Festival

A country where folk is the lore of culture

Slovakia has fought long and hard to keep its traditions and customs alive and today folk song and dance are  treated as family heirlooms, passed down from generation to generation.  

Historically all districts and regions had their own  music, dialects, customs and costumes.  Today these are kept alive, not only within families, but are also taught at local schools.

Slovaks sing about love and happiness at the drop of a traditionally knitted hat but they also sing with pride about the beauty of their homeland.

Folk festivals abound. The annual folk festival  at the foot of  the Poľana Mountains,  a small  range in central Slovakia  has been held  in the second week of July in the amphitheatre in the town of Detva for more than 50 years. Very often there can be 1500 performers taking part.

The open air Museum of the Slovak Village  is definitely worth a visit too. It is  a celebration of the harvest home and the ancient ways of collecting the  harvested.

It stands  on the outskirts of the northern city of Martin in the North of the country and came into being in the 1960s to commemorate Slovak buildings, farm methods and day-to-day living in the 19th  century. The  15 hectares  site consists of more than 100 buildings, farms, croft lofts, a pub, a village store, a garden house, a firehouse, a wooden Renaissance bell-house and an elementary school.

And then of course there is the  handicraft fair in Nitra,  at the foot of Zobor Mountain, in the   Nitra River  valley. Nitra is the oldest Slovak town.

Slovaks have a long tradition of handicrafts, woodcutters, ceramists, potters, tinkers, weavers, blacksmiths and makers of fujary,  a  musical instrument used by Slovak shepherds – a wooden  pipe as tall as a man.

There also makers of cat-o´-nine-tails, bobbin and point laces, embroideries and jewellery.

Almost every ruined castle in Slovakia has its legend. Sometimes these legends are blood-curdling. One such legend is the story of Csejte. In this tale, a ruthless countess murders three young girls and bathes in their blood, thinking it will renew her youthfulness.

Belief in witches, ghosts, and other supernatural beings persist in some areas. Morena, a goddess of death, is the object of a springtime custom. In it, young girls ritually “drown” a straw doll in waters that flow from the first thaw.

In rural areas, some Slovaks still believe that illnesses can be caused by witches or by the “evil eye.” They seek the services of traditional healers who use folk remedies and rituals.

koliba

MUSIC AND LAUGHTER IN THE KOLIBAS

If you ever decide to take tea in a koliba as eccentric as the one in Stara Lesna, take a fire extinguisher too. They spike your tea with a lethal dose of Slivovica and serve it in flames.

It gives you a heartburn that can only be put out by a bottle of red wine while the resident gypsy trio plays bohemian rhapsodies in this tiny village off Route 534, two miles from Tatranska Lomnica.

A stately Kalinka, Kalinka, Kalinka Ki-ya on a double bass, violin and a percussive cimbal gets the diners dancing hand-in-hand round the stone rotisserie where tiny game birds hiss and spit.

The gypsies kylinka to a halt. The diners return to their tables and raise their glasses solemnly.

Then the waiters take over, singing as they serve brynza (chopped onion and crusty bread) before the main course of kapustova polievka – dumplings with sheeps‘ cheese and fried bacon.

Kolibas really are the places to eat – smoky and boisterous, charming, funny and cheap.

They are the historic memories of the sheep sheds dotted across the mountains. For centuries those sheds were beacons to snowbound hunters. Roofs like witch’s hats pulled down against the elements, hickory smell of smoke, heavy soups, incendiary brandy and a roaring fire.

Restaurants, cafés and burger bars are springing up all over the place as Slovakia tourism booms and, because of them, an important part of the past is fading into the background.

But the real kolibas are worth tracking down. You can recognise them by the folk music behind closed doors.

Climbers and skiers like the koliba in Tatranska Lomnica because of its good beer and proximity to the ski slopes of Skalnate Pleso. Music lovers like it there too, particularly in August – it’s only a short trip to Zakopane into Poland for the International Highland Music Festival.

The kolibas and folk music are the cultural heart of Slovakia‘s society. They are the taverns they still write songs about.

blackthorn-1621554_960_7201

Plum madness of Slivovica

One of my favourite libations is Slivovica (pronounced slee-woh-weetza). Absinthe may have a mythological, illegally glamorous reputation all over Europe – but Slivovica is rightfully seen as Slovakia’s plum madness.

The best is aged for years in oak barrels; it smells like molten gold and has a fire that incinerates your taste buds. The very best is distilled from Adriatic plums from the oldest trees along the coast.

Good brandies such as Amice or Karnataka come from Pelion, a town at the heart of Western Slovak’s wine region.

The worst is the un-aged variety sold in the darkest kalians and in back street supermarkets. It’s harsh but does its job.

