Which is the only capital city in the world to straddle the borders of two foreign nations? Yes, It’s Bratislava, capital of Slovakia.
The southernmost limits of Bratislava sits on the border of Hungary; while its western edge cuts a jagged line along the Austrian border. And what’s more, the Czech Republic is just 60 kilometres away.
As Central European capitals go, Bratislava must be one of the central-ist. 🙂
Bratislava received an unfavourable rap in the 2005 horror film Hostel. The firm director, Eli Roth, portrayed the city as a disreputable Eastern European hellhole; its squalid, crime-riddled streets roamed by torture-loving sadists who prey upon naive backpackers (many Slovakians were understandably offended by the film’s egregious portrayal of their nation).
But Hollywood films always get it wrong.
What’s Bratislava really like? And is it worth a visit?
The founding of Bratislava
The Middle Danube Basin (the setting for Bratislava) has been occupied since approximately 5,000 BCE. The basin provides a convenient access route between the Carpathian Mountains and the Alps, and has long been used as a trade route between the Balkan and the Baltic states.
Celtic tribes moved into the region in 450 BCE. Then the Romans came along, appearing in roughly the 1st Century CE, though little remains to mark their passing – and that’s unusual for the Romans.
In the 5th and 6th Centuries the first waves of Slavs migrated to the region. They would eventually – though not for many centuries yet – come to dominate the city.
In the 10th Century Bratislava became part of the Kingdom of Hungary; it remained a Hungarian settlement for the next nine hundred years.
In 1526 Bratislava was besieged by the Ottomans, but the city, and its citizens, managed to withstand the attack. In 1536 the city became the capital of the Kingdom of Hungary (it was a stronghold at the time when much of Hungary had been lost, or was threatened, by the Ottomans).
Bratislava’s fortunes had changed. It became a prestigious city; the centre of a grand kingdom. Kings, archbishops, and nobility all took up residence in the old city. A total of eleven kings were coronated in Bratislava between 1563 and 1830.
But all things come to pass, and a power deal that took place between Hungary and Austria in 1783, wherein the crown jewels of Hungary were moved to Vienna, commenced the city’s slow fade from prominence.
In the ensuing years numerous government offices, along with most of the Hungarian nobility, shifted to Buda (the city which, once combined with its neighbour, Pest, would eventually regain its title as the Hungarian capital: Budapest).
In modern times we think of Bratislava as a cultural centre for Slovakia, but in the early 20th Century the ethnic breakdown of the city – 40% German ancestry, 40% Hungarian ancestry, 20% Slovak ancestry – presented a different outlook.
That all changed when the Czechoslovak army seized and occupied the city in 1919. Bratislava was annexed by Czechoslovakia, despite the violent protest of the city’s German and Hungarian populace. And in the successive decades the populations of Germans and Hungarians living in the city dwindled, while the population of Slovaks grew.
By 1993, when Bratislava became the capital of the newly independent Slovakia, the city’s population was approximately 90% Slovak.
The rocky outcrop upon which Bratislava Castle is built (known as Castle Hill) has been occupied since the Stone Age. Castle Hill contained a small fort during the times of the Baden culture (3,500 BCE), an acropolis during the times of the Celts (450 BCE) and a small village during the times of the Romans.
The castle you see today, built in stages between the 9th Century CE and 18th Century CE, held the crown jewels of the Kingdom of Hungary from the 1500s until 1783.
It currently hosts the Slovak National Museum.
St Michael’s Gate
The medieval walled city of Bratislava (known as Pressburg at the time) was accessible by four fortified gates. St Michael’s Gate, built circa 1300 CE (and reconstructed in 1758), is the only one of the four gates that is still standing.
St Michael’s Gate currently houses the Bratislava City Museum.
This is not a playground set aside for the city’s chimpanzees and gorillas (i.e. primates 🙂 ), as I first thought, but rather a grand palace built in 1778 for Archbishop József Batthyány.
The most famous room in the Primate’s Palace is undoubtedly the Hall of Mirrors, inside which, in 1805, the 4th Peace of Pressburg Treaty was signed (between Napolean and Holy Roman Emperor Francis II) effectively dissolving the Holy Roman Empire.
Most Slovenského národného povstania (National Uprising Bridge)
The National Uprising Bridge, also known as the UFO Bridge, was built in 1972 in a controversial location that required the demolition of the entire Jewish quarter of the old city.
The flying-saucer-shaped pod that graces the top of the pylon, which sits 80 metres above ground level, contains a restaurant (called UFO) that is accessed by special elevator.
Čumil (The Watcher)
One of Bratislava’s most popular tourist sights is the diminutive bronze statue known as Čumil (meaning: the Watcher).
The statue is not meant to be the portrayal of skulking sexual predator as you might at first think, but rather that of a humble sewer worker.
Is Bratislava worth a visit?
Yes. Definitely. Bratislava is not a disreputable, crime riddled Eastern European backwater, as the makers of the film Hostel would have you believe. Rather, it’s a city of great historical interest, and a cultural hub of Central Europe.
Practical information and how to reach Bratislava:
You can get to Bratislava from Vienna in one hour by train or bus. It’s 2.5 hours by train to Budapest, or 4.5 hours to Prague. More information here.