Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Slovakia: Austro-Hungarian Echoes

When I studied history at high school, I was fascinated by the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This mighty empire, with its dual capitals of Vienna and Budapest, was a vast conglomeration of different cultures, stretching from southern Poland down to the Balkans, and from Austria in the west to Ukraine in the east. Though the Emperor spoke German, the empire itself was a polyglot construction that encompassed Slavic languages, Hungarian, and various local dialects.

And before you assume that this empire is a relic of the distant past, remember this: Austria-Hungary was one of the main combatants in the First World War, allied with the German Empire and Turkey. Unlike Germany, however, it broke apart after the war into a bundle of independent nations: Austria, Hungary, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia, with some additional territories joining Italy and Romania.

Which brings me to Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, where I'm writing this. I'd assumed it would be similar to the Polish cities, and it many ways it is. The language is quite similar for a start: I've often been resorting to Polish, and the locals always get the gist. However, a quick look at the map shows Bratislava's position in the former heart of the empire: Vienna is a stone's throw to the west, and Budapest not that much further to the southeast.

And fragments of those days are everywhere in the city. Grand facades of commercial buildings from the 19th century, when Bratislava was known in German as Pressburg, line the attractive lanes and squares of its Old Town. And the food, influenced by both capitals, includes schnitzels, excellent Viennese cakes and superb hot chocolate, and the spicy goulash of Hungary.

And there's something superbly charming about Bratislava's scale. With a population of just over 400,000, and capital of a compact Slovakia which is an independent state for the first time ever, it's a delightful place which fits its tourism slogan 'Big Little City'. Granted, outside the Old Town the city is something of a train wreck, as the communist authorities dabbled in their usual bland-to-hideous architectural experiments, but the centre is lovely.

As I walk past its compact palaces and convoluted facades decked inevitably with the Slovak and EU flags, I'm reminded of what started my obsession with Central Europe. It was none other than the Tintin book King Ottokar's Sceptre, read avidly in the school library at my primary school in rural Western Australia. Tintin's creator Hergé was a stickler for accuracy, using photographs to get regional details right, and his depictions of the traditional uniforms, decoration and architecture of Mitteleuropa had me hooked.

And the EU flags I see everywhere remind me of how good the European Union has been for Europe. Though it has its bureaucratic flaws, the EU has succeeded magnificently in its goal to break with centuries of war as the continent's standard operating procedure. And with smaller nations like Slovakia and Lithuania, more accustomed to be being conquered than conquerers, it's given them the breathing space to both be themselves, and be part of something greater. And by choice, unlike Slovakia's historic inclusion in Austria-Hungary.

Nevertheless, I will miss the old empire when I fly home next week. But I still have its former provinces in the Balkans to visit. A story for another day...