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

©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.