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.


It’s the people

 photo: Ján Svrček

So far in this magazine, I’ve used several superlatives to describe Slovak sites. We’ve had the prettiest castle (Bojnice), the largest ruin (Spišsky hrad), the grandest SNP Square (Banská Bystrica), and the most unjustly overlooked city (Skalica).

I was tempted to do the same with Prešov. But then I realised that I didn’t have to. Why? Because anyone who visits this city invariably falls in love with it.

The place to start a site-seeing tour is on Hlavná, Prešov’s oblong main square. Besides being full of intriguing sites, this square has a fantastic atmosphere because of its lack of traffic. Although two roads pass through, one has been converted into a pedestrian zone and the other admits buses only. I don’t know who made this decision, but all cities should do the same - the absence of autos makes a remarkable difference in ambience.

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. David McLean, an American who has lived in Prešov for over two years and has accompanied me up the cathedral tower, makes reference to the city below. “I once sent a picture of Prešov to a friend of mine in the states,” he says. “He had pictured me living in some grey eastern European city, but when he saw the photo, he said, ‘I didn’t know you lived in Candy Land’.”

An appropriate description. 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. Candy Land.

The tower’s northern view consists of two castle ruins seen atop hills far away. The first, on the left, is Veľký Šariš, ten 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.

But no matter how interesting the city itself may be, the lasting impression one gets of Prešov is the people.

On my first Prešov assignment for The Slovak Spectator, a potential source blew me off, saying she was in a hurry; she actually returned ten minutes later to apologise. On another trip, an employee at the tourist information centre, arranged the logistics of my visit up the cathedral tower by telephoning the key-keeper, finding several brochures in English, and drawing detailed directions even though I was only going 30 metres. Pot-bellied, by turns stern and jolly, the key-master was also quirky-friendly, inquiring: “You want to climb the tower, eh? You won’t jump, will you?”

Furthermore, in a country that boasts of its beautiful women, Prešov is widely accepted as the ‘Pretty Woman Capital’ of the country.

And the expats are no less engaging. Heading to Slovakia, I had envisioned meeting a group of fun-loving, adventure-seeking westerners, for who else would choose such an obscure country? I was therefore sorely disappointed by the steady stream of mentally unstable oddballs I met, small fish back home heading for what they hoped would be an even smaller pond.

But in Prešov, the expats really are fun-loving and adventurous. Interesting, too. Consider McLean, who last year walked across Slovakia and is now writing a travel book. Henry Brandon and Jonathan Gresty, “ebony and ivory”, host an English-language radio show. Ruth, a bubbly Canadian who grew up in South America, works with local Roma. Craig Johnson and David Scheffel launched a housing scheme whereby Roma in the nearby village Svinia are to build and pay for new homes.

Of course, like all cities Prešov has also had its unsavoury types. Back up in the cathedral tower, the eastern view is of the town cemetery, where the grave of Robert Holub, a well-known underworld boss from Prešov, is found.

Holub had been sitting in the restaurant of the Hotel Danube in Bratislava when unknown culprits shot him. This is as fascinating as it is disturbing: an attempted assassination, in the heart of the capital city’s centre, in the middle of the day, at the most prestigious hotel in town. And nobody was caught.

But the murder attempt was unsuccessful, and Holub was hospitalised in Bratislava’s Kramáre hospital. While he was recovering, though, the bad guys came back. Using a ladder, a sniper climbed onto the roof and shot Holub dead through the window as he lay in his hospital bed.

The grave befits the tale. At eight feet tall, the tombstone is by far the largest in Prešov cemetery and is the first thing visitors see. It depicts Holub in a suit with one hand thrust in his pocket, staring at passers-by. The cemetery is found a few blocks east of Hlavná.

But tough guys like Holub are the exception in friendly Prešov. A more appropriate representative of the local citizenry can be found 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 ten 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.

- Chris Togneri

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

See also:

Make your comment to the article... (1 reaction already made)