In Search of Slovakia

by Michelle Lawson

A traveler skims the border of Slovakia on foot and by train but finds herself constantly on the outside.

The bus pulled up at the border of  Slovakia. A skyscraper icon showed the speed limits for towns and cities, though the only tall things in sight were the Tatra Mountains, still white in mid-May.

The previous day I’d been on the northern Polish side of the Tatras, side-stepping up and down icy trails from Zakopane and frustrated by the mist concealing the toothy gray peaks. They’d been visible last autumn when I’d walked along the border ridge with one foot in Poland and the other in Slovakia. That border – a line marked by chipped white and red posts – had not so long ago required hikers to carry their passports. But a frontier across the top of a mountain chain seemed arbitrary, artificial even. 

There are genuine ethnic and cultural differences, and Poland and Slovakia once lay within separate states of the Austro-Hungarian dual-monarchy. But today, were there visible differences in the folds of mountain ridges and valley settlements, the people, the visitors, the transport options?

I had an idea there would be. Zakopane took its perceived role as the birthplace of Polish heritage seriously. At a time when Poland didn’t officially exist as a country, Polish elites began visiting Zakopane and were inspired by the Górale highlanders, with their colorful clothing, woodcraft skills, and timber architecture. Here were Poland’s authentic Polish roots! No matter that in reality, the Górale were mixed borderlanders. In no time, they were incorporated into a narrative of Poland’s heritage.

Today Zakopane overflows with shops and stalls selling replica Górale clothing. Families and hikers sit on sheepskins outside timber restaurants, sip mulled wine, and nod along to folk music. Maybe Slovakia offered a less kitschy version of the Tatras?

There were other reasons for my interest in Slovakia. In 2019, I’d sought, and discovered, a family of first cousins living in Western Ukraine. I’d known nothing about them for most of my life, while they knew all about me from my father’s letters, still there on a shelf in the village of his birth. 

To make up for my former indifference, I promised to visit them regularly, until Covid, followed by the Russian invasion, got in the way. But the next visit was always on my mind. Next time I’d enter Ukraine through the Carpathians, somewhere around here. For now a quick visit would give me a feel for eastern Slovakia.

Maybe it would also cancel out memories of a long-ago visit when the country lay within Czechoslovakia. I’d come to Žilina with a plan to go hiking but ended up a target for the local youths who took turns sitting at my table in an underground vinarny (wine bar). With no attempt to respond to my conversation. Instead, they one by one demanded I add their drinks to my tab. When one drew a finger across his throat, I made my exit and left the next morning for Vienna.

Now I’m back with an Interrail pass. The Slovak Tatras has had a system of electric trains linking the villages since 1908, but today there are no trains over or around the mountains from Poland. Going from Zakopane by train would take more than a day. I’d need to stay overnight, somewhere like…Žilina.

To hell with the rail pass. A bus took me around the eastern Tatras in 90 minutes.

Confusingly, the bus ran through more than one town with the name of Vysoké Tatry. In fact, the name – meaning High Tatras – is given to a recently created “town” sprawling across three settlements. The oldest one is Starý Smokovec, with a dramatic location beneath the towering Slavkovský štít. Unlike Zakopane, there were no huddles of newly built chalet accommodation; no cranes towering over building sites, just neat, half-timbered 19th century architecture.

The hotel receptionist had worked in London until Brexit sent her back to Slovakia. She laughed when I said I’d be happy with a room facing the railway station – “No-one wants those rooms!” – but the balcony had a view of the electric trains and the wide valley running towards Poprad. 

Compared with sprawling Zakopane and its random, standing-room-only minibusses, the trains brought a more orderly connection and a sense of neighborliness to the High Tatra villages. At night, the sharp mountain air pulled the distant lights of Poprad to within touching distance. But their nearness was an illusion. Compared with Zakopane, the Slovak Tatras had a remote feel.

That afternoon I took the cog funicular up to Hrebienok, paying a stupid amount to stand among pushchairs and gain a modest height that would have taken less than an hour to walk. From here, a tiring boulder-strewn path led across the flank of the mountain, ugly with blackened trees from a forest fire. 

Before long, snow coated the path, with lethal patches of ice concealed by fallen pine leaves. After two plodding hours, the same gray-white ribbon stretched into infinity, the view down to Poprad no different from when I’d started walking.

