Saturday, June 30, 2012

My Back is Whack: More Fun with Slovakia's Health Care System - Part 2

Continued from Part 1...

Three weeks into this back blow-out, and I felt like I wasn't making adequate progress. In the past it would take two weeks tops to recover from throwing out my back, so I was feeling a bit freaked out and helpless about the whole thing.

Naturally, it made sense to go back to the doctor at the catholic/state-run facility to see if there was any more he could do. As soon as we walked in the room, he acted strangely irritated, as if it was somehow nervy of us to come back and suggest that what he'd prescribed had been inadequate. He then told us to go to a real hospital and get an MRI. Terezia asked if there was anything he could do then and there to help ease the pain. At that point he snapped and went into this lengthy tirade about how he just treats people with minor aches and pains and what the hell do we expect him to do anyway! Then he accused us of coming to Slovakia specifically to take advantage of its health care system so as to deal with what must be a chronic, pre-existing condition. Right! As if we'd come to some mecca of socialized medicine like Sweden or Canada! Please. With doctors like this, people must be clamoring to get into this country!

He then accused us of lying, and insisted that we weren't divulging the whole story with my back, which was strange given that we most definitely had told him at our first visit that I'd had lower back issues in the past. Terezia, in complete disbelief at how our presence had stirred this lazy doctor's rage, asked, "so you're not going to do anything?! You're just going to let him suffer?!" He threw his hands in the air and begrudgingly agreed to go ahead and give me an injection (if that would get us the hell out of his office!), but then his nurse blocked him, asking when I'd last taken the Aflamil he prescribed. I stupidly said I'd taken some that morning, and she said no way, no injection, since I'd already taken the pill. Never mind that taking these pills twice (or more) a day has nowhere near the effect of a good injection!

We were shocked at how this sad excuse for a doctor acted completely unprofessionally and got very defensive when Terezia called him on his refusal to actually get out of his chair and do something. I've dealt with an asshole doctor or two in the past, but had never encountered anything like this useless creep. If anything, this guy's unsympathetic behavior smacked of the kind of old-school, communist-era style of customer service, meaning, a complete and utter lack of it. 

We went to the hospital in Ruzinov, but of course we couldn't schedule an MRI until late July (it was mid-May at this point). However, we decided to see the orthopedic doctor there, and she turned out to be much more professional, helpful, and hands-on. Perhaps a little too hands on, as Terezia was convinced that this 40-something woman had a "thing" for me. She had me strip to my underwear (with echoes of Tomas' "take off your clothes" from Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being) and spent 45 minutes crawling all over me on the massage table with what Terezia described as this gleeful little grin on her face. All I can say is that unlike Dr. Jerkface at the catholic state-run place, this doctor asked me a slew of questions, had me bending around in a million different positions so as to pinpoint and better understand the problem, and prescribed me a more thorough and extensive round of physical therapy and treatments. I had complete confidence in this doctor since she was actually doing her job and taking my problem seriously. 

The treatments/therapy involved 20 minutes of lying on my stomach with a sheet of piping hot paraffin wax on my back, followed by 15 minutes of electrodes, and a five minute light massage done with this gun-shaped thing with a smooth, warm steel ball at the tip. They also put me in traction, whereby they strapped me to a mechanical table with a massive leather belt wrapped around my pelvis, then using the large, round communist-era dials on the front panel, they tilted the table so that I was basically hanging with my head pointing downward at what felt like a 25 degree angle, and left me there for 5-8 minutes. Everything but the electrodes was new to me! These treatments were followed by pilates/core exercises (some of which I was already well acquainted with) with a really nice girl named Lucia who, luckily, spoke just enough English to be able to explain what to do.

One morning when I was sitting outside Lucia's office before my physical therapy session, the "take off your clothes" doctor saw me when walking down the hall. She came right up to me, leaned in very close, and put her hands on my knees, with her face literally inches away from mine, totally invading my space bubble. Staring straight and unblinkingly into my eyes, she asked me how I was doing. I replied matter-of-factly that things were going well, that I was doing the exercises, but that I was not yet back to normal. With her face still inches away from mine, she spent a few minutes extolling the virtues of proper breathing and a regimen of core exercises. 

