Museum of the Slovak National Uprising

Banská Bystrica: Uncovering the Beauty in the Brutalism

Banská Bystrica, vying for fourth place with Nitra in the pecking order of Slovakia’s most populous cities, has the right to feel a tad hard done by: few other places of such importance within a country are so little written about or visited. In Banská Bystrica’s case, the reason may be the nearby drop-dead-gorgeous Unesco town of Banská Štiavnica clinging prettily to the sides of the Štiavnica mountains, for which visitors reserve their time in Central and Southern Slovakia. And the preference is understandable. It’s probably fueled in part by articles such as these which, even when they purport to be writing about Banská Bystrica, go off on a tangent about Banská Štiavnica instead…

A Brief History of BB

But the bigger “BB”, as well as being the closest city to the centre of Slovakia (and, by extension, the Geographical Centre of Europe), represents a centre of Slovakia in many other ways, and for its resonant role in Slovak history is well-deserving of a few hours of your time before you catch that bus to “BS”. “BB” is the capital of Central and Southern Slovakia, for one thing. It’s said that the most intrinsically ‘Slovak’ accent is that of folks from the city A leading light for the nation in mining since medieval times (the numerous veins of copper that lace the surroundings are considered Banská Bystrica’s lucky charm, and gave rise to its riches – the very prefix ‘Banská denotes it as a mining settlement), a leader in education since the early 20th century (its university is considered one of Slovakia’s most prestigious) and a leader in culture to this day (the country’s best museum, Muzeum SNP, is located here), the city’s chief fame came about as a result of its place at the heart of the Slovak National Uprising in 1944. This critical event in Slovak history, representing Slovakia’s rising up against Nazism, had its roots in Banská Bystrica, and protests raged daily in the city centre for 60 days during the Uprising’s zenith (August 29th through to October 27th).

Totemic Brutalist Beauty

All of these factors paved the way, during Communism, for the construction of some of the most fabulous Brutalist buildings in the country (Soviets, after all, liked to champion their defeat of Nazism by raising bombastic structures). Authorities today prefer to focus on the city’s 18th-century burghers houses on the main square, or the proximity to some glorious nature to advertise tourism but the best way to get under the skin of BB is to explore its Brutalist-era architecture (the key to understanding BB’s place in Slovakia today). This stroll around the seven seminal Communist constructions in the city centre shows you how… and illustrates that architecture behind the Iron Curtain was about far more than bland breeze-blocks…

1: Railway Station & Around (including Ulica 29. Augusta’s prototype housing estate and Slovenská Pošta’s Post Office Tower)…

Almost as soon as you alight from the train, the tour begins – with the station itself, completed in 1951 with striking interior stained glass (one of the country’s more impressive railway terminals). The main street leading into town from here, 29. August, takes its name from the date when the Slovak National Uprising kicked off. The street, perhaps appropriately, boasts some of the most classic examples of early Socialist housing in Slovakia in the residential blocks of flats on this thoroughfare. Completed in 1955 after initial plans were laid in 1939, the blocks of flats exhibit the ideals Socialist construction was always meant to have: green spaces, play areas for children and a general interweaving into the fabric of the city (as opposed to later Socialist housing which was often designed without considering such factors). These apartment blocks usher the just-arrived up to the dominant Post Office Tower of Slovenská Pošta at the end of the street. The 16-floor building was constructed in 1972.

2: The City Council of Banská Bystrica…

Turn left at the Post Office Tower on Partizánska Cesta (onto Českoslovenkej Armády) and you arrive, after a couple of blocks, at the edifice representing the heyday of Socialist construction in the city (and indeed, the last building of this type to the built here). The imposing Neoclassic entrance fronts two expansive wings of what are now the offices of the city council.

3: Matej Bel University – Faculty of Law…

A diversion from the Brutalist gems of the city centre lies a kilometre north up Komenského at the Matej Bel University’s Faculty of Law campus. Built for the ideological education of members of the Slovak Communist Party, it now houses an education facility of a different kind: and one that tops its field as far as Slovakia goes. It was designed as the landmark building of the city’s Brutalist portfolio, and sports some landmark paintings by the artists Jaroslav Kubička and Pavol Uhrík.

4: VUB Banka (the General Credit Bank)…

Backtracking to the city council offices on Českoslovenkej Armády, then continuing west two blocks to turn south (left) on Námestie Slobody, you hit what is now VUB Banka, what was the General Credit Bank and what was originally the National Bank of Czechoslovakia. Originally intended to be a theatre, the building plans were altered at the last minute to adapt it to one suitable for a financial institution. Its shape (a 5-storey cube) together with the smallness of the windows with their tavertine surrounds overlaid by aluminum are to evoke the ideas of strength and security, apparently (good virtues for a bank to have).

