Friday, May 11, 2012

Pozor! Bratislava: An Obstacle Course of Peril and Pain

Bratislava is not a city for the accident prone. Something I've found consistently amusing during my stay here is what I like to call the ubiquity of perilous urban obstacles. By that I mean, the city seems like a veritable obstacle course, with streets dotted with loose or missing paving stones; public stairways with loose or broken steps and smooth, slippery surfaces (and sometimes no handrails!); and sidewalks full of gaping cracks, crater-like dips, and wavy warps. You know, the kinds of things that would throw typical Americans into a total lawsuit frenzy.

Steps leading to Bratislava's St. Nicholas church.

But people in Slovakia apparently have a different mindset, i.e., it seems like they pay attention to their surroundings. And if they do suffer the occasional tumble, they are more likely to grumble, "goddamn cheap city, why can't they fix this sidewalk," than conceive of taking anyone to court over it, and they would most likely just get up and get on with their lives.

(Once again, Marek Bennett has a cartoon that illustrates all of this wonderfully).

Small paving stones on Hviezdoslavovo namestie; back in April, one of these little stones got lodged into some tram tracks and caused a tram to derail (nobody was injured). 

Part of this problem stems from the fact that Bratislava simply doesn't seem to have enough money to run around and make everything idiot-proof. Of course, a lot of the money that could go towards maintaining the city's pockmarked roads and walkways is probably ending up in someone's pockets. But the city is lucky that people here don't seem to be so litigious. In America, people are so lawsuit crazy that cities have to be obsessive about making sure any cracks or holes in the sidewalk are patched, all public stairways have some kind of traction on the steps and hand railings to prevent slipping, edges of train platforms are brightly colored and well marked, as are protruding beams and random sudden steps. Even children's playgrounds, once typically lined with a layer of tanbark, now all seem to have thick rubber or cork padding on the ground to cushion the falls of kids from jungle gyms. Cities in the litigious US have to go to these lengths in order to cover their asses.

I nearly ate it once when absentmindedly stepping into one of these while gazing up at the glorious facades along Michalska ulica. 
Sometimes these loose cobblestones make a fun suction-y sound when stepped upon after a good rain. 

Most of these little urban hazards aren't going to kill anyone, however, they do occasionally cross the line to where there is potential for tragedy. On a nasty, stormy February afternoon, Terezia and I were on a tram when we witnessed a powerful gust of wind knock down the entire aluminum frame of this billboard. It came within inches of hitting an elderly lady who just happened to be walking by when it fell. Had she been a foot to her right, she could have been killed or severely injured. Of course, when we told Slovak friends and family about this, they all agreed it was terrible, but followed that up with a sentiment along the lines of "but yeah, that's Slovakia for you."

Need to cross the street but happen to be confined to a wheelchair? Well screw you, Bub!

I'm constantly amazed at how unaccommodating Slovakia (hell, pretty much all of Europe) is with regard to the disabled. Sidewalks at intersections with no curb ramps are ubiquitous in Bratislava! To be sure, there are a good number of sidewalks that do have wheelchair accessible curb ramps, but there are just as many that do not, and there's no rhyme or reason as to why some do and others don't. This issue is not exclusive to Slovakia - it's rampant all over Europe. Wheelchair accessibility is really another can of worms, however, so I won't dwell on it, but it's safe to say that it would be pretty much impossible for people in wheelchairs to live self-sufficient, independent lives in most European cities. (On the flip side, I doubt most European cities could ever afford to make everything wheelchair friendly, especially in today's economic climate). (And hell, if you're disabled, don't even think about trying to get on a bus or tram, or in most public buildings for that matter!).

These steps look shoddy enough, but when covered in snow or rain during the winter, they become treacherously slippery due to their super smooth surface. It's almost kind of comical. Also, notice the complete lack of handrail, and how the concrete along the left side, which could be used to save one's fall, is typically covered in many inches of snow during those slippery winter months. Pozor!

Of course I wouldn't want to give the impression that all of Bratislava is a torn up minefield, and I'm sure you could find much worse in Ukraine or Russia. It's just that after spending a little time here, you start to notice these things and compare/contrast them with other places. Also, I suppose I should commend many of Bratislava's women, who manage to effortlessly navigate these uneven streets in high stiletto heels. Plus, I adore those perilously ankle-twisting cobblestoned streets like Kapitulska, and I hope that they always remain that way.

I love how there's nothing atop this thigh-high wall to keep clumsy or drunk pedestrians from falling over onto the freeway directly below. 
Oh, but wait - it gets better! Turn around 180 degrees from the spot in the above photo, and that thigh-high wall turns into this!
I've seen a few people narrowly avoid stepping/stumbling into this sudden 12" drop when ambling along. In America this would likely have a hefty iron railing around it. 

(Psst! Check out recent photos from Budapest here, and photos of Bratislava here).


  1. Oh, it does me such good to see such photos of dear places & pitfalls... And will you also do special expose on deadly tram traffic & other spectacular vehicular accidents?

    1. Yes, the trams are worthy of a blog post, partly because they're my favorite means of public transportation in the city, but also because of the evil kamikaze tram drivers.

  2. PS. Here is one of my favorites, from Presov (near bus station):

    1. Ha! That is hilarious! I love it. There must be a certain kind of logic at work here, but I'm not sure just what it is!

  3. I really enjoyed this post. It reminds me a lot of Taiwan. A classmate of my wife's brother, when he was in medical school, rode a motor scooter on a familiar road on the last day of class. He had just received his doctorate in medicine. On this day, there was a piece of rebar sticking out of a building close to the road, and it smacked him hard at the bridge of his nose as he rode by. Somehow, this resulted in instant, permanent blindness. He ended up being some kind of Buddhist monk, his life wasted. I HATE when my kids go to Taiwan without me (my wife has taken them a couple of times), because I'm not there to protect and warn them. I'm great at not getting hurt because 20 years of riding a motorcycle gave me eyes in the back of my head and extreme paranoia.

    One day we were walking with one of my wife's friends, exploring a path through a rural area near my wife's parents' home, on the way to a Buddhist temple. The woman was kind, intelligent, and college educated, a 2nd grade school teacher. At one point the path was bounded by a cement retaining wall that dropped about 25 feet to rocky ground below, and her little 4-year-old was walking on it, unattended. The mother didn't even CONSIDER that her daughter could fall to her death. Also, I noticed that when sitting in the back seat of a car, my wife's college educated friends didn't wear seat belts (this was 20 years ago and may have changed by now, but I doubt it).

    I was with my little daughter in the lobby of the beautiful new high-rise condo building my wife's mother had just bought a unit in, and I noticed that the huge metal door from the lobby to the street was closing so hard (something wrong with the spring-loaded closing mechanism) that it could instantly crush or even cut off a child's hand. I watched this door for a whole week, and of course nobody ever fixed it.

    Wow, your picture of the knee-high wall next to a highway is a mindblower. WTF??!! That's even worse than anything I've seen in Taiwan.