Have you noticed that some of the best experiences you have on a trip or holiday are often those unexpected, serendipitous occasions when you just happen upon something? A wedding party you somehow get invited to; a chance glimpse of a hidden beach; an impromptu street concert? Those are the memories you take away and treasure – the things that mean more because you never expected them in the first place; the experiences you never even knew you could have, until they fell into your sizzling, sweaty, sun-baked lap.
The leaflet promises ‘Authentic Slovakia’ and while I regard the word ‘authentic’ as suspiciously as the next travel writer, I’m assured by the tourist office assistant that this is the real deal.
The tour starts shortly and the reason I’m prepared to give it a go – sight unseen – is that it promises an in-depth investigation of Bratislava’s Communist-era sights and attractions, such as the abandoned cigarette factory, the main Trades Union HQ and the Soviet-built TV transmitter building. And it does all this while driving you around in a chunky vintage Czechoslovak Škoda, one of those for-the-masses Eastern European classic vehicles where seatbelts and windows that opened were considered sybaritic luxuries.
If that doesn’t get your juices flowing, you have no soul.
I am directed around the corner to Slovak National Uprising Square, which is certainly a promising start, where tour leader Juro – with a Y, Yuro (or George) – is waiting. Juro has good news and bad news, which would we like first?
“The good news is that we are going to go where normal tourists never go. To places like Petrazalka – some people call it the Bratislava Bronx”.
“The bad news today is that we don’t have a Škoda. It’s broken. Is that, how you say, ironic? But instead we are going in this green Volkswagen T4 minivan, which is still very uncomfortable”.
I like Juro.
We drive off, on our way to the first stop, with Juro providing a deft running commentary that is basically news to the half a dozen of us on this trip. I know the basics – post-war reconstruction under Communism, Czechoslovakia, Iron Curtain, Velvet Revolution, a nation split in two, Czech Republic and Slovakia – but little of the social aspects of life here during those times. Juro and his family actually lived it. He grew up in the shadow of momentous political and economic changes, just thirty years ago, while we – from Britain, America and elsewhere – only saw it on TV. His country, Slovakia, only dates as an independent state from 1993; his experience of history is first-hand.
The stories aren’t always as straightforward as they might seem.
It’s easy to think black and white, heroes and villains, Communism versus the West, but at the hilltop monument of Slavín we’re invited to reflect upon the Soviet liberation of Bratislava in 1944. Almost seven thousand Soviet soldiers died retaking this city from the Nazis, their names etched on sheer reflective walls. We take a slow walk around the grandiose, sobering site, peer out over the city from the sweeping granite terrace and admire the mighty central obelisk topped by a triumphant soldier.
“Of course, we don’t forget this” says Juro, but for his parent’s generation – I guess Juro is in his late twenties – liberation didn’t necessarily mean freedom. He pulls the van into a parking bay in among the wealthy enclave of villas that lies just downhill from the monument.
“This is where the leaders, the Party bosses, the ambassadors all lived when I was growing up. People like us couldn’t come up here”.
Next up is a stunning viewpoint overlooking the River Danube, sited at the otherwise rather unprepossessing Hotel Bôrik, a Soviet-era hotel largely used for summits and conferences. In places the river marks the border with Austria and Hungary. In Communist times it was delineated by a hard ‘wall’ of barbed wire and concrete bunkers, and over 400 people were shot and killed trying to escape to the West. This makes the hotel a place of some symbolism, even today; Brezhnev, Gorbachev, Yeltsin, Putin, Thatcher, Carter, Mitterand, even the Queen, have stayed here at some point. Juro explains all this while setting up a line of soft-drink bottles, which he then invites us to try.
“This is Kofola”, says Juro. “Communist Coca-Cola. Made by scientist who never tasted Coca-Cola”.
I have a swig or two while looking out over the Danube. It’s not too bad – the right sort of colour and kind of fruity and herby – but it doesn’t taste anything like Coke. It’s nowhere near as sweet for a start. It was invented in the 1950s, when Western goods were restricted and expensive to buy, and was marketed as an alternative to Coke, not a local rip-off. Surprisingly perhaps, the drink has endured, possibly because Kofola never tried to be Coca-Cola, and it’s still really popular in Slovakia and the Czech Republic today. It’s a taste of the past that all sides can get nostalgic about.
“And now”, says Juro with a flourish, “best of all, we are going to visit the largest housing estate in Europe”.
Be still my beating heart. It’s time for Petrazalka.
Bless Juro for that ‘best of all’, by the way. It’s the sort of announcement that would get you thrown out of most Tour Guide Guilds (“after we leave Buckingham Palace, best of all we are going to Tottenham”), but Juro is nothing if not sincere. He isn’t showing us these prosaic sights to mock them or send them up; this isn’t ‘dark tourism’, like visits to the Viet Cong tunnels or Chernobyl, presented as entertainment. Juro is a young man from a young country, genuinely conflicted about the recent past and willing to talk about awkward subjects. Communism marked his family’s past, but not everything in that past was bad, wrong or mistaken.
During the Second World War, Bratislava was fought over, occupied, bombed and liberated. Imagine how that worked out for the city’s inhabitants. Later, as people abandoned the rural villages of the East for work in the cities, a huge reconstruction programme took place on appropriated land across the river from the Old Town. With Communist zeal and efficiency, hundreds of prefab concrete tower-blocks were erected to house a population that eventually rose to over 120,000. Juro wants to show us where most local residents call home, away from the tourist sights in the Old Town, and drives us across the UFO bridge – actually the Slovak National Uprising Bridge – and into the heart of Petrazalka.
It’s immense – the largest housing estate of its kind in Europe when it was built and still probably the most densely populated district in Central Europe. These were low-cost, quick-build constructions known as paneláky, or panel houses, all erected in a utilitarian, one-size-fits-all style, marching out away from the river in rows, squares and blocks as far as the eye can see. It might not have been pretty, but it was the kind of solution to a problem – the lack of decent housing – that could be imposed by a central command-and-control government.
Juro is keen that we understand all this, and also that – whatever the system – people will find a way to live ordinary lives. We stop by an enormous lake, surrounded by trees and forest walks, and with grassy lawns and bathing areas.
“This was actually a gravel pit”, says Juro. “It’s where the raw material came from to build the estate. It’s beautiful now”.
Petrazalka was never really the Bratislava Bronx and never really required gentrification. It is surprisingly green, laid out with parks and playgrounds, paths and bike lanes, and has always been considered a decent place to live. And over the years, especially since independence, a new spirit has taken hold as the residents have painted the exteriors of the once-uniform grey apartment blocks. Juro drives us around street after street where geometric shapes, outlines and colour bands have been applied to whole buildings, and the effect is mesmerising – harmonious ranks of colour-swatched towers in graded hues, like a giant Dulux paint catalogue.
I am genuinely sorry when Juro delivers us back to Slovak National Uprising Square, after two eye-opening hours, rattling around Bratislava in an old Volkswagen van. This has been a great, and entirely unexpected, experience, as ‘authentic’ as it comes. And if you don’t already want to adopt Juro, or at least wish him and his business well, wait until you hear what he says as I’m saying my goodbyes.
“After a tour”, says Juro, “you should feel like you’ve been driving around with a bunch of friends. The passion for us is the history of Bratislava and getting to know other people from other countries. It’s my dream job!”
And with that, he cranks up the old VW, crashes the gears and drives back off into authentic Slovakia.
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Authentic Slovakia promise ‘Bratislava off the beaten path’ and, for once, I agree. It’s a brilliant tour, heartily recommended.