Melodies of the Danube - Saint John's Abbey Travel Tours (# 2005)


Experiencing quite a cultural boom after its years of Communist rule, Slovakia’s trendy capital is known for its romantic, colorful old buildings, a historic Castle and gate to the city, lively squares and theaters and quirky, whimsical statues.

Bratislava is becoming a thriving city once again - with museums, theaters, galleries and financial institutions making their home here. But it was once one of Central Europe’s economic, cultural and political centers. From the Middle Ages through the 18th century, Bratislava’s history was intertwined with that of its neighbors -- Austria and Hungary. In the 10th century, it was a part of Hungary and in 1536, it became Hungary’s then-capital. Kings and queens were crowned at St. Martin’s Cathedral – and Hungary’s crown jewels were held in the city as well. The city (then known as Pressburg) thrived, becoming the largest and most important town of Hungary, while the city was a glittering center of social and cultural life. Mozart and Beethoven performed. The castle became a summer residence for Austria’s Queen Maria Theresa – and its renovation a passion project for her.

The city pays homage to its glorious history – and melting-pot of cultures – in many ways. Find a range of architectural styles – Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo, Neo-classic and Empire. Hammered into the cobblestone streets, find plaques with gilded crowns commemorating the coronation of Hungarian kings.

Bratislava Castle is the most popular tourist destination, sitting above a hill overlooking not just Bratislava – but also into Austria and Hungary on a clear day. Where else can one see three countries from one spot! For nearly 200 years, the castle stores the crown jewels of Hungary and had Two Hungarian crown guards, 50 Hungarian and 50 Austrian infantry soldiers caring for it at any given time. Austria’s Queen Maria Theresa made many major renovations inside the castle in her preferred Rococo style, including a grand staircase. This was built on a lower gradient so the queen could ride her horses up them. When her daughter and son-in-law took up residence, the castle became a whirl of events promoting culture and science.

St. Michael’s Gate is a reminder of the days when town had to be fortified with thick city walls. At one time, Bratislava’s fortifications included two rings of city walls, two bastions, a barbican and a falling bridge over the water moat. Originally built in the mid-14th century, this gate is the only remaining ancient entrance to the city (there were originally four such gates). It was modified in the 18th century in a more modern, Baroque style – and now has a statue of the archangel Michael, slaying a dragon.

Nearby, find St. Martin’s Cathedral, the coronation church of Hungary between 1563-1830 which held many important coronations, including Queen Maria Theresa. Over 275 feet high, its spires dominate the Old Town’s skyline.

The Opera House is the star of the bustling Hviezdoslavovo Square. First opened in 1886, this Neo-Renaissance masterpiece continues to perform ballets and operas. Operas are usually sung in their original language, with Slovakian subtitles. The façade features busts of famous musical composers, along with other figures.

Since the 1990’s, the city is also home to many whimsical statues. Many of its most photographed can be found in the Main Square. There is the Napoleon soldier, a call back to when the French emperor’s troops marched into the city, attacking the castle. A statue of a man peeping out of a manhole who, legend has it, is either resting after a dirty days work or looking under women’s skirts. Other favorites here include a statue of a paparazzo and one of a local greeter. There are many other fun statues to find throughout this enchanting city!

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