For a place which joined the list of national capitals only a couple of months ago, Bratislava has a dismal reputation. Thieves, I was assured, were abundant, while my choice of hotel - the Palace - was said to be 'full of gypsies and Yugoslavs'.

I presume this was supposed to constitute a warning, but almost all my fellow residents were good company. There were, indeed, some weatherworn and well-travelled characters, with an impressive appetite for rough tobacco and brandy at 9am, but they seemed a more genial bunch than the people at the hard currency hotel across the road. The only troublesome guests were an American couple who had brought their dog and insisted it join them for breakfast. Fortunately the beast understood my English expletives suggesting it remove its nose from my toast.

People sneer at the idea of visiting Bratislava, as if to say 'Why bother, when Prague is still there?' While Czecho- was welded to Slovakia, it was easy to overlook the country's second city. But now that central Europe has splintered, a visit to its newest capital sounded intriguing - if dangerous. In reality, the locals are civilised and Bratislava is bright and mostly beautiful.

Five years ago this month, the first demonstrations against Communism took place in Slovakia. On New Year's Day it became Europe's newest country, and Bratislava is trying to adjust to the mantle of capital. The task got harder when the divorce became final and the federation's family purse was split up.

Earlier this century, the Slovak crown was a thoroughly dependable currency, like the Swiss franc. For the last six weeks, however, the nation has been getting used to something rather different. The new Slovak crown is just the old Czechoslovak version overprinted with the nation's insignia. The few Westerners in Bratislava are pestered by black-marketeers trying desperately to offload currency lacking the overprint. Do not be tempted; it has no value.

Slovakia has various trappings of nationhood, including a national gallery. Visitors are so rare that the staff scuttle around in front of you, turning the lights on and off as you proceed through the collection. The pictures are not world-class - Slovakia has never been fantastically innovative in terms of fine art - but the interior alone justifies a visit. Just tell yourself you have gone to a door museum and enjoy the exquisite marquetry.

The national museum is not worth a wander unless you have a fascination for ineptly stuffed animals. Much more intriguing is the pharmaceutical museum, an old chemist's shop. The stern, heavy shelves are crammed with ornate jars that used to conserve remedies such as cannabis and something called pulverised purgator.

The new nation is still trying to purge the detritus of Soviet domination. There is one unavoidable concrete memorial to 45 years of state socialism: the Slovak National Uprising Bridge, perched astride the Danube. It is a piece of decidedly uncivil engineering, an equilateral triangle on an absurd scale; its base conveys traffic across the river, while its apex pierces the elegant skyline of old Bratislava.

The approach roads gouge a concrete scar through the city. The Jewish quarter of the Stare Mesto, the Old Town, was obliterated in 1972 in a bypass operation at Europe's heart. Homes and synagogues were destroyed for a throughway to enable smoky Skodas to cross the Danube and Soviet tanks to get within firing distance of Vienna. Locals maintain that the Czechs, politically stronger than the Slovaks, ordered this urban vandalism to thwart any claim Bratislava might have to match the beauty of Prague.

If that was the intention, it failed. The three-quarters of the Old Town which has survived is still implausibly pretty. A startling mix of architectural styles has converged, a rich muddle of Gothic, baroque and Ottoman. Civic life has been rudely awakened by the influx of new foreign influences, such as two branches of Benetton and a chic cafe - in the unlikely surroundings of the British Council offices.

You stoop through an archway into a medieval courtyard, leading to a chamber where hi-tech blends seamlessly with middle Europe. Thick soup, creamy cappuccino and a previous weekend's Independent are shared by expatriates trying to explain the finer points of capitalism to Slovakia's nouveaux riches. Most visitors feel embarrassingly wealthy: prices are about one-fifth of those across the frontier in Austria. The narrow streets of the old town are full of pastel- painted cottages - and apartment blocks being done up by Austrian businesses for sale as holiday homes to the Viennese.

The capital of Slovakia has been bartered and battled over for centuries. It is plumb in the middle of Europe; you can walk to Austria in an hour, to Hungary in 90 minutes. Celts settled here 2,000 years ago, Romans and Slavs followed. Bratislava became the capital of Hungary when the Turks took over Budapest in 1536, and Hungarian monarchs were crowned here for more than three centuries.

