Friday, May 24, 2013

A shower victory in Slovakia!

Some of you might remember my post from January in which I described in painstaking detail the hellishly uncomfortable and impractical set up of Slovak style showers, which force you to squat in a curtain-less tub like an ape and "shower" yourself with a handheld shower head. And in that post I mentioned that the situation in our bathroom was pretty dire. Even though we installed a shower curtain so that we at least wouldn't have to squat in the tub (and wouldn't have to worry about accidentally getting the bathroom wet), the hose was so short that we could only bring the shower head up to the level of our shoulders when standing up.

Well, last month our shower situation went from being less than ideal to totally soul crushing when our handheld shower head broke. But wait - that shouldn't be a problem, just buy a new one, right? Not exactly. In fact, finding a solution to this problem wound up being so devastatingly complicated that we had to resort to taking showers with nothing but the freakin' hose for two weeks.

We were forced to "shower" with nothing but a hose for two weeks 

You see, the shower head was attached to the end of the hose via this little connector joint, which, after years of use, had become fused or rusted onto the threads of the shower head. The thing was on there so tight that we assumed it was actually part of the handle of the shower head. When we took the shower head to a bathroom fixture shop, a guy there tried to pry it off and wound up breaking the plastic handle of the shower head right above where it was threaded into the connector joint. Thanks!

At any rate, for reasons that are too complicated to get into, without that connector joint, there was no way to thread a new shower head onto the end of this particular hose. And with the other end of the hose being totally inaccessible deep inside the rim of the bathtub (it's a stupid set up), we couldn't just swap the hose for a longer one with universal threads. We took that connector joint to a few different shops, all of whom, upon seeing the thing, immediately blurted out that they didn't have anything like it. No one even checked their stock to make sure - they just knew the second they saw it that they didn't have it, and they would shake their heads and look at us with pity. One person told us we'd have to find a machinist to fashion a new part for us. Another shop told us we'd have to tear out the entire bathtub faucet fixture and install a new one. If you're capable of some semblance of rational thought, you'll agree that these sound like pretty extreme solutions for what seemed to be a very simple problem.

When we spoke to our landlord about it, he put us in touch with a friendly and reliable plumber ("vodar" in Slovak) to try and fix the problem. While we were at it, we figured we might as well push our landlord into letting us install a shower head holder on the wall, and to get a longer hose, which would finally allow us to shower while standing up, like we're accustomed to doing. It apparently took the plumber an entire morning of running all over town to track down this elusive connector joint, but he finally managed to. He was then able to extend the hose and he installed a nice shower head mount. Problem solved. Words cannot describe how gloriously beautiful it feels to finally be able to take a normal shower!

We are both thoroughly overjoyed and we will never again take for granted something as basic and simple as being able to stand while showering!

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Life in a rural Slovak village

A pot-bellied man with a bright green track suit and dark grey teeth eyes you suspiciously as he passes by on his rickety, rust-specked 3-speed cruiser. A very large woman wearing nothing but a bikini examines her vegetable patch, while her next-door neighbor's chickens strut back and forth across the street like they own the place. Two leathery-skinned men with six-day stubble sit at a table nursing beer out in front of a grey, oppressively nondescript communist-era pub. They joke good-naturedly in loud, smoke-stained voices with another man with a pronounced limp who's making a beer run to the adjacent potraviny. An older woman walks in from the nearby field carrying a big bundle of herbs she's just picked. A well-tanned speed-freakishly slender 20-something wearing nothing but cut-offs heads home with a cluster of freshly caught carp. A threadbare mutt with no owner in sight trots aimlessly up and down the street. A sharply dressed elderly couple who you've never met before stop on their way home from the cemetery to talk to you about the old, abandoned tumbledown farm house made of mud bricks that you're gawking at, and they ask, so you're the American? The insistent call of a rooster echoes in the distance.

The Slovak countryside is littered with small, rural villages, which are defined more than anything else by a pace of life that moves with the speed of a snail. If you really want to get to the heart of Slovak culture, spending some time in one of these villages is crucial. Not that tourists have any business setting foot in any of these places - there's really nothing to see or do that would be of any interest to most people, and I'm sure the locals would respond with a mixture of bemusement and suspicion if random busloads of foreign tourists were suddenly deposited in the center of their villages. Nevertheless, this particular kind of quaint rural village life has pretty much died out in California, where I'm from, so it's quite a novel thing for me, and I suspect it would be for a lot of other Americans as well. The inhabitants of these villages seem contentedly oblivious to any concerns outside their immediate sphere of existence. They simply go about their daily business, and keep generations-old traditions - like vegetable gardens, zabijačkas (pig slaughterings), homemade booze, and afternoons spent in the pub - alive.

I thought I'd focus on Podrečany (pronounced Poe-drech-a-nee), the village where Terezia's parents live, which lies in the forested, rolling hills of the historical Novohrad region in the south-central part of the country, along the border with Hungary. It has all the hallmarks of a typical Slovak village. The nearest town is Lučenec, which is about a 10-15 minute drive southeast. Although Lučenec is the closest area of civilization to Podrečany, to say that it has anything akin to a pulse would be a gross exaggeration. Lučenec is about as riveting as Turlock, California, and has less than half the population, at just under 30,000. Podrečany is roughly equidistant from Bratislava and Košice (a 2.5 hour drive or a 4 hour train ride in either direction). As the crow flies, it's actually closer to Budapest, and it's about 30 or so miles from Zvolen, the nearest town of any real consequence (although hardly more exciting than Lučenec). So, while Podrečany is not totally remote or isolated, you still feel like you're cut off from civilization when you're there.

When driving along the highway between Zvolen and LučenecPodrečany would be extremely easy to miss if you didn't know it was there, since it is set back quite a ways from the road, and is barely visible when driving past it.

