|All photos by Susan J. Young|
Sandwiched between port calls at Vienna, Austria and Budapest, Hungary, a river cruise port call at Bratislava in Slovakia is an eclectic experience – a mix of medieval sites, Soviet era architecture, and Carpathian mountain eco-exploration. It’s also one of the most dynamic areas of redevelopment in the central part of Eastern Europe.
A city of about a half million, Bratislava is the capital and largest city in Slovakia. It’s known as Pozsony in Hungarian and Pressburg in German. On a recent river cruise on AmaCerto, Travel Agent had a choice of two tours during a port day. The first was a traditional Bratislava city tour, which included views of the Old Town Hall, the Mirbach Palace and Gothic St. Martin’s Cathedral, which once hosted the crowning of several Hungarian kings. Construction began on the cathedral in the early 13the Century and the cathedral was restored in the 19th century.
While Bratislava certainly has an appealing medieval city core with narrow, winding streets and historic Jewish quarter, we opted for the cruise line’s alternative, bit-more-unusual Communist Tour that took guests to landmarks of the former Soviet occupation era. It’s a quirky tour right from the start, when cruisers board a restored 1947-era bus, colorful transportation with so-so air-conditioning. Still, the coach adds a touch of authenticity.
As the coach motored to the first stop at the Slavin War Memorial, our guide described the city’s former life – and her experiences as a guide – under highly controlled Soviet rule; cruisers who are fortunate to have a middle aged or older guide get “living history” at its best.
High atop the city, Slavin War Memorial is a grand example of Soviet modernism and industrial design yet it’s also a poignant tribute to the 6,800 Soviet soldiers who died in April 1945 liberating the city from the Nazis. It’s a combination monument and cemetery.
Cruisers disembark and the visit starts at a wall that has a scene depicting Russian soldiers. The art panel connects the staircases on either side. Cruisers climb 60 steps to the war memorial site itself. Our group spread out with some people heading straight ahead to the main monument, completed in 1960 and designed by architect J. Svetlik.
Floral wreaths of remembrance adorn the levels leading to its ceremony hall, which is encircled by a colonnade. A central obelisk reaches for the sky, and is topped with a statue of a Soviet soldier carrying a flag. The base of the monument has a list of Slovak cities liberated by the Soviet Army during the war.
Tell clients to take time to admire the various Soviet era sculptures around the park. Plants, shrubs and trees were brought from Russia to give the fallen - laid to rest in six mass graves and 278 individual ones - a sense of Mother Russia.
The monument is well-tended and the park neatly preserved. Slovakians clearly appreciate, per the guide, the extreme sacrifices made by those World War II Soviet soldiers. But, she also said residents also have a mixed view of the site, given that many lived through decades of Soviet oppression after World War II.
Slavin is in one of the most upscale areas of the city and near many embassies. Heading back into the city, the coach tour gives cruisers views of other Cold War sites like the Radio Building and Liberty Square. The tour also gives cruisers a view of some historic sites included on the regular city tour. For example, cruisers view the Grassalkovich Palace, a baroque-styled, 1760-era building that’s home to the Slovak president.
The second and final stop on the tour is just outside Bratislava Castle, perched on a hill 300 feet above the Danube River. As guests disembark to walk up a slight grade to the castle site, they’ll have a good view of the Slovakian Parliament building on the right side..
The imposing Bratislava Castle, with eclectic architectural styles, was a Great Moravian fortress and a former King’s mansion. The current floor plan dates to the early 15th century. Later, the castle received both Renaissance and Baroque additions. While guests are given free time at the castle, it’s only about 30-35 minutes. Some guests on our tour raced to peek at the castle interior. Others just headed into the castle’s gift shop, located along the castle’s perimeter walkway to buy up high-quality Slovak dolls , hand-made toys and handicrafts as souvenirs.
Many, though, preferred to simply view the castle from outside and spend time admiring the views of the city below and the New Bridge, a distinctive symbol of the city with its one distinctive pylon. A pricey restaurant at the top of the bridge pylon, aptly called UFO, resembles a flying saucer. Soviet-era apartment buildings are visible beyond the bridge, just across the river in Petrzalka.
Slovakians are as passionate about their coffee as those in Vienna. So if cruisers opt to visit independently in Bratislava, many coffee shops and restaurants await in the city center. Bratislava cuisine to try? If dining ashore, options might include Bryndzove halusky, which is small spaetzle-like cheese-filled dumplings topped with meat; it’s a beloved national dish. Garlic soup, goulash, potato pancakes and treska, essentially a cold Codfish sandwich with vegetables are other specialties of the region.
All major river lines call at Bratislava, both on regular season and Christmas markets cruises on the Danube. At times, Bratislava gets overlooked by river cruisers more familiar with such storied destinations as Vienna and Budapest. But it has an eclectic appeal all its own - from the narrow streets of its medieval core to the Soviet era architecture, Carpathian mountain eco-activities and Slovak cultural attractions.
For more information, visit www.slovakia.travel