The other Slov

When I first told people I was moving here, there was a great deal of confusion. I’m half Slovenian, so when people heard I was moving to Slovakia, they assumed I was talking about Slovenia. This was an understandable mistake.

But it’s not just me. In the opening to my well-used Rough Guides book on the Czech and Slovak Republics, there’s a quote from George W. Bush, given to a Slovak journalist:

“The only thing I know about Slovakia si what I learned first-hand from your foreign minister, who came to Texas.”

In fact, the foreigner who visited Texas was the leader of Slovenia.

And then there was this story from the Courrier International website that showed up in my Google Alerts. The headline caught my attention right away. “Wait a minute,” I thought. “Slovakia and Croatia don’t share a border!”

A solution to the Slovak-Croat border dispute in sight
The heads of government of Croatia and Slovenia have agreed to refer the border conflict smouldering between them for 16 years now to the International Court of Justice in The Hague. Franco Juri comments: “Slovenian Prime Minister Janes Jasa and his Croat counterpart Ivo Sanader acted like mature and responsible politicians for the first time in Bled. They entered the limelight and performed like a good team that has finally realised what society expects of them – including the media, the general public and the somewhat impatient European Union, which will soon be under Ljubljana’s presidency and plans to integrate Zagreb in the near future.

So I guess it’s not just me.

September 3, 2007 at 10:06 am Leave a comment

Surfin’ HRV


My introduction to CouchSurfing came through another expat, a dreadlocked American guy named Brandon who stayed at the hostel about a year before I did and returned to allegedly start his own youth hostel (no one has yet seen any evidence of these plans, however). He let me crash at his place that night, which as I recall involved substantial amounts of hruškovica consumed in a park to celebrate a hostel guest’s birthday; then disappeared for a few months before suddenly showing up when my friends were in town, introducing us to peach tequila at a bar called U Dežmara, and later that week calling me up to say he had joined a group called CouchSurfing and a bunch of them were having a party and I should go.

So I went, and met more CouchSurfers and figured out what the deal was. It’s pretty simple: you sign up on this website, put up your profile, and either offer your couch to travellers passing through your city and/or stay on other people’s couches while you’re travelling. CouchSurfing hosts in different cities also hang out and organize activities and such. Really, it seems like a great way to save money and meet people – two of my top priorities when travelling.

I had a week’s vacation from work coming up and I knew that I wanted to go to Croatia to lie on a beach and do nothing for a few days. But I had left things to the last minute and everything had become really expensive by that point. I was mentioning this at a table full of CouchSurfers when one of them, a Croatian-Argentinian, mentioned that he knew someone in Split. He took my contact info and promised to see what he could do.

And that’s how I met Marin and ended up crashing on his couch in Split for three nights. That’s also how I met Shannon and Pamela, two really cool American girls who had met surfing at Marin’s place a few weeks before and became the best of friends as a result. (In fact, I hung out with Pamela the next week when she was in Bratislava surfing at Brandon’s place.) And most importantly, that’s how I was able to afford a glorious and much-needed four-day vacation.


I got to Split by a 16-hour train ride from Bratislava. The length of the trip was a little daunting, but it ended up being quite enjoyable. I spent an hour or two standing and looking out the windows, which helped keep my legs from cramping; and I made friends with a couple of cool Croatian girls. We had a compartment to ourselves and slept great all night. When I woke up, the landscape of farmers’ fields and forests I had last seen in northern Croatia before daylight faded was replaced by a desert-like landscape of rocky fields and scrubby vegetation, mixed with vineyards and mountains.

I had breakfast and coffee with the girls, then wandered around the gorgeous narrow streets and the ruins of the Diocletian palace for a few hours before I met up with Marin. Then after lunch, I floated in the warm, salty water of the Adriatic and lounged on the beach. The next day, same thing: sightseeing in the morning, beach in the afternoon. The next day, because I wanted to see the islands, I hopped on a ferry to the most accessible one (Brač) and took a bus across the island, up and down harsh mountains that weaved through villages of stone houses and churches and curved around gorgeous cerulean bays, and ended up in the beach town of Bol. I spent another afternoon swimming and sunbathing on a pebbled beach in front of an old monastery, had a gorgeous salad with goat cheese and fresh-picked olives at a restaurant overlooking the sea, and went back to Split.


I woke up early the next morning to catch a bus to Dubrovnik. I decided to fly home from there instead of Split because I had wanted to see Dubrovnik since the moment I first heard about it. If I ever go back, it will be during the spring or fall – in spite of its gorgeous and intriguing streets and walls, it was too crowded and way, way, way too hot to fully enjoy. But the bus ride there was worth it. First was the mountainous islands and rugged shorelines heading down the coast. Then just before the bus crossed the border into Bosnia, it came onto an amazing vista of dark forest-covered peaks with turquoise lakes sparkling in front of almost every one of them. (Shannon and Pamela spent a few days in Bosnia, and their stories and the glimpse of the country I saw in the 30 minutes or so we travelled through it have convinced me that I want to see it someday.)

I’d been to the Adriatic before, in Slovenia, but the landscape here was what made it incredible: swimming in the warm turquoise water, surrounded to all sides by foreboding, sunbaked mountains and dark pines and palm trees and stone villages. The Croatian girls on the train were right about what they told me: there is something special about their sea.

