© Christopher Bentley

Go East: the Sensual Sounds (and Sights!) of Female-led Czech and Slovak Pop From the ’60’s to the ’80’s

We’re all about niche on this site, and one of my greatest pleasures over the last year or two has been finding out just how many people have something fascinating to say about Slovak culture past and present. Today we have the first of two articles by Czech and Slovak pop music expert Christopher Bentley on why he loves the genre and its lasting importance.

 

LET US START this post by making two statements and then pulling them together.

1: If one is interested in Pop Music-related travel, and wants to do it outside of the UK, one would probably, more than likely, head west to the States.

2: One of the reasons that ‘Englishman In Slovakia’ readers are probably visiting this site is to get the low-down on where might be worth visiting in the country.

With regards to the first, what you are about to read will make you think of doing the exact opposite of what the Pet Shop Boys suggest and go not west but very much east.

With regards to the second, what you are about to read will make you think of a way of travelling that has probably never occurred to you.

So how about travelling eastwards to Slovakia in particular, alongside other parts of the former Eastern Bloc… for Pop Music-related travel?

You may well, at this point, be thinking that a suggestion like this amounts to losing one’s marbles. And if you were to go back about two years in my life I might have thought exactly the same…

A Strange Journey to the Centre of the Slovak Music Scene

That was until, about this time of year in 2015, at a course I was attending to improve my employability skills, the careers advisor, knowing my interest in Modern Foreign Languages, said something to the order of “Chris, if you’re interested in careers using languages have you ever considered Eastern European languages? There’s a real future in that.”

I did start to consider it: not only Eastern European languages but the culture of the region that inevitably goes hand in hand. I started to consider it a lot.

Marcela Laiferová - image ©Christopher Bentley

Marcela Laiferová – photographer unknown

Over the years since then, I have dipped back into things ‘Carene Cheryl’ but January 2015 represented the fortieth anniversary of the release of her first single. The anniversaries of such musicians trigger particular flurries of interest in them, and certainly reignited mine in her. I discovered an article from a French youth culture magazine, written in July 1976, headlined ‘Pourquoi Londres veut nous voler Carene Cheryl’ (‘Why London wants to steal Carene Cheryl from us’). Why would London want to steal Carene Cheryl from France? Well. There was a paucity of female Pop Stars in the UK at the time, according to the article: and after the ‘Glory Days’ of the 1960s the UK was desperate to make a few ‘imports’, mostly from France. The article had a point. It made me think about female Pop of that era on the European Continental Mainland in general. Even as someone reasonably well versed in the era’s pop music, I soon realised that here was a huge gap in my knowledge. There might have been little of note happening in late ’60’s to early ’80’s UK female-led pop. But elsewhere in Europe big things were happening: and in Communist-era Czechoslovakia in particular.

 

The Pop scene in the UK of the time (the relatively dire state of the female side notwithstanding) was also characterised by fun in the teeth of hard times. The likes of Bubblegum Pop, Pop-Soul, Ska/Reggae, Glam Pop and Glam Rock lit up the gloom of industrial and social strife, an increasingly troubled economy, fuel crises and the Northern Irish ‘Troubles’. Thus, in a way, when we get tremendously nostalgic for the era’s pop music, we perhaps know all too well the enjoyment it evokes has another darker side: the wider milieu it inhabited and the escape from it that the music provided.

If we thought we were going through hard times, though, we should have taken a look (if only that had been possible!) behind the Iron Curtain.

1968: the ‘Pražské jaro’ (‘Prague Spring’) and the invasion by the Russians that brought Communism with a Human Face under Dubček (1963-68) to an end, and caused Communism generally in Eastern Europe to be viewed in a rather more negative light abroad. I was seven at the time: first becoming conscious of world events and first becoming conscious of the music scene. Words cannot describe the heartbreak that a just-turned-seven-year-old felt for the people on the streets of Prague, and that has never left me: that sense of “just when things could have continued getting so much better, they got a whole lot worse’. But music, even within the sudden intense restrictions placed on people’s freedoms across the Eastern Bloc (and particularly in Czechoslovakia which had been seen by the Soviets as a bastion of Capitalist influence) still, as in the UK, found a way of fighting back.

