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A September week in spectacular Slovakia

It’s amazing more people haven’t discovered this lovely country! My son and I spent a week in the Prešov region last September, walking in the footsteps of our ancestors. We flew into Košice (a nice small airport), stayed 4 nights in Prešov, and then moved north to spend another 4 nights in Starý Smokovec up in the High Tatras. We had an excellent guide/historian/genealogist to drive, translate, and find relatives for us: Michal Razus of Slovak Ancestry .

In Prešov, we stayed at Penzion Trattoria, a friendly, family-owned lodging with an excellent restaurant. (I recommend the “roe with root vegetables and rice” and the poppy seed ice cream.) The owner, Julius, is a gentle soul who made us feel very welcome. It was only a few blocks from the main street of the old town center, which was nice to stroll through, with lots of historic buildings and alleyways; a couple of theaters; and lots of little restaurants, cafes, and shops. One evening we took a pleasant walk up to and along the old city wall among the crisp fallen leaves.

Because we were generally out of town during the day and several places had limited hours, we primarily saw outdoor Prešov: the city wall and its Florian gate; the old hydropower station, water distribution system, and water tower (Kumšt); Bosák Bank; the gothic St. Nicholas, Greek Catholic, and Franciscan St. Joseph churches; the 49° Latitude monument; the town hall with the Prešov coat of arms; and the Neptune Fountain, in the park that runs between the two arms of the main street. Outside the lovely old synagogue is a memorial tablet, behind bars, for those who died in the Holocaust; the broad path to the monument represents the pre-war Jewish population, and the narrow path to the synagogue beyond those who survived.

We leapt at the chance to try the national dish, bryndzové halušky (potato dumplings with sheep cheese and bacon), at a restaurant in the old town, Šarišská chiža, that serves traditional Slovak food. Very good, but very filling. And that dark Šariš beer (brewed in the Prešov area) was sure tasty.

Wednesday

We spent the morning of our first full day on an English-language tour of the Slovak Opal Mine southeast of Prešov, reached via a winding road through lightly forested countryside. Recently reopened, it was the only opal mine in the world until Australian opals were discovered in the 1800s; the first written mention of opal mining here was 1597. A famous opal called “Fire of Troy,” which Napoléon’s Empress Josephine wore, came from here. There are 17 levels in the mine, the lower ones underwater—some people scuba dive there—and in places, 200-year-old beams of Kokošovce oak still provide support. It was completely safe, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t nervous. When the door to the mine clanged shut, I thought Moria. Paths of the Dead.

In the afternoon, just outside of town, we toured the numerous buildings that comprise the museum of the saltworks (Solivar); these were much more interesting than I had anticipated. Originally solid salt was mined, but when the mines flooded they took to extraction of salt from the brine, a system which was in operation until 1970. I felt we had stepped back into the past in a huge creaky wooden building, wooden pipes and great wooden storage tanks illuminated in filtered sunlight, a thick layer of dust over all. The tour was in Slovak, but the English-language documentation provided was excellent and the tour guide spoke fluent English.

to be continued...

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Thursday

Our second day featured a trip to Dukla Pass in the Carpathians, where a major WWII battle was fought in 1944: the Soviets approaching from the east were supposed to connect with the Slovak Uprising to defeat the Nazis. But the uprising was crushed and it took much longer to push the Germans back than was anticipated. (The pass was important in WWI also, but that is not so sharply remembered now.) Driving east on our way to the pass, we had quick views of the medieval square and church in Bardejov, a fox leaping in a field, rowan trees heavy with red fruits, a stork’s nest, and lots of churches.

We stopped in Svidnik, where we visited the open-air Museum of Ukrainian Culture, called a skanzen. Amongst the apple trees, the buildings, which were brought from other places, included a 1766 wooden church, a schoolhouse, houses with typical period furnishings, and outbuildings for storage or livestock. I most loved the beehives made of hollow logs. From the skanzen, one can see in the town below the obelisk of the Soviet Army Memorial, where a bronze soldier guards those buried there in mass graves, about 9000 Russians who died fighting the Nazis. The nearby Military and Historical Museum has well-presented exhibits in Slovak and English for both the first and second world wars in the eastern part of Slovakia.

