The Velvet Divorce: Bratislava 10; Prague 0

Checking out Slovakia, old and new….
by Rosalea Barker

The day I leave Budapest happens to be the Sunday that daylight saving time begins in Europe. Not that it would have mattered if I’d missed my scheduled train as the service to Prague is pretty frequent even on the weekend. I’m not going all the way to the Czech Republic; instead, I’m going to spend a few days in Bratislava, capital of the Slovakian portion of what used to be known as Czechoslovakia. Because of difficulties in reconciling the balance of power between the two areas that had been melded into one nation following WWI, they split amicably shortly after leaving the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Bloc, becoming two separate entities on January 1, 1993. You can read a good summary of Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution and Velvet Divorce here.

I arrive at Bratislava’s main train station seemingly out of focus and with a need for a nice relaxing cup of coffee! This is the first station on my trip that isn’t one of those huge monuments to the golden age of rail typical of other European cities. Slovakia bills itself as the Little Big Country, and promotes a “pure nature” angle in its tourism efforts. Hiking in Slovakia’s High Tatras is #4 on Lonely Planet’s list of the Top 25 things to do in Eastern Europe.

Bratislava itself is billed as the Big Little City. If you prefer New Zealand to Australia and Wellington to Auckland, then you’ll love this quirky place as much as I did. I got there a week before the official start of the tourist season—heralded by daily hydrofoil trips along the Danube to nearby Vienna—but the advantage of arriving early was that the place was well-nigh deserted.

After checking into the cheekily named, and excellent, Freddie Next to Mercury hostel a couple of blocks from the railway station (and one block from the toney Mercur Hotel), I take the bus downtown to see what I can see. Although a lot of the older parts of central Bratislava were demolished for a highway and bridge across the Danube after WWII, there are still many historic sites to visit, such as the palace on top of the little hill near Old Town. Bratislava was the seat of Hungarian royalty from 1536 onwards and 11 Hungarian kings and 8 royal wives were crowned in St Martin’s Cathedral between 1563 and 1830, including Maria Theresa in 1741. The Primatial Palace in Old Town hosted Napoleon when he signed a peace accord with the Habsburgs in 1805.

As I take my Sunday stroll towards the Danube, I notice families and groups of teenagers all headed in one direction so I follow them and end up at Eurovea. This brand new shopping mall (opened in 2013) has a fountain and pool on the roof terrace, and the pool has a clear bottom so that when you’re down in the mall you look up through the water at the sky. Among the chain stores are Marks and Spencer, United Colors of Benetton, and—to my surprise—Bata. (Only surprising because I didn’t know that Bata originated in Zlin, in what is now the Czech Republic.) The roof terrace and promenade sport several cafes and restaurants that overlook the river, and they’re all doing a bustling trade on this sunny spring day.

The next day, I take a bus in the direction the hostel staff laughingly told me never to go—towards the communist-era housing that surrounds the city. Far from being the grey monoliths I’d expected, apartment block after apartment block is neatly maintained and painted, often with whimsical touches. On the way back to town, I stop in at a café I’d spotted earlier just because it had the word “Sherlocka” in the name. It turns out to be a fast-food joint with a line out the door and down the street by the time I get there, and I have to say the food was hearty and delicious and cheap. I return to Old Town intending to join a walking tour, but then can’t be bothered being herded—Bratislava is definitely a pottering-about-on-your-own sort of place. The people are friendly, helpful and courteous, keen that you should see their Big Little City in the best possible light.

Ten out of ten, Bratislava! I’ll be back one day.

Prague

I already know I’m not going to like Prague when the people I’m sharing a compartment with on the next day’s trip to that city mock the train conductor’s manner of speaking after he comes around for our tickets. They seem to be laughing at his Slovak accent, and my suspicion that Slovaks are considered the country bumpkins of former Czechoslovakia is confirmed the next day by my English-speaking tour guide in Prague. He introduces himself as a true child of the Velvet Divorce, having a Czech mother and Slovak father, who are themselves divorced and living in their respective countries of birth. He prefers to be in Prague because it’s more sophisticated.

Although it’s a Hop On Hop Off bus tour, it begins in Old Town Square with a walking tour because the large buses can’t get within several blocks of Old Town. We walk through the narrow streets near Powder Gate past the headquarters of the Czech National Bank, which seemingly has not made much progress towards adopting the Euro as the national currency in the ten years since the republic became part of the European Union. The tour bus visits the usual list of suspects for any European city: Castle? Check. Monastery? Check. Palace? Check. Cathedral? Check. Synagogue (or former site thereof)? Check. And a gigantic communist-era sports stadium.

Truth is, I’m only in Prague for 24 hours before flying out to Copenhagen to begin my trip back to San Francisco, so I can hardly give a fair assessment of it. It is #2 on Lonely Planet’s list of Top 25 Experiences in Eastern Europe. (St. Petersburg and Moscow’s Red Square are numbers 1 and 3, respectively.) The tour bus commentary stated that more than 50 percent of Prague’s residents live in the high-rise buildings from post-1948 communist times, and that those buildings were supposed to last only 40 years. But that is not the Prague the typical tourist will see. The city has also become a must-visit for the electronica crowd, and in the internet café where I had to seek directions to my hotel when I first arrived, there was even an ad for a Kiwi’s gig there.

Until we meet again: The photo below is of the martisor I was given in Chisinau, and tied to a cherry tree at the Bratislava train station on the day I left that lovely city, in the hope it will ensure my return. It was definitely my favourite city, but all of Eastern Europe is well worth exploring. Happy travels!