Monday, August 4, 2014

Mini Slovak road trip, Part 2: Kežmarok

Leaving Bardejov for Kežmarok was a snap, and the winding road took us through some typically beautiful, lush green Slovak countryside. One of the things I love about traversing these country roads is getting to drive through the remote villages. They often look endearingly dilapidated, and leave you wondering who on earth lives there and why, and what the inhabitants do, if anything, for work, when they live in the middle of nowhere. I dig seeing the traditional, narrow-fronted, long houses with wooden or crumbly old plaster facades and tumbledown barns. In some villages, we saw clusters of Roma on the side of the road selling plump, fresh porcini and a variety of berries and fruit.

We even passed through a couple of Ruthenian villages, which you can spot by signs with the name of the village in both Roman lettering and cyrillic. The Ruthenians are one of Slovkia's ethnic minorities and are much more eastward culturally, as many are eastern orthodox catholics and speak a language that is closer to a Ukrainian dialect. You can find their villages in Slovakia mostly in the eastern part of the country.

The road takes you right along the Polish border for a stretch before heading down toward Stará Ľubovňa, the only town of any real consequence between Bardejov and Kežmarok (situated about halfway between the two). We got off the highway to take a quick drive through the center of town, which had a nice tree-lined main square, a poorly conceived intersection resulting in a traffic clusterfuck, and little else. Stará Ľubovňa is also home to a huge and pretty well-intact castle on a nearby hill. Wanting to get to Kežmarok at a reasonable hour, we didn't stick around, so we got back on the highway.

Stará Ľubovňa Castle


When arriving in Kežmarok from the north, you don't see the sign for the centrum until you've already missed the turn (as is often the case in this country), but it's a small enough town where it's not too difficult to circle back and find parking right smack in the center.

The first thing you see along the main road is Kežmarok's imposing, 19th-century evangelical church, also known as the red church. It's also the first thing seemingly everyone mentions when writing about the town, which I suppose makes sense as it's actually fairly unique.

We were both pleasantly surprised by Kežmarok's old town, which was quite a bit larger than we expected. It seems most people write about the aforementioned red church and the town's groovy Renaissance castle, and little else. But in between the two sites lies a pretty striking and ornate web of streets with a pleasing atmosphere, all centered around an attractive town hall building with a dramatic onion-domed clock tower.

Entering the old town

I didn't get a photo of it, but on the balcony near the top of the town hall clock tower is this dark, cloaked figure who appears to be holding a lantern and a battle axe. Perhaps this fellow protects the town?

Kežmarok made its name in the 13th century for its big cheese market, but over the centuries was granted royal privileges to get involved in other trades too, elevating the town's status to that of neighbors like Levoča. Much like Bardejov and Levoča, Kežmarok had a large population of Carpathian German settlers. Its name is a Slovakized version of the German word for 'cheese market' (Käsemarkt).

By the time we reached Kežmarok, it was 5:00 PM, and feeling utterly exhausted from all the driving, we thought we'd try to find a room in a hotel or pension and spend the night. We stumbled into Hotel Club, which had a friendly receptionist who told us they had a double room available for about €45, which was not bad considering this was quite a nice hotel. The receptionist even told us she'd hold the room for a half hour so we could compare prices with other nearby hotels, but they were all closed, so Hotel Club it was. Apart from a lack of A/C in the rooms (the halls and reception lobby were nice and cool, though), the place was fully modernized, the room was immaculate and quite comfortable, and the proprietors clearly have a deep passion for the color orange. The elevator made sci-fi bleeping sounds when you pressed the buttons, and a robotic female voice announced which floor you're on (just in case you're totally overwhelmed by the prospect of a two-story building and need to be told which floor is yours). The only thing indicating this hotel was probably in operation during communism was its groovy, modern, 196s/70s spiral staircase.

At any rate, after checking in we strolled the picturesque old town in search of a reasonably lively place to get a much-needed pint of beer, which we found at an outdoor pub bustling with locals right by the town hall.

Kežmarok's 13th-century catholic cathedral, the basilica of the holy cross, is quite fetching, with a high tower and a bastion, both topped with the kind of ornate Renaissance-era crenellations seen, for example, atop the old market hall in Krakow, or on the town hall in Levoča. The interior is one of the nicer, more ornate examples I've seen in Slovakia, with a nicely detailed ribbed vaulted ceiling and lots of wooden altars (one of which was apparently done by Levoča's Master Pavol). There were people in there praying and eyeing us suspiciously so I was feeling a bit awkward about snapping photos, but it was definitely worth a peak.

