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.



Northeast Slovakia

Prešov

    Cathedral of St. Mikuláš in Prešov.
 Cathedral of St. Mikuláš in Prešov.
 Photo: Ján Svrček

Slovakia's third-largest city, Prešov is also one of its prettiest and jolliest. Its chief attraction is its lively, well-preserved old town. The place to start a site-seeing tour is on Hlavná, Prešov's oblong main square. The green park at the square's centre is home to the Neptune fountain, sculpted in 1840 by Markus Hollander, the first Jew allowed to live within the town walls. On the corner of Hlavná and Florianová is the Wine Museum. The exhibit snakes through an ancient cellar system neighbouring the old prison on Jarková street where, in an event known as the Prešov Massacre, 24 anti-Habsburg collaborators were held prior to their executions in 1687. Perhaps in reference to this grim historical deed, a human skeleton hangs from chains in one of the side-rooms of the wine museum.

Then there is the Cathedral of St. Mikuláš, whose tower affords a sweeping view of the city and beyond. Below the tower, the main road splits and embraces the cathedral in the middle. All along the square are restored, brightly-coloured buildings of varying architectural styles.

The tower's northern view consists of two castle ruins seen atop hills far away. The first, on the left, is Veľký Šariš, 10 minutes away on the Lipany train line. For centuries this castle was the administrative centre of the Šariš region. The mighty fortress was never once taken by force, a fact few castles on Slovak soil can claim. It fell to ruin, however, in the 17th century after the royal stockpile of gunpowder exploded.

The second ruin is in the village Kapušany, about 15 minutes out of town on the Humenné line. From the village the trail shoots straight up the steep castle hill in what is a short (30 minute) but strenuous walk. At the top, visitors are treated to the site of caverns boring into the deteriorating walls, plus a sweeping view of the lovely Šariš region's rolling green hills.

Another notable site, back on Hlavná, in the yellow and white Church of St. John the Baptist (Kostol svätého Jána Krstiteľa). Although the church's exterior is quite lovely, the real reason to visit is inside, where the remains of Bishop Pavol Gojdič lay in wait of a miracle. Gojdič was a Greek-Catholic bishop who was sentenced in the 1950s to life in prison for refusing to convert to Russian Orthodoxy. He became a martyr after dying in prison 10 years later. The Pope beatified him in November, 2001, making him the first Slovak ever beatified. Today, hundreds of worshipers file into the cathedral daily to visit the casket and pray for the one miracle which would elevate him to sainthood.

Getting there

By train: From Bratislava, take the main Bratislava-Košice line to Kysak (about five hours and 45 minutes), then transfer to a local train for Prešov, about 20 minutes away.

Information centre

Mestské informačné centrum, Hlavná 67. Tel/Fax: 051 773-1113. A helpful centre with computers available for Internet access.

Svidník

Few towns in Slovakia seem less prepared for visitors than Svidník. That's a shame, because it's one of Slovakia's most historically significant places.

Even the Main Square, all concrete and sharp angles, is strangely pleasing. This is Communist-era architecture done right, clean and crisp and impressive. The most important historical influence on Svidník has been its location, just 18 kilometres south of the Dukla mountain pass. Because of the pass's military significance, the region has been permanently marked by war. In the 18th and 19th centuries Dukla was frequently used by Russian military caravans destined for various battles against the Hungarian Kingdom. In World War I, the town was completely burnt down, and in World War II battles in the area occurred with such frequency and fury that an adjoining valley was renamed Dolina Smrti, or Valley of Death.

One of the largest battles of World War II was fought at Dukla, where Hitler placed troops to defend Nazi-occupied Slovakia. The Red Army approached in the autumn of 1944 and a devastating battle ensued. When the smoke cleared two months later, 85,000 Red Army soldiers were dead, plus several thousand Germans and Czechoslovaks. That's nearly 1,600 deaths each day, or more than one man killed every minute for 60 straight days. From Svidník, Dukla is a 30-minute bus ride ending at the Polish border. The area of so much bloodshed in the past is today a sprawling memorial complex, a properly stark reminder of the brutality of war and its enduring effects.

The town also boasts an attractive skanzen, loaded with houses that have been relocated from surrounding villages for preservation.

Getting there

By car: Follow highway 77 east from Bardejov. From Prešov, take E371 north-east out of town, then high-way 73.

By bus: There are regular connections from Bardejov every hour or two. Trip takes about an hour. From Bratislava, take a train to Košice (six hours), then a two hour bus to Svidník.

