Perched on the altar of the wooden articled church in Leštiny, in the Žilina Region of northern Slovakia, are two figures unique in Christian iconography. In the early 1990s, after the fall of the communist regime, a spate of looting in some of Slovakia’s historical monuments accounted for the original, priceless versions of two statues of the brothers Aaron and Moses, which had stood in the church for hundreds of years. Wounded by their loss, the villagers of Leštiny commissioned a local carver to replace the artefacts, and he went to work to produce something vaguely akin to the prized and delicate whittlings of his artisan predecessors.
When the figures were completed, it mattered little to most parishioners that the carver had taken as models two slightly less than traditional forms. The result was that when Leštiny was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2008, the statues of Aaron and Moses became the only UNESCO-protected garden gnomes in world. These multi-coloured, long-nosed chaps duly took their place alongside the Statue of Liberty, Stonehenge, the Great Pyramid of Giza and the historic sanctuary of Machu Picchu as officially some of the 936 most significant cultural monuments on earth.
It was, of course, not exclusively the gnomic figures that attracted UNESCO to Leštiny. Rather the magnificent hilltop church in which they stand, which dates from the 17th century, is one of eight “Wooden Churches of the Slovak part of the Carpathian Mountain Area” that three years ago earned inscription on UNESCO’s prestigious list of cultural sites. Since its inception in 1972, the UNESCO World Heritage List has offered conservation and preservation to sites both natural and manmade, from the modern and ancient worlds, in 153 countries in all corners of the globe, including seven locations in Slovakia.
While it is unlikely that the garden gnomes of Leštiny would have been accepted into a UNESCO site had the church been listed at the time of their carving, it is also unlikely that the theft of the original statues would have occurred in the first place. UNESCO inclusion is exceptionally hard to secure and comes only after fulfilling detailed, specific criteria. It also brings with it an unprecedented number of directives and regulations. But inscription is an internationally recognised indicator of value and importance, which safeguards heritage, attracts tourists and can elevate even the smallest site to global significance.
“Some wooden churches listed with UNESCO are situated in villages of 50 people; little, little villages,” said Milan Dudáš, the historian who single-handedly persuaded UNESCO to inscribe Slovakia’s wooden churches. “These people are very proud. It is fantastic for them.”
In the particular language of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (to give UNESCO its full title), Slovakia’s World Heritage inclusions are: the Historic Town of Banská Štiavnica and the Technical Monuments in its Vicinity (inscribed in 1993); Bardejov Town Conservation Reserve (2000); Levoča, Spišský Hrad and the Associated Cultural Monuments (1993); Vlkolínec (1993); Wooden Churches of the Slovak part of the Carpathian Mountain Area (2008); Caves of Aggtelek Karst and Slovak Karst (1995) and Primeval Beech Forests of the Carpathians and the Ancient Beech Forests of Germany (2007). The former five are “cultural” inclusions, the final two are designated "natural" sites.
As is fitting for a list of such prestige, UNESCO does not come looking for its new inclusions, but in fact forces potential bidders to persuade its committees that a site warrants consideration. The process of bidding is arduous and expensive for even the largest, most financially sound governments and organisations, but it can sometimes be a process undertaken by far smaller groups, often working voluntarily and driven only by personal passion.
“If I had known at the beginning how difficult this would be, I would have never done this project,” said Dudáš, who secured the wooden church inscription in 2008. “It was a lot of work and trouble… to fill in the UNESCO forms, follow the operational guidelines. It was absolutely horrible at times.”
Dudáš’ mission to get Slovakia’s wooden churches recognised by UNESCO took close to ten years’ planning and necessitated an unquantifiable amount of research, administration and bureaucratic wrangling. It took him throughout Slovakia and central Europe, into discussions with politicians and local parishioners alike. That is before he even got anywhere near UNESCO, who required him to stand in front of 1,000 people in Montreal, Canada, and convince delegates from the Caribbean, the Middle East and elsewhere to consider the case of eight churches on the other side of the world that they had never visited.
“I was extremely nervous,” he said. “It was a huge auditorium. My legs were shaking.”
The journey to panic in Quebec began in Norway in 1998, where Dudáš was studying wood conservation technology at the country’s only inscribed wooden church, in Urnes. “I thought, in Slovakia we have a lot of wooden churches. I was born in a village where there was a wooden church, but we know so little about them.”
He became both an expert and an educator on the subject, before launching a plan to have the churches recognised by UNESCO, first deciding on his own criteria for consideration before wrestling with the organisation’s further detailed requirements.
