Museum of the Slovak National Uprising

Banská Bystrica: Uncovering the Beauty in the Brutalism

Banská Bystrica, vying for fourth place with Nitra in the pecking order of Slovakia’s most populous cities, has the right to feel a tad hard done by: few other places of such importance within a country are so little written about or visited. In Banská Bystrica’s case, the reason may be the nearby drop-dead-gorgeous Unesco town of Banská Štiavnica clinging prettily to the sides of the Štiavnica mountains, for which visitors reserve their time in Central and Southern Slovakia. And the preference is understandable. It’s probably fueled in part by articles such as these which, even when they purport to be writing about Banská Bystrica, go off on a tangent about Banská Štiavnica instead…

A Brief History of BB

But the bigger “BB”, as well as being the closest city to the centre of Slovakia (and, by extension, the Geographical Centre of Europe), represents a centre of Slovakia in many other ways, and for its resonant role in Slovak history is well-deserving of a few hours of your time before you catch that bus to “BS”. “BB” is the capital of Central and Southern Slovakia, for one thing. It’s said that the most intrinsically ‘Slovak’ accent is that of folks from the city A leading light for the nation in mining since medieval times (the numerous veins of copper that lace the surroundings are considered Banská Bystrica’s lucky charm, and gave rise to its riches – the very prefix ‘Banská denotes it as a mining settlement), a leader in education since the early 20th century (its university is considered one of Slovakia’s most prestigious) and a leader in culture to this day (the country’s best museum, Muzeum SNP, is located here), the city’s chief fame came about as a result of its place at the heart of the Slovak National Uprising in 1944. This critical event in Slovak history, representing Slovakia’s rising up against Nazism, had its roots in Banská Bystrica, and protests raged daily in the city centre for 60 days during the Uprising’s zenith (August 29th through to October 27th).

Totemic Brutalist Beauty

All of these factors paved the way, during Communism, for the construction of some of the most fabulous Brutalist buildings in the country (Soviets, after all, liked to champion their defeat of Nazism by raising bombastic structures). Authorities today prefer to focus on the city’s 18th-century burghers houses on the main square, or the proximity to some glorious nature to advertise tourism but the best way to get under the skin of BB is to explore its Brutalist-era architecture (the key to understanding BB’s place in Slovakia today). This stroll around the seven seminal Communist constructions in the city centre shows you how… and illustrates that architecture behind the Iron Curtain was about far more than bland breeze-blocks…

1: Railway Station & Around (including Ulica 29. Augusta’s prototype housing estate and Slovenská Pošta’s Post Office Tower)…

Almost as soon as you alight from the train, the tour begins – with the station itself, completed in 1951 with striking interior stained glass (one of the country’s more impressive railway terminals). The main street leading into town from here, 29. August, takes its name from the date when the Slovak National Uprising kicked off. The street, perhaps appropriately, boasts some of the most classic examples of early Socialist housing in Slovakia in the residential blocks of flats on this thoroughfare. Completed in 1955 after initial plans were laid in 1939, the blocks of flats exhibit the ideals Socialist construction was always meant to have: green spaces, play areas for children and a general interweaving into the fabric of the city (as opposed to later Socialist housing which was often designed without considering such factors). These apartment blocks usher the just-arrived up to the dominant Post Office Tower of Slovenská Pošta at the end of the street. The 16-floor building was constructed in 1972.

2: The City Council of Banská Bystrica…

Turn left at the Post Office Tower on Partizánska Cesta (onto Českoslovenkej Armády) and you arrive, after a couple of blocks, at the edifice representing the heyday of Socialist construction in the city (and indeed, the last building of this type to the built here). The imposing Neoclassic entrance fronts two expansive wings of what are now the offices of the city council.

3: Matej Bel University – Faculty of Law…

A diversion from the Brutalist gems of the city centre lies a kilometre north up Komenského at the Matej Bel University’s Faculty of Law campus. Built for the ideological education of members of the Slovak Communist Party, it now houses an education facility of a different kind: and one that tops its field as far as Slovakia goes. It was designed as the landmark building of the city’s Brutalist portfolio, and sports some landmark paintings by the artists Jaroslav Kubička and Pavol Uhrík.

4: VUB Banka (the General Credit Bank)…

Backtracking to the city council offices on Českoslovenkej Armády, then continuing west two blocks to turn south (left) on Námestie Slobody, you hit what is now VUB Banka, what was the General Credit Bank and what was originally the National Bank of Czechoslovakia. Originally intended to be a theatre, the building plans were altered at the last minute to adapt it to one suitable for a financial institution. Its shape (a 5-storey cube) together with the smallness of the windows with their tavertine surrounds overlaid by aluminum are to evoke the ideas of strength and security, apparently (good virtues for a bank to have).

Hotel Lux - © www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Hotel Lux – © www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

5: Hotel Lux…

Perhaps the most hilarious collision of Communism and Capitalism anywhere in Slovakia, the first “modern” (read: 1969) hotel in the city stands 16 impassive grey floors of reinforced concrete high: as austerely Communist as hotels get. The sign on the roof, proclaiming “Coca Cola” emits a slightly different message, however. It’s nevertheless emblematic of the quality end of Communist-esque building expansion in the 1970s, just before a paucity of finances heralded a leaner and more low budget period of construction (which lasted until the Wall came down in 1989). Testament to this are, amongst other features, the ceramic artworks by Jaroslav Kubička and the glasswork by L’ubomir Blecha. The Lux (and in 1969, perhaps, it really was) backs onto the park where the star of Brutalism in BB, Muzeum SNP, also sits. If you need refreshment (or a place to stay) in your architectural journey, the Lux is the place to partake without diverting from theme. It’s been serving guests since March 20th 1970. Actually, the restaurant is alright.

