These articles were published in the Spectacular Slovakia travel guide, published annually by The Slovak Spectator since 1996. The latest editions can be obtained from our online shop.



The invincible bridge

By Tom Nicholson


Štúrovo

Population: 11,708
Economy: pulp and paper, agriculture, tourism
Mayor: Ján Oravec, Tel: (036) 751-1070, primator@sturovo.sk

Important contacts

www.sturovo.sk (also in English)

Municipal Office:
Mestský úrad, Nám. Slobody 1
Tel: (036) 751-1073
open Mon, Wed, Fri 07:30 to 11:30, 12:00 to 14:00

Information Center:
Turistická Informačná Kancelária (TIK), Hlavná 23
Tel: (036) 752-4009
www.sturovoinfo.sk, info@sturovoinfo.sk
open Mon-Fri 08:30 to 16:30

Town Museum:
Pri Colnici 2
Tel: (036) 752-4002,
open Tues-Fri 09:00 to 17:00, Sat-Sun 14:00 to 17:00, closed Mon

Hospital Emergency: Jesenského 71, (036) 756-5180

Municipal Police: Nám. Slobody 1, Tel: (036) 751-1463

Bus Station: Nám. Slobody, Tel: (036) 751-1121

Train Station: Železničný rad, Tel: (036) 755-0002


    This man is doing what his parents were unable to do during communism - walking across the Mária Valéria bridge between Štúrovo an Eszterom in Hungary.
 This man is doing what his parents were unable to do during communism - walking across the Mária Valéria bridge between Štúrovo an Eszterom in Hungary.
 Photo SME

FIVE YEARS ago, the jobless rate in Štúrovo (pop. 11,700) was 24%. Tucked away in a corner of the country with the Danube River on one side and the state border between Slovakia and Hungary on the other, the town seemed destined to remain an agricultural backwater.

But the rebuilding of the Mária Valéria Bridge across the river in 2001 changed all that.

"All of a sudden, we found ourselves in the heart of Europe," said Mikuláš Gyetven, the director of the Vadaš thermal baths, a major tourist attraction in the town. "We were back on the main route between Poland and Hungary, with Budapest only 50 kilometers away."

The most direct impact of the bridge on Štúrovo was to make it possible for local residents to take jobs across the river (since retreating German troops blew the bridge up in 1944, a small and slow ferry had been the only means of getting across). All of a sudden, jobs opened up at the Suzuki factory in Esztergom - Štúrovo's larger sister city on the Hungarian side - as well as other industrial centers within commuting distance. Today, unemployment is only 12%, despite the fact that the major employer on the Slovak side, the Kappa Štúrovo paper plant, has cut staff by 500 in the past five years.

The renewed bridge has also turned Štúrovo into both a tourist destination for Hungarians, many of them from Budapest, who come for the thermal water at Vadaš, and a way-stop for travelers on the Poland-Hungary route, who leave millions behind every year in pensions and restaurants.

In some ways, the renewal of the bridge did not so much restore Štúrovo to a former glory as give it possibilities it had never enjoyed. While the pedestrian zone on the lower section of Hlavná ulica has been attractively renovated, and Vadaš itself invested Sk250 million over the last five years to raise capacity from 6,000 visitors a day to 12,500, the town lacks some basic tourist infrastructure that one would expect of a riverside destination.

    Štúrovo is only beginning to wake up the tourism potential of the Danube River, so guests are advised not to expact too much from riverboat restaurants and pubs.
 Štúrovo is only beginning to wake up the tourism potential of the Danube River, so guests are advised not to expact too much from riverboat restaurants and pubs.
 Photo SME

For example, the waterfront is virtually undeveloped, despite the spectacular view it affords of the basilica, cathedral and castle across the river in Esztergom. A rough walkway and a pair of rather scruffy boat restaurants/bars is about all you get. (Although, given the disastrous flood of 1876 that destroyed half the town, or the 1965 flood that left 1.5 meters of water in city streets, maybe Štúrovans have simply learned not to invest in real estate too close to the river.)

For another thing, the art gallery and the museum are both closed for most of the weekend and on holidays, even though these are prime tourist visiting hours; actually, both are open from 14:00 to 17:00 on Sunday, but these times were reported erroneously as 4-7 p.m. in an official town guidebook, which rather defeated the purpose.

In truth, Štúrovo was always more of a bridesmaid to Esztergom, a Hungarian royal town and in fact the birthplace of Stephen I, the first Hungarian king. While settled as far back as the Bronze Age and the site of a Roman fortress called Anavum, Štúrovo was largely a fishing village, a bedroom community for Esztergom, and the site of the summer residence of Stephen I's father.

Inevitably, whatever happened to Esztergom happened to Štúrovo as well, and when the former was invaded by the Turks in 1543, the latter - then known as Kakath - was overrun as well.

Much of Štúrovo's history is reflected in the names it has carried. You can still see the name Parkan listed on signposts, which was taken from the name of the fort that the Turks built here, Dzsigerdelen Parkani.

In 1948, however, partly as an act of punishment towards Hungary, which had occupied southern Slovakia during the Second World War, Parkan was officially renamed Štúrovo, after one of the Slovak nation's founding figures, the poet Ľudovít Štúr.

