Last winter, a woman on a travel forum asked for help with a 36 hour trip to Bratislava. She had purchased a discounted airline ticket from her home in England and planned a quick getaway. “What would you do?” Someone responded, “catch the train to Vienna.”
Seriously? Are you nuts?
Don’t all European capital cities deserve at least 36 hours? The ensuing debate was not my best social media moment, but I am unrepentant. Yet, it did make me consider why old town Bratislava is so special to me. Is my judgment that clouded?
Beyond strolling the pedestrian city core and drinking coffee in the perennially quiet old town square (two I activities I performed without fail for 18 months), I love the churches. For a small city, Bratislava has a ridiculous number of old churches. Each one is a treasure hunt. Like Cracker Jacks but way more interesting and with a whole lot cooler surprise inside.
So if you find yourself in Bratislava for 36 hours, please, don’t hop the bus to Vienna…. explore the churches.
Here are some of my favorites:
The Jesuit Church on the old town square is a great start point. The drab brown and steeple-less roof make it appear a bit sad sack. In 1636, at the time of construction, the devoutly Catholic Habsburg empire placed restrictions on the location and appearance of non-Catholic churches – no steeples allowed in the city center. This was built as the original Big Lutheran where German services were held. (Today, Big and Little Lutheran are above old town in the lower part of the Palisady neighborhood).
In 1672, during a period of anti-reformation, the church transitioned to the Jesuits. Peek inside to admire the ornate rococo interior and dark wood carvings – a church very typical of the region. Attend a free concert. One cold, wintry evening, I sat alone – mesmerized by the pomp of a stunning Gregorian Chant competition; the smell of incense, a bishop in his most colorfully embroidered vestments. When it ended, I walked back to my apartment as snow dusted the city and wondered, “Could this possibly be my home?”
The Franciscan Church is the oldest church in the city dating from 1297 and stands a few doors up from the Jesuit Church. Damaged over the centuries, only the presbytery remains from the original church. The current Baroque facade replaced the damaged Gothic version. Typically, metal gates block the entrance to the inner sanctuary, but you can still peek through.
Immediately adjacent, The Chapel of Saint John the Evangelist is considered one of the best examples of Gothic architecture in Slovakia. In the 16th century, Hungarian nobleman were knighted here as part of the coronation ceremony. The two buildings are simple, but given their history (did I mention, 1297?!) worth a quick stop.
The most prolific coronation cathedral in the entire Austro-Hungarian empire was the 15th century Saint Martin’s Cathedral – a distinction denoted by the crown on top of the steeple. Maria Theresa celebrated her own coronation in this cathedral which is the largest and one of the oldest churches in Bratislava. During our 18 months in Bratislava, we attended a handful of inexpensive music and organ concerts – including a fall festival appearance by the Bratislava Boys Choir. (That’s right, Vienna. We have a boys choir.) Admire the fantastic stained glass windows. Then wander my favorite street in old town – the ancient Kapitulska – which begins on the back side of the cathedral.
In the courtyard of the Primatial Palace, tucked in the far corner behind the statue of Saint George slaying the dragon, is perhaps the tiniest church in town – the
palace’s private chapel, Saint Ladislavus. Built for the Archbishop of Esztergom in 1781, the palace served as the location where Napoleon signed the Treaty of Pressburg ending the Battle of Austerlitz between France and Austria and acted as a hospital during the revolution of 1848. The chapel is a tiny jewel box – just big enough to serve as a private place of worship. The church is often locked, but it opens for a Sunday service. Confirm the time of the service and steal a peek just before or after.
My sentimental favorite church in old town is Saint Ursula which sits a bit cock-eyed on a
corner at the end of Ursulinska street. This is the original Little Lutheran built in the same time frame as the Jesuit church but serving the Slovak speaking Protestant community. Similarly seized during anti-reformation, it was given to the order of Saint Ursula not long after completion.Unlike the Jesuit church, a steeple was retrofitted to Saint Ursula after the transition to Catholicism.
I loved stopping here during my early morning walks to watch the elderly nuns light the alter candles for the daily 6:30 service. Then, as I stood just inside the doors, the first hymn started. On a dark, crisp fall morning, the music mingling with candlelight was beautiful, inspiring, haunting – a perfect start to my day.
The next three churches are outside of the pedestrian core of the city but still nearby and worthwhile stops.
Just outside Michael’s Gate and across the street is the Trinity Church. This church dates to the early 18th century and is classically Baroque. The interior is light and decorated with gold accents and green and pink marble – a very different church to those described above.
Just a bit further down the main road from Trinity Church is the Capuchin Church of Saint Stephen the King – a very simple church in typical Capuchin tradition. The church is dedicated to the Hungarian king, Saint Stephen,
who looks down from his perch above the doorway.
No Central European town of any size is complete without a plague column. This one, in front of the church, was dedicated in 1723 to the Virgin Mary.
Last, but perhaps best known, is the Church of St. Elizabeth, commonly known as the Blue Church. This church is around the corner from where we lived on Grosslingova – just east of old town. One of the newest churches, built in 1908, it is the most vibrant, electric blue.
If you have made it to all the churches, (and even if you haven’t), you deserve a break. Stop at the adorable cafe on the corner, Corney, for a drink, light lunch, or homemade dessert.
If you find yourself in Bratislava for 36 hours, congratulations. Vienna can wait. Enjoy one of Europe’s tiniest and newest capital cities. Wander the old town, peek into a few churches, catch a music performance and eat a plate of bryndzové halušky washed down with a cold (and dirt cheap) Slovak or Czech beer. Explore off the beaten path. And please, have a wonderful time.
(And if you do hop the bus to Vienna, just don’t tell me. Okay?)
Categories: Insiders Bratislava