I got to Marin’s, and therefore to Croatia, through my CouchSurfing friend, not through actually becoming a CouchSurfer myself. Since I left, Marin has been hounding me to put up a real CouchSurfing profile and become a real CouchSurfer. And for some reason, I’m finding myself really reluctant to do this.

My couch surfing experience was entirely positive. But I can’t help feeling like, as my friend Jason put it, CouchSurfers are kind of cultish. Plus, with a full-blown addiction to Facebook, I’m not sure I want to have another profile and another online social life to deal with.

On the other hand, having couches to surf on would definitely help with my plans to spend extended weekends in Prague and Krakow this fall, and with a potential week-long trip to the Baltics. (The more I see how easy it is to access these places from Blava, the more places I want to see.)

I’m still torn about CouchSurfing. But not about Croatia. I’m ready to go back already.

August 12, 2007 at 5:16 pm Leave a comment

Here’s what you missed.

I haven’t been a lazy blogger so much as a busy blogger.

Since I last posted, I:

– Spent just about every waking minute for three weeks finishing the travel magazine. I’m told it will be out today.

– Spent a combined total of four or five days introducing a combined total of six people to Bratislava. If you really want to see how well you know a place, try being an unofficial tour guide there when your friends are in town. Even though I didn’t know the names of all the statues and churches, I think I did a pretty decent job. It was also good for me to see the city through a newcomer’s eyes again now that I understand all the context a little bit more.

– Made one trip to Vienna and two trips to Budapest. I had been to Vienna before, and now that I’ve spent three days there, I still feel like I need to spend several more. I like it because it’s so pretty and artsy. It reminds me of what Bratislava could have been if it had money and/or a government that was interested in preserving its heritage. It was my first time travelling to Budapest, and I fell instantly in love. Not as pristinely pretty as Vienna, but still plenty gorgeous and overflowing with character. The Danube waterfront there is one of my all-time favourite cityscapes.

– Watched my contract expire, then agreed to another one that will keep me here just about until Christmas. There were many, many factors behind the decision but at the root was this one: I’m not ready to leave yet.

The adventure continues…

July 6, 2007 at 2:02 pm 1 comment

The far east


My trip through Eastern Slovakia was my most extensive yet, lasting almost a week and a half. But for the first time, I had company for part of it: my friend Silvia, a native Bratislavčanka who speaks beautiful English, possesses a drivers licence, and has no qualms about approaching strangers or pulling over at the side of the road to take a closer look at an interesting church ruin. In other words, she was exactly the kind of travelling companion I needed.

Having a translator let me ask people the questions I wanted to ask but didn’t know how. This was something my stories sorely needed. And having access to a car meant I was able to cover a lot more ground with a lot less frustration. But practicalities aside, it was also nice to have Silvia there for reasons like this…

(driving past a road sign for a village called Smilno)
Silvia: Heh. Smilno.
Steph: What does that mean?
Silvia: Smilniť means . . . What do you call it when a man sleeps with another woman?
Steph: Adultery?
Silvia: Yes.
Steph: So it’s Adulteryville?
Silvia: Yes.

It was a long trip. This is a long post.

Day 1: Košice to Medzilaborce

At about 6 a.m. we arrive in Košice, the so-called Eastern Capital of Slovakia, on a night train from Bratislava, and pick up our navy blue Škoda Fabia. I am blown away by how close everything is when you can drive there. Silvia giggles at people’s eastern accents.

One of my top must-see destinations is Medzilaborce, a town of about 6,000 near the Polish border in the northeast corner of the country. The reason? About a dozen kilometres away is the village of Miková, home to a certain Julia and Ondrej Warhola, who in the 1920s emigrated to Pittsburgh and gave birth to a son named Andrew, who the rest of the world would come to know as Andy Warhol. Due to this, the town hosts quite possibly the world’s most remote museum of pop-art and has covered its one arterial street with signs, posters and Campbell’s Soup can-shaped bus stops that honour its most famous sort-of son.

But there is no sign of this when you drive into Medzilaborce from the south and pass the usual fields and hills and modest houses. “Are you sure there’s a museum in this little town?” Silvia asks.

Sure enough, there is. In true can’t-miss-it fashion, the museum’s broad white front walls are decorated with immense multi-coloured photos of the pop art king. To our surprise, the museum staff are less than helpful when we tell them we’re there with the media and wanted to speak to someone about the museum. The director is too busy, we’re told. Eventually, we wrangle a meeting for the next day.

In the meantime, we look around the museum. It’s about as bizarre as you would expect an Andy Warhol museum in rural Slovakia to be. All of the walls in the first few rooms are empty, the contents on loan to a museum in Ireland. The next rooms contain artefacts with the most tenuous connection to Warhol – sketches by his mother, birth and death certificates of various relatives. But just when you start to think it’s all a joke, you reach the section where the actual Warhol art is. Not all of the works are “originals” in the traditional sense, but the collection is rounded out with exhibition prints and test screen prints, and even a Lichtenstein original.

Then things get more bizarre. We inquire at the tourist office at the other side of the building that houses the museum, and the woman there tells us the people we need to speak to are out of the office and would be back in 15 minutes. “She says there are some sales downstairs and we should go there,” Silvia says to me.

