the upper level corridor of the Bartolomej mine in Banska Stiavnica

The thing to do in Banska Stiavnica is to visit mines, of which there are several in and around town; the one that gets you underground is the true highlight, of course.

Everywhere in Banska Stiavnica you are confronted with the mining history of the town. The logo, a hammer and pickaxe, can be found even in the frescos on the town hall. Sculptures of miners, souvenir shops with mining souvenirs, but mostly, the town’s museums. There is a museum of mining technology, and another has an extensive collection of minerals, but more appealing are the old mine shafts and corridors.

the minerology section of the Berggericht Mining Museum in Banska Stiavnica

with lots of excellent local specimen on view

the mine entrance, closed when we got there

the building over the Glanzenberg mine, near the town centre

In the town itself there are two of those, open to the public. The Glanzenberg Adit is a 16th Century mine corridor that over a distance of 450 slopes down to 32 meters below surface, ending up right under the city centre. It derives its fame from its past visitors, including one of the emperors – but we have to line up with the group, which has left already by the time we get there. The other one in town is the Berggericht, where a short mining tunnel, Michal, is easily accessible, and adorned with various equipment, trains, wagons and the like.

the Michel mine, part of the Berggericht Mining Museum

with a wide corridor in a U-shape

and plenty of equipment on show

the real thing, the shaft of the Open Air Mining Museum

at the surface, mine constructions

like the one over the Sofia mine shaft – Sofia for scale

The real thing, however, is the Open-Air Mining Museum, a little outside town. A surface exposition shows some of the above ground original mining buildings, machinery, and some of the more modern equipment, as well as rocks – part of the recent Geopark project. But everybody here comes for the mine itself, a 90 minute tour underground, down the Bartolomej shaft and various corridors, exploring the two shallowest levels. We had asked for an English-language guide – we are not going to listen to 90 minutes explanation in Slovak -, and that proved to be a golden move. The group of around 50 local people went first, and the two of us, plus guide Anna, followed at a respectable distance. Effectively turning our tour in a private, VIP visit.

brilliant engine in the depot

and lots of other rolling stock, too

inside the Bartolomej mine

and another view of the corridor

this is about as narrow as it gets: quite narrow, and quite low, not for the claustrophobic amongst us

and stairs lead to a corridor that followed a specific seam

So we started at the depot, where a whole range of old tarin engines were stalled. We followed some corridors, and up and down stairs, created to chase specific seems – not normally open to the public, and you can see why, you don’t want a group of 50 there. And Anna patiently explained the various techniques used over the centuries; the first mining here was done in the 14th Century, whilst the last mine closed only in 1993. There are 40 different levels that have been mined, and apparently there is 2000 km (!!!) of mining corridors under Banska Stianvica. At various places in the corridors examples of antique equipment can be spotted, from wood stacks that were used to crack the rocks to various types of drills to all kind of wagons to transport the ore – or to serve as underground toilet. There is even a construction with a horse-drawn wheel – old photos show how horses were transported in huge baskets down the shaft! – to drain water from the mine. We spent almost two hours underground, sometimes just about managing the claustrophobic and damp corridors, other times climbing stairs, and all the time happy for the hardhats we were given at the start. Great fun!

our guide Anna, and a well-dressed haphazard tourist, at a mechanical construction that used horses

more equipment in one of the coves

and this is the underground toilet, part of the rolling stock

more wagons, and a loading station

not one, but two haphazard tourists, helmed and masked

mining is everywhere in Banska Stiavnica, as in this symbol on the townhall

The UNESCO listed town of Banska Stiavnica is beautifully restored an booming from tourism, yet, the memory of mining – the source of its ertswhile wealth – is still everywhere.

Banska Stiavnica’s history is classical one of boom and bust. Located in the caldera of a huge volcano, the surroundings of the town were recognised early as rich in minerals, especially gold and silver. There are some traces of Neolithic settlements, and of 3rd Century Celts, but the earliest ‘modern’ town with fortifications really only developed in the 10th and 11th Century. The first boom, however, occurred when the Slovaks were joined by skilled German miners in the 13th Century, who began the exploitation of gold and silver in earnest. To the extent that during the Middle Ages Banska Stiavnica was the main producer of the stuff for the entire Hungarian Kingdom. In the 18th Century, it was even the third largest town in Hungary.

view of town, from our guesthouse up the hill

and the main street, from right inside town

cute little corner house, almost restored

multiple church towers in the centre

And than bust set in, with the decline of the mining output. Gold and silver had already been joined by lesser-value zinc and copper, in ever deeper mining levels, and by the second half of the 19th Century Banska Stiavnica began to lose its importance. And not only mining declined, the city itself, too, buildings falling in disrepair. The last mine closed in the early 1990s, but that was more an administrative affair, mining itself had died long before.

