An April 2005 trip
to Bratislava by Re Carroll
Quote: The capital of Slovakia is Bratislava, located on the banks of the Danube River. Unlike nearby Vienna or Budapest, Bratislava is still relatively undiscovered by many tourists and provides a relaxing change of pace with friendly people, laidback charm, and an extra bonus of very reasonable prices.
As one of the newest members of the European Union (1 May 2004), Slovakia is much more affordable and less touristy than many other European countries. I visited just before it joined the EU and found prices for food and sightseeing were very reasonable, although I anticipate this will change over time as the country’s economy catches up to the rest of the EU.
Parts of modern Bratislava are Communist-era concrete – square, ugly, and jammed together along four lanes of hectic traffic with ugly overhead wires. Fortunately, the Old Town quarter more than makes up for the modern sprawl. This pedestrian-only area is filled with friendly sidewalk cafes, fashionable shops, and many beautifully restored historic buildings.
English isn’t as common as in nearby Vienna and I wondered if I’d have any trouble understanding and being understood. Fortunately, a query about which bus went to Old Town resulted in me meeting Anna, a Bratislava native who had spent a number of years living in Ottawa. This extremely friendly lady appointed herself my unofficial tour guide and put aside her errands to spend a few hours welcoming me to the city. As we strolled the picturesque streets of Old Town, she explained Bratislava’s history, taught me a few Slovakian phrases and pointed out spots of interest like Michael’s Tower and the Old Town Hall. When her impromptu tour was finished, she waved aside my thanks and continued on her way.
On my own, I followed Anna’s suggestions and visited the major sights such as Bratislava Castle and the Primate’s Palace. Everything I wanted to see was within a relatively small area, and the lack of crowds made it very enjoyable and easy to explore.
During my conversations with Anna, she said there was considerable interest in how the country would be perceived by visitors. If others are as lucky as I was to meet with such a friendly reception, there is no question in my mind that the country will be perceived in a very positive light indeed. Don’t just take my word - check it out now, before the crowds discover this charming city.
There is a tourist information office in Old Town at 9 Venturska as well as at the main train station. Besides Old Town, check out the futuristic Navy Most (New Bridge) across the Danube. For a charge, you can ride the elevator to the top for panoramic views of the city. Another stop of interest is Grassalkovich Palace, home to the president of Slovakia, located between Old Town and the main train station. The park behind the palace is a quiet refuge from noisy traffic and in 1878 the park’s walkways become the first area in the country with electric street lights.
Weekends are crowded with visitors from nearby Austria, so weekdays are the best time to visit Bratislava.
Bratislava is undergoing a lot of construction and renovation. Streets around the Old Town are dusty and noisy due to highway improvements. Old Town is mostly pedestrian only and sights there are within easy walking distance from one another, so a car isn’t really necessary.
In Bratislava buses are readily available and cover all parts of the city. Bus #81 goes from the train station to Old Town. One-way fare is 14SK. Buy tickets from automated dispensers or newsstands before boarding and remember to validate the ticket in the machine on the bus.
Not only is Austria just minutes away, so is the Hungarian border and Budapest is about 120 miles from Bratislava. If you have time, boats travel along the Danube from Bratislava to Vienna in a few hours or you can take a longer cruise to Budapest. The Czech Republic can be reached in under an hour too, which makes Bratislava a good base for sightseeing.
I was expecting hearty peasant-type food, such as thick stews and heavy roasts, but boy, was I wrong. The menu has a definite French flair – duck liver terrine, beef carpaccio, coquille St. Jacques, tiger prawns with brandy herb sauce, venison with cranberry mushroom sauce, salmon fillet with spinach and Gorgonzola sauce, lamb chops in a herbed crust, fillet of beef in a red wine sauce – nothing basic or peasant about this menu at all!
My biggest predicament was what to order. With the waiter’s help, I decided on pasta and was very pleased with my choice. I started with a side salad of mixed greens, grated goat cheese, and pine nuts with a vinaigrette dressing. My main course was a large bowl of tri colour fusili, chopped prosciutto and sun dried tomatoes mixed with an herb dressing. As delicious as it was, the portion was so large that it was enough to feed two. Not only was I unable to finish it, but I had to bypass dessert, and that was a definite hardship with offerings like chocolate tart or pear with mascarpone and chocolate sauce.
The service was excellent – efficient without being officious - and my waiter was a very jovial character. With taxes and tip, the meal came to €14, which was a good deal for the quality of food and service.
The restaurant is open for lunch and dinner. Reservations aren’t needed for lunch but highly recommended for dinner. Ludwig isn’t the type of place to dine and dash. Instead, come here to relax and enjoy excellent food in a pleasant atmosphere.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on May 29, 2005
Ludwig Restaurant and Cafe
02 5464 8284
Much of the castle is kept for official functions or traveling exhibitions, but it is also home to The Music Museum, as well as exhibits from The National Museum. The entrance is almost worth the price of admission, with its extremely elegant, wide, white marble staircase, gilt-edged ceiling, and huge, gold-framed mirrors.
