A friend asked me to attend her marriage, and of course I said yes, I wanted to share in her joy. But when I learned it was to take place in Slovakia, the homeland of her parents, and in a castle no less – well I was just very excited. Until that point, I confess that Slovakia had not been high on my list of places to visit, in fact it was not on my radar. But that’s life – when you least expect it, it throws you an opportunity you did not even know you wanted. So with barely a passing inquiry to Mr Oyster to see if he wanted to tag along, I was off day dreaming and making arrangements for this trip.
We did not have a car for this trip and our travels were limited to the Capital of Bratislava and the town of Bojnice for the wedding. We traveled by train and while not the most modern trains I’d ever been on they were more than sufficient.
Bratislava is the capital of the Slovak Republic, and the country’s largest city with a population just south of half a million. It is located in southwestern Slovakia on both sides of the Danube River. Bratislava is also known as Pressburg in German and Pozony in Hungarian. Its location makes this town a center for trade routes and a place where many cultures intermingle, and if you want history, this place has it. Bratislava is the only national capital that borders two independent countries: Austria and Hungary. Vienna, Austria is also amazingly close, only 60 kilometers (37 mi) away, making them the two closest European capitals. The cityscape is characterized by medieval towers and grand 20th-century buildings.
One day we set out for an early morning run to a park, that my husband had found while studying the map the night before. Bear in mind, the map is in Slovak, so we missed a few details, like the fact that the park was a zoo. Imagine, its early morning, the sun peeking over the horizon, you cannot see too far ahead, intent on what is immediately in front of you as you run down a rough path overgrown with weeds, past crumbling cement benches, when out of nowhere just to your left you hear the roar of a lion; immediately followed by a lot of rustling of grass. “Holy S#*&!” “What the heck? ” “Oh. My. God – we’re going to die” I realize that a benefit of running is a full cardiovascular workout, getting the heart rate up and humming – but I can skip the lion technique next time, thank you very much! We soon realized, as the animals rose with the sun, that we were running through a zoo. We had just wandered in blissfully ignorant of all the wild critters encircling us. What a morning adventure, and all that before 7am. I informed Mr. Oyster, that I would pick the running route the next day. Through further research we learned that Bratislava’s zoo that we visited in Mlynská dolina was founded in 1960, and houses 152 species of animals, including a rare white lion (that must have been the fellow we heard) and a white tiger. The Botanical Gardens, which we thought, based on our nonexistent Slovenian was the Zoo, is on the Danube riverfront and houses more than 120 species.
Bratasilva has a beautiful, easy old town area to explore. Its similar to Prague, especially before it became so popular, in that there is an old town and the newer business areas are separate. We spent a great deal of time meandering the streets here, as this area has the concentration of historical buildings. My only gripe is that some 1950’s Communist “urban planner” decided the progressive thing to do was build an interstate bisecting this beautiful area. Now both sides have their charm, but it left me yearning to see what this area was like before that monstrosity was implanted. [Not that I have a strong opinion on this issue mind you.] Bratislava’s Town Hall was erected in the 14th–15th centuries and now houses the Bratislava City Museum. Michael’s Gate is the only gate preserved from the medieval fortifications, and is among the oldest of the town’s buildings; the narrowest house in Europe is in there somewhere. The University Library building, erected in 1756, was used by the Diet of the Kingdom of Hungary until 1848, with much of the significant legislation of the Hungarian Reform Era taking place such as the abolition of serfdom.
Devín and Slovakian Wine Country
We took a quick trip to visit Devín Castle – well worth the detour. It was a blisteringly hot day when we visited, so we spent a great deal of time exploring the interior, and especially the dungeon was blessedly cool. The castle was destroy by Napoleon’s troops in 1809, apparently they were feeling a bit rambunctious and Napoleon let them take their aggressions out on this castle. It sits on top of a rock where the Morava River, which forms the border between Austria and Slovakia, enters the Danube. It is one of the most important Slovak archaeological sites. Due to its strategic location, Devín Castle was an important frontier castle of Great Moravia and an important symbol of Slovak and Slavic history.
Wine country, at least what we saw is thriving around this area. We walked into a tasting room and sampled the wares, which as I recall were decent, but not of the standard to which I’ve become accustomed, but then I recognized I am spoiled with Napa and Sonoma as neighbors. I will say they were surprised to see us, and spoke little English. A lot of miming was necessary to convey our message.
