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.



Carpatho-Ruthenian region

By Stephanie MacLellan

One thing you'll notice when you drive into the northeastern part of Slovakia is that road signs suddenly start appearing in Cyrillic script. The language is Ruthenian, or Rusyn - the native tongue of an ethnic group that's not widely known outside of this country.

About 40,000 Slovaks declared themselves to be Rusyn in the last census, but other estimates say there are more than 150,000 in the country. Their dialect draws from Slovak, Polish and Hungarian. Their faith is Greek-Catholic, which blends Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions.

The Rusyns have had a rocky and complicated history. The biggest blow was likely forced migration to Ukraine and mandatory Ukrainian educa-tion following the Second World War. Many more immigrated to the United States, including the parents of Andy Warhol.

The traditional Rusyn area, in the hills south of the Carpathian mountains near the eastern part of the country, has its own distinct architecture and atmosphere. You might have a hard time getting around by bus, but if you have access to a car, it makes a great place for a road trip.

Svidník

"Remember this, because they won't build anything else like it."

    The folk architecture skanzen in Svidník recreates a Rusyn village.
 The folk architecture skanzen in Svidník recreates a Rusyn village.
 Photo Stephanie MacLellan

That was a comment someone left in the guest book at the Múzeum ukrajinskej a rusínskej dediny (Ukrainian and Rusyn Village Museum) skanzen in Svidník. Indeed, all of the buildings were constructed centuries ago and brought to the site in 1975, and it's hard to imagine how such a collection could be assembled again.

The museum contains a couple of dozen houses that were built between the late 18th century and the early 20th century. They were brought to the skanzen from the neighbouring Rusyn villages where they were found. The style and building materials vary: some roofs are thatched while others have wooden shingles; some walls are made of wooden beams, some use clay bricks and others are plastered and covered in the traditional sky blue paint. The homes are furnished with simple wooden furniture, with pictures of icons hanging in the corners and decorated ceramics on the walls.

Along with the houses, you can find a school house, fire hall, saw mill and grain mill. The latter has mill equipment that was restored in 1907, including a basket where the corn was fed decorated with painted flowers and carved birds. The wooden church, St. Paraskieva, was constructed in 1766 and contains icons from that era.

The skanzen does re-create the feel of a Rusyn village, especially with goats, sheep and a very friendly donkey wandering around. When you see the paneláky of Svidník from the hilltop site, it reminds you how valuable the buildings really are.

While you're in Svidník, you can learn more about the area's heritage at the Múzeum ukrajinsko-rusínskej kultúry (Museum of Ukrainian-Rusyn Culture). Among the treasures are rare books with intricate handwritten text in Cyrillic, beautifully decorated Easter eggs, traditional costumes and old farm tools and wooden chests. There is also a frighteningly complete collection of mounted animals and birds from the region.

Svidník also has a massive Soviet war memorial and museum, due to its location close to the Dukla Pass. This was a major mountain crossing where 60,000 Soviet soldiers and 6,500 Slovaks and Czechs died in battle during the Second World War, trying to reclaim the pass from the Nazis. Today, near the Polish border crossing at Vyšný Komárnik, there is a memorial at the battle site and an open-air museum of army vehicles and bunkers, which you can see from a watchtower.

Wooden churches

    A classic example of a wooden church can be found in the outdoor folk architecture museum in Svidník.
 A classic example of a wooden church can be found in the outdoor folk architecture museum in Svidník.
 Photo Stephanie MacLellan

There are dozens of wooden churches - also called "cerkvas" - scattered throughout the northeastern part of Slovakia. They all have three steeples and dark wood exteriors, but beyond that, each church really has its own character.

Some churches are contained in folk architecture skanzens, but it's not quite the same as seeing them in the villages where they were built, where they're sometimes still used by the community. Maps available at different tourist centres can point you in the direction of the churches. Most of them will be closed when you get there, but there will be signs that let you know where to get the key.

It's hard to know where to start with so many churches. My friend and I picked two by planning a route from Bardejov to Kežmarok.

The first church we saw was the Sv. Františka Assiského (St. Francis of Assissi) church at Hervatov, southwest of Bardejov. It's rare because it's a Roman Catholic wooden church. It's not one of the most esthetically-pleasing churches from the outside, with a very boxy, rectangular steeple. But on the inside, it contains some fascinating wall paintings. They include murals of St. George killing the dragon and the Wise and Foolish Virgins parable. The murals were painted by Andrej Haffčik in 1665 and owe their existence to two sets of restoration: the first in 1805, and more recently in 1970. In addition, the altar depicting the Virgin Mary, St. Catherine and St. Barbara dates from 1460 to 1470.

From Hervatov, you drive northwest through some lovely rolling fields and hills before you get to Krivé, where the Sv. Lukáša evanjelistu (St. Luke the Evangelist) church is found. It took a bit of a wait to find someone with the church key - she was working outside and apparently felt very inconvenienced by the interruption.

This Greek Catholic church has a fairly rectangular ground plan, with a steeple that looks like it's been recently added. It's also fairly young, built in 1826, but another church existed on that site previously.

The simple outward appearance belies an interior rich with icons. The iconostasis behind the altar takes up most of the front wall with a cacophony of different saints and prophets. There are two Royal Doors, one from the early 18th century and another from the 17th century. Other icons date from the 16th century. According to the church's information, "Similar artistic features can be found on icons on the Polish side of the Carpathian mountains. One can assume, then, that they were made in one of the workshops in Poland."

The village of Krivé still uses the church for its weekly masses, and according to the woman who gave us the key, it's always full.


These articles and related information were published in Spectacular Slovakia 2007, which you can obtain from our online shop.

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