This is my last day in Slovakia for this trip. After ten wonderful days in this small, beautiful Central European country, Slovakia is like someone I met and found enchanting and enriching to be around. And now I wonder if my travels and desires will ever allow us to meet again? Slovakia is a country I have adored. I am leaving today and wishing I had more time to hang around and absorb more of the beauty, more of the culture, more stories from the people and create more memories in a place I think will soon be recognized as a wonderful place for American tourism.
Will I ever pass this way again? I hope so.
Over the next month when I am back in home in Monterey, California there will be time to write detailed articles of cities and towns, parks and museums, food and beer I have experienced around Slovakia. Some of these things I have already posted on Twitter and Instagram, but most of my time spent outside and inside places around Slovakia these past ten days have kept me away from my computer and writing descriptive articles for the blog. If you have seen many of my tweets, you might think all I did was drink beer in Slovakia. But while that was one of my major activities over the past ten days, those were the times I was sitting still long enough to actually communicate through social media. Most of the time I was too busy living late summer life here in Slovakia to spend more time writing. I’ll be processing and reflecting on this trip throughout October and with time I’ll try and pass on to readers more descriptions of why I find Slovakia a worthwhile destination in Europe for a country you most likely never even considered visiting.
My itinerary allowed me to travel from east to west across the country of Slovakia. The distance by air is less than 200 miles between Kosice in the east, Slovakia’s second largest city and Bratislava in the west, the largest city and capital of Slovakia. But this is a country of hills and mountains and the roads and train tracks are convoluted routes for travel. By rail or road the distance is almost 100 miles longer in a northerly arc across the country through the largest cities and towns by train or a route through smaller towns cutting through a more central part of the country.
I was able to fly from London Luton Airport to Košice, Slovakia on Wizz airline. This is an LCC airline, a low cost carrier, where basic ticket prices are low but everything else is extra. Still, my total ticket cost of 59.50GBP or $82.50 USD ticket included base airfare, one additional carry-on bag for my roller-board luggage, my backpack carry-on, priority boarding and my one-way bus ticket from London Victoria Station to London Luton Airport on National Express. The flight time was a little over two hours.
Košice International Airport KSC
Over three days in Košice I did not hear anyone speaking English as their primary language. That is in contrast to Bratislava where I am writing this piece and English is common among tourists with many Americans, British and other travelers and locals in the city speaking English. Bratislava is only an hour away from Vienna, Austria. Even though Košice is less than 200 miles from Bratislava, there are hardly any English and American tourists who travel to that city compared to Bratislava.
St. Elisabeth Cathedral, Košice
Spend any time in Slovakia and you will come across the name St. Elisabeth 1207-1231. She was a princess of the Kingdom of Hungary who became a follower of St. Francis after she was widowed at the age of 20. She founded a hospital with her dowry and cared for the sick. She became a symbol of Christian charity. Across the country I have encountered monuments and buildings in her honor.
St. Elisabeth Cathedral in Košice is the largest cathedral in Slovakia and the centerpiece of the city.
Košice Memorial Plaque to Hungarian Jews
Located only 15 miles from the Hungarian border, Košice, Slovakia is a major rail transport hub between Hungary and Poland. Hungary had strong economic ties with Germany to help lift the country out of the Great Depression years and these ties led to Hungary joining the Axis powers of Germany and Italy during WWII. When Hungary attempted to negotiate a peace settlement with the Allied Powers of UK and USA in 1944, their betrayal led to harsh Nazi-regime retaliation. During a 10 week period from May to July 1944 there were 137 transport trains sending over 400,000 Hungarian Jews and nearly 30,000 Roma to the Nazi concentration camps of Auschwitz-Berkinau in Poland. One in three deaths at Auschwitz were Hungarian Jews with over 90% of those transported in 1944 killed.
Beer in Slovakia
I love beer. In Košice I had my first exposure to the price of beer in Slovakia. The average price being 1.50 EUR for 0.5L or a pint of beer. In 10 days the most I paid for a beer was 2.70 EUR at a rip-off pub in Bratislava and 90 cents at a local pub in Spišské Podhradie near Spiš Castle and 1.00 EUR in Levoča. I saw beer prices posted as low as 70 and 80 cents in pubs where I did not stop to drink. I am sure there are 50 cents pints to be found somewhere in some Slovakian town off the beaten track. The prices I paid were found in the largest cities and major tourist towns and resorts. I only had two pints of beer out of 30+ beers in restaurants and cafes that cost over 1.70 EUR per 0.5 L. Other types of wine and distilled alcohol are comparably inexpensive.
Hiking in Slovakia
You might think all those beers would have placed a few pounds on my body. To the contrary, I came to Slovakia with the primary aim to hike in the hills and mountains. Although I only had three real days of strenuous hiking in the High Tatras, the 6 to 10 hours I walked around towns and hills most days probably shed some 10 pounds of summer idleness fat off my body. I have not been on a scale to know for sure, but my clothes are fitting much more loosely than they did two weeks ago.
