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Slovakia: On the cusp of a new European era

Paul A. Fabry Photographs by Elizabeth FabryIn a historic move, a huge area from the Baltics to the Mediterranean is bei

On May 1, a newly enlarged, borderless Old Continent opened up a host of undiscovered destinations, including Slovakia, one of the 10 new members of the European Union.Just as the Louisiana Purchase became a defining event for America 200 years ago, so will May 1, 2004, be recorded as modern Europe’s historic milestone.”Our lives in Central Europe will now change radically and ancient ethnic divisions will disappear just as the old borders,” said Agnes Laszlo, a journalist who guided us through Bratislava, the picturesque capital of Slovakia. On a balmy spring day, enjoying the fresh breezes reaching the Danube River from the lower Carpathian mountains, we walked along the not-so-blue river’s bank near Bratislava’s emblematic fort and the former coronation cathedral of Hungarian kings. We drove here by crossing one of the half-dozen bridges that connect Austria and Hungary with Slovakia, a new country that was once part of the Hapsburg Empire. The rare American tourist to this quiet, charming city is bound to recall the days when this part of Europe was divided by the Iron Curtain. As Slovakia enters the European Union in a quest for prosperity, ethnic peace and elusive unity, it also carries with it a fear that some of the disparities remain after decades of communist control. My wife, Betsy, and I visited Bratislava just a couple of weeks before the historic event. As in neighboring Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary, the accession to the European Union was the main topic for both newspaper coverage and everyday conversation. National and EU flags with stars decorated public buildings. Neatly dressed schoolchildren marched in the streets with promotional balloons. Others joining the EU in May were Malta, Cyprus, Slovenia, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.With Slovakia perhaps the poorest of the group, a ribbon of 10 free nations from the Baltic Sea to the Adriatic is being added to the European Union with a geographic effect comparable to Napoleon’s sale of Louisiana to the young United States.”The difference is that we speak 21 languages and have 25 types of constitutions,” Agnes explained. “For a traveler it may be difficult to understand that a beer costs $5 in one country and 50 cents in another, while he no longer has to cross borders from Lisbon to Warsaw.”Glimpses of the pastBesides many economic advantages, Slovakia also expects an influx of tourists as its borders open up. But there were no n see Slovakia on page C25– continued from page C1tour buses or visiting groups to be seen in the medieval center of Bratislava. It still looked like an off-center town, not quite ready to compete with prosperous Vienna, Budapest or Prague, capitals of its former masters. But Agnes, her photographer husband, and a local reporter we met all spoke with optimism about Central Europe’s new promise. We sat in an open-air pub, and I ordered a Pilsner as the waiter announced, “We can serve tourists in any language including Japanese.” Betsy asked for a Coke with ice, a mistake that caused the waiter to stop and ask, “Americans, eh?” He mumbled something about the famous steins of Zlaty Bazant beer that cost less than a half-dollar. That is, of course, the correct midmorning drink.Facing St. Elizabeth’s Blue Church on the old town’s dignified central square, we could see the ornate buildings on cobblestone streets and noticed the absence of postcard and film vendors. The traffic was thin and there were no crowds during the warm weekend as we walked around the square with the Roland Fountain as its centerpiece. The fountain itself represents several facets of local history. It is named after the protector of the city, the Knight Roland, but the man atop the statue is actually Maximillian II, the first of dozens of Hungarian kings crowned in Bratislava. Behind him is the old Town Hall with a cannonball from 1809 still lodged in its yellow tower. A bronze Napoleonic soldier leaning over a bench looks over the square pensively. Strolling the old town, we found two other statues on Rybarska Brana. The statue of “Handsome Ignatius” is called Schöne Nazi by locals, although the memory of the occupying Germans here is anything but handsome. With a mindless smile, he in fact went crazy when his fiancee was killed during the war. The other statue is more appropriate for our times; it is that of Cumil, supposedly a normal guy “who likes to look up the skirts of young ladies,” according to our guide. This public art reminded