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6 Jun 2012 Dominika Uhríková Regional News
The old joke has it that Bratislava’s IQ diminishes dramatically on Friday afternoon, when all those who work in the capital go back to see their families in Košice. The rivalry between the citis has given birth to an endless list of similar anecdotes directed against both sides, and if you want to hear them all, you only need to buy a ticket for a football match between Slovan Bratislava and MFK Košice. Then take a trip to the metropolis of eastern Slovakia, well-connected by rail, air and road to the rest of central Europe, and judge for yourself.
“Košice has the advantage of not being a top tourist destination, so nobody expects too much from it,” said Milan Kolcún, 41, a tour guide in Košice. “As a result, visitors to the city cannot be but agreeably surprised.”
And, according to Kolcún, there are indeed a lot of surprises waiting for tourists in Košice. Yes, the tennis player Martina Hingis and the writer Sándor Márai were really born in Košice; yes, the city‘s marathon is the second oldest in the world after Boston‘s; and yes, Košice was the first town in Europe to be granted an armorial warrant by a monarch. (Kolcún himself is another of the town’s surprises: he speaks seven languages and offers tours around the city on numerous themes, on the first weekend of every month.)
Another good thing about Košice, a city with a population of around 250,000, is that it has all the attributes of a big city (an international airport, efficient public transport, an opera house), while remaining moderately sized, with all the major sights easily accessible on foot.
“I studied architecture, so I really enjoy the old architecture here, and how it‘s small and compact,” said Anna Klemm, 25, from Virginia, in the United States. Klemm has been living in Slovakia for two years as a member of a group of missionaries who are renovating a small manor house near Košice. “It‘s very different from where I live: we don‘t have anything older than, say, one hundred or two hundred years, so Slovakia is very exciting for me.”
If you arrive in Košice by bus or train, cross the park and the little bridge (which once served to connect the two banks of a picturesque brook known as the Millrace but was replaced by a hugely unpopular four-lane road in 1968) and you will immediately catch sight of the neo-Gothic Jakab Palace from 1899. This was once the seat of President Edvard Beneš, when Košice became the temporary capital of Czechoslovakia in 1945.
From here, you only need to walk down Mlynská Street to reach the city‘s pride, the kilometre-long Main Street (Hlavná ulica), which received a complete renovation in the 1990s. The four principal landmarks - St Elizabeth’s Cathedral, St Michael’s Chapel, Urban’s Tower and the State Theatre - are all grouped together at the very centre of this lens-shaped street.
St Elizabeth’s, the easternmost Catholic cathedral in Europe, traditionally attracts most attention from visitors to Košice, and deservedly so.
“The cathedral is certainly my favourite sight in Košice,” said María Josefa Acosta Arza, 34, who teaches Spanish at a local grammar school. “Coming from a very small town in Spain, I keep being amazed at the grandeur of the church.”
The construction began in 1390, following traditional Gothic cathedral space concepts: the five-nave basilica culminating with a sanctuary was supposed to have two towers of the same size. Though the works continued until 1508, finances ran out and the second tower was never completed.
Among the most precious relics in the interior of the church are the extraordinary Main Altar of St Elizabeth of Hungary from 1477 and a twin-spiral staircase, known as the Lovers‘ Stairs, because it allows a couple to walk up separately but meet at each floor - and possibly exchange a kiss.
Visitors should save their climbing for the church tower, even if its flight of 160 uneven, narrow, winding steps is somewhat discouraging at first. The view from the top is a sufficient reward (provided you forget for a while that you have to climb back down).
On the two sides of the cathedral are the 14th-century St Michael’s Chapel, built on the site of a former cemetery (under the adjacent park, there are still up to eight layers of bones), and Urban’s Tower, a former belfry now housing a (quite uninteresting) wax museum. Outside the entrance is Urban the Bell, which was cast in 1557 from the remnants of bells destroyed by a great fire that had struck the entire town a year before. The bell remained in use for four centuries until it was destroyed by another fire, which broke out in the tower in 1966 and caused Urban to break into pieces.
On the paving around the cathedral is the Walk of Honour and Gratitude, in which are carved the names of those who contributed with important sums of money to the renovation of the Main Street, as well as the names of noted visitors to Košice. These include the opera singers Luciano Pavarotti and Andrea Bocelli, Queen Beatrix of The Netherlands, and the former Czech President Václav Havel.
If you now feel too overwhelmed with information, have some ice-cream at Aida, a patisserie that has fed generations of Košice kids, or have a coffee at the nearby Slávia Coffeehouse, famous not only for its menu, but also for its Art Nouveau coloured tile mosaics celebrating women and good wine.