Hotel Lux - © www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Hotel Lux – © www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

5: Hotel Lux…

Perhaps the most hilarious collision of Communism and Capitalism anywhere in Slovakia, the first “modern” (read: 1969) hotel in the city stands 16 impassive grey floors of reinforced concrete high: as austerely Communist as hotels get. The sign on the roof, proclaiming “Coca Cola” emits a slightly different message, however. It’s nevertheless emblematic of the quality end of Communist-esque building expansion in the 1970s, just before a paucity of finances heralded a leaner and more low budget period of construction (which lasted until the Wall came down in 1989). Testament to this are, amongst other features, the ceramic artworks by Jaroslav Kubička and the glasswork by L’ubomir Blecha. The Lux (and in 1969, perhaps, it really was) backs onto the park where the star of Brutalism in BB, Muzeum SNP, also sits. If you need refreshment (or a place to stay) in your architectural journey, the Lux is the place to partake without diverting from theme. It’s been serving guests since March 20th 1970. Actually, the restaurant is alright.

6: Muzeum SNP (Museum of the Slovak National Uprising)…

Museum of the Slovak National Uprising

Museum of the Slovak National Uprising – image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The Eternal Flame blazes yet in-between the divide of the talismanic split (i.e. hewn in two) cylinder that houses the nation’s best museum, Muzeum SNP. No other museum in Slovakia deals with its subject matter so thoroughly or informatively. This National Cultural Monument won a 1959 architectural competition and was completed in 1969, as part of the same park development that saw the nearby Hotel Lux erected. Dušan Kuzma and Jozef Jankovič were the main men responsible for the realisation of the building. Its distinctive exterior alone would warrant a mention, dramatised further by the flights of steps on the approach, but the museum inside should not be missed. It charts the circumstances leading up to, and the results of the Slovak National Uprising of 1944, cleverly setting developments in Slovakia alongside world developments in the same period between 1918 and 1944.

May-September 9am-6pm, October-April 9am-4pm; Admission 2 Euros

7: Plaváreñ Štiavničky…

Time to cool off after your crash course in everything relating to the Brutalist second half of the 20th century in BB – with a dip in a Socialist swimming pool. To get there head west (but not WEST if you know what we’re saying) along Kuzmanyho 1.8km to reach the park containing this Modernist marvel from 1966 (with a 2010 revamp thrown in to give it a sauna and another Wellness facilities.)

Banská Bystrica from above - the more conventionally beautiful part!

Banská Bystrica from above – the more conventionally beautiful part! ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

MAP LINK: (each starred point is a stop on the above tour)

GETTING THERE: Trains (although perhaps not as many as there should be) connect Bratislava with Banská Bystrica direct nine times daily, roughly every two hours from 6:01am until 8:01pm. Travel time is 3 hours 24 minutes and cost is 10.46 Euros.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From the “centre” of Banská Bystrica, it’s 54km northeast to the beautifully-located Hotel Srdiečko at the foot of the Low Tatras mountains, from where you can embark on getting to the top of the best Low Tatras peaks in a rather intriguing way…

I WANT MORE ON BRUTALISM: We don’t blame you. Try A Ludicrous Little Tour Through the Communist Legacy in Slovakia or, for something more Bratislava focused, Inside the Upside-down Pyramid. or even Where to Get High in Bratislava (which has some Communist-esque stop-offs). That will sate your appetite (we hope) until we can bring you even more. And we will. Soon.

 

Vel'ky Rozsutec seen from the top of Chleb - image courtesy of Mike Clapham/Milan Šaradin

Capturing Malá Fatra: How A Photographer Transformed the Perception of a Slovak National Park

Sometimes, on rare, rare occasions, you come across someone in the annals of history who utterly transformed the place in which they lived. In the Malá Fatra National Park in Northern Slovakia, that person was Milan Šaradin. The rediscovery of thousands of Šaradin’s photographs by his granddaughter Maria Clapham and her husband, Mike, prompted them to shine the spotlight on this influential individual once more. Over the last few years the couple have been creating a fabulous online resource on Šaradin and his images, which stunningly document life and traditions in rural Slovakia over a seminal period in the country’s development between the 1940s and 1980s. Here, Mike Clapham tells the fascinating story…

Two young children enjoying the Blueberry which grows in abundance in the mountains of Slovakia - image courtesy of Mike Clapham/Milan Šaradin

Two young children enjoying the Blueberry which grows in abundance in the mountains of Slovakia – image courtesy of Mike Clapham/Milan Šaradin

Words by Mike Clapham

It is best if I begin by telling you a bit about myself, and my wife, and how the discovery of thousands of the famous Slovak photographer Milan Šaradin’s long-lost images, many in reels of film stashed away in storage chests, took place…

Roots

I was born in Sussex in the UK, in a small village called Framfield and never left that area, apart from occasional trips for work. But I have always had a very keen interest in photography, with a particular leaning towards blank-and-white images, and spent much of my early life in a darkroom. This fascination has remained with me to this day, along with the transition into digital photography and all that it entails. My other great interest has been computing, and I have been building my own systems for the last two decades. Both passions would prove very useful when it came to what my wife and I would unearth years later in a small town in the heart of one of Slovakia’s most beautiful national parks.

