Monday, August 4, 2014

Mini Slovak road trip, Part 1: Bardejov

As someone who is basically a California/Bay Area native, I cannot get used to this whole rain in the summer thing that has been the norm in Slovakia since we moved here. And this summer has been especially rain-soaked, making it tricky to plan anything that involves being outdoors.

Terezia and I had this whole trip planned out for the last week in July, for which we'd borrow her parents' car and take off from their village (Podrečany) in the south-central part of the country for some distant corners of Slovakia that we badly wanted to see, but hadn't for one reason or another. The trip was to start with a couple of days hiking in Slovenský Raj (Slovak Paradise), this vast, very popular state forest/park by the Spiš region consisting of a web of winding, highly scenic trails that take you up a series of rocky outcroppings via rickety ladders alongside waterfalls and over creeks via iron planks wedged into the sides of steep cliffs. From there we'd take the car to some other remote, northern corners of the country on our list, while keeping plans as vague and spontaneous as possible.

Alas, the trip to Slovenský Raj was sadly derailed by rain, as well as my having a relapse of a nasty cold that I thought I'd successfully fought off the week before. This meant that we didn't make it to Terezia's parents' place until a couple days after we'd planned, and it wasn't until Thursday that the weather and my health allowed us to go on what at this point was a seriously condensed version of the road trip. But it was an awesome trip nonetheless, and it was fun to just hop in the car, hit the road and follow the sun with no concrete plans.

The first leg of the trip

We took off Thursday morning with the vague objective of reaching Bardejov, a historical town in a fairly out-of-the-way corner of the Prešov region in the north east of Slovakia that neither of us had been to. We opted for the main road, which took us east all the way to Košice, then north through Prešov, from which Bardejov lies about a half hour northeast.

The route to Bardejov, highlighted in blue

This route goes through a few corners of the country that I had yet to see. On past trips to Košice, we took the northern train from Bratislava, but with the southern route, from where Terezia's parents live, I've been through the bleak bastion of unemployment that is Rimavská Sobota, and even as far as the small town of Rožňava and the famous Krásna Hôrka Castle nearby, but between there and Košice the landscape was totally new to me.

Krásna Hôrka castle

The road took us through a valley lined on either side by a range of very steep, tall, forested hills dotted now and then with cool rock formations. It felt like we were traveling through a well-protected natural corridor. The usual, old, dilapidated, weather-beaten rustic villages were also strewn about here and there.

Zadielska gorge

Once you leave this area, called Slovenský Kras (Slovak Karst, named for its vast network of caves, some of which are open to the public), you descend into a level plain where the massive U.S. Steel Košice factory eventually comes into view on your right. I sadly wasn't able to get any photos, but this thing is incomprehensibly huge - a sprawling, dark, belching Mordor, and one of the biggest employers in the region.

Once you hit Košice city, the highway kind of dissipates and you have to take your best stab at following what appears to be the main road, with its frustrating dearth of signs to Prešov, through the city's intermittently confusing labyrinth of streets and haphazardly designed intersections. But once out of Košice, it's a smooth quick ride up the D1 freeway to Prešov. (We've since learned that you can actually stay on a freeway that goes around Košice and takes you to Prešov; you just have to ignore all the road signs, all of which initially tell you you're going to Humenné or some such place that's nowhere near Prešov or Bardejov.)

The turnoff for Bardejov in Prešov is not clearly signposted at all. In fact, this was an all too common theme on our trip. Signage for many destinations in Slovakia is notoriously lacking. Usually the only sign for the turnoff you're looking for is right at the point where you need to turn, and you typically don't spot it until you're already passing it and it's too late to slow down and make the turn. These signs are seemingly never posted a block or so in advance, as they would be in California. It's also extremely common for these signs not to list what you'd think would be the most obvious towns or destinations along the given route, so you've really got to stay on your toes when navigating without a GPS, as we were doing.

At any rate, once out of Prešov, you're back on a scenic, winding country road. We arrived at the center of Bardejov in a little over three hours, and pulled into a small parking lot where we were greeted by a friendly parking attendant (Slovakia's streets have no parking meters; in any urban areas with paid parking, you have to find what is typically a middle-aged person milling about in a fluorescent yellow vest and serious bed-head, who you pay for parking. One would think Slovakia's cities and towns would do the math and see how over time an investment in parking meters would pay for itself and therefore bring more revenue over the long term, but I suspect the current system is part of some state or local employment program...) who even gave us a free map of the town.


Bardejov's visually striking medieval main square - one of the best-preserved in central Europe - has been included on the UNESCO World Heritage list, so it's fairly well known. We've obviously seen photos of it, but none of them do justice to what it feels like to actually step into the square in person and take it all in. It really is a beautiful urban space, made all the more pleasing by the way it slopes gently down northward, toward the cool medieval-renaissance old town hall, and culminates with the dramatic backdrop of the St Egidius cathedral just behind it. The three other sides of the rectangular square are lined by colorful rows of ornate Saxon Burgher houses, all capped with pointed roofs, with many featuring wooden gables, not unlike some seen in another picturesque medieval town initially inhabited largely by Germans settlers - Levoča.