So, let’s imbibe in a glass or two…

Slovak Craft Beer: Grabbing International Attention

Getting thirsty as the hotter weather comes? We don’t blame you.

Traditionally, Slovakia has been better known for its wine. But Slovakia’s craft beer is pretty amazing these days: not only in Bratislava, where there are four or five microbreweries that really stand out, but also in towns across the country from Banská Štiavnica to Poprad to Košice.

A brand new book by the leading travel publisher, Lonely Planet, Global Beer Tour, has now given Slovakia’s brewpubs the recognition they deserve. It has selected the country’s beer scene as one of the 30 around the world most worth talking about. To find out which of Slovakia’s microbreweries made the cut, you’ll have to go to the relevant chapter in the book, written by none other than Englishman in Slovakia’s Luke Waterson! The book is a bible for those of you that love beer and like travelling (most of us, surely?)

A hearty cheers, anyway. It’s always so nice to see Slovakia making a name for itself overseas. And for once, those Czechs have not stolen all of the hop headlines…

Communism... Based on image by zscout370

On 25 Years Since the End of Communism

A quarter of a century since the fall of Communism was marked in Slovakia perhaps as it should be: in a quiet and analytical way, with a lot of discussions in the media on the progress the country had made during this time.

We have mentioned on Englishman in Slovakia some of the tributes paid to the tumbling of the regime which still, 25 years later, has such a profound effect on so much of this part of Europe (those with a Slovak theme anyway): that compilation of various docufilm directors’ impressions on the country two decades after gaining independence, Slovensko 2.0, is a good starting point.

But the main question on everyone’s lips: has Slovakia developed in a good way, in the way people imagined or hoped that it would? And of course a lot of voices answered: no, not nearly as “good” as expected.  To paraphrase from one of the discussion programmes I got a chance to listen to: Slovakia, whilst technically the easternmost reach of the “west” is more accurately in politics the westernmost outpost of the “east”.

It’s not our place on this site to dwell so much on thorny Slovak state issues. There are plenty of them, which are perhaps best summarised in the word “corruption”. Slovakia’s PM Fico can argue, citing such successes as the Kia and Peugeot automotive plants, that he’s helped the economy (well, at least in the west of SlovaKIA) but culturally? Democratically? In its legal system? Ahem. Polls by CVVM (Czech) and IVO (Slovak) showed only 51% of Slovaks viewed what took place in that autumn of 1989, up to and including November’s Velvet Revolution, with positivity, and that’s no doubt based on disillusionment with those facets of life where there’s a country mile of room for improvement today.

But on the subject of travel, I can say that I’m happy to be here right at the beginning. And I really do mean the absolute nascence – because for years the Slovak tourism industry was dormant and for years more it developed in the wrong way (ski package deals, stag weekends). The beginning of the opening of Slovakia to tourism is now. As new flight connections to Poprad and Košice illustrate, the “set piece” – the east of the country – is more accessible than ever. Enterprising Slovak adventure agencies are getting international recognition. Cool places to eat that aren’t afraid to champion the Slovak character of their menus are introducing foreigners to the nation’s traditional food. Slovakia is now catering to a more discerning type of traveler: the kind that really wants to discover. And the potential is as great as the mountains and forests are vast.

Raise a glass of your finest Demänovka (herbal liqueur) to the next 25 years. Actually, Slovaks are generally more partial to Becherovka, which is a Czech version of the same drink…

Brezová Pod Bradlom Area

The little town (well, the main town around here) of Brezová Pod Bradlom, a hiking centre crouching on the north-west face of the Small Carpathians, is proof of how very versatile Western Slovakia/The Middle is in its landscapes. Here it feels a world away from the sedate winemaking towns like Modra and Pezinok in the south of this same range of hills. You’re that much further north, here, and the landscapes are accordingly wilder! The highlight of this region (at least, its most prominent landmark) is the monument/tomb of Slovak hero (and creator of Czechoslovakia) General Štefánik: Bradlo. Among the fascinating hiking options here are the start/end points for the long-distance Štefánikova magistrála and Cesta Hrdinov SNP trails: the latter continuing all the way across the country.

You’ll almost certainly arrive here from our Places to Go/Western Slovakia/The Middle sub-chapter (Piešťany Area) – and you will probably return the same way, or move further north into Places to Go/Western Slovakia/The North-Western Part (The Biele Karpaty). There’s also a possibility to head southwest from here via Jablonica into Places to Go/Western Slovakia/The Middle (Smolenice Area) 

Prievidza Area

Neatly defined as the Horna Nitra, or Upper Nitra Valley, this area can be bracketted pretty much as the upper reaches of the River Nitra and its watershed, which kicks off near Klačno right on the border of our Places to Go/Mala Fatra/Vel’ka Fatra chapter and wends down through Bojnice and Prievidza before bending away after Partizánske into our Places to Go/Western Slovakia/The South-Eastern Part sub-chapter at Topol’čany (the river does flow onto Nitra, hence the name, and then to Nové Zamky, before joining up with the River Váh and then the Danube).

