blackthorn-1621554_960_7201

Plum madness of Slivovica

One of my favourite libations is Slivovica (pronounced slee-woh-weetza). Absinthe may have a mythological, illegally glamorous reputation all over Europe – but Slivovica is rightfully seen as Slovakia’s plum madness.

The best is aged for years in oak barrels; it smells like molten gold and has a fire that incinerates your taste buds. The very best is distilled from Adriatic plums from the oldest trees along the coast.

Good brandies such as Amice or Karnataka come from Pelion, a town at the heart of Western Slovak’s wine region.

The worst is the un-aged variety sold in the darkest kalians and in back street supermarkets. It’s harsh but does its job.

So, let’s imbibe in a glass or two…

andywarhol

Kosice, a Warhol-ian film of the past and the future

Kosice was like a black and white film as the snow fell heavily from a sky so low it seemed to be held aloft only by the stark bible-black fingers of trees. We’d arrived there after a long road journey from Bratislava.

It was mid-December and at the heart of each tree was a spikey nest of holly.  Winter is as sharp as night and day in this darkly charming city of culture. But winter or summer, night or day this is a dramatic and beautiful place to visit.

In reality Košice is an industrial powerhouse and yet it was picked as Europe’s Capital of Culture in 2013, the reward for years of vision and invention  which has seen art claw its way up from the labyrinths of dissident youth and disaffected Beat Generation wannabes.

But Košice is the epitome of the ancient and modern … on the one hand old buildings have become home to amazing and evocative art installations and the streets are alive with musicians and artists.  There is a permanent exhibition of Andy Warhol’s paintings.

Košice is also still a medieval gem.   Its vast oval-shaped central square boasts the largest collection of historical monuments in the country.  In 1369 Košice was the first city in central Europe to receive a coat of arms and for centuries was the eastern stronghold of the Hungarian kingdom.

The main square should be your first port of call where beautiful flowerbeds surround the central musical fountain near the Victorian State Theatre, the Shire Hall and a number of galleries.

The brooding 14th-century Cathedral of St Elizabeth is Europe’s easternmost Gothic cathedral. It dominates the square.  It’s almost a requirement of your visit to climb the 160 circular stone steps up the church’s tower where the views of the city are stunning.

The underground remains of medieval Košice – lower gate, defence chambers, fortifications and waterways dating from the 13th to 15th centuries – were excavated in 1996 and now visitors can spend hours  in the newly-revealed maze of passages at the south end of the

To the southwest of the city is Kosice international airport with regular flights to many part of Europe. Košice actually has the oldest public transport in Slovakia, dating back to 1891.  In the 1950s the bus finally appeared on the streets and in the 60s trams rumbled in.


 

Courtesy of http://www.consumerwatchfoundation.com/kosice-warhol-ian-film-past-future/

Traditional Slovak Music: Being Showcased Across the Country ©Wipo: photo Emmanuel Berrod

Summer 2017 In Slovakia: A Guide to the Best Events

The weather might have been intimating the fact for a while now, but there’s no denying that midsummer has officially arrived and in Slovakia, this means a season of spectacular festivals. We don’t say this lightly: for a country of just five million people Slovakia’s cultural events pack a whopping great punch. Bratislava and, these days, Košice, are already making their festive clout felt well beyond the borders of Slovakia, but here at Englishman in Slovakia we feel that there are a fair few other celebrations between now and the end of summer you have to know about – and know about in English!

In case you’re new to Slovakia, its unique reach where annual celebrations are concerned is its melding of the best in modern and ancient. Take music for example. I’ve said many times on here that Slovakia’s music scene is formidable – it gets the best of all the big bands performing on tour and for far cheaper prices than almost anywhere else in Europe – but it has also preserved a rich folk culture many other countries have long since dismissed.

Below, then, find the only guide that rounds up Slovakia’s summer extravaganzas from now until autumn (21st September) by region (yes, Bratislava, Western Slovakia, Central/Southern SlovakiaMalá Fatra/Vel’ka Fatra/Orava Valley, High Tatras, Low Tatras, Slovak Paradise and Košice/Eastern Slovakia). Where possible, we’ll also point you in the right direction for getting tickets too…

JUNE

BRATISLAVA…

KONVERGENCIE, JUNE 24TH-SEPTEMBER 24TH

Classical and chamber music performed at various venues around the city – but with a youthful, innovative vibe.

Get Tickets: The festival has a great website with tickets available at Ticketportal through this link. First scroll through the website’s program to find out the title of the event you fancy.

You may also want to read: Our section on entertainment venues in Bratislava.

MALÁ FATRA/VEL’KA FATRA…

FEST ANČA, ŽILINA, JUNE 29TH-JULY 2ND

Europe’s leading animated film fest, held in the cool arts venue of Stanica in hip Žilina.

Get Tickets: Go to the festival website to get tickets or contact them about buying them on the day.

You may also want to read: Žilina: Artsy Gateway to Malá Fatra

HIGH TATRAS…

VYCHODNÁ FOLK FESTIVAL, VYCHODNÁ, JUNE 29TH-JULY 2ND

The little village of Vychodná hosts Slovakia’s most famous folk festival – a great introduction to the fabulous folk music that has been produced in this mountainous region for centuries.

Get Tickets: The festival website now has an English version but tickets cannot be bought online: you can contact the festival organisers or you can just turn up on the day.

You may also want to read: Seeing as one of Slovakia’s best long-distance hikes begins or ends in nearby Pribylina, try Hiking the Tatranská Magistrala, Stage 4: Horský Hotel Popradské Pleso to Pribylina (includes links also to all other stages)

JULY

BRATISLAVA…

SUMMER SHAKESPEARE FESTIVAL, JULY 5th-AUGUST 1ST

Now here is a claim to fame: the oldest, largest outdoor festival in the world to focus on performances of the works of William Shakespeare! It offers a good opportunity to get outside in Bratislava in some of the city’s gorgeous alfresco settings. Performances, held in the wonderfully atmospheric setting of Bratislava Castle, are in Slovak and English.

Get Tickets: Very necessary – this is a popular series of events. The problem is that the website is in Slovak only. However, Shakespeare’s play titles are quite easily recognisable. Hamlet, for example, is ‘Hamlet’ in Slovak too.

You may also want to read: Where to Get High in Bratislava

BEEFREE FESTIVAL, JULY 28TH-JULY 29TH

Edition number 19 of the classic dance music festival across two stages: the city’s ‘beach’ alongside the Danube and at exhibition centre Incheba. House, drum & bass – take your pick.

Get Tickets: It’s free – just turn up. There is an FB page.

You may also want to read: The Forgotten Banks of the Danube OR Getting Out to the Danubiana Arts Museum

WESTERN SLOVAKIA…

POHODA, TRENČIN, JULY 6TH-JULY 8TH

It’s testament to Pohoda’s success that there’s almost no need to introduce what is firmly established as one of Eastern Europe’s main summer music festivals. Everyone who’s anyone in the music world, from Slovakia and elsewhere, and perhaps more importantly, a lot of acts who aren’t so famous yet, have performed here over the years. This time round, acts include Solange (2016’s album of the year) and Jesus and Mary Chain.

Get Tickets: From the festival website.

You may also want to read: Last year was the 20th edition of Pohoda: read Thoughts and Pictures from the 20th Edition of the Festival.

BECKOV CASTLE EVENTS, BECKOV, JULY & AUGUST

A fair few castles act as dramatic backdrops to festivals in Slovakia but our favourite this summer is the castle of Beckov near Trenčin. For medieval-themed frolics there is no better venue – weaponry demonstrations, games and even film screenings.

Get Tickets: Find out all about the events on the castle website, although this year’s events are in Slovak only. July 7th/8th hosts a weekend of medieval fun and demonstrations of 12th-century weaponry. Then there is the Cinema on the Wall event at weekends during July ad August, where films are projected on to the castle – contact the castle for more.

You may also want to read: Our article on Beckov Castle

CENTRAL & SOUTHERN SLOVAKIA…

DETVA FOLK FESTIVAL, DETVA, JULY 6TH-JULY 8TH

A folk fest with themed around the fujara (that is Slovakia’s incredibly distinctive national musical instrument, by the way), as befits the region which gave birth to the fujara. The festival is held in the Detva Ampitheatre, Detva being a little town near Banská Bystrica – right at the very heart of the nation, things DO NOT come much more traditional. Lots of events celebrating Slovakia’s shepherding heritage are also part of proceedings: shepherd demonstrations etc.

Get Tickets: Just turn up. There is a list of events scheduled on the municipality website but booking might be tough as English is not spoken much this far out in the sticks. Pass through here on the days in question, however, and you’ll get to experience one of the most authentic of Slovak folk festivals – even the folk extravaganza at Vychodná will seem mainstream by comparison!

You may also want to read: 39km northwest of Detva is Banská Bystrica, with some fabulous quirky Communist sights.

