Spectacular Journeys

Spectacular Slovakia started with ambitions to have photography worthy of National Geographic and writing that would both inform and entertain. The travel guide grew out of all of the Spectator staff’s love for travel and discovery. The travel books of the 1990s always covered Slovakia with the Czech Republic, devoting only the latter quarter of the book to the Slovak lands. Lonely Planet and The Rough Guide were certainly inspirations for both style and the type of information to cover. It was just so little.

Daniel J. StollDaniel J. Stoll (Source: Courtesy Daniel J. Stoll)

Spectacular Slovakia started with ambitions to have photography worthy of National Geographic and writing that would both inform and entertain. The travel guide grew out of all of the Spectator staff’s love for travel and discovery. The travel books of the 1990s always covered Slovakia with the Czech Republic, devoting only the latter quarter of the book to the Slovak lands. Lonely Planet and The Rough Guide were certainly inspirations for both style and the type of information to cover. It was just so little.

At the Spectator, we felt this slight personally. Slovakia didn’t receive the respect comparable to the rest of the other Central European countries. Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, and even Slovenia were thrown accolades and foreign investment while Slovakia was famously once described as “the black hole of Europe,” according to then US ambassador to the United Nations Madeline Albright. How frustrating yet how typical was it for American friends and family to think that there was a war going on in Slovakia (the actual war was in the former Yugoslavia). While Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar’s antics damaged Slovakia’s reputation, we felt that if people actually came to Slovakia they would see that it wasn’t a scary place. That it was actually a remarkable country, with a deep history, fascinating towns and villages, breathtaking yet knowable mountain ranges, castles, caves, cathedrals; wine, beer, mineral water; and shepherds, hockey players, and models.

Spectacular Slovakia set out to showcase Slovakia in all of her beauty and all of her (charming to some, annoying to most) faults. Each year’s guide became a snapshot in time, forever engraving what Slovakia was like in that year. In writing and editing Spectacular Slovakia we set to claim ground for our readers, for the visitors that were curious enough to use our guide and find their own stories. Because the Slovak people are always generous to foreigners, quick to make sure that their needs are met, stomachs full and health saluted to.

From a business perspective, Spectacular Slovakia continues to be our most profitable magazine. Over the years, dedicated partners like US Steel, KPMG, Deloitte & Touche, the Slovak Ministry of Economy, have believed in Spectacular’s vision to bring Slovakia to life for the foreigner living and working in Slovakia as well as to the outside world. Paper quality improved from newsprint in our first publication to high quality gloss that makes the photos fly off the page today. Tom Nicholson pioneered a doing business in Slovakia section that became a must read for the business community. And our travel guide has served as an introduction to Slovakia at the Olympic Games in Japan and China.

The writing has evolved from the backpacker mentality of the early guides to a more mature approach of the newer editions. Concurrent in every issue, the thirst for knowledge, the excitement of exploring Slovakia for the first time, the joy of visiting places that can be found nowhere else in Europe, of meeting people that you miss the minute you depart, electrifies the writing in Spectacular Slovakia in all the stories we share.

As the editor of the first three Spectacular Slovakia editions and having lived in Slovakia from 1994 to 2000, then returning annually to visit my wife Reni’s family, I have travelled thoroughly across the four corners of the country and seen much that deserves the superlative spectacular. In a nod to the other Spectator founders and editors Richard Lewis and Rick Zednik, who were wise to the alluring power of rankings over readers, here are my top 10 destinations in Slovakia counting down…

#10 Devín Castle

Coming from Vienna, Devín is the first clue that Slovakia holds many gems. The castle ruin rises above the Danube River, a lone tower stands defiantly on an impossible rock outcrop away from the main castle. Anyone living in Bratislava must do the hike from Dúbravka to Devín. Through twists and turns in the forest, the castle finally reveals itself out of the trees over gently rolling fields to the town. My favourite restaurant in all of Slovakia is in Devín, at the foot of the castle wall, Hostinec u zlého námornika (The Mean Sailor) – amazing fish dishes and the best cabbage soup.

#9 Čachtice Ruin

The Bloody Countess story is just too much for the modern imagination to ignore. Movies, essays, and books have been created about Elizabeth Bathory, who it is said bathed in the blood of virgins. What’s left of the stony castle ruin high above the countryside where she engaged in her sadistic rituals still has the ability to raise the hair on one’s neck, and for shivers to run down the spine. I camped overnight there with fellow founder Eric Koomen and my brother Matt on a moonless summer night more than a decade ago. When hunting for wood for our campfire, each of us nearly got lost in the disorienting forest around Čachtice, no doubt the countess having a hand in our fate.

#8 Kremnica

The breathtaking town of Kremnica, tucked in the hills before the Low Tatra mountains was the setting for one of the most inspiring events I’ve ever witnessed. My friend Robbie Morrison strapped on a pair of cross country skis to partake in a 25 km race from Kremnica to Banská Bystrica in the annual Biela Stopa SNP (White Trail of the Slovak National Uprising). Robbie was the best skier I’d ever seen, downhill skier that is. This was the third time he was donning a pair of cross-country skis in his life. But because he was the only American in the race in 1997, the organisers thought that he must know what he was doing, so they put him at the front of the pack with the other top contenders at the start of the race. Robbie half didn’t realize what was going on and half loved the attention. When the gun sounded, Robbie fell hard while the top 10 skiers flew by him. Robbie got up and made a go at it, gaining ground in the long stretch of snow where all the spectators gather at the start of the race. The crowd cheered Robbie on. I covered my eyes afraid that he would fall again. And he did, many times, but in the cover of the forest, away from the crowd.

