Yesterday, Jana was lecturing in Poprad, so she suggested I take the little electric train up into the high Tatras and the resort of Strbske Plèsy. It was a gorgeous ride, with a very well defined frost line, which meant that the lower half of trees had their full colour (burnt sienna, or deep green) while the tall tops were coated in heavy, white frost. The mountain sides are a mysterious copper green, and the deep blue of the lake, just beautiful in the afternoon sun. Magical! I nearly couldn’t pull myself away! I didn’t see any bears, but I was quite surprised to hear that they are now becoming quite a problem, since they are multiplying and as they are under protection, hungry, because they are having to compete for food. They have been venturing into town.
Sadly, the appalling gales of 6 years ago have devastated vast swathes of the thickly forested hillsides, bringing tourism almost to a standstill and horrible bleak, broken areas of ground that will probably never recover. The distant town of Poprad, far below is now visible. Before it was completely concealed. Along the glowing sunset route back there were similar patches of devastation, all the way from Poprad to Banska… Some 2hours in the car.
Today’s beautiful ride was the next pleasure, first on the level, passing the ancient and magnificent wooden Kostol in Hronsce and then the impressive castle in Zvolen, where I sat with a lovely picnic that Jana had sweetly prepared and sketched in the spacious open square.
From Baduče on, it was an almost imperceptible rise of around 18miles, finishing with a literally breathtaking 12% curving hairpin hill of 4miles ready for the descent into Banska Stavnica.
More of this gorgeous town later.
The frost of the totalitarian regime has left many scars…. I have been having the most fascinating and illuminating conversations in French (my French has revived considerably over the last 3 days!) with Jana about the heritage of the communist era. Asking how the Slovakians perceive themselves was especially touching. “Hospitable. Robbed of initiative. A little resigned. What can we do? Slovaks don’t smile.”
In 1968 at the time of the printemps du Prague, Jana’s father was imprisoned for his opposition to the regime. She would have been 9 years old, and her brother, 7. When I asked her what her inspiration/route into economics had been, she said “pas de choix”, explaining that as her father had been ‘marked’ so had she. She had wanted to follow a pedagogical route, but of course this was impossible… the other alternative, the Catechism, was similarly out of the question. Thus, economics. No rancour, and as it turns out, no regrets. Her wonderful department liaises across Europe, with connections, seminars, conferences and friendships spread far and wide. She brings alive the feminine, both in her teaching and her department of lovely staff, and in this way, surely has an impact and a reach across a wide board.
Last night we listened to Edith Piaf singing her heart out and when I left in the frosty air this morning I felt that I had made another wonderful friend. “I will follow you to the end” and in the tradition of her mother she touched my forehead in the sign of a cross. You have really touched my heart in such an unforgettable way Jana. I’ll be back.
Back to Banska Stavnica. A few enquiries in this steeply cobbled town led me first to the (open, hooray!) information centre, and then shortly afterwards, and very gratefully, to the door of Penzion na Trojici, and a helpful hand from Eric, who lifted Sir G. indoors. His is another interesting and industrious story. A year ago he returned from Ireland where he was front of house managing a restaurant (“it changed my life”) and last October embarked on renovating this fine building, opening a restaurant and running a Penzion. He is clearly an extremely capable and enterprising young man. (he also does a great Irish impression, but it’s not repeatable!!) The refurbishment is his own handi-work and of a very high and tasteful standard and he graciously chatted away to me as he lounged in black leather jacket and black jeans in the cream armchair opposite me. He was born here and his father also ran a restaurant before retiring. He spoke very knowledgeably about the town and the benefits of the tourist industry to local people and just how hard it is when the season falls off, as there is no other industry. That European funding can only be a good thing here, as the restoration of the beautiful old buildings in what used to be one of Europe’s most illustrious cities can only help to bring more trade. Now that I know that the Slovaks find it hard to smile, I am much less put off by their initial reserved countenances, and Eric’s shy brother has begun to thaw!
At the dinner table I was entertained by Peter and his brother who were encouraging me to fly over to America and cycle across… whatever next?!!!
I am awash with impressions and stories. Yet again in awe of landscape, people and the incredible good fortune I am having with all of the above and not least this wonderful weather.
I really hope that the economic sun will one day break through and help to warm the tristesse of the hard working Slovakian people and their landscape.
PS. The Catholic church laid down some pretty daunting conditions for the building of Protestant churches, such as this lovely one in Hronsce. To be built entirely from wood: to be completed within a year: no nails: the tower must be placed to the side, not on top: the door must be in the side: the land must not be ‘good’ land, ie it would be on marshy ground. I think they rose to the challenge magnificently and left us a rich collection of beautiful architecture across both Slovakia and the eastern side of Poland.