With the world still in the grips of the Corona pandemic, making travel so much more complicated and unpredictable, we opted once more for a road trip in Europe. After the Czech Republic of last year, we now continued – so to speak – into Slovakia and Hungary, over a five week period in autumn 2021. The result is a varied program taking in art and architecture, lots of churches, a couple of villages and the inevitable pretty towns.
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.
02. a bit of Central European history: 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.
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.
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.
05. Bratislava (2): 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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
11. Cicmany: Driving north through the Turiac Valley we come across several towns, where museum visiets are a challenge; contrary to the open-air museum of Cicmany, a unique village with decorated wooden houses.
Today was another one of those days for driving from one place to another, with again a couple of rarities thrown in for good measure. In order to end up in Dolny Kubic, where we had booked our next few nights hotel, we drove up into the Tatra Mountains, through what my 15-year old guidebook called the “progressively narrower and more dramatic” Turiac Valley.
12. the Orava region: Although our base is not the most attractive of towns, the Orava region offers a range of heritage architecture, from castles and wooden churches and houses to the industrial complexes; you either hate them, or you love them, but photogenic they are.
This is not the smoothest of our trips, I have said that before. Our strategically located base, Dolny Kubic, has exactly nothing to recommend it for – with the exception, perhaps, of the comfortable ‘penzion’ we are staying.
There is another village that needs to be visited. Vlkolinec is located on the slopes of the Siderovo mountain, with a little over 1000 m one of the highest peaks in the Liptov region south of Orava. The village, UNESCO World Heritage Site, consists of some 40 wooden houses, still being lived in, at an altitude of 700 m.
We have been driving east for a while, today. We have followed the Hron valley, a fairly scenic road through low mountains, with occasional views of a pretty river – but no places to stop, almost, which is one of the problems driving through this country: two-lane roads without the possibility to park the car, except in the many villages, of course. These villages slow down progress, but on the other hand give us an insight in Slovak country life.
Using Levoca as a base, we spend the day scaling the second highest peak in the High Tatras, Slovakia’s most important mountain range. Lomnicky Stit is 2634 m high, and we are coming from 880 m.
Levoca, our base for the last few days, is also the capital of what is called the Spis area, a historical region that for a long time was a semi-autonomous province in the Hungarian Kingdom.
We have discovered another real gem in Slovakia. Having moved ever further east, and north, we have arrived in Bardejov, not far from the Polish border. This is a lovely town, with ancient walls tastefully restored, including several bastions on the wall.
18. the wooden churches around Bardejov: Although not a 100% successful, we manage to visit the most important wooden church in the Bardejov area, as well as the open-air museum and the Zborov Castle.
Armed with the map of the tourist office, and contact telephone numbers for all the wooden churches in the area, we set off from Bardejov. First to the most famous of all, the UNESCO-listed church in Hervartov. Contrary to the other churches, this one, apparently the oldest wooden church in the country, from 1490, is a Roman Catholic church, dedicated to Saint Francis of Assisi.
Half-an-hour further east, equally close to the Polish border, is Svidnik, another one of those towns where soviet-style architecture has left a mark. It is really a small town, yet, wide avenues separate the mono-block neighbourhoods, interspersed with poorly maintained shopping areas.
In Western Europe we know about our WW II battles, D-day in Normandy, the Ardennes, Arnhem. I have never heard about the Dukla Pass, let alone that some 80,000 soldiers died in a battle for Dukla Pass and the valley below, between Soviet and Czechoslovak forces and the defending Nazi German army, between September 8th and October 6th, 1944.
Andy Warhol was not even born in Slovakia, let alone in Medzilaborce, in the far north-east of the country. But his parents were, in a village nearby Medzilaborce, before they moved to America at the beginning of the 20th Century. They never came back. And Andy Warhol never made any reference to his distant Slovak origins.
We have decided to go on strike, for the morning. It is Monday, so all the museums are closed, anyhow, and our apartment has a nice balcony and small garden. Bathing in the sun. The monuments of Kosice can wait.
Kosice is quite close to the Hungarian border, but rather than driving straight to Tokaj, we linger in what is known as the Zemplen Hills. Instead of blasting across the border on the motorway, we find a small road that leads to Abaujvar.
Yes, Tokaj is the most important wine producing region in Hungary. Or at least it is the best known of the no less than 22 wine producing regions in Hungary. We based ourselves in the village of Tokaj – where supposedly you can taste wine on every corner – but the wine region is larger and includes surrounding villages, as well.
If you think there are no more wooden churches to explore, you are wrong. Hungary has its share, too, in the very east of the country, the Erdohat region (also called, by some, Beregi area), close to the borders with Ukraine and Romania. Actually, the churches are built of stone, but the roofs are wood-shingled, and the bell towers are made of wood.
Debrecen, Hungary’s second largest city, is a bit like Kosice in Slovakia. There is not a whole lot to see, apart from the old part of town, with its churches and other historical buildings, but it is a cosmopolitan affair, with a large, young, outgoing population – as well as some fabulous portraits of older people.
Having driven down to Debrecen, all the way in the southeast of the country, we have covered already part of the Great Plains. The Puszta is what the Hungarians call it, a word that means abandoned, or deserted. It is actually a vast expense of grass land, mostly good for animal herding.
