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…

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Around Bratislava – the West: Devínska Nová Ves & Devínska Kobyla (the Slovak Sahara)

We’ve talked a bit in posts about the countryside around Bratislava: the rearing Carpathian forests of the Mestské Lesy to the north and the wooded trails stretching southeast along the River Danube. But there is also some phenomenal countryside to the west. On a map, of course, Bratislava looks like it’s already so far west within Slovakia that going any further in that direction would mean you’d be in Austria. That’s not quite true. There’s a good ten kilometres of interesting sights sandwiched between the capital and the Austrian border and because this is Slovakia there’s a caveat: most of them are hidden.

The one everyone knows about is Devín Castle, or Hrad Devín: that’s the ruined castle perched spectacularly on a rocky bluff overlooking the confluence of the Morava and Danube rivers. (Here’s a link to the best and most comprehensive web entry I could find on the castle itself). Devín Castle, in the small homonymous town, is the day trip to do from Bratislava: but neither castle nor town should be confused with Devínska Nová Ves, a largely unappealing suburb with some of the least inspiring paneláky (high-rise communist-built apartments) around and exactly the place I want to focus on in this post. Now, the question you may ask is: why focus on a largely unappealing suburb with  some of the least inspiring paneláky around? Well…

Devínska Nová Ves, in common with several of Bratislava’s suburbs and indeed Communist-built suburbs the world over, may not look picturesque at first glance. But because a lot of these suburbs in Bratislava were built right on the city’s edge, they have a proximity to some stunning natural landscapes. And the high-rise tower blocks and the big Volkswagen Slovakia plant (the country’s largest company, as a matter of interest) bely the fact that Devínska Nová Ves was a pretty village before they arrived on the scene and indeed, in parts, on its steeply-sloping hills, still is.

The Main Reasons to Come Out Here…

  • The best views possible of Devín Castle & the confluence of the Morava and Danube rivers
  • A fascinating insight into Slovakia’s geological past in and around Sandberg.
  • The closest you’ll get to the Sahara in Slovakia (Sandberg).
  • The imposing, little-known castle of Schlosshof
  • Slovakia’s best cycle path
  • The most exciting back route/hike to Devín Castle itself, through the lovely Devínska Kobyla

The Abrázna Jasykňa (Abrasion Cave)

The main entrance from Bratislava brings you under the railway and onto Eisnerova street. Follow this road to the end (through the high-rises) and then bear left on the road that goes alongside the Morava river. On the left, after you pass Rolando restaurant, you’ll find the best place to park in Devínska Nová Ves, right below the Abrázna Jasykňa. This is a cool sight in itself: a former quarry wall which, through the rock that has been exposed, showcases the area’s intriguing geology. 13-14 million years ago, Slovakia was not the coast-less country you see today, but was actually largely submerged under a Tertiary sea, and the resultant strata of rock deposits are strikingly clear here. On the left-hand side higher up on the cliff face is the cave itself, but it’s difficult to get up to go into the mouth.

Sandberg
Sandberg ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Sandberg – Where Bratislava Meets the Sahara!

From the car park, head back up towards the centre to the first road junction (Primoravská), turn right and then take the Slovinec street up from Pension Helios up to the weird and wonderful sight that is Sandberg (pictured above).

This is another (far more spectacular) remnant of the Tertiary Sea that once spread out across this part of Central Europe (Záhorie to the north of Bratislava along the western edge of Slovakia is another impressive example). Some 300 kinds of fossils and animal skeletons have been found at Sandberg, including shark’s teeth and whale vertebrae – as well as the distinctly non-marine wooly rhinoceros.

Sandberg is the northern end of the massif of Devínska Kobyla, a long forested ridge that forms the westernmost extent of Slovakia’s Carpathian Mountains and runs south from here to the afore-mentioned Devín Castle. It’s a palaeontologist’s dream come true but it’s a dramatic sight too: a series of part-fossilised dunes that rear up out of the side of Devínska Kobyla like some ancient natural fortress.

It should be noted at this point that climbing on the sand formations is not encouraged – a fence is supposed to deter entry but people often ignore this and risk endangering what is a precious and extremely fragile environment.