For the most part, this is a part of Slovakia much forgotten about: steep hills frame it on two sides and offer stunning diversions, but it’s off the beaten path of classic hiking areas. But there is one huge exception: the fairy-tale chateau at Bojnice, Slovakia’s (understandably) most-visited castle. The pretty village of Bojnice is more or less joined to the biggest regional town, Prievidza, and the area is known for its mining (out in them hills).

So north from Prievidza and you strike our Mala Fatra/Vel’ka Fatra chapter, going southeast you very soon enter our Places to Go/Central/South Slovakia chapter at Žiar nád Hronom and spreading north-west/west, you’ll stay in the Prievidza Area until:

a) You reach Valáska Belá way up in the hills on route 574, where there’s a cut-through to Čičmany in the Mala Fatra/Vel’ka Fatra chapter (beyond here you head into Places to Go/Western Slovakia/The North-Western Part (Trenčín Area)

b) You reach Bánovce nád Brebravou on highway E572 (beyond here you’re also back in the very same Trenčin Area.)

A Different Take on the Fall of Communism: Central European Symposium 2015

Twenty-five years on from the collapse of Communism, this intriguing series of lectures at the Central European Symposium 2015 will discuss, there is more than one way of looking at the period from the 1940s to the end of the 1980s when much of Central and Eastern Europe was under a rigidly left-wing regime. Rather than remembering 1989 as the end of a failed experiment of Communism, these lectures focus on Central/Eastern Europe in a broader context over the preceding hundred years – with the region’s Communist dictatorships as one stage within a turgid century of historical change.

The venue? London’s UCL school of Slavonic and East European Studies (inaugurated exactly a century ago by Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk – the future first President of Czechoslovakia). The time and date? From 10am to 5pm on Tuesday 21st April. And finally – a map of the venue. Sign Up here for the event (which is free).

Aha – and the follow-up to the event? A drinks reception at the London Embassy of Slovakia.

Bratislava Castle Restaurant

Slovak cuisine tastebud-tickling time. And this, primarily, for a friend who is Bratislava-bound soon after a lengthy time away, and has been asking me about classic places to eat really good Slovak food in Bratislava Old Town.

On first examination, the question itself appears bizarre – what other kind of food would restaurants in the Slovak capital be serving up? Well, the current trend in the city centre seems to be leaning towards the international=cool approach. But traditional Slovak cuisine? More the domain of the old folks and the tourists (the old folks aren’t so bothered about gourmet, the attitude goes, and the tourists, ha, they can easily be conned into what constitutes good Slovak food), with the result that, outside of a few dingy krčmy (pubs) and a clutch of high-in-price, far-lower-in-quality joints around Hlavné námestie (the main square), really good typical Slovak restaurants are fairly elusive.

RELATED POST: Bratislava Christmas Market – A Great Op for Trying Traditional Slovak Food

©englishmaninslovakia.com

©englishmaninslovakia.com

So, dearth of top-end Slovak cuisine-oriented restaurants revealed, it was both shocking and heartening to discover that one of the very best in Bratislava is actually situated right next to Bratislava Castle. Shocking because who expects a really good showcase for national cuisine right by one of the most touristy spots in the whole country? Heartening because – well – we know that however much we celebrate off-the-beaten-track places on this site, it’s those big attractions where foreign visitors often gravitate and if they do, we would much rather they had the option of seeking refreshment in a decent restaurant (we know it’s easy to resort to the fast food stand or conveniently-close-to-where-hunger-strikes-but-bland eatery, but don’t). And one that can stand in, with some panache, as a showcase for Slovakia’s culinary offerings.

You will come across Hradná Hviezda in the stately cream-yellow courtyard buildings immediately on the west side of the castle (the side furthest away from the city centre, in other words). With a name translating as the Castle Star, it’s the sister restaurant of Modra Hviezda (Blue Star) a little further down in the Jewish Quarter near the Clock Museum – but it is the more dazzling of the two sisters. The setting exudes refinement, although inside, whilst the interior is pleasant enough with its walnut wood furniture and chandeliers, this is hardly what impresses. Nor is it the service (although, poised somewhere between the luke-warm and the congenial, the service is more than adequate). No, Hradná Hviezda will only have you planning your next visit back when you taste what it can do (cook well).

