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.



A golden pop-art goose

By Tom Nicholson


Medzilaborce

Population: 6,741
Economy: farming, forestry, machinery
Mayor: Mirko Kaliňák, Tel: (057) 732-1206, medzilaborce@stonline.sk

Important contacts

www.medzilaborce.net (Slovak only)

Municipal Office:
Ul. Mierová 326/4
Tel: (057) 732-1206

Information Center:
Mestské kultúrne stredisko, Ul. Andyho Warhola 56
Tel: (057) 732-1288

Town Museum:
Andy Warhol Museum, Ul. A Warhola 749/26
Tel: (057) 748-0072
open Mon-Fri 09:00 to 18:00
Sat-Sun 14:00 to 18:00, tickets: Sk100

Hospital Emergency: Tel: (057) 732-1244

Train Station: Tel: (057) 732-1407


    The Warhol project will culminate this year.
 The Warhol project will culminate this year.
 Photo TASR

There are towns that overshadow even their most famous sons with their own sheer grandeur - New York comes to mind.

And then there are towns that are dwarfed by their progeny - like Medzilaborce, for instance.

Tucked away in the impoverished northeast of the country, Medzilaborce (pop. 6,700) since the end of communism has staked out a kinship in no-nonsense fashion with pop-art king Andy Warhol. The town's claim rests on the fact that Warhol's mother, Júlia Warhola, was born 17 kilometers away in the village of Miková (pop. 300), and lived there with her husband after they married.

Warhol's mother and father were Rusyn (Ruthenian), a minority group which numbers between 60,000 and 100,000 people interspersed among the small villages near the Polish and Ukraine borders. Since the discovery of Warhol's roots in the late 1980's, the American-born artist, who never visited his mother's country, has become an important figure for Slovak Rusyns.

As significant as he has been for his ethnic kin, however, he's become a figure of towering importance for Medzilaborce, which in 2006 is completing a Sk30 million project called "Warhol City" that leaves visitors in no doubt about where the town hopes its meal ticket will come from.

Signs that something is afoot are all over Medzilaborce, and include a giant soup can hanging off one building, a pair of shoe prints on the facade of another, various Warhol portraits on about four other structures and three bus shelters shaped like halved Campbell soup tins.

Launched last year, the Warhol City project will be wrapped up in 2006 with a reconstruction of the old amphitheatre into a skanzen (open-air museum) of Ruthenian village houses, featuring a copy of the old family home of Warhol's parents as the highlight.

"We'll be redoing the sidewalks and even the public lighting in the Andy Warhol spirit," said Adrián Kaliňák from the Medzilaborce town hall.

Investments this summer will also include 150 kilometers of bike paths extending to the Polish border, and a Tourist Information Office with brochures and maps for visitors.

The ubiquitous Warholia is in addition to the collection of the Warhol Family Museum of Modern Art in Medzilaborce, which opened in 1991 at the initiative of John Warhol, the vice-president of the Andy Warhol Foundation in New York, with 17 Warhol originals (for details in Slovak go to www.medzilaborce.net).

The museum, a white boxy building announced by two giant concrete Campbell's Soup cans out front, sits across the street from the domed Orthodox church. Today it houses 150 Warhol works.

The exhibit starts with personal items donated by Warhol's relatives, including old photographs from the family album. The next room features artwork by Andy's nephew James and his older brother Paul, who uses chicken feet to press imprints on canvas.

Finally, the Warhol originals. Most are prints on cardboard, some hand-colored, the oldest of which are the Campbell's Soup I and Campbell's Soup II pieces. The Red Lenin print and the Queen Ntombi Twala of Swaziland painted photo are two examples of Warhol's innovative use of color.

Unsure about Andy

Slovaks themselves are not as fanatic about Warhol as foreigners can be. Several years ago, The Slovak Spectator visited Andy Warhol's cousin, Helena Bošnovičová, at her one-story home in Miková.