“I decided to choose only living wooden churches,” Dudáš said. “I mean those used for regular services… For me, a church is a building that was built for people. It is important that people should go here, to be here, to pray here and to contemplate.”
Some parishes in Slovakia were more keen than others for inclusion. Typically, church officials worried they would be forced to cede autonomy or be encouraged away from using the churches for their original purpose. Others feared a return to the days of the previous regime, when an invisible authority undermined individual control. Some just didn’t want the hassle.
“Some owners and local communities were quite negative,” Dudáš said. “I was sad because three or four very nice churches from eastern Slovakia just dropped off the list because of the attitude of local people.”
Where possible, Dudáš sought compromise, permitting, for instance, the retention of the much-loved gnomes even during the visit of inspectors from the advisory International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS). Eventually he finalised a list of eight wooden churches, from more than 60 in Slovakia, listing those in Kežmarok, Hervartov, Hronsek, Bodružal, Tvrdošín, Ladomirová, Ruská Bystrá and Leštiny. The churches bridge three faiths and encompass 300 years of history. They are, without exception, beautiful constructions, showcasing precocious architectural skill and burnished with interior design that remains startling even by contemporary standards.
Working with the churches was a labour of love for Dudáš, but it needed to be. Throughout the project, he toiled independently, for no remuneration and in addition to a full-time day job.
“Some people at the Culture Ministry told me that the trip to Canada [where he presented the final bid] was a reward for me,” Dudáš said. “But it was work too.”
After receiving formal approval from the ICOMOS inspector, and remaining composed for long enough to answer questions from his inquisitors in Montreal, the case for Slovakia’s wooden churches was sufficiently attractive to secure UNESCO backing. Since inscription, the churches have become some of Slovakia’s proudest and most iconic sites. The country now has a legitimate voice in international discussions and knowledge exchange about wooden churches. Dudáš, meanwhile, continues to study the subject and has recently published a book.
The upkeep of the churches is also assured, with UNESCO sites typically having far less difficulty in securing funds for maintenance than unlisted monuments. The organisation’s strict governance also means that the churches are now immune to amateur “improvement” work, which can frequently be more damaging than years of neglect. Dudáš has heard stories of ancient frescoes “refreshed” by modern emulsion and countless tales of unskilled renovations destroying years of priceless history (typically commissioned by extravagant town officials at election time).
Although Dudáš’ tale is unusually centred on one man’s tireless efforts, other UNESCO sites in Slovakia share similar stories of the exhaustive bidding process. In 2002, officials in the wonderfully-preserved medieval town of Levoča, home of the ace-carver Master Pavol, began the process of bidding for the town’s inclusion on the list-requesting that UNESCO expand the inscription of the nearby Spiš Castle and associated monuments to include the region’s de facto capital.
But even though Levoča was seeking merely an extension to an existing inscription, the effort required was immense.
“A whole team worked on it, not just one person,” said Ivan Dunčko, Director of Tourism and Development in Levoča. “There were people from the Monuments Board, from the Regional Monuments Board, from the town of Levoča.”
In his office overlooking the town’s pristine square, Dunčko heaved from a shelf a monstrous red box stuffed with files of paperwork, written in English, and bundles of maps, reports and other loose documents. “This is the entry into UNESCO, plus one similar file full of aerial maps. It is about the state of protection of monuments, natural protection, about churches, air in the churches, factors of menace. We checked everything from seismic activities to wind, rains, floods. We moved these documents through the foreign ministry, the culture ministry to the centre of the World UNESCO Heritage.
During the assessment process, inspectors from ICOMOS visited Levoča both officially and incognito - “I got the impression they knew Levoča better than us. They poked the whole place.” - before a town delegation could formally present their case in Seville, Spain. (The UNESCO conference visits a different location each year.) A lengthy discussion about the inscription of the Elbe river valley in Germany overran, meaning the Levoča hearing was delayed until 10:45 pm on the final day of the conference, forcing the Slovak delegation to re-book flights. Eventually it was agreed that the Elbe valley would be struck from the list, but Levoča was approved and accepted.
“It’s definitely satisfying to get there,” Dunčko said. “There’s a feeling of having completed a good job, that the work that was difficult both personally and financially was not in vain. We take pride that we are members of a sort of exclusive club.”
Exclusive clubs tend to have strict rules, though, and much like the restrictions on the upkeep of a church, UNESCO also keeps close tabs on developments in Levoča. Business and residence owners in the UNESCO zone are prohibited from making significant structural changes to their buildings, and even something as ethereal as the panorama of the town, viewed from the road to Poprad, is officially protected.
