Semana Santa Part II: Slovakia
We found our way to our host’s pretty easily in Kosice. It’s a university town and people were almost offended that we asked them if they spoke English instead of just assuming. They spoke with perfect accents and grammar better than ours, of course. Our Italian host made us a delicious meal (of vegetables, which I was missing dearly) and then we went out to the bars to hang out with her friends. We were planning on getting up early the next morning to go to the airport and pick up our (Shockingly affordable) rental car, but it seems to be a rule in Eastern Europe that when you have guests you must stay up very late drinking lots of beer and trying shots of all the different kinds of liquor the bar has. We had a great
time but were hurting the next morning. Our host’s roommate was Chilean and we enjoyed speaking Spanish with him and sharing the greatest drunken 1-euro a slice pizza on the way home late that night. When we woke up the next day our hosts had already gone to school and work and we slowly made our way to the airport, trying the trains and then ending up in a cheap and very exciting taxi when we gave up on public transportation. We picked up our car and we were on our way.
We had contacted two hosts in a remote Eastern region of Slovakia because we’d heard the area was very isolated, infrequently visited,
and had a UNESCO world-heritage-site church in a tiny village. Both hosts spoke Spanish better than English and both said yes. We showed up at our host Dusana’s house after having taken a detour to eat since we were getting there kind of late. Gypsies and babushkas stared at us unabashedly as they clearly hadn’t seen tourists in many many years, if ever. We were so full after having eaten but Dusana’s mother insisted upon feeding us a huge hearty traditional slovakian meal. We couldn’t say no and it was delicious but I thought I might explode. And thus began one of the most wonderful couchsurfing experiences we’ve had. Dusana had spent a long time in South America and her Spanish was better than her English so we spoke Spanish the whole time we were with her. She was living with her parents while re-arranging her life after her long trip, looking for more work opportunites abroad (as
there are absolutetly none in rural Slovakia). Her family was welcoming and we felt comfortable right away. We went on a short hike to a viewpoint near her house and we saw deer, snow, lakes, streams, and a forest more expansive than any I’ve seen in Europe thus far. After more traditional food for dinner, we retired to her room to hang out in her hammock (brought from South America) and drink her father’s home-made liquor. The next day we all went to see the little church in Ruská Bystrá, a very remote village tucked up into the hills. Luckily Dusana came with us because when we got there we found that the church was closed and locked. Dusana wandered over to the nearest house, where a babushka (that’s what I call all the little old women with their head scarves in Eastern Europe, they are abundant) was working in her garden. She asked how we could see the church, and we were directed to go to the bar
(there was only one in this village of 120 people) and ask there. We did, and we drank the delicious Slovakian drink Kofola (it’s like cola but so much better) while Dusana talked to the bar tender, who called the mayor. The mayor sent over his daughter, who took us to the church and opened it up for us to see. Using Dusana as a translator we learned that we were the first visitors to the village in five years, when some Japanese tourists had come through. That explained all the staring. The little church was amazing, wooden, and with a fascinating onion-shaped steeple. It didn’t take long to explore its one room, and then it was
time to go, to head on to our next destination. We took Dusana back to her house, where we were showered with more gifts for our journey–home made cookies, home-grown apples, home-made wine (three liters!), a half liter of her father’s home-made slivovitz, maps of hiking trails and roads, traditional painted wooden eggs…Visiting people who love guests but rarely have them is one of the most wonderful feelings. And Dusana was really genuinely a nice person, with tons of experiences that have made her wise. She was generous and kind and optimistic about
humanity, a truly delightful girl. I loved talking to her about Gypsies because of all the Europeans we know, she has had the most contact with them and is the most tolerant of their presence and culture. Hating gypsies is a very common thing here, mostly without having the slightest idea about what a gypsy actually is. In Dusana’s village, Ubrez, is full of gypsies, many of whom have houses. They just live alongside everyone else there, doing their three hours of community service per day in exchange for a certain amount of government money. I wouldn’t say that they are integrated (or that the ethnically Slovakian inhabitants are integrated with them, it could go either way I suppose) but they are definitely a part of the community, and you say hello to them they say hello to you just like in any neighborhood. That is not the way gypsies are treated here in Spain, or in Greece or France, or in any other country I’ve been to. The most liberal, left-wing Europeans still tend to be unapologetically racist towards gypsies. I don’t really have much of an opinion on it because I don’t understand the complicated history and relations
between the cultures, but I do find it odd.
