Central Slovakia

Monika, with whose family I had been staying with for the past 2 weeks, suggested that we go on a special 2 day outing to central Slovakia to visit the chateau of Budatin, two open air museums (Čičmany and Vlkolinec), and the charming mining town of Banska Stiavnica.  Her oldest daughter had just returned from a 2 week trip in Iceland, and thought it would be nice for both of us.  We started out on Friday eve after work.  Monika picked up her parents, a delightfully charming couple who cracked jokes throughout the weekend, especially about drinking beer.  The grandmother likes so-called black beer, and her husband liked to tease her about her habit.  We drove for 2 or 3 hours to an adorable attic in a 3 story home in the village of Biely Potok where we would stay for 2 nights.  The owners were delightful.  They greeted us warmly and gave us an orientation to the low-ceiling space.  I decided to sleep outside on the terrace, as it was rather stuffy inside.  For 8 Euros in total, I was shocked at the affordability.  I’ve been paying 20 Euros for one person to share a 6 bed hostel room.

I loved it there.  I had a view of the mountains from my cozy mat on the deck.  I had just gotten word from the housemate renting my room that he was moving out, and the next day that another housemate was leaving.  Both were a surprise, and left me concerned.  I didn’t sleep well that night. In the morning, before we left, I wrote two Craigslist ads and hoped for the best.  We first headed for Strečno castle, a reconstructed ruin of a medieval castle on a 338 ft calcite cliff above the village of Strečno on the river Vah. The first recorded mention of the stone castle is from 1316.  There is a castle tower, a main tower, a cistern, and a northern tower.  Below the castle there’s a reconstructed medieval village, complete with pilgrim’s cottage, blacksmith, fisherman’s house, and peasant’s home.  It was a hike to the castle, plus there was a tour, and we didn’t have time to do that plus everything else on the itinerary.  So we peeked into the reconstructed homes and headed on to Chateau of Budatin.

Budatin was the site of a medieval castle in Žilina, located at the junction of the Rivers Vah and Kysuca.  It is unique in being the only castle built on the confluence of a river.  Originally the defensive tower served as protection for the treasury of coins collected as a toll for use of the river from passing rafts.  The oldest part of the castle is a massive four-storey tower, built in the 13th century right after Tatar invasions.  In the 18th century, when the castle lost its function as a fortress, a Baroque-Classicist mansion was built.  In the late 1800s, the owners created a beautiful park surrounding the chateau and planted several exotic trees including Sycamore, beech, weeping willow, oak, and poplar.  We went on a tour of the tower, and they kindly gave me an information sheet in English.  The top floor of the tower had a display of 18th and 19th century clocks and clock mechanisms.  They have been replaced by a satellite-run precision clock.  Talk about technology ;>  In another part of the castle we viewed grave goods and other finds from Slavic tribes who had settled in the area, and learned about their daily life and burial practices.

I had hoped to see the wire and tin exhibit of Slovak tinkers at the castle, but found out it was to open the following weekend.  I took a peek as we went up the stairs, and snapped some photos.  Tinkers made their living by mending kitchen ware, making utilitarian objects from hammered tin and wire.  Their origins date from 18th and 19th centuries. Slovak tinkers came from the poorest regions of isolated settlements. The cradle of tinkering was Trenčín and  Kysuce.  They sometimes left for two or three years, traveling abroad in Europe and Russia. The apprentices were called džarek. Some tinkers became rich entrepreneurs.  They created their own folklore of song and dance, including an interesting dance called drotáriček, known especially in the Kysuce region.