Those visiting Košice in the spring or in the summer can enjoy the slightly kitsch but definitely delightful tunes of the “singing fountain”, whose glockenspiel chimes every hour with a charming, if slightly deafening sound.
The best time to visit Košice is probably the period between mid-April and early October, when the climate is good and there is much more to do in the city. Košice also has a number of summer sidewalk terraces, open between May and September, which can punctuate a pleasant stroll through the city streets.
“There aren’t many places like that in the States where you can eat outside, drink, and simply enjoy the moment,” said Melanie Simko, 41, from Pittsburgh, USA, who has lived in Košice for four years.
Even in the winter, however, Košice has its charms. The picturesque Christmas market, which starts
On the right-hand side, there are several remarkable edifices, namely the Levoča House, which has been used for its original purpose – eating and drinking – almost without interruption since the 16th century; the Holy Trinity Church, a typical example of Jesuit sacral architecture and unique in Slovakia for its walls of solid blockstones; or the Franciscan Church, which is actually 8.5m longer than the dominant St Elizabeth’s Cathedral.
Close to the Franciscan Church, you might notice a streamlet - hopefully before your shoes and your socks do, at least. It was launched in 1997 to recall the branch of the Čermeľ stream that ran through the city centre for centuries until 1899, when it was filled over hygiene concerns.
The Main Street will then lead you to the Peace Marathon Square, reigned over by the neo-Renaissance building of the East Slovak Museum. Next to it is a tiny wooden church from 1741 that was moved piece-by-piece from the village of Kožuchovce to Košice. Nearby is also the Marathon Statue, which bears the names of all the winners of the Košice Marathon, which has taken place on the first Sunday in October since 1924.
Before leaving the centre, it is worthwhile exploring some of the back streets surrounding the pedestrian zone. Have an imaginary talk with the writer Sándor Márai in the empty chair opposite his statue; peek in the boozy “bistro” next to the Diera pub on Poštová, which is open from 5am and whose clientele is usually half-cut before 9am; and have a few honey-flavoured “bio-beers” at Madrid on Vrátna, something like a student pub where there are almost as many dogs as customers.
After completing sea-level explorations, it is time to head underground, specifically to the museum known as the Lower Gate (Dolná brána). This is a complex of 13th century fortifications, including a gate, a barbican and a bastion, that were discovered during the renovation of the Main Street.
At first, the excavations were supposed to be covered again, but after it turned out they were so well-preserved, the city decided to make them accessible to the public and large glazed openings were added on the surface to lure visitors underground. (In the Middle Ages, the street level was actually around two metres lower than it is now.) The museum is accessible through an entrance located a few steps from a sculpture depicting the Košice City Coat of Arms, awarded to the city by King Ludovicus Magnus of Hungary on May 7, 1369. The day is still marked annually with a series of celebrations.
After you re-emerge from below, it is probably time to sample all the unique Košice atmosphere with a visit to one (or preferably several) of its numerous taverns, pubs and restaurants. Most are open until midnight or 1am, but there are some options for insomniacs and the perennially-thirsty: try out the artistic Bernard on Alžbetina, the noisy (and slightly scary) Colloseum, or the welcoming Stockholm on Jesenského. They are not particularly chic, but rarely close before 3am.
A haven for culture addicts
If you are a culture addict in Slovakia, there is no better place to go than Košice. In 2013, the city will bear the title of the European Capital of Culture (ECOC), and the city is already brimming with events suiting every taste. What is more, these are usually available free of charge or at ridiculously low prices, and rarely require the command of the Slovak language.
Once you are in Košice, cultural activity literally cannot be avoided, especially since the arrival of the ECOC programme. The city’s cultural life has penetrated into all public spaces, and coming across a dance show at the railway station or a jazz gig on a tram is nothing at all unusual.
Although in the past few years the attention of both visitors and locals has necessarily been drawn to the demands of being the European Capital of Culture, Košice has a lot to offer outside the project as well.
The city is home to prestigious events such as the Košice Musical Spring classical music festival, held annually in April and May and with a tradition spanning six decades, as well as the Golden Beggar Festival of local television and the Cassovia Folkfest folklore dance and music festival, both held annually in June. Every November, Košice also hosts the Moon Ride multimedia festival focusing on the countries of the Visegrad Four.
Košice’s largest venue is the futuristic Steel Arena on Nerudova, opened in 2006. Although it serves primarily as a sports hall, the stadium, which can seat some 8,300 people, regularly hosts concerts and theatre performances. Among the artists who have performed at the Steel Arena are Deep Purple, Andrea Bocelli, Vanessa Mae, Elton John, and Roxette.