My choice for a run was to check out Bratislava Castle, and I am pleased to report that no wild animals were encountered. This building is one of the most prominent in the city. The castle hill site has been inhabited since the transition between the Stone and Bronze ages, and was a fortified Celtic town, part of the Roman Limes Romanus, a huge Slavic fortified settlement, and a political, military and religious center for Great Moravia, among other things. A single purpose structure it was not. A stone castle was not constructed until the 10th century, when the area was part of the Kingdom of Hungary. The castle was converted into a Gothic anti-Hussite fortress under Sigismund of Luxemburg in 1430, became a Renaissance castle in 1562, and rebuilt in the baroque style in 1649. The castle was accidentally destroyed by fire and lay in ruins until the 1950s, when it was rebuilt in its former Theresan style.
A Bit of History
First settled during the late Stone Age, it was not until the Boii Celtic tribe arrived around 200 BC, that Bratislava’s location was established as a strategic power center with an eye towards defense. When the Romans came to expand their Limes Romanus defence system to the banks of the River Danube, they brought grape growing to the area. During the ebb and flow of nations, a Frankish merchant settled in the area of present day Bratislava and created the Empire of King Samo; the first organized community of Slavs.
Bratislava Castle (or Brezalauspurc) was first mentioned in the 907 Salzburg chronicles; after a battle between Hungarian and Bavarian troops. The Magyars won the battle to control the eastern Great Moravia.
At the end of the 10th century, Bratislava became a part of the newly formed Kingdom of Hungary, under the rule of Stephan I (1001-1038). In 1436 the city was granted a coat-of-arms by King Sigismund of Luxembourg.
After Hungarian King Lajos fell in the 1526 Battle of Mohacs, against the Turks, Ferdinand Habsburg was crowned as the new Hungarian king, and the Hungarian capital was moved to Bratislava in 1536.
During Maria Theresa’s reign (1740-1780), Bratislava was the largest and most important city in the Kingdom of Hungary; with palaces, monasteries, mansions, and streets galore. Bratislava provided the social and cultural life in the region. All that ended in 1783, when Maria Theresa’s son Joseph ordered the governing council and other central authorities to relocate to Buda and, took the royal crown from Bratislava Castle to Vienna.
Before World War I, the city had 42% German, 41% Hungarian and 15% Slovak population (1910 census). After World War I and the formation of Czechoslovakia in 1918, the city was incorporated into the new state despite its reluctance. The dominant Hungarian and German population tried to prevent annexation of the city to Czechoslovakia by declaring it a free city, but failed to secure this right, and in 1919, it became part of Czechoslovakia. Without protection from the Hungarian army, following its retreat, many Hungarians were expelled or fled and Czechs and Slovaks took their houses.
In 1938, Nazi Germany annexed neighbouring Austria along with the still-independent Petržalka and Devín boroughs (both neighboring Bratislava). Bratislava was declared the capital of the first independent Slovak Republic on March 14, 1939, but almost immediately fell under Nazi rule. It was bombarded by the Allies, and occupied by German troops in 1944 before eventually being taken by the Soviet Red Army in April, 1945. After the Communist seized power in Czechoslovakia in February 1948, the city was absorbed into the Eastern Bloc. It grew dramatically in size and population during this period. Large residential areas consisting of high-rise of pre-fab concrete sprouted. The Communist government constructed several grand projects, such as the Nový Most bridge and the Slovak Radio headquarters, occasionally at the expense of the historical cityscape.
The wedding took place at the Bojnice Castle, the architecture of which is modeled on the castles of the Loire Valley in France.
The day of the wedding was so hot (107ºF) we spent it exploring the town, but inevitably we were lured to the local pool and water slide. Does not every out of town guest spend the day frolicking with the natives at the water slide? We gave those kids a run for their money on the slides. Alas, with no waterproof camera, I did not capture this event, but let me assure you this place was standing room only in the pools, and I suspect the majority of mobile denizens of Bojnice were there that day. Around the pools they had small individual shops set up to sell sausages and beer, as well as various iced treats (I not sure how seriously swimming is taken in this town, as I cannot imagine swimming after consuming a sausage and beer, but I can tell you that the icy treats were sold out). Much of the beer stands were as well. Farther away, were grassy hills, at least I suspect they were because the day we visited they were covered with blankets as families staked claims for temporary occupancy. Also in Bojnice is a spa, but somehow a thermal soak held no appeal on those hot days.
