Land of castles and rolling hills: Kosice and environs

I was relieved to escape the sweltering heat of Budapest.  After getting a clean bill of health from the dentist, I took bus, tram, and metro to the train station (1 of 3 in the city) where I melted in 36 C (97 F) and spent my last change on ice cream before boarding a train for Kosice.  I was headed to Kosice, Slovakia to meet my ex-husband’s sister’s family for the first time and stay for a week or so.  I greedily spread my back pack and things on several seats of the 6 seat cabin, thinking I’d have peace and quiet for the 3 1/2 hour trip.  Five minutes after the train started, four young people poked their head in and asked whether they could sit with me.  I was reluctant as I imagined they’d be loud and had gotten used to being isolated since my arrival in Budapest, but said yes as I realized they had no where else to sit.  It ended up being a very nice ride with them.  They were Slovakian and spoke English well as they’d attended a bilingual school in Kosice.  We shared music and talked about their trip to Scotland.  In September they will all go to different universities in Europe.  Because job opportunities in Slovakia are very limited, most students choose to study abroad.

One of the girls spoke Hungarian, Slovakian, German, and English fluently.  Most Europeans put me to shame on the language front.  While I am fluent in Spanish and can manage in Italian and French and speak a little Turkish and Russian, latin-based languages aren’t nearly as difficult as slavic ones.  Perhaps it’s because I didn’t learn Polish as a child.  In my family only my father spoke Polish and he wasn’t the best teacher.  I learned some songs and attended a few Polish language classes in San Francisco, but it wasn’t enough to stick.  I wish I could have communicated with some of my older Polish relatives.

I arrived in Kosice at 10pm and bid goodbye to my new friends.  Monika’s family lives in Cizatice, a beautiful village 20 km from Kosice.  They found the land 14 years ago when a friend living in the village alerted them to the sale of the parcel, about an acre with a 100 year old home on the property.  Over the course of 2 years they built another house and whipped the overgrown yard into shape.  The next day we visited a new tower 2 km from their house, built to commemorate Bitka pri Rozhanovciach, a battle in 1312 between the Kosice palatine and the Hungarian King Karol Robert.  Monika helped with the tower’s construction, and she showed off her friend’s photos and drawings hung on the walls.  We made our way through fields and forests to Kosice, where we finally found parking (parking zones have recently been instituted) and walked into the compact old town center.

Kosice is the biggest city in eastern Slovakia and in 2013 was the European Capital of Culture together with Marseille, France.  It’s located on the river Hornad at the eastern reaches of the Slovak Ore Mountains, near the border with Hungary. With a population of approximately 240,000, Košice is the second largest city in Slovakia after the capital Bratislava.  The city has a well-preserved historical centre, which is the largest among Slovak towns. There are many heritage protected buildings in Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, and Art Nouveau styles.  We climbed the dizzying narrow stone stairs of the tower in St. Elisabeth’s Cathedral, Slovakia’s largest church, and surveyed the view.  The long main street, rimmed with aristocratic palaces, Catholic churches, and townsfolk’s houses, is a thriving pedestrian zone with many boutiques, cafés, and restaurants. The city was the first settlement in Europe to be granted its own coat-of-arms.  In comparison to Kosice, Budapest, with a population of 1.7 million (3.3 million in the metropolitan area) is the largest city in Hungary and one of the largest cities in the EU.  I found out that before the holocaust, Košice was a city with one of the largest and most prominent Jewish communities in Slovakia. In 1930, there were almost 11,500 Jews that made up 16.4% of the city’s population, although Jews were allowed to settle in the city only after 1840. Like all of Europe, in 1944 almost the entire Jewish community was exterminated in Auschwitz.

Monika told me that most young people in Kosice drink alcohol.  It seems to be the national past-time everywhere I go.  She said that retired folks in Slovakia average about 400 Euros per month, which is extremely low.  Coupled with 20 percent tax on food and low wages, I think Slovakians are under similar economic challenges as the Greeks.  There is a perception here that Greeks were too well off and that the playing field should be leveled.  It’s too bad that many people have a competitive view regarding cost of living. I guess it’s normal.  If you are suffering, you’d rather that others not be living high on the hog.  Or appearing to be.

