City of joy

Sat, Jan 28, 2012, 00:00

CITY BREAK: BRATISLAVA:A UFO FLYING ABOVE the treetops and a huge concrete housing estate – whose sadness couldn’t be salved by the colours it had been painted – these were our first views of Bratislava. Seeing as we were travelling along the Iron Curtain Cycling Trail, it was also symbolic – a path leading past communist era’s relics into a bright future.

Bratislava became Europe’s newest capital when, in 1993, Czechoslovakia was split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Only 90 years ago the city even had another name, Pressburg (or Pozsony in Hungarian). Bratislava borders both Hungary and Austria and was once the capital of Hungary. Given the oft-changing borders and placenames of Mitteleuropa, it’s maybe not surprising that people can’t always remember what country Bratislava is in – George W Bush once mistook Slovakia for Slovenia.

The Iron Curtain section of the cycle route down the Danube runs along a wire fence before the turn-off into the city: a lacy marker of where the split between communism and capitalism used to be.

We cycled into the city over the Danube at Novy Most (New) Bridge and past its UFO-like tower restaurant, beneath a busy road that slashes through ancient buildings and right into the personal space of St Martin’s Gothic cathedral.

Standing on a hill to our right is Bratislava Castle, pretty and white, with four turrets, while to our left are tiled red rooftops and rich domes and spires.

The party began as we climbed off the road and headed past the fortified US embassy, ending with a glorious classical building, the Slovak National Theatre, where opera tickets start at €3. As we turned into the old town, the charm hit us. It’s all classical constructions and cobbled streets, on a comforting human scale and traffic free.

The city is stag-party central – unsurprisingly, given its cheap, good beers – but there are also groups of Japanese tourists racing behind brisk guides, weaving in and out of market stalls that sell local crafts and past tables of people sitting, drinking, eating, talking and watching.

The setting, however, is just too beautiful and historic to be sullied by anyone who might treat it irreverently. Those who came here for cheap booze and a good time, will have that, but also the stunning ancient architecture, history and culture.

A cobbled street lined with Baroque, Gothic and medieval buildings climbs a hill. Tables and chairs out on the street were beginning to fill in the early evening and we just wandered about ostensibly looking for a hotel but in no rush as we enjoyed the sense of discovery that comes with walking down narrow lanes and emerging onto squares. The lack of traffic adds to the relaxed feel. In fact, our bicycles began to feel like large vehicles.

At one stage, we got happily lost but were secure in the knowledge that we would frequently arrive in places we’d seen before, because this is a small city centre. It was made even smaller in the late 1960s when the new road on which we’d arrived crushed the ancient Jewish quarter and a Moorish synagogue, stopping at the door of St Martin’s cathedral.

There are plenty of things to do in Bratislava – the museums (niche clock and pharmacy offerings to more general history and politics), churches (including the Art Nouveau “Blue Church”), shops and the castle, to canoeing and cycling (to Vienna and Budapest, even Rotterdam, if you so wish), but this really is a city for hanging out and walking about.

There are so many restaurants and bars – on main streets and tucked away under arches and in courtyards. The prices of smart main courses in good restaurants are about €7, while beers and wines (the city is surrounded by vineyards) can be under €2 a glass, making you feel very relaxed about ordering with abandon. Even in our comparatively expensive hotel, when I nipped down to the restaurant late one night and asked for a herb tea, it came with a bill for just 50 cent.

The castle calls out to be climbed and the various walking routes from the city centre allow for more discovery. While the old town has been cleaned up – including the Town Hall – the environs are still a work in progress and just off the city centre you’ll find boarded-up buildings and a lot of graffiti along with steep, narrow cobbled residential streets. Workmen stroll around in the type of blue overalls that we last saw in the 1970s and beautiful old trams trundle around, one curving down the hill from the castle.

We walked around the outside of the castle, taking in the panoramic views, and then entered one of its gates into the courtyards (there are museums within the castle itself). We then walked down a cobbled path beside the river, adoring the contrast between the classical buildings in the foreground set against the New Bridge and UFO restaurant on stilts. At the bottom of the hill we delight in how the graffitied underside of the bridge frames classical buildings on the other side. Such patchworks and contrasts make for dynamic cities.

Bratislava does have its brand new buildings, not least a vast Irish-developed, Irish-designed mixed-use Eurovea development right on the Danube just to the south of the city centre. Ah, what would we do without our shopping centres? Old towns are so last century.

As it did in its Stalinist era, Bratislava is still building with an eye to the future but it is right to be also pedestrianising, preserving and conserving its old city centre – it really is something very special.

BRATISLAVA: Where to ...

STAY

Value:Hotel Spirit, 1 Vancurova, Bratislava.

Tel:00421-2-5477-7817, hotelspirit.sk

Wildly colourful hotel both inside and out near the main railway station (a 15 minute walk from the city centre) where each guest is given a free nutritional supplement according to their assessed needs. Double from €37

Midmarket:Hotel Michalska Brana, Bastova 4, 811 03 Bratislava. Tel 00421-2-5930-7200, michalskabrana.comThree star hotel in a narrow, medieval street in the pedestrian zone of the old town. It has a courtyard where guests may eat out. Includes apartments. Doubles from €75

Upmarket:Arcadia Hotel, Frantiskanska 3, 811 01 Bratislava. Tel 00421-2-59490500, arcadia-hotel.skFive-star hotel with 33 rooms in a renovated 13th century listed building at the top of the old town, on the edge of the pedestrian zone but reachable by car. From €140 for a double.

EAT

Value:Prasna Basta, 11 Zamocnicka 11, 811 03 Bratislava. Tel 00421-2-5443-4957, prasnabasta.sk

Restaurant at the top of the old town offering local and wider European dishes from about €8 for a main. It is in a cosy old building and you can also dine in a courtyard.

Midmarket:Roland Restaurant Cafe, Hlavne Namestie 5, 811 02 Bratislava. Tel 00421-2-5443-1372, rolandcaffe.sk

Bright Viennese-style coffee house and restaurant in an Art Nouveau building with a whole array of offerings, from traditional food, salads, pasta and beautifully presented meat and fish dishes, for around €11. Upmarket: Camouflage, Venturska 1, Erdodyho Palac, 811 01 Bratislava. Tel 00421-2-2092-2711, camouflage.sk

Smart restaurant in a former palace with an airy, calm interior near St Martin’s Cathedral in the old town. Catering by top chefs and a sommelier: dishes are around €20 for a main. Set lunches €12 and there is a tasting menu for €43.

SHOP

Designer shops are on Michalska and Venturska. Quirky and antiques shops can be found by wandering around, eg in Sedlarska, Michalska and surrounding streets such as Laurinska, Panska, Obchodna. There are various fruit markets including the indoor one at Stara Trznica in a historic building beneath a glass dome, off Nedbalova in the old town. There are also various shopping malls on the outskirts of town, with Polus being one of the better known.

GO OUT

There are clubs and pubs (including the Dubliner Irish Pub) everywhere catering for the stags and hens and beyond but you should take the opportunity to see a world-class opera for an amazing price while you are here – tickets start at €3 and rise to around €35. (Verdi’s Otello is running on various dates until June). Slovak National Theatre, Pribinova 17, SK-819 01 Bratislava.

Tel 00421-2-2047-2111

GO THERE

Ryanair flies to Bratislava. Aer Lingus flies to Vienna which is about an hour’s drive away (Bratislava and Vienna are the two closest capital cities in Europe).