Eastern Slovakia: Stories, Interaction and Engagement.

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Visiting another country and culture can certainly be an eye opening adventure, but when you get the chance to experience it with the guidance of a local who has a keen and devoted knowledge, there is the potential for it to be an even more rewarding and revealing event. Our visit to Slovakia was one of the latter types of trips. It was filled with a diverse range of historical sites and heritage experiences guided by our own personal guide and interpreter, Miro. We were whisked around the region and taken to a wide range of places from castles and churches to WWII sites and art galleries. Amongst many things, we learnt about home cooking, we were given lessons in folk dancing and we were shown how to make traditional corn dollies. Our senses were spoilt sampling local delicacies and we got the chance to listen to traditional music, dance and singing. We crammed in a whole range of new experiences, many of which were truly unforgettable.

Each participant attending the Slovakian cultural heritage exchange had a variety of expectations, hopes and questions. The group consisted of people from diverse backgrounds, working in a range of different positions in the Scottish heritage sector. The three individuals who participated and contributed to this piece of work included: a learning intern, an archival archaeologist and an event and development co-ordinator. Our three different approaches led us to unique viewpoints, but conclusively we all had a similar interpretation of the overall experience. Whilst Penelope was captivated by the country’s stories and Maya was inspired by the potential for learning through interaction, Ruth was interested in the rules of engagement within the Slovakian heritage sector.

Penelope: The Stories of Slovakia.

For me Slovakia is a country of stories and the Slovakian tourist board slogan, ‘A little big country’, was something that I understood more fully as the week progressed. Slovakia is a little country, but it has big culture; it is a little country, but it is full of big stories.


This is all a little bit cryptic so I’ll explain. I’d gone into the cultural exchange hoping to learn some new skills and discover some new examples of heritage best practice or perhaps confirm the techniques that we work with in Scotland. Rather than this fairly dry, academic approach, I found that so many of the places we visited during the exchange were brought to life through the stories of their history and the people that are intertwined with their past, mostly due to the unfailing knowledge and enthusiasm of our host Miro.

From the very first day that we arrived, tired and travel worn after driving through Poland, it was the stories that sparked my interest and the stories that I remember now. On that first day we drove up to the original and reconstructed Second World War huts used by officers in Dukla pass. Surrounded by the peaceful forest it was difficult to imagine the brutal warfare that ravaged that particular part of the Slovakian countryside. It has always been a key strategic position and the surrounding country has been plundered by various armies throughout history. The minimal interpretation allows the site to tell its own story, with only one medium sized panel providing the context. The same was true of the Dukla tanks left in situ in the rolling verdant farm land of the valley. It is a stark method of telling the story of the effect war had on the landscape. The destruction is not visible anymore but these are reminders that jar against the landscape and remind us to remember that the deaths of 90,000 soldiers and civilians should jar against us still.

In contrast, Levoca tells a story of religious devotion and the pursuit of aesthetic beauty, far removed from the horrors of WWII. The church containing Master Paul’s works, an extremely skilled craftsman who built intricate wooden altars without any nails, was very beautiful but it is the traditions that are associated with it that I remember. The story of the white lady, who is rumoured to guarantee that you will be married in a year, after praying whilst sat in her place, takes an entirely unassuming pew and adds vividly to the imagination.

Levoca was also remarkable because of one incongruous house in the otherwise immaculate square. This house has a particularly beautiful fresco painted on its façade but is at the same time decrepit and dishevelled, in a totally different state to its surrounding neighbours. We were told that


the house is lived in by a group of people who do not care for its exterior and that it is a shame that there is nothing that the town can do. However, I would question some of the assumptions behind renovation, as if it was renovated would this just be plastering over a part of its history? The story that this building tells, so markedly different from the rest, is thought-provoking in itself. It raises some interesting questions about heritage buildings and renovation.