I assume the woman is talking about gallery gift shop of some sort. We walk through the basement door and find . . . bathroom cleaners. Laundry detergent. Row upon row of plastic bins filled with cheap imported T-shirts and plastic toys and umbrellas and clothespegs. The locals sift through the merchandise looking for bargains, oblivious to the Campbell’s Soup Can wallpaper and gigantic neon painting by Ultra Violet hanging above them.

Day 2: Medzilaborce, Svidník, Bardejov

We meet with the museum director and its founder/curator for about two hours the next morning – they more than make up for blowing us off the day before. From there we head to Svidník to see an outdoor museum, or skanzen, made up of buildings from nearby Rusyn villages.

The Rusyns, or Ruthenians, are a hard-to-describe ethnic group found in Slovakia’s northeast, numbering anywhere between 40,000 and 150,000 people, depending whose numbers you believe. Their dialect draws from Slovak, Hungarian and Polish and their writing is Cyrillic. Their religion, Greek Catholic, combines Orthodox and Roman Catholicism. And due to various post-war policies, their culture has been on the decline for the past 60 years or so. The world’s most famous Rusyn was Andy Warhol.

The skanzen is a charming collection of authentic houses in similar but varied styles. Some have thatched roofs; some have plastered walls painted sky blue. There is also a wooden church, an architectural marvel found throughout northeastern Slovakia. And perhaps most fun for us, various goats, sheep and cows wandering around. One shaggy brown donkey walks right up to me and lets me pat his soft, warm nose. I want to take him with us as our mascot, but concede that he probably won’t fit in the Škoda.

The next stop is Bardejov, an immaculately preserved old medieval town with a beautiful cathedral and a museum with the biggest collection of icons in Slovakia. Silvia and I notice something is off, but it isn’t until later that night we realize what it is: all the girls are freakishly gorgeous. We’re convinced people are looking at us funny.


Day 3: Bardejov to Kežmarok, via wooden churches

Before we leave the penzion in the morning, Silvia and I find ourselves sharing the mirror and putting on makeup at the same time. Silvia sums up the sudden case of vanity in two words. “Bardejov girls,” she sighs.

We spend some more time in Bardejov before heading off to check out a couple wooden churches in nearby villages. The churches are only open for limited hours but there are signs telling you where the caretaker lives so you can get the key. When we arrive at the caretaker’s house in the village of Hervatov, we find a girl of about 10 coming there on her bicycle at the same time. Silvia tells her we’re there to see the church and she runs into the house. We hear her yelling from the yard: “Maja! Turisty!” (“Tourists!”) We laugh until Maja comes out with the key.

There are a couple things that make the wooden churches incredible. The first is that people managed to create the curved roofs and bulbous steeples out of wood alone. In many cases, this was accomplished without using any nails to hold the building together. The second thing is that, even though they look like elaborate barns from the outside, the churches contain amazing murals and icons on the inside.


The drive further west takes us within spitting distance of the border crossing to Poland. We toy with the idea of heading over just for kicks, but decide against it. The last stop of the day is Kežmarok. We stop there on a whim but are intrigued with the city’s architecture – from the massive fuschia, green and yellow Lutheran church to the pretty white castle with turrets and a red roof. We end up finding a penzion to stay overnight. Every square inch of the walls in the common areas is covered with hunting trophies: deer skulls, furs, a mounted boar. But I look past that when we discover our room has a balcony with a view of the High Tatras. I think we both squeal. Later I sit on the corner of the bed and stare at them endlessly.


Day 4: Spišsky hrad, Košice

Spišsky hrad is one of Slovakia’s most famous tourist destinations, a hilltop castle ruin that seems like it spreads on forever. There are enough walls, courtyards, towers and archways that you can literally spend hours exploring it. We take tons of photos.

The day ends back in Košice, where we have a hotel room arranged through the magazine. After three nights staying in penzions of varying quality, the four-star luxury seems unreal. We only stay long enough in Košice for dinner and dessert in the main square, but we’re already taken with it.


Day 5-6: Košice


The next morning, we return the car and I see Silvia off at the train station – she has to go back to work in Bratislava, unfortunately. I only meant to spend a day in Košice, but that day is a Monday, meaning most of the attractions are closed. The more I walk around the more I want to see, so I decide to stay a second day. Among my favourite sights: the gorgeous St. Elizabeth cathedral, with its lovely gothic interior and tiled roof; the tunnels underneath the main street that used to be the city’s walls; a cafe that also has an art gallery and an indie/foreign film cinema built in (the Košice equivalent of Guelph’s Bookshelf?); and the Romathan, the only Roma theatre in Slovakia.

Košice was the first place in Slovakia where I saw Roma (gypsies) who weren’t desperately poor. Sure, some were still desperately poor (the country’s most notorious gypsy housing complex, Lunik 9, is near Košice), but not all of them. The theatre was the first place where I saw Roma culture mean something besides the stereotypical image of hanging around the bus station looking sketchy. The play was in the traditional Roma language with subtitles in Slovak flashed on an electronic message board above the stage. But I went more for the music than for the drama. While the building was rickety, the theatre room was amateurish, the musicians sat in the audience and the acting was on par with that in a high school play, the music was as good as any I’ve seen at a theatre performance. The songs were hauntingly mournful or frenetically upbeat, skirts swirled and knees slapped in perfect rhythm. I had no idea what they were singing about, but there was so much colour and spirit.