A much smaller, but similarly vibrant, cultural centre is Tabačka Kulturfabrik on Gorkého. Opened in September 2009, Tabačka is housed in a 19th-century tobacco factory, once the largest manufacturing plant in the town. Part of the Trans Europe Halles network, the centre offers a programme similar to that of the Barracks: it all that is “indie”, contemporary and alternative.
Those interested in more traditional art forms have many options in Košice too. The East Slovak
There is another intriguing exhibition at Rodošto on Hrnčiarska. The building itself is a replica of the mansion of Ferenc II Rákóczi, the leader of an 18th century Hungarian uprising, which still exists in the Turkish town of Tekirdag (Rodostó in Hungarian), where the Hungarian national hero spent the last years of his life. Rákóczi’s personal belongings, together with his remains, were transferred to Košice from Tekirdag in 1906. His personal affects now comprise much of the modern exhibition, while his bones were placed in St Elizabeth’s Cathedral.
A few steps from Rodošto is the 16th century Mikluš’s Prison, which used to be the city’s main jailhouse, and now houses an exhibition of torture tools.
The East Slovak Gallery on Main Street showcases primarily the works by artists who lived and worked in the Košice region. The gallery is worth visiting not only for its collection of works by painters such as Ladislav Medňanský, Július Jakoby or Juraj Collinásy, but also for its wonderful 18th century premises built in a style combining Baroque and Classicist features.
Moreover, the gallery houses Bioskop, Košice’s only remaining repertory cinema. Every year in April, its managers organise Slovakia’s only festival of documentary film, DOCsk.
Also of note are the Museum of Technology on the Main Street, Löffler’s Gallery on Alžbetina, and the Museum of Aviation situated at the airport.
Drama lovers visiting Košice can choose from any number of theatres to suit their taste. The rather traditional State Theatre showcases dramas, operas and ballets on two stages, one in the historical building beside the cathedral and the other "Malá scéna" ("small stage") on Hlavná. There is also the Hungarian-language Thália; the Romany-language Romathan; or the Puppet Theatre, which offers programmes loved by children and adults alike.
One of the keys to understanding Košice is discovering its religious diversity. Though Roman Catholicism is by far the most common religion, as many as 11 denominations are officially practised in the town. Today, Košice is the seat of three bishops – Roman Catholic, Greek Catholic and Orthodox – and one of the three Slovak Jewish rabbis is based here.
If you are visiting the city on Sunday, it might be a good idea to start the day with the 9am Latin language mass at St Elizabeth’s Cathedral. With the local choir offering a different repertoire of Renaissance and Baroque pieces each week, the service is an anachronistic but engaging experience, whatever your religious persuasion.
Other churches of particular interest situated away from Main Street include the Dominican Church at Dominikánske Square, which is the oldest preserved sacral building in Košice; the Byzantine-style Greek Catholic Cathedral on Moyzesova; and the austere Calvinist Church on Hrnčiarska Street. Among the few decorations adorning the latter is a precious cockerel, which is more than two centuries older than the church itself.
Those interested in Jewish monuments have considerably fewer choices. Only one of the three preserved synagogues is being used for its original purpose, namely the New Synagogue on Puškinova Street. On the outside of this building is a memorial plaque commemorating Košice Jews deported by the Nazis in 1944. From a population of 12,000, only some 600 survived the war.
Jewish services are also held at a prayer-house next to what was once the 19th century Moorish-style Old Synagogue on Zvonárska. It was completely destroyed during the war.
Part of this Jewish community centre, which can be accessed from Krmanova Street, is the Rabbi’s apartment and a kosher restaurant where you can eat lunch on workdays between 11:30 am - 2:30 pm. In the basement, there is a locked and rundown mikvah, a traditional Jewish ritual bath, which is officially closed, but can be visited – upon a promise of good behaviour and a large smile – if you ask for the key at the entrance.
The Neological Synagogue on Moyzesova, the most recent of the three, can be easily spotted thanks to its magnificent, atypically elliptical cupola of the auditorium rising to a height of 37 metres. Today the building houses Košice Philharmonic Orchestra.
Off the beaten track
Košice’s Main Street is undoubtedly amazing, but locals actually have few reasons to go there apart from having a drink on Friday night or shopping for Christmas and birthday gifts from time to time.