LIVE CHESS FESTIVAL, BANSKÁ ŠTIAVNICA, JULY 8TH-JULY 16TH

Chess was never more fun! The highlight of this festival is a live chess tournament on a giant board with costumed characters making the moves. And there was never a better setting for it than ancient Banská Štiavnica, where traditional food, drink and dance accompany the chess side of things, in typical old-fashioned venues around town.

Get Tickets: Best to contact the town’s tourist information office for more information – they are helpful and speak alright English.

You may also want to read: Where to begin? We’ve got tons of content on the lovely old town of Banská Štiavnica

HIGH TATRAS…

EL’RO (EUROPEAN FOLK CRAFT FESTIVAL), KEŽMAROK, JULY 7TH-JULY 9TH

This is Slovakia’s (and one of Europe’s) most important folk craft festivals. Held under the lofty High Tatras mountains in beautiful Kežmarok, just a short drive from Poprad, this extravaganza features everything from demonstrations of Slovakia’s Unesco-listed musical instrument the fujara to artisans making the quintessential national craft, the cornhusk figures known as Šúpolienky. Oh, and there is huge quantities of traditional food and booze… and music… and general revelry…

Get Tickets: There is more about the festival on the website – for tickets follow the instructions given on this page too (they’re available at the town’s Tourist Information Centre at Hlavné námestie 64.)

You may also want to read: More on typical Slovak crafts (including Šúpolienky of course).

AUGUST

BRATISLAVA…

SUP MARATHON

The highlight of August in the city of festivals that is Bratislava is surely this open-to-all paddle adventure from Karloveske Rameno on the western side of Bratislava down to the Danubiana Art Museum to the south-east of the city.

Join In: It’s best to contact the guys at Divoká Voda if you want to participate: watching it is free, almost as much fun… (and drier)

You may also want to read: Our piece on canoeing down the Danube!

WESTERN SLOVAKIA…

TRNAVA JAZZ FEST, TRNAVA, AUGUST 4TH-AUGUST 5TH

Bratislava’s jazz festival is possibly better known, but Trnava sports a great Slovak jazz festival too – and this one’s in summer. It’s held in the singular venue of the town ampitheatre. Funk, soul and ethno music are represented as well as jazz.

Get Tickets: The festival website does not have much information; it’s best to purchase tickets from Trnava Tourist Information Office at Trojičné Námestie 1 .

You may also want to read: A Touch of 1920’s Paris at Cafe Thalmeiner

MALÁ FATRA/VEL’KA FATRA…

JÁNOŠIKOVE DNI (JÁNOŠIK’S DAYS), TERCHOVA, AUGUST 3RD-AUGUST 6TH

One of Slovakia’s better-known festivals, this – although still not really that well-known. Terchová is the main town actually within the Malá Fatra National Park and Juraj Jánošik, who hails from the area, is Slovakia’s folk hero (the country’s very own Robin Hood, and one that actually did exist). This festival is in the outlaw’s name and is a celebration of folklore, theatre and folk and world music.

Get Tickets: Get tickets at this link or (if you read Slovak) here is more about the festival on its website.

You may also want to read: Two Short Walks in the Vrátna Valley by Terchova

EASTERN SLOVAKIA…

BARDEJOVSKÝ JARMOK (BARDEJOV FAIR), AUGUST 24TH-AUGUST 27TH

A ‘Jarmok’ roughly translated is a fair – and there are few better chances this summer to experience a classic Eastern Slovak-style fair than this one which sets Bardejov ablaze come the end of August with traditional food stalls and performances. It’s got a drop-dead gorgeous setting (the old town square).

Get Tickets: None needed; just show up in Barejov during these dates!

You may also want to read: Bardejov: Walking the Walls

SEPTEMBER

BRATISLAVA…

CRAFTSMEN DAYS, SEPTEMBER 1ST-SEPTEMBER 3RD

Over 100 different craftsmen showcasing traditional handicrafts from Slovakia, run by the wonderful folk craft centre of Úl’uv.

Get Tickets: When you’re in Bratislava, it’s probably best to pop into the centre itself for information (at least one member of staff speaks English and they’re very friendly, see link right below). The website is notoriously unreliable. You can also just turn up! A good one for families, or for those who can’t make it out to the bigger El’ro (in July in the High Tatras, above) with many free ‘interactive’ events.

You may also want to read: About Bratislava’s centre of folk craft production, Úl’uv

EASTERN SLOVAKIA…

INDIAN SUMMER FESTIVAL, LEVOČA, 8TH SEPTEMBER-12TH SEPTEMBER

Wo! The summer is not over yet, as this high-quality festival of classical music in venues around ornate Levoča show.

Get Tickets: The festival has a good in-English website with contact details for further information on getting tickets for performances

You may also want to read: Our feature on the Indian Summer Festival

Slovak Craft Beer: Grabbing International Attention

Getting thirsty as the hotter weather comes? We don’t blame you.

Traditionally, Slovakia has been better known for its wine. But Slovakia’s craft beer is pretty amazing these days: not only in Bratislava, where there are four or five microbreweries that really stand out, but also in towns across the country from Banská Štiavnica to Poprad to Košice.

A brand new book by the leading travel publisher, Lonely Planet, Global Beer Tour, has now given Slovakia’s brewpubs the recognition they deserve. It has selected the country’s beer scene as one of the 30 around the world most worth talking about. To find out which of Slovakia’s microbreweries made the cut, you’ll have to go to the relevant chapter in the book, written by none other than Englishman in Slovakia’s Luke Waterson! The book is a bible for those of you that love beer and like travelling (most of us, surely?)

A hearty cheers, anyway. It’s always so nice to see Slovakia making a name for itself overseas. And for once, those Czechs have not stolen all of the hop headlines…

marianka4

The Best Ways to Experience Christmas in Slovakia

This is the season to be happy, after all.

Dinky, mountain-backed, frequently snow-blanketed and with a propensity for lighting big crackling log fires or old-fashioned tiled stoves to warm the cockles in the cold months, Slovakia is a great place for a cosy festive getaway. Several German towns, as well as Vienna, tend to steal the show in Central Europe with their well-known traditional festiveness, but the Slovaks can hold their own with their bigger rivals when it comes to Christmassy ambience – and Slovak towns and cities have the bonus that they’re not nearly so crowded at this time of year, so there will be only a fraction of the wait for that mulled wine.

If you’re Slovakia-bound over Christmas or New Year, we’ve made experiencing festive delights a little easier with this oh-so experiential post.

Christmas Markets

As in other Central European countries, Christmas markets are the perfect way to get into the festive spirit (unlike some aspects of Slovak culture, they also have the advantage of being very accessible and easy to indulge in) – serving everything from lokše (traditional potato pancakes oozing with fillings like goose fat) and roast pork through to medovina (Slovak mead), a sour but delicious mulled wine and also lots of amazing handicrafts.

The best Slovak Christmas market is Bratislava’s, spilling over between the richly ornamental central squares of Hlavné and Hviezdoslavovo námestie (see more on Bratislava Christmas Market). The market runs every afternoon/evening until December 22nd this year. Not far away, where Námestie SNP meets Klobučnicka, there is the refurbished Stará Trznica (old marketplace) which is also alive with Christmassy stalls but offers more contemporary, higher-end handicrafts and foods and is patronised by a crowd of young, cool hipster Slovaks. Stará Trznica is open year-round, actually, on Saturdays – and soon we’ll get round to finishing the more detailed post we’ve been preparing on it. For now though, the last market before Christmas is Saturday, December 16th! There is set to be 150 stalls, Christmassy workshops and live music. Get in there!

Another fabulous Christmas market is in the ancient city of Nitra, in Western Slovakia. It’s also held on the central námestie – with stalls arranged in a wide circle around the square: going every afternoon/evening until December 23rd. This market is particularly well known for its gorgeous woven baskets. If you are spending any time in Eastern Slovakia over the festive season, then the go-to Christmas market is in Košice – right along its wide central artery, Hlavná. It’s open a day longer than Bratislava’s Christmas market too: every afternoon/evening until December 23rd.

RELATED POST: Top Ten Classic Slovak Foods

Christmas Shopping

Slovakia maintains a lot of its handicrafts making traditions, and whilst some of these are on show at the Christmas, for some you’ll have to go the extra mile to find the best take-home Christmas gifts. On Englishman in Slovakia, we’ve prepared our Top Ten Slovak Gifts to give you some ideas. Bear in mind Modra for ceramics, the Malé Karpaty towns of Modra, Piešťany and Trnava for getting your hands on some Slovak wine purchased straight from the winemakers (and for sampling some in an idyllic wine bar, why not?), and for general festive loveliness with your seasonal shop, Modra and Trenčín in Western Slovakia, Banská Štiavnica in Central/Southern Slovakia and Bardejov and Košice in Eastern Slovakia.