 

the town hall, a large and stately building, from important times back then

decoration on the town hall, also represents the mining symbol

a sgrafittoed house – the only one – on the town square

a sun dial, along the main street

Until UNESCO decided to include it on its list of World Heritage sites. Suddenly money became available, and restoration of the magnificent Middle Age buildings – churches, the town hall, the various castles built to defend the town against the Ottomans – could be financed. Boom again, not in the least because of the tourist interest, both local and international. Although the old miners have not taken the tourist-related jobs, there is a new generation in town, that has introduced swanky cafes and bars, hiking trails in the surroundings – for which guides are needed, of course. And, last but not least, there is the more recnet refurbishment of the Stiavnica Kalvaria, an 18th Century Jesuit initiative.

the new castle, in the distance

and in close up

local craftmanship, perhaps? on a mining monument

the Calvery, lots of little chapels and the main church, on top of the hill

one of the frescoes, restored, in a chapel; bizarre handbag

and the cricefixion, in the church up the hill

Kalvaria? Calvary, in English – I admit I had to look it up, as well – is an open-air representation of the crucifixion of Jesus. And the one in Stianvica, a Baroque version with three churches and 22 chapels, is possibly one of the most important in Europe. But here, too, boom and bust alternated, boom starting with its inaugural blessing in 1751. Bust came at the end of WW II, with extensive damage by Soviet troops which were pushing de Nazis out of Banska Stiavnica. But perhaps even more bust was caused by vandals and art thieves, in the 15 years or so after the fall of communism in Slovakia. To the extent that decoration and furnishings had to be removed to protect them. Until in 2008 serious restoration began, with outside funding. Boom restored, and now the complex is visited by more than 70,000 people a year – who all contribute to the tourist industry in Banska Stianvnica, as well. Good for them!

Never mind that I, myself, found the whole Kalvaria thing a little tacky; not all the frescos have been equally artfully restored, some of the stuccos are all too obviously not original anymore. But if it makes people happy? As I said, good for them! At least from a distance it looks impressive.

Oh, and the main thing for me in Banska Stiavnica was, of course, the mining.

of course, not all on Banska Stiavnica is nice and old, there are also the obligatory palatis, monoblocks from communist times.

Nitra still has buildings of which the window-less walls have been decorated with mosaics – how soviet can you get?

On our drive east we had planned to visit some attractions in Nitra and in Brhlovce, with mixed sucess, if I may say.

From a fifteen year old travel guidebook I had distilled two unusual attractions to enliven the day’s drive to Banska Striavnica, our next stop in Slovakia. Nitra’s agricultural museum and Brhlovce’s cave dwellings.

Nitra is Slovakia’s third-largest town, but not particularly attractive, or so the book claims. What makes it special, though, is that it is the centre of agriculture. For starters, it has an open air market, where the produce of the region is being sold. Always in for markets, colourful and easy to make contact with the locals, we managed to find the building, with the courtyard inside, where, indeed, a few stalls were selling vegetables. Mostly red peppers, and we haven’t reached Hungary yet! But overall, the market was actually pretty small – we have a bigger one in our home village in The Netherlands! And as far as contact with the locals is concerned, having left Bratislava behind, we run into the limitations of not speaking Slovak – and Slovaks not speaking much else. Even my intrepid travel companion has troubles communicating.

the Nitra market does have its colourful moments

as well as mountains, and mountains, of peppers

But the real reason to come to Nitra was the Slovak Agricultural Museum in the Agrocomplex, perhaps the largest of its kind in Europe, with artefacts going back 3000 years and a great collection of interwar tractors, including a huge Russian combine. Small complication was that the Agrocomplex turned out to be much more than just the museum, and the sign posting was haphazard, to say the least. We first ended up at a Covid test centre, where our language skills, and those of the locals, proved insufficient, once more. We were sent to the next gate, which had nothing to do with the complex, but from where we were sent to another gate, which was the parking for a temporary dog exhibition. Muzeum? Ah, next gate, little further. From where we were sent back to the parking, again. I really think nobody actually understood what we wanted. In the end, from Good Old Google we identified yet another Agrocomplex gate, all the way on the other side, behind an impressive series of monoblock apartment buildings, and lo and behold, there was the museum. Which was closed. You cannot win them all.