After we left Dusana was when we began to feel the effects of being tourists in the off-season. We learned our lesson about traveling in the off-season when we went to Sardinia, but we bought our tickets for Slovakia so far in advance that we didn’t know what the weather would be like. We headed up to the High Tatras mountains, which were stunning, like the rockies, but covered a small area and were surrounded by expensive hotels and touristic developments. The hiking trails were closed due to snow, so we decided to go to lower ground and find somewhere else to hike. We also stopped by the most famous castle in the country, Spis Castle, which was closed but apparently it’s not worth going into anyway, it’s the exterior that’s spectacular. It’s mostly a ruin, but it’s majestic and imposing and dominates the landscape from its hilltop. We drove to another church in Zehra, beautiful. pristine and white, with a large onion dome. We stopped in the gorgeous medieval town of Levoca and as the sun was going down we began to search for lodging. We finally decided to look for something near the national park
Slovensky Raj (Slovensky Paradise) as we’d heard that there was good hiking there even in the early spring. We saw a sign for a ‘penzion’ on the outskirts of a town called Smizany and pulled into a cute bed and breakfast for 25 euros per night (for two!). We negotiated our one-night stay in very limited german/english (which really does consist of numbers, rooms, and numbers of people staying in the room: Eine zimmer, eine nacht, zwei persons!). We don’t speak any German at all but the older people in the region seemed to speak much more German than English and also tended to think we were German (Austin really does look German, so I guess it makes sense). The owners of the place were very excited when I turned over my Canadian passport although they really couldn’t tell me why they were so happy about it. They said “Canada! Beautiful!” a few times, which got the point across. We ended up staying in the bed and breakfast for two nights. They made us ridiculously huge breakfasts, using google translate to ask us what we wanted (“ham and eggs or sausage and scramble?”) and then they would make fun of us for not finishing our five eggs and 18 sausages. In the morning, a little old man would show up on his bicycle
to chat with the owners for an hour or so while they drank coffee together. On Easter their whole family came over to have breakfast and we had a special traditional meal with some sort of delicious fish spread along with the usual eggs and meat. We checked out the bar next door, too, a funny little smoke-filled place with deer heads on the wall and cheap beer. We were really on the outskirts of the town, which gave us easy access to the national park, Slovensky Raj, where the elevation is low enough that you can hike during the off-season. We went for a six hour hike through a canyon where they’ve built ladders and creaky, unstable metal platforms along the cliffs. We followed what would have been a series of waterfalls–but were instead ice-falls–up another canyon to an old monastery. The hike was beautiful, and I’m glad we saw it during the down-season as there were no other people. I have spent so long searching for quiet woods in Europe, and we finally found them! Of course, we weren’t in total wilderness; we stumbled onto a few campgrounds and cottages, but everything was abandoned for the season. We tried to go to Dobsina Ice Cave, which we’ve heard is amazing, but it was closed, of course, so we had to be content with the hike.
The next day, we got back on the autovia and drove to a village called Vlkolinec, a Unesco world heritage site that I found to be rather over-rated although the wooden houses are very interesting. “Vlk” means wolf, and as we were trying to find a way to hike into the village so as to avoid the parking fee, we got lost and stumbled upon one! I was so happy, but kind of skeptical, as it really did look like a big husky but didn’t behave at all like a dog. I’ve seen wolves before in Yellowstone, but not this close, and this one was much lighter-coloured given the season. There was still snow on the ground. It was just trotting along an old logging road when we noticed it and it noticed us (though probably it noticed us a good while before). It turned around and looked at us for what seemed like a long time, really examining us, and then continued on its way, up into the woods. I didn’t get to my camera in time, but I wasn’t really concerned with getting a picture; it wouldn’t have turned out well as the whole thing happened so fast but it might have provided undeniable proof of our encounter. A wolf, and furthermore, a wolf in Europe! This experience really out-shone the touristy village so I can’t say I recommend
Vlkolinec , but I do recommend getting lost in the woods around there. And pierogies, we found some fabulous pierogies along the way, along with bryndzové halusky, a delicious gnocchi-like dish smothered in smoked sheep cheese and bacon.