Christmas Escapes

Slovakia has a lot of spectacular wilderness with traditional wooden houses to hole up in with the snow piled high outside. However, many of the best take a fair amount of insider knowledge, planning and time: putting them beyond the practical reach of many. For this reason we have to concur on this site with the Guardian (who put the city as their number one winter break choice in Europe for 2016/2017) and say Poprad in the High Tatras is a great choice to actually get to the snowy, Christmassy wilderness the quickest. Here is how to fly to Poprad and here is an introduction to the city, from the bottom of which article you can access all our other content on Poprad. From Poprad, you can take the Tatras Electric Railway up into the High Tatras mountains themselves where you are guaranteed snow at this time of year, can stay at a middle-of-nowhere mountain house (yes, they’re mostly open in winter too) and try all manner of wintery sports, including husky riding and skioring!

Best of the rest: where to snow-escape to get festive in Slovakia:

4: Head up above the pretty town of Modra in Western Slovakia to dine at very Christmassy Furmanská Krčma – a log cabin in the snow-covered woods.

3: Check into a lovely characterful guesthouse like Penzión Resla pri Klopacke in Banská Štiavnica – a great place from which to watch this dazzling medieval mining town unfold below you, whilst up in the hills above lie a number of great wintery hikes.

2: The Low Tatras is very snowy from December through to April, so get a fix of the white stuff whilst gazing out on one of the best views in Slovakia from the top of Chopok at Kamenna Chata – then ski back down again on some of Eastern Europe’s best slopes.

1: Undertake the traditional Three Kings (Traji Krali) Day pilgrimage to Marianka from Bratislava on January 6th – Slovakia’s biggest pilgrimage destination, and benefitting from a couple of traditional watering holes to refresh those poor weary pilgrims!

Remember Silvester!

Silvester (New Year’s Eve) is cool (indeed, veritably freezing) in Slovakia too. Celebrations kick off everywhere, but perhaps most tourist-friendly are those in Bratislava – where an ice skating rink is set up in Hviezdoslavovo namestie and fireworks are let off from the banks of the Danube.

Home is Where the Heart is

Christmas or New Year at a Slovak household, of course – should you have the chance to experience it – is by far the best way, if you can wangle it, of indulging in Christmas festivities. The main reason to partake is quite possibly the food: traditional Slovak delicacies way better than the kind on offer in the restaurants become available: all manner of gingerbread sweets in the Christmas run-up along with the most typically festive vianoce (rich fruit cake) and piping hot spiced wine, fish served on Christmas Day itself (celebrations, remember, are on December 24th as in many Catholic countries) and Kapustnica (a divine thick sauerkraut and tomato soup, and the most complex Slovak dish of all) served on Silvester/New Year’s Eve.

The Englishman in Slovakia walks the walls of Bardejov ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Bardejov: Walking the Walls

There’s always an urge when you arrive in a new city to “make your mark” – to go out into the middle of it and make sense of it, somehow. The newly-arrived do this in many different ways, of course. They might climb that city’s tallest building, or ascend to the top of whatever that city’s main viewpoint is: to visualise the place in its entirety, stretching away from smart central blocks to decrepit suburbs. They might go a-wandering down that city’s streets to the main square, or perhaps to its darkest back alley, to have a drink in a notorious bar or cafe and people-watch, and become acquainted with the destination that way.

In Bardejov’s case, the best way to do it is to “walk the walk” of its recently restored town walls.

There are not many towns or cities in Slovakia with their original ancient walls in tact and this, already, propels Bardejov onto the elite list of places to visit. But Bardejov’s walls go a step further even than those of nearby and likewise Unesco-listed Levoča: you can walk them, all the way around the old town, and in so doing patrol the periphery of the country’s most impeccably preserved medieval centre, just as if you were a guard defending against the myriad invaders that once plagued the region.

Bardejov, by way of introduction, squeezes on to most people’s grand tours of Slovakia (if they do a grand tour, that is) despite its out-of-the-way location in the far north-east of the nation (Bratislava-Trenčin-Malá Fatra-High Tatras-Levoča-Spiš Castle-Košice-Bardejov is the classic travel route) and its main allure is its spectacularly maintained 14th- and 15th-century architecture, wrapped around by the afore-mentioned walls. The result is, in our opinion, Slovakia’s prettiest town. Still, though: venture here and you will nevertheless feel like an adventurer, for tourists do not come in the big flocks they do in Western Europe. On my last two visits to Bardejov, I’ve been one of only a handful of foreign visitors – and that in the high season. For such a beautiful town, and to experience it so tourist-free, you would have to travel a very long way on this continent: and what is heartening about Bardejov’s wall walk is the confirmation that the Unesco money is being spent on continuing to conserve the town’s very special heritage.

Bardejov features on our Top Ten Medieval Towns in Slovakia – click the link to find out at which position!

The way to start walking the walls ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The way to start walking the walls ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

It’ll take you around 30 minutes, at a leisurely pace, to walk around the circumference of the walls, best done in a clockwise direction from the main city entry point on the street of Dlhý Rad on the north side, right opposite where the banks are. Ascend the grassy banks via the steps and then turn left to head along a particularly rejuvenated and elevated section (as per the feature image), overlooking the northernmost of the town centre’s burgher’s houses – many of which date to over 500 years of age.

Think of the walls encircling Bardejov as a clock face, with your entry point as 12 o’clock. After the elevated section you’ll drop down to continue on a small cobbled lane passing a couple of bastions, which brings you round to the southern (upper) end of Bardejov’s vast, spectacular central square or námestie, Radničné námestie at about 6 o’clock. Following the wall on around clockwise, you’ll walk via the old monastery, Klaštor Frantiskánov and the adjoining church of Svätého Jána Krstitel’a, before bearing round to the north and the superb Hotel pod Bránou, nestled within the walls three blocks west of the square. It’s here, almost at the end of the circuit of old Bardejov, that you might want to indulge in some refreshments: either in the courtyard dining area of the hotel OR just beyond on the sunken garden area immediately to the northeast around Miškovského, with a cracking good ice cream stand: perfect for sitting and appreciating the refurbishment of the city’s northern bastions, splashed by a lovely fountain (history, THEN food – see what we did there?).

Walls patrolled? It’s time to head the three blocks east from Hotel pod Branou to the set piece of the town, the central square/Radničné námestie: crowned at its northern end by its beautiful cathedral, Bazilika Svätého Egidia.

A Little Historic Overview

Whilst the cathedral on the main square has its origins in the 13th century, the fortification of Bardejov were improved radically in the 14th century (and it is this work which provided the basis for the modern town walls). Most of the houses in the old town were originally erected in the 14th and 15th centuries and by the 16th century, Bardejov had already passed its zenith, with pandemics and a clutch of wars bringing it down to its knees.

Golden age number two could well be right now.

MAP LINK:

GETTING THERE: Getting to Bardejov isn’t as easy as it should be, because it’s on a spur train line. Coming from Bratislava by train (3 trains daily), you’ll have to change at first Kysak and then Prešov, with total journey time 7 hours 30 minutes and total cost 20.30 Euros. Coming from Košice by train (trains every two hours), you’ll have to change at Prešov with total journey time 1 hour 55 minutes and total cost 4.15 Euros. Buses are as frequent and as quick from either city to Bardejov.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Bardejov it’s 35km east to Svidník and one of the world’s most fascinating war museums.

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Slavin War Memorial, Bratislava (far from actually falling down!) ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

In Pictures: A Ludicrous Little Tour Through the Communist Legacy in Slovakia

Is Slovakia one of the easternmost outposts of Western Europe or one of the westernmost of Eastern Europe? During Socialism in Slovakia the answer was certainly the latter. And as a result, Socialist Slovakia became, architecturally, and particularly in Bratislava, something of a showcase for the Brutalist architecture that defined the Eastern Bloc: a “look-what-we-can-do” brag to the West. The results? Some of the strangest Brutalist buildings you ever will see…

More on Slavín and Most SNP: Where to Get High in Bratislava

More on Petržalka: Petržalka‘s New Tram Link, Getting to Danubiana the Cool Way, The Forgotten Banks of the Danube

More on the Slovak Radio Building: Inside Bratislava’s Upside-Down Pyramid

More on Banská Bystrica: Free-running Around Banská Bystrica, Uncovering the Beauty of Brutalism in Banská Bystrica

More on Štrbské Pleso: The High Tatras Mountain Resorts: Štrbské Pleso, Mountain Lakeshore Dining at Štrbské Pleso

Slavin War Memorial, Bratislava (far from actually falling down!) ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Slavin War Memorial, Bratislava (far from actually falling down!) ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Petržalka, Bratislava: one of Eastern Europe's largest Communist housing complexes ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Petržalka, Bratislava: one of Eastern Europe’s largest Communist housing complexes ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Most SNP, Bratislava: with a UFO on top ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Most SNP, Bratislava: with a UFO on top ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Slovak Radio Building, Bratislava ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Slovak Radio Building, Bratislava ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Museum of the SNP, Banská Bystrica ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Museum of the SNP, Banská Bystrica ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The Panorama Resort at Štrbské Pleso in the High Tatras ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The Panorama Resort at Štrbské Pleso in the High Tatras ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

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…

The pavement cafe scene of Kosice at Republika Východu ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Košice: Republika Východu

We have been featuring a lot of cuisine-related articles on the site of late. But there is a pertinent reason for that: Slovakia has come on leaps and bounds in gastronomic terms these last two or three years, and keeping tabs on the rapidly-developing food scene is a bit like keeping tabs on wildly escalating share prices. But we do keep tabs, on Englishman in Slovakia. What seems incredible, looking back, is that it’s taken us so long to feature what could claim to be one of the restaurants that spearheaded the country’s pincer movement of stylish new dining possibilities (certainly as far as the east is concerned).

