Sitting in the Františkánske námestie next to the main square, with the Jesuit Church to my right. Still early, few people around – but not quite as dead as Stavanger. Arrived 11pm last night, on 11/11, in room 11 of Beigli Hotel, very central. Car picked me up at the airport after a full flight (Ryanair) from an incomprehensibly busy Stansted… Driving in, the roads looked modern and immaculate: the EU has been good to Slovakia.
My hotel in Baštová ulica, the narrowest street here. Going west, towards the castle, surprising number of derelict buildings. Very typically middle European – baroque buildings, paved squares, no grass. Sun shining, showing the city to best effect.
Down to the Hviezdoslavovo námestie, by the national theatre. A red tram rumbles by – Bratislava is a city wise enough to have trams. Both this and the other main square rather spoilt by the tacky little kiosks that are being installed for the Xmas fairs here soon. Golden leaves everywhere on the ground – autumn in full swing. Seems to suit Bratislava…
By the Danube. The. Danube. To my left the Old Bridge, and the Apollo Bridge, to my right the UFO tower where I hope to go. Being here makes me think of other Danubes – in Vienna, in Budapest – and other rivers such as the one in Riga - the Daugava. Sun is reflected on the waters, blindingly – and inevitably makes me think of Luxor, Karnak, and Ra…
The wind whipping along the Danube's banks. Leaves piled up against the stone balustrade. A few runners out. And who can blame them? - a morning run along the Danube – what's not to like…?
Up on the observation platform of the UFO tower by the Danube. Best views of Bratislava, especially on a sunny day like today. A band of fog/smoke rolls down behind the castle. On the horizon to the north, the radio tower – reminds me of Tbilisi. To my right, the new skyscraper of Eurovea – not too intrusive. The Apollo Bridge clearly visible. Out to the east, huge chimneys belching smoke/steam, surrounded by the miasma of their own making. South, a forest of Soviet-style flats – looks like Hong Kong, but without the insane density or ambition.
Disturbingly, the tower shakes slightly from time to time. As did that crazy youth hostel I stayed in – Vienna, I think – which was located in a church bell tower. Smog is beginning to form – Bratislava has this problem like bigger cities. Although from up here, the city is bigger than I expected, and clearly growing, not least in the business area to the east. I have to say the castle looks sad: it has lost its lustre and gleam, and needs re-painting… The odd, long barge plies the Danube.
Back across the vaguely shaking bridge, then east along the Danube, searching for Moyzes Hall, where there is a concert tonight at 7pm of contemporary music. Took me ridiculously long time to find it, just before the old bridge. Then up Štúrová to the Hummel Museum. Not to see the museum, but to buy a ticket for the concert (10 euros). To Hlavné námestie, also spoilt by Xmas booths (empty). More people around – at least 30. Noticeable how many smoke here…
In the Koliba Kamzik restaurant. Ironically, this is part of the Hotel Perugia, which I nearly chose to stay in. More central, but Hotel Beigli looked better overall. Very heavy pork menu – and I really don't want to eat such intelligent creatures. So after (less intelligent) rooster soup, I chose (less intelligent) duck pierogies, with a glass of Slovenian red – Frankovka modrá. Vaguely rustic ambience in the restaurant, came recommended by the Bradt Travel guide, another excellent tome in this series.
For dessert, a conventional strudel, but accompanied by the infamous Tatratea – actually a highly alcoholic liqueur – but only the weak one – 44%, not the "outlaw" version, which is 72%. Pretty much like other strong liqueurs of this kind.
Time for some culture. To the Central European House of Photography – 5 euros. Interesting photos of old Slovakia – 1930s – 1990s – by Milos Dohnanyi. Black and white, evocative. Striking portraits by Antonín Kratochvíl – of the famous and not so famous. Blurred, superposed, craggy, indistinct. Always interesting to see famous faces – and faces famous for being famous – in this new light. For example Bob Dylan, Keith Richards, John le Carré, David Bowie, Ray Liotta. I love these photography galleries – they are always so minimalist – white walls, polished floors – to highlight the concentrated images.
Past the palace where Liszt played – Leopold de Pauli Palace. Just a plaque on the wall now… Nearby another palace, the Pálffy Palace, where the 6-year-old Mozart played. Plaque on the wall of a "juice shop". Looking for Zoya Gallery – and failing to find it. To St Martin's Cathedral – gothic, with a choir that looks quite English. Spiky, over the top pulpit in dark wood. Otherwise clean, light stone, whitewashed walls, modern organ.