Deer and plums go so well together… ©englishmaninslovakia.com

Deer and plums go so well together… ©englishmaninslovakia.com

There are seven or eight choices of typical Slovak main courses, and each whets the curiosity (and the palate). The meat, always soft, flavoursome and embellished by rosemary and thyme, is hardest to resist. There is the mangalica (the wild boar that roams in the forests above Bratislava) with a pumpkin sauce and chestnuts – chestnuts being a typical accompaniment to Slovakia’s game-centric meat dishes. There is a rabbit served with paprika sauce and dumplings – rabbit is a common meat for country folks who regularly go out bagging them but in Bratislava it is far rarer, and enhanced here by a combo of traditional Hungarian and Slovak sides, the paprika that sets Hungarian food a-blaze and the dumplings which prop up typical Slovak food. Jeleň (venison) is also offered – with the sauce concocted from Slovakia’s signature fruit, the plum, and a rich, creamy potato puree. But Hradná Hviezda also does a mean strapačky (dumplings with sauerkraut) and one that’s enticingly presented in contrast to the sometimes colourless versions of the dish served up elsewhere.

Presentation (generous portions, yet thoughtfully arranged on the plates) is key with Hradná Hviezda’s food. The chefs clearly know exactly what they are doing. A meal here, consequently, is not cheap (mains are around 15 Euros, which puts it in a similar price bracket to one of our other favourite city centre Slovak restaurants, Traja Muškietieri).

It would have been nice to wash down the delicious food with a choice of better Slovak beers (only offering Zlaty Bažant and Krušovice, two of the dullest beers in the country, is a definite shortcoming). It’s definitely recommended, therefore, to sample their wine list which in contrast goes overboard to offer a wide variety of Slovak wines. White wines in Slovakia, especially those from the Small Carpathians (Male Karpaty) Wine region, can rival the world’s best, and the dry white from Rulandske, in the Pezinok region, is a true delight here.

Perhaps a glass of the latter would have been better paired with their trout… But we have only ever had eyes for Hradná Hviezda’s game. You’ll spend a lot longer than the walk up here takes if you were to keep to the lower reaches of the city centre scouting around to find game that compares to that available in the serendipitously twinkling Castle Star…

MAP LINK:

GETTING THERE: Directions are the same as for the castle, and this is an easy stroll up from the very centre, but for those with walking difficulties there is trolleybus 203, catch-able from Hodžovo námestie (and get out at the stop conveniently called “Hrad”).

OPENING: 10am-10pm. Sometimes it can be a good idea to book –  as the restaurant caters to tour groups (locals too, but also tour groups).

BEST TIME TO VISIT: Oh, a dark wintry lunchtime when huddling by their cozy fireplace seems pretty much the best thing to do. Hradná Hviezda’s best dishes are the heavy, hearty, wintery kind. And a visit in out of the cold means the perfect excuse to sample one of their oh-so-typically Slovak fruit brandies… mahrulovica (with apricots), borovička (with pears). The list goes on.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Hradná Hviezda it’s 2km north to another restaurant on a great viewpoint, Kamzík

Danubiana Art Museum – & Why It's Cool

Some of the cool sculpture around the Danubiana Museum

Some of the cool sculpture around the Danubiana Museum

This isn’t my first post about the Danubiana Meulensteen Art Museum (see this post for an example of the type of stunning exhibitions they get here). And, given that a trip here is possibly the best thing to do in the whole of Bratislava, it’s unlikely to be my last. But this post is more about how to get there, and how fun getting there can be.

For those of you not in the picture, the Danubiana Museum is a modern art gallery that’s been created on a promontory of land jutting into the Danube near the town of Čunovo some 15km downriver from central Bratislava. Everything about it from its design to its exhibitions is first-class, and has helped put Bratislava on the map as a sort of boutiquey arts destination. It has a good art shop and cafe too, where there’s a decent range of books on Slovak artists, and postcards. In the years following its opening in 2000, many more boutique art galleries opened in the Old Town. Yet surprisingly few foreigners make it out to the gallery itself. (it’s interesting to note that Danubiana only seems to get Slovak and German wikipedia entries, and it’s not overly prmoted in Bratislava, either, which perhaps partly accounts for it).

From inside the museum space, looking out at the Danube

From inside the museum space, looking out at the Danube

But with spring well on the way (at least, Bratislava is bathed in glorious sun as I write this) it’s not just the art that constitutes a reason to go here. It’s the journey itself. Particularly if you’re in the city for just a few days, having a green getaway on one of them is nice. Most visitors choose Devín Castle for that getaway, and rightly so, because that’s wonderful too. But heading in the opposite direction to Devín, i.e. downriver to the museum, is just as tempting. There are three ways you can do it:

1: Hiking, Cycling or Roller-blading along the trails on the Dunaj (Danube)

Cross over either of Bratislava’s two central bridges across the river (well the Košicka bridge is best for your purposes, as you’ll be heading east/south-east) and you’ll see the start of a cycle trail that takes you all the way out of the city, close to the course the Danube takes as it wends south to Čunovo and then almost immediately on into Hungary. It’s possible to hike, of course, but cycling or roller-blading are the main ways people do it.

