The eastern part of the Slovak Republic is popular with Slovak vacationers, but not as well-known otherwise (except for the High Tatras, dramatic mountains that draw millions of visitors a year). If you're having trouble keeping track of what's what in Europe, Slovakia was the eastern part of Czechoslovakia for a while; this eastern part of the country shares a border with Poland, Ukraine and Hungary. I came here because I'd heard that it's different than the western Czech Republic (where I spent a few months last year, living in Prague). And it is different: it feels less "western" and more like I imagine life might have been in this part of the world during the socialist times of the 1980s and before. I'll try to show a bit of both worlds.
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|Košice is the second-largest
city in Slovakia. U.S. Steel owns a big plant here. From what I could
see, a lot of its 250,000 residents live in the typical big apartment
blocks that line the city in concentric rings. (The photo shows
apartments, on a hill in the distance, over the top of a grimy railroad
car.) I stayed in a high-rise hotel on one of those rings, an easy tram
ride away from the center, where I caught trains and buses around this
part of the country. Compared to western Europe, things are cheap. For
instance, a 2-hour bus ride cost about two euros (two US dollars), and
a 120-km ride on a fast train cost three.
Košice's old center is pretty, clean, and lively, and the rest is just... well, lively. There's plenty of dirt, graffiti is everywhere, the air in the city and far out in the country is polluted, and the service in most businesses I tried was anything but friendly. Still, after most of a week here, I started to feel a bit at home. If you're only looking for beauty when you travel, I'd recommend someplace else. But if you're looking for "real" and "interesting", you may like it! Especially outside of Košice...
|...the skanzen (open-air museum) at Bardejovské Kúpele, for instance. You'll find these collections of old buildings all over the Slovak and Czech Republics, but my guidebook recommended this as one of the best. It's in a peaceful little spa town (where you can sample the waters, even if you aren't a guest) near the northeastern corner of Slovakia, a two-hour bus ride from Košice. A skanzen shows a lot about what life could be like in the villages around the country... peoples' ingenuity at making a life from simple things.|
|Four kilometers down the road is
Bardejov, another Slovak city with a huge contrast between the pretty
center and the not-so-pretty outskirts. Bardejov still has most of its
original fortifications; outside those city walls, the picture is
really different. Still, here in the center, it's easy to think (when
you ignore the tourist shops) that you've gone back in time. And if you really want to go back in time, you
can step into the town hall museum...
|...where you'll find a wonderful
collection of old artifacts, books, religious art, and more.
|Another impossibly-cute town is Kežmarok, which is 10 km or so north of Poprad. This photo, made from three shots stitched together, shows the south end of the hrad (castle). I got to Kežmarok by taking a fast train from Kosice to Poprad, then hopping one of the frequent buses north. I like riding local buses: they give you a chance to be around local people, hear the language (and try speaking a bit yourself), see more of the sights, and generally get a richer experience than you would in a rental car.|
|As you ride along between
Kežmarok and Poprad, you may be able to admire the peaks of the High
Tatras jutting out of the valley. I say "may" because, if the pollution
is as bad as it was on this day (after a couple of weeks without rain),
they'll be just a faint outline.
Go east from Poprad and you'll reach Levoča, another tourist magnet on the model of Bardejov. To me, though, it had more of a "city" feel than Bardejov or Kežmarok. So, although my guidebook raved about Levoča, I wandered around for an hour or two, had some Slovak knedliky (stuffed potato dumplings, covered with sour cream and bacon) for lunch, and caught a bus back to Kosiče to make some web pages ;-).
This photo is one of the panels of a construction wall around the Church of St. James (kostol sv Jakabu) -- which, if I'd been able to get inside, might have changed the amount of time I spent in Levoča. (The altar inside, the largest in the world, is supposed to be fantastic.) I guess this art will be lost when the church is finished, so I snapped photos of it and a lot of the other creative views of the town. (The building in the center, for instance, is a fanciful version of the city hall next door.)
(These photographs are Copyright © 2003 by Jerry Peek. Much higher-resolution versions of most images, and many other images too, are available at Jerry Peek Photography. Photos are available at reduced prices, or free, for non-commercial use.)