©Karen McCann

Košice: the Unsung Charms (and Legends!) of Slovakia’s Second City

Today’s article comes courtesy of Karen McCann, whose best-selling travel books include  Adventures of a Railway Nomad: How Our Journeys Guide Us Home, the story of her three-months train journey through Central and Eastern Europe. Traveling without reservations or a fixed itinerary, she and her husband covered 6000 miles through 13 countries, and the results – often hilarious, occasionally harrowing, definitely life-changing – form the basis of her book. Part of her rail odyssey took her through Košice… 

I always prefer the road less traveled, so I was delighted to discover that Košice, eastern Slovakia’s economic and cultural epicenter, remains almost entirely devoid of tourists. Despite strenuous efforts to reinvent itself as a vacation destination, the city is still, as Wikitravel sums it up so neatly, “a place not often visited from elsewhere.” Intrigued, I managed to convince my husband that it should be the next stop on our train journey through the region.

Fount of… Music!

Walking up Hlavná ulica (Main Street), we soon stumbled across one of Košice’s most ambitious civic projects, the Singing Fountain. This is a large, flat network of pipes, from which water alternately trickles, gushes, or shoots thirty feet into the air, in rhythms roughly synchronized with piped-in music ranging from Ave Maria to Feelings. At night, coloured lights pulse in time with the water and music — a sort of Trevi Fountain meets Saturday Night Fever. At first the Singing Fountain struck me as garish, tasteless, and a total waste of public funds; in fact, I laughed outright when I saw it. But I have to admit it grew on me. My husband and I soon joined the locals happily sitting on nearby benches, eating ice cream cones, and watching the water dance.

Local Insights…

Feeling a local viewpoint might help us appreciate the city more fully, we engaged the services of a bright, enthusiastic guide-in-training named Veronica. She introduced us to such points of interest as the late fourteenth-century Tower of St. Urban (honoring the patron saint of wine growers), the Plague Column (commemorating victims of the plague that lasted from 1710 to 1711), and the bronze sculpture of a shield with lilies and half an eagle (celebrating the fact that in 1369 Košice became the first European city to be granted its own coat of arms).

Jakab's Palace KarenMcCann

Jakab’s Palace ©Karen McCann

We strolled together along Main Street, which houses freshly restored Gothic, Renaissance, baroque, and Art Nouveau buildings along with a bare minimum of Soviet-era monstrosities. We saw inviting cafés, a few upscale restaurants, and a rambling, quirky museum of local history, culture, and science. The city had everything you’d want in a tourist destination — except, of course, actual tourists (which can, of course, be a blessing).

An Amazing Saint

One of my favorite buildings was the vast Gothic cathedral, which happened to be dedicated to my own patron saint, St. Elizabeth of Hungary. At fourteen she was wed to Louis IV, Landgrave of Thuringia, and began devoting herself to feeding the poor and tending the sick. This naturally brought her under censure from courtiers who were afraid she’d drain the nation’s treasury to keep its humblest citizens alive. One day, while taking bread to the destitute, Elizabeth was confronted by suspicious nobles, who demanded to see what she was carrying. When she opened the folds of her cloak, a shower of roses fell out.

That’s her most famous miracle, the one depicted on the little plaque that hung on the wall of my bedroom throughout my childhood. But my favorite was the one where she brought a leper to lie in the bed she shared with her husband. At this, the ladies of the court set up such an outcry that the king came running to investigate. When he flung back the bedclothes, King Louis supposedly saw not a leper but Christ himself. And meaning no disrespect, I have to say that any wife who can convince her husband that the strange man lying in their bed is actually Jesus … that is a true miracle.

Gargoyles! ©Karen McCann

Elizabeth’s cathedral was built in high Gothic style and bristled with gargoyles, one of which resembled the wife of the builder, Štefan. While working on this glorious edifice, Štefan went home each night to be harangued mercilessly by his nagging, drunken, foul-mouthed spouse. Goaded beyond endurance, he had a gargoyle carved in her likeness, so she would spend the rest of eternity having her mouth washed out whenever it rained. And wouldn’t you love to know what Mrs. Štefan had to say about that?

According to local legend, the cathedral once housed an actual drop of Christ’s blood. “Some men came and took it away,” Victoria told us. “I don’t know where it is now.” Having seen Raiders of the Lost Ark, I assume it’s in a warehouse next to the Ark of the Covenant. This seems a pity, as a sacred artifact of that magnitude — real or fake — would certainly help with the city’s efforts to attract tourists, especially if the PR department leaked a few rumors about miraculous cures. Another great marketing opportunity lost.

Even without any miraculous blood, Košice was fun to visit. I felt lucky to catch the city at that golden moment after charming civic improvements have been made (for the city’s stint as one of the European Capitals of Culture in 2013) but before the city had become flooded with tourists – something that, with the fabulous array of annual festivals now taking place, doesn’t seem so far off.

Whatever happens in the future, Košice is well worth a visit now.

Karen lives in Seville, Spain, where she writes the Enjoy Living Abroad travel blog and has published three other books about travel and expat life.

