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March 30, 2011

Slovakia, Part 1

Bratislava, Slovakia
    An interesting though not scintillating city, housing about a tenth of Slovakia's five million people. It's a hodgepodge of Slavic and Austro-Hungarian influences plus residual Communist architecture. Advertised as one of Europe's youngest capitals, Bratislava is certainly on an upswing. The road from the airport sports an unbroken arcade of billboards which then gives way to busy suburbs. The older neighborhoods are cleaner and neater than Poland last year or the Czech Republic two years ago. The newer neighborhoods have clusters of construction cranes poking above the buildings like giant yellow storks.
    Then: crossing the Danube into Bratislava, formerly named Pressburg, the occasional home of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, where Hungarian kings were crowned for 300 years and was, more recently, a part of the former Czechoslovakia. A large castle oversees the city from a sudden hill above the Danube. The sizable Old Town that winds down from the castle is easy to navigate and feels lived in. Bratislava is a former market town and commercial crossroads.
    The architecture here is mainly Austro-Hungarian with hints of Art Deco although not as much as Prague or Budapest. There are quirky little touches like the bronze sculptures in the streets – a man with binoculars peeking around a building; another bronze of a guy arising out of a sewer manhole, his chin resting on the street with a contented half-smile on his face. Some locals claim he is looking up women's dresses but Sewer Guy's eyes are fixed straight ahead rather than up. He's an ankle fetishist, not an upskirter.

    Outside of Bratislava’s old town you see the Communist influence right away. There are more Soviet style buildings than I've seen in other East European cities. Maybe they were consciously showcasing for the West – Vienna is only 40 miles away – but it’s like they branded every body part of the city with an ugly tattoo. The buildings are usually painted a washed-out dark tan, with lots of blocky windows and an occasional stab at abstract decoration – say a George Braque-like cluster of brown rectangles. The net effect, almost certainly intentional, is faceless, imposing and foreboding.
    Three of these buildings surround an unkempt park which in turn houses a large peculiar fountain. It is not in use because of cost but the center piece of the fountain is a big silver something – it is vaguely floral or it could be a smashed open clove of garlic. But mostly it looks like a giant claw holding a steel ball in its palm. The fountain's water comes out of the ball. Maybe the claw-flower will crush the ball? Later I read in my guidebook that it is supposed to be a Linden flower.
    It could be my imagination but I keep seeing stylish new buildings positioned near the Communist ones as if in blunt rebuttal. There is a small skyscraper near the claw-flower park that is not only handsome but occupies most of a city block. It looks like a battleship and snugly hugs the corner, sure of itself. It is not defiant, just firm; it’s saying "that's quite enough, we're taking over now." I seem to see this dialogue all over town.


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