My wife Maria is Slovak, born in the mountain-rimmed Vrátna valley in Malá Fatra national park. Her childhood, as one might expect in such a stunning part of the world, was, she assures me, idyllic. She lived in a chalet next to the Chleb chairlift, learning to ski from a very early age and passing a great deal of time in the surrounding mountains cultivating a knowledge of the area that would likewise prove to huge value to the discovery.

In 1998 she left Slovakia for England to work, and this was how we met. Whilst we remained living in the UK, we regularly returned to Slovakia to see her family and it was during one of these visits that I began to learn about her family and in particular her grandfather Milan Šaradin (See Milan Šaradin: Life at a Glance, below).

Everything about the man was interesting but the thing that caught my imagination most of all was that he had been a famous and prolific photographer in Slovakia, with an emphasis on this area from the mid 1930s till he died in 1984.

The discovery that I made was that literally hundreds of his photographs were still around with, most importantly of all, boxes of negatives which had never been seen by anyone – not even by Šaradin himself – because they were still in rolls in the cans, developed but not printed. For a lot of people, this would have been an astounding find, but for a photographer like myself, nothing short of amazing.

Now we fast-forward to 2007, when Maria and I began to build a chalet to live here in Terchová (see Modern-Day Malá Fatra Snaps, below) and a couple of years later we left England and moved here permanently to discover all about this incredible country and its people.

Tiesnavy Pass, the only route into Vratna - image courtesy of Mike Clapham/Milan Šaradin

Tiesnavy Pass, the only route into Vratna – image courtesy of Mike Clapham/Milan Šaradin

Taking on the Past

By 2012, we had our life over here sorted out. And then came a different sort of sort-out: we approached Maria’s grandmother to ask if we could take all the negatives and photos that belonged to her husband so that I could scan them in to my computer with a view to making a website, putting them there for everyone to see. This she was happy for us to do, so we gathered up all the boxes and took them to our chalet to begin the work…… oh, if only we had known what we were taking on!

Just imagine how it was for me to open the boxes and find inside hundreds of envelopes and reels of film. This amounted to thousand upon thousand of negatives, in singles and strips, with barely any explanatory information. You have to realise that these negatives had been sitting in a cellar since 1984: people had been allowed to come and look for the odd picture once in a while, so they had basically been disrupted from any order that might have existed. Because of their many years in the cellar many were damaged by damp, which rendered them unusable.

So I decided to just start salvaging what I could, first scanning them and opting to sort them out by adding information as to the locations and people in the pictures afterwards. It soon became apparent that there were many more than I first thought. We have never counted them but by a rough estimate we think there are approximately 8000.

For those who are interested in the technical side of the scanning I will list the equipment and software used at the end of the article. (see Tech Spec: How Šaradin’s Images Were Preserved, below).

End in Site: Towards Making the Preserved Images A Reality

So I embarked on what turned out to be a long, long job: nearly four years to be exact! Nevertheless it was a magical time. Every time I put new negatives in the scanner I would find something that was too good to keep to myself and would call Maria to have a look. I think when I reached 2000 images I decided to start sorting through them more intensely and publish them on a website – at first it was my own site, and then I purchased the existing site in Milans name. And this, at long last, is the result: www.milansaradin.com.

Anyone who has ever done anything like this will know how many tasks are involved. First we had to identify each image, who or what it was and when it was taken. Very few of the images came with any accompanying detail: no locations, no names and worst of all no dates of when they were taken.

I believe this part of the process took the longest to do. It was necessary to ask family, friends and indeed anyone who could give us any information. For me this was a great learning curve. I learnt the names of mountains, valleys, villages, towns, people and events that I would never have known had it not been for this discovery. Some people even hinted that I probably knew more about the area than those who lived here. I don’t know about that but I gained a lot of knowledge about this place I live in thanks to Milan.

Eventually, anyway, we gained a database of pictures. We put most of them online and continued to scan the rest. To date I have around 4500 black and white plus 500 colour images on my computer and I estimate this to be roughly 60% of the total number of negatives – the best quality ones to be precise. On the website at the moment I have nearly 3500 pictures but I am in the process of redesigning – with the end intention of having 5000 there for all to see.

Šaradin’s Significance Today

Our thinking has always been that these photographs are of such historical value to the area that they need to be seen by everyone from the people who lived during the period the images cover down to the younger generation who never saw what it was like then. But the body of work as a whole is of immense value to a wider demographic. It spans a huge chunk of Slovakia’s recent past from the 1940s through to the 1980s, and shows unusual glimpses into how people lived, worked and played: an important insight not only into the times but also, in a country as seldom documented or championed as Slovakia is, an insight into the foundations of Slovak culture during almost the entirety of its time under Communism. All this feels, in short, like a glimpse into something which would otherwise forever have remained hidden.

Construction of the Cable Car- image courtesy of Mike Clapham/Milan Šaradin

The end of the ski season at Chleb – image courtesy of Mike Clapham/Milan Šaradin

Milan Šaradin (1910-1984): Life at a Glance

During his life Šaradin was a keen photographer, but also a campaigner for the conservation of the environment, civic developer, sports personality and publicist.

