A Suffix No Longer


Slovakiaurinal

Slovakia comes into its own as a surprisingly diverse travel destination

The 1990’s brought a whole new era of tourism to the countries of Central Europe.  The Czech Republic and its jewel of a capital, Prague, swiftly ascended to the top of every sophisticated traveler’s and British weekender’s must-visit list, but the tail end of the former Czechoslovakia was left to be confused with Slovenia.  Slovakia, one of Europe’s newest countries, is also one of its least appreciated.  It is not yet overrun with tourists despite having an excellent tourism infrastructure.  Its ski resorts lure slalomists eager for Alpine adventure without the exorbitant costs of better-known resorts elsewhere on the continent, and its spas have been popular for centuries.  The gay scene is totally underground; maybe you like it that way.

Slovakia, too, has a jewel of a capital.  Bratislava was also a capital in the time of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and as such was endowed with palaces and grand architecture of the same caliber as fellow capitals Vienna and Budapest, albeit in lesser proliferation.  This is part of the city’s appeal; at once grand and intimate, Bratislava is the little sister of the beauty queen, attractive in looks and personality but languishing in the shadow of her sibling’s limelight.  Bratislava’s Old Town is a charming convolution of narrow lanes framed by major streets lined with grand buildings housing embassies and art museums like the excellent Milan Dobes Museum of Constructivism (and in the effort to keep orthographical intimidation to a minimum, I apologize for the lack of proper Slovakian letters).  If geometry sounds too square for you, a visit the Dobes Museum will show how lines, curves, and planes can be as provocative as curves, curves, and curves. 

Bratislava Castle1

Near Bratislava are several appealing castles:  Cerveny Kamen Hrad (Red Rock Castle), famous for its impressive Baroque grotto-style Salla Terrena and its falconry exhibit (showcasing birds found injured and nursed back to health.  Go here just to see a Renaissance lord of a man come to life, complete with enough flowing locks of fair hair to make even Fabio jealous.), and the popular Devin Castle, set above the Danube.  Bojnice is another visitor favourite, though it is often derided by the Slovaks due to its French inspiration being perceived as a reduction of Slovakian authenticity. 

Bratislava door detail

Further to the north is the spa town of Piestany, where mud baths and massages are deftly administered.  People come here not just for days, but sometimes for months; it is a medicinal spa in the traditional sense where treatment of ailments is taken very seriously. The hot, nearly black mud spread over aching joints is as smooth as silk and a great de-stresser. Wallow at will.  Piestany’s Spa Island offers a range of accommodation within its complex, but in the nearby town of Salgovce is the fine The Chateau, a manor house run by a pair of Brits who sought a new life outside Old Blighty.  Nothing pleases the owners more than to have guests kick off their shoes and make themselves at home.  Gay visitors are extended a warm welcome; the champagne was flowing even before we had our bags unpacked.  Owners Anne and David were made celebrities in the UK thanks to a TV show called A Life In Slovakia in which their relocation and renovation of the old house was chronicled in the typically minute detail of a reality show.

Bratislava Martin Tower

In the town of Rajecke Templice is the Aphrodite Spa, with its glass cupola and chambers of delight known somewhat surreally as Water World and Sauna World.  Another spa town, Sklene Templice, combines the best of cave and spa experiences.  Here, there is a thermal bath inside a cave; it is available by reservation only for up to eight people at a time.  If you have a party of eight or are willing to pay eight entry fees, you can have the entire cavespa to yourself for the hour. 

Jasna view

Slovakia’s countryside is dotted with picturesque villages in sylvan settings.  Vlkolinec, a village of log cabins high on a mountain, is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is still inhabited by hardy residents who have bears for neighbours.  Cicmany, where houses are decorated with embroidery patterns of the local women sporting the same patterns on their apparel.  Nearby is Facov, where I had my sheep encounter; as an avowed fan of all things ovine, I was delighted to have the very accommodating brawny farmer cut a dripping sack of cheese from the rack, tore it open, and produced a thick wedge for me to taste.  He then led me to another room where curds skimmed off the top of the cheese broth were waiting for me in two forms; first the cooled, sweet zincica sladka, then the warm, fermented zincica kysla.  Both deliciously fresh, of course, and wonderfully restorative. 

mud slatherer, Piestany

People eat well around here.  Slovak cuisine is a robust mix of meat, vegetables, potatoes–and sheep cheese.  Garlic lovers will want to try the popular garlic soup, cesnakova polievkaHalusky is a variety of dumpling made of pasta flour, potatoes, and egg often served with a cheese and bacon topping.  Wild game features on many menus; potato pancakes and gulas are other favourites.

For winter enthusiasts, Jasna ski resort in the Low Tatras is Slovakia’s biggest.  Even a snowmophobe like me can appreciate the natural beauty of the location.  Just a few kilometers away is one of Slovakia’s famous ice caves, Demanskova Ladova Jaskyna; the cave system here extends a full 35 kilometers.

The High Tatras are a trekker’s paradise as much as a skier’s, and the cable car from Tatranska Lomnice can take you to a wide variety of trails and paths for those who enjoy the nature of Nature.  A high point in every sense is the ascent to the summit of Lomnicky Stit (2632m).

SlovakiaCicmany

Kezmarok, further east, is famous for its wood church and Lyceum Library, the largest historical school library in Central Europe.  The vivacious librarian is a woman whose eyes sparkle as she shares her world with you; she brings even the ho-hum coin collection to life. 

Slovakiaicecreamsign

Eastern Slovakia offers the most surprising sights in the country.  Here, towns founded in the thirteenth century by German settlers who came to exploit the mines created wealthy towns whose Renaissance buildings somehow survived years of neglect and wintry weather.  Levoca is set on a rise in the landscape; its stately town square is reminiscent of the grandeur of Krakow’s main square, which is the largest in Europe.  This is a small-scale version, complete with arcaded city hall and today’s oddity called The Cage Of Shame, the place where criminals and other do-badders were exhibited for public humiliation back in the days when criminal action did not result in multi-million-dollar book deals.  Much to the envious frustration of many, The Cage cannot be booked for private use.  In addition to a view of The Cage, the simple but immaculate Hotel U Leva on Levoca’s main square offers Television Nirvana for those seeking ultimate enlightenment via the remote:  no less than 232 channels on offer. 

SlovakiaKezmarokhouse

Nearby Spissky Hrad (Spis Castle), the largest of Slovakia’s many castles, is a 12th-century ruin that looks impressive from the outside; inside, it houses interesting exhibits–the instruments of torture exhibit, for example.  Left over from the last rave party, no doubt.

Don’t be intimidated by the audacious vowellessness of the Slovak language; unlike English, it is a phonetic language with consistent pronunciation.  If you have trouble, just remember zmrzlina means ice cream.

While Slovakia is not a difficult place to travel independently, a car and the services of a good guide help to make the most of your time.  Outside Bratislava, Piestany, and The Chateau, foreign-language speakers are not thick on the ground.  The company Via Carpathia can make all your arrangements; it is run by two brothers, Matej and Jan Sanitrar, both of whom know the country from one end to the other.  The Slovak Tourist Board offers helpful information both online and in print. And to immerse yourself in the company of strangers, visit Gay SK for the latest information.  There is even—gasp!—a dedicated lesbian information website, Lesba.SK, as of now only unavailable in English.

SlovakiaLevocacityhall
Slovakialordofthefalcons
images:  Robert La Bua
Source = WoRLdviews: R.L.B

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