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Sarah Featherstone: Postcard from Bratislava

Sarah Featherstone

The Featherstone Young director took off for Slovakia for her annual cycling trip with friends, and found a country fascinating for the contrasts thrown up by its emergence from communism

The cycling team on The Old Bridge.
The cycling team on The Old Bridge. Credit: Kay Hughes

I’m here in Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, on a long weekend with the VeloCity team and our cycling friends.  Every year we organise a trip to explore a new place for its cycling ethos and cultural gems – a memorable one being Netherlands, the bicycle capital of the world. This time Petra Marko, one of the VeloCity team, and in her newly appointed role as director of the Metropolitan Institute of Bratislava (MIB), showed us round her fascinating hometown.

Slovakia, previously under communist rule, is now a member of the EU with a free-market economy that has highlighted acute regional imbalances between city and countryside.  It is now one of the largest car-making countries and a boom in privatisation is seeing Bratislava attract a new type of developer, commissioning the likes of Zaha Hadid Architects and other Western practices to ‘regenerate’ the city.

The Castle. Credit: Clare Treanor
Prístavný Bridge and riparian forest beyond. Credit: Petra Marko

Infrastructure and the natural landscape are a delicate balance here – something Petra’s MIB team are keen to address.  The images that strike me are the huge road bridges that cross the vast expanse of River Danube.  Ther's also the towering castle on the hill, separated from the pedestrianised Old Town by a 1970s dual carriageway and a mass of wind farms spied in the semi-distant countryside – which turn out to be in Austria, whose boundary is not far from the western shores of the Danube. 

The city is already making positive advances with investment in amazing new cycle networks, and on our first day we headed out of town on one such segregated cycle path that closely follows the Danube.  Further along we arrived at a peninsular to visit the newly built Danubiana, a modern art museum which I felt sure took the inspiration for its name from the very popular Louisiana art gallery outside Copenhagen. 

Segregated cycle path in countryside. Credit: Petra Marko
Danubiana Art gallery on the River Danube. Credit: Petra Marko

The long, linear sun-washed cycle paths are impressive particularly their proximity to the beautiful riparian forests that protect the riverbank. But these are not necessarily routes that Kevin Lynch would approve of, as their forever uninterrupted view far off to the horizon could perhaps benefit from a few bends and nodes to bring an element of surprise – something we certainly found on our second day!

On day two we ventured out to the countryside proper, the Little Carpathian hills, cycling along a mix of gravel, tarmac and in places very overgrown grassy paths which meandered so much that we never knew what was round the next bend and inevitably got lost.  On our travels we found villages that were very different to the English picturesque; here communist tower blocks are set in bucolic landscapes, presenting an extraordinary juxtaposition of the man-made and the natural.

  • Rural cycle path with village tower blocks in distance.
    Rural cycle path with village tower blocks in distance. Credit: Petra Marko
  • Village tower blocks.
    Village tower blocks. Credit: Kay Hughes

Exhausted by our misadventures we tucked into an amazing late lunch at Wild Kitchen in a converted barrel-making workshop, serving up local wines and foraged produce. With our bodies fully nourished, Jen, our cycle lead, took us forth, and plugged in a route that led straight back to the city.  Our markers were the Zaha luxury towers looming in the distance – a sign of the changes the country is undergoing and a far cry from the communist tower blocks receding behind us.