A Path Paved By History – Bratislava’s Coronation Route: Long Live The Past of Pozsony

Rasto and I finished our awkward conversation at the Slavin Monument with both of us holding firm to our opinions, his pro-Russian, mine anti-authoritarian. Slovakia was still stuck between East and West. Rasto wanted his nation to straddle this divide, while I was adamant that a westward orientation would lead to greater prosperity and democracy. My opinion was stated with the zeal of someone who did not have a personal stake in the situation. My knowledge of Slovakia’s geopolitical situation had been cultivated thousands of miles and an ocean away from the country. I had no vested interest, other than wanting America to be on the right side of history. Rasto’s skepticism was understandable. He had grown up much closer to the Russian sphere of influence than the American one. Old alliances did not die with the Cold War and new alliances would take a long time to replace the powerful influence of the recent past.

Maria Theresa coronation in 1741 - Bratislava

Maria Theresa coronation in 1741 – Bratislava (Credit: Johann Daniel Herz)

Minority Report –  Prosperity, Populaism & Pozsony
Speaking of the new replacing the old and the influence of history, I asked Rasto about Slovakia’s relationship with its old historical nemesis, Hungary. Slovakians had been under Hungarian rule from the Middle Ages until the end of World War I. Since that time, the two had been in recurrent conflict over the large Hungarian minority in southern Slovakia. Rasto thought the relationship was much better than it was made it out to be by the media and vote seeking politicians looking to stir up ethnic strife. The large Hungarian minority in the country had been restive during the 1990’s and early 2000’s with the rise of nationalist sentiment and extremist political parties on both sides. The situation had moderated quite a bit since those fraught times. This was largely due to economic growth and membership in the European Union for both Slovakia and Hungary. I knew that Slovakia’s economy had surged since 2004 when its government had instituted a 19% flat tax. Foreign investment, especially in the automotive industry, soared. In the years that followed, Slovakia became known as the Tatra Tiger due to it roaring economy.

When economic times are good, no matter whether it is in Slovakia or Zanzibar, nationalism tends to wane. Eastern Europe was no different. Despite the occasional flare-up, mostly stoked by politicians, Slovakia and Hungary were getting along as well as could be expected. Rasto said Slovakians were wary of Hungary, but would continue working with them. His attitude was cautious with a hint of optimism. Our conversation about Hungary and Slovaka was particularly appropriate since we were having it in Bratislava, known to Hungarians as Pozsony. No other city in the lands that had formerly been part of the Kingdom of Hungary was so important to Hungarian history. It had acted as the coronation site for the Kings of Hungary and home to the Hungarian Diet (Parliament) after the Ottoman Turks occupied central and southern Hungary during the early 16th century. It had continued in this role for 300 years. During this time, no less than ten kings and one queen (Maria Theresa) were crowned in the city.

Marker on the coronation route in Bratislava

Marker on the coronation route in Bratislava

This Is History – One Step At A Time
With Rasto’s circumspect attitude to Hungarians I was surprised when he asked me if I knew about the historic coronation route that winded its way through the streets of Bratislava’s Old Town.  I had no idea that the route could be followed. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that it was marked in the Old Town. The markers consist of 178 brass plaques embedded with the icon of a crown. They can be found along much of the historic route which begins at the Vydricka Gate close to St. Martin’s Cathedral where the King of Hungary were crowned (they were all Austrian Habsburgs). The gate does not exist today save for a few stone blocks that are now part of a house at Rudnay Square. Once the coronation had taken place at St. Martin’s the procession would begin in earnest. Red carpet was laid along the route for the newly crowned monarchs. As the royal retinue passed by, the crowd of onlookers would shout the Latin phrase “Vivat rex” which means “Long Live The King”. They then fought over scraps of the carpet which instantly had become valuable souvenirs.

Rasto and I picked up the route not far from St. Martin’s in a quiet section of the Old Town, where there was none of the usual clamor from restaurants and bars. He pointed out one of the brass plaques marking the route on Kapitulska Street. By this time night had fallen on the old town. The buildings were cloaked in darkness except for the illumination provided by the odd street lamp. Rasto pointed out a marker each time he saw one, soon he was walking ahead of me lost in another world. Then he finally slowed down, waiting for me to approach. When I did, he said in a low voice, “This is history.”  Many of the old historical buildings which stood on either side of the street looked the worse for wear. They had yet to be commercialized. Their walls were chipped and cracked while the street was empty. The only thing I could hear was the lowered voice of Rasto and the sounds of our footsteps. We were walking on a path paved not just by cobblestones, but also by history.

This is history - Kapitulska Street at night in Bratislava

This is history – Kapitulska Street at night in Bratislava

Time Travelers – Chance & Fate Along Kapitulska
Walking up Kapitulska Street on this warm spring evening I felt that time had melted away. If it is possible to live in both the present and past at the same moment, then I was there. The feeling was transcendent. No one else was on the street, except for the two of us. Yet in a sense everyone had been here, kings and queens, wealthy nobles, burghers and merchants, the high and mighty, the low and destitute. Slovaks, Hungarians, Germans and Jews all called these corridors of time their home. Kapitulska was an 800-year old avenue to the past that had been preserved just for our arrival. To experience this it took imagination and knowledge. Rasto was the ultimate guide, acting as a conduit to the past. There was something in the air that night, I could feel it. In the silence history could be heard, crying out across the ages for two men who were brought here by chance and fate, just like everyone who had come before them.

Click here for: Darkness Gathered Around The Light – Vienna: A City Laid Low

Bipolar In Bratislava – The Slavin Monument: Eternal Glory & Tyranny

Rasto and I took off in his car, headed out of Petrzalka back across the Danube to Bratislava. He asked about my interest in history. I told him that among my favorite topics was military history. He then decided that we should visit the Slavin Monument. On our way there, I noticed that we crossed the Most SNP Bridge. I also remembered how the Slovak Posta headquarters where I had first met Rasto was located along a street named Namestie SNP.  Namestie means square in Slovakian and the street led to Namestie SNP where an SNP memorial was located. Obviously, the initials SNP were embedded in the national consciousness of Slovakia. They stood for Slovak National Uprising (Slovenské národné povstanie), an event that anyone with an interest in Eastern European military history should know.

Puppet Statements – The Will To Collaborate & Revolt
Slovakia gained its first taste of independence in an unlikely manner. In 1938 much of the southern half of the country (then known as Czechoslovakia) had been handed over to Hungary as part of a nefarious deal known as the First Vienna Award. Then on March 13, 1939 troops from the Third Reich marched in and occupied the Czech lands of Bohemia and Moravia. The following day a Nazi puppet state, the First Slovak Republic, was formed. This situation was less than desirable for Slovaks, but did give them their first taste of independence. This deal with the devil lasted for over five years, but when it became increasingly apparent that Germany was going to lose the war an increasing number of Slovaks planned to revolt. At the same time, the Red Army was on the verge of entering Slovakia. The time was ripe for a revolt which occurred beginning on August 29, 1944 in Banska Bystrica, a city in the central part of the country. The revolt failed due to infighting among various factions, tepid support from the Soviet Union and brutal retaliatory measures by the Germans.

The SNP may have been a lost cause at the time, but it would later prove useful.  It offered the Slovaks an opportunity to save face for their conduct during the war. Despite a fascist government that provided years of support to the Nazis, Slovaks could point to the uprising and say their true goal was to throw off the German yoke and gain independence. In other words, the Germans had forced Slovaks against their will to collaborate. The SNP was the true will of the Slovak people according to this line of argument. The event was glorified during the communist years and that glorification continues up to the present.  Truth be told, Slovakia was in an almost impossible position during this time, a small country that could either choose some form of independence or be totally overrun. Of course, it was eventually overrun by the Red Army and put in the service of a new overlord, the Soviet Union. The Soviets called themselves liberators and the Slavin Monument was an outcome of this liberation.

