Part 2 of Leslie Turek’s Journey to Slovakia
After driving east for another hour or so, passing through several industrial towns like Poprad with acres of concrete apartment blocks, we crested a hill and looked down on the walled city of Levoča, which was quite peaceful in the afternoon sunlight. To the north, a lovely cream-colored church dominated a high grassy hill above the city. From this view, we didn’t see the apartment blocks because they were hidden down in a hollow below the city walls.
We drove on and entered the city through one of the big arched gateways in the outer wall, which could only allow one car to pass through at a time.
Levoča was one of the more prominent towns of the Spiš region, which was settled by German merchants in the 13th century, after Tatar invaders had pushed the native inhabitants into the hills and essentially depopulated the area. All of these towns have a similar plan based around a large town square containing important public buildings. In Levoča, the town square is about a quarter mile long, and contains two churches, the city hall, and some other municipal buildings. The square is bordered by 16th-century burgher houses, all painted various pastel colors with renaissance facades featuring pillars (in relief or simply painted on), graceful window decorations, and often friezes or painted decorations on the wall surfaces.The town is a protected historical area, so the square has a uniform architectural aspect, and many of the buildings are being restored. The over-all effect is very pleasing to the eye.
The only thing that mars the beauty of the town (in my opinion) is that the streets are lined by rows of pollarded trees. Pollarding, which means cutting back all of the branches to the same place each year, is a common practice in European cities because it keeps the trees to a manageable size. But it is not used much in the U. S. because the tortured stumps look so ugly in the winter. (It’s also a lot of maintenance work to cut them back every fall.) In the U.S., we prefer to plant trees that naturally keep to the desired size and don’t need to be radically pruned. (Okay, end of diatribe.)
Another important feature of the town is the work of Master Pavol, a famous 16th-century sculptor who lived in Levoča and carved many beautiful religious works of art, including a huge altar in the Roman Catholic church. Unfortunately, I never did get to see his work because the church is only open at certain times and the museums all seemed to be closed whenever I had a free minute to visit them. So I had to content myself with pictures in guidebooks and the reproductions that could be find in some of the restaurants.
After parking in the town square, we searched about for a few minutes and located the Penzion pri Košickej brane (“pension near the Košice gate”), right next to the Hotel Barbakan, where my father had stayed on his previous visit.
We entered the penzion through a solid, carved wooden double door that creaked as it opened, letting us into an arched hallway with a stone floor. There were doors to either side opening into offices, then a heavy metal barred gate, rather like the portcullis in a castle. On the gate was a sign for the penzion, and a buzzer. We tried the buzzer and waited, but nothing happened. Finally, a young boy came in and indicated that the gate was unlocked and the penzion was upstairs.
So we tramped up the broad stone stars to the second floor, where there was a hallway with a row of shoes parked next to a doorway. The boy knocked on the door and out came a woman who didn’t seem surprised to see us and asked in Slovak if we were the Tureks. We said we were, and she went off in a barrage of Slovak which was too fast for my father to understand. We determined that she couldn’t speak English, but she did speak German, and even though we knew even less German than Slovak, she plunged ahead in German, which was really confusing.
Somehow we managed to confirm that we had reservations for two rooms, which were farther upstairs, and we could park our car in back for a small extra charge. She gave us each a ring of 4 color-coded keys, to open our rooms, the front door, the metal grate door, and a back door. The boy, Tibor (apparently her son), showed us the rooms, which were plain but satisfactory, and went out with us to show us where to park our car, since that required some maneuvering around the block and down narrow streets. We then hauled our bags up and got settled in.
My room was on the 4th floor, off a balcony over a dimly-lit common sitting area that consisted of a couch and chair with slightly tatty sheepskin throws, two plastic potted plants, and a television set without a remote control that pulled in 2 or 3 local stations. There was also a shared kitchen, but we were disappointed to find there was no refrigerator, so we couldn’t keep cold drinks or milk for breakfast.
The room was spartan, but adequate and clean. No bathtub, unfortunately, just a shower and a working toilet, two single platform beds with thick warm featherbed coverlets, a wardrobe, desk, side table, and two straight-back chairs. The window was high on the wall – almost a skylight – so I couldn’t really look out at the city. My only complaints were the door handle, which tended to fall off whenever I used it (until I developed a technique for closing the door without pulling on the handle), and the towels, which were small and thin and never replenished for the 11 days I stayed there.
Of course, we couldn’t complain about the price, which was something like $10 a night. There are very few good hotels in this area of Slovakia. They are either small old buildings like our penzion, or uncomfortable concrete monstrosities left over from the Communist era. Later in the trip, we did see some ski resorts in the mountains that looked like they might offer somewhat better accommodations.
It was still early, so after settling in we took a quick drive around town looking for a place to buy some food to keep in our rooms. We couldn’t change money as the banks had already closed, but my father had some cash left from his last trip – about 400 crowns (Sk), equivalent to about $10.00 U.S.
It was hard to tell where we could get food as many of the stores were already closed and the ones that were open weren’t always obvious. Because all the buildings on the square were several hundred years old, they didn’t have big plate glass windows and doors, and it was hard to see what was inside. Also, many of the shops were not entered directly from the street – first you have to go into the building through a central door and then enter the shops from this corridor.
Finally we noticed a small line of people waiting to get into one tiny store that appeared to be a food store. We got in line, but couldn’t understand what the people were waiting for, as there appeared to be space in the store for them to go in.