1930 – 1937 He worked as a Typographer in Zilina for a print company called Krano.

1939 – 1944 He was manager of a Malá Fatra mountain hotel in Štefanová, during which time the hotel was burned down, amongst many others in the area, by the Germans.

1944-1947 After the war he organised the rebuilding of Malá Fatra’s most popular mountain house, Chata pod Chlebom (Chalet under Chleb).

1947-1962 From 1947 he organised the building of the main chair lift in Vrátna and also played a role in the construction of other lifts in the Vrátna area. Then for a time he was the man in charge of the area’s chairlifts. He co-founded the Mountain Rescue Service in Vrátna, which became the Malá Fatra region’s key Mountain Rescue base. Mainly due to his dedication and love of the local area, he founded the first tourism centre for Terchová and its surroundings.

1962-1967 He was so successful in promoting the area that Vrátna was added, in 1962, to the international category for tourism and five years later (1967) he helped Vrátna to become an Area of Outstanding National Beauty and ultimately the National Park (národný park) of Malá Fatra that exists today.

Besides his many publications, in 1996 during Janošíkové dni (an annual festival in honour of the region’s fabled outlaw, Juraj Jánošík), Šaradin’s work was included as part of the Vrátna – Malá Fatra exhibition. A book was also produced, “Veď je tá Terchová” which contains many of Milan’s photographs. He was also an active member of a climbing club, IAMES, and he received many awards for his work with the mountain rescue service, tourism, skiing and climbing.

The majority of his work was dedicated to this beautiful area that he loved.
 “Janošik’s country fulfilled me and gave me the best days of my life” he is quoted as saying. “It gave me something to admire every day.”

Modern-Day Malá Fatra Snaps

If people are interested they can see photos of the construction of our chalet on my website. We also detail a lot of what we do over here in Malá Fatra on our blogs, Mikez Blog covering general information and Marias Blog on which she talks about beekeeping and crocheting in Slovakia.

The Tech Spec: How Šaradin’s Old Films Were Preserved

People always seem to ask how things are done so this is the techy side of the discovery.

I scanned the negatives using an Epson Perfection V700: this is a flatbed scanner with film holders and produces very good results. The scanning software is Lasersoft Silverfast Studio Ai Version 8.5.

The negatives get scanned into my Homebuilt PC. The software I use to process and archive the images was originally Adobe Lightroom but now I use Capture One Pro.

I have not retouched the images in any great amount, because they varied in condition and colour. One thing I did to them all was de-saturate the colour: thus leaving them in pure black and white and crop if needed. However I have kept the original scans before any adjustment was made (much like keeping the negatives or RAW images of today).

I am in the process of rebuilding the website with the intention of putting all or most of the images online using the Genesis framework which should allow faster access.

A moving encounter between long-lost relatives bought together through the Slovakia genealogy tours. ©adventoura

Tours: Ancestry Trips Through Slovakia

Slovakia’s turbulent history – with stints under the control of several different empires – means tracing your roots can be tough. Nevertheless, many of those with Slovak ancestry do want to take up the challenge, and it’s here that one of the country’s newest tour operators comes in handy.

Based in the High Tatras, Ancestry and Genealogy Tours Slovakia have many years’ previous experience as an adventure tour operator, Adventoura, but have recently added this separate arm to their enterprise: partly because of the owner’s interest in uncovering more information about his own heritage (he’s connected to the Rusyn people of Eastern Slovakia, and to a small village in Slovakia’s whiskey-producing region of Stará L’ubovña. The premise is simple: if you want to discover more about your roots, either Slovak or (as investigations sometimes pan out) any roots that originate in the countries surrounding Slovakia such as Poland or Ukraine, then get in touch with them beforehand, allow them a few weeks to do the wider research into your family history in the region and then, when the necessary information has been gleaned, and family members in Slovakia and vicinity contacted, book your flight to Slovakia to commence the experience.

Packages with such specifics being researched and incorporated into the tour are all unique and tailor-made to the individual requirements of the customers. The key theme of the trip will be the reunion with long-lost relatives – if Ancestry and Genealogy tours Slovakia have managed to locate them, and if the customers so desire. Trips can last up to 14 days in some cases, with every aspect from food to accommodation possible to arrange with the agency.

Often, partly because migration was historically higher from Eastern Slovakia, and because the agency is based in the eastern half of the country, tours take in sights in this part of Slovakia of historic interest. There is the personal level, too: generally, those intrigued by their family’s past are also fascinated to see what the places their family were surrounded by in their daily lives are like. Thus Eastern Slovakia’s wooden churches and the gorgeous Unesco-listed town of Bardejov and Levoča (where the historic archives for the area are located, and which can be visited as part of the tour) are popular stop-offs on the itinerary.

