Sunday, August 24, 2014

The (dark) heart of the nation

For this post I'm running a guest piece written by my friend and fellow expat James about one of his journeys into the depths of Slovakia. The name of the town has been left out (so as not to offend anyone), but I think the scene he depicts here will be eerily familiar to anyone who has spent some time exploring Slovakia's more remote corners, and entertaining to those who haven't. 

The (dark) heart of the nation

By James Thomson

Here it is: Slovakia's ground zero. Brace yourself, because this place is old school.

No-name hotel (it's just 'Hotel' on all the signs) has a lobby so dark that I don't even bother to try and take a photo. Black walls; black furniture; dark carpet. As my travelling companion and I fumble our way across the lobby, a couple emerge from the gloaming, camouflaged in black against the furniture. No one else is visible: their manner (mildly vexed) suggests they are employees but their identity is never precisely established. Is there a coffee shop here (as advertised on the sign outside)? 'Neviem' ('don't know') is the reply.

Undaunted, we eventually find a door in a rear courtyard, signposted 'cukráreň'.  An attempt to open it elicits a single, barked response 'ZATVORENÉ!' ('we're closed').

Shall our quest fail? As luck(?) would have it, there's another across the (deserted) main street.  And it's a pearl: not a single fixture or fitting appears to have been touched since circa 1982. 
Unfortunately, that goes for the coffee too. Do they have espresso? Why yes: one needs only to press the 'espresso' button on the instant coffee machine! But ordering espresso has already marked us out as urban sophisticates. "We don't have any little cups" remarks the waitress, "everyone here wants a large coffee." Looking around, the evidence suggests otherwise: most of the clientele are downing beer and shots with their cake. Best not to ponder what they drink when they go to the pub.

The cakes, the waitress boasts, are made at the shop's own bakery.  But they look strangely identical to those on sale at every other provincial cake shop. A trial tasting of their medovy koláč ('honey cake') reveals that it contains little or no honey, but lashings of the strange substance that passes for cream in the parallel universe of the Slovak cukráreň. The origins of this stuff are mysterious, but it seems unlikely they are bovine.

And returning to the still-deserted main street, a fetching socialist mural on the housing block (opposite 'Hotel') recalls the halcyon, fujara-playing days of 1957. Almost everywhere here used to be like this: visit now, before it disappears forever.

Photo: James Thomson

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Hiking to Pajštún Castle

I wasn't kidding in my Orava Castle post when I said that Slovakia has more castles and castle ruins than you can shake a stick at. In the wider Bratislava region alone I can think of 7-8 off the top of my head, and there are probably more that I'm forgetting. For a while now I've been wanting to check out Pajštún, a Medieval castle ruin set deep in the forest of the Small Carpathian hills just north of Bratislava. It's perched high above the small village of Borinka, atop a big limestone outcropping on a steep hill, overlooking the surrounding forests and the Zahorie region below.

Pajštún isn't like the Devin Castle ruin with a big parking lot at the base of its hill and a steady stream of tour buses. It's pretty remote, and the only way (that we were aware of) to reach it is to hike through the woods and plow straight up the side of a steep hill. This hill feels nearly vertical at times, and it's probably not a good hike for the easily winded. For the route we went, there's no switchback trail to make it easier - for over half a mile you just trudge straight up.

(However, we did see A LOT of families with little kids up at the castle, and we discovered that there is supposedly a road you can drive at least part way up the northwest side of the hill that leads to some parking. You still have to walk some distance, but I'm not sure how long or steep the path is. I can't imagine many of the 6-and-under kids we saw there walking up the trail we took without putting up a fight.)

There are seemingly hundreds of castle ruins in Slovakia like Pajštún, but it does have a few nifty details that make it stand out from some of its peers.

Firstly, the castle is known for its cluster of gargoyle waterspouts, which have these unique and menacingly grotesque faces on the ends of them. Of course gargoyles always have creepy faces, but I've never seen any with visages quite like these. According to the info board these ghoulish faces could once be seen leering at you from all around the castle, but now only a group of five of them remains, plus at least one other just a little to the left of them. There's another one that has fallen and has been left on the ground below the others, which you can see up close.