I also went in for a daily infusion of painkillers via an IV for an hour per day for five days. I'd basically lie there in a dental chair hooked up to an IV and read, after which I'd feel really drowsy during the tram ride home. I'm not sure what they were giving me or how much it really helped, but it certainly didn't hurt. The young nurse there spoke very limited English, and when prepping the needle she would always say "now I inject you" with her thick Soviet spy accent. (By the way, I've noticed that absolutely none of the nurses in Slovakia who have given me shots or IVs have ever worn gloves. But in the US, nurses and doctors always wear nitrile or latex gloves when working with needles. I wonder, are Americans too paranoid [or litigious], or are Slovaks too laid back and/or clueless?)

After a week and a half of physical therapy, I went back to Doctor "take off your clothes" for a follow-up. She had me strip down again, climbed all over me while I was on her table, and then prescribed another round of treatments, this time including a heat lamp and a more strenuous set of exercises with Lucia.

Now in late-June I've completed the treatments and I'm feeling significantly better, although perhaps not quite 100% back to normal. My spine has been straight for a while now, and sitting (and getting up afterwards) is much better, but some types of chairs (usually of the scooped or bucketed variety, especially car seats or low and deep couches) are still a bit problematic. Sometimes I wake up in the morning with stiffness in my lower back. The doctor suggested I go out to Raca, a Bratislava suburb to the northeast of the city, to the only store in the greater metropolitan area (!) that sells lumbar support cushions (which I especially needed for those frequent car trips to the in-laws' house, 2.5 hours away) to buy one. Unfortunately, after an hour in the car it flattens like a pancake. Meanwhile, I'm doing my best to do the pilates exercises at least 5 times a week. Of all the back blow-outs I've had, this was absolutely one of the worst, and I obviously don't want a repeat of it. 

Sunday, June 24, 2012

My Back Is Whack: More Fun with Slovakia's Health Care System - Part 1

So, some of you may recall the back blow-out that I had last November shortly after we returned from our honeymoon in Italy. Well, after our Budapest trip at the end of April, I had another one, and the symptoms were frustratingly similar. My lower spine was bent so that my torso jutted out to the side from my pelvis at a disconcerting angle. I felt like a human S-curve and looked like a sign post that'd been clipped by a drunk driver. And of course, the lower left portion of my back was in considerable pain. After a couple days of lying flat on my back and icing it while taking the last of our supply of Advil from the States, Tony took me to a local emergency room so that I could get an injection and a good, pain-killing prescription. Again, readers may recall this seemed to work like a charm the last time around, so I had high hopes.

However, Tony and Terezia took me to the hospital in Ruzinov this time instead of the one in Kramare, where he took me back in November. Sitting in the waiting room seat was excruciating. I wanted to lie down on the floor, and might have had it not been so worn and grimy. Every time I stood up after sitting down, the pain in my lower spine was absolutely unbearable. When it was finally my turn to go in, the elderly doctor took a look at my back and proclaimed "Jesus!" (pronounced in Slovak like yeh-zheesh), and chastised us for not going straight to an orthopedic specialist (which we can do now that I'm insured). But after hearing Terezia speak for a bit, the doctor commented on how nice her Slovak sounded and ascertained that she and Terezia must come from the same region of the country (the area around Hrinova in the south-central part of Slovakia), after which she quite noticeably lightened up and acted very pleasant for the remainder of our visit.

The doctor wrote me a prescription for some pain killers, her assistant gave me an injection, and we went home. Sadly, unlike last time, this injection seemed to do nothing and the prescription offered scant relief.

After another excruciating day with zero improvement, we decided on Friday morning to go to an orthopedic specialist at a clinic/outpatient hospital a few blocks away from our place, which happens to be a state-run, yet catholic (I know, I don't get it either) facility, complete with pictures of various popes on every wall gazing creepily out over the suffering patients. We called to see if we could make an appointment, but we were told that you just have to get there around 6:45 in the morning and wait our turn. In fact, this American emergency room style of waiting for a doctor seems to be normal here in Slovakia, as apparently simply letting patients call ahead to schedule an appointment for an agreed-upon time is a totally alien concept and would make things far too easy.

