So you know that you’re actually learning the infamously difficult Hungarian language when you start recognizing and understanding signs. Street signs. Signs on buildings. Advertisements. Gyógyszertár, for example. The old Hungarian word for pharmacy. Which is why you should be able to understand my bafflement when I started recognizing all kinds of signs in Hungarian, though we were in the capital of Slovakia.
The day after Thanksgiving, we went to Bratislava. Though the biggest city in Slovakia, it’s relatively small compared to Budapest (about 4.5 times smaller, in fact). And what I didn’t know at the time, though I should have done a better job with my travel research, was that Bratislava was once the capital of the Kingdom of Hungary (during the Habsburgs—1536-1783). In fact Austrians still call the city Pressburg and Hungarians call the city Pozsony, which was on all of the signs heading out of Budapest.
A LITTLE INVASION HERE, A LITTLE OCCUPATION THERE
Like much of Central Europe, we can trace first inhabitants back all the way to the Neolithic era, but since this blog ‘aint about that, let’s just skip forward a few millennia to the Romans, who luckily brought the talent of growing and squeezing the grape to the region. Like in Hungary, you don’t go out and order a pitcher of Bud. You drink wine. White wine.
So, the city became part of Hungary in the 10th century. A few things happened with the Ottomans and then the Habsburgs, as often did. Maria Theresa of Austria took a great liking to the place the 18th century, though the city started to go down a bit once the crown jewels were moved to Austria and most of the nobility to Buda. For the purposes of most of us who are not Central European history buffs, just note that this cute little jewel was tossed around by just about everyone you can think of in the area, as many of the cities in the area were.
It has a long history of struggle, and therefore the nationalist movement, the want to be independent and recognized as so, is as strongly felt in Bratislava as it is in Budapest. My Grandmother always proudly declares herself Czechoslovakian. But I never knew what it meant, except that by the early 90s we weren’t calling it that anymore. But just eight months before she was born, in 1919, the Czechs and Slovakas got themselves fired up, expelled the Hungarian army, and moved themselves into the capital, Bratislava, finally officially adopting that name for the city.
Of course the Germans and Hungarians see it a little differently, but this is a place where no one has ever been able to hold onto their city for that long without an invader coming through and taking it away. So the stories of national pride are as much part of the person as anywhere else. This is not like “I’m a patriot–I have an American Flag on my bumper sticker.” No, that’s a symbol. Here, it’s absolutely part of your marrow.
Anyway, even good independent intentions don’t sick around for long. A year after the Slovaks declared their own independent republic, it fell under the Nazis. And less than a decade later, it was overrun by Communists and became part of the infamous Eastern Bloc. A few uprisings here and there and suddenly it’s 1989 and the Velvet Revolution (or as Slovaks call it—the Gentle Revolution) is taking place. Starting with a peaceful protest among students in Prague, the masses eventually swelled to over 200,000. The communists gave up, opening up the boarders with Austria and Western Germany. Finally, in 1993, it became Bratislava, capital of the Slovak Republic. That was just 15 years ago. It’s no wonder people hold on fiercely to their national loyalties.
BRATISLAVA AND THE CHRISTMAS MARKET
The ethnic influence from Czechs, Germans, Hungarians, and Jews really complimented the already rich historical and cultural backgrounds, and it resulted in a city that feels alive and open. Granted we were there when the temperature was so cold it nearly marbleized our faces and any other exposed skin. But I think we all really enjoyed walking around the city center.
Like in every major city here this time of year, there was a Christmas market underway. Street venders set up shop with their folk art and other homemade items. Though it was a workday, and again, painfully cold, by lunchtime it seemed nearly everyone flocked down from their offices to eat lunch, outside, at the street vendors. Now in Budapest, you can get a few things: Sausage, kemencés lángos (it’s like a pizza with sour cream and ham and people go wackadoodle for it), fired-turned kürtös kalács with cinnamon sugar (which I go wackadoodle for), and hot wine. In Slovakia, there were similarities. Hot wine, of course, which absolutely everyone was drinking. And there were about ten stands dedicated to making chicken sandwiches with grilled onions, which absolutely everyone was eating.
After lunch we toured around a bit more, took some pictures, had a cappuccino, and bought some presents. We left around 4:30 just before our frozen fingers snapped off, and in time to get across the Danube and miss the rush hour traffic in both Bratislava and back home in Budapest.
Like Budapest, there was a real magic in being there at the Christmas market during this time of year. It gets you into the holiday mood without being commercial. You’re outside around people. The language and cultural differences don’t matter. Everyone is warming their hands with the mugs of hot wine, waiting in the long line for roasted chestnuts, watching the sun set over the city center and the Christmas lights dazzle on the tree.