A deer in a dish...

The Far East: Your Very Own Elegy in Oak

“The other day, I was about to toss a chunk of wood onto the stove. But the light caught on the grain, at a certain angle, and I knew this piece of wood could be something. I stopped concentrating on getting the stove going – even though it’s pretty freezing right now in Eastern Slovakia – went up to my workshop, and a few hours later I’d created my latest design. That’s how it works, in this business. Pieces of wood, even the ones you’ve intended for your fire, have the potential to become beautiful gifts.”

Slovakia is a country of trees. It is one of Europe’s most forested nations – much of it beech or conifer, but a fair amount in oak, too. In the east of Slovakia, they even make their churches out of wood (so beautifully that the 50 or so wooden religious buildings peppering the countryside hereabouts are Unesco-listed). And it is in this region that Freddie Venables, an Englishman that has been living here for the last twenty years, has decided to set up shop to showcase the beauty of Slovakian wood to the world: in oak, naturally, as it remains the bottom line in quality as far as carpentry is concerned.

Freddie has an illustrious connection with oak going back decades. He ran a successful oak flooring business out in the east for some time, and designed the oak-paneled cigar room of flashy High Tatras hotel Hotel Horizont. But these days, he’s retreated to the hills of the far northeast of the country to concentrate on what he loves best: whittling away in his workshop what can truly lay claim to being some of Slovakia’s most esoteric wood-made handicrafts.

A candle holder

A candle holder

The main thing with Freddie, besides the quality, is the versatility. Whatever it is that you are seeking to have immortalised in wood, he’ll work with you to have it produced. Smaller wooden gifts are his raison d’être – candle-holders, house plaques, chopping boards, plant boxes, commemorative ornaments (Our seasonal favourites are his wooden bowls embossed with deer motifs). But he’ll happily take on larger commissions such as furniture too. His experience, together with his passion for promoting Slovakian woodwork and handicrafts, combine to render his creations some of the most original take-home souvenirs from Slovakia you could ask for.

The inspiration for his craft is in the wild landscapes around the village of Vyšný Mirošov, where he lives and works, and there is a little bit of Slovakia’s most tradition-steeped region in each of his creations. His wood-made gifts can be purchased through his online shop.

Mini elegies in oak, indeed.

See our Top Ten Slovak Gift Ideas

The craftsman with one of his recent creations

The craftsman with one of his recent creations

Painted eggs… a typical Slovak handicraft – pic by Picture by Doko Ing. Mgr. Jozef Kotulič

Top Ten Slovak Gift Ideas

Whether it’s bringing home a present for the folks from your summer hols or getting that classic traditional festive treat at one of Slovakia’s legendary Christmastime markets, knowing your quality souvenirs from your tourist tack is important in Slovakia – and actually makes choosing a gift to take home enjoyable rather than tedious.

To that end, we’ve produced our top ten of the must-buy traditional Slovak souvenirs. We’re focussing here on things that really aren’t the same if you buy them outside Slovakia, that have a touch of the “only in Slovakia” about them. For more ideas, take a look at our ever-expanding shopping section! Of course, all of the below ideas are not just for Christmas…

10: A Book on Slovak History: In-English translations of Slovak writers are regrettably limited. The big exception is in the area go historical reference where several great reference books await. As readers of this blog will have intimated, Slovakia’s history is varied and rich. Slovakia’s castles and wooden churches are particularly rich veins worth tapping into, with the topics producing several books available in good bookstores like ArtForum (who also have a great section of Slovak movies) or Oxford Bookstore (soon to be the subject of a post on this blog; link currently to the Facebook page, address on Laurinska 9).

9: A Log Basket: No one likes collecting logs as much as the Slovaks; they stack them up proudly against their mountain cottages and even adapt the roofs so that the logs stay sheltered. Needless to say the country has one of the best selections of log baskets you ever will see. Buy them from Nitra Christmas Market, in the main Námestie in Nitra. Oh – and in case you want another kind of basket (košik in Slovak) plenty of other varieties for other purposes await…

8: Lacework: Lacework (Paličkovanie) in Slovakia has a fine tradition, with the old mining towns such as Banská Štiavnica and Kremnica having some of the most traditional work. Originally this would have been work for folk costumes at festival time and normal everyday clothes to boot; now it’s just nice to get a piece to appreciate the exquisite workmanship. Úl’uv have a great selection.

7: Some traditional Slovak music: Classic Slovak folk music may not be what the average Slovak listens to in their car but folk music is still big here and closely associated with the hugely traditional folk festivals that occur throughout summer in rural Slovakia. Get a taste at stores like Martinus on Obchodná where you can pick up albums by quintessential folk groups like Lučnica, classic contemporary artists like Jana Kirschner or wacky experimental stuff like that by Marek Brezovský.