Ah yes. The east. Republika Východu means the “republic in the east” – a reference to Košice’s long-standing proud rivalry against, and independence from Bratislava, one the one hand. But there’s another way of interpreting that, at this coolly sophisticated bistro in the shadow of Dóm svätej Alžbety, the city’s hugely impressive cathedral: and that’s as a bastion of great, original, delicious food, served with utter professionalism.

Indeed it can seem, in a sense, that Republika Východu is the reason to come to Košice. Not only does it offer tables on the Hlavná ulica, the city’s wide, oval-shaped central square, but these tables virtually brush the cathedral walls. They do not simply offer the so-so coffee and uninspiring cakes  they could get away with, they offer the city’s best coffee (there are up a couple of other contenders to this coveted title admittedly), and an innovative menu throughout the day. Spilling out right into the main thoroughfare, Republika Východu also has great people watching. And the staff don’t seem to mind if you linger (which most punters seem to want to do).

Feta and avocado salad with sun-dried tomatoes ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Feta and avocado salad with sun-dried tomatoes ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

I had, on this occasion, an hour in Košice before taking a train further east. Friends in Bratislava with somewhat discerning tastebuds had already told me on several occasions that in terms of decent daytime food, this was the place to head in the city centre, so I was able to make a beeline straight there. Even so, time was fairly tight, but the waitresses that served me rendered the experience a delight, telling me their recommendations from the salad menu, hurrying the kitchen along because they were aware I was in a rush, and despite having twenty or more outside tables to attend, exchanging pleasantries along the way.

I opted for a feta and sun-dried tomato salad, presented on a bed of succulent grilled vegetables, but variations with proscuitto, caramelised nuts and – perhaps most interestingly – a fig and goat’s cheese salad were also on the menu for between 7 and 9 Euros. They make for really filling lunches, too: you won’t require anything further to munch on. Although the siri z vychodu (cheese from the east) with that Czechoslovak delight hermalin (a kind of white cheese with onion and pickles combined into it) as well as mozzarella and Parmesan, all drizzled in olive oil and dished up with sun-dried tomatoes and rocket  Some of the more radical desserts include a quinoa, buckwheat and yoghurt blend available with fruit compote and chocolate: part of an extensive ‘healthy grains’ menu.

I sat outside, but on a less clement day it’s equally pleasurable to hang out at inside. The spacious interior is vaulted, with bare stone walls, subtle lighting and a total mix of seating, from rough wooden tables to armchairs to perching stalls by the windows. There is something, in all this, demonstrating a concerted effort to give all comers an agreeable experience. But this bistro never lets you forget its overriding theme, which is stamped throughout – even down to the menus, which are written in Eastern dialect Slovak – that Republika Východu is proudly, defiantly unique.

 

A Quick Guide to the Other Content We Have on Košice

Places to Go: Climbing Košice cathedral

Places to Go: Unsung charms and legends: insights into Košice city centre

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

Getting Around: Košice’s flight connections

Getting Around: Quirky Košice city tours

Musings: The Definition of ‘Discussed’

 

MAP LINK: (coming straight from the railway station along Mlynská, you essentially hit the cathedral, hang a left and you’re there: absolutely unable to miss it).

OPENING: 8am-11pm Monday to Thursday, 8am to midnight Friday and Saturday, 8am to 10pm Sunday

BEST TIME TO VISIT: Early to mid-way through a sunny afternoon once the lunch rush is over and seats outside are easy to come by.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Republika Východu, why not continue RIGHT into the east proper with a visit 120km northeast to the Andy Warhol Museum at Medzilaborce

©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.

©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.

The Art Film Festival in its old home in Trencianske Teplice

Košice: Slovakia’s Famed Film Festival Flying In Its Second Year in Town

Košice’s intimidatingly impressive arts scene just keeps growing (it’s already so big that we have quietly admitted to ourselves here at Englishmaninslovakia that one article would no longer do it justice). The arrival in June 2016, of one of Eastern Europe’s most important film festivals, Art Film Fest, might have been huge news, but it’s equally big news that it’s going from strength to strength in the city too, with 2017’s edition of the festival highlighting it really is a permanent (and well-received) fixture in the city events calendar now.

Of course, this news is all the more significant because the festival was already significant. It’s a festival as old as Slovakia, in fact – founded in 1993 as a showcase of contemporary film to promote awareness of groundbreaking cinema in this part of the continent. The festival rapidly soared up to become, behind Karlovy Vary Film Festival in the Czech Republic, the second-most important film festival in the entirety of Eastern Europe. It’s necessary to remember the precedent when this fact is mentioned. What had come before 1993 was fifty years of a stifling repression in the arts scene hereabouts (no need to utter the “C” word): Art Film Fest really was one of the primary mediums through which the world finally got to see what Slovak film could do and through which Slovaks got to see what world film could do.

Jeremy Irons at Art Film Fest - photo by Radovan Stoklasa

Jeremy Irons at Art Film Fest – photo by Radovan Stoklasa

The festival’s much-loved home became Trenčiankse Teplice, the delightful little spa town outside Trenčin in Western Slovakia. But despite garnering plenty of international clout (celebrated Slovak director Juraj Jakubisko and Roman Polanski among those who attended), limited capacity was the main issue at the venue – hence why Košice stepped in from 2016 to become the festival’s new base.

So there we have it. The 25th annual Art Film Fest kicked off (as all subsequent Art Film Fests are planned to) in Košice, a natural location given the city’s renaissance as an arts Mecca. 2017 festival dates were June 16th to June 24th – 2018 dates have yet to be announced.

Kosice by night

Kosice by night

 

A Quick Guide to the Other Content We Have on Košice

Places to Go: Climbing Košice cathedral

Places to Go: Unsung charms and legends: insights into Košice city centre

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’

Trains: Regiojet – Too Good to be True?

Until recently, ZSSK, the state-owned Slovak train company, ran all train routes in Slovakia. This was not a wholly bad thing, because as monopolies go, this was a pretty fair one, with reasonable prices for train travel nationwide, and several notable efforts of recent years to step up quality (the introduction of smart new two-tier trains to run many routes, the introduction of wifi on the IC train routes between Bratislava and Košice). BUT.

But competition is always healthy, and competition has finally been provided by the expansion of Czech-owned Regiojet into Slovakia. Actually, RegioJet have been operating on Slovak turf since 2011 (when they began running the Bratislava to Komarno route). But it was their additional routes added in 2014 which captured people’s attention, because that was when they began operating some trains on the main railway route in Slovakia – from Bratislava through Poprad to Košice.

We recently caught up with one of Slovakia’s leading tour operators, Erik Ševčík of Adventoura, who lives in Poprad in the High Tatras and welcomes the new service.

“I have done the journey between Bratislava and Poprad Tatry several times now” says Erik. “It takes three and a half hours, which is the same as the IC Trains. Why do we welcome the RegioJet service? Well, the first big thing is the ticket price: as little as 9 Euros one-way for a 350km journey. This is for the most basic category, standard class (in 6-person compartments usually), but this is still very comfortable – and there is also relax class and business class for those who want something more. Second, even in standard class, you get mineral water or coffee for free, plus a complementary newspaper. Third, everyone likes free Wifi and RegioJet has that too. It’s just a pleasure to travel with them, and the state-run trains for the same journey cost around 13 Euros and don’t have these kind of services.”

The seats also deserve a mention: leather, reclining and with comfy arm rests, as well as small tables and plenty of leg room. They actually beat those on a great deal of airlines. Relax Class and Business Class get even more comfort (mainly the space per person, the comfort of the seats and the table space improve).

“In Slovakia we think they are doing a great job” says Erik “not just for Slovaks, but also for travellers.”

Your next trip east in Slovakia, it seems, could certainly be in more style… and for a cheaper price.

Košice: Fairytale Breakfast

I’m not (for once) using artistic licence. Raňajkáreň Rozprávka means just that: a fairytale breakfast joint. This cute little brunch stop on the back streets of Košice even invented the word “raňajkáreň” – as a cukráreň serves cakes, is the idea, so a raňajkáreň specialises in breakfasts. Good breakfasts. This place, in fact, gives itself over utterly to breakfast (although it stays open until 8pm). If this is the birth of a new craze in Slovakia, so be it – although I rather think that Raňajkáreň Rozprávka is likely to hold the monopoly on the concept. Because the plethora of original breakfast options they offer (and the atmosphere in which they offer them) begs the question “why, if you want a breakfast fix in Košice, would you go anywhere else?”

