Friday, February 11, 2011

Quirky and Unusual Sights # 2 - The Minaret in Lednice, Czech Republic

The Lednice-Valtice region was once the family home of the Lichtensteins, who began developing the complex in the 18th century. Many pavilions, fountains, statues, arches and castle ruins can be found spread over an area of several hundred square kilometres. In the 19th century the complex was further developed with many structures built between the family's palaces in the towns of Lednice and Valtice. The palace in Lednice is surrounded by a huge landscaped garden, the most unique and outlandish feature of which is the minaret, built in a Moorish-revival style in 1802. At 60 metres high, it was supposedly the tallest minaret outside the Muslim world at the time of its construction. In the early 19th century it was very popular for the European aristocracy to embrace exotic foreign cultures and artistic forms by having palace rooms decorated in Chinese, Japanese or Middle Eastern styles. One story of the minaret's construction claims that Prince Alois Lichtenstein had planned to construct a church in the town of Lednice, but his proposal was rejected by the local municipality. As an act of cheeky defiance, he ordered the construction of the minaret as a substitute. Its construction was led by the architect Hardmuth, who had a difficult task given the extremely swampy ground the structure is built on. This was overcome by driving wooden piles deep into the soil to act as a foundation. The minaret has a wide base structure with turrets and arcades lining the roof, all topped with a crescent moon symbol. The exterior of the lower floor is decorated with textual inscriptions from the Koran written in Arabic script. The lower floor contains eight rooms with Moorish designs painted on the walls. The main tower provides views over the Lednice castle gardens and as far south as Valtice and the Austrian border. Today it is used as a lookout tower and is a popular attraction for visitors to the Lednice palace.

The Lednice-Valtice area is a possible daytrip from Brno, Bratislava or Vienna. Local trains connect it to the nearby town of Břeclav, which is a major rail hub with regular trains to all the surrounding cities and international capitals. The Lednice-Valtice area can also be explored while staying in Mikulov, which is a lovely Czech town a few kilometres west of the region.

Folk Culture Destinations # 1 - Terchová, Slovakia

Terchová is a small town with a big role in Slovak folk culture. Found in northern Slovakia a few kilometres east of the city of Žilina, this was the birthplace of the national hero Juraj Jánošík, an early 18th-century Robin Hood figure who stole from the rich landholders and gave to the poor peasants while becoming a symbol of national resistance. Today a statue of Jánošík overlooks the town from a hilltop, while a small museum contains artifacts and details from his life as an outlaw. Several folk festivals of traditional dance and music are held each year in Terchová, as well as many other traditional cultural events. One of my favourites is the annual high-speed hay cutting championships held in late June. Competitors race to cut a patch of long grass in a field using a scythe in the traditional manner. There are individual time trials for male and female competitors, as well as team events where groups of five must cut larger areas of a field in the fastest possible time. Spectators sing folk songs about working in the fields to encourage the contestants, and they follow the action intensely, since bragging rights for an entire year are on the line. The competitors are mostly locals from Terchová and the surrounding villages plus a few Slovaks from other regions of the country. At the end of each round, the competitors are rewarded for their efforts with a shot of plum brandy and a team of older women dressed in traditional costumes comes out to clean up the freshly cut grass with rakes. An awards ceremony follows at the end of the day with prizes for the winners in each category, while everyone enjoys plates of goulash cooked in a giant kettle over a fire. This is a wonderfully unique event and a great cultural experience to enjoy.

Terchová is easily reached by bus from the city of Žilina, which is on the main train line running through the country with frequent connections to Bratislava and Košice as well as several trains daily to Prague. There are a number of small hotels in Terchová and lots of guesthouses, I've stayed at the Penzion Furmanec several times, but there are many more, including the Penzion Goral, Penzion Terchová, and Penzion Montana.

