On this site, we like to believe we dedicate ourselves 100% to the bizarre, the off-the-beaten-track and the profound where Slovakia is concerned: we wouldn’t want you to be reading on here what you can Google elsewhere, after all. But for some reason writing about Slovakia’s most unique attraction of all (which is fairly bizarre, very off-the-beaten-track and profound, in a simple, solemn kind of way) has until now escaped us…
Maybe that is because of this: many readers will already be familiar with Slovakia’s outstanding collection of wooden churches. Their reputation does indeed precede them. Castles and mountains in Slovakia are incredible, but abundant – and many countries can also boast good castles and mountains. But…
Slovakia’s Uniquest Attraction?
But the wooden churches are – at least where Europe is concerned – a far more niche thing. They are consigned to a remote area along the borders of far-northeastern Slovakia, southern Poland and western Ukraine. Slovakia’s wooden churches are Unesco-listed – a testimony to where western Christianity meets more eastern religious persuasions (the 27 churches scattered through the remote countryside here represent Catholic, Protestant and Greek Catholic Faiths). The striking aspect of each is that they are put together without a single piece of metal: not even a nail. The fine interior decoration looks as gold and silver as the real thing – but once again, it is wood. These masterful works of architecture were built in the 17th- to 19th centuries, and each one is singular in its design. We leave this site to go into more detail – which it does better than any other on the web – it is not the purpose of this post, as we have said, to rewrite what is written elsewhere.
But the reality with most of the wooden churches is that they are hard to find (rarely, if ever signposted), in remote rolling countryside far from major public transport connections and only open by appointment (the appointment is generally made through the designated key-keeper, of which there is one per church, usually some old babka who will not speak any language other than Slovak). And so – to those with limited time and no wheels of their own – Slovakia’s uniquest attraction remains frustratingly off limits.
Fortunately, a handful of these churches are accessible without too much difficulty.
Most can be found in or around Bardejov and, further north, Svidník (a centre of the fascinating Rusyn culture). (and on both of these destinations we’ll be publishing a lot more content in late 2016)
This is our number one choice of a wooden church to visit: the most accessible one that feels – how shall we say – rustically authentic (being sequestered away in a tiny village). The interior is an absolute must-see: not because of mind-blowing lavishness but for its more poignant simplicity, with touching decoration on the walls and altar. About 9km outside Bardejov, it’s close enough to walk (via Mihal’ov; on the route shown on the map) if other means of transport fail (which they can). The custodian is one of the most reliable (her number is on the church door and church gate if the church is shut) and there is a little penzión where you can bed down for the night called Penzión Čergov. MAP
GET HERE – First of all, you need to get to Bardejov. For this, Košice is the nearest big city that foreigners are likely to have on their itineraries: it’s a 4.5 hour train ride (every 1.5 hours)/one-hour direct daily flight from Bratislava or a 2-hour direct daily flight from London Luton. From Košice bus station (next to the train station) buses run every 40 minutes to Bardejov (1 hour 55 minutes). From Bardejov town centre, it’s only a 15-minute drive to Hervatov. But buses only run every two hours, with the first at 6:25am and the last at 8:20pm – and at weekends there are only four direct buses per day. So there is always the recourse of your own two feet…
Surprisingly, you don’t have to go so far east to see a wooden church. The agreeable medieval town of Kežmarok on the south-eastern edge of the High Tatras has one right in its centre! It’s the biggest wooden church you’ll find out of all of them, dating from 1717 and built in baroque style (cool fact – there is a little bit of stone on the premises – in the sacristy, which was originally part of a city pub (!). Click here for detailed info on the church, and for an interesting theory about why this eclectic bunch of churches are indeed wooden! The Kežmarok church is open 9am-midday and 2pm-5pm Monday through Saturday from May to October and Tuesday/Friday 10am-midday and 2pm-4pm from November to April – so this church is great because it’s the only genuine wooden church still standing in its original location and with fixed opening hours. MAP
First of all, you need to get to Poprad, which is served by direct daily train from Bratislava (4 hours) and Košice (1 hour) every 1.5 hours, and by direct flight from London Luton. From Poprad Tatry train station, it’s a short walk to the bus station from which buses depart at least every 30 minutes for the 30-minute journey to Kežmarok.
3: Bardejovské Kupele
Yes, in the spa town a few kilometres outside Bardejov (virtually a suburb, and appropriately called Bardejovské Kúpele) you will find an intriguing addition to the usual spa facilities: a skanzen, or open-air museum portraying typical rustic life (a concept at which Slovakia excels). Actually, this Museum of Folk Architecture (Múzeum ľudovej architektúry) was Slovakia’s very first skanzen, opening in 1965. And in the museum (itself worthy of a separate post for its riveting examples of folk architecture from over the last couple of centuries) you will find no fewer than two relocated but utterly authentic wooden churches from the villages, respectively, of Mikulášová-Niklová and Zboj. The serendipitous nature of this truly amazing museum means these two dinky churches within its midst are pretty impressive. MAP
As for Hervatov above, first of all, you need to get to Bardejov. For this, Košice is the nearest big city that foreigners are likely to have on their itineraries: it’s a 4.5 hour train ride (every 1.5 hours)/one-hour direct daily flight from Bratislava or there is a 2-hour direct daily flight from London Luton. From Košice bus station (next to the train station) buses run every 40 minutes to Bardejov (1 hour 55 minutes). From Bardejov town centre, buses head out to Bardejovské Kúpele about every 20-30 minutes. The journey takes just five minutes.
In Košice’s East Slovak museum (link to Visit Košice website info, not the official homepage, as that is just in Slovak), renowned for many things including Slovakia’s only wax museum and the scary visit to the original old town jail, which lies within its walls, there is also a relocated wooden church, this time from the village of Kožuchovce. MAP
Košice is a 4.5-5-hour train ride (every 1.5 hours)/one-hour direct daily flight from Bratislava: there is also a 2-hour direct daily flight from London Luton. On the map just above, as you can see, it’s an easy 10-minute walk from the railway station to the East Slovak Museum.
Feast your eyes on these outstanding examples of religious architecture and – if your appetite is whetted for more – then maybe it’s time to consider the slightly more complicated, but also more adventurous trip out to the remoter wooden churches that lie in the extreme northeast. There are 27, remember: give yourself a few days if you want to see al of them.
MAP LINKS: Individual map links are provided above.
GETTING THERE: Ditto: in the individual sections above.
NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Bardejov, it’s a 79km ride east to Medzilaborce on the Polish border where you can visit the fascinating Andy Warhol Museum