The European bison, or wisent, is a lot of animal, even as a juvenile
Photos by James Thomson
The European bison - or wisent, as it is also known - is the continent's largest mammal. But like its North American cousin, it was hunted almost to extinction. That it has survived is something of an achievement, for which the Topoľčianky Bison Reserve is due some of the credit.
By the 1930s only a handful of wisents remained, in Poland. A captive breeding population was established and at the time the Topoľčianky reserve was established in 1958, there were 150.
The reserve opened with the donation of a pair of wisents from Belarus, but most fondly remembered by staff at the reserve are a Polish pair, Putifár and Pumarka, who arrived in 1963. The 1230-kilogram Putifár, something of a legend in these parts, is described as having been 'among the mightiest specimens of his kind' and 'at the peak of his form'. Lucky Pumarka.
Putifár wasted no time and he and his fellow wisents contributed to the Topoľčianky reserve's total output (so far) of more than 120 calves, most of which have gone to other zoos and reserves. The global population is now over 3,000, and in 2004 the reserve started releasing small groups into the Poloniny National Park in eastern Slovakia, where they appear to be thriving.
Putifár is no longer with us, though you can visit his final resting place, which is part of a 2.5-kilometre trail encircling the bison enclosure. The dozen or so resident adult and adolescent wisents line up along a fence near the visitor centre twice a day to be fed. They are impressive beasts to be sure, each with an equally impressive cloud of fleas in attendance.
In nearby Topoľčianky itself, is a Renaissance castle at which the first president of Czechoslovakia, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, holidayed every summer between 1923 and 1933.
The manor house at Topoľčianky
Photos by James Thomson
The landscaped gardens which surround the castle are spectacular, and include an early twentieth-century hunting lodge surrounded by bronzes of deer and other quarry in their death throes.
The castle’s southern wing, reconstructed in the early nineteenth century, is regarded as the purest example of neoclassical architecture in Slovakia, and is open to the public (the rest is now a hotel). It's more impressive from the outside than from within.
The once-grand high-ceilinged halls acted as official reception rooms in the 1920s and 30s; Masaryk's office and the attached library (unfortunately, visible only through a grille) provide a glimpse into the life of the respected interwar leader. But the rooms have been unoccupied and run by the state since 1951, and it shows. The faded grandeur of the interior is a rather gloomy, in places quite shabby, affair.
For something a bit jollier, another manor house, this one in Beladice, closer to Nitra, has been turned into a modern hotel. It also has beautiful grounds, decorated with artworks from an international ceramics workshop hosted each year by the hotel.