To the right eyes, me­dieval mar­vels hide in plain sight

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - BY ERICA ROSEN­BERG

I al­ways search for the road less touristed. Yet it was not with­out trep­i­da­tion that I drove with my spouse across the Hun­gar­ian plain from Bu­dapest into Kosice, Slo­vakia’s sec­ond-largest city. As the in­dus­trial out­skirts gave way to a sky­line dom­i­nated by Com­mu­nist-era block apart­ment build­ings, I grew con­vinced that I had made a ter­ri­ble va­ca­tion choice.

The win­dow­less en­trance to our pen­sion on a grimy block was equally dis­cour­ag­ing. The room was un­re­mark­able, with mod­u­lar fur­ni­ture that trans­formed twin beds into a dou­ble, but left metal bars pro­trud­ing from the walls. When I re­ported to the concierge that our re­frig­er­a­tor was not work­ing, she an­swered, “Most of them don’t.”

I couldn’t say I hadn’t been warned. A Europe-savvy friend ad­vised me to skip Slo­vakia and head to Krakow. The coun­try gets scant cov­er­age in guide-

books; travel writer Rick Steves deemed it “the West Vir­ginia of Europe,” which I did not take as an en­dorse­ment, al­though he did note its rus­tic beauty. A 2015 DK Guide to Eastern and Cen­tral Europe de­scribes Slo­vakia as “a rel­a­tively lit­tle-known coun­try, with few vis­i­tors,” and Lonely Planet de­votes more than half of the thin cov­er­age in its six-yearold Czech/Slo­vak guide­book to Slo­vakia’s cap­i­tal, Bratislava. Only about 40,000 Amer­i­can tourists visit Slo­vakia each year, while its more il­lus­tri­ous neigh­bor and bor­der­mate, the Czech Repub­lic, draws hun­dreds of thou­sands. The ma­jor­ity of those who visit prob­a­bly only stop in Bratislava en route to Vi­enna or Bu­dapest.

Nev­er­the­less, I had opted to by­pass the rel­a­tively more touristed Bratislava and Western Slo­vakia to head for Eastern Slo­vakia — where I ar­rived de­spon­dent.

But just around the cor­ner, down a graf­fiti-de­faced block with a sin­gle cafe, stood a stun­ning and mas­sive Gothic cathe­dral an­chor­ing the un­ex­pect­edly lovely and lively town cen­ter. For sev­eral car-free blocks, Hlavna Ulica (Main Street) was lined with dra­matic mon­u­ments — in­clud­ing its Baroque Plague Column, erected in 1722 to of­fer thanks for the plague’s end — foun­tains, shops and build­ings from the 13th to the 19th cen­tury. Cafes, serv­ing up cho­co­late and ice cream treats as de­lec­ta­ble and so­phis­ti­cated as any in Western Europe, and restau­rants, pre­dom­i­nantly Eastern Euro­pean but also In­dian and Ir­ish, of­fer­ing per­mu­ta­tions of dumplings and meat doused in sour-cream -and­mush­room sauce, bus­tled with ac­tiv­ity. Al­though the restau­rants were typ­i­cally staffed by tat­tooed, English-speak­ing waiters, rarely, if at all, did I hear English spo­ken by the pa­trons.

Be­tween the cathe­dral and the Baroque Re­vival State Theatre, a tree-en­cir­cled mu­si­cal foun­tain played “Yes­ter­day” and other fa­mil­iar tunes; af­ter sun­set, col­ored lights il­lu­mi­nated jets of wa­ter puls­ing to the mu­sic while fam­i­lies with ge­lato cones strolled by. Climb­ing the cathe­dral’s steep, cramped stone spi­ral stair­case af­forded a bird’seye view of the mo­saic roof and the hap­pen­ings below; one day, the plaza at the foot of the cathe­dral hosted a bike-stunt com­pe­ti­tion, the next, a protest of a cor­rupt of­fi­cial. Just off Hlavna Ulica, the re­pur­posed syn­a­gogues were a poignant re­minder of Slo­vakia’s past. As part of the Axis in World War II, it rounded up and de­ported tens of thou­sands of Jews, most of whom per­ished in the Holo­caust.

Kosice ex­ceeded my mod­est ex­pec­ta­tions, but Le­voca was a small-scale me­dieval marvel by any stan­dard. Two hours to the north­east, through in­creas­ingly pleas­ant coun­try­side, Le­voca makes a great base for ex­plor­ing cas­tles and na­tional parks. Founded in 1249, this walled town of 14,500 peo­ple has an in­tact cen­ter of Gothic, Baroque and Re­nais­sance struc­tures painted in pas­tels.

In the town square sits a circa-1550 Gothic town hall and the St. James’s Church, with an al­tar carved by Le­voca’s fa­mous (well, rel­a­tively) na­tive son, Mas­ter Pavol. A 16th-cen­tury wrought-iron cage of shame for un­lucky lo­cals also sits in the square.