If you wish to seize the genuine essence of the town, then you should consider spending at least three days here and taking advantage of what Košice has to offer beyond its historic centre. In recent years the city’s life has been moving to the outskirts, as more and more shopping malls with bars, restaurants and cinemas are being erected in the outer neighbourhoods (though the Aupark that is being constructed at Námestie osloboditeľov might change this soon). Have a walk around Terasa or Furča, still reminiscent of the communist era with their concrete apartment block and what-on-earth-is-this-supposed-to-be? sculptures.
In the summer, have a swim or try out water skiing on the artificial lake right under the windows of 12-storey housing blocks at Sídlisko nad Jazerom and then take a taxi to Lunik IX, an infamous Roma ghetto that most locals (including the taxi driver) will probably discourage you from visiting. Those who are more into green than grey may appreciate a visit to the Botanical Gardens - but visitors should beware of thorns, as the gardens have the biggest collection of cactuses in what used to be Czechoslovakia.
The zoo is also worth a look and is the third largest in Europe in terms of area. And if you wonder what Košice looks from a bird’s perspective, take a trip to the Observation Tower overlooking the city from a height of more than 200 metres. After all that take a rest at the nearby ruins of Košice Castle, built in the 14th century and destroyed only 150 years later.
+421 (0)55 625-8888; Hlavná 59, (map D4); Košice; www.kosice.sk/icmk.asp
Galleries, museums, cultural centres and theatres
Kasárne/Kulturpark (The Barracks); www.kulturpark.sk
Events in Košice
Botanické záhrady (Botanical Gardens)
Tel: +421 (0)55 234-1100
UPJŠ (Pavol Šafárik University), Šrobárova 2, Košice; Tram no. 7 from Námestie osloboditeľov (get off at Botanická záhrada); Open daily Oct-Apr 9:00-15:00, May-Sep 9:00-18:00; Price: € 2
Čermeľ - Detská železnica
Tel: +421 (0)55 641-9329
Trieda SNP 48/A, Košice; Open: May-Sep at weekends (please check website for detailed timetable); Price: € 1; Bus no. 14 from Krajský úrad (get off at Čermeľ)
Tel: +421 (0)55 633-4901
Široká 31, Košice; Open daily: Jan-Feb, Nov-Dec 10:00-15:00, Mar-Oct 10:00-17:00, Apr-Sep 9:00-19:00; Price: € 2.50; Bus no. 29 from Námestie osloboditeľov (get off at Kavečany)
Vyhliadková veža Hradová
(Hradová Observation Tower); www.meleskosice.sk
Tel: +421 (0)55 677-0015
Open: May-Jun Tue-Sun 10:00-18:00; Jul-Aug Tue-Fri 10:00-18:00, Sat-Sun 10:00-19:00, Price: € 0.70; Bus no. 29 from Námestie osloboditeľov (get off at Kavečany)
Sports and relaxation
Areál vodných športov Trixen (Trixen Water Sports Area) - Water skiing on Jazero (Lake); www.trixen.sk
Tel: +421 (0)903 623-112
Jazero (near Baltská); Open: May-Oct; Price: € 2.20 (two rounds), € 9 (one hour), € 25 (all day); Bus no. 19 from Staničné námestie; trams no. 3, 7 and 9 from Námestie osloboditeľov (get off at Levočská or Dneperská)
Areál zimných a letných športov (Winter and Summer Sports Area)
Mob: +421 (0)907 951-896
Červený breh, Košice; Open: daily 9:00-19:00 (booking necessary); Paintball, endurobike, roller-skate, ski scooter,mountain board, bobsleigh; Tram no. 7 from Námestie osloboditeľov (get off at Botanická záhrada)
Tel: +421 (0)55 633-4175
Watsonova 4, Košice; Tram no. 7 from Námestie osloboditeľov (get off at Botanická záhrada)
Tel: +421 (0)55 645-2611
Wuppertálska 4, Košice; Tennis, squash, table tennis, bowling, fitness, badminton;
Buses no. 71 and 72 from Námestie osloboditeľov (get off at Diamantová)
Tel: +421 (0)911 898-919
Diamantová 1, Košice; Buses no. 71 and 72 from Námestie osloboditeľov (get off at Diamantová)
Obchodné centrum Cassovia; www.cassoviaoc.sk
Tel: +421 (0)55 646-1585
Pri prachárni 4, Košice; Open: Mon-Sun 9:00-21:00
OC Galéria Košice
Tel: +421 (0)55 789-5153
Toryská 5, Košice; Open: Mon-Sun 9:00-21:00
Tel: +421 (0)55 644-6345
Moldavská cesta 32, Košice; Open: Mon-Sun 10:00-21:00
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