Saturday, June 22, 2013

Life in Czechoslovakia in the 1960s

I love old junk. No, I'm not a hoarder (although I get a perverse kick out of stepping inside the homes of people who are), but I have an unhealthy obsession with furniture, musical instruments, clothing, and random household objects from the 1950s and 60s. The cool, retro-modern designs, the atomic patterns, the abstract and oblong shapes, and the sleek lines and pastel shades were incredibly forward-thinking for their time and just oozed so much character, and look infinitely more inspiring than many of the various cheap and bland designs that have come to define the ensuing decades. That's why I always loved going into the numerous thrift stores, junk shops, antique shops, garage sales and flea markets back in the US to rummage through and gawk at this kind of crap. Those who know me well are familiar with the collection of vintage 50s and 60s furniture that I'd amassed in our apartment back home, in my attempt to give our place the vibe of a mid-60s cocktail party where everyone is wearing skinny ties or thick cat eyeliner, with an Astrud Gilberto record playing in background.

So, I was quite dismayed to discover after being in Slovakia for a while that I had yet to see a single shop that sells stuff from this particular era, much less a shop that sells anything used; nor do I ever really see it in people's homes. In fact, there seems to be a complete dearth of this kind of thing here. The Eastern Bloc churned out just as much cool looking crap as the US, but tracking any of it down today appears to require some serious archeological digging. Whereas back home you can find this stuff relatively easily in various types of shops, here in Slovakia you actually have to go to a museum to see it. That, or get to know some really old people who never threw out their pre-Prague Spring furniture sets. 

So, that's why I thought it worth mentioning this groovy exhibition currently running at the Slovak National Museum, which we visited back in May, that depicts everyday life in the 1960s in communist Czechoslovakia. The exhibition features five rooms filled with Eva Zeisel-esque tea sets and dishes, old film posters, rock instruments, camping gear, vintage scooters, and model replicas of a typical 1960s living room, kitchen, bedroom, and bathroom. I was drooling pretty much throughout the entire exhibit. Of course, for Terezia, it instantly brought back all kinds of childhood memories. 

Here's a bit of what we saw:

As a general rule, I hate tea, but these tea sets could potentially derail my lack of interest in the stuff.

A typical set of camping gear. In the post Prague Spring government clamp-down known as "normalization", it became difficult to travel abroad for vacations, so a lot of people opted for camping instead. This is a typical camping set up that people would bring along to car-camping campgrounds. 
A cigarette machine cool enough to almost make me want to take up smoking. 
A lovely old Jawa scooter.
I dig the Burns-ish looking guitar on the bottom right. That red hollow body bass that's two guitars over to the left of the Burns-ish thing is also quite nice. 
That orange guitar on the right has to be the shittiest looking Rickenbacker knock-off I've ever seen.  
One of the weirdest looking basses ever made. It could probably double as a paddle. 
A groovy little organ. A friend of mine remarked that it was clearly designed to be played by a woman wearing a short skirt.
I love the alternating yellow and white cupboard doors.
I would readily exchange our modern kitchen for this. 

Unfortunately, very little progress has been made with Slovak bathrooms
Notice the cool, wall-mounted ray-gun style hair dryer. If I had one of these I would stand around on a street corner all day and pretend to zap people with it.  
Have you ever seen such an awesome assortment of overhead light covers in one place? I would kill to have one of these, and I don't even like overhead light!

But that's not all. Last year, the Slovak National Gallery had a room that they'd done up to resemble a communist-era living room. According to an article I read, however, the curators literally had to scour the country to track down all the items, and they were even making pleas to the public for any donations so they could complete the collection. I couldn't help but think that in the US you could easily throw a room like this together after a single weekend spent combing Portland, Orgeon's myriad thrift and antique shops.

And this raises the question - why do I have to go to a museum just to see this kind of junk? Why is this stuff so elusive here? From what I can gather, it seems that a lot of people
(at least in bigger cities, like Bratislava) just threw it away the first chance they could, especially after communism ended and a hyper-capitalist tsunami of contemporary consumer goods flooded the markets. People were eager to get their hands on anything that was new, and to toss what they saw as outdated, old communist-era junk like a baggy of weed in a drug raid. 