Finally found Zoya – you just have to head towards the Armenian consulate… Nice pix by Erik Johansson – Swedish – trompe l'oeil. Obvious – like people installing the moon, a watermill on the edge of a waterfall made of fields, a Meteora/Avatar-like town in the sky, its supports scraped away by diggers. Not deep, but entertaining. Clever photography. More direct is "Man and Winter" of Ragnar Axelsson. Icelandic, and it shows. Lots of huskies, and amazing pic of Inuit hunter with his harpoon.
A roomful of curious bird photos – Sanna Kannisto, Finnish, but working at Lake Baikal. The birds look dead or posed – and are the latter, in a portable studio, before being released again after being caught. Weird, but pretty in a way. Another Finn – Pentti Sammallahti – pure photography – images, black and white, that are complete in themselves. All of them have one animal or more.
To the Johann Pálffy Palace. Downstairs to Celtic minting in a dark cube, with underfloor exhibits. More modern stuff – short videos, disturbing pix, installations. Then upstairs to a display of gothic panel painting. Then, unexpectedly, to the famous book-lined walkway of death: clever use of mirrors makes it look like a narrow pathway between infinite rows of books – clever and run. Up again to some absurdist pix – legs sticking out of houses heads in walls. Erwin Wurm – another floor of his stuff right at the top of the palace. A little of it goes a long way… Great gallery, though.
Since I am going to the concert at 7pm, I need to eat early, on the way. I find myself in Urban House, down with the cool kids, waiting for my Beyond Burger. Be interesting to compare it with the Impossible Burger I had in Hong Kong a few years back… Walking here, I found the main streets buzzing – people out on the pavements, eating, drinking, smoking. Has a good feel to the city, very liveable. Obviously very similar to Prague, but not nearly so touristic. Also more walkable – much more compact – quite like Yerevan in that respect.
Now in the Moyzes Hall, after a brisk walk from the restaurant. Beautiful Art Deco hall, all gilt, garlands and geometrics. Small chamber orchestra, nearly outnumbering the audience, currently at about 50. I saw a TV/radio van outside, so I presume this is either being broadcast live, or recorded. I'm sitting just behind the sound desk.
First piece by Peter Zagar (2022), quite melodious, uses full orchestra well. Very tonal now. Reminds me of Gavin Bryars. Second piece by Marek Piaček – three songs, amplified voice. Bit Nymanish melodically, also sounds influenced by musicals – in the best way. Rhythmically quite varied. Overall, though it meanders, musically at least – since I can't understand a word, it's hard to say how well the music serves the texts. Harmonic changes very reminiscent of some Nyman. Final piece of first half Ľubomír Burgr – combines some rather crude electronic sounds with Pärt-like arpeggios on the violin. Doesn't work for me…
To the castle, wreathed in mists. No one about, except a few dog walkers. Near the main facade, an incredible, ornate, cast iron gate – with a huge drop the other side. Equestrian statue of Svatopluk. Cold, damp morning, but that seems to suit this place. The castle looks better in this vague, looming form. My hands freezing – I can barely write…
Interior courtyard nothing special. Inside the History Museum of the castle. Big and – the main thing – warm. A room about the reconstruction of the castle, which burned down, and was in ruins for many years. Took lift to the basement, weird feeling of descending who knows where. In fact, when I got there – nothing. Nearby, stairs marked "Celts in Slovakia" – I descend – nothing again.
Along to a huge gleaming staircase in white and gold, looks newly restored. A chapel, with a modern organ, looking very Finnish. Alongside, a large Assumption of the Virgin Mary by Anton Schmidt (1762-63). Impressive for its size, if nothing else. Around the walls, 14 rather murky representations of the stations of the cross.
Up a gleaming white staircase. Very minimalist – looks almost 30s Italian Fascism in style. To an exhibition of Martin Benka (1888-1971). Slovak modernist. Some nice neo-impressionist landscape à la Sisley. Early works. Later pix more pared down, Kandinsky colours, Cézanne forms of mountains. Final phase Soviet realism of strong men and beautiful women, mostly peasants, heart of the nation etc. His travel pix more varied – good ones of the Adriatic, blue seas, pines and cypresses. A musician too, who painted – and made – cubist violins.