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Banská Štiavnica – an ancient mining town with a lot of ore still under the surface… ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

6: Mineral Ore from Banská Štiavnica: This old mining town really does come up with some of the best gifts in the country. The legacy of mining here is showcased in the mining museum here, where the on-site shop is the place to buy nuggets of silver, gold and other ore unearthed in the mineral-rich hills.

5: Smoked meats: The zabíjačka (pig killing) is a Slovak tradition going back centuries and many of the products from one of these rituals make for good Christmas gifts. For starters, try the good butchers on the right side of Stara Tržnica (the old marketplace) in Bratislava. Why smoked meats? They transport better, of course…

4: Painted eggs: These can be seen in many gift shops around Slovakia. Usually ceramic, they are an important part of the Easter tradition of Šibačka (where the women present them to their menfolk – read more about the tradition here). Buy them in most craft shops, including Úl’uv.

Painted eggs… a typical Slovak handicraft – pic by Picture by Doko Ing. Mgr. Jozef Kotulič

Painted eggs… a typical Slovak handicraft – pic by Picture by Doko Ing. Mgr. Jozef Kotulič

3: A bottle of alcohol: Slovakia, unlike the neighbouring Czech Republic, is first and foremost a wine-drinking country. For white and red wines, pay a visit to the wine shops and cellars of Svätý JurLimbach, Pezinok, Modra, and – in the far east of the country – one of the Tokaj wine-making villages like Malá Tŕňa.

Don’t like wine for a gift? Not a problem. Slovakia is also famous for medovina, a honey-like wine available on many of the stalls in christmas markets. Then there is a whole range of fruit brandies, such as slivovica (plum brandy). However far better than getting any of these potent fruit liquors from the supermarket is to get some of the homemade stuff (made by a large number of folks in the countryside) which is generally far superior.

Not to be outdone, there is also whiskey to be found in Slovakia. Slovakia makes a honey-like bourbon from Nestville Park near Stará Ľubovňa in East Slovakia. Buy the whiskey in the White Mouse whiskey shop in Bratislava or better still direct from Nestville Park after a tour there.

2: Šupulienky: These intricate corn husk figures, mostly people carrying out traditional trades such as wood-carving or butter churning, but also occasionally depicting animals, are intimate reminders of Slovakia’s rural past. Buy them from Úl’uv or from a couple of outlets on the Bratislava Christmas Market.

1: Ceramics from Majolika: Slovakia’s best ceramics are produced by this small Modra-based firm, the signature designs being old-fashioned dark blue, yellow and green floral motifs. Our two top recommendations would be their set of slivovica cups and/or hip flask, or their meat-roasting dish, with a jug-shaped spout to let juices drain off. For the best prices, buy them direct from the Majolika shop in Modra.

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Modra: Majolika (Handicrafts)

For anyone wanting to bring home a memento of their time in Slovakia, this renowned ceramics shop in the beguiling little town of Modra 28km northeast of Bratislava is a sure-fired bet (excuse the pun).

Whilst many outlets, once they become moderately successful, gravitate to capital city high streets and shopping centres, Majolika has remained refreshingly low-key. Its signature store is still the unassuming little shop and workshop in the middle of Modra (right opposite the central church) –  even though its pottery is now sought after across Slovakia.

Going strong since 1883, it’s Majolika’s old-fashioned blue-and-white, and green/yellow/blue/white colour schemes with their intricate images floral motifs that have become what every self-respecting Slovak wants to line their dressers with. Particularly interesting, too (given that Modra is also a key stop on the Malé Karpaty wine route) are the cups with the vineyard scenes on.

RELATED POSTS: For more on the Malé Karpaty wine route see our Svätý Júr and Limbach posts.

Cups, plates, vases, slivovica flagons, butter dishes, painted eggs, piggy banks, plant pots, urns and figurines of traditional Slovak professions are amongst the wide array of the florally-decorated ceramics. They then also have a range of great (one-tone) baking dishes and jugs for hot sauces – including the special casserole dish used for baking duck, with a handle and a spout for draining off the juices!

Prices are incredibly cheap, too, considering the quality of the workmanship: ranging from a few Euros for a cup or small jug to only 30 Euros for larger items.

Majolika understandably features on our Top Ten Slovak gift ideas, too! Whilst it’s one of those shops that warrants a visit to the town it sits within by itself, Modra has the afore-mentioned viticulture industry, the legacy of Slovak national hero (well, the man did almost single-handedly found the Slovak language) L’udovit  Štúr) to explore and a dozen or more sensational hikes to try out in the nearby Malé Karpaty (Small Carpathians) surrounding the lovely Furmanská Krčma. Perhaps because of this, Modra’s also imminently going to be the subject of its own separate post on this blog, detailing all its lovely (mainly Štúr-themed) activities.

