The historical tourist’s elysium
Friendly clubs and pubs, amazing cathedrals, gorgeous squares, and other such local attractions are found across the country. But no city offers the variety, the fascinating cross-section of attractions, like Svidník. For travellers in search of a bit of history with their tourism, this place is a gold mine: The fading Rusyn culture, war monuments, wooden churches, and one of the prettiest skanzens in the country are all on offer here.
Even the Main Square, all concrete and sharp angles, is strangely pleasing. This is Communist-era architecture done right, clean and crisp and impressive. So often we westerners turn up our noses at this kind of stuff - and with monstrosities like Petržalka and the National Gallery in Bratislava, who can blame us? - but Svidník is different.
First, some of that history, which is not pretty and starts in the 14th century. Svidník was founded on the unfortunate faith of early settlers in farming and cattle-breeding. This in an area which has frequently suffered failed harvests due to the unfavourable climate (cold and dry). The town has therefore long been poor and sparsely populated, contributing to what a brochure in the local information centre called “the backwardness of the district”.
Svidník has also been home to several unsavoury types, like outlaw Fedor Holovatý - he’s the one who threatened Bardejov with doom after the town executed some of his minions in the 15th century. Holovatý operated out of Svidník, and later other groups formed here during the anti-Habsburg revolts. In modern times, Svidník has produced Vasil Biľak, the former Communist leader. Biľak allegedly hand-delivered a letter to Soviet leaders inviting Warsaw Pact troops to crush the 1968 Prague Spring movement. He has since been charged with high treason against the state.
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 55 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.
Getting off the bus at the border, the first monument you see is a statue of two hands handling a disc, in honour of mine removers. Live bombs are still dug up in this region, and unfortunate farmers have occasionally lost a leg by stepping on an undetonated mine.
Down the hill and across the street is the main monument, a triangular stone edifice curving around a poignant statue of an elderly woman crying on the shoulder of a stony-faced soldier. In the memorial’s shadow is a cemetery with six mass graves holding the unidentified bodies of 199 soldiers. The final stop is at the end of a trail leading through the hills to the Dukla lookout tower, where visitors can gauge the lay of the land and imagine where and how the battles unfolded.
Before coming to Slovakia I had never even heard of this place. This despite having taken a university course on the history of World War II, and despite Dukla’s enormous historical relevance. Later I discovered that not a single American, Canadian or British soldier neither fought nor died here. It seems that winning allows the luxury of a selective memory.
Back in Svidník, at the War Museum, I learned yet another startling fact: in World War I, over 1.8 million people died in eastern Slovakia and the nearby Carpathian Mountains. I read the placard again - 1.8 million people! That’s a third of the total population of modern Slovakia, four times the population of its capital city.
Behind the museum is yet another outdoor war exhibit, where tanks and fighter planes are curiously displayed just metres away from a church. Further on is the towering memorial to the Red Army, which hovers over the graves of 9,000 Russian soldiers.
But enough already. At this point I sorely needed a break from war. So I decided to avoid the Valley of Death and instead head to the skanzen, up a little hill across the road from the Red Army monument.
Although the gates were open, the grounds were deserted except for three tethered goats. (The skanzen is officially open from May till October). I was happy for the change of scenery and the solitude, free to wander undisturbed among the sylvan structures. Most are authentic and have been relocated from surrounding villages for preservation.
Leaving the skanzen, I realised that two days in Svidník is not enough. At least a week would be more like it. The town and its surrounding area impressed me deeply and, I feel, taught me much that I had not - but should have - known before.
Of course, it wasn’t all roses. Svidník, for all its intrigue, does little to cater to visitors and seems rather surprised when it gets any. Like the man in the town information centre who refused to sell me the last Svidník English-language guide. Or the receptionist at the Hotel Rubín, a snide pug-faced man who eyed me over thoroughly before announcing that I could not stay there - not that there were no vacancies, mind you, just that I could not stay there. Then, at Hotel Dukla Senior I stood by the reception desk for ten minutes before pulling out my mobile and calling the hotel office, thus summoning someone to give money to. And the room fell far below even my low expectations: no hot water in the shower and a drain that preferred to dam, a faucet knob which repeatedly came off in my hands, and a bed blanket so tiny it covered me only from toes to belly button (and at five foot ten I am not a tall man). Even the war museum - the most high-profile destination in town - seemed surprised by my visit, telling me to return in half an hour so the key-master could be summoned, although I arrived during open hours.
But not even these inconveniences could dampen my spirits. I was too impressed with the town to let a cold shower spoil my mood (although the minuscule hotel blanket came close). Not a single dull moment in two full days. And I didn’t even see the Valley of Death or any wooden churches except from a moving bus or in a skanzen.
So I went, consoled by my decision to return in May with my photographer Ján, a man who will surely do those wooden churches better justice than I could with a camera. But even with a promise to return, I wanted to turn back as I boarded my bus for Medzilaborce. In all my years of travel through Slovakia, Svidník has been the hardest place for me to leave.
- Chris Togneri
These articles and related information were published in Spectacular Slovakia 2002.
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