We arrived on a hot Friday afternoon when Raňajkáreň Rozprávka was in the process of making itself that little bit more enticing to passersby: laying turf on the alleyway outside the main entrance so that you’re effectively walking across a small field as you walk passed the door. And who doesn’t want to stop off for coffee or cake in a small field in the middle of a city?

Raňajkáreň Rozprávka is half-way down the quirky little alleyway of Hrnčiarska, which has been in recent years converted into a series of traditional handicrafts shops (a potter’s, a jeweller’s etc). It’s already a step back in time. Enter the environs of this “raňajkáreň” and you’ll think yourself properly in another world of fantasy breakfasts – where combinations of almost anything go: particularly the freshly-squeezed juices (nicely rounded off with a dose of cinnamon). Add then the breakfasts themselves (fresh vegetable or fruit salads, cheese plates and of course the muffins and cakes) and finally the decor (surreal fairy-tale city inside, and a serene little street cafe garden outside, not to mention the corridor of books on the way to the toilets) and you have, quite simply, Košice’s most out-of-this-world breakfast joint. The coffee is a cut above anything you would get on the bigger restaurants on the main square too.

Given they’ve gone out of the way to make this a breakfast place it’s perhaps surprising they stay open as long as they do (because all the customers come in the morning/early afternoon for brunch). But Raňajkáreň Rozprávka makes this little street more special; special enough that you might just end up preferring it as a place to hang to the main square – yes, even though you won’t be next to the musical fountain.

A Quick Guide to the Other Content We Have on Košice

Places to Go: Climbing Košice cathedral

Places to Go: Unsung charms and legends: insights into Košice city centre

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: 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: (The address is Hrnčiarska 17)

OPENING: 7:30am-6pm Monday to Friday, 9:30am-4pm on weekends

BEST TIME TO VISIT: Lazy late morning at a weekend for brunch

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Raňajkáreň Rozprávka it’s 500m southwest to Košice Cathedral

LAST UPDATED: April 2017

img_1129-2

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.

Košice: Climbing the Cathedral

When I am newly arrived in a town I do one of two things. I might look for a cafe or restaurant, nothing fancy, ideally a bustling joint where locals slurp away on coffee or wolf down cheap but good set-lunches without ceremony, a place where no one really cares who the stranger at the corner table might be, a place where you can sit unhassled an hour or so – order something simple and imbibe. I might do that. Otherwise, I’ll go searching for that town’s high point, a place to survey it all from and get bearings, a place to relish the state of having ARRIVED rather than being in the uncertain, draining state of GETTING THERE.

When you are in Slovakia’s big eastern metropolis of Košice, clambering to the top of the main church, Dóm svätej Alžbet, or St Elizabeth’s Cathedral is the best way of fulfilling arrival strategy 2.

Built between the 14th and 16th centuries, this is an impressive building: it’ll make Bratislava’s St Martin’s Cathedral seem tame in comparison. The accolades and the stat-breakers pile up: Slovakia’s most elaborately decorated church, Slovakia’s biggest church… More striking even than the Gothic decor is, as far as the interior is concerned, the double-spiral staircase, with two intricately intertwined sets of steps in opposing directions.

But, the frescoes, sculptures and crypts of the interior are not the focus of this post. Plenty of info exists on each painting and stage of the cathedral’s development. Obviously (you may have guessed) this post is about climbing up to the top of the north tower for a view over the city that rivals the viewing gallery of the UFO in Bratislava for Slovakia’s best city vista – and at considerably less cost.

Whether someone is there to collect your entrance fee or not at all is a bit of an uncertainty. Usually, it’s some old, bent lady who awakes from her catatonic stupor to croak out about the tons of gold and other jewels used on the roof. She’ll collect the 1.50 Euro entrance fee if she’s there, but try the heavy-set door (just to the left of the entrance to the main cathedral) in any case: it will often yield!

The steps are incredibly steep and worn with the heavy footfalls of yore as you ascend to several antechambers and, above, the bell tower itself.   Above the bell chamber again and you come across the fascinating display on the hlaznice – the city guardians who, in centuries gone by, tarried up here for hours and even days to watch out over the city perimeter for would-be foes on the approach.

Up an even steeper flight of stairs and then, via a wooden ladder, you come out on the flimsily-fenced-in peak of the north tower. Round-the-clock views out across the city and the hills beyond unfurl before you.

And? And pictures often impart more of a story than words ever can…

 

A Quick Guide to the Other Content We Have on Košice

Places to Go: Unsung charms and legends: insights into Košice city centre

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’

Kosice from the cathedral, by englishmaninslovakia

Kosice from the cathedral, by englishmaninslovakia

The Cathedral roof, by englishmaninslovakia (after a giddying lurch out over a hole in the

MAP LINK OPENING: 1pm to 5pm Monday, 9am to 5pm, Tuesday to Friday, 9am to 1pm Saturday

ADMISSION: 1.50 euros.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: Imbibe some of the other sights of Košice or head 76km north to Hervatov to begin exploring some of Eastern Slovakia’s wonderful wooden churches

 

kosicepark

Košice: The City’s “Eco” Hotel

Mestsky Park, photo by ketmonkey

I’m not a big fan of always posting pictures of rooms when it comes to describing accommodation. The hotel has to be pretty stunning for the picture of its beds to look good.

That’s the thing with “Eco” Hotel Dalia. It’s nice enough; some would say very nice. Its location, near the lovely leafy Mestský Park in Košice, is a good one (see pic) – convenient to the train station yet also peaceful.

But it’s harder to capture its other charms. Its courtyard approach is part-bedecked by flowers and a fountain but it’s also given over to a large, un-decorated parking area (despite the hotel blurb about encouraging guests’ use of public transport). Its reception area has beautiful plants draping over it from an upstairs balcony but the somewhat sour-faced staff detract from that. As for the rooms, website pictures suggest boutique (and some are) but our “economy-quality” room looked no more exceptional than any standard pension offering.

This Eco Hotel certainly came into the Košice accommodation game with noble enough ideas, I would have said. But as the few years since its opening have passed, those ideas are more and more on paper rather than in practice.

“Economy quality” really says it all. Eco Hotel Dalia obviously desires to be regarded as upper-end. But it’s found a lot of clever ways to get away with saying that without providing upper-end service. Take the list of “eco” practices supposedly carried out by the hotel in order to justify its name. “Dual flush” buttons on the toilets? I think almost every hotel in Slovakia could offer that. Taps set on “eco” mode. They were no different to the taps in almost every Slovak hotel bathroom I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing. Take the wellness facilities. The sauna was not working when we were there; “under construction” until the autumn. Take the welcome drinks served on arrival. They weren’t offered to us. And I am always dubious of a “3.5” star hotel. In this case, if in doubt round down to the nearest whole number rather than up.

We slept well. The rooms are very large for the price. And those not in the main building, if less interestingly decorated, do have little private courtyards bedecked by plants. There was just not one characterful, unique thing to say about the accommodation. And I am pretty verbose when I want to be.

The breakfast is actually very very good. A variety of different cakes and pastries, piles of fruit, the ever-delectable “hemendex” (ham and eggs) and a platter of cheeses. Although the juice was not fresh (I expect that in an eco hotel) and the coffee ushered forth, lacklustre, out of a vending machine. The outside courtyard tables get a few guests partaking of drinks on a summer’s afternoon. The restaurant just inside though, despite looking nice enough, was always deserted during our stay (and was on my previous visit) – which perhaps tells you all you need to know.

This “vacillating” between standards – this talk of relative luxury when the evidence of such luxury was found gravely wanting – makes me look back on my stay the other week at Hotel Dalia (add “Eco” on the beginning if you wish) in a rather ambivalent way. On the one hand, it offers pretty good accommodation near to Košice’s transport hubs in a serene spot within a 10-minute walk of the centre, and would be on any list of top ten Košice hotels. On the other hand, it charges the prices of a middle-to upper-end hotel and doesn’t back that up with the facilities – and could be so much better. If it advertised itself as a pension (standard guesthouse) I wouldn’t be so hard on it. But it advertises itself as an elegant, alternative type of hotel. And it’s not.

 

A Quick Guide to the Other Content We Have on Košice

Places to Go: Climbing Košice cathedral

Places to Go: Unsung charms and legends: insights into Košice city centre

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

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:

PRICES: 3* double from 74 Euros, 4* double from 94 Euros. Singles are from 59 Euros for 3* and 79 Euros for 4* accommodation. There’s one suite too (109 Euros). Prices are 5 Euros cheaper on Friday/Saturdays. These prices are correct as of 2017. The breakfast described is included in the price.

LAST UPDATED: April 2017

BOOK ECO HOTEL DALIA

 

ArtForum’s Slovak Movies (Film)

Just a shout-out, really, this post: Bratislava is full of these labyrinthine old streets that, in and around the Old Town and Castle area, secrete serendipitous bars, cafes, galleries and shops.

