Sunday, 7 November 2010


Tin roofs, apple trees and loudspeakers. As we drove through the southern side of the Beskid hills, after crossing from Poland, these were among the things that first struck us about Slovakia. The villages looked subtly different, with houses arranged neatly parallel to each other along the main streets, gable-ends to the road, and nearly all covered with silver-grey tin roofs. The apple trees grew abundantly in villages and by roadsides, the upper branches still heavy with fruit. Maybe the climate on this side of the hills is just milder, for we saw none in Poland. And every village seems to have a lamppost-mounted loudspeaker in its main street – we don’t know what they are used for but they were clearly off when we passed.
The village of Miroľa near the Dukla Pass

We entered Slovakia at the Dukla Pass, which is the lowest point in the eastern Carpathians at 500 metres. Driving downhill into Slovakia, you pass numerous WW2 Soviet guns, tanks and planes preserved on plinths by the roadside, and at the bottom a Soviet tank prepares to crush a Nazi one at the signpost to the ‘Valley of Death’ (‘Udolie Srmti’). These all commemorate the Dukla offensive, when the Soviet Army forced its way through German lines into Czechoslovakia in the winter of 1944. The ‘Valley of Death’ is slightly bizarre – a lovely, gently-sloping vale where old tanks are positioned in the fields and poking from woods as if caught in mid-attack.

 WW2 military hardware preserved near the Dukla Pass and ‘Valley of Death’

I (Rob) had had a quick preview of the country the previous day when I took a cycle ride over the border from our campsite in Poland, going as far as the small town of Medzilaborce and back. I passed through more picturesque villages with wooden churches, and then noticed pictures of Andy Warhol and his works starting to appear on signs. It seems that Mr and Mrs Varchola/Warhol senior had emigrated from the village of Miková, and now the whole district has gone Andy-mad. Medzilaborce is an ugly, depressed-looking town surrounded by decaying yards and factories, but sells itself to visitors on its Andy Warhol museum, complete with some original works, which was opened by some Warhol/Varchola relatives. The big tin of Campbells Soup by the bus-stop looked incongruous.
 Andy Warhol signs in Miková and Medzilaborce

We had been excited in southern Poland to rejoin the hills after such a long time, but were in for even more treats on this side of the border. Rob has a weakness for views of mountains, so there was much ooing and ahhing as he pointed out the High Tatra mountains in the distance, accompanied by a lot of “we haven’t been this high since Norway”. Still, there is something about soaring heights which uplifts the heart, though I suspect I’d feel different about being up that high at this time of year.
Villages between Bardejov and Levoca – Brutovce, Obručne and Vyšné Repaše

Our first real town of note in Slovakia was Bardejov. The outskirts were not too impressive, being grubby and industrial, but the centre was a gothic gem. Medieval walls enclose the old town, where well preserved merchant houses from the 15th to the 17th centuries border a large sloping square, in the middle of which is a very Germanic looking town hall. In one corner of the square sits the basilica church of St. Egidia, with its tall, straight lines providing a welcome change to all the Baroque architecture of recent weeks. Inside the church are a series of about fifteen gilded wooden altarpieces from the later 1400s. These are wonderfully painted with biblical scenes of the lives of various saints and it is amazing that they are so well preserved – St Catherine holding her wheel was particularly good. As it was a Saturday afternoon, we had anticipated the town to be fairly quiet, but we hadn’t expected the whole place to have shut down quite so completely by 1 p.m. We managed to find one place open for lunch, but it was Italian, so offered little chance to sample our first real Slovakian menu. The cemetery was busy, on the run up to All Saints and All Souls days, but no shops were open. We were forced to shop in a large supermarket – much to Rob’s displeasure. None of this was what we wanted for our first experience of Slovakian food.

We were also experiencing problems refilling our water tank and drove round every garage in the town on the look-out for a tap. We knew we could get by with a couple of 5 litre bottles of water, but it’s not as reassuring as a full tank. You have to be a bit philosophical about these things and have the attitude that something generally turns up. It all eats into our time though, and it was dark as we drove along country lanes looking for somewhere to park for the night. In the end we stopped in the massive, but largely empty, car park in the spa town of Bardejovské Kúpele, only some 3km from Bardejov itself. It’s always a little bit disconcerting to be cooking and going to bed in such a potentially public space, but it has never been a problem to us so far. Once our blinds are drawn you can barely tell we’re in the van and we are well shut off from the cold and dark in our own little world. Rob spent the evening concerned about our lack of water, our dwindling gas and whether a parking attendant would turn up in the morning demanding €2.50 for a bus or 33 cents for a car. On top of that the clocks were changing! As it was, we woke nice and early on Sunday 31st, no-one asked for any money and we drove back into Bardejov to have breakfast and watch everyone coming and going from church services.
Bardejovské Kúpele – Old spa hotel and detail

The Slovakian Beskid villages have many wooden churches, just as on the Polish side of the border, and we visited a good example at Hervartov, just a few km from Bardejov. Here too they were mainly built as Uniate churches by the local Lemk people, who speak a dialect close to Ukrainian. History has been kinder to them in Slovakia than Poland and many villages proudly flaunt their ethnic identity with bilingual signs in Slovak and Ukrainian.