The Sandberg Loop: The Most Dramatic Approach to Devín Castle

Most visitors get the bus or drive to Devín Castle from Bratislava but for a more rewarding way to get there, make the journey out to Sandberg (drive or take bus 28 every 30 minutes from Most SNP to Devínska Nová Ves).  From here, a beautiful path cuts along just below the Devínska Kobyla ridge through forests above the Morava River valley as it flows towards its confluence with the Danube. It’s a 50 min to 1 hour brisk walk along and finally down to Devín Cintorín (Devín Cemetery) which marks the edge of Devín town, and 10 minutes’ further walk to the castle. You can return the same  way or make the walk into a loop which will bring you back above Sandberg.

From Sandberg, the first part of the walk stays in the open, with great views looking south of the Morava, looking ahead to Devín Castle. To the west, you’ll see the outline of Schloshof castle, over the other side of the river on the flat farmland of Austria (see below for more details on Schloshof). Right below you, along the Morava itself, you’ll see Slovakia’s best dedicated cycling trail, which runs from the suburb of Dúbravka (connected by tram number 5 to the city centre) through the edge of Devínska Nová Ves and on to Devín.) Then you’ll pass some old quarries (with a good grassy picnicking area below) and on your right the old remnants of the Iron Curtain’s border defence towers. Whilst the vista today looks peaceful, many people died trying to cross the Morava River from East to West before 1989. This was the Iron Curtain: right here.

Tree Tunnels on the path to Devín Castle
Tree Tunnels on the path to Devín Castle ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The route at this point goes through some wonderful tunnels of trees, then rises through woods to reach a wildlife information board and the confluence of the path coming down from the top of the Sandberg ridge. Here is a great view across to Devín Castle. The path comes out into the open again here and descends to the cemetery, but just as it starts to descend, the exciting return route sheers off up to the left.

You climb steeply up on a minor path to come out on the bare southernmost edge of the Devínska Kobyla ridge (where the best views possible of Devín Castle await). It was around here we got a bit lost and some whimsical old guy wearing inexplicably just slippers on his feet sung us some old Slovak songs without us really inviting it… Wend your way through the scrub and thinning woods just passed here to come out on a signed red trail which starts to curve back into the woods in the direction of Sandberg, almost on top of the ridge this time. You follow first a cycle path and then a wide, clearly-marked green trail, and finally a yellow trail to take you down onto the ridge right above Sandberg, then around the edge and back to the start point.

Devín Castle from the Sandberg-Devín Path
Devín Castle from the Sandberg-Devín Path – ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Bike/Hike Out to Schlosshof

Just north of where you turn off on Primoravská to get to Sandberg, you’ll find the unlikely tourist information office of Devínska Nová Ves, and the beginnings of the Cyclomost Slobody (Libery Cycleway) – a great cycle path that crosses the Morava into Austria and ushers you forth to the lavish and stately Schlosshof castle, which in terms of the castle’s lavish interiors and serenely beautiful formal gardens looks quite like Austria’s Versailles. This last weekend it was unfortunately closed (the castle is open from March 25th through to the beginning of November) although you can still of course use the cycle bridge at any time: I’ll head back there soon and will have a more detailed post on the castle then. For now, here’s the link to the Schlosshof official website.

A Final Thought on Practicalities…

What with the Sandberg-Devín Castle walk AND a stop-off at Devín Castle it will be extremely difficult to fit Schlosshof castle into the same day’s trip. You could combine the Sandberg walk with Devín Castle or the Sandberg site itself with the cycle out to Schlosshof in a day, however.

MAP LINK:

GETTING THERE:

As mentioned above, drive or (best of the public transport ops) take bus 28 every 30 minutes from Most SNP to Devínska Nová Ves.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Devínska Nová Ves it’s a 25km journey round to the southwest across the border to Hainburg in Austria.

RELATED POST: Pajštún Castle Hike (an alternative castle to see around Bratislava – lying a few km north of Devínska Nová Ves)

RELATED POST: Ružinov, Cemeteries & Communist Cafeterias (another random neighbourhood of Bratislava no tourists visit)

RELATED POST: Buying Hiking Maps & Apps

RELATED POST: The Small Carpathians: An Intro

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Slovensko 2:0: Slovakia Through the Eyes of its Film Directors

To celebrate 20 years of their nation’s independent existence in 2013, ten Slovak film makers were asked to explore this question: “How to explain the notion of Slovakia to visitors from another planet?” And Slovensko 2:0 is the result: ten short films capturing the essence of Slovakia today.

