Archive | August, 2017

Backtrack: Bratislava

12 Aug

fermor_woods_coverWhile in Europe in April and May, I began reading Patrick Leigh Fermor’s fascinating travel volumes. I had heard so much about these astonishing narratives of the very young Fermor’s journey on foot from Holland to Istanbul (or Constantinople, as he insisted on calling it) in the 1930s.  Because we were going to be in Hungary, I started with volume 2, Between the Woods and the Water, which begins when Fermor crosses the Danube into Hungary and ends at the Iron Gates on the Danube in Romania. Fermor wrote the book some 30 years after the journey, consulting his diaries; his recall of the details of what was by the 1960s a completely lost culture of elegant aristocrats’ estates, encounters with wild gypsies on the Steppes, raucous nightlife in Budapest and elsewhere, and the magnificence of a natural world unchanged since the Middle Ages is unparalleled. Simply fascinating first-hand reminiscences of a life style that exists no more.

Now at home in Pasadena I got my hands on the first volume, A Time of Gifts, which takes the intrepid young man from Holland across Germany, into the Austrian countryside and finally to Vienna and on to Bratislava, with a side trip to Prague. His account of entering Vienna in a pouring rain in the back of a truck on the night that a revolution broke out (see for details of this famous insurrection) is a brilliant reminder that most people are unaware that momentous history is happening around them while they get on with their everyday lives.

It was Fermor’s writing about Bratislava that most caught my attention.  Formerly Pressburg in German, Poszony in Hungarian, and a historically significant center of the recently dissolved Austro-Hungarian Empire, Bratislava after World War I became the capital of Slovakia within the merged realms known as Czechoslovakia. Evidence of the wildly complex multicultural story of Central Europe, Bratislava is still the only national capital to border two other nations, both of which at one time claimed the city as part of their own territory.  Fermor’s descriptions of places I know (and had only recently visited) as he experienced them in the 1930s made me realize that in these blog entries, I had given short shrift to our visit to Bratislava and the surrounding region along the Danube.  So let me add a few reminiscences about our very pleasant stay in what is now the capital of the independent nation of Slovakia. So many changes in the world since Fermor stayed here with an aristocratic Austrian family who were still coming to grips with the loss of Empire!



Our first surprise came when we reached the border between Austria and Slovakia–at one time, a strictly controlled crossing point, with stern guards, formidable gates and elaborate passport checks. Now it’s like driving from New York into Connecticut. Slovaks now regularly come into Hainburg–the first Austrian town–to go shopping in the town’s mall. Vienna is only an hour away from Bratislava, so some people even live in one place and work in the other.  Still, we were entering into a land where the language, and therefore many of the signs, would now be indecipherable, so we were relying on our phone’s map and Google Lady to get us to our AirBnB apartment.  We arrived by car in the city just as an absolute downpour erupted and the GPS stopped working because we had entered a new country!  Somehow, after following a tiny map we had and after getting soaked stopping to ask a parking lot attendant how to get to the right street, we made it. Our landlady was absolutely delightful–only spoke German,  no English–and provided us with freshly baked cookies. We were in the hills above the town, a very quiet neighborhood near to the forests which surround the city.



The town has recently become a thriving headquarters for international corporations, with big high rise buildings going up everywhere on the outskirts to accommodate them. The good thing about this is that Bratislava’s internet is absolutely first-rate, faster than anything I’ve experienced anywhere!  The bad thing, of course, is a destruction of old buildings and a boringly sanitized architectural streetscape. Still, the center of the Old Town includes some interesting old buildings, as well as evidence of hipster art and culture: to wit, a fantastic bookshop, Martinus, comprised of 3 floors of books, cafes, reading nooks, and international periodicals. We could have stayed there all day, and returned often; they had a huge section in English, and almost every young person we met spoke decent English. Graphic displays throughout town were also beautifully edgy and fun, such as this poster for an upcoming book fair.



Remnants of the past, especially the city’s ancient Jewish culture, offered us glimpses of a time when Pressburg was an important meeting place for Central European societies. The small but poignant Jewish Museum, as well as the full array of Catholic churches and a Renaissance town hall now serving as the history museum gave some idea of Bratislava’s prominence within the Empire.  A sweet little clock museum is housed in an exquisite Baroque building at the edge of what was the Jewish Quarter at the foot of the Castle walk.

