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Východná, queen of folk festivals, looks to maintain old charm

On the road from Liptovský Mikuláš to Poprad, plum in the middle of the sweeping Váh River Valley that cuts between the Low and High Tatra mountains, lies a shabby, nondescript settlement meriting no more than cursory attention. For a few days in early July, however, Východná becomes a national center of attention, as Slovakia's oldest festival of folk music, dance, arts and crafts takes place in and around the huge wooden amphitheater that overlooks the village.
Slovaks holds their folk heritage dear, and while there are dozens of other festivals going on around the country during the summer months, most citizens see Východná
as the pinnacle of achievement in all aspects of folk craft and performance. "We pay performers no more than bare expenses," says festival organizer Jaroslav Uhel. "It's seen as a great honor to perform at Východná."


Východná's annual folk festival draws thousands to the foot of the Tatras every July.
Paul Kaye

On the road from Liptovský Mikuláš to Poprad, plum in the middle of the sweeping Váh River Valley that cuts between the Low and High Tatra mountains, lies a shabby, nondescript settlement meriting no more than cursory attention. For a few days in early July, however, Východná becomes a national center of attention, as Slovakia's oldest festival of folk music, dance, arts and crafts takes place in and around the huge wooden amphitheater that overlooks the village.

Slovaks holds their folk heritage dear, and while there are dozens of other festivals going on around the country during the summer months, most citizens see Východná

as the pinnacle of achievement in all aspects of folk craft and performance. "We pay performers no more than bare expenses," says festival organizer Jaroslav Uhel. "It's seen as a great honor to perform at Východná."

The festival tradition began 44 years ago when the village's folk group performed at the Strážnice national folk festival (now in the Czech Republic). Enraptured by the event, Východná's folks decided to hold their own festival. Since then, the affair has snowballed, and the 12,000-seat arena, which has splendid views of central Europe's highest peaks, often fills to capacity.

The shows at Východná are conceived, written and choreographed specially for the festival. Their creators draw heavily on tradition while offering some new wrinkles and a professional, disciplined approach to the performance. The costumes and instruments used in these colorful routines are deemed beautiful enough to be exhibited as a separate feature at the festival.

The spirit of youth Tibor Koblíček, one of Slovakia's best-known crafters of traditional instruments, regularly exhibits the finer examples of his craft at events such as Východná. These range from fujary and píšťalky, (woodwind instruments of various sizes) to items such as ninery (hurdy-gurdies) to gajdy (Slovak bagpipes) and ozembuchy (percussion). "What pleases me most is that young people are starting to play the instruments," Koblíček said. "A couple of years ago it was said that there wouldn't be anyone to play them, but now there are children as young as ten starting to play."

It is the youth of the performers at Východná that is most striking to visitors whose own under-30s have more or less abandoned traditional folk arts. "Young people feel that they have a bond with folk culture," says Uhel. "I don't see this as empty nationalism - just the opposite in fact. I see it as a relationship with our identity, because Europe is developing towards borderlessness. Soon we'll all have the same currency and so on. How will we differ from each other? Well, maybe in our songs, in our customs, in our ballads, traditions and legends, and in our art."


Východná's annual folk festival draws thousands to the foot of the Tatras every July.
Paul Kaye

Though predominantly a national occasion, the festival does make room in its program for one cosmopolitan event which has become hugely popular - a show put on by five foreign folk groups. These are drawn from all corners of the globe - last year troupes hailed from Bangladesh, Senegal, Switzerland, New Zealand and Argentina to display their talents at Východná.

Other attractions dotting the festival park are exhibitions of traditional crafts and artifacts, and a market plying all sorts of folkware. Capturing the same spirit of spontaneity, although lacking somewhat in artistic genius are performers plying the second stage outside the amphitheater. The free-wheeling, joyous atmosphere is no doubt fuelled by the park's vast refreshment area, where traditional Slovak cuisine such as klobása, and cigánska pečeň is barbecued and served with bread, mustard and copious quantities of pivo .

