When thinking of taking a European trip, few students consider Slovakia a must-see destination, myself included. However, I have now firmly come to believe that it should be. I ended up in Slovakia completely by accident; a friend and I found cheap plane tickets to the country’s capital, Bratislava, for $40. How could we resist? Next thing I knew, I was boarding a yellow Ryan Air jet at 5 am, drinking some bad instant coffee, and heading towards a central European country that I knew nothing about.
Upon landing, my friend and I found a city with few tourists, cheap food, and friendly locals. Bratislava is a unique fusion of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century buildings intermixed with brutalist Soviet architecture. The city boasts the Slovak Radio Building, which has made international headlines for being one of the world’s ugliest buildings. The mix of architectural styles, however, only adds to the city’s charm.
Bratislava is a city teeming with history, museums, and free walking tours. The Slovakian government has been investing in tourism and it shows - from free Wi-Fi in the Old Town, to knowledgeable and friendly tour guides. Their investment is certainly paying off. I would highly recommend purchasing a Bratislava Card for 20 euros if you make the trip. You get free entry to many of the city’s fine museums and discounts on food and public transit.
In the centre of the Old Town, you will find the Bratislava City Museum, which is Slovakia’s oldest museum. If, like me, you don’t know much about the city or its people, this museum is a must see, and a fantastic place to get to know your hosts and their city. The museum is closed Monday, but open to the public the rest of the week from 10am to 5pm.
The Bratislava City Museum is located inside the Old Town Hall, a prominent building facing the main square of the Old Town. The square is beautiful in of itself, and provides a great place to enjoy a coffee or a Kofola (the USSR’s answer to Coca-Cola) after your visit. The Old Town Hall is the result of several buildings now joined together, the oldest being the tower, built circa 1370. The pale-yellow tower is especially impressive as about halfway up you can spot a cannonball embedded in its side, a result of Napoleon’s assault on the city in 1809. Due to various remodelling throughout the years, the museum now reflects multiple architectural styles, including Renaissance and Baroque.
The upper floors of the museum walk a visitor through the city’s history until approximately 1930. As someone who knew very little of Bratislava’s and Slovakia’s rich history, spending time in the museum gave me some good insight into what life in the city was like in the distant and near past, such a visuals of how the old town would have looked and functioned at the peak of the Austrian-Hungarian empire. Visitors will enjoy a medieval chapel, complete with contemporary wall paintings, as well as richly restored Renaissance style period rooms from when a section of the Old Town Hall was a residence. As you move forward both physically though the rooms and abstractly through time, you will find relics from the city’s time as part of the Austrian Hungarian Empire. The opulence of some of these objects, owned by aristocratic members of society, provides a sharp contrast to the city’s future as a member of the east-bloc. The walk-through culminates with a somewhat dizzying climb to the top the tower, which provides stunning 360-degree views of the city. You are also treated to a fantastic view of the city’s restored medieval castle (another great place to visit).
However, my favourite aspect of the museum is what lies below. The basement, more aptly described as a crypt, has been expertly converted into a permanent exhibit of medieval torture. As you walk down the staircase, the temperature drops a few degrees, and dampness begins to seep through the stone walls. The atmosphere is evocative of a dungeon, which certainly proves effective given the exhibit you find at the bottom of the steps. Thanks to the help of modern technology, namely spotlights embedded in the centuries old stone, you never quite feel as if you yourself are held prisoner below the aged walls.
The museum approaches medieval torture in a matter a fact way and does not indulge some of our modern conceptions of torture: think hooded man laughing maniacally in a basement a la princess bride. What you will find instead is a well thought out, informative exhibit.
The exhibit is rather small and comprises of two main hallways with the Old Town Hall’s former jail cells at the far end. As you walk down the hallway you are met with various instruments of torture. Each is displayed so that the instrument is clearly lit in all its maliciousness, and the vicious nature of many of the punishments they doled out is immediately evident from a quick glance. Coming face to face with devices created with for the explicit purpose of causing pain and fear brings forth a surge of various emotions. First, a feeling of apprehension arises, mixed with morbid curiosity, that peculiar human reaction to violence and death. These feelings are followed by the relief that you are able to inspect the devices at your leisure while not being at risk of suffering at their hands yourself. Visitors are protected by time and plexiglass.
There are plaques in both English and Slovak displayed next to each device detailing its use and history, although the English translations leave a bit to be desired. After finishing the gruesome and sobering tour through the hallways, you can then peer into the Old Town Halls prison cells. They are dark and damp places where it is easy to imagine the city’s enemies wasting away in squalor. Walking back up a staircase into the bright and modern entry of the museum truly feels as if you are entering the modern age, and I found myself breathing a sigh of relief.
Coming to Bratislava, I had no idea what to expect. I left having visited some amazing museums and experienced only a taste of the local culture. The Bratislava City Museum is a must see on any visit to the city, one I would recommend doing on your first day before setting out to see the city on foot. You will find surprises and wonderful tidbits of history around every corner.
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Quincy de Vries is a fourth year honours history undergraduate student at McMaster University. She hopes to pursue her Masters in Medieval History and continue to write about the period. She also runs @medievalhistgi1 on twitter.