In the Spis region, Spis Castle dominates the landscape, almost as if it has been thrust from the earth in some kind of volcanic event. Its very majesty and precarious ascent tell of the time in which it was built (during the Tartar invasion) and the panoramas through the windows that are so perfect they look like paintings suggest that nature is slowly but surely taking back the hilltop. There are layers of history here cocooning one another like the outer defences cocoon the inner castle, right up to the Australian artist’s horse that adorns one of the outer slopes, representing a Celtic coin design found during archaeological excavations. Our guide told us that the castle is an empty shell because it burned down, but why or how they are not sure, although there is some suggestion of foul play and tax avoidance. It is these little titbits of information that bring a historic site to life.


Stropkov Museum, although much smaller and without the glamour of the Warhol Museum we also visited, was one of the most interesting museums I have ever visited and very clearly the pride of its Director and the local people. We were introduced to one important part of its collections through an enchanting story of a local woman’s doll collection that started as a reminder of home but has now gone on to become a fascinating little museum of folk dolls. Her donation of 150 folk costume dolls has grown in three years with the contributions of the local community and visitors to the museum to become a collection of 650 examples of dolls from all over the world, varying in age and value but all equally precious to the museum.

There is an additional room full of intricately designed lace made by another local woman who is now 76 and has been practicing her craft for 50 years. And of course, the inevitable ghost story came into play, as the museum building is rumoured to be haunted by an adulteress housekeeper who was punished by her husband and trapped inside one of the walls. There is rather more real ghosts in the building’s history, with a picture of Franz Ferdinand drilling troops outside the walls during his stay, linking its local stories into the wider story of global catastrophic events.


With 72,883 villages, all with their own traditions and stories, Slovakia is not short on rich cultural experiences. Many of the people we met are bringing this culture and the multitude of stories to life, some though the living history of traditional dance, customs, craft, costume and song. We saw examples of pleating passed on through the generations of a family and now disseminated by intergenerational learning into the wider community. We were ourselves lucky enough to visit the Cultural Centre and attend a corn doll making class, where we saw a group of children learning this traditional craft.

The use of storytelling is something that can be applied to so many areas of heritage, be that learning, interpretation or events, and goes a long way to draw you into history that might otherwise have little resonance.


Maya: The Importance of Interaction

Participating in the CHIST 2014 cultural heritage exchange to Slovakia opened my eyes to a different culture and to a different approach to heritage. Throughout the week-long course we visited a range of historical sites and archaeological museums and we took part in a range of cultural activities. As the week progressed I began to take note of the range of ways we were being introduced to and encouraged to interact with the Slovakian heritage. Whilst every activity was enjoyable, I began to see a trend in the types of activities that I found particularly engaging and that, to this day, I have the most vivid memories of afterwards. This, I believe, was due to learning through interaction.

Whilst this is not an original concept, I found it illuminating to perceive my own development throughout the week by consciously making note of moments of clarity and interest and those times when I found myself loosing focus or interest in a subject. I considered what the difference was in each scenario and almost always concluded that it was either the inclusion, or lack of, personal interaction that made the difference in my own engagement with the subject or activity.


The very first place we visited was a group of reconstructed wooden shelters that had been used as headquarters during WW2 conflicts. Whilst there was little interpretation on site, the dozen or so shelters were open to the public for exploration. Although I knew that these were not the original structures, being able to go inside them, to feel and smell the wood, to experience the confined space (and in some cases extremely damp conditions) was very engaging and it got me thinking about what it would have been like for the soldiers based here. Were these shelters a welcome refuge or an uncomfortable necessity? Only by entering the spaces and experiencing them with my own senses was I guided to these thoughts. This theme was reinforced later in the week when we visited the open air museum of WW2 military tanks abandoned in Death Valley. This was another site that we could and were encouraged to interact with. We were allowed to touch, to climb and to explore two machines that had been reused and redesigned into a memorial and ‘signpost’ to the other abandoned tanks throughout the valley.