Is home of the most popular museum in Slovakia and has featured in many movies. It is also home of the International Festival of Ghosts and Spirits and a Summer Music Festival. I must confess that since most of my early research on the internet pointed to this festival, I was almost expecting to see the spectral equivalent of a Star Trek Festival upon our arrival. Not the case, I am happy to report.
Bojnice Castle was first mentioned in written records in 1113, in a document held at the Zobor Abbey. Originally built as a wooden fort, it was gradually replaced by stone, with the outer walls being shaped according to he uneven rocky terrain. Its first owner was Máté Csák, who received it in 1302 from the King Ladislaus V of Hungary. Later, in the 15th century, it was owned by King Matthias Corvinus, who bestowed it to his illegitimate son John Corvinus in 1489. Matthias liked to visit Bojnice to worked on his royal decrees; dictating them under his beloved linden tree, which is now known as the “Linden tree of King Matthias.” Under the Thurzos family, the richest family in the northern Kingdom of Hungary (now Slovakia), major reconstruction ensued. The former fortress was turned into a Renaissance castle. From 1646 on, the castle’s owners were the Palffys, who continued to rebuild the castle.
The last famous castle owner from the Palffy family, John Palffy (1829-1908),created dramatic changes from 1888 to 1909 as evidenced by the beautiful imitation of French castles of the Loire valley. He was not only n charge of construction but also served as the architect and graphic designer. He was a great collector of antiques, tapestries, drawings, and the contemporary paintings and sculptures of his time. Unfortunately, following his death and subsequent family squabbles, his heirs sold many precious pieces of art from the castle and in February 1939, sold the castle, the health spa, and the surrounding land to Ján Baťa (of the shoe firm Bata).
After 1945, when Bata’s property was confiscated by the Czechoslovak government, the castle became home for several state institutions. In May, 1950, a huge fire broke out, destroying the castle, but it was rebuilt as a museum specializing in the era of architectural neo-styles was opened here.
When we arrived we lined up in a covered area leading into the courtyard, it was late afternoon. They served us this deliciously strong pear brandy drink. Mr. Oyster claimed his head was spinning from a whiff of pear alcohol before he had his first sip. I had two (they offered, and I was thirsty). I had no real preconceived ideas about the wedding, but I can tell you I was very intrigued, because before we arrived in Slovakia, we spent several days in Prague and a shopkeeper upon learning why I was in Europe said to me, “We Czechs love weddings and can party all night, but the Slovakians really know how to party, and can carry on for days.” Wow, I was not sure if I had that sort of stamina, but good advanced information to know. The wedding itself was presided over by Bojnice’s mayor and following this brief civil ceremony we found ourselves in another courtyard for more pictures before meandering into the dining hall. Here, as you can see from the photo are some of the incredible works of art for which John Palffy was famous for collecting.
We started dinner at 6:00 pm, we were frequently interrupted with toasts and shouts of laughter. M’s family, most of whom still lived around Slovakia, were incredibly friendly, and what we lacked in words we made up for in easy smiles and hugs. After that meal, we got out on the dance floor and intermixed with the Slovakian dance tunes were hits from the 1970’and 1980’s that had us doing a disco beat. I do not think I am going out on a limb here by saying, the Slovakians can dance. I have never seen anything like it, the kinetic energy had my hair standing on end. If your first impression was that person looks a bit stodgy, you had only to bump into them on the dance floor to know they had their grove on. Which is perhaps while, starting at 10:30 pm we were again seated at our tables with the appetizers signally the start of our second multi-course meal. Oh, my goodness, I’d never seen anything like it. Those dances lasted until the first fingers of sunlight crept across the town and the last reveler only had an hours sleep before the send off brunch. Yes, those Slovakians know how to party.