The bridge is also a symbol of the ages and events that have buffeted the town. It was erected in 1895 to reflect Parkan's position as a travel hub following the completion of the Bratislava-Budapest rail line in 1857 and the link to Levice in 1878. However, retreating Czechoslovak troops blew it up in 1918; it was rebuilt in the 1920, and then destroyed again during the Second World War.

Thereafter, the security-conscious communists left it to rot, with one intact span reaching out into the middle of the river. The only way to get across was by ferry, but if you missed the last boat, which departed at 16:00, you had to drive 108 kilometers across the Komárno bridge.

But on July 27, 2001, the last major link in a renewed bridge - and according to politicians, in a renewed friendship between Slovakia and Hungary after the tensions of the 1994-1998 Mečiar era - was swung into place by a massive crane.

During the almost six decades that the bridge lay in ruins, the span had become a symbol of the impossibility of communication between the two countries, which have often found themselves at odds during the past thousand years.

But in 1998, with European Union encouragement and finances, the Mikuláš Dzurinda cabinet wrote reconstruction of the bridge into its government manifesto, "to restore Slovak-Hungarian relations, which until 1998 have been marked by ever-present tensions."

The Slovak PM did not hide his satisfaction at the fulfillment of what had become an important foreign policy promise. "The fact that the bridge was built by Slovakia and Hungary, with the participation of European Union funds, is a strong symbol of a changing and unifying Europe," Dzurinda told The Slovak Spectator at the time.

The 500 meter-long, 11 meter-wide bridge cost €20 million to build, and was based on a 1999 bridge construction treaty whose signing was attended by about 5,000 spectators from a town of 11,700 - as good an indication as any of the importance locals attached to renewing the structure.

In Štúrovo today, the bridge is already taken for granted, providing thousands of Slovak nationals with a way to get to work in Hungary, and thousands of Budapest residents with a way to visit the thermal baths at Vadaš.

While the municipally-owned baths attract guests from all over Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Poland and Germany, it is Hungary and the nearby capital Budapest which have spurred the water park's recent development. Daytrippers from the south are now one of the park's main sources of income.

    The wave pool  at Vadaš is one of the biggest draws of the thermal baths.
 The wave pool at Vadaš is one of the biggest draws of the thermal baths.
 Photo SME

Vadaš boss Gyetven said that after taking the job in 2000, he had looked around at how the competition in Hungary was proceeding, and saw they were investing heavily into improving their services and facilities.

"We saw that the age of cheap and simplistic thermal baths for undemanding clients had come to an end, and that we had to invest in growth and improvement, and in making it possible to operate the facility year-round," he said in his office at the Hotel Thermal, which was opened in 2002 as one of the first investments the resort made in raising quality.

On the May weekend we visited, Vadaš was already open - already a departure from previous years - with a large group of handicapped clients from Germany using the baths. Gyetven said the German group had picked May to come because the baths would not be so full, and the bathers less likely to be stared at or mocked.

The air was still a little chilly, but as I watched my son swimming happily in the 36C water with other children from at least three or four different countries, it struck me again how the bridge has turned Štúrovo from a regional backwater into an international crossroads.


Accomodation

Hotel Thermal***
Pri Vadaši 2
Tel: (036) 756-0111
www.vadas.sk
49 rooms, 4 suites, TV, Internet at reception,
congress room for 50, restaurant, parking, water park
Double Sk2,640, includes half board

Hands down the best accommodation in the town. Access to thermal baths is a great asset, while the fact it is a short walk off the main square provides a pleasant degree of separation. The shower stalls are on the small side, while in summer the crowds that visit the baths can disturb those looking for peace and quiet.

Hotel Átrium***
Hlavná 51
Tel: (036) 751-2507
www.hotelatrium.sk
18 rooms, 3 suites, TV, Internet, some AC,
handicapped access, conference room, restaurant
Double room from Sk1,000, not including breakfast

The Atrium opened in 2000 as a pension, but was upgraded to a three-star hotel in 2005 when an EU grant allowed it to add a wing. It tries hard to match the Thermal in what it offers, and in many categories succeeds.

Hotel St Florian
Szechenyiho 6/A
Tel: (036) 752-0060
www.stflorian.sk
9 rooms, 2 suites, TV, AC, balcony
guarded parking, pizzeria
Double room from Sk850, not including breakfast

Opened in 2002, the St Florian is a relatively cheap option with some advantages, such as balcony views of the bridge and the river, a fine pizzeria, and relative seclusion in a less busy part of town a few steps from the main square.

Dining

Restaurant Šipošov Dvor
Hlavná 7
Tel: (036) 751-1312
Open daily 10:00 to 23:00

A cozy courtyard restaurant at the top end of the main square, offering a full menu as well as burgers and fast food. Can get a little on the run-down side in the summer.

Casablanca
Sobieskeho 7
Tel: (036) 752-2750
www.parkany.sk/casablanca
Open daily 11:00 to 22:00, weekends to 24:00

After spending a few days in Štúrovo eating at very diverse establishments, we concluded that this is the best non-hotel restaurant in town. Tasty meat dishes and fast service, get there early to snag one of the few outside tables. Own parking.

Restaurant and Café Mária Valéria
Széchenyiho 7
Tel: (036) 752-0060
Open daily 10:00 to 22:00, weekends to 23:00

Spicy Hungarian cuisine opposite the Florian pizzeria and pension. As authentic as it comes, although the service can be iffy.


These articles and related information were published in Spectacular Slovakia 2006, which you can obtain from our online shop.

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