In May of 2010, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to visit the beautiful country of Slovakia where I could wander in the footsteps of my ancestors, relish in the delectable tastes of the cuisine, and absorb the beauty of Spectacular Slovakia.  Why not wander along with me?

Our heritage journey began in  Old Town Bratislava.  As we walked along the cobblestone streets, it seemed as if every corner offered a spectacular glimpse of Bratislava Castle in the distance.  We never tired of gazing upon the white stone castle with its contrasting Red Tiled Roof. 

I was fortunate to have a cousin living in Bratislava, who was thrilled to be able to show us around.  We had never met, but had corresponded by e-mail over the years.  She acted as tour guide, and she was tickled pink to act the part.  Helga showed us nearly ever site of historical interest in the city.  We didn’t let the grey skies and raindrops get us down!  After all, we were in Slovakia!  Who cared about the weather?

It seemed like every corner that we turned had something  of interest to capture our attention or offer amusement.

I would be remiss if I did not mention the palate-pleasing specialties that Slovakia has to offer. 

When we first arrived, we enjoyed a wonderful meal in Old Town Bratislava, just down the street from

St. Michael’s Gate at  Prasna Basta.  I ordered the Bryndzove halusky while Marty chose the Zucchini Risotto.  Neither of us were disappointed in our selections, and we were amazed at the unbelievably low prices!

After a morning spent wandering the streets, gazing at countless items of interest, we could not resist Helga’s invitation to Kaffe Mayer for a delightful Espresso and a sampling of tasty Viennese pastries.

For a more complete look at our Bratislava adventures, be sure to check out the Bratislava photos on my albums page.

Wednesday brought us chilly temperatures but offered a welcome respite from the rain, just in time for our adventure to Devin castle.  There is a bus that runs ever hour from the Bratislava bus terminal to Devin, but we decided to hire a taxi for the ride, which cost us

13 Euro, but got us to our destination in about 10 minutes time, dropping us off right at the entrance.  Marty and I found the ruins to be quite fascinating.  We were in awe at the history behind this once-fortress with parts dating from Roman times.   Helga was confused by our fascination with these ruins.  She said that the people of Slovakia do not understand our interest in these types of “old, ugly” monuments.  They appreciate the new, remodeled sites more.



We walked along the spot where the Moravia river meets the Danube, overlooking Austria in the not-so-far distance.  There is a memorial along this pathway, in tribute to those Slovakians who perished attempting to cross the river to reach freedom in Austria while Slovakia was under communist rule.  It’s hard to believe that the last person to die for his freedom, did so as recently as 1989. 

 

Thursday morning found us preparing for our On the Road adventure across Slovakia.  We packed up our bags and headed for the Avis dealer in Bratislava.  I had pre-purchased a Slovakia road atlas to help keep us oriented, but the smartest thing that we did on this trip was to pay for the Garmin GPS unit for the duration of our rental.  Garmin did not always lead us to the desired destination, but used in conjunction with the atlas, and the directions that I had printed up prior to leaving, I am certain that we saved ourselves a lot of confusion and worry!  The highlight of that atlas was the marked petrol and roadside rest stops that certainly came in handy in our travels through the rural hills of Slovakia.

After we navigated ourselves out of the city, we were soon traveling on the road, with Bojnice Castle as our first destination. The castle was easy to spot from a distance as we headed on the highway towards the town of Bojnice.

Who couldn’t fall in love with the romantic beauty of this towering castle?

Just gazing upon it brought to life the castles that we read about in fairy tales.  We didn’t find any princesses on our tour, unless one was hidden among the 30 grade school students whom we found ourselves paired up with on the tour of the castle.

The tour was entirely in Slovak, but that did not keep us from enjoying the amazing beauty presented in the many rooms that we walked through.  My Bojnice Castle Album highlights many of the castle rooms.

We arrived at the Kastiel Bocian (Castle Stork) in the early evening.  I was a bit nervous when I realized that neither of the proprietors spoke English, but their huge smiles were certainly welcoming, and  we managed to communicate well enough to check into our rooms, and order a fabulous dinner later that evening at the Penzion. 

As much as we would have delighted in lingering in these lovely surrounds, we realized that we had quite a bit of ground to cover in order to get to our overnight accommodation, so we hopped in our car and continued our travels to central Slovakia, headed towards Vlkanová, a small town on the outskirts of Banska Bystrica.