just to prove that we did find the agricultural museum

including the map of what we were going to miss, today

the countryside in Slovakia is home of a variety of old, decrepit factory buidings, which makes for nice pictures

a few man-made caves in the village of Brhlovce

sometimes well-constructed, including luxury balcony and stone-masoned bedroom wall

some walls have even been painted

inside, the lay-out is a little more primitive

niches to keep the pots

To call Brhlovce a troglodyte village is pushing it. But apparently in the 16th Century, with Ottoman forces threatening, the people here decided to hide and dug their homes into the relatively soft rock, and until today – according to the lady who exploits a few of those caves as a museum – many of them still live in them. I doubt that, most caves I could see were in use as storage to a more comfortable modern house, but who knows. Obviously, at least until not so long ago people did live in those caves, and the museum has a couple on display, together with old tools and other artefacts that give you a good impression of life at the time. Really nicely done. So, worth the detour, and at least something that did work today.

now this is an activity for which the caves form an ideal decor

a statue in front of the Saint Nicholas Basilica in Trnava, with a conspicuous piece in his hand

Inside the historical walls, Trnava is a nice, if sleepy town with lots of churches, testifying to its former glory as the “Slovak Rome”.

Somehow, I do remember Trnava because of their football team, Spartak Trnava. I had to look up the details, and, indeed, they played Ajax Amsterdam in April 1969, in the semi-final of the European Cup tournament.

Trnava, outside the historical, walled centre

Today, Trnava doesn’t look like it sports a champions football team anymore. Driving into town shows all its former glory, the monoblock apartment buildings, some of them patched up, others almost collapsing. And the factories, once the pride of the communist control economy, now dilapidated concrete skeletons, with rusty corridors connecting different buildings, and windows on the roof, many broken, that used to provide daylight to the workers.

a former sugar factory, where not much seems to work anymore

and another industrial relict from Trnava, not sure what they used to make here

the Saint Nicholas Basilica, with its dominant Gothic towers

another of the many churches in town, the Saint Joseph church, is a Protestant one, from the 17th Century, initially built without a tower

and the Cathedral of Saiint John the Baptist, formerly the University church

the inside of the cathedral is equally impressive

with gilded, and decorated pulpit

and part of the altarpiece, intricately carved

In fact, that’s a little unfair. Trnava’s real former glory is as the “the Slovak Rome”. The oldest church, impressive Saint Nicholas Basilica, was built between 1380 and 1421, but the real boost came in the 16th Century,  when the threat of the Ottoman advance forced the retreat of the Catholic church from Hungary proper. Trnava became an archbishopric in 1543, and then became even more important during the Counter-Reformation, when Jesuits were brought in to sort out the education system. The Cathedral of John the Baptist, initially a Jesuit university church, dates from the early 17th Century, in all its Baroque glory, as do many of the other churches in town. Of course, with Ottoman retreat, and the expulsion of the Jesuits from the Habsburg empire, the archbishop quickly moved out again, and Trnava lost its university to Budapest. Ever since, it has been a sleepy backwater – except for its football success, of course.

Nowadays it is a nice little town, inside its heavily restored city walls not bigger than perhaps 600 x 800 meters, with cobbled streets and a mix of modern and old, not always well maintained, houses. The main shopping street is rather sterile, and even the Slovak Food Truck Festival in town does little to lift the atmosphere. The only real non-ecclesiastical gem, really, is the Synagogue café – indeed, a café in a tastily restored former Synagogue. Great place for a late afternoon drink.

And the best moment of the day? When I saw a young boy with a sweat shirt. Which proudly said Spartak Trnava. They still exist.

inside the Synagogue cafe

the original ceiling

and the seating made more comfortable

there are still some nice old houses around, too

and the municipality does its best

the sculpture Smiling Faces (2004), by Bilio Nic (Belgium), taken from the roof off the Danubiana Museum

What a fabulous modern art museum! After not the smoothest of starts, this trip, the Danubiana is the first thing that blows us away.

at the entrance

Some 20 km outside Bratislava, on a small peninsula in the Danube, the Danubiana is perhaps one of the most exiting modern art museums of Europe. Established in 2000 by collaboration of Slovak gallery owner Vincent Polakovič and Dutch industrialist and art collector Gerard Meulensteen, the museum has been extended in 2013 to create a unique architectural gem, with inside space for lots of paintings and some installation and sculpture work, and outside not only an extensive sculpture garden, but also a sculpture roof. And all of that in an unbeatable setting of the Danube river landscape – according to the museum staff an essential element of the art experience, or rather, of an art clinic, the interaction between art and nature; the ‘wow!’ element.

the sculpture garden, or part of it, with the river in the back

Danubiana (2003), by Oto Bachorik (Slovakia)

I had to include this one: Golf Player (2007), by Svetozar Ilavsky (Slovakia)

Danube Portal (2006, by Hans van Bovenkamp (USA)

And it is. No matter the building, we were immediately drawn into the sculpture garden, along the river banks, and to the roof, where we enjoyed a fabulous collection of sculptures against the background of the river, mostly with a grey overcast sky, and an occasional ray of sunshine. Which, really, is part of it – and does encourage us to come back some other time, some other season, or some other weather, no doubt creating a different impression.

