Beauty and the Bleak

Features
Author:
Publish date:
SKbb300c.jpg

I was disappointed to hear that the Slovak Republic lost its bid to host the Winter Olympics in 2006. It could have been NBC's best sitcom ever.

Perhaps you hadn't heard that the Slovak Republic was one of six candidates vying for the 2006 Games (the Olympic Committee chose Italy). Perhaps you haven't heard of Slovakia at all. You're not alone. When I mentioned I was going there, most Americans asked, "Will you be where the fighting is?" No, I explained, that's Yugoslavia. Most Europeans asked, "Why would you want to go there?" When I told a guy from Vienna that Slovakia was a possible host of the Winter Olympics, he laughed so hard his gluweihn came out his nose.

Slovakia used to be the other half of Czechoslovakia. It's located in Central Europe, bordering what is now called the Czech Republic, as well as Hungary, Poland, Ukraine and Austria. It was variously ruled for 900 years by Hungarian, Hapsburg and Austro-Hungarian kings who built castles and cathedrals all over the place. After World War I it joined with Czechoslovakia, then suffered under Nazi and Russian control during and after World War II. Together they escaped from the Soviet Union in 1989, then split into separate Czech and Slovak Republics in 1993. The Czech Republic now thrives both economically and culturally, while Slovakia still sputters. I have wanted to ski in the Tatras mountains of Slovakia ever since I heard about them from a friend who lived in Prague. It's the second-highest mountain range in Europe, topping out at over 8,600 feet, but largely unknown except to Soviet-era Politburo types and a few wily Europeans in search of $10 lift tickets and 50-cent pints. Because the area languished behind the Iron Curtain for so long, its medieval villages and unusual Slavic culture survive unspoiled. Cheap, unknown and strange? Sounds like me. I had to go.

The tourism officials of Slovakia, however, did not seem to agree. In my experience, people who earn their living as tourism officials generally attempt to encourage you to visit their country. But be they in Bratislava (the Slovak capital, an hour from Vienna), the Slovak Embassy in Washington, or at various other government and private tourism offices here and abroad, the bureaucrats of Slovakia apparently just stare at their phones and say to themselves, "What's that funny noise?" In response to more than 30 calls, e-mails and faxes, I got the names of some hotels already provided by my guidebook and two brochures in semi-English ("No freeze can dissuade followers of this wise beauty from enjoying cross-country skiing. Do not hesitate, you will surely experience pleasant moments"). A guy in the U.S. State Department attested to the "bureaucratic lethargy" in Slovakia, which I attribute to the lingering effects of Soviet domination. They must still figure that it's safer to do absolutely nothing than do something and risk being shot.

I had just watched the movie "Apollo 13" when we set off for Slovakia, and I completely identified with the astronauts. We too climbed into a cramped and complicated metal craft destined for a strange environment where we weren't able to communicate with the life-forms we encountered. (Slovak is a difficult language; if you had to choose which bathroom to use, for instance, would you choose the door marked "Muzi" or "Zeny"?) And given what I'd heard about the restaurants with floor-to-ceiling smoke and Russian Mafia car thieves, who knew if the atmosphere in Slovakia could actually support life? Oh well, I told my wife, Michaela; let's have an adventure! Sometimes when you travel, you travel in time. We flew into Kosice, the second largest city in Slovakia, and found that it had flashes of the present. When a guy at the airport needed a cab, a bartender there turned on his little electronic address book and flipped open a cell phone. But mostly it seemed like 1965, which had its advantages. At the best hotel in Kosice, the bellhops still wear red tunics a embroidered pillbox hats; the towels say "Hotel Slovan" on them (when was the last time you saw that in a Western hotel?); and the rates were half what you'd pay in nearby Austria.

Originally we'd planned to drive from Kosice to the mountains, but it being winter, snow had fallen from the sky, and that changed everything. "No," they told us at the hotel desk, "you cannot drive. It's snowing!" What was the big deal? I saw 6 inches of powder outside; not enough to even slow down my little town in Maine. Our car rental agency refused to give us a car. So we took the train.

The train stations, like everything built in Slovakia during the Communist era, eschew such decadent Western notions as heating, seating or lighting. We sat on the cold stone floor in a gray interior that was clean enough but looked dirty—a condition that pretty much describes all Soviet architecture. Michaela had to pay a bathroom attendant for a scrap of toilet paper. But the first-class train to the High Tatras was spotless, orderly and on time, and the two-hour trip cost about $7.

