Bratislava

Bratislava from StartPoint Media on Vimeo.

I woke at 630 to take advantage of the early light in the old city. In between photographs I stopped in on the local Catholic Church where the daily rosary was being prayed. I stayed for a few Slovak Hail Mary’s, made a personal offering and headed for the Danube River a few blocks away down narrow cobblestone streets passageways.

During communism the quaint town center was paved with asphalt and car traffic in the city center was allowed. What remains of Bratislava’s city center was once part of a much larger medieval city that was once the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. At the conclusion of World War II, the Soviet dictators ordered the demolition of a larger part of the city to make room for new communist style developments. During the communist period, the shops were not as diverse as they are now, ordinary and limited. The buildings were not colorful or well maintained. The economic system sucked the life out of the medieval town. I arrived at the main road adjacent to the Danube during rush hour. The good looking and hard working citizens of Bratislava were on their way to work on the unseasonably warm November day, just one day before the anniversary of the Velvet Revolution.

After breakfast, I met with Rastislav we headed to his attorneys office to put the finishing touches on a contract for a new photography studio venture. He is creating an atelier to rent to working photographers in the city. The attorney was a young and slender but pretty woman. She engaged Rastislav in a detailed conversation, just the same as an American attorney would. At natural pauses she would glance over and acknowledge me as if It were novel that I would even remotely be interested in the Slovak legal system. We left the attorney and headed to the campaign party headquarters to volunteer with more campaign work, stuffing envelopes. With the election less than two weeks away and the party needed to get there candidates elected. Frantic calls went out and minutes later several volunteers showed up.

Finally we gathered in a kayak shop to listen to a former representative from the Slovak embassy present videos, photographs and stories from his mountain climbing journey up Mt. Elbrus in the neighboring nation the Ukraine. There is debate as to whether the mountain is in Asia or Europe. If it is, in fact, in Europe it is the tallest mountain. From a transportation perspective it is much easier for Slovaks to travel west to Austria and Germany. So few Slovaks from the western half of the country travel to the Ukraine. Many consider it a backwards and exotic place. It is not connected to Slovakia like a neighboring state should be in terms of the broader culture and transportation. The purpose of the presentation was to promote interaction and travel between the two nations and to celebrate the goodwill trip to the top of Mt. Elbrus.

During the presentation Kvas was served, a traditional Russian soft drink, made from fermented bread. It is not alcoholic and is considered an essential part of the diet as it promotes smooth digestion. It is said to prevent bad alcoholic interactions, giving the Ukrainians the ability to drink copious amounts of vodka and a reputation for being heavy drinkers. In addition a traditional Ukrainian soup, solyanka, was served. The hearty soup consisted of beef broth; several smoked meats, fermented (pickled) cucumbers, mushrooms, cabbage, olives, spices and served with bread. The stories, food and beverage were designed to inspire curiosity and good favor between these two unfamiliar neighbors.

Rastislav took me to the dark and dingy communist era train station to catch a sleeper train back to Prague in time for the Velvet Revolution anniversary. He said that the poor economy stymied plans to modernize the train station. In its current condition, he says the depressing relic does nothing to promote the good will, good cheer and good economy that Bratislava offers to visitors.

Bratislava

Wednesday 11am Eastern Standard Time
Pittsburgh to Charlotte

Wednesday 5pm Eastern Standard Time
Charlotte to Munich

Thursday 8am Central European Time
Munich to Bratislava

Thursday 12pm Central European Time
Bratislava

Twenty hours either on a plane or in an airport. I was glad to be on the ground. Rastislav picked me up at the modest airport took me to lunch in the same mall where his consumer photography lab is located. It was good to catch up with him in person. It had been 8 years since I met Rasto while he was a photography exchange student at Slippery Rock University in Pennsylvania. Rasto has wanted me to visit Slovakia since the day he left the USA for home. Eight years later I finally made it and I needed a nap.

During my first afternoon in Bratislava I spent time with my host family the Misik’s, Rastislav, Martinka and Svetlanka. The Misik’s own an apartment on the high ridge on the west side of Bratislava. They bought the apartment after the fall of communism when property values were cheaper. They have realized great appreciation to the home which provides a fantastic view of the burgeoning industrial and commercial center. The old town and the center of government is a short five minutes walk down the hill.

Bratislava

Thursday 5pm CET
A daily tradition for many Slovaks is to spend time at swimming at the man made lakes that dot the outskirts of the city. We chose to swim in a lake on the western side of Bratislava near the suburb of Rusovce. The man made lake is situated on the flood plain of the Danube River. The reservoir acts as a rainwater catch to supply drinking water to the city. Each group of lake visitors pick a different spot along the shoreline and sequester themselves from one and other by trees and brush.

Afterwards we stopped in the suburban village of Rusovce for sherbet. Ruscove is comparable to an American suburb, a small service based old town center with a mixture of new and old homes expanding from the center. Property values are on the rise here as evidenced by the expanding rows of new homes waiting to be purchased.

As a contrast to Ruscove, on the drive back to Bratislava we detoured through Petrzalka, a huge expanse of apartment dwellings, symbolic evidence of communism. The Soviet style buildings have taken on new life however; shops and service businesses have begun to open where state owned stores once were located. Pubs and bars with outdoor seating and colorful surroundings break the drab. Many of the formed concrete buildings, left unpainted or white during communism, are being colorfully painted to reflect the capitalist mood of the city.

Thursday 9PM CET
After dark Rastislav took me to the center of Bratislava’s Old Town and had a few beers under fantastic medieval architecture. Churches and buildings with ornate stonework and archways lined the cobblestone streets. Most of the old town and its character in Bratislava’s center was leveled by communists to make way for an expressway and ‘modern’ communist buildings. It was suggested to me that the old town was destroyed as a method to break the spirit of the people in Bratislava.

Friday 6am CET
I headed out into the city a dawn broke over Bratislava just before the city woke, about 6 am. Only a few local people were out heading to work or taking a morning walk and a few hotel guests coming and going to inns hotels tucked away on narrow side streets off of the main town square. I wandered the streets for about an hour photographing what remains of the old town. St Michaels Gate once a fortress gate to the city now is the entryway to the maze of narrow streets designed for foot traffic. Originally built in the 1300’s the gate is the only entry that has been preserved from the medieval fortifications and is one of the oldest town buildings. The narrow cavernous streets diffused the early light evoking a real sense of history and time. I contemplated just how many people had wandered here before me.

St. Michael's Gate

See more photos at Flickr