Saturday, August 1, 2009

A journey through time across Slovakia

Bratislava was a little cooler this morning which was really lovely. We have a full day driving ahead of us - 5½ hours to be exact. But this will take us across almost the whole breadth of Slovakia, one of Europe's newest republics and oldest civilizations.

We are travelling east to Košice, but to do so, must first head north. We travel just south of the Ore Mountains, following their line through the valley at their feet. So for most of the trip they are on our left and on our right are seemingly endless plains with the occasional rolling hills. The day is warm - over 30°C again and there is a constant haze as we travel, even though we have got away by 9 am.

Driving through the outer suburbs of Bratislava and further east, we are amazed at three things:
1. The constant use of drab gray concrete blocks of flats
2. The proliferation of advertising hoarding signs - and the size of them. Visual pollution at its very worst! and finally
3. No trucks - for the first time since we have been back in Europe, we have not seen a single pantechnicon or large lorry today! Literally, NOT ONE. We are puzzled, but just for a moment - ah yes, that's right! They are all in Western Europe, providing the cheap transport connections for trade - even though well over half of all the trucks we ever saw were from Eastern Europe - Slovakia, Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Turkey, Slovenia and Romania!
The farming here is more like back home - large plots across the plains with first sunflowers and corn, then as we travel further east and the country gets drier and drier, maize and hay. And high over the plains, we see these very strange cloud formations. Now, while I am no meteorologist, clouds have always held a fascination for me and as a fairly advanced geographer, I like to think that my knowledge is perhaps just a little better than average. But I have never seen anything like these. The photo taken from the car does not really do them justice - they were light and airy on the edges and quite 'fuzzy' with dark centres. Different!

En-route we don't see too many signs for tourist attractions. Just outside the city of Nitra, we see a sign to Hronský Beňadik with a church sign. So, needing an excuse to get out and stretch out legs, this seems as good as any. It is only 2kms off the highway, so off we go. This Benedictine Abbey dates from the late 1300s although like many of the early churches, there is evidence of even earlier places of worship. It was an important place of learning and development in Slovakia. However, although protected, it is now quite derelict and needs significant funds to be applied so that it remains in good enough condition for future generations to appreciate. The church is very dim and smells like the ages - you know, that kind of damp, kind of musty, kind of incensy sort of smell that very old churches have - well, given that there is nothing in Australia anywhere near as old as this, maybe you don't. But take our word, it smelled of the ages! We can hear the organ from outside, but at first we don't think that the Church is open. While the front door is open, there is a grill placed across the second door. Having walked through the cloister, we meet the young lady form their little shop who in faltering English tells us that we can go in "it is open". So back in we go - ahh yes, the little side door opens. There are very few lights inside - one chandelier and four small lights on the side walls, so it is very dim. The young lass has given us a history translated into English and we read that there are a number of very old paintings on the walls as well as reports of a number of relics owned by the Church. The stained glass windows dating back to the 1400s are stunning - but dark! The interior is too dark to photograph but Michael manages to get one in a small chapel up a few steps, complete with richly painted walls. And that practicing organist was playing music so suited to the mood of this church - quiet and reflective and not at all thundering!

But perhaps the most noticeable things about our journey across Slovakia are the very tired looking towns and the dearth of derelict infrastructure. Together with the main form of accommodation - rows and rows of those drab apartment blocks, they demonstrate the hold that the communists had over this otherwise picturesque country. The smaller towns have battled to maintain themselves with most of the houses very dilapidated, small and boxy many with flat roofs - kind of like what you picture would be found in traditional Mexico. Roads in the small towns are appalling, a series of patches on patches and lots of dusty sections. But where there is a settlement of any size, there is a huge processing plant of some desription and lots of those apartment blocks. Turns out that the communist rulers 'relocated' populations at their whim to provide labour for the factories. How heartbreaking that must have been.

