'Take everything that’s bright and beautiful in you and introduce it to the shadow side of yourself. Let your altruism meet your egotism, let your generosity meet your greed, let your joy meet your grief. Everyone has a shadow… But when you are able to say, “I am all of the above, my shadow as well as my light,” the shadow’s power is put in service of the good.'
-Parker Palmer, Naropa University Commencement Address (originally posted by Maria Popova on brainpickings.org)
I consider myself a work in progress and as such, there are a litany of internal and external 'projects' going on at any given time. Improve my writing. Eradicate impatience. Increase my Spanish fluency. Use less judgement. Flatten my stomach. Master existentialist philosophy. Stop watching Forensic Files at bedtime. You know, the usual.
I try to forgive myself any real or perceived shortcomings (and hope you do as well!), by appreciating the beautiful amidst what Parker Palmer refers to as the 'shadow side'.
I thought about this during our four days in Bratislava, Slovakia. I was looking for the beauty in the shadows, but unfortunately, it was a bit overshadowed for my taste. As such, Bratislava left us wanting just a little more.
Wanting more of what makes Europe, well, European.
While that sounds like judgment, I consider this view to be fairly objective. Not only am I getting used to visiting cities that aren't on anyone's Top Ten list, but I have become enamored with three in particular (Tallinn, Budapest and Ljubljana) that have varying levels of picturesque European charm, so I don't think I'm being an overly harsh judge or an 'I only do pretty' snob. Not every city can be Paris and some place has to be last on my list. *Sigh*
It's just disappointing since I tend to enjoy places that are off-the-beaten-path, quirky and with a little edge. I thought I would love Bratislava as it had been described in similar terms, but in reality, the path Bratislava occupies is strange and run-down. This baffles me because with Vienna, Budapest and Prague nearby, I assumed it would hold itself to a similar standard. But no, just a seemingly shabby resignation.
While that is not a glowing introduction, in the end, we did have a satisfactory stay in Bratislava.
So, here's the scene. We had just experienced three fairytale days in Salzburg, Austria. The train ride from Salzburg to Vienna was top notch with efficient and comfortable Austrian rail service. After a quick tram to the main Vienna station, we boarded the Slovakian train which was, apparently, a preview of things to come. Basic, worn and without air conditioning, it was a sticky journey, but luckily, only an hour. Fun Fact! Vienna and Bratislava are the two closest European capitals.
Upon arrival, we decided not to hang out at the depressing train station (first photo) while waiting to check into our AirBnB, but rather at a bar around the corner. The beer was cheap and tasty, which helped me reset my first impression button from negative to neutral.
It didn't last long. After check-in, we located the nearest grocery store online and began walking. Reviews had indicated we weren't in a really bad neighborhood- we were right next door to a four star hotel- but the blight we encountered made me wonder. Hordes of buildings with broken windows and graffiti. Overgrown grass on every lot. Yet, the sidewalks were filled with people: dog walkers, young couples pushing baby strollers and men in business suits.
The park across from the Presidential Palace was the most puzzling of all. Namestie Slobody was once a major square featuring the biggest fountain in Slovakia, the Fountain of Union. Designed to look like a linden flower, it was built in 1980, but was not maintained properly after the fall of Communism in 1989. Sadly, it stopped working in 2007 and has fallen into ruin- filled with graffiti, overgrown grass and broken cobbles. Despite this, the park was filled with people enjoying themselves. Kids running, dogs playing and friends sitting on a bench catching up- all seemingly unbothered by the conditions that surrounded them.
Not the best start.
The next day, things started to look up. We walked to Bratislava Castle where a food festival was in full swing, complete with alpine horn blowers. The Castle was a pleasant, but forgettable diversion, lacking the soul I usually feel when visiting old buildings. That is because it was destroyed during WWII and has since been rebuilt, so while it is a perfectly nice replica, the atmosphere borders on antiseptic, without much personality.
The nice breeze and views of the Danube made me pensive, and so we sat at the top while I downloaded a history lesson.
Known as Pressburg for over 900 years, the town was an important outpost of the Austria-Hungary empire and Habsburg monarchy. After WWI, despite a majority German and Hungarian population, it was usurped into Czechoslovakia where it was renamed Bratislava and the Slovak population rose rapidly. Under Nazi control in WWII, it was bombed heavily by the Allies and taken over by the Communist Party in 1948 which held it until Slovakian independence during the Velvet Revolution of 1989.
Afterwards, we headed to the cat cafe nearby, which I reviewed in a previous blog post. Here, we encountered a lot of ripped up sidewalks- urban blight (perhaps artfully) intertwined with remodeled sections. Rome wasn't built in a day and neither is the new Bratislava.
One thing they do well is quirky. Bratislava has many humorous landmarks and statues that make for great photo ops. The most famous of these is called 'Man at Work' or familiarly, Cumil. Another is the aptly named Paparazzi. Finally, there is a strange landmark with a large ear and pointing statue outside the Vietnamese embassy. Bizarre!
The following day, we focused on the small, yet pleasant Old Town. We had a nice meal on the patio at Prasna Basta.
A walk down the peaceful Danube capped off our final night in Bratislava.
In the end, I can appreciate Bratislava for what she is. Just like all of us, there may be a little (or a lot!) 'under construction' as we work toward who we optimally want to be. While not there yet, it doesn't mean the city is not worth a visit. A day trip from Vienna or one night while traveling between Vienna and Budapest should provide enough time to hit the highlights and if you like a little (or a lot) of shadow to balance out the light, make it a long weekend.
Although Bratislava proved underwhelming, little did I know a wonderful surprise was just around the corner: overwhelmingly romantic Budapest.