Bratislava, Slovakia – A Glance Behind the Former Iron Curtain

Huge, modern windmills surrounded by large tracts of land disappeared over the horizon as the train I was on rumbled over the tracks on its way to Bratislava, Slovakia, from Vienna.

My train was packed with well-healed people. Later I learned that many were probably commuters returning from a day’s work in Vienna, where the salaries are much higher than in Bratislava.

At Bratislava’s central train station I paused to study a welcome sign written in several languages, with one written in Cyrillic script. The language people were speaking around me was a Slavic tongue, which was strikingly different from the German I had become accustomed to hearing in Vienna. I had just passed through the former Iron Curtain, and it felt like it.

I threw my backpack over my shoulder and proceeded to find the trolley which I had been directed to take by the hostel which I had booked for three nights.

After a few stops I alighted from the trolley in a lovely neighborhood full of shops, restaurants, and cafes. A large bookstore with an inviting cafe caught my attention. English-language books lined a shelf just inside.

At the hostel an elderly man was playing a traditional Slovakian/Hungarian instrument, which looked something like a piano, in the expansive, modern, common room. The lovely view from there included Michael’s Gate, the only gate still standing from the 14th century medieval fortification. Beyond Michael’s Gate was Old Town with its small, but well-preserved, medieval city center, Bratislava Castle, and other important landmarks. I chose this hostel, which was on the 2nd floor of an old, five-story building, mainly because of this location. I immediately set out to explore.

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Brief history of Bratislava

Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia and the country’s largest city, has always had a strategic geographical location. It was an important European hub due to its proximity to the Mediterranean and the Orient as well as its link to the rest of Europe via the Danube River. The city was part of the Kingdom of Hungary and the Hapsburg Monarchy from 1526 to 1918. It was the coronation town for Hungarian kings and queens from 1536 to 1830. It became part of the East Bloc following WWII. After the Dissolution of Czechoslovakia in 1992, Bratislava was declared the capital of independent Slovakia.

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I gingerly crossed numerous trolley tracks, which curved confusingly in several directions, to get to the pedestrian bridge at Michael’s Gate. A lovely, small park below the bridge occupied the old moat. Tourists were maneuvering for the best spot to get a selfie in front of the historic gate and Gothic tower.

I made my way along the delightful 18th century pedestrian streets to the main square of Old Town. It was dominated by the old Town Hall and Roland Fountain, one of the city’s most important landmarks. The fountain was ordered in 1572 by Maximilian II, the King of Royal Hungary, to provide a public water supply. The old Town Hall, a complex of buildings from the 14th century, was said to have wonderful views from atop its neo-gothic tower. It was getting late and I was hungry, so I put the climb off for another day.

Just outside Michael’s gate, adjacent to an old church, was the popular Flagship Restaurant. What attracted me was the sign, in English, saying it served traditional Slovak food at a great price, using ingredients from its own bio farm. The grounds of the expansive restaurant had no doubt had a colorful history. It advertised its “monastery cellars” and mentioned that the building had been an old theater.

The large open spaces, and a busy bar in the middle of the main floor, offered good people-watching while I dined. The Slovak national dish of potato dumplings smothered with creamy, locally-produced sheep cheese, was a winner! I returned the following day to try more traditional dishes.

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10 thoughts on “Bratislava, Slovakia – A Glance Behind the Former Iron Curtain

    1. Hi Lynn,
      No, I am home now. I always write my postings a few weeks after I visit a place. I get better perspective of my experience.
      All the best,
      Merrilee

      1. Thank you!

        It felt like a title wave was pushing me as I prepared to leave my European winter travels a month earlier than planned. It started when I was about to leave Bucharest, Romania, a few weeks ago. The restaurants, hotels and public transportation started closing down around me due to the virus threat. Then I flew to Athens, Greece, and the same thing happened to me a couple of weeks later.

        I had been watching the news carefully and getting good online updates for international travelers from the US Government. But it was when Greece started to close down around me and international flights were suddenly being curtailed, that it became very clear to me that I needed to head home (to the States) quickly. And I did.

  1. Great introduction to the small Alpine republic of Slovakia’s capital, Bratislava, Merrilee, thank you for sharing. And great to hear that you are now back home, although from what I hear on the news, being Stateside isn’t necessarily safer than parts of Europe at the moment, but at least you’re home.
    It still makes me wonder that the Ottoman Turks managed to reach the gates of Vienna in their quest to conquer Europe and convert it to Islam. The Turks had already taken Budapest, forcing the Hungarians to temporarily move their capital to Bratislava. It was thanks to the Polish army, which defeated the Turks, that Vienna and western Europe was saved — south-east Europe remained enslaved for many centuries however.
    Bratislava is a compact capital city and your introduction reminded me of good times spent there in taverns that used to be below ground monastery cellars. Bratislava Castle, Empress Maria Teresa’s favourite abode, is a wonder to explore.
    I guess you had to leave Europe in a hurry but Slovakia has some great and historic provincial towns, as well as miles of unspoilt countryside. And the provincial towns are much cheaper than Bratislava. If you enjoy hiking, the Tatras Mountains are second to none. The late Polish Pope, John Paul, used to cross the border from Krakow and ski in the Slovakian Tatras mountains.
    It was interesting to see that you took the train from Vienna to Bratislava, as most people take the bus. In the Communist era, guards with alsatians used to check everybody and their luggage at the Austrian-Slovak frontier, known as you say as the Iron Curtain.
    Bratislava has many hidden gems and its great that at least you were able to experience some of them. Sad to read that you had to leave Greece in a hurry. But at least you were able to catch a flight home — there are some Americans who are still stuck in Europe because there are no commercial flights.
    Take good care Merrilee and thank you for such a wonderful introduction to a historic city and some nice shots.

    1. HI Lee,

      Your knowledge of history of this part of the world is stellar. Thank you for sharing. Loved all your comments about Slovakia. I would have loved to have had the time to explore more of Slovakia.

      And, yes, I agree with you about how unfortunate it was I had to cut my visit to Greece short. Hopefully I’ll be back in that part of the world next year.

      Merrilee

    1. Hi Anne,
      Nice to hear from you. I’m back in the States now. I just wrote a brief story in the comment section of this posting about my return to the USA during this difficult time.

      The best way to reach me is by email and then we can set a time to talk. My email: mzellner33@gmail.com

      Talk to you soon!
      Merrilee

  2. Dear Merilee,
    I was surprised to still receive your travel reports. I read above, that you went back home to the USA.
    I hope you will get a chance to come back to this side of the pond.
    Remember, I am still waiting for your visit in Paris – after all this years.
    Best regards,
    Christa

    1. Hi Christa,

      Nice to hear from you.

      I usually write postings in my blog about my travels a couple of weeks after I leave a place, as it gives me better perspective than writing about it while I am there. But this time, due to the looming pandemic, I traveled fast and hard while I was overseas (still managing to finish my writings on Vienna). I am now writing about the rest of my winter travels from the safety and comfort of my home in Newport, Rhode Island. (In response to a similar question from one of my readers, I wrote more details about my experience of leaving Europe quickly, in my comments below)

      Thank you for your invite to visit you in Paris. I still plan to visit you one day.

      Take care,
      Merrilee

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