“Every trip involves a totally different story or set of anecdotes” smiles Erik Ševčík, who set up the company. “Quite funny is when, because of the family’s excitement and getting back in touch, the customers and the relatives they have been reunited with forget they can’t speak the same language (because older people in Slovakia rarely speak English, and many of those retracing roots have English as their mother tongue, not Slovak any longer). So they are chatting to each other and neither can understand the words the other is saying, yet on some deeper level they really are getting on with each other like old family members already after just one meeting!

I have been doing this a while now, but the circumstances of meetings are so touching that leaving with customers to continue on the journey never gets any easier – it’s always tough and emotional.”

FULL DETAILS OF HOW TO START ARRANGING YOUR TRIP WITH ANCESTRY AND GENEALOGY TOURS SLOVAKIA ARE AVAILABLE ON THEIR WEBSITE

 

Beckov Castle ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Around Trenčin: Beckov Castle

I remember, sure, the first time I left the beloved Southwest England of my childhood for a long while, but oddly enough, what I remember more vividly is returning to it again after that first lengthy absence. The Berry’s Coach out of Hammersmith bus station in the afternoon winter murk, the London suburbs falling away, the neat commuter belt semi-detached houses and slowly, the fields and woods rearing up into what I call true countryside, right around Stonehenge. Passing Stonehenge for me was always a sign of coming home, but it was also representative of the beginning of wild England after being cooped up in the city. There are a myriad Stonehenge’s, in this sense,  around the world: points that mark where wilderness wins the tussle with city sprawl and out-of-town business parks; points that make me, personally, feel truly human. Hrad Beckov, or Beckov Castle, is for me that point in Slovakia. And it is one of the nation’s best and most poignant fortresses.

Beckov vs Stonehenge!

Beckov shares with Stonehenge that gobsmacking, surely multiple accident-causing location off-side of the main west-east road from Bratislava to those really exciting parts of Slovakia’s nature (Malá Fatra, the High Tatras, Slovenský Raj and the far eastern Slovakia). In fact, in honesty, it’s many times more impressive than Stonehenge. Were this dramatic ruined castle placed anywhere in England, it would be swarming with crowds, and tour buses. Not so with Beckov. The lack of crowds is one of the great joys of life in Slovakia, as I have said several times on this site. But even by the standards of what constitutes crowdedness here (this is a nation, remember, where more than twenty cars moving at reduced speed on a main road is considered a tailback), Beckov is not overrun with visitors. On a summer Saturday midday we were among perhaps 15 other people roaming the ruins. Ruins, I should add, that you can get right up to and touch, unlike Stonehenge.

The Arrival

After that stunning first glimpse of the castle straddling a sharp crag a few kilometres shy of Trenčin, looking like some besieged prop from the Lord of the Rings, you take the Nové Mesto nad Váhom exit (before the castle) and arrive in the diminutive village of Beckov via routes 515/507. At the main village “triangle” there’s a small cafe doing rather alright ice cream and offering a little terrace to partake of it on. But save the urge for something sweet until you’re up at the castle – the approach road to which is just south (right) from here. On the way you pass a Jewish cemetery in a wild state of abandon, before climbing up to the left to the custodian office (in-English historical leaflets available), where you’ll part with the entrance fee of 3.50/1.70 Euros per adult/child.

From the broken parapets here you already get some great views of Western Slovakia rising up into the Biele Karpaty, the fore-runners of the bigger mountains further east:

Beckov view… ©englishmaninslovakia.com

Beckov view… ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

 

The route initially leads to a wide grassy forecourt below the base of the craggy upper part of the castle, where there’s a souvenir shop (knight’s armour, anyone?) and an amphitheatre of sorts where maidens in medieval garb explain the castle history for those that want it and offer tours of the ruins in a rather fun way. There are also demonstrations of Slovakia’s blacksmith craft.

A Brief History of Beckov

For those that don’t want to wait for the explanations of the medieval maidens, and who aren’t interested in Wikipedia’s cumbersome but quite informative article on the castle’s legends, the gist of Beckov’s past is that to understand it is to understand the rather infamous local character of Mathias Čak. The area’s all-time top persona non grata, Čak made waves in the medieval Hungarian Empire by proclaiming his own empire, pretty much, in what today is Western Slovakia and Northern Hungary. He was a powerful and power-hungry warlord that, whilst looking out exclusively for his own interests, gave this region an absolute, if short-lived autonomy from about the year 1296 through to his death in 1321. Fair play to the man: during these two decades even the King of Hungary, despite a couple of attempts, could not oust Čak from his lofty perch. Many of the Western Slovakian castles, including Červený Kameň, were under his command during this time (although the guys over at Gýmeš Castle were his enemies), and Beckov, at the time a relatively new fortress, was his too. After Čak’s death, the castle was passed between various lords and, just before fire destroyed it in the 1720s, served as a prison.

