Orava and the Western Tatry

July 1.  I awoke in the small room in Zuberec that I was sharing with Beata, Monika’s daughter who is very gifted in languages and working as a Swedish translator for a software company in Bratislava.  Everyone had woken with the sun except me, thanks to the sleep mask which had afforded me several extra hours of zzzs.  I reluctant to take the girls to the nearby open-air ethnographic museum (skanzen), remembering Teresa’s reluctance about coming on this trip to begin with.  Her parents were off visting their youngest son Peter, whom they hadn’t seen for months, for the day, and I felt like the adult in charge.  Luckily Beata is in her 20’s and very responsible.  It ended up being fine.

The Museum of Orava Village (Slovak: Múzeum oravskej dediny) exhibits intact rural houses brought from all around the region of Orava and re-assembled in Zuberec. The oldest building, a Gothic wooden church, was constructed in the 15th century, but the museum itself was founded in 1967. In addition to the church, it now also has its own graveyard and a functioning watermill. The interior of the buildings hosts an ethnographic collection. The gardens and fields around the houses show ancient forms of farming and animal husbandry.  I fell in love with a lovely hand-carved ornate wooden cup which reminded me of the carved wooden salt box that my father had brought back from Poland years before.  Sadly I didn’t have enough cash, and contemplated running back to the village to finish the transaction.  I joined Beata and Teresa in a nearby restaurant where they were finishing lunch and suggested my plan.  They agreed and we headed back to Zuberec in search of an ATM.

I seem to have a nose for finding things.  I parked around the corner from the ATM without knowing it was there, and we got cash.  Then I changed my mind.  It was 2:30pm and we had just enough time to make it to Orava Hrad if we left now.  The girls were willing so we drove off to the castle, considered one of the most beautiful in Slovakia.  Many films had been made there, including Nosferatu in 1922. We passed some lovely villages lined with traditional wooden homes of local design, as well as a mysterious brick ruin which I found out later had been a steel mill in the 1800s.  The castle was indeed lovely.  I listened to a downloaded audio guide in English, which was very helpful as the guided tour was in Slovak.  We wound around what seemed like miles of stairs, exploring the different sections of the castle built over the centuries.  It stands on the site of an old wooden fortification built after the Mongol invasion of Hungary of 1241.  The original design was Romanesque and Gothic in style; it was later reconstructed as a Renaissance and Neo-Gothic structure, hugging the 520-metre spur on which it perched.  The mining magnate Thurzo family took charge of rebuilding efforts in the mid 16th century, and castle construction was finalized in 1611. It burned down in 1800, after which it was no longer used as a residence.  I was very glad we saw it, as it was well preserved and  had some very interesting displays of period furniture and history.  After making our way to the very top (and incidentally the oldest part), we headed back to Zuberec.

I dropped Beata and Teresa at the apartment, then headed to the forest trails that Mario had recommended the night before.  I was not disappointed.  I headed up toward Roháčske plesá and two other lakes, but the rain cut my walk short.  I wasn’t dressed for a deluge, and so headed back down, enjoying the vibrantly green flora and fresh air.  I made my way to the car, then spied Penzión Šindlovec, a lovely traditionally built wooden log house on a small river.  I went in and was immediately warmed by the authentic interior decorated with hunting scenes and Goral paraphernalia.  I ordered my old standby, trout, and was delighted at its size and tastiness.  Together with the side dish of potatoes and sauteed vegetables, I was surfeited, and took time to savor my tasteful surroundings.  Reluctantly I left and returned to the villa where we were staying.  We visited for a bit, then I fell into bed.

July 2. I awoke with a start, imagining the family drumming their fingers on the table and chomping at the bit.  These were early risers.  I headed downstairs and found thankfully that the girls had gone to church and just come back.  I had 10 minutes to get ready.  I gulped down my yogurt and headed to the skanzen to find the man with the wooden cups.  I had a small window of time to do the transaction before meeting Monika and family at Orava Lake, the dam that had inundated the villages of Orava.  Tragic really.  As luck would have it, the man was not there when I arrived.  I waited until 10:20am, and was just heading out when I spied him.  Hurriedly, I asked to look at his wares, which were still packed away.  I helped him unwrap the cups, and found one with the word Orava carved into it, topped by a flute-playing Goral and a carrot-eating squirrel.  I realized I had spent all my cash at another folk art stall, and rushed back to ask if I could pay for the items the next day, Monday.  They said yes and I exchanged the candles I’d purchased for 26 Euros.  I handed the man 35 Euros and clutched my package in ecstasy.  I am still aglow with pleasure thinking about that happy accident.  I drove like a bat out of hell to the appointed port, passing the lovely town of Trstená where I would return later to admire the main square and UNESCO-listed wooden Carpathian church.