Although, at that time, song lyrics were subject to some very close scrutiny from the authorities and the Pop scene had to be ultra-careful about what it was saying, maybe the essential spiritedness of the music was the only way in which the youth of the Eastern Bloc could fight back and stay sane.

VC_and_JZ_cropped

Find out where this picture of Valérie Čižmárová was taken in our Top Ten Czechoslovak Female Pop Stars of the ’60’s, ’70’s and early ’80’s: A Definitive Playlist (next up on www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk)

And it was the female Pop from the post-Invasion clampdown of ‘Normalizace’ (‘Normalisation’) that particularly charmed me. The list of names seemed endless. There were several important song festivals and contests of the former Eastern Bloc which could be seen as spawning grounds for the talent that emerged, including Czechoslovakia’s Bratislavská Lýra (Bratislava Lyre) and Děčínská Kotva (Děčín Anchor). Then there was the sultry intrigue of the artists themselves. There was the very Sexy Star of Hungarian Disco, Judit(-h) Szűcs! There was Czech artist Hana Zagorová heralding from the suburb of Petřkovice in Ostrava and her memorable performance on ‘Písničky z kabinetu’ (‘Songs From The Cabinet’), where the video opens with the camera panning up Hana’s incredibly attractive legs! Attention always seems to focus on the ‘Czech’ part of Czechoslovakia which naturally made me angle for artists from the Slovak portion of the country, and to add on to this seductive list, I discovered blonde bombshell Valérie Čižmárová, born like one Andy Warhol in Michalovce and perhaps the most iconic singer not just of the Eastern Bloc but perhaps in the whole world anywhere at that time…

Many of my own early experiences with Eastern Bloc pop from this period was the covers of material of Western origin but their own tune-making was highly impressive too: not to mention the superb orchestras, accompanying groups and backing vocalists that made this a period of music as rich as other aspects of the Eastern Bloc were deprived.

The Top Six of Czech and Slovak Female Pop Stars of the ’60’s, ’70’s and early ’80’s: a Definitive Playlist

As I said, the list of high-profile names associated with Czech and Slovak pop goes on and on – helpfully disseminated by this best-of playlist:

6: Marcela Laiferová (1945-) Sometimes known as the ‘first lady of Slovakia’ because she was the first major star to ever sing in Slovak

5: Eva Sepešiová (1946-) Eva was from Košice

4: Eva Kostolányiová  (1942-1975) Eva was born in Trnava and died, tragically early on in her life, in Bratislava

3: Jana Kocianová (1946-) Go to see her birthplace in the pilgrimage town of Šaštín-Stráže 

2: Helena Blehárová (1943-) Helena was born in Žilina

1: Valérie Čižmárová(1952-2005) Valérie hails from the Michalovce region just like Andy Warhol

Christopher Bentley keeps two blogs dedicated to the music scene described in this article. Girls of the Golden East focuses generally on what can be termed a ‘golden age’ in Czechoslovak pop music (the last 1960’s through to the early 1980’s). Bananas for Breakfast is a fan blog focusing specifically on Valérie Čižmárová.

RELATED POST: Noughties Slovak Pop: Why Jana Kirschner is Great for Slovak Music

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

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

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

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

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

The Main Reasons to Come Out Here…

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

The Abrázna Jasykňa (Abrasion Cave)

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

Sandberg
Sandberg ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Sandberg – Where Bratislava Meets the Sahara!

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

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

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

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

The Sandberg Loop: The Most Dramatic Approach to Devín Castle

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bike/Hike Out to Schlosshof

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

A Final Thought on Practicalities…

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

MAP LINK:

GETTING THERE:

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

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

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

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

RELATED POST: Buying Hiking Maps & Apps

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