Walking around Bratislava is an exciting architectural lottery: one constantly wonders whether the next corner will reveal another fairytale palace from a bygone age or a modern concrete monstrosity from a recent nightmare era. In this post-Soviet-present-EU period for Bratislava, its remaining romantic façades and minimalist communist structures now make for interesting bed fellows. Where only decades ago the latter tried to eradicate most of the former, what’s left of the two styles is now being preserved to show the ever growing number of tourists now freely visiting Bratislava, the various historical eras the Slovakian capital lived through and endured. Pre- and post-war styles can now be compared, appreciated or even ridiculed freely, openly and in equal measure by both tourists and locals, something almost unthinkable in the city less than thirty years ago thanks to Soviet rule. The styles may still aesthetically conflict and contradict, but Instagram images of Bratislava often capture one style appearing to complement the other these days as though the two have finally come to a lasting truce.
The Most Slovenského národného povstania (the Bridge of the Slovak National Uprising), Most SNP for short, recently renamed as the New Bridge, but is more commonly referred to as the UFO bridge due to the shape of its viewing platform, is a perfect example of this complementary truce between pre- and post-war Slovakian architecture.
The bridge is typical of its time, location and circumstance, expressing the Soviet Union’s obsession with one-upmanship over the West at the expense of cost and actual practicality. There is not a single column built on the Danube river-bed to support the bridge from underneath. Instead, suspension cables from the overhead land-based UFO-topped pillars hold it up. The design is aesthetically striking but structurally the bridge is prone to shaking, vibrating and wobbling whenever heavy traffic drives across it (which is all the time).
From certain angles one can appreciate how very different in style this Soviet structure is to its more decadent medieval, baroque and neoclassic structures standing along the banks either end of it.
But, from other angles the precise straight lines and minimalist construction of the bridge draws one’s attention to those very opposing structures nearby, and even frames them beautifully.
Slavín is a Soviet memorial monument that sits on a hill a short distance north-west of Bratislava’s Old Town. It was inaugurated in 1960, fifteen years after the Red Army liberated the city from Nazi occupation which hailed the beginning of the end of the Second World War. The six-and-a-half thousand soldiers who died during the liberation are all buried here.
Once again, from this lofty and Soviet-constructed point, the more elaborate pre-war landmarks of Bratislava can be viewed in all their splendour… if it’s not too misty.
Yet, from here one can also see how Soviet architectural ideas from the 1960s and 70s noticably jarred with their more classical surroundings.
The Slovensky Rozhlas building was built during the 1970s to house the then Soviet run local radio station. It is still used today by the station, albeit under less surveilled conditions. The building is another example in Bratislava of Soviet form over function: although yet another unique design to wave under the nose of the despised West, the inefficient use of space, material and money to pay for it – its construction overran by years and its budget was overspent by thousands – is evident for all to see, the only difference is we can now all profess such an opinion freely in post-Soviet Bratislava without fear of the consequences.
Radio wasn’t the only medium given the Soviet treatment in Bratislava during the 1960s and 70s.
If the weather is clear and one can convince the rather inquisitive waitress at the entrance of the tower lift that one’s intentions on going up to the viewing platform above is solely to buy an expensive drink from the bar up there, then stunning panoramic views of Bratislava city can be enjoyed from the top of the Kamzik TV tower.
Back in the city, not all of Bratislava’s surviving relics from its Soviet-Socialist era are being preserved. In all cities once ruled by the Soviet Union during post-war times, no expense was spared to build and furnish a key city hotel used to showcase the best of the Soviet Union whilst taking the opportunity to listen in and spy on foreign, Western guests. The tower-block Hotel Kyjek stood just outside Bratislava’s Old Town and was as opulent as the Soviet Union could make it. However, it has recently closed down and the building is due for demolition, but its adjoining PRIOR shopping complex survives, for now at least.
The Blue Church is located on Modrý kostol sv. Alžbety, just off Gajova and is a short walk east of the Old Town. It is usually marked on tourist maps of the city. The church is opened daily but usually only for a couple of hours in the morning and early evening in preparation for mass. Entrance is free but bear in mind that religious services maybe taking place at the time.
Pedestrian access to the traffic lanes of the New Bridge/Most SNP/UFO bridge is prohibited. Walkways underneath the traffic lanes are designated for pedestrians (east side) and cyclists (west side) and are accessed from the Old Town via Rybne nám at the far end of Hviezdoslavovo nám, the grassy boulevard in front of the National Theatre. Walking/cycling/driving across the bridge is free but to gain access to the UFO observation platform one is expected to eat or at least have a drink at the UFO restaurant housed in there, first. Understandably, the restaurant and bar are popular with tourists and if you choose to eat there it is wise to book a table at least twenty-four hours in advance. Presently (2017), I cannot find a working website to reserve tables there, so the best thing to do is book with the bilingual receptionist sitting in the small enclosed area by the lift at the foot of the pillars along the south bank. When you arrive for your table, or just for a drink if the bar isn’t too busy, you can climb up the last few flights of stairs to the top of the outdoor platform as often as you like for no extra charge.
N.B: the UFO restaurant has gone to great lengths to give its customers every opportunity to enjoy its panoramic views, and I mean every opportunity. One can enjoy the view through the partially frosted floor-to-ceiling windows in the toilet cubicles, although bare in mind one will essentially be ‘on view’ also.
Walking up to the Slavín memorial is – and no doubt deliberately – like a pilgrimage involving stamina and good knees. The most direct way to it is via the long steep steps by Puškinova, a short walk south towards the Old Town from the main train station, along the busy Stefaniková highway. There is a bus – the number 147 – that stops just by the final steps to Slavín. Unfortunately, I don’t know where in the city this bus can be picked up from and going by the timetable on the bus stop, it only passes by Slavín a few times a day. Entrance to the cemetery and around the monument is free and they appear to be open to the public twenty-four hours a day.
The Slovensky Rozhlas pyramid building is just north of Nám Slobody (Freedom Square). Strangely, it is not often marked out on tourist maps but cannot be missed whilst walking along Mytna. The number 23 bus towards Koliba from Hodžovo nám opposite the east wing of the Grassalkovich Palace passes close by. Apparently, the reception area is open to the public and it often hosts exhibitions about the history of the radio station.
Koliba is the southern entrance to the Forest Park and the same number 23 bus terminates there at least twice hourly every day. From the terminus, follow the road up into the forest and follow the path towards Kamzik TV Tower. There are few signs to point visitors in the right direction but there are plenty of people around to ask and follow. Entrance via the ground level bar of the tower is free. As soon as you wander over to the lift someone working at the tower will try and discourage you from going into it. Say you wish to eat in the restaurant bar at the top. This should be enough to convince them to allow you to carry on into the lift and up to the viewing platform. The enclosed area is small and the bar is more like a manned vending machine, but you are not obliged to buy anything if you are unfazed by the barman’s pushiness. Apparently, the toilets here also have windows so you can always escape to the loo and enjoy the view in peace there.
Bratislava appears to not yet appreciate the usefulness of signs to visitors and there are hardly any in the forest to point people to the chair lift. It is not far from the TV Tower, but don’t mistake it for the ski lift next to the adventure park. It runs from morning to sunset Tuesdays to Sundays. Single and return tickets can be bought from the kiosk next to the chairlift stations. The return journey costs around €6 (2017).
Bratislava and the Austrian-Slovakian-Hungarian tripoint. The exact geographical point that looks more like the middle of nowhere
Tallinn, the Hotel Viru and the KGB museum