The best way to see Slovakia is from the train (from our archive)

A trip to the eastern Slovak towns of Košice, Prešov and Bardejov.

KošiceKošice (Source: Zarnajová)

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. Some of the writer’s observations from the year 2004 have changed but much still holds true. For up-to-date information and feature stories, take a look at the latest edition of our Spectacular Slovakia guide. (Source: )

Slovakia's main railway line connects Bratislava to Košice, Slovakia's second biggest city. The ride between the cities lasts five hours and crosses most of the country. It's the best way to see Slovakia.

Rivers, castle ruins, and fields of cabbage and sunflowers can be seen out the window. Hills and mountains line the northern horizon. From a distance, the cities look like Lego on a lumpy green carpet. Closer up, you see the details - the concrete apartment blocks with laundry hanging from balconies and TV antennae that look like tree branches. In the suburbs, nearly every house has a garden. Colorful wooden bungalows lace the hills.

The villages are made up of brown, cube houses, with peaked, orange-tiled roofs, and a church belfry hovering above.

About halfway across the country, the green mountains turn into the High Tatras, which look like stone pyramids glued to the horizon.

What to expect from a train ride in Slovakia

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From the Tatras, I took the train to Košice, an hour and a half ride. My compartment was quiet, so I read a Slovak newspaper.

Here are a few stories from that day:
- 358 students in Bratislava set a Guinness World Record by squeezing into a 100-person bus. One student broke his leg.
- A 14-kilogram cabbage was grown on a farm in Stupava.
- A study said it takes as long to start a company in Slovakia as in Botswana.
- Another study claimed that two-thirds of Slovaks were overweight, while 60 percent thought they ate healthy. The study's authors described a typical Slovak diet as bread and ham for breakfast, meat cutlet for lunch and scrambled eggs and klobása for dinner.

I put down the paper and stared out the window. I saw a cow-drawn plow, a man leading a goat on a leash and a banner on a Quonset hut that said 'Andrea Loves Lojzo'.

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I secretly checked out at the silent faces of the people in my compartment, and wondered to myself why Slovaks were so quiet when riding public transportation. I was, on the other hand, loud. I had to remind myself not to shout ahoj! when I spotted a friend on a tram. I considered the silence civilized - I liked it when strangers didn't make noise - but it was hard to adjust my own speech and movements to the Slovak way. The girl next to me on the train stared straight ahead, and two women across from us talked in whispers. I took out a hard-boiled egg. I cracked it open as quietly as possible, but it still felt like cracking open a beer at midnight mass.

Why come to Slovakia?

An older Slovak man boarded the train and sat down in our compartment. I asked him something and he noticed my accent.

"Foreigner?" he said.
"Slovak ancestors?"
"No," I said. "German, Dutch, English, Irish, Italian and a little American Indian."
"What are you doing here?"
"Writing a travel guide."
"You could make more money somewhere else," he said. "I have a nephew who works in the US. Pays for his plane ticket and makes $6,000 in six months. You could go to New York and get rich!"
"There's no adventure in that," I said.
He shook his head. "Every Slovak wants to go to the US to work. And you come here to get a job."

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Košice's musical fountain is probably the best place in Slovakia to watch people. I saw a middle-aged couple make out to a Muzak version of Dolly Parton's "I Will Always Love You". A man in black jeans, leather vest and cowboy tie gave his Doberman a drink from an old pump well. There was a woman in full widow gear - black babuska, black shirt, long black skirt - pulling one of those vinyl shopping bags you see everywhere in Slovakia that look like bowling ball bags on wheels. There was a six-year-old wearing a fedora, Roma kids strutting around like adults, and a nun that looked like she could throw a shotput a long way. There was a herd of smart-alecky guys in cheap suits. I overheard one say, "What do I need the Internet for when I don't have a computer?"

On being an expat

I knew three expats in Prešov, Slovakia's third biggest city. Unlike the Czech Republic, it was still unusual to meet an ex-pat in Slovakia.