According to a plaque posted on one of the older homes along the main drag, Podrečany was first established in the late 1300s. Assuming this is accurate, there is clearly nothing in the village today that survives from that time. The oldest buildings can't be older than a few hundred years, and there are only a handful of those. Apparently, excavations indicate that settlement in this area goes back to the Bronze Age.

Podrečany's official population is 583, but when you factor in the number of people who have registered their permanent residence in the village but who don't actually live there, you could easily subtract that figure by 100, and possibly more. Much of the population appears to be middle aged and elderly. While you do see some younger people, and the odd 20-something married couple with kids, a good portion of the younger generation appears to have moved away, most likely to bigger cities in search of better job opportunities. A lot of the people in Podrečany who have jobs work in nearby towns like Lučenec. Needless to say, meaningful work options here seem to be few and far between.

An old, abandoned house on the main drag

There is basically one street in Podrečany that could be construed as the main drag. The is the road you'll find yourself on if you enter the village from the main highway. None of the streets in the village are named. The main drag is where you'll find some of the village's oldest surviving buildings, as well as a 19th-century protestant church, a pub that locals refer to as the "new pub", and a bus stop. Right at the point where this road makes a hard left, you've got a second pub - a dimly lit, smoke-stained communist-era hole-in-the-wall that locals call the "old pub" (even though it's in a building that's newer than the "new pub") - and a tiny potraviny (food store) called CBA, which is a chain of small food stores that you tend to see in less urban areas of the country. (Another tiny potraviny just opened up in the back of the "new pub", so the village's grocery shopping options must now seem limitless).

The main drag

You can find pubs like Podrečany's old pub in just about every Slovak town or village. Housed in a small communist-era concrete box, its worn tables and chairs look like they haven't been replaced since the 1970s. Cigarette smoke hangs permanently in the air, and time for its clientele - mostly grizzled and greasy middle-aged and elderly men cradling pints of pivo with shots of borovička - appears to have stood still long before 1989 happened. Some people insist that the chairs inside the pub smell faintly of urine from years of being occupied by countless drunks who were too snockered to get up to relieve themselves. The patio out front, under the shade of a large tree, is a nice place for a beer when the weather is decent.

The communist-era "old" pub

The new pub is, at least on the surface, a bit nicer. It's in an older building that used to be someone's house, and it looks a bit more rustic inside with its exposed beams and vaulted ceiling. But on closer inspection, it's a bit worn and smoke stained as well. The cushions on the wooden benches certainly look like they could use a good washing (although I've never dared to smell them). The new pub has a nice back patio with a view onto the village soccer field. Slovaks, like all Europeans, are pretty serious about their soccer - even the sort of very minor league matches that take place in these little villages. Terezia's dad, who used to be quite the player himself, usually likes to go check out the games whenever there's one happening.

The "new" pub

Both pubs are where most of the action in the village takes place. In these small rural villages, the pub is where you go not just to meet with friends or neighbors, but it's where you take care of business. Let's say you need someone to repair your fence, replace a window, or rototill your garden, or maybe you'd like to procure a duck or a wild boar, or a pig for a zabijačka. All you need to do is go down to the pub, and if the man you want to see isn't there at that time, someone in the pub will spread the word and you can meet with him later to hash out the details.

And word of anything that goes on in the pub travels fast. When Terezia and I took her father to the new pub one dreary and snowy Saturday afternoon, Terezia's aunt (who also lives in the village) told us later that day that she knew that we each had two pints of beer and two shots of borovička, she recited the untranslatable joke Terezia's dad told to the bar tender, and she knew all about Terezia's spat with her dad over how much to leave for the tip (he was deeply perturbed at the prospect of leaving a whole 50 cent piece).

Having a beer outside the "old pub"

The CBA is handy, of course, for when you need to get some basics and don't have the time or means to get over to Lučenec, where large grocery stores like Tesco, Hypernova, Lidl, etc., abound. They actually manage to cram quite a bit of stuff in the CBA, which, it should be noted, is only about half the size of the adjacent old pub. Whenever I've ventured into the cramped confines of the CBA, a pungent odor of BO always seems to smack me in the nose, and you can usually identify at least two different sources.

The CBA, to the right of the "old" pub, is closed on Sundays, but the pub is open for the Sunday morning church crowd 

Given the potpourri of odors one may encounter in small village pubs or CBAs, bathing and hygiene do not seem to be part of the daily routine of some village inhabitants. And I suppose they really don't need to be. In fact, it's easy to walk through Podrečany wearing only a t-shirt and jeans and still feel way overdressed. Most people that you see along through the main drag, whether on a rickety pre-Prague Spring bicycle or on foot, seem to be wearing old sweat suits, or when it's hot, nothing other than shorts. People only seem to don their nice duds on Sunday morning when they're going to church, and that's really only the older folks. You also have to get used to the fact that many of the people you see are walking proof that dentistry in Slovakia got stuck somewhere in the middle ages. I always have to remind myself not to stare at people's teeth when they open their mouths.

Keep heading down the main drag and you'll cross a creek, just beyond which is the single track railway, and on the other side of that is the train station, which you'll notice doubles as someone's house, what with the piles of toys and lines of laundry in the backyard. Just after the train station, the road forks and you've got the village's other bus stop, and atop a small hill just behind it lies the kultúrny dom, or cultural center, which is where village events are organized (just about every town or village has one). In the kultúrny dom you've also got a small post office, as well as a few offices for the village's mayor and his small staff, plus the broadcast desk from which announcements are made throughout the village over the miestny rozhlas.

