Saturday, January 7, 2012


So, you're wandering around the tranquil and scenic hilltop premises of Bratislavsky Hrad (Castle),

when you approach the elbow-high ledge along the front overlooking the Danube to take in the vast, southward view before you. You notice the Danube, flowing mightily along, possibly carrying a cargo barge or two. You look off to the southwest and see Austria; at about 1-2 o'clock, you see an expansive stretch of farmlands littered with modern wind turbines, while at about 2-3 o'clock, a bit more to the west, you see swaths of forest and large, tree-covered hills in the distance. Of course, at 11 o'clock, or thereabouts, you can't help but notice the Starship Enterprise-esque Novy Most, or New Bridge, that spans from the southwest corner of Bratislava's historical center, to the area of Bratislava south of the Danube known as Petrzalka.

Novy Most (New Bridge) with Petrzalka in the background
Once you get over the cognitive dissonance created by the juxtaposition of the quirky, 70s-era sci-fi monstrosity of a bridge, with the ornate, old world charm of Bratislava's historical center, you'll notice that when you look beyond the Novy Most, into Petrzalka, you see row after row after row after row of (predominantly) grey, concrete, brutalist council estate housing, otherwise known affectionately in these parts as panelaky. These monolithic prefab giants are called panelaks, obviously, because they resemble factory-made panels. They were Communism's hyper-effecient response to housing an ever growing population as cheaply as possible. In the 1970s, boxy concrete communities like Petrzalka sprouted like weeds.

Today you can see panelaks all over Central and Eastern Europe. They're difficult to miss. Every city or town with a big enough population has an area devoted solely to panelaks. The larger the town, the larger the area (or areas) set aside for panelaks. Only older, more rural villages with fewer than 1,000 people don't seem to have them. The Communists' love of panelaks has lent Eastern and Central European cities and towns a unique character in that you'll often have the old medieval or Hapsburg-era historical section at the center of town, contrasted by a forest of panelaks us outside. It definitely adds a distinct layer that you don't always see in Western Europe.

Don't get me wrong, Western Europe obviously has plenty of anonymous, Orwellian looking council estate communities, but there's something distinctly stark and, well, Communist about those in the former eastern bloc. Plus, in Western Europe, these 20th century housing complexes tend to be more hidden, built in the outskirts were few tourists tread, and are usually only seen from the train when first entering the city. But Petrzalka is special because it is said to be the largest single government housing development built anywhere behind the iron curtain under Communism. It is home to 1/4 of all Bratislavans. And while few tourists ever have reason to venture into Petrzalka, it's easily seen from the castle hill as well as the UFO restaurant on top of the Novy Most.

Now, let's get back to that sweeping hilltop view from the Bratislava castle. From this vantage point, the seemingly endless maze of panelaks almost looks like one massive, impenetrable wall, stretching across Petrzalka from left to right. The size and scale of the thing is kind of mind blowing. It looks a bit intimidating. Oppressive, even.

(Not my photos, but I wanted to link to these because they illustrate Petrzalka's scale so well: please click here and here).

But I have to be careful when talking about Petrzalka because Slovaks generally have a very different take on it than foreigners like myself, and I don't want to come off as offensive. Many Americans tend to cling to a highly romanticized, old-world view of Europe, seeing it as a place where centuries of history manifests itself in the form of beautiful, ornate architecture from various pre-20th-century eras; narrow, winding cobble-stoned lanes; medieval castles and old stone walls; and a bounty of priceless art and grand monuments. So, when confronted with large areas covered in panelaks, particularly one the size and scale of Petrzalka, it can be difficult to reconcile that with the old-world image that many non-Europeans have etched in their minds. That's what makes this scene in the silly Euro-trip film so harrowing (about 1:50 into the clip); never mind the fact that they're not actually in Bratislava (but reportedly a Roma community in Czech Republic); the images in this scene, absurd as they are (and Petrzalka is actually fairly clean), couldn't be further from that old-world view. This just isn't the Europe that travelers come from around the globe to see, nor is it going to appear in many tour guide itineraries.

