Culture and Castles in Secret Slovakia
Story and photos by Tim Leffel

How does a tourism also-ran break into the big leagues? Slovakia tries to shake off the underdog label and join its neighbors in luring tourists to a "Capital of Culture" in Košice.

Spic Castle

Picture a grand stone castle on a difficult-to attack hill, surrounded by plains with nowhere to hide. Should you somehow manage to breach the main entrance, there's another right behind that, then another up a set of ramparts. At the very top is a fortified tower the leaders could retreat to and fire from if needed.

No, it's not a scene from The Hobbit, though it did serve as a set for a few movies set in the days of knights. Rather Spiš Castle, one of the few structures that managed to fend off the marauding Tartars in the 1200s. It was rebuilt several times and became one of the largest castles in all of Europe.

It's one of the most famous sites in Slovakia, though you could be forgiven if you couldn't name one single thing about Slovakia. On top of the problem of anonymity, people often confuse the name with Slovenia, a country on the border with Italy.

It doesn't help that no famous people have put the place on the map. Playing a game of "Name someone famous from ____" is easy with big countries, but as you head east into the former Iron Curtain nations of Europe, it's tougher. Still, you've got Bartok and Bela Lugosi from Hungary, Kundera and Kafka from the Czech Republic, Chopin and the last Pope from Poland, and for Slovakia…?

Andy Warhol's name keeps popping up soon after I land, but there's one tiny little problem: his parents moved to Pittsburg, USA before he was born. I flip through a tourism book about the eastern half of the country as we roll past onion-dome churches and stone castles on hillsides. In the famous people section I find a NHL hockey player even die-hard fans have probably never heard of, plus a Slovakian who was briefly the U.S. Treasury Secretary, with his signature on a batch of banknotes from a century ago.

As I read on I find that writer Sandor Marai was born in Kosice, but it was part of Hungary then and his works just recently got translated into Slovak. Writer Guyula Kosice took the name of the city as his own, but his family moved away when he was one and he spent his life in Argentina. Film director Juraj Jakubisco is obscure and lives in Prague, but he's still alive, so he wins the prize as the reigning Slovakian celebrity.

I get a quick history lesson from my first companion Ladislav, one of only four registered English-speaking guides in the eastern part of the country. He is worldly-wise, urbane, and one of the most refreshingly cynical tour guides I've ever met. He tells me the split of Czechoslovakia into two countries was mostly a power sharing deal. "If there had been a vote, probably 95 percent of the Slovak people would have voted no." The politicians wanted it though because it created twice as many positions for them, a lot of job security for their relatives. The Czech side had much more industry, while the Slovak side had more farming, so they knew all the power would be in Prague unless they split off. "For the Czechs, no big loss. For us though, it has been a struggle."


The Best-preserved City Center You've Never Heard Of
Košice (pronounced ko-Sheet-sa) only had some 80,000 inhabitants after World War II but is now the second-largest city in Slovakia, with 240,000 people. In the gorgeous center it feels like just the right size, with the wide boulevard being mostly pedestrian-only, cafes and bars on the sidewalk facing a Gothic church from the 14th century and a grand opera house finished in 1899, flanked by fountains.

My tri-lingual guide Maria picks me up on my first full day. She does her best to play the part of the rah-rah tourist guide the government tourism people usually set me up with, but her Hungarian heritage that landed her family on the wrong side of a randomly drawn border has kept the rose-colored glasses stowed away in a pocket. "It took the government 10 years to build this tunnel we're going through," she says as we head into the dark. "But it's closed for repairs more often than it's open." I check my seatbelt and watch for falling rocks.

Kosice historic center

She starts me out viewing the Dominica Cave, part of a UNESCO World Heritage site of 72 caverns. Bats whizz by my head as a guide turns on the lights and gives the same spiel he has given hundreds of times, Maria translating data about stalagmites and minerals. Unfortunately the most unique part is often closed: a boat ride that takes you along an underground river when the water is high enough. Upon disembarking, you're in Hungary.

The borders are as arbitrary above ground as below. Many countries in Europe were caught up in battles between warring alliances in the 1800s, then were mere chess pieces in negotiations at the end of both World Wars. Villages where everyone spoke Hungarian found themselves part of Romania. Ones where everyone spoke Slovak became part of Hungary. When the Russians came, "empathy" was the last word in their vocabulary and many had to pack up and leave with whatever they could carry. Now one of the region's best wine districts is split in half, Hungary making the famous Tokaj late harvest dessert wine on their side, Slovakia making delicious but little-known white wine on their side.

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