From Bardejov we continued south-westwards through more lovely uplands, and villages of old wooden houses, where the tin roofs had all but disappeared. This brought us into the Spiš region, and after a brief stop in Levoča, we continued to Hrabušice, where there was an open campsite. It was Sunday 31st October, All Hallows’ Eve, and at the entrance to the village we passed the cemetery in the fading evening light. A sea of tiny red lights flickered in the darkness from candles on almost every grave, and small groups of people wandered quietly between the rows, stopping here or there to contemplate or to light another candle for a deceased relative or friend. It was a peaceful and strangely comforting sight.
Hrabušice cemetery on the eve of All Saints’ Day

Hrabušice village acts as one of the gateways to the Slovenský Raj, or ‘Slovakian Paradise’  national park, which consists of a forest-covered massif that is cut by deep, narrow gorges on all sides. As the name suggests, it has long been popular for hiking, and its speciality is canyon walks that proceed along the beds of the gorges and ascend cliffs and waterfalls by means of metal ladders and guide chains fixed to the rocks. You need waterproof footwear, a head for heights and two free hands to attempt these walks! I (Rob) walked and climbed up the Suchá Belá gorge on the Monday, a route that takes about 2 hours, and then strolled back down along forest paths. The downside of the Slovakian Paradise is that the tops rarely break through the tree cover so there are few long views to admire, and I was left with only a few tantalizing glimpses of the High Tatras seen through the branches.
Walking the Suchá Belá gorge in the Slovenský Raj

It was while staying in the Slovenský Raj that Charlie proved there’s life in the old dog yet by chasing a young deer which had got itself trapped inside the fenced area of the campsite. He also gave Rob a run for his money, which included a flying tackle to grab the dog, that resulted in him landing flat on his face but failing to stop the errant beast. I had a ringside view from the van, being still in bed while Charlie was out for his morning ‘business’. I wish I’d had a video. Luckily Charlie is a complete wuss, and having cornered the deer, it began butting in self-defence, which left the dog at a loss for what to do next. As the deer finally made its escape by leaping a smaller wooden fence, Charlie gave up the chase and just sniffed around until he felt a rather cross Rob’s hand grab the scruff of his neck. I’m not sure which of the two was most knackered as they arrived back at the van, but Charlie slept very soundly for much of the day.
Gothic chapel at Spišský Štvrtok

The Spiš area was home to large German communities from the 13th century onwards, and they had a major hand in shaping the development of the towns hereabouts.
This all came to an end after 700 years when, in 1945-46, the new post-war Czechoslovakian government forcibly expelled all the German communities in the country, making them pay the price for Hitler’s guilt. The Spiš Germans were no more, and left only their architecture behind them.
Stratená and Spišské Vlachy - churches on the Gothic Route

The architecture was striking though, and many towns in the region have large, almost over-sized, elongated squares on which the main church sits alongside other impressive town buildings, and which are bordered by merchants’ houses from the 15th and 16th centuries. In fact the tourist board now promotes a ‘Gothic Route’ running through the Spiš region’s towns and villages. This takes in the many churches in the area that are typically tall with soaring spires on square towers, and which are lavishly decorated with gilded altar pieces and painted frescoes. The church of St James in Levoča is one building on the gothic route which should be visited. It has a several spectacular altars, with intricate tracery and masterly carved saints. Unusually, the altars in these gothic churches tend to be positioned against columns in the nave, rather than in side chapels. Much of the artistry in St James’ is the work of Master Paul, a craftsman working out of Levoča in the late 15th century, about whom very little is known, but whose works crop up an different locations about the area. The main square in Levoča had enough architecture to hold our interest for the afternoon, which did include lunch, but a wander down the side streets was also worthwhile and gave us an idea of what the buildings must have been like before they were restored. 

Three other ‘must sees’ on the gothic itinerary, and deservedly UNESCO World Heritage sites, are the church of the Holy Spirit in Žehra, the monastery complex at Spišská Kapitula, and Spiš Castle, perched high on a craggy outcrop which overlooks the monastery. In Žehra you have to get the keyholder to open up, but it is well worth it for the interior is covered in frescoes dating from the late 14th and 15th centuries. These were first uncovered in the 1870s, having lain hidden for 200 hundred years under a preserving layer of limewash, applied as a method of disinfecting the church after an outbreak of plague. It being out of season, the castle museum was closed, but you can clamber around the extensive ruins and we cheekily took advantage of the place closing up early at 3 p.m. to come back to the car park after our day’s touring and overnight there. Notices forbid you to camp there, so we spent a slightly wary night, but had brilliant, illuminated views of the castle. These days in Slovakia saw a very mild spell of weather, and our night under the castle was so warm, a massive 9 degrees, that it had us opening up a skylight for fresh air.
Žehra, Spišská Kapitula and Spiš Castle

Our last day in Slovakia, Friday 5th November, was spent zigzagging south towards Hungary on the roads through the Rudohorie Mountains. The name translates as “ore” mountains and the villages around here enjoyed prosperity from mining between the 16th and 19th centuries. The area now feels a bit off the beaten track, and while the surrounding landscape was beautiful, the villages felt a bit left behind, though there were signs that the process of regeneration was just beginning. The large Roma presence was particularly noticeable in this area, although it is a feature of a lot of Slovakia. The Roma have a physical appearance which has maintained characteristics that seemed to us unmistakably Indian, which is remarkable when you think that they have been in Europe for some 800 years. They tend to be among the poorest elements of society and often live in separate areas on the edges of town, with some of their housing looking very shanty-like. Their lifestyle appears to be very communal, and you often see large family groups out and about.
Village in Rudohorie Mountains

The food in Slovakia already showed a more Hungarian-like influence, with paprika-spiced sausages and lots of fresh peppers in the greengrocers. The country also produces its own red and white wines, and we bought a bottle of each to enjoy with our dinners. Nonetheless, it is mainly a beer-producing country, and one of the last things we did in Slovakia was pop in to a potraviny (general shop) to buy some good Slovakian dark ale, aware that from now on we will be in real wine country and don’t know when we’ll again find anything other than pale lager on the beer front.

Slovakia old and new

How not to take a mountain bend or reasons why you should respect the ‘not over 6m length’ signs

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