What’s Doing in Bratislava, Slovakia

By Christian Stampfer on 9 March 2011
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Bratislava, known as Preßburg prior to 1919, is the capital of Slovakia and straddles the Danube River at a strategic crossroads between the three main capital cities of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Budapest, Prague, and Vienna.  With a population of ca. 431,000, it is the country’s largest city and  is the only capital city in the world that borders two other nations, namely Austria and Hungary.

Bratislava became the capital of Slovakia in 1968, when Czechoslovakia became a decentralized federation.  The name Preßburg, which is its name in German, comes from its original name in Slovak, Prešporok.   Especially in neighboring Austria, and to a small extent in English as Pressburg, the German name is still used.

Bratislava has a rich cultural and intellectual history. It is the home to several universities, the Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra, two opera houses, and the Slovak National Theater. When Mozart was six years old, he played for Empress Maria Theresia in the Pálfiho palác (Palffy Palace).

Over the centuries, Bratislava was closely influenced both culturally and politically by Vienna and, with a distance of 60 kilometers (37 miles), Vienna and Bratislava are two of the closest European capital cities.

In 1850, 75% of the city’s residents were German speaking.  By the end of the First World War, the percentage was only 36%.  Today, while there is evidence of the city’s German-language heritage in street names and stores, the German speaking population is below 1%.

Bratislava is a mixture of old and new.  The city’s compact Old Town is a window to multiple pasts, the glory of the Habsburg monarchy, the grayness of having been behind the Iron Curtain, and the modernity of a new nation building its future.

While streets such as Michalská and Panská are home to baroque palaces, and a grand opera house, built by the Habsburgs, draws music lovers from throughout Europe, Kapitulska terminates with Katedrála svätého Martina (St. Martin’s Cathedral), a Gothic cathedral consecrated in 1452 that was the site of the coronation of 11 Hungarian or Hungarian monarchs including Maria Theresia.

Bratislavský hrad (Bratislav Castle) is situated in the middle of the city on a rocky hill in the Little Carpathians overlooking the Danube.   From the castle, visitors can see Bratislava itself, as well as Austria and Hungary. The castle has four towers including the Crown Tower, which houses the crown jewels and four gates including the Sigismund Gate, which is the best-preserved original part of the site, dating back to the 15th century.

Another very visible landmark is the Nový Most, or New Bridge, built in 1972 by the Communist regime.  The construction of the Nový Most destroyed important older neighborhoods including the Jewish Quarter and is still considered an eyesore by some although, given its space ship-like appearance, it is fondly referred to as the UFO bridge and the restaurant high atop the bridge’s observation deck is also called UFO.

Hrad Devín, or Devin Castle, overlooks the confluence of the Danube and Morava rivers from an altitude of 212 meters.  The castle itself, which was a center of the Moravian Empire in the ninth century, is situated just inside the Slovak border with Austria. Prior to 1989, while the castle was open to the public, the area along the border was “protected” by watchtowers and barbed-wire fences.

Bratislava is easily reached by non-stop flights to Vienna International Airport.  Austrian Airlines offers regular service from multiple U.S. cities.  The drive to Bratislava is 35 minutes.  The city’s first five-star hotel, the Kempinsky Hotel River Park, opened in 2010.

–Christian Stampfer is the European Editor of Executive Road Warrior.





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