Slovakia – by Irene Butler
“Off train,” commands a burly Polish Customs Officer, “Need Visa.” An armed guard is by his side. Escorted to the door, amid curious heads poking out from compartments along the way, I feel my face redden with embarrassment.
“How did we miss the little tick indicting Canadians need a visa for Poland?” I wailed, pointing to the visa requirement section in “Lonely Planet”. My husband, Rick, and I stood motionless enveloped in the blackness of the night as the Poland bound locomotive pulled away.
“Look, a train on that far track with a light on,” Rick said. As we started toward it, a conductor appeared in the train doorway.
“So, you need go back to Budapest?” he smiled, no doubt familiar with ‘rejects’.
“We just came from there. Can we go anywhere else?”
“Go Kosice. You no need visa for Slovakia.”
Song birds twitter a welcome from the tops of gently swaying trees as we step down from the train at Kosice. Inhaling the fragrance of pine and spruce, we follow the path through the park that joins the station to the wide cobblestone streets of the city. In the early morning light workers splash the sidewalks with sudsy water from gallon pails followed by swift whisks of a broom. We follow the street to the main square where the focal point of the city, the Cathedral of St. Elizabeth, stands in all its Gothic magnificence.
Energized by five hours of peaceful slumber, we are eager to explore. Our wanderings take us down numerous streets that veer off from the central square. Neat little garden patches front the old-world structures filled with profusions of vibrant red geraniums and yellow marigolds, backed by trellises of pastel sweet peas flaunting their ambrosial essence. Under sloped crimson roofs, each home displayed its individuality in uniquely carved wooden cantilevers, doors and window frames. A series of steps lead downward in the middle of an unusually wide street warrant an investigation. To our stunned amazement they descend to barred openings for glimpses of the underground city upon which present day Kosice is built. Motor vehicles are prohibited in this area to preserve the ancient roadways and walls of buildings still standing below.
Toward evening, we make our way to the benches that line the great square to watch the last rays of the sun glint off the cathedral spire. Locals begin to trickle into the square. Old folk come to chat, lovers sit entwined; families keep track of frolicking children. A loud swoosh gives us a sudden start. The gigantic central fountain comes to life. A hundred fine jet-sprays arc into the air catching the rainbow of magenta, purples, and blues from an array of spotlights. The gushing water begins to rise to different heights in perfect tune to the strains of classical music, as if following a conductor’s baton.
“Wow. This place is magical. And to think we came by chance,” I murmur as we retreat to our hotel in the shadowy glow of lamp lights.
Monday is grand market day in Kosice. Shops pull racks and tables of bargains out onto the sidewalks. Fresh fruit and vegetable stands sprung up overnight. Locals are on the move armed with baskets and shopping bags. Peasant women from surrounding villages spill out of trains and swarm the town to stock up on “goods”. The babas (grandmas) are delightful. They appear as wide as they are tall; their stoutness exaggerated by puffy blouses and dirndl skirts that curve like mushroom caps around their stockinged legs. Patterned babushkas (kerchiefs) cover their heads. They bring back memories of my own Ukrainian baba.
“Hey, is that our mother tongue I hear?” Rick stops in front of a clothing shop.
Thus far, we have not encountered a lot of people who speak English. We introduce ourselves to Joseph. Originally from Belgium, he now lives in Kosice and owns two stores.
“What brought you to Slovakia?” we question.
“It is a good time to start a business here,” he enthusiastically comments. “Tourists went mainly to Prague during the many years that this country was part of Czechoslovakia. After that if was under communism for about 20 years, and not easily assessable- so Slovakia is like a new destination to tourists.”
We take Joseph’s suggestion not to miss Bratislava, the capitol city. The train route winds through the Mala Fatra Mountains, known for excellent hiking and skiing. In six hours we arrive at a flourishing metropolis.
The beautiful monuments that dress up the old city are redolent of the past Hungarian influence. Slovakia was annexed to Hungary for 900 years, and was the Hungarian capitol from 1526 to1784. Massive Bratislava Castle overlooks the city. Before being occupied by Hungarian royalty, the castle was a post of the Roman Empire, and is now a historical and folk museum.
The old architecture is in stark contrast to the long stretches of plain, bleak, apartments from the communist era. The mass of rectangular shapes is reminiscent of a sombre, cubic stage Picasso.
The bustling streets around our Kyjev (Kiev) Hotel are just as much for greeting and meeting friends as for shopping, congregations of people stand in clusters. Ice-cream cones seem to be the most popular treat. Rudy faced men, a bit on the shabby side, sit along the ledges of buildings sipping from cups enjoying the activity. Roma (gypsy) musicians and singers, with carefully placed donation boxes, alternate between lively tunes and hauntingly melancholy ballads.
The natural beauty of the country, the culture, art and architecture are enough to satisfy the most particular traveler. Most outstanding is the red-carpet treatment everywhere we go.
“Its good when getting kicked off a train ends in such an enriching experience,” I reflect as we depart Slovakia.