In the late 1990s, 30,000 Americans, I heard, were living in Prague, while only 400 Americans lived in Bratislava. I haven't been able to confirm those numbers, but they seem right, judging from a walk in either capital at the time. As far as I could tell, the typical Prague expat was a recent college graduate with well-off parents. He or she returned home, presumably to a bright future, once his or her finances required him or her to teach English more than 10 or 15 hours a week.

The typical Slovak expat, if he wasn't connected to an embassy or international company, was also a recent college graduate - but with no money, no discernable career to fall back on, a mild-to-serious drinking problem, a vague lust for adventure, a crush on a Slovak girl and a bad headache if he had to teach English for more than five hours a day.

Most expats in Slovakia - then and now - earn a living teaching English and proofreading, often privately, and usually under the table. Rarely do we work more than 30 hours a week. Nowhere are expats good examples of ambition, but in Slovakia, when the simple question, "What do you do for a living?" is asked of your average ex-pat (me included), it's bound to illicit a cryptic, evasive, perhaps even defensive answer.

I met a British and an American expat in a cheap bar in a residential part of Prešov. We exchanged stories of our experience, complained about the effects of fried food and beer on our bodies, ordered fried foods and beer, chatted for awhile and said goodnight.

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I walked into the centre and met the remaining expat, the only bachelor of the three. He was sitting in a pub, in a booth, surrounded by six college students, all women. Most expats in Slovakia are men. That might be the case anywhere. But I doubt expats anywhere else are as happy to be men as in Slovakia. This expat, a photographer from New York City, had been in Slovakia six years, and he was grinning like it was his first day in paradise. He didn't look like the kind of person who set an alarm clock, and I never figured out exactly how he made a living.

"It's in the cards," he said, explaining why expats like it here. "In Slovakia, we're holding good cards."

We had a decadent expat night, and then the next day, I saw the remains of a potential saint.

The first Slovak saint

The reconstructed body of Pavol Gojdič is on display in Prešov at the Church of St. John the Baptist. Gojdič was bishop of the Czechoslovak Greek Catholic diocese in the late 1940s. At the time, the communist regime, under pressure from the Soviet Union, was trying to convert the 100,000 Greek Catholics in Eastern Slovakia to Russian Orthodox. The government wanted Gojdič to become Bishop of a new Russian Orthodox diocese. When Gojdič refused, they threw him in jail. He died there, on his 72nd birthday, in 1960. He had told visitors he wanted to die on his birthday.

Gojdič became the first Slovak citizen to be beatified in November 2001. If it is argued successfully that Gojdič has produced a miracle - if a terminally ill person who prays to him recovers, for example - he could become Slovakia's first saint.

After the Pope beatified Gojdič, Gojdič's remains were unearthed and combined with wax to form the life-like figure in the glass coffin in Prešov. On the Sunday I was there, a steady flow of people came to kneel before the coffin, make the sign of the cross and say a quick prayer. There were never fewer than three people in the vaulted room, and sometimes a line formed at the base of the coffin. Most visitors were middle-aged women, but I saw one teenager. He wore a T-shirt that said Horím pre Boha - 'I burn for God.'

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Why come to Slovakia? (II)

The next day, I took the train to Bardejov. There was an old man in my compartment wearing a brown suit and holding a tattered leather briefcase. The man had an elegant, impassive face when silent, and a riled expression whenever he spoke. We had struck up a conversation, and he was nodding sagely as we talked, except for when he asked a question, at which point he would become excited, almost agitated.

"What are you doing in Slovakia?" he said. Hills rolled by outside like green whales coming up for air.
"Writing a travel guide," I said.
"Travel guide?" he said, wrinkling his nose in disdain.
"You could make more money back home," he said, shaking his pointer finger. "I have a brother who immigrated to the US. He has a construction business in Chicago. He has a big house and two cars. Why don't you go to the US and get rich?"
"There's no adventure in that," I said, for at least the 10th time on my trip.

He waved his hand dismissively. "So many Slovaks want to go to the US to work, and you come here."

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