De­spite its iconic sta­tus in Slo­vakia, you’ve prob­a­bly never heard of Spis Cas­tle. A 20-minute drive east of Le­voca, the sprawl­ing ru­ins of one of Cen­tral Europe’s largest fortresses — a UNESCO World Her­itage site — first ap­peared in the dis­tance as a mys­te­ri­ous white smudge in the lush hills. Grad­u­ally, the walls and ru­ins perched on a ridge be­came dis­cernible. The cas­tle, parts of which date from the 11th cen­tury and which housed 2,000 peo­ple in the 17th cen­tury, over­looks mul­ti­hued fields, red-roofed vil­lages and rolling hills with a back­drop of snowy moun­tain ranges. Traips­ing around the 10 acres of at­mo­spheric ru­ins and tak­ing in the views can take sev­eral hours.

Nearby na­tional parks, al­though not ex­actly un­tram­meled wilder­nesses, show­case Slo­vakia’s significant nat­u­ral as­sets. Swarm­ing with lo­cal hik­ers, Slo­vak Par­adise Na­tional Park (also called Sloven­sky raj) is loaded with user-friendly ameni­ties and cov­ered with sig­nage and hiker as­sists. We did the pop­u­lar Sucha Bela trail, which fol­lows a stream and wa­ter­falls via hair-rais­ing gorge-side cat­walks and metal lad­ders. Acro­pho­bics, beware. As I ner­vously waited in a line of 50 or so peo­ple to climb the first in­tim­i­dat­ing 90-foot lad­der, mere inches from a wa­ter­fall, I watched fear­less 5-year-olds and dog-tot­ing adults scam­per­ing up. This was my last chance to turn back: Head­ing the wrong way on the trail hence­forth could in­cur fines.

I some­how mus­tered the courage to con­tinue. Af­ter sev­eral hours of hoist­ing my­self up on chains and pray­ing that the lad­der rungs would hold, I emerged at the top of the canyon where, to my de­light, moun­tain bikes awaited. For about $10, you could rat­tle down the moun­tain on squeaky-braked, rusty bikes and be back at the base in no time to en­joy a fried dough snack at any of the park’s sev­eral cafes.

Thirty min­utes north­west of Le­voca, the ski re­sort town and former Soviet play­ground of Stary Smokovec serves as a gate­way to hikes in the rugged, Alp­like moun­tains of Ta­tra Na­tional Park, a UNESCO Bio­sphere Re­serve. For less am­bi­tious hik­ers, a fu­nic­u­lar rail­road de­liv­ers you (and hordes of oth­ers) to a closer base to ac­cess de­light­ful walks to wa­ter­falls and into the moun­tains.

And the best was yet to come. Push­ing south­east to com­plete the Slo­vak cir­cuit, we ar­rived in Ban­ska Sti­avnica. (Not to be con­fused with Ban­ska Bys­trica, which is ru­mored to be wor­thy of a visit and un­like Ban­ska Sti­avnica, made it into DK’s guide­book.) It is a per­fectly pre­served me­dieval town whose main street winds its way up to the cob­ble­stoned town cen­ter, Trin­ity Square, and whose charms, cul­ture and food ri­val those of any Ital­ian hill town.

Set in a val­ley, it has two small-scale cas­tles on ei­ther side — the 13th-cen­tury “old cas­tle” and the 16th-cen­tury “new cas­tle” — both with panoramic views. The town celebrates its min­ing his­tory with mu­se­ums. Be­cause our pen­sion was built over a mini-mine mu­seum of its own, we skipped them. But we did take in an or­gan con­cert of Bach com­po­si­tions in a 15th-cen­tury church and a me­dieval fes­ti­val that fit­tingly took over the town square, com­plete with ar­mored knights, blacksmiths, stilt-walk­ers and mak­ers of cho­co­lates and dumplings, all of them dressed in pe­riod garb.

Me­dieval towns, nat­u­ral beauty, cul­tural riches, mag­nif­i­cent cas­tles, great food, a thriv­ing cafe cul­ture — all at af­ford­able prices and with no tourist crowds. Maybe it’s time those guide­books got an overhaul.

PHO­TOS BY ERICA ROSEN­BERG

TOP: The ru­ins of Slo­vakia’s Spis Cas­tle — one of the largest and old­est fortresses in Cen­tral Europe, with roots dat­ing to the 13th cen­tury — now are a UNESCO World Her­itage site. In the 17th cen­tury, 2,000 peo­ple lived there. ABOVE: The 16th-cen­tury “new cas­tle,” one of two built to pro­tect the me­dieval min­ing cen­ter of Ban­ska Sti­avnica, has a panoramic view of the val­ley.

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