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The Old Town: the Corridor of Books

Think a myriad bound copies of Cassanova, stretching into a void which also contains, upon closer examination, an infinite number of most of the other classics, likewise piling up and plummeting down before you on shelves that shear away as far as the eye can see.

Now think Indiana Jones & the Last Crusade and the third of Indy’s three tests to get to the chamber with the Holy Grail(s) in which he has to have faith in the existence of the path in order for the path to be there at all.

OK. Now imagine that same path, seemingly suspended in mid-air, across the middle of the book-lined void.

I have not lost my mind. I’m talking about Bratislava city centre’s most ingenious tourist attraction.

It would seem to be wrong – akin to revealing the final dramatic twists of a novel to a reader who has only scanned the back-cover blurb – to say too much more about this sight on the second floor of the Bratislava City Gallery (Galéria Mesta Bratislavy) before you arrive there to see it yourself. So I won’t.

But the gallery has far more to see besides this fantasy library. No sooner do you step out  than you are ushered into a surreal recreation of a French bordello, a red-lit antechamber  with velvet drapes and various early 20th century beauties leaping out at you (figuratively, gentlemen) from the walls. You can descend to see evidence of Celtic mining and coin minting in Bratislava (from a time long before the idea of Slovakia, or of any of the other Central European nations around it, ever existed). You can ascend to see some fascinating examples of Central European art/sculpture over the last three centuries, including a romp through the history of Slovak art (19th to 21st centuries inclusive):)

These kind of art museums can go very wrong. They often seem stuffy, or just lacklustre, and a plethora of such examples spill across Europe’s big cities, masquerading as important diversions for visitors. The Bratislava City Gallery does not do that. Its Palffy Palace address which contains everything mentioned in these paragraphs is tucked away so inconspicuously on Pánska, one of the Old Town’s main dining streets with its cobbles festooned by restaurant tables in summer, that you would easily walk by the place. Unassuming it is. But once you are through the doors, you’ll find it a treasure trove of surprises. Good surprises.

Its exhibits are hardly world class. But as anyone who has trundled through Uffizi’s and Louvre’s will know, world class does not always equal sensational where art is concerned. Art is best appreciated alone, or when you do not feel jaded from the jostling of thousands of others. Bratislava City Gallery? You’ll appreciate it alone, more or less. Few come here.

And if you did walk by, oblivious, you would never know what it was to step out across a void of books.

MAP LINK

LOCATION: Pánska 19 (Palffy Palace branch). The Mirbach Palace branch of the museum is on Františkánske námestie and will form a different post, some time in the future once we have visited – and if it has anything as attention-worthy – which it quite possibly will not.

ADMISSION: 4 Euros per person for the full gallery experience, you can ask to just see the corridor of books and they’ll probably let you in for 2 Euros.

OPENING: Tuesday to Sunday, 11am to 6pm. Closed on Mondays like almost everything seems to be in Bratislava and indeed Slovakia.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: 22km southeast is Danubiana Meulensteen Art Museum

Around Bratislava – the North: Svätý Jur for a Day Trip?

Svätý Jur Námestie: a stop on the Small Carpathians Wine Route

Svätý Jur Námestie: a stop on the Small Carpathians Wine Routes – image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

An icy, but brilliantly sunny winter’s day: and where to roam from Bratislava when you wake up, well, reasonably late? You want to get out into the countryside, but you also don’t have so many hours before darkness falls again, and are reliant on public transport. Svätý Jur, just to the northeast of Bratislava, might just be the place for you.

From Rača, in Bratislava’s extreme north-east, where I was living for three years, getting there could not be easier. Svätý Jur is, in fact, the next village along on the main road out of town, and the first village to be in what could properly be termed “the countryside”. For us, it was a simple jaunt down to Pekná Cesta tram stop where, on the other side of the road, the Slovak Lines nation-wide buses also stop (they’ve come from the Mlynské Nivy bus station, for those readers starting in the centre of the city!), and a 0.80 Euro/ 10 minute ride to the Krajinská bus stop in Svätý Jur.

This is actually an amazingly pretty village. Amazingly pretty because:

a) it is extremely close to the Bratislava suburbs and could easily have fallen prey to either suburban anonymity or distasteful Communist “development” – but hasn’t.

b) People don’t really talk about it as a beautiful place. I’m not (quite) about to put its central námestie in the same category as that in Levoča or Poprad’s Spišská Sobota. But, with its wide oval expanse of untarnished pastille-coloured houses, grand old town hall with a plaque highlighting key dates in the community’s history, and skyline flanked by churches, and beyond by vineyard terraces and rolling forested hills, you would think you were far further from Bratislava than you actually are.

Why Come Here?

Good question.

a) Wine: The main reason to head to Svätý Jur is one that, in December, we were unable to appreciate: the wine cellars. The astonishing presence of some fifteen wine cellars in and around the village makes it a key stop on the Small Carpathians Wine Route. Get information on the cellars at the Infocentrum just up from the main square (Prostredná 47, tel.: (00) 421 2 4497 0449-53, www.ainova.sk/ic). Many wine cellars are often open for tours and tastings – particularly on Open Cellar Days!