Only after an hour, or more perhaps, we got inside, where we were immediately overwhelmed by the explosion of colours. Both Meulensteen and the Danubia’s own collection, enhanced by quite a few works donated by artists themselves, have a pendant for colour, which works extremely well in the way the museum has been designed, with open spaces and broadly interconnected rooms. Wherever you look, you have colours coming at you, mostly from paintings of both well established and lesser known (to us at least) artists, and occasionally of installations and sculptures. Obviously local artists are well represented; it is amazing how many great works of so many different Slovaks have made it to the walls, and rightfully so. Of course, art appreciation is subjective, but yes, this is the type of art we both enjoy very much, and in a setting that brings out the best of the combined power of the collections.

I have been to many museums in my life, and many exhibitions, but this one ranks close to the top.

more sculptures, from the roof and on the roof

Sea Weeds (2006), by Xenia Hofmeisterova (Slovakia)

Impressive contribution to the textile art, temporary exhibition, ‘Tomato Room’, by a student, Dania Elischerova (Slovakia)

Another textile art contribution, the installation ‘Raven’, by Renata Ormandikova (Slovakia)

A photo by Wolfgang Volz of the work ‘Gates’ (2005) by Christo and Jeanne-Claude in New York’s Central Park

the colourful spaces,

the open connections between rooms,

the occasionally surprising art works,

no matter where you look, it is a feast for the eye

Left and Right (1992), 

by Jozef Jankovic (Slovakia); and the same work, in detail

Swirl of Colours over Villa Adriana (2001), by Ilona Keseru Ilona (Hungary)

Brandage (2012), by Katarina Galovic Gaspar (Slovakia)

Niemand (2013), by Victor Freso (Slovakia)

And a longer established artist: Night Walk (1968), by Karel Appel (Netherlands)

the Bratislava Castle towering high above the city

We are a bit lost in Bratislava, which fails to really impress. But look deeper, and there are plenty of things that we do enjoy, from hidden places and original art to the architecture, and the friendly people.

Many European capitals do have something unique. Be it a building, or the atmosphere, but you do have the distinct feeling of being in London, or Amsterdam, or Paris, or Prague. Bratislava? Hmm, perhaps the UFO observation desk I referred to earlier, but for the rest there is little that gets us enthusiastic. Perhaps it was the weather, which didn’t want to clear – on the contrary, on our last afternoon is was pouring down. Or perhaps it is just that there isn’t anything specifically defining in Bratislava.

Of course, the Danube – the Donau – runs through town, but there is little in terms of an attractive boulevard. Along both banks hospitality ships are moored, some obviously bars or restaurants, others just flat decks that, perhaps, can be rented to put a tent up. But all were closed, there was no life whatsoever along the river.

along the Danube, lots of party ships, but little partying

another party boat, with Saint Martin’s Cathedral and the Castle in the background – pivo is beer, did I tell you already?

the sterile Saint Martin’s, just about surviving next to the motorway into town

the only work of art inside Saint Martin’s cathedral, the saint himslef sharing his cloak with a beggar

the Blue Church of Saint Elizabeth

closed, we managed a peep inside – also blue

The old town, the Stare Mesto, has been patched up quite a bit, and several buildings, old palaces, look quite nice. But perhaps a little overdone. The big monuments? well, Saint Michael’s Gate was in scaffolding – so there is still hope; or not, because the city walls have already been patched up, to the extent that there was little recognizable Medieval left. The Saint Martin’s Cathedral, where emperors have been crowned for hundreds of years, has been restored, and looks rather sterile. The Blue Church of Saint Elizabeth?; temporarily closed until further notice. The Presidential residence, a grand 18th Century Summer Palace, yes, that looks brilliant, no expense spared. But look a little further, and equally many buildings are falling apart – or have not yet been refurbished, who knows? Most of the Slovak people we talked to were adamant that conservation only works by private contributions, there is no government effort to speak of these days. And graffiti, the ugly kind, disfigures the town further.

the presidental palace, all spendor, of course

and in town, we found some stained glass windows

from an obviously communist past; one of them in detail, glory to the workers!

and this is just an apartment building in town

not all city elements are equally well maintained

the Brtaislava Hrad, or castle, a huge sterile white box

and the sculptures have been restored, in concrete!

the castle gardens, equally sterile

Obviously, during communist times this was different. The Bratislava Hrad, the castle high on a hill overlooking the old town, was patched up in the 1960s. And was turned into a sterile white, monstrous box, with sterile, isolated arches, sterile, concrete sculptures, and sterile grounds surrounding it. It is a museum, now, that’s all that can be said about it.

