I can’t believe it’s the last day! After so many months of talking about and planning this trip, all of a sudden it’s over. Bags packed and safely stored we headed out to explore old town Bratislava and the castle which towers over the city before embarking on our last free walking tour at 11am. The castle is a huge square white building which looks like a real life version of a kids sandcastle complete with mound underneath.
When we arrived it was closed, so after pausing briefly to admire the view we meandered back down in search of caffeine and the meeting point.
May 1st is a national holiday in Slovakia, and the centre was filled with men and women in war time clothing…men in smart green uniforms with pressed berets, and elegant women in tailored jackets, skirts and hats sashaying across the cobbles in impressive heels. There were even wartime vehicles and a band of baton twirlers performing in front of the opera. A giant orange sign signalled the start of our tour, and we were soon introduced to Lucia, who really showed us how a walking tour should be done! Lucia is a Bratislavan born and bred, she runs tours on a freelance basis and free tours during her spare time – a real pro. She took us through the old city sharing an eclectic mix of history, politics and personal stories which kept our crowd captivated for the entire 2.5 hours.
The journey started with a quick talk through the differences between Slovaks (people from Slovakia), Slovenes (people from Slovenia) and Slavs (the people who first travelled over from the east to settle in Europe. We learned that Bratislava was previously the Capital city of Austria-Hungary, before Slovakia became its own country, and was the coronation city for the Austria-Hungarian monarchy. When the Ottoman Empire (modern day turkey) invaded, the monarchy were evacuated from Budapest to Bratislava which was viewed as something of a stronghold, and well placed at the boarder of 3 countries. When the Ottomans fell in 1918 Czechoslovakia was created. Feeling educated? We were!
Facts and figures flew at us from all angles… Bratislava was renamed when communism fell as a way of regaining a feel of control over the city, Brat = brother and slava = glory. Most inhabitants here work in Vienna where the salaries are around 3x higher…and you can fly there in just 9 minutes!
Nowadays Bratislava is carved in two by a giant interstate highway, which was installed during the communist regime, destroying most of the old town and Jewish quarter. We learned that one square was previously home to a synagogue, which is now marked out through a series of reddish pink stones in the floor and both an image and memorial in the square where it once stood. This is all in the shadow of the ceremonial church, topped with a replica of the crown of Hungary. There are lots of stories about this crown, including that it’s the same size as a VW beatle, and large enough for a horse to turn full circle inside it.
Our next stop was a series of squares surrounded by embassy’s and further statues to celebrate life, art and freedom which were installed after the fall of communism. My favourite was the Friendly Nazi…who was not a nazi, but a well dressed homeless man who for a time personified Bratislava. He would sing and dance in the street dressed in fine clothes with a top hat which had been gifted to him, and was so loved that when he died they erected this statue in his memory. Isn’t that lovely?
There are also several statues in memory of the soldiers who died during the liberation of Slovakia, despite any celebration of communists being very illegal nowadays. Lucia explained there were no statues to the leaders, only to the regular men who gave their lives to save the country from the nazis. Slovakia was the first country to cease deporting Jews to the concentration camps, with the last leaving in 1941, years before the final solution even reached neighbouring countries. But this fact was not due to uprising, strength or revolution, but because there were none left to deport. The cities thriving Jewish quarter was home to some 90,000 inhabitants before the war. The population now is closer to 4000. It’s unthinkable.
Another favourite statue was this little fellow, again the subject of many different urban myths and legends. Some say he is the cleaner of Bratislavas underground, others believe it to be a representation of the Slovak attitude to work…and the favourite explanation is that he was placed there in the 60’s around the same time women started to wear mini skirts. Perve.
The thing which made Lucias tour really special was her mix of personal stories interspersed with all the city and history parts. She paused at St Michaels church to explain about religion in Slovakia, as around 80% of the population would class themselves as religious, and most of those are Roman Catholic. They have their own traditions, which differ greatly from ours. For example, at Easter boys make birch whips and whip their female cousins and friends, in addition to dousing them with cold water. The power of the tree is meant to be transferred to the girl through the whip, and the water is meant to be for health and beauty… So it’s all done in good fun, though of course the boys like it a lot more than the girls, probably even more so as they are given chocolate eggs as a reward for being so generous. In recent years equality has called for girls as well as boys to do the whipping, but for most part it’s traditional. The more gentlemenly men will spray perfume on their ladies instead, and only mime the whipping…but our guides father and brother were not gentlemen, so her and her mother invented their own tradition of booking a cheap flight away for the weekend. My kind of girl!
Christmas traditions are also fun – they visit the river to catch a carp which then lives in the bathtub for 3 days. This clears the fish of the mud and silt it has been living on at the bottom of the river, making it tastey for Christmas dinner. However it usually means the family has not showered for 3 days before Christmas! Presents are exchanged on the 21st December, marked by the ringing of a small bell (usually hidden below the table) which have been delivered by baby Jesus (there’s no Father Christmas here). Father Frost or St Nicolas visits on 6th December leaving sweets (or garlic if you’re naughty) in children’s shoes.
This blog is getting far too epic now so I promise to wrap up soon. Our final few stops were at the base of the castle hill (we weren’t climbing again thank goodness!) where we learned the reason for its boxy design. The original castle was far more castle like, and built as a fort against the Mongols in the 13th century…since then it survived the siege of Napoleon and the rise and fall of the Ottoman Empire, only to be used eventually as a base for Italian soldiers during the war. The soldiers decided to hold a lavish supper with good food and excellent Slovakian wine…and managed to burn down the castle. All those wars and empires survived only to be destroyed by an Italian supper. Oopla!
A few stops later (we saw a very blue church and the square which was the face of the iconic communist invasion) and it was time to bid goodbye to Lucia. She definitely made our time in Bratislava something to remember, and has been one of the best walking tour guides I’ve been lucky enough to meet. We made sure she was well tipped and headed to enjoy some of this famous Slovakian wine we had just learned about. If you haven’t heard of it then I’m afraid you’re showing your ignorance; it isn’t exported out of the country, so is only known by those who attend wine competitions, as it is often featured in the winners list. Delicious!
Ah Bratislava, it was a short but sweet relaxing and fitting end to our little European tour. If you’re in this part of the country I’d recommend it for a day and dinner, but you wouldn’t need more than that to see all the highlights.
For now though London and home is calling. It’s been such a whirlwind tour, filled with history, beauty, laughter and tears. I think it’s definitely given Luci the bug for future travel, and satisfied my backpacking itch for a few more months. Thank goodness there’s one more day of freedom before normality returns! What will Bank Holiday Monday hold?