Slovakia might be relatively 'unknown' to your average English-speaking tourist, but a quick flick through past editions of Spectacular Slovakia (an annual sister publication of SPEX) reveals that there are in fact few places in this country to which its previous writers have not traveled at some time (and often several) in the past 13 years.
Partly that's because Slovakia is a small place. But it's also because the guide's writers have always been keen to uncover 'hidden gems' and have gone to some unlikely places trying to find them. My brief, as writer of the fourteenth edition, was no different.
All I want is some halušky
One cliché invariably leads to another: namely, going 'off the beaten track'. Which sounds very romantic and exciting. On occasion, it actually is. But you don't have to stray far down the alternative tracks, at least in Slovakia, to appreciate why some of them are not being beaten with much enthusiasm.
There was the city of more than five thousand souls in the east where the only dining option on a hot summer Saturday afternoon appeared to be the not-wholly-enticing staničný bufet (i.e. railway station bar). Or the Low Tatras limestone cave (I have to confess, with apologies to the speleologically-inclined, that these all looked the same to me) which felt justified in asking visitors to pay Sk300 on top of its already ambitious entrance fee just to take photos. And the village museum in Trenčín region whose last recorded visitor had preceded me by ten months - for reasons that quickly became apparent.
But there are still many places worth going the extra mile to see: the ancient beech forests of the Poloniny National Park, on a warm summer's afternoon, were sublime; the pretty village of Lúčka, with its Hussite church and hillside location in a valley of the Slovenský Kras (Slovak Karst) region; The East Slovak gallery in Košice, impressively renovated but still with its 'Historical Hall' where Czechoslovakia was re-founded at the end of the Second World War; the rolling fields, dotted with vineyards, east of Levice; the ghostly remains of the Romans' left-bank bridgehead on the Danube at Iža, near Komárno; the golden reds and yellows of the Small Carpathians in autumn.
Also, living in Bratislava, there is the freedom to get on a train any day of the week to one of five or more other capital cities. For Americans, Canadians and even Britons, this is not as unremarkable as it might sound to a continental European.
Remembering and forgetting
Some of the locations I visited (often to the good-natured bewilderment of my local contacts) were chosen because of their recent historical significance. But occasionally I would have trouble finding anyone who knew much about that history. For instance, in a back-street plot in Veľký Meder, in southern Slovakia, lie the remains of more than 5,000 Serbian soldiers from the First World War. They were prisoners of war there, and (I was told) died in a typhus outbreak. But nothing records their fate beyond a simple plaque.
The birthplace museum of Milan Rastislav Štefánik, Slovakia's very own warrior, aviator, scientist, diplomat, polyglot and nation-builder, in Košariská, was unable to sell me even a postcard of the great man. The museum, however, is excellent, with well-written and well-translated captions to the displays about Štefánik's amazing but tragically short life.
Some sins of omission were more troubling. Jozef Tiso, I was told by the state-funded institution whose job it is to 'preserve' Slovak culture, was not a fascist. I had already learned elsewhere that this was the same Jozef Tiso who presided over the Nazi-allied wartime Slovak Republic after doing a deal with Hitler, who led an authoritarian state which arbitrarily confiscated people's property, who led a party whose uniformed paramilitary wing carried out massacres and reprisals against fellow Slovaks, and on whose watch tens of thousands of Slovak Jews
were deported to German death camps.
But apparently he wasn't a fascist. It left me wondering exactly what you have to do to qualify these days.
Of course, one can argue all day about how to define something like fascism. But I was left with the strong impression that a small but influential minority of Slovaks equate patriotism with an obligation to excuse the actions of the country’s former leaders – no matter how odious – rather than engaging in an honest appraisal of the facts.
As I learned, Slovakia has a fascinating and in many ways inspiring history. How many other countries can boast such a peaceful and successful transition to independence and democratic freedom? But it's a story that few foreigners will bother to learn while Slovakia itself remains so confused about it.
Under your own power
Faced with the challenge of seeking out new places, my rather unimaginative response was instead to go to some of the old ones by novel means.
My bicycle carried me along the Danube to Komárno, along the Morava to the Czech Republic, from the Upper Orava valley to Zakopané in Poland and, in one slightly surreal day-trip, through the Carpathian foothills to Užhorod in Ukraine.