The Tatras consist of two ranges about 40 miles apart. The High Tatras run east-west along the Polish border. The Low Tatras are farther southwest and about 2,000 feet lower. We went to Stary Smokovec, not because the skiing was particularly good there but because, with its string of hotels, shops, pensions and clinics scattered among forests of tall snow-draped firs, it's the most happening town in the High Tatras. The area was popular in the 1800s with local aristocracy and wealthy Hungarians as a place to drink mineral waters, breathe "bacterium-free" air and take various other spa cures. The beautiful old buildings—Rococo, Victorian, Art Nouveau, Bauhaus—remind you that back in the days of the Austro-Hungarian empire, life here was pretty darned luxurious. For instance, when we first saw the Hotel Grand, an expanse of fieldstone, exposed timbers, Swiss-style curlicues, towers, balconies and doorways shaped like keyholes, we said, "Cool!" Inside it was vast and Deco: black and white marble floor, dark blond veneer. But our room looked as if it had been decorated by Breschnev's wife after she had consumed way too much slivovice (the local plum brandy). The drapes were of a swirly yellow-green fake plush material, the carpeting mustard-yellow shag and the beige couches so dirty even the Salvation Army would have thrown them away. Michaela turned over the can opener on top of the mini bar, pointed to the brand name on it and said, "This is where we are." It read, "MARS."

So we moved across the street to the Hotel Smokovec. It was newly built and sunny with white walls and cherry trim. The receptionist smiled and spoke good English, and it cost only $21 per person. It had a no-smoking dining room, a tri-lingual menu (Slovak, German and English) and curious but excellent food. One night I had a plate of homemade potato pierogi (dumplings) in a bacon and goat-cheese sauce that would have made any snooty New York chef proud. The cost: about $3.

To get to Strbske Pleso, the biggest ski resort in the High Tatras, we rode the Electrica, a rusty train plastered with signs promoting the Olympic candidacy. The train connects all the High Tatras towns and costs about 40 cents to ride. The ticket taker, a uniformed woman in her 30s, whacked Michaela hard on the shoulder because she had her stockinged feet on the fiberglass seat. Then the elderly couple in front of us didn't notice her, so she whacked them, too.

At Strbske Pleso they had turnstiles into which you inserted your bar-coded ticket, but the lifts were almost completely unattended. The chairs moved at a slow person's walking speed and were spaced hundreds of yards apart.

This explained the 45-minute line (and this a weekday) that wound around three sides of the building. The wait allowed us to witness a history of the last 30 years of ski construction: The rental stuff was only a year or two old, but some people had wooden skis with metal edges. Everyone stared at our helmets.

We finally popped out above treeline on a gentle run and were at the bottom again in what seemed like seconds. The place had four lifts, four snow cannons and three trails, of which the beginner's hill was the steepest. Strbske Pleso's only real claim to fame, as far as I could tell, is two massive ski jumps and a great spot for lunch.

The Slalom Club was a smoky, two-floored chalet with big wooden tables grouped around an open grill area, where a guy in a Fifties soda-jerk hat pounded cutlets and grilled sausages over a charcoal fire. We sat down next to an older couple in ski clothes with silver hair and silver teeth.

"Dobry den," said Michaela, which means "good day." The man smiled and replied, "Nostrovia!" Then he pointed to the glasses and cups in front of him as if they contained the secret to a long and happy life and said, "Tea! Rum!" This was one of only three times in Slovakia that I saw someone smile.

That is not to imply Slovakia is without charms. In addition to its mountains, forests and wildlife, much of the ancient architecture and folk culture remains well preserved. One day we traveled west about 90 miles to the walled medieval town of Levoca. Largely undisturbed by railroads or Soviet-era "progress" (Kosice, Bratislava and Poprad, for instance, are ringed with hordes of shabby pre-fab concrete apartment high-rises that look as if they're ready to tip over), Levoca still has 16th-century buildings with frescoed facades, little cobbled alleyways and a Gothic church containing altars carved by a genius named Master Paul whose work looks like Breugel in 3-D. We also visited a little farming village on the Polish border called Zdiar, famous for log-built chalets painted with folk designs.

It was snowing the next day when we rode with our Austrian friends, Toni and Klaus, to Jasna (pronounced "Yazna"), the biggest resort in the Low Tatras. As we drove up the long, winding access road (which reminded me of the White Mountains, with snow-heavy woods and rocky brooks), we saw cars from Slovenia, Poland, Hungary, Germany and the Czech Republic. That's because Jasna is the biggest ski resort in Central Europe. It's a good-sized, modern place with 18 varied trails, 19 lifts, including detachable quads and a gondola, modern snowmaking, no liftlines and about 3,200 vertical feet on both sides of a mountain with open snowfields on the top third. In the U.S. it would be considered mid-sized, but a lift ticket costs just $10. Wow. A ski bum could live like a king here.