6: Muzeum SNP (Museum of the Slovak National Uprising)…

Museum of the Slovak National Uprising

Museum of the Slovak National Uprising – image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The Eternal Flame blazes yet in-between the divide of the talismanic split (i.e. hewn in two) cylinder that houses the nation’s best museum, Muzeum SNP. No other museum in Slovakia deals with its subject matter so thoroughly or informatively. This National Cultural Monument won a 1959 architectural competition and was completed in 1969, as part of the same park development that saw the nearby Hotel Lux erected. Dušan Kuzma and Jozef Jankovič were the main men responsible for the realisation of the building. Its distinctive exterior alone would warrant a mention, dramatised further by the flights of steps on the approach, but the museum inside should not be missed. It charts the circumstances leading up to, and the results of the Slovak National Uprising of 1944, cleverly setting developments in Slovakia alongside world developments in the same period between 1918 and 1944.

May-September 9am-6pm, October-April 9am-4pm; Admission 2 Euros

7: Plaváreñ Štiavničky…

Time to cool off after your crash course in everything relating to the Brutalist second half of the 20th century in BB – with a dip in a Socialist swimming pool. To get there head west (but not WEST if you know what we’re saying) along Kuzmanyho 1.8km to reach the park containing this Modernist marvel from 1966 (with a 2010 revamp thrown in to give it a sauna and another Wellness facilities.)

Banská Bystrica from above - the more conventionally beautiful part!

Banská Bystrica from above – the more conventionally beautiful part! ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

MAP LINK: (each starred point is a stop on the above tour)

GETTING THERE: Trains (although perhaps not as many as there should be) connect Bratislava with Banská Bystrica direct nine times daily, roughly every two hours from 6:01am until 8:01pm. Travel time is 3 hours 24 minutes and cost is 10.46 Euros.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From the “centre” of Banská Bystrica, it’s 54km northeast to the beautifully-located Hotel Srdiečko at the foot of the Low Tatras mountains, from where you can embark on getting to the top of the best Low Tatras peaks in a rather intriguing way…

I WANT MORE ON BRUTALISM: We don’t blame you. Try A Ludicrous Little Tour Through the Communist Legacy in Slovakia or, for something more Bratislava focused, Inside the Upside-down Pyramid. or even Where to Get High in Bratislava (which has some Communist-esque stop-offs). That will sate your appetite (we hope) until we can bring you even more. And we will. Soon.

 

Vel'ky Rozsutec seen from the top of Chleb - image courtesy of Mike Clapham/Milan Šaradin

Capturing Malá Fatra: How A Photographer Transformed the Perception of a Slovak National Park

Sometimes, on rare, rare occasions, you come across someone in the annals of history who utterly transformed the place in which they lived. In the Malá Fatra National Park in Northern Slovakia, that person was Milan Šaradin. The rediscovery of thousands of Šaradin’s photographs by his granddaughter Maria Clapham and her husband, Mike, prompted them to shine the spotlight on this influential individual once more. Over the last few years the couple have been creating a fabulous online resource on Šaradin and his images, which stunningly document life and traditions in rural Slovakia over a seminal period in the country’s development between the 1940s and 1980s. Here, Mike Clapham tells the fascinating story…

Two young children enjoying the Blueberry which grows in abundance in the mountains of Slovakia - image courtesy of Mike Clapham/Milan Šaradin

Two young children enjoying the Blueberry which grows in abundance in the mountains of Slovakia – image courtesy of Mike Clapham/Milan Šaradin

Words by Mike Clapham

It is best if I begin by telling you a bit about myself, and my wife, and how the discovery of thousands of the famous Slovak photographer Milan Šaradin’s long-lost images, many in reels of film stashed away in storage chests, took place…

Roots

I was born in Sussex in the UK, in a small village called Framfield and never left that area, apart from occasional trips for work. But I have always had a very keen interest in photography, with a particular leaning towards blank-and-white images, and spent much of my early life in a darkroom. This fascination has remained with me to this day, along with the transition into digital photography and all that it entails. My other great interest has been computing, and I have been building my own systems for the last two decades. Both passions would prove very useful when it came to what my wife and I would unearth years later in a small town in the heart of one of Slovakia’s most beautiful national parks.

My wife Maria is Slovak, born in the mountain-rimmed Vrátna valley in Malá Fatra national park. Her childhood, as one might expect in such a stunning part of the world, was, she assures me, idyllic. She lived in a chalet next to the Chleb chairlift, learning to ski from a very early age and passing a great deal of time in the surrounding mountains cultivating a knowledge of the area that would likewise prove to huge value to the discovery.

In 1998 she left Slovakia for England to work, and this was how we met. Whilst we remained living in the UK, we regularly returned to Slovakia to see her family and it was during one of these visits that I began to learn about her family and in particular her grandfather Milan Šaradin (See Milan Šaradin: Life at a Glance, below).

Everything about the man was interesting but the thing that caught my imagination most of all was that he had been a famous and prolific photographer in Slovakia, with an emphasis on this area from the mid 1930s till he died in 1984.

The discovery that I made was that literally hundreds of his photographs were still around with, most importantly of all, boxes of negatives which had never been seen by anyone – not even by Šaradin himself – because they were still in rolls in the cans, developed but not printed. For a lot of people, this would have been an astounding find, but for a photographer like myself, nothing short of amazing.

Now we fast-forward to 2007, when Maria and I began to build a chalet to live here in Terchová (see Modern-Day Malá Fatra Snaps, below) and a couple of years later we left England and moved here permanently to discover all about this incredible country and its people.

Tiesnavy Pass, the only route into Vratna - image courtesy of Mike Clapham/Milan Šaradin

Tiesnavy Pass, the only route into Vratna – image courtesy of Mike Clapham/Milan Šaradin

Taking on the Past

By 2012, we had our life over here sorted out. And then came a different sort of sort-out: we approached Maria’s grandmother to ask if we could take all the negatives and photos that belonged to her husband so that I could scan them in to my computer with a view to making a website, putting them there for everyone to see. This she was happy for us to do, so we gathered up all the boxes and took them to our chalet to begin the work…… oh, if only we had known what we were taking on!

