Bratislava – Feeding the mind

We don’t usually go in for guided tours. Unless, of course, we want to go somewhere that otherwise might be difficult. Like the Atlas Mountains when in Morocco or a coffee plantation in Costa Rica. But we had a present to realise and Authentic Slovakia was our tour of choice. Seeing the city from a post-communism perspective in an old Skoda sounded like a fun way to pass a morning. Expectations were neutral as it was our guide’s first official tour. He didn’t disappoint.

I like to ask questions. I like to be able to ask them knowing that I won’t be patronised. I know enough to know that there is so much I don’t know about this part of the world and being able to talk things through with someone who does know was the icing on the cake. This wasn’t a memorised tour; it came from the heart. The narrative flowed, peppered with personal anecdotes and coloured by experience born from extensive travel in the former Soviet bloc. We’d lucked out.

SNP (Slovenského národného povstania, Slovak National Uprising) square is where it all happened from  17 to 28 November 1989. It was here that the Velvet Revolution (Czech: Sametová Revoluce) or the Gentle Revolution (Slovak: Nežná Revolúcia) took place – a peaceful protest that marked the conception of two countries, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, that would be born on 1 January 1993.

Statues in SNP square in Bratislava


The statues mark an earlier protest, erected to commemorate the Slovak Uprising in 1944 against the pro-Nazi government and after which the square is named. SNP Square is one of many around the city. Admittedly some are more beautiful to look at but there’s a functionality about SNP that makes it less touristy and more attractive.

The square had several interesting names throughout history. It used to be divided into three parts and each had its own name. The upper part of the square was the Merciful Square, since the Monastery and Hospital of the Merciful Brothers took most of the south-eastern part. The part between Kolárska Street and Špitálska Street was called Shopkeeper’s Row as it was packed with small shops. The bottom part (around the statue of St. Florian) was originally a Granary Market, as they sold grains here. Later, at the end of the 18th century, they renamed it to Poultry Market and even later to Green Market, as people could buy vegetables, fruits, poultry and eggs here every Tuesday and Saturday. Once the square received only one name, it was simply called Market Square.

We sat for a while outside the FX Messerschmidt café before our tour started, watching people go about their lives. It was great to see a few nuns on the go.

‘Pretend we know nothing,’ I said, when asked how familiar we were with the region and its history. I figured it would be easier on him and an interesting check for us to see if what we did know was on the mark. After his introduction to SNP Square, we headed off to see the first prefabricated building in the country. I’d never twigged that the panel buildings of Hungary and Serbia were prefabricated, an assembly of premade parts that meant they could be erected in as little as three months.

First [refabricated building in Slovakia

I’d never noticed the joins before. Former Czechoslovakia has more panel buildings than anywhere else in the old Soviet bloc.  Before I saw them inside, I thought them ugly. Functional, but ugly. In Dublin, in Ballymun, similar tower blocks were torn down. But it wouldn’t be practical to tear down all those in Slovakia or Hungary for that matter. ArchDaily has a video showing how Slovakian architectural firm GutGut went about modernising them and making them more appealing. Fascinating.

Bronze art work over the door of an aparment building in Bratislava showing three girls playing

I’ve seen lots of examples of art over the doorways of old Soviet-style buildings and never knew why. Part of the construction budget, usually 1%-2%, was reserved for this type of ornamentation. Art as a line item in a construction budget – what’s not to like? When commenting on the buildings we drove by, our in-car expert mentioned the term brutalism, referring to the architecture. I jotted it down to read up on later. He pointed out the Slovak Radio Building, which was voted by The Telegraph as the 10th ugliest building in the world. I quite liked it.

COllage of New Market in Bratislava

A classic example of what amounted to functionalism 40 or so years ago is Nová Tržnica. The new market offers a snapshot into life pre-1989. It was built to be different, to break the mould, to make a statement, a lot like Lehel tér market in Budapest. I never could figure out what Lehel tér was about, but now that I have context, it makes sense. We got there minutes before closing so we only had time for a quick look-see. I’d have happily stayed for a coffee and stepped back in time. Tržnica was designed by architect Ivan Matušík who also designed my favourite Soviet-style building, the Prior department store (the first in former Czechoslavika with the country’s first escalators) and the old Kyiev hotel. I had heard that the hotel was under renovation some years back but sadly it looks closed up and forgotten. I loved that place. I remember the elevator as the slowest I’ve ever travelled in.  I remember the old-fashioned radio and TV in the room that didn’t work. I remember the multiple clocks in the enormous lobby that was a time warp in itself.

Kyiev hotel bratislava

Any guidebook you open on Bratislava will tell you that a visit to the Slavín Monument is a must. I doubt we’d have made the time to do it, had we not been on this tour. On top of the obelisk stands a soldier holding a flag in his right hand and crushing a swastika with his left boot. The flag pole has a built-in lightning rod and the pockmarks in the gold star, if you saw it before it was renovated, testified to the numerous lightning strikes that soldier has staved off since he was put there in 1960 to mark the 15th anniversary of the liberation of Bratislava by the Soviets towards the end of WWII. It’s a sombre place, as it’s also the final port of call for 6,845 Red Army soldiers who died freeing the city from Nazi occupation.

Slavín Monument Bratislava

Given the current situation with Russia and Ukraine, the conversation was wandering back and forth across decades and continents. The sizeable Vietnamese population in the city has it roots in the days of the Soviet bloc. The marble on the iconic, soon-to-be-demolished Istropolis was a present from Castro. And Che Guevara supposedly spent a secret six months in Prague. I forget that travel between the various communist countries was free and easy. I don’t fully appreciate its reach. And while I’ve seen remnants of the Berlin Wall and have been to Check-point Charlie, my mind still boggles at the thought that neighbouring countries could be so divided.

Our last stop was Petržalka, on the outskirts of the city. Next stop Austria. Here, the best preserved of the 14 bunkers that still dot the Slovak landscape is now a museum. As we drove along the narrow road in Slovakia, another one ran parallel in Austria. Along the grass meridian was once a fence that separated two countries, two political ideals, two worlds.

Petržalka bunker photos

Petržalka was more than a border crossing though. In the 1940s, it was also a death camp.  We don’t learn from our mistakes. We don’t see history as a lesson in what not to do. Man’s inhumanity to man came to mind. I had to look up and reread Robert Burns’s dirge – Man was made to mourn. And as if we needed reminding of the consequences of war, right next to the bunker sits a WWI cemetery.

There is more to Bratislava than meets the eye. When you peel back the layers of history and see it through the eyes of someone who has lived it, it takes on a different vibe. This snapshot of the  Authentic Slovakia tour might whet your appetite. If it does, enjoy. We certainly did.





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