 

the Slavin monument, with some tomb stones, and a much bigger black marble plates, with names and dates

but the monument itself, very militaristic indeed, complete with Soviet star and Kalasnikov

some of the fallen have their own place, with sober black tomb stones

and the metal door of the monument has these strange, harrowing decorations…

On another hill, visible from all over town, is the Slavin monument, another creation from Communist times, honouring the Russian soldiers that died in the liberation of Bratislava in 1945. I always find these places impressive, even though this one has so clearly a militaristic connotation. But beautiful, no.

a leafy square, they do exist in town

the cemetery, more a park, really

really old tomb stones, unreadable by now

And yet, wandering through Bratislava, even in the rain, does have its charms. There is obviously a whole tourist infrastructure, with tours, terraces, touts. But there are hardly any tourists. And the touts are not insisting. And there are little, humble treasures, too. The occasional, hidden leafy square, or an old fashioned – or call it traditional – restaurant with wood panelling and crystal chandeliers. The old cemetery – I am a sucker for cemeteries! – Ondrejsky cintorin, established in 1784, yet not very crowded, with its mostly Hungarian and German graves, many well over a hundred years old. The headstones are so weathered that you often cannot read the names, let alone the dates, anymore. And I mentioned earlier the modern architecture, even though its style is a bit dated, like in the Slovak Radio Building, a rusty inverted pyramid. And what about the art everywhere in town, sculptures on many corners, and even improvised installations of a more temporary character.

the inverted pyramide of the Slovak Radio Building

modern art, along the Danube

a spontanuous expression of art, based on wahsing machines, in the city centre

further, more playful, art works near the Eurovea shopping mall, encouraging working out

Or would it just be the people, unassuming, unpretentious?  Most of them fluent in English, always friendly, polite, helpful? Dare I say, so much nicer than the locals in London, Amsterdam, Paris or Prague. You know, a not so very special city does have its advantages.

Oh, and just outside Bratislava, there is the Danubiana! A reason in itself to come to Bratislava.

and the Tatra Bank office, also somewhat dated, but nice enough

the UFO-shaped restaurant cum observation platform of Bratislava’s defining SNP Most

Even though the weather hasn’t improved, really, our entry in Bratislava shows some hopeful signs, not in the least thanks to a rare moment of sunshine on its UFO observation desk.

We are definitely in Central Europe: all roads may lead to Rome, but only one leads to a collection of Central European capitals.

Not only because it is the capital, but more even because it is really the first town across the border, when you get to Slovakia from Western Europe, is why we start our exploration of the country in Bratislava. Still cold, still overcast, we’ll first find back the Danube – which is not difficult. More surprising is the collection of rather modern architecture we encounter, just east of the old town. It is not quite Rotterdam, or Baku, for that matter, but nice enough. And they are not yet finished, judging from the many cranes around.

entry into Bratislava, the UFO from a different corner

modern architecture in the Eurovea shopping centre

and the eastern skyline: as I said, perhaps not Baku, but an attempt to modern architecture

But the most impressive modern piece of architecture is the SNP Most, or bridge, one of those 1960s follies for which whole neighbourhoods had to be dismantled. So that the motorway can deliver its traffic right in the centre of town, slicing neatly in between the old town and the city’s castle. The defining element of the bridge is the UFO observation platform, in the form of a circular dish, which contains not only a restaurant with fabulous 360o views of Bratislava and the countryside around, as far as Austria and Hungary, but also a platform from which you have the same view in the open air. The whole of which looks a bit like a UFO – or rather, what one associates with an UFO -, which is where the platform gets its name from.

or what about this building, modern?

So we took the lift to the top, and climbed the last few stairs to the observation desk, 95 meters above the city. Just when the sun, for the first time today, decided to break through the clouds. Only for a few minutes, but long enough to provide a fabulous view of the city we are going to explore.

Good!

the Danube from the UFO observation platform

and the dockyards, in the distance

view of only part of Petrzalka, Bratislava’s social housing estate – those who have followed my blogs know my fascination with palatis, the soviet-era monoblocks

quite a contrast with the swanky apartments literally overlooking the Danube on the other side of the river

and just for good order, this is the other half of Petrzalka

oh, and being all the way on top in the UFO restaurant, we had to have a drink, of course (my travel companion has abandoned the gin & tonic tradition…)

a little alley in Passau, on the Danube River

On the way to Slovakia we stopped in Passau, on the Danube – a river we will encounter more than once this trip. Which started less than ideal.

We had planned to leave early, on Monday morning. It is some eight hours drive to Passau, in Germany, where we planned to overnight. But I didn’t sleep well, the night before, and in the end we left much too late. And the drive took forever, as we needed to stop frequently. No good.

