A deer in a dish...

The Far East: Your Very Own Elegy in Oak

“The other day, I was about to toss a chunk of wood onto the stove. But the light caught on the grain, at a certain angle, and I knew this piece of wood could be something. I stopped concentrating on getting the stove going – even though it’s pretty freezing right now in Eastern Slovakia – went up to my workshop, and a few hours later I’d created my latest design. That’s how it works, in this business. Pieces of wood, even the ones you’ve intended for your fire, have the potential to become beautiful gifts.”

Slovakia is a country of trees. It is one of Europe’s most forested nations – much of it beech or conifer, but a fair amount in oak, too. In the east of Slovakia, they even make their churches out of wood (so beautifully that the 50 or so wooden religious buildings peppering the countryside hereabouts are Unesco-listed). And it is in this region that Freddie Venables, an Englishman that has been living here for the last twenty years, has decided to set up shop to showcase the beauty of Slovakian wood to the world: in oak, naturally, as it remains the bottom line in quality as far as carpentry is concerned.

Freddie has an illustrious connection with oak going back decades. He ran a successful oak flooring business out in the east for some time, and designed the oak-paneled cigar room of flashy High Tatras hotel Hotel Horizont. But these days, he’s retreated to the hills of the far northeast of the country to concentrate on what he loves best: whittling away in his workshop what can truly lay claim to being some of Slovakia’s most esoteric wood-made handicrafts.

A candle holder

A candle holder

The main thing with Freddie, besides the quality, is the versatility. Whatever it is that you are seeking to have immortalised in wood, he’ll work with you to have it produced. Smaller wooden gifts are his raison d’être – candle-holders, house plaques, chopping boards, plant boxes, commemorative ornaments (Our seasonal favourites are his wooden bowls embossed with deer motifs). But he’ll happily take on larger commissions such as furniture too. His experience, together with his passion for promoting Slovakian woodwork and handicrafts, combine to render his creations some of the most original take-home souvenirs from Slovakia you could ask for.

The inspiration for his craft is in the wild landscapes around the village of Vyšný Mirošov, where he lives and works, and there is a little bit of Slovakia’s most tradition-steeped region in each of his creations. His wood-made gifts can be purchased through his online shop.

Mini elegies in oak, indeed.

See our Top Ten Slovak Gift Ideas

The craftsman with one of his recent creations

The craftsman with one of his recent creations

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Medzilaborce: Serendipitous Brilliance – the Andy Warhol Museum of Modern Art

I’m jolting along in a pickup truck along the potholed back lanes of rural north-eastern Slovakia, with an ugly, utterly unremarkable-seeming small town, the centre of one of the nation’s most deprived districts, gradually looming into view. Kids walking shoeless along the street, a run-down glass factory: first impressions are not breathtaking. It would be fair to say that this is beyond the end of the road: there is nothing after Medzilaborce, the community I’m approaching, save a little-used route on into Poland. But there is, if you are a devotee of the arts, something of massive interest within the town…

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The parents of one of the twentieth century’s most famous artists, Ondrej and Julia Warhola, lived in the village of Miková in the Medzilaborce region (before seizing the opportunity to emigrate to the US in 1914 and 1921 respectively) and, once settled in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, they gave birth to a son, Andy – who, as most of the world already knows, subsequently became the world’s most renowned exponent of Pop Art. And this connection helped give this unlikely spot one of Eastern Europe’s most important art museums. The Andy Warhol Museum of Modern Art, celebrating twenty-five years of existence in 2016, is a veritable Pop Art shrine, with several original works exhibited. It’s Europe’s biggest collection of Andy Warhol originals, too: indeed, only the Andy Warhol museum in Pittsburgh itself can claim to have more.

The connection between Medzilaborce and groundbreaking art might very well have been, in the first instance, tenuous. Miková, for starters, is almost 20km outside Medzilaborce (the town’s odd name, by the way, derives from its location between (medzi, in Slovak) two sources of the Laborec river). Andy Warhol was not born in Medzilaborce, anyways, or anywhere in Eastern Slovakia for that matter, and even his parents wanted to leave when they got the chance. “I am from nowhere” Warhol himself once said. And this shabby small town is a good candidate, if ever there was one, to epitomise nowhere. Nevertheless, there is evidence to suggest that the artist’s attitude towards his roots was not solely one of renunciation. Warhol’s brother John is reported to have said that just before his death, Andy, aware that John was returning to their parents’ erstwhile Slovak home, asked him to make for him “as many photographic shots… of Miková village and local people there” as he was able. Who knows? Photographic shots could, had Andy lived long enough, have led to paintings. Paintings could have led to the artist reconnecting with the ‘Slovak’ in his blood. As it was, Warhol died in 1987. But within four years, John Warhola and others had made the connection anyway, when this art museum in Medzilaborce opened its doors in 1991.