But it took us almost two hours to drive the 50 miles. The roads were covered with 4 inches of packed powder, deeply grooved by car tires. Periodically, some little Voda in front of us, stuffed full of parents, children and plastic bags of clothes and food, would lose control in the ruts, spin out and crash into a snowbank. It's not that they don't have the equipment to clear the roads, it's just how they choose to use it. Once we saw a parade of three plows: the first had its blade up; the second, a grader, was barely scraping the surface of the snow; and the third, blade also up, spread gravel. As Michaela said, they don't so much plow the roads as groom them. I figure if they truly want to host the Winter Olympics, and they truly want people to attend, they'd better hold them when there's no snow on the roads—in summer.

I wish the Slovaks luck in any future Olympic bids. They seem like well-meaning folk, they have the natural resources to be a great ski country and they could use some cheering up. But first they need to replace their native bureaucrats with Canadians and their road crews with those from any small town in Maine. Then they might want to raise the train fare a few koruna in order to put free toilet paper in the johns. The right person—a bargain hunter in search of exotic adventure—could have a lot of fun here. And it's the type of adventure that helple had wooden skis with metal edges. Everyone stared at our helmets.

We finally popped out above treeline on a gentle run and were at the bottom again in what seemed like seconds. The place had four lifts, four snow cannons and three trails, of which the beginner's hill was the steepest. Strbske Pleso's only real claim to fame, as far as I could tell, is two massive ski jumps and a great spot for lunch.

The Slalom Club was a smoky, two-floored chalet with big wooden tables grouped around an open grill area, where a guy in a Fifties soda-jerk hat pounded cutlets and grilled sausages over a charcoal fire. We sat down next to an older couple in ski clothes with silver hair and silver teeth.

"Dobry den," said Michaela, which means "good day." The man smiled and replied, "Nostrovia!" Then he pointed to the glasses and cups in front of him as if they contained the secret to a long and happy life and said, "Tea! Rum!" This was one of only three times in Slovakia that I saw someone smile.

That is not to imply Slovakia is without charms. In addition to its mountains, forests and wildlife, much of the ancient architecture and folk culture remains well preserved. One day we traveled west about 90 miles to the walled medieval town of Levoca. Largely undisturbed by railroads or Soviet-era "progress" (Kosice, Bratislava and Poprad, for instance, are ringed with hordes of shabby pre-fab concrete apartment high-rises that look as if they're ready to tip over), Levoca still has 16th-century buildings with frescoed facades, little cobbled alleyways and a Gothic church containing altars carved by a genius named Master Paul whose work looks like Breugel in 3-D. We also visited a little farming village on the Polish border called Zdiar, famous for log-built chalets painted with folk designs.

It was snowing the next day when we rode with our Austrian friends, Toni and Klaus, to Jasna (pronounced "Yazna"), the biggest resort in the Low Tatras. As we drove up the long, winding access road (which reminded me of the White Mountains, with snow-heavy woods and rocky brooks), we saw cars from Slovenia, Poland, Hungary, Germany and the Czech Republic. That's because Jasna is the biggest ski resort in Central Europe. It's a good-sized, modern place with 18 varied trails, 19 lifts, including detachable quads and a gondola, modern snowmaking, no liftlines and about 3,200 vertical feet on both sides of a mountain with open snowfields on the top third. In the U.S. it would be considered mid-sized, but a lift ticket costs just $10. Wow. A ski bum could live like a king here.

But it took us almost two hours to drive the 50 miles. The roads were covered with 4 inches of packed powder, deeply grooved by car tires. Periodically, some little Voda in front of us, stuffed full of parents, children and plastic bags of clothes and food, would lose control in the ruts, spin out and crash into a snowbank. It's not that they don't have the equipment to clear the roads, it's just how they choose to use it. Once we saw a parade of three plows: the first had its blade up; the second, a grader, was barely scraping the surface of the snow; and the third, blade also up, spread gravel. As Michaela said, they don't so much plow the roads as groom them. I figure if they truly want to host the Winter Olympics, and they truly want people to attend, they'd better hold them when there's no snow on the roads—in summer.

I wish the Slovaks luck in any future Olympic bids. They seem like well-meaning folk, they have the natural resources to be a great ski country and they could use some cheering up. But first they need to replace their native bureaucrats with Canadians and their road crews with those from any small town in Maine. Then they might want to raise the train fare a few koruna in order to put free toilet paper in the johns. The right person—a bargain hunter in search of exotic adventure—could have a lot of fun here. And it's the type of adventure that helps you appreciate the world you've left behind. When someone asked me the first thing I was going to do when I got home, I said, "Kiss the ground."

Beauty and the Bleak: Photo Essay, Part 1

Beauty and the Bleak: Photo Essay, Part 2

Slovakia's Almanac helps you appreciate the world you've left behind. When someone asked me the first thing I was going to do when I got home, I said, "Kiss the ground."

Beauty and the Bleak: Photo Essay, Part 1

Beauty and the Bleak: Photo Essay, Part 2

Slovakia's Almanac

Related