Just imagine how it was for me to open the boxes and find inside hundreds of envelopes and reels of film. This amounted to thousand upon thousand of negatives, in singles and strips, with barely any explanatory information. You have to realise that these negatives had been sitting in a cellar since 1984: people had been allowed to come and look for the odd picture once in a while, so they had basically been disrupted from any order that might have existed. Because of their many years in the cellar many were damaged by damp, which rendered them unusable.

So I decided to just start salvaging what I could, first scanning them and opting to sort them out by adding information as to the locations and people in the pictures afterwards. It soon became apparent that there were many more than I first thought. We have never counted them but by a rough estimate we think there are approximately 8000.

For those who are interested in the technical side of the scanning I will list the equipment and software used at the end of the article. (see Tech Spec: How Šaradin’s Images Were Preserved, below).

End in Site: Towards Making the Preserved Images A Reality

So I embarked on what turned out to be a long, long job: nearly four years to be exact! Nevertheless it was a magical time. Every time I put new negatives in the scanner I would find something that was too good to keep to myself and would call Maria to have a look. I think when I reached 2000 images I decided to start sorting through them more intensely and publish them on a website – at first it was my own site, and then I purchased the existing site in Milans name. And this, at long last, is the result: www.milansaradin.com.

Anyone who has ever done anything like this will know how many tasks are involved. First we had to identify each image, who or what it was and when it was taken. Very few of the images came with any accompanying detail: no locations, no names and worst of all no dates of when they were taken.

I believe this part of the process took the longest to do. It was necessary to ask family, friends and indeed anyone who could give us any information. For me this was a great learning curve. I learnt the names of mountains, valleys, villages, towns, people and events that I would never have known had it not been for this discovery. Some people even hinted that I probably knew more about the area than those who lived here. I don’t know about that but I gained a lot of knowledge about this place I live in thanks to Milan.

Eventually, anyway, we gained a database of pictures. We put most of them online and continued to scan the rest. To date I have around 4500 black and white plus 500 colour images on my computer and I estimate this to be roughly 60% of the total number of negatives – the best quality ones to be precise. On the website at the moment I have nearly 3500 pictures but I am in the process of redesigning – with the end intention of having 5000 there for all to see.

Šaradin’s Significance Today

Our thinking has always been that these photographs are of such historical value to the area that they need to be seen by everyone from the people who lived during the period the images cover down to the younger generation who never saw what it was like then. But the body of work as a whole is of immense value to a wider demographic. It spans a huge chunk of Slovakia’s recent past from the 1940s through to the 1980s, and shows unusual glimpses into how people lived, worked and played: an important insight not only into the times but also, in a country as seldom documented or championed as Slovakia is, an insight into the foundations of Slovak culture during almost the entirety of its time under Communism. All this feels, in short, like a glimpse into something which would otherwise forever have remained hidden.

Construction of the Cable Car- image courtesy of Mike Clapham/Milan Šaradin

The end of the ski season at Chleb – image courtesy of Mike Clapham/Milan Šaradin

Milan Šaradin (1910-1984): Life at a Glance

During his life Šaradin was a keen photographer, but also a campaigner for the conservation of the environment, civic developer, sports personality and publicist.

1930 – 1937 He worked as a Typographer in Zilina for a print company called Krano.

1939 – 1944 He was manager of a Malá Fatra mountain hotel in Štefanová, during which time the hotel was burned down, amongst many others in the area, by the Germans.

1944-1947 After the war he organised the rebuilding of Malá Fatra’s most popular mountain house, Chata pod Chlebom (Chalet under Chleb).

1947-1962 From 1947 he organised the building of the main chair lift in Vrátna and also played a role in the construction of other lifts in the Vrátna area. Then for a time he was the man in charge of the area’s chairlifts. He co-founded the Mountain Rescue Service in Vrátna, which became the Malá Fatra region’s key Mountain Rescue base. Mainly due to his dedication and love of the local area, he founded the first tourism centre for Terchová and its surroundings.

1962-1967 He was so successful in promoting the area that Vrátna was added, in 1962, to the international category for tourism and five years later (1967) he helped Vrátna to become an Area of Outstanding National Beauty and ultimately the National Park (národný park) of Malá Fatra that exists today.

Besides his many publications, in 1996 during Janošíkové dni (an annual festival in honour of the region’s fabled outlaw, Juraj Jánošík), Šaradin’s work was included as part of the Vrátna – Malá Fatra exhibition. A book was also produced, “Veď je tá Terchová” which contains many of Milan’s photographs. He was also an active member of a climbing club, IAMES, and he received many awards for his work with the mountain rescue service, tourism, skiing and climbing.

The majority of his work was dedicated to this beautiful area that he loved.
 “Janošik’s country fulfilled me and gave me the best days of my life” he is quoted as saying. “It gave me something to admire every day.”

Modern-Day Malá Fatra Snaps

If people are interested they can see photos of the construction of our chalet on my website. We also detail a lot of what we do over here in Malá Fatra on our blogs, Mikez Blog covering general information and Marias Blog on which she talks about beekeeping and crocheting in Slovakia.

The Tech Spec: How Šaradin’s Old Films Were Preserved

People always seem to ask how things are done so this is the techy side of the discovery.

I scanned the negatives using an Epson Perfection V700: this is a flatbed scanner with film holders and produces very good results. The scanning software is Lasersoft Silverfast Studio Ai Version 8.5.

The negatives get scanned into my Homebuilt PC. The software I use to process and archive the images was originally Adobe Lightroom but now I use Capture One Pro.

I have not retouched the images in any great amount, because they varied in condition and colour. One thing I did to them all was de-saturate the colour: thus leaving them in pure black and white and crop if needed. However I have kept the original scans before any adjustment was made (much like keeping the negatives or RAW images of today).

I am in the process of rebuilding the website with the intention of putting all or most of the images online using the Genesis framework which should allow faster access.

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 North: Marianka (Pilgrim’s Rest)

Marianka is the end of the road. I certainly felt that when I traipsed into this pretty village nestled into the forested uplands of the Malé Karpaty recently – having just completed the path through the hills from Bratislava by which the pilgrims typically arrive to this, Slovakia’s main pilgrimage destination.

