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Bratislava, Slovakia: A velvety visit to old city with new touches

A visitor encounters a centuries-old castle, whimsical street art, a performance of 'Carmen,' Old Town cafes and pop music-loving locals.

April 29, 2012|By Alice Short, Los Angeles Times
  • Visitors gather in Bratislava, Slovakia’s main square, in the city’s historic core, to view centuries-old buildings such as the Old Town Hall with clock tower.
Visitors gather in Bratislava, Slovakia’s main square, in the city’s… (Steven Vielhaber )

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia — — If your destination is Bratislava, be prepared for a few questions: Is that in Eastern Europe? (No, it's in Central Europe.)

Capital of Slovenia, right? (Uh, no.)

Where is that? (The last question courtesy of a Customs employee at LAX.)

Until recently, my schooling on all things Bratislavan occurred during a 20-minute stop on a train traveling from Prague, Czech Republic, to Budapest, Hungary, almost a decade ago. Several travelers boarded; a few disembarked. Some of them flashed passports, suggesting that we had stopped in a different country, in a major European city about which I knew … nothing.

There's only one cure for that sort of knowledge gap.

In September, my husband, Steve, and I fly to Frankfurt, Germany, and then Vienna and then hop in a cab for the 50-minute drive to the capital of Slovakia, a relatively small country that stacks neatly atop Hungary on a map. But it doesn't fit quite as neatly into any tourism cliché. We know where it is, but figuring out what it is takes more exploration.

We bid the driver goodbye just outside Old Town about 8 p.m., plunging into the historic core with an enthusiasm that wanes slightly after dragging our suitcases over cobblestones for the next 45 minutes. Soon we discover that our hotel, Hotel Michalska Brana, is down an alley so narrow that even the smartest of smart cars wouldn't attempt the drive.

In the morning we are in a better frame of mind to assess the hotel and its amenities. We've ended up in a handsome suite with a tiny kitchen facility and a living room decorated with furniture that screams Ikea. The bedroom is similarly appointed, and both rooms have the requisite flat-screen TV. The view includes a large courtyard blessed with a smattering of brilliantly green trees and a bar and restaurant with a spectacular sound system. On this morning, the cleaning crew listens to the disembodied voice of a DJ declaring "Michael Jackson is not dead" as a segue to "Billie Jean."

Before we depart, we fortify ourselves in the hotel's breakfast room, which provides a robust sampling of fruit and yogurt, cheeses, meats and bread and juice and coffee. In the background, yet another flat-screen TV, this one tuned to CNN, delivers the latest on the Conrad Murray trial — another reminder of the thirst for American pop culture.

We have traveled 6,000 miles to immerse ourselves in a country that has been settled by (or ruled by) Celts, Romans, Slavic tribes, Magyars, Tartars, Turks and Habsburgs, Germans and Soviets, a land that became a country in 1993 after the so-called Velvet Divorce from the Czech Republic. We seek out dumplings and garlic soup and the ham rolled around horseradish cream. During our visit, we trek about a mile uphill to the Bratislava Castle, a several-times restored structure that looks a bit like an upside-down table whose origins date to the 15th century and is now a museum and national monument. We climb to the top of Michalska Brana (Michael's Gate), whose Gothic foundations, according to our guidebook, were laid in the early 14th century.

We also encounter Katy Perry as pop icon, Courtney Love as muse and graffiti reminiscent of works in last year's Art in the Streets at L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art. In addition to strip bars.

One night, after we attend a decent performance of "Carmen" at the Slovak National Theatre, we sit in an outdoor cafe, drinking wine and listening to a cover band in a bar playing music from the Jethro Tull album "Aqualung." Bratislava is nothing if not a spectacular cultural mash-up.

On our first morning we stroll to get the lay of the land. The Slovak National Gallery seems like a must-do — surely its exhibits will help us better understand the city and country. We are two of only four or five visitors — and the guards look at us with suspicion — or was that annoyance? — each time we open the door to a different gallery. The permanent collections feature Gothic, religious and Slovakian art we don't find appealing. Instead, we find ourselves drawn to an exhibition of whimsical works by Baroness Margita Czobelova, a Slovakian illustrator and painter.

Afterward, we lunch at Presburg, a cafe that seems to cater to tourists. The goulash turns out to be so perfectly spiced that I can't contain my inner glutton and wipe slice after slice of white bread in the sauce. Steve orders the special, which starts with a mushroom soup bursting with earthy flavor followed by a not-so-astonishing chicken schnitzel.

A postprandial stroll takes us by several whimsical — and modern — statues that seem to capture the fancy of every tourist. A piece called "Cumil" (also known as "Rubberneck") attracts the largest crowds, tourists who cannot resist the bronze man poking his head and part of his torso out of a manhole. It's corny, but alluring, as evidenced by Steve's many poses curled up beside the bronze.

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