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.

Smižany: Not all they seem

By James Thomson

    A linen-making display in  Smižany’s museum.
 A linen-making display in Smižany’s museum.
 Photos by James Thomson

Smižany is not a typical tourist destination, at least as far as foreign visitors are concerned. Even for Slovak tourists its charms are well hidden.

One claim to fame is that it is the largest village in Slovakia, with more than 8,000 inhabitants. But this is largely an administrative quirk: it is now, effectively, a western suburb of the neighbouring city, Spišská Nová Ves.

The village's size means it has a large, modern and well-equipped municipal office with an information centre.

Rather less modern - in fact, it looked vaguely abandoned until one of its eager attendants rushed out to greet me - is the Ethnographic Museum.

    A traditional local folk costume.
 A traditional local folk costume.
 Photos by James Thomson

Unprepossessing at first sight, it is brought alive by its enthusiastic staff. One of them is skilled at operating a foot-powered linen-weaving machine. She is also able to explain in some detail (in Slovak) how the whole linen-making process used to work, from flax to finished garments; a rumour tells that French denim is in fact a copy of Spiš linen (the local textile was used to make hard-wearing trousers for working men).

Also on display is a range of agricultural equipment, a re-created blacksmith's forge, and local costumes for a range of occasions including a 'guba', a bizarre-looking hairy woollen coat once worn by men getting married, but which would not look out of place in the Himalayas.

The Ethnographic Museum is in the back garden of Smižany's main attraction, which dates from the communist era: the birthplace of Ján Nálepka.

    The birthplace of Ján Nálepka.
 The birthplace of Ján Nálepka.
 Photos by James Thomson

Nálepka joined the army of the wartime Slovak State in 1942 and was sent to the eastern front (Slovakia having contributed forces to Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union). Once there, he apparently decided that he would rather be playing for the other side, and managed to contact Red Army Major General Saburov, who encouraged Nálepka to form the first Slovak partisan group. However, photos in the museum (which is a little hazy on the details) suggest he continued to serve in the Slovak Army while helping the Russians: one shows him in Slovak uniform with General Saburov.

Nálepka was clearly highly regarded by the Russians, either for his public relations value or for his military effectiveness, or maybe for both: he was made a Hero of the Soviet Union, the USSR's highest honour. And being highly regarded by the Russians meant that after they had won the war any suggestion of double-dealing on the front lines was overlooked in favour of his virtues as an upstanding socialist warrior.

Nálepka's birthplace was made a shrine to his memory, though the school groups are less frequent now and the house is looking a little threadbare. Sadly for the man himself, he was killed while fighting in 1943 and didn't live to enjoy any of the subsequent adulation.

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

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