Bratislava’s brutalist and communist-era architecture are hard to ignore. It’s part of Bratislava’s identity and part of its history that I, sadly, know very little about. I was only a toddler when my parents fled communism and now finding myself once again living in the city I wanted to know more about this part of Bratislava’s history.
My desire to know more led me on a post-communist tour of Bratislava with Juro from Authentic Slovakia as my guide.
The tour was about 2 and a half hours long and full of interesting stories and information about what it meant to be living in communist Czechoslovakia and the impact of communism on Bratislava today.
Highlights of the tour included:
Námestie Slovenského Národného Povstania (Slovak National Uprising Square). I learned that is was here that in November 1989 the events of the Velvet Revolution unfolded. 70.000 people gathered to celebrate the end of communism and the new democratic elite performed their speeches. Little did people know that the initial years of their new democracy would be characterized by violent organized crime and corruption. Corruption continues to be a problem, however, the city itself is very safe and has improved since joining the EU.
Námestie Slobody (Freedom Square) is mainly recognized today by its iconic centerpiece the Fontána Družby (Fountain of Union) with its 9-meter tall sculpture of a linden flower. Here also once stood a massive statue of the first Czechoslovak Communist president Klement Gottwald. He was known for his harsh style of communism inspired by Stalin and under Stalin’s direction, Gottwald imposed the Soviet model of government on the country. He nationalized the country’s industry and collectivized its farms. He also purged the Czechoslovak government of any resistance to Soviet influence. Both communists and non-communists where arrested and sentenced. Some were executed and others were sent to prison. The statue was so monumental that when it came time for it to be removed it couldn’t be moved. The heads were first decapitated and transferred to the Bratislava City Gallery warehouse. The rest was blown up by dynamite and the large pieces of travertine were donated to the school of fine art to be reused by sculptors.
Most Slovenského národného povstania (Bridge of the Slovak National Uprising) is commonly referred to as the UFO Bridge or the New Bridge. Built in 1972, there is no doubt that this bridge is a great engineering achievement. At the time of construction, it was the world’s longest bridge to have one pylon and one cable-stayed plane. It symbolized progress but it came at a great cost. Massive portions of the old town had to be removed including a beautiful old Moorish style synagogue of the Neolog Jewish community and an entirely Jewish neighborhood. Despite the convenience of the bridge linking both sides of Danube, it has left a lasting scar, dividing Bratislava’s old town in half.
Peterzalka is a district of Bratislava that contains the largest concentration of panel housing (known as paneláks) in former Czechoslovakia. Paneláky were rapidly assembled and cheaply built to solve a post-World War II housing crisis. At the same time, they also expressed a basic aspect of Soviet ideology, providing egalitarian habitat for humanity. The idea was to build as many apartments as possible taking up the smallest possible area. Some 130,000 residents of Bratislava live here. It has often been caricatured as the Bronx of Bratislava. Vaclav Havel, the first post-Communist president of the Czech Republic, famously called this signature housing “undignified rabbit hutches, slated for demolition. However many of the panelaks have been updated with insolation and colorful facades and are now privately owned.
The Former Iron Curtain Border. By the time that we had reached the place where the former border of the Iron Curtain once stood, I was beginning to feel quite emotional. We moved past the border and into what Juro described as the ‘dead zone’. I got this terrible sinking feeling as I looked out on the open field before me. During communist times young soldiers would patrol the border and I was told that suicide among them was high. To the left of us stood a white plaque commemorating the death of a young man named Hartmut Tautz. In 1986, Hartmut tried to escape to the West but instead bled to death from horrific injuries. While trying to cross the dead zone he had triggered the signal fence which alarmed the border police who then set dogs on him. If he had been treated for his injuries he could have survived. He was 18 years old. In total, about 500 people were killed trying to cross the dead zone. Some died in the fields and others hung themselves in their prison cells.
My parents fled communism in 1980 when I was just three years old. Our escape wasn’t as harrowing. The borders were open for the day because there was a gas shortage and my parents drove to Yugoslavia and kept driving. They ended up in a refugee camp in Austria and were given the option to stay or to go to Australia or Canada. The state charged my mother with kidnapping her own children and she wasn’t allowed to return to Czechoslovakia until she “legalized’ her escape ten years later by paying the Government.
Images taken on the tour:
I am very grateful to Juro for taking the time to share with me his deep knowledge of the city. Authentic Slovakia’s mission is to provide personalised tours with loads of authentic stories and local knowledge. I must admit that it was one of the best tours of a city that I have ever been on. Juro’s genuine connection to the city, his interest in its history and his desire to share this knowledge made this tour very memorable for me.
For anyone interested in booking a tour you will find more info on Authentic Slovakia’s website. They do both personal and group tours and when the weather is warm there is an option to have a guided tour in an old Skoda. They also offer wine tours, bike tours, and a village pub tour as well.
And I love their promo video – have a look.