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.

Kolonica: Heavenly pleasures

By James Thomson

    The observatory at Kolonica.
 The observatory at Kolonica.
 Martin Janoško

If you're already out east and planning to be in the area overnight there is an unusual evening option worth considering for anyone with even a passing interest in astronomy. Accommodation is also available for the brave...

Just east of the village of Kolonica is the biggest telescope in Slovakia. Its main purpose is to observe variable stars (those whose brightness varies, for reasons which are still unclear; hence the observatory), which it does using a Soviet-manufactured one-metre telescope.

One metre might not sound like much, but a collecting mirror of that diameter puts the observatory among the very largest in central Europe. It can collect about fifty thousand times more light than the human eye. And using the attached photoelectric photometer it can, in theory, count individual photons of light arriving from distant stars.

Which, if you know how small a photon is, and how far away your average star is, is an astonishing thought. But if photons aren't what light your candle (even though, strictly speaking, they are), the telescope is also able to gaze upon more familiar objects. When the moon is full the telescope can be used to view it in extraordinary detail, with individual craters and ridges visible on its surface. If you're lucky, the International Space Station can be examined as it swoops overhead. And even if the main telescope isn't available, there are three others at the site.

That all of this is available to the public is thanks to the dedicated team of scientists who man the observatory. Despite the serious work they have to do, they are committed to sharing their knowledge with visitors, especially children and young students who can come to stay, and stargaze, overnight.

The laconic Pavol Dubovský, who manages the site, speaks excellent, Russian-accented English and is a treasure trove of information on astronomy and the science behind the telescope (I didn't come up with all that stuff about photons by myself). He is there every clear night to observe and is happy to show anyone round; he only asks that you call a couple of hours ahead.

If you don't have wheels or would like to stay overnight, the observatory has very basic accommodation, primarily for use by school groups but otherwise available to anyone who is not fussy about sleeping in what amounts to a shed. Again, call ahead to check.

The observatory is developing a hiking/cycling trail which it has dubbed 'Planet Road' with displays on the planets at various spots in the villages and woods around the observatory. The planned site for Mars is in nearby Kolonica, next to a European Union-funded open air swimming pool known locally as 'Bejvoč'.

Amusingly, the sign acknowledging the EU's contribution records that funds were indeed granted to a project with that title. Applying for assistance for a project entitled (in Slovak transliteration) 'Baywatch' was probably a fairly high-risk strategy: international bureaucracies are not generally known for their senses of humour. Nonetheless it paid off. The water may be a little on the soupy side, but on summer weekends it seems to attract most of the local population. And on a hot day you may be inclined to join them.

These articles and related information were published in Spectacular Slovakia 2009, which you can obtain from our online shop.

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