Other than a stroll around the historic village centre (boasting of being given “town” status in the mid-17th century), the best thing to do is to take a walk up Podhradie Ulica (that’s the street that continues north up from the far end of the town square) to the ruins of Biely Kameň (white stone castle).

b) Biely Kameň: Biely Kameň is the lesser-known cousin of Červený Kameň (Red Stone Castle) further north-west and whilst the information boards at the ruin itself make little of its associations with the notorious Palffy family that controlled Červený Kameň the presence of other Palffy memorial plaques on buildings in the village centre suggests a connection. The castle itself is a wonderfully romantic ruin in the woods about 1km up from Svätý Jur. The remains of the late 13th century fortress are none too extensive, but fun to explore, and provide a prequel to the great hiking trails beyond in the Malé Karpaty/Small Carpathians, with views down into the valley carved with terraced vineyards and on up into the wilder forests (go to our HIKES section lower down this post for a suggested route). Our experience was coloured by meeting a local historian who had published articles on some to the castle’s legends,and even dug for treasure here! (links to the legends to follow!!). The route to the castle is straightforward: up through the village on Podhradie Ulica (under-the-castle street), passing both churches, then branching left on a marked footpath which ascends along the back of two houses into the woods and gets to the noticeboard below the ruins in about 30 minutes. The final few metres up to within the castle bastions is a bit of a scramble. It’s a popular opycačka (campfire for roasting meat) spot.

EATING:

The main problem in Svätý Jur was getting something decent to eat. OK, it was Sunday, and the two decent-looking restaurants (including the recommendation we had, Svätojurská Viecha at Bratislavska 2 near Hotel Maxim) were closed, but there did seem a paucity of decent eating options. We took shelter in a typical Communist-looking hard-drinking bar near the bus stop back to Bratislava, but it was hardly a place to rave about (in fact it gave us food poisoning). The best things about Svätý Jur are its wine and its nature. We’ll be returning for more of both in wine season! But if you do need to eat here:

– There’s a decent gelateria at the beginning of Prostredná (on the right as you’re walking up through the beautiful square) and (purportedly) a good cafe by the church (the lower church, that is, near the roundabout at the upper end of the square) – we’ll be checking it out soon, don’t worry.

SHOPS: A great farm shop at the lower end of Prostredná as you are walking up on the left-hand side – the cheese selection is way more tempting than any I’ve ever seen anywhere else in Slovakia – including the big supermarkets! It mostly stocks Dutch cheeses (strong feisty rounds of the stuff) but also Slovak ones. AND it has a great range of Slovak chocolate. There are also several really good wine shops along Prostredná (in and around Bratislava, here are THE best ops for sampling local wine). So many, in fact, that we’re going to be writing “Shopping in Svätý Jur” – a special tailored post elaborating on this very subject.

HIKES: Aside from the short hike up to ruins of Biely Kameň (mentioned above) there is of course all those hikes awaiting in the wider expanse of the Malé Karpaty/Small Carpathians which can be accessed from the castle. One interesting route is that on the yellow trail through to Marianka via Biely Križ (allow three to four hours): especially interesting as there are many shrines and crosses of all different shapes and sizes along the way.

MAP LINK

GETTING THERE: Slovak Lines buses run about every 15 minutes from platforms 41-45 at the main bus station stopping at Pekná Cesta on the way out of the city.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Svätý Jur it’s a 17km walk northwest to Pajštún Castle through the Malé Karpaty. A 7km drive northeast (or a hike through the Malé Karpaty) is Limbach.

Michael Portillo Does Bratislava (Autumn 2012)

The other week, Michael Portillo (fey-looking former Conservative UK MP turned railway explorer – logical progression, no? – for those of you who aren’t familiar) in his latest series of Great Railway Journeys took a rail trip through the old Austro-Hungarian empire. Starting in Budapest, he wends his way by train through Bratislava and then on into Austria by boat. I would have liked to add at this point that it’s worth checking BBC Iplayer (UK followers only) to watch for a riveting insight into Bratislava and its place in that empire. Sadly I can’t.

Whilst the programme is relatively informative if you’re interested in Budapest’s bridges or waltzing in Vienna, Bratislava and Slovakia (as usual in the media) get precious little airtime. This is unfortunate, given Bratislava’s pivotal role in the empire. We’re talking the old second city of the empire here. Pozsony as Bratislava was then known was THE place where Hungarian monarchs were crowned and hung out after Budapest got occupied by the Turks: this was the royal seat of the monarchy from the 1530s into the 19th century, for Godsakes.

Mr Portillo gets off the train, mooches around St Martin’s Cathedral (the place of coronation of the afore-mentioned monarchs) and then gets on the fast boat to Vienna, asap. The only other shot in Bratislava is the terribly insightful, momentary camera-full of three nuns strolling through the Old Town. It’s so edited it’s basically not worth showing Bratislava at all. It certainly offers no insight into Bratislava’s part in the empire.

A wasted opportunity to put an interesting spotlight on a city that doesn’t often get the spotlight, and, really, at precisely the moment it should have done. Instead we get more of the same old stuff on Budapest and Vienna. Sigh.

Thanks, Michael.