It hardly seems possible that Marianka, with its isolated feel, is in essence a district of Bratislava connected to the city transport network and a mere 90 Euro cent ride from the city centre’s Most SNP bus station. But perhaps the sense of isolation originates not just from the fact that the narrow road up from Záhorská Bystrica finally dies out here, to be smothered by the rows of pine trees sheering away above the village, nor the fact that on my first visit, the metre-deep snow everywhere emphasised the otherworldliness of Marianka’s surrounds. Perhaps Marianka does have that special, unique feel of a place that has grown up independently of anywhere else and anything else except, well, faith.

History of the Healing Powers of Marianka

Not only is this Slovakia’s biggest pilgrimage destination, it is also the oldest. It ranks up there with Central Europe’s most important pilgrimage sites, in fact.

The spiritual history of the place dates back almost a millennium. Historical records of Marianka being a pilgrimage site can be traced to 1377. In this year, one Louis of Anjou, attracted here by rumours of healing waters and of a wooden likeness of the Virgin Mary with special curative powers, decided after he had clapped eyes on Marianka, to build a chapel in which to house the wooden Virgin. But the rumours that enticed Louis of Anjou go back several hundred years further: to a hermit who resided in the valley here in the early 11th century and carved the Virgin out of pear wood. This Holy man subsequently had to leave the area in a hurry because of riots in the Kingdom of Hungary (there were many at the time) and hid his handiwork in a hollow in a tree. For decades the Virgin remained lost. After some time, so goes the most colourful version of the story, a local crook, despairing of his severely handicapped children, vowed to change his ways if he received some sign from the Lord that his fortunes would change. He was told of the whereabouts of the Virgin whittled from pear wood, and found her resting right on top of a spring of water which when applied to his children miraculously cured them. The outlaw did change his ways, and devoted the remainder of his life to God.

Welcome to Marianka… ©englishmaninslovakia.com

Welcome to Marianka… ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

When you arrive in Marianka, just after this sign appears on a wall to the left, the village’s main pilgrimage site rears into view below the road: the vast former monastery, now a lodging house for weary pilgrims, and behind it the Gothic-Baroque Church of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary, built originally in the 1370s.

Most Ornate Church in Slovakia?

Inside the pastille yellow building, the first reaction is one of surprise: the weary pilgrim is ushered into a far-from miraculous antechamber with a guestbook on a bench and little more. Then you round the corner and enter one of the most stunningly decorated churches in Slovakia – for me one that easily eclipses even the mighty dome of St Martin’s Cathedral in Bratislava (although not the wooden churches of the far east). It is the ceiling decoration that transfixes you: richly-painted depictions of scenes from the lives of the Saints – Sts Paul and Anthony feature prominently – in a striking arcing montage of gilt-edged panels. Shrines flank the sides of the church and on the altar at  the far end is – so they say – the wooden Virgin as fashioned by that hermit all those centuries ago. It’s a place to sit in, for some minutes, gawping up at the view.

Elaborate roof panels ©englishmaninslovakia.com

Elaborate roof panels ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Outside in the churchyard the Chapel of Santa Anna (1691) sets the tone for the six smaller Temples to the Virgin – ushering the visitor up a tree-lined lane to the round Chapel of the Holy Well which is allegedly built on the site of the spring of water with the rejuvenating powers. On the other side of the processional route to the Chapel of the Holy Well, some five other shrines, more haphazard and less refined in design, but with the flickerings of a myriad candles rendering them equally poignant places of worship. Most moving of these is the calvary, on the right as you approach the Chapel of the Holy Well (pictured above).

Hidden away in the steep bank behind the temples to the Virgin, what you initially mistake for another shrine transpires to be a 17th-century mine shaft – the only remaining example of black shale mining in Slovakia. The shale was discovered during construction of the temples, and extraction continued until the First World War – Marianka shale became a highly-prized material.

Demolition Dodge!

It is incredible to think that a place that not only provided one of Central Europe’s most important pilgrimage sites – a place visited by Hungarian emperors from Leopold I to Maria Theresa to Charles III – but also some rather crucial roofing material for the valley, should have been slated for demolition under Communism. Equally incredibly, Communists never got round to executing the plan, so the very fact of Marianka’s survival is something of a miracle.

The Chapel of the Holy Well ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Pilgrim Food

Pilgrims get hungry on the long march, and there are a couple of good places to feast in town. Right by the bus turning circle is Pútnický Mlyn (pilgrim’s mill), the fanciest restaurant with a modern decor and an outside terrace with a mill wheel (they also offer accommodation) and a few paces up from the turning circle on the red trail is a decent bistro. But far and away the best eatery is Hostinec U Zeleného stromu (the Green Tree Hostelry) which has a history of accommodating tired pilgrims going back centuries.  It’s the most atmospheric option, too: somehow, a pilgrim’s watering hole should be old, with worn walls, dim lighting and a grave old bar lady that has been working there so many decades she appears part of the creaking furniture – no? There are two parts (both extremely popular): a restaurant and below a bar, all done in the style of an old wine cellar that could have stood in as the set for the Prancing Pony in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy if required. It’s open for ridiculously reasonable food and drink (one Euro for a good frothy Bernard beer) from 11am to 10pm daily, and has rooms too.

Onward from Marianka?

From the entrance road to the monastery, church and shrines, a signed trail (red) heads up on a narrow lane into forest, going via Borinka to Pajštún Castle in about 1.5 hours. Up above town, red intersects with yellow at a woodsy spot called Klčovanice. It’s worth the deviation here (almost two hours longer to reach Pajštún Castle) to forge on the blue path through along to Svätý Vrch (Saint’s Mountain) – then steeply down and as steeply up again to Dračí Hrádok. This is another significantly more ruined castle (only a few mossy stones of the outer walls remain) but it’s nevertheless a moving place, sequestered away in trees that have reclaimed the fortress for themselves. From Dračí Hrádok a yellow trail corkscrews steeply up to Pajštún. Starting early, there’s time to get the bus from Bratislava’s Most SNP, see the Marianka pilgrimage sites, lunch in Marianka, hike up to Pajštún and return from the castle to Stupava, from where there are also buses back to Bratislava.

