Escape To Bratislava, Slovakia

THERE’S NOTHING in Bratislava.” Nearly every person I spoke to in Vienna—just an hour away—exhorted me to abandon my plans to visit Slovakia’s minute, 500,000-person capital: perched on the Danube just beyond the Austrian border. According to the Viennese, Bratislava was, at best, a staid backwater; at worst, the border point of a nebulously defined “Eastern Europe,” all communist tower-blocks and avaricious taxi-drivers. Once I got there, even the pink-haired Silvia Augustinova, a guide with Bratislava’s daily Be Free city tours, proved a bit defensive. Standing among the neo-Renaissance facades of 19th-century Hviezdoslav Square, Ms Augustinova recalled former President George W. Bush’s visit to the square. “At least he got the name [of the country] right,” she said. “Foreign media outlets kept publishing maps of Slovenia.”

But Bratislava—long caught up in the squabbles of other empires—has a fragile, mournful beauty all its own. The meandering, hilly streets of its riverside Old Town are less regimented than the grand boulevards of Vienna or Budapest, the twin touristic titans that tend to eclipse Bratislava regarding attention. Many of the city’s old palaces, with their grand staircases and marble floors, have been transformed into intimate museums. Visiting the Mirbach Palace one afternoon to see an exhibit of paintings and drawings by Alphonse Mucha, I found an unheralded afternoon concert of Romantic Franz Liszt’s melancholy Liebestraume, sparsely but raptly attended. A 15-minute bus ride to the city’s edges led to the medieval ruins of Devin Castle, which slope down to where the Danube and Morava rivers meet. Its pockmarked balconies face Austrian fields and Slovak forests, and the narrow banks where the Iron Curtain once figuratively divided them. At the castle base, stands sold a hot blackcurrant wine called ribezlak to the few passers-by.

Bratislava’s main square, a tiny, geometric collection of pastel houses, is lined with opulent coffee houses reminiscent of the Habsburg era. Among them is Maximilian, a phantasmagoria of wrought-iron balconies and wood-panelled walls stacked with cases of chocolates and imitation sachertortes, all costing what would pass for spare change across the border. Opposite the cafe, in the medieval town hall, a cannonball fired by Napoleon’s army has been reassembled and embedded in the building walls: a forgiving memento, according to Ms Augustinova, of the fact that Napoleon bothered to visit at all. The colourful, confectionary quality of the buildings can give Bratislava something of an unreal quality. As fabulist Hans Christian Andersen famously put it, Bratislava needed no fairy tales, being a fairy tale itself. (For this remark alone, the city gave him a statue near its main bridge. “Say something nice about Slovakia,” Ms Augustinova said, “and we’ll make you a statue, too.” She wasn’t entirely joking.)

But Bratislava’s curious power lies in the intersection of its Habsburg past with its more recent history as the “second city” of Communist Czechoslovakia: an uneasy reckoning that renders the city far grittier than pristine Vienna. To learn more, I jumped in the rickety, periwinkle Skoda 110 of Brano Chrenka, whose “post-socialist” tours of Bratislava have become something of a Slovak institution. As we drove into Bratislava’s outer districts, where palaces and cobblestones gave way to social housing blocks—complete with Soviet neorealist bronze reliefs of workers—Mr Chrenka filled me in, “We’ve been through everything. Monarchy. Empire. Independence. Fascism,” he said, referring to Slovakia’s brief, controversial period as a Nazi puppet state. “Communism,” he continued. “And now, finally: democracy.” Nowhere is the delicate interplay of Bratislava’s history more apparent than at Slavin, a communist memorial site to fallen World War II soldiers. It’s located at the top of a hill dotted with paint-flaking villas: once owned by German and Hungarian merchants, then seized by influential Party leaders.

By engaging with the city’s past, young Bratislavans seem to have fermented a resilient, even defiant, present. At night, the Old Town overflows with young Slovaks, along with the odd tourist, filling the kind of cafes that seem less a response to European hipsterdom than an intensification of them. At Shtoor Café in the Old Town, Ludovit Stur—codifier of the Slovak language—is honoured with his portrait on the sugar-packets; while lunch menu items (avocado toast, all-day breakfast) seem plucked from a decidedly un-Slovak smorgasbord of post-border cool. And then there’s Savage Garden, a whimsical cafe-bar-restaurant on Bratislava’s “Communist” square, Namestie Slobody, bordered by Slovak brutalist buildings. Formed from two shipping container-like structures, the cafe keeps bottles of champagne chilling in a bathtub full of ice. On my last night in town, I met a friend of a friend there, 20-something Michaela Valachova, who works as a notary in the city. Over seared duck breast and mulled wine, I asked about the strange disconnect between the barely advertised Bratislava and the gemlike city I’d found. “That’s the problem with Slovaks,” she said. “We always underestimate ourselves. Even when we shouldn’t.”

The Lowdown: Slipping into Bratislava

Staying: There located in a converted hospital on a leafy, villa-dotted hill facing the old town, Mamaison Residence Sulekova offers self-catered one-bedroom apartments in a hotel atmosphere. From about $90 a night, mamaisonsulekova.com. For a slightly more off-beat atmosphere, the eccentric three-star Film Hotel, located just off the city centre, has dedicated each room in its art-nouveau-inflected building to a different cinema star. One has an enormous black-and-white photograph of Richard Gere above the bed. From about $75 a night, filmhotel.sk/en.

Eating: There among the best places in Bratislava to try traditional Slovak food is the intimate, nostalgic Twenties where you can dine on pork slow-braised in dark beer while listening to the phonograph-scratched sounds of flapper jazz. 12 Klariska St., twenties.sk.

Credit: Tara Isabella Burton for The Wall Street Journal, 18 September 2018.