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Slovakia's capital is a hidden treasure

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia — Locals like to joke that the Slovak capital is upside-down.

Bratislava's most infamous bridge looks as though a giant UFO has landed on its top. A castle overlooking the Danube River bears a bizarre resemblance to a flipped-over table.

Architectural oddities aside, though, there's nothing backward about Bratislava, Vienna's next-door neighbor to the east, which seems to have launched a charm offensive aimed at sweeping away the last vestiges of communism.

The city of 430,000 hasn't yet made it on the itineraries of most travel agencies offering European tours, but it's a perfect side trip for those visiting the Austrian capital just 40 miles away and eager to glimpse a country in transition.

"The city's center is beautifully renovated and has a great atmosphere," said Tana Tekusova, a university student. "It's worth visiting . . . not huge like Vienna or Paris, but cozier and friendlier."

Bratislava has come a long way from its gray, shabby communist days. Today, locals and tour groups alike pack the pulsing cafes around Hlavne Namestie, the main square of the old town.

To be sure, the last century wasn't kind to this once lively metropolitan city of Slovaks, Hungarians, Germans and Jews.

Its charm and multiculturalism was damaged during World War II, when Slovakia served as a puppet state to Nazi Germany.

But now, the changes since Slovakia shook off communism in 1989 are evident.

Bratislava has made a tremendous comeback, turning into a favorite destination with the old town freshly renovated and cafes and restaurants teeming with life.

The municipality and private investors have put millions of dollars into renovation of the city center. Visitors don't have to go far to step into the past: Just across the Danube is the suburb of Petrzalka, a bleak example of the communist-era obsession with concrete.

"In the early 1990s, people demanded renovation of the historical center," said Milan Vajda, a city spokesman. "They demanded not only reconstruction, but also spiritual revival."

Your feet won't get sore while touring the city, because it won't take long. But history here is tangled up everywhere, and it's bound to test your memory.

For example, the current presidential palace was built by a nobleman in the 18th century. During WWII, it served as the seat to the wartime president, later replaced by the communist youth organization's headquarters.

Renovated in shades of white and gray, it's not guarded like the White House, so visitors are free to roam its manicured gardens.

From here, head up the hill to the castle, renovated in the 1960s after an extensive fire a century earlier, and take in the magnificent view.

Hockey fans are sure to be enticed by the newly opened Hockey Hall of Fame, the world's fourth shrine to the sport, which features such NHL stars of Slovak origin as Stan Mikita and Peter Stastny. The hilltop castle is a temporary venue until the hall finds new quarters.

There are boat tours of the Danube below, and public buses shuttle visitors to the village of Devin to view the ruins of a medieval castle above the confluence of the Danube and Morava rivers and close to the border with Austria — a forbidding frontier that in communist times was heavily guarded and sealed off with barbed wire.

Back in Bratislava, a recently renovated underground mausoleum houses the tombs of renowned rabbis, including one of the 19th century's greatest Jewish scholars, Chatam Sofer. There's also the glory of St. Martin's cathedral, where Hungarian kings were crowned.

No visit is complete without snapping a photo of Cumil, a bronze statute of a man playfully peeking out from under a manhole cover. The figure just off Hlavne Namestie has become one of Bratislava's chief attractions.

Even though Cumil is a fictional character, stories abound of the real-life characters who may have inspired his creation. Some claim he was a partisan who hid underground; others, a local man simply interested in a glimpse up the skirts of passing women.

From here, it's just few steps to the 1886 Opera House, the Philharmonic building and the renovated posh Carlton Hotel once visited by such luminaries as Alfred Nobel, the late Swedish inventor of dynamite whose prizes for peace and scientific and literary achievement bear his name.

Bratislava is not Vienna, and that can be a good thing, especially when it comes to paying for a meal or a cultural experience.

A ticket to the opera costs just $21.50, admission to the Philharmonic just $16.

Schnitzels and fried cheese are no longer the sole staples of Slovak cuisine. Restaurants are plentiful — to sample the local specialties, try Slovenska Restauracia on the Hviezdoslavovo Namestie, or the popular Paparazzi eatery.