Slovakia

June 23. I packed and left Kismaros for Gödöllő, about 20 miles northeast from the outskirts of Budapest. The town is home to the Szent István University, the main education institute of agriculture in Hungary, and a palace that was originally built for the aristocratic Grassalkovich family.  Later Franz Josef, Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary and his wife Elisabeth (“Sisi”) had their summer residence here. I didn’t have time to take a tour of the palace, but rather took a quick peek at the parts I could access, checking out Sisi’s breakfast nook and side garden where she liked to sneak out to go horse riding. Like many of the former Soviet satellite countries, most of the town’s original one-story housing was leveled to make way for the blocks of flats which continue to dominate the town center.  Gödöllő’s Royal Forest and Elisabeth’s Park were mostly destroyed for industrial use. Nevertheless, there are still several lovely old buildings in the town center, making for a very pretty town square.

I was on a mission.  I wanted to see the city of Eger and make it to Monika’s home in Čižatice near Košice, Slovakia that evening.  I arrived in Eger around 6:30pm, passing many wine cellars on the way.  The area is a big region of grape growing and wine production. My friends from Pécs who recommended coming here like their wine.  Hungary has a very old tradition of vinticulture, mainly by Walloons from Belgium. It was not only Tokaj that Hungary was famous for, and these “pince”, as stone wine cellars built into the hillside in Hungary are known, go back centuries.  I only had two hours of daylight and knew that Eger was a historical city with a lot to see. There wasn’t a moment to lose. After parking, I found my way to the main street where I admired the baroque buildings and the castle on the hill. Later that day I stumbled upon a festival which celebrated István Dobó’s defense of the fortress from the Ottoman’s in 1552.  However, in 1596 the captain at that time and the foreign mercenaries under his rule handed it over to the Ottomans, the beginning of their 91-year-long rule. The minaret, which was built at the end of the 17th century, preserves the memory of this period and is the northernmost minaret in the Ottoman empire.

Eger is built in the hills of the Bükk Mountains. An aside about Bükk National Park, located north of Eger near Miskolc in northern Hungary. It was founded in 1976 and is Hungary’s largest national park.  It has many karst formations within its limestone mountains, particularly caves (it has the longest and deepest cave in the country), swallow-holes, and ravines, as well as ninety species of nesting birds, some considered endangered.  The Vatican Climate Forest was to be located within the Park. KlimaFa (“Climate Trees”) was started by a San Francisco promoter, Russ George, who promised a climate offsetting project for the Vatican’s carbon dioxide emissions.  However, no trees have been planted. In an interview with the Christian Science Monitor, Lajos Kiss, mayor of the village of Tiszakeszi, pointed to an empty area along the Tisza Riber where the trees were supposed to be planted. The Monitor also said the Vatican was considering “legal action in order to defend the Vatican’s reputation.”  Not surprising.  I continue to see devout christians flocking to church.  Few seem concerned about the church’s views on the environment and birth control (or lack thereof).  With so-called such stewards of the earth as Christians purport to be, I’d rather have a logger in charge.

After admiring the baroque and rococo buildings along the main avenue, I crossed Eger stream and headed up the hill toward the castle, located on the site of a cathedral built by Hungary’s first king St. Stephen in the 10th century.  The castle walls are now lined with festive cafes and restaurants offering great panoramas and tasty fare.  I found a fancy ice cream place and had a delicious sundae which I shared with some black birds, then strolled along the stream to the main square and cathedral. To my surprise, a procession of costumed young performers approached coincidentally, dancing and singing in their elegant regalia.  There were five or six groups, and each group took turns performing before processing back through a narrow street to the festival stage.  There I watched many wonderful dances and stage acts, some of which I’d seen at other festivals. It turned out I had happened upon the 11th annual Szederinda Nemzetkozi Neptanc Fesztival, which takes place every year near St Johns Day, aka summer solstice. It may be related to Hungary’s victory over the Ottoman empire in 1552.  There was a Transylvanian boot slapping dance (I’m sure that’s not what they call it) and boot kicking dances by an all male group from Istanbul Turkey.  I watched enthralled and finally tore myself away at 8:45pm knowing I had a long drive ahead on dangerous one lane roads. I arrived at Monika’s home a few hours later road weary and ready for sleep.  I vowed to return to Eger on my way back.

