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Bratislava Blast


By Dominic Swire


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Bratislava is finally shaking off its communist past and, with a combination of investment, tourists and good coffee, is becoming a decidedly fashionable place to visit.

Sitting outside, sipping an espresso in one of the many café-lined streets of Bratislava’s old town, crowds of well-dressed tourists drift past producing an amalgamated hum of Italian, English, French and German. In these surroundings of beautifully restored buildings, up-market eateries and wifi zones, it’s difficult to imagine that just ten years ago it was almost impossible to find a decent cup of coffee in this city. Now the problem is not just choosing where to drink, but deciding which of the dozens of types of espresso on offer best suits your mood.

Exploring the roads sprouting from the main square, the decades of communist rule seem long gone. Now you can find restaurants on par with any other European capital, specialist shops selling luxury chocolate and fair trade goods and the streets awash with the kind of people who go to these places. Put your head round the entrance to the Flower Café on Venturska Street and you’ll see a row of original Andy Warhol prints on its wall.

The streets are adorned with idiosyncratic statues of characters from the city’s past leaning on benches, sitting on post boxes and if you’re not careful you could trip over one that’s peering out of a manhole. At night the newly renovated buildings are gloriously lit up and tourists are guided down the main streets by the reflected line of a green laser.

It’s clear. Bratislava is changing. The increased investment and growing economy of the city have been well documented. According to the Slovak newspaper SME Daily, the number of people staying over night in the city in the first four months of this year rose year-on-year by 11%; that’s compared with 2% for Vienna. One clear byproduct of this – often overlooked because it’s difficult to quantify – is that the city is becoming an ever more fashionable place to visit.

Although relatively small, with a population of 450,000, the capital of Slovakia is intriguingly placed. Lying on the Danube adjacent to Austria and Hungary it is the only capital in the world to border two countries. Vienna is only 50km away (and now connected by a hydrofoil boat that’s proving very popular with the Austrians), and the Czech Republic is only one hour away by car or train.

Not all the development in the city is for tourists, though. There are a number of new shopping centers being constructed along with a host of new apartments, many of which are being built in refurbished old buildings like new shoots from old wood. Half an hour out of the center is the Danubiana, an impressive contemporary art gallery containing over 2,000 square meters of exhibition space and representing one of the biggest private investments in the country. Developed on a peninsula next to a damn containing a purpose built canoe slalom, the gallery is surrounded by miles of country footpaths that attract hoards of cyclists and inline skaters.

Yet by far the clearest symbol of the city’s resurgence is the newly refurbished UFO restaurant, perching 85m above ground on two legs straddling the Novy Most bridge. The legs lean backwards away from the castle giving the impression the steel cables attached to the road are about to pull it up like a drawbridge. Ironically, this icon for a city reborn was built by the communists in 1973. However, its new image – and name – only dates back to the end of last year, following a two-year renovation.

And, boy, they did a good job. The restaurant itself is superbly designed, with neatly laid white tablecloths and dozens of candles that mix with the city lights in the large windows that wrap around the whole building. The staff are all fluent in English, courteous and attentive, and the food is very impressive, if a little pricey for Bratislava’s standards. If you don’t want to eat there’s a stylish cocktail bar on the opposite side of the restaurant where you can sip cocktails and watch the sun go down over the Danube. The attention to detail even stretches to a flat screen TV in the elevator and some very impressive designer toilets. No, really.

Above the restaurant an open air viewing platform looks out across the old town and the castle to the north as well as the panelaks of Petrzalka to the south. A speaker in one of the corners quietly plays smooth jazz as you contemplate this changing town.

It was here that I met a party of four regular visitors to Bratislava that had driven from Austria for the day. One of the men said he had been visiting since 1993, although it was a very different place back then. He said corruption was everywhere, and the first time he came his car was stolen. For several years after that the group used to drive to the border, leave their car in Austria and get the bus to the city. How times have changed. Now the driver of the party points to a parking lot not far from the bridge where they have left their car without fear.

Of course, while Bratislava is changing, there is still some way to go. Travel outside the city center and you see it is a little rough round the edges with uneven paving, problems with litter and roads that could do with a new surface. Nevertheless, in a city in which you can see a crane or scaffolding from almost every street it’s only a matter of time before expensive espressos are likely to conquer these areas, too.

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