The great thing is that along here there are bars you can rock up to on your skates/bike, stop at one of the picnic tables for a good mix of Slovak fried meat and a frothy beer, then continue on your way. As I’ve said, it’s probably 15km to Čunovo but it’s really quite beautiful: small lakes to stop at for a picnic just “inland” and, at one point, an old chateau. Patches of old forests and the lakes provide cooling off opportunities, as it gets very hot here in summer.

One possibility for bike hire is Bike Bratislava, located near the Downtown Backpacker’s Hostel. Hire will cost in the region of 15 Euros per day for adult mountain bikes. Or, try Bratislava Bike Point, a new-for-2014 service based under Most SNP (on the Petrzalka side) of the Danube.

2: A Boat Trip Down the Danube (Dunaj) From Central Bratislava

These trips don’t run all the time: just Saturdays and Sundays from May through to September. Take the boat trip, and you get free entry to the museum at the other end. It’s also an amazing experience to see Bratislava from the water, and as you wind out of the city you’ll see lots of the river that it’s impossible to glimpse from the cycle paths. Departure times are 2pm from central Bratislava (get there half an hour or so before). It’s a 45 minute trip to Danubiana. The return voyage is at 4:30pm and it takes 90 minutes as it’s against the current. This gives you a good 1.5 hours to look round the museum, have a coffee in the cafe or peruse the wonderful selection of art books in the shop.

Ticket sales are through Lod (10/6 Euros per adult/child for the boat trip that includes museum entry) but because their website is not abundantly clear I’ll tell you where the departure dock is. Head towards Most SNP (yeah with the spaceship up top) then walk left along the path besides the river.  You’ll see some of the boats they use moored ahead on the near bank. You will have to go to the ticket office first, however, on Fajnorovo 2 (basically, when you can’t go along the river any more bear left around the building impeding you and you’ll see the entrance). This is also where the boats to Devín and Vienna depart, incidentally (I’ll write something else on this later).

Don’t despair if you don’t see 2014 pricing information up there yet. The trips have run every other year and there’s no reason why they won’t this one. They’re probably waiting for the season to start (in May) and for the Danubiana Museum to finish its mini reconstruction in time for the main tourist season.

Weird & Wonderful Sculpture by Danubiana Museum

Weird & Wonderful Sculpture by Danubiana Museum

3: Bus From Most SNP to Čunovo 

I want to say a few words about this bus, because the museum website and indeed every other source in English says nothing about the logistics of this. On paper it sounds easy enough. Bus number 91 from the station right under Most SNP goes to Čunovo and takes 30-40 minutes to do so. You can also take bus number 91 from Most SNP and change in Rusovce. But these buses stop in the town of Čunovo. And Danubiana, despite having its address listed as Čunovo, is someway outside the town.

So here’s what you do. From where the bus drops you, continue on down the main street until it bends. Directly ahead lies a metalled track which goes passed a few houses on the left into woodland. Keep going. After five to ten minutes this comes out on a road which runs below the raised bank ahead which is the cycle path you could have taken from Bratislava. You won’t be able to get up immediately onto the cycle path as there is a stream in the way, so turn right and follow the road along until it comes out on a larger road. Then bear left, keep the snack stand you’ll see on your left and follow the signs, keeping on the cycle path you’ve now been able to join, which take you out onto the spit of land jutting into the river where the museum is. As a point of interest, you’ll first pass on the right Bratislava’s white water rafting centre, where Slovakia’s multi-medal winning rafting twins, Peter and Pavel Hochschorner, often train. There’s a hotel here too – the Hotel Divoká Voda, but I’m not going to vouch for its quality.

And at the end of all this, it should be noted that right now Danubiana has JUST REOPENED ITS DOORS following refurbishment. The current exhibition, Herman Nitsch’s Das Origen, runs until March 22nd.

