Levoča's Indian Summer Festival ©David Conway

Levoča: In Full Swing During the Indian Summer Festival

As you journey east from the High Tatras, the next stop on the classic traveller’s route (before Bardejov and then Košice) is Levoča, one of Slovakia’s most striking medieval towns, with its historic centre a Unesco World Heritage Site. For this article, the founder of what is now one of the town’s foremost annual events, David Conway, explains exactly what inspired him to set up the Indian Summer Festival

It was in 1973 that I first laid eyes on Levoča, where my father-in-law Laci had taken me. My wife Nadia, at the time classified by the Czechs as a criminal illegal emigrant (having remained in London after the 1968 Russian invasion), was unable to be with us. What I experienced was an incredible sleeping beauty; an exquisite late-Gothic renaissance town almost perfectly preserved, seemingly untouched for centuries under a magic spell which had left it in shadow, despite its showcase architecture and setting within an exquisite Slovak landscape.

RELATED POST: Top Ten Medieval Towns in Slovakia

When I next visited Levoča (now with Nadia) in the 1990s, it was already picking itself up after Communism and beginning to restore and celebrate its unique heritage. The idea of taking part somehow took root and in 2003 we purchased and began to restore one of the town’s many merchant’s houses, with vast cellars dating to the 12th century, a vaulted hallway and staircase of the 16th century, and numerous wonderful features of carving and woodwork.

With our house renovated, Nadia began thinking about how we could attract others to this forgotten pearl of Central Europe. And the idea of a music festival arose. With the cooperation of the town, which has enabled us to utilise the magnificent 18th-century theatre and congress hall amongst other venues, we contacted our musician friends, or just barefacedly invited musicians we admired, buttonholing them after their concerts in London, Prague and elsewhere.

Amazingly, these brazen tactics worked, and thus ‘Indian Summer in Levoča’ (in Slovak ‘Levočské babie leto’) was born. Run on a not-for-profit basis through an NGO set up with our local friends, and with support from grants, patrons and visiting audiences to maintain standards and reputation, over the years we have had wonderful performances from artists including the Stamic and Zemlinsky quartets, the Vienna Piano Trio, the European Union Baroque Orchestra, Julian Lloyd Webber and many others. Amongst our ‘regulars’ – who have become local heroes to the townsfolk – are the charismatic Slovak cellist Jozef Lupták and the virtuoso British pianist, Jonathan Powell.

©David Conway

There have been some phenomenal renditions at the festival ©David Conway

At first I think the local people thought we were mad. But gradually they have come – first out of curiosity, and now out of devotion – to hear incredible music. A key aspect is that there is no prejudice on the part of the local audience; they respond according to the commitment of the performer, whether he or she is playing Schubert, Shostakovich, Brahms or Beethoven. And gradually we have attracted visitors from all over Europe and even America and Australia. The Gramophone magazine has called our festival ‘Europe’s best-kept secret’ – but now the word has begun to spread.

One of our chief delights has been programming the concerts – so as to ensure that we can introduce music we think people ought to hear, as well as the established concert classics. So you won’t just hear the great classics, but also, for example, in our 2016 festival, Xenakis, Sterndale Bennett, Dohnanyi, Busoni and other exciting-but-neglected music.

Of course we have not been without our crises – but here perhaps is not the place to discourse on the grand piano which was dropped by the removers, the pianist who had her passport lost in the Hungarian embassy in Washington three days before her concert with us, or the heroic efforts of the Levoča dustmen in getting yet another piano up several flights of stairs when the deliverers had forgotten their equipment…..

In 2016, our ninth year, we welcomed the Kodaly Quartet of Budapest, the young Israeli violist Avishai Chaimedes playing Mozart string quintets, Mark Viner, performing works by the astonishing virtuoso Charles-Valentin Alkan and Alkan’s friend Franz Liszt, and Jonathan Powell playing Mussorgsky’s original piano version of the monumental ‘Pictures from an Exhibition’. Danish tenor Jakob Vad and pianist Eisabeth Nielsen brought us music form England and Denmark, and we heard medieval Slovak choral music and works from Mendelssohn, Mozart and Boccherini to Bartók, Arensky and Prokofiev. The Festival closed with a performance of Schubert’s great B flat Piano Trio.

