Sunday, August 2, 2009

Young people are great ambassadors

Everything about the Hotel Yasmin is top notch. There was a young lady named MARTA on reception when we checked in yesterday who was so very helpful and pleasant. But when I asked if we could get on to the roof to take some photos of the Košice skyline, she was horrified and quickly explained that there were still buillding works going on up there so it wasn't possible.

Breakfast this morning was first rate with cereals, cold meats and cheeses, cooked to order egg dishes, a good selection of fresh fruit, breads and pastries, juices, teas and coffee. Ahh it was wonderful to have such a wide variety again!

Marta is genuinely interested in what we think of the hotel, so we get chatting as we check out. Turns out that it is brand new - its only been open for 3 months! I asked if they got many tourists and she replied that most of their guests are business people and now the events are starting to book. When asked if there are many weddings held there she told me that there had been 3-5 since the hotel opened. Then she added that she was getting married herself in two weeks, so I asked whether she would have her wedding party at the hotel but she shook her head and said no, she could not afford it, and they are trying to save money, and so will have a holiday later as well. Much like us when we got married I told her. So all the very best for your wedding day and your future Marta. We hope the management realise what a great employee you are!

Last night really whetted our appetite for the city centre here, so back in we drove to take a look in the daylight. And we are so glad we did. Mass had just started at Košice's Cathedral - St. Elizabeth´s Cathedral, so I opted to go. The experience of Mass in a totally different language is amazing - the rituals are still the same, so there is a feeling of understanding, but just not being able to participate fully is frustrating! This Cathedral is not some shiny showpiece that we found some of the Vienna churches to be - it is the local community's place of worship. Mass was well attended primarily with older parishioners, but there were comparatively many more younger people and young families in attendance than we would see at home.

This Cathedral is considered to be one of the best examples of Gothic architecture in the world. It was built between 1378 and 1508 and is the city's oldest architectural landmark. Particularly imposing is the main altar with its three oversize statues and forty-eight panel paintings, while the side altars, stunning Gothic wall paintings that have survived the centuries of grime and sculptures add to the charm. It has a beautifully tessellated roof and the most amazing gilt decorated spire. And they have a reliquery that is said to contain a drop of Jesus' blood given down the ages to the Archbishop of the time by Pope Paul II.
St. Michael's Chapel located to the south of the Catedral, is a single-nave Gothic edifice from the 14th century. Originally a cemetery chapel, it is the city's second oldest building.

And while I am at Mass, Michael goes to visit the Archaeological Museum very close to the Cathedral. Unearthed during roadwork in 1996, the buried remains of the ancient archaeology of medieval Košice - defence chambers, fortifications, waterways and the cathedral foundations - in the mazelike passages were a real highlight for him. Especially the gate tower built in the late 13th century, the oldest fortified entrance in the town (the Arpad Gate).

In the light of day, the musical fountain continues to put on its lovely show. I must admit that it looks most stunning at night, but to sit in the shade near the fountain for a little while was so cool - something fantastic on what is becoming a very hot day! Children were playing around the edge, lots of families and older people sitting, chilling out!

So it is time to hit the road again. The national speed limit on highways in 90 kph (130 kph on the newer motorways) so you can maybe start to imagine what the roads are like. Not only are the highways narrower than many we have been on, they are in fairly poor condition with the evidence of heavy truck and farm machinery use evident by the rutting and tar lips on the edges. Still, they are not impassable by any stretch of the imagination. Yesterday we had travelled the motorways because of the distance we were travelling.

Today, we are not going so far - only to a town called Banská Bystrica - about 200 kms away. I have programmed Kate to avoid the motorways and added a few side destinations so that we get what I hoped was a more scenic route. I was hoping that this route might take us in to the Tatra Mountains where there is supposed to be some stunning gorge passes. But true to form, the route I have chosen traverses the valley just to the south of them! We couldn't get a good photo because of the incredible haze - probably caused by a temperature inversion. This range is the highest in the Carpathian Mountains and rise majestically from the flat valley floor just near the city of Poprad - as though some giant just dumped them there!

Here on the northern side of the Ore Mountains, there are less of the concrete flat blocks and more individual houses - especially in the smaller towns. And they look less depressed - the houses are better maintained, gardens are planted and even the people in the street have a more contented look to them. The farm machinery is much more modern with combine harvesters busy at work (no rest for the farmer on a Sunday - hey Jeff?) No-one appreciated the farmer though, parked in his machine on the edge of the road, reading a newspaper while the traffic piled up around him in both directions.

We saw some great sites travelling this way. There was the young lass roller-blading in the middle of nowhere, miles from anywhere. Then there was the boom gate that came down just as we were nearing it - again on a back road miles from anywhere - probably the only train of the day - and we caught it!!

We see two very different sides to life in Slovakia today. We pass through a number of small spa towns where there are local pools capturing the waters and on a day like today, being thronged by the local population. Again, there is an air of affluence - though we are puzzled at the source of income - many of the smaller towns have no obvious industry and little in the way of commerce - maybe family members are some of those truck drivers seen so prolifically in Western Europe!

And then there are the Roma people as Slovakina gypsies are called. Living in what can only be described as shanty towns or slums, we saw a number of settlements on the outskirts of traditional towns. These people are unlike the blond and often very beautiful Slovakian race, rather, they are much darker - even swarthy, although they have a proud beauty all their own. We saw them walking into Krompachy, a distance of something like 5 kms, where Michael bought two crisp bagettes, 3 bananas and 2 croissants for €1.71! They hawk eggs and honey on the roadside, older kids were swimming in a muddy pool of water that had filled in a pit on the side of road-works. Yes, there is definitely a diochotemy of living here in Slovakia. Like in many places, the haves get more, while the have-nots survive with less and less.

So westwards we continue, travelling via Poprad then Lučivná and Štrba to Banská Bystrica. We climb up into the Low Tatras - an offshoot of the Tatra Mountains and down into valleys. This is skiing country and there is obvious affluence and the signs of a car race! Finally we reach Banská Bystrica and get caught up again in massive road works and other building sites. Kate wants me to turn where I can't so again, now knowing where we need to be, we abandon her in favour of local knowledge!

Once we have checked in to the Hotel Národný dom around 6:30 pm we connect with home and then later, head up town to have dinner. The City Square is large by standards here and nicely laid out with decorated and classical buildings surrounding it.

Michael had gone for a walk earlier on to inspect the local restaurants, and we settle on a side-walk restaurant called 'Starobystricka' in the town square. Dinner was a combination of:
Paradajková so syrom (Tomato soup with cheese) - Maria
Teplé Predjedlá (Roasted chicken livers with toast) - Michael
Rybie filé na bazalkovom masle (Fish fillet with basil butter) - Maria
Husacie stehno, lokša, červená kapusta (Goose leg with potato dumpling and red cabbage) - Michael
As dinner was quite filling we opted not to have dessert and had coffee instead.

After returning to the hotel, Michael went out for a fag and to take a few night shots of Banská Bystrica.

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