Wooden Churches # 4 - Šemetkovce, Slovakia

This pretty little church is found on a small wooded hill above the village of Šemetkovce in the Svidník region of eastern Slovakia. It is a Greek-Catholic church named for St. Michael the Archangel, and dates from the year 1752. Like most wooden churches in the region, the structure was built without the use of metal nails using an ingenious woodcut pattern with wooden pegs inserted at the end of each log to hold the beams in place. Another typical feature of Greek-Catholic churches which is found in the Šemetkovce church is the emphasis placed on the number three, symbolising the Holy Trinity. Three domes, three crosses, three rooms in the interior and three doors leading below the iconostasis are all typical features. The three domes rise in height from east to west, with the doorway facing west, also a typical feature of Greek-Catholic design. The iconostasis is of baroque style, designed in the late 18th century, while some of the icons date from the 17th century. The church was badly damaged in World War Two, and extensive reconstruction work was undertaken in 1969 and 1970, and further renovations were necessary in 2001. Standing next to the church there is a tall wooden belfry with bells that are rung daily. The church and belfry were originally surrounded by a log fence, though today there is a more modern metal fence.

The village of Šemetkovce is set in lovely hilly scenery and has a few old-fashioned folk cottages along its laneways. The village can be reached by bus from Svidník just a few times a day from Monday to Friday, and there are no buses on Saturday or Sunday. Another option if you are without your own vehicle is to take the bus from Svidník to Ladomirová (be sure to stop and see the wooden church in that village as well) and then try to hitch-hike the last seven kilometres to Šemetkovce. That's how I did it when I visited, there were no problems getting a lift from some of the locals since the roads are small and everybody knows everybody else in this region.
There are hiking trails which connect together many of the villages with wooden churches in the Svidník region, and it is possible to hike from Šemetkovce across to Kožuchovce village, close to Miroľa village with its wonderful wooden church.

Relics of Communism # 3 - Prague, Czech Republic

In the Royal Garden next to Prague Castle, not far from the Royal Summer Residence, you will find the Royal Ball Game Hall. This building dates from the 16th century and was used by the king's courtiers for sporting activities. The structure was damaged by fire in May 1945 during the last stages of World War Two, but it was fully rebuilt in the 1950's. Along with the many mythological deities that were carefully restored on the facade, a small addition was made that remains as a quirky reminder of the communist period. A figure unfurling a scroll meant to be a five-year plan with a hammer and sickle was included in the design, together with the letters 'ČSR', for Czechoslovak Socialist Republic. This is a detail that you have to look closely to find (it's along the top row of the facade near the roof), so be sure to stop and take a closer look if you are visiting Prague Castle.

Sign Spotting # 3 - Čičmany, Slovakia

This menu qualifies as a vegetarian's worst nightmare - this is the vegetarian section, yet practically every item has some kind of meat in it. Bacon, sausage, ham... still vegetarian. It's a common sight in restaurant menus in rural parts of Slovakia, since a dish that contains meat but not as the primary ingredient is often still considered to be a 'vegetarian' option. Show this to any vegetarians you know to give them a fright... :)

Classic Castles # 2 - Gýmeš, Slovakia

This large castle ruin sits on a wooded hilltop above the village of Jelenec in the Tribeč mountains, about 20 kilometres north-east of the city of Nitra. The current structure dates from around 1270, when it was constructed as a Gothic palace, although it was built on the site of an earlier fort. The first owners were the Forgách family, who controlled the castle for several centuries. A peasant revolt against worsening living conditions and increased taxes in 1610 had to be suppressed by force by the Forgáchs. The Ottoman Turkish armies conquered the castle in 1530 and caused significant damage to it, and it was conquered again by the Turks in 1663. Following this period it was fully reconstructed and it remained in use up until the mid-19th century, when it was abandoned and slowly fell into ruin. Today many parts of the structure remain intact, including several tunnels, standing arches and a chapel. The castle is slowly being reclaimed by the forest, and large trees are growing all through the structure.

