Some relics from Svidník’s past, in the grounds of the city’s Military Museum.
Photos by James Thomson
Visitors do not typically go to Svidník for the city's architecture. A new town, and not among Slovakia's loveliest, parts of the centre appear to be undergoing reconstruction, or possibly demolition - it is hard to tell which.
The towns residents, though, are an intrepid lot: during summer 2008, for instance, a local folk troupe travelled by bus to Dagestan (a particularly turbulent part of the former Soviet Union on the Caspian Sea, and not a destination for the faint-hearted) in order to promote Slovak folklore.
A noted skanzen (open-air museum of folk architecture) can be found on the northern outskirts of the town.
The people of Svidník are also proud of their place in recent history. Svidník District was one of the first places in Slovakia to be liberated, by Soviet and Czechoslovak forces, from Nazi German occupation in 1944. The Allied forces forced their way through the Dukla pass, to the north of Svidník, from Poland in a hard-fought battle which began in September 1944.
According to historians at Svidník's Military Museum, this so-called Trans-Carpathian Operation was not part of the Soviet strategic plan, which basically involved crossing Poland straight towards Germany. Instead, the decision to commit significant forces to an advance through Slovakia was in response to the Slovak National Uprising (or SNP) which began in late August 1944 (see article in Banská Bystrica Region section).
In fact, the speed with which Nazi Germany occupied Slovakia (at the Slovak government's invitation), crushed the SNP and then proceeded to reinforce the country with up to 20 divisions meant that the Dukla battle took much longer than planned: Soviet planners had expected to reach Prešov in five days; in fact it took more than four months.
Across the expansive grounds of the Military Museum, which is principally an outdoor affair, march a column of World War II tanks, armoured cars and even aeroplanes. There is also a large Soviet war memorial marking the mass grave of at least 9,000 unnamed Soviet soldiers who died in the area, a testament both to them and to the scale of the fighting.
If you head north-east of the town, towards Dukla, preserved tanks and fighter planes appear by the roadside as memorials; a Russian and German tank facing each other mark the entrance to the so-called Valley of Death, where some of the fiercest fighting took place.
As well as the Slovaks, Czechs and Russians who fell attempting to liberate Slovakia, there were of course a large number of Germans who also died trying to stop them. Near the village of Hunkovce is one of several German military cemeteries where more than 300 soldiers are buried.
At Dukla itself the roar of trucks labouring up the final approaches to the pass has long since replaced the thunder of artillery, but a large Czechoslovak war memorial remains just off the main road south of the Polish border station, a proud monument to a now-disappeared country.