Before Viking River Cruises invited us to join them on a cruise down the Danube, we had not been very familiar with this part of the world.
In fact we knew nothing at all about the city of Bratislava, Slovakia, but it has played an important role in the history of central Europe for centuries, dating all the way back to Roman times.
It even served as the seat of the crown for the of Kingdom of Hungary for over two hundred years, but the name is historically quite new.
Not until 1919, when the new country of Czechoslovakia was formed out of the northern part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was the name Bratislava officially adopted. Before that the city was known as Pressburg in German, or Pozsony in Hungarian. After the peaceful Velvet Revolution in 1989, Czechoslovakia divided into the Czech Republic and Slovakia and, Bratislava became a world capital once again.
Storming the Castle
The obvious spot to begin our history lesson was Bratislava Castle. The strategic spot overlooking the Danube has had some sort of fortification since the Romans arrived over two thousand years ago.
As we made our way up the hill we crossed a stark line.
Below it everything was normal, but above the fog was freezing on to everything it touched, creating ghostly, icy art out of the trees.
Around 1,200 years ago the Slavs came and built the first stone fortress. Because of its location, a revolving door of rulers occupied and fortified the stronghold until 1536, when the Kingdom of Hungary chose this as their capital and the castle served as the center of power until 1809 when Napoleon’s troops bombarded with canon fire.
Evidence of that attack can still be seen in several of the buildings down in the old city down below, where cannonballs are still embedded in the walls.
When we checked out the view across the Danube from the royal courtyard it was easy to see why this spot was chosen for a citadel all those centuries ago.
But today, instead of invading ships we watched The New Bridge (Nový most) topped by its flying saucer-shaped restaurant called UFO disappearing in the mist.
After Napoleon’s barrage the castle was used as a barracks and fell into disrepair, with some parts even being sold off as building material for the city.
But about sixty years ago, restorations were undertaken so that visitors like us can see the fortress in all of its glory.
Discovering Old Town
Back down the hill we entered the old town through Michael’s Gate, named for the Archangel Michael, whose statue sits atop the one hundred and fifty foot high tower.
Built around 1300, it was one of four entrances through the old protective walls, and is one of the city’s oldest structures.
As we walked inside the old walls we could wander and gawk at will because the city center has been closed to vehicular traffic.
We found it quite enjoyable to have no worries about getting run over while snapping photos or rubbernecking in the middle of the ancient cobblestone streets.
Along the way we met several whimsical townsfolk who were more than happy to pose for a picture. They weren’t very talkative though. Not all that unusual, since they were made of bronze.
When we turned the corner into the Hlavne namestie, the main square, we found the Christmas Market.
The entire plaza in front of the Old Town Hall (Stará radnica) was filled with booths, most selling food and drink, and tables under small shelters where the purchases could be enjoyed. A very social situation that we were more than happy to jump into the middle of.
At the center of it all is the Roland Fountain (Rolandova fontána), sometimes called the Maximilian Fountain because it was commissioned in 1527 by the Hungarian king Maximilian.
This makes it the oldest fountain in Bratislava. Max’s statue stands on top surveying the square.
Due to the temperatures, and the fact that it looks so downright festive, the water had been replaced by twinkling lights.
Nearly everyone was warming themselves with varene vino, the local version of mulled wine, but in a twist we hadn’t seen before, hot white wine seemed just as popular as the red. Had to give that a try.
Our verdict was that while delicious, it lacked the superior cockle-warming qualities of the red variety. Perhaps the most popular vino vender was named “The Flinstones.” Yaba-daba-do (we think)!
We also gave zemiakové placky a try. This is a pancake made of shredded potatoes, crisp on the outside and chewy within. We chose to get ours covered in a layer of mild, yet tangy white sheep cheese.
Very tasty and stick-to-your-ribs on a chilly December evening.
As we made our way out of the old city we came upon another small Christmas market with an ice rink and many more treats, most involving meat.
It all looked (okay, almost all) good, but the potato-and-cheese bomb we had just devoured didn’t seem to want any company, so we passed.
As we walked back toward the river, and our ship, we stumbled upon one last architectural treasure, the old Slovak National Theatre (Slovenské národné divadlo).
The building opened first as the city theatre in 1886, went national in 1920, but was replaced by a new theater in 2007. But the building is not sitting dormant, it is still home to the national ballet and opera companies.
Far from becoming experts during our day of exploring Bratislava, we did feel like we had dipped a toe in the pool of history of a city and country that we had previously known next to nothing about.
David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com
Thanks to Viking River Cruises for inviting us along and providing this adventure! As always, all opinions are our own. See our entire Christmas cruise along The Danube with stops in Budapest, Bratislavia, Vienna, Durnstein & Melk, Salzburg, and Passau.