Also, just like Slovakia's bureaucratic state offices, it seems that many of its doctors only work half days on Friday. Because of this, the mood in the waiting room was fraught with tension, what with the late comers fearing they may not make the 12:00 cut off. After arriving at 6:45 AM and waiting for nearly two endurance-defying hours we finally got to go in, and upon seeing my back the doctor immediately exclaimed, "Jesus!" and promptly sent me downstairs for an x-ray. I was surprised at how few questions he asked about the pain I was feeling. In fact, he didn't even get up from his chair once. After looking at the x-ray, he simply said, "Oh, well I guess that's just how your spine is!" Um, no - my spine is normally not shaped like a paperclip that someone has attempted to straighten. I really didn't have much confidence in this doctor's opinion. The fact that he appeared to be well into his 70s and acted as if he was counting the days until retirement didn't help.

At any rate, he prescribed 10 days of physical therapy treatment and a pain killer called Aflamil and something else to help me sleep. Unfortunately, I would have to wait a week before I could start the therapy.

I suffered through the weekend and still not feeling any progress, I decided that we needed to find a chiropractor. I saw a chiropractor in Oakland who helped ENORMOUSLY when I'd had problems in the past, and since there was just no way I could spend several more days lying around on my back in this painful, crooked state, we needed to find someone fast. The problem is that chiropractors are apparently still kind of a novel thing here in Slovakia, and asking people if they know of one is pretty much guaranteed to elicit blank stares. Tony asked around at his work anyway.

As it turned out, a co-worker of Tony's just happened to know of a guy who had helped her with a serious back blow-out, and she highly recommended him. Tony called this chiropractor, or whatever the hell he was, and the guy told us to come over that evening. He works out of his home in Galanta, which is about a 45 minute drive outside Bratislava, so Tony kindly drove us to his place.

I had no idea what to expect. Visits to my chiropractor in Oakland required hour-long appointments, during which he'd start off by asking lots of questions and gently move me around in different positions to pinpoint the source and nature of the pain. He would then have me lie face down on a massage table and place heat packs over my lower back and electrodes over the muscles around the affected area and leave me like that for 15-20 minutes. Next he would give me a deep and soothing massage, and for the finale he'd do the adjustment, after which he'd send me home with a bunch of pilates/core exercises to do. He was extremely methodical and thorough, and I always felt better when walking out of his office. I wondered if I'd receive the same kind of attention from this guy in Galanta.

When we got to his house, there were a few people in line ahead of us holding items ranging from large bottles of slivovice to a plucked duck carcass, which we took to mean this "chiropractor" worked on a barter system for people who were short on cash. We were soon called into his "office," which was a palatial, expensively tiled bathroom. The guy was sitting on his massage table, and he was so incredibly massive that I swear he looked a bit like Jabba the Hut from Return of the Jedi, but, of course, without a scantily clad Princess Leia on a chain at his side. I stood in front of him, took off my shirt, and when he looked at my back he blurted out with his deep, stentorian voice, "Jesus! Do pici!" He said I looked like I needed surgery and that he was shocked at what he described as the criss-crossing angles of my lower vertebrae, especially in relation to my pelvis. He also noted that my lower back muscles were visibly swollen and wondered how I could even manage to walk.

He took his knuckles and began jabbing them sharply and deeply into both sides of my vertebrae at key points along my spine. Each jab made me flinch and tense up - it kind of hurt! He went up and down the length of my spine a few times, literally jabbing the vertebrae back into place with his thick and powerful knuckles, and he ended with a couple of sharp yanks on my pelvis. And that was it. It took all of two minutes. He told me to buy some anti-inflammatory gel and use it liberally, and then to come back the next morning once the swelling was down so he could work on me a little more.

We asked him how much this visit would cost, and he asked us where in America we had moved from. When we told him San Francisco, he said that we could pay him by inviting him out there and hooking him up with a blonde woman one evening and then a brunette the next. Funny guy.

When walking back to the car I noticed I was already feeling looser and more flexible for the first time in over a week. There was still soreness, but two minutes with Jabba the Hut really seemed to have made a difference.

Wanting to cover all bases, Tony was nice enough to then drive us to the hospital so that I could get another injection. This time he took me to the one in Kramare. While we were in the waiting room, this very visibly soused man with a blood-soaked bandage covering his head and a wide stream of dried blood running down the entire front of his flannel shirt stumbled out into the waiting room. He was apparently looking for his backpack. A nurse brought it out to him and told him if he wasn't so drunk that he wouldn't have misplaced it. Call me crazy, but I think that perhaps pointing out his blood-soaked, bandage-covered head might have been a more apt way to scold him for his drunkenness.

