A Weekend in Bratislava, Slovakia
When my husband and I found cheap flights to Hungary, I’ll admit I was a bit concerned. After Prague, Budapest has become the most visited destination in so-called Eastern Europe. I have a fetish for Eastern European countries—and by that I mean the type of places that make you feel like you’re entering a time warp. Because they’re not top travel destinations, I feel like an explorer, uncovering things that many travelers have not yet stumbled upon.
So when I realized that Bratislava was a 2 ½ hour ride from Budapest, I decided we had to go. Friends tried to convince me otherwise by sharing the famous Eurotrip scene in which the kids get stuck in Slovakia, but that obviously didn’t deter me.
I have a fetish for Eastern European countries—and by that I mean the type of places that make you feel like you’re entering a time warp.
When we arrived, I wondered if I’d actually made a mistake. The neighborhood near the train station was tired and filled with unromantic Soviet-bloc style buildings. We decided to hit up a few museums—first, the Museum of Jewish Culture. Located on “Zidovska,” or Jewish street, it was pretty much our worst nightmare. It would have more appropriately been called, the Museum of the Extinct Race, which was the museum that Hitler dreamed of creating. Inside, there were Jewish objects enclosed in plastic display cases—like a Torah, Shabbat candlesticks, and Jewish books—with explanations of what Jews once used them for. It was as though Jews were not alive and well and still using these items today.
We left that with a bad taste in our mouths and headed to the Museum of Clocks because I’d read about it in the New York Times. It was an incredibly narrow three-story building filled with, you guessed it, clocks. Apparently, about two hundred years ago, Bratislava was one of the clock capitals of the world. We spent no longer than 25 minutes there.
We had tuna salad at a street café with an overeager waiter and figured we’d roam a little more before picking up $7 opera tickets that I’d pre-ordered. And of course, that’s when we found the Old City, an absolutely gorgeous area of town with quaint cafes, bustling bars, and a beautiful fountain.
It was as though Jews were not alive and well and still using these items today.
That night we headed to the Chabad house in Bratislava, where we had pre-paid for Shabbat dinner. The husband and wife, originally from the US, came to Bratislava just after communism fell, which means that they left their comfortable lives in New York to live in a place where there was no Jewish community—let alone food. They learned how to cook potatoes in all sorts of ways—and they learned Slovak fast. They built some semblance of a Jewish community, which is what they came to do, but aside from their seven out of thirteen children who were there, my husband and I were the only guests at the house.
The food, which in 2013, had come to include much more than in the 1990s, was delicious and plentiful and the conversation was fascinating. We were shocked to learn that the husband had given up Yale graduate school for Chassidic Judaism and that they’d been thrilled to become emissaries in Bratislava, though, they admitted, it hadn’t been easy at first. Their thirteen year-old daughter, an outgoing, mature girl who attended school in Vienna and knew five languages fluently—her favorite being German—was especially impressive.
Many international Chabad houses are places where Jewish tourists, a large percentage whom are Israeli, seek out a home-cooked meal and some community during their travels. But this Chabad house was different because until a year ago, Bratislava was only a place that people passed through on the way from Budapest to Vienna.
Though we didn’t understand a word of the French or Slovak, it was an experience to sit among this very well-dressed crowd in plush velvet seats.
The next day, we saw more of the city center through Be Free Tours, a tips-only tour company, which exists in many European cities and then hiked up to the castle, which overlooked the city. It was absolutely gorgeous and my husband enjoyed looking at the adjacent museum’s ancient artifacts.
We ended the night at the opera, Daughter of the Regiment. Though we didn’t understand a word of the French or Slovak, it was an experience to sit among this very well-dressed crowd in plush velvet seats. Plus, I’ll admit, I had a fantastic nap.
When we left the next morning at dawn, I was confident that while many travelers spend a night—at most—in Bratislava, we’d made a good decision in spending two days. But I was also sure that two days were more than enough.
A Weekend in Bratislava, Slovakia