Do you want to go deeper than these Christmas markets?
It was a bank holiday this week in Slovakia to commemorate the uprising in 1945 against the Nazi occupation. But this is just one of many festivals going on at this time of the year. When people think of Bratislava they are likely to envisage Christmas markets and snow, or perhaps stag do’s. Maybe even the castle or the UFO bridge. Quite right too, these all happen here. But what a shame to not get a little deeper into the place. You can do Vienna, Budapest and Bratislava Christmas markets in three or even two days starting from here, warm yourself with the delicious punches and buy things that people don’t really want, buy interesting artifacts nevertheless, plus have a fantastic time yourself in the process. Believe me, from Nurnburg to Budapest Christmas markets you will have a fantastic time. I know, I have done them. And they all seem much of a muchness to me. There are only so many times you can buy the ceramic, wooden or sweet trinkets before they become boring. You will still enjoy the markets though. But if you want to get under the skin of a place, for example Slovakia, then come when the local festivals are due. Now. In September/October.
Devinska Nova Ves is a large village, or small town, about 16 km north of Bratislava. Its wide main street is lined with old houses, there is an enormous Volkswagen factory and a few tower blocks, but it’s nothing special really. But in 2012 it came to the attention of the world’s press, even Reuters. It was all about a bridge.
Devinska Nova Ves (or DNV as I will call it from now) is on the Morava River. The border between Slovakia and Austria. The Morava flows down to join the Danube and in Cold War times this was a heavily militarized zone. Barbed wire fences and constant patrols by border guards. Many people died trying to run to freedom through the wire here. If they had tried swimming they would have had to deal with some serious currents on both the Danube and Morava rivers. In 2012 a bridge was completed over the river at DNV to join what was formerly an impenetrable frontier. The Bratislava Regional Assembly set up a Facebook vote to name this historically significant link between the old communist block and Western Europe. The Regional Governor, Pavol Freso, affirmed that they would probably go with the people’s wishes. That is until the “Chuck Norris Bridge” polled more than 10 times as many votes as the Regional Assembly’s proposal. Or indeed any other suggestions. Now Reuters started to take an interest. Chuck Norris was always a source of jokes concerning kitchy fun or macho invincibility in Slovakia (Chuck Norris can delete the recycling bin… Giraffes were created when Chuck Norris hit a horse under the chin…), but hardly a feasible choice for naming a bridge (No-one walks over Chuck Norris later was mentioned by the Assembly). But you can walk or cycle over this historic bridge today at any time of the year. The floodplains beneath you will be a Site of Special Scientific Interest, teeming with rare flora and fauna. The river will remind you of the historic border you are crossing from Slovakia to Schlosshoff Castle in Austria, where you may even catch a festival of gardening if you are lucky.
About two kilometers South of DNV lies the village of Devin, where the Morava joins the Danube. Today it is festival day in Devin. There are so many festivals at this time of year. Broadly harvest type celebrations, but it could be a dance festival in the small concrete amphitheatre-let in between the tower blocks in Dubravka on the Northern outskirts of Bratislava, where teenagers perform traditional folk dances in traditional costume; or a ceramics festival in Pezinok (small town North East of Bratislava); the Cabbage Festival in Stupava (a bit further out than DNV with local craft and food stalls, traditional dancers, folk groups, or even samba orchestras); or today’s Medieval festival in Devin. If you sit on a bus out of Bratislava today you may well sit next to a knight, complete with chain mail, sword and helmet on his mobile phone. Then you will get to the site itself.
Devin Castle, first mentioned in 864 in written records, lying atop a cliff on a rocky outcrop overlooking the Danube. In the thirteenth century it was the frontier post of the Hungarian Empire.
It featured on a coin and a note of the former Czechoslovak currency (koruna) in Cold War times as an important national symbol. Now it lies in ruins (thank Napoleon for that). We drive to the Festival from our home in Stupava and the highway is blocked off for the road runners, the first signs of the event. My daughter Mollie (4 “AND A HALF” years old) instructs me to tell the policeman to let us through, but I think better of it. We will just wait. At the castle we pay our eight Euro entrance fee, and then walk up past “medieval” tents with costumed people sitting around cooking over open fires in iron pots, with metal beakers to drink from and wooden bowls from which to eat. It has the feel of an authentic camp.
All the men have long hair and a young man is undressing to his boxer shorts to put on his chain mail vest, leather thigh protectors, boots, helmet and heavy knee length jacket.
