St Martin’s Church in Trstená, which features a 'hole of shame’.
Photos by James Thomson
Trstená is a town on the very edge of Slovakia. It's tucked into the country's north-western corner, near the top of the beautiful Orava valley and only a few kilometres from Poland. It's nearest international airport is not Bratislava or Košice, but Kraków. And the nearby High Tatras, whose western peaks are visible from the town, are more easily accessible via the Polish town of Zakopane than the Slovak resorts north of Poprad.
Nevertheless, in common with many other frontier towns it is as thoroughly and proudly Slovak a place as any in the central heartlands. And just like many other Slovak settlements, the church is at the centre of the town, both geographically and socially.
Trstená's main church, St Martin's, has an interesting recent history. The first thing that strikes visitors is its unusual turreted spire. This is a fairly recent addition: the previous, more traditional, spire was dislodged during fighting at the end of World War II. It's believed to have fallen victim to a poorly-aimed 'Katyusha' rocket, though the Russians still get a traditional thank you for liberating the town in the form of a memorial in the main square. The spire that replaced it, which is being converted to allow tours and should make for a good viewpoint, was modelled on a Czech church.
It's not the only sign of change. St Martin's is surrounded by a wall, along the inside of which are what appear to be a series of odd little seats. Upon closer inspection, they turn out to be more than half a dozen outdoor confessionals. The church was once the object of pilgrimages and attracted so many worshippers, who came to witness a particularly revered painting, that the church's indoor arrangements proved insufficient: this novel solution allowed teams of priests to hear the confessions of pilgrims out in the open.
Traditional Trstená pottery.
Photos by Jana Liptáková
They are not so much in demand nowadays: the painting which had attracted the pilgrims disappeared in 1683, looted by Polish troops returning home after helping to defeat the Ottomans at the Battle of Vienna. It is mentioned as having turned up in the Bishop's Chapel in Vilnius in a record from 1721, but since then there has been no further trace of it.
Despite its loss - still a sore point even today - the church is packed with locals on a Sunday, as a visit to the 7am mass will reveal.
Aside from their piety, one thing encouraging pilgrims to confess as quickly as possible is another sight which greets visitors at St Martin's: the wonderfully-named 'hole of shame'. This consists of a pit covered with an iron grille, into which offenders can be cast, as well as a bench affording ill-wishers a comfortable perch from which to cast vituperation, rotten vegetables and worse upon the unlucky occupant. Levoča in eastern Slovakia has an above-ground cage used for similar purposes. But, for sheer mediaeval nastiness, Trstená's hole has the edge.
The Orava reservoir.
Photos by Jana Liptáková
Also worth a look in Trstená is the town's former synagogue, in a street behind the town's main Roháč Hotel. Its exterior has been well-maintained in pale blue and white; inside it now hosts a discount shoe store. Even more impressive, if you have time and a sense of adventure, is the abandoned Jewish cemetery just out of town, on a steep hill above the main road to nearby Tvrdošín. In what now seems like an improbably out-of-the-way place (go past the elephant-adorned building supplies store and look for a steep, overgrown track on your right; there are no signs and you will need some determination to make it through the undergrowth to the almost hidden walled cemetery) are dozens of headstones, most of them toppled or leaning at crazy angles. Many are in Hebrew; the ones with Roman script poignantly record the lives of local Jews like Ignatz Stein (d. 1931) as late as the 1930s, after which the record falls silent.
In the hills above Trstená is the picturesque Orava reservoir, the dam for which was completed in 1953. It stretches into Poland and affords some picturesque cycling opportunities around its banks.
Heading west, towards the Tatras, is Oravice, popular with Poles and Czechs for its thermal aquaparks. There are two complexes; the newest and flashiest - Meander Park - has the usual selection of slides and naturally-heated 'wallowing' and swimming pools, one of which features a wave machine. Given the hordes of people these attract you might be better advised striking out into the mountains.
Hiking in the Juráňová gorge near Oravice.
Photos by Jana Liptáková
Two walking trails set off up neighbouring valleys from Oravice. The first few kilometres of each are a gentle climb and have been surfaced with smooth asphalt to allow wheelchair-users to enjoy the alpine meadows and even try some fresh milk or smoked sheep's cheese from a salaš near the left-hand trail. The two valleys are connected by a track which traverses the picturesque Juráňová dolina (Juráňová gorge) and a mountain saddle, Umrlá. The round-trip takes about 3-4 hours (depending on how long a picnic you take at the top), but will leave you more refreshed (and with less of dent in your wallet) than an hour or two spent head-butting other tourists in the wave pool.
Location: on the border of the Tatras National Park. Mountain-range: The Western Tatras Nearest urban centre: Dolný Kubín (47 km)
Picturesque gorge accessible for hiking
This hike starts from Oravice – Juráňová dolina – Umrlá – Bobrovecká dolina - back to Oravice. Duration: 3h (9.5 km) Difficulty: easy Trail: red, blue and green
Aqua park in Oravice
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