Slovakia is very much, from the perspective of this Canadian, a “below the radar” country. I would consider myself reasonably geographically literate and fairly well aware of world affairs. But if you had asked me to talk about Slovakia last month, I think that like most Canadians, I could have told you it was half of the former Czechoslovakia, and, probably unlike most Canadians, I could have told you the capital and neighbouring countries. But that’s pretty much it. Politicians? Population? Major industries or economic issues? Even currency? Nope. As it turns out, I am not the only one.
According to a guide on a walking tour of the city, the German magazine “Der Spiegel” published this photo in 2008 with the caption: “Praha 1968”. The problem? This photo was not taken in “Praha” (Prague), but Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia. I walked passed that very distinct circular university building. So even when something does happen in Slovakia, people don’t even realize that’s where it’s happening!
It was taken by Ladislav Bielik, a photographer whose work was never acknowledged during his lifetime. He managed to take these photos and send them to the Free World so that all would know what was happening in 1968. The pictures became immensely well known, but it was only discovered after his death that he was the photographer, a little bit by chance. Since he had remained in Czechoslovakia, he could not risk revealing his identity.
What was happening was that the Czechoslovakian Government had decided to lift restrictions on journalism in particular and free speech in general. Since Communism had never been popular in the region’s countries and had been imposed from the outside, the Soviet Union feared the country might break free from its hold. Furthermore, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev realized that relative free movement behind the Iron Curtain meant that intellectuals from anywhere in his empire could just travel to Czechoslovakia and publish works banned by Soviet censorship. He was also worried Czechoslovakia might go further and decide to open its border with Austria, which could result in an exodus of millions from the previously nearly inescapable Warsaw Pact nations.
This could not be allowed to happen from the Soviet perspective, so they launched a massive invasion of Czechoslovakia, using half a million soldiers and thousands of tanks. Locals reacted by painting over the city signs, so that the invaders, with little in the way of navigational equipment, would never be certain where they were. But of course, since the Czechoslovak Government decided not to resist, this only delayed the inevitable and the Soviets placed a hard-core Communist regime in power and the Soviet Army remained in Czechoslovakia until 1991.
Since I had forgotten a few dates and facts from my visit, I looked them up on Wikipedia and for some reason, had the idea to check the Russian version (through a translation app). It produced this gem:
The English version: Warsaw pact countries invade Czechoslovakia.
The Russian version: Warsaw pact countries, including Czechoslovakia, fight “The Rebels”, which in this case happens to be the Government of Czechoslovakia, acting with wide popular support. I think I will be reading a lot of Russian Wikipedia in the next few weeks!
Apart from the horrors of the past, I also learned several strange things from the walking tour guide. For example, at Easter, boys go to the houses of girls they like and whip them with little sticks and throw water at them. It didn’t sound as violent as you may think, but the female guide did say:
– “They love it, but we don’t”.
Worse for the poor girls, they are supposed to offer them alcohol in return for the “assault”. To be honest, it’s not the kind of thing which happens anymore downtown Bratislava, but apparently people still do it in the countryside, “where everybody knows each other”.
Such habits may be explained by the fact that like the Viennese, the Slovaks don’t go easy on the beer. As I was about to take an early morning train out of the country, I asked the lady who worked in this little train station stand if she had any coffee. The answer was no, but she offered me two kinds of beer on tap. She seemed almost surprised when I refused the 8 am pint!
It would seem even the trains run on beer! More crazy stuff? Traditionally, Slovakians were not very clean on Christmas Day. The reason was that Christmas dinner was always the same thing, carp. And the carp had to be fresh, but since shops were closed on Christmas day, they had to buy it live the day before and keep it alive in the bathtub, meaning that nobody could shower or bathe on Christmas Day! You know the story has to be true, because no one could make up something like that.
The Capuchin Church, with the city’s main landmark in the background, the Bratislava Castle.
The Castle was occupied by Italians soldiers in 1811. A few of them started a fire somewhere inside to cook dinner. But before dinner was cooked, they were already pissed drunk and they lost control of the fire and burned a wing of the castle to the ground. The hangover was probably quite difficult, especially since in those days, punishment for burning down your own castle in times of war was probably not a letter of reprimand in your file. Anyway, it is now said that the castle resisted sieges by the Mongolian hordes and Napoleon’s Great Army, but could not survive a drunken Italian dinner!
Apparently the castle only contains a few boring pictures, but there is a nice view of the countryside from the courtyard.
Unfortunately for the city, the Communist dictator of the time (I forget which one), decided that Prague would be the beautiful city of historical architecture, and Bratislava the “modern Socialist city”. As such, despite the nice but very small Old City, most of the buildings are not really prize-winning. The disk on top of the bridge is called the “UFO Observation Deck” complete with a 360 degree view restaurant.
Like in many countries, it is common to display battle honours on castles and other public buildings. You know a country has been around for a while when they claim a victory over the Roman Empire! The location where the castle is located has had some sort of defensive fortifications since 2,800 BC.
Saint Elizabeth’s Church, better known as the Blue Church, displaying a strange architectural style straight out of DisneyLand. I would show you pictures of the inside, but in Bratislava, all churches are closed, all day, everyday, unless there is a service. Something I have never seen anywhere in the World. The place is apparently very popular for weddings.
The only problem is that when the newlyweds stand on the front stairs for the photos, they are looking at this abandoned Communist-era hospital. This, and many other dilapidated buildings remind you the country is still developing very unevenly. While Bratislava is one of the richest areas of Central Europe, with a GDP per capita much higher than the rest of the country, minimum wage nationally is only about 2 Euros per hour.
The nice pedestrian streets of the Old City.
Yield to the man on the ground? Yes, because he was twice hit by a car!
“Cumil”, a statue installed only in 1997, symbolizes nothing at all, or whatever you want, but locals and especially tourists love him. The Slovaks certainly have a sense of humour. When a new cycling and pedestrian bridge was built connecting the country to Austria in 2006, the Government named it “Freedom Cycling-Bridge”, in memory of all the people who died trying to escape Communism by crossing over to Austria. But before officially choosing the name, they conducted an online poll. Their choice got 457 votes, but 12,599 people voted to call it the “Chuck Norris Bridge”! Authorities did not share the humour.
I had initially planned to visit other parts of Slovakia, but I decided instead to take a few “days off” in Bratislava. It might sound silly, but after a few very busy weeks in Israel and Central Europe, I wanted a break – and I had scored a very nice, huge hotel room with a full kitchen for $38 a day!