We like Bratislava for many reasons. The Slovakian capital is but a mere hours’ drive away; dropping in to visit a market or festival or to see a new museum exhibit, followed by a delicious lunch and usually a Tesco stop for groceries, always makes for a grand day outing.
Saturday found us in the city for an entirely new reason, a private tour of (former) Socialist Bratislava. We both enjoy the modern history of Central Europe and secretly wish we could go back in time to live in Vienna during the Cold War years, so this outing was exciting for us!
Our transportation? A (mostly restored) 1970’s Skoda, of course! The petrol gauge did not work, and the seat belt was only for show. Most important, though, was that Tony could fit in the car.
Our guide was a primary school student when “The Changes” occurred, and is passionate about keeping this part of Slovakian history alive. Though his father, an educated man, was permitted to travel to the West every once in a while, during the Cold War his family was moved from the capital to a village in the central part of the country, the reason being, of course, to dilute populations of “the intelligentsia.”
One of our stops along the tour was the Slovakian President’s residence, a former Archbishop Summer Palace leftover from the Empire that became a hospital until the 1930s. When Czechoslovakia dissolved, the new Slovak government needed some real estate from which to manage affairs.
Saturday was Slovak Election Day. Our guide was optimistic that, for the first time since The Changes, the country might elect a leader who was not once a member of the former Communist Party, believe it or not. Tony and I mused later over lunch that our own country seems poised to nominate either a national security risk and indictable criminal or a pompous, xenophobic businessman with an enormous lack of self-awareness to “lead” our country, and we wished the Slovaks well.
Across the street from the Palace, the renamed, Freedom Square. Our guide had a photo book of the “before” and “after.”
Turning to a subject near and dear to me, public housing. This building was the very first built (circa 1956) and served as the construction model for the whole of Czechoslovakia.
The requisite socialist art was in place, along with two flag posts (the “V” shaped object to the right of the doors), to display both the Russian and Czechoslovak flags, naturally.
“Wow” was our response at the sight of this architectural beauty, the Slovak National Radio home. Our guide said that counseling is offered to persons who become depressed working there. Perhaps he was joking?
All proper socialist cities have monuments to the Russian soldiers who gave their lives “liberating” various cities during WWII. Bratislava has Slavin Memorial, perched high atop the city.
The green space leading to the memorial is the cemetery housing the remains of more than 6.000 Russian soldiers.
There were many people at the memorial; our guide said the chief reason is for the views.
Like many former Eastern Bloc capitals, Bratislava has a Diplomatic Quarter and even a Diplomat Hotel. The 1970’s construction swept us away.
Many famous world leaders have stayed in the hotel. (On an aside, during the Slovakian Summit 2005, at which Bush and Putin met, CNN used a map of Slovenia (with a star on Ljubljana, the capital city) to depict the meeting. Our guide lamented, “We never got our 15 minutes of fame.”) It is possible for any diplomats to stay in the hotel now. Oh, the temptation to spend a night…
At this point in the tour we paused for snacks. By now our guide had long readjusted the itinerary, impressed that as Americans we knew so much about Slovakia (not the first time we’ve been so politely labeled as anomalies), and prefaced the offer of Kofola with, “You’ve probably already tried this…”
Kofola was the “anti Coca-Cola” during the Cold War, and is still popular across Slovakia and the Czech Republic. We like the soda, the modern citrus-flavored being our favorite.
A little more to Tony’s liking, though, was the home-brewed Slivovitz, the 52 proof national brandy. Na zdravie!
From Bratislava proper we then headed toward the Slovak-Austrian border, touring the famous panelaks of Petrazalka
along our route. Our guide commented that even today, the differences between Austria and Slovakia are obvious: the Austria border road is paved; the grass is maintained; and the fact that the road is elevated all represent the higher standard of living that Austria enjoys.
1950 border crossing.
Remnants of that same crossing.
The final stop on the tour was to view Bunker BS-8 that sits along the border, one of many originally built in response to Hitler’s rise to power. The rest, of course, is history. The elderly Slovak gentleman who maintains the site was not in attendance, so we were unable to peek inside. Perhaps another time.
Once upon a time, standing on the border would have been near impossible. Who knows what’s blowin’ in the winds…