Lunch at Alpinka Motorest featured excellent trout, pirohy, and kofola—the communist cola. Then we were off to Vyšný Komárnik, on the Slovak side of Dukla Pass, where the Czechoslovak Army Memorial watches over the graves of soldiers of the First Czechoslovak Army Corps killed during the Dukla campaign. We drove around in a great loop to the observation tower. (Walking there through the woods might be nicer.) At the top, we took in this expanse of the Carpathians that was so contested in both world wars, with the Polish border just below us. Here so many died in the fall of 1944, in mud and bad weather. On our way back to Prešov, we pulled over on an unassuming bit of roadside, walked through a grassy field, across a small bridge, and up through a sparse woodland to re-created log shelters dug into the hillside; this was the site of the headquarters of the commander of the 3rd Czechoslovak Brigade in 1944.

It was a sobering day. That night my son killed what he described as “the biggest spider I’ve ever seen outside of a terrarium.” He really had wanted to capture it with a cup and a piece of cardboard and release it outside, but the cups in the room weren’t big enough. Our guide laughed and told us those are not poisonous—but I’m still incredibly glad I slept through the whole thing.

Friday

If we found any relatives, I had planned to visit on the weekend, but Michal wisely suggested that we also go to our ancestral village on Friday when the town hall would be open. Our route to Vikartovce took us off the main highway onto winding back roads, lined with heavily laden apple and pear trees planted long ago to provide free food for travelers. The four ladies at the town hall were very excited to see us and to look through my photos. They recognized one of my cousins immediately—he had been mayor, and his photo was on the wall—as well as another woman who was still living in the village. They had a large hardcover book covering everything from geology to history about the village for sale for only €10, and also free postcards. We went to see the village church, St. Martin’s; the church keeper’s sweet mother let us in. The church was lovely, comforting, and peaceful, the pastel colors very soothing. Faith is still very strong there.

Next we meet our first long-lost cousin...

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Friday cont'd

Our first long-lost cousin lives in a tidy house and yard with an apple tree, a dog, and pretty chestnut-colored chickens. Cookies, coffee, photos, and a lot of information were waiting for us. Her son-in-law makes shingles in the traditional way, and only long after did I remember that I had read an article about him before our trip and thought it was such a small village we must be related. Her grandson is a wood carver, good enough to be working on restoration of some of the beautiful wooden church altars, and they gave us a bowl that he carved. What a wonderful meeting!

We had a late lunch at Hotel Stela (a beautiful 4-star hotel) in Levoča: goulash served in bread bowls. Afterward we visited the famous Church of St. James, which has numerous small altars; some ancient frescoes; and the tallest wooden altar in the world, carved by Master Paul of Levoča. I like the way some of his carvings evoke the common people; most of the men in his Last Supper look like just a bunch of regular guys having dinner. Elsewhere in the town, we managed at least a glance at the Renaissance town hall and the former palace owned by the wealthy Hungarian Thurzo family, and the statue of Ludovit Štur, who was instrumental in codifying Slovak language and still receives floral offerings today. The road out of Levoča takes you right through the old city wall and gate—a small car helps.

Saturday

After checking out of Penzion Trattoria, we headed to Vikartovce again for a meeting with more cousins: five sisters descended from my great-great uncle, and lots of children and grandchildren. The day is a blur, filled with many toasts of slivovica (strong plum brandy) and lots of food; lunch was generous helpings of chicken filled with ham and cranberry and small boiled potatoes in gravy, plus garlic and poppyseed rolls.

Conversation was flying all the while, but Michal kept up with the translation. I showed them photos of some American cousins and they recognized the family nose. Someone said that they had just been thinking of the family in America and wondering how they were doing. Displeasure was expressed about the US president, with which we strongly agreed. But I’m not sure we successfully explained the electoral college. One of the sisters suggested my son might like to meet an unmarried granddaughter of hers who “speaks good English” …

I gave them some tiny gifts from and of Oregon, and a copy of a book I had put together about my great-grandparents. They heaped gifts upon us: a big picture book of the Tatra area, spoons, chocolates, ornaments, a candle, a tote bag, and the best gift of all, a book of family photos. Finally, we visited the very well-tended and respected cemetery where some of our people are buried, and passed by my great-great uncle’s old house. When it was time to go, we were told we had to have “a shot at the gate,” so more slivovica was poured. That stuff is dangerous!

Michal took us up to Villa Kunerad, our next lodging, in Starý Smokovec (Old Smokovec) in the High Tatras. Approaching Poprad on our way there, I thought of an old 1920s-era postcard I have of it, with the Tatras in the background. Some of the buildings are taller now, but overall next to those mountains, even today anything humankind builds is pitifully small. We went to the restaurant that the penzion recommended, Koliba Kamzík. I tried to order light: “homemade egg barley with mushrooms, zucchini, and smoked cheese.” There were maybe three mushrooms and one slice of zucchini in the bowl. But it was excellent, the wine and beer were just fine, and there was a violin-bass-accordion trio playing just across from us. I made eye contact with the violin player and he came and played at our table; the €10 notes tucked in his violin neck cued me to tip. And it was totally worth it.

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Sunday

This day was for the iconic Spiš Castle. You see it from a long distance away, one of the largest castle complexes in Europe, built into an already-imposing travertine hill that had been occupied in some form as far back as about the 5th century BC by both Slavs and Celts. An Australian artist, Andrew Rogers, has created a geoglyph of a stone Celtic horse on the long slope in front of the castle to the northeast.

It is a long switchbacked hike up to the partially restored ruin from the parking lot, and still another climb to the main part of the castle and the museum area. So much to see! The main corridor exhibits included castle models, cannons, and Roman coins (found deep below in the “Dark Cave” with the remains of a man who sheltered in there, injured, with his bag of money and never came out). Rooms off to the side featured a torture chamber with a variety of apparatuses used to inflict punishment, a Renaissance bedroom and kitchen, and displays of armor and weapons. Below the main corridor was a chapel with more carvings from Master Paul’s workshop. A climb up the tower via a narrow spiral stone stairway rewarded us with a spectacular view of the rest of the castle, the village of Spišské Podhradie below, and the surrounding landscape. Finally we explored the lower castle, a vast expanse of stone-encircled greenery inhabited by the most adorable little European ground squirrels.

We spent the better part of the day at Spiš Castle, but weren’t sorry even though we needed to abandon our plan to take the rafts on the Dunajec River. Instead we opted for a late lunch and planning for tomorrow. We ate at Michal’s favorite spot just off the highway in Levoča, a simple inexpensive cafeteria-type place called JLM-Universum I had sauerkraut soup and a “Greek” salad (with an excellent blue cheese, not feta). It was excellent, and included vegetables!

Monday

Villa Kunerad is a modest, clean and cozy, affordable place (about €65/night for two, including breakfast) with friendly staff who speak some English, and seemed to have a fair number of local tourists staying there. However, it’s good to know up front that it is cash only, they require a 30% cash deposit via wire transfer, rooms are not serviced daily, and fresh towels and soap are not automatically supplied. Breakfast was a little different each day, and always tasty: the all-important coffee, plus bread, cheeses, meat, vegetables, some fruit, and pastry. We certainly never went hungry.

On this day we took the delightful little electric train to Štrbské Pleso and walked around the wind-whipped lake in rain, sun, and occasional snow. The Tatras were mostly shrouded in weather; it was not a day to be hiking up high. On the first portion of the hike, there were several wood carvings of native wildlife, on land and in the water near the shore. And about three-quarters of the way around, there was a memorial to the heroes of the Slovak National Uprising—there, in the middle of nowhere, still very much remembered with great pride. After the lake, we did a little browsing for souvenirs and then stopped for lunch at the ground-floor restaurant of Hotel Crocus (lovely pirohy).

The little train took us back to Starý Smokovec, and then despite the weather we went up to Hrebienok—my son hiked, and I took the funicular. It was cold and wet, and a little snowy up there, and it felt like I was in the mountains, in the shroud of snow and storm and mist. I felt the mountains more than saw them. We warmed up with dinner and dark Šariš beer at Central Restaurant in Starý Smokovec; I had a well-prepared whole crispy-skinned trout, and my boy had schnitzel and a nice salad. The evening was cold. Out for a walk in town later, my son heard bear vocalizations, and a little fox followed him for a bit. Stopped when he stopped, and then jumped in a trash can like a darned raccoon to root around.

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Tuesday

The weather was better, but not quite clear. My son needed to get some serious hiking in, so he went out to Štrbské Pleso for a hike up to Poprad Pleso. I am not as fit as he is, plus I live at sea level so the altitude was a factor; instead, I got my postcards off (although some of them never did arrive in the USA), and decided to take the train to the other end of Vysoké Tatry, Tatranská Lomnica. It took me a while to figure out, but there was no train because of repairs on the tracks. The nice lady at the ticket counter did her best to explain it to me: “No train. Bus. Parking (points).” She was very good about explaining when the return buses were, especially the time of the last bus back. I was nervous, but proud that I did the trip all on my own. In Tatranská Lomnica, I had an unremarkable salad and kofola for lunch, walked around, and enjoyed the beautiful park there. Back in Starý Smokovec, I kept trying to photograph a Eurasian magpie; they are everywhere, but pretty quick. I bought some food for the train tomorrow, including poppyseed kolač, which we love, at the small grocery store. However, I spent some time in front, deciding they must be closed, only to discover I was trying to open the door the wrong way, sigh. Ah well, perhaps I provided amusement for the locals. We had our last dinner in the Tatras back at Koliba Kamzík; there was no music, but there was nice mushroom soup.

Wednesday

In the cold icy bright early morning, we caught the 7:30 train to Poprad. Down through the forest and onto the plain we went to the Poprad–Tatry station, with glimpses of the snow-capped High Tatras sparkling above us in the sunshine. At last they were fully visible—wow. Having experienced wind, rain, snow, and now sunshine in these mountains, I think we have a proper feel for them, at least as good a one as you can get in a few days.

But we MUST return.

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Sounds like a fascinating, memorable trip. Glad you caught up with relatives. That must have been amazing.

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1706 posts

Holy cow, what a great trip report! I'm going to look all those places up!!!!

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10846 posts

shhhh!!!!! Take this post down! You are going to mess up my favorite fishing destination!

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Thanks for taking the time to post all these details!

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Reading your post brought tears to my eyes. Both sets of grandparents are from Slovakia, therefore, I am 100% of this culture. I have entertained the idea of a visit to explore my country of heritage and you have now convinced me I should go. My mother still makes the poppyseed kolache. And, yes, the Slivovitz will set you on fire. Nastrovje!

Thank you for posting and inspiring me.

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WOW!! What an amazing heartfelt journey. Thanks for sharing your family history & a region that I was unfamiliar with. I am bookmarking this extraordinary trip report. Well done!!

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What a wonderful trip report. Thank you for posting. I also used Slovak Ancestry to find my relatives six years ago. Michal's sister helped me locate relatives in Trebisov (near Kosice) and Brusnica (near Presov). I absolutely love Slovakia, and have returned five times to soak up more the culture and history of Slovakia. The people of Slovakia are so wonderful.
During your next visit, try to visit the historic wooden churches in Northeastern Slovakia such as Ladomirova, Hunkovce, Bodruzal, and Mirola. Bardejov is beautiful, as are the many small villages in the Saris region. Also the Warhol museum in Medzilaborce. There are lots of wooden churches in that area. You have explored some of the Tatras, but there are also dozens of caves around the area, and Slovak Paradise National Park should not be missed. There is an underground glacier you can explore. Also, near the Tatras and Poprad is Kezmarck, which was lovely and had a great museum. In central Slovakia, the historic copper mining town of Banska Stiavnica is stunning as well. So much to see! Like you said, I MUST return to Slovakia.

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Michele,
Thank you for your report.
Can you give more information about your interaction with Slovak Ancestry?
I am interested in visiting my husband's grandfather's (so my sons' great-grandfather's) village, Cicmany.
I travel solo and I am thinking of adding this to a RS tour (Prague/Budapest). I usually spend time on my own before and after a tour, but feel anxious about getting to Cicmany on my own. Also, it would be wonderful to actually meet some relatives in person and have a translator.

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Cavtat, I agree, there is so much more to see, even in just the northeastern area. We would especially like to spend more time in the natural areas, such as every one you mentioned! I'd also like to stay in Poprad for a bit; there's a third line of my family I'd like to track down there, as well as an intriguing museum and art gallery. When you travel to Slovakia, where do you fly into? I'm most interested in that northeastern area where my people came from, and it seems to be inconvenient to get to from anywhere, with few carriers into Kosice and almost no service to Poprad (looks like only in ski season?). As you can see, I'm already planning that next trip...

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Vandrabrud, I too was anxious about getting around the country on my own. I have no interest in driving in a foreign country. And like you, we planned our trip to Slovakia for the time before a RS tour (Best of Eastern Europe, which starts in Prague). I reserved our dates with Michal, and got his recommendations for lodging. He offered to pick us up at the Kosice airport, which was good because Prešov is a short drive from there, but it would have taken us quite a while by public transport. Then each day he picked us up and drove us to what we wanted to see, recommended where we should stop for lunch (his choices were always great), and translated where needed. I know some do genealogy research with him while they are there also, but I thought that was adding too much into our short trip. He found our two sets of relatives by checking at the town hall, and just making a few phone calls, although I had also sent him some information ahead of time. By the way, I would highly recommend taking copies of any photos you have if you go searching for relatives--that made a huge difference at the town hall. Michal also made recommendations for hikes for our time in the Tatras without him, and helped us buy our nonstop train tickets from Poprad to Prague; I had struggled with the schedules. He speaks fluent English, and is just a really nice guy, fun to travel with.

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Michele,
I have flown into Vienna and Kosice. Once I flew to Budapest, and used Budapest as my arrival/departure. After a few days in Budapest, I rented a car and drove the 2 1/2 hours to Slovakia. The route from Budapest is mostly a direct shot (on highway E71 I believe) to Kosice and NE Slovakia.
If flying into Vienna, rent a car in Bratislava, it will be cheaper. There is also the slow, scenic journey by train, which my relatives told me was the only way to go from East to West before the superhighway was built.
Another alternative you could try is flying into Krakow. It is a 2 hour drive to NE Slovakia from Krakow. I actually did a day trip (driving) to Krakow last summer from Stary Smokovec, and then back to NE Slovakia, staying at the Torysa Hotel in Sabinov. Sabinov is a wonderful town between Presov and Bardejov, rich in history with a small main street to walk with a few shops. I have extended family living near Sabinov, and staying at the Torysa is very enjoyable and convenient. The Torysa (named after the nearby river) is a small hotel, but reasonably priced with a nice restaurant for breakfast and dinner/drinks after a long day of sightseeing. The town of Sabinov was featured in the 1967 academy award winning foreign film "The Shop on Main Street." Stream the movie if you can. It has english subtitles.
Another cool place in NE Slovakia, along the border with Poland, near the Tatras, is Cerveny Klastor. It has a monastery in a protected national park (Pieniny National Park), which has great hiking, and rafting during the summer months. One of the caves, which is part of the large Slovak cave system, is nearby, called Belianbska Jaskyna. I walked (guided tour) through this cave last July, and it was beautiful.

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Michele,

Thank you so much for the information! Thinking of where to go in 2020. Prague/Budapest/Slovakia or Adriatic tour or Madrid/Barcelona/Paris. Or something else might call my name by then. Turkey jumped to the front of list out of nowhere for this year.

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Hi, Michelle. Thank you for the excellent trip report I. I much enjoyed reading about your search for relatives and your time in Slovakia. Thanks again for taking the time to write this.