Saturday, December 30, 2017

Another Xmas and New Year's in Slovakia: Part 2 - Lučenec, Halič, and More

I suppose it goes without saying that traveling with a baby can be rough. Simon has had us on a  bizarre and exhausting sleep schedule whereby he wakes up around 4:30 am and, if we're lucky, he goes back to sleep around 5:30, and, if we're even luckier, we get to sleep a little more too. But this has meant that by 7:00 in the evening, when Simon normally goes to bed, we're completely wiped out and we end up involuntarily crashing around then too. Pathetic, I know.

For this reason, we've been taking it relatively easy on this trip and we're being far less ambitious with our plans and our time. Suffice it to say, we're not going to be taking any long train rides to Prague on this trip, and we'll likely be staying closer to home.

A Riveting Morning in Lučenec

On the Wednesday after Christmas day, we went into nearby Lučenec and piddled around. I've mentioned Lučenec before as being the closest town of any significance to Terezia's parents' village. It has a population of roughly 30,000, and for years its unemployment level has hovered around 14 percent. For most tourists there's really nothing to do or see in Lučenec. It's kind of a sad, grey, run-down town with lots of little casinos, commie-era bleakness, and lots of guys, both young and old, with bad haircuts and cheap track suits smoking and milling about like they've got nowhere to be, and women with unnaturally colored hair.

But when you walk through the very center of town, you can spot pockets of attractive, ornate, and colorful art nouveau facades and some old, appealingly crumbly buildings that hint at a time when the town held more importance and even exuded a bit of class. Lučenec was the capital of the historical Novohrad (New Castle) region when it was part of the Kingdom of Hungary, and remains the region's main town and economic center. Though governed by Hungarians for much of its history, it was conquered by the Hussites in the mid 1400s, and Ottomans took control of it for almost half of the 1500s and then again for nearly all of the 1600s.

Lučenec was decimated in the mid 1800s during an anti-Habsburg revolt, but its inhabitants managed to rebuild it in 10 years. The town also became a thriving industrial spot around that time with brickworks and tanneries, but that dwindled in the 20th century along with the town's importance, and it never really managed to recover. In the early 2000s, a proposed silicate mining project looked like it might turn Lučenec's fortunes around, but for whatever reason, it never got off the ground.

It's abundantly clear that the communists really did a number on Lučenec. Most notably, they razed a considerable portion of the downtown area to make room for a public square (Námestie Republiky) so sprawling and massive that it looks as if it were intended for military parades or showing off fleets of Soviet tanks (my friend James had a similar impression). But in 2015, a tacky, multi-level indoor shopping mall with an exterior that looks like it's encrusted in cheap hard candy, called Galéria, was built on the square. And yet, the square is so damn big that the mall only took up less than half of it. What remains of Námestie Republiky is still vast.

You can see here the vastness of the town's communist-era square, Námestie Republiky, even with the tacky shopping mall in the background.

Terezia has a connection to Lučenec. She went to a business academy there for secondary school, where students studied business management and administrative stuff. For a while, she lived at her grandparents' house in the nearby village Tomášovce (just to the northwest), and she would take the train into Lučenec each morning and walk across the downtown to school.

These days Lučenec is the town where people in surrounding villages like Podrečany go to shop at big grocery or department stores, and take care of various things like renewing your driver's license or going to the bank. Importantly, Lučenec has an awesome butcher shop that sells some of our very favorite Slovak sausages. Lučenec is also home to Záhradná, a reportedly Croat-run ice cream shop that makes the best ice cream I've found so far in all of Slovakia.

We strolled through Galéria, ambled around the old town, and then drove past the old business academy. To cap off our excursion, we stopped by the beautiful old synagogue, which recently underwent a massive restoration. Before World War II, Lučenec had a large Jewish population, and this grand synagogue, with capacity of 11,000, is just about all that remains of their history there. Like nearly all synagogues in Slovakia, this one was abandoned and neglected for decades after WWII, as the majority of Jews from Slovakia who survived the Holocaust did not return and fled for good (many had their homes/property taken, and they weren't going to get it back, so they had nothing to return to). Lučenec's synagogue was apparently used by the state to store artificial fertilizer for many years during communism, but from the 1980s onward it just sat there fenced in, boarded up, and strewn with weeds and vermin.

Lučenec's synagogue before restoration (in 2012)
And after restoration

For years most towns didn't know what to do with their abandoned synagogues and weren't able to fork over the huge sums of money needed to restore them. But in the last decade or so, some towns finally managed to find uses for their synagogues, typically with help from EU grants for the badly needed restoration, and turned them into art galleries, theaters, cultural centers, or places people can rent for weddings or other functions. Lučenec finally got around to restoring its synagogue several years ago, with help from a €2.3-million EU grant, and now the project is complete and the building has been turned into a multi-use cultural center.

