Our too-short trip to Europe: Third stop - Bratislava

Were it not for the Saturday Night Live bit featuring “Two Wild and Crazy Guys” from 1977, I would probably never have even heard of Bratislava, let alone wanted to visit. But here we are, nearly 50 years later, and the bit lives on. As does Bratislava.

Steve Martin and Dan Akroyd played Jorge and Yortuk Festrunk respectively, two brothers who fled the Russian tanks that had invaded their homeland of Czechoslovakia. Remember, this was well before the Iron Curtain fell and today’s Czech Republic and Slovakia – two disparate countries in many ways – had been forced into a single political entity.

Bratislava's Hrad Castle

Today, Bratislava is the capital of Slovakia and is only about an hour’s bus ride from Vienna, which is the capital of Austria. Their proximity make them the third-closest capital cities of two sovereign countries in the world.

Many of these fun facts were included in a one-hour walking tour we booked through Bratislava City Tours. Our tour was part of a package that included round-trip Flixbus transportation from Vienna and a two-course lunch following the tour.

Slovak National Theatre

Our guide, Ingrid, was born and raised in Bratislava and was more than happy to share her expertise and knowledge as she walked us through the Old Town. Full of history, like so much of Europe, and so much pain from World War II. Much of that is gone, but certainly not forgotten, as many monuments and statues will remind.

"Man at Work" statue -- interesting street art

Bratislava has a number of whimsical bronze statues around the old town. The "Man at Work" statue features a worker named Čumil, and is probably the most photographed of all of them. 

The city has many churches, including the Blue Church, St. Martin’s Cathedral, and the Church of St. Stephen of Hungary, among others. The HRAD Castle sits on a hill overlooking the city and the River Danube from the north, and the man-made UFO Bar, Restaurant and observation deck looks on from the south.

St. Martin's Cathedral

Monuments include a statue to memorialize s Jewish synagogue that survived World War II but was torn down in 1969 to make way for the SNP Bridge.

Neolog Synagogue Memorial

As we had already experienced several times, the maxim “A map is not the territory” applied here. On a map, it looked like a stiff walk from the bus terminal into the main area of town and its shops, stores and restaurants. It turned out to be little more than a good stroll, though my wife was very glad she was wearing good walking shoes. Like many streets in Europe, many in Bratislava are made of cobblestones or pavers that have been made uneven by the tree roots growing beneath them.

Tree-shaded walkway through the heart of the old town

One of the more surprising sites is along a stretch of the very walkway pictured above. That site is a statue of children's author Hans Christiansen Andersen. Anderson, who wrote The Little Mermaid, The Ugly Ducking and The Snow Queen, was born near Copenhagen, Denmark so why the statue? It was reportedly erected by local town government in an attempt to shed the town's reputation as "austere" following the fall of communism.

Hans Christian Andersen statue

Other statues commemorated people important to the city's history, including one to Anton Bernolák, a Slovak linguist and Catholic priest, and the author of the first Slovak language standard.

We were shown many other sites that are distinctly Slovakian in origin including Michael's Gate, which is one of the gates that were opened and closed during Medieval times. It is the only city gate that has been preserved of the medieval fortifications, and ranks among the oldest town buildings.

Michael's Gate with its blue tower

Our guide pointed out crowns that had been embedded in the pavement along the way to Michael's Gate.  These identified the route the king would take when he was coming and going.

Marking the King's Way

Another stunning site is Laurinc Gate, a gate that hung in one of the city's gate towers and is now a piece of art hanging above a street named Laurinska near the edge of the Old Town.  

Medieval Laurinc Gate in the Old Town

While we took a tour that included lunch, we would recommend a different approach if you have any adventurous spirit at all. Absolutely take the tour but as you’re walking, notice the literally dozens of restaurants from pubs to sit-down white table cloth establishments. Make note of those you find intriguing, then have lunch at one of them independently.

One that appealed to us was the Zylinder Café Restaurant. Reservations are required, according to the restaurant’s website, but it looked intriguing because it offers a sampling of traditional Pressburg cuisine. “What is Pressburg?” you ask? The name of what is now Bratislava before it was renamed in 1919.

Zylinder boasts of having “revived traditional cuisine from the times of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy,” and offers specialties “that even Emperor Franz Joseph liked” such as Tafelspitz, beef "Szeged goulash", Pörkölt, "Prešporský schnitzel" or Kaiserscharrn. If you’re a foodie as we are, check out the website here. If you prefer to be guided instead of exploring on your own, Bratislava City Tours also offers a “Traditional Pressburg Cuisine Tasting” of a three-course tasting menu held at the Zylinder. They also offer wine tasting with a sommelier, and a beer tasting at the Malt House Sladovna, right in the heart of the city’s historical center.

You might also investigate UFO, the structure atop the Most Slovenského národného povstania (Most SNP) Bridge, or The Bridge of the Slovak National Uprising. It offers an observation deck for those who just want to look, as well as a bar and restaurant. The bar opens at 10:00, the restaurant at noon, and they are both open until 23:00 (11 p.m. but you knew that). It’s not cheap but offers some intriguing menu items as well as several Dégustation options.

Bratislava UFO

If something low-brow sounds appealing, the city has your number. Beer Bike Bratislava offers 60- or 90-minute tours through the old town with craft beers from local brewers, or bottles of prosecco. Up to 14 people can ride, though 10 of them will be expected to help with the pedaling. Unlimited beer is included in the price of €260 for the 60-minute tour, which is the same regardless of the number of passengers, but the fewer the people, the harder each will have to pedal.

After our tour and lunch, we have more than four hours to kill before our bus returned home, so we went back to some of the sights we’d seen on our tour, stopped for a gelato (gelato stands are EVERYWHERE!) and attempted to do some shopping. We found too many overpriced souvenir shops and many high-end stores but little in between.

Once we’d decided that there was no retail therapy to be had, we decided to cool our heels with a glass or two of Prosecco at the Vespa Cafeteria, which is actually a coffee house: closer in décor and tone to a nicer Starbucks and does not at all resemble what we Americans think of as a “cafeteria.”

Taking a break at Vespa Cafeteria

With the sun slowly sinking, we decided to venture across the Most SNP bridge and enjoy the Danube for a while before heading back to the bus for the trip home. A day well spent, and an item crossed off my bucket list!

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Photos by Carl Dombek
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