The Levoča Indian Summer Festival is informal, it’s fun, and it provides a great opportunity to visit one of Slovakia’s finest old towns after the summer tourist crowds have left but whilst the weather remains warm. You will hear great music and meet wonderful musicians, due to the festival’s intimate nature. That’s a key difference here: with other larger festivals, you can be so far away from the performers it almost feels like you’re watching them on a screen. Not here! So so come and join us for our festival on September 8-September 12 2017, which will be extra special because it will be a landmark tenth anniversary for us: and will hopefully attract many more unmissable performers to this relatively unknown pocket of Eastern Slovakia.

MAP LINK: (showing the main town theatre venue)

FESTIVAL WEBSITE: (line-ups for 2017’s festival now available)

COST OF TICKETS:

GETTING THERE: The east of Slovakia benefits quite well from international flight connections these days: Poprad, 20 minutes to the west of Levoča via route E50, has 4 weekly flights to London Luton.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Levoča, it’s 63km north to Stará Ľubovňa, home of Slovakia’s only whiskey distillery

 

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…

Wizz Air Take-off!

Flights: Poprad to London Route Now Established Air Link to Slovakia

A few years ago, the now-defunct SkyEurope airline offered the incredibly useful connection between London and the High Tatras of Slovakia which are one of the country’s main tourist attractions. Now, thanks to Wizz Air, that flight is not only back – but booming. Which is particularly great news in a world of flight routes that come and go in the blink of an eye.

Since October 28 2014, flights have been running like clockwork from London Luton to the tiny but terribly useful Poprad Tatry airport on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays at 08:35 (and returning from Poprad Tatry on the same days at 12:35) according to the schedule on the Wizz Air website. Planes will be 180-seater Airbus A320’s. And flight prices start at £29.99 (one way). Flight time? About 2 hours 35 minutes.

It’s a very important connection for Slovakia, whose main airline is currently Ryanair (those guys have the monopoly on international flights). And with Poprad/the Tatras (hub of Slovakia’s winter sports and many of its outdoor adventures) being four hours train ride from Bratislava (where most international flights including the UK arrive at present) and over one hour from Košice (where the only other international flights arrive – check here for info on London to Košice flights) by train – the London-Poprad connection saves holiday-makers considerable time.

So everything seems set for your break to Slovakia – straight, as we say, to the good stuff! And we already have on the site a huge amount of info to help plan your High Tatras visit, with tons more on the way. So without further ado:

A Quick Guide to the Other Content We Have on Poprad

Places to Go: Poprad’s funky contemporary art gallery in an old power station

Places to Go: Poprad’s lavish Aqua Park

Places to Go: Nine reasons to linger in Poprad

Places to Go/Getting Around: Taking the Mountain Railway into the High Tatras from Poprad

Places to Stay: A cool travel-friendly B&B in Spišská Sobota, Poprad

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s trendy burger joint

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s dignified Café La Fée

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s Coolest Wine Bar

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s gourmet chocolatier

Going Out: Poprad & the Manchester United Connection

Arts & Culture: Dedicated traditional Czech & Slovak music radio station now based in Poprad

Getting Around: The Poprad to Ždiar to Zakopane (Poland) bus

Top Ten Medieval Towns in Slovakia

And… an overview of what awaits in the High Tatras just outside Poprad… see our comprehensive guide to hiking across the mountains, experience other adventures in the Tatras from climbing to kayaking with the No.1 adventure company in the Tatras and see our recommended High Tatras accommodation options – from hotels to remote mountain houses.

And lastly but not leastly, bon voyage. Dobrý letu!

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Poprad: Nine Reasons to Linger

Poprad is the gateway to the High Tatras. Whether you’re coming here by road or rail you’ll have to pass through this sizeable city to those tempting and frankly quite bizarre looking mountains just beyond. And of course the question is: why stop? Why indeed, when there’s the beginnings of a mountain wilderness with scintillating hiking, and climbing – and some pretty exceptional skiing just a half hour’s drive or mountain rail ride away? The question seems more poignant yet when you see Poprad’s centre which, somewhat marred by tasteless ’60’s and ’70’s development, is no Levoča – not, in other words, with a great deal of old-fashioned charm (although in fairness it has been spruced up no end of late and now sports leafy boulevards, revamped museums and a burgeoning pavement cafe culture). But after a concentrated couple of days in Poprad recently, Englishmaninslovakia has come up with a list of Poprad’s plus points – and the list is longer than many might think.

1: Get the Info

Before you rush off into the mountains, it’s worth pausing to find out exactly what you can (and, sometimes, can’t) do there – and Poprad is the fount of all Tatras outdoor activities knowledge. There are several key bases you might want to head to – Ždiar for culture, Tatranská Lomnica for the highest mountains, Starý Smokovec area for some of the main chairlifts up into the mountains proper (and the most abundant accommodation) or Štrbské Pleso for the biggest ski resort, great hiking and that cherry on the cake of Tatras Hotels, Grand Hotel Kempinski. Do you, for example, want to go husky sledding? Would you like to stay in fancy accommodation or huddle in a mountain house? Do you like hanging from a chain off a precipice or not?

The answers to all these and more will influence where you want to end up, and Poprad’s perfect for providing answers. You can check out the pleasant little tourist information office or scout out the veritable mine of Tatras information that is Adventoura tours (actually Poprad’s coolest tour agency and offering loads of different activities).

Yeah – so get all the info you need, which will take an hour or two, and then go off and do something like – well – one of the things right below!

2: Spišská Sobota

Spišská Sobota is one of the best-preserved clutches of medieval architecture anywhere in Slovakia. It doesn’t grab the headlines like nearby Levoča does but it’s almost as splendid. The Gothic Kostol Svätého Juraja (Church of St George) at the western end of the long tapered oval of the námestie dates from the 13th century originally and – get this – the enigmatic but highly regarded Master Pavol was responsible for the altar here. Just across the way is the church architect’s old workshop.

Culinary Cool

But quality is kept high in the modern day too in Spišská Sobota. Arguably Poprad’s best restaurants flank the square here (such as Vino & Tapas, where the owner cooked for the Queen when she visited Poprad, on the northern side – or Fortuna on the southern side). Then there’s the atmospheric accommodation options in and around the square (again, in our opinion, Poprad’s best (Penzión SabatoPenzión Fortuna or, a block off the square, Penzión Plesnivec).

Oh, and how do you find Spišská Sobota? You take the main road Štefánikova and follow it (or the river running alongside it) east from the centre for about 1.5km, past Aqua City, then turning left at the sign for Penzión Plesnivec. Or follow the river along passing Aqua City until you hit the bridge by Hotel Sobota, turn left then take the first right up the hill to where you can already see the Spišská Sobota church tower.

3: Aqua City

Poprad’s Aqua City is the perfect way to counteract and sooth any aches and pains from a strenuous few days’ worth of hiking. Nigh-on 20 indoor and outdoor geothermal pools, all with temperatures in the mid- to high thirties (and that’s after being reduced from a natural 49 degrees): Aqua City might look starkly modern but its comforts are guaranteed – it’s one of Eastern Europe’s most well-appointed spa/wellness centres. There’s a hotel and wellness centre, of course, with cryotherapy and Thai massage centres & the like…

The High Tatras in their morning glory from Kvetnica

The High Tatras in their morning glory from Kvetnica

4: Kvetnica

Ten minutes’ drive outside Poprad is a forest park which gives you better views of the High Tatras than you get in the High Tatras (if you want an overview of the whole range, that is). There’s a farm here which may be your best chance to see the timid mouflon (large-horned mountain sheep) that have a large enclosure of several acres here. In Kvetnica there’s also a network of hiking and mountain biking trails and a chateau. Kvetnica is also much more verdant than a lot of the Tatras are – it makes for a gentle and enjoyable afternoon’s walk. Ask at the Poprad Tourist Information how to find it – it can be quite tricky.

5: Podtatranské Muzeum 

This museum has a fascinating new exhibition on the ancient treasures of a 4th-century Germanic prince dug up recently during construction of an industrial park, as well as permanent exhibits on Poprad since, er, Neolithic times. It’s recently moved to a new location in Spišská Sobota

6: The Tatranská Galeria (Tatras Art Gallery)

This art gallery is well worth a visit – you don’t expect to encounter culture in a mountain resort supply town but here it most definitely is. We’ve recently written this new post about the venue at  Hviezdoslavová 12 known as the Elektráreň (Power Plant). It hosts some pretty damned good exhibitions!

7: Cool Cafes (and Caffes) from Belltowers to Bistros!

In one of several buildings that still retains its old-fashioned grace (the bell tower right behind the church in central Poprad), the mean espresso mini-chain Caffe Trieste has opened its doors. I mean “mean” in terms of the cafe’s ability to produce a mean espresso, of course; not that its staff are mean (they’re not!). There’s also a wine bar here (upstairs up the spiral staircase) – making this the city centre’s most atmospheric drinking spot by a country mile.

See our article on Poprad’s suavest new cafe

 8: Bon Bon Chocolates

Oh, what is that beautiful correlation between mountain town resorts and chocolatiers? I don’t know, but I’m very happy with it. This is one of the best chocolatiers in Slovakia, and it’s right by the train station. I’d argue it’s even worth missing your train for. Small (and quite inviting) area for actually sitting and sipping – but you can always take that hot chocolate “to go” (yeah, in Slovakia now they actually often use the English “to go” for takeaway food which is rather comical when you listen to an ancient Slovak babka (grandmother) that cannot speak another word of English uttering it). Anyway, Bon Bon is on Dominika Tartarku – heading north from Štefánikova towards Poprad Tatry train station.

Our post on Bon Bon

9: Pizzeria Utopia – and the rest of the City’s Cool New Eateries

In an old schoolhouse out in the paneláky, Poprad’s coolest and liveliest pizzeria has been going ten years and is still every bit as popular as ever. Inside, it looks cosy too, with three dining areas and a great array of tasty pizzas. I’ve actually never seen a pizzeria even in Bratislava look as inviting as this one. It’s just south of the hospital on the other side of Rte 18 from the centre – and perfectly walkable from there. Pizzeria Utopia might be one of the first of this new breed of cool Poprad restaurants but it’s the tip of the iceberg as far as local dining goes.

Our post on Poprad’s new gourmet burger joint.

The final thing to remember is that Poprad is a far more pleasant mountain supply town than Zakopane on the Polish side of the Tatras and is certainly no worse than, say, Aviemore in Scotland or in fact many of those terrible big, soulless French ski resort towns. It’s not as beautiful as what lies just beyond, true. But it does have plenty of hidden charms… and yes, a little soul.

MAP LINK: (Kvetnica is indicated by the pinpoint at the bottom of the map)

GETTING THERE: Trains run every 1.5 to 2 hours from Bratislava’s Hlavná Stanica station to Poprad, take 3.5 to four hours and cost 11 Euros for regional trains or 19 Euros for the flashy IC trains (which have wifi).

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Poprad, the obvious choice is heading 32km north to Ždiar to hike some of the lovely Tatranská Magistrála, or – for those that don’t like hiking – it’s 72km south to Rožňava, nearby which are some of Slovakia’s best caves

RELATED POST: London to Poprad Flights Alive and Kicking (could that in fact be reason 10 to get out to and hang out in Poprad?)

RELATED POST: How to get between Poprad, Zdiar and Zakopane in Poland by public transport (could this be reason number 11?)

Tours: Tatras Adventure Trips with Adventoura

Adventoura runs some of the coolest organised tours of the Slovakian Tatras around. It’s based out of Poprad. Here www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk talks to the founder to give you an idea of what you can see and do with the company… 

Adventoura on tour in the Tatras

Question One: What inspired you to set up Adventoura? And why in Poprad?

At the time Adventoura went on market there was a big gap that needed filling with the inbound travel agencies in Poprad and the Tatras mountains. As I grew up in Poprad I knew what this region needed. I believe that Adventoura with its services will make more options for tourists who visit us here. And I am happy to make clients happy!

Simply put, if a visitor came to the Tatras there never used to be anything for them to do outside of their accommodation and beyond the activities of skiing, snow-boarding or trekking. As I have lived and travelled in New Zealand, South Africa and in California, I have seen the potential wildernesses have for outdoor activities and I had a lot of ideas that I am now bringing to our region.

Question Two: Tell us something about the different tours you offer?

People are just discovering Slovakia. We were closed for many years to new explorers. And as I actually guide my groups and have experience with many international clients, it’s nice to see their respective reactions while travelling through Slovakia. A good example: a client from New Zealand during his stay in Poprad told me “why to travel to New Zealand? You have New Zealand here!!!” I guess it is getting the chance to see just how special other nationalities find Slovakia that motivates me to do tours mainly around Poprad and Tatras.

My summer is busy with tours in the mountains. One of my most popular is called “Hut to Hut”. Basically I spent 5 full days with my clients on the walks through the High Tatras staying in the fabulous mountain houses there.  Another popular summer tour is cycling across the Tatras within a week! We do 270 km in 6 days – of course a service car is also provided

The winter season is also very popular. Almost any skiing package you want is available through my website. Another fun option are two tours called “Summer Active” and “Winter Active.” Again based in Slovakia, they are essentially weeks full of fun. The summer option can involve hiking, beginners down hill biking, rafting, rock climbing etc. The winter one has skiing, snowshoeing, horse sleigh ride, dog sledding, geo caching and the like. All those sports I also do in my free time: like we say in Slovakia: “you are having it from first hand!” :)

Adventoura in action

Question Three: What can tourists do this winter with Adventoura, and where can they do it?

I mentioned many of the winter activities we do above, but also very popular is a day trip we call “Become a musher in a one day.” It is a 2-hours program with huskies, refreshment and barbecue. We will teach you how to put a pulling harness on a dog, how to attach him to the pulling rope and finally how to ride with a Slovakian dog sled! People who are waiting for their turn can be at the fire cooking some sausage :) It’s worth noting that we are likely to be able to do this activity close to your hotel (of course it depends where do you stay). If there is no place for it, we are happy to transfer you to our “base camp” :)

Then there is snowshoeing. Basically, I will take you to the places with untouched snow and you will get to try walking with snowshoes in deep snow.

A more relaxing day trip is a horse sleigh ride: we are providing it in evening hours in a sleigh pulled by two horses. The ride is torch-lit and finished with an barbecue, and traditional Slovak music in the forest.

Question Four: What’s your favourite place in the Tatras? And do you have any tips for how to get away from the crowds in the Tatras?

This sounds a simple question, but it’s not! Tatra is full of steep walls, deep valleys and forests, and really any one would deserve to be called the favourite!

Every valley has something nice. In the western Tatras you could climb the peak of Kriváň, and you will get impressive view from it. In the central area, try visiting some mountain hut and stay overnight: you can have a beer and meet great people from all around the world talking about interesting stories from their travels :) And check out the eastern region too: especially Biele Pleso (White lake). In the valleys here you will be there almost by yourself; there’s nobody around. You might even meet a brown bear or to see our mountain goat, the Chamoix…

Question Five: The actual town of Poprad is often overlooked in favour of the mountains nearby. What’s the best thing to do in the city itself?

Poprad is great place for explorers who love to come to the Tatras by train, bus or even, these days, by aeroplane, with flights several times per week to London. It has a straight train connection from Prague (the journey takes about 8 hours, and the night train is very comfortable and safe) as well as Slovakia’s two main cities, Bratislava and Košice.

What I would say about Poprad itself is that I am happy to live and have my office there.

It has everything you need, right by some of the best mountain scenery in Slovakia – supermarkets, shopping malls, a nice historical medieval main square, lots of concerts and theatre performances – and a great traditional Christmas market in winter.

The most special thing about Poprad is that it lies on hot geothermal springs. One of them is used for second biggest aquapark in Slovakia: Aquacity. Here there are slides and outdoor pools – and it runs all year round, even in the winter.

NB: Adventoura are the winners in the tour operator category in 2017’s Europe-wide Luxury Travel Awards, truly putting the High Tatras on the international stage as a travel destination! Read more about it on their Facebook Page