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.



Folk Architecture

By Chris Togneri with Tom Philpott

Some of the most striking and unheralded architecture in Slovakia lies in tiny villages, outside of its former free royal towns. But finding attractive, old-style village architecture isn't as easy as it might seem.

That's because rapid industrialization throughout the 20th century drew village dwellers in droves to cities such as Bratislava, Košice, and Banská Bystrica. Then the collapse of Communist-era agriculture subsidies severely weakened rural economies, giving residents yet another reason to flee. Thus remaining villagers have faced declining resources for maintaining old homes. Meanwhile, old architectural styles have fallen out of favour, as remaining village residents have increasingly embraced Western-style designs and building materials.

Throughout Slovakia, though mainly in the northern mountain regions, villages packed with beautiful old dwellings and other buildings still exist. Slovakia's heavily forested mountain regions tend to be prodigious sources of wood; not surprisingly, wood is the primary material for house building in folk-architecture enclaves. Soňa Kovačevičová, writing in the book Slovakia: European Context of the Folk Culture, points out that "at the end of the 19th century, carpentry was still not registered in northern mountain Slovak areas as a separate craft, because the majority of men had mastered it."

Another important example of folk culture lies in the country's northeast region, along the borders with Poland and Ukraine. There, the Ruthene minority has preserved dozens of wooden Greek Catholic churches, many dating back to the 18th century. At that time, the Habsburg monarchy, in a fit of counter-reforming zeal, had banned the use of stone for building non-Roman Catholic churches.

Here is a survey of must-see places for lovers of folk architecture.

Vlkolínec

    Vlkolínec
 Vlkolínec
 Photo: Ján Svrček

Nestled on a hillside, a mere 20-minute walk from the bustling ski slopes of Ružomberok just south of the Veľká Fatra, Vlkolínec is a fine enclave of old-style wooden dwellings. In fact, it's so well-preserved that 26 years ago it was turned wholesale into a skanzen, or outdoor museum.

But despite that status, and its proximity to a major ski centre, Vlkolínec does not feel like a tourist haven at all. Even though outsiders must pay Sk40 for entry, and can only enter at certain times (8:00-17:00, Monday-Saturday), it remains a functioning village. People actually live in the houses, some of which have been in the same family for generations.

The houses tend to be two- or three-room structures with two small windows on each wall. Their roofs are gabled and thatched, forming an attractive steep triangle atop each one. They tend to be painted in pleasantly muted colours; some are simply stained a dark rustic brown. Against one exterior wall of every house stands a large stack of firewood, geometrically arranged to minimize wasted space. Behind each house lies a garden patch and often a small barn for livestock.

Inside, the places are typically dominated by the front room, which contains the kitchen and sitting space. The kitchen, which might have a small adjoining larder, houses a large wood-burning oven. Through a doorway there typically lies a smallish bedroom, which might also contain a smaller wood-burning stove. The walls are adorned by religious icons as well as family portraits. House number 17 operates as a museum, stocked with rustic furniture from the early 20th century.

Taken as a whole, the village is quite striking: a clump of beautifully crafted houses surrounded by rolling hills thickly dotted with trees. To add to the idyll, a stream cuts through the centre of it, adding its hum to the cheery din of the birds that congregate in spring.

Yet Vlkolínec retains an air of melancholy. During World War II, the area was a major site of the Slovak National Uprising. In retaliation for the involvement of several Vlkolínec residents, the Nazis burned down nearly a third of the village's houses. And peasant life, which the skanzen represents and packages in its low-key way for tourists, has always been difficult. This is a wonderful place to get an idea of how most Slovaks lived before the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Špania Dolina

Located in a beautiful corner of the Low Tatras, the small former mining village of Špania Dolina presents the visitor with dramatic landscapes and folk-architecture purity to rival Vlkolínec. But if Vlkolínec is the place to soak up some of history's endless supply of melancholy, then Špania Dolina might be just the destination for a taste of restorative joviality.

It's not that the village hasn't had its share of hard times. This tiny hamlet of 144 souls, in its long-gone heyday a centre of iron-ore mining, also became embroiled in the National Uprising. Fifteen of its citizens died fighting the Nazis in that period. The mining economy collapsed more than a century ago, stripped clean by centuries of extraction; and not much has risen to replace it.

But the village still manages a cheery air. Part of it might be that life, as in so many Slovak villages but unlike in Vlkolínec, seems to centre on the small local pub. I walked in there with my travelling partner one bitter-cold winter night and found a warm scene, made toasty by a wood-burning fire and a crowd of lively locals. A jolly bartender presided over the space like the host of a party. His beer taps bore no brand names; he pulled me a pint of sweet, strong dark brew that proved perfect for warding off the lingering chill from outside.

The barroom's long wooden tables seemed too packed for us to sit down, but locals quickly made room for us on one of the benches. We were immediately drawn into lively conversation. When they learned we were journalists looking for information on local history, several volunteered the services of an elderly relative. "My grandfather can't remember what happened five minutes ago, but he remembers 30 years ago like it was yesterday," went one characteristic spiel. In the time-honoured spirit of Slovak hospitality, unordered beers began to appear in front of us.

That's when I learned what most Slovaks take as a given: in tiny villages, the pub serves as the tourist information centre. And on that night, over a barrage of beers, we learned plenty about the place. While women stayed home, tended food-producing gardens and earned money by weaving lace, the men either worked in the lumber industry or commuted to nearby Banská Bystrica to work odd jobs. Neither was a particularly reliable source of labour at the time; making a living was tough, and many of the men had family members who had migrated to the United States for more lucrative work.

Špania Dolina, with its lovely wood houses built into unpaved winding roads, its local characters, and its fine, hill-scaling church, is not to be missed. It's a living testament to what we stand to lose as the world homogenizes, as tiny villages and their traditions wither away under the weight of globalisation.

Čičmany

    Čičmany
 Čičmany
 Photo: Chris Togneri

In many 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.

As well as being beautiful, the embellishments are also useful. The white paint is a lime varnish applied to protect the wood from natural decay. The designs are inspired by 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.

Unlike Vlkolínec, Čičmany is not an overt tourist destination. However, it does have its share of visitors, who can spend a few days easing 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 metres) 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.


These articles and related information were published in Spectacular Slovakia 2003.

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