On a cool, crisp night last night we were wandering in the streets just below the castle and chanced upon a place we’d seen before but not ever entered: the ArtForum, a bookshop-cum-cafe which is actually represented in a few of the larger towns across Slovakia.

The main point of the ArtForum is in its great collection of proudly avant-garde Czech and Slovak writing, Slovak music and Slovak film.

Here you’ll find editions of Samo Chalupka poetry or Milan Kundera novels that you just won’t find elsewhere. It also has, of course, a great selection of international authors represented. It’s also one of the few places in Bratislava that sells records (the city is just waking up to the fact that they’re popular again). Plus there’s a little cafe at one end selling good jams and wine as well as coffee and cake.

But it’s the film selection that was actually most interesting for me. Here is perhaps the best array of Slovak and old Czechoslovak movies anywhere in the city centre, for actually purchasing at least. There are all the classics by Slovakia’s most renowned director, Jakubisko, like The Millennium Bee, Báthory and Perinbaba (which although well known in Slovakia are, for most outsiders, an eyeopening introductions to the wonders of Slovak cinema). Then there was one of my personal favourite Slovak movies, Ruzove Sný (Pink Dreams) which is a groundbreaking portrayal of how the Roma are viewed in Slovakia. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg. My girlfriend got very excited about Panna Zázračica (which we bought; it’s an adaptation of a book by Dominic Tatarka who is one of Slovakia’s most important 20th century writers). Oh, and they have copies of The Wolf Mountains, the Slovak wildlife documentary I’ve been raving about recently, as well.

But for anyone trying to understand a little bit more about Slovak cinema, this is the place to begin trying.

MAP

Plus check out ArtForum’s other locations in Žilina and Košice

tokaj1

The Tokaj Wine Cellars of the Far East: Drinking Like a King

Mmm. Culinary adventures. What better way to explore than one which has as its motive the discovery of a food or drink? I don’t just say this for my own palate’s sake. In a country I care about, it is also a beautiful thing to see a product flourishing which is a distillation of the land – of its peculiar soil, of its history. Scotland has whisky. France has cognac. Portugal has porto. Slovakia has its Tokaj wine.

Before we get started, it’s Tokaj. Not Tokaji like the Hungarians spell the region. Not Tokay, as the word usually gets Anglicised. No: Tokaj is the Slovak wine region. And I’m going to be honest: I’m writing this not purely because I heartily recommend a trip to this little-known viticultural region of Slovakia, but also to redress the unfair balance of online content that praises Hungarian Tokaji and dismisses or ignores Slovak Tokaj.

Slovak Tokaj vs Hungarian Tokaj

Cluster of Fermint grapes ready for making Tokaj ©andrs.kovacs

Cluster of Fermint grapes ready for making Tokaj ©andrs.kovacs

Just because this rather unique wine first shot to prominence whilst Slovakia was part of the Hungarian Kingdom, don’t be fooled into thinking Hungary’s Tokaji wine is the superior product and Slovak Tokaj just a humble cousin.  Far from it. The historic Tokaji-Tokaj wine region here encompasses territory in Hungary AND Slovakia. True, the Hungarians are better at promoting the wine on their side of the border to an international market (and at promoting Hungarian Tokaj as superior on online articles), but that’s also because the Slovaks are quite happy keeping their Tokaj to themselves – much like the Cubans don’t export much of their very best tobacco.

As for the taste, I’ve tried Tokaj in Hungary and in Slovakia. I’ve visited Tokaj wineries in both countries. And what becomes clear is that saying one country’s Tokaj is better and one is worse evidently boils down to territorial rivalry. Hungarians are angry Slovakia “took” part of “their” Tokaj region following the Treaty of Trianon after WW1 (their anger is intensified because Malá Trňa and Vel’ka Trňa, the villages on the Slovak side, are often able to produce better cibéba, the botrytised grapes that as you will see below are crucial to the Tokaj process). Slovaks are angry with the Hungarians for having subjugated them for the best part of 1000 years, and for having set foot on what was Slavic soil in the first place. When it comes to Tokaj – in fact when it comes down to it full stop – the arguments can run both ways with equal validity and are to an extent pointless. The fact is that Hungary and Slovakia now share the historic Tokaj wine region, and Tokaj wines in both countries have geographically protected designation of origin status.

It’s also true that certain Slovak Tokaj’s can out-trump the more numerous Hungarian Tokaji wines. In Hungary, the Tokaji wine region is much bigger. The wineries themselves are usually larger, and more commercially-focussed or business-minded, and also concentrate on producing more dry white wines (it is the amber-coloured Tokaj which, as you will see in the next section, is such a distinguished product in world terms, but this is also sells less than white wines). In Slovakia, Tokaj is still a niche product. It’s produced in far smaller quantities: sometimes just for family, friends and the odd passer by. Most of the little cellars therefore can concentrate on producing Tokaj Vyber (the afore-mentioned amber nectar-wine) because they’re not so concerned with getting their wines on restaurant tables.

There are two more major differences between Slovak Vyber Tokaj and Hungarian Tokaj Aszu (its cross-border equivalent):

1: Foreign investment: Hungarian Tokaj has seen a lot of French firms taking control of wineries. This has had positive consequences (more money to spend on latest technology methods, for example, and making the wineries more tourist-friendly) but it’s also meant a modernising of the brand. Slovak Tokaj (much less foreign investment) has remained more concerned with traditional methods of production that date back centuries (although Hungarians will claim this is Slovak Tokaj not adhering to certain standards).

2: Cibeby: It’s a little-known fact but cibeby (those sweet rotted grapes) just often seem to flourish more on the Slovak side. This (along with the older cellars that have acquired far more of the black mould on their walls that is essential for a rounded Tokaj taste) means Slovak Tokaj has a nuanced pungent aroma.

At the end of the day, of course it would be best to visit wineries on both the Slovak and Hungarian sides and make up your own mind! Just don’t listen to one side telling you the other side isn’t worth bothering with!

What’s So Special About Tokaj?

Before you make the somewhat epic (at least by Slovak standards) trek out here you should know how special – indeed elusive – is the object of your quest.

In truth, whether it hails from Hungary or Slovakia, Tokaj is a pretty singular drink – already distinguished from most other wines by its distinct amber colour. It’s a desert wine – and quite sweet, but also with a richness desert wines often lack. But it’s how it acquires that taste which sets it out from the overwhelming majority of other wines.

Tokaj grapes get picked only when the vines have been attacked by mould (which the famously moist climate and volcanic soil hereabouts encourages) and have begun to rot.  It’s a bacteria which visits the Tokaj vineyards only sporadically. And when it does, the viticulturists are on hand to convert it into one of Slovakia’s most specialty products – with Protected Designation of Origin status. The mould-attacked grapes called cibéba are fashioned into varying concentrations of sugarry paste (distinguished on a scale of “putňa” between 1 and 6, with 6 being sweetest and strongest) and determine the  sweet, pungent taste of Tokaj.

To reiterate, bigger vineyards – such as the Tokaji wineries in Hungary possess – can navigate the problem of sporadic production periods by the extent of the vines they’re harvesting. Most of Slovakia’s Tokaj wineries are small-scale: which means no fixed quantities can be produced and therefore international buyers are rarely interested: this all serves to underscore the eclectic nature of their product.

Tokaj...

Tokaj…  ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

 

A Sweet History Lesson

Tokaj wine production goes back several centuries, and involves famous names a-plenty. Charles III of Hungary safeguarded the area as a protected wine-growing region in the 18th century – although wine had been produced here long before that. King Louis XV of France served them to his mistress. Beethoven and Goethe refer to Tokaj in their works.  Perhaps the uniquest thing about the wine, in fact, is that the cellars where it matures were originally 16th- and 17th-century (some still earlier) defences against invading Turks: underground labyrinths these days thick with the aroma of fermenting grapes.

Visiting Slovakia’s Tokaj Cellars

This post was in fact prompted by the fact that there was almost no practical information on how to visit the Tokaj wine cellars of far-eastern Slovakia. Slovaks, despite being incredibly self-depracating at times, have a more or less universal quiet pride for their Tokaj, but there’s very much an “it’s there, and we’re happy if only we know about it” attitude that prevails when it comes to visiting the places where their product is made.

Even in the tourist information in Košice, from where a trip to Tokaj terrain commences, they’re hardly forthcoming with details. They’d sooner divert you to one of  the city’s wine bars – and whilst Košice does have several of these, this is not the matter in hand.

Essentially, whilst there is in fact a little-touted Tokaj wine route which takes in several of the villages with cellars (namely Slovenské Nové Mesto, Malá Tŕňa, Veľká Tŕňa, Viničky, Čerhov, Černochov and Bara) this is even more challenging to find good information on than the Malé Karpaty (Small Carpathians) wine route. Wine routes are also impractical, remember, if the distances between the stop-offs require a drive. The best idea with the Tokaj wine cellars is to go and stay overnight in the most atmospheric of the wine-producing villages, Malá Tŕňa (or failing that nearby Veľká Tŕňa). These last two are both part of the historic Tokaj region (Slovakia has extended its Tokaj region, and the wines there are still often very good, but Malá Tŕňa and Veľká Tŕňa have that little bit more historic soul.

