Levoča's Indian Summer Festival ©David Conway

Levoča: In Full Swing During the Indian Summer Festival

As you journey east from the High Tatras, the next stop on the classic traveller’s route (before Bardejov and then Košice) is Levoča, one of Slovakia’s most striking medieval towns, with its historic centre a Unesco World Heritage Site. For this article, the founder of what is now one of the town’s foremost annual events, David Conway, explains exactly what inspired him to set up the Indian Summer Festival

It was in 1973 that I first laid eyes on Levoča, where my father-in-law Laci had taken me. My wife Nadia, at the time classified by the Czechs as a criminal illegal emigrant (having remained in London after the 1968 Russian invasion), was unable to be with us. What I experienced was an incredible sleeping beauty; an exquisite late-Gothic renaissance town almost perfectly preserved, seemingly untouched for centuries under a magic spell which had left it in shadow, despite its showcase architecture and setting within an exquisite Slovak landscape.

RELATED POST: Top Ten Medieval Towns in Slovakia

When I next visited Levoča (now with Nadia) in the 1990s, it was already picking itself up after Communism and beginning to restore and celebrate its unique heritage. The idea of taking part somehow took root and in 2003 we purchased and began to restore one of the town’s many merchant’s houses, with vast cellars dating to the 12th century, a vaulted hallway and staircase of the 16th century, and numerous wonderful features of carving and woodwork.

With our house renovated, Nadia began thinking about how we could attract others to this forgotten pearl of Central Europe. And the idea of a music festival arose. With the cooperation of the town, which has enabled us to utilise the magnificent 18th-century theatre and congress hall amongst other venues, we contacted our musician friends, or just barefacedly invited musicians we admired, buttonholing them after their concerts in London, Prague and elsewhere.

Amazingly, these brazen tactics worked, and thus ‘Indian Summer in Levoča’ (in Slovak ‘Levočské babie leto’) was born. Run on a not-for-profit basis through an NGO set up with our local friends, and with support from grants, patrons and visiting audiences to maintain standards and reputation, over the years we have had wonderful performances from artists including the Stamic and Zemlinsky quartets, the Vienna Piano Trio, the European Union Baroque Orchestra, Julian Lloyd Webber and many others. Amongst our ‘regulars’ – who have become local heroes to the townsfolk – are the charismatic Slovak cellist Jozef Lupták and the virtuoso British pianist, Jonathan Powell.

©David Conway

There have been some phenomenal renditions at the festival ©David Conway

At first I think the local people thought we were mad. But gradually they have come – first out of curiosity, and now out of devotion – to hear incredible music. A key aspect is that there is no prejudice on the part of the local audience; they respond according to the commitment of the performer, whether he or she is playing Schubert, Shostakovich, Brahms or Beethoven. And gradually we have attracted visitors from all over Europe and even America and Australia. The Gramophone magazine has called our festival ‘Europe’s best-kept secret’ – but now the word has begun to spread.

One of our chief delights has been programming the concerts – so as to ensure that we can introduce music we think people ought to hear, as well as the established concert classics. So you won’t just hear the great classics, but also, for example, in our 2016 festival, Xenakis, Sterndale Bennett, Dohnanyi, Busoni and other exciting-but-neglected music.

Of course we have not been without our crises – but here perhaps is not the place to discourse on the grand piano which was dropped by the removers, the pianist who had her passport lost in the Hungarian embassy in Washington three days before her concert with us, or the heroic efforts of the Levoča dustmen in getting yet another piano up several flights of stairs when the deliverers had forgotten their equipment…..

In 2016, our ninth year, we welcomed the Kodaly Quartet of Budapest, the young Israeli violist Avishai Chaimedes playing Mozart string quintets, Mark Viner, performing works by the astonishing virtuoso Charles-Valentin Alkan and Alkan’s friend Franz Liszt, and Jonathan Powell playing Mussorgsky’s original piano version of the monumental ‘Pictures from an Exhibition’. Danish tenor Jakob Vad and pianist Eisabeth Nielsen brought us music form England and Denmark, and we heard medieval Slovak choral music and works from Mendelssohn, Mozart and Boccherini to Bartók, Arensky and Prokofiev. The Festival closed with a performance of Schubert’s great B flat Piano Trio.

