The capital of the Slovak Republic is also its single major tourist destination. Situated on the Danube River, just a short distance from Vienna, Bratislava is accustomed to tourists from many countries. Tour buses and river boats Our hotel in Bratislava, the Ibis Bratislava Centrum Our Bratislava hotel, the Ibis stop at Old Town and discharge their human cargo along with tour guides narrating in a variety of European languages. The Ibis Hotel, where we stayed, is located next to Old Town, part way up the hill to the Hrad (which is Slovak for Castle.) Tunnelling beneath the hill next to the Ibis are two fine electric trolley lines - we soon became accustomed to the trolley wheels squealing late at night!

Our first expedition took us, slightly jet-lagged, down many steps to Old Town, where we admired the seventeenth century St. Michael's Tower, part of the original town walls. Old Town is crowded with designer boutiques, museums, An Old Town street filled with restaurants and cafes Outdoor dining in Old Town kiosks, outdoor sculpture, restaurants with indoor and outdoor seating, courtyards, churches, and a few buildings still being restored and developed. The heroic architecture is reminiscent of Vienna, with each storey equal to one and a half stories of a modern building. Statuary and decorations adorn the buildings. Bratislava was part of the Habsburg Empire.

At night Old Town is brightly lit. We were challenged by the narrow cobblestone streets, but pronounced the food and drink very pleasant, and decided Old Town was a good venue for people-watching. The entrance to the Bratislava Hrad, or Castle Entering Bratislava Hrad

The next full day we had time to explore the Hrad, which certainly provided an effective defense of the riverfront and the walled city below. Today the castle hill is home to the Slovak Parliament, highly desirable homes, upscale stores and restaurants, while the castle itself houses a first-rate historical museum. It's a massive building, with marble staircases and high-ceilinged rooms. There are displays of old Turkish armor, reminding us that the Turks conquered Bratislava (then called Pressburg) on their way to besiege Vienna -- where the Ottoman Empire was finally stopped. An example of the religious art in the castle's gallery Some of the elegant religous art There are wonderful displays of period furniture, with exquisite joinery and ornate inlays.

Much of the art is religious, and a special exhibit documented the Calvaries of Slovakia, which were series of outdoor shrines, representing the Stations of the Cross, and culminating with a hilltop shrine representing Calvary Hill. Faithful Slovak Pilgrims would walk the path of the shrines each year. Many of the Shrines are no longer standing -- victims of the Communist era. And so we were given our first introduction to the intense rebirth of religion in Eastern Europe after decades of suppression under Soviet domination. The caption for the exhibit stated "... in the 50s all chapels and sculptures were destroyed during the religious repression; only a few torsos today An exhibit of wire art An example of Slovak wire art parts of gallery expositions were lucky to survive thanks to several enthusiasts..."

Perhaps our favorite special exhibit at Bratislava Hrad was the celebration of the Slovak tinkers, whose tools and creations over 500 years were on display. Tinkers walked from village to village, making repairs to household dishes and baskets and selling their artistic creations, made from tin, silver, or even gold wire. There was never enough work for a tinker to stay in a single village, so "...when the son was born in the family of a tinker he was pushed out of the window on a wooden bread baking shovel and they shouted 'to the world, my dear, to the world', this should have predetermined him for long journeys already from the cradle."

Writing the diary at the end of the day Keeping up the diary entries Then we watched a video of a modern wire artist and saw some stunning examples of his work. It's not an art form that was familiar with us, and we were fascinated at the expressive power of the wire sculptures.

We found that typing up our notes and labelling our pictures took several hours at the end of each day; the two of us shared a single computer more or less gracefully.

Our visit to the lovely museum at the Bratislava Hrad whetted our appetite for Slovakia, and encouraged us to expect a lot from the museums and exhibits we would be viewing in the next two weeks.