We walk up the hill to the ruins, where Mollie is delighted to shout “bottom” down the 55 metre well on the cliff top and enjoy its echo. From up here you can see the Danube curving round where the Morava joins it, and look down on Devin. Or across to the mountain between here and Dubravka.
Steep terraced vines sweep down to the village from the Dacha’s (summer homes, often small wooden villas here) on the mountain top. One huge, elegant residence dominates all of these. I later found out that this belongs to the Russian mafia. We walk back down the hill through the encampments and Mollie gets her face painted on the way. There is a stage below and the announcements suddenly include some English: “The last man standing.” Some sort of contest is about to begin. Here they are. Now they don their full helmets and five men on each side face each other for a “fight”. So… it is not just an excuse for a medieval barbeque, a bit of dressing up outside a tent, and full bosomed women enjoying the attention in their Medieval costumes. A choreographed re-enactment! How wrong I was. Apart from beers (1 euro a pint), picnics, and waffles grilled over open fires on wooden rolling pin type affairs, there are actually men fighting over there. But not choreographed. Not in the least. This is some sort of competition. Lines of five men walk towards each other.
Then all hell breaks loose. While two knights fight, one man is smashing the hilt of his sword down on the head of another who has his back to him, being engaged in one to one combat with one of his opponents. I work out that the aim is to get another man to the ground, when he has to retire from the competition. Huge cheers erupt from the crowd as the victors leave the battle.
But worse is to come. Next time it is an axe, not the sharp side, but the blunt side, repeatedly hammering down on one member of the next team. He has a metal helmet on, but I am sure that will be sore in the morning. These guys are serious! The fallen knight removes his helmet, blood streaming down the back of his head, and is led to the first aid (medieval) tent. What is going on here? If you want to play knights, then, hey, each to their own. But this?! It did at least give quite a vivid impression of Medieval warfare around here. Perhaps a little too vivid though. After the fight, white vans some emblazoned with medieval crests, drive up the hill to collect what is left of their teams. We retire to the coffee tent, a Czech café styling itself on an Arabic Shisha lounge where a member of the medical team is crashed out next to the hubbly bubbly while away to our left a belly dancer takes to the stage. This is all getting a bit too diverse, shall we say… “It’s like a theatre” is my wife’s comment. It’s certainly not like any festival we have been to in England before, that’s for sure. “You wouldn’t get into a festival for eight euro’s in England”, is my reply. “That’s bottom too much money!” is Mollie’s comment. Now there is an archery contest and some poor bugger is kneeling, holding a six foot pole with a cabbage on the top of it for the archers to shoot at while running. Health and safety executive field day! They would flip their corporate lid if they had seen the “Two euro’s to chuck three axes at the target” stall which crossed the path. “ Just wait there for a moment,” you say to yourself. Enough already, too much. We leave the festival and walk down to the river. Here you can throw a stone over the Morava into Austria. Which is why so many tried their luck here. If it wasn’t running through the militarized zone and the barbed wire then trying to swim to freedom, it was (possibly homemade) hang gliders from the hilltops. Down by the confluence of rivers there is a serious ceremony taking place. Flags and sombre faces down by the monument to the unsuccessful attempts to leave the Iron Curtain. Over four hundred people died between 1945 and 1989 attempting this.
Nearly one a month for 44 years from one small village on the Austrian border. Each name listed on the sculpture and explained in four languages. Judging by their ages, the seated assembly down here could well have been the brothers or sisters, or even the parents of these poor, desperate unfortunates who died for what all Slovaks have today. So there you have it. Five km road racers, sites of SSI, foul mouthed four year olds (she’s so like her mother), uprisings against the Nazi occupation, Russian mafia, Medieval knights, belly dancers, would be escapees of communism, shisha lounges, waffles, Chuck Norris and beer tents. What a festival! Or you could do the Christmas market. And as a post script, the Bratislava Regional Assembly, led by Pavol Freso, in their infinite wisdom and in memory of the people who died trying to leave the communist block for democracy, actually rejected the 12,599 votes for the “Chuck Norris Bridge” in favour of the “Freedom Cycling Bridge” (457 votes), which is now it’s official name. However, thanks to Reuters, it is even today easily findable in Google under its more democratic name.
PS: If my daughter were able to understand any of this, I am absolutely sure that she would say, “But that’s bottom democracy!”
PPS: What a senseless waste of lives. These human beings were only trying to make their lives better. They died for their optimism. Full respect to these people.