Slovak Republic

By Gary Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 16, 2002

A HYDROFOIL carried me east on the Danube into a corner of Europe magically frozen in an era when a lady didn't dare set foot in the opera without a plumed hat, the neighbors made a mental note whenever you missed church, and summer meant retreating to a mountain spa and covering your face in mud.

An hour after I'd left Vienna, I was sitting in a Bratislava restaurant called Korzo, where a fleet of waiters brought platters of potato pancakes, pastries stuffed with sheep's cheese, grilled trout, a hunk of chocolate torte, a half-carafe of full-bodied red wine and, in the end, a bill for $7.60.

Next came a visit to the ornate, neo-baroque home of the Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra, where I sat amid men clutching white gloves and women wearing oversize brooches and dainty hats, taking in a rousing performance of Mozart sonatas. Finally came a walk under the light of the moon, along cobblestone streets past rows of Gothic and baroque facades -- until a local, recognizing an American face, rushed up and offered his hand.

"You represent maybe California, no?" he said, in halting English. "Welcome. Long time here stay! You send other countrymen later, no?"

Bratislava, capital of the Slovak Republic, was caught just a few hundred yards on the dark side of the Iron Curtain in the 1940s, and the pace of life has apparently picked up little ever since. In spite of a long streak of Soviet domination, revolution and internal strife, locals seem content to repair to their favorite pub after work and while away the evening sipping 35-cent steins of Zlaty Bazant beer and swapping views on whether their lives would fare better under capitalism or socialism.

Signs of Western-style commercialization in these parts are thankfully minimal. Of course, there is the occasional fast-food joint or Internet cafe. And one evening I happened into a bar where the band broke into renditions of "Winchester Cathedral" and "If You're Going to San Francisco," translated into the guttural Slovak tongue. But my guidebook summed up the local efforts of Westernization well. "You could probably find a hamburger if you really wanted one," it said. "But it would probably turn out to be a sandwich made with thick slabs of ham."

Although just an hour's hop by train from the Austrian capital, and 2 1/2 hours from Budapest, Bratislava -- a city of more than 450,000 -- is so far off the U.S. tourist circuit that during six days of exploring it and the surrounding Slovak Republic, I only heard American voices rise across the other side of a sidewalk or restaurant three times.

All of 24,000 travelers from the United States visited the Slovak Republic last year, compared with the 3 million who went to France by the account of the French Tourism Board. Indeed, most Americans can't even place it on a map of Europe. When I mentioned to friends that I was headed to Bratislava, most were clueless. Swallowed up as part of Czechoslovakia in the early 20th century, the Slovak Republic reclaimed its independence from Prague nine years ago, as part of the post-Soviet fallout.

The resulting country is about the size of West Virginia, bordered by Austria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Ukraine. It's blanketed by an undulating sweep of mint-green mountains in the center and crowned by a range of snow-covered peaks -- the High Tatras -- toward the north. Six days was enough to see the most alluring spots.

Bratislava's historic Old Town is the logical starting point. A dignified enclave of ornate buildings linked by a network of cobblestone pedestrian walkways, it's small enough to make your way through in half a day. Most of the key buildings are Gothic structures dating from the 14th century. But they gained prominence in the 1700s, when Maria Teresa, the Queen of Hungary, made her home in an imposing castle perched just above the heart of the city.

The thin crowds allowed me to explore these streets as if they belonged to me. I visited St. Martin's Cathedral, an intimate Gothic structure where 19 royal coronations took place between the mid-1500s and the early 1800s. Around the corner was the Primate's Palace, a magnificent structure reminiscent of Versailles that houses an elegant array of 17th-century tapestries brought over from England.

"I sneak in here to see them every chance I get," said a Bratislava tour guide. "If a visitor sees nothing else in the whole country, they should see these."

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