Puppet State - First Slovak Republic 1939 to 1945

Puppet State – First Slovak Republic 1939 to 1945

Exacting A Toll – The Cost Of Liberation
Rasto drove me up the winding road that leads to the monument. Slavin is not just a monument, but also a hill and specific quarter in the city. It occupies a prime position overlooking Bratislava known for its beautiful views, as can be discerned by the many embassies and villas in this area. Thus, it is quite strange to find mass graves and the nation’s most famous war monument (which ironically is not for Slovak soldiers) crowning Slavin Hill. I must have been blind to spend almost two days walking around Bratislava, never noticing the Slavin Monument. It was placed on a prominent land form where it would be noticed.

One cannot help but feel reverence towards the soldiers buried in mass graves on Slavin Hill. They fought and died to free Bratislava from fascist control. Yet I also had a feeling of repulsion, not for the individual soldiers themselves, but for the communist system and all the brutal excesses their victory brought to Slovakia. I knew liberation had come at a price. A toll was exacted through the violent behavior toward the locals from Red Army soldiers at the time. Later the violence moderated, only for a decades long occupation to begin. I remarked to Rasto how the “liberation” was nothing of the sort. He saw it differently. Of course, there were excesses, but the Soviets were an ally then, just as Russia was today. In Rasto’s opinion, Slovakia needed to stay close to Russia. They were fellow Slavs as well as a useful counterweight to Western European and American power.

The Slavin Monument in Bratislava

The Slavin Monument in Bratislava (Credit: Redaktor Pythin)

A Monumental Lapse Of Reason – Permanent Occupations
As for the Slavin Monument, it was an impressive work of Socialist realist architecture. The architect must have been on steroids when he conceived such a mighty work of monumental symbolism. There were the usual sculptures with soldiers carrying weapons, another one kissing a flag and girls holding flowers. The crowning achievement was the main monument, which among other things consisted of a four-sided colonnade, a giant obelisk and a Soviet soldier who held a banner in his hand while it unfurled. It was all so monumental in scale and design that one tended to forget that 6,845 soldiers were buried in both individual and mass graves on these grounds. That thought was sobering. According to a nearby inscription the monument gives: “Eternal glory to the heroes who fell in battle for the freedom and independence of our motherland.” Whether or not the latter part of that statement is true, depends upon whom you ask.

Communism and the Soviet influence on Slovakia right up to today is still a point of contention. Rasto and I began to discuss this, which led into a conversation on the current situation in Russia under Vladimir Putin. I felt Putin was bad for Russia. He had grown more and more autocratic during his reign. The system in contemporary Russia could not be characterized as anything close to democratic. It had turned into a dictatorship. Rasto listened, but countered with the opinion that Putin was the best leader for Russia at this point in history. He was exactly what Russians wanted and needed. We argued about Rasto’s viewpoint for quite some time. He felt a strong Russia was best for Slovakia. I raised the issue of the forty-year occupation of his country by the Red Army. Rasto saw this as symptomatic of the Cold War, nothing more, nothing less. His pro-Russian leanings irritated me. The same must have been true for him when it came to my American worldview.

Graves at Slavin Monument - 6,845 soldiers are buried on the grounds

Graves at Slavin Monument – 6,845 soldiers are buried on the grounds (Credit: Kyle Simourd)

The Ghosts of the Great Powers – Spheres of Influence
Amid our heated discussion, I did not stop to ponder the situation or setting. Here I was an American, arguing about the geopolitical orientation of an Eastern European nation while standing at a Soviet World War II Memorial overlooking the capital city of Slovakia. In a sense everything and nothing had changed since the Cold War ended. American hardheadedness over what was best for Slovakia and other nations in the region was still strong, but the ghosts of Soviet rule continued to haunt the nation.  Slovakia was now a member of the European Union, which offered security and prosperity. It was also a small country that had repeatedly been a pawn in the affairs of Great Power politics. For that reason, Rasto was likely hedging bets. He had high hopes for the future of his young nation, but those hopes were tempered by a past that was always hovering in the background. Much like the Slavin Monument overlooking Bratislava.

Click here for: A Path Paved By History – Bratislava’s Coronation Route: Long Live The Past

Concoctions of Conformity – Petrzalka: A Shadow Over Slovakia

In the late afternoon on a warm spring day I found myself standing outside the headquarters of Slovak Posta. I was waiting on my new acquaintance Rasto. He had promised to show me around a few places in Bratislava that he felt were worth seeing. After just a day and a half, I had pretty much exhausted the sightseeing opportunities in Bratislava’s beautiful yet compact Old Town. I was looking forward to gaining some insights through local knowledge. Seeing Bratislava through Slovakian eyes was my goal. Rasto arrived not long after the appointed time and informed me that he would go home to change clothes, but that I should come along with him. This began a strange odyssey.

A little bit less than awful - Petrzalka

A little bit less than awful – Petrzalka (Credit: Wizzard)

From The Bottom Up  – Beyond Bratislava
Rasto moved ultra-fast. I had to speed walk just to keep up with him. We went to a bus stop, where he failed to show me how to purchase a ticket. Instead he assumed I could figure out the automated machine on my own. This caused me to almost miss getting on the bus with him. He leapt onboard, pushing his way into the mass of people traveling home at rush hour. I was left to fend for myself, which meant doing the same as Rasto. Not being a native, shoving my way into the bus felt awkward and rude. He never told me which bus stop we would get off at. I was left to wonder if I was traveling with him or just doing my best to keep him in sight. The bus headed south across the Danube. Rasto jumped off after a couple of stops. I did the same without any idea where we were headed. Then I looked up to see an endless procession of high rise concrete flats piercing the skyline. This was Petrzalka, the enormous communist era housing estate that was home to Rasto and a hundred thousand Slovaks. Rasto took me to his car, unlocked it and told me I should wait there while he went into one of the apartment blocks and changed. He disappeared for an extended amount of time while I sat in his car, pondering the looming towers of Petrzalka.

Of all the places in the former Eastern Bloc still pockmarked with soul destroying communist housing estates, Slovakia may be the most bizarre. Slovaks adore nature, an affinity that comes from living in a land of towering mountains, sweeping valleys and lush forests. Such notable mountain ranges as the High and Low Tatras as well as the Carpathians are spread throughout the country. One of the few areas not graced by these natural protrusions is the Danube flood plain. The communists took care of that problem by planting the densest cluster of high rise apartment blocks anywhere in Central Europe. Petrzalka looks like a Lego set straight out of hell. Thousands of concrete panels were attached to one another to create high rises that conform to a standard of soullessness that has rarely been surpassed in the annals of totalitarian architecture. If I closed my eyes, cleared my mind and momentarily forgot where I was, when I reopened them Pyongyang would have come to mind. The only saving grace was that many of the blocks had been given a newer coat of paint. This failed to liven them up, but at least someone was trying.

Natural impulse - Sad Janka Kráľa, Central Europe's oldest park

Natural impulse – Sad Janka Kráľa, Central Europe’s oldest park (Credit: Svetoid)

A Little Bit Less Than Awful – New Realities
While sitting in Rasto’s car I had a bit of time to observe the comings and goings of Petrzalka. The housing estate has long been notorious for drug and alcohol abuse, high crime and suicide rates. This is all relative though. From what I witnessed, Petrzalka has a long way to go before it meets American standards of high rise housing depravity. It was a Friday evening and people were quietly going about their business. There were no young men loitering or drug dealers plying their trade. From an American perspective there was nothing menacing about the place. Aesthetically it did leave much to be desired. The housing blocks were concoctions of conformity. Everything looked and felt artificial. On a piece of land that experienced the ablutions of the Danube for thousands of years, one could scarcely have felt further from nature. Concrete and pavement were the lords of this urban jungle. These high rises had been a dream that soon turned into a nightmare for an urbanizing Slovakia.

