of independence, Slovakia lurked in the shadow of the authoritarian rule of Vladimír Mečiar, a former amateur boxer and inflammatory public speaker. Slovakia became a member of the UN, Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), International Monetary Fund (IMF), etc, but the internal politics and economy got into a severe crisis. By 1993 GDP had fallen to 74% of its level in 1989, and previously unknown mass unemployment appeared. Slovak industry, producing until then mainly for the Soviet market, collapsed. Foreign investors also hesitated because of the uncertain political climate. Mečiar carried out a relentless campaign to remove Kováč from office, and rumours abound that he was behind the bizarre 1995 kidnapping of Kováč’s son Michal, who was blindfolded, given electric shocks to his genitals, forced to drink a bottle of whisky and then abandoned in a car boot in Vienna.
Bratislava is a very green city, with numerous walking trails and cycle paths © RossHelen, Shutterstock
Bratislava is very green: a notice board by the castle lists many species of flora and fauna found in the city. Wildlife around the castle includes bats, butterflies, lizards, woodpeckers and red squirrels. There are also many varieties of wildflower and plant: Chinese wolfberry, houseleek, flowering onion, royal knight’s spur, wild violets and immortelle.
One of the best non-mountain birdwatching areas in Slovakia is Záhorie (the name means ‘behind the mountains’), which is conveniently close to Bratislava, beginning just to the north by the D2/E65 motorway and stretching to the Czech border. This is the flood plain of the Morava River along the Austrian border and is a complex of water meadows, marshes, bogs, ponds, pools, reed beds, pine, oak and poplar forest and damp willow and alder woodland. In spring and summer, white storks, red and black kites, collared flycatchers, penduline tits and red-backed shrikes are fairly common here. Though rarer, corncrakes, short-eared owls and white-tailed eagles might also be seen with a little luck and patience. A little further north, the area around Malacky is drier and typified by pine-forested sand dunes where there are nightjars, hoopoe and woodlark.
Bratislava itself has 809ha (2,020 acres) of park and forest, and 34 protected reservations. Most of this is formed by the Bratislavský lesopark (Bratislava Forest Park), to the north of the city. Despite centuries of deforestation and the effects of acid rain after burning brown coal, 40% of the country is still covered by forest, mainly beech and spruce. Arable land accounts for 30% of the country, while meadows and pastures cover 17%. Slovakia is less industrialised than the Czech Republic and therefore its forests and rivers have been less damaged by pollution.
The Gabčíkovo-Nagymaros hydro-electric dam, 40km downstream from Bratislava, has been an environmental disaster on all sides.The Gabčíkovo Dam Project was started in 1977 under the auspices of an international treaty between the then communist brother states Hungary and Czechoslovakia. The goal was to dam the Danube, all the way from Bratislava to Budapest, providing a vital amount of clean hydro-electric energy. The idea was supported by the Austrians, who also looked for cheap energy resources at another country’s environmental expense. The Czechoslovak government was desperate to find another source of energy to replace brown coal, whose pollution destroyed most of the country’s forests. The Hungarian government pulled out in 1989 after protests by the green lobby, and called for an international inquiry into the environmental effects of the dam on the Danube. They dismantled their dam at Nagymaros (east of Štúrovo, downstream from Gabčíkovo). The Czechoslovak government had already invested huge amounts of money and continued with a scaled-down version of the project (known as Variant C), diverting part of the Danube in 1993.
In 1997, the International Court of Justice at The Hague ruled in favour of Slovakia, but that Slovakia had acted illegally by diverting the river. The court ordered both sides to come up with a joint plan for the future of the project but, after years of wrangling, they agreed to discontinue proceedings in 2017. Tragically, the environmental damage has already been done on both sides of the river, according to ecologists. A new channel runs for 10km from south of Bratislava to the Čunovo Dam and the Danubiana Meulensteen Modern Art Museum (page 164), which you can reach either by cycling alongside the channel or on a boat cruise.
Like many European capitals, Bratislava has plenty of great markets selling local produce, such as pottery, wooden toys and homemade cheeses © StockStudio, Shutterstock
Swamp-and-conifer men they looked, with faces tundra-blank and eyes as blue and as vague as unmapped lakes which the plum-brandy was misting over.
From A Time of Gifts, Patrick Leigh Fermor, recalling his 1934 visit to Bratislava.