Disliking tours at the best of times, we opted against the maiden-guided explanations and instead headed across the forecourt to where there is some serious castle-destroying equipment, namely a huge catapult. Passing here, a path bends down steeply to a wishing well, worth descending to to get the view back up the sheer sides of the bluff on which the castle is built:

©englishmaninslovakia.com

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The upper levels, accessed by returning to the forecourt, are a must to explore – great for the kids, with several nook-and-cranny rooms. One of these contains a dragon – I joke not, one yields superb views of Beckov village and the Biele Karpaty, one is the remains of what at one time was considered Central Europe’s most beautiful chapel, and one contains one of Slovakia’s coolest teahouses – a little place where you can also grab a cold beer and a slab of strudel, for insanely cheap prices.

The teahouse… ©englishmaninslovakia.com

The teahouse… ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Gazing down from, or up at, Beckov’s precipitous walls today, its not hard to understand how, in over four centuries, the castle was never breached but succumbed in the end to fire rather than attacking force.

If you’ve the time, back down under the custodian office a track bends left to another interesting sight: a scale model of the castle in a recess in the rock. You can continue from here, along a vaguely-defined path along a ridge, passed an old watch tower to descend to the road where your car is parked on the edge of Beckov village.

The lookout tower ©englishmaninslovakia.com

The lookout tower ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

And so now you are officially in the North-Western part of Western Slovakia. It’s a moody and dramatic entrance to the region, Beckov, and should not be dismissed with a simple glance as you drive east. Devote an hour or two of your time to it. You’ll never encounter another such mythical beast, or eat strudel in such beautiful surrounds, anywhere else in the country…

 

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

Places to Go: A tucked-away forest park behind the castle in Trenčin

Places to Go: Slovakia’s best music festival in Trenčin

Places to Go: Hiking up in the hills above Trenčin all the way to Bratislava (the Cesta Hrdinov SNP, Stage Two)

Places to Stay: the coolest hotel in Trenčin

Places to Eat & Drink: One of Slovakia’s Finest Restaurants in central Trenčin

Arts & Culture: Celebrating 20 Years of the Pohoda Music Festival

Top Ten Medieval Towns in Slovakia

 

MAP LINK:

ADMISSION: 3.50/1.70 Euros per adult/child.

OPENING: 9am-5pm (April) 9am-5:30pm (May-August) 9am-4:30pm (September and October) 9am-3:30pm (November)

CASTLE WEBSITE: (now with a much-improved English section)

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Beckov Castle it’s 100km northeast to Žilina and 17.8km south to another great castle, Tematín

ALSO READ: Beckov also features in my article for Travel Super Mag on the coolest castle experiences in Slovakia and the Czech Republic, Ruin-Nation

Brezová pod Bradlom: Štefánik’s Stomping Ground

On a surreally misty grey morning the other weekend we drove up into the northeast portion of the Small Carpathians (Malé Karpaty) not far from Trenčin to find out a little more about the most famous Slovak personality of the last 115 years, Milan Rastislav Štefánik.

Štefánik, one of the most influential figures in the founding of the Czechoslovak state after World War One, was born up here in the pretty village of Košiarska, cradled in a pea-green swathe of grazing land between two forested ridges. A whitewashed gaggle of cottages in the village, including the house he grew up in, is to this day a museum dedicated to the man’s life.

RELATED POST: One of our Top Ten Places to Stay in Slovakia is also in Košiarska – coming soon!

Štefánik’s Life At A Glance

Štefánik was born in 1880 when Slovakia was still very much a rural extension of the Austro-Hungary. And Košiarska was strongly influenced by the Hungarian part of the Empire, where Štefánik’s intensely pro-independent Slovakia views didn’t go down too well. So whilst his childhood was here and in the surrounding hills, his formative years were in Prague (where he studied, and met during lectures the future first President of the new Czechoslovak state, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, who gave Štefánik the idea of Czech-Slovak cooperation in a struggle for independence). Subsequently Štefánik was in Paris, where he rose to prominence at the Observatoire de Paris: here he honed his talents for astronomy and was soon being sent on astronomical/diplomatic missions by France around the world.  The diplomatic skills, particularly, would serve him well. In 1916, with Masaryk, he formed the Czechoslovak National Council, the official resistance of the Czechs and Slovaks during World War One to Austria-Hungary – a body which won the respect and support of the Allies, and was recognised, after the Allied victory, as the platform for the new government of Czechoslovakia. Štefánik’s combination of military bravery and diplomacy were integral to getting Czechoslovakia recognised internationally as an independent nation.

Štefánik’s Death

As is so often the case with bright young things (the man was only 39 at the time of his most untimely death) Štefánik’s end is more remembered than his beginning. Along with the three other passengers of the plane that was carrying him from Italy, where he was engaged on business, to Bratislava, he crashed, fatally, just outside the city on May 4th 1919. He had been returning home because he wanted to see his family. And he barely lived to see the Czechoslovak state he had fought so hard to create come into fruition.