But, before settling down to dinner, we decided to make the short drive into Slovakia’s 3rd largest city, Banská Bystrica. The historic Old Town dates back to 1255 and became quite famous in the Middle Ages due to the mining of copper and gold. 

The  main square is lined with  former burgher houses, built in Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque styles, all well-preserved, and indicative of the wealth that the mining industry brought.

The central square features a leaning clock tower, built in 1552, and the Church of

St. Francis Xavier from the 17th century, with a Plague Column directly in front.  (These Plague Columns are featured in many towns.  They were constructed in thanksgiving for surviving the rages of the Bubonic Plague during the Middle Ages.) A  black obelisk commemorating the Red Army’s liberation of the city in 1945, and the Fountain of Stones  stand in contrast to the Renaissance style buildings behind them.

The oldest part of the town is located to the north of this square, and it features the Church of Ascension of the Virgin Mary, built in 1255, the oldest building in the city.  There is a side chapel devoted to St.Barbara, the patron saint of miners, but, alas, the church was closed and we were  not able to view it. 

But we did see these two guys out front of the church, although I must admit that I have no idea who they are.

The church stands near King Mátyás House, a five story Gothic palace from 1479 which is connected to the town wall.

The weather was beautiful that evening, allowing us to capture the serene beauty of this jewel of a city nestled  in the hills central Slovakia.

Friday brought us brilliant sunshine, and we headed out bright and early for the trip to eastern Slovakia where the bulk of my ancestors lived a century ago. Since there is no direct route between Bratislava and Košice, I had planned the trip with certain sites of interest in mind, and today would be no exception.

The first stop on my list was Lupčiansky Hrad, which, as you can see, was not too hard to miss as we ventured into the town of Slovanská L’upča.

The road to the top was narrow and windy, and we began to wonder if we had followed the wrong directions.  When we got to the entrance, we spotted vehicles in the lot, and saw a man taking photos and in short time, another man showed up, but neither spoke English.

We had a grand time attempting to communicate, and we finally figured out that these men were there to film some sort of documentary, featuring this castle and Slovak bagpipes. 

The next thing I knew, L’ubo was showing me his bagpipe and playing a tune for our enjoyment while we waited for the castle to open its doors.  We exchanged e-mail addresses and were soon joined by Martin, a violinist, who did speak English.  Upon rechecking my guidebook, I soon realized that the castle was open only in July and August, although we did learn from Martin that it would be open that day at 1:00 for a bagpipe festival.  That would certainly have been fun to see, but we needed to hit the road, so we bid farewell to our newfound friends and headed out back on Route 66 towards Brezno.

Situated on route E571 on the road to Košice is a fortress at Krasná Hôrka, which translates “Pretty Hill”.  Once again, there was no missing this impressive sight, as it can be viewed from miles around.

Our travels here led us to a parking lot at the bottom of the hill, where we were required to pay a fee to park.  Since our luggage was in the trunk of our rental car, we could only hope that it was safe-guarded by the presence of a parking attendant.  I was made nervous by the obvious presence of gypsies around the area, one of them collecting euros at the restrooms located at the foot of the hill.  We climbed the path to the castle, only to find that one must pay for a one hour guided tour to enter the castle.  So, we hiked around the proximity, which became a bit tricky in spots, then decided to pay the gypsy woman  for the bathroom, and headed out on the road again to our destination:  Košice

We managed to roll into Košice , the 2nd largest city in Slovakia,  just in time for evening rush hour,  which, in combination with unexpected road closures due to construction, made our arrival to our hotel a bit tricky.  But, after circling the Old town a couple of times, we finally managed to find our hotel without any traffic violations, or at least none that we know of!

After we checked into our hotel, I called Sylvia, a young woman who had agreed to travel with Marty and me to my ancestral villages, and translate for me, if necessary.  This young woman was a Godsend!  We spent some time planning our Saturday adventure before heading off to the  Villa Regia Restaurant that Syvlia recommended in Old Town Košice.

Of course, we couldn’t head off to dinner without exploring the beauty of the Old Town along the way.  We found ourselves walking along the pedestrian-only cobblestone streets, surrounded by various colors of palaces of old.