us of the huge bronze statues in front of Aspen galleriesFor more academic background, we continued on Zelena, one of the narrowest streets in town, taking us to pleasant outdoor cafés and a famous university established in 1465 when Slovakia was part of the Hungarian Kingdom. The cobbled passages lead to one of the four medieval city gates and St. Martin’s Cathedral. This is where 11 kings and eight queens of Hungary were crowned during the Ottoman occupation of Buda and Pest, the two sections of today’s Hungarian capital. Many of the 14th-century Gothic structures are beautifully restored (there was no major damage caused by World War II here) as are some of the baroque and rococo buildings. Life is so relaxed that we could freely walk in and out of old houses, even small museums and palaces. I don’t think they have ever heard of terrorist threats or WMD in Bratislava.Passing princely palaces of the old town, we drove through a modern section lined with international banks. But not far away, Soviet-style concrete blocks of flats surround the city. They were built for the nearby iron works and other industries that still emanate black smoke and pollute the bucolic countryside stretching to the north.Such districts, familiar to all former communist-era cities, are slowly disappearing. The Chamber of Commerce is proudly proclaiming that Slovakia, with a population of 5.4 million, will soon produce more cars per head than any other country. Volkswagen is already assembling 300,000 cars here annually; Peugeot, Hyundai, Citroen are building factories, and last month, South Korea’s Kia Motors announced it would produce 200,000 cars a year near Bratislava. In this country, outsourcing is a good word.Where are the tourists?We haven’t encountered a single American in Bratislava. The local reporter jokingly remarked, “They may be all locked up at your embassy.” He was referring to the much-criticized plan to build a high, concrete security fence around the United States Embassy in the historic district. “It is ridiculous; walls are crumbling all over Europe,” he added, “and we feel perfectly safe in the capital.”Small Danube cruisers and sightseeing boats bring groups daily from Vienna and Budapest, but they sail away before dinnertime, leaving the many good and amazingly low-priced restaurants empty. The two cities are just a couple of hours drive from here. The elegant dining room of the town’s grand old hotel, the Carlton, now under Radisson SAS management, was visibly in need of more credit card-carrying guests. The hotel is a landmark with Old World-style rooms and a concierge who speaks five languages. In all Bratislava hotels the prices are given in euro, just as store and bank accounts are. But the Slovak Koruna (one U.S. dollar is worth 33 SKK and 0.82 euro) and Central Europe’s other local currencies are not going to disappear for about five more years. The half-million multiethnic inhabitants of Bratislava are getting ready for a new era, but we felt a bit of the long communist era’s last breath in the air. There was a lack of smiling faces in shops and impersonal service in restaurants. Old women sweeping the streets with huge straw brooms and dusty bureaucratic municipal offices in the ornate Bishop’s Palace looked out of place for a capital in the prosperous EU. But optimism prevails. The drastic changes in 1989 and the nation’s separation from Czechoslovakia gave Slovakia a new profile and economic hopes.Posters promised a “symbolic return to the European family of shared values.” But one old storekeeper had doubts: “The big ones will eat us up again and we’ll just be their servants.” He apparently meant rich Germany. But the Western ways of their younger people clearly show the new direction. Now they can all throw away their national passports, travel and even find work all over the Continent. “This is similar to the system of the huge Austro-Hungarian Empire,” Agnes said. Not quite, but Franz Joseph would be amazed to see much of his lands under one roof again, even though the control is not in baroque Vienna but in ultramodern Brussels offices. It will be just as bureaucratic, many fear.We climbed up to the imposing ancient castle, rebuilt by Maria Teresa, Queen of Hungary in the 18th century, perched above the Danube. I asked a policeman about the entrance or ticket counter. He told us to walk through any gate of the fort and there is no fee. The dark museum, the cavernous yard and underground passages say little about Bratislava’s past glories, Mozart and the famous medieval artisans.The city’s fort also houses the Slovak Parliament. We sat down for lunch here one day at the – what else? – Parlamentka restaurant. It offers a superb panoramic view