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