The next day we drove 2 hours north to Bardejovske Kupele to pick up Ludo and Peter, Monika’s husband and son, who’d been hiking the Cesta hrdinov SNP trail, a hiking trail from Vysny Komarnik to Bratislawa.  They ran into blister problems and put their foot up at one of the many hot springs in the Tatras and Carpathy mountains.  Once we dumped their packs in the car, we walked to a house built at the spa by Queen Elizabeth of Bohemia (Sisi as Hungarians fondly called her), for her many spa soujourns.  We sampled the various mineral waters with varying tastes and properties, and bought some oplatka, wafers made on site with waffle iron-like machines and filled with cream.  I am familiar with oplatky from Polish Christmas celebrations, a ritual of breaking the wafer and wishing eachother well that I dearly love.  There is a skanzen, an open-air museum of folk architecture, which we unfortunately didn’t have time to see.  It is the oldest of its kind in Slovakia, first opened to the public in 1965 and presents the folk culture and architecture of Slovaks and Rusyns who lived in the upper Saris and northern Zemplin in 1800 and 1900s.

We drove to the nearby town of Bardejov and walked around the lovely medieval village.  The Gothic-Renaissance town hall, built in 1505 – 1511, houses the Sarisske Museum, which contains an exhibit of the economic and cultural history of free royal town of Bardejov from 1241 to the end of the 19th century.  I enjoyed the exhibit which described the privileges granted the town by king and nobility over the course of centuries.  Trade towns like Bardejov were luckier than most in the Middle Ages, receiving special dispensations like lower taxes and the use of products like the monarch’s bleaching materials to make linen.  The whole area was a Polish trade route for 300+ years, going back and forth between Slovakian/Hungarian and Polish control.  On the way back we stopped in Presov where Ludo’s mother lives.  She is a delightful woman who smothers people with love.  She made special sandwiches and homemade pastries just for our visit, and wanted to show me her lovely balcony full of flowering and potted plants.  Her partner speaks some English and practiced phrases.  Peter acted as the human translator for the day, kindly speaking English even though he was very tired and I’m sure would have preferred Slovakian.  He’s a talented musician playing mainly drums, bass and guitar, and has improved his English greatly through writing lyrics to songs in English.

We woke up early the next day to head to Pieninský národný park (national park) on the Polish border.  On the way, we stopped in Lubovna, a historical town with a restored castle and open-air museum of folk architecture (skanzen).  We took a 2 hour tour of the castle, which featured Gothic, Baroque, and Renaissance elements including bastions, gates, towers, palaces, casements, chapels, halls, and wells.  There were exhibits showcasing daily life during the Middle Ages into the Renaissance, including information on various guilds including those of blacksmiths and locksmiths, stone masons, boot and shoe makers, hatters, candle makers, blue cloth dyers (using indigo dye from the leaves of indigofera tinctoria, and flax weavers (linen makers).  There was extensive history about various noblemen and kings who lived in the palace, including the hiding of the Polish crown jewels from 1655 to 1661 because of the Swedish threat in Warsawa, as well as the life story of Counr Zamoyski and Princess Isabella of Bourbon who lived there from 1882 to 1945 when they were forced to flee the Nazi invasion.  It turns out that Monika’s mom’s grandfather was an employee of Zamoyski who oversaw road building.  He often played cards with Zamoyski and lost.  Apparently Zamoyski liked his furniture, which he would offer up as collateral, resulting in the shipping of furniture from Vienna from the family of the poor man’s wife.  There was an exhibit of sleds and sleighs which I particularly liked, as it evoked images from my father’s childhood.  He used to tell me about catching rides on the back of milk truck sleigh, and I imagined him holding on as a child as the sleigh’s rails cut through the snow and ice.