Andy IS back in Slovakia ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Andy IS back in Slovakia ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

There is a surreal hiatus for the just-arrived Medzilaborce visitor, however, after the initial impressions described above, and that is when one pulls up at the car park outside the museum and properly gets the chance to see what a remarkable building this is: even irrespective of the valuable art within. Emblazoned in Pop Art shades of cyber yellow, purple, grey-blue and carnelian red, with brash deck-chair-striped semi-hexagonal protuberances, it certainly contrasts starkly with the town’s over-riding hues of unabashed stuck-in-the-Communist-era concrete grey (occasionally interspersed with those still-ghastlier vomit-like pastille colours sometimes used to psychologically brighten tower blocks post-1989. Meanwhile, up through parkland on the other side, the museum is flanked by the majestic pravoslávny (Eastern Orthodox) church of the Holy Spirit, rearing up like a multi-tier wedding cake in brilliant white, and with the writing above the entrance written in Rusyn – the Cyrillic language of the people which have their cultural identity stamped all over this part of the country, and whose heritage has as much in common with Ukrainian as Czechoslovakian (Warhol’s parents, indeed, were of Rusyn descent).

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

A bright red Skoda, the main automotive output of Communist Czechoslovakia, crushed by a huge weight, welcomes visitors at the entrance (read into that whatever defiance of the regime you will). On reception, a bored-looking girl hands me cool postcards decorated in the museum’s symbol, a psychedelic likeness of Warhol wearing a hat shaped like the church outside the doors, and ushers off the only other attendant, a much older lady, to open up all sections of the museum in readiness. There is something comical in all this – a visitor showing up to look round an attraction and startling the staff out of their catatonic stupor by so doing, then having an elderly babka (grandmother) scuttling ahead of me turning on the Velvet Underground soundtrack up on full volume to get the tour started, flicking the lights of each successive wing of the exhibits to illuminate the larger-than-life likenesses of Andy, then slinking back round to the doorway by which I had entered to observe me guardedly.

To begin with I ascend a wide staircase headed up by a statue of the man with camera hung in ever-readiness to snap shots around his neck (now the tables have turned full circle and he is the one who is ‘snapped-after’, I think) to where there is a touching montage on the Warhol family’s early (and very tough) life. This section is mostly presented in sepia, and it clashes most poignantly with what comes next – two vibrant, open rooms filled with Warhol’s originals alongside other Pop Artists such as Roy Lichtenstein and Jean-Michael Basquiat, plus sketches by Andy Warhol’s mother (artistic genius ran in the family quite clearly, as she was a talented embroiderer). Campbell’s soup cans, Marilyn – all the iconic works are there in some form. In total there are over 20 originals by Warhol here, including two of those soup cans, and perhaps most poignantly given the location of the exhibition, the the artist’s portrayals of Lenin and the Hammer and Sickle. There are several pictures from his endangered species series too. The extent of what Warhol achieved, coming from such humble origins, is powerfully portrayed: Warhol’s journey from monochrome to dazzling colour, from the obscure east of Czechoslovakia to stardom in the States. One could take the analogy further: the story of the museum’s founding was a controversial one; it, too, struggled to ever see the light of day, and it took some strong supporters, including the playwright-president of the new post-Communist Czechoslovakia, Václav Havel, to make it happen at all.

The entrance to the museum ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

It would be easy for a museum like this to allow tumbleweed to start blowing. Hardly anyone comes here – which given the world-class art on display is a truly incredible statistic in itself. But not only is the museum laid out with a modern vision, with love and with attention to detail, it also works on embellishing its collection. The most recent additions were Warhol’s Hans Christian Andersen set of pictures, as well as the artist’s depiction of US Senator Ted Kennedy, and an eye-catching series of portraits by the enigmatic female street artist, Bambi (her Amy Winehouse picture particularly impresses) which more or less continue in the same vein of celebrity sketching where Warhol left off.

And when a barely-decent amount of time has passed, the babka is switching the lights off again behind me (no other visitors expected today, it seems), plunging these wonderful exhibits back into darkness again for who knows how long?

MAP LINK: (Showing every part of Medzilaborce, indeed, that you could ever wish to know about)

OPENING: 10am to 5pm Tuesday to Friday, midday to 5p Saturdays and Sundays (May to September) 10am to 4pm Tuesday to Friday, midday to 4pm Saturdays and Sundays (October to April) – there’s a fairly decent museum website but it’s almost all in Slovak

ADMISSION: 3,50 Euros (adults), 1.70 Euros (children).