And in one, town Detva, where we skirt through the edges, there was this series of huge pipelines that snaked their way through the town. Up over entrances to commercial and industrial areas, across the river and under a rusty rail track. The roads bend along its length, paths cross it. It encloses housing estates and dominates the whole town, like some silent insidious serpent trapping all in its lair.

There are quite a number of castles and castle ruins - reminders on high stronghold vantage points of the value of this little country to varying other peoples. Nitra Castle in particular was huge - although its art deco style battlements suggest that it has undergone a number of changes over its lifetime.

Cemeteries here are outside of the church grounds which is a surprise in this largely christian area. Instead of attached to the churches like in other European areas we find them on high grounds away from the churches - maybe so they can keep watch over all perhaps!

Košice was a surprise. Slovakia's second largest city, you enter from the west through the blight of an American giant (United States Steel) no doubt taking advantage of a rich supply of natural resources and cheap labour. I guess the saving grace is that they provide local employment and provide some investment into the community - a new sports stadium! Hmm, methinks that they could do much, much more. That said though, the huge open cuts mines, the checkerboard painted stacks and pylons and the huge blue processing plant are a blight and do not give a good first impression of the city if you are arriving from the west.

We are booked in to the Hotel Yasmin. About 1 km from the old town (Staré mesto), it is a new hotel that is obviously being targeted at a growing tourist market and the convention and event scene. In fact as we arrive there are preparations underway for a wedding party tonight. We have a room on the tenth floor - looking over the old town and the expected plethora of those unit blocks. As we did not stop for lunch we are now starving and so order a burger (Michael) and brie, walnut and apple on a crisp, crusty roll for me. The airconditioning is on, the room is cool and joy of joys, the net connection is fast and reliable. So we spend a few hours bring the blog up to date and chatting on skype to Gen.

Once the air has cooled, we head out for an evening in town. Thank god Kate is up to date. The streets are a maze of one-way passes, the intersections huge and criss-crossed with tram lines and a lack of any real directions on who has right of way. Thankfully, as it is evening, there is not too much traffic.

The light is now just fading and it is that lovely time betwixt dusk and dark. The old buildings have wonderful silhouettes in this light. We are amazed at the size of the market square and the number of huge and beautiful public buildings and churches. But perhaps the best thing to be seen tonight is the musical fountain. Yep, a fountain that shoots jets of water to music. Now Sarah, this might not be as large as the one at Ceasars Palace in Las Vegas, but given the size of this City (and its resources) it is pretty darn impressive. There are heaps of people sitting and standing in the park that surrounds the fountain (which is between the Cathedral and the City Hall) watching and taking photos. And the we hear the bells! There is a Carillion next to the fountain, but we can barely make it out in the dark. The bells are attached to a free-standing frame, not hidden away in a building. They sound really neat - can't wait to see them in the morning!

After wandering up and down the plaza, we stop at the local eatery - med malina reštaurácia for dinner. It is quaint and traditional with lots of locals there. We eat indoors where there is no smoking allowed - outside on the plaza, at every table they are puffing away!
Plesnivý syr s olivami, olivovým dejom a bielym pečivom (Moulded cheese with olives, olive oil and white rolls) Michael
Koleno s pivovo-medovou o máčko s chrenom a horčicou (Pork node with honey-beer sauce, horseradish and mustard) and Opekané zemiaky (American Potatoes) Michael
Vyprá źanýsyr (Fried cheese) with Varené nové zemlaky (Boiled potatoes) Maria. We also both had a plate of Varená zelenina podl’a ponuty (Boiled seasonal vegetables).

Now this was a feast. Traditional dishes, served in a traditional local restaurant by a pleasant but no-English local woman. And for the sum of €27 we also got mineral water, a glass of regional Rosé and espresso coffees to finish!

So we return to the hotel, with Kate getting us lost in the back suburban streets surrounding the hotel - all of which are dead ends. So in the end I turn her off and let my own homing sense get us there. The wedding party is still raging, but we cannot hear it from our lofty room - thankfully!

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