No alarm was necessary the following morning, as the stationmaster made his first announcements at 5am. A few hours later, the electric train climbed through the winter forest, making a hairpin to drop off passengers for a valley walk accessible to all. Few of us remained on the train at the final stop of Štrbské Pleso, almost 100 meters higher than yesterday’s pricey funicular.

I followed families strolling around the lake before a steep path led upwards, opening onto a small plateau between two monstrous old ski jumps. Built in 1970, with rotting concrete and plastic matting, they were menacing, sinister, with nothing to stop anyone walking up the steep metal steps. A couple of men had done just that and now sat at the top, shouting down to people concealed somewhere below.

By 1pm, a crowd waited to board the two-carriage train back to Starý Smokovec. People poured in, and the doors clanged shut with an announcement that the train was full, stranding a man with a small boy on the platform. 

We set off, stopping at tiny stations where hikers waited on platforms, but no-one disembarked. Passengers safe in their seats laughed at those forced to wait for the next service – or perhaps the one after that.

That evening I joined the couples and families on half board who sat in the Hotel Bistro – a fancy name for a canteen – chewing through tough chicken and red cabbage. For all its corniness and commercialization, Zakopane, with its grid of stone-paved trails and easy access to the border ridge, was an easier place for a visitor to slot in.

The next morning, the train raced through gray winter woodland down to Poprad, moving into spring as it crossed the green meadows of the wide valley floor. From Poprad you could take a train to Bratislava, Prague, or Budapest, but I boarded the second of four trains to the medieval town of Bardejov, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in northeast Slovakia. 

The train would run through the historic land of the Rusyns, people with a distinct East Slavic language and traditional wooden churches. With Ukraine currently out of bounds, anything connected with that part of the world exerted a pull.

The train meandered along the wide green Hornád River, stopping every few minutes at a tiny, often isolated station. As we approached the connection station of Kysak, there was an announcement in Slovak, and the train stopped. 

I opened the door and stepped down, too far, plunging into grass. Where was the platform? The train began to move away, the door still wide open, and the horrible truth dawned: this wasn’t the station. It was a deep forested valley with no houses or roads in sight. Just rail tracks leading to Kysak.

A narrow line of concrete slabs ran alongside the tracks, many cracked or missing, leaving gaping dark holes. For the first time, my rucksack felt heavy, in danger of overbalancing me if a freight train came up behind at speed. Eventually, a scramble up a bank led to a road and a bridge. Ahead was Kysak station, just a meeting of rail lines and an outdoor table selling illustrated slabs of “Bardejov Cake.” I kept my head down and waited for the train to Prešov, Slovakia’s third largest city.

The Prešov station waiting room was a dark cavern with no café, just a machine and bizarre circular seating made from concentric piping. Perhaps the latter was to discourage Roma people from hanging around, although a group sat nearby among broken bottles and other rubbish. Northeastern Slovakia has a large population of Roma people living in dense, unhealthy slums. Sinkholes for people stuck in a cycle of discrimination.

Harsh shouting erupted from a cleaner on a balcony. She yelled at the Roma group, who stared back at her without expression. She carried on, gesticulating at the mess, until they stood up and shuffled away. One man’s trousers were so far below his buttocks that his entire backside was exposed.

It was a relief when the train for Bardejov was called – an empty train with a thin hoot, more like a tin whistle than a warning blast. Another hour of ramshackle stations where no one got on or off. Poland and Ukraine were somewhere to the east, beyond the forested hills.

No wooden churches were visible from the train. And Bardejov itself was empty, apart from two men dismantling a stall selling archery bows. There weren’t even any pilgrims paying homage at John Lennon Street, where a local enthusiast had set up sculptures and memorials to the Beatles and other bands. For once, there was no need to weave among crowds and wait for selfie-takers. I had this medieval town to myself, but there was no one to talk to. Even my accommodation – a cultural center – was deserted, the key retrieved via a lockbox.

The following morning, a bitter wind blew around the empty town square where nothing was open. Bardejov station didn’t even have a departure board, just a single train waiting to take me back to Prešov. Another long wait on the piped seating, the same Roma faces shambling past.

As the train crossed the border into Hungary, the sun came out, radiating off fields of yellow as the train to Budapest ran parallel to the undulating Carpathians. Once again, I’d barely touched Slovakia and hadn’t given it a fair chance. I guess the time wasn’t right.

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