Bratislava City Guide by Fiona Lazareff
My most pleasant and unexpected surprise last year was Bratislava. The city, which conjures up visions of a former Soviet city best known for its dreary 70s style tower blocks, is in reality a baroque gem.
Apart from its dreary image, Bratislava suffers from being within an hour’s drive from Prague, Budapest, and Vienna so why on earth would anyone sane go to Bratislava?
Luckily, Bratislava had some allure for me: I’d already been to the other three cities. More importantly Bratislava sounded so awful that it seemed like a challenge: surely it couldn’t really be as bad as people made out? It must have some redeeming features.
The most important reason for visiting Bratislava is that the city is beautiful. By the city I mean the centre of the town from which you’ll have neither the time nor the need to wander if you’re only there for a weekend. In fact it’s not surprising that the city is visually appealing considering it was part of Czechoslovakia until 1993 when the country was divided into The Czech Republic and Slovakia. Moreover for more than three centuries (1563-1860) it was the capital of Hungary and an important cultural and commercial centre of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
The other reason for going to Bratislava is quite simply price. You can get there using the marvellous new central European low-cost airline, Sky Europe (www.skyeurope.com) and once there, you can get deeply ensconced in five star luxury for a third of what it would cost you anywhere else. The same goes for restaurants, shops and almost anything else you can find to spend your Slovakian Crowns on. It’s not surprising considering that the minimum wage in Slovakia is 5 euros an hour!
Bear in mind too, that for the time being there aren't many tourists in Bratislava. A fabulous plus for it in most respects. But be warned the downside is that it's quite difficult to find your way around. I was astonished to find how few people speak English. The older generation tend to speak Russian as a second language and the younger generation tend to speak German. In bars and restaurants (except for the expensive ones) the menu is rarely translated into other languages. I was extremely grateful to have a guide to take me round for shopping, site-seeing and even to local bars and restaurants where I would have been helpless without her. You can book one on http://www.divento.com
So, first things first: the airport is well organised. Don’t worry if your flight arrives late; Sky Europe whisks the bags off the plane, passport control is quick and you’ll be out of a remarkably modern looking airport within 30 minutes - if you’ve checked baggage in, and probably 15 minutes if you haven’t. A taxi to the centre of the town will cost you 15 euros maximum (you should get it for 13) and payment is accepted in euros. The drive to the city takes 15 or 20 minutes. Well, that’s already a good start.
A Brief History
On the banks of the Danube River, the city was always well situated for commerce. Its roots go back to 907 and over the next few centuries as trade increased the population burgeoned.
In 1541 Bratislava became the capital of Hungary after the Turks drove the Hungarians from Buda. It remained the seat of Hungarian kings from 1563 to 1830, which explains the beautiful Baroque houses and palaces in the old town.
When the Austro-Hungarian Empire crumbles in 1918, Bratislava became part of the new Republic of Czechoslovakia. After World War II, Czechoslovakia was absorbed into the East Bloc, under the Soviets, with a communist party-led government.
Czechoslovakia followed Poland in throwing off communist dominance in 1990, but in 1993, Czechoslovakia split in to two countries, and Bratislava became the capital of the Republic of Slovakia.
On Friday evening you probably won’t have much time to venture far from your hotel, so if you’re staying at the Marrols, the best place to have dinner is The Messina, the stylish Italian restaurant, within the hotel.
If you’re staying at the Carlton-Savoy head for The Mirror Room (see above).
On Saturday morning you should go for a wander around the old town and do a bit of shopping. Start off at Hviezdoslavovo Nam, which is a five minute walk form the Hotel Marrols, overlooked by the Carlton-Savoy, turn left along it and take the Venturska; a beautiful street with magnificent Baroque buildings on either side. The street includes a lively mixture of antique shops, bars, restaurants. But the most splendid buildings with their ornate plaster work, sash windows and wrought iron balconies are embassies or government buildings.
Behind many of the facades are picturesque courtyards, which you can venture into to discover small restaurants, bars or boutiques. When you look straight up the street you’ll see St Michaels’s Tower, which rises over an arch and is the only one of four towers, which remains from the cities original 13th century fortifications.
When you get to St Michael’s tower turn left into Zamocnicka. (If you have time you could also turn left here under the arch up Bastova and explore the narrow winding cobbled streets which surround the church, Kostol Karisiek). Otherwise continue along Zamocnicka, a narrow cobbled street with baroque gems on either side which curves gently round passing the Mirbachov Palace on your left and the Franciscan Church on your right (which definitely deserves a visit) until it ends up on the prettiest square of the town: Hlavne Nam.
The square is an uninterrupted panorama of baroque magnificence, with perhaps the most beautiful building being the French embassy. In the run up to Christmas the square is filled with wooden stands selling hand made decorations, vin chaude and local goodies such as apple strudel and pancakes stuffed with goose liver with the air alive with Christmas carols.
After taking a stroll around the square you’ll arrive almost back to where you came from. Now go under the arch which has a beautiful clock tower above it. You’ll find yourself in a very pretty courtyard surrounded with arches both at the ground level and at the first floor level. The building over the clock tower and surrounding the courtyard is the City museum and however much you dislike the idea of museums, try to get yourself in this one because it’s full of surprises.