We just made it to the ferry.  These guys ran a tight ship.  We had a 30 minute ride to Slanický Ostrov umenia (Slanic Island), also called the Island of Art. Orava reservoir was created in 1953 by flooding five villages. The island is a remnant one of the five, Slanica village, dominated by the Church of the Promenade of St. Cross. The church was built in 1766 as a baroque chapel. In 1843 it was reconstructed as a church with two towers and castle chapel.  It houses a gallery of folk art in the interior, where an exposition from the collections of Oravská Galeria in Dolní Kubín entitled “Traditional folk sculpture and painting” is installed. The island also hosts a calvary, cemetery, and lapidarium. A former tomb houses an exhibition entitled “History of flooded villages and building of Oravská priehrada”.  We only had 25 minutes to view the island, and I ended up literally running from one end to the other and snapping pictures rapid fire of the folk art in the church and environs.  Not enough time, I grumbled as they blew the whistle and Monika and Beata waited onshore so the ferry wouldn’t leave without me.

We still had the whole afternoon ahead of us, as it was only 12:30pm when we reached the shore, and Monika really wanted to take a ride on a historic narrow gauge railroad formerly used for logging.  I felt like I’d already done more that morning than I sometimes did in a day, but these guys believed in packing it in, and I was doing my best to accommodate them.  They probably were doing it for me.  It’s often like that when you visit people.  They want to show you a good time, and you don’t want to disappoint.  Life can be complicated.  We raced to the narrow gauge Historic Forest Railway in Vychylovka and found that the next one wouldn’t leave until 2pm.  We had time to catch a quick bite at the nearby restaurant where I tried sauerkraut sausage soup. The historic railway is a technological masterpiece in using switchbacks to overcome a 217 meter incline. It began operations in 1926 after the union of two forest railways, the Kysuce (running from Oščadnica to Chmúra) and the Orava (running from Lokca to Erdútka).  The two subsections with 760 millimeter gauge track were constructed between 1915 and 1918 for timber transport. The original track was 61 kilometers long, and totaled 110 kilometers including turn-offs. It was used until 1971, and except for an eight-kilometer stretch, was dismantled in 1972.  The 3.4 kilometer section of track that we traveled on took us to a small wood home from Kysuce Village whose interior showed traditional Goral life in the area.

It was a lot of fun.  Despite the rainy weather, we enjoyed the trip (the train car was covered), and climbed to the viewing platform at the midpoint to view the misty valley below.  I’m glad we went.  After arriving back at the car, I bid my friends farewell.  They were off to Liptovský Mikuláš to drop Beata at the train for a four hour ride back to Bratislava. I decided to explore the town of Trstená which I’d passed on the way to Orava reservoir earlier that morning.  On the way I found a car wash where I happily washed and vacuumed the car.  You can’t imagine the joy I feel in having a clean car, however temporary. I guess it lends a sense of order to an otherwise chaotic and unpredictable set of experiences.  Who knows.  On my way to Trstená, I discovered the lovely village of Štefanov nad Oravou situated on a wide bend (almost lake) of the Orava River, just downstream from the dam. I drove to the upper village and parked near the cemetery, then walked up the steep main road.  Two boys on bikes wondered at my alien presentation, and seemed to shadow me to the top.  There were some interesting buildings. I enjoyed taking a peek into the daily life and goings on of a small village, and made my way back to the lower village to explore the river side.  I walked along the banks toward Trstená and discovered a protected forest area.  I marveled at the wildflowers growing along the road and read the Latin names of flora featured on information placards along the way.  I may not be able to read Slovakian, but I recognize the genus of many plants from my botany class at UCSC in 1984.