Of course, there is a chance that had Štefánik lived he would have become an embittered old politician prone to corruption, just as there is a chance James Dean would have developed gout and flatulence and rapidly made people forget what a heart-throb he had been. Unsurprisingly, this is not a school of thought Slovaks subscribe to. On the contrary, Štefánik is perceived as a great, a fighter and a diplomat, a man that commanded respect, who was plucked from this world far too prematurely. And that air crash in 1919 had aftershocks throughout Slovak culture that resonated far further. First: a wariness that the Czechs, in any potential dual state, sought only to further their own interests and not consider Slovak ones – Czech involvement in Štefánik’s death is the source of much debate. Second: a Slovak apathy towards almost all politicians that would claim to represent them during the following century – Štefánik left behind him a void unfilled to this day).

Bradlo…

What does live on is his memory – enshrined in what is doubtless Slovakia’s finest monument.

The location alone lends it a certain poignant grandeur. From Košiarska the road (one of only four, incidentally, to transect this wild hill range in over 100km) bends down into otherwise unremarkable Brezová pod Bradlom, the main settlement hereabouts, from where another lane corkscrews up onto the forested ridge that looms above the town at 543 metres. But the trees on the crest of the ridge have been cleared, and so the Mohyla Generála M.R Štefánik (tomb to General Štefánik) is visible from afar.

It is a bizarre structure, as monuments in Slovakia go. It was designed and constructed during the years following Štefánik’s death – completed in 1928. This three-level stone pyramid flanked by obelisks at each corner harks of the Mayan temples of Mexico and Guatemala and is a striking sight indeed in the north Slovak countryside. The architect was Dušan Jurkovič (generally considered the greatest Slovak architect ever, and also responsible for the cable car up to Lomnický štít in the High Tatras). The top of the monument (up which you can climb) yields tremendous views both back over the Small Carpathians and forward to the Biele Karpaty/White Carpathians.

Continuing in Štefánik’s Footsteps…

At the north-eastern end of the Small Carpathians that roll all the way southwest to Bratislava, Bradlo sits at something of a terminus of hiking trails – or a starting point for hiking trails, depending on your perspective.

Forging southwest from here is the Štefánikova magistrála- a long-distance hike that traverses the hills southwest (broken, as already mentioned, by a mere four roads) to Bratislava and then across Devinska Kobyla, the last hurrah of the Carpathians, to Devin Castle. On this site we now feature the entire Štefánikova magistrála trail in five stages and with pictures, starting at the Devin Castle end (thus on this site Bradlo features on Stage Five of the hike)

So the red-marked Štefánikova magistrála heads southwest from Bradlo, while the red trail continues northeast from here too, in the new guise of the Cesta Hrdinov SNP (trail of the heroes of the Slovak National Uprising – a trail which continues all the way across Slovakia to Dukla Pass in the far north-east (total hiking time Devin Castle-Dukla Pass 28 days).

Meanwhile, a green trail runs due east from Bradlo and connects after 25 minutes of walking with a little connecter trail down to Košiarska, for those that are interested in seeing Štefánik’s birthplace/museum via a more interesting route.

Three to four days of hiking from Bradlo on the Štefánikova magistrála gets you to Devin Castle, just the other (western) side of Bratislava. But there is one final place you should visit to truly honour one of Slovakia’s most revered all-time heroes. And that is somewhere almost every visitor to the country inadvertently does visit: Bratislava’s airport (!). The airport is in fact called the MR Štefánik airport, but the title goes beyond mere words. It was near Bratislava, after all, that Štefánik died in that plane crash in 1919. And just before security on the upper floor of the airport – just before you depart Slovakia into international airport space – there it is, suspended above you: a faithful replica of the Caproni Ca.3 in which Štefánik had his fatal accident.

MAP LINK:

MORE ON CZECHOSLOVAK MILITARY HISTORY: There are two very informative military history museums in Slovakia which elaborate further on this subject – in Piešt’any (Western Slovakia) and in Svidník (Eastern Slovakia – and very soon due a post.

MORE ON DUŠAN JURKOVIČ:  The only museum to be dedicated to the architect lies down in Brezová pod Bradlom – ask for details at the Town Hall (MAP)

OPENING HOURS: The monument at Bradlo is always open. These days, at least. There was a time when this was not so. For reasons which have yet to be fully explained to me (I am guessing due to a Soviet fear that allowing access would create strong feelings of nationalist sentiment), during Communist times – until 1968 – Bradlo was closed to the public (although it had been finished for some 40 years). In 1968 this changed when hundreds and hundreds of people descended on Bradlo (my ex-girlfriend’s father included) to voice their opinion that people should be allowed to visit the monument freely to find out about Štefánik and properly honour his memory.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Bradlo it’s a 35km drive southeast to Piestany’s best spa on the Kúpeľný ostrov (Spa Island).

 

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Around Trnava: Hlohovec, Beethoven & The Founder of the Slovak Language

The River Vah Flowing Through Hlohovec

The River Vah Flowing Through Hlohovec – image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

As you’ve probably worked out by now, Englishmaninslovakia.co.uk doesn’t focus on well-known Slovakian places so much. We prefer to dig deep to find the truth under the cliches and to this end, on a cold, blustery and crisp day in February, we went to Hlohovec.