For example, several weeks ago an elderly person in an apartment in our building died, and when this person's family came to empty the place out, there was a massive pile of nice 60s-era furniture and other knickknacks which was thrown into a dumpster by a crew of workers. And it was in pretty good condition, too (although I didn't check to see if it reeked of stale frying oil). I guarantee that if you'd put this same pile out on the sidewalk in San Francisco, most of it'd be gone within a day, and any thrift store or junk shop would've been happy to pick it up and resell it. Since our apartment here came furnished, we didn't have room for any of what we saw, but we did manage to snag this cool framed thing of a sunflower carved out of bamboo.

At any rate, during communism, it was also extremely difficult to remodel/upgrade/update one's kitchen, or any other room for that matter. But as soon as communism went out the window, many 1960s-era kitchens were worn down and, no doubt, coated with a thick film of grease from years of frying everything under the sun. So, in the last two decades lots of people remodeled their homes, and, in the process, replaced anything and everything that was old. Now many people's homes look like they were lifted straight from the Ikea showroom.

I also suspect that some people just don't want to be reminded of what was for many not a very pleasant time under the communist regime. But then I have met plenty of people who are quite nostalgic for that era, so who knows. 

You do occasionally stumble across old detritus from bygone eras. I've certainly spotted many people cruising around on old, janky bicycles that were built to last like Soviet tanks. And I have had the pleasure of entering the homes of a few older people who did have a lot of older furniture and random junk, but it was usually a bit older and/or from the 70s or 80s, and therefore less stylish than the modern looking stuff that really took off in the 50s and 60s. I've been told that I could probably find a lot of interesting stuff in the attics or cellars of homes of people in their 70s or 80s.

But in general, stuff from the 50s and 60s doesn't seem to be valued very highly here. The people visiting the museum exhibition seemed genuinely amused to see some of this junk, however. And at least the museum was able to keep a handful of items from ending up in a landfill or something. 

Click here to see the full set of photos from this exhibition!

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

A day trip to Levoča

We've actually been to Levoča once before, albeit briefly. We went there with Terezia's brother Tony as part of an epic, all-day road trip back when we visited Slovakia for my first time, over the winter holidays in 2010.  The problem was that Tony really didn't want to be there, and it was like pulling teeth to get him to stay longer than 10 minutes. But the other problem was that the entire town was shut down that day given that we were there in the week between Christmas and New Year's, and it seems that just about the whole damn country, tourist attractions and all, closes up shop during that week.

So, we've always wanted to go back to Levoča and do the town some justice. After all, it's the only actual town outside Bratislava that Rick Steves writes about in the Slovakia chapter of his Eastern Europe travel guide (he calls it Slovakia's finest small town), and for good reason: it's easily one of Slovakia's most picturesque historical towns.

Levoča looms just up the road

The main problem with most of Slovakia's historical towns is that, while many boast large and attractive squares (often long and lenticular in shape) - lined with ornate, centuries-old manor houses with gorgeously goopy facades - the historical stuff quickly dissipates after walking a block or two away from the square in any direction, and suddenly you run into the usual drab communist-era panelaks, sleek new shopping complexes, and a lot of bleak 20th century eyesores. This means that if it's pre-WWII history you're interested in, there's generally not a lot to see in these towns beyond their main squares, and there is really not enough to warrant more than an afternoon-length visit to most of these places.

A shot from Levoča's main square

What's nice about Levoča, however, is that not only does it retain most of its original medieval defensive walls, but the entire historical area inside the walls remains more or less intact. Sure, when you veer away from the main square you do start to see some architectural intrusions from more recent eras, as well as a few historical buildings that have been thoughtlessly disfigured, but for the most part the town's narrow, meandering (and sometimes steep) streets possess an endearingly ramshackle quality, made all the more appealing by the views of the surrounding valley below and the lush, rolling hills in the distance.

Levoča was an important town in the Middle Ages, occupying a key position along important trade routes. The town had strong German roots: after a 13th century Tartar invasion wiped out most of the population in the region, Hungarians invited Saxons to repopulate towns like Levoča, and the region became prosperous from mining. In the 14-1500s, commerce was booming. However, in the late 1800s when the first railway was being built through the region, Levoča had to compete with nearby Spišská Nová Ves for a station on the line. The latter won, which meant that the railway completely bypassed Levoča. As a result,  Levoča's economic importance diminished and the town became a forgotten backwater. But this also meant that modern development within the town was minimal, and it retained a good deal more of its historical fabric, making it a uniquely well-preserved destination in Slovakia today.