The village train station/somebody's house
The architectural mecca that is the communist-era kulturny dom, partially obscured by pine trees 

The kultúrny dom can be rented for events, and it also hosts special events of its own, like a New Year's party, for which they set up a bar and rent the services of a DJ, who, when I was there, was forced to compete with a chorus of soused men passionately belting out traditional Slovak folk songs to the accompaniment of an accordion. Terezia's dad loves going to Podrečany's yearly New Year's shindig, at which they also put on a fireworks show that is sometimes at risk of being overshadowed by the arsenal of fireworks of some of the village residents. The kultúrny dom used to be in a much older building on the other side of the village, but it was unceremoniously demolished during communism.

Up the road from the train station and perched on one of the higher sections of the village is a beautiful old manor house, dating back to the late 1800s. Down the hill, a little ways from the house on the edge of the village, there used to a be a mine (for magnesium), which was owned and operated by the house's original occupants, and then later taken over by the state during communism. At some point in the 1950s the mine was shut down and it sat dormant for years. In the 1990s the government of Vladimír Mečiar - which was widely criticized for its autocratic nature - sold it to someone during an era of mass privatization, which many have described as a wild orgy of asset stripping or tunneling. After extracting all of the steel left from the mining cart tracks and selling it for scrap, the owner let it fill up with water from an adjacent aquifer, forming a rather scenic, small lake that became kind of an unofficial park, lined with lush trees and hiking paths. Someone else subsequently bought the mine and chopped down a good number of the trees around it. (This kind of thing has occurred with alarming regularity in Slovakia over the last couple of decades).

The old manor house, with its resident bocian (stork) atop the chimney

At any rate, the manor house has apparently been purchased by Russians (who've been buying up old castles and historical sites in Slovakia like there's no tomorrow) who have been gradually renovating the place. The surrounding land, currently horribly overgrown, used to consist of a nicely landscaped garden containing a lot of exotic trees and vegetation.

Judging by most of the homes in the village, Podrečany's socio-economic demographic seems to be fairly mixed. Some houses are quite big (some have been enlarged) with kind of posh (for Slovakia) exteriors, while others are much more modest and plain, and still others are more run down and a bit crumbly. The village definitely has its quirks, but it at least doesn't appear to be the kind of totally run-down, impoverished, hard-scrabble town that you can encounter around the country. Not a totally scientific way to assess relative wealth or a lack thereof, but people with money usually find ways to show it off.

On the other side of the village lies the cemetery, which, as in most Slovak towns and villages, is divided between the catholics and the protestants. I was told that because the catholic half was filling up, the catholics wanted to buy some of the vacant space on the protestant half. People in Slovakia are obsessed with making sure the flowers on the graves of their dead family members or spouses are fresh and abundant.

Just up the road from the cemetery is the catholic church, which really looks more like a chapel, given it's small size. It actually dates back to the 18th century, so it is one of the older buildings in the village.

Back to the main drag, if you go up some of the narrow side streets, you can see some beautiful tumbledown barns and dwellings, which are probably too far gone to reconstruct, but which look awesomely picturesque in that rustic, romantic European sort of way.

One morning an older man who was out for a stroll saw us looking at what he told us was the oldest surviving building in the village. He claimed that it was the residence of a big shot general with the army of famous Hungarian national hero and aristocrat Francis Rákóczi. The village website confirms this, and adds that Francis himself used to come to Podrečany to hunt. The elderly man pointed to a narrow, partially underground tunnel that leads from the street to the cellar beneath the house, claiming that this was an escape hatch, which the owner designed in the event that his house fell under siege. Seems a bit weird that he would dig out an escape tunnel that deposits you right into the open on the village's one main street, but it's a colorful story. (My guess was that at one time something was being produced in the cellar and the tunnel was dug so that the product could be hauled directly out onto the street for sale or pick up. Or perhaps it could've been used for livestock).

The former home of one of Francis Rákóczi's generals
Rear view of Rákóczi's general's home

The house has been vacant and crumbling away for some time, but it's apparently owned by someone who lives elsewhere in the village. The patch of land in the front is currently being used to grow potatoes.

Random house just off the main drag

Speaking of which, nearly everyone in the village has their own vegetable garden. Those whose yards aren't big enough for a garden have patches of land on the edge of the village. Terezia's parents plant a wider variety of vegetables, herbs, and fruit than most people in the village. Pretty much everyone plants potatoes (a Slovak staple), cabbage (for making sauerkraut, another staple), carrots, beets, and lettuce. However, whereas Terezia's parents plant a few varieties of lettuce greens for making salads, many people just grow this rough, leafy stuff that they feed to their chickens. In fact, during one of our visits, Terezia wanted to make a salad, and when her mom went to a neighbor to buy some lettuce, the neighbor asked, "So, is this to feed your mother's chickens?" (Terezia's grandmother, who lives in Tomášovce, the next village over, has several chickens).

Pear and plum trees are also seen in most yards (important for making hruškovice or slivovice, which is often strong enough to double as paint stripper and smells a lot like window washer fluid), as are apple trees, walnut trees, grape vines (for making gut rot wine) and several types of berries. It's commendable how many people, particularly the older folks, are so active in their gardens. And they're pretty serious about it because they actually subsist on the food they grow, to some extent. A lot of stuff ends up being pickled and canned and stored in the cellar for the winter.

Terezia's parents' garden

I'm consistently impressed with some of the locals' extensive knowledge of herbs that are found all over the village and its outskirts. Terezia's mom often walks through the nearby field and collects all manner of herbs for use in making a variety of teas or for cooking.

It's pretty common to encounter packs of chickens roaming the streets. So many people in the village have chickens that there is absolutely no need to ever buy eggs from the store. Terezia's mom typically buys eggs from a neighbor two doors down. Their neighbors on the other side have several sheep. They sometimes let them out of the yard into an adjacent open field to graze, and when they want the sheep to come back into the yard, the son blasts hip hop from a parked car, which makes them all dart back into the yard. A few people raise pigs as well, which I imagine they sell to other people for zabijačkas, or save for their own.