It is ironic that not far from this behemoth housing estate stood Central Europe’s first public park, Sad Janka Krafa, on the south bank of the Danube. This was the equivalent of a green space on the edge of a superfund site. Long before communism planted the seeds of Petrzalka, nature had sculpted and shaped this same land into a series of periodically inundated islands. Man would eventually drain the area to make it suitable for farming. The word Petrzalka means herbs and vegetables. The land was quite fertile, but the communists used it to grow residential monstrosities rather than crops. They then left the inhabitants packed together, one atop another. Petrzalka was going to be a planned paradise, but that dream never materialized. Slovaks woke up to a new reality after the Cold War. The population of a small city was left stranded in Petrzalka to make the best out of a bad idea. Rasto had come to join them. A young, upwardly mobile professional like himself saw Petrzalka as a worthy and most importantly affordable place to live. From what I saw on the outside he was right. Would I want to live in Petrzalka? The answer is no. Could I live in Petrzalka? Of course.

Rooms with a view - Petrzalka

Rooms with a view – Petrzalka (Credit: Andrej Neuherz)

Looming Towers –  Surrounded On All Sides
After a few more minutes, a freshly clothed Rasto came walking briskly back to his car. He was ready to show me Bratislava. Little did he know that I found Petrzalka just as fascinating as the Old Town. Here was a communist era social experiment gone awry, but for lack of better housing options Slovaks from all walks of life still lived side by side with one another. Petrzalka had become part of Slovakia, but was not of it. It was a far cry from the mountainous terrain that covered most of the nation. The only mountains in this area were the looming concrete towers of Petrzalka, a shadow that a hundred thousand Slovaks have yet to escape.

Click here: Bipolar In Bratislava – The Slavin Monument: Eternal Glory & Tyranny

Going Postal – The Real Bratislava: Future Returns On Capital

Getting to the accommodation I had booked in Bratislava was more difficult than I imagined. Rather than printing off detailed directions, I tried to use a map in my guidebook and memorized a few street names in advance. This was a foolish idea for the simple fact that I had no proficiency with the Slovakian language. Trying to keep in mind such streets as Stefanikova Ulica, Suche Myto, Namestie SNP and Obchodna ulica on my route proved predictably impossible. I was under the impression that if I got close enough to where I needed to go, the accommodation would suddenly become obvious. This method rarely, if ever, works and this time was no different. Soon enough I had myself totally confused with my drowning in a whirlpool of unpronounceable Slovak words. Succumbing to this state of mindlessness was out of the question, instead fell back on another preferred method of wayfinding. I looked for the nearest shop, business or building where I could ask for directions. Of course, there would be a language barrier to overcome, but I can usually find someone to help me. In this case, at least I could produce the address.

City of opportunity - Bratislava

City of opportunity – Bratislava (Credit Justraveling.com)

Stranger In A Small World – Familiar Foreigners
Close to where I stood on the sidewalk was the entrance to a Baroque multi-storied building with Posta emblazoned over the entrance. It looked less like a post office and more like a headquarters building. Inside I found a security guard who during a long period of silence studied my guidebook map of Bratislava and the accommodation’s address. He could not speak any English, but still felt compelled to help me. He found a colleague who could do no better. Then they seemed to hit upon an idea. I was told to wait while the second man disappeared up a stairwell, before long he came back and motioned me to come with him. I had no idea where we were going. Soon I was brought to an office where I was met by a young man in a business suit who looked like he was around the age of thirty. He greeted me in English, shook my hand and asked me to sit down. His office was neat and clean, it was a very professional environment. I asked him if he could help me find my way to the accommodation. He said of course. Then he offered me something to drink. I accepted a glass of orange juice. It was obvious that he wanted to visit first.

He asked me, “so you are an American, where are you from in the States?” I said South Dakota, where I happened to be living at that time). He said, “I lived and worked in America for a while.” His name was Rasto and it turned out that he had worked in a suburb of Atlanta, Georgia for a summer. I had also lived in Georgia on a couple of occasions. We were soon conversing about his job, a summer spent working at a Publix grocery store and his thoughts about America, “it was an interesting place” he said. It turned out that he lived in an area of Atlanta that had many Russian emigres. His ability to speak Russian had come in handy. His girlfriend in America had been Russian. Rasto’s American experience was colored by Russians. He loved them, so he loved America.  This was quite a strange twist of logic. A Slovak comes to America where he ends up hanging around with Russians. This was not a spy story, but a tale of post-Cold War globalization. Of course, it was no stranger than me, an American, drinking orange juice in the headquarters of Slovak Post with a man I had known for less than five minutes.

Raising Their Capital – Youth Movement
Our discussion soon turned to the subject of contemporary Slovakia. He was part of the new wave of young professionals who were optimistic about the nation’s future. He had come from Eastern Slovakia, a region known for low incomes and a stagnant economy. I did not quite realize it at the time, but I was talking with the young adult personification of a Slovakia undergoing a profound transformation. He was one of thousands of young people who had come to Bratislava because of the opportunities it offered. For any Slovak who wanted to get ahead and stay in their homeland, Bratislava was the epicenter of their hopes and dreams. It is difficult for an outsider to imagine the allure of Bratislava for young Slovaks. It is by far the premier place in the country to start a career. The capital dominates the nation in the two most influential areas for upwardly mobile young professionals, education and the economy. Nearly four of out every ten Slovaks get their higher education at a university in the Bratislava area. Once finished with their upper level schooling they seek out jobs, of which there are many in the region.

Bratislava is ranked as the fifth richest region in the European Union. Its proximity – less than an hour’s travel time – to Vienna has certainly helped its economic prowess. Incredibly, it is almost twice the EU average in GDP per capita when adjusted for purchasing power parity. When compared with the rest of Slovakia, Bratislava and the region around it is far and away the wealthiest area in the nation. No other region in the country has an income at even three-quarters of its level and the disparity continues to grow. The upshot is that rural Slovakia experiences an internal brain drain as Bratislava attracts the best and brightest Slovaks. Rasto was one of them. He was a project manager for Slovak Posta, leading a group that was innovating new business models and practices to better compete with the internet. He was a microcosm of Bratislava, the future. Where he had come from was not just his past, but also Slovakia’s.

Slovak posta on Námestie SNP - Bratislava

Slovak posta on Námestie SNP – Bratislava

Local Knowledge – The Pursuit of Opportunity
I did not travel to Bratislava to learn about the transformation of Slovak Post, nonetheless I found it rather intriguing. Travel takes us to peoples and places we could never imagine, this was one of them. I could never have found Rasto in a guidebook. This experience was as unique as it was matter of fact. Hundreds of thousands of people like Rasto were working out their lives in the capital. I was interested in Bratislava’s history, art and culture, while Rasto was pursuing economic opportunity. When traveling in Eastern Europe I often forget that the locals have little interest in the historical attractions that have drawn me to a certain place. Unless they work in culture or tourism, their focus is not unlike that of all Europeans or Americans, earning a leaving. It was obvious to me that Rasto was well on his way to a successful career. He was proud of his work and his nation, so much so that he offered to show me around Bratislava the next evening. I agreed to his offer. He then provided me with directions to my accommodation. It would not have been hard to find if I had written the directions down, but then again I would never have met Rasto and learned how Bratislava was being transformed by a new generation of Slovaks.

