Slovakia a Joy of Missing Out (JOMO) Tourism Destination

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Sally Hutchinson
 
Between the 18-25th May 2014 I took part in the CHIST exchange to Eastern Slovakia funded by the EU “Leonardo da Vinci” programme. The organisation of the trip came from Arch Network based in Scotland, with the host company being Krajina, who specialise in the development of Eco-tourism in eastern Slovakia through the promotion of the regions wildlife, folk traditions and unique architecture. The participants taking part in this exchange came from a wide range of backgrounds which was ideal as it provided a good grounding for sharing experiences and practices.
Our guide for the week was Mr Miro Knezo who is the man behind the Krajina SK company, he provided a great service, showing off his in depth knowledge of the area that he was clearly passionate about.
Sunday 18th June
 
We arrive into a very damp Krakow where we find that our guide has been delayed a short time due to flooding leading to the collapse of two road bridges from Slovakia. Miro arrives in his white van that is soon to become our new home from home for the next week. We began the 4 hour journey (gave us enough time to introduce ourselves) to Svidnik where we based our selves for the coming week.
While driving through Poland the one thing that stands out is the size and style of houses that have been built by the side of the road. Miro points out that there is a trend of Polish returning back to the country and investing in housing and there doesn’t seem to be any building regulations, hence why there was no restrictions to the style and size of the buildings.

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While arriving in Slovakia we make an unexpected stop at a newly renovated battlefield site that consisted of refurbished Shelters of the Czechoslovak headquarters. The interpretation that was provided, was in both Slovak and English and only one general notice board. In Scotland we can sometimes be bombarded with lots of information and interpretation boards that doesn’t really tell the tourist the story.
Monday 19th June
The first full day in Slovakia began with a 2 hour drive west to the town of Levoca. Levoca has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage status due to its historical background. The town is placed well within major trade routes from neighbouring countries like Poland and Hungary, which allowed it to become a very rich royal town. While walking around the old town square, it was clear to see the wealth of the town from the miraculous architecture of the merchant houses and the detail at the front of these buildings – really impressive. However one building that attracted my attention was a very run down, shabby looking building which Miro informed us was owned by Gypsies’ from communist times and under Slovakian state law there can be no enforcement to refurbish or maintain the building.

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We then visited the church of St Jacob with Miro being our English tour guide. St Jacobs church belongs to the biggest collection of gothic churches in Slovakia, as well as the church’s architecture, inside the church you are met with beautiful carvings of Master Pavol (a local man) which shows great intricacy in design.
The church is also home to the highest wooden altar in the world standing at 61 feet. We continue our tour outside in the main square where there is a black metal cage, known as the cage of shame. Dating back to the 17th century it is said this is where female sinners were put as public punishment. It is unclear what happened to the male sinners.
We then headed for Lunch making a slight detour via a natural mineral spring/geezer to try the water. We all enthusiastically tried this water and was pleasantly surprised that it was very drinkable. The first group for Miro who enjoyed the mineral water that is claimed to have a variety of health benefits. We headed onto our destination for Lunch, a town under Spis Castle named Spisske Podhradie where we were treated to the Slovakian national dish, Bryndzove halusky. A dish made out of potato dumplings and sheep’s cheese (unpasturised) called Bryndza.
After lunch we continued on to Spis Castle, another UNESCO World Heritage Site, first built in the 11/12th century and is one of the largest castles in Central Europe. The castle itself has such a presence on the landscape. As we begin the steep ascent to the castle gates, you can feel a real atmosphere of the castle, we walk past old remains of the watch tower and wall. We are given a tour guide for our visit, her first guided tour in English. It was very interesting to hear of the history of the caste to help control the trade routes which head past it. One of the highlights of the visit to the castle we all enjoyed was the very interactive torture room! It was a good use of interpretation to use the original tools that would have been used (even though a tad bit dark), were provided for members of the public to interact with.
After the castle we then walked to the limestone quarry behind the castle. It was interesting to see that the signposting used for public paths resembled a lamp post with a colour ring. Very simplistic and resembles signposting used by the forestry commission.
Tuesday 20thJune
Today was the day for the Andy Warhol Museum situated in the town of Medzilaborce a run down communist town. The museum itself is situated in a grey, not so appealing building- not the type of museum buildings we are used to back home. While in the museum, we got a tour guide, with Miro as translator, who went into great detail of all most every paintwork in the museum. Interpretation here in the museum was very scarce, there was nothing really to tell the story of the artwork. We spent around 2 hours in the museum. While leaving the museum, over the old communist tannoy system advertisements were playing. Miro informed us that there was going to be a public announcement soon. It gave us a feel what it would have been like in the communist times.
We head back to Stropkov to go for a walk in the hills but the weather decided to turn and we are soon in the middle of a thunderstorm with bolts of lighting and torrential rain (Exciting!). Miro rescheduled the day’s itinerary and we visit the Stropkov Palace where the museum of dollies is located. This is a very pleasant detour, it was a real highlight to be shown around the Dollie collection. The museum consisted of around 20 cabinets filled with dollies from around the world in their traditional dress. The one thing that stood out was that the museum survived because people had donated the dollies.
The second half of the museum tour involved looking at traditional lace, which looked similar to crochet. The detail in these pieces of cloth was incredible. The manager was so enthusiastic about the artefacts which made it more interesting to listen to his stories. After the museum we headed back to Delta restaurant where Miro’s wife, Anna greeted us with a presentation of typical Slovakian customs and rituals. We learned about the different regionally costumes and learning about the work she does in a voluntary capacity to keep the heritage and culture alive in the region.
The highlight of the trip and one that is going to stay with me for a while: the learning of traditional Slovakian dance from Stropkov folk dance group, amazing fun in a tiny space of a back room in the Delta restaurant, which involved the dancing over plastic bottles- doesn’t sound hard but there is a technique!!
 