The Levoča Indian Summer Festival is informal, it’s fun, and it provides a great opportunity to visit one of Slovakia’s finest old towns after the summer tourist crowds have left but whilst the weather remains warm. You will hear great music and meet wonderful musicians, due to the festival’s intimate nature. That’s a key difference here: with other larger festivals, you can be so far away from the performers it almost feels like you’re watching them on a screen. Not here! So so come and join us for our festival on September 8-September 12 2017, which will be extra special because it will be a landmark tenth anniversary for us: and will hopefully attract many more unmissable performers to this relatively unknown pocket of Eastern Slovakia.

MAP LINK: (showing the main town theatre venue)

FESTIVAL WEBSITE: (line-ups for 2017’s festival now available)

COST OF TICKETS:

GETTING THERE: The east of Slovakia benefits quite well from international flight connections these days: Poprad, 20 minutes to the west of Levoča via route E50, has 4 weekly flights to London Luton.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Levoča, it’s 63km north to Stará Ľubovňa, home of Slovakia’s only whiskey distillery

 

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Around Piešt’any: Reštaurácia Furman

Imagine it: the biting wind of a mid-winter afternoon, the dismalness of night-time already looming although there has barely been any daylight to speak of. Still, you’ve made the best of it and hiked into the hills, only to find the weather has got too much for you. It’s gnawed its way into the marrow of your bones. The only thought that keeps flashing around your brain is not how beautiful the landscape is (although, in its own bleak way, it does have a beauty) but how to get warm, and that quickly. As extensions of that thought are the dual fantasies of hot food and hot drink, ideally in somewhere atmospheric although you’d settle for less, you’d settle for anything with four walls and a roof – and at the same time you’re entertaining this fantasy you know that you’re in the countryside and any kind of shelter is a long shot. This was the context in which we rounded the brow of a bare hill and saw, in the dip below, Reštaurácia Furman for the first time.

Furman is part of that delightful breed of places to eat in Slovakia that rears the meat that winds up on the plate in a wood out back. For fresh jeleň (venison) or bažant (pheasant) there are few better places in the country to come than here, as we soon discovered.

Dog or Deer?

The welcome is an unusual one. Strangely, the first thing you see is an immense yellow dog galloping around in a paddock of its own, as if it were a dangerous creature, but that should not deter you: the dog is deceptively friendly, and not on the menu. The deer in the field behind, however, are. Whilst first-timers to this type of restaurant might find it cruel that these sweet- and sombre-seeming animals should act, on the one hand, as a diversion outside the restaurant (to pet them, to pose for pictures with them, etc) and yet should be served up as the speciality of the day inside, I personally find it refreshing: the animals have an entire wood of their own to roam in, and you can be sure the meat here is fresh, and the animals well-cared for during their lives. A beast-to-meat relationship, vividly there for all to see, is an honest one – one no meat-eater should shy away from.

Vitame Vas… Welcome! ©englishmaninslovakia.com

Vitame Vas… Welcome! ©wwwenglishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The Menu

Once we’d peeled off our layers, got our blood circulating again and settled down at a table in an interior somehow combining traditional Slovak with just a touch of the Wild West, the obvious choice (from the dishes of the day, which I always go for) was either the deer goulash or the pheasant in red wine sauce and it was the latter that I went for. It came deliciously and richly seasoned with herbs, and accompanied with potato croquettes that rank up there with the very best I’ve had in Slovakia – again impeccably seasoned with rosemary and thyme and ladled with cranberries on top. Washing it down was the mulled wine my chilled body craved (served sour, in the typical Slovak way, with honey and sugar provided). My dining companion ordered grilled oštiepok, and they were very accommodating in making it gluten-free. Several other styles of venison (as ragout with dates, or a leg cut with a sauce concocted from forest mushrooms) were also available. Prices were invariably between 5 and 9 Euros for main courses.

Unabashed Tradition

What you are getting with Reštaurácia Furman is a gloriously typical Slovak eatery (the sheepskins are draped over the chunky wooden seats, the stag’s heads gaze haughtily down from their fixtures on the walls, the ceiling is studded with old cart wheels) proud of its tradition – but not once compromising on either quality of food or ambience. This is how a typical rural restaurant would have been (give or take) 60 or 70 years ago. Now their rustic wood hunter-friendly decor and self-reared meat reared is something that should be highly prized, because it is actually increasingly rare. Sorry, vegetarians, or members of anti-hunting sects: this is how a quintessential Slovak restaurant should be. If you don’t like it, there are plenty of other more modern joints in bigger towns and cities. But if you came to Slovakia expecting an eatery exuding raw, rural Slovak-ness (as you would be entitled to do) then voila: this is it.