Click here for: Concoctions of Conformity – Petrzalka: A Shadow Over Slovakia

Spaceship On The Danube – The UFO of Bratislava: An Alien Presence

I have never believed in UFO’s and doubt I ever will. My opinion on this subject was confirmed many years ago when I passed through Roswell, New Mexico, a city famous for a UFO incident which occurred at a nearby ranch in 1947. From what I saw, Roswell was filled with several forgettable kitschy UFO themed attractions. There was nothing especially intriguing about the place. UFO’s were touted as a tourist attraction rather than a scientific phenomenon. This experience confirmed my opinion. Little did I suspect that years later I would come closest to seeing a UFO in of all places, southwestern Slovakia.

A UFO hovers over the Danube within sight of Bratislava’s Old Town. The city has learned to live with this alien presence since it arrived in the early 1970’s. At the same time as this UFO’s appearance, one of the most resonant areas of the Old Town suffered destruction. Though this destruction did not cause any loss of life, it did lead to the disappearance of the city’s historic Jewish quarter. The UFO’s arrival also led to the destabilization of another important historic structure in the city. Unlike most UFO’s, this alien mother ship proved lasting. The 50th anniversary of its first appearance is now on the horizon. The UFO has become an odd and unofficially memorable symbol of the city, something the locals have learned to live with.

Strange new world - SNP Most Bridge looking toward Petrzalka

Strange new world – SNP Most Bridge looking toward Petrzalka (Credit: DDima)

An Ideological Idiosyncrasy – The SNP Most
The UFO of Bratislava is not an unidentified flying object in the usual sense of the word, it is much weirder than that. This UFO has been identified as an icon of communist era architecture, but it does not fly. Yet it is certainly an object, an object of both derision and fascination. The UFO happens to be a rotating restaurant attached to the top of the SNP Most, a bridge that acts as a science fictionesque segue between the banks of the Danube. There is nothing quite like it anywhere else in Slovakia or Eastern Europe. Like many controversial icons from communist times, it has undergone a name change or two or three along the way. Officially it was given the tongue twisting name of Most Slovenskeho narodneho povstania which most Slovaks shortened to Most SNP. Translated that means Bridge of the Slovak National Uprising. The bridge had nothing to do with that event, as it was constructed a quarter of a century after the uprising. Thus, it is one of those head scratching forms of Communist era commemoration that is indicative of the bizarre excesses committed by an ideology of banality.

Many locals began referring to the bridge by a more appropriate title, Novy Most or New Bridge. When Slovakia gained its independence in 1993 the bridge was officially given this name, but in 2012 hotter heads prevailed and the bridge went back to its original name. As for the UFO floating above it, that too underwent a name change. It used to be called Bystrica, which means “swift stream” in Slovak. This must have been an allusion to the Danube. In a nod to pop culture common sense it is now known as the UFO. At least the name changes are understandable, if a bit bizarre. The many accolades showered upon it are downright trivial, attempts at making the bridge more glorious than infamous. These include, first asymmetrical suspension bridge, longest single-pylon suspension bridge in the world, seventh largest hanging bridge in the world and ninth largest welded bridge in the world.

The mothership has landed on a pylon - UFO in Bratislava

The mothership has landed on a pylon – UFO in Bratislava (Credit: Bojars)

Creative Destruction – Strange New World
That litany of honorifics overlooks the bridge’s most telling achievement. Namely that its design finished fourth in the competition for a bridge crossing the Danube. Nonetheless, the UFO bridge design soared to the top because it was more affordable than the other three designs that finished in front of it. The bridge was transformative, not only in its design, but also in the destruction and development of Bratislava. Construction of the highway leading to the bridge led to the destruction of the city’s atmospheric Jewish quarter. This was the final nail in the coffin for Bratislava’s once vibrant Jewish culture.  St. Martin’s Cathedral, the coronation church of the Hungarian Kings for two and a half centuries also came under mortal threat. Today, it stands within a stone’s throw of the highway, where traffic roars across within earshot of the Cathedral’s entrance.

The construction destabilized the cathedral to the point that it had to undergo a recent renovation to keep it from inching any closer to collapse. It must be mentioned that there were very good reasons for construction of the bridge, both as a crossing of the Danube and to provide a transport link between Bratislava proper and the massive communist era housing estate of Petrzalka. A massive planned development of concrete housing blocks arose in what had been a formerly sleepy settlement. Begun just a few years after the bridge’s completion, Petrzalka grew explosively after its founding in the 1970’s. Petrzalka soon became the densest residential area in Central Europe with its population growing to over 100,000 in just a decade. The UFO Bridge now helped carry tens of thousands of commuters back and forth over the Danube.

An alien presence - SNP Most Bridge & the Danube at night

An alien presence – SNP Most Bridge & the Danube at night (Credit: Tobiasvde)

In The Name Of Progress – Regression & Depression
One thing could certainly be said for the bridge, it was hard not to notice. Whether in the hills above the city, looking down from Bratislava Castle or from certain points in the Old Town, the bridge seemed to always be within my field of vision. As though it was meant to be noticed or at the least, never forgotten. I must admit, whether I liked it or not, the bridge certainly attracted my attention. The fact that a pylon held up this massive suspension bridge was nothing short of astounding. Just as incredible, the bridge was not anchored in any part of the Danube. The UFO may have eyesore status, but I could not help staring at it. I never took the opportunity to visit the restaurant and viewing platform. The view is said to be incredible, but it would have depressed me. A reminder of the Jewish quarter’s destruction and the near loss of St. Martin’s Cathedral. All of this had been done in the name of progress. That ideal was more alien than anything I could imagine.

Click here for: Going Postal – The Real Bratislava: Future Returns On Capital

The Inheritors of Pressburg & Pozsony – Becoming Bratislava: Another World, Not Their Own

Bratislava. The name sounds fat and juicy, its reputation is much thinner. Of the four European capital cities which sit astride the Danube River – Vienna, Bratislava, Budapest and Belgrade – it is Bratislava which is by far the least known. Vienna has Mozart, the Habsburgs and Hofburg Palace, Budapest has the world’s greatest Parliament Building, a series of unique and historic bridges, plus two distinct sides of a sparkling city divided by the Danube. Belgrade is home to Kalmegdan Fortress and within spitting distance of the confluence of the Sava River with the mighty Danube. As for Bratislava it has well…what does it have. I was traveling there to find out for myself. Before my arrival, I did learn it had become a favorite destination for British stag parties, who had given it the name of Partyslava or alternatively, Bratislover. It was on the European cheap flight circuit, which was usually reserved for cities such as Cluj, Katowice and Kaunas. I had never met anyone who had been to the city. I did discover that it was near Vienna and located in the most untraditional (no mountains and forests) part of Slovakia, less than high praise for the city. Yet there was at least one thing about Bratislava that I found endlessly fascinating, its historically rich ethnic diversity.

Pozsony in the 16th century

Pozsony in the 16th century (Credit: Wolfgang Lazius)

Multiple Personality Disorder – Diversity By The Danube
Identity crisis, multiple personality disorder, tripolar, when it comes to ethnicity and the history of Bratislava the situation is insanely complicated. The fact that today 90% of the population is ethnically Slovakian is a mid-20th century construct. To understand its checkered ethnic history, start with the city’s various names. The name it has today, Bratislava, was akin to one of the initial iterations, Braslav, recorded back in the late 800’s. The settlement was likely named for a Slavic Prince, some sources state this as Braslav, others as Preslav. That name went out of style, but bore relation to the smattering of Slovaks that populated the area which eventually became the town. For eleven centuries it was known by other names. In 1844 members of the Slovak national movement began to call the city Bratislava, a name which had been created seven years before by a scholar who took it from a Bohemian ruler by the name of Bretislav I. The current name has only been officially in use since 1919, when the city was taken from Hungary and became part of Czechoslovakia. Prior to that it was known by either its Hungarian name of Pozsony or German name of Pressburg. Early derivations of Pozsony included Poson or Bosan, Possen, Pososnia or my personal favorites, Posonium or Bosonium, which sound like nuclear medievalism. Pressburg is just as convoluted with such variations as Presburch, Prespurch or Prespuerch, Brecesburg, Bresburch and Brezburc among many others.