MAP LINK: (for Malá Tŕňa).

GETTING THERE: An unusually long Getting There section, thanks to the below:

Malá Tŕňa is pretty much 100% devoted to winemaking – and has been for centuries. If you are not travelling around Slovakia with your own car then there is a nice way to get here by public transport.

Hop on one of the ponderous, battered old trains that shunt about every two hours from Košice down to the town of Slovenské Nové Mesto (also a winemaking town but less attractive) on the border with Hungary. Walk back up the long straight road running out of town to the first bend. A little-used lane forks right. Take it, and follow this route cross-country through rolling farmland with vineyard-carpeted slopes sliding into view as you pass the hamlet of Karolov Dvor and wind up on the shady main road (appropriately named Tokajská) of Malá Tŕňa. I personally enjoyed this way of arriving as you get to see more of the “winescape” and work up a thirst in the process. It was a scalding summer day on my last visit here, and I was craving the cellar cool by the time I arrived…

As you enter the village, the proper “wine” street (Medzipivničká) is on the left. You’ll see the Greek-style mural in celebration of viticulture and then the Tolkien-esque pitched, grass-roofed stone huts built into the earth which mark the entrance to the cellars themselves…

WHICH WINERY?:  Within Malá Tŕňa, there are several wineries to choose from. All offer similar degustation experiences for $10-15 Euros. You descend 10 metres underground (it’s cold down here – a more or less constant temperature year-round – you’ll need a jacket) into a network of underground passages and antechambers that would be incredible to explore even if there wasn’t a drop of alcohol stashed within.

As it is, these endearing labyrinthine buildings are packed to the gills with wine. You’ll see the cosily-lit cellars stacked with wine, with the characteristic bubble-like black mould encasing the walls and many of the bottles. You’ll sit down and be taken through the history of Tokaj (far more in depth and fascinating than any blog post could hope to be) and then you’ll get a long and drawn-out tasting session, generally beginning with the weakest and ending in the nectar-like grade 6 vintage.

The only difference between these tours is that some of the more popular ones can have bigger groups, making the experience less personal.

That said, on the day we made enquiries about visits, none of the wineries – even the biggest – had any visitors at all. This worked to our disadvantage, because to a group of just two, most wineries thought it wasn’t worth opening up (they wanted a 4-person minimum to bother). In the end it was the smallest winery of the lot (a family who had just one cellar and who had been winemakers for generations – the details on these guys will follow in the next day or so) who we found most accommodating – and delivered a beautifully personal experience whereby the owner was happy to chat for a good couple of hours about the complexities of the winemaking process.

WHICHEVER winery you opt to visit (and of course you can visit multiple cellars, but remember that at a minimum of six sizeable glasses of Tokaj per degustation, you might not wish to navigate too many sets of steep, slippery steps) you do need to BOOK IN ADVANCE. Ideally a minimum of 24 hours before, and to be safe two or three days before. It also helps if you go in a group – many small wineries may not offer tours just to one person on their own, and require four-person minimum groups.

WINE CELLAR TOURS/TASTINGS:

– Tokaj Macik Winery – they offer 6-, 10- or 15-glass tastings (the latter the supposedly “complete” degustation) – prices range from 10 to 30 Euros per person.

– Ostrozovic Winery – this is based in Vel’ka Tŕňa (the next village)  – 6-, 10- or 15-glass tastings with a “bonus” tasting on each cost 12.30, 19.90 or 32.90 Euros. They also have accommodation. 16 glasses in, you may need it.

So there you go. Enjoy.

STAY OVER: Tokaj Macik winery in the village of Malá Tŕňa came up with the bright idea of letting its wine-sozzled visitors crash at their place. There’s eight good, spacious modern rooms here, plus a bar serving more of that Tokaj and wifi. Prices for a single/double are 48/58 Euros.

GALLERY: (courtesy of Around Guides)

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: 58km northwest of Malá Tŕňa is the fabulous city of Košice centred by Košice Cathedral

WANT TO KNOW MORE ABOUT SLOVAK WINE? SO WHAT NEXT?

–  Our post on Open Cellar Days when you can go round sampling the wines of the Malé Karpaty (Small Carpathians) Wine Route willy-nilly,

– Our posts on Slovakia’s other big wine region, Malé Karpaty (Small Carpathians) around Bratislava: on visiting Limbach, the prettiest of these wine-producing villages and on the tasting events put on by various Malé Karpaty wineries

– Our post on the fine wines produced around Chateau Topoľčianky

– Our post on Slovakia’s ten most quintessential food and drinks

– A little bit more info on different types of Tokaj… and a little bit more about general Slovak winemaking

A link to Lonely Planet’s Wine Trails where you can read my chapter on the Slovak/Hungarian wine region of Tokaj.

NB: this is one of our pages which is constantly in a state of flux – check back for updates on Tokaj wine cellar tours and particularly good bottlings :)

Slovakia’s Wooden Churches: Four of the Easiest to Visit

Ladomirová Wooden Church ©englishmaninslovakia.com

Ladomirová Wooden Church ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

On this site, we like to believe we dedicate ourselves 100% to the bizarre, the off-the-beaten-track and the profound where Slovakia is concerned: we wouldn’t want you to be reading on here what you can Google elsewhere, after all. But for some reason writing about Slovakia’s most unique attraction of all (which is fairly bizarre, very off-the-beaten-track and profound, in a simple, solemn kind of way) has until now escaped us…

Maybe that is because of this: many readers will already be familiar with Slovakia’s outstanding collection of wooden churches. Their reputation does indeed precede them. Castles and mountains in Slovakia are incredible, but abundant – and many countries can also boast good castles and mountains. But…

Slovakia’s Uniquest Attraction?

But the wooden churches are – at least where Europe is concerned – a far more niche thing. They are consigned to a remote area along the borders of far-northeastern Slovakia, southern Poland and western Ukraine. Slovakia’s wooden churches are Unesco-listed – a testimony to where western Christianity meets more eastern religious persuasions (the 27 churches scattered through the remote countryside here represent Catholic, Protestant and Greek Catholic Faiths). The striking aspect of each is that they are put together without a single piece of metal: not even a nail. The fine interior decoration looks as gold and silver as the real thing – but once again, it is wood. These masterful works of architecture were built in the 17th- to 19th centuries, and each one is singular in its design. We leave this site to go into more detail – which it does better than any other on the web – it is not the purpose of this post, as we have said, to rewrite what is written elsewhere.

But the reality with most of the wooden churches is that they are hard to find (rarely, if ever signposted), in remote rolling countryside far from major public transport connections and only open by appointment (the appointment is generally made through the designated key-keeper, of which there is one per church, usually some old babka who will not speak any language other than Slovak). And so – to those with limited time and no wheels of their own – Slovakia’s uniquest attraction remains frustratingly off limits.

Fortunately, a handful of these churches are accessible without too much difficulty.

Most can be found in or around Bardejov and, further north, Svidník (a centre of the fascinating Rusyn culture). (and on both of these destinations we’ll be publishing a lot more content in late 2016)

1: Hervatov

This is our number one choice of a wooden church to visit: the most accessible one that feels – how shall we say – rustically authentic (being sequestered away in a tiny village). The interior is an absolute must-see: not because of mind-blowing lavishness but for its more poignant simplicity, with touching decoration on the walls and altar. About 9km outside Bardejov, it’s close enough to walk (via Mihal’ov; on the route shown on the map) if other means of transport fail (which they can). The custodian is one of the most reliable (her number is on the church door and church gate if the church is shut) and there is a little penzión where you can bed down for the night called Penzión ČergovMAP

GET HERE – First of all, you need to get to Bardejov. For this, Košice is the nearest big city that foreigners are likely to have on their itineraries: it’s a 4.5 hour train ride (every 1.5 hours)/one-hour direct daily flight from Bratislava or a 2-hour direct daily flight from London Luton. From Košice bus station (next to the train station) buses run every 40 minutes to Bardejov (1 hour 55 minutes). From Bardejov town centre, it’s only a 15-minute drive to Hervatov. But buses only run every two hours, with the first at 6:25am and the last at 8:20pm – and at weekends there are only four direct buses per day. So there is always the recourse of your own two feet…

2: Kežmarok

Surprisingly, you don’t have to go so far east to see a wooden church. The agreeable medieval town of Kežmarok on the south-eastern edge of the High Tatras has one right in its centre! It’s the biggest wooden church you’ll find out of all of them, dating from 1717 and built in baroque style (cool fact – there is a little bit of stone on the premises – in the sacristy, which was originally part of a city pub (!). Click here for detailed info on the church, and for an interesting theory about why this eclectic bunch of churches are indeed wooden! The Kežmarok church is open 9am-midday and 2pm-5pm Monday through Saturday from May to October and Tuesday/Friday 10am-midday and 2pm-4pm from November to April – so this church is great because it’s the only genuine wooden church still standing in its original location and with fixed opening hours. MAP

GET HERE

First of all, you need to get to Poprad, which is served by direct daily train from Bratislava (4 hours) and Košice (1 hour) every 1.5 hours, and by direct flight from London Luton. From Poprad Tatry train station, it’s a short walk to the bus station from which buses depart at least every 30 minutes for the 30-minute journey to Kežmarok.