Day 7: The High Tatras

I was looking forward to this for a long time and it didn’t disappoint. My base was the ski resort town of Stary Smokovec. My destination, picked more or less at random, was Teryho chata, a chalet 2,015 metres above sea level.

Travel guides warn you about the Tatra tour groups, busloads full of pensioners who pour into the mountain park for sightseeing. I encountered one of these next to a lovely waterfall (including one woman in tight yellow capris who wobbled over the rocks in white high-heeled sandals) and was afraid it would be a sign of more to come. But I spent the rest of the hike more or less alone.

It’s hard to put the hike into words. I later found out it’s not even considered a hike but a “walk,” because it didn’t go to the higher altitudes. (Most of the alpine trails are closed until mid-June.) But for me, 2,000 metres is really freaking high. Especially when I have to trudge through fields of snow – the melty spring kind of snow that’s extra slippery and hard to walk through. But I make it through the beautiful valley to the chata and feel immensely self-satisfied as I eat my bag lunch on the bench outside, staring at the peaks that are suddenly so very close. Before I head down, I stop for a couple minutes in a dip near the top sheltered by the mountain sides. With the sun shining in and the snow and walls of rock muffling any sounds, I think for an instant I might have stumbled onto heaven. Now I understand why those extreme heli-skiing types do it.


Day 8: Exhaustion, Levoča

I want nothing more than to read and suntan on my hotel balcony (it’s about 30 C and the sun is blazing). But I figure I have to see Levoča, another historic town in the area. Levoča is best known for Master Pavol, the artist who carved magnificent wooden altars in the 16th century. It’s the kind of town that would have made me giddy with its churches and architecture earlier in the trip. But I’m tired. I see the centrepiece Sv. Jakub (St. James) church with Pavol’s famous gothic altar, the tallest of its kind in Europe. It really is magnificent. But I’m tired. The hotel in Poprad has all kinds of hot tubs and saunas and fancy pools included, but I can’t muster the ambition to leave the hotel room, and spend the evening in bed watching the finale of Bam’s Unholy Union on Euro MTV.


Day 9: Slovensky Raj, home



The two must-sees left on my list are the Slovensky raj (Slovak paradise) park and the Dobšina ice cave, included in the park. But due to the limited bus schedules, it soon becomes clear I can’t do both. It ends up being a relief after I decide to skip the ice cave, because I get to take my time and enjoy the hiking.

And I do. The Sucha bela (white gorge) trail is lovely, a Muskoka-like ravine with rocky walls and lush green trees. It also takes a lot of effort to hike because you have to pay complete attention to what you’re doing. There are logs and rocks to climb over at every turn. There are also points that you can only get through using metal ladders and chains drilled into the rocks. I’m not remotely afraid of heights, but there’s something about climbing a narrow metal ladder over a sheer rock face, a few feet away from a waterfall, that makes you start frantically calculating the odds of a bolt coming loose.

My hike ends about seven hours after it started near the small town of Spišské Tomášovce. On my way out of the forest, I’m struck by the panorama. Spreading out below of me are rolling farmers fields and a few villages, with red roofed houses and white steeples clustered together. At the edge of the village ahead of me I can see rows of tumble-down gypsy shacks. (When I get closer, I see that even the tiniest, shackiest shacks have mini-satellite dishes on them.) To the left are the High Tatras, looking spectacular with the twilight sun hitting them through the clouds. To the right is the industrial city of Spišská Nová Ves, marked by panelaky and smokestacks. From that vantage point, I feel like I’m looking at a microcosm for Slovakia as a whole.

To my immense fortune, a train stops in tiny, remote Spišské Tomášovce about 10 minutes after I get to the station. I eventually end up on a night train from Košice to Bratislava, a very symmetrical way to end the trip. You’re not supposed to take a compartment to yourself on a night train, but given how few people were in my car, it happened anyway. I lock my backpack to the luggage rack, take off my muddy, smelly boots, use my travel purse as a pillow and sleep like a baby. Then I arrive in Bratislava, take the bus back to my apartment, and sleep some more.

June 5, 2007 at 10:41 pm Leave a comment

Tatric Love: ‘They’re beautifully high’

It’s going to take a while to figure out how to compress nine days of travel into a blog entry. Until then, here are some photos from my hike in the High Tatras, which is one of the best things I’ve ever done in my life.

(The quote in the headline is from my friend Silvia, who gets as excited about mountains as I do – and it’s accurate.)






Highest! I was so glad to see this chata (chalet/cottage).


Snow-melting streams.


So very high.


Then I got all Canadian and made an inukshuk. It was a little wobbly.

May 29, 2007 at 6:27 pm Leave a comment

You said you didn’t give a f— about hockey

Canadians pride themselves on being the biggest hockey fans in the world. After the last few weeks, I can say without a doubt — that’s a myth. It’s absolutely not true.

I lived in Ottawa when the Sens played the Leafs in the playoffs. I saw the packed bars and got in trash-talking matches with complete strangers by wearing my Leafs jersey. I also saw parties in the streets when Team Canada won the Olympic gold medal in 2002. All of that has nothing – nothing! – on Slovak hockey fans.

For those of you living in Canada, the World Hockey Championships just wrapped up and Canada won. But most fans in North America probably didn’t even notice because the Stanley Cup playoffs are on. Fair enough.