The castle can be reached on foot following the walking trail from the village of Jelenec, it's about a one hour walk up through the forest. Another access point is from the village of Kostoľany pod Tribečom, which is considerably closer to the castle and has a path leading there that requires a hike of about 45 minutes. In the village of Kostoľany pod Tribečom there is an another worthwhile attraction to stop and see, the 11th century Romanesque church of St. George, which features design elements typical of the Great Moravian Empire period. Both Jelencec and Kostoľany pod Tribečom are accessible by bus from Nitra, with regular buses stopping in Jelenec which is near the main road heading east towards Banská Bystrica.

Natural Wonders # 1 - Bohemian Switzerland National Park, Czech Republic

The Bohemian Switzerland National Park is a region of stunningly sculpted sandstone cliffs and towering columns of rock punctuated by deep, forest-covered canyons. Located in the north of the Czech Republic along the German border, the name for the park was coined by 19th-century artists who appreciated its romantically unique atmosphere (even though the non-alpine landscape doesn't resemble Switzerland). A major highlight of the park is the Pravčická Brána, a natural stone arch which is the largest on the European continent. Directly below the arch is the Falcon's Nest, a 19th-century chateau which now features a small museum about the park as well as an excellent restaurant with great views from its balcony. An entrance fee is charged to get close to the arch, but it's well worth the price for the chance to climb the series of stairs that leads to the view point above the arch on the opposite cliff face. From there you can look back all along the valley to see the many sandstone outcrops that rear up out of the forest floor at regular intervals.

A great day hike begins in the village of Mezní Louka, which is accessible from the city of Děčín by bus (Děčín can be reached by regular train from Prague). From Mezní Louka, a red-marked trail leads up to the foot of the sandstone cliffs and along a ridge with spectacular lookout points on rocky promontories. After 4.5 kilometres of walking, you will see the arch of Pravčická Brána appear above you on the sandstone plateau. It's a short climb from there to reach the Falcon's Nest chateau. After you've had time to walk below, beside, and above the arch and enjoy a meal on the terrace of the restaurant, you can continue further west along the red trail, which heads down a steep valley with many shallow caves lining the cliffs. You will come to the main road through the park after 2.5 kilometres, from where you can catch a returning bus to Děčín. Alternatively, continue walking west along the road on the red trail for another 2.5 kilometres until you reach the border village of Hřensko, a pretty settlement of timber-built houses that sits in a sandstone canyon surrounded by tall pinnacles of stone. Another worthwhile route involves heading south-east from Hřensko along the narrow canyons of the Kamenice river gorge. It's possible to continue by raft along the river through the tightest stretches of the gorge, where the cliff walls are just five metres apart while they extend upwards above you by over 100 metres.

The park can be visited as a long daytrip from Prague by taking a train to Děčín and then a bus from outside the train station to Hřensko or Mezní Louka. It's worth staying for two or three days to get a chance to fully experience the park, and there are regions to the west of Děčín with further sandstone formations which are equally impressive as those inside the park.

Panoramic View # 1 - Hradec Králové, Czech Republic

Climbing a church tower for a panoramic view is a common part of sightseeing in central Europe, nearly every town of note has a tower which is open for visitors to climb. Scaling the hundreds of steps to the top is often a challenge, and sometimes you have to pass directly next to or under a giant bell that may begin to ring at the exact moment you are passing.

The bell tower in Hradec Králové, known as the 'White Tower', is 71 metres high, and contains the country's second-largest bell. The 16th century tower also features an unusual clock face with a long hand that tells the hour, and a shorter hand that tells the minute. Standing on the observation platform at the top gives a dramatic view over the old town square and the surrounding streets featuring many buildings with gothic, renaissance and baroque facades. Outside the old town and across the river is the new town, composed of buildings constructed between the two World Wars in the Rondo-Cubist style by such architects as Josef Gočár and Jan Kotěra. Beyond this in the distance you can see socialist-era architecture which is typical of the region's larger cities.

