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No.49 Post Socialism in a Blue Skoda

Having recently ventured as far east as Vienna, it seemed a shame not to take the opportunity to go all the way “east” to Bratislava, and cross the borders that really divided east from west for much of the 20th century in this part of Europe. Time for some good old Soviet nostalgia.

The last time I was in Bratislava was just after the fall of the Iron Curtain, so I expected the city of today would be much changed from the exuberant city I last saw freshly opened up to the west.

One Day in Bratislava

From Vienna it’s a surprisingly short trip down the Danube to Bratislava. Near the center of Vienna you can board a catamaran that will ferry you directly to the center of Bratislava in just a little over an hour.

Planning my itinerary, I wanted to stay away from the fake trolley cars that take hordes of tourists through the old part of town. I was looking for a way to meet locals and find out how their world has changed since the fall of communism.

I came across a great company called Authentic Slovakia that specializes in off-the-beaten-track tours in and around Bratislava, showing the city’s past and its more recent developments.

I emailed them and quickly got a message back from Brano, one of the two brothers who own the company, suggesting that we meet him at SNP Square. We would recognize him by the blue vintage Skoda he drives.

SNP Square is the biggest public space in the city. The plaza was built to commemorate the 1944 Uprising by the people of Slovakia against the Slovak government and its collaboration with Germany in World War II.

Traditionally, when a large crowd gathers for political rallies or celebrations of local sporting victories, SNP Square is the place. But the last sporting victory was the ice hockey championship in 2002 so these days it is usually pretty low key.

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While we waited, we wandered around the grouping of looming-dark statues at the center of the square which symbolize the people of the uprising. But soon we caught sight of the bright blue Skoda with Brano behind the wheel.

Brano greeted us in perfect English. In fact most of the young people we met spoke perfect English and usually several other languages, too. Brano gave us a bit of an introduction for what to expect during our four hour “Post Socialism” tour, and we were off!

Brano’s Skoda is completely authentic with all its original details. The perfect vehicle to set the scene for the tour. The sound and smell of the car immediately takes you back, the characteristic put-put-put-put sound is classic. The car belonged to Brano’s grandfather who took great care of it, as having a car during communism was a real luxury.

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We quickly zig-zagged up through hilly neighborhoods rising above downtown and into the more posh areas. Here modern architecture is mixed in with wonderful turn of the century and Art Deco villas.

Brano pulled over in front of an ‘80s era apartment building with a large fancy sign over the entrance saying “Bonaparte”. He began to explain that a lot of politicians live around here … and then all of a sudden we hear a “tap-tap-tap” on the window. An imposing plainclothes security guy wants to know what we’re doing here.

Unaccustomed to being questioned on public streets I first thought “this must be part of the tour” to demonstrate the way the state made its presence felt in everyday life. Then I thought, “No, this is too real. Are we going to end up in some secret security office never to be seen again?” I think I have read one too many John Le Carre spy novels. In truth, we really had attracted the attention of some local security personnel and it felt very “Soviet”, adding a nice ominous tone to Brano’s descriptions of Bratislava’s past.

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With a bit of back and forth Brano seemed to put the guard at ease, he retreated and we were on our way again. Brano joked, “We are famous. We were on TV the other day and he remembers us”. Thank goodness for the power of TV.

Next we arrived at Slavin, a large memorial and military cemetery overlooking the city. The site is awkwardly located atop an area of expensive real estate, adjacent to several international embassies including the American one. It’s the burial ground for over 6,000 Russian Soldiers that fell during World War II. Built in the late ‘50s by the Russians in a classic Stalinist style, it is monumental, complete with looming statues posted around the square. Quite chilling even on a sunny afternoon.

It was deserted except for some kids playing in the far corner. But a great place to survey the city. Brano pointed out how the city has changed over the last 60 years and had with him historic photos taken from the same spot to illustrate.

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Back in the car we sped off to our next stop, Gottka Square, named after the first communist president of Czechoslovakia, Clement Gottwald. It was officially renamed Namestie Slobody (Freedom Square) in 1989, but the new name never caught on. Everyone still calls it “Gottka”.

The 200 by 200 meter square has at its center a huge defunct fountain, a 9 meter tall representation of a linden flower. Slightly unkempt and overgrown with weeds and grass, people were still enjoying the sunny fall day occupying some of the old benches, obviously original to the square’s rigid design. We hopped back into the little Skoda and Brano headed off to our next destination.

Just over the Danube is an area called Petržalka. Also known as the Bronx of Bratislava, is famous as the largest public housing project of its time, the location of the oldest theatre in the country, and has a notoriously high crime rate and the highest suicide rate in Slovakia. Sounds depressing but to drive through it is amazingly monumental in its monotony.

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Construction began in the ’70s and for a long time it was its own town. Eventually it merged with the city of Bratislava and is now connected by five bridges. Over 100,000 people live in the development and in the last few years things have greatly improved, with the crime rate now about on par with rest of the country.

Built in a classic Eastern Bloc style of pre-cast concrete panels, different buildings have been color coded so people can better find their way around the endless procession of virtually identical buildings. The place felt like a set for a ’70s Sci-fi movie. “Surreal” is how I would describe the feeling you get while you drive through the area.

Then abruptly, it all ends and you are at the edge of no-man’s land at the border with Austria. We stopped next to an old guard bunker just as a group of Austrian senior citizens zoomed across the border on their bicycles.

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The juxtaposition really brought home what a different world it is now. We drove along the country roads that used to be lined with fences, barbed wire and guard towers, and soldiers on both sides with guns pointing east and west. Now it’s all gone or in ruins. The only thing left are two small stones set in the ground marking where Slovakia ends and Austria begins. All those years of intrigue and misery reduced to two stones in the ground.

On our way back across the Danube to the old part of town, the sun was setting. Brano dropped us off with a parting gift of some authentic ’70s Slovakian waffle candies called “Horalky”. A great end to our drive through the recent history of Bratislava.

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We only had a day in Bratislava and saw a lot, but there is much more there to discover. We will definitely be back. Maybe next time to try one of Authentic Slovakia’s popular Wine and Hiking tours.

< More fascinating vacation destinations await. Let’s go.

Details

To book a tour with Authentic Slovakia, go to; www.authenticslovakia.com. In the summer months they are very busy so make sure you book well ahead of time. If you have a larger group, they can drive you in the Skoda van. We didn’t get to try out the van but it looked like a fun ride.

If you have some time left after your tour, swing by the Bratislava Transport Museum. It is housed in an old train station and you can see tons of Skoda motorcycles and cars. The staff is a bit off-putting and not a lot of people are around, but that just adds to the obscure feel of the place. www.slovakia.travel

If you are traveling from Vienna, we recommend taking the Twin City Liner. It leaves Vienna from the dock near Schwedenplatz. book ahead of time as tickets are cheaper purchased in advance. We were graciously invited by the Twin City Liner for our cruse down the Danube to Bratislava. Book your tickets here; www.twincityliner.com

Photography and story by Daniela Stallinger

Planning a trip to Bratislava? Here is the current weather and what to expect for the next few days.

78°
clear sky
42% humidity
wind: 7m/s SSW
H 82 • L 73
71°
Thu
83°
Fri
87°
Sat
89°
Sun
84°
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Weather from OpenWeatherMap