These shorts make for often tragicomic or even bleak viewing at times as the frustration of ten directors who are impatient with how slowly Slovakia is adapting to being a country people can have faith in soon comes through.

They are accompanied by a booklet of ten interviews with the directors themselves, where the negative outlook on Slovakia’s post-Communist transformation is emphasised. But within that negativity, the films themselves are profound. Gone are the happy trappings of Slovakia’s mountains, medieval villages and forests as the foreign visitor normally beholds the country. Instead, these films are a harrowing look into political corruption, the attitudes and mentalities of Slovaks in different walks of life – from an aspiring club owner to a just-made redundant factory worker – and (the overall message, perhaps) some of the things Slovakia could in fact do to help change itself for the better. But they sure as Hell dispense with the cliches and get straight to the nitty-gritty.

The picture above is from my favourite of the ten – an animated account of Slovakia’s history, through Communism, the Velvet Revolution and the transition to democracy. Rules of the Game, the film’s title, is one worker’s view of the political bandwagon (which stays the same throughout, only with changing faces in the upper echelons) moving through the pivotal years of 1989 to 1993 and beyond into a democratic republic still riddled with corruption. There are hilarious moments when you see the sycophantic robotniky (workers) and later when you see the figures at the top of the machine wearing gorilla masks (a reference to the scandal that rocked Slovak politics during the 2000s when Slovak politicians, multinational representatives and representatives of Penta group allegedly met in a house on Vazovova Street in Bratislava to discuss financial incentives in return for land procurement, see the Economist’s report on the Gorilla Scandal for more).

But despite being one of the subtler films in this collection it urges most effectively the debate on what needs to alter at the top levels of Slovak politics for the bandwagon to change its current course.

For anyone who wants a fresh, healthy look at Slovakia stripped of its official state outlook, this series of films is essential viewing. “The genetic makeup of Slovakia”, as the blurb on the back of the DVD says.

BUY IT: At Art Forum in Bratislava.

The Jeopardy of Reunification: James Silvester on his Czecho-Slovak Thriller Escape to Perdition

25 years on from the Velvet Revolution and a plan is afoot to reunify the Czech and Slovak Republics. Some – citing a shared heritage – are for, others – with darker motivations – are against. And thus the stage is set for Escape to Perdition, one of contemporary fiction’s bravest Czecho-Slovak-set novels.

Its beauty is that it masterminds an utter rewriting of 20th century European history… author James Silvester talks here about how this book and his next draw on Slovakia for their inspirations…

Channeling Slovakia: Thrilling Escapades in Central Europe

Do any film buffs out there remember the start of The Living Daylights? Not the exploding jeeps, daring parachute jumps and conveniently located, Bollinger laden yachts of the opening sequence, but the bit straight after the eighties infused tones of A-Ha settled us into the film. British Agent, 007, strides through the pitch night, from the colourful delights of a classical concert to the crumbling disarray of a Communist bookshop, from whose upper window he sits patiently, rifle in hand, waiting for his target to show herself.

It is pure Cold War stuff and exquisitely done. From the moment Timothy Dalton’s debutant Bond sits grimly loading his weapon, to the terse exchange with the defector he was sent to protect as they speed away from the scene, 007 is every inch the reluctant assassin, resentful of his job but compelled by his own professionalism to do it well. For me, the cinematic Bond has never so fully exuded the vision of his literary creator, Ian Fleming, than then. Even as a child, back in 1987, the image and the atmosphere struck a chord with me, as did this beautiful, foreboding city from which the pair were escaping: Bratislava.

Actually, quite a chunk of that movie is based in Slovakia’s Capital, including a similarly atmospheric sequence where the sublime Dalton silently stalks his quarry on a packed tram, not to mention one of the series’ best car chases across a frozen Czechoslovakian lake. At the time, I had no idea how much this image and this country would influence me years later as I set to work writing Escape to Perdition, the first in my (intended) trilogy of Thrillers, set in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, but the seeds were definitely sown back then.