Opposite, an exhibition about Slovak life in the 20th century – photos, videos, recordings. Soviet world and its circumventions. In the cafe – devoid of people, devoid of food bar a rather crusty cake (nope) – risking a cappuccino, which is unlikely to be good, but hey… Outside, fog still not lifting. Being inside a castle is a good place to be… Coffee not too bad – and hot – plus "free" caramel biscuit.
The castle's museums are better than I expected – just as well given the rather miserable weather. I did the right thing making the most of the fine sunshine yesterday. In the background, chants of perennially angry Slovak students demanding who knows what – freedom, probably – in a time capsule of captured rebellion. Judging by contemporary Slovakia, I'd say they got it. It's a very pleasant, highly functional society now. Safe, too. What more could one ask?
To the Romans in Slovakia - huge exhibition. Facsimile of an amazing map: Tabula Peutingeriana – itself a copy of a Roman map… One part marked "Colchi". Excellent exhibition – shows how much Roman stuff has been found this region – and how much we know, in detail – and how much more there must be under the earth.
Now in the castle gardens, which are delightfully autumnal. St Martin's Cathedral in front, the castle behind. The morning fog slowly lifting, the sun breaking through occasionally. Should be nice this afternoon. St Martin's chimes 12. Not heard many bells here, so makes a nice change. There's another church sounding, contrapuntally with the cathedral. Now a carillon, plus a low bell under it all. Wonderful: "Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco…" Incredible random symphony of bells, lovely cross rhythms. Now dying away; a lone bell sounds…
Clever public seating here: the backs of the seats form a platform you can sit on standing up. Doubles the seating capability in a compact way. More people around now – 100s, out on a Sunday stroll. Quite a few tourists – Italians, Spaniards, Chinese, Koreans, Japanese, Brits, Irish. A camera crew recording to my right – such a palaver.
In the Hradná restaurant – convenient, prices not too bad. Nice modern interior; warm. Eating beetroot starter, cheese dumplings for the main. This place starting to bubble – as I've just posted on Mastodon about Mastodon… One strange thing here and elsewhere – the napkins are almost diaphanous – is there a paper shortage or something? The sun pours through the windows, illuminating the few remaining leaves on the trees outside.
After lunch, out to understand transport. First, find a tram stop for #1, which goes to the main station. A little way away from the hotel, but not too bad. Road is a typical central European tram road – reminds me of Riga, when I was looking for – and found – that Georgian restaurant, and I also travelled by tram. Those long, broad streets. Then to find a ticket machine: done, but they only take coins. So to the Tourist Office near Hummel's house, who explain where the nearest machine is that takes credit cards. Then to here, the Primate's Palace – historically important, and also the site of a remarkable discovery: tapestries from the UK (Mortlake). No pix allowed, alas…
Decent portrait of Maria Teresa; Francis I looking weird in his get up, Bratislava and St Martin's in the distance. Mozart's mate, Joseph II, quite a characterful face. Tapestry of Hero and Leander – a putto looks on, and appears in another, smaller tapestry – copy and paste… A Guercino, Abraham and the angel. Nice moody pic of Bratislava from the north. Lots of ignorable pix of peasants, dogs, cows etc. Amazing view down into the chapel from a glassed-in balcony. Odd from this perspective.
In the Hummel Museum, where he was born 14/11/1778 – nearly his birthday today. His piano trios noodling nicely in the background. One room with two square pianos, plus a harmonium. The other room with an Érard grand. Reminds me of Pushkin's house in Chișinău... The rooms so small, but cosy.
To the National Gallery, most of which is closed as they prepare their renovated wing. On the first floor, a wonderful installation that consists of thousands of books on shelves, arranged alphabetically – but all in Slovak, which I can't really read. A few people sit on comfy sofas, reading. I wonder where all these books came from. Oh, yes, at one end, there is also a horse – stuffed, I presume. Not sure why… Quite a few books in German, in fact, but no other language that I can see…
Now in an installation about "The Bridge", which is what the newer part of the gallery is apparently called. Interactive – press a key – currently there is a cow on the screen, with The Bridge's characteristic gantries moving past. Seems to be a decapitated cow, from which blood is pouring – complete with trickling sound effects. Hmmm… Let's try another button.
