Are Vienna and Bratislava just geographically close or is there also a lively cultural exchange? Katharina Brenner catches a train to find the answer.

Vienna and Bratislava share the heart of Europe. Despite being only 60 kilometres apart, the two cultural and historic centres are very different from each other – after all, they were separated by the Iron Curtain for decades. Are Vienna and Bratislava just geographically close or is there also a lively cultural exchange? Katharina Brenner catches a train to find the answer.

Photo: Nick Turland (Creative Commons License). The city of Bratislava.

I get on board the Eurocity Antonín Dvořák, Praha hl.n. – Wien Neustadt Hbf, which will take me from Prague to Vienna. Wooden interior lining, deep red fabric – it sets the right mood for my trip to a town that is known for its nostalgic charm which has inspired artists throughout the centuries. I came to Prague to see friends that I had met during my Erasmus semester, but I wanted to explore the other two main cities in Central Europe. So after five days of cobble stones, exhibitions, and smoky bars I head off to Vienna. A day trip to Bratislava is also on my schedule. I wonder if Vienna and Bratislava are just geographically close or if there is also a lively cultural exchange. Considering that the Iron Curtain had separated the two towns over decades I wonder if my generation is aware of their fortunate situation in having two cultural centres so close to one another.

While wandering the streets of Vienna I keep an eye out for posters, flyers, and signs which indicate that Bratislava is just around the corner. The weather is perfect for strolling. People celebrate the beginning of the park season with guitars, footballs and beer. I enjoy the comfortable and relaxed atmosphere. At the same time the town’s centre is majestic and dignified. Just around the corner in District 7, however, I discover lovingly furnished design and used book shops. In Vienna, art surrounds you everywhere. This year would have been Gustav Klimt’s 150th birthday. Gold ornaments adorn every second poster – which brings me back to what I was looking for: signs that indicate how close Bratislava is.

I come across the word Bratislava a couple of times. It appears on some of the blue street signs. I also find it on the banks of the Danube. The Twin City Liner travels from Vienna to Bratislava and back four times a day. A trip costs 60 euros. On the Twin City Liner’s website young women in short skirts get on the boat in Vienna to approach Bratislava a little while after with a glass of sparkling wine in their hands. It remains the only connection between the two towns I can make out here. I also prick my ears whenever I hear a Slavic language. Slovak is hardly ever heard. Talking to Viennese students endorses the impression I got – cultural exchange between the two towns in everyday life is marginal.

Talking to Viennese students endorses the impression I got – cultural exchange between the two towns in everyday life is marginal.

However, Bratislava is a place Viennese people my age can connect to. They tell me that the ÖBB (Austrian Railways) improved the connection between Vienna and Bratislava a couple of years ago and has been promoting it ever since. “Bratislava airport is also attractive for us,” says Anna, a Viennese student of the social sciences. Bratislava is one of Ryanair’s destinations. “Oh, and I just went to IKEA in Bratislava last Sunday,” she adds. Stores are open seven days a week. Another reason why students go to Bratislava every now and then is one they mention with a flush of embarrassment: cheap drinks. The ones I talked to all said they also appreciated the town’s atmosphere, the fact that it seems to be different although it is only 60 kilometres away as well as its puppet theatres and unique shops. Although given how close and enriching it is, most of them say it’s a pity they don’t go there more often.

“Unfortunately there’s a lot of social injustice the relationship between the two countries,” says Kathrin, another student of social sciences. A lot of Slovak women work in Austria as cheap labour in the care sector, a severe issue that can be found in many other countries as well. But that’s another topic (although a very important one).

A day trip to Bratislava

To find out whether Vienna is present in Bratislava, I take the train across the border. A ticket only costs 14 euros and the connection I choose only takes one hour. I had the picture in mind that the two towns would actually be twin cities, one periphery next to the other, but I come across vast fields and small villages on my way. Unfortunately Bratislava central station is not the most welcoming and a rather dodgy place, the smell of burned sausages is in the air. After a walk into the town’s centre, I find myself surrounded by neatly restored historical buildings. There are a lot of street musicians. I take a break on one of the many benches to listen for a while. One can find many indicators for a vivid cultural life: advertising columns and old walls covered with information about jazz concerts, classical concerts, theatre productions and art exhibitions. Do I find links with Vienna? The German language is definitely heard more often here than Slovak is in Austria’s capital. Pubs in the centre remind me strongly of the ones on Prague’s Václavské náměstí and the shameful fact that a lot of tourists only come here for drinking.

Photo: Brian Colson (Creative Commons License). A Christmas market in Vienna.

What is the perception among young Slovaks of the ‘Twin Cities’? I talk to Ludmila, who spent the first 18 years of her life in Bratislava. She now studies Scandinavian Studies in Brno, Czech Republic. She went to Vienna this February to see a concert by progressive metal band Dream Theater. “Concerts are a reason why many young Slovaks go to Vienna,” she says. She complains that hardly any great acts ever come to Bratislava. “It’s just too small and Prague and Vienna always seem to be closer.” Her last trip to Vienna before the concert was four or five years ago, she says, when she went to the Christmas market with school. Most of the other Slovaks I talked to tell me about school trips to the Christmas market as well. They also mention campaigns that promote trips to Vienna. Daniel, a student of medical sciences in Bratislava, says he simply doesn’t go there often because he is not a fan of big cities. Viktor, a Slovak aged 27, seems to be an exception. He goes to Vienna every other week because he has friends there. Gathering opinions from young Slovaks adds to the same picture that Viennese students drew. They hardly ever go to Vienna although they appreciate its architectural treasures and cultural life. “As long as you are not interested in the cultural exchange between both towns you won’t get in touch with it or even realise how close the other town is” says Diana, a 27-year-old Slovak.

Internet research leads me to a couple of organisations that promote encounters between the two countries. CENTROPE is one of them and was created by the European Union. It aims to help the Central European Region including Czech Republic, Slovakia, Austria and Hungary become “one of Europe’s most dynamic spaces to live and work in.” The Austrian Cultural Forum/rakúske kúlturne fórum is based in Bratislava and organises lectures, music festivals and workshops. The Austrian Slovak Society encourages the bilateral relations between the two countries. IG Kultur Wien wants to support people working in the cultural sector and is also open to artists and writers from neighboring countries. There seem to be platforms that encourage intercultural exchange between the two towns.

The Austrian architecture days anders als geWohnt, which took place the first weekend in June, also included Bratislava. Bike tours through the high density housing of Bratislava were offered “to encourage discussions about visions and real options for the future of living in (or between) the Twin Cities.” From May 28th until June 3rd, the Let’s Cee Film Festival – Great Cinema from Central and Eastern Europe took place in Vienna. One of its locations is the Ost Klub which often hosts DJs and musicians from Middle and Eastern Europe as well as the Balkans. It seems that you have to know the right clubs, galleries, theatres, and organisations to experience the region’s intercultural dynamic. Here a vivid cultural exchange does take place. For the strolling visitor it remains at a distance.

Cover Photo: Wikimedia

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