At any rate, the young female nurse called me into the office and told me in English with her thick Slovak accent to "pull down your pants, I inject you in your ass." I complied with her instructions and tried to relax my buttock as the long needle went in.

Fast forward an hour later, and my god, this injection was doing the trick. Not only was I feeling even looser than earlier, but the pain had decreased a bit. I felt incredibly drowsy yet stupidly happy, and my limbs were like floppy wet noodles. I don't know what the hell they gave me at that other hospital in Ruzinov the week before, but this injection definitely worked.

We went back to Jabba the next morning and he was impressed with the improvement. The swelling was gone and the spine was straighter. He did some more of his sharp, painful jabbing, and when he was through he had Terezia look at my spine, and they both agreed: it looked totally straight. Again, this took all of two minutes. He told me that I shouldn't do anything for the next two days, including having sex. He told Terezia that she could have sex, but just not with me. Funny guy.

Over the next week or so, my spine remained straight for the most part but I was still feeling pain, especially when sitting down, when there is a lot of pressure on the lower vertebrae. Meanwhile, I was going to my physical therapy appointments at the catholic yet state-run clinic every morning. These involved spending 10 minutes with electrodes hooked up to the muscles around the problem area, and then another 10 minutes with this strange, heat-emitting lamp resembling a prop from 2001: Spacey Odyssey shining directly onto my lower back. I was also taking pain killers around the clock. Despite all this, I still felt like I wasn't making much progress, and my spine would still occasionally shift back out of position, so it seemed a second visit to our soon to be retired chair-bound doctor was in order.

To be continued....

Monday, June 18, 2012

Weekend in Podrecany: a beautiful garden and an old mansion inhabited by a bocian

Go to any of Slovakia's numerous smaller towns and villages and you'll notice rows of pre-war houses sitting toward the front of narrow, long plots of land, the backs of which are often dedicated to vegetable gardens (and occasionally guarded by packs of chickens). In Slovakia, when you get out of the city, you notice that A LOT of people have pretty impressive vegetable gardens in their backyards. Plus, it's not uncommon for those who don't live in houses with backyards to own a patch of land that's walking distance from their place, on which they spend countless hours tending their vegetable patches.

People in Slovakia have been gardening for eons, and while it is feared that younger generations are losing touch with this close connection to the land, you still see plenty of lush gardens overflowing with food. For many, particularly retirees who live on skimpy pensions, this is a productive use of time as well as a good and healthy alternative to buying food in the grocery store. Potatoes and cabbage are among the most commonly grown veggies. Many people store the potatoes (a staple of the Slovak diet) in their root cellars, and make sauerkraut out of their cabbage, which they also store in large vats in their cellars. Supplies typically last through the winter! It's also common to pickle things, like beets and carrots, which again, are stored in jars in the root cellar for the winter.

Terezia's parents work their butts off every spring and they can boast of a particularly bountiful garden overflowing with snow peas, carrots, tomatoes, bell peppers, beets, two types of potatoes, a variety of lettuce greens, cabbage, spinach, melons, spring onions, flat-leaf parsley, corn, strawberries, and several other things that are escaping my mind right now. They've also got some raspberry, blackberry, and grape vines, as well as a slew of apple and plum trees. 

At the behest of Terezia, they apparently grow a little more than the average Slovak, particularly in the lettuce green department. Sadly, it seems that most Slovaks grow lettuce greens solely as food for their chickens or other animals (Slovaks are not big salad eaters, but that means more lettuce greens for us, as we eat salads like there's no tomorrow). Several weeks ago, Terezia's mom went to a neighbor down the street to buy some lettuce greens, and the neighbor asked, "so are you buying this to feed your mother's chickens?" She had to explain to her, "no, my daughter is making us eat salads tonight." 

We went to Terezia's parents' place in Podrecany over the weekend to celebrate her dad's birthday, and the garden, which has really been taking off this past month, was screaming out for me to whip out the camera and snap some photos. 




Beets and spring onions.
The garden from the other end. Notice the sea of potatoes. The trees on either side are a mix of apple and plum. In the fall, Terezia's dad collects the fruit that falls from them and uses it to make his booze. 
Cabbage, which will undoubtedly contribute to this year's batch of sauerkraut. 


Lettuce greens and spring onions. 
Terezia's mom sharing some snow peas with her niece's daughter Ninka. These peas are addictive - I'm constantly wandering in there to nibble on them. 


