Accompanied by Juraj, a professor of British and American studies, we headed to the Slovak version of the Andy Warhol Museum in Melizlaborce, about 80Km from Presov. Along the way he explained the Ruthenian, Orthodox, Greek and Roman Catholic forms of ritual and differentiated architecture between the churches. The Ruthenian people live within the Carpathian Mountains nestled in valleys and rolling hills above the flat farmlands along the river valleys that are mostly owned by Roman Catholics. The wooden Ruthenian churches take symbols from Russian culture indicating flame or light, the cross and the crescent. Each small wooden church near a village was surrounded by generations of headstones. Members of the village and church meticulously cared each for grave. Late Sunday afternoon the churches were vacant, no villagers were present. The cool November wind rustled the naked branches. The long autumn light illuminated the pitch colored wood in stark contrast to the blue and white-clouded sky high above the towers of the Ruthenian churches. There was a spiritual silence in the village and around the church. Each visit was a metaphysical experience.
We embarked upon a short hike at dusk in the High Tatras Mountains to a symbolic cemetery. A colorful cross and a plaque represent each person who has fallen victim to mountains by avalanche, accident or plane crash.
We continued hiking through the dark to Popradske Pleso, one of a number of glacial lakes in the mountainous region. The lake provides an enormous vista to the sunset and moonrise over the mountains. The rich ember red following the sunset and the rainbow hue swirling around the moon tucked just behind the back-light mountains provided a truly spiritual experience.
More images from the High Tatras
Presov is located in eastern Slovakia at the heart of the Ruthenian culture.
Mores images from Presov
The residents are victims of communism, those who could not adjust or adapt to the new capitalist system, leaving many homeless, destitute and drug addicted. The facility, which also serves as a local catholic parish office, is completely run by the residents. To maintain their stay at the facility they must remain free of drugs and alcohol and work to care for the facilities farms, animals, fields or handicapped people. Men and women who found themselves jobless or skill less after the fall of communism begin to have purpose by constructing the facility in which they live and work. All of the building materials used at the facility are either found or donated. They are used according to their shape and size, there are no rules, except that the materials must be used for a purpose to improve the facility. Many long-term members of the commune have, over time built a strong community in which they have decide to stay and raise families and be a support network for others. The home at the foot of the Tatras Mountains provides a vital social service that the government cannot.
I woke at 630 to take advantage of the early light in the old city. In between photographs I stopped in on the local Catholic Church where the daily rosary was being prayed. I stayed for a few Slovak Hail Mary’s, made a personal offering and headed for the Danube River a few blocks away down narrow cobblestone streets passageways.
During communism the quaint town center was paved with asphalt and car traffic in the city center was allowed. What remains of Bratislava’s city center was once part of a much larger medieval city that was once the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. At the conclusion of World War II, the Soviet dictators ordered the demolition of a larger part of the city to make room for new communist style developments. During the communist period, the shops were not as diverse as they are now, ordinary and limited. The buildings were not colorful or well maintained. The economic system sucked the life out of the medieval town. I arrived at the main road adjacent to the Danube during rush hour. The good looking and hard working citizens of Bratislava were on their way to work on the unseasonably warm November day, just one day before the anniversary of the Velvet Revolution.
After breakfast, I met with Rastislav we headed to his attorneys office to put the finishing touches on a contract for a new photography studio venture. He is creating an atelier to rent to working photographers in the city. The attorney was a young and slender but pretty woman. She engaged Rastislav in a detailed conversation, just the same as an American attorney would. At natural pauses she would glance over and acknowledge me as if It were novel that I would even remotely be interested in the Slovak legal system. We left the attorney and headed to the campaign party headquarters to volunteer with more campaign work, stuffing envelopes. With the election less than two weeks away and the party needed to get there candidates elected. Frantic calls went out and minutes later several volunteers showed up.
Finally we gathered in a kayak shop to listen to a former representative from the Slovak embassy present videos, photographs and stories from his mountain climbing journey up Mt. Elbrus in the neighboring nation the Ukraine. There is debate as to whether the mountain is in Asia or Europe. If it is, in fact, in Europe it is the tallest mountain. From a transportation perspective it is much easier for Slovaks to travel west to Austria and Germany. So few Slovaks from the western half of the country travel to the Ukraine. Many consider it a backwards and exotic place. It is not connected to Slovakia like a neighboring state should be in terms of the broader culture and transportation. The purpose of the presentation was to promote interaction and travel between the two nations and to celebrate the goodwill trip to the top of Mt. Elbrus.
