Compact but vibrant, the tiny Slovakian city of Bratislava offers an ideal city break in Europe
I had never tasted potato dumpling with goat’s cheese before, let alone tried to pronounce its culinary name - bryndzove halušky - but then I had never been to Bratislava, the Slovakian capital, before. A cocktail of fat and carbs, this hearty speciality of the city was unexpectedly appealing. Much like the city itself.
Central Europe in a nutshell
For starters, Bratislava, both the youngest and the smallest capital city in the Euro region, is delightfully compact, and everything of interest is easy to get to on foot. It has been 20 years out of communism and since its ‘Velvet Divorce’ from the Czech Republic in 1993, Slovakia has emerged from its turbulent history as a microcosm of Central Europe. Its capital encompasses both colourful architecture in its tiny old town and austere, grey communist-constructed buildings on the city's outer limits.
Tourists have traditionally hailed from the neighbouring countries that, along with Bratislava, sit astride the Danube river, such as Austria and Hungary, who have easy access to the city. But direct flights from many UK airports to Bratislava make 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.
Eating out in Bratislava 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.
Taking a view
The views around the city comprise a backdrop of the Little Carpathian Mountains. Their lush and verdant beauty is easy on the eye but they also 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; the latter I found ideal to wash down my potato dumplings.
To get my orientation I started my tour of the city at the 14th-century Michael's Tower (Michalska Ulica; open 11am-5pm daily). This is one of the four gates of the city, and the only one still standing. It is an arduous climb to the top, but on each of the seven floors there’s a museum of armaments that makes for a welcome breath-catching respite on the way up to the final reward - the view. The panorama from the tower 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, then was remodelled as a palace, religious retreat and even a military barracks. It’s not particularly beautiful; nevertheless 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 of furniture and rural crafts, and elsewhere in the castle the folk museum offered up pipes, drums, wooden whistles and mannequins with strange attire.
Old Town action
Without a doubt, 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 such as the staging of passion plays and executions. It was also used as the main marketplace, for general gatherings and where rulers were greeted. Its name has varied over the years. In 1373 it was called Forum, in 1404 it was known as Marchte and in 1434 as Ring. The Germans named it Hauptplatz in 1783 and in 1850 it was renamed Franz Joseph Platz. Later it was even called Hitler's Square. In 1953 it became the 4th of April Square to commemorate the date when WWII finished in Bratislava. In 1989 it finally took its current name.
Behind this is a smaller square, the Primacialne Namesti, which is less grand, perhaps, but is home to one of Bratislava’s most impressive buildings: the Primate’s Palace. It was in this very palace, in its Hall of Mirrors, that Napoloeon 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 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 Ganymedes fountain, a gift from the Pressburg Savings Bank.
Domes and dumplings
For me, the most appealing piece of architecture is the early 20th-century one-nave Blue Church, or St Elizabeth's Church (Modry kostolik). Standing in front of this Art-Nouveau building, I pondered the fantasy world that inspired this pastel-blue, fairytale structure. It was designed by the Budapest architect Odon Lechner, who topped it with a blue-glazed roof and decorated its wavy walls and twisted domes with mosaics, fragments of mirrors and majolicas (a shiny metal made of silver and copper compound), giving off an exotic dash of Eastern promise. This sparkling edifice looks particularly stunning when the rays of the midday sun put on a light show as they bounce off the mirrors and mosaics.
Bratislava by day is perfect for sauntering through the medieval streets, popping in and out of Viennese cafes that alternate with baroque mini-palaces from the Hapsburg era and early 20th-century Art-Nouveau architecture. It’s all so quaintly upstanding and regal, but the streets are enchantingly playful, ornamented as they are with cheeky bronze statues. There’s one of a paparazzo leaning around a street corner poised with a camera; another that's a 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. In the evening light, I have to admit to having mistaken him for a real live louche.
As the evening draws in, the city begins to swing and Bratislava at night is imbued with vibrancy. The city comes alive as the youth pile into the city centre and head for the plethora of bars, jazz cafes and restaurants. A funky laser beam points the way from Michalska Street, the city’s main thoroughfare, 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, 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.
(Riecna 4): stylish accommodation decorated in wood and pastel colours, great restaurant, a spa and some great views over the Danube or of the city roof tops.
Radisson SAS Carlton Hotel (Hviezdoslavovo nam 3): this Radisson is located in Bratislava’s best location, on a tree-lined piazza overlooking the opera house. Each floor is dedicated to a famous composer and all rooms are styled in contemporary and classic designs. The restaurant is said to be one of the best in town.