In Slovakia, the championships have been the main event since even before they started. I think it’s a bigger deal for Europeans in general. For instance, while Canadian A-list hockey stars decided to take a post-season break rather than join the national team, the Slovak team was stacked with superstars like Miroslav Šatan, Marian Gáborík, Marián Hossa and Zdeno Chára (whose last name, by the way, is supposed to be pronounced “Ha-ra”). It means more to them here.

When Slovakia and Canada played each other in the opening round of the tournament, I knew I had to see the game. I ended up at a sports bar, tucked into a corner with four or five other Canadians, cheering but trying not to cheer too loudly. That’s because every other available space in the two-storey bar was packed with Slovak hockey fans. They were wearing jerseys. They had horns and noisemakers. They were chanting. When their guys scored, they exploded in a deafening roar.

Let me reiterate: this was the opening round of the tournament.  ie. Not the Stanley Cup playoffs or the gold medal game, which is the only time I’ve seen Canadian fans react like that.

About a week later, when the games started to count, I found myself in the town of Liptovský Mikuláš on a late Sunday afternoon. Wandering through the town square, I was trying to figure out why it was absolutely abandoned. Was the town that small? Did it get that much more quiet on Sundays? I went for a quick walk up the hill overlooking the city, and on my way up I heard car horns honking.

Right. The game was on.

Sure enough, after the game ended, life returned to normal. The sidewalk tables at cafes and bars were once again filled with people, families pushed their kids in strollers through the main square, and people were chatting with their neighbours … about the next game in the tournament.

This isn’t to say Canadians aren’t passionate about hockey – many Canadians are very passionate about hockey. But to say hockey is the national passion? Not even close. When everyone you know is watching the game and screaming their lungs out, even when it’s a game that “doesn’t matter” – that’s passion. We got nothing on the Slovaks.

May 15, 2007 at 12:11 am Leave a comment

May Day at the Iron Curtain

May Day festivities used to be mandatory here. People were required to line up to meet’n’greet with their politicians to celebrate the workers’ holiday. (It was a little annoying, people old enough to remember this tell me, but at least they got to see their friends and hang out in the pub after.) May Day is still a statutory holiday here, but for most people it’s kind of like the May 2-4 in Canada – less about its original purpose, and more an excuse to have a day off and enjoy the nice weather.

True, my grandparents came from a former East Bloc country. But they fled the country because of communism, they never actually lived there during it. That means, growing up, all I learned about communism was that it was terrible and had to be escaped. I had no concept of what it was like to live in a communist state. Also, from what I hear, the Yugoslavian brand of communism was a lot different and less restrictive than the Czechoslovak version – which is why you don’t see omnipresent paneláky housing and wall carvings paying tribute to The Working Class in Slovenia like you do here, people tell me.

I was interested to see how May Day would be celebrated here, but I wound up scheduled for a tour of the areas surrounding Bratislava. That ended up showing me more about the holiday and what it stood for than I thought it would.

My flat is right near a public square commemorating the Slovak National Uprising. I was expecting to see a communist rally there when I walked through it on the morning of May Day to meet the tour guides. But what surprised me was who I saw: about 30 or 40 old people tottering around on canes, with red ribbons pinned to the jackets of their coats.

I asked my tour guide, Ľuba, about it. I mentioned a theory I’d heard from someone else, that after all those decades of communism, the old people had too hard a time dealing with all the choice.

“It was just too much of a change for them,” she told me. “To have all that time with one thing, and then to have something else…”

Indeed, the theme of the communist era (or “in those times” as people often refer to it) kept coming up that day. The first stop of the tour was Devín castle, an impressive castle ruin about a 15-minute drive from the city centre. Devín is at the intersection of the Danube and Morava rivers, which form the border with Austria. On the way there, we passed the dismal concrete posts that are all that remain of the Iron Curtain here. After communism fell, people came through with wire cutters to take sections of the fence as souvenirs.

There were also fences that closed off the trail below Devín that runs alongside the Danube. It used to be open, but it was closed off completely during the 1970s. An outdoor ampitheatre built into the side of the hill, with the back of the stage next to the Danube, was also closed. The seats are gone today, and you can only see the concrete stairs built into the hillside and the remnants of the stage. There was a ban on new housing in the village of Devín, to keep the population small and manageable, and eventually the entire town was closed to visitors during the week for the same reason. Keep in mind, this was a major tourism site and walking park for people, so I guess letting visitors come on weekend was their only concession.

Some people tried to cross into Austria over the Danube, but not many. The current is strong, meaning people who managed to make it over could find themselves pushed away from Austria onto the part of the south bank closer to Bratislava that belongs to Slovakia. A more feasible option was crossing the Morava, which resembles a muddy creek when the water is low. To compensate, the communist government loaded up the riverside with armed border guards.

“Officially, these were international waters because of the border with Austria, so you weren’t allowed to shoot people,” Ľuba said. “But…” She trailed off with a shrug.

A monument was recently built on the bank of the Morava to honour all the people who were killed as they tried to cross into Austria. Its front side contains markings designed to look like bullet holes, and on the inside are the grim statistics (20,000 people sent to Gulags, 80,000 imprisoned for trying to escape…) and the names of the people who were killed by border guards’ bullets. As I stood there staring at the haunting monument, I thought back to the old people gathered in SNP Square that morning. Who would want to celebrate that?

My friend Lubo had another take on it later last week. I took him for lunch to thank him for helping me pick out hiking boots.