During the presentation Kvas was served, a traditional Russian soft drink, made from fermented bread. It is not alcoholic and is considered an essential part of the diet as it promotes smooth digestion. It is said to prevent bad alcoholic interactions, giving the Ukrainians the ability to drink copious amounts of vodka and a reputation for being heavy drinkers. In addition a traditional Ukrainian soup, solyanka, was served. The hearty soup consisted of beef broth; several smoked meats, fermented (pickled) cucumbers, mushrooms, cabbage, olives, spices and served with bread. The stories, food and beverage were designed to inspire curiosity and good favor between these two unfamiliar neighbors.
Rastislav took me to the dark and dingy communist era train station to catch a sleeper train back to Prague in time for the Velvet Revolution anniversary. He said that the poor economy stymied plans to modernize the train station. In its current condition, he says the depressing relic does nothing to promote the good will, good cheer and good economy that Bratislava offers to visitors.
Part 2 of 3
Later in the afternoon Rastislav and I met with Josef, a Roma or gypsy. He agreed to take us to flats where the group lives on one of the hills surrounding the city. Josef is a businessman who escaped the living life in the poor conditions that make up the flats. The four story apartments are clustered together and sequestered from other non-Roma residences in the area. The outside of the building was devoid of any character. Most of the window were broken or cracked. Weathered clothes and blankets hung out of nearly all of the windows. There were no cars around the building whatsoever. Cigarette buts and other small pieces of rubbish were scattered about. A few young children occupied themselves with a salvaged wheel and a bicycle with no chain or wheels to make it go, a pitiful sight.
I was introduced to a short chain smoking woman who allowed us inside of her flat to photograph. She did not tell me her name. Once inside the building the stair wells and hallways were free of debris.
She opened her flat, everything inside was neat orderly almost welcoming. The furnishings were a hodge podge of scavenged furniture. The few of the plates, cups and bowls on display matched. They were all clean and all things had a place. She clearly took pride in her space.
She was jovial and joking with Josef she seemingly no complaints about the presence of outsiders. I asked how they managed in the winter and I was told that the flats are heated with wood only in a small stove that acts as a heater and a stove. Josef insinuated that many of his people do not understand or care for the fact that energy cost money so they choose to collect wood and other items to burn inside their flats for heat. To subsist many Roma pick blueberries, mushroom and other wild produce to sell along the roads during the summer and clear the same roads of snow in the winter time.
Part 1 of 3
In the early afternoon we left for Banska Shiavnica a mining town built on the site of an ancient volcano. Banska Shiavnica is a completely preserved medieval town dating to the third century BC. It has been declared a world Heritage site by UNESCO. Mining is now all but gone, save a few museums, the town is now a center for recreation and tourism because of its historical significance. We drove across country through small traditional villages and middle sized modern towns and never ending sunflower fields to get to Banska Shiavnica. We stopped for fresh bread and local salads at a popular road side stand.
We stayed at a 500 year old home which has been in Rastislav’s family for a few generations. It is equipped only with 19th century kitchen equipment and relies on an outhouse for the bathroom. The house is undergoing renovations but Rastislav plans to modernize the homestead and create an artist’s studio or colony on the property. It will be equipped with separate flats for visitors, fruit trees, a small lake and solitude to help the mind create. It was this home that inspired him to produce the book Shiavnica, a photo documentary about town and its surrounding villages.
We took the daily swim at one of sixty man made lakes known as tajchy. The lakes created a mechanical system system to remove water from mine by collecting rain water to operate pumps and provide energy for the mining operations.
Later in the afternoon we visited with Dr. Beata Nemcova, a professor of English and language arts. She has taken it upon herself and enlisted the help of some of her students to maintain an old Jewish cemetery and synagogue. There are only two Jews remaining in Banska Shiavnica. Beata tells me that one old woman has lost her mental capabilities and no longer is able to communicate effectively and seldom talks about the events of the World War. The other, a member of the Wellward family owns property in the city and a plot in the cemetery resides full time in Israel. When he dies he has chosen to be buried in Israel where most of his family now resides rather than in his homeland of Slovakia. The cemetery is situated high on a hill overlooking the classic city. After Hitler’s invasion and World War II Jews chose not to return to the Banska Shiavnica leaving the cemetery to fall into disrepair in the decades following the war. Many of the tombstones have fallen or have been pushed over. Many of the markers date to the 1700’s. Beata, who is not Jewish, feels a sense of responsibility to the site She says “with no Jews left here there will be no one with a vested interest in this sacred site.”