Like a lot of countries trying to come up with a definitive list of a national cuisine is a challenge. Here the problem is compounded by the fact that it is bordered by four countries that have established and distinct cuisines – Hungary and Austria have exerted their influence, having invaded their territory and settled in, bringing with them their own tastes and dishes. In the opinion of some experts, there are more than 40 distinct cuisines in a country, whose main distinguishing feature is a great variety and diversity of land formation, climate, wind movements, humidity, terrain and history. There is no real “Slovak cuisine”, that would be known and used all around the world, like the Chinese or Italian. However, there are meals that you would encounter more often in Slovakia than elsewhere in the world.
I would not call this the world’s healthiest cuisine, they share too much of my passion for fat and carbohydrates, but what a delicious smorgasbord to sample. If you get a chance to try it, you will not be disappointed.
Halušky is a Slovak style gnocchi
Bryndzové pirohy are dumplings filled with feta cheese
Parené buchty are steamed dumplings filled with jam and a sweet topping
Široké rezance s tvarohom a slaninou is tagliatelle with liptov cheese and fried bacon
Zemiakové placky (potato pancakes fried in oil), also called Haruľa in regions Horehronie, Pohronie, Kysuce and Orava
Granadír is pasta with potato
Fried cheese is well, cheese fried in bread crumbs
Schnitzel or Vienna schnitzel
Lokše is a potato pancake
Fazuľová is a bean soup and root vegetables
Kapustnica is a soup made with sauerkraut and can include smoked pork sausage, mushrooms and plums
Garlic soup: usually cooked in chicken broth
Goulash soup: made of beef, paprika, marjoram and potatoes
Baked Goods and Sweets
Most people in Slovakia eat bread for the breakfast and frequently with dinner. Bread differs by region, town, and baker, just as you would find elsewhere in Europe. Special baked goods are available year round, but most popular at Christmas time. Slovak traditional sweets are usually home baked and harder to find in stores.
Žemľovka is a bread pudding
Ryžový nàkyp is a rice pudding
Orechovník is a sweet nut roll
Makovník are poppy seeds rolls
Laskonky is a fluffy dough with walnuts and creamy filling
Mačacie oči are dual layers of cookie-like round tarts filled with chocolate cream and half-dipped in dark chocolate
Vajcový koňak is the equivalent of eggnog.
Medovníčky are honey cookies
Valašsky Trdelnik is wives hollow cake
Trdelnik or Skalický trdelnik, a traditional cake baked on a spit rotated over an open fire
Dolky are smaller size thicker pancakes
Parené buchty are steamed dumplings filled with jam with sweet toping
Široké rezance is pasta
Perky is a pasta filled jam with sweet topping
Šišky are fried dumplings
Pork, beef, chicken and fish are common meats, with pork by far the most popular. Less frequently one will be offered are goose, duck, turkey or venison. Lamb and goat meat are not nearly as common, and horse meat is frowned upon.
Jaternice is a blood sausage made with pork and rice
Klobása is a sausage made of pork meat, salt, garlic and pepper
Bryndzové halušky is a traditional meal of small dumplings made of potato dough with sheep cheese (bryndza)and topped with scrambled bacon (“Speck” in German). Saying this dish is addicting, is a gross understatement. I wanted to eat far too much. I would have eaten a lot more, if I did not know how awful, I’d feel trying to run the next day. If one dish was considered representative of Slovakian food, this is it.
Parenica, ostiepok, korbacik oštiepok, and korbáčik are different cheeses, some smoked, some not.
Treska is a cold salad made of cod, mayonnaise and various vegetables. Its a popular snack in the Bratislava region, that can be bought in supermarket. If you visit a buffet and ask for “patnast deko tresky a dva rohliky” (five ounces of treska and two rolls).
Wine is popular throughout Slovakia. Slovak wine comes predominantly from the southern areas along the Danube and its tributaries; the northern half of the country is too cold and mountainous to grow grapes. Tokaj wine from the Tokaj region is among the best-known. Traditionally, white wine was more popular than red or rosé, and sweet wine more popular than dry.
Beer is also popular throughout the country. In most of the country, the Pils is predominant. There are many Slovak beer brands – examples include Smädný mních (“thirsty monk”) and Šariš.
This trip was something special, mostly because I participated in a friend’s special day, but also what a learning event to be exposed to culture that was only in my peripheral vision and to come away so impressed.