Sunday morning, Terezia's brother Tony and I went up the hill to the town mansion and explored the premises a bit. This required hopping the fence, something I've been wanting to do ever since I first saw the place (it's privately owned, not open to the public). Luckily there were no angry guard dogs. I don't know a whole lot about the place, but no one currently lives there and there's something a bit mysterious about it. It's situated on a prime piece of real-estate and is surrounded by several acres of gardens, which have over the years become wildly overgrown. It's apparently being restored by the owner. I would love to get a look inside. 

As an added bonus, there happens to be a massive nest of a bocian (Slovak for stork) on one of the chimneys. You can see storks and their nests all over this area of Slovakia. Seems like every village has one. This time of year you can spot the mother stork sitting in the nest with the heads of her babies poking out. Very cute. I'm seriously fascinated by these birds and their enormous nests because there are simply none of this size in the Bay Area in areas where humans have settled.  

The front of the mansion: notice the bocian nest atop the chimney on the right, as well as the cheap Communist-era remake of the fountain, front and center. 
The back of the mansion. 
A bocian (stork) keeping watch over the house. 
"What's it doing? WHAT DOES IT WANT???" 

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Rainbow Pride in Bratislava

Bratislava's LGBT community held its third annual gay pride march last weekend on June 9, officially dubbed the Duhovy (Rainbow) Pride rally, and fortunately it occurred without any major disturbances. This is a big deal because in 2010 the first attempt to hold such a parade was thwarted by a large number of homophobic thugs who threw smoke grenades, rocks, and other blunt objects at the participants, and caused enough of a disruption to prompt the organizers to reroute and drastically shorten the planned march. This year, problems were limited to only one smoke grenade being thrown into the crowd and about 50 so-called christian families who formed a human chain in front of the parliament building and voiced their misguided willingness to remain on the wrong side of history. So, the march went ahead as planned. About 100 police were there to monitor the parade.



What really annoys me, however, is that I completely forgot about and missed the whole thing! Yes, I missed Bratislava's third annual pride parade, a momentous and historic occasion for this country, and I am therefore a complete loser! And there's really no excuse, as the rally was happening only a few blocks away from our apartment, and we really wanted to check it out and show our support. So while I'd hoped to have been able to witness such a monumental (for Slovakia) event and document it with some photographs, we'll have to make due with photos I found on the web and my regurgitating accounts from the local news. Sigh...

At any rate, I think it's exciting that Slovakia's gay and lesbian community appears to be growing and willing to speak out. It's been a long time coming. Slovakia's track record on civil rights is not so great, while Slovakia has a reputation for being a fairly conservative and intolerant (and very catholic) country. Numerous critics of the movement, mostly people affiliated with the catholic church and more socially conservative corners of government, have expressed their lamentably knee-jerk views on the subject, but one hopes that they are increasingly becoming a minority voice.

It is estimated that just under 1000 people attended the rally, and before you wrinkle your brow over what seems like a low number, remember that this is Slovakia - not San Francisco - that we're dealing with, where homosexuality still seems to be considerably more taboo than in other countries. It's also noteworthy that reportedly a majority of the attendees were under 25, illustrating how, much like in the US, homophobia will eventually die off with older generations, and that for younger generations homosexuality is, at the very least, a non-issue. Still, Slovakia is light years away from legalizing gay marriage, and Bratislava is a long way off from the Castro, but this is all a promising start.


Friday, June 15, 2012

More Communist-era Architecture in Bratislava That Jeff Likes

One or two of you might remember this post, in which I went into some detail about several post-war Communist-era buildings in Bratislava/Slovakia that I happen to dig. There were a couple of buildings that I neglected to cover - the Slovak National Archives and the Kamzik television tower - because they're located in out of the way corners of the city. I finally got the chance to check these out, and I really do think they are visually quite striking and unique.

First is the Slovak National Archives, located up on a hill on the other side of Horsky park from downtown. What can I say? It's a good example of the sort of thing one could expect in the 1960s/early 70s when Communist-era architects were allowed to be more imaginative and possibly had slightly better budgets to work with. It's stylishly futuristic and pretty unique. The red on the non-marble surfaces is a nice touch (and is made up of little tiles, which are easier to make out in person). It's a little blocky, heavy, and intimidating in a way that is endearingly Communist, yet the lines add a cool sense of detail, even if they don't totally offset the dense heaviness of the thing. It's a striking contrast from its lush, green hillside setting. I like the way it looks like four massive, perfectly aligned panels. The bulk of the thing definitely gives the impression that the archival documents inside are safe from any catastrophes or natural disasters. The building reminds me of some of the things I drew in my Art 1 drawing class back in college for vanishing point perspective assignments. 