We asked if anyone spoke English, and one young man in the line responded. He explained that they were waiting for a shopping cart to become free. Apparently the etiquette was to wait until someone checking out freed up a cart, and then to take the cart and enter. No one seemed to even consider the idea of going in without a cart, even if you were only getting a few things that you could carry in your hands. It seemed very strange.
Anyway, we finally got in and had a confusing time figuring out foods and prices. For example, the bananas initially seemed awfully expensive, but it later turned out that the price was quoted in halers (100ths of a crown), so they were really incredibly cheap. For packaged foods, we had to figure out contents by the pictures on the label. Also, the store was very small, and the traffic flow was in one direction, so if you missed something, you felt like you were breaking protocol to go back and look for it. It made me feel a little like a bull in a china shop. It was hard to think of what we could keep in the rooms without a refrigerator, but I eventually got some bananas and some bread and jam. My father bought some Coke, but I didn’t think I’d want to drink warm Coke, so I passed it up.
At the checkout, we discovered that everything was incredibly cheap and used up only a small fraction of our 400 crowns. We also discovered that the store did not provide bags – all the local shoppers knew this, of course, and had brought their own – so we juggled our purchases as we carried them out to the car.
After shopping, my father was still (amazingly) full of energy, and couldn’t resist the idea of driving up to Torysky, just to take a quick look. The relatives weren’t expecting us until morning, when we would have a translator with us, so we wouldn’t drop in, we’d just take a quick look and return to the penzion.
Just out of town we stopped at a gas station to buy some cold drinks and bottled water. My father got into a Slovak conversation with the attendant and because of the context and the hand gestures, I was amazed to find that I could pretty much understand what he was saying, and even learned a few new words. He said that he was going to visit family (rodina) in Torysky, that his father (otec) from Torysky had gone to America, and that we were staying (doma) in Levoča and going to visit Torysky tomorrow (zajtra). I was pretty excited that I could follow the conversation.
We continued to drive north over one ridge of hills and up and into a second ridge behind it. The countryside was gorgeous, an ever-changing tapestry of rolling hills, mountain meadows, and stands of conifers, oak and birch trees. Sometimes the trees lined the roads in a pattern that must have been planted. You could tell from the types of trees and the heavy concentration of sand and salt on the road that they have cold and snowy winters there. The type of landscape we were seeing was the type of landscape I have always found the most beautiful when I see something similar to it in the U.S. I wondered if I had inherited some sort of genetic memory of how a landscape ought to look from my grandfather and his fathers who lived here for hundreds of years.
We passed a spring, and my father said that my grandfather told him about walking along this road to Levoča (a 12-mile trip), and stopping at the spring to rest. (Now they have bus service, so people from the villages can work in Levoča on a daily basis.)
My grandfather had returned only that one time, in 1972. He was very nervous about coming since the country was under Communist rule, and because he had originally left illegally, so he was afraid that he would be detained and not allowed to return to the U.S. But nothing happened, thank goodness. I felt a lot of emotion – glad that he had a chance to walk these hills again and meet his younger siblings – some of whom hadn’t even been born before he left. But also wistful that he wasn’t with us now, to see that my father and I had come home, and to hear him tell us stories about his youth.
We drove through several small villages, each with many old log houses. They are called “ribbon villages” in the guidebooks because the houses are built in long rows along two sides of the stream (potok) that runs down the middle. The roads, which usually follow the course of the streams anyway, go right down the center of the villages.
Every village had a church and graveyard, usually situated on a windy hillside at the edge of the village. We smelled woodsmoke and baking bread and the earthy smells of animals and farmyards. In one village, we saw children playing a game that was unmistakably hide and seek. Now and then we passed a religious shrine by the side of the road – sometimes just a crucifix, but usually a small shelter with a crucifix and altar inside.
Finally we got to the outskirts of Torysky, a ribbon village tucked into a narrow valley between steep hillsides. There wasn’t much cultivated land near the village, and it was clear that it was difficult hilly land and was probably never very rewarding for farming. We learned later that there are many empty houses and most of the people left in the village are older people on pensions or middle-aged people who work in town. Most of the younger people have left to live in bigger towns and cities.
Dusk was settling in, so after a quick look, we turned around and made our way back to Levoča and to a hotel called the Arcada, where we ate dinner in their grotto restaurant. Hotels are good places to eat because they generally take credit cards and offer their menus in Slovak, German, and English. (Although often the English doesn’t help all that much because they like to use colorful made-up names for the dishes, like “White Lady platter”, which don’t tell you much.)
I ordered chicken noodle soup and beef goulash with dumplings. They were out of beef goulash, so I ate venison goulash instead, which was pretty good. Except that the dumplings were not the little bits of dough I expected, but were large, spongy, bread-like things that came in slices. They had Coke on the menu, but no Diet Coke, and the regular Coke was very different from the U.S. version. It was flatter, more syrupy, and somewhat bitter, and was served without ice. So it wasn’t very refreshing. My father had steak, and a cup of very strong coffee, which he greatly enjoyed. The whole meal for both of us came to something like $6 or $7 U.S.
We drove back to the parking place behind the hotel and looked up at a clear sky with the Big Dipper and the North star noticeably higher than at home (we were at 48 degrees latitude). I was really tired by now and slept like a log on my really firm bed.