MAP LINK: We’ve kept the map panned out so you can see the road heading north from Bratislava via Záhorská Bystrica (and eventually on through the Záhorie region to the Czech Republic).

GETTING THERE: Bus 37 runs every two hours from Most SNP to Marianka.

WHEN TO MAKE THE PILGRIMAGE? Well, possibly not in the snow like I did. The main days to visit are on January 6th (Three Kings’ Day or Traja Krali) and also on St Mary’s birthday, September 8th. When we say the main days, we mean “days when it will be really crowded with the devout” so of course these could equally be days to give a wide berth… churches and shrines always look better for me in solitude…

MARIANKA VILLAGE WEBSITE In Slovak, but could prove useful.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: In addition to the pilgrimage route from Bratislava, we recommend two great hikes from Marianka: the route north up to Pajštún Castle (1.5 hours) or the route east to Svätý Júr via Biely Kameň (4 hours).

©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

Jana Kirschner ©Pavol Frešo

Why Jana Kirschner is Great for Slovak Music

It’s true. I did make some comments about Jana Kirschner being Slovakia’s Kate Bush which are, admittedly, a little previous. But what is undeniable is that the lady is a cornerstone of Slovak music today and, especially with her most recent work, is flying the flag for what is being achieved amongst contemporary musicians in the country.

I’ve seen Jana a couple of times live and realised recently that she has actually been making music almost twenty years. In this sense she really is the voice of post-Communist Slovakia – and it’s an incredible voice at that. And she’s kept that all-important connection with Slovakia by singing in Slovak, too – tapping into several Slovakian music traditions, and perhaps most interestingly the country’s incredible folk music. I personally love the change in her music since she’s been living in the UK and working with music producer Eddie Stevens.

The entrancing dancey folk of a song like Sama, from her 2013 album Moruša: Biela is a great contrast with some of her earlier, and perhaps more pop ballad, work. She’s a former Miss Slovakia finalist too: not bad for a country replete with absolutely gorgeous women:)

The clip above is from Krajina Rovina (Flat Country) (2010) with some beautiful shots of the Slovak countryside. Below: afore-mentioned Sama. Enjoy!

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Coffee and Tea Culture in Slovakia: the Kaviaren versus the Čajovna

Before 1989, partaking of a good beverage was significantly more limited than it is today in Slovakia.

But particularly where coffee was concerned. Almost everyone drank the same brand, heralding from Poprad – an underwhelming and grainy affair by most accounts (and that is only to mention the best of them). No one thought to question its origin beyond that. It was there, and that was what counted. Better beans were available on a prestigious foreign market that you could buy with bonds – if you happened to have foreign currency to pay for them, which you could only really obtain if you had relatives living “in the west”.

A quality array of teas was more widespread. After all, tea could be made with the herbs and fruits that grew in the woods and hills looming large across Czechoslovakia (foraging is still a popular alternative to relying on what is offered in the supermarkets today). This is much more likely to explain why discerning tea culture continued to develop whilst coffee culture took a tumble (ironic, with Vienna so near and yet so far) than, for example, the age-old influence of the Turkish on the region.

Come the 1990s and tea in Slovakia was often a fine-tuned and sophisticated thing, enjoyed in a range of čajovny (teahouses) which were as often as not the hangouts of the Bohemian sect. Coffee – at least the half-decent varieties of coffee enjoyed in kaviarne, or cafes, continued to be at best what Slovaks know as presso, low-grade espresso made in a simple presso machine.

But Slovaks, since then, and in spite of the fact they are ultimately a home-loving people, began spending time away in other parts of Europe, North America and Australia. When they did, they often ended up working in catering. They got exotic ideas and brought them back to Slovakia.

Slovaks jump to adopt and embrace foreign trends if those trends seem like winners. Pizza and pasta caught on quickly. Craft beer is the latest craze. Good coffee came somewhere between the pasta and the craft beer. It seems to have been a learning curve, slow, but steadier and steadier and only really developing into a “scene” worth talking about in the last five or six years. And a scene it is. The likes of Bratislava’s Štúr (2010) and Bistro St Germain, plus perhaps Košice’s Caffe Trieste spearheaded it: good coffee in atmospheric surroundings, in these cases with cheap, healthy lunches on offer too.

A ton more places have followed suit. This new brand of cafes have several traits. They seem, like the čajovny have been for a while now, to be real “worlds” – autonomous provinces free from the regulations, realities and disappointments of external goings-on, or at least refuges from them. They are also uncrowded worlds, which renders them all the more inviting. They are generally owned/operated by young people who have a passion for stamping their own unique take on how things should be. In Bratislava and Košice, many inhabit Old Town buildings looking out on streets where aimless wandering is often a visitor’s main concern – and at a slow pace, because of the cobbles:) – it would not take too beguiling a pavement cafe table to waylay anyone here. And there is not just one or two – there are many. They veritably assail you from within 18th-century buildings (buildings which, it must be admitted, suit standing in as cafes very well). They invariably capitalise on one major Achilles heel of the average Slovak – an inability to think about going through the day without a hearty lunch – and do well from it. All told, it is no surprise why Slovakia, in 2013, were the world’s sixth-biggest per capita coffee drinkers.

If anything, in Slovakia it’s the quality čajovna that now seems underground (underground meaning the scene generally but sometimes, yes, literally underground) compared to the kaviareň / cafe. That said, more places serve up top-notch tea than they do top-notch espresso, so it seems to me. With the coffee, it’s a work in progress. But already a very good work.

Fujaro_ludado_tuta_bildo

The Fujara – and Where to Experience It!