Lodging blues

Beyond the crest of the hill into which the amphitheater is built lie huge fields full of tents and other makeshift shelters, a clear reminder that Východná's got one problem - accommodation. The little village has precious little space, and visitors often have to make do in Poprad or Liptovský Mikuláš. This is not the only worry vexing the festival team - the wooden amphitheater is decaying as the years go by, and the facilities, though adequate, are never more than basic. All this has meant that although there are several foreign visitors at each festival, the event has retained its authentic Slovak character in almost every respect.

More seriously for the organizers, however, are the recent mutterings that the performances at Východná are in decline, too. The other two of the "big three" festivals, Terchová and Detva, are said by some to have surpassed Východná in terms of artistic quality. With this in mind, the organizers have decided to rethink all aspects of the festival. "I see last year's festival as the last of its kind," says Uhel. "Next year will be the start of something new, but quite what it will be I don't know yet. We expect more younger people to get involved. No one wants the festival to get stale, and unless we do something about it we can't avoid this happening."

On the fourth day, the festival's stage empties with the last encore for the last act, a final pop-pop-pop of this festival's unbridled color and passion. As the throngs of people file away, the litter is cleared, and the festival park is packed away until next year, when sculptors come to create the huge wooden statues that adorn the grounds each year. "Two or three weeks after the festival ends, the village dies," says Uhel. Really, though, Východná just goes into extended hibernation, and the little village waits out the winter months to roll out the red carpet again.


S&S Travel Tips

Liptovský Mikuláš Turistická Informačná Služba - 0849/186

LODGING

Hotel Elán- 1.mája 35/115, 03101 Liptovský Mikuláš 0849/514-414 - It costs 400 Sk for one night per person (shower and WC in the room), apartment is 2,000 Sk (foreigner price), for children you get a 50 percent discount. The most luxurious hotel in the center, according to the Information Center.
Penzion Ave- Nám. Osloboditeľov 70, 03101 Liptovský Mikuláš 0849/514-147, 514-077. Price for one person per night is 600 Sk. WC, shower are in the room.
Hotel Bocian- Palučanská 38, 03101 Liptovský Mikuláš 0849/541-276, 21935. Double room per night is 1,200 Sk, with breakfast and dinner 1,600 Sk.

RESTAURANTS

Pizzeria Avanti- Palučanská 20, 03101 Liptovský Mikuláš 0849/209-83. Mon-Sat 11:00 - 21:30, Closed on Sunday. - Serves Italian pizza, as well as Slovak cuisine.
Liptovská Izba- Nám. Osloboditeľov 12, 03101 Liptovský Mikuláš 0849/514-853. Open Mon - Sat 11 - 24, Sun 12 - 24. Serves Slovak specialities, such as halušky with authentic Liptovská bryndza (sheep cheese).
Penzion Ave - Nám. Osloboditeľov 70, 03101 Liptovský Mikuláš 0849/514-147, 514-077. Open Mon - Sun 10 - 22. Serves typical Slovak cuisine.

GETTING THERE

By Train

Bratislava - Lipt. Mikuláš

5:45 8:57 IC
5:55 9:56, change in Žilina
7:55 11:56
9:55 13:56
11:55 15:56
13:55 17:56
15:55 19:56
17:10 20:20 IC

Lipt. Mikuláš-Bratislava
7:32 10:51 IC
8:25 12:15
10:25 14:15
12:25 16:15
14:25 16:15
16:25 20:15
19:18 22:23 IC

Lipt. Mikuláš - Východná
12:10 12:40
13:30 13:59
14:20 14:50
15:10 15:41
16:47 17:16
18:12 18:41
20:31 21:01

Východná-Lipt. Mikuláš
7:03 7:33
11:45 12:16
16:55 17:26

Topic: Tourism and travel in Slovakia


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