So when we finally arrived in Passau, just before the Austrian border, it was already late in the afternoon. By the time we had checked into our hotel – the adventurously-called Hotel Wilder Man, a beautiful old building which, according to the hotel info, has played host to many of the rich and famous over the centuries -, and were ready to explore, the town was empty, deserted. And it was cold, and overcast. Which doesn’t help when taking photos. No good.

Many of the restaurants are closed on Mondays, and some others had decided to have a rest day, too. Luckily, even though it was a bit early for dinner, we found the Altes Brauhaus, with good beer and solid food. Afterwards we took a stroll through town, still deserted, still cold. Around eight o’clock most coffee bars had already closed. No good.

the type of castles guarding the river, to extract toll

another tower, strategically positioned for financial gain

the Danube in Passau

Yet, between the late afternoon and another walk the next morning we did enjoy Passau. The Altstad, the old centre, is located on a peninsula, where the Inn River empties in the Danube. And the smaller Ilz River does the same from the other side, which was the sign for local power brokers in the Middle Ages – we would call them war lords, these days, a bit like the ones in Somalia and Afghanistan now – local power brokers, thus, to build castles on the various river banks, to control trade. Control, in those days, was a euphemism for charging exorbitant amounts of money for no other reason than financial gain of the warlord in question. Except that some of that money was invested in reinforcing the castles, of which we still see the impressive results today.

along the water, just in case someone falls in, there are poles to hold on to!

the old town with its arches and gates

part of the cathedral

which, inside, looks a lot more impressive

As empty as it was late afternoon, so busy had it become during the morning. Passau is a favourite stopping place for Danube river cruises, and everywhere we saw the results thereof, groups of tourists tagging along with a guide, who would sometimes be dressed up in Middle Age attire to create even more atmosphere – which contrasted somewhat with their microphone mouth pieces, tied to their heads in order to reach the whole group.

frescos outside one of the buildings

another alley in town, quite picturesque in fact

At the end of the morning we left for Bratislava, another four hours, or so, down the road. Of which about two of those through Austria. For which we had to buy an Autobahn vignette, of course; the shortest one is for ten days. And two hours later we bought another one, this time for Slovakia. For no less than thirty days, more than enough to cover our expected two weeks in the country. We are still a long way away from a united Europe.

and the frescos on the outside of the town hall, impressive local power brokers, no doubt.

Books have been written about this subject, full of details, and full of scholarly debate; not everybody agrees on each and every element of this complex issue. Below a short recap of the most important, eye catching episodes in Central European history, without any claims to be correct neither complete. Just so we know what we are going to look at, in the next five weeks.

My generation doesn’t know better than that the Czechs and the Slovaks were united in Czechoslovakia, but in fact this has been the exception, rather than the rule, in the history of the region. The first time they were joined was at the end of the 8th Century, when they were both part of the Great Moravian Empire (which also included parts of Poland and Hungary). But that unity ended a hundred years later, with the Magyar invasion – indeed, the proto-Hungarians coming in the picture – in 896 AD. From that moment onwards, and for the next, say, 1000 years, the Czechs were always more German-oriented, and the Slovaks Hungarian-oriented. No wonder there are significant cultural and social differences between the two peoples.

the Holy Roman Empire around 1600 – without Slovakia and Hungary

The Czechs went their way, first Bohemia as a vasal state of the Holy Roman Empire – mostly Germans, indeed -, and later as an independent country, led by the Premyslid dynasty, which only ended at the beginning of the 14th Century. Prosaically, with first the death of Vaclav II from ‘consumption and excess’, and a year later with the murder of his teenage son, who had no offspring yet. His four sisters, well, they were women, and thus excluded from the throne. They then got the House of Luxembourg to come to their rescue, which was a smart move, because the second Luxembourger to lead the country, Charles IV, next to being King of Bohemia was also elected Holy Roman Emperor (the emperor was, in those days, elected by an electoral collage of princes and high-ranking noblemen). This established Prague, the Emperor’s favourite city, as the cultural capital of Central Europe, at least for a while.

Unity was not to last. Charles’ son Vaclav IV reigned during a time of increasing religious fracturing, all over Europe. Schism in Rome, but also in Bohemia, where the preacher Jan Hus, a man of the peasants as opposed to the elite, protested against the corruption in the church, and especially the religious indulgencies. Hus’ capture and subsequent execution – burning on the stake, no less – by the authorities made him a widely admired martyr, and led to the Hussite wars, inaugurated by what has become known as the first Prague defenestration: several Catholic councillors being thrown out of the window of Prague’s town hall. Note ‘first’ here, indicating that this was going to be repeated at least once more.