“Those boots you just bought were about … 40 per cent of what they get for their pension for a month,” he said. The old people have no savings, because they weren’t allowed to accumulate savings during communism. They’re getting paid a pittance from the government now. “It sounds cruel, but for some of these people, the best thing that happens to them is if they die,” Lubo said. “If they don’t have family to take care of them, they’re screwed.” At least during communism, the government would take care of them. They saw their conditions get worse when communism fell; makes it harder to blame them for their nostalgia.

They don’t understand that the problem isn’t democracy – it’s a system that is still trying to figure out how to adjust to life after communism, more than 15 years later, and sometimes hurting its citizens as it gropes its way through.

May 7, 2007 at 9:12 pm Leave a comment

Slovakia’s south coast

(Header stolen from the Norfolk County tourism slogan, except slightly less ridiculous)

My trip to the southern part of Slovakia started a day late because I desperately needed a good night’s sleep. It ended with me scrubbing my shoes in the sink of a four-star hotel because they smelled like Death. In between were four days, seven towns, two countries, three train rides, five bus rides, two cab rides and two blisters. Yet somehow, I don’t hate Slovakia yet…



I was supposed to leave for this trip about three days after I got back from my last one. I hadn’t had time to do laundry, let alone plan an excursion. And I was a little sleep-deprived and grumpy, to say the least. So I blew off my train ride and took Friday afternoon to decompress and plan.

I decided on an overnight train that would get me to Rožňava, in southeastern Slovakia, by early Saturday morning. But then the Australian kid from the coffee shop started telling me about how his friend’s friend was on an overnight train in eastern Slovakia that got ransacked by gypsies. Then my roommates started joking about how the only way to sleep on an overnight train in eastern Slovakia was to paint eyeballs on your eyelids and tie knives to your hands. Nice. Between my new sense of paranoia and my grumpiness, I decided to stay home and sleep and leave the next afternoon.

For the record, I had no problems with robbery on this trip. But it was the first time I used my money belt.

Rožňava itself is a pretty, very small town surrounded by rows and rows of big, dark green hills – they actually reminded me a lot of the hills in Slovenia. It’s also a good hub for seeing several attractions in the Slovenský kras region. Theoretically. If you have a car.

I don’t.

This is where the problems started. After a lot of head-scratching, I came up with a way to go to Krásnohorská Dlhá Lúka to tour a cave, then to Krásnohorské Podhradie to see a castle and mausoleum. But then the bus I needed to take to KDL never came. Taking this as a sign that transportation would be dodgy, I took a cab to KP because it was my priority. That part was no problem – the Krásna Hôrka castle was lovely with great views and, unlike some other castles, actually had lots of interesting stuff in it. (Torture chamber – creepy in a good way. Mummified aristocrat – creepy in a creepy way.) There’s also a stunning Art Nouveau mausoleum for Franciska Andrássy, an opera singer/noble, with great architecture and unbelievable mosaics.

When I found out it wasn’t too far to walk to the caves, I hiked over with more than an hour to spare before the 2 p.m. cave tour was supposed to start. But then the guides told me they only ran tours when there were four people there. I was the first. This was probably something that could have been avoided if I’d called ahead to arrange things, but while my Slovak is good enough to understand when they tell me bad news, it’s not yet good enough to convince tour guides to let me in, or to make arrangements over the phone. There would be no tour; however, they did give me a hardcover photo book about the caves – in Slovak. It was a nice gesture, really…

Because the next bus wasn’t coming for another few hours, I decided to walk back to Rožňava to try to make it into a museum before they closed. My shortcut between farmers’ fields probably saved me at least 20 minutes. However, I misjudged how solid the ground next to a stream through a cow field would be and plunged my left foot ankle-deep into the muddy, God-knows-what-else-y water. This is why my shoes smelled like Death. I also came across a flock of sheep and learned that, a) shepherds still exist; and b) sheep dogs really, really do their job well.

After an hour of walking, I was ready to scream. But I was not ready to hitchhike, even though I was offered a ride just outside of Rožňava. I have done several things I never thought I’d do (like, say, walking along the side of two-lane highways in rural Slovakia), but I don’t think hitchhiking by myself will ever be one of them. Too many mental images of girls strangled by roadsides…

Of course, when I got to Rožňava I learned that all the stuff worth seeing there closed that day. So I gave up. I found a cafe on the town square and nursed a coffee and ate dessert for a couple hours as the sun set. It was probably the best thing in the world for my sanity.



This was an actual conversation I had with my dad before I moved here…

Dad: I’m not so worried now that I know they don’t live in caves.

Me: Well actually, there’s a place where they built homes into the side of caves to protect themselves from the Turkish invasion. There’s still some people who live there. They do tours of the houses and stuff today.

Dad: So you’re telling me they live in caves?

I knew I had to see the caves as soon as I read about them in the guidebook, so I took a train from Rožňava to Levice, in central Slovakia, and a bus from there to Brhlovce. Again, the bus didn’t come when it was supposed to. And the woman who told me she’d be at the museum wasn’t there when I got there. But I decided after the gong show that was Rožňava, the only way I was going to survive this trip was to take things in stride when they didn’t go according to schedule. My mood was much better as a result.