After a pleasant walk, I headed to Trstená, where I walked around the main square, admiring several historic buildings and gawking at the huge crowds of people overflowing the church.  There must have been 200 plus people inside, plus a large queue of folks pouring out of the doors into the square, many on their knees for most of the service. The popularity of attending church services was a trend I experienced in Slovakia and Poland, though not in Hungary, Germany, or France (the three other countries I’d explored in depth thus far this summer). I wanted ice cream but decided instead to shop at Lidl (I needed some groceries), where I bought one of those 50 cent ice cream sundaes.  I’m sure it was 100 percent artificial – it surely tasted like it.  I crossed the footbridge to the other side of the river, then set off to find the wooden church.  I love wooden churches built in the vernacular architecture of the Carpathians which occur in southern Lesser Poland (Małapolska); Maramureş, Romania; Ukraine; and the Slovak Carpathians.

It was a lovely site.  According to the sign the interior was still open, but the door was firmly locked and there was no one in sight.  I resolved to return the next day on my way to Poland in hopes of a glimpse of the interior.  The roof came down to a few feet above the ground. Such amazing architecture astounds me.  Maybe it’s in my blood.  There’s a church like this in Zakopane, so my father grew up seeing such churches.  I headed back toward Zuberec, stopping at the ghost of the steel mill from more than a century and a half ago.  I walked the kilometer to the brick ruins in the failing light, and was surprised to find two cyclists from the Czech Republic camping in the protection of the ruins. We had a nice long chat.  They invited me to visit them next time I am in the Czech Republic.  I have forgotten where they live, but hopefully it will come to me.  I returned home late, and had the happy accident of bumping into Mario, who was headed to the pub to have a beer with his brother Marek visiting from Bratislava. We had a very nice conversation at the pub, and I got to know Mario and Marek.  Marek had done a lot of traveling with his partner Zuzana, and he thought that we should meet.  They now have a 2 1/2 year old, which has put a damper on world touring, but they are still managing to get out.  I got back tired and crashed for the night.

July 3. I awoke and started packing to leave.  I’d told Mario I’d be out by 10 or 11am at the latest and wanted to keep my promise. As I readied to leave, I ran into Mario, who said his brother’s girlfriend wanted to meet me.  They were at the skanzen nearby, which I planned to visit in order to pick up the candles I’d had to leave the day before.  I followed Mario to the village, where he showed me a large cave-like hollow. I would have explored more but my flip flops were not built for this kind of terrain and the wet clay was slick.  Mario parted to go to work and I visited with Zuzana while Marek watched their daughter, who was unrelentingly bent on ice cream. I liked Zuzana immediately.  We ended up talking about travel and life, and then I found out that she wanted to visit California.  I told her I’d be gone till October 24 and that my room would be available after September 3.  She was very excited and we resolved that if my housemates were amenable, the three of them would stay for up to a month.  I offered her the place for no charge, but she wanted to pay something.  A few days later my housemates agreed, and I let her know.  We are still working out the details.  I may visit their flat in central Bratislava in the fall for a break from Budapest while I get more dental work.  I’ll have to see how I feel about the drive.

About 2pm I excused myself.  I needed to arrive in Wadowice, Poland by 9pm to stay with Paul Karpinski and his wife Stasia, my father’s cousin.  I bought the candles I’d put back the day before and headed to the Carpathian wooden church in Trstená, hoping it would be open.  Unfortunately, I found it closed.  There was a funeral going on, with people dressed in black carrying white lilies to the nearby chapel.  I drove to Orovice, Slovakia, which I’d read was a lovely village. It was just on the other side of the mountain pass where I’d hiked the day before, and did not disappoint.  Located on the banks of the Oravica (surprise!), it backs up onto the Western Tatry and borders Poland.  There is a lovely aqua park located on the bank of the river, and I took the liberty of driving to the end of a road up one of the two dolinas (valleys) in the area.  I got out of the car and walked up the road, filling my lungs with the cool air, then drove back down and walked on gang planks over a wet meadow with spectacular views of the surrounding mountains.  I fell in love with the area, and found out that my second cousin Paul’s brother Lukasz frequents Orovice for winter skiing.  Small world.

I bid farewell to Orovice and headed for Wadowice.  It was interesting to drive on small roads through traditional Polish Carpathian villages, and I was glad I had chosen that route.  I arrived around 9:15pm, much more timely than I’d expected, and had a lovely dinner with Paul and Stasia.  They had generously given me their bedroom, and I felt guilty seeing them preparing the two single beds in their daughters’ former bedroom. We stayed up late pouring over old photos of dead ancestors, some of whom I recognized from frequent visits with my Aunt Marysia in Mountain View who was the Karpinski family’s memory.  Ironically, she had married into the family, tying the knot with my father’s brother Jurek in 1945.  Her maiden name was Bukowska.


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