The pheasant…. ©englishmaninslovakia.com

The pheasant…. ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

 

Room With A View

It is the sort of spot that, on any walking holiday, you would dream of chancing upon. After all, it has an enviable location – a few kilometres’ walk above Piešt’any and right on the cusp of the woodsy hills that form an arm of the Small Carpathians, Povazsky Inovec, through which you can stroll through stunning upland countryside to Tematín Castle. Part of the panorama from the restaurant and the bar next door is across the summer terrace down over rolling farmland to the rather dramatic grey-white spread of Nádrž Slňavaone of the country’s biggest reservoirs. And just down the track too are the ruins of Villa Bacchus, where Beethoven once stayed whilst composing his Moonlight Sonata. But from the look of the clientele, it’s also a place well-heeled Piešt’any folks and those from further a-field would willingly venture up into them hills to sample.

Little Bit of History Repeating

And a furman? It’ss an antiquated profession that would translate most closely in English to “Coachman”. But there is no real equivalent. A furman would have been a man who lived on a smallholding in the countryside, with a carriage that he would hire out for different purposes (taking goods to market, or ferrying paying passengers around from A to B.) In Slovakia it is the ultimate epitome of a return to rural roots. And therefore a return to traditional, fresh Slovak food.

A Quick Guide to the Other Content We Have on the Piešt’any Area:

Places to Go: Piešt’any’s Best Thermal Pools

Places to Go: A Great Castle near Piešt’any

Places to Go: in the Footsteps of Beethoven Above Piešt’any

Places to Eat & Drink: Piešt’any’s Best Cakes

RELATED POST: Furmanská Krčma, near Modra

One thing. Whilst I wasn’t really expecting (just hoping, somehow) for the Deliverance soundtrack that might have been most appropriate on the stereo, the tame R&B playing for most of our visit did slightly undermine the atmosphere. Music is important. If the guys in charge of Reštaurácia Furman realised that, this place would be truly exceptional.

MAP LINK: Top of the screen is Piešt’any, with spa island in the middle of the river there; mid-right to the right of the reservoir is the restaurant. Getting to the restaurant by road, it’s just a couple of km from the other side of the River Váh from the town centre.

OPENING: 10am-10pm daily

BEST TIME TO VISIT: A winter lunchtime after a walk.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: 2km northwest you can relax with treatments in the best of Piešt’any’s spas whilst a 20km drive or walk (through the hills) north brings you to Tematín Castle.

©englishmaninslovakia.com

©englishmaninslovakia.com

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Piešt’any: In the Footsteps of Beethoven

Slovakia has only been a nation twenty-three years. Before that it was a region within regularly chopping and changing borders: Turkish, Austrian, Hungarian, Czech, German, Russian: all have had a stab at meddling with the frontiers here. And so, through the ages, a huge diversity of famous personages stopped by for one reason or another: people you never would have associated with Slovakia. One of these was Beethoven. We’ve already detailed in our post on Hlohovec how the great composer famously stopped off for one night in the town and performed for them. He was stopping off en route to Piešt’any: and there he stayed some time.

Ludwig was hastening here for the spas of course: Piešt’any is a spa town and the obvious reason to come is to take the waters. But there are other things to do besides luxuriating in the healing mud treatments. There are now, and there was then, and Beethoven has a lot to do with it.

It’s not recorded for precisely how long Beethoven stayed, but most sources reckon it was during the winter of 1801-1802. He resided in Villa Bacchus, a grand still-standing but currently unused building in the hills north of the town, and popularised the culture of winter sleigh rides between the villa and Piešt’any’s spa island (great fun on the way there, as it is all down hill, but tough, quite possibly, ascending again from Piešt’any.) The composer was lucky enough to visit Piešt’any pretty much at its zenith: its glamorous status of the age helped no end by the most eponymous of the Erdödy family, Jozef, who had owned the spa town since 1789 (his family, in fact, since 1720).  Jozef Erdödy liked beautiful things (I know this from reading a plaque in the Balnea Esplanade Hotel), had Hlohovec Castle lavishly redecorated with treasures from the corners of the known world, and took his state-of-the-art (then) sleigh (adorned with dragon’s heads to symbolise power) up to see Beethoven at Villa Bacchus whilst the composer was in town.