The display two-storey rock homes in the museum were cool – tiny, painted rooms with old-timey furnishings, several degrees cooler than the 20-odd degree weather outside. You could see why people would want to stay in them. But I didn’t get to speak to any of the people who still live in rock dwellings. I was hoping to arrange a meeting even before I left Bratislava, but between the language barrier and the museum guide not picking up the phone when my co-workers tried to call, I couldn’t pull it off. Plus, I don’t think anyone around there spoke enough English. I’m hoping to try to arrange something by phone with a co-worker doing the translation.

Oh Hungary?


Levice has a frayed-around-the-edges feel and not a whole lot going on, besides a castle ruin close to the city centre. So I decided on a whim to go to Šturovo, mostly because it has a bridge across the Danube to Esztergom, a Hungarian town with a huge basilica. I really liked the idea of walking to Hungary.

Šturovo doesn’t have a lot going on either, but I found an amazing pension – huge room with double bed, private bath and microwave for Sk500 (about $25 Cdn) a night. And the owner was a very helpful, incredibly friendly woman with lovely cats. I was thrilled with it.

Esztergom’s basilica was one of my favourite yet, bright and open with a beautiful view from the top. The town itself was cute and baroque. I wouldn’t have minded spending more time there.

Instead, I moved on to Komárno, another Slovak-Hungarian border town further west. Komárno had some points in its favour. Like a brand new central square that looks like a Disney World version of central Europe with its wild architecture and cafes. It also has a derelict old fort by the river that was fun to explore. But again, lots of things I wanted to see were closed, like an Orthodox church that’s supposed to have a great collection of icons. Even the tourism office closed earlier than it was supposed to.

From there I went to a tiny town called Patince that doesn’t have much happening besides thermal springs. The paper set me up in a huge hotel room with hardwood floors and corner windows and a tub where I soaked my abused feet. The hotel also had several whirlpools and saunas to choose from. I would have gladly paid for a sauna, except they didn’t open until 10 a.m. and I wanted to be on my way back to Bratislava by then. Of course, that didn’t happen because it took too long for the bus to come to Patince. Instead I paid far too much for a cab ride, but was happy to find I could have most of a conversation with the driver. And because there were no signs anywhere at the train or bus station that said a commuter bus left every hour, I almost missed the commuter bus. But I managed to make it back to Bratislava by about 12:40 p.m., a little battered and smelly but alive and whole and unrobbed.

There was a lot of frustration on this trip. Much of it probably could have been avoided if I had a car and spoke Slovak and made the trip a month or two later. And that sort of frustrates me even more. Trying to write informative, fair travel stories about these places is all but impossible in these circumstances. But even though the situation is far from perfect, I still like that I get to see so much of the country, and so many different places. I will really know this place by the time I’m done, warts and blisters and all.

April 27, 2007 at 3:11 pm Leave a comment

And you thought Stephen Harper had a bad relationship with the media…

Three related stories from the national news wire:

Government: Media often misinforms, cabinet planning legal measure

      Bratislava, April 25 (TASR-SLOVAKIA) – The Slovak Cabinet on Wednesday called on the media to respect their obligations and provide information that is objective, true, and does not encroach in a vulgar manner on the rights of other persons.

      According to Prime Minister Robert Fico, speaking at a new conference, there are a growing number of published false, non-objective, and truth-distorting facts aimed at the Government, its representatives, and political parties that make up the governing Coalition.

      Institutions that ensure legal redress, particularly the immediate correction of untrue and truth-distorting facts, are virtually non-functioning, and often grossly disregarded, said Fico.

      The Government is planning a legislative measure which it says would strengthen the right of those affected to respond to false or truth-distorting information.

Government taking aim at irresponsible media

      Bratislava, April 25 (TASR-SLOVAKIA) – “The number of truthless and unobjective reports aimed at Government, its representatives and the political parties representing the Government has gone up in many Slovak media,” according to a statement released by Cabinet on Wednesday.

      The are recent indications that the official channels designed to redress misinformation and provide for immediate correction of false and garbled information practically do not work and are often ignored anyway. “The Slovak Government has to state that, this being the case, the public’s basic right to objective information has been violated,” according to Prime Minister Robert Fico.

      The Cabinet is asking the media to respect not only rules and regulations but also their responsibilities to “inform objectively and truthfully, and to not interfere in the rights of others in a vulgar and unethical way”.

      The Government is planning legislative regulations aimed at media and press coverage. Moreover, the initiative would institute a right-to-reply process. Therefore, the affected person or entity is able to respond immediately to truthless or truth-distorted information.

      “The media usually refer the aggrieved person to court. It takes a very long time, if the correction is published after five years it does not make any sense, especially if you are politically active,” says Fico.

Konig: It’s unfortunate that Fico views media as enemies

      Bratislava, April 25 (TASR-SLOVAKIA) – According to European Journalists Federation chairman Arne Konig, reacting at a Slovak Journalists Syndicate (SSN) conference on Wednesday to recent statements made by Prime Minister Robert Fico, it’s very unfortunate when a prime minister views the media as his enemies.

      Fico last week criticised journalists for what he said was their inability to provide impartial and balanced information, and accused them of acting as the political opposition to the governing Coalition.

      “There have always been conflicts between politicians and the media”, said Konig, adding that Fico’s statements certainly won’t improve relations.

      SSN chair Zuzana Krutka pointed out that the media also criticised the previous government when Fico’s Smer-SD party was in opposition. Journalists are only doing their jobs, and reporting on the Government’s decisions rather than making them. Relations between Smer and journalists got off to a bad start when journalists were made to wait outside Smer headquarters all night following the June 2006 general election, she believes.