It was not until after the First World War that the city got a Slovak name and ethnic majority. Nonetheless, Bratislava did not become the capital city of an independent nation until the Velvet Divorce of 1993, when the Czechs and Slovaks claimed irreconcilable differences, making the decision to end their less than amiable  geo-political marriage. Coincidentally, the city had a much longer history as the capital of Royal Hungary. When the Ottoman Turks occupied southern and central Hungary, Pozsony was designated the capital beginning in 1536 and continuing up until 1783. The Kings of Hungary were crowned inside St. Martin’s Cathedral until 1830 and the Hungarian Diet (Parliament) met in Pozsony until 1848. From what I read before my arrival, the greatest attraction in Bratislava hearkened back to this time, the Old Town.

View of Pressburg - postcard from 1900

View of Pressburg – postcard from 1900

Someone Else’s Home –  Teutons, Magyars & Slovaks
It was strange to think that not so long ago, the capital of what would become Slovakia, was hardly Slovak at all. And as much as the Hungarians loved to claim it as their own, the city had been dominated by Germans for many centuries. As late as 1880, a little over two-thirds of its inhabitants were ethnic Germans. Pressburg, as the Germans called it, was a good measuring stick for their decline and expulsion from Eastern Europe. Their dwindling number as a share of the city’s population tracks the historical events which buffeted Bratislava. 1880 – 68%; 1910 – 42% (effects of Magyarization policy); 1919 – 36% (city becomes part of Czechoslovakia); 1940 – 20% (World War II accelerates); 1950 – less than 1% (expulsion of ethnic Germans following World War II). First Hungarians and now Slovaks inhabitant a city whose oldest architecture and cultural currents have much of their roots in the dominance of German merchants.

Bratislava

Bratislava

When the newly born nation of Czechoslovakia was declared in the latter part of 1918 it did not look like Bratislava would become a part of it. Slovaks made up not the first (Germans), nor the second (Hungarians) largest ethnic group and only outnumbered the city’s Jewish population by 3,700. The Germans and Hungarians declared it a free city and renamed it Wilson Town. An attempt to curry favor in the coming post-war peace negotiations with the American President Woodrow Wilson, who promoted national self-determination in word if not deed. The sword was mightier than the pen, as the Czechoslovak Legion proved when it occupied the town on New Year’s Day 1919. This was the beginning of Slovak ascendance in Bratislava. In just a few years they were the largest ethnic group and along with Czechs dominated the administrative bureaucracy of the city.

Bratislava by the Danube

Bratislava by the Danube (Credit: Kiban)

Capital Of Anonymity – The Middle As Nowhere
After World War II ended Bratislava became totally Slovakian, yet the city had a problem that still exists today. This problem can be summed up in one word, Prague. The Czechoslovakian (and now Czech Republic) capital was not only where the epicenter of political, economic and cultural power was in Czechoslovakia, but continues to cast a long shadow – especially in regards to tourism – that Bratislava just cannot escape. Before my trip, I met countless people who had visited Prague, while I never heard a single person mention Bratislava. It was like a provincial city in a large country, the kind that only locals or wayward travelers visit. This anonymity is quite incredible when one considers that Bratislava is an hour’s drive at most from Vienna and just a few hours north of Budapest. It might as well have been on the dark side of the moon for most travelers, just not for me. Now I was on my way to Bratislava for a two and a half day visit with no idea what I would find. I was going in blind, a whole new way for me to see the city.

Click here for: Spaceship On the Danube – The UFO of Bratislava: An Alien Presence

Little Carpathians & Lots of Communism – Bratislava: The Central Station Breeds Contempt

The Carpathians, a geographic term that conjures up images of howling wolves, a creepy Count and a Gothic castle silhouetted against ominous thunderclouds and menacing lightning bolts. My first sighting of the Carpathians offered up none of those stereotypical images. Perhaps that was because it did not come in Transylvania. It took place hundreds of kilometers away in western Slovakia. On a train from Prague to Bratislava I passed through the Little Carpathians, a range of gentle mountains that were reminiscent of the Appalachians in the eastern United States. From what I saw, the Little Carpathians were closer to large hills rather than soaring peaks. The kind of landscape that could be described as pleasant rather than spectacular. They were inviting, with nothing to fear from them. I was surprised that these low rises were part of the Carpathians. That is because these were the range’s western most outlier.

Mystical - The Little Carpathians

Mystical – The Little Carpathians (Credit: Doronenko)

A Place Called Home – The Near Distance
The Little Carpathians made it all the way to the outskirts of Bratislava. Just as the Slovakian capital could never escape the outsized shadow of Prague, the Little Carpathians have been rendered anonymous by their larger brethren in Transylvania.  They rarely get much acclaim, even in Slovakia, where the High and Low Tatra Mountains dominate both landscape and imagination. The Little Carpathians are what might best be described as an acquired taste. These mountains, hills or whatever they might be called, do not humble like towering peaks fringed by wild nature. No, these mountains were inviting. Sized on a scale the human mind could conceive. My only problem with the Little Carpathians was that they had been unknown to me. I assumed others knew little about them as well. This said more about my ignorance of western Slovakia, then it did that of anyone else.

Travel has taken me to places I could have never imagined. One of those unimaginable places was western Slovakia, not because it was that different or exotic, but due to its familiarity. The Little Carpathian Mountains reminded me of where I had grown up in western North Carolina. These mountains were a bit rockier, at least on the surface, but I had seen this landscape before. It is an unsettling feeling to be in a foreign country that looks just like home, the trees, the hills, the fields. I had lived among a close approximation of this landscape for the first two and a half decades of my life. Landscapes, like people, are not all that different, at least not in this case. If I had disembarked from the train and walked into these woods, I could have gone back to that place called childhood. This sameness I found disconcerting. What was the point of traveling this far, if it was not all that different from home.

Less than impressive - Bratislava Central Station

Less than impressive – Bratislava Central Station (Credit: Kelvoy)

An Extra Layer of Drab – The Central Station
I was about to find out that difference, but not in the Little Carpathians. Instead the train pulled into Bratislava’s Central Station (Hlavna Stanica). The moment of arrival always makes me nervous in a new city and in this case a new country as well. First, I had to collect my belongings while simultaneously trying to get my bearings. It’s time like these that I end up cursing myself for not booking an accommodation closer to the station. When I got a good look at the station though, I was glad my hostel was nowhere near it. The main hall was the very definition of dank and stale. A whiff of Brezhnev era stagnation permeated the place. Here I felt the remnants of Czechoslovakia long after the hope of the 1968 Prague Spring had been extinguished. The interior of the station had all the charm of a morgue. Its exterior was just as bad. It looked like the form creativity took when given assistance from a party directive. The upshot was a two-story concrete monstrosity that’s primary aesthetic function was as an eyesore. To make matters worse, it was on the fringes of the Old Town (Stare Mesto). What would possess anyone to create a station so utterly mediocre? The only thing it lacked was a coat of manila, to add an extra layer of drab.

