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.


The President’s legacy

 photo: Chris Togneri

The eastern Slovak capital and the country’s second largest city, Košice (population 240,000) has a Main Street that inspires locals to beam with pride and visitors to coo in admiration. Good thing, too, for the city has paid heavily for this street. But while its financing has invited considerable criticism, the final product is proof that the cost was well worth the investment.

The signature landmark is St. Elizabeth’s Cathedral, the largest in Slovakia and the most inspiring central European Gothic house of worship outside Prague. Beginning in 1380 and finishing in 1508, construction on the massive stone structure was paid for largely by nobles rich from the local salt trade. Soon after, in 1556, fire ravaged the cathedral, a blaze that consumed 18 of the original 22 altars.

The interior is today cool and dim, lit only by candles and natural light filtered through 19th century stained-glass windows high up on the walls. St. Elizabeth’s is a working cathedral - the doors are always open and the church is never empty as sightseers and worshippers file in throughout the day.

Outside is that dazzling new Main Street (Hlavná ulica), the legacy of Rudolf Schuster, the former Košice mayor (1994-1998) and current Slovak president. With Schuster calling the shots in the mid-90s, he set about giving the main strip a massive overhaul. The finished product is nothing short of spectacular.

Several refurbished historical buildings line the way, including the Eastern Slovak State Theatre. A medieval open drain runs along the middle of the street, and on through a ‘singing fountain’, where pulsating water dances to the rhythms of select songs. It is at night illuminated by a colourful swirl of lights.

There is more to discover below the surface. In 1996 when construction workers tore up the old street to lay new gas and electrical lines, they uncovered an expansive collection of city ruins. For the next two years archaeologists excavated the area, revealing over 500 years of Košice city history. The remains have been preserved and are now presented to the public in the Underground Museum, accessible just south of St. Elizabeth’s Cathedral.

 photo: Chris Togneri

While clearly a visual triumph, the financing of the street’s reconstruction has been a lingering nightmare for civic leaders. As Schuster tried to “put Košice back on the tourist map”, he ran up debts topping 2.5 billion crowns ($53 million). Since then Košice has been unable to meet the cumbersome loan payments, and last December creditors threatened the city with cross-default.

In an effort to stave off financial collapse, the city tried to sell 980 million crowns worth of its forests to the state. But the proposal was rejected due to fears of setting a dangerous precedent for other troubled municipalities. Košice has since been seeking other buyers for its forests, prompting Slovak Towns and Cities Association vice-chairman Milan Muška to say: “Anyone who is starting a local reconstruction project in his city should first of all know how he’s going to pay for it.”

Fortunately, Košice received some good news in May 2002 when city, state and bank officials signed an agreement to restructure the debt, thus allowing for a more manageable payment scheme.

Lest one thinks Košice is now stricken with poverty, it should be noted that the city is in fact an island of economic security in a volatile area. While the greater Košice region, covering all of south-eastern Slovakia, has the country’s second highest unemployment rate at 26%, the city itself has a rate of just around 10% (as of April 2002). The major local employer is US Steel, which in 2000 took over the once-mighty, but then faltering, VSŽ Steelworks, and revived the company.

Košice will be just fine. It is a city with perhaps the country’s hardiest civic spirit - which is put on display every year at the Košice Peace Marathon (please see sidebar) - and an ethnic mix of Slovak, Hungarian and Roma that lend it an exotic air.

And, of course, there’s that new Main Street. It may have cost a fortune and it may have earned the city plenty of disagreeable press, but it is nevertheless striking. At least give Schuster credit for this much: he did put the city back on the tourist map.

- Chris Togneri, with Dewey Smolka

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

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