European cities are the land of paid parking. Trying to find a free spot can be next to impossible. In many ways this is not that much different from cities in the United States. The problem for me is not having to pay for parking. Instead, trying to figure out how to pay is the problem. The directions are not always in English which makes the situation more difficult. Couple that with the stress of just trying to find a parking spot while vehicles zoom past on narrow streets and the process can quickly become a nightmare. This was the case in Bratislava, where I found myself with an American friend whom I took to visit the Slovakian capital’s evocative Old Town. It is one of the most enchanting places in Eastern Europe, resplendent with historic churches, parts of the Old City walls and a coronation route for Hungarian kings. In other words, it was an experience not to be missed, that was unless we had trouble finding a parking spot.
Free Parking – Innovation At A Slovakian Shopping Mall
Our trip to Bratislava was unplanned. We had begun the morning just a few kilometers further up the Danube River at Devin Castle. It was a spur of the moment decision to look add Bratislava’s Old Town to our itinerary. There was only one problem, it was an autumn Saturday with beautiful blue sky and sunshine. Sounds great if you are not looking for parking. The Old Town would be packed with visitors, but where were we going to park? The answer came from an American innovation, the shopping mall. The idea has been around since my childhood. If you want people to visit a mall to shop reduce barriers to entry. Thus, the idea of free parking. We found the Aupark shopping mall across the Danube from the Old Town, on the far side of Sad Janka Krala, a beautiful urban green space. The mall had a free parking deck with which we availed ourselves. With the problem of parking solved, we made the 15 minute walk to the Old Town, crossing the Danube on the infamous SNP Most Bridge. The bridge is communism’s answer to UFO’s, such is the span’s absurd design.
Soon we were standing beside a section of Bratislava’s Old City walls, while cars raced passed on the nearby highway. I could feel the ground shaking beneath our feet. It is not often that we experience both past and present in such a bracing juxtaposition. The medieval walls were meant to keep the city safe from an enemy’s armed forces. Their engineers could never have imagined that they might be undermined by lorries and cars moving at a speed that would scarcely have been fathomable in their time. The old and the new here were barely compatible, but somehow motorways and medieval walls managed an uneasy coexistence. The Old Town of Bratislava was still coming to terms with the newer aspects of a capital city that was booming.
Blown Away By Bratislava – Insights From Within The Walls
An Off The Beaten Track guidebook I have to the Czech and Slovak Republics from 1993 has this to say about the Slovakia’s capital city, “Bratislava is in many ways a gateway to Slovakia without being a destination in its own right – and is not covered in this book.” The opposite of that statement is true today. Bratislava has grown into a city break destination for other Europeans. Its quaint Old Town has been spruced up to the point that it is not hard to imagine it being in Austria, rather than part of a former member of the Eastern Bloc. Walking with my friend through the Old Town five years after my initial visit it was hard to believe just how vibrant this part of the city had become.
People were crowded into restaurants, spilled over onto the sidewalk from cafes and were socializing in the squares. The buildings looked like they had all been given a fresh coat of paint. My travel partner was in a daze, it was sensory overload for him. He did not have any opinion of Bratislava before we arrived, but now he was blown away by the profusion of history, people, and culture on display here. We stopped at a street stall for gelato, a daily delicacy to be enjoyed while traipsing around the Old Town. A few footsteps later we found ourselves in Hlavne namestie (Main Square). That was when we heard drums echoing like thunder through the square. Music began to play as a crowd gathered round. There was a military march in progress, but not a modern one. Only someone from the Renaissance era would instantly recognize what suddenly strode in before our eyes. Reenactors dressed in garb that would have been more befitting of medieval troubadours began to parade through the main square. It was an impressively colorful group of cadres that lent themselves to photography. I took out my phone to try and capture the spirit they projected throughout the square. I snapped away, hoping that at least a couple of the images would be worth keeping.
Flag Waving – A Parade In Progress
It was only later in the evening that I realized just how good one of the images had turned out. Standing close to those marching I snapped an image of a flag bearer whose blue standard unfurled behind him. The flag looked as though it were made of velvet. A bit to the right and partially hidden was another flag bearer, whose red and white flag could be seen. Behind these two flag bearers a few drummers marched, further back were soldiers carrying lances. Many of them were wearing colorful pantaloons. Velvety blues, lush reds, starched whites, and leathery brown were the colors showcased by this motley crew. The pageantry on display during that early afternoon was invigorating. I have never been much on reenactments, but this one was a renaissance, both in a literal and figurative sense. It felt festive, fun, and historically accurate. Whether it was or not, I had no idea. It was a dream born into reality before our very eyes. In concert with the colorful buildings surrounding the square, this was a feast for the eyes. Bratislava’s Old Town had been born anew.