In contrast, Slovaks have a quite different view of panelaks because many of them (including my wife!) grew up in them, or at least near or around them. They don't necessarily see panelak communities as bleak or sad or strange, because to them, they're simply a way of life. More than that, they see panelaks as convenient and affordable. In Petrzalka, the rent is typically cheaper, buying an apartment is definitely more affordable, and it's much easier to live there if you own a car and need a place to park it. Contrast that with the Stare Mesto (old town) across the river, where having a car can be a royal pain in the ass (not that you really need one, though, but that's beside the point), and where buying an apartment probably requires a "power couple's" income. The point being, you can't just come in and make snarky remarks about Petrzalka, because you're likely to offend people. The fact is that the romantic, old world image of Europe is simply not the reality of most Bratislavans.

Romantic, old world image of Europe (Bratislava).
Picturesque cobbled lanes like this one in Bratislava's historical center
 do not factor in to the daily reality of most Bratislavans.
Once you're in Petrzalka, it's not as suffocating as it appears from across the river. Although many of the structures are lined up side to side in lengthy, gently zig-zagging rows, there's actually a fair amount of open, and even "green" space in between. That "green" space usually consists of open fields, youngish trees, patches of juniper, and even some parks/playgrounds. You see a lot of parking lots and empty concrete planter boxes, too, though.

Also, since the fall of Communism, many panelak inhabitants have pooled their money to have their panelak exteriors painted. Some of them now come in vibrant shades of lime green, yellow, blue, pink, and orange. A few even have cool modern art designs painted on them.

The image on this panelak actually appears to be much older, possibly from Communism.
Some panelak inhabitants have redone their interiors in stunning, beautiful, modern ways. And even Bratislava's Ikea has large images of Petrzalka as backdrops for many of its display rooms. It seems a lot of people have transformed their panelak apartments into stylish, cozy, and livable quarters.

The creators of Petrzalka appear to have tried to give the place some semblance of urbanism by filling up the ground floors of many panelaks with shops. Petrzalka was not intended to be like an American low-income suburban model that forces you to drive three miles to the store, because they clearly wanted people to be able to hop down the elevator to get to the nearest potraviny (food store), cafe, or dry cleaners. Everything the panelak inhabitants could need would, at least theoretically, be right downstairs, or at most a panelak or two over. Now it seems many of the shops that inhabited these panelaks are closed, a lot of them having gone out of business after Communism ended, when big international chain stores like Tesco and Lidl came storming through the gate.

Check this out: not my photo, but I like this so much I had to link to it here.

It's also common to see these little Communist "strip malls" in panelak communities, so not all shops are located on the ground floors of panelaks, but are still embedded among them, and are conveniently walkable.

Bleak Communist-era "strip mall" in Ruzinov
Despite the open space I mentioned above, Petrzalka is still quite labyrinthine. I confess that it's sometimes difficult to find obvious landmarks when navigating the place, and it could be easy for neophytes to get lost there. To be frank, panelaks are definitely not my thing from an aesthetic standpoint, but I do find myself strangely fascinated by Petrzalka. My trips into Petrzalka have left me a little awe-struck. There's the sheer size of it, for one thing, but it's interesting to contemplate how uber-effecient the Communists were in their approach to creating the place. It's so practical, so functional, so streamlined, so charmless. It was simply a matter of, we need to house lots of people fast, so here you go!

Petrzalka is not the only panelak forest in Bratislava. Karlova Ves, an area of town to the west of the Stare Mesto, appears also to be made up entirely of panelaks. It sits dramatically on a large hill, and if you catch it out of the corner of your eye, it almost kind of resembles some medieval hill town. Then when you look at it straight on, you see the jumble of panelaks. To the east of the Stare Mesto, you have the districts of the Nove Mesto (new town) and Ruzinov, both of which are also home to vast, imposing panelak developments.

Panelak in Ruzinov.

More panelaks outside of Petrzalka.
Panelaks kind of by where Ruzinov meets Nove Mesto.
So, as much as non-European romantic types like me might find panelaks and places like Petrzalka a bit baffling or strange, these communities are a simple fact of life for many people in Central and Eastern Europe. Districts like Petrzalka are really just another layer in the urban fabric, representing one of many historical eras in cities like Bratislava. Most of my Slovak family and friends will probably scratch their heads and think it kind of weird that I even bothered to write all this about Petrzalka and panelaks in the first place!

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