Nothing represents traditional Slovak culture quite so poignantly as the fujara. This huge three-holed flute has its origins in the nation’s shepherding past, when shepherds would project resonant, melancholic tones out over the valleys in which they tended their flocks as part of a system of communication between isolated farmsteads. Later, the instrument became used more just for entertainment at special occasions, or a solemn tribute at sadder moments.

The fujara is traditionally made from elderberry wood – an easily malleable material with incredible acoustic properties – and intricately decorated in motifs gleaning their inspiration from the natural world in which countryside-dwelling Slovaks lived. It is extremely difficult to make, and not much less tough to play.

Whilst bryndza, the tart sheep cheese at the heart of so much traditional Slovak food, still props up many restaurant menus nationwide, the sheep in Slovakia today, and the practice of sheep farming, are both much less in evidence. The Communist-era društvo (large-scale farm) has been cited as one of the causes. But the fujara remains as a hallmark of times passed. Its strangely haunting melody ricochets around the mountains of Malá Fatra, Vel’ka Fatra and Central Slovakia – where the instrument was first developed – to this day. Now it’s mostly played at folk festivals – such as the national fujara players’ meeting every September in the beautiful Malá Fatra community of Čičmany, a village worth visiting in its own right for its prettily-painted log houses.

Its past – and its role in that past – is why Unesco added it onto their list of intangible cultural heritage in 2005.

©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.

Slnko v svieti (The Sun in a Net)

“Sometimes you have to take a dark path” muses the main character in The Sun In A Net at one of the film’s most profoundly prophetic moments when he and two colleagues are seen silhouetted against a forest in the setting sun, stealing wood to fix broken farm machinery. And indeed, this movie takes you to some dark moments in Slovak history.

Czechoslovakia in the 1960s a few years before the Prague Spring: angry youth, resigned and embittered old-timers, love and its anything-but-smooth path, and a mysterious fisherman on a decrepit boat on the Danube.

Change is in the air, but in The Sun In A Net, that change never really comes.

The movie is thus a melancholic one – and with its out-of-the-blue scene changes and almost eerie background sound repetitions of the clank of trams or the experimental tinkering on a flute by someone with little talent for the instrument, a consciously disjointed one. But its cast of characters are so poetical, so philosophical, so whimsical that one cannot help falling in love with it. In these two respects – the occasionally unnerving disjointedness and the lovable protagonists which have to ‘make do’ with operating in such a world – The Sun In A Net combines two hallmarks of Slovak film-making. Yet in the revolutionary way it goes about this, the movie is in a class of its own.

At the beginning the rebellious undertones of the film are sown when we see Fayolo, the teenage main character, standing alone on a Bratislava housing estate rooftop cluttered with aerials, scoffing at the propaganda issuing from the radio. Fayolo is a typically ‘angry young man’, a talented photographer with a passion for unusual shots, an individual in an era when individuality was not highly prized. Bela, his love interest, enters next, enthusiastically talking about the impending eclipse, but Fayolo is wary of the good things in life, Bela included. The film develops a device for dealing with his most contemplative moments (and there are plenty) by freezing the subject of his thoughts whilst his own internal voice continues on, invariably negatively.

The eclipse viewing is an anti-climax. It’s cloudy. On the rooftop, Fayolo and Bela argue (Fayolo’s moroseness is the cause). In Bela’s family’s apartment, her blind mother asks Bela’s younger brother to describe to her the colours in the sky.

The sadness is so profound (Bela’s mother’s suffering, Bela’s brother’s frustration at feeling neglected by the almost-always absent father, the fact that even by the standards of black-and-white movies this one is shot in a particularly murky manner and colour of any description seems very far away at this point). In fact, things are awful. “It’s so awful that things are like this” Bela’s father proclaims grimly in one of his few appearances. “This is awful” Bela complains to Fayolo as they eclipse-watch. Fayolo mocks the crowds gathered on the streets below to see the spectacle of the ‘black sun show’: “wait another twenty years: it might not be so cloudy then.”

Soon after Fayolo and Bela fall out despite their clear admiration of the other, Fayolo’s father, a ‘party’ man tells Fayolo he needs to go away to work for the summer, a decision Fayolo feels has been made so that his father looks good (and if there is one thing Fayolo loathes it is keeping up appearances). But go away Fayolo does – to help with the harvest in rural Melanany (a fictitious place). And in their frustration at not being able to communicate with each other, not even when they are together and certainly not now they are being forced apart, Fayolo (with buxom harvest worker Jana) and Bela (with shallow philanderer Peto) are tempted in different directions. Fayolo nevertheless writes Bela a love letter during his month on the harvesting ‘holiday’ which Bela mockingly reads to Peto. Fayolo, for his part, starts thinking about Jana a fair bit more and Bela a fair bit less. The question is whether either Fayolo or Bela will realise they have made a mistake in time…

But besides Bratislava, portrayed as a cityscape of darkness and confusion, and the light, sunny, simplistic setting of Melanany, The Sun In A Net focuses on a third world – one that initially seems so removed from the other two it is almost as if its scenes have been spliced on from another film entirely. What soon becomes apparent, however, is that this world is a touchstone for the main characters that none appreciate until it is too late.

And that world is the Danube – or more specifically, a ragtag old boat and the fisherman and his wife that live aboard. The boat and its elderly owners soon assume the role of moral barometer in the movie – the set of constants anchored amidst the uncertainty. Here are highlighted goodness (Fayolo befriends the couple and they allow him to take their photos, which he then brings for them to decorate the vessel with), badness (as later when Peto brings Bela there and the couple are far less welcoming, for Peto has disrespected the boat by playing music loudly and trying to seduce Bela upon it) and loss (as when Bela’s mother stands beside the boat once it is beached and forgotten and recollects that for her too, many things are finished for good).

Indeed, in the very last scene, as in the very first (when we briefly see birds’ eggs lying in the shallows, and think, at the time, that this is artistic, but otherwise unconnected to anything else), it is the timeless world of the river that comes to the fore. For Bela and her family, it represents a chance to seize upon the positives, perhaps, when they glimpse the sun framed in a moment of beauty between the now-abandoned nets of the old fisherman. Fayolo, brooding once again amidst the rooftop aerials, realises from afar that the river is the place he should be.