My book’s protagonist, Peter Lowe, shares with Dalton’s Bond a resentment of his murderous vocation, only more so, and has few reserves of suave sophistication to fall back on, instead relying on the hard Blues and hard Drink of his adopted Prague for solace in between his loathed assignments. The book has been described as very much ‘of Prague’, and while it’s true that my love of that city is, I hope, evidenced between the pages, of equal importance is the unique voice of Slovakia.

I’ve been blessed to spend a considerable amount of time in Slovakia over the last decade or so, having met and married a spectacular Slovak lady and gotten to know many wonderful family and friends in that period and, I am forced to admit, I’ve used that time to the full. I’ve always been a keen student of history and Czechoslovak history is particularly intriguing. World renowned events like the Prague Spring and the Velvet Revolution, previously just exciting stories in the classroom, became real to me as I spoke with and learned from people who had lived through those times, felt those emotions and dreamed those dreams. I learned of the suspicion around the death of National hero Alexander Dubček, the deep mistrust of a political class so openly and brazenly corrupt and the resentment of a Slovakia so often considered the ‘poor relation’ of a more glamorous Czech Republic.

Those frustrations, and those strengths, combined as the basis for the character of Miroslava Svobodova, the Slovak Prime Minister vying to become Leader of a reunified Czechoslovakia. Svobodova’s inner strength, her passions and convictions (not to mention her love of Slivovice) were the embodiment of the proud Slovak women I met, and while the story is predominantly Prague based, the spirit of Slovakia, I hope, shines through.

My follow up novel is due out next year through the wonderful Urbane Publications. Set in the run up to The Prague Spring’s 50th anniversary, the newly reunified Czechoslovakia faces up to the threats of international terrorism and a vengeful Institute for European Harmony, with an expansionist and aggressive Russia poised at the border. In the face of such odds, characters old and new must draw once more on that famous Slovak spirit if they are to survive the events of The Prague Ultimatum.

 The Prague Ultimatum, James Silvester’s follow up to his 2015 debut, Escape to Perdition, will be released in 2017 through Urbane Publications. Readers in the Czech Republic can buy his book from The Globe Bookstore, while it can also be ordered from Slovak website Martinus. James is an HR professional and former DJ for Modradiouk.net, married to a lovely lady from Slovakia. He lives in Manchester and enjoys spending time in his adopted second home, Bojnice.

Všetko co mam rád (Everything that I Love)

I sat watching this in a friend’s flat on dusty Moskovská, in one of those big, old, grey-brown apartment buildings the other side of the Medicka Záhrada, on a late lazy summer evening, and felt, perhaps more than with any other  Slovak film I’ve yet seen, that I could, in fact, have been seeing a scene unfolding outside on the street rather than on a TV screen.

Všetko čo mam rád takes place in the early 1990s (it was made in 1992), in that uncertain period after the fall of Communism but before Slovakia had yet become a nation. It follows the story of an out-of-work divorcee and the important relationships of his life – with his pretty, flamboyant love interest, an English teacher, with his son and with his father (and, even though perhaps he doesn’t want it, the continued relationship with his ex-wife).

It is hard not to see the connection between the main character, Tomas, and Slovakia the country (an out-of-work divorcee, remember) pulled unwillingly back to the life he had with his ex yet compelled forward, initially with lust and happiness, but later with uncertainty, toward his spirited foreign girlfriend. Then there is the pull in the other direction: family. His father is disapproving of him having left his wife, whilst Tomas’ son is just plain embarrassed of him. Then there is the very first scene, where Tomas, during a passionate exchange with his girlfriend, shouts “I am Slovak” in English before adding, in Slovak, “unfortunately”.

Tomas is an amiable, likeable but somewhat directionless protagonist. He means well, is not confrontational, and there seems to be few reasons for him to object to his girlfriend’s request for him to come back to England with her. There seems to be little tying him to Slovakia, in other words (his ex-wife empties his house of possessions in a fit of rage, he and his father are hardly close, he has no work). Yet as the film progresses, against all likelihood he seems to be swaying more towards staying. Something in his identity is irrevocably tied to Slovakia, a tie which becomes evident during some fascinating, if melancholy, shots of Slovak landscape, culminating in the moodily-filmed final scene where he drives to a lake (Zlaté Piesky?) with his son.

