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Slovakia Road Trip

Saturday, November 5, 2011

As with the Czech Republic, touring Slovakia this fall was so different than in years past. Cities are shiny and clean; food is fantastic; tourist services are friendly and polished. We covered a huge chunk of the country on a road trip from the west to the east. Highlights:

Bratislava, the capital

Charming, clean, beautiful people, good vibe; full of colorful old buildings and cafes and cute plazas. And clean, did I mention clean? We spent a day wandering the city, visiting my dad’s university, gazing at the river – with Vienna just a few miles downriver, the waterway used to be heavily guarded; now there are city-to-city river tours connecting the two countries. Dinner was enjoyed at the delightful Slovak pub, where my dad had the best halusky of his life – which tasted to me like gourmet mac & cheese – and the rest of us tried various dumplings and grilled meats and soups and frothy local beers. Mmmm.

Bratislava at night

Piestany, the spa island

Finally, I got to try a traditional eastern European spa experience! Piestany is old and well-known in certain circles (funnily enough, our host in Israel a few weeks later said his Venezuelan mother used to go to Piestany every year). It’s a small island in a river with natural hot water springs, now collected and used by a series of old hotels for spa treatments. We all tried the soak and sleep option: 30 minutes in one of the hot pools followed by 30 minutes of nap/rest time where you are wrapped in warm blankets in a quiet room. Very relaxing. But to get the full experience, you need a doctor to prescribe you a month at Piestany for health purposes; then, you can fill your days with doctor consultations, light exercise, spa treatments and slow walks on the quiet island. Apparently, this was common under Communism, which covered such seemingly luxurious prescriptions, and some insurance plans still pay for it today.

Retracing family history

We visited all the places my dad lived as he grew up, visited with cousins and old classmates, and learned more details of family history. It was very special to hear stories in the places they happened. Visualizing WWII troops pouring over the quiet green hills was difficult. How could so much violence and bloodshed happen in this peaceful place?

Peaceful Slovak hills, sites of WWII battles. To the right (not pictured) is a lodge that my grandmother used to run for the government.

One afternoon we popped in on my dad’s cousin, a farmer in a rural area of the country. This town still has women in babushkas –handkerchiefs – and housecoats, outfits I fondly remember my grandma wearing on days she was working outside or cooking (both things she loved to do).

Slovak villager

We caught up and got stories and were given plate after plate of little snacks even though we had arrived unannounced. When we went to leave, our cousin’s wife insisted we take some of her homemade string cheese. We insisted we couldn’t take it on our road trip – it would spoil. She refused to hear our refusal, literally chasing us out of the house with bags of cheese, thrusting them into my arms and not letting me return them. I gave them to my dad to give back to her; he did, and she chucked them into the van with a victorious laugh. We drove away with 5 lbs of the cheese.

Slovak hospitality! On the back plate is the string cheese we ate for the next 2 weeks.

Hiking the Tatras

The Tatras, a small mountain range in northern Slovakia along the Polish border, are lovely granite and pine peaks, very popular with locals and Poles for skiing, hiking, and clean-air relaxing. We hiked to an alpine lake, and to a waterfall; we visited a unique mountain memorial to those who’ve lost their lives in the mountains; we stayed in cute country lodges and had warm hearty dinners and breakfasts. It’s a very charming region and I can see why my dad picked New Hampshire as his home in the US – the Appalachian mountains and the Tatras are close cousins.

The Tatras. Clockwise from top left: The mountain memorial, crosses at the memorial, a typical woodsy Slovak trail sign, lake in the Tatras, waterfall hike

Orava Castle

One day we also popped into the Orava castle, a fantastically preserved palace that will satisfy your Dracula imaginings, set on high on a hill.

Orava castle

It was a great tour of the homeland, and traveling with our family, in our own rental van, after weeks of traveling on our own via buses and taxis and metros and trams, was a welcome change of pace.  You mean, we can go where we want, when we want?  yes!!   Slovak food is fantastic, the beer is cold and delicious, the people are friendly and the cities and villages charming.  I’m very thankful we had the opportunity to go there with my dad to get so much family history, in the actual sites where the events happened – a rare and special occasion indeed.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Slavo permalink
    Sunday, November 6, 2011 6:41 pm

    Kristen, I am very happy for being able to get you and your brother, Eric with Seth and Moira to make a journey to my homeland and make you to realize where half of your gens came from…great journey and the article is a great way to reflect on our experiences – I am
    touched by your insightful way of depicting changes in Czech and Slovak lands – great job – love Dad

  2. Friday, December 16, 2011 11:44 am

    The memorial crosses are so colorful… never seen anything like those before….
    ~S

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