The invention of a capital: Bratislava

Last week I was for the first time in Bratislava. The town is quite pretty, right. A cute old town, colorful buildings, a bright castle on the hill, a large river, relaxed atmosphere on a sunny spring weekend. What fascinated me the most however was to learn about the history of Bratislava, and the paths through which it came to be capital of Slovakia.

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One striking thing in Bratislava is the mismatch between its capital status and its provincial character. From a geographical point of view Bratislava looks like a very unlikely capital city: a quiet tiny city on the very border of its country and substantially absorbed into Vienna’s metropolitan area, it does not sound much like a city with chances to become a capital. And instead.

The striking mismatch between the capital status and the provincial character of Bratislava is very evident in the main square of the old town: a pretty square like one could find in so many towns around Central Europe, with quite a small church. Yet such a quiet and pretty square is not just like any other Central European square. A little surprisingly, it is literally filled with embassies: the French, Russian, Japanese and Greek embassies are all here, and they occupy a large deal of the buildings of the square. I could not think of any other European capital city whose main square is filled with embassies.

Another interesting thing about Bratislava is that it has been for centuries the capital – or a semi-capital city anyway – of a country different from the one that it currently rules. For about three centuries it was the Hungarian kings who were crowned in Bratislava (which is called “Bratislava” only since 1919, by the way). Being for centuries a capital of a country (Hungary), then moving beyond the border and becoming capital of the neighboring country (Slovakia), is really a very unique destiny. Again, I could not think of any other capital city which underwent the same experience.

A mismatch between geographical features and formal status, a name which appeared quite recently, a country which appeared quite recently as well, and a city which has ruled in turn two neighboring countries: it looks as if Bratislava is a wonderful case of invention of a capital city – and one of the many incredible stories which fill Central European history.

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