We have clearly hit the tourist trail by now. After Hortobagy National Park, Eger, too, is very touristic. Multi-language restaurants, the wine trail, even a Ferris wheel. Nevertheless, it is a pretty town, with a pedestrian zone with lots of narrow, winding streets, a few attractive squares, churches and even a castle – heavily restored, but offering nice views.
There were various reasons to go to Miskolc. The Bukk Hills, in between Eger and Miskolc, are a beautiful nature area, and especially in autumn, when the trees turn bright yellow and red.
I begin to wonder whether a UNESCO listing is a blessing or a curse. Holloko is yet another village declared World Heritage Site, and like that other village we encountered earlier, Vlkolinec in Slovakia, it seems to rob the place of all its spontaneity – exactly the thing that makes a rural village often so appealing.
We have to adjust somewhat. After several weeks in Slovakia and Eastern Hungary, dominated by rural environments and small town settings, Budapest is actually a big city again. Two million inhabitants – that’s 20% of the Hungarian population. Traffic congestion. People hurrying along the pavement. We are not used to this anymore.
32. Budapest (2): A few more examples of Budapest architecture, mostly in the Art Nouveau and Art Deco department, and a pleasant stroll along the Danube almost complete our time on the Pest side of the river.
Of course, there is more to Budapest, even to Pest only. In the previous entry I illustrated a few eclectic style buildings, but at around the same time, end 19th/beginning of the 20th Century, another style was up and coming, Art Nouveau.
We finally make it to Buda, the city part on the western side of the Danube. But before that, we need to finish the Pest-side of things; I am sure you have been wondering, all along, what has happened to the churches? Are there no churches in Budapest?
In the category ‘rareties’ the Memento Park, in the outskirts of Budapest, scores pretty high. Already at the entrance we are being treated by communist music meant to uplift the worker’s spirit. Is puts us in the right state of mind for this unique collection.
One of the more poetic elements of Hungarian countryside is the so-called Bend in the Danube. The river, flowing west to east for a while, forming the border between Slovakia and Hungary, suddenly turn south, to head for Budapest. And in this small piece of Hungary are a number of attractive, and historically relevant towns, that have to be visited, of course.
Where Szentendre was merely pretty, Visegrad is of real historic relevance. Not only was this the place were, in 1335, the Hungarian, Czech and Polish kings came together to discuss the growing Habsburg threat – and failed to agree on anything, despite consuming some 10,000 liters of wine in the process. In 1991 the leaders of the same countries met again, this time to debate a strategy of post-communist trade and future integration with the EU – it is unknown how much was consumed then.
Like Visegrad, Esztergom, too, has historical connotations for the Hungarians. It was here, allegedly, that King Istvan – Stephan – was crowned a Christian king, and formally brought Hungary under the realm of the Roman Catholic church, in 1000 AD. And even though the court moved south, to Visegrad and to Buda, the ecclesiastical focus remained in Esztergom – until the Ottomans conquered the place.
On our way to Szeged, in the south of Hungary, we pass Kecskemet. And because this town has a museum of naïve art, not unattractive from the photos we have seen, we decide to get off the main road, into the centre. Where we manage to locate the museum. Which is closed –
We are back in the Great Plains, the Puszta. Segzed is all the way south, close to the Serbian border, there where the Tisza River – which we have already encountered several times, like in the Erdohat and in Tokaj – leaves the country to join up with the Danube in Serbia. But Szeged has had a problem.
We not really here for the town of Mohacs, a small and not very exciting affair on the Danube River, close to where the river flows into Croatia. We are here to visit the Mohacs battle field, or rather, the memorial erected on the battle field, where the Ottoman forces thrashed the Hungarian army.
We have arrived in what is described Hungary’s second-finest town, Pecs. A relatively recent development, because the earlier version suffered under Ottoman occupation and was badly damaged at its liberation. But the recovery, from the 17th century onwards, has turned Pecs into a town with a lovely old centre, elegant yet never imposing buildings and a flourishing art scene.
Although we have not been very impressed by Hungarian wine so far, we cannot leave this country without having visited its most promising wine area – for us, at least, appreciating the dry wine varieties over the sweet wines like those from Tokaj. So we head for Villany, with ample time for some serious tasting, as well.
We are heading home again, driving west. On our way to Sopron, we finally reach Hungary’s prime tourist attraction, the Balaton Lake, a warm water lake where it is pleasant swimming. No doubt, but not in October anymore. We skip the lake.
Unlike so many other towns we have seen in the last few weeks, Sopron, like Koszeg, has never been affected by the Ottoman occupation, which is visible in its architecture: the centre of Sopron, with its cobbled streets and relatively small houses, is much more a medieval town.
As the Corona pandemic is still with us, we opted once more for being in control of our travel arrangements; not being dependent on airplanes, with the risk of being stranded somewhere if governments decide to close their country, but taking our car, instead, so that we can turn around and drive home whenever we start to feel uncomfortable. After our similarly opportunity-driven Czech Republic experience of last year, Slovakia and Hungary were sort of a natural continuation.