Spišský hrad (Spiš Castle), in Slovakia's north-eastern Prešov region, is among the largest castle ruins in Europe; it was included on the Unesco World Heritage List in 1993.
photo: Ján Svrček
These aren't just the claims of a fervent patriot - they're backed up by credentials from an international cultural body which specialises in preserving unique manmade and natural sites.
While Slovakia covers only 49,034 square kilometres, and can be driven west to east in just six hours, or form north to south in as little as two, the diminutive country boasts five places which have been included on a list called the World's Cultural and Natural Heritage sites. The list is prepared by the United Nations Educational, Scientific & Cultural Organisation (Unesco).
"Sites are chosen only when they represent one of the top examples of such a location in the world," says Dvořáková. "When a site is chosen by Unesco, it means that it's something extremely special, the cream of the crop."
Castle ruins can be found all over the world, yet relatively few are listed as an Unesco site. When Unesco adds a castle ruin to its list, Dvořáková continues, it means that the international body has distinguished that particular ruin as one of the best-preserved, most beautiful or impressive castles in the world.
In Slovakia, five sites have been added to the Unesco World Heritage List since 1993. Although Unesco has existed since 1972, Slovak sites have only been considered since the former Czechoslovakia recognised the organisation in 1991. Unesco's goal is to promote the preservation of the world's most valuable locations.
Another Unesco-celebrated site, central Slovakia's Banská Štiavnica.
photo: Ján Svrček
The first three sites were accepted in 1993: Banská Štiavnica, Spišský hrad, and Vlkolínec.
Banská Štiavnica is situated on the steep slopes of the Glanzenberg and Paradayz hills in central Slovakia. These hills were once rich with deposits of gold and silver, the main motivation for the town's founding in the 11th century.
The rough landscape forced construction to conform to the steep hills, creating a city centre unique in Slovakia. Formerly known as "Silver Town" and "Mecca of Minerals", the city centre has since its 1993 addition to the World Heritage List been undergoing a massive facelift, turning once crumbling structures into shining churches and burgher houses.
Banská Štiavnica's mining tradition can be traced through an open-air Mining Museum two kilometres outside town, or at the Slovak Mining Museum's Mineralogical exposition on Holy Trinity Square.
Spišský hrad (Spiš castle) dominates the urban landscape of the Spiš region, and is the largest ruin to be found in central Europe. First built in the 12th century, massive reconstruction doubled its size in the 15th century. But in 1780, the castle met its match in a group of drunken soldiers who set fire to the tables, sparking a huge blaze. The owners of the castle moved out and the castle fell into ruin.
Vlkolínec, sheltered by the stunning Veľká Fatra mountain range, offers a picturesque glimpse into a uniquely Slovak past. The first written reference to the village was recorded in 1376. By the end of the 18th century there were 41 houses and a population of 280. Vlkolínec was added to the Unesco list because its hidden locale has preserved the traditional Slovak wooden village to the extent that visitors feel as if they have entered a time-warp when walking its streets and fields.
The three original Unesco sites were joined in 1995 by the Slovak Karst and Aggtelek cave systems, stretching underground from Slovakia to Hungary - the site was submitted to Unesco as a bilateral project between the two countries.
The underground system of 712 caves (at least, that's how many have been discovered so far) is the most extensively explored cave area in Europe. Last year, the Dobšinská ice cave system, south of Slovenský raj (Slovak Paradise) national park, was also added to the list. Formed 7,000 to 9,000 years ago, the cave's 25-metre thick floor holds an estimated 145,000 cubic metres of ice.
"It was a great success for Slovakia when our caves appeared on the list," Dvořáková said. "Only a few cave systems from all over the world are recognised by Unesco. It was also significant for us in that the previous Slovak selections had all been man-made. The caves, though, show that Slovakia is also a naturally beautiful country."
The fifth and final locality that was added to the Unesco list just last year was the fortified medieval royal town of Bardejov in the Prešov region. Besides possessing Slovakia's best preserved medieval town square, Bardejov also boasts awe-inspiring churches, 14th century fortification walls with bastions, and Slovakia's only icon museum.
Having a site included on the Unesco World Heritage List is no easy feat. Only 700 sites from across the world have been recognised since its creation in 1971, while just 30 sites per year can be added.
Countries who feel they have an Unesco-worthy site must present a proposal for inclusion. In the proposal, the candidate country or countries must present a detailed report on the site, outlining plans for its preservation.
"A country can submit a new site for consideration every year," Dvořáková says. "But it's not easy to be accepted."
Slovakia is preparing to submit proposals for other localities to be included on the Unesco list, as is evident from the stacks of files on potential Slovak sites cluttering Dvořáková's table. In the future, she says, it is likely that the fortifications surrounding the southern Slovak city of Komárno will be added. The defensive line is the largest fortification system within the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, and today encompasses land on both Slovak and Hungarian territory, split down the middle by the Danube River.
Being added to the list is more than just prestigious, it also has practical benefits. It ensures each location's protection into the future, as the country itself must pledge to maintain its upkeep and preservation for future generations to enjoy. The Unesco label also helps attract tourism. Finally, the host country is eligible to receive funds for financial and technical help from Unesco.
A more complete version of this article will be published this summer in The Slovak Spectator's sixth annual travel guide Spectacular Slovakia 2001. Leading up to the magazine's publication, travel stories will be printed in this space over the following weeks.
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17. Jun 2001 at 0:00 | Zuzana Habšudová