    Pretty bus stops, but travellers complained this winter they were too windy.
 Pretty bus stops, but travellers complained this winter they were too windy.
 Photo TASR

For Bošnovičová, the famous Warhol was just "cousin Andy", the youngest son of a faraway aunt. Bošnovičová's mother, Eva, was the youngest of 12 siblings, 10 of whom emigrated to the US in the lean years following World War I, as did Júlia. Eva and Júlia stayed close through mail (Eva even visited New York in 1965). Bošnovičová remembered her family receiving packages of coffee, clothes, and shoes from America. They also received drawings - Júlia's on the front and Andy's on the back - although none survive today.

Her and Warhol's ancestors were simple farmers, she said, but an artistic streak has always run through the family. Eva sewed beautifully, and Andy's early sketches resembled his mother's. Bošnovičová's own child is a talented amateur artist, as is Paul Warhol; Bošnovičová produced a T-shirt with Paul's chicken-feet imprints.

Warhol was fond of saying "I am from nowhere", and Miková certainly does a good impression of obscurity. The village is little more than a kilometer stretch of hilly country road lined with ageing houses, every third of which is abandoned, and two grocery stores, one of them run by Bošnovičová. Nearly every citizen is retired or living on unemployment.

Bošnovičová said she was proud of Andy - "The whole village is proud of him" - in the way an aunt might say she was proud of a graduating nephew. What else is there to say?

Some Slovaks are in no doubt. "Andy Warhol is the Rusyn God," said Jozef Keselica, a Rusyn schoolteacher who is almost a professional fan. In the early 1990s he turned a collection of Warhol photographs and newspaper clippings into an audio-visual show, then shot a documentary on Warhol's roots that won third prize at an Argentine film festival.

But others are less sure. Local high school art teacher Michal Bycko, who proposed the Andy Warhol Museum in 1991, remembers that at the time, the town resisted. Many locals, he said, did not want to promote the art of this "decadent American homosexual".

"To be honest, for me two exist - the famous Andy Warhol, the king of pop-art, and Andrej Warchola, the son of impoverished Ruthenians from the village of Miková in eastern Slovakia, a simple, ordinary persons like thousands of other Slovaks," Bycko said.

An ordinary town

    Medzilaborce is taking no chances on tourists  missing its famous son.
 Medzilaborce is taking no chances on tourists missing its famous son.
 Photo TASR

Medzilaborce itself has something of the ordinary about it. The approach from the south is extremely long, a several-kilometer strip of houses and train tracks leading to what, for Slovakia, is a very modest downtown core. The Laborec River is on the left as you drive in, and just before you cross over the Vydraňka River, you will see a Roman Catholic church on your left and the Temple of the Holy Ghost on your right; the Andy Warhol Museum is on your left over the river.

Part of the lack of cultural monuments in Medzilaborce may be due to the town's brutal 20th century history, which began with a fire in 1900 that destroyed almost every building.

During the First World War the town was again razed several times, and two-thirds of the residents fled the fighting for Miskolc and Debrecen in eastern Hungary. From 1914-1915 Medzilaborce served as the headquarters of Russian general Brusilov; in 1915, writer Jaroslav Hašek passed through as a soldier with the 91st battalion, and mentioned the town in his novel The Fate of the Good Soldier Švejk in the World Wars.

During the first Czechoslovak Republic from 1919 to 1938, Medzilaborce suffered from heavy unemployment and emigration, with only a saw mill providing work to local people. Again, during the Second World War, Medzilaborce was destroyed several times.

The communists, attempting to raise the town from its misery, in1955 built a hospital here, and in 1958 a machinery works called Transporta. In 1971 the Jablonecké sklárne (later Lusk) factory was built.

Without the communists to prop things up, however, Medzilaborce has been increasingly turning to tourism. Much of what the town has to offer lies in the hills that surround it.

To the east is the Poloniny National Park, the nation’s youngest. Founded in 1993 it is now a UNESCO international biosphere reservation. It boasts a network of hiking and biking paths and hunting opportunities.