Being allowed to climb the tanks invigorated my imagination and I found myself further contemplating the reality of life during the Second World War. When I stood on the summit of the tanks, I was offered a completely different perspective across the landscape: features that were unknown on the ground were now clearly visible from the top of the tank. Anyone looking out from this height would have been able to see enemy troops long before those below. Did this mean they were the bringers of news to any foot soldiers on the ground? How did others treat them if this was the case…? The metal of the machines was hard and I expected them to be cold but in the morning sun, they felt warm to the touch. What would it have been like inside the tank if it was roasting hot temperatures outside? Was it cool and shady, or was it like sitting inside an oven? The final thought that crossed my mind as I listened to the cars passing by on the nearby road was about the sounds of war. Could the thick metal protect those within not only from physical harm, but could it also shelter them from the noise of the battle beyond? Or were they subject to the constant sound of danger? Questions like these did not occur to me until I had the chance to stand on top of the tank and feel its metallic skin. Where before I had given little thought to the reality of life in a WWII tank, being allowed the chance to have this close an interaction opened my mind and sparked an interest to learn.


Throughout the week we visited many sites – one of which I had known about previously and was very excited to visit: Spišský Hrad, also known as Spiš castle. To my slight surprise, we were given the typical tourist tour around the castle. Our guide was a young woman who had not previously given a tour in English to a group. She was forgivably nervous and was heavily focused on providing us with an understandable speech. Although she was keen to tell us about the history, she did not know a lot about how the castle was run, which was more the type of information that we were seeking. So we were taken around the site and given the general tour. As we wandered around I began to loose track of the complex facts, the people and the dates, and it occurred to me that I was not learning, I was merely listening whilst looking around. I wondered about how else I could be encouraged to learn and engage with this site and why it is a world wide tradition to give tours this way. Was it just me, or were other people struggling to keep track of all of this information too? Later we were given the chance to explore the castle independently. It was at this time that I really began to engage with and think about the reality of life in the castle. In one room, we were able to interact with a series of ‘torture device’ replicas. Whilst we took it in turns to giggle at each other locked in the stocks I found myself thinking about the true nature of the devices and how ironic our interactions with them were. However, I soon realised that if we had not engaged with them in this way, I would not have been led to such a sobering thought or to really appreciate the true nature of the objects. We continued to explore the castle taking in its cool dungeons, petite chapels and narrow, spiralling staircase in tall, fortified towers. I soon found myself imagining the practicalities of life here. What was it like to live here? Did the occupants feel safe and protected? Or did they always want to expand further: to make the walls a little bit thicker and the towers a little bit higher? Perhaps it is my built in nature as an archaeologist, but being able to explore and interpret the stones for myself encouraged me to think a little bit harder about this intriguing and monumental site.


Throughout the week we were encouraged to get involved with traditional dance, cooking and craft making. When learning about traditional dance, we first sat and we talked with a local dance group coordinator, we watched videos and flicked through leaflets and booklets on the topic. However, the subject soon became a lot livelier when we were presented with a very impressive demonstration by the local group. Soon we were called up on to the dance floor, where we were taught a few of the simpler traditional dances. It was only once I started to try and master these basic moves that I really began to appreciate the complexity of the dance. I am sure if I hadn’t been encouraged to try it myself and play an interactive role, I wouldn’t have developed the same level of appreciation for the skills required. Later in the week when we attended the Ruthenian Folk Festival where we watched dancers of all ages demonstrating their abilities. As I had been encouraged to try it out for myself, I could really appreciate what the dancers were doing and how much time and practice they had put in to master their art.

I am now certain, after spending time in Slovakia, that interaction is a key to encouraging learning and engagement. Many of the Slovakian attractions that we visited allowed us to physically interact with objects. I think that this is a concept that could and should be explored further in the Scottish heritage sector as a means of engaging visitors and audiences of all ages. My own personal interaction with the range of sites and monuments throughout the week opened up my mind to new ideas, new questions and led me down avenues of thought I am certain I would not have otherwise achieved. I am keen to take on board the information that I learnt during this cultural heritage exchange and apply this knowledge to my future career in the Scottish heritage sector.