I couldn’t pass up the chance to at least take a peek in the open-air museum (skanzen in Slovakian).  Unfortunately they wanted to go, so I raced through the traditionally built homes as well as that of a mayor and seasonal worker, a mill, a wooden orthodox church, a granary, and a farm.  It reminded me of other open-air museums I’ve seen in Lithuania, Latvia, and Germany.  I learned about the tradition of the wedding wreath, which looked more like a small tree of white down feathers.  Someone would present it to the bride at her wedding, and it would remain with her until she was pregnant, when she would make a comforter for her newborn from the feathers.  There was an exhibit of women holding a wake in their home, reading passages from the bible while the body was laying in state surrounded by candles.  I met with Monika’s family, and we had a traditional meal of  bryndzové halušky, small dumplings made of potato dough with sheep cheese and topped with bits of bacon in an inn.  Very rich but tasty.  It was 4pm at this point and I wasn’t sure we’d be in time to ride a boar down the Dunajec, the river delineating the Poland -Slovak border.  Ludo sped through lovely landscapes of rolling hills, small forests, and fields of grain crops to the town of Červený Kláštor (the Red Cloister).  We had 1.5 hours to ride 12 miles (6 miles there and back) along the Dunajec.  I stopped several times, taking photos of the rafters and picturesque mountains.  I remembered my aunt Marysia telling me about their rafting trip down the Dunajec when they visited Poland in 1980.  It was a lovely day and many people were out riding along the river bank.  I loved watching the wooden pontoon rafts drift down the river, men in goraly (Slovak for highlander) hats and vests poling along the river.  I saw jewel weed (Impatiens capensis) along the way and was very surprised, as I thought it was indigenous to America.  It turns out it is, but has been exported to Central Europe including Poland.  It’s a powerful antidote to poison ivy and poison oak, as I can speak from personal experience.  The most effective way to use it is to rub the leaf directly on the rash.  We made it back just in time.  The bike guys were packed and waiting for us.  Then we had the long drive home, arriving back at 9:15pm.  Pretty drive home, the last part in the sunset.  Another full day.  I felt lucky to be staying with such kind people.

There is a monastery named Červený Kláštor with an interesting history next to the village of the same name where we rented the bikes.  It was inhabited by Cartesian monks between 1320 and 1563, and  Camaldulsian monks between 1711 and 1782.  In 1320, the Cartesian monks were granted land in the Pieniny mountains.  Here they built Červený Kláštor (the Red Cloister), so named for its red roof. They were awarded privileges from Ungarian and Polish monarchs to catch fish in the Dunajec river, use a water mill, and to make beer.  After being raided in Kláštorisko, Cartesian monks moved to the Red Monastery till it was raided by soldiers from the Dunajec castle (Nedeca) in 1545. In 1711, the Nitra bishop Ladislav Maťašovský  donated the monastery to the Camaldulsian monks. Shortly after they started to rebuild it in the Baroque style.  As the Cartesian monks before them, the Camaldulsian monks led ascetic lives, keeping bees, gathering healing plants, copying important texts, and healing the sick.  They founded a pharmacy in 1754, which gained popularity particularly when directed by Cyprián (1756 – 1775).  The monastery was closed in 1782. There is also a legend about a flying monk, but I didn’t get the straight story.

It’s been cold and rainy, a welcome change from the blasted heat of last week.  I love falling asleep to rain falling on the roof.  Saturday we took a break from excursions.  In the afternoon, Monika and I went to Kosice for a friend’s wedding and later explored the craft alley in Kosice’s old town.  We poked around a pottery shop and watched the potter throw some pots, then had cake at a renovated cafe.  The next day we all went Ochinska, an Argonite cave near Betliar.  On the way, we stopped at the Andrássy mausoleum and admired the beautiful tomb built by Bavarian architects for  Count Dionysus, the last of the Andrássy family, and his Czech wife Francisca.  Dionysus was disinherited for marrying Francisca, an opera singer without status or wealth.  Their marble sarcophagi stand on either side of the altar, and the walls are decorated with ornate patterns of stone from Greece, Italy, Mexico, Romania, and Hungary.  The bronze altar is covered with gold leaf and precious and semi-precious stones, while the glass mosaic ceiling is covered with 9 kg of gold leaf.  Behind the tomb is a life-size monument to their dog.

Ochintska Cave was very interesting.  Argonite forms various crystalline structures including hair-like ones, traditional stalactite shape, and a kind of silver sheen, depending on physical and chemical factors.  There were several named formations in the cave, including a heart, woman holding a child, and the Milky Way.  After the cave tour, we headed to Chateau Betliar, a well-preserved manor house built in the 1400s by the Bebek family (originally a small castle) and later rebuilt by the Andrássy family.  The gardens surrounding the manor were designed by the famous lanscaper H. Nebbiem and are internationally recognized for their assortment of foreign shrubs and trees as well as native oaks and spruce. Betliar, originally called Bethler (meaning a copper mining cart) in German, was founded in the 1200s as a kind of mining village, where they extracted iron, copper, and gold from the nearby mountains of Volovské vrchy.  German immigrants moved here to work in the mines.  Later, agriculture and forestry became important to the town.

