Morning Trip to Zvolen: An Armpit of a Town
After recuperating from our quick trip to Bratislava, the next day we decided to drive to Zvolen and piddle around that town's center for a bit.
We've been through Zvolen too many times to count, since it's on the route between Bratislava and Podrečany, but we've only spent time in Zvolen once, and it was brief. There's a reason for that: Zvolen is a bit of an armpit. When driving (or taking the train) to Zvolen from pretty much any direction, you go through these lovely, lush, steep, forest-covered hills . . .
. . . and then BAM—that ends and you're hit with this dystopian, Mordor-esque, industrial wasteland of factories with tall, belching smokestacks.
The biggest factory is a wood and paper processing plant, so you see huge stacks of dead trees waiting to be turned into pulp or wood products. Along the northern stretch of this wasteland is a fairly big train station and a wide marshaling yard. It's not the most inviting entrance.
Zvolen might have been a nice, picturesque town centuries ago, but because of its location, pretty much right smack in the middle of Slovakia and at the confluence of the Hron and Slatina rivers, it perhaps inevitably became an important railroad and transportation hub, and a prominent industrial town. That, of course, meant that the communists spared almost none of its historic buildings or charm when reshaping the town in the 20th century to suit their needs. When walking around the town center, you'll see there's almost nothing that would appeal to the average tourist. Very few of those ornate, goopy, historic facades remain, and the few that do are not especially riveting.
Yes, there is the castle, which you can see from the freeway and main road through town, looking lonely and isolated amid the industrial landscape. But we'll talk more about the castle in a bit.
For all of Zvolen's relative lack of beauty, it does boast a massive, sprawling main square, which is actually somewhat inviting despite its size and comparative lack of character. The square was renovated and modernized earlier this century, so it's not some old, crumbly commie-era holdover. There are benches, trees, fountains, SNP monuments, and even a small playground for little kids. On one side of the long, lenticular square, you have a variety of cafes, shops, restaurants, pubs, etc., and on the other side there are two old churches with more shops and offices in between.
Many of the older buildings' facades have been streamlined or modernized, while numerous chunks of buildings along the square were razed and replaced by a variety of mid-to-late 20th-century monstrosities. Nevertheless, it's a very usable and bustling main square, and I can see how the locals could spend a lot of time there.
The playground I mentioned wasn't much, just a couple of areas with these large, climbable animals covered in a soft cork-like material (no swings, structures, or slides unfortunately), but it's evidently a hot meeting spot for local moms and their little kids. We let Simon play there for a while, and he somehow got a three- or four-year-old girl to let him take her little pink toy stroller for a spin around the area.
I don't want to give the impression that downtown Zvolen is hideous - it's not. It's just that it definitely lacks the historic charm of towns like nearby Banská Bystrica, Trenčín, or hell, even Lučenec. When you walk away from the square to the streets around it, you see mostly severe, drab, boxy communist-era structures.
But then there's the castle, which is fairly attractive with its Italian Renaissance-inspired look (and it's a damn sight nicer than Bratislava's plain white blob of a castle). Zvolen castle was built in the 14th century, and was originally designed as more of a royal residence/hunting lodge for Hungarian kings than a defensive castle. But it was later expanded and its defensive fortifications were significantly beefed up in time for the 16th-century Ottoman invasions. From what I can gather, the Ottomans never managed to conquer the castle or the town.
However, this is Zvolen's second castle. The first castle, known today as Pustý hrad (meaning, "deserted castle"), was located high atop a steep hill to the southwest of the town, but is now just a barren ruin. A stone gate and the castle's foundation are all that remain (as castle ruins go, there's very little to see here), though interestingly, the whole complex covered an area of 76,000 m², which apparently would have made it one of the biggest medieval castles in Europe. Pustý hrad dates back to the 12th century, and it was largely abandoned after it suffered extensive damage during a battle in the 15th century, and was left to crumble in favor of the easier-to-access Zvolen castle below.
|Zvolen castle's surprisingly nice inner courtyard.|
We walked up to Zvolen castle and ambled around the courtyards, though we didn't go inside the building, since at that point Simon was starting to get grouchy and we needed to get home in time for his lunch and nap. The castle houses a branch of the Slovak National Gallery, which contains some art and old photographs of the area.
|Medieval portico in Zvolen castle complete with period appropriate vending machines.|
|Period appropriate modern sculpture in Zvolen castle's outer courtyard.|
Ultimately, I really can't recommend Zvolen. It's easily rivaled by numerous other towns, and there's not much to do or see there, with the possible exception of the castle. Most tourists would find Banská Bystrica (a 15–minute car ride north) much more worth their time.