The various factions in the Hussite wars, like conservatists, religious reformers and wholesale reformers, reached a kind of a compromise again in 1634. First, an elected local regent assumed power, on his death a Polish dynasty took over, and in 1526 Ferdinand I, the then Holy Roman Emperor, was crowned King of Bohemia, so establishing Habsburg rule over what is now the Czech Republic.

Not that this augured peace and stability. The Catholic Habsburg were increasingly at odds with Bohemia’s predominant Protestant nobility, and when a few Catholic nobles were thrown out of the window of Prague’s castle in 1618 – there he is, the second Prague defenestration! -, this started the Thirty Year’s War, involving local Protestant nobility, and support from Protestant Saxons and the staunch defenders of Protestantism, the Swedes, together fighting the ultimately victorious Catholics. After the final battle in 1648 the Swedes went home, the Bohemian nobility was dismantled, witches were burnt, and Czech identity reduced to the peasantry. The focus of the Habsburgs shifted decisively from Prague to Vienna.

The Slovaks, on the other hand, became part of Hungary after the collapse of the Moravian Empire in 896 AD, and stayed that way until the end of WW I. Which means that Slovakia, essentially known as Upper Hungary at that time, largely shared Hungary’s history, apart from a few short periods of semi-independence linked to strong-willed individuals.

Hungary first enters history as part of the Roman empire, around the middle of the first Century. But the Romans had long left when Magyar tribes, under the command of Arpad, invaded from the east and gradually expanding their land-grab. They settled in what is now Hungary, built ties with Bavaria and sought recognition from the Catholic church. Which led to King Istvan, great-great-grandson of Arpad, being crowned a Christian King in 1000 AD. That’s how you join the establishment.

Except that not everybody respects the establishment: the Mongols invaded in 1241 and sacked large parts of Hungary, and decimated the population, if not at the hand of the Mongols then due to following famine and plague. Soon afterwards, the Arpad dynasty died out, and the establishment restored itself again: several foreign royals succeeded each other, perhaps attracted by the rich gold mines that had been discovered in the region. Which also facilitated a lot of German and Slovak immigration in what then were largely empty lands. When the last of the foreigners, Sigismund of Luxembourg – also King of Bohemia and the one who betrayed Jan Hus: it is a small world -, died in 1447, the Ottomans were just about to invade. Thanks to a local Transylvanian warlord, Janos Hunyadi, they were defeated, which brought Hunyadi the title of Prince of Transylvania, and his son Matyas Corvinus, ultimately, the Hungarian throne.

Matyas did well, not in the least by establishing a large standing army paid for by the nobility, which kept the Ottomans at bay. Except that he didn’t produce a legitimate heir, so on his death in 1490 the nobles elected a more pliable king, one that would reduce their taxes, and allow them to further squeeze the peasantry. With the predictable effect of a peasant revolt, and a further withering of the standing army because of limited funds. Which opened the door for the Ottomans to invade once more, this time much more successfully. In the Battle of Mohacs of 1526 the Hungarian army was completely wiped out, including its royals, its noblemen and its commanders.

The Turks reached Bupa – one half of present-day Budapest – and so occupied about half of what is currently Hungary. The western-most part of the country, including Upper-Hungary – Slovakia – got a new king, self-appointed Ferdinand of Habsburg, who needed a buffer between the Ottoman forces and Vienna, his capital and the ultimate Ottoman target. Suddenly, Central Europe had become the eastern frontier of Europe. And a restless frontier is was, for a few hundred more years. The Ottomans had a different approach to war; they would shamelessly exploit the peasants, and carry off villagers and townsfolk as slaves to Constantinople. It took until 1699 until they were finally beaten back, but a multi-national European army. The opportunity for the Habsburgs, of course, to expand their Catholic rule over the rest of mostly Protestant Hungary, too. The Hungarian War of Independence, a misnomer, from 1703-1711, was to no avail, lost against a militarily superior Habsburg.

the extend of the Habsburg hereditery lands at the end of the 18th Century, after Ottoman withdrawal

Hungary was left a country with a small, but rich land-owning aristocracy served by a serf-like peasant population. Deserted after years of war, a policy of immigration created room for people from surrounding countries, of which Germans were the most successful, helped by the Habsburg to dominate education and culture. The Magyars became a minority in their own country. Yet, nationalism proved strong enough, and with attitudes in Europe changing, and Habsburg weakening, Hungary declared independence in 1848. Only to be crushed again a year later, when the Russian tsar send his armies in support of the Habsburgs. However the genie was out of the bottle, and increasing integration of Austrian and Hungarian economies led to the Dual Monarchy, henceforth known as the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in 1867. The small compromise for Hungary, of having to adhere to diplomatic treaties that Austria had made – like the one with Germany –, seemed small beer compared to the country gaining status and prosperity. Besides, and to the chagrin of the Slovaks, Hungary now assumed rule over Slovakia again, which since Habsburg takeover in 1526 had been directly ruled from Vienna. Suddenly, Slovaks were exposed to Hungarian nationalism, Hungarian language, and no participation at all in matters of state. Many voted with their feet, and emigrated.

