A visit to Bratislava: a Viking cruise journal

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After a day spent admiring the splendours of Vienna, I was ready for something a little more low-key. And that was our next stop: a visit to Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, a place few of us on the Viking Freya knew much about. But we were going to get a quick lesson.

First of all, what and where is Slovakia? It’s the country that used to be half of Czechoslovakia, a union of two Slavic knght statue bratislavanations that parted ways in 1993. And it’s located right in the centre of Europe. That means it has lots of neighbours: Slovakia borders on Austria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Ukraine.

Slovakia also has a lot of history, from early invasions by Hungary to foreign rule by Vienna’s Habsburg monarchs, occupation by the Nazis and finally, domination by the Soviets, who only left in 1989. So the city we were visiting had a lot of ups and downs along the way, and most of them left a trace here or there.

Our tour started with a bus trip through the hills above town, where the embassies of various nations sit almost side by side in a tony neighbourhood with great views of the cityscape. We took advantage of those views to get a good (though slightly misty) look at Bratislava’s main attraction, the castle, standing on a rocky hilltop near the river. You can just see the strange-looking tower of the Danube bridge behind the castle, which the locals call their flying saucer.

Bratislava castle distant

Then it was time to see the castle in person. And if you every wanted to see a castle that looked just like the ones in the fairy tales, this is a good one: completely white, with majestic towers on each corner and the requisite number of ramparts and heroic statues. And all that splendour is well warranted. The castle, whose history {and prehistory) stretches back at least 1,500 years, was once the official home of Hungarian royalty, and later a favourite residence of Maria Theresa, empress of the Austro-Hungarian empire.

As for that white perfection, it has a less inspiring explanation. The castle was besieged by Napoleon’s troops in the 1800s and later mostly destroyed in a fire caused by careless soldiers. So what we see today is the result of a massive restoration, which preserved elements from several of its periods. And of course, the renovation included a statue of a man on a horse – in this case King Svatopluk, who ruled the area in the ninth century.

Bratislava Castle statue

There was no castle tour today — despite the fact the castle normally hosts historic exhibits, it seemed to be closed. However, it was a great opportunity to get some shots of the surrounding countryside. If you look hard at this picture, you can see both Austria and Hungary as well as the fields of Slovakia.

View from Bratislava Castle

Descending into the town, we walked through the old city of Bratislava, admiring the medieval streets and buildings, which are mostly intact. Bratislava’s historic centre is one of the most genuine-looking in Europe, full of picturesque streetscapes and lovely views. This is the bridge into the old town, with a saintly statue looking on.

Bratislava old town bridge

It’s also full of the kind of quirky things that were part of life in the middle ages — for example, this storefront, which is exactly the width it looks, about a metre. Apparently the building broadens out as it goes back.

narrow storefront Bratislava

And as with most medieval cities, there are funny things pretty much everywhere if you look hard. This guy was sitting on top of a doorway, opposite a fellow gremlin that was just as grotesque.

Bratislava gargoyleThere were some bits of modern humour, as well, like this famous statue on a busy street corner. According to the story, the workman was climbing out of the sewer when he noticed the legs of the women passing by, so he decided to just stay there. Rubbing his helmet is supposed to bring luck: our guide gave it a try.

Bratislava comic statue

Bratislava does have some impressive buildings, as well, such as the Slovak National Theatre, which fronts a lovely, tree-lined boulevard with a row of stalls selling souvenirs and handicrafts.

Bratislava theatre

And if you follow the boulevard to its end and make a right turn, you come to St. Martin’s, the church where 11 Hungarian kings and queens were crowned between 1563 and 1830. Beside the church is a monument commemorating the synagogue that once stood there but was demolished by the communist government around 1970

The church’s interior is not that elaborate, but it is fascinating, with old emblems of the royalty that once walked its aisles. There’s even a look into an ancient burial ground through a glass window in the floor. I took some nice photographs in the church — until I noticed the sign saying “no photos”.  Ooops.

Then back to the ship, for a leisurely cruise out of town. And ironically, cruising down the Danube, we got the best views of Bratislava Castle, looking more majestic and extensive than it did from the city itself.

Bratislava Castle from the Danube

Our visit to Bratislava was over. And on we cruised toward Budapest, the final stop in my Viking river cruise. This was the farthest east I had ever been in Europe, and I was awaiting the new sights and experiences. You’ll experience them to in my next post.

I was a guest of Viking River Cruises on this trip. However, the opinions expressed are my own.

The photos in this post were taken with the Panasonic DMC-G7 camera.

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Paul Marshman is a retired journalist who spent 30 years as a writer and editor on Canadian newspapers, while travelling to the ends of the earth. Now he continues to travel while passing on his travel experiences to you.

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