Great antiques - image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Bratislava: The Best of the City’s Antiques (Souvenirs)

One can rush through Bratislava – see only its ugly outskirts – and come away thinking there is nothing there. Even should one find one’s way to the maze of cobbled Old Town alleys, one can come away not glimpsing a fraction of the quirks they contain. I’ve said so on this site before – and lamented it publicly to others on multiple occasions: the city’s charms are not the most obvious. As with any true quest, you have to hunt them down…

Such is the case even with those charms that are, so to speak, smack bang under your nose: Bratislava’s best antique shop, for example…

Cafe l’Aura and its attached antiques shop marry inside one lemon-and-cream facade a great deal of the things central Bratislava does best: a wonderful (and reasonably priced) little cafe, a fabulous antique shop and bundles of epoch-old atmosphere.

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©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The first striking thing about it is its location: right by imposing St Martin’s Cathedral; indeed abutting one end of the cathedral buildings. The second striking thing is that, once you dip inside the low doorway and get accustomed to the gloom, you find a shop-cum-cafe not only oozing with understated unpretentious appeal but also one that is often utterly devoid of customers.

The equivalent in another city could not be conceived of. A shop near St Pauls Cathedral or Notre Dame or Vienna’s Ringstrasse like this would be rammed to the gills with milling tourists – and most probably rammed to the gills with insipid tack, too.

Whilst the enterprise masquerades under the name of Cafe l’Aura (advertising itself only by a humble engraved wooden sign) I think of it primarily as an old curiosity shop and second as a cafe.

Normally, I scan the heavily-laden shelves for some of the reasonably priced wares, and only afterwards retreat to turn them lovingly over in my hands over a coffee or two.

And what wares! Ancient coffee grinders, some stunning oil paintings, piles of old travellers’ trunks,  ceramics and clocks from the city’s 18th- and 19th-century heyday.

Any antique shop must necessarily be a reflection of the past of the city in which it sits, but the past that comes alive in a shop like Bratislava is a particularly fascinating one: because it is the German and Hungarian influences on the city that become evident when you peruse the curios here. Because half a century ago or more, Slovakia existed only as an idea…

Which brings up another thing. One which, admittedly, it is far easier for an outsider to see than someone born here. Slovakia has come a long way. In under a quarter of a century, it has become a place with its own identity (bashful at times admittedly) which can casually display its often subjugated history on some sagging old shelves and – in so doing – make it a reason to visit Slovakia today. Because antique shops are becoming a real reason to visit – not just in Bratislava, either.

There is little of the “Portobello Road” syndrome just yet (though perhaps it will come): i.e. inflated prices for what is ultimately not very much. Even Bratislava is, in this respect, very much a bargain-hunters playground where antiques are concerned.

And in the case of humble yet ambience-rich little Cafe l’Aura, it would be one of my first choices in the city centre to look for that authentic souvenir for the folks back home…

MAP LINK:

LOCATION: Rudnayovo Námestie 4

OPENING: 10am-6pm

Bratislava – the Best Places to Get High

When I arrive in a new place, my immediate instinct is to want to get up high to see a view of all of it. Bratislava – with its burnished rooftops, the grandiose set pieces of castle and cathedral, the more surreal sights of that upside-down pyramid and that suspended sputnik over a Danube that flanks one side of the Old Town – lends itself very well to being “viewed”. But it’s the hills rising up immediately behind it completing the picture that also offer the best perspectives from which  to see the very best of the city.

1: Bratislava Castle

Yes, ok, whilst it undeniably makes the city skyline look distinctive, the rather box-like whitewashed city castle crowning a hill directly above the Danube is not going to come close to the top amongst the stiff competition for Slovakia’s most photogenic castle. Nor is it particularly worth your while paying to go inside the castle museum. Where the fortress does come up trumps are with the views: the whole of the Old Town, contrasted with the modernist mega-suburb of Petržalka on the other side of the Danube, is visible from the castle courtyard, bastions and park.

