Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Kapitulska ulica - my favorite street in Bratislava

I have several favorite streets in Bratislava, but Kapitulska stands out as being particularly unique. It runs for three blocks along the northwestern edge of the medieval center, parallel to the the medieval wall. It begins at the north side of St. Martin's cathedral, and curves gently up a slight ascent to where it eventually runs into Na Vrsku. I was struck by Kapitulska's beauty the first time I stumbled upon it. It's incredibly atmospheric, peaceful, and one of the few streets in the old center to not have any shops, cafes, or restaurants. The cobble stones are quite noticeably older and much rougher and uneven than the rest of the centrum (the street's a real ankle-sprainer), and many of the buildings are considerably more worn or run down, not having undergone the facelifts that many other facades of the centrum have. The street has a look and feel that's more medieval, more Old World, and grittier than the rest of the town. It really feels like stepping back in time.

The first block of Kapitulska, looking south towards St. Martin's cathedral, where the street begins. 
Looking up Kapitulska in the other direction. 

The buildings along the first block seem to have been restored and/or well-maintained, like the eye-catching green one and the red one just beyond it.

But as you wander further up the street, you start seeing a lot of dilapidation. On the last block, things look seriously bad. Suddenly there's graffiti everywhere, and some of the buildings look like they've just been bombed out in a war. A few are gutted and boarded up, while others appear to be on the verge of collapse.

I'd have expected to see scenes like this 10 years ago in Sarajevo, but here, now, in Bratislava?

And yet, these were obviously once beautiful structures. Given that the first couple blocks look reasonably spiffy, why hasn't some hotshot developer come in and straightened up the rest of this street and flipped it? Who owns these buildings anyway? Given that it's not a major artery in the centrum and has relatively minimal foot traffic, I can see why developers might be more reluctant to do something here. But still, you absolutely wouldn't see a medieval center street today in such poor condition in cities like Florence, Siena, or Prague. So, what's the deal?

To find out, I did some googling and discovered that the street is steeped in history. According to this travel blog:

[Kapitulska] is one of the oldest streets in Bratislava, if not the oldest. Records of the streets' existence go back all the way to 1204 with connection of the street to castle hill. The street also was of great importance due to St. Martin's Cathedral located at its end. If you walk along Kapitulsk√° ulica you'll see gold markers on the road, stamped with a crown. These are markers identifying the route taken by the coronation procession from the cathedral, walked by 11 Hungarian kings and 8 royal spouses.

Kapitulska is also supposedly the only street in Bratislava to have kept its original name. More importantly, all the buildings up and down the length of the street were owned by the catholic church.

All church property (except for the actual churches) was seized by the state during Communism, and many of these structures fell into disrepair in the ensuing decades while the government just sat on them. Once Communism ended, the church got it all back, but many of the buildings were in horrible condition, and the church apparently didn't have the money or the motivation (I don't know which) to restore everything. Preserving historical structures is undeniably expensive, but is it okay to just let these buildings disintegrate? The church appears to have sold some of the buildings off, and those have been restored and renovated, transformed into apartments or small office spaces. But several other buildings are in desperate need of attention. We actually looked at an apartment in one of the newly renovated buildings, but it had a few too many caveats for us to want to take it (despite awesomely vaulted ceilings and walls that were 2 feet thick). The owner of the apartment we looked at told us some interesting things about the street and nearby buildings.

Directly across the street from the apartment we checked out is a decent sized two story building (three if you count the ground floor) that should be housing a few awesome apartments, but is instead languishing, covered in graffiti, and totally gutted. The owner we spoke with told us that this building was recently discovered to be literally on the verge of falling down, so whoever owns it had to stop sitting on it and do something about it.

In America, people would assume this is a crack house.  But in Slovakia,  people associate buildings like this with the catholic church. 

He then pointed to the once glorious building right next door to his, and said that the roof partially collapsed and that it'd been given a bandaid repair, but was still in dire need of more substantial restoration.

This owner also claimed that the poor state of these buildings was really the church's fault. He said anytime you see a really run down building in a town's historical center, there's a good chance the church owns it. He made no mention of the Communists' alleged participation in this neglect, but who knows? Maybe both parties were complicit. Or maybe some of these buildings were damaged back in WWII? But the church has had a couple decades to spruce things up. Do they simply lack the money? Do they even care? Are they reluctant to sell off their property to someone who can renovate it? If so, why? Is it difficult to allocate state money to aid in restoring church-owned buildings, even though they have historical monument status? So many questions! Whatever the reason, it's truly sad that these buildings have been allowed to fall into such a serious state of disrepair.

Despite all that, Kapitulska is still a beautiful street, and I sometimes go out of my way just to walk through it. At any given time, I'll see another person who appears to be as taken with the street as I am, snapping away at his or her camera. I hope the buildings that are on the brink of collapse can be saved and preserved, but I'm just happy this street exists.

Kapitulska at night.

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