Vegetarian blues (from our archive)

On Slovak hospitality and a visit to Vlkolínec, the village that was a museum.

Disclaimer: This is an article from our archive of travel guides Spectacular Slovakia. We decided to make this gem available to our readers, making only necessary adjustments. For up-to-date information and feature stories, take a look at the latest edition of our Spectacular Slovakia guide.

Vegetarians and even vegans no longer have the hard time they once had when visiting the cities in Slovakia. Since this story was written in 2004, the gastronomic landscape of the country has changed very much. In some parts of the countryside, however, it is better to be prepared for a prevailingly meat-based diet.

The newspaper I used to work for in Bratislava had an editor from Long Island, New York State. She was in Slovakia on a lark. She knew one of the owners. Although she didn't seem unhappy, she did seem to be counting her days. One of her chief problems was the potato-cabbage-pig-based diet. She was Jewish, and every time she ate swine, she had an attack of guilt.

One night, she ran to the supermarket for a snack. She must have been sick of cheese spread and rolls. She didn't want a cabbage salad, and she was trying to avoid all forms of pig meat. So she bought a box of crackers. She came back, opened the box, bit into a cracker and made a horrible face. It turned out the crackers were ham-flavored.

I wasn't a vegetarian then, but I had since become one. When my plane landed in Vienna in July, I hadn't eaten meat for a year. I knew it would be hard to be a vegetarian in Slovakia. Not because of ham-flavored crackers, but because I thought someone's grandmother would say, "But this pepper stuffed with a huge lump of ground beef I spent all day cooking has hardly any meat in it at all," and I would give in. But it turned out my moment of truth came with Slavomíra.

It's only chicken

"My mom packed us a lunch," she said. We were on a train somewhere in central Slovakia. She unpeeled three balls of tin foil. There were plum tomatoes, bread and chicken cutlets.

"I don't eat meat," I said.
"It's only chicken," she said.
"All right."
It tasted good.

Later, for dinner, we had pirohy with bacon. The bacon tasted great, but then I was sick the rest of the night.

After that, I avoided meat when possible. Sometimes I had to be inventive. At a bed and breakfast in the mountains near Banská Bystrica, I asked the cook/waitress/owner's-wife if she could make an omelette.

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"It's not on the menu," she said.
I could see a frying pan and carton of eggs sitting out in the kitchen.
"Can you make an exception?" I said.
"What would I charge?"
"Whatever you think is fair."
"I'd rather not."

I read the menu. Number four was hard-boiled eggs, ham cold cuts, mustard, rolls and jam.

"How about a number four?" I said. "But fry the eggs instead of boiling them...substitute cheese for ham, and mix in the cheese with the eggs."
The idea moved around her brain. "Ok," she said.

The famous Slovak hospitality

Slovaks in low-level service jobs are, on average, sticklers for rules. At home though, Slovaks are painstakingly accommodating. Visitors get slippers and an assortment of beverages and snacks - coffee, tea, juice, beer, wine, moonshine, peanuts, pretzels, cookies...

If Slovaks know you're coming, they cook three-course meals. Afterwards, they bring out more tea, coffee, alcohol and snacks. In Ružomberok, I showed up unannounced at an apartment where my friend's mother lived. I had been there once in 1999. She invited me in, made tea, brought out three bottles of mineral water, put English-language news on the TV, and made a vegetarian casserole.

Later, she called a local historian and asked him to accompany me to Vlkolí­nec, a nearby village listed by the United Nations as an architectural wonder.

Pán (Mr.) Kendera showed up at my hotel the next morning at ten o'clock sharp - in khaki shorts, a khaki vest and an olive green shirt. He was cheerful and owl-faced, and he had a stack of pamphlets and a big bottle of mineral water.

Vlkolínec: a village, not a museum

He answered my questions about Vlkolínec as his little car revved through the hills into the Veľká Fatra Mountains. Vlkolí­nec was 600 years old; 70,000 visitors came each year to see its colorful, three-tiered homes. But Vlkolí­nec wasn't a museum. The houses were privately owned; 34 people lived there, most of them retirees. Three hundred people had lived there before WWII. Then Nazis torched a third of the homes during the Slovak uprising, and many villagers moved away after the war to find work.