Hradec Králové is a worthwhile day trip from Prague or Olomouc, but the city also provides access to the Krkonoše mountains and the Ardšpach-Teplice rock cities to the north, so using it as a base for a few days is also a good option.

Wooden Churches # 3 - Frička, Slovakia

This church stands on a small hill in the centre of the village of Frička, in a remote corner of eastern Slovakia close to the Polish border. The church is dedicated to St. Michael the Archangel, who is present in several of the icons that grace the interior. The iconostasis dates from 1830, while most of the icons are from the late nineteenth century. The ceiling of the nave is decorated with a colourful painting of St. Trinity, completed in 1933 by a local artist from the city of Prešov. The tower contains three different bells, the oldest from 1697. The church is surrounded by a low wooden fence and contains an entrance gate which is typical of the Rusyn churches of the region.

The church was fully renovated inside and out in the spring and summer of 2010, returning the structure to its original appearance. The use of a coating of protective varnish on the wood surface of the exterior has been criticised by some historians as not in keeping with the pledge to preserve the original integrity of the building, and this coating will not be used in other renovation projects of Rusyn churches in Slovakia (although it has already been used in the restoration of the church in Potoky). However, the varnish does give a very impressive appearance to the wood because of its shiny finish.

Frička is one of the most isolated villages in the region, but it can be reached by bus from the town of Bardejov with a few connections per day. It is also possible to follow a trail that leads up and over the hill into Poland, as the border is less than one kilometre from the village.

Sign Spotting # 2 - Bratislava, Slovakia

This sign can be seen in Bratislava in Mlynske Nivy street, which is close to the central bus station. I can't be certain exactly why they've chosen "Witch Style" as the name of their beauty salon, but it certainly made me look twice. I suppose every year at Halloween they get some extra business... :)

Cars of Socialist Czechoslovakia # 1 - The Škoda MBX 1000

Škoda is now the largest car manufacturer in the Czech Republic, but during the socialist era they produced the people's car of Czechoslovakia. The word 'Škoda' literally means 'pity', which appears to be a highly poor choice by the marketing department until you consider that the company founder was one Emil Škoda. Based in the city of Mlada Boleslav, Škoda auto began producing cars in the early 1900's and by the time of the Second World War it was a major international player with a strong reputation. The socialist years forced the company to focus more on production quotas than innovative new designs, but the company still produced many vehicles that were well-regarded throughout Europe. The model shown in the picture here is a Škoda MBX 1000, produced in 1966 (The MBX stands for Mlada Boleslav Deluxe). This was one of the most successful models of the communist era, and many can still be seen on the road today. It had a rear-engine and rear-wheel drive design, which was still quite common among other European manufacturers of the time. It featured a 988cc four-cylinder engine, and had 44 bhp. Its top speed was 120km/h (75mph). These models were produced for domestic consumption as well as for export abroad, and many were sold in Britain.

Classic Castles #1 - Kokořín, Czech Republic

This gothic castle is located 60km north of Prague in a region called Kokořínsko, an area of thickly wooded hills and valleys featuring sandstone cliffs and strangely-shaped rock formations. The region is a popular place for hiking, as many marked trails wind through the dense forests. The castle sits on a steep rocky outcrop overlooking the green valley below. The earliest mention of the structure is from 1320, when a fortress carved out of the surrounding sandstone was constructed. By the 16th century the castle was in poor condition, and was placed on a list of structures that were not to be maintained by the Czech state. Legends describe how the castle was then occupied by robbers and bandits such as Petrovsky of Petrovice who used it as a base from which to terrorize and pillage the region. In the 19th century the castle was left in ruins, but its isolated location and gloomy atmosphere brought it to the attention of a generation of Czech Romantic poets and painters such as K.H. Macha and Josef Manes, for whom the fortress was a source of great inspiration. The castle was purchased in 1895 and reconstructed over the next two decades by Václav Špaček, who wanted to make the structure into a family memorial. This refurbishment marked the first time a castle in the Czech lands was restored to its historical appearance. Today the castle has been returned to the ownership of the Špaček family, who intend to keep it open to the public as a museum.