High Tatras, Slovakia
Slovakian hikers I met consider the High Tatras too touristy and populated for enjoyable hiking. As a solo hiker, my desire was to be in places with other people around in case I found myself in need of help. These trails kicked my ass after weeks of summer idleness in California. Keep in mind that when a trail reads ‘easy’ on the map, that probably only means you can walk it without the use of your hands to climb rocks (but you may need to climb a ladder) and you will likely reach some establishment with a beer on tap in under three hours on the trails.
Price of Food in Slovakia
Food prices are inexpensive for Americans and economic deflation is making food less expensive in Slovakia in 2016. I splurged at a couple of places where I paid over 10 EUR for restaurant meals a couple of times. On average, 5 to 10 EUR will buy a filling and healthy meal with salad or potatoes and main course. 2 EUR will buy a hot chicken meal in a grocery store.
This meal of grilled vegetables, soup and bread with two pints of beer priced around 10 EUR sitting outside at a restaurant on the main square in Košice.
Fast food Slovakian style was chicken, fries, cabbage and a beer for 5 EUR.
Pizza is the most common fast food found in Slovakia with an entire pizza priced between 4 EUR and 7 EUR. I ate pizza slices a few times for quick fast food on the run when I was busy sight-seeing and did not want to sit down for a meal. I paid as little as 50 cents for a Costco size slice of pizza (1/8 pizza) and up to 1.50 EUR in the tourist center of Bratislava for pizza slices.
I primarily traveled around four places in Slovakia and the presence of English speaking tourists and locals increased in each location as I traveled from Kosice to Poprad and the High Tatras mountain resorts region to Levoča and Spis Castle, a UNESCO World Heritage Site region, and then to Bratislava where the presence of English speaking tourists was comparable to many cities in western Europe.
Levoča was the one place for this trip I had not preplanned and it turned out to be my favorite destination. This area of Slovakia has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Levoča is a place that still retains much of its historical architecture from medieval times within a walled town. My 43 EUR hotel room at Hotel U Leva was basic 3-star accommodation in a prime location on the top floor of a 14th century building. There are luxury style hotel rooms available for less than 100 EUR per night in a town with a dozen or so hotels.
Slovakia is a work in progress. Many of the most popular tourist sites today were only opened in the past ten years after restoration and reconstruction of places that have been abandoned for decades or even centuries.
Hotel U Leva Restaurant in Levoča, Slovakia is a restored 14th century merchant home on the main square of this medieval city. Hotel U Leva is the TripAdvisor #1 ranked hotel and restaurant for Levoča. I had a wonderful meal next door at the TripAdvisor #13, lowest ranked restaurant in town and it was a wonderful experience. My point being that the standards of quality are generally acceptable and relatively high for all the establishments in this well-visited small town.
Levoča, Slovakia town wall.
Levoča, Slovakia town hall (15th-17th century).
A master wood carver, known today as Master Paul of Levoča, created some of the finest wooden altars in Europe in the early 1500s. The tallest wooden altar in Europe is located in St. Jacob Church in Levoča. The basilica does not allow photography and there is a 50 EUR fine for taking pictures. Reproductions of his works are located in his former house, now a museum.
Master Paul of Levoča.
4 EUR buys admission to three different museums in Levoča including Master Paul’s House, Old Town Hall and a museum displaying works of 20th century Slovakian painter Martin Benka, considered the founder of Modernist 20th century Slovak painting. Many of his paintings featured regional locals in Slovakian traditional dress.
Spiš Castle is a ruin after it burned out in the 1700s, but one that remains impressive to visit. It is one of the largest castle complexes in Europe and was a major seat of the Hungarian Empire for several centuries.
Hiking in the Tatras seemed like simply my preparation for hiking the trail up to the castle on a hill.
A free audio tour in English provided detailed history and stories of the Hungarian efforts to repel the invasion of Tartars in 1241 and the rise and fall of empires in the region.
My first day in Bratislava was a disappointment when I found myself in a large and not so attractive city outside the old town area. Then, upon walking a couple miles from the DoubleTree Bratislava to the old town, I found the beautiful city center overrun with obnoxiously drunk large groups of Britons making the place an unattractive area to visit. However, the next day, with no sign of staggeringly drunk Brits spoiling the city center, I discovered the true charms of Bratislava with the help of a guided tour in the company of Dominika, a young Slovakian medical student with fine English language skills.
I highly recommend taking advantage of the frequent tours offered with guides at www.befreetours.com. I actually spent a little time with four different tour guides and enjoyed Dominika’s 2.5 hour presentation the most. She invited her tour group on a 4-hour pub crawl for 13 EUR last night from 9:30 to 1:30am and I was slightly tempted, but I would be in no condition to be writing this piece now if I had been on that tour. Plus, this is my travel day when I need to cross Austria to reach Salzburg. No hangover needed to complicate that journey of buses and trains.
These ten days in Slovakia have been satisfying and leave me wishing for more time. As is often the case with travel, and to quote a line from the early 1973 Jim Croce song Time in a Bottle –
“But there never seems to be enough time
To do the things you want to do, once you find them”.