I did a post on zabijačkas back in 2011, and you can occasionally stumble on one in the earlier winter months, which is when they are traditionally done. It has been said that zabijačkas are kind of a dying tradition, but at least in the villages the custom thankfully seems to be relatively alive and well.

This all speaks to how resourceful and self-reliant rural Slovak people are. As my friend Jeff Sryop said when I was talking to him about zabijačkas, "in a horrible economic crisis, these Slovak people could survive, while Americans would just curl up and die."

Speaking of livestock, Podrečany, like just about every Slovak village or town, has its own long-abandoned agricultural center, or central farm. During communism, as part of the program of forced collectivization, anyone with more livestock than what they needed for their own basic subsistence (for example, more than one cow) had to fork it over to the state. In every town, these central farms were built to house the livestock to provide food and milk for the state. In reality, the people who were hired to take care of the livestock often didn't know what they were doing and the facilities were not adequately funded, so the animals were, by all accounts, often sick and living in miserable conditions. Clearly, everyone deeply resented having to surrender their livestock to the state. After communism, the collectivization program was stopped and today, on the outskirts of every village and town, you can see these long, rectangular central farm buildings in various states of ruin and abandonment. (See cartoonist Marek Bennett's brilliant explanation of communist-era central farms here).

The old central farm 

The village, like seemingly all villages and towns in Slovakia, is separated from neighboring villages by acres of agriculture. This year the crop of the day appears to be rapeseed (for making canola oil), so you've got these intensely bright yellow fields stretching on all around the village. What's strange about this is that - and I'm not exaggerating - at the time of writing, in early May 2013, every single crop along the 2.5 hour drive between Bratislava and Podrečany consisted of rapeseed. Every single one. That is a lot of canola oil, and it reminds me of how in the American midwest many farmers now grow nothing but corn to make fructose corn syrup or ethanol. But last year in Slovakia, every field that is currently an explosion of yellow rapeseed was bursting at the seams with sunflowers. So, it seems like each year a major manufacturer of cooking oils contracts with just about every farmer in the country to produce a different oil. Odd, but I guess that's where the money is these days.

I'm more accustomed to the rich variety found in California's central valley crops, where you'll find myriad almond and fruit orchards and all kinds of vegetables, and in some parts of the state, vast expanses of vineyards.

Fields of rapeseed (for making canola oil) outside the village

To the south lie some densely forested hills, which, when conditions are right, are sometimes good for mushroom hunting, although I'm not at liberty to divulge the good spots.

But what I can divulge is the "secret" path that Terezia's dad showed us that leads from his backyard to the old pub, which he takes when he wants to discreetly slip off for a beer. Along this path we discovered an old, abandoned and pretty thoroughly destroyed house, which, sadly, now appears to be used for storing hay.

Corrugated steel fences were ubiquitous during communism

Also, much like most other Slovak towns and villages, Podrečany has on its outskirts a small and semi-isolated cluster of houses where its Roma residents live. Sadly, racial segregation is alive and well in Slovakia. In many towns, the Roma live in housing given to them by the state, always located on the edge of the town. In some towns there is a great deal of tension between the Roma and caucasian populations for reasons I'll save for another post, but in Podrečany, the Roma nevertheless seem to live a bit more harmoniously with the rest of the village, even if they do still live on the edge of town.

Terezia's dad held a job here for a while that translates into English as something like "coordinator of unemployed community service workers", which locals insensitively call "Gypsy coordinator", where he was paid to go around with unemployed people in the village who were of working age, which were in this case all Roma, and basically work on village improvement and maintenance projects, like trimming plants and trees along the road, picking up trash and debris, clearing storm drains, repairing wells, that kind of thing. As a result, Terezia's dad is on a first-name basis with several of the village's Roma, and he has fond memories of the job. He loves to talk about his grand visions for the village, which he wasn't able to fully execute before his term in the job ended.

I would've felt awkward standing in front of the homes of the Roma and snapping photos, so I didn't. While their buildings are smaller and considerably more dilapidated than just about anyone else's, mainly because they don't have the money for serious upkeep and repairs, the surroundings generally look pretty tidy, which is interesting because Roma are quite often characterized by many Slovaks as "dirty", and many do, in fact, live in squalid state-funded structures that would make conditions in some developing countries seem like paradise. But again, the reasons for this are complicated and best left for another post. What's interesting, of course, is that the little Roma section is the first thing you see when you enter the village from the main highway. Other towns seem to hide their Roma populations. In Hriňová, the town where Terezia grew up, the cluster of Roma dwellings is tucked away in a back corner, accessible only via a narrow back road, which I think is a more common arrangement.

Finally, Terezia's grandmother, or starka, lives in the next village down, Tomášovce. Tomášovce is a few kilometers southeast, and even though it's a little bigger than Podrečany, it's bursting with about the same level of excitement. The village is home to a chicken factory, where Terezia's starka worked all of her life. There is a scenic path that leads straight from Podrečany to Tomášovce, which is basically a dirt road used by farming tractors. Much of the path is lined by crops (usually corn) on one side, and on the other the above-mentioned creek. It's a picturesque path, and the family likes to take their rickety old bikes down it when visiting starka.

The path to Tomášovce in December

Just before you get to Tomášovce, on the right, is rybnik, a small man-made lake which, back during communism, was an extremely popular recreational spot where locals would flock in droves to swim and camp during the summer. These days it's looking pretty sad and murky, although on hot summer days you can still see people swimming in it. In the winter, when the water is drained, you can see a few old tires, empty beer cans, a car battery or two, and other bits of detritus at the bottom. I only hope that people who swim there take a shower afterwards.