MAP LINK:

OPENING: 10am-6pm October 1st-April 30th, 11am-7pm May 1st-September 30th

ADMISSION: Adults 8 Euros, Children 4 Euros

Košice & the East

Košice has finally come into its own gastronomically. With that typical second-city-in-the-country streak of independence fuelled by being European City of Culture in 2013, food here has come on a pace. Hlavná street with its enticing oval square of eateries bustles with culinary life of an evening and in the surrounding streets you will find bars showcasing the region’s best-known culinary export: tokaj wine. Outside Košice, good restaurants are less easy to find, but they exist, if you follow the right signposts… 

Ružinov, Cemeteries & Communist Cafeterias

Martinský Cintorín in Ružinov
Martinský Cintorín in Ružinov

I was in Ružinov earlier today for a work meeting. I was quite excited, not because I was expecting anything particularly amazing from this large neighbourhood of Bratislava just east of the city centre’s Staré Mesto and Nové Mesto (New Town), but because this was Englishmaninslovakia’s first chance to really scout out the area.

On first appearances, Ružinov appears largely industrial. Lots of Bratislava’s major businesses are based here, including the Slovak Tourist Board with whom I had the appointment. The neighbourhood’s streets are very wide, there’s a lot of traffic and a lot of rather big impassive multinational company facades (the flip side is quite a few green spaces, including a couple of cemeteries and lakes which are good enough for a jog or dog walk). The neighbourhood’s very name, actually, refers to the many rose gardens which were supposedly once hereabouts (where are you now, rose gardens?)

But I’m not going to wax lyrical about Ružinov because Englishmaninslovakia neither likes to deceive nor indeed tempt travellers away unnecessarily from a city centre which is far more charming. However it does contain two exceptional attributes, and one of them was right in the building I happened to be visiting, at Doktora Vladimira. Clementisa 10: namely the exceptional cafeteria of Apores.

What I whimsically call Communist-style cafeterias are still, 21 years on, an important part of Slovak eating culture. Picture a canteen, perhaps like one where you once had school dinners. Picture fixed formica tables, and cheap set-price lunches, and invariably surly old women ladling something unidentifiable and colourless out of a vat, and, perhaps most intense of all, water that comes with different colourings, including a garish pink. These canteens or cafeterias are perhaps not so prevalent as they once were, but they are still ubiquitous and still, I would argue – for better or for worse – an interesting cultural phenomenon for the outsider to behold. But what is almost always true about them is that the food is, well, school canteen style food. It’s not renowned for its presentation or succulent taste.

But this cafeteria was clearly cut from a different cloth. Perhaps you could even say it was a sign of how, slowly, Ružinov itself is changing. There were four gluten-free options, including delicious roasted veg, for which I opted. There were tasty soups. There was really decent espresso, which always cheers me up. There was a view onto the nearby park (so none of those starkly strip-lit canteen images that probably come to mind). Apores was a traditional Slovak cafeteria with a touch of city sophistication.

Because Ružinov, these days, does have a touch of city sophistication. The cool city hangouts are spreading out from the centre (it started with the revamped ice hockey stadium and the pretty chic eateries around Slovanet, just back across the other side of Bajkalská, which marks the conventional city centre-Ružinov divide). Watch this space. Ružinov could become an increasingly trendy place to go out.

For now, however, rest easy: a good cafe serving strong espresso will hardly get tourists flocking. Nor, indeed, will one of the city’s main cemeteries, Ružinov’s Martinský Cintorín. I checked it out afterwards: a leafy spot where a few famous people in Slovakia are buried (Jozef Budský, for example, a Czech actor who helped to raise the standard of professional theatre in Slovakia no end). Nor, quite probably, will the nearby presence of Miletičova, the city’s largest fresh produce market (best day is Saturday; for an excellent post on the market visit this blog).

Oh, and the colourful candle holders in the bottom right of the picture? They are part of Slovakia’s most touching traditions, and get lit up at night to remember the cemetery’s incumbents – particularly on November 1st when cemeteries country-wide are mysteriously-flickering seas of candlelight…

MAP LINK

GETTING THERE: Should work take you out to the Ružinov area, it’s not quite the industrial wasteland it first seems. Tram 8 or 9 from Trnavské Mýto will take you there.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: 6km southwest is the focus of Bratislava’s new Danube bridge project in the location of the loveable old Starý Most.

img_2520

On Ružinov, Cemeteries & Communist-esque Cafeterias

Martinský Cintorín in Ružinov

Martinský Cintorín in Ružinov

I was in Ružinov earlier today for a work meeting. I was quite excited, not because I was expecting anything particularly amazing from this large neighbourhood of Bratislava just east of the city centre’s Staré Mesto and Nové Mesto (New Town), but because this was Englishmaninslovakia’s first chance to really scout out the area.

On first appearances, Ružinov appears largely industrial. Lots of Bratislava’s major businesses are based here, including the Slovak Tourist Board with whom I had the appointment. The neighbourhood’s streets are very wide, there’s a lot of traffic and a lot of rather big impassive multinational company facades (the flip side is quite a few green spaces, including a couple of cemeteries and lakes which are good enough for a jog or dog walk). The neighbourhood’s very name, actually, refers to the many rose gardens which were supposedly once hereabouts (where are you now, rose gardens?)