 

A Quick Guide to the Other Content We Have on Modra:

Places to Go: L’udovit Štúr’s Modra

Places to Go: Hiking up in the hills above Modra all the way to Bratislava (the Štefánikova magistrála, stage three)

Places to Stay: Modra’s ceramic-themed hotel

Places to Eat & Drink: A beautiful traditional restaurant in the hills above Modra

 

MAP LINK Google maps doesn’t mark the Modra town centre location: it’s just above the Slovenská Sporitelňa bank on this map.

LOCATION: Štúrová at junction with Dukelská. The larger workshop location on Dolna can be found at this map link but it’s more inconvenient for visitors. Get there by bus from Bratislava bus station running every 20-40 minutes throughout the day.

OPENING: 9:30am-6pm Monday to Friday, 9:30am-midday Saturday.

 ANOTHER RELATED POST: Cruise up a few km above Modra to sample the delights of Furmanská Krčma

Bratislava Christmas Market by Miroslav Petrasko

The Old Town: Bratislava’s Christmas Market

I remember laughing the first time I heard that Bratislava’s Christmas Market, that started on 23rd November and runs until 23rd December, was one of Central Europe’s best winter festivals. With Vienna’s famous Christmas markets less than an hour’s drive away, could Bratislava’s really be considered in the same league?

Well, maybe not. But when we joined the hoards to experience it for my very first time (since then, there have been many more) I could see why people would rave about Bratislava’s festive food and handicrafts extravaganzas.

It really seems that Bratislava comes alive at Christmas. It isn’t a big city, after all, and quite often you’ll be walking through central Old Town streets like Kostolná Ulica behind the Old Town Hall, and not see another soul around as early as 9pm. But at Christmas, the people, wherever they have been hiding, emerge. Possibly they are also coming from other parts of Slovakia and even other countries, because I have rarely seen Hlavné Námestie so packed, or so animated, despite the sub-zero temperatures.

Christmas Market Food

And all because of the Christmas market: which, although you would not think to look at it, was never a traditional event in the Bratislava of olden times. Within an endearing, typically Central European encampment of red-, green- and blue-painted wooden hut-stalls you have the perimeter of handicrafts offerings, and then in the central section the smouldering aromas issuing from the food stalls: it really was like a showcase of classic Slovakia laid out for the taking, with the illuminated Baroque buildings of Hlavné Námestie framing the scene.

You could tell very soon what the most popular section was. The craft stalls, which I actually preferred, were relatively easy to browse unobstructed. But the food stalls were jostling with so many potential customers it was hard to even get close to place your order to the vendor. But it was worth the fight through the throngs: stalls were selling the likes of delectable medovina (mead), piping hot spiced but not overly sweetened wine, lokše (delicious Slovak potato pancakes, which come with fillings such as the famed Slovakian sheep’s cheese, bryndza, or sauerkraut, or perhaps duck fat paste), various assorted sausages like the traditional Czechoslovakian blood sausage called jaternice, and the pork liver burgers called cigánska pečienka.

A tip when you’re scouting for the best lokše: almost every food stall sells it, so choose carefully, because some stalls sell them when they are nigh-on bone dry. Go for a moist-looking one, and have it with the duck fat for the ultimate Slovak experience.

Slovak Handicrafts!

Somehow despite the cold a musician was churning out some typical Slovak ballads on an accordion and a stage was set for some classical music performances over the weekend (although even the most appreciative audience would surely freeze if standing there without moving for any length of time). Amongst the crafts, my favourite by far were the wonderful šúpolienky (expressive figures made from corn husks with innocent, simple features, fashioned into animals, nativity scenes or men and women doing traditional work such as collecting wood or baking vánočka (vánočka, incidentally, is another Christmas treat – heralding from the Slovak word for Christmas, vianoce – a sweet, wonderfully light bread-cake with dried fruit like currents and spices within). I also loved the room scenters – dried clove-scented fruits like pumpkins cut into small pieces and arranged artistically like hanging mobiles.

And the fun was also spreading down to my favourite Bratislava square (námestie), Hviezdoslavovo (although it’s far from my favourite to pronounce). Here a huge Christmas tree illuminated some more food and craft stalls, complementing the bright lights already twinkling from one of the city’s most beautiful buildings, the Slovak National Theatre. Men in merely shirt-sleeves (it was below freezing, remember) were carving up roasted pork, old women pottered around selling products they had knitted, that piping hot spiced wine flowed and I felt well and truly christmassy.

And it’s the same, pretty much, every year – one of several iconic, vividly-brought-to-life times in the Slovak calendar year)

Opening Hours

Bratislava’s Christmas market is on every day from 10am to 10pm, until 23rd December. 24th December, of course, is when Christmas Day is celebrated in Slovakia, so that’s why 23rd December is the last day.

WORTH CHECKING OUT IF YOU LIKE THIS:

Top Ten Slovak Foods and Drinks

Another Really Cool Market in Bratislava (that runs year-round!)