So, there you have it. If I had to live full time in a village like Podrečany I would probably blow my brains out, but it's really nice to be able to escape the city now and then and spend a few days in the quaint, bucolic, yet idiosyncratic tranquility of the Slovak countryside.

Click here to see a full set of Podrečany photos!

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Finally, a trip to Košice (with an excursion to Prešov)!

It is totally inexcusable that it took us over a year and half after moving to this country to make it to Košice, Bratislava's second biggest city, located at the eastern end of the country, but we finally managed it. Even though I've long been curious about the place, we usually opted for Prague or Budapest (or Krakow) whenever we've had the time and means to get away for several days. But we thought it was time to actually explore more of the country we're living in.

Even though Košice is Slovakia's second largest city, it's pretty small by the standard of most countries, with a population of only 240,000, which is a bit more than half of Bratislava's population of roughly 450,000. But it's a big university town, not to mention home to a massive U.S. Steel factory (which employs thousands) and a burgeoning IT industry, so even though it tends to be overshadowed by Bratislava, it's certainly not some isolated Deliverance-style backwater.

The train ride, which took five hours via an express line with only six stops, was worth it for the natural scenery. It runs through the northern part of the country, with the lush, densely forested hills of the Low Tatras to the south, and between Liptovský Mikuláš and Poprad, the gloriously melodramatic, snow-capped peaks of the High Tatras to the north. Of course, you also see examples of pretty heavy industry along the way, as well as some hard-scrabble towns, which makes for a jarring contrast from all the vast stretches lush nature. Once you emerge from the forest into the outskirts of Košice, the first thing you notice, of course, are endless rows of panelaks that line the tops of the surrounding hills like jagged teeth.

Košice's train station 

The historical center

We spent a lot of our time exploring Košice's historical centrum, or center, and its immediate surroundings. The old town is centered around a long, slender sort of oval-shaped (lenticular) public square/main drag, known as Hlavná ulica, and what struck us about it was not just the endless cavalcade of attractive ornate, historical facades, but that the place was bursting with life - and not from hordes of ambling tourists, but from locals! In fact, I could count the number of tour groups we saw on one hand, and I felt like I was the only idiot with a camera snapping photos of stuff. Everywhere we went, the predominate language was Slovak. I heard almost no English, and maybe a smattering of other languages. There were no tacky tourist trinket shops or carts cluttering up the place, either. Hlavná had a real pulse, and an alluring vibe, and I was pleasantly surprised to see that, unlike in Bratislava, locals were flocking to the main square in droves and really taking advantage of it.

The locals definitely appear to make very good use of their public space, and so they should - it apparently cost a fortune to reconstruct during the 90s. But the center of Hlavná, between the city's gorgeous gothic St. Elizabeth cathedral and the grand neoclassical/art nouveau mash-up that is the State Theater, is an extremely inviting public space, designed by people who apparently understood how to make people want to use it. Under a shady canopy of tall trees, the walkways are lined by an ample number of benches, which are actually not uncomfortable, and which, at certain times of the day you might have to fight for.

You've got all generations represented here, from teenagers making out, to pensive university students reading thick tomes with cigarettes dangling from their lips, to couples with little kids spazzing out around the fountain, to old pensioners leaning forward on their canes. It's a nice place for people watching, which is a true sign of a well-conceived public space as well as a city with a somewhat diverse demographic.

The main square with the "singing" fountain and State Theater in the background

The central feature of this part of the square is the large "singing fountain," an admittedly silly concept where hundreds of thin streams of water shoot up in a kind of rhythmic undulation, roughly keeping time with the bland, inoffensive elevator music versions of top 40 radio hits that are lightly piped in through speakers hidden around the edges of the park. I know, it sounds unforgivably cheesy, but if you're sitting closer to the fountain, the sound of the splashing water drowns out the Phil Collins and Bee Gees tunes.

There are enough cafes and pubs up and down the kilometer-long Hlavná with inviting outdoor seating to make an indecisive person's head explode, all of which offer front row seats to the street's bustling yet simultaneously cool European ambience, as well as more great people-watching opportunities. And once again, it's overwhelmingly locals who seem to be taking advantage of this.

Furthermore, Košice's historical center feels way more lived-in than Bratislava's. By that I mean, rather than feeling like an open-air historical museum/tourist trap/high end shopping center where few locals actually live (i.e. Bratislava), you get the sense that there is a community here, that people actually live here (or not far away), and you can see them going about their business, or just hanging out and socializing at the myriad cafes or pubs and thoroughly enjoying the setting. In Bratislava's old town, you don't see this so much, as few locals live there and many seem to have a cynical disregard for the place, and seldom set foot in it. Whereas Bratislava's historical center feels more like a tourist zone during the afternoon and a ghost town at night, Košice's center is really quite lively and energetic throughout the day, and I can't emphasize enough what a huge difference that makes.

The cool St. Elizabeth gothic cathedral and other architectural highlights

Košice is also home to the stunningly ornate gothic St. Elizabeth cathedral, the city's architectural gem, which is quite possibly the most beautiful historical building in all of Slovakia (the travel guides will back me up on this). It's one of the only true gothic cathedrals in the entire country, and it's also the easternmost gothic cathedral on the European continent. Construction began in 1380 and continued into the 1500s. Unfortunately, nearly half of the facade is currently covered in scaffolding, which is a major bummer. I know, it's a necessary evil, but I admit that part of the reason I held off on coming to Košice for so long was that I was holding out for the cladding to come down. But having now seen it in person, it's clear that the heavy duty scaffolding isn't coming down anytime soon.

