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

 

Slovak Vodka Corners the UK Market!

Stará Ľubovňa has a fair amount to answer for when it comes to Slovakia spirits. Just beyond town, the highly successful Nestville Park distillery in Hniezdne produces Slovakia’s only whiskey. But in Stará Ľubovňa itself, the Gas Familia distillery produces a number of alcoholic drinks and one of these, the singular Goral Vodka, has recently become Slovakia’s first vodka to break into the UK market. In fact, it’s one of Slovakia’s very first alcoholic drinks to really make it in Britain – other distinctive Slovak drinks such as Eastern Slovakia’s Tokaj wine or the famous Tatranský čaj from the High Tatras have never yet secured their position on UK supermarket shelves.

The “Goral” in the vodka’s title comes from the Goral people who inhabited the Slovak High Tatras around the community of Ždiar, and whose culture remains prevalent there today. Folks from this neck of the woods are said to be have physical strength and a purity of spirit and this is what Goral vodka strives for as it makes inroads on your palate. An initial creaminess as well as lighter notes of spice and citrus are the other hits your taste buds can expect.

The vodka is produced using durum wheat which then undergoes seven-column distillation through natural materials like charcoal before the cool, clean water flowing off the High Tatras peaks gets added.

Goral vodka has been available since 2010 in Slovakia but in the UK it’s now available at a growing number of outlets, including the boutique hotel Hampton Manor and online at www.masterofmalt.com or www.lokiwine.co.uk

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.

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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.

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Stará Ľubovňa: A Journey to the Roots of Slovak Whiskey at Nestville Park Distillery

A few months back I was doing my usual, intermittent mooch around my favourite Bratislava whisky shop, the White Mouse, when I noticed something tucked away in the corner of the window display gathering dust that I hadn’t glimpsed on previous visits, or indeed anywhere else: a bottle of Nestville Park, and the caveat, in small print: ‘Distilled and Bottled in Slovakia’.

It was their No1 offering – a blend and, as it turned out, the standard bottling for the distillery – and being a purist when in comes to whisky (yes, or whiskey) I would not have normally given it any more attention. Except for that small print. I had not until that moment, having lived in Slovakia over three years, been aware that the country produced whiskey whatsoever.

“What’s it like?” I asked the owner, who is a tad taken aback, as we normally chat about the Islay’s or the Speyside’s.

He considers a moment.

“It’s not bad” he says.

Crucial, that. Slovaks are some of the planet’s most self-deprecating people, particularly where anything intrinsically ‘Slovak’ is concerned, and here was one of its more worldly wise citizens, on record saying Slovakia’s foray into whisky-making was alright.

From that moment, the idea of a trip out to see where Nestville Park was made slowly cemented in my mind.

Part of the reason I love trekking out to whisky distilleries is the sheer randomness of the experience. There is no Earthly reason to trek out to a Campbelltown in Scotland or the outskirts of a Fort Worth in Texas unless you love whisky (Springbank and Firestone & Robinson, respectably). It provides a motivation to get out to those way-off-the-beaten-track places that would otherwise remain in obscurity.

And perhaps Stará Ľubovňa, the town to which you need to head to visit the home of Nestville Park, would have otherwise floundered in obscurity, too, were it not for its whiskey production. It is prettier, in fact, than either a Campbelltown or a Fort Worth: with a castle, a folk museum and a history dating back to the 13th century (although many more easily accessible Slovak towns can claim this). And more than either a Campbelltown or a Fort Worth, it is on a road to nowhere, in a rarely-visited part of a country that already receives comparatively few international visitors. They say that once you reach Stará Ľubovňa, you have truly arrived in Eastern Slovakia, which claims cultural distinctiveness from the west in everything from its people (the Roma and the Rusyn as well as the Polish and Ukrainians have a significant influence here) to its religion (it lies on the crossroads of the Catholic and Orthodox branches of Christianity). But the most obvious reason why the town would be the gateway to Eastern Slovakia is that, as you travel east from the High Tatras hubs of Poprad and Kežmarok, you pass nothing for the preceding 30 minutes but rolling emerald hills bursting with fertile farmland, swooping up from the banks of the nascent Poprad River.

