Komárno is a natural destination for cyclists making their way along the Danube Cycle Path. One of the biggest towns in southern Slovakia and the unofficial capital of Slovakia's Hungarian-speaking minority, it's about half-way from Bratislava to Budapest. It occupies an important strategic position, at the confluence of the Danube and Váh rivers, something not lost on Austro-Hungary's military planners.
They built one of the largest fortresses in the empire here, which was used to defend the transport routes and surrounding areas against Tartars, Ottomans and Napoleon's forces. More recently, until the collapse of communism in Czechoslovakia, it housed a Soviet garrison. The number of Red Army troops based there was never disclosed, but it’s thought there were as many as 8,000, which gives an idea of the scale of the place.
Surprisingly, for such a big fortress, it has quite a low profile. In fact, despite being just a few hundred metres from the town centre, it is practically invisible. For, unlike most of Slovakia's castles, this is no hill-top dandy. It was built for the age of big guns, which would have made short work of a prominent target. Instead, it's low-slung, with enormously thick outer walls and earth-covered ramparts. Inside, is a complex system of defences and an extensive, if dilapidated, set of barracks.
Unfortunately, the walls may be all you get to see. The fortress appears to be closed to casual visitors: despite the open gates you may be greeted (as this author was) by a thick-set, shaven-headed gentleman, accompanied by a slavering Rottweiler, who will instruct you, in terms which require no translation, to return whence you came.
The sad fact is that the rest of the town, pretty though parts of it are, does not justify a long stay. The compact centre has been attractively pedestrianised, with pavement cafes, an austere but impressive grey church fronting onto one of the main streets, and a small, tree-lined town square dominated by the canary-yellow town hall and the statue of a former garrison commander, General Klapka. The large, castellated building opposite the square is the Officers' Pavilion, which has a pretty courtyard incorporating an open-air theatre.
Photos by James Thomson
Just behind Klapka square is Komárno's other 'attraction': Europe Place. A shopping centre-cum-office complex-cum-public space, it combines a noble if slightly confused pan-European spirit with the kind of stylistic cut-and-paste which has the sniffier type of architect weeping into their hands. It opened in 2000 but parts still appears to be under construction and many of the premises are clearly struggling to find tenants. Nevertheless, the Carpathia Café - confounding those who would have you believe that Italy, and not Transylvania, is the home of good coffee - is open for business, overlooking the fountain at the centre of the main square.
The square and its side streets are formed by a variety of buildings which make vague nods towards various European styles of architecture (a Dutch merchant's house, a Greek villa). A jolly air is lent by the diminutive royal statues circling the fountain, several of which resemble minor characters from the film Shrek.
The whole town has a rather sleepy feel. Over a summer weekend the town seems more like a village than a town, with the most action being the kids splashing around in the Europe Place fountain. Part of the reason is the heat: in summer, this is frequently the hottest part of the country with temperatures in the high 30s not unusual.
It turns out that on such hot days many of the locals head out to the banks of the river: the pebble shores of an island just outside the town are popular, though you'll need a car or bicycle to reach them. And temptingly cool though it may look, few people brave the river. You would do well to follow their example: the Danube has some powerful currents, and it's a long swim to Budapest.
In fact, one of the main things Komárno seems to have going for is that it is slightly less dreary than its counterpart across the bridge, Komárom. Komárom is just the Hungarian name for Komárno; the two formed a single town until the post-WWI Treaty of Trianon ceded the north bank of the Danube along with the grander bits of the town to Czechoslovakia. Based on the evidence gleaned from a short ride around town, Komárom's main draw appears to be a Tesco supermarket just over the bridge, patronised with equal enthusiasm by Slovaks and Hungarians if the number plates in the car park are anything to go by.
The entrance to the fortress.
Photos by James Thomson
If Komárno has one saving grace, unexpected but welcome, it is the railway station. After a day of sweltering heat and rather brusque service in the town, the station, a few hundred metres north of the centre, is deliciously cool. Its soaring roof allows room for a socialist mural, stark and unfussy, in keeping with the rest of the station's design, high above the concourse. Hidden away in a corner is an unpretentious, old-fashioned cafeteria, decorated with paintings of trains from various parts of Czechoslovakia, which serves beer and chips with a smile, as well as ice creams and soft drinks. There are no express services from Komárno (the 100km journey to Bratislava typically takes between two and three hours) but this is a pleasant a place as any to await your train or bus (the bus station is next door).
A land of many tongues
The centre of Komárno.
Photos by James Thomson
Hungarian-speakers make up around 10 percent of Slovakia's population, and live mostly in the south of the country. While Hungarian can occasionally be heard in Bratislava, it is common in the towns and villages south-west of the capital.
In common with Slovakia's other large minority, the Roma (or Gypsies), the country's Hungarian-speakers come in for a pretty rough ride in the public arena. Opprobrium is routinely heaped on them by some Slovak politicians (the leader of one governing coalition party has made a career out of insulting Hungarians) who seem to believe that Hungary is bent on re-occupying part or all of Slovakia and that, by implication, local Hungarian-speakers are a bunch of suspect fifth-columnists.
Despite this, Hungarian-speakers display no obvious resentment when addressed in Slovak, and most will switch effortlesly between the two languages according to the one in which they are addressed.
English, though, is a different matter. Evidence suggests that German-speaking tourists are common in this part of Slovakia, since the default language for addressing foreigners is frequently German. Even if one attempts to explain that one is not German, and understands even less German than one does Slovak (or Hungarian), the stream of 'danke's and 'bitte's is liable to continue unabated. Knowledge of German is certainly helpful for deciphering menus and written information in the area; in fact, this holds true for much of Slovakia.
Events in Komárno
April: Lehárov festival
International music festival of
vocal-instrumental projects, concerts.
April - May: Komárňanské dni
A one week celebration with
various cultural events in the city
and its famous international marathon
from Komárno to Komárom
July: Komárňanský letný festival
(Komárno Summer Festival)
Summer downtown festival, concerts in the streets of the town and number of ensemble performances.
July: Cyrilometodické dni
(St Cyril and Methodius Days)
Missionaries St. Cyril and Methodius
October: Harmonia Sacra Danubiana
Festival of church choirs
October: Maticné dni
A traditional festival of Slovak and
Hungarian literatute and poetry accompanying a competition of Hungarian amateur theatres
November: Ondrejský jarmok
(St Andrew’s Fair)
Traditional market, various cultural events on the city square
For additional contact details,
please see the travel directory section