The damage the Central Station does to Bratislava’s reputation cannot be overstated. Many travelers first impression of the city is of a ghastly, Eastern Bloc calamity. Only the seedy and dissolute would loiter in such a station.  It looks like a good place for a bomb shelter, probably because it is. The station reached a new low, quite literally, in the 1950s. That was when an air raid shelter was constructed beneath part of it. Built to survive a nuclear attack, all it really survived was communism. It is still there today, but cannot be accessed by tourists. Then again, the above ground station reminded me of a bomb shelter as well. In this case, looks were not deceiving. To make matters that much worse, the station did not always look this way. The original was constructed just after the turn of the century. Designed by Hungarian Ferenc Pfaff, it was done up in a festive, eclectic style of architecture.

In 1962 the communist authorities decided that the exterior needed a makeover because it was not “socialist” enough in style. In other words, any hint of individuality or imagination had to be extracted from the existing edifice. The resulting makeover transformed the station from festive to faceless. Murals were commissioned for the interior. One of these shows a multitude of diverse peoples, including a couple of nun looking figures (strange for atheistic communism) and some policemen with their backs turned away from a helpless person lying on the ground. To top it off, a rocket soars takes flight and the Sputnik satellite makes an appearance. This was the wonderful world of communism. The combined effect of this mural is to elicit profound head scratching.

Art for the people - Mural in Bratislava Central Station

Art for the people – Mural in Bratislava Central Station (Credit: Rob Hurson)

The Cold Shoulder – A Communist Welcome
I fled this phantasmagoric station as fast as possible. My opinion of Bratislava had been laid low. The station’s location in the Old Town was worrisome.  After this, I could scarcely imagine what might come next. This was not the introduction to Slovakia’s capital city that I had been expecting. Rather than a warm welcome, I got the cold shoulder. I could only hope that the rest of the Old Town had escaped the clutches of central planning.  I told myself that Bratislava could only get better after this and it soon did.

Click here for: The Inheritors of Pressburg & Pozsony -Becoming Bratislava: Another World, Not Their Own

 

 

 

 

 

Losing The Blood Countess – Elizabeth Bathory, Me & Cachtice Castle: A Deadly Date Deferred

A couple of weeks ago I had an opportunity to detour from western Hungary and take a side trip to visit Cachtice Castle (Čachtický hrad – Slovak, Csejte vára – Magyar) in northwestern Slovakia. This was a chance I did not take. It was the second time in five years I have passed up the opportunity to visit Cachtice, the infamous castle where “the Blood Countess” Elizabeth Bathory may or may not have committed some of her worst atrocities. Bathory’s ranking as the most prolific female serial killer in history has been increasingly disputed as modern historians closely study the accusations brought against her. What is not in dispute, Bathory’s enduring infamy.

In Hungary, where due to nationalist sentiments the Countess’ reputation is usually given a more vigorous defense, legend still manages to outweigh reality. Case in point, at the restored Bathory castle in Nyirbator, Hungary the exhibits include a mock-up of the countess bathing in a tub of a young female victim’s blood, as she was said to have done in order to preserve her beautiful complexion.  If the place in which Bathory was born promotes her in this way than it is easy to imagine her dreadful reputation in other areas of Hungary or across the border in Slovakia.

Cachtice Castle as it looks today

Cachtice Castle as it looks today (Credit: LMih)

A Horrific Appeal, A Deadly Allure
The horrific appeal of the Elizabeth Bathory story has boosted tourism in off the beaten path places such as Nyirbator and Sarvar, Hungary, home to a fine castle where the Countess lived for many years with her husband Ferenc Nadasdy. One would think that Cachtice would be the sinister set piece at the bloody heart of Bathory fanaticism. Her crimes there were the stuff of legend. She reputedly carried out appalling acts of torture with every device imaginable on young, innocent women. While the ruined castle gets its fair share of visitors, more often than not Cachtice gets overlooked. It is on the way to nowhere in particular unless one is traveling along the western border region of Slovakia. The reason I once again decided to skip a journey to Cachtice is because it does not hold the same allure for me that it once did.

I traveled to Sarvar Castle a few years back hoping to experience some of the trepidation and fear that had drawn me to the stories of Bathory’s bloody exploits. The castle is in excellent condition, but there was nothing eerie or evocative of the Blood Countess. I did not find much mention of what may or may not have occurred there in the late 16th century. My most enduring memory of that visit was of a mother and father with their children playing together on the grassy grounds. From what I have discovered through research, Cachtice looks to be a much different and wilder experience. I still plan on traveling there in the coming years, not so much to revisit the scene of Elizabeth Bathory’s purported crimes, but instead to contemplate her last years spent in solitary confinement and the final surreal night of her life.

Reconstruction of Cachtice Castle

Reconstruction of Cachtice Castle

Convicted In The Court Of Royal Opinion
My imagined image of Castle Cachtice is of a Gothic house of horrors. A ferociously intimidating mountaintop stronghold with iron grey gates, towering bastions set amidst a supernatural scene, where earth shattering thunderstorms and massive bolts of deadly lightning strike its bastions on a nightly basis. Of course, my overactive imaginings have been unduly influenced by Dracula movies and Edgar Allen Poe stories. Historically, Cachtice did not look anything like that and the castle’s present state is one of a crumbling ruin. The peacefulness which permeates the site today is not altogether different from the final years that Elizabeth Bathory spent at Cachtice from 1611 to 1614 after she was convicted in the court of royal opinion.

The countess never stood trial. She was not given the opportunity to defend herself in a court of law to rebut the accusations against her. The powers that be at the time, including the Holy Roman Emperor Matthias and the Hungarian Palatine (equivalent to prime minster) Gyorgy Thurzo made sure it was that way. The Emperor owed a large debt to Lady Bathory. Many historians now believe that the Countess was setup. She was a wealthy, powerful single woman, one of the largest landowners in Hungary and a potential threat to the emperor’s rule. The Countess also had powerful Protestant relatives in eastern Hungary, who with her help could possibly have made an attempt to overthrow the Catholic Habsburgs. She had to be subdued. A tribunal in December 1611 sentenced Elizabeth Bathory to perpetual life imprisonment. Stonemasons arrived at Cachtice and walled the Countess up in a room. This is where she would live out the rest of her life.

Elizabeth Bathory

Elizabeth Bathory

Passing Into Infamy
The Countess’ final years were spent in solitary confinement. A few family members came to visit. She also spent time writing correspondence. Her only other outlet to the world was a small opening where a guard would pass food to her each day. It must have been a lonely, depressing existence. Just a few years earlier she held the power of life and death over her servants. Now her only servant was a guard watching over her imprisonment. She had once been the most powerful woman in Hungary. Now she inhabited a small, drafty space in a forlorn castle along the borderlands. Few people in Hungarian history have fallen so far from the heights of power in so short a time. Was the Countess haunted by her crimes, seething with anger over the accusations that had brought her down or deeply depressed at what her life had become? Her enemies, including Thurzo’s own wife, came to the castle and stole away with much of Bathory’s jewelry. No one would have dared to do such a thing when she ruled over Cachtice. Now she was helpless to stop such petty plunder. Her land, her riches, her freedom had all been taken away, but madness was still there to accompany her all the way to the grave.

On the final night of her life, Sunday August 21, 1634, the Countess called for her guard and complained about having poor circulation, specifically in her hands. The guard told her that she was fine. He instructed her to lie down. With a pillow under her legs, rather than her head, she began to sing aloud in a beautiful, melodic voice. Where once there had been screaming, there was now only a sweet melody. These were the last words anyone heard from Elizabeth Bathory, with that she passed into history and infamy.

