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A HANDFUL OF OPEN-AIR MUSEUMS OFFER A GLIMPSE OF A FORGOTTEN LIFE FROM THE REGION'S FOUR DISTINCTIVE AREAS

Žilina region preserves folk customs and traditions

SMALLHOLD farmer Juraj Belák carved an inscription into the main beam of his house after he finished the building of it. He wrote: "With God's help, built this house. Duro Belák, June 28, 1875."
With God's help it may have been built, but with the assistance of Slovak ethnologists it has been preserved as an example of a life modern Slovaks have all but forgotten.
In the 1920s the house was inhabited by Belák's grandson with his wife and two children. The family stewarded three hectares (about 7,000 acres) of fields and kept a cow, an ox, a herd of sheep, pigs and poultry. The family lived in one room, the only heated place in the house.


WOODEN dwellings from the Orava area in a Martin museum.
photo: Zuzana Habšudová

SMALLHOLD farmer Juraj Belák carved an inscription into the main beam of his house after he finished the building of it. He wrote: "With God's help, built this house. Duro Belák, June 28, 1875."

With God's help it may have been built, but with the assistance of Slovak ethnologists it has been preserved as an example of a life modern Slovaks have all but forgotten.

In the 1920s the house was inhabited by Belák's grandson with his wife and two children. The family stewarded three hectares (about 7,000 acres) of fields and kept a cow, an ox, a herd of sheep, pigs and poultry. The family lived in one room, the only heated place in the house. Apart from service as a bedroom - the couple slept with their children at their feet in one bed, while a grandmother slept in another - the room also served as a workshop for spinning wool and making wicker baskets. It contained a table, benches and a cupboard for clothes. Evenings, the room was illuminated by the open fire or a kerosene lamp.

"This house represents the last phase of wooden house construction in the villages in the Turiec area [north Slovakia's Martin district]," says ethnologist Stanislav Horváth.


TIGHT sleeping for four people in 19th century.
photo: Ján Svrček

The house was taken apart in 1976 and moved to the open-air Slovak Village Museum near the town of Martin, where it was put back together in 1989. The museum's 70-hectare grounds encompass around 100 traditional habitable dwellings and work buildings moved there from four areas in the north-west Žilina region - Turiec, Orava, Kysuce and Liptov. Although the largest of its kind, the site is only one of six open-air museums in the region which preserve traditional architecture and offer a window on how Slovaks lived in past centuries.

The region is governed from the town of Žilina (pop. 89,000) that sits on the junction of three rivers: Váh, Kysuca and Rajčianka. Žilina is visited largely as a gateway to the High Tatras mountain range, which rises to the east. But for ethnologists, Žilina itself deserves credit for preserving the traditions of local inhabitants, some of which are still practiced in surrounding mountain villages. The town houses the world's largest exhibition of the Slovak tinker trade in Budatín castle.

"Žilina region is the richest in variety in Slovakia. It contains the country's highest mountains and largest water dams, countless caves, several castles, thermal springs... and it's also a rich well of folk traditions and customs," says Ján Blahovec from the culture department at the Žilina regional office.

"If we're talking about nature, Žilina region is a second Switzerland, but when we're talking about Slovak folklore, Žilina is the place where it's preserved the best."


IMAGES from Žilina, the regional capital: Holy Trinity Church, above, and Mariánske námestie.
photo: Ján Svrček (top) and Zuzana Habšudová

While Martin's open-air museum has collected traditional dwellings from the entire region, three other museums preserve buildings found only locally. The Orava Village Museum in Brestová, for instance, consists of 58 objects from the historically impoverished Orava region, which is famous for sculptures, wells and crosses carved out of limestone, carpet weaving and linen dying. The wooden houses in the earliest settled areas of lower Orava are characterised by pastel colours and lime coatings, while houses in mountainous northern Orava are simple log cabins.

There are also two "live" folk reservations - original villages representing the country's heritage while still inhabited. One is the Vlkolínec hamlet near Ružomberok, a collection of wooden dwellings listed as a Unesco heritage site, and Čičmany, famous for its unique folk architecture - painted wooden houses that resemble patterns embroidered on clothes.

However, preserving such folk treasures is increasingly running up against the desire of younger traditional village inhabitants to trade 'atmosphere' for modern amenities, says Blahovec. The earthen path leading through Vlkolínec, well-trodden by bare feet over the centuries, is fighting attempts to cover it with gravel, while the wooden drainage troughs for rain water are being switched for tin.

"I understand that the new generations there want to change the frequently rotting wooden ducts for longer-lasting tin ones, but this is going to hurt the village's uniquely preserved character," says Blahovec.

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