It so happens, that all that I’ve previously written about not having anything to do in Bratislava was nonsense. I suppose our not knowing that our arrival in the city coincided with the raucously celebrated May Day Festival or Bratislavský Majáles, can be justifiably attributed to our dismissive peer influenced narrow-mindedness. Thank goodness that the festivities were so loud, or we might have missed the whole thing.
A stream of people walking towards the underpass of the Most SNP, or what is sometimes called the UFO bridge because of the disk-shaped viewing deck at its zenith, lead us to the festival area. Since Maddy is afraid of heights, and the underpass was not closed off, instead a railed path overlooking the picturesque river-divide from on high, she very much disliked the bridge’s vibrations every time a lorry drove overhead, or I maniacally jumped around to teasingly add to her discomfort. She begged me to stop every time; I don’t know if I should be offended.
Our guide the previous day had told us about how the building of the bridge meant the demolition of a synagogue and a primary housing district. There was no doubt that the people wanted it to be built, if only for the convenience of crossing, but the location of the build was a source of great uproar and panic. The construction needed only to be carried out a little further away from initially assigned, and could have been easily done, but with the antisemitism rampant at the time, and the ironic communist disregard for the populace, the thing was built anyway.
Where the synagogue once stood lies a memorial that maps the blueprint of the main building. A blackened wall portrays the silhouette of the destroyed place of worship and a sculpture, at the centre, raising aloft the shield of David, stands tall and alone on a base of granite with an inscription that translates to ‘remember’ – referring to the 10,000 jews that died in Bratislava during the holocaust.
It is difficult to think about all the indelible scars that these cities and countries in the region bare. Hard years of fascist dominion followed by that of homogenising communism have mangled the once extraordinary Bratislava. There are people still alive who can yet remember the horrors done unto their neighbours and themselves during their war-torn childhoods. But as is their nature, people trudge on. These festivals and fairs, especially the May Day festival we were told, remind people of all the good that they have, how far they have come and help them look to the future with hope and vivacious enthusiasm.
The whole festival was predominantly spread throughout the riverside edges of green Sad Janka Kráľa, a park on the southern side. For the duration of the festivities, these areas were colonised by food and drink stalls of various cuisines, tents dedicated to children’s entertainment and islands of reclining chairs and picnic tables that were spread all around. The largest portion, just below the lime green Starý most bridge, was set up for the evening concerts. There were a couple of local bands that played while we were there in the afternoon. A lot of people seemed to be there just for them, swaying in random pockets, raising drinks to skies or just grooving to the rhythms over a plate of food.
After nosily checking each of the stall’s menus, and fending off the eager sales pitches of Langos purveyors and kebab men, we eventually settled at a small burger spot that drew us in with the smell or fried chicken and searing meat patties on the grill. Salt’n Pepa, a stall easily recognised by its multicoloured wood panelled stall-front, had three burgers presented alluringly on the counter that won us over from first sight. They looked outrageously good, each having their own unique physiognomy, making decision between them problematic.
Together with our ciders, the burgers we chose and the lively outdoor setting we were in, added that intangible extra that pushes a dining experience to the next level. Maddy’s pulled pork burger, glistening with sauce and juiciness, topped with crisply tart pickles and sharp onions, was well executed and tasty. My fried chicken burger was slightly dry but the batter was properly seasoned, and the luxurious slaw garnished with watercress was fresh and appropriately portioned. What I really enjoyed were the buns that completed the course, providing for bites that had just enough resistance to make it pleasurable, with the light toastiness that made for minimal crumble and measured moisture retention. For the €6 we paid, that lunch was spot on.
We stayed there for most of the day, listening to music and chatting with people around us. There were a lot of families in attendance but also a lot of couples, and travellers doing the same as us. Most people seemed to be on the way somewhere, treating Bratislava as a glorified waypoint – to this we too admit our guilt. But there were some, who told us of places in and around the city that they discovered and adored, who were there specifically to vacation in Bratislava. They were the ones who seemed to truly appreciate the city for what it was, making us feel that perhaps the place deserved more time and attention than we had allotted it. I suppose we had done all that was offered on the recommended tourist planner, which in the end is more than most people. It is important to come to terms with the fact that every city has its own inconspicuous quirks and hidden gems for people to find, and we had just chosen to conduct our explorations of these features elsewhere.
The music got better as time went by, charming us into staying around for the evening fireworks. We crossed the bridge to get a better view and joined the crowds of people all poised, heads and cameras raised, ready for the show to start. The fireworks were loud, colourful and spectacular, mirroring the people watching, who to me were more fun to observe and experience than the actual event. Dubai has ruined fireworks for me.
There was a lot of happiness shared amongst all of us that night, all smiles, laughter and good cheer. We were in the right place at the right time, leaving with feelgood memories of a city that, at the end of the day, treated us very well.