Halič and a Slovak Celebrity
On our second-to-last night in Podrečany, we met up with a childhood friend of Terezia's named Dana who lives in the UK but happened to be in town visiting her mom. Dana picked us up and took us back to her village, Halič, where we had drinks at this pizzeria/pub/penzion there called Zbrojnica. This place is owned by a famous Slovak comedian/entertainer named Jožo Pročko. He used to be on TV all the time, everyone knows who he is, and he's known for his charity work. As the pub was preparing to close at the unusually early hour of 8:00 PM, Jožo Pročko came bursting into the place, cracking jokes and talking to people in silly voices. He started chatting us up, and not only was he totally cool about letting us stay after closing to finish our drinks, he even started refilling our drinks, and eventually sat with us after the last of his employees had filtered out.
|Zbrojnica pub/pizzeria/penzion in Halič.|
Pročko is from Halič, his family roots there go back generations, and he's extremely passionate and knowledgeable about the local history. He went into this long, crazy story about Countess Eva Katarina Forgách, who lived in the Halič castle in the late 1600s, and who fell ill and was given two months to live. The legend goes that some apparition appeared to her in a dream and, long story short, told her to walk several kilometers to this place outside the nearby village of Lupoč, where there was a well or spring with water purported to have healing properties. So, each day she'd haul herself out of bed and walk there, drink a bunch of the mineral-rich water, and hang out a bit before heading back. After doing this for many weeks, her illness subsided and she was said to have recovered. The religious locals deemed it a bonafide miracle, and catholics and sick people started making pilgrimages to the site. By the late 1700s, tens of thousands of religious pilgrims had visited the site. (There are a lot of colorful details I'm leaving out, like something about a heart-shaped stone at the site and a blossoming pear tree; you're getting the fast and loose Cliff's Notes version.)
But as Pročko explained, obviously, when you get off your ass and start walking several kilometers a day and drinking lots of (mineral-rich) water, that can be beneficial for your health, depending on what's ailing you. But he also said this spot is known to have a strong magnetic field due to the particular subterranean volcanic rock, and some people, including Pročko, believe this strong magnetism has a kind of healing effect on your body. A Google search tells me that magnetic field therapy is actually a thing, but not enough studies have been done to conclusively support it, so it's still viewed as alternative medicine.
At any rate, a small chapel was built on the spot when it was a popular pilgrimage site, but it was completely destroyed when the Nazis and the Russians fought there in World War II, and then the communists apparently refused to let anyone even acknowledge the spot, so it was forgotten about over time. No one could quite remember how it looked, nor could anyone find any surviving photographs or drawings/paintings of it.
However, one centuries-old drawing of the chapel did survive and wound up in the hands of some guy in Hungary. Pročko met the guy to see if he'd sell him the drawing, but he wanted €30,000 for it, and Pročko declined. But sometime later, the Hungarian guy's wife fell ill and he had a change of heart, and he let Pročko have the drawing for much less (the details were a bit fuzzy here). He actually showed us the drawing. The paper looked ancient, discolored, and brittle, but the illustration itself was pretty clear. He says now that they know what the chapel looked like, there is talk of rebuilding it on the same spot.
|The Soľný úrad, which houses Jožo Pročko's local history museum, next door to Zbrojnica.|
Then he gave us a personal tour of his small local history museum, which is housed in a late 18th-century building right next to his restaurant called the Soľný úrad, which means the salt bureau. According to Pročko, salt was distributed to the entire Habsburg Empire from this very building. Today the rooms are stuffed with a staggering assortment of random antique objects, many of which were from the castle or the village, but there's also a ton of random vintage Czechoslovak stuff, like radios, clocks, TVs, commercial and street signs, cameras, books, luggage, etc. He even had a cool looking old Tesla stereo receiver. He got really animated and excited when telling us about everything. It was like being in the most amazing antique shop ever.
|That's me pointing to a vintage Tesla stereo receiver. They look cool, but I've always wondered how hey sound.|
He said that the Nazis looted everything from the Halič castle - furniture, decorations, books, paintings, etc.; they stripped the place bare, and a lot of stuff wound up in the hands of people who are now in Hungary. Pročko has been tracking this stuff down and buying it back, sometimes from descendants of the people who might've made off with it in the first place. He had super old furniture from the castle, including an ornate commode chair, complete with a porcelain bucket and wooden toilet seat, used by a countess who lived there. He joked that a dark stain on the seat was from the countess' poop.
