Bratislava’s Communist Era Still Reigns at the Old Train Station

After three days in Bratislava of soaking up the sights, sounds, food, and centuries of history, it was time to return to Vienna, then on to the enigmatic Balkan country of Romania for a few weeks of exploring.

I bid a fond farewell to the staff at the hostel, then hopped on a trolley and headed for the train station.

Buying a train ticket back to Vienna at the old station turned out to be a linguistic challenge. I looked around for a young person with cell phone in hand, figuring they likely knew some English and might be able to help translate.

I found such a young man who helped me quickly acquire a ticket. When I complimented him on his English, he thanked me with a smile, and said he watches lots of online movies in English. He politely excused himself and rushed for his train.

While waiting to board my train, I pondered a massive communist-era mural on a wall of the main hall above the entrance to the platforms. It had many hallmarks of socialist thought, including a proud steel mill worker holding tools, and the red banner of socialism with doves flying above.

As the sun lowered in the sky, I boarded my train for a relaxing one hour journey back to Vienna. Vienna – a place where glaring vestiges of the Cold War communist era are non-existent, and communication is easier for me because of German being rooted in Latin as is my native tongue of English.

As my train rumbled over the tracks on the way back to Vienna, small villages nestled among individual plots of well-tended farmland gradually gave way to large stretches of barren land, and eventually, city lights.

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Exploring Old Bratislava by Foot

I met Patrick, our free walking tour guide, in Old Town’s main square near the elegant Primate’s Palace which was built in 1781. It is now City Hall.  Patrick was a native of Bratislava and spoke with a slight British accent at a speed so fast I often missed what he was saying.

It was a brisk, clear day. I wore several layers of clothing, and needed all of them. The seven international, independent travelers who showed up for this tour were bundled, charming, and upbeat.

We followed the main pedestrian streets from the central square of Old Town to St. Martin’s Cathedral, one of the oldest churches in Bratislava, built in 1273.  This was the old coronation route of Hungarian kings and Queen Maria Theresa. The small brass plates in the form of a crown, evidence we were on the right track, were embedded in the cobblestones.

The area around the coronation church was seeped in history at every fascinating turn.

At one time the church had been part of the fortified walls of the old city. A significant part of the walls were still standing opposite the cathedral.

Just behind the cathedral was an open piece of land with the remains of the foundation of the historic *Nealog Synagogue which was built in 1895. It had been raised during the communist era to make way for a bridge over the Danube. In the middle of its old foundation rose a tall, dark, twisted, Holocaust memorial with a Star of David perched on top at a seemingly precarious angle. As I slowly circled the monument in contemplation, the sun’s rays pierced through the opening in the Star of David at various angles, creating an unnerving feeling of drama.

The monument seemed to rise from the ashes of the old Jewish neighborhood which had been outside the old city walls for centuries. It stood next to an overhead bridge and four-lane highway, which cut through the former neighborhood like a knife, leaving a couple of historic buildings and a few narrow streets on the hillside on the other side of the highway.

The Bratislava Jewish Community was once the largest and most influential in Slovakia, and one of the major centers of Jewish learning. In 1930 approximately 15,000 Jews lived in the city, the majority of whom perished in the Holocaust. The memorial is to the 105,000 Jewish citizens exterminated by the Nazis during their occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1943.

We walked through a passageway under the highway and up to Bratislava Castle. The Castle dates from the 9th century and was the seat of the Hapsburg Monarchy for centuries. It commands attention overlooking Old Town and the Danube.

High rise apartment complexes that could be seen on the other side of the Danube from the castle grounds were going up alongside communist era, concrete, bloc buildings. Patrick said the prices of the new apartments were “Viennese” prices, adding that only Slovaks working in Vienna could afford them.

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* Neolog – a reform movement within Judaism unique to Central Europe

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Bratislava – An Afternoon at the Old Trznica Market

Each day I try to spend a few minutes with someone on the staff at the hostel where I am staying, discussing how to best spend my limited amount of time exploring it using public transportation. One day a staff member directed me to a trolley stop near the hostel where I would find public transportation to Trznica Market, a historic farmer’s market which I had found on the Internet.

I knew this adventure was going to put me out of my comfort zone because of the language barrier I was going to face, not knowing a word of Slovak, but I was up for the challenge. A half hour later a trolley dropped me off at a busy traffic circle which was dominated by a large sign on a building announcing the Trznica Market.

Foot traffic was light on both floors of the cavernous, old building. A few people were buying fruit from a vendor. A small, dark bar, flush with bottles of local wine, was tucked in a far corner. The tables and walls were covered with traditional weaving.  The place was packed with locals enjoying a glass of wine. 

