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.

Topoľčianky: A retreat fit for a president

By Howard Swains

    The estate of Topoľčianky features sumptuous manors set amid rolling parkland.
 The estate of Topoľčianky features sumptuous manors set amid rolling parkland.
 Photo by Howard Swains

Nearly 3,000 people live in the village of Topoľčianky on a permanent basis, but none have had quite the same impact as one of its temporary guests. The town is best-known for its majestic manor house which, in the 1920s, became the summer retreat of Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, the first president of Czechoslovakia. Masaryk returned every summer of the 15 that he was in power, and several of his successors followed suit. It means that present-day visitors can stroll through the same wondrous gardens, pace the same corridors and courtyards and even sleep in the same chambers and bed as the country's former leaders. And plenty do.

Even for those less awestruck by this prospect of occupying a politician's private quarters, Topoľčianky is worth a visit. The village retains the charms that led the leaders here in the first place, including 400 years of history before Masaryk ever arrived. The manor, which was also once a summer residence of the Habsburgs, stands proudly at the centre of a vast and sumptuous estate, comprising two vast game reserves, hectares of landscaped, woody gardens and a number of outbuildings that are mansions in themselves. The grand, mustard-coloured hunter's lodge seems to have more rooms than the average hotel, and even the grisly bronze castings of hunted animals in their death throes that pepper the lawn can't shatter the graceful serenity.

The main manor is preparing for a complete restoration, but it is still impressive enough, even in its current, slightly shabby state. It was first constructed in the 15th century, although most of what you see now was rebuilt in Renaissance, Baroque and Classicist designs, including a splendid galleried courtyard and a towering cupola. Inside, a stern statue of Masaryk welcomes visitors to what, in addition to the hotel, doubles as a venue for weddings and conferences and a museum of historical furniture.

The museum is where superficial restoration work is most required: the furniture dates through about 300 years and was collected from across the world, but some of the upholstery is dull and dirty and paint is peeling from doors and walls. Nevertheless, it's a sizeable collection with some amusing curios among the more standard pieces: a tea cup with a moustache protector, for example, and a table inlaid with a portrait of Louis XVI surrounded by pictures of his 17 mistresses.

Most tours will finish in Masaryk's former office, which is arranged as though he had just popped out for a quick stroll. His tiny desk sits beneath the window, with pen and telephone poised.

Stud farm

No estate worth its salt should be without its stud farm, and Topoľčianky has one of the best.

The national stud is a state-owned company with one branch of its huge operation based in a complex of stables and paddocks that neighbours the main manor house. The entire organisation has around 500 thoroughbred horses and is the only centre in the whole of Europe that focuses on four breeds: the Arabian, Lipizzaner, Hucul and Sport horses.

The farm is open to visitors year round, and a tour offers plenty of chances to examine these proud beasts being put through their paces by lone riders in the outdoor show arena, or being drilled in the fine art of dressage in a dusty exhibition hall. Those not involved in this athleticism can be found munching through hay in long lines of stables, pausing only for the occasional whinney or thunderous kick on the side of their pens. If scratching a leathery nose is an insufficient equine adventure, the centre also offers the chance for visitors to climb aboard - either the horse itself or in a horse-drawn carriage - for some fun in the fields.

For all the frivolity, this is, of course, a place of business and is likely to be of most interest to serious horse breeders. As the promotional material puts it: "There is a possibility for wide breeding public to use the complete insemination and reproduction services in the new Center for Insemination and Reproduction."

These articles and related information were published in Spectacular Slovakia 2008, which you can obtain from our online shop.

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