It's not a massive cathedral, but it's incredibly striking visually, and the fact that there's really nothing else like it in Slovakia, a country where most churches or cathedrals are generally rather bland, makes it extremely unique. It's the only cathedral or church in Slovakia that could rival anything in Prague. (Again, that Bratislava has nothing on par with this is a pity - even if St. Martin's wasn't compromised by the freeway in front of it, it still couldn't hold a candle to St. Elizabeth's). Parts of the interior have been scrubbed (and painted) to the point of looking brand new, which really detracts from a visual standpoint (I prefer the look of ancient marble and stone worn down by centuries of use), but it's still worth a peak inside.

But what pissed us off about this place, however, is its uncompromising hours. Near the top of my mental list of things to do in Košice was to ascend the cathedral's clock tower so we could take in the 360-degree views of the city and the surrounding area. First of all - I know, we really should've paid attention to the tower's opening hours the minute we got there, but we just figured we could leave the tower for Saturday afternoon. But we were so, so very wrong about that. You see, independently run shops in this country have outrageously uncompromising hours. Many places are open from nine to five during the week - when most people are at work - but on the weekends, they're only open from nine to noon or one - a mere 3-4 hours - and then closed all day Sunday. So, this gives people who work 40 hours a week this tiny window on the weekends in which they can shop in anything other than big mega-chain retailers. (And they wonder why some independently run shops are hurting).

Stupidly, the cathedral, one of the city's chief tourist attractions, has the same opening hours for its tower, and when we were there, closed on Saturday at one in the afternoon, which to me is kind of a middle finger to tourists. Now, I realize this isn't the Duomo in Florence, but geez, would it kill them to keep the tower open a little longer on Saturday, the day on which, statistically, you're likely to have a higher number of visitors? The locals are accustomed to these idiotic hours, and think nothing of them (it's a communist-era holdover - Saturday's are "sacred" for workers, but apparently these people have never heard of staggered shifts), but why subject unsuspecting tourists to such uncompromising hours with the things that they will want to see? This is yet another example of a country that is starved for more tourism, yet which is unwilling to go the extra mile to actually make the place more attractive or accommodating for tourists. So, yes, it was kind of a bummer not to be able to ascend the tower. End rant!

At any rate, Košice's old town is more than just Hlavná. It's flanked by several narrow, intimate lanes, some of which are pedestrianized, and all of which possess a cool, low key charm, and are ideal for directionless wandering.

Zvonárska ulica, with the old synagogue a couple buildings up on the left
Vratina ulica
Mlynská - the main street that connects the train station with the old town, which is partly pedestrianized

The architecture in general is quite striking. There's probably the same level of variety as Bratislava in terms of the historical periods that are represented - medieval, renaissance, baroque, 19th-century historicism, art nouveau, a bit of 1920s/30s functionalism, etc. But Košice seems to have a few things here or there that are a bit more strange or exotic than anything in Bratislava. Also, Košice's old town suffers far less from communist-era intrusion, which mostly seems to have been kept to the outskirts, although the commie stuff that we saw was noticeably less visually interesting than any of Bratislava's similar sites.

The Art Nouveau Slavia Hotel

The State Theater
Soviet WWII memorial just outside the south end of Hlavná
There's also an old synagogue on picturesque side street Zvonárska. I've seen photos of the interior, which look amazing, but the synagogue, which is currently being used as a gallery, was closed when we were there. A banner out front had info on an exhibition from early last fall. 

The food 

Just about everything you read on Košice, including every issue of Spectacular Slovakia that I've seen, mentions a pub called Golem, which brews its own beer, and apparently makes a mind-blowing pork knee. But when we got there, the waiter told us that not only does the pork knee take an hour to prepare, but it's only served for parties of four. Adding insult to injury, if you want duck, you have to order it a day in advance! Being a professional chef, Terezia confirms this is a sign of a lazy (and/or cheap) chef. All the other dishes involved either something fried or chicken breast, and I'm not always in the mood for fried food and chicken breast. So, we ordered some decent starters and a couple pints of their dark beer, which despite having a vaguely interesting coffee-flavored undertone, was basically flat and kind of one-note. I don't know why every issue of Spectacular Slovakia mentions Golem, but based on this experience, if I had been commissioned to do a Košice article for them, I'm not sure I'd mention this place. Still, it was nice to sit outside in the hot spring evening and soak up the ambience of Dominikanska square.

We did manage to have some quite nice Šariš tmavý (dark), a beer with a more complex and rich flavor, at a pub right on Hlavná near the cathedral. We also had some tasty Czech beer at a lively pub on a back street near the medieval Mikluš prison. 

On Saturday night we decided to forego Slovak food and went to A Passage to India. Neither of us have had Indian food since moving to Slovakia, but we are both wildly obsessed with it, given that Berkeley and San Francisco are overflowing with totally amazing Indian joints. My expectations were low for this place, however. After some not bad yet not amazing samosas, I ordered the chicken korma, and Terezia ordered something called butter chicken, which was tender chicken in a thick reddish curry. The korma had to have been the blandest example of said dish that's ever crossed my palette. The butter chicken, surprisingly, had a much richer and more complex flavor profile, and while still not mind-blowing (nor spicy), it was enjoyable. The naan, of course, was fine, but that's a difficult thing to screw up.

The city's socio-cultural-ethnic make-up

Something else Košice appears to have over Bratislava is a little more diversity among the local population. We saw a comparatively decent number of subcultures, e.g. punk rock kids, hippies, metal heads, and general weirdos - the kinds of people you could go for weeks without ever really seeing in Bratislava, but which more culturally switched-on urban areas tend to have in greater abundance. I'd heard that Košice had a bit more of a youthful energy to it, and I could definitely sense that. Both Bratislava and Košice are big university towns, but Košice actually feels like one. Bratislava, by contrast, is the only college town I've been to that doesn't really have a college town kind of vibe.