Chateau Betliar has been rebuilt many times, most recently by the Andrassy family in 1880, and contains their private collections of art, historical furniture, books, weapons, precious ceramics, glass and porcelain. There are also hunting trophies and objects from abroad, including an Ottoman damascus silk tapestry, carved Koran stand, African ebony chair, samurai armor, and Egyptian mummy.  There is a temporary exhibit on the historical figure of Juliana Korponayová and the legend of the White Lady of Levoča.  I enjoyed the tour, though it was too quick and only in Slovakian.  I had a summary sheet written in English, but it was pretty scanty.  Monika noted my frustration and bought me an in-depth guide of the manor house and castle of Krásna Hôrka.

We were unable to tour Krásna Hôrka Castle due to a recent fire that caused significant damage.  Thankfully, it’s been restored and is scheduled to reopen next month.  The castle was built in the 13th century by the Ákos brothers (who later changed their name to Bebek) on a trade route from Transyvlania through Kosice to Spiš and Poland.  Like all castles in the Middle Ages, Krásna Hôrka was a regional administrative center.  The Ákos (Bebek) family lived there from the mid-13th century to 1566, apart from a short period when the Mariássy family seized control of the castle.  In 1578 the castle passed into the hands of the Hungarian Péter Andrássy (originally from Transylvania) and remained in the possession of the Andrássy family up until 1918 (the year the First Czechoslovak Republic was founded).

The next day I went in to Kosice with Monika, who drives in for her work at a medical supply company.  Bleary-eyed, I stumbled around the park near the bus station, looking for the Post Office.  I asked a few people for directions: one didn’t speak English, another wasn’t from the area, and the third didn’t understand my attempt at Slovakian.  So I wandered till I found it, and there purchased a 4 Euro SIM card so I could reach my Slovak friends.  Then I headed to the underground museum complex of the lower city gate and part of the original town fortifications and sewer, established in the 2nd half of the 13th century. They were uncovered when Hlavná street was excavated in 1996.

Then I made my way to the memorial house of Francis II Rákóczi – Rodošto in the executioner’s bastion, as well as Mikluš Prison and the House of Crafts.  The prison presents daily life in the prison and Kosice from the 1400s to late 1800s. It also examines life in the residences prior to their conversion to a prison.  The House of Crafts has an exhibit of the various guilds that made their home along this section of city wall, including tailors, potters, barbers, bakers, tinsmiths, haberdashers, masons, blacksmiths, to name a few.  The first floor of the bastion exhibits armaments used at the time it was used as a fortification of the city wall.  Upstairs, the exhibit focuses on the Rákóczi War of Independence against the Habsburgs.  It includes a replica of his apartment-in-exile in Tekirdag Turkey, a film and original documents about the return to Kosice of his remains in 1906, and some of the copper coins that he minted to support the continued resistance to the Habsburg empire, as he was unable to secure French or Russian financial or military support.

A bit of history about Rákóczi, one of the most important Hungarian and Slovak heros. He was born in Borsi, Hungary (now Borsa, Slovakia) in March 1676 as a Hungarian nobleman and in 1703-11 the leader of the Hungarian uprising against the Habsburgs.  He was the prince (fejedelem) of the Estates Confederated for Liberty of the Kingdom of Hungary, Prince of Transylvania, an Imperial Prince, and a member of the Order of the Golden Fleece.  His full title was Franciscus II. Dei Gratia Sacri Romani Imperii & Transylvaniae princeps Rakoczi. Particum Regni Hungariae Dominus & Siculorum Comes, Regni Hungariae Pro Libertate Confoederatorum Statuum necnon Munkacsiensis & Makoviczensis Dux, Perpetuus Comes de Saros; Dominus in Patak, Tokaj, Regécz, Ecsed, Somlyó, Lednicze, Szerencs, Onod.  He fled to Poland when it was clear the uprising was unsuccessful, and there was offered kingship 3 separate times.  He refused but continued to live in Gdansk for several years, then moved to France, and later at the invitation of the Ottaman Sultan (who was still at war with Austria), Rákóczi moved to the Turkish town of Tekirdag for 18 years. He adopted a set routine: rising early, attending daily Mass, writing and reading in the mornings, and carpentry in the afternoons; visited occasionally by his son, György Rákóczi. Further military troubles in 1733 in Poland awakened his hopes of a possible return to Hungary, but they were not fulfilled. Rákóczi was 59 years old when he died on 8 April 1735.

