When ethnic tensions no longer held under wraps by the USSR split Czechoslovakia in 1993, Czechia definitely took most of the fame. Slovakia, the lesser known brother, is a small nation but it feels even smaller than it is. Bratislava is a nice medieval town, for sure. But how is it a capital city? Befuddling.
To be fair to Slovakia, the Tatra mountains are its recommended destination, and supposedly the countryside has most of the culture. Perhaps if traveling on my own the mountains would have been my destination, but as it was this trip was purely urban. And Bratislava (roughly, “brother Slavs”), with population 500 thousand, was the logical stop.
The Slovak national psyche evaded me, despite trying very hard to figure it out. At every corner I tried to understand the history and reasons why this was an independent nation–and beyond that, what they stood for. Yet the museums and experiences I had with people there shed only the smallest amount of light on this issue. A small country, and unlike Poland, Hungary or Lithuania, for instance, they don’t go to great lengths in telling their national story. Here’s the very rudimentary situation of my current understanding:
For centuries, the Slovaks (like the Czechs) were a people without a country, laboring under various empires. Now, in the past 20 years, they are free and independent, and on top of that finally out of the shadows of their Czech brethren. But now they have to establish a history. Some towns have a history, but the people as a whole were not independent and united over time. European accession (and getting on the Euro, a notable achievement) has Slovakia barreling into the future tied to its stronger neighbors.
I know Czech and Slovak are separate languages. But with linguistic and Slavic cultural ties, appending them both to each other or to Poland seems what a unifier would do. Germany was united in this way, so were the disparate Russian peoples. But some Slavic groups have remained independent, like in the former Yugoslavia and in the western Slavic areas, hence a separate nation called Slovakia.
As such, it seems that the German and Austria-Hungarian powers that ruled over the Czechs and Slovaks for so long had more to do with establishing national identity than the people did themselves. But in the world of increasingly ethnically fractured nations, we have many small independent states across Europe.
The Bratislava town hall museum, more than 100 years old (older than the name of the town itself, which was formerly called by the un-Slavic name Pressburg) told me that the Austro-Hungarian Empire once was governed from Bratislava and crowned a number of kings in its cathedral. It’s a gorgeous well done and historical museum. But identity was not a focal point. We still asked “why is this a country?”
The National Museum was even harder to understand. Only several rooms in the otherwise empty Bratislava Castle, we learned much about the reconstruction of the 1000+ year old castle and also about the archaeological history but little about the people of the land. It was still a mystery. Who are these people, the Slovaks?
There is a good social scene in Bratislava, youthful and lively. This shed more light on the identity question than anything else. They are friendly, open, and they party like the Slavs they are, loud and boisterous in the public area. A bit goofy even, with novice ice skating tricks in an “ice-capades” public event. Even on a rainy weekend many people came out to party in the public square with hot wine and Christmas cheer. Though I noted with some sadness, in a nation in the cradle of beer, we saw Budweiser being consumed.
Yes, there are some nice old buildings and a very old history of the land. Hey, the castle is nice, the old town is pleasant, and things are easy to do, even if not to understand. The country’s just getting on its feet, so we’ll cut it a little slack. It’s modern and integrating into the West very quickly, I’ll give it a 75% Western rating, which is more interesting than the close to 100% Western that Prague rates.
Bratislava is not epic; it’s pint-sized and sometimes that’s fun. The museums and monuments will, no doubt, be more accessible in the coming years which will make things even better until it’s overrun with overflow tourists escaping for a day or two from their travels to the more glittery neighboring capitals.
For now, you can have a mini adventure with no worries about problems in a country that’s already on the Euro. It’s not picture perfect– if you want that head to Prague. But local culture is more accessible–the biggest advantage is that you’ll have a local, friendly Slavic experience, along with the same 3 other tourists you keep seeing. Hopefully I’ll be back soon to tackle the mountains and the forests, not only the town.
And, as a footnote, the Slovakian women also get a definite superb grade. That’s the one thing not perplexing about this nation. The closer you get to Ukraine, the better looking they come, it seems…
Slavophile details section: So this stop in Slovakia was in one definition my Warsaw pact completion. While Hungary (see post) was my last of the seven Warsaw Pact countries, I had only previously been to Czechia, not Slovakia, so since Vzechoslovakia split after the iron curtain fell, some might call it required attendance. Likewise, the USSR split into 15 countries. I’ve so far been to 12—everything but the Caucasus. Which is pretty much not Europe at all. So the Eastern Bloc in Europe has been now traversed.
With a couple caveats: Albania dropped out when the USSR/Warsaw pact invaded Czechia in 1968. This was halfway into the life of the Pact, so it could go either way whether it counts as a member. Also, Yugoslavia was a bit of a black sheep within the Soviet sphere. It felt the influence, not officially behind the Curtain and Tito had some free market components of his governance. I’ll get to exploring those places in the Western Balkans eventually. But for now, Eastern Europe is still on the forefront of the agenda. On to Lithuania!