There was another room lined with vintage motorcycles, scooters, and a few janky old bicycles, as well as a room devoted entirely to super old tools made of wood and iron, many of which had agricultural uses. He kept picking up different items and asking us what we thought they were for. Honestly, most of the tools looked like medieval torture devices. One tool looked oddly like some kind of torture clamp for male genitalia, and he even joked, "So, you'd put the penis here...", but it turns out it was a mechanism for loading an old rifle. Another tool consisting of a long wooden board with a cluster of spiny, medieval-looking iron spikes in the center turned out to be used for separating strands of hemp for making firefighters' hoses.
|Obligatory selfie with Jožo Pročko and Dana.|
At any rate, when it was time to go, we were going to call a taxi to get home, since Dana had picked us up from Podrečany and none of us could drive since we'd been drinking. But then Pročko very generously offered to give us all rides home in his car. The history lessons kept coming the whole ride back to Podrečany. He was rattling off way too many random historical facts and anecdotes to remember them all, but all of it was entertaining.
Staying at Terezia's parents' place in Podrečany gives you an authentic taste of rural village life. I spent three separate afternoons picking apples in their garden. I used to do this every fall when we were living in Slovakia. I mentioned earlier that this was such an insanely productive year for apples that their trees were weighed down by them.
Terezia's parents have this awesome tool for picking apples that I call the medieval claw. It's a long, old branch that's been filed and smoothed, with a copper-colored metal claw stuck at the end with five flat, narrow, arched finger-like things, which you use to grab and twist the apples free from the branches. I've always loved using this thing. Unfortunately, I broke the stick this time by clumsily walking through it when it was leaning against a ladder, and it snapped like a desert twig. It had become so brittle I didn't even feel it break.
But Terezia's parents weren't too concerned, as they could just take the claw and stick it on another branch, or maybe even an old broomstick. They said the medieval apple-picking claw/stick came with the house when they bought it around a decade ago.
It's amazing how many different creatures are all feasting on the apples: wasps, yellow jackets, worms, birds, various flea-sized bugs scurrying around the apples' surfaces, and of course, us humans. Terezia's mom says to leave the totally unreachable apples at the top of the trees for the birds.
RIP Ricky the Chihuahua
Sadly, Terezia's parents' chihuahua Ricky died while we were there. Ricky was approaching 12 years old, which is really getting up there for most small dogs. He was having these awful seizures, which were getting progressively worse and more frequent. Towards the end of our visit, he had one that lasted an entire hour, and another before that during which he apparently tore one of his claws, causing that paw to bleed quite a bit. It was getting so bad that they decided it was time to put him down.
Simon liked Ricky, and he really likes most cats and dogs in general. He often makes an excited, high-pitched shriek whenever he sees one. He loved squatting down to gently pet Ricky and the three outdoor cats that live in the garden. He'd usually light up when Ricky would scurry into the room. Simon is obviously way too young to understand what happened, but I do wonder if he realized that Ricky was gone the last couple days of our stay.
Late September/early October in Slovakia is burčiak season. Terezia's uncle gave us a few bottles that he'd made. I mentioned burčiak several years ago when it factored into a day on which I got horrifically shit faced.
Burčiak is something you get early in the fermentation process when making wine. It's essentially alcoholic grape juice, or very young wine, but neither of those terms do justice to its unique flavor. Basically, after crushing the grapes, you add yeast to the juice, which causes the sugar to start rapidly fermenting, resulting in a fizzy alcoholic liquid. Once the alcohol content reaches four percent, it's ready for consumption. Many Slovaks who make homemade wine set aside a batch specifically for burčiak.
Burčiak has a very distinctive flavor: It's sweet like grape juice, but it's balanced out by this pronounced musky flavor that gives burčiak its depth. Good burčiak can actually be very refreshing, partly due to the carbonation. Slovaks love it, and you can see people selling it in early Fall at festivals and outdoor markets.
It's typically only available for a short time, a few days after the grapes are pressed. There's a fairly short window during the fermentation process when the wine is ideal for burčiak. If you pull it too early, it's too sweet, as you'll still just have grape juice, and if you pull it too late, the flavor won't be right either. Whether you make burčiak from red or white wine, it has a thick, somewhat cloudy color.
The thing with burčiak, though, is that it does contain an alcohol content of roughly four to six percent - enough to get you buzzed if you're not paying attention. The refreshing flavor and the fizzy carbonation can trick you into thinking you're drinking some kind of slightly exotic juice, and the drunkenness takes you by surprise.
You also have to be really careful about how you store burčiak. Because of the rapid fermentation that occurs, the drink can become almost violently carbonated, and you need to seal and store your bottles so that a tiny bit of the gas is allowed to continuously escape, otherwise your bottles could explode. When we were living here, a co-worker of Terezia's once brought some red burčiak for her in a big plastic water bottle, which she left in the trunk of her car all day. At some point, the bottle exploded and stained the entire interior of her trunk red. Terezia kept warning her to get it out of her car, but she stupidly refused for whatever reason.
Wikipedia says that Germans make a form of burčiak too, which they call federweisser. In fact, most wine-producing European countries make their own version of burčiak. I'm curious to try burčiak from another country, but also from any decent winery, just to see if it tastes different from the homegrown Slovak stuff.