I bought some fresh, local honey as a gift for a Servas Host whom I knew I would be visiting soon. The well-tended flower market was bursting with color and had a lovely aroma. Several small restaurants lined the market walls with seating in the center isle. A Vietnamese restaurant had the most customers.

On the upper level next to a small shop where a man was repairing umbrellas, was a small, cafeteria-style restaurant serving traditional food. In front of it were seated two young, chic Slovak ladies with whom I stuck up a conversation in English. They seemed out of place in this non-touristy market. They recommended I have Slovakia’s national dish of potato dumplings smothered with sheep cheese. I ordered it along with some home made soup. It was a delicious meal and it cost less than US$5.

I finished my afternoon in the market enjoying some tea and strudel at a cozy cafe surrounded by hundreds of books. A stand-up piano was in one corner. A gentleman seated near me was reading a book while sipping coffee. The cafe was perfect for peoplewatching given it was in the middle isle of the market’s main floor and the bookshelves that formed the cafe walls were only a few feet high.

I especially enjoyed watching the two charming, young ladies, who obviously ran the cafe, handle a steady stream of customers by phone and in person behind a counter. Periodically they each gave me a knowing smile with a twinkle in their eyes, aware that I was watching them and the surrounding scene with much interest.

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Bratislava, Slovakia – A Glance Behind the Former Iron Curtain

Huge, modern windmills surrounded by large tracts of land disappeared over the horizon as the train I was on rumbled over the tracks on its way to Bratislava, Slovakia, from Vienna.

My train was packed with well-healed people. Later I learned that many were probably commuters returning from a day’s work in Vienna, where the salaries are much higher than in Bratislava.

At Bratislava’s central train station I paused to study a welcome sign written in several languages, with one written in Cyrillic script. The language people were speaking around me was a Slavic tongue, which was strikingly different from the German I had become accustomed to hearing in Vienna. I had just passed through the former Iron Curtain, and it felt like it.

I threw my backpack over my shoulder and proceeded to find the trolley which I had been directed to take by the hostel which I had booked for three nights.

After a few stops I alighted from the trolley in a lovely neighborhood full of shops, restaurants, and cafes. A large bookstore with an inviting cafe caught my attention. English-language books lined a shelf just inside.

At the hostel an elderly man was playing a traditional Slovakian/Hungarian instrument, which looked something like a piano, in the expansive, modern, common room. The lovely view from there included Michael’s Gate, the only gate still standing from the 14th century medieval fortification. Beyond Michael’s Gate was Old Town with its small, but well-preserved, medieval city center, Bratislava Castle, and other important landmarks. I chose this hostel, which was on the 2nd floor of an old, five-story building, mainly because of this location. I immediately set out to explore.

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Brief history of Bratislava

Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia and the country’s largest city, has always had a strategic geographical location. It was an important European hub due to its proximity to the Mediterranean and the Orient as well as its link to the rest of Europe via the Danube River. The city was part of the Kingdom of Hungary and the Hapsburg Monarchy from 1526 to 1918. It was the coronation town for Hungarian kings and queens from 1536 to 1830. It became part of the East Bloc following WWII. After the Dissolution of Czechoslovakia in 1992, Bratislava was declared the capital of independent Slovakia.

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I gingerly crossed numerous trolley tracks, which curved confusingly in several directions, to get to the pedestrian bridge at Michael’s Gate. A lovely, small park below the bridge occupied the old moat. Tourists were maneuvering for the best spot to get a selfie in front of the historic gate and Gothic tower.

I made my way along the delightful 18th century pedestrian streets to the main square of Old Town. It was dominated by the old Town Hall and Roland Fountain, one of the city’s most important landmarks. The fountain was ordered in 1572 by Maximilian II, the King of Royal Hungary, to provide a public water supply. The old Town Hall, a complex of buildings from the 14th century, was said to have wonderful views from atop its neo-gothic tower. It was getting late and I was hungry, so I put the climb off for another day.

Just outside Michael’s gate, adjacent to an old church, was the popular Flagship Restaurant. What attracted me was the sign, in English, saying it served traditional Slovak food at a great price, using ingredients from its own bio farm. The grounds of the expansive restaurant had no doubt had a colorful history. It advertised its “monastery cellars” and mentioned that the building had been an old theater.

The large open spaces, and a busy bar in the middle of the main floor, offered good people-watching while I dined. The Slovak national dish of potato dumplings smothered with creamy, locally-produced sheep cheese, was a winner! I returned the following day to try more traditional dishes.

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