A half angel sits in the square, featuring the coat of arms that was approved by the government for the city of Košice in 1502.  In the background, one can see the grandness of

St. Elizabeth’s Cathedral.

We found ourself at the Villa Regia Restaurant where words cannot describe the delectable tastes that we experienced.  We ordered a goat cheese appetizer to begin  our meal, and soon we found ourselves presented with warm bread sticks complimented by soft garlic & spring onion butter.  Mmmm.... it just melted in our mouths.  Then came our dinners of Bryndzove Halusky for Marty and Bryndzove Pirohy for me. We somehow managed to waddle down the street to our hotel, but not before we stopped to enjoy the beautiful music and light show displayed by the Singing Fountain.   

Our hotel was located near the Railroad tracks and I soon discovered that the trains start running at 5:00 a.m., so we had no  problem getting on the road early for our ancestor hunt.  Sylvia met us in the lobby and soon we were on our way out of Košice headed towards Kecerovce, the town where I had determined that my Hanchak ancestors eventually called home. This family, known as Hanchak/Hancsak/Handzak were shepherds by trade.  I was able to trace their migration from Gonc, near the Hungary border, north through Košice  onto Kralovce , where my gr. grandfather, Stephen, was born, finally residing in the small town of Bolyar when his father died in 1898. Michael, Stephen’s younger brother, was baptized in St. Ladislavs Church in Kecerovce, and he claims this town as his last residence when he emigrated to the United States, listing his brother, Stephen, as his American sponsor. 

I had hoped to find some information pertaining to the marriage of Stephen Hanchak, but the priest at the church had no record of the marriage.  We scoured the cemetery for Hanchak gravestones, but were only able to find one.  I was a bit disappointed, but in absolute awe as I stood in the church where this family once came to celebrate their faith.

After exploring the cemetery thoroughly, we decided to head on to our next destination, the small village Cervenica, in the hopes of finding some information regarding Stephen Hanchak’s marriage to Veronica Stofan.  According to the Roman Catholic church records, Veronica was born in this small town.  We traveled along a small country road, passing through fields of yellow rape in bloom, spotting an occasional shrine along the way. 

We had no difficulty finding the church, but we soon learned that the priest was away on vacation.  So, we headed to the cemetery on the hill,  only to be further disappointed since no Stofan gravestones were to be found anywhere.  This cemetery is very old, and many of the markers were gone, making it impossible to locate family from the past.

It was time to switch gears here, and travel south to Slanske Nove Mesto, the town where my Takach ancestors lived.  We traveled through Ruskov where we were able to stop and see the church where these ancestors practiced their faith.

Not far from this town, we drove through the village of Slanec where a Hrad stands at the top of a mountain overlooking the village.  It was a rather impressive sight.  Just east of Slanec, we entered the village of Slanske Nove Mesto,  ending up near the Greek Catholic Church in the town.

Here we were greeted by Štefan Pastor and his brother-in-law, Vincent Voytko, neither of whom spoke a word of English.  Luckily, Sylvia made an excellent translator, and Stefan was thrilled when I told him that my grandmother was Maria Takac, his mother’s eldest sister.  He immediately threw his arms around my neck, kissing me on either check, and then followed suit with Marty, quite to everyone’s surprise.

Štefan then led me to the house where my grandmother’s family lived:  House  number 139. 

We walked through the cemetery, and with the help of some relatives that Štefan rounded up in the town, we were able to find the graves of Andrew and Elizabeth Takac, my great-grandparents.  Only the names were engraved on the stones, but I was thankful to have these relatives so enthusiastic to offer their assistance.  Somehow the language barrier melted away as we trudged through the cemetery together on our quest.

With our mission accomplished in establishing the whereabouts of the family graves in the town, Štefan insisted that we head to Sečovce, where he owns a restaurant, Penzion Domino. He had called ahead to his staff to have them prepare lunch for us and we soon found ourselves the guests of honor in the dining room of Štefan’s establishment. With Sylvia as our translator, we couldn’t have asked for a more pleasant afternoon with my Slovak family.

