Once upon a time there was a town called Turčianský Svätý Martin. Ringed by the craggy peaks of the Veľká (Big) and Malá (Little) Fatra, the town sat in the middle of a wide, flat basin split by the Turiec River. Legend said that Prince Turan created the valley when he drained a lake in pursuit of the beautiful water nymph who lived at the bottom.
The final fate of the nymph has been lost to history, but Turčianský Svätý Martin - now just Martin - has not. It remained a sleepy regional center until 1861, when a group of intellectuals drafted Slovakia's first declaration of independence, the Martin Memorandum. Two years later, the Martiners founded Matica Slovenská, the Slovak cultural institution, solidifying the town's reputation as the heart of Slovak nationalist hopes.
The memorandum didn't make much of a name for Slovakia, but it propelled the town, now a bustling city of 58,000, into the modern era. Except for the tiny Gothic church from the 13th century, Martin now bears little trace of its village roots. Towering apartment blocks circle the town, stretching out against the mountains in every direction.
Today, Martin's past is stored in its museums. Muzeálna street leads visitors from the main square to the massive Slovak National Museum, the Fort Knox of Slovak history, stationed at the top of a cascade of steps. As imposing as it seems, the exhibits inside are user-friendly, with English captions explaining some Slovak customs (like the ritual of decorating trees for Easter) and raising questions about others (like the "wedding goat stick").
Skip the National Literary Museum at Matica's Martin headquarters unless you read Slovak. Instead, take a right out of the SNM and stroll through the grassy, sun-dappled National Cemetery, where a handful of Jewish headstones share space with Slovakia's cultural heroes.
As everywhere else in Martin, the mountains are the cemetery's backdrop, hovering in the distance like a painted stage set. In fact, the Malá and Veľka Fatra are what make Martin worth seeing, and a slew of hiking paths in both ranges tempt the visitor to flee the city for the hills.
A 20-minute local bus ride (pick up #27 from Martin or Vrútky) to the village of Turčianské Kľačany is the starting point for a half-day hike. Take the bus to the last stop and head uphill; about an hour and a half later you can enjoy a Martiner beer on the terrace of Chata Hore Zdar, overlooking the Turiec basin. A second climb rises from the chata to the top; from there trails spider through Malá Fatra National Park, running west to Strečno castle or east to the range's highest peak, Veľký Kriváň.
Hikers with more time can head south from Martin into the Veľká Fatra. Trails head from the pretty town of Blatnica into the Gaderská valley, which boasts the ruins of a 13th century castle. The less ambitious can take the year-round gondola from the outskirts of Martin (take city bus #41 to Podstráne, the last stop) to the Martinské Hole ski area for some inspirational skiing.
Visible from any peak, the bright sunshine bounces off the icy river, and the new snow at the bottom of the basin blankets the earth. In the glare, it's easy to imagine a lake stretching from the foot of one range to the other, and, at the bottom, a water nymph laughing among the reeds.
S&S Travel Tips
Information center- Kohútova ul., Martin, tel.: 0842/329-66.
Hotel Luna- Medňanského 18, tel 0842/286-480, fax 0842/281-491. Luxury hotel located 3 km from the center. Steven Spielberg and his crew stayed there in 1995. Double room 1,650 Sk. Cafe, dining room, night club with disco, swimming pool, fitness center etc.
Hotel Turiec- A. Sokolíka 2, tel 0842/221-017, fax 0842/220-518. Central location. Double room 1380 Sk without breakfast. Dining room, night club with live music, bar, terrace.
Penzion Neografia- Allendeho 9, tel 0842/220-517, fax 0842/368-12. Not much on the outside, but clean, airy and pleasant inside and just a five minute walk from the center. Two-bedroom suites with TV, shared bath and kitchen 450 Sk. Close to the center, and restaurants.
Penzion Gader- č.p. 59, Blatnica, tel/fax 0841/948176. Double room 40 DM without breakfast. Family house with a big garden and a brook nearby, mountain bikes available (free), no cars allowed in the valley - hiking in the beautiful outdoors.
18. Dec 1997 at 0:00 | Hannah Wolfson