The most interesting aspect is the actual museum itself. The rooms inside show you just how the inside of a typical Baroque house is, so you'll be able to imagine what the inside of the other houses in the centre of Bratislava are like.
Many of the rooms have beautiful frescoes or vaulted ceilings, especially those over the archway. The rooms are organised in chronological order giving you an easy-to -absorb and visually interesting history of the city which starts with roman ruins and runs through to the present day. The most fascinating pieces are probably the ornate, beautifully coloured glass goblets from the 16th century, which shows that Bratislava enjoyed its full share of The Renaissance. The other part of the museum, which will leave a lasting impression on you, are the dungeons, which show in contrast how brutal life was in the middle Ages for people who misbehaved. Apart from seeing the original cells, there is an enormous selection of implements used either to stop prisoners escaping, or to torture or to execute them, in the most agonising way possible.
Leaving the museum you’ll walk through a marvellous square with the majestic Primarily Palace, a six story baroque palace on your right which takes up the entire length of the square. Cross the square to Klobucnicka and stop at the building on the right in which you’ll find a magnificent market. Built one supposes, at the turn of the 19th century in an “Eiffel” style there are fruit and vegetable stands on the ground floor and an elegant iron staircase which runs up to a first floor gallery, where you’ll find plenty of other stalls selling other goods, many of them local hand-made things, under a glass dome.
After that head for Laurinska, an attractive street with a variety of attractive shops including Rona at No 6, which sells really fabulous crystal at very low prices. This is not the vulgar cut-glass which shop windows in Prague are jammed full of, but elegant, plain, hand-made crystal objects which include anything from giant wine glasses to imaginative champagne glasses and superb decanters. It’s certainly worth carrying some of this back with you.
Bratislava’s opera house is right opposite the Carlton-Savoy and a three-minute walk away from the Marrols. Lavishly bestowed with elaborate sculptured plasterwork and lashings of gold trimming, it is even prettier inside than out, and it’s so small that no seat is far from the stage and it’s certainly the cosiest opera house you’ll ever find yourself in. To find out what's on and to book tickets visit http://www.divento.com
The opera in Bratislava is a dressy affair – so pack something special for it- the audience includes the local Slovaks, the expat community and a good dose of Austrians. At the interval you can get wine, local champagne or soft drinks and sandwiches or snacks at the bar down stairs. But the opera ends before 10pm which gives you time to have dinner in a good restaurant afterwards.
Once the opera is over, head for Venturuska - a few minutes walk away - where you’ll find a very good restaurant with a local slant called Le Monde. The space is attractive with arched windows stretching from the ceiling to the floor, well-spaced tables, comfortable chairs and an imaginative menu. You can eat like royalty here for €30 a head including wine.
On Sunday morning, it’s time to visit the castle. The most attractive way of getting there is to walk up Venturuska, turn left on Prepostska and cross the bridge which straddles the ring road. But check that this is open before setting off. Otherwise you’ll have to go down the steps, by Saint Martin’s Cathedral. Whichever way you go you’ll have to cross the ring road and you’ll wonder how anyone could have built this enormous road quite so close to the beautiful centre, castrating it once and for all from the castle!
Not surprisingly the castle has been destroyed and rebuilt several times, and the outside is of no great interest. The view from it is even less appealing: dreary tower blocks which surround the beautiful city centre. The inside is far more attractive with huge windows which make a great space for exhibitions. The permanent exhibitions are well worth a visit. On the way down to the city centre you can stop off and have lunch at an entirely authentic restaurant "Restauracia Vinaren" which is at No 14 Beblaveho. The inside looks like an 18th century tavern and the food is traditional local Slovak dishes - nothing sophisticated- but just downright authentic. You won't find any tourists here.
Where to Stay
The Hotel Marrols.
The Hotel Marrols is seven minutes walk away from Hviezdoslavovo namestie on a quiet street called Trobrucka. Once the private house of a carriage maker, which dates back to 1880, it was named after Lady Marrols, the daughter of a wealthy Scottish merchant, who saved the owner’s nephew from being trampled by horses. As well as naming his house after her, he also installed a relief of her head, which hangs over the entrance today and has become the hotel’s logo. Don’t take any notice of the rather ugly street the hotel is on and the dreary block of flats opposite, the hotel is in a graceful 17th century building and the inside of the hotel more than compensates for the drab view outside. It’s quite a surprise to find a “boutique” type hotel in Bratislava, with a mere twenty rooms, stylishly and very comfortably decorated.
The rooms are not just stylish they are as comfortable as they are practical. The "Executive" rooms have everything you need to do business or simply have fun. If you want to pick up mail or browse the web you can either use the PC already set up there or plug your own laptop straight into the ASDL line. Naturally there’s a fax machine, copier, scanner and printer, all easy to adapt to your laptop if you’ve brought it with you. Oh and I forgot there’s a DVD player too and a plasma screen for the TV!