How did Fayolo’s month away change him? How did Bela change in his absence? Do all the answers lie in the river? Does any of it actually really matter? As the old fisherman at one point wisely observes, regardless “the Danube will flow on.”

As for The Sun In A Net, perhaps its main character, proclaimed “a jerk” or “a poet” by others, does ensure the film sparkles with a certain moody poetry. It captures the age of the ‘drustvo’ or Communist farm collective, especially, in seminal style. But the first-time viewer will be surprised most of all by how old this movie is. Štefan Uher made this in 1962. But the film feels much more modern, particularly when you consider the censorship of Czechoslovakia at the time. It is bravely controversial, simmering with sex, pioneering in its techniques. And it is absolutely essential viewing for anyone who wishes to understand Slovak cinema. Because it is one of the country’s most ground-breaking films ever.

Sitting on a Branch I am Fine

In a desperately poor, shabby and disorganised post-World War Two Czechoslovakia, two soldiers returning home to the country – one Czech (Pepe), one Slovak (Prengel) – meet on the road and decide to travel back together. Hard times call for hard measures, and Pepe, the unscrupulous rogue of the pair, steals a bicycle for the journey which transpires to be stuffed with Jewish gold. Prengel, throughout the movie Pepe’s reluctant accomplice,  has his doubts about whether it is right (morally) to take the treasure but Pepe – a persuasive fellow – convinces him. After a few capers they wind up back in Prengel’s home town, living in the abandoned house of a Jewish baker. Not long after their arrival, the alleged daughter of the baker, Esther, appears, and the three end up cohabiting.

For a while, things are indeed “fine”. The three form an unorthodox “family” and live on the very edge of the tolerance levels of the authorities in the new political climate (the transition from war to Communism, our heroes soon discover, rapidly becomes the epitome of the old adage “out of the frying pan, into the fire”). But Prengel and Pepe are soon madly in love (or perhaps, in “lust”) with beautiful, buxom but very simple Esther who is mentally scarred from her stint in near slavery in a Nazi brothel, but now, with our two affable protagonists, has the chance to recuperate. The two men even deliver Esther’s baby, reignite the bakery business, and fantasise over Esther.

But the treasure, like so much treasure in storybooks, is cursed. On impulse during a night of revelry Prengel and Pepe decide to give their gold to Esther. And her fate is sealed. She is murdered by a band of German rebels still at large. Our two heroes bring up Esther’s baby daughter who one day, years later, finds the treasure and is allowed by her two surrogate fathers, to dress herself up in the jewels. In the process the three are spied by the postman who informs on them. And this, to men who have already offended the values of the new regime, means time in a correctional facility with their daughter ousted from them (the gold-hungry postman, it should be noted, does not escape the power of the curse and gets blown up by a leftover land-mine later on.)

All is not lost though. Prengel and Pepe are released from prison and reunited with their/Esther’s daughter. And in the final scene the three climb a tree, just as they used to do in the good old days. As they do, they age. By the time the three are sitting in one of the upper branches, Prengel and Pepe are old men whilst their daughter is more or less the spitting image of the Esther they once knew.

You’ve got to hand it to Juraj Jakubisko, the director of Sedim na konari a je mi dobre (Sitting on a Branch I am Fine). Whilst most of the rest of the film-makers in Eastern Europe in 1989 were busy producing movies that encapsulated what it was to be free of a Communist regime, he was finishing one that encapsulated what it was to find yourself in the middle of it when it first began.

What is a branch, in this context?

It is certainly a place to escape to, to avoid bad things (or bad regimes). Right at the beginning of the film, a hungry Pepe driven to stealing food is pursued by incensed townspeople and evades them by climbing a tree.

But a branch is also an off-shoot, or deviation from, the main tree. The odd family of Pepe, Prengel, Esther and her baby are a clear deviation from the expected family values in this new Communist world of fresh-faced ideals. Even when they enthusiastically embrace Stalinism by baking a gingerbread likeness of the leader, it is something of an embarrassment for the authorities. Pepe seduces an aspiring Communist official who willingly succumbs but is simultaneously murmuring “I will make a new man of you, a better man!” As charming as Pepe and Prengel are, and as charmed by them (in spite of themselves) as the town authorities are, the official line is soon clear: there is no place in the regime for deviants like them. They do not embrace the new work ethic, they live in self-imposed isolation as far away from the goings on of the town as they can and – the clinch – they hoard gold, a definite no-no. Actually, and unofficially, the decisive factor in their arrest and imprisonment is not over an ideal, but because of the afore-mentioned Communist official who has her advances rejected by Pepe and so wants to exact her revenge.

Like quite a few Jakubisko flicks I have seen, there is something unnerving, jangling, disconcerting about Sedim na konari a je mi dobre.

Perhaps it is because Pepe and Prengel never escape their outcast status, not only with the authorities in the film, but also with us viewers. Their dialogue is discordant – too concerned with making jokes, even at the serious moments. We never feel their grief because even at the shocking scenes of the film, such as Prengel returning to discover all his family have been killed, or Esther’s subsequent murder, they do not really grieve. We are dismayed when they are imprisoned over such a triviality but not too upset. Perhaps it is because of the early continuity errors: Pepe overnight suddenly sprouting a thick moustache, Prengel listening to a walkman (in the late 1940s?). We are uncertain whether these elements are deliberate or not, but they do distance us slightly from the characters.

But perhaps it is actually because post-WW2 Czechoslovakia was an unnerving and disconcerting place. And it is a place which is brought to life for us in a way few other movies before or since can claim, via a mixture of hilarious and highly original moments: a moustachioed man being mistaken for Hitler, the town festival in celebration of Stalin. And the motif throughout of the easy-going characters, borne along on the tide of a regime they want to fit into but cannot, on a human level, possibly adapt to.

The good old days. They were so short-lived.