As we set off on a chilly spring walk from spa island, we didn’t know any of this. We just fancied a leg-stretch and, having already walked the lengths of the River Váh in both directions from the town centre, decided on heading up into the hills directly above the Thermia Palace hotel (into the lower reaches of the Považský Inovec uplands).

A blue-marked trail twists up into the woods from just left of the road bridge across the Váh. At this point it’s a concreted path, and hung with gas lamps (signs of a lovelier age that we pondered upon on the climb). After perhaps 20 minutes of walking you cross a road at a large castellated ruin, which looks impressive (if slightly malevolent) and a branch-off path to the Koliba Restaurant (where there’s good rustic Slovak cooking and nice views back down over spa island and the town).

But the blue trail, also a yellow cycling route, continues on a gorgeous path through woods and then, unusually for a Slovak trail, cuts across farmland. The scene is surprisingly reminiscent of the English South Downs. A tree-lined path through open fields with gentle patchwork quilt-type landscapes falling away on one side and a vast reservoir rearing into view on the other. Not previously knowing anything about the landscapes on this side of Piešt’any both the Englishness and the reservoir (Nádrž Slňava, where a country music festival takes place in the summer) were a surprise.

The one thing we did know at this stage was that we were following a route to Villa Bacchus which, in the biting January wind, assumed almost mythical proportions for us. There would be a beautiful cosy restaurant there, we fantasised. With a crackling open fire, we guessed. Surrounded by beautiful vineyards, we hoped.

The vineyards appeared first. Then, maybe 1km further on, after a ridge route above the reservoir, the scattering of houses which must surely contain Villa Bacchus reared into view, crouched below the higher hills of the Small Carpathians looming behind. In the distance, you could spy the summit where Tematín Castle sits. On a sunnier day, we would have kept walking. From here, beguiling hill hikes both south to Hlohovec and north to Tematín await. But it was cold, and it seemed we were to be disappointed: Villa Bacchus was no longer operational as a dignified lodging house that hosted the like likes of Ludwig. But then, in the lee of the hill, a striking yellow building appeared, with smoke coming out of the chimney. Every one of our fantasies about a cosy place to retreat from the weather were, bizarrely in this out-of-the-way spot, about to become reality, in the form of Restauracia Furman (just down from the old Villa Bacchus).

So a 2km hike from Piešt’any can conjure up some rather wondrous surprises. The best route back to spa island is by returning the same way and there we discovered the sleigh that could very well have been the one Erdödy rode on to call on Beethoven in along the very hike described here. At least, as the plaque alongside conceded, it must have been one very similar…

img_1180

A Quick Guide to the Other Content We Have on the Piešt’any Area:

Places to Go: Piešt’any’s Best Thermal Pools

Places to Go: A Great Castle near Piešt’any

Places to Eat & Drink: A Great Restaurant in the Hills Above Piešt’any

Places to Eat & Drink: Piešt’any’s Best Cakes

 

MAP LINK

GETTING THERE: Piešt’any is on the main train line between Bratislava, Poprad and Kosice; this walk kicks off right from spa island (Kúpeľný ostrov).

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: Continue 23km north by road from the end of this hike at the Furman Restaurant (and a few km less if you’re hiking through the hills) to reach the dramatic ruins of Tematín Castle

NB: Round off the Beethoven tour with a jaunt to see a memorial dedicated to his stint in Piešt’any, in the town park: it was finished in 1939 by Ladislav Ľ. Pollák, a prominent sculptor.

img_2405

Around Trnava: Hlohovec, Beethoven & The Founder of the Slovak Language

The River Vah Flowing Through Hlohovec

The River Vah Flowing Through Hlohovec – image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

As you’ve probably worked out by now, Englishmaninslovakia.co.uk doesn’t focus on well-known Slovakian places so much. We prefer to dig deep to find the truth under the cliches and to this end, on a cold, blustery and crisp day in February, we went to Hlohovec.

I confess we did go there with an attitude of determination to discover something beautiful, if only for the reason that people told us there was nothing beautiful there. Hlohovec is a good example of a medium-sized town in Western Slovakia (on the main route northeast from Bratislava between Trnava and Trenčin) that gets overlooked: because it doesn’t have quite the spectacular location of, say, Poprad, nor the beauty of, say, Bardejov AND because it is near enough to Bratislava and Trnava that its residents simply go to one of these larger cities if they need anything like a night out.

