My Kind of Town: my relationship to Bratislava is that of a child to its mother
Bratislava is my kind of town by default: I was born there and spent half of my life in the city before leaving for university in Vienna (the two being the closest European capitals) and winding up in London, my adoptive home for over a decade now.
My relationship to Bratislava is that of a child to its mother. Despite the many dramatic changes the city has seen over the years, I fall into its arms every time I visit and bask in the sunlight of its nearby lakes, where the serenity of its nature cocoons me from some of the day-to-day idiosyncrasies in this post-communist metropolis.
Bratislava, as it is known in Slovak, is Pressburg in German and Pozsony in Hungarian: the multiplicity of names encapsulates its multi-ethnic legacy as the coronation city during the Austro-Hungarian Empire in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. My 99-year-old grandmother – who speaks all three languages fluently – recalls days when you could walk into the butcher’s and be understood either way. After formation of the first Czechoslovak Republic in 1918, the Czech and Slovak population increased, while most of the Germans were evacuated following the second world war. Until 1989, Bratislava was under a Communist regime, which had a profound effect not only on my parents’ generation but also on the city’s architecture.
The historic centre was disjointed through the pioneering construction of the Bridge of Slovak National Uprising in the 1970s, with plans for stitching back the city in this sensitive scar point in evolution for the past 20 years. Many significant monuments of modernism emerged during the Communist era, but the city has struggled with the upkeep of these buildings since the revolution. Once despised for the ideology they represented, today their architectural legacy and future transformation are the focus of a fierce public debate.
For the past 30 years Bratislava has been like a teenager, experimenting and getting to know itself in a ‘coming of age’ story”
Contemporary Bratislava is walkable, bustling with cafes, shops, markets and restaurants adopting every foodie concept imaginable. New developments along the river capitalise on the city’s location on the Danube and at the foot of the Carpathian mountains, with Bratislava Castle nestled above the city providing an undoubtedly picturesque setting. The pedestrianised historic city centre, along with socialist architecture, make for quirky city tours, where some of the undercurrent tensions easily escape the eye of a weekend visitor.
Unlike its European twin, Vienna, with its stable and mature composure, for the past 30 years Bratislava has been more of a teenager, experimenting and getting to know itself in a ‘coming of age’ story.
From booming malls and skyscrapers to self-nurturing bottom-up initiatives, the city presents itself as a battleground of ideologies. Nowhere is this more apparent than in its public spaces – the pavements, parks and squares which were first to feel the effects of an empty public purse after the revolution, when the need to satiate the craving of private ownership was unstoppable. The last decade has seen interest in re-establishing the lost relationship to the public domain soar, with a multitude of initiatives, from street markets to cultural events, bringing back to life important social hubs such as the old market hall. The current mayor has declared public spaces his top priority, recognising that the city’s rising inequality can only be redressed through this common ground.
The rise of the what urbanist Richard Florida calls the “creative class”, in a post-socialist city of a manageable scale (half a million people) has spawned a thriving economy with artisanal production by local designers. While they can feel the pressure of the precarious neo-liberal model, in Bratislava it comes hand-in-hand with the benefits of tight-knit community support from family and friends, something of a luxury in cities like London.
Like any parent, Bratislava is far from perfect. But the city’s dynamic nature and the resilience of its people make a strong foundation for its future evolution.