When tromping around the complex we were struck by how Pajštún was actually a fairly decent-sized and sophisticated structure, which is all the more impressive given how the place is fairly remote and sits on such a perilously steep hill (steeper - and further uphill from the village below - than even Orava or Trenčín). Hauling anything up to this castle must've been a colossal pain in the ass.

Pajštún was built in the 13th century as part of a line of defensive Medieval fortresses along the Small Carpathians that served as a warning system against invasions. In the mid-18th century the castle was struck by lightning and severely damaged by the resulting fire. In 1809 Napoleon bombed the snots out of what was left, even though at that point the castle had zero importance or strategic advantage. What a dick!

This is how Pajštún looked before it was decimated by bad weather and Napoleon's army.

The narrow paths around the base and edges of the castle are covered in loose rocks, shards of castle stones, and big protruding tree roots - definitely not a place for the clumsy or trip-prone (not sure how I managed to get through there without incident). It's difficult to step back and get a good look at the front of the castle without running the risk of tumbling backwards down an extremely steep slope that's covered in a cascade of more loose rocks and broken bits of stone.

The vegetation around and within the castle is so overgrown that in some places it partially obscures the structure. It occurred to me that the best times to visit Pajštún are probably late fall, winter, and very early spring when there are no leaves on the trees, which would allow for clearer views of what's left of the castle's walls.

Views of the surrounding landscape from the castle are awesome. You can't see Bratislava, but you can see Kamzík, Devínska Nová Ves, Stupava and the other villages below, and the vast expanse of flat countryside to the north of the Small Carpathians, which makes up the Zahorie region.

At the top in what is roughly the center of the complex is a dish-shaped grassy area with plenty of shade (and sun) and space for lounging. When we were there about 15-20 other people were scattered around, having picnics or just lying in the shade or the sun. The area was also dotted with several makeshift stone fire pits, a few of which had fires going with people grilling sausages over them.

The fact that Pajštún is kind of remote and it takes a bit of work to reach it makes it all the more appealing. In the Bay Area, where I'm from, there may be a slew of beautiful hiking trails, but none of them lead to Medieval castle ruins.

Furthermore, I love how if this thing were in the US and open to the public, it would be buried under a network of secure walkways and platforms with railings and fences and warning signs everywhere. But here in Slovakia, none of the high, deadly drops are fenced or roped off, and you can walk around the whole place completely at your own risk, free of the crap that would clutter it up in ever litigious America.

Getting there from downtown

We caught the number 37 bus from the depot under the SNP Bridge to Záhorská Bystrica, which was the end of the line (though some 37s go to the next village, Marianka). Záhorská Bystrica is about four miles away from the castle if you take the most direct route on foot. There are other buses that will take you to Borinka, the village just below the castle, but those involve more complicated routes with transfers, so we chose to take a longer hike from Záhorská Bystrica instead.

There are markings for the path to Pajštún all the way from Záhorská Bystrica in the form of little red and white stripes painted on lamp posts, fence posts and trees. The problem is that you really have to keep your eyes peeled for these red and white markings. Quite often you'll come to a fork in the road where there is no signpost or anything indicating which way to go, so you just have to carefully scan the surroundings for the red/white marking, which is usually placed a little ways down the path that you want. Not the most intuitive system, but it got us there, so it seems to work.

From Záhorská Bystrica you make your way to the next village, Marianka, which is a popular catholic pilgrimage sight. You can see a lot of elderly people milling about there who are presumably on their way to (or from) the pilgrimage area for its alleged healing powers.

Once you're through Marianka, you get to a trail that leads you through a forest to Borinka. You pass through quaint Borinka and hook up with another trail and forest, which is where the actual path to the castle starts.

At certain points along the path you can see the castle peeking out over the trees. The trail meanders along, gradually ascending until you come to a small clearing where the steep uphill workout begins.

The whole walk from the Záhorská Bystrica bus stop to the castle is about 4 miles - a scenic and totally do-able hike.

One thing we noticed is that there is clearly a lot of money in all three of these villages. I got the impression that these were some of Bratislava's more affluent suburbs, what with all the sleek,  modern and big (by Slovak standards) houses everywhere. And we saw more than a few early middle-aged guys wearing pastel polo shirts with popped collars speeding through the narrow, winding lanes like assholes in their Mercedes SUVs and Land Rovers. One such asshole, when careening around a blind, narrow curve, chose to honk his horn several times rather than slow down.