3: Bardejovské Kupele

Yes, in the spa town a few kilometres outside Bardejov (virtually a suburb, and appropriately called Bardejovské Kúpele) you will find an intriguing addition to the usual spa facilities: a skanzen, or open-air museum portraying typical rustic life (a concept at which Slovakia excels). Actually, this Museum of Folk Architecture (Múzeum ľudovej architektúry) was Slovakia’s very first skanzen, opening in 1965. And in the museum (itself worthy of a separate post for its riveting examples of folk architecture from over the last couple of centuries) you will find no fewer than two relocated but utterly authentic wooden churches from the villages, respectively, of Mikulášová-Niklová and Zboj. The serendipitous nature of this truly amazing museum means these two dinky churches within its midst are pretty impressive.  MAP

GET HERE

As for Hervatov above, first of all, you need to get to Bardejov. For this, Košice is the nearest big city that foreigners are likely to have on their itineraries: it’s a 4.5 hour train ride (every 1.5 hours)/one-hour direct daily flight from Bratislava or there is a 2-hour direct daily flight from London Luton. From Košice bus station (next to the train station) buses run every 40 minutes to Bardejov (1 hour 55 minutes). From Bardejov town centre,  buses head out to Bardejovské Kúpele about every 20-30 minutes. The journey takes just five minutes.

4:Košice

In Košice’s East Slovak museum (link to Visit Košice website info, not the official homepage, as that is just in Slovak), renowned for many things including Slovakia’s only wax museum and the scary visit to the original old town jail, which lies within its walls, there is also a relocated wooden church, this time from the village of Kožuchovce. MAP

GET HERE

Košice is a 4.5-5-hour train ride (every 1.5 hours)/one-hour direct daily flight from Bratislava: there is also a 2-hour direct daily flight from London Luton. On the map just above, as you can see, it’s an easy 10-minute walk from the railway station to the East Slovak Museum.

Feast your eyes on these outstanding examples of religious architecture and – if your appetite is whetted for more – then maybe it’s time to consider the slightly more complicated, but also more adventurous trip out to the remoter wooden churches that lie in the extreme northeast. There are 27, remember: give yourself a few days if you want to see al of them.

MAP LINKS: Individual map links are provided above.

GETTING THERE: Ditto: in the individual sections above.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Bardejov, it’s a 79km ride east to Medzilaborce on the Polish border where you can visit the fascinating Andy Warhol Museum

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!

800px-Kosice_airport

Flights: Košice’s Connections – The Latest (2016 Update)

When Košice got a new flight connection from London Luton, you heard it here first: almost a year before it happened! It seemed when that route began operating in autumn 2013 that Slovakia’s second city was really making moves to turn its airport into a serious international airport – fitting, as it was in 2013 that it was European city of culture. You can still read the original post below, and the comments related to it, but Englishmaninslovakia moves on and three years on we want to let you know about the new routes that are cementing Košice’s status as a significant air hub in Eastern Europe (one of the five fastest-growing airports in ALL Europe in 2014, you know).

As for 2016, there are a couple of great new air routes which will aid travellers to better plan their trip to Košice. One – the direct connection with Warsaw – is already in action. More on the other route nearer the time it starts running!

Košice – the best possible introduction!

The Latest 2016 Routes

Košice-Warsaw: (Poland) New as of March 2016!  Departure times from Košice will be at 05:35 on Monday through Saturday AND departure times from Warsaw will be 22:35 on Sunday through Friday.

The New 2015 Routes

As of June 2015, there will be flights between Košice and the UK’s Doncaster-Sheffield Robin Hood and Bristol Airports – also operated by Wizz Air, who run the now-successful Košice-London Luton route. (NB: the Košice-Milan Bergamo route is not running in 2016).

Košice-Doncaster-Sheffield Robin Hood: (UK) Operates twice weekly; departure times from Košice will be 19:00 on Tuesdays and Saturdays AND departure times from Doncaster-Sheffield Robin Hood 21:15 on Tuesdays and Saturdays. OPERATED BY WIZZ AIR

Košice-Bristol: (UK) Operates twice weekly from October 2015 (although didn’t start running in 2016 until April); departure times from Košice will be 19:00 on Mondays and Fridays AND departure times from Bristol will be 21:20 on Mondays and Fridays (and are scheduled for the rest of 2016 calendar year). From a ridiculously cheap 29 Euros!! OPERATED BY WIZZ AIR

Košice’s Other Flight Routes

Košice-London Luton: (UK) Currently operates at least daily. Departure times from Košice are 06:10 (Mon-Sat) and 06:10/19:00 (Sun) (mid-Sep-June) and 06:10/19:00 (Sun/Wed) /  06:10 (Mon-Tue/Thu-Sat) (July-mid-September) AND departure times from London Luton are 14:55 daily (Mon-Sat) and 14:55/21:10 (Sun) (mid-Sep-June) and 14:55/21:10 (Sun/Wed) / 14:55 (Mon-Tue/Thu-Sat) (July-mid-September) OPERATED BY WIZZ AIR

Košice-Vienna: (Austria) Currently operates on average twice daily during the week and once daily at weekends. Departure times from Košice are 05:00/15:10 (Mon-Fri) / 15:10 (Sat/Sun) AND departure times from Vienna are 12:55/22:15 (Sun-Tue & Thu-Fri) OPERATED BY AUSTRIAN AIRLINES

Košice-Prague: (Czech Republic) Currently operates two direct flights daily (plus two more daily that go through Bratislava). Direct flight departure times are 05:00/14:55 (Mon-Fri) / 05:00 (Sat) / 14:55 (Sun) AND departure times from Prague are 12:15/22:05 (Sun-Fri) (no flights on Saturdays) OPERATED BY CZECH AIRLINES

Košice-Bratislava: (Slovakia) The two afore-mentioned non-direct Czech Airlines flights between Košice and Prague stop in Bratislava Mondays to Fridays. This is Slovakia’s only real internal flight connection but we’re not going to champion its cause here. Why? Because you will save a maximum of one hour, if you’re lucky, over the fast train from Bratislava, because it’s prohibitively expensive (the train ride is a mere 20 Euros) and because it’s not ecological! TAKE THE TRAIN FROM HLAVNA STANICA

 

A Quick Guide to the Other Content We Have on Košice

Places to Go: Climbing Košice cathedral

Places to Go: Unsung charms and legends: insights into Košice city centre

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: Quirky Košice city tours

Musings: The Definition of ‘Discussed’

 

AND…

The Original Post from November 2012…

London to Košice Flights!

A little birdie (but a very knowledgeable and reliable birdie) tells me flights from London to Košice are starting up next year, with the official announcement to be made in early January after negotiations conclude at the end of this year. March is the projected date for flights to commence. Currently Košice is served from Prague (by Czech Airlines), Vienna (by Austrian Airlines) and otherwise only Bratislava.

It’s been a while coming. Košice’s train connections from Bratislava even with the faster IC-trains, are rarely under five hours and often delayed (speaking as someone who has had to stand from Košice to Trenčin, aka almost-the-whole-way-across-the-country, I can tell you that is not fun). If Košice is serious about attracting international visitors next year for its year as European City of Culture, this is what it needs. Given Slovakia takes six or seven hours to traverse from end to end overland, a Košice flight to another major transport hub is nigh-on essential. Especially when you consider neighbouring Poland has loads of destinations served by cheap flights including plenty to the UK: you can imagine there would be a healthy market for a Košice-London connection. Probably you’d get some Ukrainians coming across to make the most of it too, given it’s only a couple of hours from Košice and bargain flights are hard to come by in the Ukraine unless you want to go to, ah, Russia.

Bargain flights. Hmmm. We know what’s coming, don’t we? But please tell me Ryanair are not the airline being negotiated with. Please. As you will gather from my recent post on cheap flights, what Slovakia needs is an airline that gives visitors a first impression that ISN’T, well, blue-and-yellow plastic, zero leg room and scratch card announcements. I’m a big advocate of budget flights, don’t get me wrong. But when a country is essentially served ONLY by cheap flights, and cheap flights from one source at that, then there’s something wrong. Let’s not assume that visitors to/residents in Košice are only concerned with low prices and aren’t bothered about low quality.

UPDATE WINTER 2013: To confirm the below comments, there are flights running with Wizz Air from London Luton to Košice. Flights (from London Luton) run at 14:10 now on Sundays, Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays.