The Jeopardy of Reunification: James Silvester on his Czecho-Slovak Thriller Escape to Perdition

25 years on from the Velvet Revolution and a plan is afoot to reunify the Czech and Slovak Republics. Some – citing a shared heritage – are for, others – with darker motivations – are against. And thus the stage is set for Escape to Perdition, one of contemporary fiction’s bravest Czecho-Slovak-set novels.

Its beauty is that it masterminds an utter rewriting of 20th century European history… author James Silvester talks here about how this book and his next draw on Slovakia for their inspirations…

Channeling Slovakia: Thrilling Escapades in Central Europe

Do any film buffs out there remember the start of The Living Daylights? Not the exploding jeeps, daring parachute jumps and conveniently located, Bollinger laden yachts of the opening sequence, but the bit straight after the eighties infused tones of A-Ha settled us into the film. British Agent, 007, strides through the pitch night, from the colourful delights of a classical concert to the crumbling disarray of a Communist bookshop, from whose upper window he sits patiently, rifle in hand, waiting for his target to show herself.

It is pure Cold War stuff and exquisitely done. From the moment Timothy Dalton’s debutant Bond sits grimly loading his weapon, to the terse exchange with the defector he was sent to protect as they speed away from the scene, 007 is every inch the reluctant assassin, resentful of his job but compelled by his own professionalism to do it well. For me, the cinematic Bond has never so fully exuded the vision of his literary creator, Ian Fleming, than then. Even as a child, back in 1987, the image and the atmosphere struck a chord with me, as did this beautiful, foreboding city from which the pair were escaping: Bratislava.

Actually, quite a chunk of that movie is based in Slovakia’s Capital, including a similarly atmospheric sequence where the sublime Dalton silently stalks his quarry on a packed tram, not to mention one of the series’ best car chases across a frozen Czechoslovakian lake. At the time, I had no idea how much this image and this country would influence me years later as I set to work writing Escape to Perdition, the first in my (intended) trilogy of Thrillers, set in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, but the seeds were definitely sown back then.

My book’s protagonist, Peter Lowe, shares with Dalton’s Bond a resentment of his murderous vocation, only more so, and has few reserves of suave sophistication to fall back on, instead relying on the hard Blues and hard Drink of his adopted Prague for solace in between his loathed assignments. The book has been described as very much ‘of Prague’, and while it’s true that my love of that city is, I hope, evidenced between the pages, of equal importance is the unique voice of Slovakia.

I’ve been blessed to spend a considerable amount of time in Slovakia over the last decade or so, having met and married a spectacular Slovak lady and gotten to know many wonderful family and friends in that period and, I am forced to admit, I’ve used that time to the full. I’ve always been a keen student of history and Czechoslovak history is particularly intriguing. World renowned events like the Prague Spring and the Velvet Revolution, previously just exciting stories in the classroom, became real to me as I spoke with and learned from people who had lived through those times, felt those emotions and dreamed those dreams. I learned of the suspicion around the death of National hero Alexander Dubček, the deep mistrust of a political class so openly and brazenly corrupt and the resentment of a Slovakia so often considered the ‘poor relation’ of a more glamorous Czech Republic.

Those frustrations, and those strengths, combined as the basis for the character of Miroslava Svobodova, the Slovak Prime Minister vying to become Leader of a reunified Czechoslovakia. Svobodova’s inner strength, her passions and convictions (not to mention her love of Slivovice) were the embodiment of the proud Slovak women I met, and while the story is predominantly Prague based, the spirit of Slovakia, I hope, shines through.

My follow up novel is due out next year through the wonderful Urbane Publications. Set in the run up to The Prague Spring’s 50th anniversary, the newly reunified Czechoslovakia faces up to the threats of international terrorism and a vengeful Institute for European Harmony, with an expansionist and aggressive Russia poised at the border. In the face of such odds, characters old and new must draw once more on that famous Slovak spirit if they are to survive the events of The Prague Ultimatum.

 The Prague Ultimatum, James Silvester’s follow up to his 2015 debut, Escape to Perdition, will be released in 2017 through Urbane Publications. Readers in the Czech Republic can buy his book from The Globe Bookstore, while it can also be ordered from Slovak website Martinus. James is an HR professional and former DJ for Modradiouk.net, married to a lovely lady from Slovakia. He lives in Manchester and enjoys spending time in his adopted second home, Bojnice.

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The Old Town: Bratislava Clock Museum

Back in the 19th century, it turns out, Bratislava (aka Pressburg to German speakers or Pozsony to Hungarian speakers) was one of Europe’s foremost manufacturers of clocks – and the Hungarian Empire’s go-to destination for purchasing high-quality timepieces. It was a proud legacy the city had built up over the preceding three centuries, with one of Europe’s first and finest clock-makers’ guilds in action here since the mid-16th.

It would be wrong to say that there is palpable evidence in the city today of this tradition.   There are no clocks to compare to the workmanship of Prague’s Astronomical Clock, for example – at least not on display on key city buildings. But there is a reason for that. Bratislava’s colourful clockmaking past is wrapped up and preserved in one rather tucked-away building in the shadow of the castle, on the other side of the dual carriageway from the main part of the Old Town in the small but fascinating remnants of the Jewish Quarter.

The clock I decided I want on the wall of my house… ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The Jewish Quarter, tragically, was largely decimated by the construction of the dual carriageway that leads over the bridge of Most SNP to Petržalka, but a few steep, corkscrewing streets on the slopes leading up to the castle have stayed in tact – enough to maintain an atmospheric reminder of how this district must have looked pre-raze (pre-1950s in other words). It would have been a web of tiny alleys so intertwined (and sufficiently removed from the main part of the Old Town) that it would have assumed the air of a mini-city within a city – a neighbourhood unto itself – and been a spirited hub of city trade. Wander Beblavého or Mikulášska streets today and there are plenty of erstwhile signs of the district’s glory days, but none, perhaps, as striking as the yellow-and-cream facade of the Dom U  dobrého pastiera (House of the Good Shepherd) in which Bratislava’s clock museum is located. It’s one of a few precious examples of 18th-century Burghers Houses remaining in the city centre (heralding from the 1760s) – with a crenelated exterior forming the junction between two streets and a tiny three-floor interior that would once have sufficed for the workspace and living quarters of a city tradesman and is now packed to the gills with clocks crafted by Bratislava’s greatest clockmakers.

The two old babičky (grandmothers) on duty seemed surprised by us entering at all; more so by us wanting to stay beyond the five minutes which, they tell us sadly, most visitors stay. “We much prefer visitors like you”, they lamented, “but we don’t get so many of them.”

I found it hard to see why. Granted, to spend much time in a clock museum you have to possess at least a passing interest in clocks (which presumably you have if you have read the post thus far). But if clocks make you tick – even temporarily – then you are never going to experience a more magical journey into the talismanic days of the clockmaking industry, when clocks were first being produced and commissioned on a large scale for families, than in this dinky museum.

Like all good museums, the best exhibits are saved until last (the topmost of the three floors).

Starting downstairs, there is an overview of the clockmaking industry in general. You get a sense of the pride that would have been involved in being a clockmaker – never, in the industry’s 18th- and 19th-century heyday, was there a day-to-day example of a more highly-skilled trade. Not only were clocks indispensable practical parts of daily life (a typical day had by this point come to depend on accurate timekeeping for many city dwellers) but they were simultaneously works of art. Painters even painted clockmakers in action…

The noble clockmaking profession in Bratislava back in the day ©englishmaninslovakia.com

The noble clockmaking profession in Bratislava back in the day ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

On the ground floor you will find the entire workings of an 18th century church clock, but mainly this is a world of exquisite small detail that you have to peer very closely at to truly appreciate (check the intricacy of the hunter pursuing the deer on one of the downstairs clocks, for example).

But it was the timepieces commissioned for private houses – mantelpiece clocks and wall clocks – where the prowess of the Bratislava clockmakers is best exemplified, and for these you have to ascend up the steep staircase to the top of the house.

©englishmaninslovakia.com

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Take this one above, a picture clock where a detailed oil painting representing a journey through life from infancy to old age is transposed upon a typical Central European alpine scene – with the pensioners in the picture crossing a bridge across a river to a grand castellated gatehouse: one of the more inviting depictions of the beckoning afterlife you’ll come across! Then there is a fine gold filigree clock, on the interlocking branches of which perch two lovebirds. *

But the very best clocks often included aspects of Bratislava itself – such a hallmark of clockmaking did it become. On one, with the passing of every hour a new scene from a Central European city appears at the bottom of an elaborate painting (now stuck perpetually on the image of Bratislava Castle). In another, in a classic 19th-century Castle-from-across-the-Danube image, a clock tower on what is now the Petržalka side of the river rises out of nothing (it does not exist now; one wonders if it ever did) to provide the clock face (see the lead image).

Perhaps of all the city’s museums, this is most suited to a place on Englishmaninslovakia: quirky, eyeopening, an undiscovered gem as deserving of your time (if not more so) as any of the bigger museums you will have read about in your pre-trip research. It also best illustrates what Bratislava’s attractions are above all: not blockbuster sights, like Vienna or Budapest – but more a series of serendipitous small discoveries that will guarantee you walk away from them pleasantly surprised, because you never really expected them to be much in the first place.

Even so, five minutes to look round is not enough, by any means (allow the best part of an hour). Remember, time stands still in a museum of old clocks.

* = Many of the clocks are being digitalised as part of an ongoing preservation project (meaning not that they are getting luminous digit displays inserted in the handiwork, but that their images are being digitalised).

MAP LINK:

LOCATION: Dom U dobrého pastiera (House of the Good Shepherd), Židovská 1.

ADMISSION: Adults 2.50 Euros, Children 1.50 Euros

OPENING: 10am-5pm Tuesday to Friday, 11am-6pm Saturday and Sunday

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: A 200m stroll north is one of the city’s best little cafes, Kava.Bar

LAST UPDATED: April 2017

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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.