The river routes were fairly easy, but even the hillier sections were manageable. I didn't bump into too many other touring cyclists, apart from one sunburned Canadian who had ridden all the way down the Danube from Germany. There are plenty of riders cruising up and down the Danube paths near Bratislava, but outside the city I had the cycle-paths and back-roads pretty much to myself.
I would have liked to do more. Central Slovakia in particular has good roads, rolling hills and light traffic: perfect cycling territory. But time was short and I had people to meet.
People and places
Some of them were unforgettable.
The director of culture in Svidník district, in northeastern Slovakia, for example, who casually mentioned during my visit that she was leaving the next day with her folk ensemble for a festival in Makhachkala, Dagestan (!). By bus (!!). When I expressed my admiration for her commitment to folklore, she brushed off my praise as if a three-day bus journey on some of the worst roads in Europe to one of the least stable parts of the continent was nothing out of the ordinary.
In Hronský Beňadik, in central Slovakia, the local tourist information officer, who is on one-man mission to alert Slovaks to the historical importance of his adopted town (to wit, a tale of Roman legions, fire from the skies and heavenly intervention - but you'll have to buy the guide if you want to find out more..), presented me with a CD of his crooning (not as bad - well, not quite as bad - as I had feared) and insisted on showing me around the 'mediaeval castle' he is building in his back garden. I assumed there had been a translation failure (our only common language being schoolboy French) - but there was the castle alright.
Or the manager of the roadside salaš (traditional mountain cheese operation) near Ružomberok who it turned out was until recently a sommelier for Gordon Ramsay, one of London's top restaurateurs, but had just opened his own restaurant attached to the salaš.
Two wheels good, four wheels... scary
As well as cycling, I spent a lot of time in cars and buses.
Having had some experience of Slovak roads in the 1990s, it is fair to say they have got a lot better, though I remember thinking they were not as bad as everyone claimed even then. However, it struck me several times during my travels that some people's driving has yet to make a similar transition.
On the principle that it takes one to know one, and having myself taken four attempts to pass my driving test, I regard myself as something of an authority on bad driving. Yet even I have had to take my hat off to the highway tailgaters, red-light jumpers and lunatics swerving through villages at 120km/h. (Curiously, the police seem to do the same, and appear mainly to target innocuous-looking people driving old Škodas instead of the real road pirates).
So, while not wishing to deny anyone the entertainment on offer on Slovakia's roads it is worth mentioning that, as an alternative, the railways here are excellent. Not all the trains are very modern; nor are they particularly fast. But they are fairly cheap and impressively punctual. And the scenery on cross-country trips is enough to while away the hours (if it isn't, most express trains also have a bar or restaurant car).
If the rest of the world is anything to go by, the rising tide of car ownership in Slovakia will probably lead to calls for rail subsidies to be diverted to the roads and an eventual contraction in services. So my advice is to take a ride while you can.
Fun 'n' frolics
One thing that has changed over the last few years is the prevalence of aquaparks.
Not only are there now a lot of these, but the signs directing you to the nearest one now litter the entire country.
If you haven't been to an aquapark, they typically use geo-thermal sources to heat pools of water in which one bobs around for a couple of hours, occasionally getting doused with jets of water which erupt from stainless tubes at odd moments.
It is my sad duty to report that the enticing young ladies in bikinis - or, occasionally, togas - who feature in most of the advertising for these establishments were unaccountably absent during my visits.
What I did encounter were underwater shelves and seating, presumably designed to facilitate one's lounging activities (swimming is more or less discouraged). However, these are not always easy to spot, unless you are expecting them: I have the barked shins to prove it.
As well as the pools, aquaparks (and spas, which have mineralized water) typically offer something called 'wellness'. Exactly what this is remains mysterious: even the manager of one water-park admitted to me that he couldn't really define it (though that hadn't stopping him from marketing himself quite aggressively as a provider of it). From what I could gather, it involves saunas, massages, and various other techniques to lighten the load on your mind and the bulge in your wallet.
Warm and filling
I like Slovak food. I've heard others complain that it’s too heavy or too stodgy. If you're a vegetarian, you may need to develop a taste for fried cheese if you want to travel widely and not starve.