of the city and the Danube. Even with little knowledge of the Slovak language, we understood a bit of the political buzz here. The critical item, besides joining the Union, is the problem with the restless Roma (gypsy) population.Gypsies make up 8 percent of Slovakia’s population. In several eastern villages last month, 2,000 police officers were needed to calm the region after social benefits were cut and the unemployed, living under medieval conditions, revolted. Food stores were looted and the army was called out for the biggest military move here since independence. The problem is not unique to Slovakia. The Roma are an equally restless segment of the population in Romania and some other Central European countries.A collection of museums in town, holding everything from archaeology to porcelain and from torture devices to pharmaceuticals, is worth an afternoon. The National Museum, with exhibits in the City Gates including guns and fortifications, and the City Museum give a panorama of life on this northern side of the Danube that has always been the area’s lifeline. With its revolving-door history, the cosmopolitan heritage of Mitteleuropa is basic to Bratislava. The ornate facade and the well-dressed audience at the Slovak National Theatre are witness to this mixture. Besides local operas of Smetana and Janacek, performances of Verdi and Bizet classics are highly regarded by European critics.For the compulsory afternoon pastry and Viennese coffee stop, we went to Mayer’s, (Hlavne nam 4) famous for a century for its strudla selections and Sacher Torte. The Victorian interior matched the mood of the newspaper-reading oldies at the tiny tables. In this environment of crooked streets, old folks with baskets, the smell of cheap tobacco, the peasant farms nearby with vineyards and fishermen on the Danube, the ghosts of the past live calmly with the Tokyo and Frankfurt business types and the mini-skirted girls with cell phones now taking over the neighborhood. Bratislava was long known according to the language of the current master of the middle Danube region. It was once Braslavespurch, also Posonium for the Romans. During almost a millennium of Hungarian rule it was called Pozsony. The German name was Pressburg; the Slavic version, Presporok. Now as the capital of an EU nation, Bratislava is firmly going to stick to its identity while flying Brussels’ flag next to its own.Gustav Milek, an elderly businessman, told us how the past 100 years changed his family’s life. Their surname changed from the Germanic Mueller to the Hungarian Molnar and then back to the name of the original Slavic settlers. They had been citizens of the monarchy, switched to Hungarian papers, voted as Czechoslovak citizens after 1919, kept quiet under Soviet domination, then became Slovak citizens and will now carry the European Union’s passport. “My grandchildren may end up speaking English with their Korean employers,” Mr. Milek added, “and we never moved from Bratislava.”We asked Mr. Milek where he and his family travel. They like to go to the wilderness areas in the Western Tatra mountains, Rohace, with melancholy lakes, waterfalls and great hiking. Pope John Paul was a frequent visitor to the ski slopes of Rohace when he lived on the northern side of the Carpathian range in Poland.The Higher Tatra’s inexpensive resorts appealed to us on an earlier trip to Slovakia. To arrange side trips to the Tatra spas and fine ski resorts, it is best to go through a Bratislava tourist agency. They are still a spectacular bargain, we are told. One can find original peasant folklore, castles on hilly fields with haystacks, roaming horses and good inns at the vineyards in Slovakia. So when you ask what to do with an extra day or two during the summer in Europe, consider leaving the big cities. The brave may even consider a bicycle tour along the Danube; Vienna can be reached from here in one day!Crossing a spectacular new bridge spanning the Danube below the old fort, Agnes commented: “Remember when you get home to America, that the spring of 2004 was the time when the elusive vision of Europe as a whole, free and at peace, became a reality.” Saying goodbye with a box of marzipan candy, she gave us timely advice: “Don’t send people here in search of luxury hotels and exciting night life; but for the curious this is a good place to observe the layers of history and gain some hope for positive social changes in Central Europe.”Paul and Elizabeth Fabry, frequent contributors to the Times Weekly, divide their time between their New Orleans and Aspen houses. “Detours,” a collection of their reports from more than 50 cities, will be published in June.


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