Built in the mid 1920s, the synagogue was designed by Hungarian architect Lipot Barnhaum, who was well known at the time for his designs of another 20 or so synagogues all around Hungary. The synagogue was closed when we swung by, so we only saw the exterior. It's a gorgeous building, though, so I'm really glad that they didn't bulldoze it or let it fall completely apart.

Not far from the synagogue are a couple of narrow streets with older looking houses. I'm told that this is where the town's Jewish residents lived. When they were rounded up and sent away to concentration camps during WWII, locals looted the homes and gradually commandeered the property.

The outer ring of Lučenec is pretty much all communist-era paneláks, and there are an awful lot of them. When driving through that part of town, it's easy to see why people here drink so much.

Halič Castle

Halič is a charmingly ramshackle village just to the northwest of Lučenec that boasts an attractive, striking castle. A major and ambitious decade-long restoration project for the castle was finally completed in 2016, and it's now a five-star hotel with a cafe, restaurant, and spa. Terezia and I took her mom and Simon up to the castle later that day to have coffee and cake in the cafe and to check the place out.

You can see the Halič castle sitting majestically on its hilltop from miles around in all directions, and I've always admired it from the various roads below. Its Renaissance-Baroque style and six ornate dome-capped towers really make it stand out. Halič is also notable for the fact that it's one of the few castles in the region that wasn't obliterated by Ottomans, Habsburgs, Hussites, etc., and is not lying in ruin today. (It actually was destroyed in some mid-18th-century conflict, but quickly rebuilt in its more Baroque style and made to look more palace-like.) I'd always wanted to see it up close, but during its restoration it was totally fenced off, and if you approached the padlocked chainlink gate near the bottom of the hill, vicious German shepherds would come charging down the driveway on the other side of the fence and bark angrily.

The first written mention of the castle was in 1386, though the village of Halič supposedly dates back to the 12th century, and it's possible a castle in a different form existed at that time too. Interestingly, the castle managed to remain under the ownership of one family, the noble Hungarian Forgáchs, from 1554 to 1948, which is unusual for a region where castles seemed to constantly change hands.

[I'm just guessing here, but I wonder if the Forgáchs lost the castle, and were expelled from what was by that point Czechoslovakia, because of the post-WWII Beneš decrees, since they were Hungarian. The controversial Beneš decrees expelled millions of ethnic German and Hungarian inhabitants from Czechoslovakia in the years immediately following WWII, many of whom had roots in the area going back generations, and often no roots in modern-day Germany or Hungary where they were forced to flee to. Read more about the tragic and devastating mess that resulted from the Beneš decrees here.]

At any rate, during communism, the state used the castle as a mental hospital from the early 1950s until the 80s, which adds a potentially disturbing layer to its history, as I can only imagine how people with severe mental illness were treated by the communist state. According to the hotel's website, the building underwent considerable reconstruction in the 1950s to convert it to a psych ward, all of which had to be undone for its recent restoration. From the early 90s onward, the castle was abandoned by the state and left to deteriorate at the hands of vandals and mother nature.

Today when you approach the castle, it's immediately clear a lot of money was pumped into its restoration. Honestly, it's a little bit posh and glitzy in a Habsburg/Hofburg Palace kind of way for my tastes, but even so, it's incredibly nice (and almost weirdly decadent) for an area known more for high unemployment and relative poverty. The castle would probably seem more at home in Vienna or Bratislava, but at the same time, the surrounding village below and the panoramic views of the surrounding rural scenery are quite picturesque, so visually, at least, it's a fitting location for a hotel of this ilk. If it brings more money and jobs to the area, and maybe a few more tourists, all the better for it.

As for the restoration, a massive modern glass dome has been installed over the castle's big central courtyard, which has been turned into a spacious cafe. The hotel has a reportedly good (and sort of pricey) restaurant in a separate (and very Baroque) room off to the right. The upper floors house the hotel's rooms, and I believe the spa is down below (in the former dungeon, perhaps?).

It was kind of fun to sit there and take in all the detail and the vastness of the space while sipping drinks and keeping Simon occupied. Simon was being very chatty and charmingly oblivious to how his babbling was reverberating throughout the echoey space. There were a few other babies there, so no one seemed to mind. The cafe's coffee wasn't the most amazing in the world, but their hot chocolate was tasty and rich. I just don't like being served coffee by people in bowties and black vests, though the service was much friendlier than normal for Slovakia, and it felt more laid back than the posh appearance of the place would suggest.

