Monday, March 24, 2014

Modrý Kameň and a quick drive through Prague

While visiting the in-laws in Podrečany over the weekend, Terezia's brother Tony thought it'd be fun to go on a little Sunday morning drive to one of the many castle ruins that dot the Novohrad region around Lučenec. This time we opted for Modrý Kameň, a small town (population ~1500) that lies just beyond Veľký Krtíš, about 20-30 minutes southwest of Lučenec. (Terezia and I had been through Veľký Krtíš once before on an aimless driving excursion and noted its bleak nothingness - the whole place seems to consist of communist-era panelaks; it's a big mining town. The few people you see out on the street look chronically bummed out).

Modrý Kameň is a sleepy hill town that spills down into a ravine, a bit like Banská Štiavnica, although unlike that town, Modrý Kameň is much more modest and was subject to way more commie-era architectural intrusions, and while still picturesque, it is nowhere near as historical or ornately attractive, and it's quite a bit smaller. Whereas Banská Štiavnica is geared for and accustomed to tourists, Modrý Kameň's inhabitants all seem to peer out of their front doors suspiciously as you drive through their narrow, deserted streets.

But it's home to an imposing castle ruin that looms dramatically over the town. Like the vast majority of castles in the region, it was destroyed (by the Ottomans) and rebuilt (by various people) numerous times over the centuries. The castle affords an awesome view over the town. The highest point is currently roped off due to reconstruction, but the views from the areas that were accessible are certainly nothing to shake a stick at.

Should  we go inside? It only costs about forty cents per person.
Overlooking the castle's mote

In the 18th century a rather monochrome Baroque palace was built right next to the castle, which now houses an antique puppet museum, as well as a small exhibition on Slovakia's first dentist, František Kuska. The museum was closed, which is par for the course, but I can't say we'd have been clamoring to go inside, although one might get a perverse kick out of seeing the Kuska display given the laid back approach to dental hygiene that one often encounters in Slovakia.

When looking down from the castle walls, one couldn't help but notice piles of garbage scattered around at the base of the ravine, just behind the back yards of several dilapidated homes. Many of the homes at the foot of the castle hill are clearly old and historical, but in various states of disrepair. I would harbor a guess that much like Fiľakovo (which I wrote briefly about here), the town and its inhabitants lacked the money and/or the interest to fix these quaint, crumbly old houses up and instead let the local Roma community move into them. While on one hand at least the Roma aren't having to live in makeshift shacks in an illegal settlement just outside the town (as is the case in many other towns and villages), it's sad that these old houses will likely continue to fall into greater disrepair.

Terezia looking down at the garbage below. Notice the historically accurate barbed wire along the top of the medieval wall.
A cascade of trash

And re: the garbage - it's unfortunately common to see piles of garbage strewn about in and around impoverished Roma communities. In many instances, this is because they can't afford to pay to have their garbage picked up, and the local authorities aren't willing to foot the bill. I would think, however, that the authorities in Modrý Kameň would want to make sure their star attraction and its immediate vicinity are free from debris and that they could work something out to keep the area clean, but apparently not. As Tony noted, in late spring and summer when tourist season picks up, the leaves on all the trees have grown back and probably hide most of the detritus, so the locals just say "fuck it" and leave it there.

Behind the castle is a calvary path that zig-zags up a very steep hill leading to an old temple with an alcove containing a creepy looking crucifixion scene. You can see this temple peaking out above the castle when you drive into town, so we were naturally curious to see what it was. Some paintings depicting Jesus encased in glass on the walls flanking the alcove were being eaten away by busy armies of termites.

Calvary thrill

On the way out we noticed this, the Hotel Hrad (castle). Not sure if it's still in business. Would you stay here?

I wouldn't say Modrý Kameň is worth going out of one's way for, but if you're in the area, it might be worth the hour or so detour (especially if the puppet museum sounds appealing to you, or if you're strangely fascinated by old, slightly run-down, out of the way towns in the Slovak countryside). The road leading to Veľký Krtíš and Modrý Kameň is reasonably scenic, with a few typical rustic, old villages along the way, complete with narrow houses with sagging roofs and tumbledown barns, all centered around the requisite church steeple.

On the way back to the in-laws in Podrečany, we decided to take a quick side-trip through Praha (Prague)! Not that Prague, obviously, but Praha, Slovakia, population 94, which is pretty much just one street that you can drive through in under half a minute. Almost all of the houses that line the street are of the quaint, old, long, narrow variety typical of rural Slovak villages, complete with patches of exposed stonework and cool little designs. A few bedheaded locals who look like they haven't showered in a few days can be seen ambling around the street, eyeing you suspiciously, probably assuming the idiots passing through in the car got lost after taking a wrong turn a few miles back.

Slovakia's Prague was established in the 1400s by the Hussites, protestant forerunners who named it in honor of that other Prague, the Czech capital. The village's coat of arms features a chalice, which was a typical Hussite symbol. Even by Lučenec standards, Prague is fairly remote. The only road that leads there from the nearest point of anything resembling civilization (the tiny, charmingly ramshackle town Halič with its imposing reconstructed castle) looks like it hasn't been repaved since communism, although the closest village, Lupoč, is a just few miles away.

Leaving Praha!


  1. Your mention of the Hussites gives me an opening to mention the Habans, who were another protestant group that left their mark in Slovakia. I mention them because there's a Haban Museum in the town of Velke Levare. My ancestors came from the neighboring towns of Velke Levare and Male Levare. I have been traveling around Slovakia and the neighboring countries vicariously through you and your blog for a while now and it's been an awesome adventure. I love all your details and opinions on things from an American perspective.

    If one day you and Terka decided you were interested to learn more about the Habans you might take a 30 minute drive north of Bratislava (or a bus) to visit it. Or you might stop by while on a drive up to Prague or Brno on the D2/E65....and chronicle you visit with photos and some opinions on the locals you encounter...

    I wish I could think of another reason you might visit the village but it really doesn't seem to have much else worth seeing!

    (There does seem to be occasional festivals at the Rudava lake in neighboring Male Levare. Beach volleyball in Slovakia?!

    1. Hi Lyon,

      Thanks for the recommendation. We haven't had a chance to explore that corner of the country yet, but hopefully we'll get around to it soon. The guy who wrote the article you linked to is a friend and former colleague of mine, so I'll have to ask him about it the next time I see him.