If I asked you to tell me three things about Slovakia could you?
Before visiting, I probably couldn’t and I have Slovakian ancestry. Reading through the family history I had always wondered what the land of my ancestors was like. A weekend in Bratislava was time enough to gain and understanding of the food, culture, and history of this lesser known Central European country.
With approximately 427,000 residents, Bratislava has a small town feel when compared to other European capital cities. The city is just an hour from Vienna, Austria and makes a nice day trip by bus or boating down the Danube River. We opted to spend a weekend there en route to Budapest which is just two hours away by car.
Visitors to Bratislava have their pick of bars and restaurants to dine al fresco on a lazy afternoon. The city is known to have quite a vibrant nightlife as the BARtislava shirts we saw would suggest.
When we were there, the neighboring Irish and Scottish pubs were full of older gents in kilts who had come to town to cheer on their favorite football clubs.
We headed to the Slovak Pub for lunch, which according to the sign in front, was ranked as the 23rd best pub in the world by Lonely Planet.
The menu offered many hearty Slovakian classics like potato dumplings with sheep’s cheese, tripe soup, and a variety of schnitzels. After much deliberation, we decided to stick to our favorites. I ordered up a pierogi with bacon and dill and Chris continued his sausage tour of the world.
Dare I say these pierogis were even tastier than the ones I had in Poland!
In the afternoon we joined a free walking tour where we learned the city has more to it than meets the eye.
Though the country gained independence when it split from Czech Republic just 23 years ago, sights around the city were evidence of a rich past.
Our guide called our attention to a medieval guillotine and a cannon ball lodged into the side of a church from Napoleon’s troops. Looking down, the cobbled streets were marked with crowns tracing the coronation path from Bratislava Castle to St. Martin’s Cathedral in Old Town.
The city is the only capital in the world that borders two countries (Austria and Hungary) so it is no surprise that it was once part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Between 1563 and 1830 kings and queens of Hungary were crowned in this modest church.
The heritage of this “Coronation City” is still celebrated in late June where the procession and traditions are reenacted. The best part of the festival has to be the fountain in the center of Old Town which dispenses free wine on coronation day. Each year a different king or queen is honored and bronze copies of original coins are tossed out to the crowd.
The Communist past is also part of the identity of this city.
No visitor to Bratislava can miss the UFO-shaped restaurant on top of New Bridge, a prime example of communist architecture. Much of the Jewish Quarter and a synagogue were leveled to make way for the bridge. The site where the synagogue once stood is marked with a memorial and outline of the footprint of the building.
We saw the street where in 1968 a newlywed man bared his chest in the path of an occupying Soviet tank. The photo of the oppostion to the invasion became world famous.
We stood in the square where over 5,000 Slovaks sang hymns with candles in hand to protest for religious freedom in 1988. The government reacted with violence which outraged citizens. This was the was the start of the Velvet Revolution to overthrow Communism in Czechoslovakia.
I enjoyed hearing about the culture including the rite of passage where Slovakians climb the Tatra Mountains taking shots of Tatratea with increasing potency as they ascend the mountain.
We also heard about the Easter Monday tradition whereby young men dress in folk costumes and visit the single girls in the village to whip them (with ribbons) and pour water on the gals to bring health and beauty to them. Some ladies even end up in the local creek which is reason enough for our female guide to book a cheap ticket out of town that day.
As we walked through the Old Town we bumped into some of Bratislava’s most famous residents.
One of the notable sites in Bratislava is St. Elizabeth’s Church which is known as the Blue Church for obvious reasons but also described as smurf, cake topper, and marshmallow.
We could have spent more time in Slovakia cruising the Danube, exploring caves and castles, and sampling more delicious foods, but we enjoyed the short time we had there.
If Austria or Hungary are in your travel plans be sure to detour over to Bratislava and see what Slovakia is all about.
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