The next morning we wandered into town for the annual festival in the town square. Traditional Slovak goods, wooden toys and kitchen utensils, honey and honey liquor were on hand for sampling and purchase. The main church in the center of town, St. Catherine of Alexandria Church, built between 1488 and 1491 and consecrated in 1500, was open to the public. Above the through the belfry to the attic dead pigeons littered the stairwell. An eerie sensation passed before me. It was spooky to climb the weathered and worn out staircase into. Sounds from below were muffled while pigeons flew in and out of several open windows lining the spiral stair climbing the tower. The attic revealed an intricate and thick construction of wooden beams and joists, all well weathered and covered with bird and bat guano. The floor joists were mostly open but were covered in places by catwalks to reach the deep ends of the attic space. The air was thick and smelled musty. The space was dark and cavernous. The muffled sounds of celebration could be heard from the cobblestone streets below.
Wednesday 11am Eastern Standard Time
Pittsburgh to Charlotte
Wednesday 5pm Eastern Standard Time
Charlotte to Munich
Thursday 8am Central European Time
Munich to Bratislava
Thursday 12pm Central European Time
Twenty hours either on a plane or in an airport. I was glad to be on the ground. Rastislav picked me up at the modest airport took me to lunch in the same mall where his consumer photography lab is located. It was good to catch up with him in person. It had been 8 years since I met Rasto while he was a photography exchange student at Slippery Rock University in Pennsylvania. Rasto has wanted me to visit Slovakia since the day he left the USA for home. Eight years later I finally made it and I needed a nap.
During my first afternoon in Bratislava I spent time with my host family the Misik’s, Rastislav, Martinka and Svetlanka. The Misik’s own an apartment on the high ridge on the west side of Bratislava. They bought the apartment after the fall of communism when property values were cheaper. They have realized great appreciation to the home which provides a fantastic view of the burgeoning industrial and commercial center. The old town and the center of government is a short five minutes walk down the hill.
Thursday 5pm CET
A daily tradition for many Slovaks is to spend time at swimming at the man made lakes that dot the outskirts of the city. We chose to swim in a lake on the western side of Bratislava near the suburb of Rusovce. The man made lake is situated on the flood plain of the Danube River. The reservoir acts as a rainwater catch to supply drinking water to the city. Each group of lake visitors pick a different spot along the shoreline and sequester themselves from one and other by trees and brush.
Afterwards we stopped in the suburban village of Rusovce for sherbet. Ruscove is comparable to an American suburb, a small service based old town center with a mixture of new and old homes expanding from the center. Property values are on the rise here as evidenced by the expanding rows of new homes waiting to be purchased.
As a contrast to Ruscove, on the drive back to Bratislava we detoured through Petrzalka, a huge expanse of apartment dwellings, symbolic evidence of communism. The Soviet style buildings have taken on new life however; shops and service businesses have begun to open where state owned stores once were located. Pubs and bars with outdoor seating and colorful surroundings break the drab. Many of the formed concrete buildings, left unpainted or white during communism, are being colorfully painted to reflect the capitalist mood of the city.
Thursday 9PM CET
After dark Rastislav took me to the center of Bratislava’s Old Town and had a few beers under fantastic medieval architecture. Churches and buildings with ornate stonework and archways lined the cobblestone streets. Most of the old town and its character in Bratislava’s center was leveled by communists to make way for an expressway and ‘modern’ communist buildings. It was suggested to me that the old town was destroyed as a method to break the spirit of the people in Bratislava.
Friday 6am CET
I headed out into the city a dawn broke over Bratislava just before the city woke, about 6 am. Only a few local people were out heading to work or taking a morning walk and a few hotel guests coming and going to inns hotels tucked away on narrow side streets off of the main town square. I wandered the streets for about an hour photographing what remains of the old town. St Michaels Gate once a fortress gate to the city now is the entryway to the maze of narrow streets designed for foot traffic. Originally built in the 1300’s the gate is the only entry that has been preserved from the medieval fortifications and is one of the oldest town buildings. The narrow cavernous streets diffused the early light evoking a real sense of history and time. I contemplated just how many people had wandered here before me.
See more photos at Flickr