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From the Andy Warhol Museum of Modern Art, it’s 90km southeast to Slovakia’s easternmost village, Nova Sedlica, and the start of a fascinating hike into the Poloniny National Park

From the outside... ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

From the outside… ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Outside the Gallery ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Poprad: the Elektráreň

In stark contrast to a lot of Slovak cities, Poprad has rejuvenated the area around its main station. Heading into town from here, out of the station which in itself is something of a multi-floored Modernist marvel, you’ll walk down the verdant double-boulevard of Alžbetina or across the park four blocks south to the main drag of Štefanikova, and from there most likely a block further into the city centre. But there are some interesting diversions even before you’ve gone that far. On the other side of the imaginatively named Park pri železničej Stanici (railway station park!) an old power station has been converted into one of Slovakia’s best provincial art galleries: the Elektráreň.

Standing screened by trees, the building, lovingly restored in cream and red brick and huge green windows, focuses on thought-provoking modern Slovak art. It would be a breath of fresh air in the culture scene of a far larger city than this, but here in the capital of the High Tatras, where outdoor lovers would flock regardless, the presence of this branch of the Tatranská Galéria (Tatras Gallery, there is another branch south of Štefanikova) is particularly impressive, and talismanic of new, culturally resurgent Poprad.

Even so, it’s an elderly Slovak babka (grandmother), as in so many artistic institutions in the country, that welcomes you in to the Elektráreň and transports the experience into the realms of the surreal right from the off as she gives you an incredulous stare as probably one of her first visitors of the day (yes, it is likely you will have this gallery absolutely to yourself during your visit).

The downstairs space is reserved for changing exhibitions, and ones of a high international pedigree too (running right now is an exhibition of Edgar Degas works, and preceding this has been a whole host of other big names in Eastern European art, including already in 2016 a retrospective of one of Slovakia’s greatest ever 20th century artists, Albín Brunovský). It’s an impressive, multi-faceted space and the soaring ceilings of the old power station lends dramatic spaciousness and acoustics.

The upper levels are graced with a permanent collection of the Slovak wood carvings and sculptures particular to this part of Slovakia and, perhaps most fascinatingly, some surrealist works by contemporary Slovak artists. Most striking is the photography of Ľubomír Purdeš – his otvorena horá shows one of the High Tatras peaks with a huge circular chunk cut away, then suspended ethereally above, like a separate planet.

The best thing about the Elektráreň – over, say. bigger contemporary art galleries and museums in Slovakia such as Bratislava’s Danubiana – is certainly its prismatic focus on Slovak art and artists. These always get priority here, and the fabulous space is a true championing of the far-reaching nature of art in the country, in all its forms, in the 21st century.

A Quick Guide to the Other Content We Have on Poprad

Places to Go: Poprad’s lavish Aqua Park

Places to Go: Nine reasons to linger in Poprad

Places to Go/Getting Around: Taking the Mountain Railway into the High Tatras from Poprad

Places to Stay: A cool travel-friendly B&B in Spišská Sobota, Poprad

Places to Stay: A sophisticated 4-star resort right by Poprad’s Aqua Park

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s trendy burger joint

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s dignified Café La Fée

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s Coolest Wine Bar

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s gourmet chocolatier

Going Out: Poprad & the Manchester United Connection

Arts & Culture: Dedicated traditional Czech & Slovak music radio station now based in Poprad

Getting Around: London to Poprad Flights

Getting Around: The Poprad to Ždiar to Zakopane (Poland) bus

Top Ten Medieval Towns in Slovakia

 

MAP LINK

LOCATION: Hviezdoslavova 12 (the building is right on the corner, and there is also an entrance on Halatova.

ADMISSION: 3 Euros

OPENING: Monday 10am to 8pm, Tuesday to Friday 9am to 5pm, Sundays 1pm to 5pm

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: 1.2km east of the Elektráreň, and a pleasant walk along the Poprad River, is the immensely fun mega water park of AquaCity

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Around Bratislava – Petržalka & the South: On Getting to Danubiana Art Museum & Why It’s Cool

A trip out to the Danubiana Meulensteen Art Museum is possibly the best thing to do in the whole of Bratislava: yes, even amongst the twenty-five or so other singular activities lined up for you in Slovakia’s fair capital on this very site. But this article deals more with 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. Its knock-on effect on the art scene across the city was huge: in the years following its opening in 2000, many more high-end 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 promoted 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 – image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

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; some would argue essential since Bratislava’s dramatic countryside surroundings surpass even what the city centre can offer). 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 onto the southern Petržalka side 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-in-2014 service based under Most SNP (on the Petržalka 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 the Bratislava-Vienna boats depart, incidentally.

 

Weird & Wonderful Sculpture by Danubiana Museum

Weird & Wonderful Sculpture by Danubiana Museum – image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

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 now Danubiana has been UTTERLY REFURBISHED AND EXPANDED! You can read all about the new-look Danubiana museum very, very soon.

MAP LINK:

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

ADMISSION: Adults 8 Euros, Children 4 Euros