Thursday, May 24, 2007

On to Slovakia!

The Slovaks are nothing if not persistent. Like almost every other country throughout Europe, they have been mauled around by the forces of history, probably to a greater extent than most. Slovakia is another tiny country, about the size of New Hampshire and Vermont combined, with a population barely exceeding 5 million. Almost 10% of the population live in Bratislava, the political, cultural and economic capital of the country, and incredibly, the nation appears to have been making astounding progress in its fourteen years of existence. It does, however, still have a long way to go to match its EU partners. Along the way, we had heard horror stories of RV robberies in Bratislava and our concerns were not eased as we checked into the salubrious campsite. The laundry and kitchen facilities, along with the adjacent hotel, looked like a recently converted internment complex and the prominently posted signage didn't help either. Fortunately, the campground was close to empty and, talking with a German couple who were getting ready to leave, we were assured that the bikes would be safe left on the back of the vehicle since the thieves had now graduated to higher value items such as cameras and computers. What a relief that was! Undaunted, we set off to see the town although we did take our backup drive with us "just in case". The tram terminal was just across the highway, adjacent to several other more exotic hotels, and we joined the morning commuters on the trip downtown. Bratislava has, of course, a castle on a hill, a once walled old town and plenty of churches. It straddles the Danube and is unique in the world as the only capital city to border two other countries - Hungary and Austria - and further, has the distinction of having been the capital of another country for about 250 years. This happened when things got hot in Hungary following the invasion by the Turks. The then "owners" of Hungary, the Hapsburg gang in Austria, sort of flowed north, overtook Bratislava and moved the Hungarian capital there from what was not yet Budapest. Confusing, eh? Anyway, in more recent times, following the Austro-Hungarian smack-down at the close of WWI, Moravia and Bohemia (Austrian possessions) were lumped together with what is now Slovakia (managed by Hungary) to form Czechoslovakia. Unfortunately, Czechoslovakia was the first place trashed by Adolf Hitler in 1938 and, upon its liberation in 1945, it was "given" to the Eastern Bloc where it remained until 1989. Three years after escaping the communist mantle, the politicians agreed to split the Federation into the independent countries of Slovakia and the Czech Republic.
All that stuff aside, we thoroughly enjoyed Bratislava and it is just the right size to cover in a day of vigorous walking.

First, the Castle!

The castle beckons from down in the Old Town

The start of the plod up to the Castle

Another tantalizing glimpse. Actually, the castle burned down
in 1811 and, having no current need for it, it was left to
with chunks of the masonry sold off from time to
to local builders as building material

In 1953, after 140 years as an eyesore, the socialists began
reconstruction and completed it in the late sixties.
Another fine piece of history not yet forty years old!

The Castle courtyard and entrance, along with much of the
rest of the city, were in the process of a major clean-up for
an imminent EU BigWig boondoggle

Something seems to be missing from the Vienna Gate unless
it was just used to show unwelcome guests out

Commerce on the Danube

The drab buildings in the background are known colloquially
as Panelaks. This low cost housing, produced by bolting
concrete panels onto a steel frame, was widely seen in every
erstwhile socialist country we visited. These particular ones
form Petrzalka, the largest borough in Bratislava, and
house 115,000 of its residents

The old and the new, seen on the way down from the castle

Between the Castle and the Old Town, this part of the city
wall stopped abruptly. Wonder why?

The reason turned out to be this spacey, status symbol bridge
built by the socialists in 1972. A wide swath of land was
required and was cut clean though the Old Town simply
demolishing everything in its path

The "UFO" structure on the bridge is is 280 feet high and the
public were not allowed access in communist times for fear
they would look west and see that den of iniquity, Vienna.
Today there is a revolving restaurant at the top which must
afford great views of the city

St Martins Cathedral is a three nave church built in the late
14th and early 15th centuries on the site of an older church

Several additional chapels were built in later years making
for a large complex. The ramp for the UFO bridge passes
right by the church and vibrations from the traffic
on this have caused considerable damage

Major renovation work was performed in the late 1990's
and the interior appears to be in good shape

Another wondrous pulpit

A church blending into a busy square in the old town

Another sumptuous interior...

and a nice side chapel

This Gothic Cistercian Church of Poor Clare's was founded in the thirteenth century

This colorful church, although founded in the late 1600's
by the Trinitarian Order, was rebuilt in the 19th century

A suburban church seen from the tram

St Michaels Gate, the only one remaining of
the original four, was a heavily fortified
entry and exit point to the town

Slovak National Theater

Detail of Theater building

Roof detail of the Primates Palace

The Old Town Hall in the Main Square

The Roland Fountain, ordered by Maximilian II in 1572 to
provide a public water supply, is a key feature in the
Main Square

The swanky Carlton Hotel

Bratislava has statues. This one, Victory on the
memorial Slavin, is the highest one in town
and was unveiled in 1960

Detail of Victory

Another grim looking statue "celebrating" something

National Theater Statue

A Slavic poet

Another Slavic poet

At last, from the castle grounds, a little lighter hearted effort

Better yet - Hans Christian Anderson visited Bratislava
and later wrote about the "fairy tale" city which
promptly erected this statue

Since the fall of communism, statues have been used
as a low cost antidote to the erstwhile dreary aura of
socialism and a number of quirky pieces are scattered
around town. This one represents Paparazzi

One of the most famous, kept polished by the constant
fondling by tourists, is Cumil (The Watcher) who has
twice been the victim of careless drivers

A couple of Bratislava's finest - not only do they not
have a squad car, no donuts were in evidence either

A pedestrian only area downtown

For the sedentary tourist, there were the usual cute bus-trains

For the hoi-polloi there are equal-opportunity operated trams and
buses providing economic and ready access to all parts of the city

The interiors of these clean and well maintained
vehicles are on the Spartan side, each car seating only 22

Must be a different story in the rush hour however,
with 140 standing passengers in addition

Finally, a reassuring taste of home

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