Hlohovec does have some claims to fame. It has a castle, Hlohovsky Zámok, in an expansive park just outside the town. It’s got landscaped gardens and a quite impressive theatre that often has Beethoven concerts in memory of the town’s most famous visitor, who stopped over for a night at the castle en route to the spa at Piešt’any and may have given a recital there, depending on which version of the story you listen to (actually, no joke, Bratislava and Western Slovakia do have a rich heritage of attracting top-notch composers – see a separate post on this very topic). The problem (aha I hear you say) is that whilst the park is great for a walk (you can even carry on walking above the castle into the hills and get to a small observatory with good views of Western Slovakia) it is, ahem, closed. And also in a bad state of repair.

If they invested money in the castle refurbishment, this town really would regain some more of the life it clearly once had back. In fact, a consortium tried to do this about ten years ago but local government officials doubted its potential to succeed and rejected the bid. More recently, some aspiring young inhabitants of the town tried to join the local council with a promise to focus on restoring the castle gardens and the castle.They too were crushed. In fact, it could quite accurately be said that Hlohovec is not a Trenčin (in terms of beauty) mainly because of terrible management by government officials. The castle refurbishment issue remains unresolved because, ignorantly, local officials just don’t seem to see the point.

Because there is a (very poorly publicised) castle tour here. I mean, in this sense, a tour of the many unheralded but spectacular castles in the immediate vicinity of Hlohovec. Starting at Červený Kameň to the southwest you can progress northeast via a spectacular Western Slovakia Castle Tour that will be the very next post on this blog; a castle tour that cuts right through Hlohovec. I have rarely seen a town with so much unfulfilled potential as here. It’s not just the castle: Hlohovec lies in astoundingly beautiful scenery.

Looking Back on Hlohovec as you ascend into the Male Karpaty

Looking Back on Hlohovec as you ascend into the Male Karpaty

You can follow trails, right from where this picture is taken, up west above the banks of the Váh into the wooded hills of the Malé Karpaty, on red and yellow-marked trails through abandoned castles and old quarries almost all the way to Trenčin (there are chaty, or mountain houses, en route, and this particular arm of the hills is known as Považský Inovec). A cycle path also connects it along the river bank itself to Piešt’any.

Church in Hlohovec's old monastery complex

Church in Hlohovec’s old monastery complex – image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

So, as for nature, Hlohovec is first-class. The architecture tells a slightly different story (yeah – a bit obliterated by Communism) but nevertheless in the centre there’s an attractive pedestrian street with a few surprisingly good cafes (and, get this, a jazz club!); there’s also the grounds of an old monastery (C. late 15th century) where the father of the Slovak language, Ján Hollý, lived for a while. Don’t shoot me down. I know Ľudovít Štúr gets credited with being the father of Slovak, but Hollý actually wrote in Slovak first (he was the first poet/writer to famously do so) and Štúr came asking for Hollý’s advice when he was establishing Slovak as an official written language. The grounds also contain a museum with lots of old pictures of the town back in the days when it was also one of the most prominent centres of Jewish culture and learning in the old Austro-Hungarian empire.

So should you stop off there when you’re heading northeast for the more famous beauty of the Tatras? Probably. Just to see how a real Slovak town ticks along. And possibly to do some really amazing hiking.

Hlohovec Best-of:

Best Cafe: Coffee Berry, Kapitána Nálepku 4. The cakes come from the Piešt’any cake shop I’ve raved about on another post and with quite a modern vibe, it’s the place where everyone hangs in Hlohovec! It’s right in the centre: here is their map.

Best Restauraunt: Jašter. An out-of-town place on a hill backed by a wood which has nice summer barbecues and a high quality of food. The link here gives good directions.

Best Sights: The castle and the park, the museum, the river and the surrounding hills. Oh, and a special meadow called Poniklecová Lúcka, which is one of the best places in Slovakia to see the rare pasque flower growing.

Best Place to Stay: U Janásov. This is unconfirmed as I’ve not stayed there, but it has the best location (it’s where pic no. 2 is taken), looks by far the most photogenic spot in town and by all accounts is the best deal (it’s sometimes closed in the winter months). Hotel Jeleň is in the centre and is another option.

MAP LINK

GETTING THERE: Leopoldov is the nearest station on the main Bratislava-Košice train line and it’s here you’ll need to change for trains to Hlohovec. (42 minutes past the hour every hour between 6:42 and 20:42, journey time 6 minutes – you can see the station on the map link above)

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From the lovely town of Hlohovec it’s 24km north to one of our most idyllically located Western Slovakia restaurants, Reštauracia Furman

LAST UPDATED: April 2017