Image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Chateau Topol’čianky: Wine, Horses & Grand Old Houses

Soon enough, many of us in the northern hemisphere will get snow. Copious amounts of it perhaps. Still, it might be a stretch of the imagination for most to remember (or even conceive of) what enduring over a month of snow on the ground, layer on layer of it, ice and slush as much as fresh, is like. So allow me to indulge you briefly. A month of struggling down streets more or less constantly under drifts of a half meter or more, a month of not seeing grass, a month of traffic jams and transport failures, the hope once the novelty wears thin of it all melting only for more to pelt down out of the sky, damned annoying in short.

In this context you can understand, perhaps, how Château Topol’čianky – as I saw it for the first time at the end of last winter – seemed everything it was billed to be and more: namely a rather idyllic English-style mansion (and its grounds) plonked in a tucked-away pocket of Western Slovakia farmland. The snow line finished, on the particular drowsy weekend afternoon I first glimpsed the place, just outside Topol’čianky town. This left the Château, in the northern part of the municipality, bathing in late-in-the-day winter sunlight that cast a glorious gold-green everywhere. It would have looked beautiful at any time of year, but on this afternoon (through the eyes of one lately deprived of any other weather but snow, remember) not a lot short of exquisite.

The "English style" grounds ©englishmaninslovakia.com

The “English style” grounds ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The name speaks volumes. Château? It’s so… French… Slovaks normally call a grand, castellated mansion such as this zámok or kaštiel – not château. Perhaps the international reputation of the place has a lot to do with it. Following the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, it was Czechoslovakia which seized the reins, so to speak, on the Hapsburg dynasty’s superb stock of thoroughbred steeds. And so Château Topol’čianky, as an internationally regarded stud farm breeding of Nonius, Lippizan, Arabian, and English Half-blood/Hucul horses, was born (1921).

In reality, the building – dating mainly from the mid-17th century, but with an early 19th-century Classicist wing to boot – was already courting a glam crowd of celebs by then. First President of the new Czechoslovakia, Masaryk, had the château as a holiday home during WW1 – setting a precedent of Czechoslovak Presidents stopping by not just for holidays, but also for work. Before this, it was in any case established as a major beacon of learning in Central-Eastern Europe: with a library (still one of the highlights of a visit to the house itself, which features period furnishings from the 18th- and 19th- centuries and Slovakia’s greatest ceramics collection🙂 ) containing hugely important Slavic writings such as Anton Bernolák’s Grammatica Slavica.

©englishmaninslovakia.com

Nice Holiday Home… ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

English Country Garden…

I am an Englishman, it should be emphasised. And in at least one way, I possess a characteristic the majority of the world associates with Englishmen: I love strolling around charismatic old houses and their grounds (although rather with an espresso in my hands than a cup of tea). I am also an Englishman spending long amounts of time overseas in lands like Slovakia: small wonder, that when, whilst here, I clap eyes on a place which epitomises a sedate, grandiose abode seemingly plucked out of a quintessential English village postcard I am pretty enthused.

RELATED POST: The Arboretum Near Nitra (more English Garden loveliness in this neck of the woods)

No one can claim English architecture from the 19th century sticks out, definitively, as superior to other styles of the age. But English landscaped gardens? They have a certain something, an esotericness in their ornamental lakes or their manicured woodland paths that always lures me in for a stroll. Enter Château Topol’čianky’s “English style” gardens – a fancy 4km stretch of dignified woodland (300 types of trees here) bordered by a river canalised to form several ornamental lakes connected by leats on the one side, and by glorious vineyards on the other. And arranged delicately in-between: terraced lawns, an old wine cellar, an old 17th century mill, an orangery, a grotto. It’s not surprising Masaryk loved to potter around here. Part of the Château also serves as a hotel nowadays, with rooms set attractively around an internal courtyard (not a common design in Slovakia):

The HotelThe Hotel ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

That’s not to be confused, of course, with the other hotel within the park grounds, Hotel Hradna Straz (a pretty alright restaurant, which aims for old English hunting style, encompassed within).

Wine

All those vineyards do mean something: some of the country’s best-regarded (and certainly most dominant in terms of market share) white wines, in fact – including a delicious late winter harvest wine. Grapes cultivated here are mostly Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc, Grüner Veltliner and WelschReisling. The wine is so famous at Château Topol’čianky that it is, in many ways, the defining characteristic of Château Topol’čianky – and a very good wine outlet at Cintorínska 31 in Topol’čianky town (see this little MAP) sells the stuff. Check the winery website (they’re not afraid to brag) for more.

©englishmaninslovakia.com

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

MAP LINK:

THE CHATEAU – WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW: Whilst it serves primarily as a wedding venue, the house does open for guided tours between May and September (Entry Tuesday to Friday from 9 until 2.30pm by hourly guided tour, Saturday/Sunday midday until 4pm by hourly guided tour). Adults/children 3.80/2.50 Euros.

GETTING THERE: From Bratislava, the quickest way is actually by bus (i.e., from Bratislava Bus Station) changing in Zlaté Moravce, the underwhelming big town nearby. Buses run more or less hourly, cost 6.60 Euros one way and take about two hours 40 minutes.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Château Topol’čianky it’s 52km north to Prievidza

OUR OTHER SLOVAK WINE CONTENT:

Svätý Jur, Small Carpathians Wine Region

Limbach, Small Carpathians Wine Region

A typical Small Carpathians Wine Tasting in Trnava

Adventures in the Tokaj Wine Region

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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.