Winter is finally over - you can come out of the cave now. As you stand blinking in the spring sunshine, a dormant longing to frolic and scamper is reactivated in your limbic system. Quick, before you wake up completely and can think clearly, gas up the car and travel across Slovakia!
Forget shopping malls, good hotels and clean rest stops. The SmallCarpathians have charms and surprises, enough almost to make up for these bourgeois basics. You won't even miss them until you need to eat, sleep or pee, and there's lots of open road between now and then.
Have you done the Bratislava-Trnava-Nitra triangle day trip? I've become especially fond of Trnava with its pedestrian-only town center dominated by the recognizably regional tall white church. There are shops of all kinds lined up on either side of the wide mall, just like Main Street at Disneyworld. (Travel tip: a restaurant half-way along, on the right, serves the only real hamburger I've seen in Slovakia.) Everything looks neat, safe, even pretty. It has a Germanic logic, a quiet sensibility unavailable in the capital.
But then Trnava lies in a certain politician's approval zone, which means it has the money for flower boxes and other civic niceties.
On a cold but dry fall Saturday in Nitra we drove up a twisting cobblestone road-path to central Europe's first established diocese, the cathedral of St. Emeram. It looked shut down. Courtyards and buildings sagged under years of neglect and there wasn't a warm body, never mind a curious tourist, to be seen. We were half-heartedly sniffing around the carved iron doors of the church when a monk appeared broom in hand. The cathedral wasn't open at the moment, he told my husband in Slovak. They chatted a bit and then he suddenly offered a little look-see in the time he had allocated for sweeping.
Speaking rehearsed but perfectly understandable English he took us on a private tour of the cathedral which is divided into three churches, each built in a different style - Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque. There is a tower which archives Slovakia's oldest manuscripts, a sculpture by Donatello, and luscious oil paintings everywhere you look. Its beauty seemed all the more magnificent because we were the only earthly beings tip-toeing through its hushed interiors.
After we had placed a donation in the box near the 1,100-year old shrine of St. Cyril, our monk talked of the chronic financial shortfalls which were allowing the property to fall into disrepair. I was so grateful for his spontaneous gift of time and interest that I promised to spread the word back home. Perhaps if more people knew about this hidden treasure... well, every visitor won't have our experience, but neither ill it ever look like the theme park that Prague's castle has become.
Where else could we have made such a tiny, perfect travel memory? This "underutilization" is one of the things I like best about Slovakia, and we have the lack of shopping malls and clean toilets to thank.
"Double Takes" appears monthly. The views expressed in this column are strictly the author's.
13. Mar 1997 at 0:00