Following the footsteps of Švejk
Švejk is the creation of Czech humorist Jaroslav Hašek. In his four volume book The Good Soldier Švejk, he chronicles the travels of this ignorant and good-hearted man as he bumbles his way into countless hilarious mishaps from České Budějovice, through Humenné, and ultimately to the war front on the Russian border during World War I.
Švejk was discharged from the army for being a certified idiot, a fact which he readily and happily admitted. “I can’t help it. I’m an official idiot,” he once told an interrogating police officer who demanded Švejk “take that idiot expression of your face”. While bragging of his ability to count, he said: “One night I was in 28 pubs. But, God’s truth, I never had at the most more than three glasses of beer in any one of them.” Švejk was also quite the philosopher: “There have to be crooks in this world too. If everyone were honest with each other, they’d start punching each other’s noses.” As one who never travels without a book, I cannot recommend a better selection for Slovakia.
So after having made my acquaintance with the Good Soldier, I marched merrily into town to check out the city, specifically this renovated Main Square I’ve heard so much about. It, too, gives a good first impression. The Main Square 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. Impressive it is. And clean. Not a scrap of litter anywhere, which can be explained by the ubiquitous trash bins. There are so many that they seem to follow you around the square. From end to end, in fact, there are 78 on this one square alone. I counted.
Further exploration would have to be put off as night was fast approaching and I needed a hotel room. So I walked into the swank Penzión Albina, and then walked right back outside when told that rooms started at 2,500 crowns. I instead went across the square to the Irish Pub, ordered a Guinness and asked the accommodating waitress for accommodation advice. She pointed me to Hotel Chemes. I finished my beer, quite pleased with the discovery of this friendly pub, then set off promising to return.
A couple hours later I was surprised to find the bar nearly empty on a Saturday night at 8:00. Perhaps it’s the competition. Tonja, a Humenné native who now lives in my host city Spišská Nová Ves, told me before I left that Humenné has more pubs than any other Slovak city and that during communism it had the widest variety of beers on tap in Czechoslovakia.
“Every Czech and Slovak beer was on tap in Humenné,” she said. “It was the beer capital of the country.”
I awoke Sunday morning to a gorgeous spring day, the prettiest of the year so far, and my mood further ascended, if such a thing was possible. What a day! Back to the Main Square, which virtually sparkled under the early morning sunshine, past a fountain and a small Štefánik statue, and on to the large museum at the top of the square. The museum was closed - it only admits visitors from May to October - but the manor house it sits in was a sight in itself, especially the sleek lion and tiger statues guarding the entrance.
To the right is a park with a walkway to a skanzen. I was interested in this particular outdoor museum because of its wooden church, which was relocated from Slovakia’s easternmost town Nová Sedlica, outside Poloniny National Park. The skanzen was also closed (again, only open from May till October), but a path leading past offered a clear, unobstructed view of the church.
Since everything seemed to be closed, I spent the rest of the morning walking around and relishing the warm, clean air. The cemetery, on a hill to the left of the museum, was a swirl of flowers and loved ones tending to graves. There were also separate war memorials to deceased Russian and German soldiers.
On the north side of town, while walking through a quiet residential area, I chanced upon a stunning domed Greek Orthodox church. Its clean, white walls radiated against the perfectly clear blue sky as Sunday morning worshippers sang inside. It was one of those magical moments that occur from time to time while travelling.
Back on the main square, I saw a sign for a Miriam’s restaurant/piváreň, and was transplanted to another era when, at the end of a short alley, I found a small room of a pub.
I love this kind of place. It cannot have changed much over the past ten years or so. Rickety wood tables covered in plastic coverings, Slovak folk music on the radio, pictures of cups of coffee on the wall with flowers tucked into the frames, crates of vodka stacked behind the bar, grog (warm water, sugar and rum) on sale for 15 crowns. There is an old guy alone in the corner, at his table, smacking his lips over a beer and occasionally shouting out some affectionate comment to the waitress, who is an old woman with dyed bright red hair and who places a beer in front of me with a grandmotherly ‘nech sa Vám páči’ (Let it please you). The man drains his beer and rises to leave, singing out ‘dovidenia, Mirka, moja zlatá’. I could spend a whole afternoon in here.
This is, after all, why I decided to travel: to sit off to the side and enjoy a foreign slice of real life. All the customers here know each other, everyone is on a friendly first-name basis, and I am thinking up excuses to miss my train back to Spišská Nová Ves. And halfway through my second beer that happy thought strikes me: I’m working right now! What a glorious job, travelling on someone else’s dollar through a largely undiscovered land rich in history, culture and natural beauty.
Leaning back in my chair, I count my blessings for the hundredth time on this trip, motion for another beer, and decide that I can surely catch a later train. It is, after all, what Švejk would have done.
- Chris Togneri
These articles and related information were published in Spectacular Slovakia 2002.
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