 

“I Am From Nowhere” – Andy & Julia Warhol: From Carpathian-Ruthenia With Love

Once asked where he was from, Andy Warhol replied, “I am from nowhere.” Of course this was not true, but the famously cryptic Warhol seemed otherworldly. He was born and grew up in Pittsburgh, a city synonymous with heavy industry, specifically the production of steel and aluminum. The man who would become an artistic and cultural icon was an unlikely native son of the blue collar Steel City. A better fit for Warhol’s point of entry into the world was a place he never actually visited, specifically his mother and father’s homeland of Carpathian Ruthenia (present day far eastern Slovakia). Julia and Ondrej Warhola were Carpatho-Rusyns, who immigrated to the United States during the first quarter of the 20th century. Some scholars place the Carpatho-Rusyns as a subgroup of Ukrainians, while others see them as distinctly separate. They are an East Slavic people who today inhabit the far reaches of eastern Slovakia and southwestern Ukraine. Obscure to the point of anonymity, the Rusyns have never had their own nation, with the exception of the short lived one day Republic of Carpatho-Ruthenia  in 1939.  Over the last one hundred years they were folded into such ill-fated polities as Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union. Despite assimilationist efforts by various empires and nations, the Carpatho-Rusyns preserved their language and many traditional customs. This was largely due to their geographical location. The Carpatho-Rusyns inhabit the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains, an area forever on the fringes, a forgotten borderland unknown to the rest of Europe. From this obscure land came the couple who gave the world Andy Warhol.

Andy Warhol statue in Bratislava, Slovakia

Statue of Andy Warhol in Bratislava – the capital of Slovakia (Credit: Peter Zelizňák)

From the Middle of Nowhere – Coming To America
Ondrej and Julia Warhola (née Zavacká) were born into the Austro-Hungarian Empire during the latter part of the 19th century. Their homeland was plagued by stagnation and backwardness. Much of the population was illiterate. Only a handful of schools served Carpatho-Rusyns. The rural economy was dominated by Hungarians and Germans with Jews also enjoying a rise to prominence. Politics were mainly the preserve of Hungarians, who had instituted an aggressive form of Magyarization. This had left Carpatho-Rusyns with few good choices. They could either assimilate, struggle in dire poverty or emigrate. Employment opportunities were few in the area. The immediate area from which Andrej and Julia came was known as a center for Europe’s taxidermy trade, not exactly a thriving industry. Ondrej and Julia were married in 1909. The couple already had a son when Ondrej made a landmark decision to leave Austria-Hungary for the United States in 1914. This was an unforeseen serendipitous bit of luck, as World War I would soon break out.

A year later the area in which Julia lived was overrun by the advancing Russian army. Though the Russians were beaten back, their short lived occupation signaled the upheaval that was to mark the region for years. While Julia was raising the eldest Warhol son amidst this tumult, Ondrej had found work in a Pennsylvania coal mine. It would take seven long years before Julia was able to join her husband. Finally in 1921 – a year after the Rusyn homeland was assigned to the new state of Czechoslovakia – Julia Warhol was able to join her husband in Pittsburgh. Seven years later the couple gave birth to the youngest of their three sons, Andrew Warhola. From the humble beginnings of life in a two room row house, Andy would grow to become the world famous pop artist who changed the way the modern world looked at it itself. His rise to fame was improbable, made more so by the fact that his family really was from the middle of nowhere.

Julia and Andy Warhol

Julia and Andy Warhol (Credit: Getty Images)

Like Mother, Like Son – A Spiritual Transmission
What did Andy Warhol know of his parent’s Carpatho-Rusyn background? What did he know of the customs and culture of that faraway land? More than might be expected. Until his dying days, Warhol was a devout follower of Eastern Byzantine Catholicism (Greek Catholicism). He grew up attending mass on a weekly basis with his parents, continuing this tradition until the end of his life. Along with language, Greek Catholicism was the major identifying trait for Carpatho-Rusyns. Since time immemorial, these people without a nation had been inseparable from their faith. Though he was extremely private about it, Warhol much like his Carpatho-Rusyn ancestors was fervently religious.

Miková, Slovakia

Miková, Slovakia – birthplace of Julia Warhola was in Carpathian Ruthenia

The single greatest family influence upon Warhol was his mother. Júlia Justína Zavacká came from Mikó, Austria-Hungary (Miková, Slovakia) a one street village nestled in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains. It was here that Julia learned the customs and rituals which she would carry on for the rest of her life. She was an excellent artist, spending endless hours drawing her favorite subjects, angels and cats. Her other artistic skills included decorative, stylized handwriting and traditional embroidery. In the lead up to the holiday season, she would decorate pysankas, Ukrainian Easter eggs covered with folk patterns written on them with beeswax. She also loved to sing Carpatho-Rusyn peasant songs. Her influence on Andy was amplified after he contracted St. Vitus Dance syndrome (Sydenham’s chorea) in the third grade. He suffered from involuntary twitching of the hands, face and feet. He spent days at a time unable to leave the bed. There by his side was Julia, dutifully taking care of his every need. When Warhol was fourteen his father suddenly died, this served to bring him even closer to his mother. The relationship continued into adulthood, with Julia moving to New York City in order to take care of Warhol as his career began to soar. His mother’s adherence to the traditions of her upbringing likely had much to do with Warhol’s late career forays into religious art. She was a deeply spiritual person who gave her son knowledge of the rich Carpatho-Rusyn culture.

Andy Warhol Museum of Modern Art in Medzilaborce, Slovakia

Andy Warhol Museum of Modern Art in Medzilaborce, Slovakia (Credit: M Patel)

A Family Affair – Art of the Warhols
The fact that Warhol never visited his family’s ancestral homeland is not all that surprising. The land of the Carpatho-Rusyn’s was sealed behind the Iron Curtain for the entirety of Warhol’s adult life. A couple of years after his death, Czechoslovakia threw off the communist yoke. In 1991, Warhol’s older brother Paul traveled to the homeland of his parents. In the town of Medzilborce – eight miles (12 kilometers) from the village of Miiková- he helped form the Andy Warhol Museum of Modern Art which was placed in the town’s former Communist House of Culture. The museum holds 160 works of art from Warhol, an immeasurable cultural contribution to a region otherwise bypassed by fame and notoriety. It also contains an exhibit of family memorabilia. One artifact is particularly striking. A pen-and-ink drawing of the “Annunciation of Our Lord’s Birth” by Julia Warhola bears a striking resemblance to the early drawings of Andy Warhol. From mother to son, from the lush valleys of Carpatho-Ruthenia to the industrial grit and grime of Pittsburgh, from a peasant’s village in the middle of nowhere to the center of the New York art world, the legacy and lineage of a mother and her son can be traced.

A Dark Discovery At Spiš Castle – Personalizing History

Wikipedia has become the go to source regarding historical information. Regardless of whether or not the information is valid or even relevant a Wikipedia entry about an historical event, personage or place is often taken as the truth. There are plenty of naysayers when it comes to Wikipedia, especially in the academic community. Critics of Wikipedia argue that the information lacks validity because it does not undergo a rigorous review process by professional historians. That is a valid point but let’s face it, Wikipedia has millions of entries. Do professional historians have the time or inclination to review all of these, the answer is quite simply no. For a large and diverse global audience Wikipedia has done a good job of providing pertinent information to its readers, certainly much better than any other digital medium promoting historical knowledge.

