Sunday, December 13, 2015

In search of Christmas - Bratislava

Maybe I just need to acknowledge that I am not a child anymore.  In fact 25 years have passed where that would legally apply but you know, when it comes to Christmas, there is something inside us that just wants to re-ignite that warm fuzzy feeling of Christmas past, the excitement of a hallowed season and of unconstrained excess.

I'm not the only one that feels that 2015 has just flashed past, I thought that it was an age thing but I actually think that time is speeding up, just no one has been bothered to, well, time it.

And so, we are once again thrust into the festive period, that commercially started around mid-September, whether we liked it or not.  I personally like to embrace such things, moreover, I was born in a Christian home and spent a large part of my life serving within the Christian church.  Times now are a little different, but I still possess what is left of the spirit and of the Christmas message.

It's just that this year, I'm not feeling it at all.  And so to remedy this, I thought a trip to a European Christmas market would be just the gin and tonic required to fire up the old festive cheer and get us in the mood for what is inevitably a protracted period of pure tack and laborious repeats.

This year, the search for our portion of the Christmas spirit took us to Bratislava.  Perhaps an unlikely destination, but it was a country tick for me, and they had a Christmas market.

Taking advantage of cheap Ryanair return fares, we arrived into a gloomy Bratislava , the cloud base no more than 500ft, it was damp and cold.  Festive cheer it appeared could not have been further away.

I always like my first glimpse of a new city.  The bus ride from the airport to the city's main railway station passed by old prefab buildings with their vivid yet muted yellow facades, the remnants of the old Eastern Bloc that still appear to reverberate through the streets of this once Communist ruled state.

A gentle walk from the station to the old town takes around 20 minutes and passes by the Grassalkovich Palace, the primary residence of the Slovakian President.  Impressive real estate set within modest surroundings.

The old town holds real charm, the cobble-paved pedestrian zone is typically lined with quaint tourist shops and small local restaurants serving local and international foods.  The Christmas Market itself is located within the city's main square (Hlavne Namestie) and offers a typical selection of grilled local foods, sausages, kebabs, chicken or pork rolls (Ciganska Pecienka), potato pancakes (Lokse) and a generous selection of traditional cakes and sweets.

Christmas Market taken from the Tower of the Old Town Hall

On these cold wintery days, a popular draw are the alcoholic offerings, the most popular being the red and wine wine based punches, traditional mulled wine, and Medovina (my personal favourite) made from fermented honey and water.

Think that was my 4th Medovina

The market extends onto Hviezdoslav's Square, just a short walk from the main market with further offerings of local food and drink.  It is a pleasant market, not excessively overrun with tourists and provides a convivial yuletide experience for the locals of this modestly populated capital city.

The rest of the city has much to offer.  The old town does not appear to have been engulfed by western capitalism, maintaining respectful deference of it's past while offering contemporary shops for the passing trade.

The medieval churches here are simply stunning and are certainly worth a look inside.  Trinity Church and St Martins Cathedral were particularly impressive.

Trinity Church

St Martins Cathedral

The Castle may have been worth a more thorough look round but it was out of view even from street level such was the gloom and the low cloud.  It did rather spoil things as I can imagine the illuminated architecture would have given the city a much more agreeable appearance.

Svatopluk I of Moravia at the Castle

It was quiet around the city streets, the gloom exacerbated the feeling of a past blighted by a period of Nazi occupation and controlled by Communist authoritarianism.

I am always particularly impressed by street-art.  For me, it provides a raw and authentic expression of a period in time, artistic representations by the disaffected during periods of oppression and injustice.  There was obviously some opposition here on the availability of children's toys.

On returning, I'm not sure whether we really felt the Christmas period in that warm fuzzy nostalgic sense I personally was hoping for. Not really sure what that actually means.  The markets were pleasant without really capturing the imagination, but the old town provided the setting that make these eastern european cities well worth a visit.

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