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     Volume 7 Issue 8 | February 22, 2008 |

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Bratislava-A Small Big Town

Rafiza Hashmi

The river Danube. The country, together with its capital, has a great touristic potential.

When we were passing the bridge over the Danube, it was snowing and seemed to be the middle of the night even though my watch was showing only four thirty in the afternoon. In this Eastern European city called Bratislava, the capital of the Slovak Republic, the sun sets as early as 4 o'clock in the afternoon in December. This small but extremely rich in natural and cultural heritage country (total area 49,038 square kilometres), just fills the space between Poland and Hungary. It borders with the Czech Republic and Austria in the west. Slovak's shortest border is with Ukraine in the east. The Slovak territory has seven World Heritage sites: four of them cultural monuments, of which the most famous is the castle Spissky Hrad; and three natural parks, of which the Dobsinska glacial grotto is the real wonder of the underground world.

The town is bathed in the waters of two rivers: the Danube and the Morava. Part of a medieval trade road, mostly called “the Amber route” the city has managed to retain a mercantile culture. The greater Bratislava has an area of 367.5 square km with population 429,000. The city accounts for 26% of national GDP and its citizens are the wealthiest in the country. The centre of Bratislava called Stare mesto or old town, is only about 9 square km. This place is the historic core of the city and adjacent quarters, originally medieval suburbs.

Dobsinska Ice Cave. UNESCO World Heritage Site

On arrival, I was moving around the old town and was surprised to see the number of brand shops such as Giorgio Armani, Gucci, Prada, Rolex, etc. It seems that after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the people who gained the most were not the general public, but instead, the multinational companies who flourished all over the former Soviet bloc. Everywhere I looked, McDonald's, KFC and their likes were replacing traditional food restaurants seeing as though they couldn't compete with the cheap prices of the fast food joints.

Westernisation seemed to be more rampant among the youth. Being new members of the EU, they have already started to adopt various western ways of life. Although the local currency is still the Krona (SK) by 2009 it is supposed to be replaced by the Euro. Invariably, prices will go up with the currency conversion and there will be a revaluation of real estate, local services. It is debatable whether the Slovakian general public will be ready to cope with the sudden rise of living cost.

The second surprise for me was the visible absence of foreigners. After visiting other general cosmopolitan European cities, full of different races originating from Africa, Asia and Latin America, the absence of them in Slovakia is striking for a country of 5,379,000 inhabitants. It seemed that the place was kept for the natives only. I was however puzzled by the presence of the Indian Embassy there and a huge volume of exhibited Chinese goods, perhaps the first evident signs of globalisation. The majority of the population belong to Slovak nationality (85.5%) and the largest minority are Hungarians leaving mainly in the south-east region. A small portion of the population are Ukrainians who settled in the border region in the east. The official share of Gypsies, otherwise known as the Romas, is 1.7 %. It seems they are in the most disadvantaged group. Research (UNESCO 2005: Quality education for children from socially disadvantaged settings) shows that Roma children perform even worse in language and executive skills than the Hungarian children minority group.

The bronze statue of a man at old town

Let us go back to the historical sites of Bratislava. The pride of every Christian city is its churches and monasteries and Bratislava is no exception. The city's biggest, oldest and most spectacular church is the St. Martin's Cathedral. It was in fact the coronation Church of Hungarian kings (1563-1830). During those days, the crowning ceremony lasted the whole day and the path of the king was paved with small bronze crowns still visible on the stone roads of the town streets. One of the towers of this church, Baroque Tower, was destroyed by lightening in 1833 and then reconstructed with a new Neo-Gothic face.

The monumental ensemble of Bratislava castle stands on an isolated rocky hill of the Little Carpathians directly above the Danube River in the middle of Bratislava and cannot be confused with any other building in the city. From there you clearly see the Old Town separated by the blue waters of the Danube which connects ten European countries and empties its flow into the Black Sea. We could see this edifice looking like a fortress from our hotel room; in fact the castle has a similarity with an overturned table and is visible even from a long distance. This majestic building, known as King's place and Presidents' Headquarters, is connected to many legends and events of the Slovak history, the most recent is not however a legend: the Bush-Putin Bratislava summit in February 2005 took place here, in the Knights Hall, where the new Constitution of independent Slovakia was signed in September 1992.