In 1914 Austria declared war on Serbia. Germany joined in, and Hungary had no other option than to become part of the Axis, too. With disastrous results, and defeat in 1918. On the embers of the Habsburg Empire grew a number of successor states, the most surprising one being Czechoslovakia, by mutual consent of Czechs and Slovaks. Already during the war they had great difficulty with the idea that they had to fight together with their old enemies, the Habsburg Austrians and the Hungarians, against their ethnic brethren, the Russian and Serb Slavs. Never mind that the borders were pretty messy, with German-speaking parts of Bohemia and Moravia – the later Sudetenland – declaring themselves independent (to no avail), and including lots of Hungarians, whilst leaving out lots of Slovenians, stuck in rump-Hungary. I say rump-Hungary, because the country had not only lost Slovakia, but also the large region of Transylvania, which was given – some would say, returned – to Romania.

What was left of Hungary became, briefly, communist, and then a Kingdom again – without a King, but with a caretaker regent, Admiral Miklos Horthy. (Which prompted US president Roosevelt to ask: so Hungary I a Kingdom, but without a King, run by an Admiral without a navy?). Resentment over lost territory and an increasing shift to the nationalist right, accompanied by anti-Semitism, drove Hungary inevitably into the Axis-side of WW II, once again losing, and once again losing Transylvania (which, with Nazi-help, had been wrested from Romania for a while).

With the arrival of the Nazis, Czechoslovakia was split again, into an annexed Sudetenland, a German-led Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia and an independent Slovakia; independent in name, because they equally quickly expelled Jews, and after a rebellion in 1944 were occupied by Nazi Germany after all.

From there history is common-knowledge, I guess. The Russians won the war on the eastern side of Europe, installed their puppet-governments in once again joined Czechoslovakia and in Hungary – and to make sure, aggressively suppressed any attempts to liberalise away from Soviet control, in 1956 in Hungary and in 1968 in Czechoslovakia. But the Soviet Union, perhaps the last empire to control large swaths of Europe, also disintegrated and collapsed, and its vasal states became independent republics in the centre of Europe. One more, actually, in 1993, when the Czechs and the Slovaks amiably parted ways and Czechoslovakia split up in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Like it has almost always been.

the growth of the Habsburg lands over time

I suspect paprikas will form an important part of our diet, in the next five weeks or so…..

When we said to each other some time ago that we would leave traveling through Europe for the time we are getting old, we hadn’t expected that that time would arrive so soon. But with the world still in the grip of the Corona pandemic, making long distance adventure travel not only complex, but also a little too adventurous, we are necessarily focusing on European destinations. Not that there is anything wrong with that: we did enjoy our month-long exploration of the Northern half of Italy last year, and we equally liked the trip to the Czech Republic.

This year’s target is a continuation of the latter journey, and will take in Slovakia and Hungary, not only geographically, but also historically in the heart of Europe. We’ll drive to Bratislava, from where we slowly move eastwards, through picturesque villages and the Tata Ranges – Slovakia’s preeminent mountains -, to the old towns of Levoca and Kosice. From here we cross into Hungary to the famous wine area of Tokaj, which is also the base for exploring the villages in the Zemplin Hills and the Erdohat, towards the Ukrainian border. From where we make our way back again, westwards via the puszta – the Hungarian Great Plains – to Budapest and, in a convoluted way, to Vienna. I know, that’s Austria, but so close…

Five weeks, is the plan. Enjoying nature and culture. Recurring themes will be the castles, the churches – from large basilicas to small wooden ones -, and the old cobbled town centres: unlike the Medieval Czech towns the ones in Slovakia and Hungary will be of later, Baroque date. After all, they have suffered much destruction, not just from several Word Wars, but also at the hands of the Ottoman occupation force in the 16th and 17th Century – Hungary may be Central Europe now, but in those days it was the frontier, in permanent stage of war with the Turks to the east.

Habsburg rule, and the Austro-Hungarian empire, has left the area with some fabulous, opulent palaces. Favourable geology has created the conditions for warm water spas and bathhouses, unmatched anywhere else in the world. And climate appears to support a wide variety of grapes, of which a wide variety of wines are being made. Which may need to be tested. And which may need to be used to wash away the food, in which we have somewhat less confidence.

As always, watch this space!