The best approach to the castle is from inviting cobbled Mikulašska, the lane running along opposite the old city walls across the dual carriageway. Look out for an old flight of steps just above Le Šenk brewpub. This ushers you up into the grounds of an old church, then up again over the castle’s rear approach road through a small arch which leads you into the castle park. Even once you’ve reached the churchyard, the bumpy skyline of terracotta Old Town rooftops starts opening up below you.

Old Town rooftops ©englishmaninslovakia.com

Old Town rooftops

2: Slavín and Horský Park

Higher than the castle by some way at 270 metres is Slavín, a poignant hilltop memorial to the Soviet soldiers that died defending Bratislava during World War Two. The lines of graves (about 300, but representing an astonishing 6,845 soldiers) lead up to an imposing colonnaded monument, with a huge statue of a soldier topping a 39m plinth. The height of the monument on top of an already lofty hill makes Slavín a noticeable landmark wherever you are in central Bratislava, and it’s also a great lookout. The huge upside-down pyramid of the Slovak Radio Building takes centre stage in front of a sweeping vista over the city centre from the west side, with the Danube less visible than from the Castle but the Malé Karpaty/Small Carpathians backing the city are far more visible.

The best approach is from Hlavná Stanica, the main train station, through the steep, leafy winding streets of the Kalvaria neighbourhood. It’s worth also approaching through Horský Park which, whilst a tad dilapidated, has a good outlook from its top end. Another even better vantage point is just afterwards on a strip of abandoned land on the road between Horský Park and Slavín – a hole in the fence gives access!

The whole walk is a nice 2km round-trip from the centre of the Old Town.

RELATED POST: Sign up for a tour of Bratislava’s Communist sights  – including Slavín – with Authentic Slovakia

RELATED POST: Find your way to either Horský Park/Slavín (above) or Kamzík (below) and you’ll find yourself on the spectacular long-distance hiking trail, the Štefánikova Magistrála (Stage One).

3: Kamzík

Much more than just a mast. Oh yes. Kamzík, a TV/radio tower, which presides over the Old Town of Bratislava from the verdant forests above, has a brasserie/restaurant half-way up (the hill here is 439m high and by ascending to the restaurant you’re going up easily over 500 metres). Needless to say, the views of Bratislava from here are pretty damned special. It’s the only place hereabouts from which all of the city can be seen. You do have to purchase something from the restaurant if you want to get the full city-wide vista, but below the hill on which the mast stands is a parking area with a couple of rustic places to eat and a wide, hilltop meadow (luka) which has a view over a large swathe of the city.

As there is bundles to do in and around Kamzík we have created our very own post which tells you all you will ever need to know about it (including some interesting ways to get there, including cable car!).

4: UFO

No doubt the bridge (Most SNP) linking the Old Town with Petržalka crowned by what can only be described as a spaceship will have piqued your curiosity at some point during ramblings through the centre. For an 8 Euro entrance fee, a lift whooshes you up to an overpriced restaurant (if you eat here you don’t have to pay for the entrance but you’ll wind up paying far more for the food) from where stairs climb to the viewing deck above. Here are the best panoramic views of Bratislava – castle, St Martin’s cathedral and Malé Karpaty/Small Carpathians to the north, striking views of Petržalka (Eastern Europe’s largest modernist housing development) looking south and – perhaps best – the best east-west views of the Danube it’s possible to have in the city centre. At 80m up from the river, it’s often quite windy!

The Danube looking west from the UFO

The Danube looking west from the UFO

5: Bars in the Old Town

It’s not only the UFO where you can eat or drink out with wrap-around views in central Bratislava. Perhaps best of the available options is the 13th-floor Outlook Bar in the Lindner Gallery Hotel. The hotel is just north of Medická záhrada and thus very close to the Old Town, with good birds-eye views of it all. Hipster bar/club Dunaj draws plenty for its vibrant music and cultural events, but plenty more for its terrace perched above the Old Town roof tops. Above the Lemon Tree Thai Restaurant is the stylish 7th-floor Sky Bar, with amazing views of the Danube through big windows, and access to a lookout above.

MAP LINK:

GETTING THERE: Described under each individual viewpoint!

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Kamzik, a 3 hour hike north via Marianka will take you out of our Bratislava & Around section and into the Small Carpathians proper!

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.