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.

Inside the Cottages of Vlkolínec and Špania Dolina

    Her bread has a thick crust and a soft texture.
 Her bread has a thick crust and a soft texture.

In my travels through Slovakia to research this edition of Spectacular Slovakia, no memories will stand out more than the two conversations I had with elderly Slovaks in the villages of of Vlkolínec and Špania Dolina.

In both cases, my translator and I were invited into their homes and treated to long, vivid accounts of lives lived in secluded mountain villages. On these occasions, I learned more about the texture of life in pre-1989 Slovakia than I had from all the reading I had done before.

The first one was with an old man, born in 1912, who lived in a small, typical cottage in Špania Dolina. His grandson, whom we met in the local pub, had arranged the meeting over beers the night before. So on a sunny, bitter-cold morning in late winter, we met our pub friend and made our way up the hill to the old man's cottage, stopping first to buy a small bottle of borovička "to get him talking," as the grandson said.

The old man, frail and gaunt, had a bony, sharply lined face - beautiful in its well-aged, wizened way. He sat in the main room of his cottage, next to an old cast-iron stove that provided the heat. Furniture was sparse: just a couple of lived-in chairs and a small table. Old pictures lined the walls - young people in old-fashioned dress clothes staring momentously at the camera. The old man - he didn't want his name used - accepted the bottle gratefully, and with shaky hands produced a pipe and lit it. His presence was large, awesome; his sharp dark eyes had seen things I couldn't, as an American, have imagined.

My translator asked if she could photograph him; he assented, and when she was done, he pointed thoughtfully at the camera and said, "I'm in there now."

Prompted by our questions, he told his story. In his lifetime, there had never been much work in his village, whose heyday as a mining town had passed centuries before. Men went to work in Banská Bystrica or other nearby towns, and women stayed home and kept the household running, which meant subsistence farming, cooking, and child-rearing. His mother died in childbirth when he was 11, a devastating blow to a family eking out a living, mostly from the land. "We always had to suffer a lot," he said.

Some of his memories of the two world wars seemed somewhat fanciful. He remembered "watching" battles during both wars "from a hill above Banská Bystrica." But he seemed more cogent when we asked him specifically about World War II, when many Špania Dolina residents involved themselves in the anti-fascist Slovak National Uprising. "I was with the partisans in spirit, but I had to go to work," he said. "There was no other choice."

He said that the family next door to him had harboured a Jewish family in their basement. "The Nazis never found them," he said. He seemed to shudder at the memory of what happened to the Jews in Slovakia. "Many of them [Jewish people] were taken away. But I have forgotten many of those things."

He seemed to be fading, fatigued after thinking of painful things. We asked about the fall of Communism, how it had affected him. "I had to go to work before, and I had to go to work after," was all he would say. About Slovakia's independence, he had nothing to say at all. His grandson said it hadn't affected the old man a bit.

Two days later, my translator and I found ourselves walking around Vlkolínec on a cold Sunday morning. We surveyed the lovely old folk structures, but we were disappointed that we could find no one out and about. After our conversation with the old man in Špania Dolina, we were eager to find another old person to talk to in this history-soaked village.

Just before we gave up to hike back to Ružomberok, a friendly young woman greeted us in the street. She worked for the town as the director of tourism, and wanted to know how she could help us. Hearing of our mission, she led us through the village to one of its lovely old cottages. To the side of the front door was a small barn; a cow eyeballed us from inside it. Behind the barn lay a small snow-covered yard - probably the potato patch. Our guide knocked on the door; no one came. So she opened it, and the smell of burning onions emerged. The guide removed a smoking pan from the wood-burning iron stove, and gestured for us to enter.

An old woman emerged from a side room. Like the old man, she had a beautiful, character-laden face; she, too, had been born in 1912, and also asked us not to use her name. She seemed nervous and a little suspicious at first, but warmed to us gradually. She recalled the bleak days of the Slovak National Uprising. "One day, we were evacuated to another village, and we stayed away a month," she said. "When we returned, many of our houses had been burned down. All of our animals were dead, our gardens were destroyed, and our houses were robbed." She added that while the official story was that Nazi troops had done these things, many people suspected that the culprits had been Slovak troops loyal to President Tiso.

At any rate, the losses caused intense hardship, given that, as in Špania Dolina, women essentially fed the family through subsistence farming while men earned cash as low-paid labourers. "During that time it was very hard for my husband to find work. He had to walk very far, because the buses stopped running," she said.

They persevered, and had a son. Both her husband and son died 10 years or so ago. She lived alone, and had no grandchildren. The tourist director looked after her, and helped her with her cow and her seven chickens. She cooked for herself.

By now she had warmed to us, and began showing us the antique photographs that that lined her walls. One showed two beautiful young girls, with thick black hair down to their knees. It depicted her and her best friend, some 80 years before. She showed us a photo of her dead son, handsome in his 1970s-era suit.

She then served us some halušky (see food chapter) she had just made. It was a spare version of Slovakia's national dish; it contained no bacon bits, only a bit of fat. Yet it was soulful, deep in flavour, and its tender pillows of potato melted in my mouth. She produced a large, round loaf of bread, also homemade, and proceeded to cut it with a long knife. Made slightly sour by strong natural yeast and flecked with caraway seeds, it had a thick brown crust and a soft, fine texture inside.

- Tom Philpott

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

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