St. James Church and the Old Town Hall

Levoča also contains what has to be one of Slovakia's top tourist attractions: a 60 foot tall gothic, wooden main altar in its central St. James church - the tallest wooden altar in Europe - carved by Master Pavol, Slovakia's Michelangelo of gothic wooden altars. Chartered busses dump groups of tourists by the buttload in Levoča's main square so they can see Pavol's work.

The facade of the St. James church

The problem? The damn thing is being restored and is currently covered head to toe in scaffolding. Apparently Terezia and I were the only people in the world who weren't aware of this. But at least they were thoughtful enough to put up a life-size color image of the altar over the scaffolding, so that you can at least get an idea of what it looks like. There are several other - albeit significantly smaller - altar pieces by Pavol in the church as well, in addition to loads of other wood sculptures, soot-covered baroque-era paintings, and random curios, so the church was still worth a look (and the 2 euro entry fee).

A photo, taken by someone else, of Master Pavol's wooden altar in St. James church

However, once again, I have to point out yet another instance of Slovakia's complete and utter incompetence when it comes to accommodating tourists. The system they have at the church for letting visitors inside has got to be the most idiotic and non-intuitive approach imaginable. You have to buy tickets in a building next to the church, which is fine. But they only unlock the doors to the church every hour on the hour (except for noon, when the staff breaks for lunch), and they only let people inside in groups. Once inside, you're free to walk around and admire the stuff, but there's a catch: firstly, you're not allowed to take photos; secondly, everything that you'd want to see is roped off at such a distance that you need binoculars to actually admire the details in Master Pavol's work - you can't see any of it up close; and thirdly and most annoyingly, once everyone's inside, they lock the doors behind you and they refuse to let anyone out for a half hour. So, if the pièce de résistance is shrouded in cladding, and if, like us, you feel that a 15 minute cruise around the church's other sites (several of which you have to strain to see from a distance anyway) is sufficient, well tough shit, Bub, because you're stuck in there for the whole half hour, whether you like it or not. Once the staff locks the door, they don't let anyone out until that allotted half hour is up. I'd hate to imagine the scene of tragic pandemonium that would undoubtedly ensue in the event of a fire.

At one point when we were in there, this one guy was reprimanded by one of the two staff (the same two women selling tickets in the building next door) for taking photos. When we realized that we were locked in there for the entire half hour, I was tempted to take out my camera and brazenly start snapping photos, just to see if they'd eject us from the place! Alas, I don't have it in me to generate that level of confrontation, so we sat in the pews for the remaining 10 minutes and gazed around at the place.

St. James church - here is what you should do: sell the tickets in the building next door, but have someone collect them at the entrance of the cathedral. Let people mosey on in whenever they'd like, and let them stay for however long they'd like, be it 5 minutes or all day. Let people take photographs - hell, even charge an extra 50 cents to take photographs like some churches in Krakow do - and just have a strict no flash policy. I realize you would like people to buy your cheaply printed postcards bearing images of Pavol's  masterpiece instead, but I'm sorry, the no photos whatsoever rule is idiotic. I mean, Master Pavol is great and all, but this is not the Sistine Chapel we're talking about here. At any rate, do this, and you'll be commended for catching up with other European countries that actually have their shit together in this regard.

One group of French tourists actually left Levoča without seeing the cathedral because they didn't want to wait around until 1:00 in the afternoon for the next opening, and didn't have time to spend an entire half hour inside the church, as they had a tight schedule and were wanting to move on to Kežmarok. That was actually a nice chunk of cash that the church lost out on because of it's imbecilic and needlessly uncompromising system.

At any rate, another complaint about Levoča is that it seems to be pretty short on food options. Since it's a day-trip kind of place, it'd be nice if they had some kind of bageteria (a sandwich shop/bakery), where you could buy a sandwich to go and eat it in the main square. But no, the handful of options all seem to be regular sit-down restaurants that serve heavy Slovak shlop. We had a forgettable lunch of typically bland Slovak style meat, potatoes and gloop at one of these places before continuing on with our day.

But we took some time to wander the streets and gawk at the colorful facades of the old burgher houses that line them.