 
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Wednesday 21st June
We started our day at Svidnik cultural/community centre where we learned a traditional craft, Corn dollies. I didn’t expect the corn dollies to involve such intricacy and detail, very grateful to Janika who took the time to explain step by step the instructions and also helped me a great detail in the creation of my dolly. Janika also works with school children and unemployed youths in the Svidnik area and encourages them to learn the craft trade. Again like Miro she is passionate about the heritage and culture of the area and country she is from.
The second part of the day involved a short drive to the village of Brusnica where Margita invited us into her home for some lessons in traditional Slovakian cooking. She had already prepared a noodle esque soup (Borscht) which was followed by deep fried Pirohy try this site.
 

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Then it was our turn to try some cooking, Margita gets us to make our Lokse which is quite like our version of potato scones accompanied with a refreshing mint tea, which was then followed by us teaching Margita a traditional Scottish cake, we decided on scones. The process ended in disaster when the cream curdled and a misunderstanding of ingredients! A walk around Margita’s large garden with chickens, ducks and also consisted of a large vegetable patch which she is quite self sufficient from, very typical for Slovakia.
Thursday 22nd June
We are at the Hanusovce Museum where we were given a presentation from Dr Daniela Matusikova, lecturer in Presov University. Her presentation involved some interesting facts and figures on Slovakia. Slovakia has 8 regions, 136 towns and only 2 cities and 72,883 villages. Daniella stressed that the country wants to encourage tourism however not keen on mass tourism. They don’t want to harm their ecology/tradition/heritage as they have seen how mass tourism can have a negative impact on the host country. They are also keen on promoting shorter breaks and return visits than the traditional long break. The main form of tourism in the country seems to come from domestic tourism visiting other parts of the country with special focus on health spas and inbound tourism coming from neighbouring/ bordering countries. Czech republics come for the alpine regions and a popular destination for the Polish is the High Tatras but on the Slovakian side as they feel that they get a better service and has a better/prettier view.
It was interesting to hear that the main focuses of attracting tourists to the areas are through similar themes that Scotland has identified as their Unique Selling Points.
 
Folklore
The Slovakians are very passionate and proud of their folklore tradition and are very keen to keep the tradition alive. They have expressed concern over globalisation; they are proud of their customs, folklore, food/drink and feel that it is part of their unique selling point. What was interesting to find out, was innovation through tourism products maximising their assets. For example they have developed waterparks in the mountain ranges to co inside with Alpine tourism, including thermal water to allow customers to use the water in sub- tropical temperatures. Innovation has also been developed through the folklore tradition to the creation of a fairytale forest park- habakuky.
Another major point of the lecture was the government realising the potential of rural tourism which they have highlighted as the best way to generate tourism in the future, picking up on the trend that was identified in UNWTO trends. The appeal for Slovakia to become a destination of digital detox- Joy of Missing Out(JOMO) a place for disconnecting from the world. Interesting to hear as most countries are focusing on becoming a destination of connectivity.
Friday 23rd June
Bardejov town was the first destination of today’s trip, another gothic town. This time a much larger town square bordered with large buildings once again, with an impressive town hall building in the centre. We visited the museum of Icons, not particularly my thing but I did enjoy going around and looking at the craftsmanship that went into the procedure. The museum also lacked in interpretation, it would have been useful to have more information on what the display was.
In the afternoon we visited Bardejov Spa which is the main form of domestic tourism in eastern Slovakia. In comparison to similar spa destinations in Scotland like Strathpeffer where people go to relax, Bardejov is used as a health clinic where professionals are there providing cures for ailments and used for recovery. Miro directed us to two taps that were directed from mineralised springs, claiming to provide health benefits for curing high and low blood pressure. The local visitors had brought plastic bottles to stock up on this said miracle water. We also visited an open air museum, Skanzen, which included a display of traditional wooden buildings.
The museum of clothes was next on the agenda, very informative museum and interpretation was good with dual language information cards and some hands on, get involved interpretation.
On our way home we pass a local cheese maker farm, we watch the sheep being milked and the local cheese which is named Bryndza being made. The farmers daily milk 400 sheep twice a day using old traditional techniques, the most modern equipment used was the scales to sell the cheese!
Saturday 24th June
Situated just North of our base for the week (Svidnik), is Death Valley. A very chilling landscape which was the site of the German- Soviet tank battle (WW2) where 30,000 people were killed in 3 days. The tanks have been left in the fields as if abandoned and to give the impression of the battle taking place. The site didn’t seem to have any interpretation boards which may have helped me (and I am sure other tourists) to understand the full impact and details of the battle.
Ruthenian Folk festival was next on the agenda set under the Svidnik Open air museum, similar to the Skanzen museum, the open air museum was full of restored buildings. It was fascinating to go into these buildings and see how they used to live. We then head down to the folk festival for dinner and for the rest of the evening we were immersed in the culture. Fantastic colours and the regionally dress were fantastic as was the singing and the girl and guys dancing. Lovely way to end the study exchange totally enthralled in the folklore tradition of Slovakia.
 
Afterthoughts
On reflection the week long study visit to Slovakia was a very packed exchange. I now have a better understanding of the Slovakian culture. I was particular intrigued on their approach to tourism and in particular their approach to their culture and globalisation, something Scotland could learn from: Slovakia are proud of their culture and folklore and don’t seem to seek the approval or needs of westernisation. Why change or adapt the very thing that is drawing the interest/tourist in the first place.

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