June 24. I slept in. Monika’s parents came over and I enjoyed being with them even though we couldn’t speak. At 2:30, after the main meal of the day, Monika and I headed to what remains of Košice castle.  It is on a hill overlooking the city and surrounded by a thick forests. We walked up the steep hill, with me using google translate to read the informational signs in Slovak.  After climbing the tower and surveying the view, we went into a small museum where a dedicated volunteer explained some of the archaeological finds upon excavating the castle ruins. He seemed very excited to practice his English. Monika used to bring her family there every weekend when they lived in Košice.  Then we headed down to old town along the main street hoping to find a festival (it was a Saturday in summer after all). There was a film festival that had just ended, and a craft fair in front of the cathedral. I snapped up some lovely ceramic wares from a Romanian guy. Monika noted that they were much cheaper than if made in Slovakia. We walked to the music fountain and then decided to call it a day and headed home. Tomorrow would be a big outing so I hit the hay around 10:30pm.

June 25. Monika went to Košice to attend church and got back around 10:15am. I had set my alarm so I’d be ready to go when she and her parents arrived and we headed to Spiš castle.  The castle is situated above the town of Spišské Podhradie and the village of Žehra, in the region known as Spiš.  It was included in the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites in 1993 (together with the adjacent locations of Spišská Kapitula, Spišské Podhradie and Žehra). My luck in sniffing out folk festivals had continued, as no sooner had we arrived then a procession of costumed dancers promenaded in the main square of the church.  We were literally driving by, and I jumped out of the car and ran several minutes to get a good vantage point and film the parade.  I found out that more dancing and singing would begin on the main stage at 2:30pm, and asked Monika if we could attend after the castle tour.  It turned out we had stumbled on the Spišské Folklórne Slávnosti Festival, which occurs every year on (you guessed it) the weekend after St. John’s Day (June 24, derived from a much older pagan celebration of summer solstice on June 20/21).  Not surprisingly, there had been a tremendous bonfire the night before, part of a vigil of protection and healing for the livestock and townspeople.

We hiked up the hill to the castle.  Monika’s dad is in tremendous shape.  He out walked us both, and neither of us are fainting violets when it comes to walking.  It was even hard for me, as it was another 95 degree day and the sun was brutal.  I suggested that we tell her mom to stay below, as I didn’t think she would make it.  A good decision.  We had a tour of the castle, and I got headphones with an English translation, which was very helpful.  I found out that Spiš Castle was built in the 12th century on the site of an earlier castle. It was the political, administrative, economic and cultural center of Szepes County of the Kingdom of Hungary. Before 1464, it was owned by the kings of Hungary, afterwards (until 1528) by the Zápolya family, the Thurzó family (1531–1635), the Csáky family (1638–1945), аnd (since 1945) by the state of Czechoslovakia then Slovakia. Originally a Romanesque stone castle with fortifications, a two-story Romanesque palace and a three-nave Romanesque-Gothic basilica were constructed by the second half of the 13th century.  It is one of the largest castles in Europe.

We headed back down, I hurriedly raced to the car and we found Monika’s mom, who had waited for us in a pub, drinking beer and eating pizza. My kind of woman!  Actually, I don’t really like pizza or beer.  But I like the idea that an older woman would indulge in such habits.  And be a church goer.  Will wonders ever cease. We hurried to the festival which had already started.  I made my way to take cover in the foliage next to the stage so I wouldn’t block anyone’s view of the performers.  I became the resident photographer (or rather videographer) for the next hour and a half and would have stayed all night, but Monika and her parents were burned out and wanted to go to Spišská Kapitula, an exceptionally well-preserved ecclesiastical town on the outskirts of Spišské Podhradie. The town consists of St. Martin’s Cathedral (dedicated to St. Martin of Tours); a former monastery; and a single street, all of mediaeval construction and enclosed by a wall. Spišská Kapitula became the main seat of the church administration in the region in the 12th century. In 1776 it became the seat of the Diocese of Spiš (Szepes). The cathedral was built between the 13th and 15th centuries in the Romanesque and Gothic styles. It is one of the largest and most interesting Romanesque monuments in Slovakia and contains many medieval carved altars.  It is the resting place of many lords of Spiš Castle; the 15th century carved marble tombstones of the Zápoľský family are of exceptional quality.