      Referring to Fico’s plans to toughen up the rules on corrections when false information is published, Krutka said that this area is already covered adequately in Slovak legislation.

      Konig said that the discussion on the issue requires more time, and warned against any hasty measures.

April 26, 2007 at 12:33 pm Leave a comment

Peaks and valleys


I fell in love with Central Slovakia almost as soon as I caught my first glimpse of it from the train window. And I really had no business being able to feel anything at the time. I decided I could stay out and dance to Beastie Boys with my American friend Jason till almost 3 a.m. on Friday when the train I needed to take left three hours and 20 minutes later. (What is it about being away from home that makes me think I can get away with stuff like this?) I barely made the train and tried hard to nap for the first hour I was on it. But then the bright sunshine and hills like I haven’t seen since I left Northern Ontario ripped me out of my groggy haze with their unignorable beauty.

I was headed to Banská Štiavnica, an old silver mining town that’s been called the prettiest in Slovakia and recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site. To get there, I needed to switch trains in a tiny town called Hronská Dúbrava. It was there I was befriended by a five-foot-tall 83-year-old man named Pavol. He didn’t take my “Ne hovorim po slovensky” as a reason to stop talking to me in a combination of Slovak, German and hand gestures.

After we were standing outside the station for about 10 minutes, he pointed to a car that had been sitting on the tracks the whole time and told me it was my train. “Tam?” (“There?”) I asked incredulously. I assumed the single car was an engine there for maintenance or something. But I walked on to discover it was essentially a mountain rail bus that made its way through the hills to Banská Štiavnica. Bizarre. It would its way through forest paths and around the hills and took me to my destination.

People warned me Banská Štiavnica would be cold. Evidently, they didn’t account for the fact that the country would be caught in a heat wave that weekend, with temperatures in the low- to mid-20s (Celsuis). I was sweating in my hoodie by the time I finished the three-kilometre walk from the train station to my hostel, at the end of a steep hill near the old town square. The hostel was empty of tourists and pristine, and had an unbeatable view from its huge balcony (the view in the photo above). For Sk400 a night, it was a great score.

I did some of the museum-y stuff. The most interesting was the underground tour at the open-air mining museum. They take you through the medieval mine tunnels, some dating from the 17th century. It’s cold and dank and dripping with water, and you have to duck and squeeze your shoulders together at parts to make your way through the rocky passages. And with all of that, there are photos on the walls of miners working in loincloths – makes you wonder how poor the air circulation must have been and how hard the work was for them to get that hot in there. The tour was in Slovak, and in spite of the guide’s best efforts I was only able to follow along with a bit of it. Still, the atmosphere made it worthwhile.

I think what really won me over about Banská Štiavnica, though, was that it gave me my first glimpse of snow-covered mountains. I saw the Low Tatras for the first time when I got lost on my way to the mining museum. I think I actually said “Holy shit!” out loud when I saw them. My photos with my trusty point’n’shoot could not do them justice.

I got a much better view on Day 2 hiking in the hills that surrounded the town. The trail I picked took me to a hill with a crucifix on top and an amazing panorama of the town below, hills to all sides, and the white mountains off in the distance. I sat there for about half an hour. There are tons of different trails you can take to tons of different hilltops. Next time, I’m spending a day just hiking around.

I hadn’t been walking for more than two minutes on my way down the hill when out of nowhere, a stag bounded across the path about 15 metres in front of me. I stopped cold and caught my breath. Interpretive signs along the trail said there were deer and bears in the woods there; of the two, I’m glad I saw a deer. My strategy for fending off bears consisted of carrying a rock and singing Weezer songs as I hiked and I don’t know how successful that would have been.

From Banská Štiavnica I headed to Bojnice, a town that is pretty much built on its Disney-like castle. The castle is atypical for Slovakia – geometric and smooth and pretty instead of rocky and rustic – but also the most popular in the country. And for some reason, I missed the notice on their website that said the castle was closed Mondays – ie. The only day I would be in town.

Once I realized that the only reason to go to Bojnice would be closed the only day I was in Bojnice, I did something I hate doing. I played the journalist card. Or at least, I tried to – but the girl who worked at the tourism office didn’t speak much English so it wasn’t very effective. Even more hilarious was trying to do the same over the phone with the woman at the castle office who didn’t speak any English. What I told her, in very broken Slovak, probably translates best as:

“I am a journalist. I am here today. I am not here tomorrow.”

Needless to say, I didn’t get in. But in my defence, when my publisher called them and tried to schmooze me in while speaking Slovak, he didn’t have any luck either.

Instead I went to the zoo next to the castle. If I was in a crap mood before, the zoo made me absolutely miserable. It was just creepy. When I walked into the monkey house, all the monkeys in their bathroom-tiled cages threw themselves into the glass and stared at me through the windows. One of them was yelling. The same thing happened in the reptile house. One iguana crawled on top of a turtle and started scratching at the glass in front of me. And the elephants. Dear God, the elephants. Two of them in a tiny little outdoor enclosure. I wanted to cry.

Banská Štiavnica was the first town I’ve been to in Slovakia that I didn’t want to leave. I couldn’t get out of Bojnice fast enough.

April 19, 2007 at 9:23 am Leave a comment

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