"What happens when the 34 die?" I said.
"We're trying to get young families to move in," Kendera said, downshifting as his car climbed a hill.
"What do the villagers think of the tourists?"
"Sometimes they feel like zoo animals. The tourists want to stick their noses in their pots and pans."

Later, I saw an old woman in a blue embroidered apron leave her house, go to a well, pump water into a metal pot, dump the water out and go back inside. A clump of tourists stood by, taking pictures. You could see them thinking, So that's how a Slovak rinses out a pot.

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A blue trail of pavement, about 2 kilometres long, wound steadily from the main road to Vlkolí­nec. Our car went by a tourist bus, and we passed by the village's entrance, which was guarded by a wooden booth, with a wave of Mr. Kendera's hand. We parked the car by an ancient stone church and walked a few hundred meters to the village's main artery, a dusty walkway wedged between the mountains, that was split in the centre by a gurgling stream and on both sides, every ten metres were wooden sluices. The village's famous lime green, light blue and cream houses lined the walkway.

I felt shy about bothering the villagers, but Kendera introduced me to a family he knew. I asked the grandmother, a short, wrinkled woman in a red button-down apron, what she thought about tourists. She waved her hand dismissively.

"Don't tourists bring money?" I said.
"Money!" she said. "They cost us money."
"How's that?"
"We pay Sk300 a year extra for garbage since they arrived."

What Vlkolínec looks like

Her family lived in a typical Vlkolínec house: a rectangular stone base, spruce log center and shingled, triangular roof. There were mountains all around, and a big garden out back.

The grandmother stood in the doorway. A frying pan sizzled inside and a Roy Orbison song played on the radio. I sat on a bench and the woman's son sat next to me. He had a camouflage baseball hat on, a salt-and-pepper beard, and a shell-shocked look in his eyes. He said he hadn't worked in three years. He kept fishing around his breast pocket, as though for cigarettes. It looked like he had enough wood stacked out back for 100 years.

We talked about WWII, local politics and the decline of the village. The son said he missed sounds more than anything. Only the tourists made noise, he said. The voices of his childhood and the murmur of farm animals were gone. It was an interesting and gloomy conversation, and then he brought out an album of photos he had taken - of flowers, deer, beer, owls, hawks, icicles and newborn chicks. They were shockingly innocent photographs. All wonder and no ego. I started to ask about them, but a voice interrupted.

It was a French voice, speaking English.

"Excuse me," the stranger said. A camera the size of a jar of pickles hung around his neck. "This is your house? May I take a picture?"

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Lenin who?

It was a perfect day for a hike - sunny, but with a cool breeze - so I took a trail through the Veľká Fatra Mountains back to Ružomberok. I passed a herd of sheep along the way and caught up with a group of teenagers who were hiking with a 30-year-old woman.

Somehow we got on politics. The teenagers were gung-ho about the EU. The woman was skeptical. The teenagers were optimistic about the future. The woman said some things were better during communism.

"You don't remember how it was," the woman said, breathing heavy as we crested a grassy, rounded-off mountain peak. "You were playing with rubber duckies then."

The teenagers exchanged embarrassed looks. They sat in the grass and silently dug water bottles out of their backpacks. One of them finally spoke.

"I think you forget the bad things," he said to the woman. "But I guess you're right about us not knowing what it was like.

"My brother and I were watching TV last week," he said. "He's 14. There was something about Andy Warhol on. They showed a long, close-up of Warhol's painting of Lenin. I think it's called Red Lenin.

"'Who's that?' my brother said.

"Just then my dad walked by. My brother said it again. 'Who's that?' My dad just about fell over. 'Jesus Christ!' he said. 'If the old comrades at work could see this. My own son doesn't even know who Vladimir Lenin is!"

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