But I’m not going to wax lyrical about Ružinov because Englishmaninslovakia neither likes to deceive nor indeed tempt travellers away unnecessarily from a city centre which is far more charming. However it does contain two exceptional attributes, and one of them was right in the building I happened to be visiting, at Doktora Vladimira. Clementisa 10: namely the exceptional cafeteria of Apores.

What I whimsically call Communist-style cafeterias are still, 21 years on, an important part of Slovak eating culture. Picture a canteen, perhaps like one where you once had school dinners. Picture fixed formica tables, and cheap set-price lunches, and invariably surly old women ladling something unidentifiable and colourless out of a vat, and, perhaps most intense of all, water that comes with different colourings, including a garish pink. These canteens or cafeterias are perhaps not so prevalent as they once were, but they are still ubiquitous and still, I would argue – for better or for worse – an interesting cultural phenomenon for the outsider to behold. But what is almost always true about them is that the food is, well, school canteen style food. It’s not renowned for its presentation or succulent taste.

But this cafeteria was clearly cut from a different cloth. Perhaps you could even say it was a sign of how, slowly, Ružinov itself is changing. There were four gluten-free options, including delicious roasted veg, for which I opted. There were tasty soups. There was really decent espresso, which always cheers me up. There was a view onto the nearby park (so none of those starkly strip-lit canteen images that probably come to mind). Apores was a traditional Slovak cafeteria with a touch of city sophistication.

Because Ružinov, these days, does have a touch of city sophistication. The cool city hangouts are spreading out from the centre (it started with the revamped ice hockey stadium and the pretty chic eateries around Slovanet, just back across the other side of Bajkalská, which marks the conventional city centre-Ružinov divide). Watch this space. Ružinov could become an increasingly trendy place to go out.

For now, however, rest easy: a good cafe serving strong espresso will hardly get tourists flocking. Nor, indeed, will one of the city’s main cemeteries, Ružinov’s Martinský Cintorín. I checked it out afterwards: a leafy spot where a few famous people in Slovakia are buried (Jozef Budský, for example, a Czech actor who helped to raise the standard of professional theatre in Slovakia no end). Nor, quite probably, will the nearby presence of Miletičova, the city’s largest fresh produce market (best day is Saturday; for an excellent post on the market visit this blog).

But should work take you out to the Ružinov area, it’s not quite the industrial wasteland it first seems. Tram 8 or 9 from Trnavské Mýto will take you there.

Oh, and the colourful candle holders in the bottom right of the picture? They are part of Slovakia’s most touching traditions, and get lit up at night to remember the cemetery’s incumbents – particularly on November 1st when cemeteries country-wide are mysteriously-flickering seas of candlelight…

img_2513

Introducing Mr Kiska… And Slovakia’s Presidential Race

Andrej Kiska: Fico's main challenger in the Presidential race

Andrej Kiska: Fico’s main challenger in the Presidential race

What with all the attention diverted one set of borders east to the Ukraine, it’s quite possible Slovakia’s Presidential Election on March 15 won’t attract too much international attention. But it is, here in Slovakia, an increasingly interesting contest and one where the virtual unknown Andrej Kiska is set for a run-in with current Prime Minister Robert Fico.

To put all those not familiar with Slovak politics in the picture: as leader of Slovakia’s governing party, Smer-SD,  Fico has had all the money behind his campaign. This is evidenced in Bratislava by numerous billboards with Fico’s resolute face. (Slovakia do US-sized advertising billboards so it can be imagined just how large that face is). Indeed, for a while this seemed to be very much a one-horse race. Early polls put Fico twenty points plus above his nearest challenger. But in January and February, Andrej Kiska has come on a pace in most polls, some of which now actually tip him to win against Fico in the second round (two of the fourteen candidates getting the most votes will go forward to a second round of voting on March 29).

Try finding information out on Andrej Kiska and it’s not easy. There’s almost nothing in English and the Slovak wikipedia page on him didn’t exist until quite recently. Even the man’s own website doesn’t give very much away.  What’s clear is that Andrej Kiska is a businessman, hailing originally from Poprad – a millionaire several times over who made his money in selling loans and since invested it, among other things, in charitable projects including the charity Dobrý Anjel and in stopping bribery in healthcare. All of which makes him something of a philanthropist. But not really a politician. Indeed, Mr Kiska has no political experience whatsoever.

