On our recent European adventure, I was intrigued by Bratislava, Slovakia. Before arriving there, I had little concept of what it was like, or where exactly it was located. Slovakia is the eastern half of what used to be Czechoslovakia. Czechoslovakia was under Soviet domination between 1948 and 1989. Four years later it divided peacefully, establishing two separate countries.
We went there with friends on a weeklong bike and boat trip along the Danube River. Bratislava was one of our ports of call. Early on the day we arrived there, we rode our bikes on a route that took us along the Danube, and across a bridge whose cement walls were tattooed with colorful graffiti. As we biked into the countryside and toward Austria we saw an abandoned border crossing from the days of communism, and imagined that frightening era.
We were able to look back at the city in the hazy distance. It felt a bit like we were looking at Oz, anticipating what the city would hold upon our return. The bike route took us on a loop through immaculate villages with flower-filled window boxes, and into open, grassy meadows. A thunderstorm threatened, quickening our pace. Momentarily, we took shelter from the storm, and when the clouds lifted we once again could see the outlines of Bratislava.
When we got back, a lovely, young Slovakian woman led our walking tour. She’d been an exchange student in Yakima. How funny to come so far and find a Slovak who’d lived in the Northwest! She held up an unopened purple umbrella to help us follow her on crowded streets. I loved her youthful humor and optimism as she described old traditions. In one tradition, Slovakian families put a large Carp in their bathtub as Christmas approaches, and then they dine on fish for Christmas dinner!
In contrast to her aliveness, I saw the weary faces of many of the Slovaks who walked as if carrying a heavy burden. Although I didn’t ask, I surmised that that burden certainly was due to the effects of past communist rule.
Our guide made reference to the suffering that took place during those years. She took us to the Bratislava Castle on a hilltop, and then pointed out the “beautiful” view of the grim apartments across the Danube that had been built by the Soviets.
Back in the old part of town, she walked us down a narrow, cobbled street to St. Michael’s Gate, one of the gates of the medieval city, with its tall clock tower. Here, there were shops and restaurants with tented outside seating, offering unique and delicious fare. We saw a building with aged frescoes that were discovered during renovation. There was a market area that had booths decorated with pictures and stories about historically important Slovakian men. Nearby, around the corner from an expansive square, was a statue of a smiling man in a long coat, making a welcoming gesture, a top hat in his hand. This statue honors a homeless man who had been known to locals for many years.
Down the street was another statue — the most unique one I’ve ever seen — of a man in a worker’s hat smiling as he emerged from a manhole. He is there to honor the lives of the working people, and his hat was shiny from all who had touched it. I touched it, too, and felt humbled by the thought of so many that have lived hard lives in that part of the world.
One day in Bratislava didn’t do it justice. In the future I’d love to linger there and immerse myself in its diverse culture and rich history.
Reach Mary Magee at email@example.com.