Ruth: The rules of Engagement.


Slovakia for me perhaps didn’t show me what I was expecting. As we were taken through the top sites I found it hard to pick out what it was that we were to learn from and wondered how I could apply these things in my role back in Scotland. I think what I learnt most was the appreciation for what we have.


In a number of the attractions that we visited photographs were not allowed, for instance near the spring, in the art galleries and religious buildings. For some of these it was a demonstration of respect but for others the protection of their contents was the only reason I could see. In the case of the latter I felt this was, perhaps, a waste. Allowing visitors to takes photographs means that they can create and keep their own memories from their experience, which can then market the attraction organically and inspire others to visit. In fact I believe that, if used in the right way, the technology age can be used to benefit the attraction and make recording of data more valuable for future generations. It occurred to me that if there were prime opportunities and dedicated spots to take a photograph (such as in the Andy Warhol Museum) these could become enhanced (with lighting or props) and could become iconic, which would ultimately lead to the images being shared. In turn this could be an opportunity to connect with visitors, to provide opportunities for them to contribute to an exhibition (such as an ‘upload your photo’ option) and to then keep a visual record of visitors’ experiences. Personally, I see the benefits to allowing photographs and videos to be taken as far outweighing the drawbacks.

During our time we were escorted to each attraction by our guide, Miro. What struck me was the need we had for Miro to be there throughout and to communicate to us what we should and shouldn’t be doing. I think what I learnt from this was how it is taken for granted that English is a universal language and we have come to expect others to work around us. I wondered if we would be able to provide a welcome within others expectation, to make visitors feel at ease, so that they know exactly what they can and can’t do and therefore are able to feel comfortable. A strong and clear welcome goes a long way as it can help to prepare visitors with what to expect and can help to encourage them to follow the desired route all contributing to their overall experience.


Finally I was astounded at the variety of engagement. So often you see items locked away in a cabinet, you read a board and eventually finish the prescribed route. I realise how important it is to have something to touch (such as the replicas in the castle) and something to make (such as the corn dollies). This fully emphasised how much potential experiences have to be out of the ordinary and that this is what stays in a visitors mind.

The final realisation was the importance of immersing yourself. Each day there were things which although not part of the attraction, contributed greatly towards the overall experience and my memory of that day. Journeys, food, drinks, extra walks, extra stop points, (mineral water, walk to cliffs). This made me realise how important it is to have access to this information. Only locals have the local knowledge and helping to share this is critical to helping to immerse visitors in your attraction. Communicating where the best local eatery is, where you can go to see a great view and where you can spend the rest of your day will only help contribute positively towards your visitors experience and satisfaction.

So what have we learnt? We have certainly developed an appreciation for the culture and heritage of the Prešov Region of eastern Slovakia, but what we discovered extended far beyond that. We realised how the stories of a place are the life blood of the regions history, beliefs and heritage. We learnt that interaction leads to contemplation and that encouraging a physical connection leads to new avenues of thought and consideration. We found an appreciation for the way that things are run and organised in Scotland, how we take certain things for granted and we came to understand how important it was to be fully immersed in the every day things of a new culture. We were quick to realise how much of a difference it can make experiencing a new place through the guidance of a local expert. Without the help of Miro guiding us, advising us and most importantly translating everything for us, we would not have had such a close connection with the country and such an intimate experience of the culture. I am sure that we will take what we have learnt from this experience, develop the ideas and apply them to our roles in the Scottish heritage sector.


We want to express our gratitude, firstly to the Leonardo da Vinci foundation for funding the exchange and for making it possible. Secondly, thank you to Sheila and Libby of ARCH Network for organising the exchange and for choosing us to attend. We also want to give a special thank you to Miro for his expertise, time and guidance, and to everyone else in Slovakia who contributed to making the exchange a memorable one. Lastly, just a quick word to every other participant who also attended the exchange: thanks for the company, for the giggles and for making it such a great week.

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