Turns out that the woman working at the front desk of the castle is a tinker.  She showed us some of the wire wares that she and others made.  I bought a delicately braded bracelet and a candle holder, as well as a heart.  They reminded me of chain mail.  We took a stroll around the lovely landscaped park and saw a model of a wooden raft from the 1300s.  I wasn’t sure whether lumberjacks rode the logs down the river to transport them to market after being logged, or whether they simply had log boats for transportation.
From Budatin we pressed on to Čičmany, a village at 2,149 feet in the Žilina region of northern Slovakia.  Unlike a skanzen or open-air folk architecture museum where buildings are assembled from various parts of the country, it is an in situ village.   It was the first folk architecture reserve to be named in the world (in 1977).  The written history of the town goes back to 1272. After a great fire in 1921, the village of Čičmany was restored to its original appearance with generous contributions by the state. Up until the mid-20th century, the village was the center of sheep raising.  Timbered houses with ridge roofs, galleries, and linear wall decorations decorations have been preserved in Čičmany. Of particular interest are the white geometric designs decorating the exterior of the houses, which include representations of sheep horns, birds, love (hearts), and my favorite, a chicken’s butt (represented as *).   The local folk music, costumes, and dances of the village have been preserved as well.  Unfortunately we arrived to the museum exposition on traditional life in the village at 4:47, and were told we had till 5pm to see it.  I ran through the 2 story wooden home, photographing explanatory text for later perusal and the items on display.  These included embroidered linens, flax weaving, tools used in shepherding and cheese making, wooden and metal farming implements, and elaborate costumes that reminded me of the highlanders of Zakopane, Poland, where my father spent summers as a child.
We decided to head back to our place and stop at the town of Rajecke Teplice on the way back.  I’d spied it when we stopped at the Mlynarka restaurant (mill in Slovakian – and indeed it was an old mill) for a delicious trout meal.  It brought back memories of my almost daily trout consumption in Abkhazia.  I savoured every morsel and followed it with traditional apple strudel. Rajecke Teplice is quaint and built around the Aphrodite Spa, a very elegant kupele (thermal bath spa, one of hundreds in Slovakia).  As we drove into town we spied a lively folk dance ensemble, and I jumped out of the car to video of the dancers. It turned out they were Latvian, and they exhorted me to visit Latvia in July 2018 for the 100th anniversary of their every four year song festival.  I’m tempted.  After the dancing, Monika and family joined me for a stroll through the grounds of a lovely lake across the street from the hotel (Hotel Encien) hosting the dancing.  The lake is encircled by overhanging trees and lovely flower gardens, and there is a restaurant in the middle with swans swimming by.  A river flows along one side of the lake.
We walked away from the main festivities toward the village, then to the main square where a fair was well underway.  Streams of balloons (Sponge Bob and Frozen characters topped the list) dotted the sky, and a lounge band performed Delilah and other 1960 chart toppers.  We wandered up to the church and back through the grounds of the Aphrodite Spa Hotel, then bid goodbye to the lovely villlage and made our way back to our peaceful abode in Biely Potok.  I stayed up late answering emails about the room and had a late night Skype call to a propective tenant.  I fell into bed around 1 am.
Next day, we got out of the house around 9:30 and headed to Vlkolinec, a picturesque village whose folk architecture has been beautifully preserved.  Unlike Čičmany, it is truly old (not rebuilt in the 1920s).  The village is set in a hilly region of a valley surrounded by mountains near Ružomberok.  The first written mention of the village came from 1376. Its name is probably derived from the Slovak word vlk (wolf).  Vlkolínec has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1993, and is one of ten Slovak villages that have been given the status of a folk architecture reservations due to its complex example of folk countryside architecture of the region of the Northern Carpathians.  It is a remarkably intact settlement with the traditional features of a central European village and is the region’s most complete group of traditional log houses, often found in mountainous areas. The village consists of more than 45 log houses each made up of two or three rooms. A wooden belfry from the 18th century as well, a well, and a baroque chapel have been preserved. Two houses at the beginning of the village have been turned into a folk museum displaying work tools for farming and tending cows and sheep, as well as items from daily life.
