Friday, July 31, 2009

Bratislava - old & new, controlled & free

Standing at the Novỳ Most (New Bridge) near the city wall and the Castle, and looking back towards Austria, you look down the bridge at the UFO Tower. Michael makes the comment that it could easily be one of the Martians out of War of the Worlds, standing tall above everything around it and ready to annihilate the local community. Interesting parallel really, given the City’s past history!

There is a real dichotomy between old and recent and new here. Bratislava must have once been a beautiful city – there is plenty of evidence from the days of the Hapsburgs and the earlier Moravian empire in the grand old buildings. The main civic buildings including the Hlavné námestie (Old Town Hall and square), Academia Istropolitana (University), Michalska Brána (Michael’s Gate) and RedutaPalace that houses the State symphony are wonderful examples of baroque and rococo architecture set in wide avenues that do them justice. And the back streets are filled with beautiful examples of architecture where beauty was a given. Facades are grand with stunning entrance doorways, balconies and window treatments.

And there is even a dignified presence to the architecture of the 20th century with the Slovenské Národné Múzeum (Slovak National Museum) occupying a number of art deco styled buildings complete with majestic foyers. But much of this is tired and battling to retain its dignity. Balconies are corroded with the reinforcing steel exposed as though it is a new piece of street art. Graffiti is found on the lower reaches of many buildings, and much of the inner city is covered with grime. Inside the museum, the carpet is water stained and very threadbare, the walls are grimy, but the exhibits in the Natural histories building we went in to are as good as you would expect in any museum of its nature. The dioramas, complete with stuffed animals must have been truly awe-inspiring when they were first installed. Oh, but the toilet paper is definitely something left over from the Socialist times – it is thin, scratchy and a very drab grey – not something to encourage one to sit and ponder!

And then there are the structures of the Socialist period – built for form and purpose but missing any sense of beauty. These are boxy modular and boring and accentuated by a drabness that only reinforces that they were not designed to be anything other than functional. At the time of their construction, they must have been a real blight on the dignified splendour of the City. And there is evidence that these too have not been maintained. As we pass under the bridges over the Danube on a cruise this afternoon, the level of rust in the structure is quite alarming. As are the timber walkways that form the pedestrian and cycle crossings!

But all along the riverfront there are massive construction projects – aimed no doubt at the upper-end tourist market in the way of hotels and apartments. Funny though, that the monument and its wide plaza are complete way before any of the buildings – perhaps one little piece of beauty and connection with the past are needed to encourage acceptance by the locals!

The Danube River cuts the City in two. At this point it is almost a kilometre wide and fast flowing. The commercial craft reflects much of the tiredness of the City, but the sleek cruise craft are a different story. The Danube is one of the major waterways in Europe and there are a multitude of companies that carry their trade of wealthy foreigners in and out of the City. And as Bratislava is a compact city, moorings are in scarce supply close to the centre, so the boats are tethered to each other – 3 across! And it is on the riverbanks that we find a new class of accommodation – the Botel – floating hotels housed in former river cruisers, holding fast against the very strong current. There are five bridges across the Danube connecting the split halves of the City. Only one, the most recent, has any style about it. The others are all about function!

References to the people’s struggles are found in the monuments erected throughout the city. Slovakia sits in the centre of Europe, with the great Cyrillic races to the east and the empires of Rome and later France to the west. But the Slavic peoples have called this part of the wrld home since the early days AD. In the 9th Century the great empire of Moravia was founded but only lasted a few hundred years when the Maygars overtook and it became part of the greater Polish empire. From then, fuedal landlords built castles and 'influenced' the surrounding areas. But Slovakia still nominally belonged to Poland. Agh - bugger it - suffice to say, the people of Slovakia have come under the rule of many influences . If you want to read more (it is fascinating, just too convoluted to explain here) then click this link! And so we can start to understand their pride in their relatively recent independence - in fact one of the important statues can be found in SNP námestie (Slovak National Uprising Square) where even today, locals gather in times of celebration and protest.

Now as well as being a very proud people, the Slovakians are very artistic. They have a well developed and respected musical industry and during the summer, as in many European cities, there are concerts in the streets. Michael lucked upon these two opera singers practicing! We have video, but it is too large to load here, so you will just have to wait to see it!! The authorities are re-invigorating the city centre – with fountains, extended pedestrianised area and lots of street art - both whimsical and modern abstract. And the people respond, using these areas with vigour. There are those eating at cafes, playing in the square, performers in the street and others just people watching - like the Japanese tourists who were delighted when passing Franciscan monks acknowledged them!

Statues hold a special place in Bratislava and there are four in particular that have become some of the most photographed sights of the City! The are Paparazzi, Men at work and The Watcher and Man tipping his hat.
And then there is the lonely figure of a flower seller - sitting patiently and waiting for people to buy her posies.

And so we take our leave of Bratislava, a little disappointed that a lot of buildings are not open due to major restoration works underway. This includes Bratislavský hrad high above the City and for which it is famous, and the Clare Church and Abbey.

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