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Čičmany: Embroidered Slovak culture

Tucked neatly into the forested hills of northern Slovakia's Strážovské vrchy mountains is Čičmany, the first town in the world to be declared a Reserve of Folk Architecture. A small village with less than 400 inhabitants, the mountain town is well-known for its wooden houses adorned with unique hand-painted designs.
The history of the attractive embellishments is rooted in a need to be discreet. In the late 13th century, the Tartars were charging through Slovakia, forcing local villagers - including the Čič family, whence the town's name is derived - to seek sanctuary in the mountains. They found refuge in this remote mountain valley and, cut off from the rest of the world by its surrounding peaks, settled into a traditionally ethnic Slovak lifestyle, meaning that the women wove embroidery and clothes, and the men farmed the land and herded sheep and cows.
Having become quite skilled at embroidering, the women eventually decided to decorate their wooden homes' exteriors with the same designs. Today, the symbols - including arrows, clovers, crosses, hearts and various animals - cover the mainly two-storey cottages.


The hand-painted designs for which Čičmany was declared the world's first Reserve of Folk Architecture adorn the exterior walls of the town's wooden homes. Designs include clovers, crosses and some animals.
photo: Chris Togneri

Tucked neatly into the forested hills of northern Slovakia's Strážovské vrchy mountains is Čičmany, the first town in the world to be declared a Reserve of Folk Architecture. A small village with less than 400 inhabitants, the mountain town is well-known for its wooden houses adorned with unique hand-painted designs.

The history of the attractive embellishments is rooted in a need to be discreet. In the late 13th century, the Tartars were charging through Slovakia, forcing local villagers - including the Čič family, whence the town's name is derived - to seek sanctuary in the mountains. They found refuge in this remote mountain valley and, cut off from the rest of the world by its surrounding peaks, settled into a traditionally ethnic Slovak lifestyle, meaning that the women wove embroidery and clothes, and the men farmed the land and herded sheep and cows.

Having become quite skilled at embroidering, the women eventually decided to decorate their wooden homes' exteriors with the same designs. Today, the symbols - including arrows, clovers, crosses, hearts and various animals - cover the mainly two-storey cottages.

Despite the natural solitude which first led to the settlement of the hamlet, fate has over the years done its best to destroy the small enclave of Slovak culture. After one fire ravaged Čičmany in 1921, completely destroying the town, the villagers rebuilt and redrew the designs - only to have occupying Nazi soldiers set the village ablaze again during World War II. After the war, the Office for the Care of Historical Monuments in Bratislava contributed greatly to the second massive reconstruction of the village.

To best appreciate a visit to Čičmany, approach by foot. For those travelling by car, pull over when the sign pointing the way to the town appears, about half-way between Žilina and Prievidza on highway 64. From there, the village is about seven kilometres away. (By bus, the trip from Žilina takes some 90 minutes.)

After walking for about an hour through a green valley, the cliffs sweeping up on either side, the first wooden house appears on the left. The road splits (stay to the left) then winds through the village past the quaint homes.

Near the centre of the 'wooden house quarter', two of the painted structures have been turned into a museum documenting the customs of the early locals. Here visitors learn that each two-story wooden house was quite cramped; indeed, up to five families (totalling 20-30 people) shared the living space under one roof. Newly-wed couples were moved to the attic, where they could start families in privacy. Each family had its own stove for cooking, but that was about all they had to themselves.

Bed and breakfasts offer visitors the chance to sleep in one of the fairy-tale homes. Hikers can also get their fill by scaling the 1,214-metre Strážov Mountain, less than two hours up by foot, for an impressive view of the surrounding countryside. Javorinka Mountain, which has four ski trails open during the winter, also has hiking paths.

- with Daniel J. Stoll

A 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.

To pre-order copies of this year's Spectacular Slovakia, contact Ján Svrček at 02 5923 3302, or e-mail him at jan.svrcek@spectator.gpp.sk.

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