Thursday, 21 January 2010

Nitra and Trnava Slovakia information

The road to Nitra and Trnava, both cities with important pasts, descends towards the beginning of the Central European plain. At Nitra the hills are already clad in vines, but the only buildings of interest here are a Baroque cathedral and a small Romanesque church in the grim suburb ofParovce. As this is never open and the hotels in Nitra are not of the best, it will be more convenient to press on to Trnava, once named the Slovak Rome and, until the establishment of the Hungarian See at Eztergom, the most important religious centre in the country.

There is little of this past glory left and many of the churches are filled with Orthodox clutter and locked or boarded up. The cathedral, a fourteenth-century building, was given a Baroque interior and two ludicrous towers in the eighteenth century.

Nearby, however, is an altogether more impressive church built by the Jesuits in 1628 to the designs of the Italian Pietro Spazzo. Austere yet hot with the fire of the Counter-Reformation, it is a generation earlier than similar buildings lying a few miles south-west, which because of the Turkish incursions could only be built fifty years later.

As well as the many Renaissance houses of note here, there are a charming Biedermeier theatre and a sixteenth-century Archbishop's Palace to be found within five minutes' walk of the Jesuit church. This can all be taken in at a glance and may have to be if the remaining few miles down onto the plain are to be covered in time to reach the Danube and the capital of Slovakia, Bratislava, before sunset.

The pointed towers of its castle are visible for miles around, reminding one that the kings of Hungary were once crowned here and that on more than one occasion it was here rather than Budapest or Vienna that the Habsburgs rallied their forces.

Situated on the last spurs of the Carpathians, the town has suffered considerably from the insensitive planning of post-war years, but its streets and squares have retained much charm and interest.

The castle is a brief ascent from the Danube promenade called the Jesininovo Nabi'. Its four corner towers date from between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries and it is perhaps poignant to recall that in the rooms of the south-east tower, the Hungarian crown jewels admired in Budapest were stored for decades.

A tour of the interior is possible most days of the week. Several of the rooms have been excellently restored to give a convincing impression of what life in the eighteenth century must have been like for the town's garrison commander.

Somewhere among the uniforms, pictures and Empire furniture, a small room may be pointed out as the birthplace of St Elizabeth of Thuringen. Through the pointed windows of the towers can be Seen on a clear day Vienna to the west and in the sharp light of winter the great Benedictine abbey of Pannonhalma in Hungary to the east.

The church of St Martin at Staromestska

From the castle, a path winds down to the Staromestska (good wines at the Rybne nam.) and the cathedral church of St Martin. Begun in 1204 and completed in 1445, it was restored both in the nineteenth century and in the years immediately after the last war. The coronation church of the Habsburgs in Hungary until 1848, it has a tower which is still surmounted by a pyramid bearing a gilded crown. Inside, the church, for all its wealth, lacks the mystery of Levoca or Kosice. Perhaps it was built too near Vienna and the more airy interior of the cathedral there. Only the chapel of St Anna in the north aisle captures the spirit of the fourteenth century.

Another chapel dedicated to St Eleemosinarius was built and decorated by Raphael Donner, who was also responsible for the rather heavy equestrian statue of St Martin of 1734, dressed most curiously in Magyar costume, outside the choir.

The Nalepkova leads east from here past various shops and nineteenth¬century houses to the theatre, early Helmer and Fellner with a seductively curved frontispiece. In front of it is a bust of the composer Hummel, who was born here in 1778. Further south the land slopes down towards the broad expanse of the Danube, where there are several other institutional buildings dating from Kaiserlich and Koniglich days, including the university and the Slovak National Gallery, which has some pleasant nineteenth-century paintings.

The Mostova Gorkeho

Nearby, the Mostova Gorkeho, a narrow street which was once the 'coronation hill' where the Habsburgs ascended after being crowned in the cathedral, runs to the river. Of all the monarchs who raised the sword of St Stephen to the four quarters of heaven, none did so amid wilder enthusiasm than Maria Theresa, who in 1741 ascended here with her child to call upon the Hungarians to save her empire, attacked by Prussia eager for Silesian territory.

History recounts few more stirring scenes than this appeal to Magyar chivalry, which in turn was met with the famous cry: 'Vitam et sanguinem pro rege nostro Maria Theresa!', as a hundred noblemen drew their sabres to pledge their allegiance to the woman who was their king.

As the Bulgarian tugs steam slowly up towards Austria and some Czech conscripts stare bemusedly at a machine recording the Danube's level, the memory of such heroism is perhaps irrelevant, but something of old Pressburg, as Maria Theresa and the Austrians called the city, remains further north of the theatre in the narrow Radnicna.

Here, next to each other in uneasy intimacy, are the former Town Hall and the Archbishop's Palace. The first is a Gothic building dressed in Renaissance clothes with a Baroque tower. Inside, good stucco and wooden ceilings make up a small town museum amid the sleepy buzz of the town's administrative offices.

Nearby is the altogether more imposing Archbishop's Palace, erected in the 1770s. In its dazzling hall of mirrors, the Peace of Pressburg was signed between Napoleon and the Austrian emperor Francis I after the battle of Austerlitz in 1805.

The Gothic Franciscan church

From here the road continues past several picturesque gables to the Gothic Franciscan church dating from the thirteenth century, with a chapel dedicated to St John which recalls the great Gothic interiors of Prague in its beauty and may have been the work of Peter Parler.

The Michalska, a pedestrian promenade beyond, culminates in the last remains of the medieval fortifications, the Michael Gate. The street is full of gift shops, second-hand bookshops and cafes all inserted into a series of facades which have changed little over the last hundred years. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for the narrow roads above it, where a flyover has been constructed at the second-floor level of some narrow Rococo houses, one of which, a pink clock museum, cannot be taken seriously after such abuse.

From the Michael gate the Bastova leads to the left, where stands another Gothic church, dedicated to St Clarissa, usually locked. The narrow streets which wind back from here to the Nalepkova are sufficient distraction for more than one day, and the Carlton Hotel on the other side of that square, known as Hviezdoslavovo mimestie 7, is as good a place to rest as any before the train, bus or boat return to the west.

With its Germans, Hungarians and Slovaks, Bratislava continues to show that, even perched on the sharp edge of the iron curtain, something of the old Habsburg mixture of blood has survived to live peacefully on into the next century.

Car hire in Bratislava can be pre-booked before you travel, and cheap car hire from Bratislava Airport can save you time and money, and allow you to travel around this fascinating region at your own leisure.

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