Saturday, October 8, 2011

Wooden Churches # 6 - Potoky, Slovakia

The tiny village of Potoky, near the town of Svidník in the north-eastern part of Slovakia, contains a beautiful example of the Lemko-Rusyn style of architecture. The church, dedicated to Saint Paraskieva, was originally constructed in 1773. A large bell tower was built in front of the church at a later date, and it contains a bell cast in 1839. The most unique feature of the church is the height of the three narrow steeples, since they are significantly taller than those found on most of the other wooden churches in this region. In keeping with Rusyn building customs, the tallest steeple and the front entrance face towards the west. Unfortunately the original interior of the church, including the wall paintings, icons and the iconostasis, have not survived to the present day. A modern replacement of the iconostasis was added during restoration work conducted in 2010, but the appearance is thoroughly modern and lacks the traditional appearance of Greek-Catholic church interiors. The exterior wooden shingles and wall panels were also restored in the summer of 2010, with the finished wood being treated with a preserving coat of brown varnish. This remains a controversial point among conservationists who feel that the churches of the region should be restored and left in their traditionally intended form with untreated wood. The original plans for the church site included a low stone wall that surrounded the church and the bell tower, and this feature was also restored during the renovations of 2010. An electronic device was added to the bell tower which automatically rings the bell twice daily without the need for human involvement. Potoky is off the main road between Svidník and Stropkov, making it rather difficult to reach by public transport directly. A few buses from Svidník head to the village daily, with fewer operating on Saturdays and Sundays. Many more buses follow the Svidník to Stropkov main road, and it is possible to take one of these buses and ask to be dropped off at the turnoff towards Potoky and then walk the remaining two kilometres in along the road to reach the church. To see the interior of the church you will need to find the key keeper in the village. The family which has it lives in a house on the same side of the road as the church, three houses further along the road from the church when you are coming from the beginning of the village.

Classic Castles # 3 - Krásna Hôrka, Slovakia

This large and fully intact Gothic castle sits on top of a rocky limestone hill above the small village of Krásnohorské Podhradie in south-eastern Slovakia. Built to protect the trade route running north from the Hungarian plains into the Spiš region, the castle has an ideal defensive position and appears to be virtually unconquerable when viewed from a distance. The first written record of the castle dates from 1333, when it was owned by the Bebek family. During the Turkish invasions of the mid-16th century, the family fortified and enlarged the structure in order to boost its already impressive defensive capabilities. The Bebeks occupied the castle until they were discovered to be counterfeiting currency (and supporting Protestantism) in the late 16th century, whereupon they were unceremoniously turfed out and the castle fell into the hands of the powerful Andrássy family. In 1910 the Andrássys owned enough properties in the region that Krásna Hôrka wasn't needed as a place of residence, so they decided to convert it into a family museum. Today the castle appears much as it did a century ago and the guided tour of the interior takes in lavishly decorated rooms full of artifacts and furniture collected by the Andrássys. Outside on the hill that surrounds the castle goats and sheep wander and graze on the grass, while the bells around their necks make a tinkling sound which adds a rustic soundtrack to the pretty pastoral setting. The village of Krásnohorské Podhradie is located on the main road between the city of Košice and the former medieval mining town of Rožňava. While you are in the village don't miss having a look at the Andrássy family mausoleum, a fantastic Art Nouveau building constructed in 1904 by Dionysus Andrássy in memory of his wife Františka, a Czech opera singer. Most buses travelling between Košice and Rožňava stop in the village, so it is quite easy to reach by public transport. There are several accommodation options and quality restaurants to choose from in Rožňava, so it makes a suitable base to explore the surrounding region's castles, caves and other attractions.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Natural Wonders # 2 - Adršpach-Teplice Rock Towns, Czech Republic

The fantastical rock formations of Adršpach-Teplice are undoubtedly one of the most unique natural attractions the Czech Republic has to offer. Tucked away in a quiet corner in the north of the country near the Polish border, the two 'rock cities' receive far fewer international tourists than they deserve. There are several different locations scattered around the Czech Republic which can boast bizarre limestone rock formations (The Czech Paradise, Bohemian Switzerland National Park, Kokořinsko) but those found near the small villages of Adršpach and Teplice nad Metuji are probably the most impressive when taken as a whole.

To give an idea of the scale and appearance of these 'rock cities', imagine walking through a canyon just a few metres wide where pinnacles of stone rise like office towers on all sides, some of them reaching up more than 25 metres with trees clinging to their sides. A unique ecosystem exists in these clefts between the massive stones, attracting large ferns and unusual plant formations which thrive in the cold, damp environment. The paths along the canyon floors will lead you across tiny streams, past raging waterfalls and up and down a series of metal ladders attached to the rocks. The stone formations that tower above you often have shapes that resemble objects or human figures, hence they have been given colourful names such as 'The Dwarf', 'The Lovers', 'The Mayor and His Wife', 'Smetana Playing the Piano', 'Grandma's Armchair', 'Goethe's Table', and 'Butcher's Axe'. The trails are well-marked and don't involve any difficult climbing or scrambling, so people of all ages can be seen walking among the stone formations. Between the two rock cities there is a small lake where rafts are waiting to ferry visitors across to the other side. The oarsmen who steer the boats sing traditional songs and tell jokes to entertain the passengers during the crossing. One of the most memorable portions of the trail is the region called 'Siberia' in the Teplice rock city. The name is fully appropriate since this is the coldest and narrowest of the canyons, with blades of rock soaring up on both sides so that little light reaches the path floor. Ferns grow out from every surface reaching for the sun far above.

It is possible to see the best stone formations in both rock cities in a long day if you start early enough. Both are equally worth visiting, though perhaps Adršpach has a slightly more impressive set of geological oddities. A route starting from the train station in Adršpach leads past a small lake and then follows a green-marked path into a pine forest before emerging in a grove with the first of the formations. A circular loop path takes in the best of the Adršpach rocks and can be completed in one or two hours depending on your pace. A yellow-marked path connects the two rock cities, while a blue-marked trail makes a loop that includes the highlights of the Teplice formations. Along the Teplice trail it is worth making a diversion up a series of steep ladders to see the remains of a rock fortress called Střmen which was built by Hussite soldiers. An ideal place to finish a walk is at Teplice nad Metuji Skaly, where there is a train station as well as a number of good restaurants and hotels. A plentiful assortment of accommodation and eating options can also be found in the village of Adršpach. The rock cities are typically packed with Czech, Polish and German tourists during the peak summer months, but if you can visit in the off-season times of early spring or late autumn you'll be able to experience the walk with less waiting time at ladders and narrow sections of the canyons. Visiting in winter is also possible, when the canyons take on a completely different appearance under a heavy blanket of snow.