Whenever the Prague Old Town square’s Astronomical Clock strikes you’ll see one of the figures emerging to do the chiming is Death (a skeleton). Here’s the premise for one of Slovak rock group Elán’s greatest ever hits, smrtka na pražskom orloji (The Grim Reaper on the Astronomical Clock). In case you ever wanted to know what Czechoslovak rock was all about, this was it. So here we go: perhaps Slovakia’s most popular all-time band, going strong since 1968 and still with regular performances around the country that sell out, every time…
Back in the 19th century, it turns out, Bratislava (aka Pressburg to German speakers or Pozsony to Hungarian speakers) was one of Europe’s foremost manufacturers of clocks – and the Hungarian Empire’s go-to destination for purchasing high-quality timepieces. It was a proud legacy the city had built up over the preceding three centuries, with one of Europe’s first and finest clock-makers’ guilds in action here since the mid-16th.
It would be wrong to say that there is palpable evidence in the city today of this tradition. There are no clocks to compare to the workmanship of Prague’s Astronomical Clock, for example – at least not on display on key city buildings. But there is a reason for that. Bratislava’s colourful clockmaking past is wrapped up and preserved in one rather tucked-away building in the shadow of the castle, on the other side of the dual carriageway from the main part of the Old Town in the small but fascinating remnants of the Jewish Quarter.
The Jewish Quarter, tragically, was largely decimated by the construction of the dual carriageway that leads over the bridge of Most SNP to Petržalka, but a few steep, corkscrewing streets on the slopes leading up to the castle have stayed in tact – enough to maintain an atmospheric reminder of how this district must have looked pre-raze (pre-1950s in other words). It would have been a web of tiny alleys so intertwined (and sufficiently removed from the main part of the Old Town) that it would have assumed the air of a mini-city within a city – a neighbourhood unto itself – and been a spirited hub of city trade. Wander Beblavého or Mikulášska streets today and there are plenty of erstwhile signs of the district’s glory days, but none, perhaps, as striking as the yellow-and-cream facade of the Dom U dobrého pastiera (House of the Good Shepherd) in which Bratislava’s clock museum is located. It’s one of a few precious examples of 18th-century Burghers Houses remaining in the city centre (heralding from the 1760s) – with a crenelated exterior forming the junction between two streets and a tiny three-floor interior that would once have sufficed for the workspace and living quarters of a city tradesman and is now packed to the gills with clocks crafted by Bratislava’s greatest clockmakers.
The two old babičky (grandmothers) on duty seemed surprised by us entering at all; more so by us wanting to stay beyond the five minutes which, they tell us sadly, most visitors stay. “We much prefer visitors like you”, they lamented, “but we don’t get so many of them.”
I found it hard to see why. Granted, to spend much time in a clock museum you have to possess at least a passing interest in clocks (which presumably you have if you have read the post thus far). But if clocks make you tick – even temporarily – then you are never going to experience a more magical journey into the talismanic days of the clockmaking industry, when clocks were first being produced and commissioned on a large scale for families, than in this dinky museum.
Like all good museums, the best exhibits are saved until last (the topmost of the three floors).
Starting downstairs, there is an overview of the clockmaking industry in general. You get a sense of the pride that would have been involved in being a clockmaker – never, in the industry’s 18th- and 19th-century heyday, was there a day-to-day example of a more highly-skilled trade. Not only were clocks indispensable practical parts of daily life (a typical day had by this point come to depend on accurate timekeeping for many city dwellers) but they were simultaneously works of art. Painters even painted clockmakers in action…
On the ground floor you will find the entire workings of an 18th century church clock, but mainly this is a world of exquisite small detail that you have to peer very closely at to truly appreciate (check the intricacy of the hunter pursuing the deer on one of the downstairs clocks, for example).
But it was the timepieces commissioned for private houses – mantelpiece clocks and wall clocks – where the prowess of the Bratislava clockmakers is best exemplified, and for these you have to ascend up the steep staircase to the top of the house.
Take this one above, a picture clock where a detailed oil painting representing a journey through life from infancy to old age is transposed upon a typical Central European alpine scene – with the pensioners in the picture crossing a bridge across a river to a grand castellated gatehouse: one of the more inviting depictions of the beckoning afterlife you’ll come across! Then there is a fine gold filigree clock, on the interlocking branches of which perch two lovebirds. *
But the very best clocks often included aspects of Bratislava itself – such a hallmark of clockmaking did it become. On one, with the passing of every hour a new scene from a Central European city appears at the bottom of an elaborate painting (now stuck perpetually on the image of Bratislava Castle). In another, in a classic 19th-century Castle-from-across-the-Danube image, a clock tower on what is now the Petržalka side of the river rises out of nothing (it does not exist now; one wonders if it ever did) to provide the clock face (see the lead image).
Perhaps of all the city’s museums, this is most suited to a place on Englishmaninslovakia: quirky, eyeopening, an undiscovered gem as deserving of your time (if not more so) as any of the bigger museums you will have read about in your pre-trip research. It also best illustrates what Bratislava’s attractions are above all: not blockbuster sights, like Vienna or Budapest – but more a series of serendipitous small discoveries that will guarantee you walk away from them pleasantly surprised, because you never really expected them to be much in the first place.
Even so, five minutes to look round is not enough, by any means (allow the best part of an hour). Remember, time stands still in a museum of old clocks.
* = Many of the clocks are being digitalised as part of an ongoing preservation project (meaning not that they are getting luminous digit displays inserted in the handiwork, but that their images are being digitalised).
LOCATION: Dom U dobrého pastiera (House of the Good Shepherd), Židovská 1.
ADMISSION: Adults 2.50 Euros, Children 1.50 Euros
OPENING: 10am-5pm Tuesday to Friday, 11am-6pm Saturday and Sunday
NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: A 200m stroll north is one of the city’s best little cafes, Kava.Bar
LAST UPDATED: April 2017