But for everyone else, the cuisine matches the climate very well. Meat dishes with rich sauces, halušky (Slovakia's national dish, a sort of potato pasta), and guláš are all great in winter. Lighter fare like salads appears on the menus in summer. Getting the denné menu (the daily special, normally a soup plus main course) is usually a tasty, good-value option.
On one occasion I ordered something called držková polievka. To be fair to the waiter, he did try to explain - through a kind of convoluted mime - what it would contain (it's basically tripe soup). It tasted OK until I got to the elastic bands at the bottom. Another one chalked up to experience.
Slovak coffee shops are also good. The cakes are an acquired taste (what is that stuff they use instead of cream?), but fresh palacinky (pancakes) are universally available.
Menu translations are another dining highlight. Rarely very illuminating, they are occasionally startling. In one otherwise unremarkable restaurant near Nitra, I was offered 'sweet breast of the landlady'. In the spirit of journalistic enquiry, I asked about this and it turned to be a fairly accurate translation of the Slovak. However, none of my Slovak fellow-diners seemed to think it in the slightest bit unusual. I ordered the fish.
Get out there now
This is an extremely easy country to travel around. If you're here for more than a few days, get on a train or into your car (or on your bike) and take a look around. There are very few towns which don't have a railway station, a bit of medieval charm, somewhere cheap (if slightly eccentric) to stay and a good pub or restaurant. Nearby there will be a castle, a Gothic church, a cave or some even more outlandish attraction (a bell museum, a giant stainless steel monument to a highway robber, a man selling cheese from a smoke-filled garden shed, etc.). And some amazing Slovaks.
Šťastnú cestu! (Happy travels)
The 14th edition of Spectacular Slovakia will be published in Spring 2009.
Highs and lows
The landscape: the mountains of course, but the hills of central Slovakia and the rolling southern lowlands can be just as beautiful.
Stone churches: Košice is worth visiting for the Gothic St Elizabeth's cathedral alone; the monastery church of Hronský Beňadik also deserves a creditable mention.
Wooden churches: these have become quite the places to visit, especially since eight of them were UNESCO-listed in the summer, but anything that gets people to the remoter parts of the east is to be encouraged - though don't forget the 'articular' church in Hronsek, near Banská Bystrica, its cousins in Liptov, and the wonderful All Saints in Tvrdošín, at the top of the Orava valley.
Castles: from Bojnice to Orava, Topoľčany to Banská Štiavnica, you're never far from a world-class castle.
The weather: brilliant (though coming from Britain, I am easily impressed).
Public transport: impressively punctual, and cheap (ditto).
Pubs: you're never far from one, and the beer is good.
Food: the local stuff.
Food: the local interpretation of the foreign stuff (not since Heinz started selling 'spaghetti' in tins has such violence been done to pasta dishes); in fairness, there are some noble exceptions.
Baroque churches: OK, not all of them. But honestly, just once in a while it wouldn't hurt to go easy on the gilding and the cherubs.
'Attractions' charging to let you use your camera: this is basically theft.
Driving antics: Miro Fandango can be quite amusing to watch, until he collides with you.
Service: a perennial gripe from foreigners. After a few months here you come to realize that those sullen glares aren't meant personally. Well, not all of them. But short-term visitors don't, and Slovakia's reputation is suffering as a result.
Emerging west-bound from the Branisko tunnel: the hulking remains of Spiš castle appear in front of you, only for the High Tatras to rear up on your right a few kilometers later. Magic.
The Horehronec train between Košice and Banská Bystrica: no dining car, Low Tatras not High, but with scenery like this who needs 'em?
The cable car to Lomnický Štít: it really does go the very top of a very big mountain.
The country west and north of Revúca: the towns have seen better days, but that can't detract from the landscape.
Považská Bystrica: where did the road go? Slovakia's favourite highway bottleneck. Avoid at peak hours, on holidays and at weekends. In fact, just avoid.
The Michalovce-Užhorod border crossing: a nostalgic trip back in time for anybody who remembers the pre-EU, pre-Schengen pantomime at the Bratislava-Berg crossing. A time-consuming pain in the behind for everybody else.
Štúrovo railway station: not actually in Štúrovo. One of the stray dogs in attendance may accompany you to town if you choose to walk.
25. Dec 2008 at 0:00 | James Thomson