The director, Martin Šulík, was the light that emerged in the lean period of post-communist Slovak film-making. He went on to make the more famous Záhrada, and kept developing what became his hallmark elements of strained relationships and original, tongue-in-cheek, gently comic dialogue in that movie. And perhaps Všetko čo mam rád does often get overlooked as a result. But this film is a little-known gem. Its slow pace works because the characters are built up into people that do seem realistic – people you might meet on the streets (and in this regard a movie Hollywood could learn a great deal from). It does far more than sketch the difficult transition from Communism in Slovakia. It taps into “Slovakness” (not just Slovakness in the 1990s, of course, but Slovakness generally) and therefore permeates the boundaries of the challenging, scantly-funded era in which it was made. And – touchingly, unpretentiously, albeit with a slight sepia tint – stands the test of time.

BUY THE MOVIE: At Artforum or the other top Slovak movie outlet, Gorilla

Western Slovakia: the Wine Tastings (in Trnava)

NONE  of the events taking place on what is known as the Small Carpathians Wine Route (Malokarpatská vínna cesta) exactly advertise themselves. Yet for the traveler with the canny eye for doing something a bit different there is usually something going on most months that’s wine-related in the hills just north of Bratislava. In fact, spending the evening wine tasting is very much part of tradition in Slovakia (albeit not quite up there with the tradition of downing copious amounts of fruit brandy).

The other week we went to the Trnava wine tasting, in the culture house there. If you ever see the streets of Trnava relatively deserted, maybe that’s because the entire population is out sampling local wines. At least, thus it seemed like on this particular night!

What I liked about the event was that it was a great advert for Slovak culture. In Slovakia, when it comes to drinking, the stereotypical image is of old men in sterile krčmy (pubs) without windows so their wives can’t see them. Yet here were a sophisticated group of people, young and old alike, nosing and sipping wine and giving their opinion on it.

When wine tasting gets serious...

When wine tasting gets serious…

Within the Small Carpathians wine region, there are many such events, with a different wine producer taking it in turn to play hosts. On this night it was the Daniel Sekera wine producer and the wines were mostly from close to Trnava, although there were other vintages to sample too (including a really good white port). At the beginning of the night, a long table (stretching the entire length of one side of the town hall in this case) is set up and a stunning variety of wines (in excess of one hundred) is set up. Visitors first come in to buy a block of tickets which then entitles them to anything between one and five tastings, depending on the quality of the wine they want a glass of. There is then a menu given to them from which they choose their desired wine, nibbles provided as an accompaniment and then… you’re off.

Sure, people do get quietly drunk at these events (they are Slovaks after all). But it’s also about appreciation, and done in very sophisticated fashion, at least until after the first four or five glasses. No one outside Slovakia really goes to these events because you have to be in with the in crowd to know about them. Slovak wine makers have only ever really cared about a domestic market. During Communism a collective farm known as a družtvo would concentrate on the production of low-quality wine that served the former Soviet Union and after 1989 Slovak winemakers found it very hard to start competing with already-established good-quality European wines. That’s all a big shame.

During September and October, Trnava Tourist Office run tours to nearby wineries (which of course include a taste or three!) – see here for more.

Whilst Tokaj wine itself, Slovakia’s most-famed wine, will be the subject of another post on this blog, it needs to be said that the wines from the Orešany region I tried here were delicious. The whites, I would say, are generally superior to the reds. (There’s actually a reason why – Slovakia’s climate is less well suited to the ripening of red grapes where as white varieties grow perfectly)

Anyway, there are some great wine events in Slovakia. Just below, we’ve compiled a neat little list of where you can go for more information on this tasty topic!

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NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: You’ve come to Trnava to wine, now we’re sending you 28km west into the Small Carpathian hills proper for great goulash, at Furmanska Krčma

MORE ON SLOVAK WINE?

Open Cellar Days: A Little More Info

Top Ten Quintessential Slovak Foods & Drinks

Svätý Jur, just outside Bratislava, and its Interesting Food and Wine

The delicious wine (and wine country!) around Limbach in the Small Carpathians

A Bit More on Modra in the Small Carpathians and its Wine Heritage

A voyage to discover more about the Tokaj wine cellars of Eastern Slovakia