The bus from Kežmarok (full of elderly couples that hunch deep into their coats and sigh as the light drizzle becomes a steadily harder rain as we wind up the valley road) stops a few kilometres short of  Stará Ľubovňa, in Hniezdne, the smallest city in the erstwhile Kingdom of Hungary. The name is appropriate: not only does ‘hniez’ in Slovak mean ‘nest’ (from whence the distillery derives its name) but the small, sleepy town is at the very cradle of national history, being founded as one of the earliest Slovak settlements after Nitra – in the 12th century. Certainly, by  this time, Slavic people would have been working the land hereabouts and the Northern Spiš region soon became well known for its agriculture. Cream of the crops? Wheat, barley and rye – just the grain needed for the production of the water of life – and Slovakia’s first recorded distillery duly got established here by at least the 18th century.

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It’s a stark contrast between the ornate, peeling facades of the central townhouses and the spick, span entranceway to the distillery on the outskirts. I passed under the imposing wooden gateway proclaiming Nestville Park as Slovakia’s first (indeed, only) whiskey. Rain danced on an almost deserted car park: I was the sole visitor, another big difference compared to the Scottish distilleries with which I was familiar.

It’s hard to understand why is Nestville Park is an exceptionally well-laid-out tourist attraction. It is not only a whiskey distillery, it is also an exhibition on the history of whiskey making in this neck of the woods.

The two girls in the reception area glanced at me a tad incredulously when I walked in; the more so when I spoke to them in Slovak. Foreign tourists, it appeared, were none too common here. I was given the ‘English’ tour which consists of a guide (one of the afore-mentioned young ladies) who couldn’t speak a word of English pressing stop/start on an obtrusively loud American-accented recording, quite unnecessarily as it turned out because the displays in the ‘historical section’ of the distillery were in English. Nevertheless, thus we proceeded, me reading the in-English noticeboards, then having the same words replayed to me with a mechanical Deep-South twang.

The tour, though, was an enlightening romp through recreations of an 18th century cooperage and smithy, plus insights into how agriculture was practiced here in the 12th to 17th centuries. You get to have a ring of a huge bell in the belfry, too – once used to summon the workers!

Then the visit to the modern distillery commences.

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Sniffing that grain! ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Single malt aficionados should known straight off that Nestville Park is more akin to American bourbon – the maturation process ranging from three to seven years on average.

The malting process is done by hand. After 2-3 days soaked in water and malt is laid out in the malthouse for around a week to germinate. Then it gets switched to a kiln for further drying (2-3 days). The malt then has the water added to it – in Nestville Park’s case, water from a spring that has been flowing underground from the Bela Tatras part of the High Tatras mountains, and with a high iron, calcium and magnesium content, filtering through Paleogen-era bedrock en route. The fermentation room, considering Nestville Park’s products are mostly sold to a Slovak-only demographic, is huge: some 20 tanks each able to have 75,000 litres of alcohol bubbling away inside them.

The distillery overall has a modern feel – despite the historic record of a distillery around this site dating back to at least the 19th century – and the buildings are mostly very 21st century. Its pièce de résistance however, the tasting room, veritably oozes with history. Here, in an ornate hall hung on one side by what is Europe’s largest wood-carved picture, you get to partake of that well-earned sample dram – or, should I say, sizeable glass of the good stuff. The ambience is much more traditional rustic Slovak – albeit realised in an attractive way. And whilst slurping their complementary ‘green’ whisky – a grassy, earthy three year-old, you can also drink in how the whiskey production kicked off hereabouts historically: a reinterpretation of the medieval peasants that laboured to produce whiskey in Spiš region for centuries – and their life and culture.

A Nestville Park Whiskey Tasting

My favourite Nestville Park product was undoubtedly the single-barrel seven year-old. Think butterscotch and rum and raisin ice cream with a powerful shortbready afterkick. Just try it. At least the equal of most American bourbons – and coming with a good century more of history, too.

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

MAP LINK:

MORE INFO: Nestville Park website

ADMISSION: 5 Euros (standard tour with one tasting), 7 Euros (tour and three tastings)

OPENING: Daily 9am to 5pm (between May and September), Tuesday to Sunday 10am to 4pm (from October to April)

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Nestville Park in Hniezdne it’s only 58km east to Bardejov, one of the top ten most beautiful medieval towns in Slovakia and start point for visiting some of Eastern Slovakia’s famous wooden churches.