I arrived in Bratislava with pretty low expectations. The main reasons to visit were its proximity to Vienna and my preconception of its more thoroughly Eastern European-ness–a point of contrast and comparison for my almost exclusively Western European experience (depends what you think of Prague). On this point, my initial expectations were not immediately met. My bus from Vienna dropped me off in the heart of the historic center of Bratislava, and a more beautifully arboreal city center could not be wished for. In the cobble-stoned squares emanating from this main tree-lined promenade, the sun, completely unblocked by any hint of cloud cover, lent Bratislava an almost Provençal feel. The dilapidation in this area gives it an age-worn, but not care-worn, atmosphere. A block in the other direction and you find yourself along the banks of the Danube, with a cafe-lined boardwalk and a long strip of closely cut grass where the locals come to drink Czech-or-Slovakian beer and sun themselves. None of this had fit in with my seemingly ignorant preconception.
But then I found it on the second day. Well-concealed from the city-center, which has had millions of euros pumped into its revitalization since Slovakia joined the EU, the remnants of Soviet-era Bratislava can still be seen. The block-sized park with dumpsters scattered throughout, absolutely heaped with stinking garbage. A gardener with the largest potbelly you’ve ever seen, unabashedly denuding his torso for the viewing pleasure of a few locals who only use the park as a short-cut. He sits on a once peach-colored metal bench, now sun-bleached, with well-established rust spots where the paint has long since chipped. Next you see a baked flower bed rendering homage to the acid-rain-stained monument of some forgotten communist hero. A few tulips, alone in the flower bed, obstinately refuse to die. Even the graffiti here is desultory. Years have passed since anyone bothered to erase it or renew it. It slowly fades and blends into the benches and the steps.
That’s Bratislava it seems, an old city undergoing a rapid rejuvenation but still with its fair share of deep scars.