Moving through a shattered brick wall, darkness broken by a candle. Gypsy music grows louder...a woman sings in Slovak (I think). Another candle, on a round table, with a high-heel shoe on it. That's it. Now the architecture button. Moving through The Bridge – blurred, the sound of water dripping, and light reflecting on the surface of a body of water… We approach a blind wall at the end… Which is the end. Probably enough for me, even though there are four more buttons…
From the SNG, along the Danube, to the Old Bridge. Wonderful effect created by the lit girders. Boats on the river, moored and moving. Pinkish glow to the west, behind the UFO tower. To the east, the Apollo Bridge more delicate. Shoals of fish suddenly rising like a local rainstorm on the water's surface. A gentle slapping sounds mingles with the thunder of a passing tram on the bridge.
Yesterday I made the mistake of not taking a coffee and bun in the afternoon, and a headache as result. Today, no such mistake – here I am in Pollito – a cheesecake shop in Laurinská. Nice vibe. Nice cheesecake…
To Nedbalka Gallery. Fourth floor – late romantic – lovely stuff by Ladislav Mednyansky – great Tatra landscape – amazing view of what looks like fjord with craggy mountains on both sides of a lake (called "The Tarn"). Another painter with the splendid name of Edmund Gwerk. Down to the third floor – where I see my old mate Martin Benka – quite a few. Lots of others painting those stern peasants. Also sub-Picasso Blue period/pneumatic phases. Second floor – Galanda group. Mostly derivative stuff – I saw Léger, Braque, Modigliani, Bacon, Hockney… But overall a good showing of Slovak modern art and great gallery design with the opening on each floor – a bit like the New York Guggenheim.
To the first floor – again, obvious influences – Rothko, de Kooning, Freud. One rather disturbing pic: "Proximity of Time" – by Michal Jakabčic. Shows two figures with big heads and tiny eyes, nose and mouth starting up at the sky while a third head emerges from light green earth, on which there is a triple-headed bird, and two other animals – one in a vase. Striking. To the ground floor – brand new stuff, quite a lot of photo realism, or approximations thereto. I particularly liked "Frozen in Time" by Juraj Duris, which shows some kind of boat/ship on the wet floor of a warehouse. No explanation, but striking. Definitely one of the best galleries in Bratislava.
Since the restaurant I was looking for – Wolker on Biela – seems not to exist, I opted for U nás dobre nearby – on Michalská – bit bright inside, but has plenty of Slovak dishes. I ordered the turkey (chrumkavé morčacie) with sheep's cheese, since they too are less intelligent than pigs, which I really really do not want to eat. That's awkward, because Slovak cuisine is basically pig… Also ordered a glass of the white and flowery Müller-Thurgau – bit fruity for me, but I wanted to try it to complement the Frankovka modrá I had (red) yesterday – which was really good. Finished off with the cherry pierogi – devastatingly sweet, apparently sprinkled with cigarette ash. But good.
Mondays in Bratislava seem to be like Mondays in Stavanger: practically every museum is closed. So a morning of walking – and of churches, which are open. Mostly: I went to look at the Poor Clares church: closed. Now in the Capuchin Church: lots of baroque paintings and woodwork, architecture uninspired.
Not having much luck. The superb Holy Trinity Church: closed. The Brothers of Mercy church: open – but locked inside with a huge grille. On the floor, a homeless man snores in the warmth. Beautiful baroque altar, bubbling and undulating wildly. The pedestrian street Poštová rather nice. To the Blue Church, which is...rather shockingly light blue, everything, with Art Nouveau curlicues on the outside and inside. Closed, alas, but worth seeing from the outside.
Interesting: just seen the tram driver get out and use a big metal stick to change the points – I wondered how that was done…
Sitting by the National Theatre, trams thundering by as usual. Leaves still falling, but will soon all be gone. Blue sky, fresh wind.
Incredible, two restaurants I tried were closed, and another non-existent. Must be the Stavanger curse.
On tram #1 – very smart and modern – announcements in Slovak and English… This is one long carriage; the older ones have separate parts. On bus #61… Despite the fact that driver wouldn't let me on the bus, which said "leaving in 3 minutes"… Turns out it was leaving to move around to the actual stop, where lots of people were waiting. Interesting ride out here – 20 minutes through the suburbs of Bratislava. Looking smart and modern, usual shops and shopping centres – little sign of the Soviet world, unlike in Georgia or Armenia, say.
Airport, too, spanking new, big, efficient. Bought some of the lethal Slovakian liqueur – Tatratea (52% alcohol), an apricot liqueur, and Carpathian brandy...
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