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.



Orava

Naturally proud

    
 
 photo: Chris Togneri

After arriving in the village of Oravský Podzámok and discovering that the castle is closed every year from November to April, I approached an attractive, 30-year old blonde woman. Surrounded by closed seasonal restaurants and shops, I wanted to ask her what forms of employment existed in the area besides those in the tourism industry. Instead, I blurted out in beginner Slovak, “What do you people do here when the castle is closed?”

“What do you people do in Bratislava when your castle is closed?” she fired back, arms akimbo in a flourish of indignation.

Rough start aside, I soon discovered that Oravians are helpful, exceptionally hospitable, and full of a spunky sort of charm; and that there is plenty to do and see here besides the castle, built at different times between the 13th and 17th centuries.

Not to say that the region’s centrepiece isn’t worth a day trip. While sightseeing in Europe too often turns into a mind-numbing parade of castles, visiting Orava is exceptional, one of the best trips you can make in Slovakia. Coiling into a cragged ridge above the Orava river, the expansive stone structure rises gloriously from the landscape as if it were a naturally occurring feature, as if someone had planted a monarchy and watched it grow.

Outdoor activity is both the chief Oravian pastime and the main draw of the area’s growing tourism industry, which is cheap and accommodating. In the winter, people come to ski; almost every town has a hill and lift, while larger centres can be found in Zverovka (just south of Roháče mountain), and Kubínska Hoľa (outside Orava’s largest city, Dolný Kubín). Ski trails in the village of Oravica near the Polish border are small, but visitors can soak in the town’s 36 C thermal pool after an icy day on the slopes.

During my first stay, I bedded down in Podbieľ, a village in the region’s centre (north-east of Dolný Kubín on highway 59) and an excellent starting point for day trips. The village has 64 wooden cottages (drevenica) distinct to the area, five of which have been renovated and are rented out to the public.

The cottage caretaker, Pavol Dubovský, is typical of Orava’s down-home service industry. He is helpful, in no hurry, and full of interesting information. For instance, he explained that the hollow wooden protuberance on the roof of one of the cottages was a crude device that amplified the sound of an eggshell rattling in the wind... all to scare away squirrels and other vermin.

Dubovský also proved full of surprises. As I was leaving the cottage, I overheard him speaking fluent Spanish with a Mexican woman. “You speak Spanish?” I asked, surprised that a man from rural Slovakia would. He shrugged his shoulders and said, “So what? I learned how. It’s normal.”

During the summer, thousands of visitors hike Orava’s myriad mountain trails, while biking, canoeing, and swimming and sunning on Orava Dam Lake are also popular. Touring Orava’s famous wooden churches (the most impressive of which is in Tvrdošín - less than 10 kilometres north-east of Podbieľ on highway 59), or taking the antique steam train from Chmika to Tanečník, or looking at the wood work at the Orava Outdoor Village Museum are less strenuous, but equally popular ways of spending an afternoon.

Unless travelling by car, you will find buses the easiest way to get around Orava. But on my final day, I took the cheapest option and thumbed my way to the Orava Outdoor Village Museum, a showcase of 70-80 wooden structures dating back to the 16th century in the town Zuberec (by car, south-east on highway 584 from Podbieľ). An older man who had given me a lift turned out to be one of the people who had originally transported and rebuilt the wooden buildings in 1968. He explained that all of the 75 structures were complete originals that had been taken apart piece by piece, catalogued, and then put back together, the entire process taking up to a year. The museum itself is a nice compendium of the area’s craftsmanship, and is appropriately set in a mountain valley cut down the middle by a babbling stream.

Afterwards, at the nearby koliba (a small country restaurant), I sat down to a capital bowl of cabbage soup and a plate of bryndzové halušky (Oravians are said to excel at improvising with cabbage and potatoes because several famines in the 1800s made it clear the land would only support those two crops). Down the road loomed Roháče mountain, the most popular hike in Orava. The trails can be a bit rough, but some people seem to prefer it that way - the same might be said of the Orava region.

By Matthew J. Reynolds


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


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