Kosice, Slovakia

As I planned out my trip, I found Slovakia to be a wild card. I knew that I would visit many countries and cities according to my own interests, readings and recommendations from friends and fellow travelers but I knew very little about Slovakia. I had a week to spend in Slovakia before heading to Budapest to rendezvous with my girlfriend and since I knew so little about the country, I decided to divide my time between two cities. From Krakow I caught an overnight train to Kosice, the easternmost major city in Slovakia. On my journey through Europe, Kosice-scarcely thirty miles from the Ukrainian border-would mark the furthest penetration into the continent and the furthest place from home that I have ever yet visited.
Kosice came highly recommended by Lonely Planet guide book. The center of town boasts the easternmost gothic cathedral in the world. The old town has many shops, restaurants and cafes to explore as well. At this point in my journey I indeed looked forward to these attractions but I really was interested in making my way into the hills for some decent hiking. My entire trip to this point had been centered on major cities but in Kosice I found a town that was surrounded by countryside rolling into the distance so relaxation, hiking and sightseeing would be my priorities during my stay.
I arrived in town very early in the morning. The train station is located on the outskirts of town but I quickly discerned the route into the old town where I could find accommodations. As I made my way into the old town I noticed many beautiful spires and old buildings that reminded me of the edifices that I had seen in Prague. I was curious to see the similarities between Czech Republic and Slovakia, nations that were one throughout my childhood. I needed to cash a traveler’s check and find lodging at the tourist information center but as I arrived in the center of town, I realized that nothing was open and I would have to wait a few hours.
I sat around a public park in the center of town, which is called the Hlvana. The heart of Kosice, the Hlvana is a long pedestrian courtyard about one hundred yards wide and a quarter mile long. The cathedral stands at one end of the square and the state theatre stands at the other. Nothing was open and it was a beautiful morning so I sat enjoying the sunshine when at 9 O’clock I received quite a surprise. In the central park of Kosice several powerful fountains leapt into life. Much like the dancing waters in Las Vegas or Disney World, the town of Kosice has installed a series of dancing fountains that shoot to amazing heights and sway back and forth. From hidden speakers blared forth classical music tunes that are timed along with the fountains. I must confess that I found these fountains to be more comical than anything else. They don’t fit in this small town set in the eastern Slovakian hillside but belong, rather in gaudy American tourist traps like the Bellagio or Epcot Center.
Soon the tourist office opened and I was able to acquire some Slovakian currency and directions to the most promising hostels in town. I wound my way to nearby accommodations at the Ubytovna Mestsky Park hostel. The hostel offered many amenities at reasonable prices. I spent the equivalent of $10 per night for lodgings and at the restaurant downstairs I enjoyed great breakfasts for an additional $5 per day. I had my own room with a large bed, skylight and closet. After a shower and shave, I set out into the city to visit some of its primary attractions.
My first visit was to the Cathedral of St. Elizabeth. The cathedral literally dominates the town. The portion of Slovakia in which Kosice lies, was historically a portion of Hungary which was ceded to Czechoslovakia by the Trianon treaty after World War I. The cathedral marks the last resting place of Ferenc Rakoczi, the Hungarian patriot who was exiled for leading an 18th century uprising against the Austrian Empire, which controlled Hungary at that time. The tomb is marked by the red, white and green of Hungarian flags. The interior of the cathedral was solemn, antique and very beautiful. As I sat in one the pews, taking in the atmosphere of the cathedral it occurred to me that as Kosice was once part of Hungary and that the cathedral is the eastern most Gothic cathedral in Europe, this cathedral must also mark one of the furthest outposts of Catholicism. Further east one would find the Orthodox churches of Russia, Ukraine and Asia. I began to thus appreciate how this small town marks an important boundary between East and West.
From the cathedral I made my way around the Hlvana checking out the principle buildings in town. I grabbed a modest lunch at one of the outdoor cafes and browsed through the windows of the main shops in town. At the opposite end of the Hlvana I visited the State Theatre. This massive 19th century structure rivals any of the large theatres that I have seen elsewhere in Europe and the United States. The large domed tower and ornamented façade are one of the most beautiful buildings in town. As the day wore on and I made my way back to my hostel I was struck by a military memorial. Several white plaques written in Russian marked the names of brave men who gave their lives in defense of the country. The most harrowing symbol, however, was the Hammer and Sickle that still adorned this memorial.
That night I enjoyed dinner at one of Kosice’s most inviting restaurants. Bakhus is Lonely Planet’s first recommendation for dining in Kosice. The restaurant and beer garden is tucked away from the Hlvana with lots of tables and umbrellas in a courtyard. At dusk the restaurant was filled to capacity of people eating, drinking and having a good time. I sat down to a dinner of beef stronganoff served by friendly, English speaking staff. The food was superb and reasonably priced. I wanted to go hiking the next day so after dinner I made my way home for a good night’s sleep.
The next day I packed my day bag with a picnic lunch and Swiss army knife for my journey into the hills. Unfortunately, getting out of town was harder than I thought. I would set out for the hill side, which I could clearly see on the horizon, but would wind up lost in a maze of side streets on the outskirts of town. The suburbs of Kosice were a grim sight of factories and long rows of boring, grim and utilitarian communist housing blocks. By this point of my trip I was used to communist architecture, which really is a blight across Eastern Europe.
Eventually I decided to follow the main highway out of town, which crossed a river and eventually rose into the hills. Once around a high bend, the city was out of sight and I beheld a magnificent countryside of rolling hills, farmland and forests stretching in all directions. I followed the highway to the beginning of the forests where I planned to explore and have lunch. The fields were brimming with wild flowers, reeds and buzzing insects. I came upon a dirt path that led away from the highway, which I followed into the forested hill side. I wandered into a dense forest along a beaten path that went on for a few miles. I did not want to wander too far, as I did not know where I was going. I came upon a cut into the forest where power lines passed through. There was an abundance of cut wood so I set up a small campsite and built a fire.
After lunch I decided to head back into town. As I made my way back through the forest I came upon a group of Slovakian boys and girls. They were all about eight years old and evinced a curiosity in me and clearly they wondered what I was doing in the forest where they regularly played games. None of them spoke English but apparently one of them had spent some time in France and spoke French so I was able to communicate through him. They talked with me as I made my way back into town. They asked many questions about America. Some of the boys were very interested to discover my interest in hockey and were impressed as I named several Slovak players on various NHL teams. They were a very nice and well behaved group of kids and when we got into town I bought them all ice cream at a café before saying my goodbyes.
I spent the rest of my time browsing around Kosice looking for decent shopping. I found the pickings to be pretty slim. Any contemporary clothing stores offered clothes far behind current fashions. I did find some thrift stores, however. I bought for about $5 a tweed sports coat that fits perfectly and that I still have today. There wasn’t much else to do in Kosice after two days exploring so I made arrangements for my trip to Bratislava and read until it was time to catch the train out of there. Still, Kosice stands out in my mind as a unique stop along my journey. There is very little tourist presences in Kosice and it is very beautiful and rural. I feel that in those three days I got to see a side of Europe that most people never see.

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