The coronation church is a few fume-filled feet from a trans-European super-highway, the E-65. The cathedral of St Martin, a Gothic masterpiece, trembles a little each time a lorry roars past. It is best early on a bright Sunday morning when the sun streams through the stained glass, softening the raw, austere interior and the traffic outside is lightest. Even the post office in Bratislava is glamorous, an Art Deco confection which bestows bureaucracy with a certain majesty. (If you want something as prosaic as a stamp, go to desk 13.)

The old Town Hall has become the city museum, and traces of medieval frescos are clearly visible. The first section is a gallop through the history of Bratislava, the highlight of which is the map exhibition. The city was a cartographical centre, and a 1637 map of Europe provides the prospective traveller with stereotypical illustrations of each nationality; Belgians are shown as fat, Poles dour and Greeks knavish. Then you move into a charming collection of municipal memorabilia, faded photographs of football teams and pictures of a procession of musical worthies: Bratislava was bang in the middle of the European tour circuit for composers such as Bartok and Mozart.

Just when you are basking in the charm of the museum, a mischievous finger beckons down to the basement. It contains a fully equipped torture chamber, full of manically crafted machines for settling scores or extracting confessions. The walls are draped with diagrams of the sadist's methodology, showing how to carry out castrations or fry feet.

In military terms, Bratislava's bark has long been rather worse than its bite. From the river, its castle looks imposing and impregnable. Look closer, however, and you see its rear end merges comfortably with suburbia. Any invader could just walk across what are now back gardens to storm the citadel, and plenty did.

You can scale a sequence of staircases to the castle grounds, where the view (even on a murky day) extends over Slovakia's capital and into Hungary and Austria. The first fortifications on this site were probably Roman, reinforced over the centuries by Slavs and Hungarians. Each wave of invaders, it seems, demolished the existing castle buildings and put up new ones; the present palace was erected inexpertly after the USSR swept in at the end of the Second World War. It is closed indefinitely for repairs.

Trolleybus 213 whines as it climbs up to Slavin, a tribute to the heroes of socialism. At the crown of the city's highest hill, a cemetery has been laid out for the war dead of a former superpower; 7,000 Soviet soldiers perished while Bratislava was taken in 1945. Each tomb bears a faded sepia portrait of a brave young Russian or Ukrainian, who died fighting somebody else's war. The quiet beauty of the location makes it all the more poignant.

From this height, the charm of the Old Town is concealed. Much of the panorama is taken up with ugly apartment blocks which the tourist literature describes as 'testimonies to a thriving economy'. The Slovak capital looks overwhelmingly functional, all gaunt chimneys and graceless tower blocks. The Danube, which washes the scum of central Europe through Bratislava, looks as dull as the ditchwater it contains.

At a distance you can understand how Bratislava acquired a dismal reputation - but an undeserved one. This week, as the tourists swarm through Prague, Bratislava is host only to the International Fair of Packaging. Give or take a posse of plastic bag salesmen, you can have Europe's newest capital to yourself.

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Getting there: No Slovak visa is required for holders of British passports. The easiest way to reach Bratislava from the UK is by flying to Vienna and taking the direct bus from the airport (80 minutes, about pounds 10). Simon Calder paid pounds 153 for a return flight on British Airways from Gatwick, booked through Hamilton Travel (071-439 3199). The only requirement is a Saturday night stay.

Getting around: The network of buses, trams and trolleybuses is fast, efficient and cheap. You must buy tickets in advance (about 5p each) from kiosks or machines, and cancel them on board the vehicle. Bicycles can be hired from Bicycklov, Janka Krala 45; take bus 25 or 30 to the end of the line.

Accommodation: Simon Calder stayed at the Palace Hotel at Postova Ulica 1 (010427 333657); it is a traditional Eastern Europe (ie shoddy) hotel, but is in the heart of the city and costs only pounds 10 single or pounds 17 double, including breakfast. The Forum (348111) is diagonally opposite; it is a brand-new Western-style hotel and costs at least pounds 40 single, pounds 60 double.

Further information: Cedok, 49 Southwark Street, London SE1 1RU (071-378 6009); fax 071- 403 2321).

The new edition of Czech and Slovak Republics: The Rough Guide by Rob Humphreys (Penguin, pounds 8.99) is out this week.

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