He seems to be using this as his secret weapon. He comes at this election, he says, as impartial, as an independent. It could be a much-needed quality in a Slovak political scene utterly dominated by Fico’s (centre left-leaning) Smer-SD party. And political experience is of course not so necessary for a President in Slovakia, whose role is as head of state, not head of Slovak parliament. Kiska is certainly giving the Fico Presidential bid enough of a run for its money to unnerve them slightly: there have already been a few words exchanged. More are likely to follow, too, when the fourteen Presidential candidates appear on a series of TV debates beginning March 9th (Kiska is keen, he says, to not make this debate a one-to-one between him and Fico).

The Election is also interesting because if successful, Fico will no longer be able to stay Prime Minister and his party must decide who to replace him. This could mean that the new Prime Minister of the country could be Robert Kaliňák. Food for thought hey? Now, Englishmaninslovakia.com doesn’t get political but Kaliňák would be one of the strangest looking Prime Ministers in Europe was he to be given the nod (he may be a nice enough guy but those eyes are pretty intense). Then again, Kiska looks like he’s gone a few too many rounds in a boxing ring, so it’s all relative…

Robert Kaliňák

Robert Kaliňák

Kiska will also likely argue in the near future that if Fico was elected President, the power his Smer-SD party would then have (they dominated in the regional governor elections too) would be a threat to Slovakia, and that his own election as President would provide the counterbalance to Smer-SD politics.

But does Kiska really stand a chance? Well, let’s just say that the billboard pictures at the top of this blog post (see Fico, much smaller, on the next billboard up?) are not directly proportional.

brat1

ArtForum’s Slovak Movie Selection

Bratislava street by night

Bratislava street by night

Just a shout-out, really, this post: Bratislava is full of these labyrinthine old streets that, in and around the Old Town and Castle area, secrete serendipitous bars, cafes, galleries and shops.

On a cool, crisp night last night we were wandering in the streets just below the castle and chanced upon a place we’d seen before but not ever entered: the ArtForum, a bookshop-cum-cafe which is actually represented in a few of the larger towns across Slovakia.

The main point of the ArtForum is in its great collection of proudly avant-garde literature, music and film. Here you’ll find editions of Samo Chalupka poetry or Milan Kundera novels that you just won’t find elsewhere. It also has, of course, a great selection of international authors represented. It’s also one of the few places in Bratislava that sells records (the city is just waking up to the fact that they’re popular again). Plus there’s a little cafe at one end selling good jams and wine as well as coffee and cake.

But it’s the film selection that was actually most interesting for me. Here is perhaps the best array of Slovak and old Czechoslovak movies anywhere in the city centre, for actually purchasing at least. There are all the classics by Slovakia’s most renowned director, Jakubisko, like The Millennium Bee, Báthory and Perinbaba (which although well known in Slovakia are, for most outsiders, an eyeopening introductions to the wonders of Slovak cinema). Then there was one of my personal favourite Slovak movies, Ruzove Sný (Pink Dreams) which is a groundbreaking portrayal of how the Roma are viewed in Slovakia. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg. My girlfriend got very excited about Panna Zázračica (which we bought; it’s an adaptation of a book by Dominic Tatarka who is one of Slovakia’s most important 20th century writers). Oh, and they have copies of The Wolf Mountains, the Slovak wildlife documentary I’ve been raving about recently, as well.

But for anyone trying to understand a little bit more about Slovak cinema, this is the place to begin trying.

nordfest

Nordfest!

Nordfest - A Celebration of film from Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland and Iceland

Nordfest – A Celebration of film from Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland and Iceland

Running until the 22nd of March in Nostalgia at Kino Nivy is a little-celebrated but extremely interesting film festival celebrating Scandinavian film: the appropriately titled Nordfest. I had a long hard look at the lineup. Most of the films are, understandably, in Danish, Swedish or Norwegian with a couple in African or Chinese, depending upon the collaborators and the setting. All have Slovak subtitles but none had any English subtitles, which sadly limited me to only two films that I could really watch: Searching for Sugar Man (on 7th March) and Factotum  – the 2005 adaptation of the classic Charles Bukowski novel – on 21st March (both in English).

 

I renew a call, as I have with the Jeden Svet (One World) Festival in the past, to showcase these wonderful Bratislava cultural events a little bit more by having subtitles in English for a few more of these films. I know we’re in Slovakia, guys, but if you had a more commonly-spoken language (give me Spanish, French, even German at a push) for secondary subtitles on these great film screenings it would help show the rest of the world just how much Bratislava has going on culturally.

Anyway, fortunately Factotum is the film I most want to see there!

To get to Nostalgia, which is the other side of the Medická Záhard, follow Karadžičova north to the cross with Pol’ná just after the cemetery, turn right, head straight over the pedestrian walkway, take the first left and then bear first right on Velehradská. In two blocks’ time you’ll read Súťažná. Turn left. The cinema is at Súťažná 18.