Medzilaborce

Beyond its Andy Warhol Museum of Modern Art, Medzilaborce amounts to little more than a few churches and a series of uninspiring, often derelict, buildings.

The museum, a white boxy building announced by two giant concrete Campbell's Soup cans out front, is here because Andy's mother, Julia Warhola, was born 15 kilometres away in the tiny and even more depressed village of Miková. The museum opened in 1991 and today houses 23 originals donated mainly by the Andy Warhol Foundation in New York.

Unless you're a rabid Warhol fan, Medzilaborce seems like an awful lot of work to get to: from Bratislava, the trip takes about 10 hours by train. The museum features personal items donated by Warhol's relatives, including some old photographs from the family album. The next room features artwork by Andy's brother John and his son Paul, who uses chicken feet to press imprints on canvas.

Finally, the Warhol originals. Most are prints on cardboard, some hand-coloured, the oldest of which are the Campbell's Soup I and Campbell's Soup II pieces. The Red Lenin print and the Queen Ntombi Twala of Swaziland painted photo are two examples of Warhol's innovative use of colour. Otherwise normal pictures are manipulated so that the subjects appear other-worldly, even god-like.

Getting there

By train: From Bratislava, the trip takes about 10 hours: 6 hours to Košice, two hours to Humenné, over an hour to Medzilaborce.

Humenné

    Humenné
 Humenné
 Photo: Chris Togneri

Humenné boasts four main attractions: a statue of Švejk, hero of Czech novelist Jaroslav Hašek's indispensable novel The Good Soldier Švejk; a newly renovated main square; and a great pub culture, which may be why Hašek had his beer-loving good soldier pass through here.

The book chronicles the travels of bumbling and good-hearted Švejk as he bumbles his way into countless hilarious mishaps from České Budějovice, through Humenné (hence the statue), and ultimately to the war front on the Russian border during World War I.

The Main Square, for its part, is sparkling and orderly and altogether quite smart. It looks as if some royal family paid a handsome price for a roster of landscape architects to turn the backyard into a smashing strolling area to impress the neighbours.

Getting there

By train: From Bratislava, there is a rýchlik (fast) train that goes directly to Humenné with no switches, lasting eight hours and 15 minutes (it leaves Bratislava at 9:50). Otherwise, go to Košice and take a local train up into Humenné.

Stará Ľubovňa

Tucked into the rolling green hills of the Poprad river valley, Stará Ľubovňa is a cheerless industrial town. But a 40-minute walk away, up a hill to the north of town, visitors find one of the largest castle ruins in the country, plus an adjoining skanzen. On a national level, the ruin attracts little attention as it is found in the same region as Spišský Hrad, the largest castle ruin in Central Europe. But Stará Ľubovňa is hardly small. Rather, it is a sprawling castle complex, complete with stone towers, mounted cannons, several historical exhibits and dingy, bat-infested dungeons. Neighbouring the castle is the Stará Ľubovňa skanzen, with 25 relocated structures from northern Spiš villages like Jarabina and Jakubany, Kremná and Kamienka. The local architecture has been shaped by the region's once large populations of Germans, Jews, Ruthenians and Poles, as much as by Slovaks.

Villagers took particular pride in their abode's facades. Lines of blue were painted onto the gaps between the logs of the small dwellings. Other decorations adorned windows and beams, and Gothic gables were often added.

The focal point of the family house was the living-room, a multifunctional space that also served as a cooking and sleeping room. In the centre was a sturdy wooden table where family meals were served. Walls were hung with religious pictures, flowers stuck into the frames.

The highlight of the skanzen is the Greek Catholic wooden church, built in 1813 in the village Magorka. On weekdays, visitors file in to view the wooden Baroque iconostasis; on weekends, services and weddings are still held here.

The Stará Ľubovňa skanzen is open every day from May 1 to September 30, from 9:00 to 18:00. In the winter, however, admittance is restricted; to visit, you must call ahead first and reserve a guide (052 432-3982).

A final note: one hour away from Stará Ľubovňa by bus is Pieniny National Park. Log rafts manned by rafters decked out in traditional Slovak costume carry up to 20 visitors each down the Dunajec river. The current is slow, allowing the visitors to casually take in the amazing views of the canyon's steep cliffs, and the Red Monastery at Červený Kláštor. The boat trip lasts about 45 minutes.


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

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