A guided tour will take you through the exhibits of the interior, and it is also possible to buy a ticket to climb the tower and battlements. The second option is a more rewarding choice as the exhibits on display are less memorable than the views from the castle walls.

The best way to reach Kokořín from Prague using public transport is to take a bus from Praha-Holesovice station to the town of Mělník (which is worth spending time in as well), and then changing to another bus to the village of Kokořín. The bus will drop you in the centre of the village, and from there the castle is 1.5 kilometres further along the road and then down a forest path.

Quirky and Unusual Sights # 1 - The Andy Warhol Museum in Medzilaborce, Slovakia

In a remote corner of eastern Slovakia stands one of the country's stranger places of interest - the Andy Warhol Museum in the town of Medzilaborce. Andy Warhol (whose real name was Andrej Warchola) was born in Pittsburgh, USA, but his parents originally came from the small Rusyn village of Miková, 17km north-west of Medzilaborce. After fame and fortune arrived, Warhol never publicly spoke about his Slovak/Rusyn origins, even though he could speak Rusyn fluently. He always claimed that he "came from nowhere". The museum was founded in 1991 by members of Warhol's family, despite strong criticism from the conservative local community at the time. Many neighbouring residents wanted nothing to do with a decadent American artist and his images of blatant capitalist excess. The townsfolk were later won over by the potential of the museum to attract tourist visitors, and today the museum sits in Andy Warhol square (formerly Lenin square), and a Warhol soup tin-shaped bus stop shelter faces the road in front of it. Mural paintings of Warhol's silkscreen designs can also be seen on the sides of several buildings in the town.
Medzilaborce is best reached by train from the town of Humenné, which has transport links to most parts of the country. Local buses run between Medzilaborce and Miková a few times per day.

Sign Spotting # 1 - Kremnica, Slovakia

This sign is found at the foot of the staircase leading up into the castle tower in Kremnica in central Slovakia. Read what it says carefully - while climbing the stairs it appears to be necessary to discuss obscure indie bands and new-age philosophy...

Relics of Communism # 2 - Russian Tanks and World War 2 Monuments of the Dukla Pass, Slovakia

The fight for the Dukla pass on the border between Slovakia and Poland was a major battle of the Eastern Front in the Second World War. German resistance was stonger than anticipated, and the advance of the Russian and Czechoslovak forces was held up for many months with over 70,000 casualties on both sides. Following the end of the war and the establishment of a communist government in Czechoslovakia in 1948, it was decided that the liberation of the country by the Red Army should be commemorated with the greatest possible fanfare. Cities and towns across the country erected statues and monuments to the Russian liberators, usually inscribed with the date that the settlement was freed from German forces. The Dukla pass was particularly important as the spearhead of the advance into Czechoslovak territory, and hence an enormous monument was erected there to honour the bravery of both Russian and Czechoslovak troops. A valley near the pass which saw intense fighting during the conflict became known as the "valley of death", and many abandoned military vehicles and tanks remained there following the battle. Many Russian tanks in the valley were restored to their original condition and then returned to the position where they had been found in the valley, some sitting frozen in the middle of advancing through a farmer's cornfield, others appearing to emerge from the forest to press the German defenses. Around a dozen Russian tanks remain spread through the fields and forests in the region today as memorials to the Russian liberators. At the peak of the Dukla pass on the Slovak-Polish border sits a lookout tower intended to allow visitors to view the full extent of the battlefield area. The nearby town of Svidník was almost totally destroyed in the battle, and today another large war memorial to the Soviet troops is a dominant feature of the town's layout.

The Dukla pass is easily reached by one of several daily buses to and from Svidník; Svidník is most easily reached by bus connection from Prešov or Bardejov. In Svidník, the Hotel Rubin is an inexpensive and reasonably comfortable place to stay.