What I don't understand is why have I never heard of it in the US. Does no one make it here? Is there some FDA regulation that prohibits its production? It's kind of a volatile liquid, chemically, so I suspect that could make it tricky to package and distribute. But why don't we have young, bearded hipsters making it and selling it in autumn at farmer's markets or wine festivals? I think a lot of Bay Area types would dig it, especially if you tell them it's something that Europeans do.
The Journey Back Home
I forgot to mention earlier that unlike most of our previous trips to Slovakia, this time we flew to Budapest, rather than Vienna, and we took a cab from Budapest's airport directly to Terezia's parents' house. It worked out pretty well. It's common for people in the south-central and eastern regions of Slovakia to go to Budapest's airport since it's actually closer than Bratislava and Vienna. Terezia's mom found us a cab driver, and she even rode down with him when he picked us up. The trip costs about €90, which sounds like a lot of money to pay, but when you factor in the logistical nightmare of traveling with a toddler and the extra luggage, stroller, and car seat, it's absolutely worth it for the convenience. I mean, who wants to deal with all that on a bus or train?
It's about a two-hour drive between Budapest's airport and Terezia's parents' place. The cab driver was a nice guy from Lučenec with a comfy, spacious station wagon, and we used him on the way back too, as well as for a Simon-free date night we had at Tančiareň in Lučenec. His BO was a bit unfortunate - while I'd rank it as a 5 on a scale of 1–10 (it was not the toxic death stench that you sometimes encounter in Slovakia), it was still distinctive enough, and it permeated his car enough, to be something he's probably been cultivating for years.
We spent our last night at the new Hotel Ibus right across the relatively small parking lot at the Budapest airport, since we had to get to the airport at 5:00 AM the next morning to catch our 6:30 flight.
On the spirit-crushingly long flight back, Simon was a tad mellower than on the way there, but it was still a bit of a nightmare. Adding insult to injury, KLM airlines failed to bring our stroller to the gate when we arrived in Amsterdam for our layover. Some knucklehead sent it through with regular luggage, despite the fact that it had been tagged to go to the gate. This meant we had to carry Simon, who weighs about 32 pounds, along with three pieces of carry-on luggage, through our four-hour layover at Amsterdam Schiphol. Fortunately, Schiphol isn't that big (nothing like Heathrow or Charles de Gaulle), but it makes it much tricker to deal with things when you have Simon in your arms or on the loose.
KLM screwed up again with our stroller at SFO, and it was sent out with the regular luggage again instead of being brought to the gate. This meant we waited at the gate for 20 minutes while people scrambled to find a stroller that had already been hauled off with the regular luggage. We then had to - yet again - carry Simon in our arms through the airport, including Immigration and Customs. We gave the flight attendants and pilot an earful about it. It's not 100% their fault, but they are actually supposed to communicate with the cargo haulers about any strollers to be brought to the gate.
Simon didn't sleep much on the 10-hour flight from Amsterdam to SFO, but on this flight, we kind of lucked out and somehow managed to nab the bulkhead seats. People with babies usually vie for the bulkhead seats because there's significantly more legroom, and if you have a small infant, they have a basinet that they affix to the wall. Simon was obviously way too big for one of those, but a flight attendant gave us one anyway as a place to store Simon's crap, like his snack bag, diaper bag, special blanket, milk and water bottles, etc. (We tried really hard to get bulkhead seats on the flight there, but we couldn't reserve them in advance online or by phone, and we were told they're given on a first-come-first-served basis when you check in in person at the airport, and they were gone by the time we got there, two hours before our flight departed. Yet, somehow, we were able to reserve them online for the flight back with no problem.)
We boarded the plane around Simon's nap time, which meant that he fell asleep before takeoff, but he only slept for about 45 minutes. He then stayed awake until the last two to three hours of the flight - just enough for us to be able to watch The Disaster Artist while he slept sprawled out on us.
I have to reiterate - do not go on trips involving long flights with toddlers. Unless your toddler is weirdly calm all the time, or sleeps deeply in any situation, it's just not worth it. I personally refuse to do this again until Simon is at least four or five years old. He had a great time in Slovakia, and he really enjoyed being around Terezia's mom, who spent a lot of time with him, which was wonderful. He also loved being able to run right out into the big, lush, fruit-filled yard and chase around the cats. But the hellish flights and the awful jet-lag adjustment period made the trip incredibly challenging. And having a toddler obviously put serious restrictions on how much sightseeing and exploring we could do. If you ignore my advice and try to do a similar trip anyway, just make sure your marriage/relationship is rock solid, because you're going to have many extremely trying moments.
So, it was ultimately a positive experience, and much better than our uneventful trip over the 2017 winter holidays, but it was still less than ideal in many ways.
Click here to see all the photos from the trip.