Finding the obscure and unique in Slovakia

Every week in the New York Times, the “About New York” column introduces readers to an under-reported or unrepresented character, place, building or incident from arguably the most vibrant five boroughs in the United States. Since the column’s inception, the focus has been on the obscure and unique, those specific wonders living in New Yorkers’ midst, who richen the flavour of the city but who can pass by unnoticed. The column’s most celebrated writers have been those who relish the unknown and dive off the beaten track to find the special and the spectacular where it is least expected.

Every week in the New York Times, the “About New York” column introduces readers to an under-reported or unrepresented character, place, building or incident from arguably the most vibrant five boroughs in the United States. Since the column’s inception, the focus has been on the obscure and unique, those specific wonders living in New Yorkers’ midst, who richen the flavour of the city but who can pass by unnoticed. The column’s most celebrated writers have been those who relish the unknown and dive off the beaten track to find the special and the spectacular where it is least expected.

I thought a lot about “About New York” in 2007, when I spent three months travelling across Slovakia, researching what would become the 13th edition of the annual Spectacular Slovakia travel guide. My trip—like that of those who had trodden the path before and since—was defined by countless characters, places, buildings and incidents that were bizarre, fascinating, unexpected and, yes, spectacular. Every day for three months, I was generating enough material for an imaginary “About Slovakia” column—and I think I could still be writing it now, such was the wealth of ideal subject matter revealed in the country.

I discovered great richness and massive diversity in Slovakia, far more than might be expected from such a small place. There was innovation alongside proud tradition. There were sights that attract folk from across the world and ones for which you would barely cross the street. It was urban and then it was rural; there were charming market towns nestled beside dense forests and wide, open landscapes. I crippled my calves to climb countless church towers and castle ramparts, but then bathed them in thermal waters, else lounged on rafts to drift along rivers. I washed away any doubts in gallons of locally-brewed aperitifs, tasting somewhere between fruit punch and paint-stripper but meaning that from now until the end of my life, no bar shall ever hold any fears.

Every step of the way were characters of forceful opinion and great insight, as well as a smattering of those originals of whom you are perhaps glad there is only one. Without even thinking for very long, I can recall numerous memorable encounters: I met a mayor who had almost single-handedly resurrected a dying town and transformed it into a tourist hub. I met a young, impassioned historian writing exposes of pre-war Nazism, determined to battle on despite the hate mail. I encountered a 94-year-old shepherd still herding his flock every day, and a man so enamoured by Czech guitars of the 1960s that he’d opened a museum in their honour.

I listened to a botanist describe his research into woody plants, peering over Petri dishes containing saplings of North Korean conifers. I met a man who had been chased by a bear. I was offered a fossilised bear bone retrieved from a cave by a park ranger and I was given a pen shaped like a bone as a promotion for a spa. I stood and stared at an empty slab of farmland and learned that it was a key site in 20th century American art. I was told Mozart wrote the same sonata in at least three locations. And I blindly followed a guide into the house of our taxi driver, the walls of which displayed stuffed heads of boar, stag and fox, as well as heron, owl and rat. “Perhaps we will be his next victims,” whispered my guide, in what I’m only about 50 percent convinced was a joke.

With the travelling out the way, I decamped from central Europe to New York to write Spectacular Slovakia, and even while sitting in a Manhattan coffee shop, I could be transported back to Bardejov or Poloniny, sometimes with a chuckle and other times with a sigh of relief. I had countless notes to jog my memory of the sights, not to mention bags of promotional material that had cut into my hands as they grew heavier and the handles more lacerating as my trip progressed.
Sometimes I congratulated my travelling incarnation for his ability to describe a sight in a couple of perfectly-selected adjectives scrawled into a notebook’s margin. But at other times I despised his weary cynicism. Standing in Levoča in front of a no-doubt wondrous altar carved by Master Pavol, my indolent alter ego once wrote: “Make this sound good”, addressing the book-writer he knew he would be in a few months. “Damn, why don’t you make it sound good!” screeched the beleaguered scribe. “You are there, for god’s sake!”

As is to be expected, people often ask about Slovakia still, wondering whether they should visit or, at least, lay to rest any preconceptions. I try to be honest about my recommendation, steering clear of misleading “must see” labels, but offering wholehearted encouragement to discover the many excellent and unknown gems in the country.

If you have an interest in cathedral architecture, for example, then of course you should visit Prague, but you should also go to Košice as soon as possible. If you’re a rambler, then by all means head for England’s Lake District, but you’d also be amazed by Slovenský Raj. The Tokaj wine region is not quite as slick as California’s Napa Valley, but that might be for the better.
The Slovak welcome from the many family-run vineyards is more genuine and more friendly. For skiers, the High Tatras resorts are perhaps not quite at the standards of the Alps or Rockies, but they’re closing in fast. In short, a spirited sense of adventure will serve you well in Slovakia, and your stories will have more value for their novelty and quirks.

I have returned to Slovakia more than once since I “left”, and suspect I’ll continue to do so for many years to come. I have good friends there, but also now have an attachment to the country, the kind fostered between people and places after you spend months examining one another’s foibles and scratching far deeper than the surface. And I have already seen great progression in the relatively few years I have known much about the place. For several years, Bratislava has known how to welcome tourists and is now established on the weekend getaway circuit for holidaying Europeans. Thankfully the city resisted the urge to pander just to rampaging revellers on stag nights, and invested in renovating the castle rather than opening another Irish pub. UNESCO clearly still has its spies operating in the country, and as its mark of approval lands on more sites across the country, so comes the money and the tourists. And although on the whole we’re a whinging bunch, when tourists’ demands are met, the knock on effect is dramatic, with standards improving across the board.

Perhaps Slovakia’s most visible global achievement happened late last year, on the football field. Alongside thousands of others, I watched in delight as Slovakia’s footballers graduated from a rag-tag rabble of enthusiastic unknowns into World Cup qualifiers. I was at the match in Bratislava when they almost blew it—how perfectly Slovak of them to lose ignominiously to Slovenia at home, but then to go to Poland, play through a Wednesday night blizzard and win courtesy of an own goal. I sat in the Czech and Slovak social club in north London to watch the Poland match, barely able to pick out the ball on a failing television and satellite connection. However, the restoration of shredded nerves at the final whistle was among the most thrilling of my many sporting memories.

This summer they will go to South Africa to contest the biggest sporting event in the world. Whatever the outcome, millions more sport fans will see Slovakia in action than ever before.

Spectacular Slovakia is now in its 15th year, and I recommend reading every single edition, should you get the chance. Each of us 15 principal writers has been on hand both to celebrate Slovakia’s remarkable history as well as to document its rapid recent progress. We may have been frequently weary but we were always wide-eyed, and if journalism is the first draft of history, then Spectacular Slovakia, as well as the Slovak Spectator, is peerless source material. I’m already booked for the 30th edition—get your order in now.

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