For me, Robbie’s courage to enter the race symbolised how foreigners living and working in Slovakia at the time felt being in the country. Everything was so new and doors were open to foreigners just because they were from the West. Slovaks viewed us too optimistically, that we could do no wrong, that we were good just because we were American or British or Canadian. This innocent view did not last forever. But it was real at the end of the 20th century – foreigners who loved being in Slovakia accomplishing things in the country that they never would have dreamed of like creating a travel guide that still prints today. Because they had courage to finish the race, like Robbie eventually did that blustery winter day.

#7 Pieniny – Červený Kláštor

Even though the European Union has eliminated borders, there is still a thrill of straddling two countries in a raft with tall canyon walls on either side and a monastery waiting at the end of the excursion. Such is the adventure that awaits travellers to Pieniny national park which resides on the Poland-Slovakia border marked by the Dunajec river. The people of this region are known as Gorals (Highlanders), fiercely proud of their heritage approaching almost Basque-like fervour. At Červený Kláštor (Red Monastery), the 18th century comes alive with stories of monks involved in astrology, alchemy and one monk even constructing a “flying machine” which he supposedly flew off the cliffs over the Dunajec.

#6 Little Carpathians

Svätý Jur, Pezinok, Modra and Smolenice are charming villages lining the slopes of the Malé Karpaty (Little Carpathians) full of hiking possibilities and exploring Slovakia’s superb wine culture. There is a crumbling castle ruin in Svätý Jur that leads to an old ski jump with a lively pub at the bottom. Wandering Pezinok’s streets can unveil true wine-makers like Ludovít Tretina and Peter Matyšák, energetic hosts offering wine tasting and exquisite food – especially in autumn when goose and lokše (a kind of potato pancake) is available. The photogenic Smolenice castle is at the start of a hike up through garlic meadows and dense forest to Záruby, the highest part of the Little Carpathians, which then meanders down a ridge to another castle ruin, Ostrý Kameň.

#5 Bojnice Castle

The prettiest castle in Slovakia, the Disney-like Bojnice is Slovakia’s best tourist trap. Definitely go during the annual International Ghost Festival for a Renaissance affair – people dressed in clothes from the Middle Ages, falconers showing off their majestic birds, plenty of games to play and crafts to buy. A tour of the castle makes the typical Disney comparison moot, since this is the real deal with giant walled tapestries, ornate fire places, majestic wooden tables, dark portrait paintings, and religious carved stone statues one expects to find in a castle. One rumour told of green ooze coming out of the tombs in the castle crypt. The large Bojnice Zoo in the shadow of the castle is also a fun day and I never tire of watching the bears play.

#4 Wooden Churches of Eastern Slovakia

To get to the wooden churches found in north east Slovakia takes some perseverance. But finally finding them creates a sense of awe and respect for their simplistic beauty, you feel privileged to have seen. Mostly Greek-Orthodox and located slightly on the outskirts of slowly fading villages inhabited by Ruthenians, a great concentration of wooden churches lie in the valley north of Svidník towards the Polish border. People are always generous to open locked church doors; and most still hold mass on Sundays, a mystical encounter with the Creator.

Reni and I were married in a wooden church, not in the north east, but at Hronsek, a giant Lutheran wooden church that can hold 1,000 people a few kilometres south of Banská Bystrica. Hearing the creaking of wood brings me back to my wedding day ever since.

#3 Slovenský Raj (Slovak Paradise)

For those who love the outdoors, there is no better place to see, hear, and feel mother nature than Slovak Paradise. Hikers are taken along streams through narrow rock gorges, up steep ladders aside waterfalls, onto cut wooden logs to navigate stretches of gushing water, and led to metal steps lodged into high up rock faces – it is an exhilarating experience. Break time in rustic wooden rest stops where kofola and beer flow and thick goulash is served is a fitting reward. Slovak Paradise is also home to the coolest cave in the country, the Dobšinská ice cave, with unique ice formations and beautiful natural ice sculptures, not to be missed.

#2 High Tatras

The majesty of the High Tatras comes from how moody the mountains seem to be. One minute, bright sun shines brilliantly off the jagged peaks. The next minute mist fills the valley causing an eerie silence. Clouds shoot overhead hiding then revealing incredible vistas in its own time. The High Tatras experience is not complete unless you sleep in one of the chatas (mountain cottages) situated way up near the top of the peaks tucked along the Slovakia-Poland border. Téryho Chata is my favourite, the air crisp, glass-like mountain lakes and grassy rocks lend to exploring, and the company of other hikers from all over the world always fun and always deep.

#1 Horehronie region – from Banská Bystrica to Šumiac

Surprise – Spiš castle and Levoča are not my number one. While of course deserving of the plaudits travel guides give them, I reserve my acclaim for the overlooked Horehronie region found in Central Slovakia. From the bustling town squares of Banská Bystrica and Brezno with shops and cafes spilling out onto the cobblestone, to the quiet villages of Šumiac and Telgárt, the Low Tatra mountains are a constant companion.

There is no better time to be had than in a Koliba on a Friday or Saturday night found in the Low Tatra mountains, either in Tále, Krpáčovo or Bystrá. Koliba, the name for a traditional Slovak shepherds hut, has roasted chicken in the middle of the restaurant over a fire pit. Slivovica, plum brandy, flows like water. And music from boisterous accordion players and singing stream long into the night. Here people come to sing, dance and laugh and even the most normally reserved person can’t help but feel the joy of what it means to be in Slovakia.

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