Entering into Bratislava, Slovakia, myself and Emily had no idea what to expect from such a new country (25 years since it became independent).
As we walked through the train station, our first impressions weren’t brilliant. It was run down, busy and unclear which way was the exit into town. Thankfully as we left the station and found our hostel, just a 10 minute walk away, we were greeted by beautiful buildings and friendly locals enjoying the last of the sun.
By the time we checked in and sorted out our bags we didn’t have long before the sunset so we decided on a walk along the Danube (and a McDonald’s pit stop) to get a feel for the place.
Immediately we could tell, despite being the capital city, it is very small. When I googled ‘what to do in Bratislava’ the vast majority of activities suggested were day-trips to the surrounding countries..
But we were determined to see the best of Bratislava in the 36 Hours we were there so while using the free McDonald’s wi-fi we booked ourselves onto a free walking tour the next day.
Our first and last full day started with us dragging ourselves out of bed. Despite going to bed relatively early with the best of intentions, our fellow hostel roommates made consistent noise until 4am so the sound of the alarm was not a happy one. Still we managed to get to the meeting place of the walking tour with 5 minutes to spare.
The tour was led by Martina, a 25-year old Slovakian who has lived in Bratislava her whole life. Her energy and enthusiasm for her city was infectious and breathed life into the old buildings. The tour was 2.5 hours long but the time flew by. It was incredibly informative about Slovakia’s varied past and how it became what it is today. We also stopped at lots of photogenic spots..
The final stop felt like an odd one- a small square opposite a university building. But as Martina began to explain why we were there, the significance hit me. In 1968 the Soviet Union sent armed troops and tanks into Bratislava to end their liberal policies.
They targeted this square where shocked citizens of Bratislava came out to confront the troops. At that time word-of-mouth about the Soviet’s movements travelled slowly but one photograph travelled the world. A young photographer had gone into the square, shot images, developed them and snuck them out the country to gather the worlds media attention. Within days the photograph was splashed across the front pages of newspapers all over the world including the Nee York Times. For his own safety, Ladislav Bielik, the young newly-married photographer didn’t disclose his identity. It was only after his early death in 1989 did his family find the negatives to confirm it was he who took the photographs.
As a photography graduate and fan of street and documentary photography I have known about this image for years; it was extremely humbling to stand in the spot Bielik captured the image:
Bratislava is filled with history and is currently dealing with a political crisis but its buildings are beautiful, the locals love their city and it’s a great transport hub to other countries. I would strongly recommend stopping off for a day or two if you’re travelling around Eastern Europe.
With weary legs we headed to a restaurant recommended by our tour guide. I tried the national dish of cheesy gnocchi with bacon along with Slovakia’s very popular (and healthier) version of coca-cola, Kofola.
Tomorrow we are spending most of the day on a bus travelling to Poland including stopping off in a tiny village in the Czech Republic, it’s sure to be another adventure..