The castle appears to be doing okay so far, and the cafe was reasonably full when we were there, but I do have to wonder just whom this hotel is catering to. I think it's way too far off the beaten path for most American/Rick Steves-reading tourists, not to mention most British or western European travelers, most of whom seldom venture beyond Bratislava. I doubt there's enough business-related activity in the region to lure anyone on out-of-town business trips either. I suspect its clientele consists mostly of well-off Slovaks and Hungarians, maybe Russians too, and possibly some Czechs. Spa culture is huge among Slovaks, Czechs, Hungarians, and other central and eastern Europeans, and the facility's spa probably plays a big part in luring clientele. The castle also has banquet rooms that can be rented for weddings and other functions, so that's surely another source of revenue. Either way, I'm glad that centuries-old buildings like this are being preserved, but I hope it can stay in business.

For such a swanky hotel, their cheaper double rooms are fairly reasonable, starting at around €140 per night, which actually includes time in the spa. For all but the most well-off Slovaks that's a pretty outrageous price, but by broader European standards it's not bad for a special splurge-y hotel stay.

In fact, the next time Terezia and I are staying in Podrečany, we definitely want to book at least one night there and leave Simon with her parents for some much-needed alone time. It wasn't going to happen on this trip because Simon is still a bit of a handful - even though we could desperately use a night off! - but Terezia warned her mom that on our next visit they'll definitely get to have Simon for at least a night.

If you're interested, check out the history section of the hotel's website for more information, as well as some old pre-communist photos of the castle.

Dull Vígľaš Castle, Detva, and an Unfortunately Named Cafe

The following day it was raining, with the sky an oppressively dreary grey, and we went to visit a childhood friend of Terezia's who currently lives in the town of Detva, and who recently had a baby daughter who is just a few months older than Simon. We had some time to kill before meeting her, so we drove a little ways up the highway northwest, past Detva, to have lunch at some newish restaurant by the village of Vígľaš and to check out the newly restored Vígľaš castle.

Near the bottom of the hill at Vígľaš, we couldn't help but notice the perplexingly named Brexit Cafe. I'd love to know what the hell the owners were thinking. Are they enthusiastic far-right Euroskeptics? Were they hoping to corner the market on rightwing nationalist Brit tourists? Or were they just trying to come up with something topical and catchy? Why name your cafe after something that's so polarizing and controversial (and, in my humble opinion, such a colossal and profoundly idiotic mistake)? At any rate, this was so surreal that we had to stop and take a photo.

What the hell? The perplexingly named Brexit Cafe in Vígľaš

I don't have as much to say about Vígľaš castle, in part because we didn't spend much time there. Like Halič, Vígľaš was recently reconstructed/restored and converted into a snazzy hotel/spa/restaurant, but unlike Halič, its looks don't make quite as much of an impression. Also, Vígľaš was in a significantly more ruinous state before its reconstruction than Halič (its roof was gone and the interior was gutted and completely overgrown with trees and foliage) and probably required a lot more work.

I always used to admire the castle from below on the train to Podrečany when it would pass around the base of the hill, and from the car when driving by on the highway. However, the reconstruction job seems to have made the whole thing look a little boring and less evocative.

Here's Vígľaš castle in a photo I took when passing it on the highway, back in February 2012, with the reconstruction well underway.

The fact that the exterior walls were coated in drab, boring grey/beige plaster really doesn't help, which is made all the more noticeable by a few rectangular patches on the facade that expose the cool, rustic stonework beneath it. The castle would've looked much cooler - not to mention more medieval and castle-like - if they'd left all the stonework exposed. Notice in the first picture of the castle up above, from 2012, that with the exception of that crenelated tower on the right, most of the stonework was still exposed, and it looked more striking. (It's not the most amazing castle, architecturally, to begin with, though.)

Notice the patch of exposed stonework on the wall here. This castle would've looked way more interesting if they'd left the entire exterior that way.

Like most castles in the region, Vígľaš was owned by a cast of Hungarian noblemen, and for a time in the 1300s, it was connected through one resident to The Hungarian Brotherhood-Knights of St. George. The castle went through the usual round of renovations and extensions over the centuries, but managed to survive relatively intact until WWII, during which it was severely damaged.

Vígľaš has two courtyards, and this is the outer one where you first enter the complex.

We didn't go inside, but the interior looks nice in photos.

Detva, where Terezia's friend lives, is actually where Terezia was born (there was no maternity hospital in Terezia's nearby hometown, Hriňová; Detva is a noticeably bigger town than Hriňová). Detva is known around the country for proudly carrying on Slovakia's folk traditions, including folk music and dance, and the detailed and colorful kroj patterns on the traditional peasant garb. The town hosts a big folklore festival every year in the summer. When you enter Detva from the highway, it's all blocky, grey, dreary commie-era paneláks, leaving you to wonder how on earth this town became the steward of the country's folk heritage. But if you keep driving deeper into it, you see streets lined with unusually well-preserved traditional, long, narrow-fronted rural houses which people appear to be living in. Unfortunately, it was raining too hard to get any decent photos.

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