Spiš Castle as seen from the entrance road - the castle concealed a dark secret beneath it for over 1,800 years

Spiš Castle as seen from the entrance road – the castle concealed a dark secret beneath it for over 1,800 years

The Limits of Information – Spiš Castle: A Search for Relevance
That being said there are major limitations to what Wikipedia offers readers and researchers, especially those who are looking to gain in-depth information about people, places and events in Eastern Europe. The limitations of Wikipedia were once again revealed to me while searching for historical information prior to a visiting Spiš Castle (Spišský hrad) in Eastern Slovakia. This sprawling hilltop fortress rises spectacularly amid the surrounding hills and mountains of the Spiš Region. The castle is quite famous and rightfully so, due to its size, stunning appearance and five centuries of history. I assumed (wrongfully) that because of its fame the Wikipedia entry would be highly engaging. It turned out to be anything but. The  Spiš Castle entry in Wikipedia stuck to a just the facts approach, focusing on two things, a chronology of the aristocratic families that once owned it and the castle’s architectural history. I should probably not have expected much more, after all Wikipedia is about information, not interpretation.

Compounding my problems was the fact that I could only read the English language entry. Surely Spiš Castle’s Hungarian (the ethnicity of the aristocrats who owned the castle) or Slovakian language entries would have been more informative. Then again, a Wikipedia entry was not the lone source available for Spiš Castle on the internet. A link from the Wikipedia entry for the castle led me to a Slovakian website with a long English language write-up on the castle. The article contained a great deal of background information, but still left me wanting. After two and a half long pages of architectural details and a shifting cast of aristocratic owners I began to lose interest. The paragraphs were laden with one dry historical fact after another. This article told me all the facts that I supposedly needed to know, but in essence nothing that was really memorable or engaging.

Late afternoon sunshine radiates off the limestone walls of Spiš Castle

Late afternoon sunshine radiates off the limestone walls of Spiš Castle

More Questions Than Answers – Spiš Castle Beyond The Details
The main problem with both the Wikipedia entry and the article I stumbled upon was that they lacked compelling narratives and few stories concerning people. They were filled with chronology and hard facts. Of course narrative and stories are not the mandate of Wikipedia or the article I read. On the other hand, people make history, not buildings. People created the architecture of Spiš Castle, the buildings did not create themselves. There was a reason that Spiš Castle was built in such an imposing manner, namely to protect its inhabitants. The questions I really wanted answered included what battles were fought in and around the castle? Surely there were some titanic struggles. Who built, reconstructed and refurbished the castle across five centuries of history? By this I do not mean who were the architects or the aristocratic owners of Spiš Castle, but instead was it slave labor, master craftsmen or whoever could be commandeered into service. No one person could have built, designed or planned such a castle. One of my greatest frustrations was not being able to learn more about its owners. Of course I learned their names, but this information either told me nothing or left me with questions that I was unable to find the answers to.

A representative sentence in the Wikipedia entry offers a prime example of my dilemma: “Before 1464, it was owned by the kings of Hungary, afterwards (until 1528) by the Zápolya family, the Thurzó family (1531–1635), the Csáky family (1638–1945), аnd (since 1945) by the state of Czechoslovakia then Slovakia.” This sentence intrigued me, why did the castle pass from one family to the next. Did the existing owners die out, fall out of favor with their royal overlords or were they involved in political and military intrigues?  The other article on Spišský Hrad offered many intriguing details that led to even more questions. For instance, “the Csáky family owned the castle till 1945. They lived in the castle only till the end of the 17th century, because they rather built several manor-houses in Hodkovce, Bijacovce, Kluknava etc. For the manor-houses they many times used the stone material from the castle. Just a small military unit stayed at the castle. They left in 1780 after it burned down.”  I wanted to know what or who burned the castle down? Why the transition from castles to manor-houses? I assumed it was because of both comfort and the changing nature of security. One only needed to live in a castle such as Spiš if one was under constant threat. By the late 18th century those days had passed. I knew that from my background knowledge of the Kingdom of Hungary’s history, not from the article.

View from the heights of Spiš Castle

View from the heights of Spiš Castle

Into The Depths – A Secret Revealed
Of course it was easy to be critical and pick apart the efforts of others. I was certainly thankful for what I did learn from Wikipedia and the Spišský Hrad article. Someone had taken the time and effort to make this information available in multiple languages. My real problem was twofold: 1) I wanted information that was just as spectacular and fascinating as the castle itself and; 2) I wanted historical context. Both were lacking. Of course, those who authored the articles could have easily rebutted my criticisms by saying that if you want it done better, than do it yourself.  That is a legitimate point, but I did not just want to add more factual information. Perhaps there needs to be a site that puts the story back in history. Of course it has always been there, but His-STORY seems to have been lost. My last hope for discovering the human side of Spiš Castle was whatever interpretation and information I might discover when I visited the actual site. I was cautiously optimistic that I could learn a more interesting and relevant history there.

On a Tuesday afternoon in late October I was finally able to visit Spiš Castle. It was the realization of a dream that had begun a decade before when I first learned about the castle in the 2002 Rough Guide to the Czech and Slovak Republics. On page XIX in the 29 Things Not to Miss Section was a color photo owith #16 Spišský Hrad. Beneath the photo was a caption that stated, “This sprawling medieval castle is quite simply the most stunning hilltop ruin in Slovakia.” That photo and caption fascinated me for years, capturing my imagination. After a lung bursting hike from the lower parking lot to the entrance I entered the grounds. The vistas were just as I expected them to be, magnificent. The castle area was expansive, with limestone walls crisscrossing the jagged rocky outcrop. There were several towers and ramparts which stirred the imagination. It was easy to see that the castle had been situated to take advantage of an impregnable defensive position.

The historical information on offer at the castle consisted of displays and museum exhibits in several rooms. I was disappointed, but not shocked to find that the text on these offered information rather than interpretation. Once again architecture, chronology and names trumped human interest stories. I read all of the text which could best be summed up as: facts, facts, facts and more facts.  Now several weeks since that visit, I am able to recall one thing, the only exhibit that told a story that involves a person. A display titled “Unique Dark Cave Discovery” stated, “An entrance into the Dark Cave is situated on the northwest of the Castle hill. A marvelous underground world that may be explored straight below the castle disclosed an interesting secret…At the end of a narrow cleft they (speleologists and archaeologists) traced human bones, leather money bags. Some coins as well as remains of ceramic shards dating back to the 1st or 2nd century A.D.…At the end of the 2nd century, an unpredictable incident happened to the owner of these coins, who was probably a respectable merchant. The man in his 30’s or 40’s was looking for a safe place. He finally took a shelter in the interior of the Dark Cave, which was then available from the upper side. He entered the cave with a serious gash injury of his right thigh and he could possibly suffer an incidental fall. It is hard to tell. However, we certainly know that he never made his way out of the cave. The man remained there for the rest of his life and he passed away due to deathly injuries he had sustained. For long centuries, he maintained his considerable property. As in a fairy tale, silver Roman coins spilled out of his leather money bags. That is how caves under the Spiš Castle reveal their secrets and bear witness to importance of the region since prehistoric times.” There were some coins and shards of pottery on display from this find. The objects hardly mattered without the story.

A window into the past at Spiš Castle

A window into the past at Spiš Castle

Of Human Interest – Life & Death Beneath Spiš Castle
I suddenly saw myself as that unfortunate man, suffering, starving and finally succumbing in the Dark Cave. How long had he been able to survive there? Why had he crawled in there and what were his final thoughts. These were just a few of the many questions that entered my mind while I read the exhibit. The Dark Cave discovery was morbidly fascinating, still something of a mystery and spoke of survival, life, death and personal security. For this alone, a visit to Spiš Castle was certainly worth it. The massive castle walls, the magnificent vistas, the soaring, austere beauty of the structure and five hundred years of haughty aristocratic families at Spiš Castle all paled in comparison to a man without a name, who accidently fell into his death and then was brought back to historic life 1,800 years later. This was like the most memorable kinds of history that which forgets the facts and focuses on a uniquely human experience.  Humans make history and in this case, tragically astonishing history.