On the way back we were able to catch the 37 bus in Marianka, so we didn't have to walk all the way back to Záhorská Bystrica. We had 25 minutes to kill in Marianka, however, so we stopped at this extremely old-school communist-era pub across the street from the bus stop for some beer. Inside, the shiny all-black furnishings with rounded edges screamed 1984, while the little weather-beaten chairs on the patio in front had clearly been there since the early days of 'normalization'.

I mentioned that these villages seem affluent, but Marianka really appears to be raking in a lot of dough. The main bus stop was obviously recently redone and is easily the nicest and most modern bus stop I've seen in any village or town outside Bratislava. The sidewalk was made with shiny new cobblestones, the bus shelter is a sleek, modern glass and steel contraption, and the benches are all spotless and gleaming. This is a far cry from the usual beat-up shack slapped together with sheets of corrugated steel on a badly pitted and weed-strewn sidewalk that typically serves as a bus stop in villages or towns this size.

At any rate, we both really dug the hike and the castle, and we honestly don't understand what took us so long to finally get around to making the trek.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Nitra on a hot August day

Nitra makes a striking impression when you're driving past it on the R1 freeway. With its dramatic, spire-studded skyline and the way it sprawls out at the base of the gigantic Zobor hill, it looks like an important city.

Even Nitra's long history gives the impression of a substantial, must-see destination: as the oldest city on the territory of today's Slovakia, it's called the "mother of Slovak towns", and was the center of the Great Moravian Empire. It was also where Byzantine Greek monks Cyril and Methodius were invited in the 9th century to spread their religion and create the Glagolithic alphabet (an early version of Cyrillic) for the region's Slavic language. All of this has factored heavily in Slovak national mythology (to the consternation of some historians) and Nitra seems to hold special importance for many Slovaks.

And yet, when you actually make your way into the city and take a gander at the center, you might feel a bit deflated after all of that build-up. In fact, if you speak to some locals or in-the-know expats about Nitra before going, they will likely implore you to lower whatever expectations you might have for the place.

I'd been there once before a few years ago on a lightning-fast, spur-of-the-moment excursion with Terezia's brother Tony, which was too brief to really get a handle on it, and I didn't even have my camera. I finally got the chance to go back and explore Nitra a little more in depth recently when my work kindly and generously took us there recently for a staff outing.

Like many Slovak cities and towns, Nitra has a pedestrianized historical center and a castle with a big cathedral that overlooks the city from a steep hill. But its historical center, made up of the older "upper" town with the castle, and the more recent "lower" town below, has noticeably less charm and 'old world' ambiance than those in many other towns, and the "lower" town suffers from considerably more communist-era (and contemporary) intrusion than normal. While the buildings in the "upper" town are all uniformly old, even these are a little bit less exciting than what other Slovak towns have to offer.

Part of the problem is that Nitra suffered from heavy bombing during WWII, and poorly conceived communist-era redevelopment plans added insult to injury.

The main square is vast and expansive, but also kind of soulless and uninviting. A big fountain in the middle attempts to liven things up, but there's very little architectural eye candy to hold one's attention beyond the communist-era Divadlo (theater) building. Anyone expecting a cavalcade of unique and ornate Habsburg-era facades, a la Košice's Main Square, might be in for some disappointment. There's really not much left here that reflects this city's ancient past and historical significance, aside from the view of the "upper" town and castle complex in the distance.

Still, a few of the pedestrianized side streets manage to conjure up an agreeable atmosphere with mellow bars and cafes that give off a student-y vibe. Nitra is a big university town, after all, and some of the establishments in the center seem to be trying to cater to that crowd.

The "upper" town is noticeably quieter, since it's really only of interest to tourists, of which there aren't that many. The main cobblestone street winds gently up the hill to the castle and the cathedral of St Emeram, which is visible from just about everywhere in the town below.

To enter the complex you cross a bridge via a steep, stone walkway that leads you through a thick, double-gated bastion.

The church you see today was essentially built over two smaller churches, portions of which are still visible, and recent excavations have uncovered a possible fourth. The Baroque clock tower is extremely typical for central Europe. Sadly, it was covered in scaffolding when we were there - a photographer's worst nightmare.

