Pict/Bratislava Tourist Board/visitbratislava.com

“See there,” tour guide Katarina Schvarcova says and points in the distance. “Where those windmills are, is Austria. The Iron Curtain used to be right there, along that row of trees. And on the other side, if you follow the Danube River, is Hungary.” We are at Bratislava castle, enjoying a fantastic view of the Old Town, the Danube and the vast housing estate of Petržalka on the river’s far bank. Rolling north are the Small Carpathians Mountains, their lowlands draped with vineyards. Bratislava is postcard-pretty and gorgeously green, with a futurist UFO bridge put in between.

So who are the Slovaks? They are descendants of the Slavic people who settled here in the fifth century, but who were part of other cultures and empires ever since, until now. Schvarcova walks me around a mosaic of illustrious history: a medieval and Gothic old town, baroque palaces commissioned by Hungarian nobles, the crowning castle, which looks like an upside-down table, rebuilt to Renaissance finery.

Pict/Bratislava Tourist Board/visitbratislava.com

I wanted to see this city ever since we passed by it at night on a cruise on the Danube, and the beautifully lit up castle was bright in the sky. But even though Bratislava is in an ideal position between Vienna and Budapest, international visitors are only just now discovering this former capital of the Habsburg Empire. The city is a great European winter break destinations thanks to the charm and color of its Christmas market, which runs from the end of November until December 23rd. This is when the central city squares are filled with stalls selling handicrafts and local food, and a wonderfully cozy feeling predominates.

Royal City

We start our walk at Roland's Fountain, at the square's heart, built around 1572 as a public water supply. According to legend, its statue turns its head once a year a year at New Year’s Eve, but this is visible only to those Bratislavans who have never told a lie. The patron saint of Slovakia’s charming capital is St Martin, the Roman soldier who tore his cloak in two to clothe a beggar. And you could say Bratislava, located at a crossroads in central Europe, is similarly divided — between east and west and between its colorful medieval history and a more recent past.

Pict/Bratislava Tourist Board/visitbratislava.com

For 250 years, from 1536 to 1830, this city was called Pressburg, seat of Hungarian royals. The Kingdom of Hungary was defeated by the Ottoman Empire in the Battle of Mohács in 1526. The Turks besieged and damaged Pressburg, but unlike Budapest, they didn’t conquer it. So Pressburg became the new capital of Hungary in 1536, a coronation town and the seat of kings, archbishops, the nobility and all major organizations and offices. Eleven Hungarian kings and queens were crowned at St. Martin's Cathedral, the church with the 300kg golden crown on top of its spire. The interior of this 14th-century Gothic sanctuary has four chapels dedicated to saints and luminaries, a horseback statue of St Martin, and huge rib vaults and stained-glass windows that lift the gaze. The Holy Crown of Hungary was kept in the castle tower, guarded by two Hungarian crown guards, and 50 Hungarian and 50 Austrian infantry soldiers.

Since Pressburg was the favorite city of the famous Habsburg Queen Maria Theresa, it soon became the largest and most important town in Hungary. One of the queen’s sixteen children and favorite daughter, Marie Christine of Austria, lived at the castle. So during this time, many new palaces, monasteries, mansions, and streets were built, and the city was the center of the social and cultural life of the region. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart gave a concert in 1762 in the Pálffy Palace, Joseph Haydn performed later in the Grassalkovich Palace, while Ludwig van Beethoven was a guest in the Keglević Palace.

Pict/Bratislava Tourist Board/visitbratislava.com

Mysterious Gems

In such a historic place, stories keeps popping up in strange places. When the city bought and reconstructed the pink neobaroque former palace of the Archbishop, six previously unknown tapestries were found behind a wall, depicting the legend of Hero and Leander and their tragic love. The tapestries were woven in the 1630s at the royal weaving workshop at Mortlake, near London. They were hidden in the wall for at least one hundred years, while Napoleon Bonaparte came and signed the fourth peace treaty of Pressburg, in the hall of mirrors below. We go to see the tapestries, which have were preserved really well, and admire the private chapel of the building.

There are many more gems in this small European capital. Michael's Gate is the city's oldest building and the only remaining medieval gate in Bratislava from the beginning of the 14th century. The former town hall looks like a church, with a tower and many different buildings around a courtyard, while the church next to the hall has no steeple at all. Then there is the Blue Church, dedicated to St Elisabeth of Hungary in 1913, a vision in sapphire and powder-blue. From its undulating arches and ceramic roof tiles to the tip of its clock tower, it's a marvel of art nouveau design.

Blue Church

Rebuilding History

It’s a pretty old town, with lots of things to see, but for a long time, history was disregarded here. The Slovaks were busy becoming their own country – which happened as recent as 1993. ‘Twenty years ago, you could just find remnants of old buildings everywhere,” says the enthusiastic and enterprising Martina Hlinova, owner of the amazing Flagship Restaurant. She shows the original wooden benches of the synagogue that was taken down by authorities to make way for the UFO-bridge, one of the city’s landmarks.

At Flagship, the owners took over a communist-era cinema and made it into the biggest and best restaurant of traditional food in town. But they did not only restyle the cinema. As the entrance had to be a place that attracted people, replicas of buildings from a former old quarter were made, using postcards as inspiration. Going into the restaurant now, you first walk into a little lane with cottages and pubs, before heading up the stairs to the restaurant.

Most important to Hlinova is the front of the tiny house of famous sculptor Franz Xaver Messerschmidt, which was recreated here. This German-Austrian sculptor is most famous for his character heads, a collection of busts with faces contorted in extreme strange facial expressions. After a career as sculpture of the royal court, he moved to the tiny cottage in Bratislava. Here, the story goes, the sculptor put his busts in the darkened window. If the face failed to scare passers-by, he destroyed them. Even though he smashed more than he sold, the heads are worth millions now – The Louvre Museum in Paris paid 4.8 million for one of them in 2005. But here in Bratislava, the sculptor and his work has been largely forgotten.

Before the Flagship building was a cinema, it was the monastery of the Merciful Brothers, who helped the sick and the poor. Hlinova started a beer brewery and pub in the old cellar of the monastery, supervised by a famous old Czech brew master. Upstairs in the restaurant, we eat excellent bryndza dumplings with sheep cheese, bacon and sour cream, Slovakia’s national dish. There are more dumplings for dessert, this time with poppy seed and sugar.

When it comes to food, the Slovaks know exactly who they are.

The article was reproduced with permission from hi-europe.net.