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|