All Over the Place: Edge of the Iron Curtain
Issue 15: Bratislava Castle and Devín Castle
The phrase “European capitals” conjures up some stock images. Paris and the Eiffel Tower. Rome and the Colosseum. London and Big Ben. Bratislava and, um…
Bratislava (and the entire country of Slovakia) is rarely thought of when planning a trip to Europe. Rick Steves (host of the travel show Rick Steves’ Europe) describes Slovakia as “Sitting quietly in the very center of Central Europe.” Perhaps more tellingly, he doesn’t visit it in any of his show’s 137 episodes. (I’ll also note that there are two episodes about the city of London but only one episode for the whole country of Poland.)
It’s not just Rick Steves. Bratislava is located between two much larger and more famous cities (Vienna and Budapest), and Slovakia is the forgotten half of Czechoslovakia, with Prague and the Czech Republic swallowing up attention. But there are things to see in Bratislava, and a lack of hordes of tourists has its perks. (I visited on a day trip from Vienna).
Bratislava’s two castles are examples of the two main types of castles in Europe, older military installations and younger royal residences. Atop a hill in central Bratislava, Bratislava Castle is firmly within the second category of castle. It’s very modest compared to other palaces in Europe, but its baroque garden is nice and it has great views of the Danube River and Bratislava.
Bratislava’s second castle is a more unique experience. Devín Castle is located on a cliff overlooking the confluence of the Danube and Morava rivers. The site has been occupied by humans for millennia, as the topography made it an excellent location for a military outpost. A castle was there for several hundred years, but the story takes a turn in 1809, when Napoleon ordered the castle to be dynamited. Obviously, this makes Devín Castle look a bit different than Bratislava Castle.
It’s cool to see what remains of the castle walls, but the view is even better, and it also serves as a reminder of how much Europe has changed in the last few decades. For decades, Slovakians could see Austria across the river, but had no hope of getting there.
This was the edge of the Iron Curtain, the border between the Soviet Union and its allies and the rest of Europe. Slovakians seeking a variety of freedoms outside of the communist world (speech, religion, assembly, press) had to contend with barbed wire fences and armed guards ordered to kill those trying to escape. But the fences fell in 1989, Slovakia joined the European Union in 2004, and when Slovakia joined the Schengen Area in 2007, all border controls between Austria and Slovakia were eliminated.
We hear a lot about how bad things are today, but a lot of things have definitely improved.
“Antiquities Act and the Wyoming-sized legal loophole”