My first stop was at The Music Museum, which featured an exhibit of Jan Levoslav Bella with musical scores, instruments and photos. My unfamiliarity with his work and the lack of English information meant I didn’t get much benefit from it.
More interesting to me was the various rooms of The History Museum and the National Museum. A large section was devoted to art – approximately 3500 paintings, statues, and prints by domestic and foreign artists grouped according to theme. Religious art in one room, painting and portraits of royalty such as Maria Theresa and Maria Antoinette in another, more portraits and finally, sculpture and modern art such as Julius Koller’s question mark canvas. One of the highlighted displays was copies of 15th century altarpieces and church statues done by Paul of Levoca and many of his students.
Other rooms, large enough to double for warehouses, were filled with coloured Slovakian glassware, carved wooden furniture, clocks, weapons, helmets and armor. There was an impressive display of silver with bowls, plates and utensils from the 17th to 19th century. Also impressive was a Renaissance jewel chest, circa 1600, and a replica of the crown of the Hungarian kings. Near the crown was a steep flight of stairs leading to the Crown Tower, a small enclosed tower offering 360 degree views of the city.
Speaking of stairs, the castle has lots of them, so those with mobility issues might want to check for handicap access before visiting. Note there is a small café on the top floor where you can take a break.
The castle is open from 9am to 5pm, Tuesday through Sunday. Admission is 60SK. To get to the castle from Old Town, cross the busy motorway through the underpass by St. Martin’s Church. You’ll then head uphill, past the pretty yellow and white House of the Good Shepherd, which now houses a clock museum.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on May 29, 2005
Above the Bratislava city
The palace is filled with large oil portraits of Hapsburg royalty, including one from 1742 of Marie Therese at her coronation. Individual rooms are sparsely furnished, which causes you to focus on what is there – large, sparkling crystal chandeliers and walls adorned with six English tapestries from the 17th century that had been hidden in the palace walls and discovered during renovations in the early 1900s. The tapestries depict the story of Hero and Leander, young Greek lovers who lived on opposite sides of the Hellespont. Hero lit a lamp in her tower to guide Leander in his nightly swim to visit her. One night, a storm caused the lamp to burn out, and without that focal point to guide him, Leander was unable to find the shore and drowned. When Hero found out about Leander’s death she took her own life – very much a Greek Romeo and Juliet.
Another major attraction in the palace is the ornate Hall of Mirrors. Although built on a smaller scale than Versailles, the Hall is still an impressive sight as well as being historically significant. It was here that Napoleon and Francis I signed the Treaty of Pressberg (Bratislava’s former name) in 1805, after the Battle of Austerlitz where 50,000 Russian, French and Austrian troops were killed.
Other points of interest are the fountain and statue of St. George in the courtyard and the St. Ladislaus chapel. The chapel was being renovated and was not open to visitors but supposedly has some impressive frescoes.
The palace is open from Tuesday through Sunday, 10am to 5pm, and admission is 40SK.
As the train left Vienna’s Sudbanhof station, the conductor came through to check tickets. Twenty minutes later, I was surprised when Austrian officials came through the cars to do a passport check. Being a security-conscious traveler, I keep my money, passport, and other important documents in a money belt that I wear around my waist and under my clothes. I hadn’t anticipated needing the passport on the train, so, while trying not to appear too obvious (or too embarrassed), I stuck my hand down my pants, fiddled around with the zipper on the money belt, and provided my passport for inspection. The female guard didn’t bat an eye, and once satisfied that my passport was in order, she moved on. Smiling to the ladies across the aisle, I did a little more fiddling under my clothes, returned the passport to the money belt, and settled into my seat to enjoy the passing scenery.
Not much later, we crossed the border when the train stopped and a group of Slovakian guards came on to do yet another security check. Well darn, let’s look foolish again while I stick my hand down my pants to get that passport one more time. As expected, everything was fine and the guard returned the passport to me. Hmm, was that a smirk on his face? Okay, security checks are finished, so back under my clothes goes the passport and the train continues to Bratislava.
Imagine my surprise and consternation when yet another uniformed officer comes into the train car a few minutes later and starts checking passengers again. For crying out loud, I’m just taking a 1-hour trip between countries – how much security is needed here? Back goes the hand into the pants and I’m ready with my passport once again. This time, however, the joke was on me – this fellow was just checking tickets!
Oh well – the elderly ladies across the aisle from me were highly amused. Just before we stopped in Bratislava, they offered me a cookie – whether to commiserate with my embarrassed fumbling or to thank me for the entertainment I provided, who knows?
Note: My experience was prior to Slovakia’s May 1st European Union inclusion. I think the border checks may have been eliminated since then, but just in case, be a scout and be prepared.
Abbotsford, British Columbia