Friday, January 04, 2008


Leaving Belgrade
My friend Olja knew that I had been wanting to visit Prague, so when a local tour agency offered a trip during our Christmas break to the Czech capital and a brief stop in Bratislava, we took advantage of the trip and its excellent price. We would have to contend with a long bus ride and I understood that the tour guide explanations would be in Serbian, but I didn’t mind.

After a night bus ride, we arrived in the Slovakian capital of Bratislava around 7 am. A bit too early for the hotel, we were driven past an area containing several embassies, modern glassy homes next to more modest ones, and a former munitions manufacturing area. We stopped at the new Parliament building, next to which was a “stunning view” of the Danube. However, that view was obscured by a thick fog, which was “highly unusual” according to our local guide.

Due to its strategic location on the Danube, Bratislava has been an important center for trading since early times. For over 250 years, it was the capital of old Hungary. In 1809 Napoleon bombed Bratislava from the right bank of the Danube, not respecting the very treaty he signed with the Austrian emperor just four years earlier. When the breakup of Czechoslovakia in 1993, Bratislava became the seat of the Presidency, and the most important cultural, industrial, and scientific institutions. The largest city of Slovakia, it only has a population of 450,000.

Our local tour guide, a stocky older man wearing a thick, Russian-style fur hat, gave us a morning tour of the old city. We went past St. Martin’s Church, a Gothic structure built in 1452 and place where eleven Hungarian kings and eight royal wives were crowned. Near here was a monument to the Jews from WWII. Walking further into the old city, the tall white St. Michael’s Gate could be seen, the only preserved gate of the medieval city fortifications. After a short break to get something hot to drink and warm up (it was below freezing outside), we continued our tour. We saw the fancy yellow national theatre, walked through the passages old city hall with its decorative green roof, and the pink Primate’s Palace. Along one street, the guide pointed out the Paparazzi bronze figure, ready to take a photo from around the corner. Nearby was The Watcher, a bronze statue of a man inconspicuously peeping from a street manhole. Kids were seen playing on and around it, rubbing his already polished golden head. A special traffic sign alerts drivers of its location, so as to not drive over the sculpture.

After dropping off our luggage at the hotel, we went back into the city via tram. The city now was livelier, with more people in the streets and around the booths in the main square. Olja and I headed up to the Jewish Quarter, with its narrow streets and old buildings. We made a short stop in Clock Museum, located in the House of the Good Shepherd, a beautiful narrow yellow building from 1760-65. On each side of the cobblestone streets were colorful buildings, each connected to the other in a long row. In the balconies of apartments, I noticed Christmas trees wrapped tightly in plastic. Perhaps they wait until Christmas Eve to set them up. Nearing Castle Hill was the modest Chapel of St. Catherine with a small wooden tower, the oldest church in Bratislava but in derelict condition. The Bratislava Castle overlooking the Danube River, dominated over the city on its high hill. Like the Kalemegdan fortress in Belgrade, it was built and rebuilt many times over its long history starting around 907 AD. Features include 7-meter thick fortification walls built in 1437, a baroque-style castle building, and numerous smaller buildings. The castle, currently housing the Slovak Parliament and National Museum, is due to be renovated.

Back again at the main square, we wandered through the aisles of booths selling souvenirs, crafts, food, and drinks. The smell of grilled meat as it sizzled permeated the air. When looking at a local-looking craft item made out of straw, we were shocked to see that it too was made in China. So much for local handicrafts! To warm up, we bought a cup of hot wine and then proceeded to wander though the streets until supper. We found a restaurant that served Bryndzov√© haluisky, the Slovakian national dish of potato dumplings in sheep cheese sprinkled with bacon. It wasn’t as good as the ones we had in the Tatras, but it would have to suffice. Warmed up a bit again, we proceeded to do a bit more wandering through the streets, took some photos of the lit Christmas tree in the main square, observed some Peruvian-sounding flute music played by people dressed in Plains Indian costumes, and then took a tram back to the hotel.

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