Travel: City of kings
- Credit: Archant
Bratislava bestrides the Danube with a confidence born of a thousand years of history. Rebecca Underwood explores the Slovakian capital – part fairytale, part futuristic city
For those considering a short break, Bratislava, the coronation city of Hungarian and Austrian kings, offers guests a royal welcome. The enchanting capital of the Slovak Republic, formed in 1993 as a result of the dissolution of Czechoslovakia and the fall of the Czechoslovakian Communist Party, entices visitors with an intriguing glimpse into a colourful kaleidoscope of history and culture.
The city occupies both banks of the glittering waters of the Danube and the left bank of the Morava River and the medieval Old Town feature delightful squares, courtyards and narrow meandering cobble-stoned lanes crammed with small cafés, bars and quaint little shops, all bursting with all manner of trinkets.
One of the main sites to charm visitors is Bratislava Castle, located on a plateau above the Danube. Constructed in the 10th century, when the region was part of the Kingdom of Hungary, the building was converted into a Gothic fortress in 1430 and became a Renaissance castle in 1562. In 1649 it was rebuilt reflecting the baroque style and became a royal seat during the reign of Queen Maria Theresa, mother of Marie Antoinette. The castle was later destroyed as a result of a fire but restored to its former splendour during the 1950s.
Another popular site is the Primate’s Palace. Built between 1778 and 1781, it is a perfect example of the neo-classical period. Take a gentle stroll around the spectacular Hall of Mirrors where, in 1805, Johann I Josef, Prince of Liechtenstein, signed the fourth Peace of Pressburg (Bratislava’s former name) and brought an end to the War of the Third Coalition and hence the Holy Roman Empire. Be sure to view the exquisite collection of tapestries, which lay undiscovered until reconstruction of the palace in 1903. The striking artworks, woven in Mortlake, London, during the 17th century, illustrate the Greek legend of Hero and Leander.
The towering spire of St Martin’s Cathedral dominates the city and is another site that attracts hordes of visitors. Located below the castle, it is the largest and one of the oldest churches in the city. A splendid example of Gothic architecture, St Martin’s was the coronation church of the Kingdom of Hungary from the 16th century until the 19th century. In 1847 a gold plated replica of the Crown of St Stephen was added to its tower to reflect St Martin’s significance as the place of coronation and site of the coronation jewels. These days, the local townsfolk celebrate their history during several coronation festivals held throughout the year, dressing in elaborate elegant robes and re-enacting past events with much merriment and enthusiasm.
To learn more about the area’s history, head for the Bratislava City Museum in the Old Town. Established in 1868, the collection documents the history of the city, while the institution oversees a wide selection of other museums including the Museum of City History, located in the Old Town Hall, where exhibits include an extensive collection of archaeological pieces and historic documents. The Museum of Clocks, another popular attraction, is housed in the Rococo-style House of the Good Shepherd, below the castle. The house was built in the 16th century and hosts a collection of clocks dating back to the 1600s.
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Another building in the ornate Rococo fashion in the Old Town is the wonderful Mirbach Palace. Take a leisurely stroll around the site, which dates back to 1768 and houses the Bratislava City Gallery featuring a collection of more than 35,000 artworks.
No doubt you will be parched after all that exploration, so stop off for a pint or two at the Beer Palace, located in the historic Motesicky Palace on Gorky Street. The Pilsner Urquell beer is served straight from the original tanks and is the most popular refreshment on offer. If you are tempted to sample a snack, the pickled hot peppers stuffed with beer cheese and served with olive oil, garlic and fresh bread should quell your appetite.
There is no shortage of places to stay in Bratislava but for those partial to a spot of pampering Marrol’s Boutique Hotel is a choice spot. This luxurious property is in the Old Town within walking distance of St Martin’s Cathedral, the Primate’s Palace and the banks of the Danube. Accommodation is spacious and features contemporary furnishings, plush drapes and comfortable beds with plump pillows and crisp linens to ensure a deep slumber. Guests are welcome to rejuvenate in the Jasmine Spa; take a dip in the whirlpool or relax in the sauna. For a hearty lunch, visit the hotel’s Messina restaurant. The set menu of two or three courses features a succulent bigoli pasta dish served with shrimps, zucchini and a chilli and rucola salad.
Be sure to leave time to visit the Slovak National Wine Salon. Located 20 kilometres from the city in the Chateau of Pezinok, it is a gothic-style former fortress which dates back to the 1300s. The salon houses 100 of the country’s best wines, selected from six Slovakian wine regions. Visitors are welcome to taste the produce, and each bottle bought is accompanied by a certificate detailing the wine’s properties, area of origin, and chemical analysis and characteristics; a great gift for family and friends (or just yourself).
For those with a head for heights, there is the SNP Tower, also known as the UFO as the structure at the top resembles a huge flying saucer. The tower, perched at the top of New Bridge spanning the Danube between the cathedral and castle houses a popular restaurant, which at 85 metres above the ground offers a memorable dining experience. Choose between the tasting menu and degustation menu, which includes potato dumplings stuffed with duck confit, cabbage marmalade and demi-glace, while you’re sure to be tempted by the delicious curd cheese dill tartlet with apricot mousse and a raspberry coulis.
After such a feast you may be in need of a breather. Head for the observation deck, 10 metres above the restaurant, where you will be rewarded with a spectacular view across the Danube.
If you would rather remain on terra firma, stroll around the cobbled streets of the Old Town and stop off at one of the many cafés. Here you could order a horalky, a traditional Slovakian sweet wafer, and a glass of house wine, and raise a glass to this stunning royal city with an intriguing past and a positive future.
Flights to Bratislava are available from both Luton and Stansted airports.