Take the hydrofoil that speeds down the River Danube between Vienna and Budapest and it is almost as if Slovakia does not exist. An entire country airbrushed away. If booked in advance, the skipper of the hydrofoil will stop briefly at Bratislava to pick up passengers bound for the Hungarian capital, but that is the limit of the vessel’s encounter with the Slavic world.
A tour guide on the hydrofoil talks of the wonders of Habsburg architecture, conflating Vienna and Budapest into a common glorious past. But what of poor Slovakia? The country that borders on the Danube for more than one hundred kilometres barely warrants a mention. The guide is slightly apologetic about Bratislava’s striking Nový Most (New Bridge), evidently embarrassed at this modernist intrusion spanning her baroque narrative as the hydrofoil slips under the concrete deck of the bridge. Yet Bratislava’s showpiece bridge is magnificent in its own way. Its bold lack of symmetry is somehow enigmatic with that lone tower topped by a flying saucer. It is not for nothing that the café in the observation lounge is called UFO.
Cast your eye over the brochures and you would think that Bratislava is full of investors’ baroque — nicely refurbished villas and townhouses, painted in elegant K&K yellow, that invite foreigners to purchase a little piece of central European history. The truth is rather different. Yes, there is a fine Old Town, but there are some hideous modern estates that skirt the city. One of them, suburban Petrzalka, is visible on the right bank of the river as the hydrofoil bounces down the Danube towards Budapest.
But Slovakia also boasts some of the finest modernist architecture anywhere in Europe, though you would hardly know it from the guidebooks. Bratislava sells itself on the coat tails of Prague, with promotional blurbs from the Slovak capital emphasising that the city is both cheaper and quieter than its much lauded Czech counterpart.