Our time was running out; we had one more night and so we decided to visit a city that had been strongly recommended to us, Bojnice. The castle that dominates the town looks like what I imagined when I pretended I was a princess, it’s got a moat, four tall, round towers with conical roofs, exquisite stained glass and luxurious period furniture. There’s even a dungeon/cave where one would imagine they kept a dragon. The town itself isn’t very interesting, it’s lovely and clean and very expensive for Slovakia. We were looking for a room and we asked a woman who was standing outside her bed and breakfast (well, we sort of asked her, it all happened in German of course), and she said there was no room at her place but to wait while she called a friend. She talked on her cell phone for a minuted then gestured for us to follow her across the street, which we did. She introduced us to a deliciously frumpy and smelly old woman who greeted us enthusiastically and used her german-slovak dictionary to tell us ‘wilkommen’. This new lady led us into her house, struggled up a ladder and had us follow her into her attic which had been converted into an apartment. Smoking inside was ‘verboten’ as was leaving the doors open as she had a bunch of tomato starts in the kitchen and they could get frostbite. I have no recollection of how this was explained to us and in what language or with what gestures, but there was enthusiasm and smiles all around, more praise of Canada, and then she brought us cookies and tarts. The attic apartment smelled like old people and rose-scented air-spray but it was cheap and warm and I liked that the old folks downstairs were avid gardeners. Our window overlooked their neatly hilled potatoes and flourishing beans. We walked around the castle grounds for a bit and then went to a bar where they were playing a Shania Twain concert DVD over and over again so we left after one beer. It was tough to find decent, cheap food in Bojnice, I get the feeling that the town is for the wealthier class of tourists. There is an abundance of spas and five-star hotels. We discovered that the castle’s tour hours would cause us to be a few hours late to return our rental car, but decided to be Spanish about it and just not care. We toured the castle, which was amazing and everything we expected it to be and like a magical fairy-tale. You weren’t allowed to take pictures but everyone was, and not even
surreptitiously. After our tour, we stopped at a McDonalds (continuing our quest to try it in every country; I can assure you it is different everywhere, and I guess that’s the idea behind glocalization), which is something we used to do ironically but has grown into a much looked-forward-to treat while travelling and in a hurry. I’m not even ashamed of it anymore. It was delicious. And then we were off to our final destination–Bratislava! (Where no one mentioned the fact that our car was returned four hours late.)
The old center of the city is gorgeous, you can get lost in all those adorably European winding cobblestone streets. Once you leave the historic district, however, you are in a communist-era concrete jungle. It is absolutely hideous. Our hosts lived in the outskirts across the river, in a modern post-communist building (lucky for them, I, however, really wanted to see the inside of one of those ugly things) in a very nice apartment where we had our own bedroom. We stayed up with our awesome host, Michal, until very late (we always do that) and then stumbled hung over in the early morning to the bus stop, where we got on the bus without paying (they make it quite difficult to pay even if you want to) to the airport, and then back to Madrid we went!
I am enchanted with Eastern Europe. I also learned that the best strategy when traveling is to find the most remote, least-visited region, hit up a couchsurfer there and enjoy the insight you gain into the local life. Our most authentic experience, the most I felt like we were really in a foreign place, was visiting the Eastern province of Sobrance with Dusana. The hospitality, the rural-ness, the bucolic countryside! It is so tempting and so easy to romanticize it all and I think we actually had the luxury of doing so as travelers. Looking at all the babushkas, though, you know they’ve had hard lives. The history of the region is too complex for me to begin to understand; I can’t imagine how the rise and fall of communism and multitude of wars have affected the people who have lived through it. Are they jaded and cynical? The only Slovakians we met and spoke to were people of our generation, who definitely have a edgier mindset than most people in Southern Spain (not that life here has always been care-free either). That fabled ‘dark’ side of Eastern Europe is evident in the jokes that you hear, idiomatic expressions, art, and music. The people are more reserved but just as hospitiable, enjoy quiet bars where you can sit and talk and are more interested in ‘thinky’ pursuits. I love it; I feel like though I prefer the life style here, we have more in common with the average Slovakian or Hungarian than with the average Andalucian. But I can’t really explain why or how this came about.