The cathedral made news recently when a rare, invaluable 14th-century medieval fresco was discovered on the wall behind an ornate 17th-century marble altarpiece, itself an important work of art. There was a wee bit of controversy when the church decided to relocate the gigantic altar from its intended spot to the other end of the lower nave, so as to uncover and display the fresco. The fresco is believed to be the only one of its kind in central Europe, as it's much more typical of frescoes from central Italy.

The cathedral interior is lavishly detailed, goopy, 18th-century Baroque vomit, with lots of dark red marble, and sculptures and ceiling frescoes that go for maximum drama.

The rare Medieval fresco

The castle buildings that surround the cathedral have all been restored and scrubbed down, and boast some really cool crenelations. One houses a cafe and a museum. Visitors can tromp around on some of the castle's fortifications for panoramic views over the city.

The castle walls were reinforced after a 17th-century invasion by the Ottomans, during which they converted part of the cathedral into a mosque, used another section as a stable, and defaced a bunch of the art.

Just outside the complex is the requisite Baroque plague column. Down the hill a bit you can find a popular statue of Corgoň, Slovakia's version of Atlas, propping up the corner of an old building. His worn down toes are not a result of a nasty case of leprosy: local legend has it that rubbing them will bring you some of his super human strength. Not far below him is the sloping, grass-covered Pribina Square centered on a statue of a sword-wielding Prince Pribina, Nitra's first ruler, who from a distance looks like he suffers from a massively swollen Popeye arm, which on closer inspection turns out to be an extremely puffy sleeve.

At this point I should mention that before going up to the castle, our manager thought it would be fun for us to take a ride in one of those tourist trains - those silly little cars that tow a couple of wagons done up to look like old fashioned trains, which cart lazy tourists around the historical sections of old cities.

We piled into the first car and immediately realized that the big windows were all completely covered with thick sheets of clear plastic, which kept out any trace of much-longed-for breeze on this hot and sticky day, and made us feel like infants trapped in a locked car in a heatwave. The plastic was also a bit dingy and scuffed, which meant that any photos taken through it would come out blurry. Before the tourist train took off, our manager got out and asked the driver if he could do something about this. I didn't catch what was said, but the driver seemed amenable, even though he appeared to act as if the idea of doing this had never occurred to him. So, we helped him roll up and fasten the sheet on one side (apparently we'd only be getting one), and problem solved.

Yet, he seemed oblivious to the fact that the poor folks in the second car were also about to pass out from heatstroke, and a woman in that car actually had to get out and ask if they could do the same with their plastic sheets. Classic.

At any rate, this tourist train took us through a bit of the "lower" old town, then around to the back of the castle hill into a big, shady park, and eventually into the "upper" town and all the way up to the castle at the top. The driver said we had 20 minutes to piddle around, but since the cathedral at that moment was closed for lunch for the next half hour until 1:00, we said screw it and hung around so we could get a more thorough look at the complex, opting to just walk back down when we were ready.

On our way back down, as we crossed over from the "upper" town back into the "lower" town, we passed the now infamous Mariatchi bar, a popular student hangout where last fall surveillance cameras caught a bunch of neo-Nazi skinheads viciously assaulting some people in the street. Controversy ensued when it was discovered that the culprits had all been arrested and then promptly released with no charges, only to be re-arrested after the camera footage was discovered and publicized a month after the incident by a media outlet. (Eventually Slovakia's general prosecutor dismissed one of Nitra's district prosecutors for mishandling the case; not sure what's happened with the skinheads, though). Anyway, it felt slightly eerie when we realized we were walking through the intersection where the attack occurred.

Once back in the "lower" town, we took a break in Antikvariat, a cafe with a cool, appealingly funky Bohemian vibe that's not all that common in this country. With groovy vintage furniture, dusty old books piled up everywhere, and weird modern art on the walls (and ceiling), the place gives off that hip, college-town cafe atmosphere in spades. I savored a refreshingly cold and tasty frappe.

We ambled around the pedestrianized section a bit and slowly made our way to the old synagogue. Luckily, this one was not left to deteriorate (or else it was immaculately restored at some point), and from the exterior, at least, it looks to be in excellent shape. These days it's rented out for special events.

