I only had one full day in Bratislava, and I wanted to make the most of it.
To do this, I highly, highly recommend Be Free Tours. They run their English-language tours twice daily – 11 AM and 3 PM – and meet in a perfectly accessible location near the river by Old Town. Just look for the big orange sign – easy enough. The tours are free, with tips optional at the end if it was enjoyable. Mine was – absolutely.
Unfortunately, I didn’t look before I sat down with my coffee and pastry, which meant, thanks to the dewy evening, that my bottom was now wet. Cold. And wet. Gross. I wrapped my scarf around my waist, and I was sure the group gathering for the tour – quite large, actually, requiring two guides and splitting us up – thought I was weird as hell. I patted my backside with coffee shop napkins to dry it as much as I could and put my scarf (it was a chilly morning, after all) around my waist like a makeshift skirt. However, the best part of travel is that I [probably] won’t see them again. Think me weird all you desire.
The sunny day was a beautiful one for a walking tour. It was a pleasant walk through Old Town, learning the history of the city, skirting near the castle (but that’s something you can do on your own), and crossing over to end up by St. Elizabeth’s Church, aka the Blue Church.
It’s easy to dismiss Bratislava against its cousin city Prague – the jewel of the Czech Republic. The story went that when the then-Czechoslovakia was taken over by Communism, Prague got to be the “pretty” city and Bratislava was turned into the industrial center. Parts of the Old Town were destroyed to make way for cube-like buildings for communist-style housing and factories. It got the shaft, and Prague got to stay gorgeous.
Fortunately, parts of Old Town have survived, and the views from Bratislava Castle show the disparity between the red roofs and coppery green church steeples on the north side of the river, giving way to the Novy Most Bridge (UFO Bridge), and the Communist cubes south of the Danube in the Petrzalka district. It is a study in major contrasts.
The thing this is – Vienna is a huge, gorgeous city. It’s an arts, culture, and musical city that’s had gods smiling on it for ages. It was in the Western block during the Cold War. Going from Vienna to Bratislava, as I overheard one tourist remark, can seem disappointing. Bratislava wasn’t as big. It was railroaded by communism and lost some of its medieval character to bulldozers. It wasn’t open to capitalism for decades or allowed to be its own place.
In other words, Bratislava can look a little rough, unrenovated in some places with loads of graffiti – but if you’re willing to look past that, it’s a diamond in the rough. The kind of gem that’s being polished slowly and surely.
Czechoslovakia split in 1993 for various reasons (though, I heard it was called the Velvet Divorce). It became Slovakia (and not Slovenia, which it is oft confused with) and the Czech Republic. Tourism here took a slam, though, after the horror movie Hostel was released (tourists stay in hostel, get tortured and brutally killed – lots of blood), and the film Eurotrip showed didn’t show Slovakians in a kind light. Yes, Hollywood media can have a massive effect on a place, as can Instagram accounts.
It’s taken a lot to get Slovakia on its independent feet, according to our tour guide, but there was a great deal of optimism that I heard in her voice, that Bratislava was picking up with tourism and working hard to put its name on the map. In general, the young people liked their non-Communist-associated leadership. After all, one guy told me he was pretty psyched that Starbucks would get there eventually.
“Just don’t believe what the Hollywood films Hostel and Eurotrip tell you,” she said [and I’m paraphrasing]. “We are not all trying to kill tourists. We like you.”