Time had passed quickly, but we needed to get Sylvia back to Košice for an evening appointment, so we headed back to our hotel to drop her off. When we arrived, we soon realized that Štefan’s brother, Juraj (George) was waiting in the lobby, and he was equally as excited about meeting us.  Once again, George did not speak English, so Sylvia arranged for her husband, Peter, to accompany us to dinner and help with the translating.  It was obvious that Peter was quite nervous at the start, but it wasn’t long before he was happily translating for us and we were all having a grand time enjoying each other’s company. 

Sunday morning was our planned departure day back to the western part of Slovakia, so we began our morning by attending Mass at St. Elizabeth’s Cathedral.  This Sunday was the feast of Pentecost, and Marty and I were amazed at the number of people who attended Mass dressed in their special clothes.  Every man we saw was wearing a suit and tie, and the women were dressed in elegant clothes.  It was a memory from our past, and made us wonder if the mode of dress represented the appreciation that these people had regarding the religious freedom that had been denied to them for so many years.

My  Košice Album features the beauty of this Cathedral and its surroundings.

Our first stop was Spiśský Hrad, the largest castle in Slovakia, dating back to 1120.

As you can well imagine, one cannot miss the enormity of this grandiose structure rising from the hills in the countryside. We pulled into the town of Spiśské Podhradie, with the intention of actually walking up to the castle.  We soon realized that the hike up the mountain would take 45 minutes, and we were once again quite nervous about leaving our car unattended for a long period of time since it contained our luggage. To complicate matters, a gypsy woman sat in a lot expecting payment for parking, and a gypsy man stood at the bottom of the hiking trail collecting money from tourists eager to make the hike to the top.  We opted to admire the beauty of this castle from a few different vantage points, and we ended up driving uphill to the one street walled village of Spiśská Kapitula where the entire village was attending Mass in St. Martin’s Cathedral.

By late morning, we were on our way out of Košice with an evening destination of Zilina.   Sunday driving was no less chaotic, with Slovak drivers eager to pass you with no regards toward safety.  Marty was soon a pro at dealing with the daredevils, and we continued through the rolling hills of the northern part of Slovakia on this leg of the trip.

On the road again, we soon found ourselves pulling into the walled town of Levoća, once the capital of the Spiś region.  We parked our car in the lot and headed out on foot to view the architecture of the town.

We walked around the exterior of St. Jakub church as it was not open for visitors.  Right next door is the town hall with the Cage of Shame outside.

The sound of thunder cracking nearby caused us to scramble to the car just in time to avoid a major downpour.  We decided that it was best to continue our journey, and so we found ourselves on the road, again, but this time with a magnificent view of the High Tatras mountains that only seemed to get  more amazing as we drove along.

We headed toward the blue skies and stopped in Poprad for lunch, after a brief visit to Spiśská Sobota, a lovely peaceful village which dates back to 1256.   The main square features a cobblestone road  with charming buildings lining the street .  In the center of the main square stands Sv. Juraj Church and a Renaissance belfry, made of rectangular block, the largest of its kind in the Spiś region.

Poprad was the first city where we found the old and the new obviously integrated together.  Up until now, the Old Town section of cities offered enchanting buildings that made one think that they had gone back in time.  The modern conveniences were there, but the buildings were tastefully decorated and refurbished as they would have looked centuries ago.  In Poprad, I was disappointed to see a large number of sex shops among the beautiful brick buildings.  It certainly detracted from my experience, as I did not feel comfortable walking along the streets that promoted the explicit signs for such establishments.  I went out of my way to avoid  these places in my photos, so the town will look deceivingly wonderful.

We did stay in town long enough to grab a wonderful lunch of Spinach Pirohy and Spinach/Mushroom stuffed palacinky with Lekvar dumplings for dessert at a local restaurant.  The food was fabulous, and the view was spectacular.

As we headed to our car, we walked around Námestie Sv Egídia where Sv Egídia Church from the 13th century stands along with a Renaissance bell that tolled out a lovely tune just as we were leaving.

Unexpected detours and poor weather conditions resulted in us pulling into the parking lot of the Museum of the Slovak Village in the town of Martin, just about 45  minutes prior to its scheduled closing.  We popped on our rain gear and began the hike up the path to the entrance in the pouring rain.  The staff was obviously surprised by our arrival, and, at first, I was concerned that the attendant would not let us in, but I motioned that we would run as fast as we could through the outdoor museum.  She called a young lady who spoke English, who was really quite sweet, informing us that due to the lateness of the hour we could “escape” out a back entrance when it was time to leave.

She handed me a binder that featured the layout and types of houses with English explanations and Marty and I set off along the trail, getting very wet, and in my case, muddy toes, but we certainly enjoyed going back in time several centuries, learning about the different style houses that existed in four particular areas of Slovakia.

The Orava Region, which borders Poland, featured houses primarily made of wood, and the inhabitants were primarily farmers and sheepherders. Here you see a  house from Jasenová represented a rich peasant family of Protestant denomination.

Granaries were made from logs and were built in rows, located on the outside of villages due to fire reasons, near a brook.  These were used to store grain, preserved food, clothing, work tools and instruments.

Near the Poland border, a log inn built in 1811 once stood in the town of Oravská Polhora. 

We had noticed in our travels across Slovakia, shrines randomly located along the roadsides. These were represented in this outdoor museum as well.

The Turiec region, located in north central Slovakia has towns dating back to the 13th century, along trade routes.  Cattle breeding was primary, but craft and trade occupations included oil-making, logging, dye-making, smithery, linen-making, tannery, furriery and pottery.

In the late 18th century, homes were made from stone, clay and brick in some areas here. The architecture of the houses reflected the economic conditions of the inhabitants, ranging from needy peasant living in a wooden house to the village shop made from clay.  A bell tower was built in villages where there was no chapel.

The Liptov region, in Central Slovakia, runs along the Poland border. The Váh river runs through it and was an important part of the local economy. This area is known for mining which resulted in masonry as an occupation in the 19th century.  We saw some unique buildings including houses set up for four families, each with a 3 room living area and separate entrance , and a wooden Renaissance bell tower, built in the 17th century in Trestené.

Finally, we reached the Kysuce region, which is  in north west Slovakia, bordering the Czech Republic and Poland. Two room houses were the basic construction but some areas in the south featured a  storerooms on a second floor, as well as  2 story houses where families shared their homes with cattle.  Here you see a log double house, with a homestead, which would have been shared by two well-off peasant families.

Thirty minutes certainly does not do this place justice, but we did the best with what we had, and got a good work out along the way!  We trudged back through the tree-lined path where we had entered  changed my shoes, and headed out of town to Žilina, where the Villa Necas awaited us.


This penzion was a Baroque style 18th century restored Manor House, and we were welcomed by a smiling staff, with limited English abilities.  We were able to relax and eat dinner in the wine cellar.  Being the only guests, we had undivided attention from the amiable waiter who had an excellent command of the English language.  The ambiance was delightful and the food, once again, was truly amazing.

It was hard to believe that our week in Slovakia was coming to a close.  Come Monday morning, we found ourselves once again on the highway, in the pouring rain, this time neck-n-neck with all of the semi trucks who were denied road access on Sunday.  As we made our way south towards Trnava, the rain finally eased up, and we decided to make a slight detour through the town of Zavar, where my Grandpa Mrenna had lived prior to emigrating.  My intention was to photograph the town crest, as we had for my relatives in eastern Slovakia.

We had a long drive ahead of us, but Zavar is located near the exit for Trnava, and I didn’t want to pass on this opportunity to see the town.  As we headed north for a quick look at Dolné Lovćice, the adjacent town where my grandfather was born, we passed the cemetery in Zavar on the main road.  We decided to stop and take a peek.

There were 3 women in the cemetery, caring for the graves, and I walked up to them, and briefly explained that I was from America using my obviously very poor Slovak skills.  One of the women understood me, and I explained that Jozef Mrena was my grandfather’s father.

The woman smiled and beckoned me to follow her.  She led us right to the gravestone of Jozef and Josefina Mrena, my great grandparents.  Imagine my excitement.  I hugged the woman while explaining “D’akujem vel’me pekne!!!”  She was beaming with excitement herself.

Of course, we couldn’t leave Slovakia without stopping to see the Church of the Virgin Mary in Zavar.  Once again, the beauty of the inside was breathtaking and I was so grateful that we had decided to take the time to stop in this town of my Mrenna ancestors before heading into Austria.  But, that adventure is a story for another day!

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© 2010 Barbara Geisler