Skalica’s remarkable Dom Kultúry, designed by Dušan Jurkovič.
Photos by James Thomson
Skalica has a special place in Slovak national life, for two reasons.
Firstly, along with Martin in northern Slovakia, it is fondly remembered as one of the centres of Slovak culture and language during the dark days of 'Magyarisation' - the process by which Hungary sought to impose its language and identity across the territories then ruled from Budapest - during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.
Despite laws which required that Hungarian be used as the language of government and higher education, Slovak schools and cultural institutions were maintained here - the town's fine Dom Kultúry, built in 1905 with private funds, is the most notable symbol of this movement - and, as a result, nationally-minded Slovaks sent their children to the town to be educated. In 1918, as the Habsburg Empire dissolved after defeat in World War I, Skalica briefly served as the capital of Slovakia.
Secondly, it is the acknowledged birthplace of a giant in the pantheon of Slovak gastronomy: the Skalický trdelník.
The town has been dealt a good hand by history, and has played it well. It's in an agreeable location, surrounded by low hills. Large parts of its city walls remain intact, as do the iconic St George's Rotunda, a Franciscan monastery and a host of other historic churches and public buildings. The tide of communist-era concrete appears to have been stemmed on the outskirts of town.
More recently, the local administration has worked out how to access European funds (a notice in the foyer of the handsome town hall celebrates this important achievement) and as a result the town centre is looking very spruce. If you are a European taxpayer it is worth a visit if only to enjoy the regeneration your hard work has helped to fund.
The main square (Námestie Slobody) is a good place to start. In front of the town hall is the late-Gothic parish church of St Michael, upon which work began in 1372 - the same year that Skalica received its privileges as a royal free town. The late fourteenth century was obviously a busy time in this part of the world, since the urban fortifications were being built simultaneously and, as soon as the church was completed, work began on the octagonal St. Anne's charnel house which stands next to it.
Opposite St Anne's is the remarkable Dom Kultúry, designed by Slovakia's foremost early-twentieth century architect, Dušan Jurkovič. It’s built in Secession style: in this case, a sort of Art Nouveau-meets-English manor house. On its façade are colourful mosaics depicting scenes from Slovakia's national life, designed by Czech artist Mikoláš Aleš. Inside, ask to see the impressive Divadelná Sála (theatre hall): the extensive use of wood and pastoral scenes by Moravian artists on the theatre screen and walls continue the idyllic rural motif.
St Michael’s Church
Photos by James Thomson
Heading away from the main square, past the Jesuit church, you quickly reach the city walls and what is perhaps Skalica's most well-known building, St George's Rotunda. This small twelfth- or thirteenth-century tower is reckoned to be the oldest building in the town, and the second oldest in the whole Záhorie region (the part of Slovakia which stretches down the western flanks of the Little Carpathians). The lack of certainty about when it was originally built stems in part from the considerable modification it has undergone over the centuries.
Originally a flat-roofed Romanesque building, it was converted to the Gothic style, then Baroque, and a second floor added along with the domed roof and lantern. In the fifteenth century the ground floor became a chapel dedicated to St George, whose exploits are depicted in the partially recovered frescoes visible on the interior walls. From the outside, the building's schizophrenic history is illustrated in a riot of different window styles.
Next to the rotunda is part of the remains of the city walls; on a slope beneath it is the old Jewish cemetery. And across a ditch, on the small hill which used to be the site of the town's castle, is a calvary from which there are good views of the rotunda and the town.
Having wondered at Skalica's cultural treasures and climbed the hill, you should now have worked up enough of an appetite to move on to more serious matters: the local culinary speciality. And you will need an appetite if you are to do justice to a trdelník. Having purchased one at a local bakery this author was informed that what looked like a meal on its own, smothered in icing sugar, was in fact a trdelník-lite, and promptly whisked off to see the foot-long genuine article being flame-grilled in a charcoal oven at the Franciscan monastery.
St George’s Rotunda
Photos by James Thomson
The trdelník is Slovakia's first European-recognised 'Protected Geographical Indication' foodstuff (think champagne, but less easy to consume while trying to look sophisticated). Basically, it is a sweet, light pastry wrapped around a wooden baton, coated with nuts and grilled over an open fire. The resulting product is thick, hollow, about thirty centimetres long and is said to go very well with the Skalický rubín wine for which the town is also noted.
Such is the love of Skalica's residents for this sugary treat that they hold an annual festival devoted to it.
The Franciscan monastery where it is made is also a tourist site, if a slightly baffling one, with corridors firing off in all directions, empty apart from occasional elderly ladies - who may or may not be guides: their exact status is vague - hanging around and occasionally clutching you by the elbow and steering you into a restored chapel or a courtyard with a view of the city walls. All very confusing, but after that trdelník you'll be too tired to offer much resistance.
Events in Skalica
Festival of music, wine and trdelník
(trdelník = a sweet specialty made of dough, wrapped around a metal dough roller – trdlo- and baked over an open flame)
July: Skalica Music Fest
Rock music festival
July-August: Hudba v meste
(Music in Town)
Blues and jazz gigs
(Dom kultúry, Námestie slobody)
August: Skalica Beer Fest
Beer tasting and concerts of bands
September: Skalické dni (Days of Skalica)
Festival of music and traditional market
Year round: Musica Sacra Skalica
Series of organ and church music concerts www.skalica.sk/kultura