The synagogue.

There was talk of heading up to Nitra's Calvary, which reportedly offers "the best" view of the city (in addition to a gruesome crucifixion scene), but time was running out, and then we were suddenly distracted by a tea shop across the street from the synagogue, called Tea House of Good People. The scent of Nag Champa permeated the front rooms of the shop, which sold a vast assortment of tea and tea sets, as well as geodes, bonsai trees, and buddha figurines. A cafe in the back served an extensive tea menu. After piling into a big corner booth in the back room, we each ordered an exotic, if somewhat overpriced, tea concoction (mine involved fresh orange juice).

By the time that was done, we needed to get going if we wanted to make the bus that would get us back to Bratislava around 6:00. So, we leisurely made our way back through the pockmarked streets, communist-era detritus, and a strange semi-outdoor market to the main bus station.

I'm sure there were several sights and a few interesting ramshackle streets that went unseen, but I'm glad I was at least able to see and get a feel for the city. I'd say Nitra is for completists only - not a place I'd include on a list of must-see sights. But if you're driving by on the R1, enjoy the panorama of the city (without wrecking your car, of course), and take comfort in the knowledge that if you don't make it there, you're really not missing out on anything life-altering.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Yet another castle in Slovakia: Trenčín

We've been wanting to take a day trip to Trenčín for a couple of years now. It's another town guarded by a cool castle that straddles an impossibly high and steep rocky outcropping, which makes a dramatic impression when passing by the town on the train or in a car, as we've done a few times. Of course, we wanted to check out the center of the town itself as well, and get a feel for this small regional capital in the northwest of the country.

From Bratislava, it takes a little more than an hour to reach Trenčín by train, so it's a totally do-able day trip from the capital. It's also good as a day trip because, like many of these Slovak towns, there's not a helluva lot there to keep visitors occupied for much longer than that.

Trenčín's train station is currently undergoing a major overhaul - or I should say its platforms are. The station itself is still your typically dingy, gloomy, brown communist-era affair, with bathrooms that haven't changed since the 1960s (I really wanted to get a photo of the vintage urinals, but there were other men peeing in there, so...). The platform area was a messy construction zone, and this could perhaps explain why on this day the trains were slowing down to walking speed well before entering the station.

Trenčín's train station.

From there it's a brief stroll through a slightly overgrown and run-down city park to the center of town, where you're first greeted by the grand, Art Nouveau Hotel Elizabeth at the base of the castle's rocky outcropping. The hotel is home to one of Trenčín's first written mentions - not a passing reference on some old scrap of disintegrating medieval parchment, but a Roman inscription carved directly into the side of the rock wall in 179 AD, now located behind the hotel, which tells of a victorious battle of the Roman Empire against the German Quadi tribe. To take a gander at the inscription, you can walk up to the first floor of the hotel and down the end of a hallway, where you can see it close up through a window (along with a bunch of tacky tourist tchotchkes nearby).

Getting to the castle requires trudging up several steep, picturesque, cobblestone streets and severely pockmarked concrete passageways, eventually leading you through two defensive gates before you're finally in the compound.

Trenčín's castle is Slovakia's third largest (after Spiš and Bratislava's castle). Its earliest written mention was in 1068. Yet, a rotunda discovered on the site indicates settlement possibly dating to the time of Great Moravia a few centuries earlier. The rotunda's foundations can be seen, along with the skeletal remains of a couple of folks from the period, in one of the castle's buildings.

Guided tours here aren't obligatory like they are at Orava Castle, but you still have to take one if you want to see inside all the buildings. So, we took the guided tour (in Slovak, like at Orava), which led us through a series of rooms, many of which contain painted portraits of the castle's various inhabitants, as well as some Habsburgs who ruled over the whole region for some time. The Hungarian Illeshazi family was well-represented, as they spent several generations at Trenčín. But the castle's most famous inhabitant was Matúš Čák, a Hungarian noble who, from the 1290s until his death in 1321, managed to gain control over much of what makes up today's Slovakia and turn it into his own personal fiefdom, with Trenčín as his home base. The Hungarian king was none too thrilled with this set-up, and Čák's dominion was promptly broken up after he died.