If we look back to the documentary sources, we find that the castle's life started as early as the 10th century. Initially there was a pre-Romanesque stone palace in the 11th and 12th centuries. After withstanding Mongol attacks in 1241 and 1242, the castle was reconstructed in 1423 and turned into a Gothic castle called Sigismund's castle. Finally, in 1765, the castle was transformed into a royal palace by the order of Hungarian Queen Marie-Theresia. It became the main castle of the Hungarian Empire called then Therasian.

Invaders and fires were frequent visitors of castles and fortresses of medieval time. While the Therasian resisted quite successfully and even managed to withstand the bombardment by canons of Napoleon troops in 1809, it couldn't escape from the last disaster. In May 1811, the castle burst into devastating flames due to the carelessness of Austrian and Italian soldiers stationed there. The fire soon spread to neighbourhood settlement. As a consequence all precious furniture, wall paintings and hundreds of historical objects of art were destroyed and the castle stayed empty for 150 years. It was reconstructed again in 1877 and renamed Bratislava castle. One part of the castle has been turned into the Slovak National museum and is open for public now. Neighbour to the modern building of the National Council of the Slovak Republic (Slovak parliament), the castle with its preserved Classic, Baroque, Gothic and Renaissance parts and English garden provides an excellent view of Bratislava, of Austria and, when there is good weather, of Vienna and Hungary.

Moving through the Old town I saw a bronze statue of a man half out of the well where he was sitting. “A man at work”, the name of the statue is one of the attractions in the city for tourists along with another statue made out of silver, this time featuring a man with a old fashioned European hat inviting people to visit his restaurant. Under the gate of the Michalska veza (Saint Michael's) tower, I tried to see the icons painted on the ceiling and suddenly found myself lying on the ground exactly on the bronze circle where distances and directions to major European capitals were indicated. The zero point was covered in fact by a layer of ice, a frequent phenomenon for the country during the winter-time which is what made it extremely slippery.

Bratislava castle

I started to move more cautiously, and saw a medieval passage divided into two parts. I choose the small one, almost empty in comparison to the big one, overcrowded with people, through which I wanted to make my way to the other district of Bratislava. Suddenly, a strong hand stopped me: it was a nice but rather strict looking woman in a formal dress. “Don't take the small passage, Madame," she said, “Go through the large one”. Seeing my hesitation, the lady who turned out to be a professor explained that in the middle of 18th century, after not passing his exams, a student of then the first Slovak University, hang himself in this tunnel. Since then, all students and teachers avoided the place, considering it to be bad luck.

The lady accompanied me and took my pictures in front of both the splendid and oldest town bridge and St Micael statue. She then offered to show me something interesting. We entered the secondary school which she was working for and she introduced me to the students of her class. Overwhelmed by a familiar smell, I suddenly felt like I was back in Bangladesh because these children were preparing waxed batiks for painting. I came closer to a girl who was finishing a painting showing a fragment of the undersea life with a round blue-yellow fish in the centre of her composition. I asked the girl why the fish did not smile. The student did not respond immediately but after some reflection said that it was her painting and the fish was not supposed to smile. I did not argue but proposed to buy her work provided that the fish smiled. I paid money and left this school situated in the wing of a historical monastery constructed in 13th century, serving now as the National library and Headquarters to several international organisations. The next morning, a messenger brought the picture in my room. The fish was as sad as I saw it the day before without a hint of a smile. I laughed and concluded that I was dealing with a real painter.

The next day, it was sunny and Bratislava proudly demonstrated the rainbow of its medieval roofs that finally got rid of the snow and ice as if showing their renewed hope for a peaceful life. The taxi took us to the airport where I wished all the best to this old-young nation who has enough potential to make life prosperous.

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