We headed to Levoča, a historic medieval town with a well preserved town wall and many Renaissance buildings, which is on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. It has a lovely historic center, a Renaissance church with the highest wooden altar in the world carved by Master Paul of Levoča, and a lovely town hall. I had hoped for real food but everyone wanted ice cream and traditional Slovak cuisine was not be found.  I think ice cream is the national food in Hungary, Slovakia, and Poland.   Everywhere I looked, even on rainy days, people were eating ice cream.  Quality varied from highly artificial non-dairy fare (which is what most people ate) to gourmet artisanal ice cream which only tourists and wealthy locals tended to consume.   In line with this tradition, we had ice cream and they had coffee.  It was 5:30pm but not a problem for them.  I notice that in many countries, people drink coffee throughout the day and into the night, apparently not affected by the caffeine.  I found out recently in a 23andme DNA test that I have a gene for slow caffeine metabolism.  No kidding!  I can drink coffee at 10am and be wide awake at 2am as a result, while without I’m ready for bed at 11pm.

Then we headed back to Košice.  I was very glad we’d happened upon the folk festival and seen the castle.  It had been a very exciting day.

June 26. I had planned to rest all day at Monika’s home in Čižatice and write, but that was not to be.  The hay in a nearby barn had caught fire the night before and ended up burning for 3 days.  In the past I had left the window open when I slept there, but the smoke was too much.  About 11am I decided to head down to Košice. The city has a well-preserved historical center, the largest among Slovak towns. There are many heritage protected buildings in Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, and Art Nouveau styles with Slovakia’s largest church, the St. Elisabeth Cathedral. 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 is well known as the first settlement in Europe to be granted its own coat-of-arms.

I went to my favorite cafe and had a piece of their homemade cheesecake and a delicious latte which I enjoyed sipping slowly as I hadn’t had coffee in weeks.  Then I walked to the folk art shop next door where I’d previously bought some lovely wooden carvings and found several lovely decorated eggs (pisanki in Polish).  I ran into two women in the shop, Jean from Northern Ireland and Annika, her Slovakian friend who is now working in N. Ireland.  They were on holiday in Košice together.  They recommended the book Wanders in Kosice to get the details on the history of the historic buildings in the town center.  Jean was going to be alone so I offered to join her in an hour.  I took a brisk walk up the main street to Sandovar Park to admire four comic-inspired sand sculptures: Superman flying over Košice, Captain America, Wonder Woman, and Transformer.  Then I walked by the Jewish synagogue which Monika was once lucky enough to enter.  She said it had a mikveh, a bath used for the purpose of ritual immersion in Judaism to achieve ritual purity.  I wished the synagogue was still open to the public.  Its doors are always shut when I walk by and I was told that it is rarely open.

I rejoined Jean and we had a lovely chat for an hour or so.  She lives in Belfast and used to teach Annika’s children, having been a school teacher for 30-plus years.  Her daughter and son-in-law are both MPs.  She said that they get no holiday or break and work extraordinarily hard.  I gave her a good lung protocol for her husband to follow, who is suffering from respiratory ailments.  Then we parted.  I had a cupcake at Viki’s and checked email, then walked to the botanical gardens in the university on the far side of the town center.  I’d been there before.  Unfortunately they had just closed, so I wandered past the gardens and up into narrow streets above the city until I felt like I was in a rural village.  Streets had become dirt, and gardens dominated the landscape.  People had tiny homes on giant parcels, my kind of house.  I’ve been told that in the past, most Slovaks who lived in a city also would have small garden cottage or shed on a small patch of land.  Many would spend weekends on this land, and sleep in the shed while there.  Now, some of these have been taken over by gypsies.  I passed many a tar-paper roofed, ramshackle village looking like little India where children swarmed the street, women walked together, and several men who looked like the gypsy king or mafia Godfather lorded over the inhabitants.  And of course wild dogs would chase my car with such ferocity that I assumed either that my tire would be punctured or that I’d run them over.  Luckily neither has yet to come to pass.

I walked back along the main street of Košice in the waning light, admiring the fine buildings from a bygone era when this was Hungarian-ruled Kassa.  I was glad to take in the city again.  It is a fine sight.  I headed home and asked Monika and Ludo if they had any suggestions about visiting the Velky Tatry where I would head tomorrow.  Ludo is an avid mountaineer and had many suggestions for trails and lakes to explore, as well as a house in Stara Lesna where I might stay.  I called the number and asked the woman about reserving for 3 nights, Tuesday evening till Friday am.  She said that would be fine.  I packed for the trip, and Monika and I made arrangements to meet Friday evening in Zuberec, where we would congregate for the weekend.

 

 

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