The 15th-century castle at the north end of the center has the distinction of being one of a handful of castles in Slovakia built on level ground, as opposed to up on a hill. That means the thick band of grass that surrounds the baseball diamond-shaped complex used to be the moat, and the walkway over that grass was once a bridge. The walls are also quite high, and topped with more of those ornate, Krakow-ian Renaissance crenellations. The castle was already closed when we got there, but the next morning we were able to take a peak in the courtyard, which has been converted into a big, open-air, multi-use space with an outdoor theater and numerous booths where people sell trinkets, crafts, and other crap. We didn't actually tour the castle, as we needed to get on the road, and the castle can be seen via guided tours only, and a guided tour only happens when five or more people show up. Still, it's quite an impressive structure.

The red church looks a bit Moorish in places, and some details are reminiscent of old synagogues. Come to think of it, it actually looks a bit Venetian, too. In fact, the church's design was originally intended for somewhere in the middle east, but for some reason someone wanted it for Kežmarok instead. The interior is especially fetching: a massive, spacious, airy, rectangular room which continues the mishmash of exotic styles found outside. Sadly, there were 'no photos' signs everywhere, and a stern looking woman selling postcards and tourist books in one of the pews was watching people like a hawk, so I couldn't get any shots of the cool interior.

Next door is a much older wooden evangelical church, which was closed. I was bit bummed because I've seen photos of the detailing inside, which is awesomely rich and unique. What can you do?

In Kežmarok's old town, much like in Bardejov's, you could see a smattering of tourists ogling the colorful facades, as well as groups of locals here and there on evening strolls, or just hanging out sipping beer on one of the outdoor patios of the few pubs. A few promising looking restaurant options, like a pizza joint, were already closed up, so we opted for the restaurant attached to our hotel, at which Terezia feasted on a passable helping of traditional Slovak fried cheese, and I on a decent plate of grilled trout.

In the morning we ambled around the old town some more, had some tasty tvaroh (sweetened farmer's cheese)-filled pastries from a local bakery and some outstanding, strong coffee from a nearby cafe. A work crew of largely Roma women in orange vests were sweeping a section of the main square not far away.

We both dug Kežmarok and think that it's definitely a worthwhile place to check out if you're in the area. It's probably a much nicer place to stay than nearby Poprad, though like Bardejov, there's not much here to hold one's interest for more than a day (though more than Bardejov).

Kežmarok may not be as breathtaking as Banská Štiavnica, or quite as ornate as Levoča, but it's still got a certain charm and a compelling atmosphere, and could give a lot of other historical Slovak towns a run for their money. The facades run the gamut from ornately goopy Habsburg to exposed stone grit, and I like that the ground-level windows of some dwellings were open in the hot evening air, allowing you to see into the living rooms of the people that live there. Plus, the dramatic views of the mighty High Tatra mountains in the background (seen on clear days) certainly don't hurt.

You can see the tips of the High Tatras mountains peaking over this building, as seen from the hotel room window.

The drive back

At any rate, we got back on the road by 9:30 AM or thereabouts. We had to head back to Podrečany, as that night Terezia was going to a 20-year class reunion for the business/vocational school she went to in Lučenec as a teenager. She literally hadn't seen most of her classmates in 20 years, so there was no way she was missing that.

To get back to Podrečany, we took one of my favorite routes: a lengthy, winding road that goes through some of the most beautiful forests and hilly terrain in the country, which we took last year on our way to and from Levoča.

Part of the appeal of this road is driving through the small villages and towns, which, as mentioned up above, fascinate me because they're so damn remote.

I mean, towns like Tisovec and Hnúšťa feel like the middle of f-ing nowhere and have a suitably down-at-the-heel look to match. The inhabitants in the streets, some of them pushing these two-wheeled carts full of junk or slowly riding these janky WWII-era bicycles donning soiled tracksuits (and in hot weather, the pot-bellied men are invariably shirtless), don't seem to be in any hurry. Typically, the slightly bigger towns have one big factory or plant or quarry on the outskirts, and that's presumably the primary source of local employment. I don't know why, but I'm intrigued by what appears to be a very slow and slightly rough lifestyle.

Factory in Hnúšťa

At any rate, we made it home in time for Terezia to get ready for her class reunion, and we got up early the next morning for the next leg of our mini-road trip, to Orava Castle.

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