Bardejov boomed in the middle ages with its position on a major trading route from Poland and became a major place in the textile trade. The large size of its main square was intended to accommodate a bustling market. The 16th-century old town hall commands attention with its medieval/renaissance detailing and simple but pleasing shape. The statuettes along the edge of the gable and the clock on the facade are especially cool. The building now houses a museum of the town's history. This is where typically harsh punishments were meted out by local authorities back in the day, who, by all accounts, had a fetish for capital punishment on par with that of Texas. (Perhaps that explains the old town's relatively small size?)

The town's fortunes eventually waned, with other nearby towns gradually infringing on its trade monopoly, and by the early 20th century it was a forgotten backwater.

We saw a smattering of tourists gawking at the sights on the square, while locals could also be seen ambling around, sipping coffee or licking ice cream on benches and/or pushing strollers, with spastic kids darting to and fro. While I wouldn't say the place was exactly teaming with energy, there was still some semblance of a local pulse, unlike Prešov, whose streets were totally deserted and devoid of life when we visited it in 2013.

At any rate, with pretty much all of Slovakia's smaller historical towns, the historical center fizzles quickly once you get a block or so off the main square, and then comes the obligatory barrage of bleak, commie-era panelaks and brutalist shopping complexes. Bardejov is no exception, although the block or so of historical buildings that forms a buffer around the perimeter of much of the main square offers a slightly more eclectic assortment of old buildings from various historical eras, and is a bit more pleasingly gritty than the main square. There's a big Gothic monastery, a recently reconstructed synagogue, and numerous medieval bastions from the old defensive wall, a good portion of which is still intact. One end of the park by the monastery even has a corner dedicated to the Beatles, strangely enough.

For lunch we wanted something easy and quick so that we could get on with the sightseeing. We skipped the usual heavy Slovak meat, dumplings, and potatoes lunch slop and opted for sandwiches at a bageteria on the main square. When we walked in, four glum looking locals were slumped over plates of traditional Slovak gloop from the daily lunch menu. What I got was easily contender for the most vile sandwich I've ever eaten in my 39 years of existence. Firstly, the aloof girl at the counter informed us that they had no mustard (what the hell kind of a sandwich place has no mustard!?), and she - quite bizarrely - used a giant spoon, rather than a knife, to scoop these massive, quivering globs of mayonnaise onto the bread. The heaping pile of mayo was then topped with a few thin slices of ham, a handful of desiccated shredded lettuce, and a couple of soggy tomato slices. We went out to a bench on the square to eat our sandwiches, and every time I took a bite, a blob of mayo squished out the other end, which I had to catch with my to-go bag. How a place like this is allowed to exist on the main square is a mystery to us. Fortunately, the strong refreshing iced coffee we got from a cafe across the square made up for it and we were sufficiently fueled to move on.

The St Egidius cathedral offered a cool refuge from the day's suffocatingly humid heat. Inside we saw these guys operating this gigantic manual crane in the center aisle, which had a camera affixed to one end. One guy was moving the crane up and down and side to side, getting close ups of the Gothic details of the main altar and choir. We ascended the claustrophobic spiral staircase to the top of the clock tower to see the lay of the land. By Slovak standards, Bardejov is a actually decent-sized town. The cathedral is about 800 years old, but over the centuries it endured the seemingly inevitable rounds of fires, earthquakes, and various reconstructions that all these churches seem to face. The tower itself is a bit more striking than most Slovak church towers, with its nifty looking clock and a dramatically pointy spire.

After walking through a park that was thoughtfully constructed around the northern part of the defensive wall, we slowly wandered back through the square for a final gander, before moving on to our next destination: Kežmarok.

Bardejov is definitely worth a day or afternoon trip, especially if you're already in the area, but there's simply not enough there to sustain one's interest for longer than that, so I can't see why anyone would want to spend the night there, unless you arrive later in the day and are weary from a day's traveling. And while it may seem a bit sleepy during the day, I've heard the place is comatose at night. I know at least one person who spent the night there and struggled to find a single place open where he could get a beer and some dinner.

One problem, of course, is that to get to Bardejov and enjoy this UNESCO heritage site in the first place, you've got to be fairly determined and committed to exploring this corner of the country, as it's a bit off the beaten tourist path. No, it's not as out there as, say, Svidník or Čierna nad Tisou, but it's still in a fairly remote backwater (which, in a way, is part of its appeal). As a result, you also really need a car to get there, as the town is not well served by public transportation. If going by train, from Prešov you're forced to take a small, tedious slow-poke train that stops at every single podunk village before reaching Bardejov. And of course Bardejov's commie-era train station is reportedly dimly-lit and depressing, although I kind of wish we'd gotten the chance to see it, as I get a perverse kick out of Slovakia's sad, dingy, worn down train stations.

At any rate, to be continued...

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