RELATED POST: Všetko čo mam rad: A Picture of post-Communist Slovakia?

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

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

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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

Credit: Authentic Slovakia

Tours: Authentic Slovakia, the Country’s Wackiest Tour Agency

Englishman in Slovakia caught up recently with one half of Authentic Slovakia, owned by two brothers, one of Bratislava’s newest and coolest tour agencies, to find out a little bit more about them and the kind of experiences tourists can have with them. Slovakia’s tourism industry has been keen in the past to brush over the Communist history of the country but these guys have done just the opposite. A bold move, some might say, but one that seems to have reaped dividends…

In fact, so many dividends that the company is no longer just Bratislava-based, but has brand new operations in Brezno in the Low Tatras and Košice!!

1 – How did you come up with the idea for Authentic Slovakia?

We felt there was a lack of interesting tourist products in Bratislava and saw the gap in the tourism market. Also, we had some tourism background from our parents – our father is the owner of an incoming travel agency, too. And last but not least, we gained some interesting inspiration during our travels to Western and Northern Europe. I usually do not join organised tours, but we did a hop-on hop-off minivan tour around Scotland which was great, and more of the kind of thing was what we wanted to bring to Slovakia.

2 – Why the name “Authentic Slovakia”? And what is the concept of Authentic Slovakia?

Initially we planned to focus on tours mostly outside of Bratislava, aimed at backpackers. Over the last years, most of the demand has grown for our Bratislava city tours, but “Slovakia” in our name remained. However, we hope to increase share of our tours to other regions in the near future. “Authentic” relates to our idea to bring an uncensored experience for the traveller. We try to make every tour personal and honest, which is also supported by little size of the groups (usually 2-7 persons). We visit authentic places, not usually included in tourist brochures. We want to show Slovakia as it really is to tourists – and that does still include the legacy left from the days of Communism here, which still influences all our lives to some extent.

3 – What is the most authentic place you have been on your tours?

One of the highlights is an old industrial lift with very dark interior, heavy doors and unique noises in a former textile factory. It’s a really spooky experience, people are usually very happy to come out!:) Also, all the local pubs we visit during our unconventional Village Pub Crawl tour, are very authentic. I really enjoyed my group of 7 young French visitors who got the chance to meet a drunk forester, who invited everybody for a shot of vodka and then was trying to sell them some good Carpathian wood!

Authentic Slovakia visit a nice local krčma (pub)

Authentic Slovakia visit a nice local krčma (pub)

4 – What is the most popular activity on your tours would you say? (what do tourists like most)

Probably riding in our legendary 1970’s vintage Škoda cars, used by masses several decades ago, but really unique pieces of machinery today. These cars provide the wheels for our Post Socialist City tour, focused on a history of the 20th Century in Bratislava – it has a really authentic feel, i think! Although a few times it happened that our clients ended up pushing the car to start the engine! Once we had to finish the tour in a tram due to a flat tyre! Usually, however, Škodas work just great.

5 – What’s the strangest question someone on your tours has asked you? :)

I considered questions like if we have our own language, or if Bratislava is the Slovak capital, or which currency we use, to be quite strange, but maybe that’s my personal point of view :)

6 – Give some tips of advice to tourists coming to Slovakia for the first time on one to expect?

In Bratislava, they can expect a really disgusting train station, a very functionalist retro bus station or a renewed but very empty airport:) Then they can expect socialist-style customer service at many places, a chaotic mixture of architecture and a lot of fried meals. But on the plus side they could also enjoy surprisingly well-preserved historical towns, great outdoors possibilities, a good public transport and road network, friendly people and cheap beer:)

7 – What’s one place you would recommend going in Slovakia to get “off the beaten track”?

One of the best things about Slovakia is that out of Bratislava and the High Tatras, almost everywhere is “off the beaten track”. Even such a historical gem as the UNESCO medieval mining town of Banská Štiavnica remains calm with an amazing mystical atmosphere most days of the year. But a total “off the beaten track” experience (and I mean even for Slovaks) is probably another UNESCO attraction – the primeval beech forest of the Carpathians, located in north-eastern corner of Slovakia near the border with Ukraine. It is a kingdom of wolves, bears and bizons – so far that even Authentic Slovakia does not reach there!

8 – The company has proved to be a big success. We understand you now have some additional “authentic” activities available in Košice?

Košice is amazing but still unexplored destination. Apart from the largest old town in Slovakia it offers great post-communist sites like former VSZ steel factory (U.S. Steel today), an abandoned magnesite factory, the working class neighbourhood Saca, not to mention the controversial Lunik IX neighbourhood (nb: controversial mainly due to the Roma residents who live there in sometimes dire poverty). Furthermore, recent transformations are interesting too – thanks (although not solely) to Košice becoming European Cultural Capital in 2013, great cultural venues popped up from a former Tobacco factory, former military barracks and an abandoned swimming pool. The Košice art scene is at least as interesting as the one in Bratislava, too.
And we have amazing guides there. Slavo and Mirka are really dedicated to this topic, are superfriendly and even add something to the tour from their cultural background. Check our Authentic Košice website for more.
9 – And that’s not all, is it? Can you tell us about what you are now doing in the Low Tatras? :)
Another project, the latest thing for us, is our new retro communist apartment in Brezno, with a nice central location within Slovakia below the Low Tatras mountains. We wish to offer an authentic accommodation in ordinary 1970’s prefab apartment block designed in retro style. This will provide a basecamp for potential visitors to explore the beauties of Horehronie region, located among 4 National parks, of which the Low Tatras are the closest. Brezno has a great location and public transport connections, so it will be an ideal solution for guests with no hired car. We will provide tips for 6 or 7 great day trips to the area. Our local partners will also be ready to provide guided tours upon request.

10 – What’s next for Authentic Slovakia?

Possibly to expand to other regions to diversify our destinations and not to disrupt their authenticity. And hopefully we can expect another year of joyful tours with sustainable growth, whilst keeping the core values of being personal and uncensored!

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