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Authentic air of Eastern Europe
Bratislava's new bridge with UFO restaurant atop a pylon / Picture: Veronica Matheson

Slovakia has a quirky side that reveals itself soon after we arrive in the capital Bratislava. Walking through the city's old town, we see a crowd aiming digital cameras at the footpath, where Cumil, a bronze statue, is playfully peeking out from a manhole cover.

Cumil is a fictional character but stories abound of the local characters that inspired his creation. Some claim he was a partisan who hid underground in wartime, others say he was a local man with a proclivity for looking up women's skirts.

Later we see an inverted glass pyramid building that is the state radio headquarters, before a walk down to the Danube River reveals another architectural oddity, as the main bridge has what appears to be a saucer-shaped UFO balancing on one of the pylons.

"That's a nightclub and restaurant called UFO, with a sightseeing deck that has a great view of the river," says a friendly local lad. It also gives a bird's-eye view of Danubiana, the controversial modern art gallery that juts into the river several kilometres upstream, and the hilltop Bratislava Castle that looks rather like an upside-down table when viewed from the sightseeing deck.

What does surprise us is that the Danube River is a murky brown, even when the sun is shining, and we wonder if Viennese composer Johann Strauss was wearing rose-tinted glasses when he created the much-loved Blue Danube waltz.

After lunch, with a glass of cold Slovak beer (Zlaty Bazant) that is surprisingly good, we climb up to the castle, which was extensively renovated in the 1960s, for more great views over the countryside and the suburbs. The vista reveals there is no shortage of grim Soviet-style concrete housing estates - a reminder that, until recently, Bratislava was part of the Eastern Bloc.

No wonder Lonely Planet named land-locked Slovakia one of the hot spots for travellers this year - and all the more reason to get to the capital before the hordes arrive in search of Europe as it used to be, simpler, friendlier, and a little cheaper.

Part of the charm of Bratislava, with a population of about 500,000, is that the city is in transition and there are still some vestiges of its drab communist past. Allied with the nazis in World War II, Slovakia became part of the Eastern Bloc, under Soviet rule until 1989 when it shook off communism and became independent in 1993. By 2004, the country had become a member of the European Union and NATO.

A cafe society is pulsing in Bratislava, particularly around Hlavne Namestie, the main square of the old town where the buildings have emerged with attractive pastel coats.

A focus of the square is the Roland Fountain, which was commissioned by Emperor Maximilian II, the first Habsburg Emperor to be crowned King of Hungary in Bratislava's St Martin's Cathedral (Bratislava was capital of the Kingdom of Hungary from 1536 to 1784). A fierce fire broke out in the city during his coronation festivities and it is said the fountain was erected to provide a ready supply of water in case of another fire.

One of the prettiest buildings in the old town is the tiny House of the Good Shepherd, built in dainty Rococo style with an interesting clock museum inside.

Slovakians are big on craft and music, both of which abound around the old town, with souvenirs available in small shops in the pedestrian lanes that weave off the square. Women can be found inside these shops, working on embroidered cloths or pulling hooks through intricate crochet work that will go on sale when completed.

Musicians wander through the tourist areas, while many locals can be found near the square playing chess on a giant pavement board with figures about 60cm tall.

It is a reminder that while Bratislava may not be as glamorous as its former Eastern Bloc compatriots Budapest and Prague, it is on the way and determined to keep the authentic flavour that makes it so appealing.

FACT FILE

Bratislava is 65km from the Austrian capital Vienna and an hours train ride away. Emirates fly from Perth to Vienna, via Dubai. emirates.com/au. For more on the city, see bratislava.sk.