There was an exhibit (photo and text) about the village priest (a Jesuit) who was rounded up with other clerics and imprisoned and tortured by the Soviets in the early 1950s.  There was also an exhibit about the presence of the SNP, Slovak National Uprising movement against the Nazis, in this and other mountainous areas of Slovakia during WW II.  I was impressed by the dedication of the partisans, as well as of the villagers who hid and helped them.  A tree has been planted in the village to honor its status as a martyr village in this regard.  If only the ground could talk.  A mountain bike race was in full force while Sunday tourists strolled through the village, making for a funny juxtaposition.  At the end of our walk, we bought some ginger infused honey and mead, then drove on toward the mining town of Banska Stiavnica.  I sat in the front to take in the scenery.  Forests had started to dot the landscape, and wildflowers and grasses lined the road on either side.  As Monika commented, the land in that part of Slovakia is truly wild.  We drove through several other smaller mining towns on the way, and finally knew we had arrived when we spied the Kalvaria (Calvary chapel) on the top of the highest hill above the town.  The town is a kind of museum unto itself, hosting an old and new castle, Bethlehem exhibit, open-air mining museum, Calvary, and mining museum, to name a few of the sites.
Monika’s daughter and I had been craving a well-crafted latte for days, and her friend had recommended an upscale artistic cafe named Divna Pani (strange lady in Slovak).  They specialize in fancy cheesecakes and good coffee.  Aside from cranky wait staff, it lived up to its reputation.  It had just rained and we wanted to sit in the back courtyard, but the chairs were wet.  We tried wiping them dry but failed, and spied cushions.  We placed them on the chairs and were told that we could not, as it would get the cushions wet.  It all worked out in the end, and we had lovely pastries and a latte, cappucino, and espresso.  Then we walked to the oldest church in town built in 13th century.  It had beautiful frescos near the altar and medieval town folk sculpted into the base of columns.  A Gothic madonna holding the baby Jesus, an original work from the Baroque altar, peered out from a side chapel.  Stone steps in the back led to the choir stall and organ, and I admired the centuries old stone and wood.  Afterward, we walked to the main square which featured a “plague pillar” in thanks to God for saving the remaining townfolk from the plague in the late 1600s and early 1700s.  From there we headed to the mining museum and walked down an Andesite shaft that had been hand hewn in the 1700s.  It was impressive, and there were some cars that had been used to haul ore out of the mine.  Apparently it was the largest gold and silver vein in the town.
From there Monika and I did a self-guided tour of the old castle, while her daughter and parents had a pizza.  I particularly liked the ossuary, which retained baroque, gothic, and renaissance architectural features and was built in the 13th century.  It was fun walking along the castle wall and seeing the beautiful cast iron display showing off the talents of town blacksmiths.  Because of the copper, iron, and silver mining in the area, blacksmithing became an art quite early in the town’s history.  Fancy signs, tombstones, charters, and guild items filled the tower.  I noticed all the copper rooves in town as we walked the wall.  Not sure if they were a sign of wealth and status or a fire deterrence.  Probably more the former.
We met the others at the Bethlehem exhibit near the town square, an incredibly ornate carved wooden townscape depicting the town’s glorious past and its historical buildings.  All townspeople were represented, including the trumpeter who warned the town of the coming Turkish invasion, a religious procession in front of the Calvary, medieval gold and silver miners, shepherds, soldiers, town folk, police, criminals, and chimney sweeps, and artisans like blacksmiths, potters, bakers, coopers, farriers, tailors, and leather workers.  Many of the figures were moving (powered by wooden water wheels).  The creator of this incredible piece of art is Peter Chovan, born in 1969 in a village near Banská Štiavnica- Dekýš.  It is 21 m long,  2.5 m wide and 3 m high.  It has around 800 figures, of which 400 are moving.  It’s a work-in-progress, and the artist continues to get inspiration from his new home of Banska Stiavnica.  I took a few videos and loads of photos.  Pix to follow.
We then walked up the hill to the new castle, which houses an exhibition on the town’s preparation for the Turkish invasion (which never occured thanks in part to their preparedness).  Unfortunately it was closed, but we admired the view, then headed back along a small street where we saw a lovely synagogue which had been turned into a factory after WW II, when the Jewish population had been handed over to the Germans by the government (though there had been those who helped Jews escape death).  Tired, we started our long drive home, arriving 4 hours later around 10:30pm.  There is a national road being built (one person told me it’s been in the works for 10 years now).  It would have cut our trip in half, since most of the roads in Slovakia are 2 lane at this point, and slow-moving trucks inevitably stand in the way of a quick trip.  I spent the following day preparing for the next leg of my adventure to Bratislava, Vienna, and Marseille.  Monika’s daughter gave me some good websites to find transportation, and after a few hours I had an itinerary, places to stay, and transportation arranged.  Planning is my least favorite part of traveling.

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