On the border of Poloniny and stretching south is the Vihorlat region with one of the country’s most beautiful natural lakes, the Morské oko, and the Sninský kameň lookout, which offers an unrivalled view.

Towards Svidník there are several wooden churches that deserve a visit. Overall, Slovakia has dozens of wooden churches, 27 of which have been declared national cultural monuments. The majority are Greek Catholic and were built by the Ruthenians from the 16th to 18th centuries. They are typically built in three sections, symbolizing the Holy Trinity, and have fascinating traditional Greco-Roman altars called ikonostas.

From Medzilaborce try the wooden church in Miroľa, built in 1770, or the church in Nižný Komárnik, with its bell-shaped cupola. Each place has a kostolník living nearby who will give you a tour for a small fee.

The other principal tourist attraction in the area is the Dukliansky priesmyk (Dukla Pass), a Second World War memorial on the site of a major battle between Red Army and German troops in 1944 that saw almost 100,000 soldiers killed. The memorial includes statues honoring mine-clearing crews, machine guns, mortars and mass graves, as well as a 43-meter lookout tower (open 08:00 to 16:30, Tel: (054) 759-3304). The area is strewn with tanks and howitzers and other military equipment, giving it a very realistic feel.

In Svidník itself check out the Military Museum (Tues-Sun 08:00-15:30, Tel: (054) 752-1398), which is a fund of information and artifacts from the Second World War.


Accommodation

Penzión Andy
Ul. A.Warhola 121/24
Tel: (057) 732-1640
www.penzionandy.host.sk
4 suites, TV, minibar
Double room Sk1,800, not including breakfast

An attractive, small pension across the street from the Warhol Museum. Capacity is eight people in total, with possibility to add beds. Contains restaurant, pub, guarded parking and summer terrace. Recently reconstructed.

Eurohotel Laborec***
Ul. A. Warhola 195/28
Tel: (057) 732-1307
www.eurohotel.sk
36 doubles, 6 suites, cable TV, Internet, conference room,
restaurant, café, night club
Double room: From Sk800,
breakfast not included

Like the Andy, the Laborec was reconstructed recently (2002) and is situated near the Warhol museum. It is substantially larger than the pension, and with its 100-seater disco, more of a center for whatever nightlife exists in Medzilaborce.

Drinking and dining

Crazy Bar
Ul. Komenského
Tel: (0908) 665-213
Open Fri-Sat, 21:00 to 04:00

Cheap weekend disco with 12 tables; neither clean nor attractive, but probably the most acceptable of the non-hotel pubs.

Snack
Ul. Duchonovičova
Open: Mon-Sun, 21:00 to 04:00

Larger than the Crazy Bar, with 5x10 meter dance floor, smoke and light effects, long bar and 15 booths for seating.

Penzión Andy
Ul. A.Warhola 121/24
Tel: (057) 732-1640
Open Mon-Sun, 09:00 to 23:00

Reasonable food for great prices. The bar can be smoky, but in the summer the terrace is open. Clean and civilized.

Eurohotel Laborec***
Ul. A. Warhola 195/28
Tel: (057) 732-1307
www.eurohotel.sk
36 doubles, 6 suites, cable TV, Internet, conference room,
restaurant, café, night club
Double room from Sk800,
breakfast not included

Like the Andy, the Laborec was reconstructed recently (2002) and is situated near the Warhol Museum. It is substantially larger than the pension, and with its 100-seater disco, more of a center for whatever nightlife exists in Medzilaborce.

Things to see and do

Wooden churches in Svidník area Take the main road south out of Medzilaborce turning right at Krásny Brod through Miková and Miroľa.

Poloniny park Take a left on the main road south through Čabalovce for 30 kilometers of stunning wilderness to Snina.

Zemplínska Šírava Head south through Humenné to Porúbka, whether there is a Janošík monument high in the hills, and then down to the lake on the far side.


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

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