I confess we did go there with an attitude of determination to discover something beautiful, if only for the reason that people told us there was nothing beautiful there. Hlohovec is a good example of a medium-sized town in Western Slovakia (on the main route northeast from Bratislava between Trnava and Trenčin) that gets overlooked: because it doesn’t have quite the spectacular location of, say, Poprad, nor the beauty of, say, Bardejov AND because it is near enough to Bratislava and Trnava that its residents simply go to one of these larger cities if they need anything like a night out.

Hlohovec does have some claims to fame. It has a castle, Hlohovsky Zámok, in an expansive park just outside the town. It’s got landscaped gardens and a quite impressive theatre that often has Beethoven concerts in memory of the town’s most famous visitor, who stopped over for a night at the castle en route to the spa at Piešt’any and may have given a recital there, depending on which version of the story you listen to (actually, no joke, Bratislava and Western Slovakia do have a rich heritage of attracting top-notch composers – see a separate post on this very topic). The problem (aha I hear you say) is that whilst the park is great for a walk (you can even carry on walking above the castle into the hills and get to a small observatory with good views of Western Slovakia) it is, ahem, closed. And also in a bad state of repair.

If they invested money in the castle refurbishment, this town really would regain some more of the life it clearly once had back. In fact, a consortium tried to do this about ten years ago but local government officials doubted its potential to succeed and rejected the bid. More recently, some aspiring young inhabitants of the town tried to join the local council with a promise to focus on restoring the castle gardens and the castle.They too were crushed. In fact, it could quite accurately be said that Hlohovec is not a Trenčin (in terms of beauty) mainly because of terrible management by government officials. The castle refurbishment issue remains unresolved because, ignorantly, local officials just don’t seem to see the point.

Because there is a (very poorly publicised) castle tour here. I mean, in this sense, a tour of the many unheralded but spectacular castles in the immediate vicinity of Hlohovec. Starting at Červený Kameň to the southwest you can progress northeast via a spectacular Western Slovakia Castle Tour that will be the very next post on this blog; a castle tour that cuts right through Hlohovec. I have rarely seen a town with so much unfulfilled potential as here. It’s not just the castle: Hlohovec lies in astoundingly beautiful scenery.

Looking Back on Hlohovec as you ascend into the Male Karpaty

Looking Back on Hlohovec as you ascend into the Male Karpaty

You can follow trails, right from where this picture is taken, up west above the banks of the Váh into the wooded hills of the Malé Karpaty, on red and yellow-marked trails through abandoned castles and old quarries almost all the way to Trenčin (there are chaty, or mountain houses, en route, and this particular arm of the hills is known as Považský Inovec). A cycle path also connects it along the river bank itself to Piešt’any.

Church in Hlohovec's old monastery complex

Church in Hlohovec’s old monastery complex – image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

So, as for nature, Hlohovec is first-class. The architecture tells a slightly different story (yeah – a bit obliterated by Communism) but nevertheless in the centre there’s an attractive pedestrian street with a few surprisingly good cafes (and, get this, a jazz club!); there’s also the grounds of an old monastery (C. late 15th century) where the father of the Slovak language, Ján Hollý, lived for a while. Don’t shoot me down. I know Ľudovít Štúr gets credited with being the father of Slovak, but Hollý actually wrote in Slovak first (he was the first poet/writer to famously do so) and Štúr came asking for Hollý’s advice when he was establishing Slovak as an official written language. The grounds also contain a museum with lots of old pictures of the town back in the days when it was also one of the most prominent centres of Jewish culture and learning in the old Austro-Hungarian empire.

So should you stop off there when you’re heading northeast for the more famous beauty of the Tatras? Probably. Just to see how a real Slovak town ticks along. And possibly to do some really amazing hiking.

Hlohovec Best-of:

Best Cafe: Coffee Berry, Kapitána Nálepku 4. The cakes come from the Piešt’any cake shop I’ve raved about on another post and with quite a modern vibe, it’s the place where everyone hangs in Hlohovec! It’s right in the centre: here is their map.

Best Restauraunt: Jašter. An out-of-town place on a hill backed by a wood which has nice summer barbecues and a high quality of food. The link here gives good directions.

Best Sights: The castle and the park, the museum, the river and the surrounding hills. Oh, and a special meadow called Poniklecová Lúcka, which is one of the best places in Slovakia to see the rare pasque flower growing.

Best Place to Stay: U Janásov. This is unconfirmed as I’ve not stayed there, but it has the best location (it’s where pic no. 2 is taken), looks by far the most photogenic spot in town and by all accounts is the best deal (it’s sometimes closed in the winter months). Hotel Jeleň is in the centre and is another option.

MAP LINK

GETTING THERE: Leopoldov is the nearest station on the main Bratislava-Košice train line and it’s here you’ll need to change for trains to Hlohovec. (42 minutes past the hour every hour between 6:42 and 20:42, journey time 6 minutes – you can see the station on the map link above)

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From the lovely town of Hlohovec it’s 24km north to one of our most idyllically located Western Slovakia restaurants, Reštauracia Furman

LAST UPDATED: April 2017