Notice the Kamzik radio tower on the hill in the distance.
This thing really is kind of in the middle of nowhere (although there is a suburb on the other side of it). 

I wish they'd designed panelaks to look more like this. If they had, Petrzalka would look so much cooler. 

I'd love to have gone inside, but I wasn't sure if I was really allowed to or if it's open to the public. The photos I've seen look similarly impressive. When I was walking around the building snapping photos, a big, burly guy with a shaved head came out and yelled something at me. I have no idea what he said, obviously, but at that point I was almost finished, so I just ignored him, kept snapping photos, and went on my way. I mean, c'mon, I know I'm not the only stupid foreigner to make the trek up to this thing and photograph it. Get over it, buddy!


Then there is Kamzik, the old television tower that sits on one of the highest peaks in the Bratislava hills, and which can be seen from pretty much all over the city below (kind of stealing the spotlight from Slavin, on a lower hill closer to the Stare Mesto). It was completed in 1975, and again, is fairly futuristic looking, albeit in a totally different way from the Archives building. Kamzik has a pleasing, kind of elegant and slender form, looking a wee bit like something you'd see jutting up from the top of Cloud City. It has to be one of the nicer modern television towers I've seen (certainly easier on the eyes than San Francisco's Sutro Tower, to name one example). It's difficult to really get a sense of its form from up close, as the only vantage points from which you can see the entire tower are from directly below, at its base. From anywhere else on the hill, Kamzik is obscured by the trees of the surrounding forest. I suppose it looks a little more elegant from a distance, where one can really appreciate its overall shape. 





Terezia and I did go inside back in late April, when her brother Tony was kind enough to drive us up there one evening. There are two restaurants which I believe are located at or just above the bulge. Unfortunately, those two restaurants are all there is in the tower; there's no public observation deck or anything, and if you want to check out the view you have to spend money in either restaurant. Luckily, the cheaper of the two will let you come up just for drinks if they have tables available. And the views are incredible - it almost feels like being in an airplane. Bratislava looks tiny from up there. Because I'm an idiot, I didn't take any photos of the views from inside, but clicking here will give you an idea of what it's like

What's nice about both of these structures is that, as far as I'm aware, no historical sections of town were demolished to make room for them, so they can be enjoyed guilt-free!

Monday, June 4, 2012

Bratislava's Castle and Its Close Brush With Total Destruction

Over the weekend I noticed an interesting new display hanging in Hviezdoslavovo Namestie entitled Italian Architects and Slovakia, which shows enlarged photos of various buildings in Bratislava and the rest of the country that were designed by Italians. Among these are photos of several architectural models and illustrations from the early 1940s of plans to destroy Bratislava's centuries old castle and replace it with a university campus.

Say what?!?!

That's right. In 1940-41, Bratislava's city planners sought to demolish the city's castle and in its place build a large, modern technical university campus. Of course, the castle just so happens to be one of Bratislava's most significant historical landmarks, not to mention one of the key defining features of its skyline, perched as it is atop a hill dramatically overlooking the Danube.

View of Bratislava's castle and historical town from across the Danube, as depicted on an old postcard.

It would seem that knocking it down was not something to be taken lightly. Yet, in the late 1930s, the city wanted to do just that, and a competition was held wherein architects from around Europe created and submitted their designs for the project. Entries were narrowed down to the plans of a few Italian architects, and had the city gone through with either of their designs, Bratislava would look quite different today, as these photos below illustrate.

 This plan, by Italian architects Aldo Lucchini and Giuseppe Pasqui, actually appears to keep and possibly restore the castle. But notice how, curiously, the two eastern towers are gone and only the two western towers remain. (Click photo to enlarge).  
This plan, designed by Ernesto and Attilio La Padula, does away with the castle completely, but preserves the southwestern tower, which is the oldest and largest of the four towers. 
The above design seen from a different angle. 
Similar view as above, but with the castle. 
How the above design would have looked from across the river. 
I have no idea who designed this and when. This is not part of the photo display in Hviezdoslavovo Namestie - I found it on-line, but cannot find any information about it. Perhaps this was designed by a local? I'm guessing it dates from the same period as the above designs. Regardless, it's pretty ghastly.