The most amusing paintings, however, are those of Leopold I of Habsburg, whose notoriously hideous countenance was reportedly the result of inbreeding. After you're shown a few portraits which definitely cannot be described as flattering, you're taken into another room with a "non-Photoshopped" (as the tour guide joked) portrait of Leopold looking impossibly ugly, complete with crossed eyes, an exaggeratedly protruding chin, and a bizarrely massive and swollen lower lip. The tour guide said the artist (wisely) kept this brutally honest portrait hidden until after the monarch died.

Other rooms feature swords, spears, helmets, and other weaponry spanning the centuries, some of which were dredged up from the Váh River close by. The oldest swords on display come from Čák's time. You've also got a bedroom, a living room, etc. The interiors are generally sparer than those at Orava; you have none of those fancifully wood-panelled rooms, for example. But the guided tour does take you through one palace which was used as a chapel, and would make for an incredibly echo-y reverb chamber.

Despite all the ancient swords, maces, and rifles on display, this communist-era rotary phone in the corner was what caught my attention.

The castle endured countless sieges by Tartars, Ottomans, and Habsburg uprisings, but was never once overtaken. When you ascend the Matúš tower, the highest building on the complex, it's easy to see why. Invaders would have to have gotten past three (and in parts four) sets of fortifications, and would have had gallons of boiling hot wax poured on them (in addition to being pelted with rotting, leftover food) if they made it through the first few. Some of the walls along the rear are as much as 20 meters high.

But as with a lot of the castles in the broader region, Trenčín's was eventually done in by a non-conflict related fire in 1790, and it sat in ruins for over a century until reconstruction efforts began in the 20th century. Some of the reconstructions during the communist era were of dubious quality. The tour guide pointed out that a large portion of one of the outer defensive walls, rebuilt in the 1950s, collapsed several years ago. The original wall withstood countless battles and remained standing for centuries, while the commie-era wall couldn't even hack it for 50 years.

The views from the castle, especially from atop the balcony of the Matúš tower, are impressively dramatic, and it's easy to see why the location would have appealed for both practical but also aesthetic reasons: it sat on a major trade route along the Váh River, and the surrounding lush, hilly terrain is both scenic and good for keeping potential invaders away.

Once back down in the center town, the first order of business was to ascend the clock tower, which overlooks two pedestrianized squares on either side of it, and also gives you the "money shot" of the whole castle complex (see first photo, at the top of the post). The square to the northeast, Mierové námestie, is the older of the two, and has a lenticular shape typical of many Slovak squares, along with the town's main cathedral. The square to the southwest, Štúrovo námestie, is lined by a more eclectic mishmash of eras and styles, from medieval to Art Nouveau to communist-era modern. The clock tower is probably one of the more spartan examples of such things in the region (or dull, if I'm not being polite; it's certainly no match for Bratislava's Michael's Gate). The small rooms of the three levels inside the tower are used to display modern art.

Near the tower is an old synagogue, which currently houses an art gallery. We missed the damn thing by two minutes after closing time. But it's nice to see that it's been repurposed into something useful, and not left to deteriorate, like the synagogues in Lučenec or Banská Štiavnica.

The synagogue.

Trenčín's old town is probably not quite as architecturally ornate as some other Slovak towns, but it's still really nice. It seems to be a tad short on over-the-top, goopily ornate historical facades and there is definitely some communist-era intrusion, too. But the overall look and ambiance are still picturesque, what with the cobblestone streets and lush trees lining Mierové square. A narrow island with a lawn, trees, park benches, and a plague column adds to the setting.

Sadly, the old Prior (communist-era department stores found in many cities and towns back then, most of which have since been turned into Tescos) appears to have been razed recently!

There is no shortage of ice cream shops, cafes, and pubs in the town's center, which seems to have the effect of drawing out the locals. We also noticed that apparently every woman in this town is pregnant with a 3rd or 4th child. I reckon there's not a helluva lot to do here...

Despite being the capital of the whole Trenčín region, the city itself is not a large one. Its population is just over 60,000, and the city doesn't look especially big when seen from the castle above. The historical section, as nice as it is, is definitely on the smaller side, even when compared to smaller towns, like Levoča or Kežmarok. But as I've already mentioned, it makes for a worthwhile and totally do-able day trip, and I'm glad we are finally able to check it off our list.