After getting my fill of Rákóczi, I walked up the main street in old town Kosice to the East Slovak Museum.  It is the oldest museum in Slovakia, founded in 1872 with donations from many historical figures, and is housed in an early 20th century neo-Renaissance building.  It currently has two exhibits: the Nature of the Carpathians, a natural history exhibit of the history of the Earth, the origin of rocks, minerals, and fossils, plant morphology and adaptation, and the diversity of the animal world; and Centuries of Art, an exhibit showcasing the development of art from the early Middle Ages to the beginning of the 20th century. Ecclesial art dominates the first section of the exposition with Gothic and Baroque collections provide an overview of the craftsmanship of medieval artists.  There is an ethnographic exposition of traditional folk architecture and art, including three human-size wooden bee hives portraying a monk (Brezovica, early 19th century), a woodsman, and a woman in folk costumes from the Orava region (Horná Orava, middle 19th century). The second part of the exposition includes pottery, glassware, porcelain, and furniture from the 18th century to the beginning of the 20th century.

I returned to Kosice to see the exhibit at another part of the East Slovak Museum of the Košice Gold Treasure discovered in 1935 in the basement of a former building of the Spis tax collector.  The treasure is one of the most significant in Europe and consists of 2920 pieces of gold coins, ducats, double ducats; three golden medals; and a 214 cm pure gold renaissance chain weighing more than a pound.  What amazes me is that all those coins fit in a rounded copper vessel the size of breadbox.  The find is particularly rare given the wide range of coin types and geographical areas represented. The coins were most likely collected around 1680s judging by the dates of the coins and the political situation at the time in Kosice, where anti-Habsburg uprisings were the norm (and the collector appears to be pro-Hapsburg judging from the contents). There was also an exhibit of Herend porcelain, one of the worlds largest ceramic factories (located in Slovakia) and established in 1826. It specializes in luxury and gilded porcelain, all hand painted. Customers included the Habsburg dynasty and other European nobility.  The museum also had an exhibit of bronze casting in 19th century Hungary and of the history of women’s basketball in Kosice.

All the collections were housed in a beautiful neo-renaissance building specifically designed in the early 1900s as a museum.  Behind the museum there is a wooden church and bell tower moved from Kožuchovce and built in 1741.  Unfortunately the church is closed to the public, but I was able to see its intricately carved iconostasis in the other building of the East Slovak museum.  After getting my fill, I walked toward the University of Kosice’s botanical garden, then returned to the center of town where I was to meet a close friend of Monika’s family for some English practice.  I find my language skills getting incredibly sloppy after being away for several months.  Whether it’s from trying to simplify my speech so others will understand me or not hearing English being spoken, this awkwardness of speech often leaks out into this blog as well.  So please forgive strange turns of phrase.

The next day I went to the Slovak Technical Museum.  I went to see my friend’s samurai swords, which had been displayed in the metallurgy and mining exhibit.  I found the metallurgy exhibit very interesting (probaby because it had an English translation).  The rest of the exhibits were only in Slovak, so it went pretty quickly.  There was also a good exhibit on the history of mining in the Spis region.  I liked looking at the old typewriters in the development of typewriters exhibit.  The development of geodetic technology and cartography had everything from astrolabes to theodolites.  There’s a section that reminds me of the Exploratorium, with experiments and educational games.  There was also an exhibit on the energy department of Aurel Stodola featuring steam, water-powered, and combustion engines.  He was born in Slovakia and made great contributions to the field of mechanical engineering.  There was also an exhibit on all kinds of modern appliances and telephones.  I’ve never seen so many machines in one building.  It was clear that Kosice and Slovakia greatly value engineering.

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