A New Capital of Culture
Košice is situated between Budapest and Krakow, but suiting Slovakia's inability to catch a break, it's not currently on a regular rail line connecting the two. For better or worse, the city is also not one that has been caught up in the Ryanair effect. That airline doesn't bring planeloads of 48-hour drunks from England, nor does any other. Much of the international traffic is charter flights for locals heading out on vacations.
So while the capital of Bratislava gets its share of cheap drink partiers and river cruisers, the rest of the country lies in wait for the world to wake up to its charms. This year may see the word get out finally as Košice is one of two European Capitals of Culture in 2013, the first time since the program started decades ago that it has included a city in Slovakia. Over 10 million euros has gone into the project, sprucing up the city, bringing in performers, and establishing some unused public spaces into temporary art galleries. This includes the Kunsthalle building where my guide Ladi swam as a child, now broken and abandoned, parts of the roof falling in. When I tell him the local tourism people will mount exhibitions there, he smirks. "The government was going to fix this road we're on right now too," he says, as we bump over some potholes.
Regardless of how much is actually done, the schedule of public art and performances means this is a prime year to visit and the after-effects should live on in the future. The goal is to draw on the past heritage of the arts, take advantage of the beautiful opera house, and promote the city as a haven for artists in residence. A post-industrial hub for creative types.
A Very Tall Alter and the Cage of Shame
The third-largest city in Slovakia is Prešov, with a mere 91,000 people. It's the home of the biggest brewery and a salt mining operation. The first time we drive through it, Maria mentions the 14th-century gothic cathedral of St. Nicholas. The second time she mentions a wine museum and a juice museum. I can understand the wine displays, but "a juice museum?" I ask.
"Yes", she says, "the building is from 1898."
"Well, what kind of things are inside?"
"I don't know a lot of the words in English," she explains. "But things they use in their worship services and in their homes when they pray."
"Ah okay, a Jews museum, yes." I scribble out the word with a question mark in my notes, writing a more sensible description of Prešov.
In the town of Levoča, I finally discover a Slovakian claim to fame that doesn't need the word "but." Inside the Late Gothic Catholic church of St. James is the highest carved wooden alter in the world. Completed nearly 500 years ago, it stands 18.6 meters (61 feet). Nearby is something you don't see too often in a town square, though it was probably quite common when it was erected in the 17th century: a "cage of shame" where criminals were locked up in public view, exposed to the elements.
Later that day I find out the Kosice hosts the oldest marathon in Europe. Two superlatives in one day, no asterisks required. We're making progress.
Still, I've got a quest left to find the truly unique, the unusual, the facets of eastern Slovakia that will really draw visitors looking for something they can't find elsewhere. I would gladly hang out in Kosice's cafes for a week or two drinking good beer and local wine, living the writer's life. Seeing Lubovna Castle is like walking into many of the books I loved most in my youth. The High Tatras Mountains are on my "return someday" list for skiing or multi-day hiking. Partly because of the shifting borders, however, it's hard to look at some of these great attractions without mistaking them for something I've seen elsewhere in the region.
Into the Gorge
I find the elusive experience I can't get anywhere else when we arrive at the Dunajec River, in the far north. The river forms a border—one that actually makes sense this time—between Slovakia and Poland. Two towns on opposite sides of the river have hotels, boat launches, bike rental shops, and lots and lots of liquor stores. When the euro is weak against the Polish zloty, the Poles walk over the bridge and buy their booze here. When the reverse happens, the traffic goes the other way.
The main reason to come here is to board a traditional wooden boat and ride the current down the river, through a canyon flanked by rock formations, past a trail that used to be used by men and donkeys hauling barges to and from the Baltic Sea.
The men who guide the boats are in funny vests, and even funnier hats. But the navigation is no joke. These guys know the river well and that's a good thing. We're bobbing along in a wooden boat not much different than the navigators used in the olden days. The current is swift as we glide past limestone cliffs and rock formations 300 meters high. The oarsman is sweating profusely under his wool cap, the guide is probably warning us all about the perils that could face us round the bend—I don't know because English is at least fourth on the list for preferred languages of the visitors in these parts.
With barely a splash and no fear for our lives, we arrive at the dismounting point. Still, a ride like no other, something that will stick in my memory as a Slovakian experience that I can't duplicate elsewhere. I've only had five days here, so what else could I find if I stayed on for longer…?
If you go:
A good guidebook will trump anything you can find online in English for the Košice region of Slovakia, but there is a well-done website for the Capital of Culture 2013 events. The best hotels in the city are Golden Royal and Hilton Doubletree. At Macik Winery in the Tokaj region you can spend the night after sipping and pairing. Contact the Regional Information Center for guides, local tours, and good tourism information brochures for regional attractions.
Editor Tim Leffel has won dozens of travel writing awards and is the author of four books, including the new 4th edition of The World's Cheapest Destinations. See more at TimLeffel.com.
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