On February 9th, legions of cross-country skiers gathered to traverse the densely wooded trails winding from Kremnica to Banská Bystrica in the 24th annual Biela Stopa (White Trail) SNP cross-country ski race. There are two events: a 25 km race and a 50 km race, whose international reputation has been steadily growing. A third competition, a 3 km event for actual World War II veterans took place the day before.
The Biela Stopa originated in 1973 during a cross-country ski boom in central Europe. The organizers chose to memorialize the Slovak National Uprising (SNP) in order to provide the requisite banner-waving needed in those days to stage an event. "In the old days, if you wanted to do something, it had to have something symbolic surrounding it," said event coordinator Igor Horváth.
The tucked-away town of Kremnica provides an appropriate starting point for the competition. "In the winter on 1945, partisans kept the fight against the Nazis by hiding in the hills surrounded by this ridge," said Horváth, pointing to the high ridge that separates Kremnica from Banská Bystrica. "They had to ski from town to town in order to transport goods."
Since the downfall of the regime which required all events in some way to glorify the proletariat, the focus of the race has shifted away from history. "It is not so important now," reflected Horváth. "The thrill of the sport is."
The excuses used to originally stage the event, followed by the recent tack in overtures by an ambitious organizing committee only add to the perpetually hazy picture surrounding the Slovak National Uprising. In a country whose stand against the Nazis is memorialized in dilapidated squares, alien bridges, hamburger-shaped museums, and countless concrete memorials, it is difficult forty years after the event to gauge what were the facts worthy of celebration and what was hearsay, to be used as fodder by the propagandists.
In this confusion though, certain realities remain clear. From the 29th of August 1944 to the 27th of October, the Slovak people rose against the puppet regime and set up a new Slovak power cell, the Slovenská Narodná Rada, in Banská Bystrica. After two months of fending off Germans sent from occupied Czech and Hungarian territories, the resistance caved in.
The rebels retreated to the hills and engaged in partisan warfare throughout the winter until Soviet and Romanian troops liberated the region the following March. During this darkest period of occupation, over 18,000 villagers were executed or deported, while countless soldiers perished.
The very trail of the Biela Stopa SNP race goes through the same hills where young men died and whose unmarked graves are scattered throughout the forest, according to Peter Vlasatý of the SNP museum in Banská Bystrica.
"It was a very difficult winter," said Vlasatý. "The fighters lived in hovels and received food and weapons from U.S., British, and Russian airdrops. They probably used snowshoes to travel, not skis."
The starting area of this year's race was moved to the highest point on the course due to lack of snow in Kremnica. The several thousand participants were divided into two groups according to the color of their race number - red for 50 kilometers, blue for 25. Soon after the starting gun fired, the participants eerily disappeared into the silent evergreen forest.
Soon cross-country skiing revealed itself to be a whole different ballgame than the alpine version. Yet huffing up hills and rolling down them, the irony surrounding the race was never far from mind. Symbolic cemeteries throughout the region see to that. A question remains whether the partisans used skis. If these gadgets were my means of escape surely I would have become a prisoner.
After 25 kilometers full of sweeping panoramas of central Slovakia and beng passed by most of the 50 km competitors, I reached my goal. Luckily warm tea, sausage, and a gold medallion printed in Kremnica awaited even the stragglers.
A focal point of national pride or a simple winter sports event? Possibly the answer varies among participants and fans. For the organizers, the continued enthusiasm, regardless of its founding, has caused them to plan for bigger things. If they have their way, in 1999 the World Cup cross-country tour might include the Biela Stopa as an annual event. It remains to be seen though, when that day comes, whether the origins of the race or even the name SNP will ring with any significance with a world-wide audience.
Daniel J. Stoll contributed to this story.
S&S Travel tips
Kremnica Information Center - Štefánikovo nám. 35/44, 967 01 Kremnica, tel./fax: 0857/ 742-856. One of the most friendly info-centers in Slovakia. Located in the Barbican.
By car- From Bratislava, follow signs to Nitra (97 km) then pick up Route E 571 east toward Zvolen. Right after breezing by Žiar nad hronom (175 km from Bratislava) and before the road becomes a four lane speedy zone look for signs north to Kremnica on Route 65. It's only a quick 10 minutes from the turn off.
By train- Train is not the way to go to get to Kremnica. There are too many connections and stops. But for train enthusiasts, the line from Kremnica to Prievidza - which is where the fairy tale castle of Bojnice rests - through the Kremnické hills is one of the most spectacular in the country. It can take up to three hours because the track ducks through tunnels and navigates high ridges while stopping at remote villages for long periods of time.
By bus- From Bratislava there are three direct buses during the week: leaving at 12:55 - arriving at 16:35, leaving at 14:55 - arriving at 18:35, and leaving at 19:55 - arriving at 22:55. The 12:55 runs every day.
Hotel Veterník- Veternícka ulica 117/19, 967 01 Kremnica. Prices double room: 800 Sk for everyone. A clean, relaxing hotel with a good restaurant serving from 7 in the morning to 10 at night. The only real choice for lodging in town.
Jeleň- Dolná ul. 22, 967 01 Kremnica. Located on the main street leading to the walled castle. Serves traditional Slovak food, plus some good game dishes if their hunter had a good day. Open from 9 to 22 Mon. - Sat., 9 - 20 Sun.
Gemer- Štefánikovo nám. 13/25, 967 01 Kremnica. A smoky beer hall just past the gate that provides thick guláš to compliment frosty Gemer brews - a Košice beer.
Pernolík Café- Štefánikovo nám. 24, 967 01 Kremnica. Up on the top end of the slopy square, a spacious stone cellar serving cakes and coffee.
27. Feb 1997 at 0:00 | Robbie Morrison