But Bratislava’s greatest attraction, at least for us, is an utter anomaly: a flyer at our apartment alerted us to the Danubiana Meulensteen Art Museum, some 20 km south of the city. We learned from the slick, glossy brochure that the museum was founded by a Dutch collector Gerard Meulensteen and a Slovak gallerist Vincent Polakovič, and opened in 2000. A Dutch entrepreneur funding a Slovak museum?  What’s more, the brochure said, the museum was located on an island in the middle of the Danube! We had to go and check it out.  By this time, our GPS was working splendidly–hilarious to hear the Google Lady trying to pronounce Slovak street names!–so we headed out across the river and down the south bank as we were directed.

And there it was: driving across the river locks spanning the massive expanse of the free-flowing, unrestrained Danube, we saw on this island in the middle an ultra-modern building surrounded by carefully tended landscapes in which sat impressively monumental modern sculptures. The setting was absolutely brilliant.

As soon as we went inside, one look at the bright white walls filled with large colorful abstractions told me what I needed to know of how this odd cooperative venture came about. Meulensteen had begun his own collecting of strictly abstract art, mostly but not exclusively European, and somehow–probably through his businesses–came into contact with Polakovič, who was looking for a benefactor to help finance a modern museum to highlight contemporary Slovak artists. Meulensteen forked over a substantial sum, with the proviso that his name appear on the building and that his collection be housed there as well, and that the artistic focus would be the kind of abstraction that he favored. The Slovak artists engaged in this kind of aesthetic would then gain a significant and internationally recognized venue in which to highlight their relatively unknown artworks. It’s an impressive institution, with slick exhibition methods.

The real give on how corporate this undertaking is, however, was the wholly inappropriate Muzak-style music piped through the galleries! Here were all these extremely hip 1980s canvasses, splashing color all over the walls, and the music made it feel like you were in the handbag department of Macy’s. That’s my only complaint; I really was struck by how professional the enterprise was, and what high quality works–within a certain CoBrA kind of aesthetic (See–have been highlighted. When we were there, a second gallery had a visiting exhibition called “Crossing Borders”, displaying Hungarian abstract artists. Along with all of the very good Slovak artists I learned about, I also saw some impressive examples of how modernism survived and grew in Hungary despite Soviet suppression and intellectual isolation. These kind of discoveries, of accomplished artists working under restrictive circumstances and yet creating innovative art, just make my day. (For more on the Museum, see

As wonderful as the museum and grounds of Danubiana are, our most joyous discovery here was the landscape itself: magnificent birdlife among the reeds and swimming in the river, little inlets and islets visible across the open waters, and barges floating by toward Budapest and the Black Sea as we sat having coffee on the terrace.

As we left the Museum’s island, we saw a sign for a restaurant at a marina. Here we found a delightfully makeshift little cafe with good fish and a fantastic view sitting on the river. In one of those wonderfully serendipitous occurrences that happen when you least expect it while travelling, a yacht with a young couple came into the marina. George offered to help with their mooring, for which they thanked him when they got to the cafe.  They both spoke perfect English, and were a couple who had just boated up from the city for an afternoon coffee before picking up the kids from school! He was a corporate jet pilot for one of the international corporations, and she was a translator for one of the businesses in town. They were perfect examples of the 21st-century face of Slovakia: educated, and taking advantage of the opportunities now made available to them by EU membership and the country’s investment in internet industries. They loved living in Bratislava for its safety and its closeness to the rest of Europe. Not a sign of Soviet domination, oppression, or demoralization–a very distant memory. After this thoroughly enjoyable conversation, they got back on their yacht and went home to pick up their children after school.

So our week in Slovakia came to an end, and we went on to Portugal, flying out of the Vienna Airport only half an hour’s drive from Bratislava. If there were any chance we could learn Slovak, I wouldn’t mind living here for a while.

And as is my custom, I will end this backtrack with some Slovak cats: a real one, our landlady’s quite haughty girl, and a stenciled one, on a building near the Jewish Museum.