All of Slovakia’s sights, immortalised in wood in Rajecká Lesná.
Photos by James Thomson
For lovers of kitsch the Rajec valley south of Žilina is a Slovak nirvana.
Not only does it boast its very own fully-animated wooden scale-model tribute to Slovakia's cities, the Slovak countryside and the baby Jesus, but it has a spa whose faux Grecian opulence will take your breath away.
The wooden marvel is in the village of Rajecká Lesná. Entitled the 'Slovak Bethlehem', it is a hand-carved tableau featuring everything from the nativity scene (hence the name) to Bojnice Castle, to Košice's St Elizabeth's Cathedral, to a flock of wooden sheep, to Bratislava's futuristic New Bridge - complete with hydrofoil bobbing past.
This might sound cheesy but the skill and magisterial vision of its creator, Master Pekara, who spent 15 years creating it, is undeniable. If you are still pondering where to go in Slovakia you could do worse than take a look at this and pick a few places based on his carvings.
The creation is housed in its own building next to Rajecká Lesná's church, and even has a viewing gallery to allow you get a better perspective. If you can, take a look behind the carvings: the system of chains and pulleys to keep the whole lot moving is an engineering triumph in itself.
Closer to Žilina, is the spa town of Rajecké Teplice. Famed locally for its healing mineral waters, there are several spas and hotels in the town offering healing therapies. One of the ritzier joints is the Aphrodite.
As well as the fountains and statues of Greek gods littering the marble-floored lobby there are corridors full of spotless rooms containing some slightly scary-looking devices designed to treat every complaint. Cleanliness is maintained by a particularly fierce cadre of cleaning women on the look-out for muddy-shoed visitors.
The decorous atmosphere is maintained in the pool where signs prohibit not only diving but, rather unsportingly, swimming.
They take their opulence seriously here: during my visit a craftsman was re-gilding the capitals of the poolside columns. One is left with the impression that no expense has been spared, but the nagging feeling that some probably should have been.
If you feel like some (moderate) exercise, a new golf course - Golf Park Rajec - has recently opened in the valley, next to the road to Považská Bystrica. Just don't walk your dirty shoes into the spa afterwards...
The taste of a new generation
Did anything good come of communism? A loaded question, of course. Certainly nothing that was worth the purges, executions, hatred, pettiness and millions of mutilated lives.
But if one can accept that some good can come of a bad thing, then there are many good things. Car-lovers (your correspondent among them) frequently have a soft spot for some of the vehicles of the era. For instance, who could not go weak at the knees hearing the demonic howl of the air-cooled V8 fitted to the brutal, rear-engined, rear-wheel-drive Tatra 613, Slovakia's very own bushy eye-browed 'rosso' car (think 1970s Alfa GTV meets Karl Marx)?
The Tatra, sad to say, is no longer with us. But one product is, and in fact by some measures is beating its western rivals in the most unlikely market.
Kofola is a cola drink invented in 1960s Czechoslovakia to compete with those evil capitalists. Now it's one of them.
Best described as a less fizzy, less bitter equivalent of Coke, it goes down exceedingly well in summer. It is now produced in the Rajec valley in Žilina Region, which is reckoned to have some of the best water in the country.
Unusually for a soft drink, it is commonly available on tap, normally alongside beer. Among other benefits (for instance, your beverage is always served cool), this gives connoisseurs the opportunity to indulge in the sort of pompous waffle usually reserved for real ale enthusiasts about how 'well-pulled' their pint (or half-litre) was. And not being averse to a bit of pompous waffle, I can attest that there is a surprisingly wide range of experience depending on how the barrels are handled.
But in some cases a difference in flavour may be because you have been served not Kofola, but one of its local, similarly-named competitors' products. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but the makers of Šofola could probably have tried a bit harder with the name. Whether they could have tried harder with their product is for you to decide.