There is a second-hand record store located downtown, and record stores can be a great way to get a sense of the cultural with-it-ness of a city's population. The small shop was packed with LPs, but mostly 60s and 70s pop/rock that you can find anywhere. More impressive were the towering piles of vintage radios and stereo equipment that appeared ready to topple at the lightest touch.

Like Bratislava, however, Košice seems to be lacking in terms of ethnic diversity, although we did hear a few people speaking arabic, and there were a few non-tourist, non-caucasian minorities as well (like the owner and kitchen staff at A Passage to India). But, while Košice does suffer a bit from the sort of overwhelming whiteness that plagues Bratislava, there is one massively important difference...


Slovakia has a rather large Roma population, most of which resides in the eastern half of the country. I could probably count the number of Roma I've seen in Bratislava on one hand, but there are thousands of Roma communities throughout the eastern regions. Some say this is by design, that the state wants to hide them, or keep them "out of sight." Roma, of course, have a long history of being marginalized here, as in much of Europe, and many today live in extreme poverty amid squalid conditions, in areas that are segregated from the white population. The issue of Roma in Slovakia is extremely contentious, complicated, and delicate, and unfortunately there is considerable tension between the white people and the Roma minority, so the issue of Roma in Slovakia is best left for its own post, where I can give it the proper space. But racism, segregation, and classicism, are quite prevalent in Slovakia, in ways that bear an alarming resemblance to pre-Civil Rights America, and in some respect, to what goes on in impoverished American inner cities today.

At any rate, we saw numerous Roma in Košice. There was a particular group of them, at times numbering about 10 or so, who seemed to fit the classic Slovak stereotype of Roma. They basically appeared to be homeless, with dirty, worn out clothing and unwashed hair, and they could be seen rooting for food in garbage cans and sometimes begging for change. They reminded me a lot of the numerous homeless people you see in downtown Berkeley or in parts of San Francisco, so it's a sight that I'm quite accustomed to. A few of them, who appeared to be in their late teens, looked - literally - cracked out, and would sort of pace around the town like zombies. Others were clearly not on drugs, but were actively scavenging for food from wherever they could find it.

One guy, who appeared to be two sheets to the wind, staggered up to us when we were eating at Golem (at our table out in front) and asked if we were going to finish the food on our plates. But before either of us had a chance to do or say anything, a man at the table next to ours stood up and shouted quite aggressively at the guy, telling him to scram, and the Roma man stumbled off. In the same square, we also saw an adolescent Roma girl and her younger brother, who were also scavenging and occasionally begging for change. At one point a group of similarly-aged white girls walked by, whose squeaky clean appearance stood in stark contrast to the Roma girl in her worn and dirty clothes. I noticed her looking at the girls, and one of them shot a quick glare of utter contempt back at her. The Roma girl seemed unfazed by this and just kept watching them passively as they walked by.

But we also saw as many, if not more, Roma who more or less blended in with the local population. We noticed a few teenage Roma couples making out in the main square who had the same clothes as their white counterparts, as well as several Roma families who were just out with their kids, enjoying the setting, and quite noticeably not begging or scavenging. We also saw some people who were somewhere in between, i.e. they were clearly making an effort to at least look like they were not homeless or living in abject poverty, yet they were still asking for spare change. What's interesting about all this is that I've met Slovak after Slovak who can't utter the word gypsy without preceding it with adjectives like "dirty" or "filthy", yet obviously there are many Roma who don't fit into that stereotype at all.

It was interesting just to be able to observe the dynamic between the Roma and the white people, because again, that's just not something you get to see in Bratislava. The white people generally seem to ignore the Roma and avoid eye contact, unless they enter their space bubbles. For example, if a family of Roma congregated on a park bench in the main square, sometimes the white people sitting on the bench next to it would abruptly get up and leave. I also noticed that a Roma girl was having zero luck getting any spare change, much less anyone's attention, from people seated at an outdoor cafe. And yet, a drunk white homeless guy had no trouble getting spare change from locals at a couple of different tables.

What's really sad about this, though, is to see the children out there begging and scavenging. There are myriad reasons why adults may be in that situation, which is sad enough as it is, but to see children as young as 7 or 8 looking for food in garbage cans is just heartbreaking. And yet, they were still kids: after investigating a garbage can, they'd run around and chase each other and just do silly kid stuff. Their childlike innocence hadn't yet been crushed by the gravity of their situation.

At any rate, I don't want to dwell on the issue in this post, but it was mighty fascinating (and at times quite depressing) to finally get to see how white/Slovaks and Roma co-exist with each other.


On Saturday we took a trip to Prešov for a few hours. Prešov is Slovakia's third biggest city (population 91,000), and since it's only about 25 miles north of Košice, we had to check it out. We took the train there, which takes about 35 minutes and goes through some rather nice, lush, tree-covered hills that reminded me a bit of the Bay Area, particularly parts of Marin and Napa counties.

Awesome, futuristic commie-era benches in Prešov's train station lobby

Just like Košice, Prešov's historical center is defined by a lengthy, lenticular shaped main square or drag, which is lined with old burgher houses that are arguably even more attractive and uniquely ornate than those on Košice's Hlavná. Prešov's problem, however, is that, at least when we were there, it was a ghost town. There was scarcely anyone out on the streets. Some tumbleweeds blowing through the street and an Ennio Morricone spaghetti western soundtrack playing in the background are all you'd need to complete the vibe of total desertion. A stark contrast from Košice's vibrant center.

There's not a ton to do or see in Prešov. It's clearly not a major tourist destination, which isn't a bad thing of course, but then, there is a reason for that. It's really just a nice place for a lazy stroll through some rather picturesque streets.

