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Slovakia's youthful capital (www.bratislava.sk) has transformed itself from a relatively unappealing sprawl of postwar, Communist-era buildings into a relaxed and pleasant medium-size capital in the span of little more than a decade. The city's compact Old Town has been completely and stunningly renovated. Most of the area is restricted to car traffic, and in the evenings, it seems, the whole town converges on the center for a cup of coffee or a glass of wine. Plan on being thoroughly charmed, and you might even consider extending your stay.

Until relatively recent times Bratislava (known as Pressburg to the Germans, and Pozsony in Hungarian) was a sleepy port on the Danube River (Dunaj in Slovak). It was only in the post-World War II decades, under Czechoslovakia's then-Communist government, that the city exploded in population to the current around 500,000. The Communists were keen on building up the Slovak capital as a way of gaining Slovak support. You can see the results of this rapid buildup in the high-rise residences on the outskirts of town. The largest of these Communist-era housing projects, Petrzalka, just across the SNP Bridge from the Old Town, holds something like 150,000 people.

Bratislava has played an important role in Hungarian history. During the Turkish occupation of Hungary, the Hungarians moved their capital here. No less than 11 Hungarian royals were crowned in Bratislava's St. Martin's cathedral on Dóm Sv. Martina down through the ages.