It’s hard to recognise Leigh Fermor’s depiction of Slovaks in the go-getting youth rushing about today’s Bratislava from business meeting to business lunch or dancing the night away in fashionable nightclubs. It’s impossible to generalise, but many Slovaks share a love for nature and the family. They like nothing better than to escape the city for a trek through the woods, finishing up with a huge, hearty meal washed down with fantastic beer, fiery spirits or quality Slovak wine.
Slovaks embody the stereotype of Slavic hospitality, tempered by a generous portion of dour realism. However, they are neither grumpy like their Hungarian neighbours nor uptight like the Austrians over the river. Slovaks welcome visitors with open arms, and usually an open bottle. Then there’s the legendary razor-cheek-boned beauty of Slovak females, deriving from a fascinatingly exotic gene pool. Many top models are from Slovakia.
The difference in atmosphere between Bratislava and Vienna or Budapest is marked. It may be because Bratislava is smaller and more manageable, but the people are more relaxed and have more time to sit and enjoy a coffee, beer or glass of Slovak wine at one of the hundreds of terrace cafés in the Mediterranean-style capital. However, it’s not all rosé in Bratislava.
Slovaks have chips on their shoulders about the Czechs, and with reason. Only in the past couple of decades has the dynamic Slovak economy allowed them to hold their heads high in the region after years of being treated like a problematic little sister. It still rankles that most people think the greatest stars of Czechoslovak ice hockey, football and Olympic teams of the past were Czech, as many were Slovak.
Saint Sebastian's Cathedral is home to a mosaic of resurrected Christ among the apostles © Renata Sedmakova, Shutterstock
For visual arts, a trip to the Slovak National Gallery reveals the wealth of early religious painting from the region. Pavol of Levoča was the most outstanding Gothic sculptor. Baroque art by painters such as Ján Kracker and Jakub Bogdan is found in churches across the country. The 19th-century Slovak National Revival threw up a crop of Slovak painters. The solitary, strange Hungarian painter Ladislav Medňanský (1852–1919) was born in Beckov in what is now Slovakia. He depicted the vivid Slovak landscapes and lives of tramps and poor people with great power. Many of his powerful paintings can be seen at the Slovak National Gallery. Under communism, statues were chunky Soviet Constructivist. Július Bártfay created numerous World War II monuments, including the Slavín Monument. Nowadays, Bratislava is bulging with private galleries, many of which have artwork for sale.
As for music, Bratislava was visited by many of the greats: Mozart, Haydn, Bartók, Liszt and Beethoven, many of whom studied within the Old Town walls and gave concerts. Home-grown music star Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778–1837) was a pupil of Mozart and Haydn and a friend to Beethoven and Paganini. Composer, teacher and the first great piano virtuoso, he created music in many styles and the house where he was born can be visited at Klobučnícka 2. In the 18th century, Slovaks wanted to redefine their folk-music heritage and composers used folk motifs in classical compositions. Mikuláš Schneider-Trnavský and Ján Levoslav Bella were the most well known.
Communism stifled modern music in the second half of the 20th century, although Eugen Suchoň (1908–93) and Jan Cikkér (1911–89) have solid reputations. There was also a significant jazz movement, led in the 1960s by bands such as Combo 4, the Bratislava Jazz Quartet, the Medik Quintet and Traditional Club Bratislava. Jazz clubs are popular in Bratislava today and there are several places to hear live music. Peter Lipa (b1943), head of the Slovak Jazz Association and chief organiser of the country’s largest jazz festival, is an iconic figure, known as the ‘father of Slovak jazz’. As a singer, he has made 19 albums including Beatles in Blue(s), which sees him covering songs by his teenage idols. A good introduction to Slovak jazz can be found on his website. Rock and pop artists are popular with singers such as Paľo Habera and his former band, Team. Reggae is also thriving in the Slovak capital alongside ambient music, death metal and the inevitable techno.
Perhaps because of the diversity of influences on the land – Celtic, Roman, Hungarian, Slavic German and others – Slovakia has a remarkably varied folksong and dance heritage, which was particularly common in the 17th and 18th centuries. A popular tale told of a real-life Robin Hood figure, Juraj Jánošík (1688–1713), who led a group of bandits in northern Slovakia and was executed in the main square of Liptovský Mikuláš. The fujara is an instrument unique to Slovakia that looks like a didgeridoo but is played like a flute. The folk revivalist Tibor Koblíček uses many folk styles on his album My Dear Pipes, using the mournful drone of the fujara, the hurdy gurdy and other traditional instruments.