Thurzo's house

We also checked out part of the medieval wall, particularly this one bit that appears to have been some kind of guard post that faces the main road on the outside, which almost resembles a Roman ruin (it's not, of course). A large stretch of the wall along the eastern side is actually a thick rampart, but just about all of it is closed to the public, which is unfortunate, because I would think a walk around the wall (or on its ramparts) would really appeal to tourists, as many people find that kind of thing interesting, and the views of the town and the surrounding area are nice. Towns like Lucca in Italy and Dubrovnik in Croatia have made their ramparts a major attraction, so it's sad that Levoča - one of the few towns in Slovakia to have retained most of its medieval walls - hasn't been able to do the same.

To access this guard post, you have to walk along the street on the other side of the wall and go through this rabbit hole-like tunnel:

One of  the pedestrian gates in Levoča's medieval wall

Sadly, I have to report that Levoča is quite dead, at least on a Saturday afternoon. It wasn't as dead as Prešov  because there were a number of tourists ambling around in Levoča's main square (Prešov didn't even have that!), but we saw very few locals, and those we did see were mostly adolescent kids who were just hanging around, gossiping, and occasionally flirting with each other. Not sure if Levoča comes alive in the evening, but I wouldn't bet on it. We did see signs of a market in the main square closing up when we arrived (around noon), which would be interesting to experience when it's in full swing.

After Levoča we drove out to the lovely Spišský Hrad, the massive castle ruin that sits dramatically atop a hill in the middle of a valley. From a distance, the sight of the thing is jaw-dropping. And it's fun to go up and tromp around the place, too. We didn't, however, as when we got there it started raining pretty hard, and a good deal of what there is to see is exposed to the elements, given that it's a ruin. We've been there once before (on that crazy aforementioned day trip we took with Tony), so it wasn't a big deal. At any rate, if you're only going to see one castle ruin in Bratislava, Spišský Hrad should definitely make the list of contenders.

We drove through the quaint village of Spišské Podhradie, which sits at the foot of the hill of Spišský Hrad. It's a small "one road" village, which gets a lot more traffic than it otherwise would if it wasn't so close to the castle.

Spišský Hrad as seen from the main drag of Spišské Podhradie, the village beneath the castle
More Spišské Podhradie

At any rate, the drive to and from Levoča was epic but ultimately worth it for the scenery. It took us three hours to get from Terezia's parents' house in Podrecany to Levoča, but we probably could've made it in 2.5 had some of the roads not been minefields of potholes and had we not gotten stuck behind a few slowpokes along some winding stretches. The road is generally quite curvy, and it ascends and descends some fairly serious hills. The natural scenery is pretty stunning throughout, consisting of densely forested hills, a few craggy mountainous peaks, and lush, green canyons with gently meandering streams.

It was also interesting to drive through some of the villages and small towns along the way, like České BrezovoKokava nad RimavicouHnúšťa, Tisovec, Muráň, and many others, some of which are so isolated and remote that I can't even imagine what life must be like in these places. I'm talking about towns where god knows what the hell these people do for work, and I imagine they get snowed in every winter. Most of these villages are quite old, too, with main drags lined by narrow, worn-down houses whose facades extend right up to the road.

Potholes were definitely a problem at some points. Slovakia is notorious for its crappily maintained roads (where all the fees go that people pay to drive on the roads and register their cars remains a mystery). There were times when the roads were so pitted and pockmarked by potholes that we had to slow down to a crawl just to drive through them without destroying the suspension of Terezia's dad's car. At other points we were forced to swerve back and forth like an obstacle course. But then there would be entirely random stretches of road that were freshly paved and silky smooth. There didn't seem to be any rhyme or reason to this.

Church at Spišský Štvrtok, near Levoča
Somewhere along the 531 (between Muráň and Muránanska Huta) in the Slovak wilderness

The main drag in České Brezovo
The road between České Brezovo and Poltar

Yes, six hours is a lot of time to spend in the car in a single day, but it was still a worthwhile trip, and I'm glad we got the chance to explore the town much more thoroughly than on our first encounter with the place. While much of what there is to do and see in Levoča can be exhausted in an afternoon, it's still a worthy and unique destination, and we'd go there again. I just wish it was a little closer.

To see the full set of photos from Levoča, click here!