Two other things make you feel like you’re at home. One of them is the super comfy bed. Marrol’s mattresses are made “from coconut thread and natural rubber juice and they adapt perfectly to the shape of your body” This is by far the most comfortable mattress I’ve ever slept on in my life. Like all good hotels these days you can change the temperature of your room at the touch of a button.
One other really nice little plus is that the hotel doesn’t add on any of those niggling little extras. Apart from having free internet access, you can help yourself from the minibar which is attractively stocked with local wine and beer which is replaced daily, and to coffee, thanks to the coffee making machine in your room. You can also use the Fitness Centre on the fifth floor of the hotel.
If you’re looking for extra relaxation you can book the Jasmine Spa, which will be reserved just for you and/or your guests (a maximum of six people at a time) at a cost of 2,000-3,000 Sk for two hours, depending on the time of the day. The Spa includes whirlpool, hydro-massage, shower, sauna and tanning studio.
If you don’t stay in the hotel, you should at least have dinner in the hotel’s Italian restaurant, which is a visual treat with its stylish decoration and a gastronomic treat with its variety of homemade pasta dishes, salads, fish, poultry and meat. The buffet breakfast with an enormous choice of hot and cold food makes a great start to the day.
For more information:
The Radisson Carlton Hotel
The former Carlton Hotel overlooks the Hviezdoslavovo Nam an elongated and handsome - mostly 19th century square - just across from the opera house and the very pretty “Redoute” - the building which houses the Casino and the Philharmonia concert hall.
The hotel is a legend which dates back to the 13th century when it was a much smaller hotel called The Swan. In the second half of the 18th century two competing and quite splendid hotels occupied the site and in 1912 Henry Pruger who bought his experience of operating the London Carlton to Bratislava bought both hotels, plus an adjoining building and set about a reconstruction joining the three buildings. In 1921 he added a laundry, a brick veranda and another storey and put hot water in the bedrooms. But he didn’t survive to see the end of his fabulous work. Deeply indebted and hounded by his creditors he hanged himself. The Carlton-Savoy had become one of the first great examples of a comprehensive and modern hotel with its own technical-operational services as well as beautiful halls, salons and outstanding cuisine. Naturally it had become the hub of the cultural, artistic and political scene in Bratislava as well as an important stop over for politicians, celebrities and aristocrats travelling in the region.
The hotel remained one of Europe’s finest hotels, but from the 40s onwards when it was successively occupied by the Germans and the Russians (when it became the Hotel Moscow) it began to fall into disrepair. By 1977 it was nearly knocked down. In 1992 it was closed and it was only in 1998 that the reconstruction of the hotel was undertaken allowing it to once again open its doors in 2001.
Today the hotel has 168 rooms and suites and you can chose the classic or contemporary style, though both looked fairly similar to me and seemed to be a mix of contemporary and classic with a good dose of mahogany. Whatever you do, get a bedroom overlooking the square. The rooms are fairly standard four-star fare with all the usual stuff such as trouser presses, Internet connection, and air-conditioning… But it’s disappointing to find that the standard rooms do not include dressing gowns and slippers. The other advantage of the "Executive" room is that it includes a coffee maker. If you want to live it up in real style, there is a fabulous suite, which is decked out in original 19th century fittings and furniture.
The hotel has a fine lobby, brassiere and bar, which are more imaginatively decorated than the rooms. The bar with its leather chairs, wooden panelled walls and beautiful domed glass ceiling has the feeling of a 19th century library. Apart from having a beautiful mahogany bar where there is a spectacular choice of everything from exotic *bleep*tails, (if you read bleeptails here - my apologies - it's because the beginning of the word has been misinterpreted as a naughty word. In case you haven't guessed: the word in question is the male form of a chicken) to local beer and wine, there is an excellent menu, which makes this a comfy, cosy place to eat a meal at almost any time of the day.
The Brassiere, where breakfast is served with windows looking directly over the square is an attractive room and the gathering place for locals.
In summer there is an outdoor terrace overlooking the Square.
The hotel also has a health club on the top floor of the hotel, which includes a sauna and steam room, as well as the latest cardiovascular equipment.
For more information and reservations:
Places to eat and drink
For tea, coffee, drinks etc
Café Apponyi, No 1 Raduicna.
At the back of a magnificent courtyard Café Apponyi is a cramped 16th century low ceilinged bar with three small rooms jam packed with antique furniture. In summer you can sit outside in the courtyard where there is still an enormous old wine press.
Other places to eat at:
Ludwig, Venturska 7
A stylish restaurant tucked away in a graceful court yard in the centre of the old town – French food with Slovak slant. Open from 11am to midnight Tel 02/54 64 82 84
Mezzo Mezzo, Rybarska Brana, 9
A new and very chic Italian-style restaurant in the heart of the old town.
Open 9am –1am. No need to book, the prices reduce the demand!
Paparazzi, Larinska 1
A popular Italian restaurant among well-healed locals, in spite of its unassuming looks.
Tel 02/54 64 79 71
Tempus Fugit, Sedlarska 5
One of the most beautiful restaurants in Bratislava, you can either dine in the 15th century vaults, in a covered atrium with arcade or on the balcony. The best table is the glass one covering the well. Good, reasonably sophisticated food.
Tel 02/54 41 43 57