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.


Artistic peasants

 photo: Chris Togneri

In amany respects, Čičmany is a typical Slovak village: wooden homes clustered around the town church, roosters and dogs that wander past elderly citizens tending to their gardens, a lifestyle still largely based on agriculture, and - above all - the timeless tranquillity of small town life.

But Čičmany is also different: hundreds of years ago, for reasons unknown, locals began decorating the exteriors of their wooden abodes with various artistic designs, including abstract geometric shapes, animals, arrows, clovers, crosses and hearts.

While certainly aesthetically pleasing, the embellishments are also useful. The white paint is a lime varnish applied to protect the wood from natural decay. The inspiration for the designs is also known, for they are the same patterns embroidered into local folk costume. But exactly why the natives decided to ornament their homes is a mystery.

Whatever the motive, the painted houses today bring precious tourist dollars to a village that has long suffered tough economic times. Besides cattle and sheep herding and farming, embroidered fabrics and special cloth shoes were in the past made and peddled by families trying to make ends meet. But the income generated in these ways was usually too meagre for these people to survive, and natives were forced to take seasonal jobs as glaziers, lumberjacks and simple labourers in foreign countries. Many settled abroad and never returned.

For those who stayed, life was a struggle. To save money, up to four families lived crammed into the small, two-storey homes. The eldest farmer and his wife were the household heads, overseeing all the married sons and their families. Some homes had 30 people living under one roof.

Men toiled in the fields while the women tended to household chores. Young families slept in the attic or in the larder, an unheated room that contained a painted chest where the bride kept her personal possessions.

Rituals were an integral part of family life. New-borns were placed in a fur coat in hopes that the baby would have curly hair, a sign of luck. An embroidering needle was placed in girls’ baths to ensure they would become skilled needleworkers. Infant boys were given a hammer and tongs to teach them early on how to become good glaziers.

When a member of the family died, clocks in the home were stopped, mirrors covered and a window left open to allow the soul of the deceased to escape. Men were buried with a pipe and tobacco, a handkerchief and a coin. Women were laid to rest with a hymn book and a rosary.

Few of these traditions carry on today. But the painted homes remain, as do the enduring lack of money and the distinctive embroidery. While strolling down the main street, I was beckoned into the home of an elderly man who showed off some patterns his wife had sewn. After listening to him explain that he needed money to buy milk and bread, I bought one.

“Thank you, young man, thank you,” he said with as much relief as joy. “Life is not easy for us and this is our main way of making money now. Times are hard.”

With a heavy sigh, he said he was 80 years old. Then he cast a contemplative gaze over the village, staring at his surroundings as if he could not believe that he and the village had survived so long.

Čičmany is a real village. It is not the overt tourist attraction Vlkolínec has become, where busloads of sightseers visit during the day before the village closes for the night. Čičmany has its share of visitors as well, but outsiders are allowed to spend a few days here, to ease into the relaxed rhythm of Slovak village life.

A few pensions in town offer simple, cheap accommodation in the unique homes. In the winter, skiers take to the village’s slopes on Javorinka hill, just to the south, and at the nearby Javorina ski resort.

In the summer, hiking in the surrounding Strážovské hills is an unforgettable experience. The rolling green hills are dotted with pastures full of grazing sheep. Thick forest and rocky mountain peaks fill in the blanks. Bojnice Castle is a rigorous eight-hour hike south. Považská Bystrica is a seven-hour hike through valleys of mysterious rock formations to the north.

The two-hour hike up Strážov mountain is an invigorating day trip. The view from the peak (1,213 m) is stunning, one of the best in Slovakia. At the top is a travel log where visitors scribble their impressions of the hike and view. Nearly every entry ends with a promise to return.

One hiker wrote: “Díky, Strážov, za ten výhľad” (Thanks, Strážov, for the view). Vlado and Nina from Bratislava were moved to more poetic dimensions, writing: “Prišli sme, vyšli sme, videli sme... UŽ VIEME, PREČO ŽIJEME!” (We came, we climbed, we saw... NOW WE KNOW WHY WE ARE ALIVE!)

- Chris Togneri

These articles and related information were published in Spectacular Slovakia 2002.

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