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Bratislava—From Ancient River-Crossing to Modern Capital

Bratislava—From Ancient River-Crossing to Modern Capital

 Bratislava—From Ancient River-Crossing to Modern Capital


IMAGINE that you can travel back in time to the year 1741. The air is electric with anticipation. Festive fanfares can be heard as people push and shove to get as close as possible to the street where a procession is about to pass. Peasants in their Sunday best and proud burghers attired in the latest fashion are here, along with noblemen who have come to see and to be seen. Royal envoys are distributing gold and silver coins bearing the portrait of a young lady, while people shout in excitement. Why all the commotion? Maria Theresa, the archduchess of Austria, is heading into the city to be crowned as the new queen of Hungary.

Back to the present. If you wished to visit the location of this important coronation, where would you go? Not to Vienna, where today many tourists admire Maria Theresa’s royal palace, nor to Budapest, the capital of modern-day Hungary. You would have to visit Bratislava, a city located on the Danube River, some 35 miles [56 km] east of Vienna.

Today’s Bratislava, a city of about half a million people, is the capital of picturesque Slovakia. When compared with its neighboring capitals—Budapest, Vienna, and Prague—Bratislava now seems like a little sister. Yet, for over two centuries, it was the capital of Hungary and enjoyed all the glory attached to such a privileged status. Indeed, the coronations of 11 Hungarian rulers took place in this city. But what made it so special?

An Ancient Settlement

Bratislava boasts an advantageous position on the Danube,  Europe’s second-longest river. In the past, the Danube slowed down at this point and became shallow, creating a natural crossing. People, along with their animals and carts, forded the river there long before bridges connected its banks. Thus, from ancient times the area around what is now Bratislava was a busy crossroads. As early as 1500 B.C.E., one of the Amber Routes, important trade ways connecting the north and the south of Europe, passed through the city. Later, traffic across the ford was controlled by a fortress on the nearby hill where Bratislava Castle is now located.

If you could go back in time, whom might you bump into at this crossing? Well, if you arrived about the fourth century B.C.E., you would be welcomed by the Celtic people who made this area a center of their culture. The hill served as a kind of acropolis for the local Celtic community, who produced pottery and struck coins.

What if you visited at the beginning of our Common Era? If you knew some Latin, you might have been able to converse with the locals, for by then the Romans had pushed their northern borders to the Danube. At the same time, however, you might also have met up with Germanic people arriving from the west.

If you scheduled your visit more toward the Middle Ages, say in the eighth century, you would find yourself entering an ethnic melting pot. By this time, what came to be called the Great Migration had occurred, and Slavic people from the east had begun to settle in the territory. The Hungarians had established their home to the south and had also penetrated into the region of Bratislava. But somehow the Slavic element prevailed. Evidence of this is the Slavic name of the area’s first real castle, which was built in the tenth century. It was known as Brezalauspurc, meaning “Castle of Braslav”—thought to have been named after a high-ranking army officer. From this designation, the Slovak name Bratislava was derived.

The Medieval City

In time, the country now called Slovakia became part of Hungary. A historical account dating from 1211 C.E. calls Bratislava Castle the best-fortified castle in Hungary. Thirty years later, this assessment was proved correct when the castle withstood attack by Tatar invaders. That success boosted the growth of the settlement around the castle, and in 1291, Hungarian King Ondrej III granted the town full privileges as a municipality. Its citizens thus gained the right to elect their own mayor, to transport their goods on the Danube River, and to trade freely “both on water and land.” Since vineyards flourished on the city’s sunny slopes, the citizens’ right to sell wine out of their own homes was especially appreciated.

Later Hungarian kings granted the city additional privileges, which contributed to further expansion. In 1526, Bratislava began its long reign as the capital of Hungary, a position it held until 1784. Meanwhile, Bratislava’s ethnic  mixture became ever more varied. Its mostly Slavic and Hungarian population was enriched by an influx of German and Jewish people. In the 17th century, as Turkish domination expanded westward and northward, many Croats sought refuge in the area of Bratislava, as did Czech exiles fleeing the Thirty Years’ War between Catholics and Protestants farther west in Europe.

Bratislava in the 20th Century

By the beginning of the 20th century, Bratislava had become a multinational, multicultural city. At that time the surest way to get what you needed in a shop was to request it in German or Hungarian. But Czechs and Romanies (Gypsies) also played an important role, as did the Jewish community. Before World War I, only about 15 percent of the population was Slovak. But by 1921, Slovaks had become the most numerous of the city’s many nationalities.

Soon the dark clouds of World War II loomed over Europe. Thus began a sad part of Bratislava’s history, which upset the city’s ethnic harmony. First, the Czechs were forced  to leave. Then, the Romanies and the Jewish inhabitants were deported, and thousands eventually died in concentration camps. After World War II ended, the majority of the German-speaking residents were also deported. Eventually, members of each of these ethnic groups made their way back to their old hometown, and their presence still enriches the atmosphere of Bratislava.

A Visit to Bratislava Today

Why not join us on a short walk through today’s Bratislava? First, we tour the beautifully reconstructed Bratislava Castle. From the castle garden, we enjoy a panoramic view of the city spreading out on both sides of the Danube River.

Down the hill, just below the castle area, we find ourselves in the Old City, the historic center of Bratislava. Walking through the colorful, narrow streets, we feel as if we were breathing the air of past centuries. We admire the attractive architecture of the palaces and burgher houses. If you wish, we can also stop at one of the historic cafés for a cup of coffee or tea and some of Bratislava’s famous pastries filled with walnuts or poppy seeds.

All year round, visitors delight in strolling along the banks of the Danube next to the Old City. Here they cannot miss a symbol of modern Bratislava—the New Bridge with its restaurant atop a leaning tower. The design gives the impression that the restaurant is hovering over the Petržalka housing area on the other side of the river.

If you get the feeling that there is a lot of building going on in Bratislava, you are right. Besides the recently reconstructed parts of the Old City, attractive steel-and-glass structures mushroomed during the 1990’s, with more to come. It is these offices, business centers, and banks that give the city its modern look.

Naturally, you would like to have an attractive souvenir of your visit. So we can drop by the shops selling handmade products, such as beautiful lace tablecloths or dolls dressed in the national costume. Or if you prefer, we can go to the open-air Main Square Market, where you can shop just as the residents of Bratislava have been doing for centuries. Perhaps you may also want to visit the attractive branch office of the Watch Tower Society located in this city.

Maybe one day you will really visit Bratislava. And if you do, you will no doubt enjoy this colorful modern capital that grew from an ancient river crossing.

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Maria Theresa

[Credit Line]

North Wind Picture Archives

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Slovak National Theatre

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A street in the Old City

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The New Bridge and the leaning tower

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Branch office and Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses