The coronation of a Hungarian king is re-enacted in Bratislava – Photos: Alexander Stemp

Travel after the pandemic #2: Bratislava, Slovakia

Bratislava blues a little more promising now

The enticing motto “Bratislava, the 72 Hour City”, as newly devised by the Bratislava Tourist Board, not only offers a warm welcome to this alluring river city but also suggests much to see and do in the three-day time frame. My response to this enticement is to “Bring it all on!”, as much awaits. Even so, tourism at this illuminating capital is going to remain significantly down for a while compared to my last visit in August 2020, for reasons that are obvious not just there but everywhere else too.

Still, hopefully things are on the verge of improving, though the ongoing plague and the question of whether the borders should/will reopen are a constant consideration at present. But travel restrictions within the Visegrád Four – Hungary, Slovakia, Poland and the Czech Republic – are beginning to look promising again, ands let’s be hopeful that this summer will see things back to near normal.

So getting to Bratislava by road, river, rail or plane – at least from my end in Budapest – for a return visit should theoretically become as straightforward as before. For me, a sedate riverside cruise into Slovakia is ideal, and I have cycled the 160 kilometres too, so hopefully these will be options again.

Naturally there will be fewer crowds for a while than on my previous visit, and so the atmosphere will clearly not be the same as before. Still, this will provide some safety-in-numbers relief and make for lighter and easier sightseeing than usual. The tourist trade has indeed been on its heels but, on a more optimistic note, at least we can confidently expect some life back on the charming streets of the Old Town.

Putting all obstacles aside, the best way to start any tour of Bratislava is at the buzzing central Hviezdoslavovo Námestie, the main square, where tourists and locals alike congregate. The open-air restaurants and bars are in frequent flow and are in obvious clear line of sight.

From where the main Slovenské Národné Divadlo national theatre stands, it’s easier to become oriented around this immediate area. The next step should either proceed towards the Duna or to the Old Town with its heady mix of classic and vintage architecture, such as the awe-inspiring 14th-century Michalská Brána, or Michael’s Gate.

Michalska Brana or Michael’s Gate

The alluring Gothic Dóm sv. Martina, namely St. Martin’s Cathedral, delights my Hungarian friends with its Golden Crown of Hungary replica at the top of the tower. The wondrous courtyard leads towards the Stará Radnica, the Old Town Hall, and then the grandiose Primaciálny Palác, or Primatial Palace, just to name a few of the nearby sights.

A tourist information office is close by, plus the city’s small collection of odd statues such as the quirky but touching Man at Work (a leisurely fellow surveying the scene from down a manhole). See these and a lot more before heading to the impressive and simply named Bratislavský hrad, Bratislava Castle, which is perched on a nearby rocky hill across a very busy main through road, from where it overlooks the city and region in general.

Bratislava Castle and the Danube

Then, with complimentary map in hand, most other attractions, either at a comfortable walking pace or within light bicycle distance, are also within easy reach. One is the illustrious Grasalkovičov palác, the Presidential Palace, and its gardens. Of particular note is the fairytale-esque St. Elizabeth’s Church, an Art Nouveau wonder appropriately commonly known as the Blue Church.

The irregular “upside-down pyramid” design of the Slovak Radio and TV station is one of Bratislava’s dominant architectural features, plus the distinctly unmissable UFO Bridge and Observation Tower. Alongside the Duna shoreline is a photogenic ferris wheel. There is a host of museums, such as the Slovak National Gallery, and opportunities to take Danube boat rides and cruises. All this and more can be achievable again, presumably providing hands are sanitised and masks are worn at all indoor venues.

The UFO Bridge and Observation Tower

The Budapest Times visited Bratislava last year with a group of journalists, and the following day Maros, our splendid tour guide, took us to the Duna riverside where a speedboat, driven by a local host known as “Captain Frank”, awaited to whiz us to the remarkable Danubiana Meulensteen Art Museum.

Situated on an island a few kilometres downstream and near the Hungarian border, this fanciful gallery opened in 2000 and hosts elaborate artworks of international renown. In our case we were invited to a contemporary art exhibition.

Cruising cheerfully at full power back upstream and hitting high waves all the way, lunch was taken at the upmarket Dunajsky Pivovar, a former ship now redundant and moored by the riverside.

That evening and in defiance of the virus, but maintaining care and caution at all times with adequate spacing provided for orchestra members and audience alike, a splendid concert was held at St. Martin’s Cathedral, attended by an elated, sell-out audience.

St. Elizabeth’s Church a.k.a. the Blue Church

Then, to add further to our escapism from various national lockdowns, the next sortie was for drinks at the UFO tower. This retro-futuristic saucer, 95 metres high, “came down to land” in 1972 and, surreal as it is, inadvertently became a city symbol. The views from here and the more elegant nearby ferris wheel are enthralling regardless of any architectural arguments.

An early morning cycle ride around the city preceded a visit to the castle with its outstanding exhibitions and impressive garden landscaping. One exhibition was an anniversary dedication to the still-within-living-memory 1989 Velvet Revolution in the then-Czechoslovakia. This display of excelling artworks by late local legend Martin Benka featured rich, touching portrayals of traditional folklore.

As well, an unexpected and remarkable “Treasures of the Incas” exhibition had been flown in from Peru. We climbed to the top of one of the four towers, and in celebration of Bratislava having been the coronation city of 10 Hungarian kings for almost 300 years from 1563 to 1830, we witnessed a “coronation” taking place.

Bratislava, so steeped in history, was once called Presporok by the Slovaks, Pressburg by the Germans and Pozsony by the Hungarians. It became a coronation city when the Ottoman Turks occupied Hungary from 1541 to 1699, including Székesfehérvár, 50 kilometres west of Budapest, the site of previous crownings.

Nowadays Bratislava’s Old Town and historical centre are lined with churches and vintage buildings where various historical events have obviously taken place. Today part of the original coronation route is a procession through many of the strategic landmarks within the city centre.

Once a year a ceremony is carried out along the route of the former procession. As in days of old, the newly elected “king” leaves St. Martin’s Cathedral on horseback, to be escorted through the city and to promise protection to the kingdom and overcome its enemies.

Priests would head a long line carrying a cross, followed by flag and banner carriers representing lands belonging to Hungary. Officials and everyday people would join in. Afterwards entertainment would flow with knights participating in tournaments and so forth before all rounded off with fireworks late into the night.

After yet another sumptuous meal, this time at the conservative Korzo cafe and restaurant, the journalists’ 72-hour fact-finding visit was almost up. Another round of wellness at the hotel prepared me for my heady bike ride the following day 60 kilometres along the “Number 6” Duna bicycle lane to Vienna.

On the 73rd hour I freely peddled along this former Iron Curtain trail, unimpeded by barbed wire or modern-day fevers, into Austria. A few hours later I arrived at Vienna Hauptbahnhof train station feeling very accomplished.

My conclusion is that responsible tourism can be achieved again today if one works around this or any circumstantial plague. I offer heartfelt thanks to the excelling Bratislava Tourist Board and to FIJET Slovakia for a splendid time. Their itinerary was an eye-opener that achieved its mission. Certainly I shall return to see everything I missed out on when the time comes around again, hopefully very soon.