 

A Quick Guide to the Other Content We Have on Košice

Places to Go: Climbing Košice cathedral

Places to Go/Events & Festivals: Slovakia’s Famed Film Festival Arrives in Košice to Stay

Places to Stay: The city’s first ‘eco-hotel’

Places to Eat & Drink: Košice’s most imaginative breakfast stop

Places to Eat & Drink: THE bistro to be seen at in Košice

Getting Around: Košice’s flight connections

Getting Around: Quirky Košice city tours

Musings: The Definition of ‘Discussed’

 

 MAP LINK:

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Košice’s Old Town centre it’s 57km southeast to Malá Trňa, heart of the fascinating Tokaj winemaking industry.

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Embers

Somewhere, in an unspecified location in the wild Carpathians, an ageing General and his long-estranged friend Konrad are preparing for one final dinner together. It’s been 41 years since they last met up like this, and – one feels – the remoteness of the venue is far from the whole reason why such a large amount of time has elapsed without them communicating with one another…

This is the premise for Sándor Márai’s Embers (Hungarian title translating as The Candle Burns to the Stump), his last and perhaps his best-known book,  and it’s one that hooks you. Sándor Márai, after all, is perhaps, on an international scale, Slovakia’s most famous writer, and certainly would have known a thing or two about the Carpathians. Such celebrated native sons talking about these mountains in fiction are few and far between.

He is little appreciated as a writer outside of the Hungarian literary world, not even in Slovakia. Whilst Márai’s home city Košice, as part of their 2013 preparations for European City of Culture, established a fascinating “Sándor Márai trail” around the key sights in the city associated with the writer, there can be little denying that the writer preferred Budapest as a place to hang out (those infamous coffeehouses particularly) and wrote exclusively in Hungarian. As Márai’s works were not available to read in English until the 1990’s though, his talents remained unknown for a long time, and all this served to add to the allure of the book when I picked it up in a Budapest bookstore recently. An intriguing mystery wrapped within the greater mystery of the writer’s life.

He was, back in the day when Budapest was a centre of European intellectualism, one of the prominent pre-WW2 voices of realism and it’s clear from the off this book is very much in that style. With Márai, and particularly with Embers, it’s the intricate, methodical mini-sketches of detail (devoting two pages to preparing a dinner set, for example) that conjure, out of the remoteness of the Europe’s far east, a world that seems very tangible. You taste the food the two main protagonists are eating, you live each carefully-assembled detail of their two lives that have led, through the strict course that high society in the Austro-Hungarian Empire set, to this moment.

What permeates through the pages of this novel, though, is the sense of yearning for what once was. Márai was writing this book in the 1940s, when Budapest had already lost the glamourous place at the pinnacle of European sophistication it had until recently held. The main character, the General, has relived the fateful events that forced him and his old friend apart, for 41 years. He has devoted the majority of his adult life to little else and, tellingly, beyond that to dwelling on the glory of those bygone days: how good it all was, how it no longer is. Yet he does so in a house where each of those fond memories have a cruel backlash. For each party he recreates in his head from 41 years ago, he hears the far greater silence of his now-empty abode echoing back at him. For each moment of laughter or love he recalls, he is surrounded by loneliness and coldness.

And like the house, the book is cold: frostily so. As Embers progresses, the idea of the General’s isolated house, little more than a magnificent but soulless museum of memories from the glam times, becomes so unbearable that you end up virtually begging the narrator to dwell once again on the past as an escape.

And the course of events that sour a once-inseparable friendship are compelling, retold through the General’s pedantic yet slightly superior way of expressing himself. There are more twists, too, than a path through the woods of the two main characters’ hunting trips. These trips, like so many aspects of the much revisited old friendship between the General and Konrad, highlights the key difference between them. The General is of moneyed, top military stock; Konrad is poor and rarely has a couple of krona to rub together. The latter is as critical of and embittered towards the status quo as the former is a contented part of it. Perhaps things were always, therefore, destined to go pear-shaped. And when that finally happens, it is little surprise that a woman is at the root of the problem…

But the problem for the reader, in a book like Embers, is a little different. In a tale set up to focus around two old men taking a trip down memory lane to a youth where their own intense friendship dominates over almost everything else, it’s essential to care for one of the characters. The General seems a righteous individual who has dwelt far too long on the past and who never makes a real effort to understand anyone without the ability to enjoy unlimited wealth. At the same time, his generosity towards his friend goes almost entirely unappreciated; Konrad spends the majority of the book sulking or – in the later stages – sullenly silent and unapologetic as the General continues a rant that has presumably been pent up for four decades. This is a beautifully constructed book but it chills you – and its main characters move you to pity or repulsion. Which means you cannot really feel sorry for either of them.

And perhaps an insight into Márai’s own opinion about Slovakia resonates throughout the book too. Whilst Vienna and Paris are described in lively detail, Slovakia is conspicuously absent. You can infer that it is the location of the house in the Carpathians, the melancholy and remote tomb of memories where the present part of the book takes place, but you never once have it made clear to you.

But as a piece of literature, it stands out as a testament of the heyday of Austro-Hungary: Slovakia, other incorporated territories and all. That’s why you should read it.