Fortunately, for whatever reason (I'm not totally clear if it was the war, a lack of money, or combination of the two), these plans were never executed, and the castle was spared.

But hold on - do you notice something else? Something missing from these designs? In all of these plans, not only has the castle been altered or demolished, but the entire area around the base of the castle hill, including the Jewish neighborhood (and old Jewish cemetery), has also been demolished and completely redeveloped. Tellingly, the only thing along the side of the hill that any of the designs left intact is the small catholic church of St. Nicholas, yet the historic neolog and orthodox synagogues are nowhere to be found!

This indicates that as early as 1940-41, shortly after Slovakia became a Nazi-puppet regime, but before it embarked on its program to deport all of its Jews (which began in March, 1942), the city already had plans to completely demolish the Jewish quarter.

I have to assume that this is what the architects were commissioned to do, that they were told the entire hill was fair game. And this raises a couple of questions: how long had city planners been wanting to bulldoze the Jewish quarter, and was their plan influenced by the wave of anti-semitism that hit Slovakia around this time? Fascist leader Josef Tiso came to power in early 1939 and began enacting his anti-semitic policies that same year. If it was in this atmosphere that these designs were commissioned, none of this should come as a surprise, and these designs can perhaps be seen as part of a much larger and more disturbing plan.

The photo display in Hviezdoslavovo Namestie completely glosses over this point, and the brief descriptions focus merely on the Italian architects and the designs they came up with. But surely, if in 1941 anyone was unaware that Jews would soon be deported, seeing these plans would show that the writing was definitely on the wall. What's implicit in these designs is therefore quite chilling.

Of course the Communists would eventually be the ones to plow through much of the Jewish quarter in the 1960s, but that's covered in another post.


As for the castle, well, as strange as it sounds, there was a time when demolishing it probably seemed like a logical thing to do. We have to take into account the fact that in 1811, the castle caught on fire and the resulting inferno left it a burnt, hollowed-out husk. Only the exterior walls remained intact; the interior was literally reduced to rubble. The castle remained in this ruinous state for nearly 150 years. By 1940, I imagine many people felt the damage to the castle was far too extensive to even contemplate restoring it. When seen in photos, the ruins look daunting, and I'm sure some people felt it was nothing more than a structurally hazardous eyesore sitting on a prime piece of real-estate that could be better used for something else.

The castle in the ruinous, hollowed-out state in which it remained after its 1811 fire for nearly 150 years. 
The castle's severely damaged post-fire interior. 
(Click here to see a cool illustrated history of the castle, documenting its life from its medieval roots, through the fire and resultant destruction, to its reconstruction and present state). 

But wait, wasn't there anyone who cared at all for the castle and its historical importance to the city? Was there anyone who opposed its destruction and lobbied for its restoration?

I don't know if the Communists - when they came to power in 1948 - initially intended to use either of the Italians' designs, or if they had something else in mind, but in 1953, Slovak artist Janko Alexy and Czech architect Alfred Piffl somehow managed to convince the regime to reconstruct the castle instead of destroying it to build the university. I have no idea how the hell these guys got the Communists to agree to this. I mean, A. it was an enormously costly undertaking and the Communists were perpetually short of funds, and B. the Communists were generally hostile towards architecture (or anything, really) that conflicted with their ideology, and were extremely reluctant to repair or restore it unless it had some legitimate, functional use. To them, the castle recalled a feudalist past, something that they clearly did not want to promote or advocate in any way. Yet, somehow, Alexy and Piffl sweet-talked them into a full-scale restoration. That they did is nothing short of miraculous. Not surprisingly, the restoration took 15 years. 

As thorough as the reconstruction was, however, they cut quite a few corners, and it wasn't until shortly after the year 2000 that the castle underwent an extensive restoration that brought it back to its former Habsburg-era glory. Of course, what you see today is almost entirely a replica, but at least it's there as a symbol of Bratislava's rich history.

But let's be honest - visually, it's not the most fetching castle by any means (it's kind of a boxy, hulking white monolith; the towers on its four corners make it resemble an upside down table). However, it's still a fascinating place, and there's definitely something majestic about the way it's perched at the top of the hill. And furthermore, it's a significant piece of Bratislava's history that I think most of us can agree was worth preserving.