Nevertheless, we had fun gawking at the dizzying array of cool historical facades, which run the gamut from gothic to renaissance to baroque to art nouveau.

Lovely facades along the main drag

Rakoczi palace

We also stumbled upon an extremely communist looking park at the northern end of the main drag, which had as its centerpiece this awesome statue.

Prešov is known for a particularly violent and bloody event in the late 1600s when General Antonio Caraffa, loyal to the Habsburgs, squashed a local anti-Habsburg uprising and brutally tortured and executed 24 prominent local noblemen who were involved. He left their heads impaled on stakes located around the town's center. A few memorials to this event and its victims can be found around the town.

The medieval-era St. Nicholas cathedral at the heart of the main drag has a tall and impressive tower with a rather Prague-ish looking top. But the cathedral's whole exterior has been covered in beige plaster, so it's not very exciting to look at. I wonder if there is some nice stonework that's hiding underneath. The interior looked impressively ornate and gilded, although we could only see it through the bars of an iron gate by the entrance, as there was a wedding ceremony going on inside.

St. Nicholas cathedral

We had some greasy pizza (but with surprisingly perfect crust) and beer from the Italian-run Pizzeria Milano on an atmospheric narrow side street off the main square, after which we wandered through more narrow, historical side streets, took a gander at the old synagogue (which an American Jewish organization actually wanted to purchase and dismantle and ship to LA for reassembling; thankfully their plans were thwarted), and then headed back to the train station/bus depot, and took the bus back to Košice.

Prešov's old synagogue

I'm glad we got to see Prešov, although I can't say that we're clamoring to go back. But if you're in the area, it's worth a look. If we'd have had time, it might have been interesting to venture further out from the historical center, but I have very little sense of what's out there, aside from modern shopping complexes and large networks of Soviet-era panelaks.

Back to Košice - the 2013 European Capital of Culture

Somehow Košice managed to sweet talk its way into hosting this year's European Capital of Culture (along with Marseille). The ECoC is something that two European cities host each year (several cities compete for the title), and it's become a way to boost the international stature of certain, sometimes lesser known cities, which ideally means more tourism and, of course, more revenue. In order to nab this prestigious honor, the city hatched a concept to create an environment that fosters culture and the arts with an emphasis on community involvement. The plan is to breathe new life into numerous abandoned and derelict buildings and spaces by turning them into galleries and artistic and cultural centers. The problem, however, is that despite the fact that the city has had about five years to prepare since winning the bid, most of the major projects are not finished yet, even though we're already about halfway through the year. It has been reported that some of these projects were delayed for various reasons and wouldn't be up and ready until June this year. I was curious to see what kind of progress (if any) has been made with these sites, so we ventured out to a few of them to take a look.

The biggest of these redevelopment projects, Kulturpark, is what the tourist information center's brochure describes as "the heart" of its ECoC concept, which, at the time of writing, was a sprawling, fenced off construction zone that didn't look anywhere near to being ready by June. The site contains several large old barracks which are to be transformed into art galleries, dance and artists' studios, three theater auditoriums and a cafe. Judging by what we saw, it looks like they'll be lucky if they can get this thing going by the end of the year. Mind you, this is the "heart" of the whole project!

Visualization of the Kulturpark complex
The current reality of the Kulturpark complex
More Kulturpark

Another much talked-about project in connection with Kulturpark is the Kunsthalle, a disused indoor swimming pool in Mestsky Park that is to be transformed into an arts and cultural center. The plan is to keep the pool, and once repaired, refill it and have a stage that "floats" on the water, with theater seats placed around the pool's perimeter. While a lot of progress has been made, it still appears to be a ways off from completion.

Visualization of the Kunsthalle, once it's completed
Difficult to tell from this photo, but from what we could see of the interior from a distance, the Kunsthalle looked far from completion 

Yet another important element of the project are SPOTs - abandoned, former heat-exchanger stations that dot the surrounding boroughs, which have been transformed into community cultural hubs. However, none of the ECoC literature we picked up made any mention of these or told us where we could find one.

So, it seems like the city has gone to great lengths to foster a community of art and artists, and that the ECoC was a real catalyst for this. However, it's obviously quite sad that the city couldn't get its proverbial shit together to make this happen on time. City officials have been throwing around the buzzword "legacy", meaning that these projects are intended to be permanent fixtures of the city, and that it is therefore "okay" if they're not ready to go in time for ECoC. While one would hope that these structures are being repurposed for uses that can be sustained over the years, it would be nice if the city could've gotten these things going while it was in the ECoC 2013 spotlight.

Of course, the city has an ongoing schedule of other events in already established venues, like in their Philharmonic hall and various museums, so it hasn't been a total wash.

I should also note that the train station (which is a rather bleak communist-era affair) is also currently a massive construction zone. Amid all the scaffolding, torn up walls, and general construction-related commotion, are big banners that read "Welcome to the European Capital of Culture - Košice 2013". Welcome, indeed.

In summary

Ultimately, we both dug Košice, and felt it was definitely worth the trek. Would we want to live there, much less spend more than a few days there? Probably not. It's no Prague or Krakow, obviously, but it's got enough going for it to warrant a weekend excursion, and it's fairly easy on the wallet as well. We like that it's both more laid back and livelier than Bratislava. But do we like it more than Bratislava? Both cities have their charms and their drawbacks, so it's a tough call. It would be nice to go back and ascend the cathedral's clock tower, and hopefully, if and when we do return, the scaffolding on the cathedral's facade will have been taken down. I'd also like to venture a little further outside the center and hopefully stumble on some other idiosyncratically Slovak surprises.

Click here to see full set of Košice photos, and here to see all of the Prešov photos!