Once upon a time, on a very uncomfortable catamaran trip from Vienna to Budapest, I was intrigued by the castle on the bluff in Bratislava, which is the capital of Slovakia since the fission of Czechoslovakia in 1992. Since we were going to be in the Vienna Marriott for seven nights and wanted to break up the museum-going with a side trip, I chose Bratislava over Salzburg. I think my choice was right for me (not wanting to make a “Sound of Music” pilgrimage or see baroque churches), but that taking a “Vienna City Tours” guided tour to Bratislava (which cost 45 euros) was not.
We were a five-minute walk from the Mitte/Landstrasse station. For thirteen euros, we could have purchased a round-trip ticket, set our own schedule; trains depart the Vienna station every hour (from 5:20 to 22:20) and the Bratislava central station every hour from 4:24 to 22:42. (For more details, see the Slovak Rail Timetables (EN) and Slovak Rail Timetables (EN); tickets may be purchased online three days in advance.)
Instead, we were picked up by a van that already had one couple on board at 7:30. After three more stops at other hotels, we were dumped off at a bus depot at Erdbergerstrasse 200A at 8. There was nowhere to sit, so we stood by the bus until 8:25. After a stop at the Vienna airport (which seems at least a third of the way to Bratislava, which is only 57 kilometers from the central Vienna train station), we crossed the Danube on the 1970s Nový Most (New Bridge), where our guide met us, Jan.
He told us a bit about St. Martin’s Cathedral, where Hungarian kings’ and queens’ coronations took place while the Ottoman (Turks) occupied Budapest, starting with Maximillian II in 1563 and continuing until Ferdinand V in 1830 (with the most famous one being Maria Theresa in 1741). The crown of Saint King Stephen was stored in St. Martin’s for centuries (but now is on display back in Budapest, where I have seen it). The top of the cathedral’s spire was a replica of the crown that contains 18 pounds (8kg) of gold.
There is a memorial to the synagogue that stood next to it until the old ghetto (whose Jewish population had been killed by the Nazis whom the Slovaks enthusiastically supported). The roadway to the bridge is too close to the cathedral: traffic vibrations are damaging the structure.
IMO, St. Martin’s is the most historically and artistically important site in Slovakia. The tour did not go inside (we did on our own later for two euros admission). Instead, we were marched up the hill, past a bust of Alexander Dubcek (the president of Czechoslovakia of the 1968 “Prague Spring” and subsequent Soviet Red Army occupation) and the Slovakian Parliament Building to the Bratislava Castle. The palace inside is whitewashed with a red roof, including the hexagonal roofs of the four corner towers. The site has been occupied since Neolithic times (ca. 2500 BC) , was a Celtic then a Roman fort, in the first through fourth centuries AD and some of the outer walls include Gothic construction. (There is an excavation of Roman times going on.)
The castle was bombarded by Napoleon’s artillery in 1809, but the fire that mostly destroyed it occurred in 1811. It was a ruin by the time communist Czechoslovakia began. The communist regime restored the baroque palace between 1957 and 1968. That is, the interior is relatively recent. We had no time to pay and go inside, just 20 minutes for photographs in the courtyards (the outer one overlooking the Danube).
Then we were marched down the hill by a different route, though there were two ways Jan wanted to go that were blocked off. (Hmmmm.). We then ambled through the Old City for perhaps half an hour, told about some of the Renaissance and Art Nouveau buildings we passed and the neo-Renaissance (Old, opened in 1886) Slovak National Theater. Jan told us very little about Michael’s Gate (Michalska brana), the only “remaining” “medieval” city gate (the northernmost one). There may have been one built around 1300, but it is a 1758 Baroque building with a clock on it. Inside is a museum of arms. We saw people on a sixth-floor balcony, but, again, had no time to go in.
Instead we were dumped off at a restaurant for our very uninteresting “included lunch.” Water was not included, and the bottled water we ordered did not come and did not come. The rubber chicken breast with two scoops of rice and dry chocolate cake might as well not have come (the appetizer was more appetizing).
Jan had pointed out the route back to where the bus would return us to Vienna and where others would board catamarans (no way I was going to bounce along the Danube again on one of those!).
We spent most of the hour remaining before departure in St. Martin’s. Choir practice somewhat constrained access to the high altar (the choir was not in the carved choir stalls), but the music compensated us. There is a side altar with an equestrian statue of St. Martin (in Hussar rather than Roman garb) about so split his cloak to share with the beggar.
I did not find the crypt very interesting (I’ve been to St. Denis, and others with elaborate medieval tombs), but the treasury that is split between the ground floor inside the tower and one floor up had some interesting vestments and jewels, especially a Polish monstrance. Photography (without flash) is allowed in the church (and crypt) but not in the treasury. And visitors cannot go higher in the tower (which is 85 meters (280 feet) high.
Then it was back to the bus roundelay under the bridge, a 14:00 pickup, stops at the airport and the bus depot where we began, and dropoff at the Vienna State Opera House (a short walk from our hotel) around 15:15.
Had we not made it on our own inside St. Martin’s (and finding the entrance took some time!) I’d say “there was no there there” in Bratislava. Instead, I’d say there is not much there included in the Vienna City Tours (fraction-of-a-) day tour of Bratislava.
There is a cutesy “tourist train” on wheels not tracks. We did not even see the Slovak National Museum or the Slovak National Gallery (both on the riverfront, the latter in a 1949 reconstruction of the Esterházy Palace with an admission charge of two euros); or museums of Jewish, Carpathian German, Croatian, and Hungarian cultures in Slovakia, or natural history; though we passed the City Museum (dating back to 1868 when it was built as the Town Hall) and the Clock Museum (in the House of the Good Sheperd). And we saw Cumil, a bronze sculpture of a hardhat-wearing sewer worker emerging from a manhole cover, which is much loved by tourists, Bratislava’s answer to Copenhagen’s mermaid fountain, I guess.
And shopping? Unless one is seeking Slovak folk art, Bratislava offers no competition with Vienna.