“No one can erect a skyscraper, a high tower, nothing,” Dunčko said. “Not only the core downtown area is protected, but also a buffer zone. This view must be preserved in its current state for future generations.”
Some critics claim that a prohibition on development can only inhibit a town’s progress, particularly in a poor economic climate. And although hotel bookings and visitor numbers in Levoča have increased by about 10 percent year-on-year since inscription, according to Dunčko, there remains a lingering fear that UNESCO sites can lose their functionality. The beautifully preserved former mining town of Banská Štiavnica, for example, was one of Slovakia’s first inscriptions in 1993. But while researching the 2008 version of this guidebook, I met more than one local who regretted the UNESCO listing, pointing to a lifeless core in the centre of UNESCO bubble, where property prices were artificially high but where owners could not possibly be expected to live in the absence of the most rudimentary mod-cons.
The fear of a living village being turned gradually into a museum is never more evident than in Vlkolínec, the picturebook hamlet in the foothills of the Veľká Fatra mountain range. A handful of permanent residents of Vlkolínec have grown frustrated by an influx of insensitive visitors apparently incapable of believing they are not in a particularly authentic, open-air tourist attraction.
Vlkolínec was inscribed in 1993, with UNESCO praising its 45 or so timber cottages as “the best preserved and most comprehensive set of traditional vernacular buildings in the Slovak Republic”. And its otherworldly charms are certainly more evocative of one of Slovakia’s countless skanzens than they are a habituated town: a gentle brook tumbles down its central street, babbling through cobbles, past a couple of benches and flanked by low, wooden cottages outside of which are lined wood piles and rickety fences, and sometimes “villagers” displaying local crafts.
Satellite dishes might hang from the gables, pointing to modern inhabitation, but the town store is predominantly a souvenir shop and adjoins a tiny museum of traditional artefacts. An educational footpath leads through and around the village, linking “precious natural and cultural monuments” and providing “interesting information about animate and inanimate natural surroundings [and] their harmonious coexistence with man”.
Aside from the occasional bear attack, however, any disharmony here is predominantly between man and fellow man - specifically local and tourist. Attached to some of the chocolate-box facades are bold signs of admonishment, warning of guard dogs and insisting: “DO NOT ENTER. PRIVATE PROPERTY.”
Cottages 9026 and 9027, for example, display signs declaring themselves cultural monuments, but are also separated by a post bearing two red warning circles: no photographs and no entry.
At least 18 people live in Vlkolínec year round, according to the ticket-seller-cum-warden at the gate, with other properties serving as holiday homes. During a visit in March, the warden was at pains to insist that any travel guide mentioning the village make clear that it was not a museum. She told a (possibly apocryphal) story of a family of tourists smelling lunch cooking in one parlour, entering the house and helping themselves - like Goldilocks after lashings of porridge.
The cook, being Slovak, was too polite to tell them to leave, but resentments simmer like winter stew.
In short, UNESCO inclusion might have safeguarded Vlkolínec against the ravages of time on its delicate buildings, but it has also guaranteed a procession of tourists desperate to touch what is valued specifically for being untouched.
It is a problem shared by some of Slovakia’s caves, including those in the Slovak Karst, which have been included on the UNESCO list since 1995. Cave management raises some particularly vexing quandaries, most notably how to exhibit Slovakia’s spectacular underground treasures but also protect them from damage. The most reliable method, of course, is to keep them sealed, but unseen wonders might as well be trees falling unheard in the woods.
Instead, in the Krásnohorská Cave, visitors are offered as close to an authentic spelunker’s experience as possible, kitted in overalls, hard-hats and mining lamps and guided along balance wires, through crevices and clambering up ladders until reaching the magnificent central stalagmite, one of the biggest in the world. In Domica, tourists exchange their euros for a bewitching float along a subterranean river, gliding through Slovakia’s largest cave. And in Ochtinská, a smooth concrete path leads visitors past a series of fragile, unique aragonite formations resembling the spindly tendrils of sea urchins or birds nests.
None are immune, though, to busy hands, which have been known to carry away souvenirs. It typically takes less than a second to break off a stalactite that has taken millions of years to form.
There is not much UNESCO can do to safeguard against such vandalism, save to encourage education and continue to offer funding for conservation efforts. Even Dudáš, who is at once a scientist, historian, author, council official and pre-eminent authority on the conservation of wooden churches, could offer only one uncertain method when asked how to defend Slovakia’s heritage from destructive forces such as fire. “Pray?” he said.