I always search for the road less touristed. Yet it was not without trepidation that I drove with my spouse across the Hungarian plain from Budapest into Kosice, Slovakia’s second-largest city. As the industrial outskirts gave way to a skyline dominated by Communist-era block apartment buildings, I grew convinced that I had made a terrible vacation choice.
The windowless entrance to our pension on a grimy block was equally discouraging. The room was unremarkable, with modular furniture that transformed twin beds into a double, but left metal bars protruding from the walls. When I reported to the concierge that our refrigerator was not working, she answered, “Most of them don’t.”
I couldn’t say I hadn’t been warned. A Europe-savvy friend advised me to skip Slovakia and head to Krakow. The country gets scant coverage in guidebooks; travel writer Rick Steves deemed it “the West Virginia of Europe,” which I did not take as an endorsement, although he did note its rustic beauty. A 2015 DK Guide to Eastern and Central Europe describes Slovakia as “a relatively little-known country, with few visitors,” and Lonely Planet devotes more than half of the thin coverage in its six-year-old Czech/Slovak guidebook to Slovakia’s capital, Bratislava. Only about 40,000 American tourists visit Slovakia each year, while its more illustrious neighbour and erstwhile bordermate, the Czech Republic, draws hundreds of thousands. The majority of those probably only stop in Bratislava en route to Vienna or Budapest.
Nevertheless, I had opted to bypass the relatively more touristed Bratislava and Western Slovakia to head for Eastern Slovakia – where I arrived despondent.
But just around the corner, down a graffiti-defaced block with a single cafe, stood a stunning and massive Gothic cathedral anchoring the unexpectedly lovely and lively town center. For several car-free blocks, Hlavna Ulica (Main Street) was lined with dramatic monuments – including its Baroque Plague Column, erected in 1722 to offer thanks for the plague’s end – fountains, shops and buildings from the 13th to the 19th century. Cafes, serving up chocolate and ice cream treats as delectable and sophisticated as any in Western Europe, and restaurants, predominantly Eastern European but also Indian and Irish, offering permutations of dumplings and meat doused in sour-cream-and-mushroom sauce, bustled with activity. Although the restaurants were typically staffed by tattooed, English-speaking waiters, rarely, if at all, did I hear English spoken by the patrons.
Between the cathedral and the Baroque Revival State Theatre, a tree-encircled musical fountain played “Yesterday” and other familiar tunes; after sunset, coloured lights illuminated jets of water pulsing to the music while families with gelato cones strolled by. Climbing the cathedral’s steep, cramped stone spiral staircase afforded a bird’s-eye view of the mosaic roof and the happenings below; one day, the plaza at the foot of the cathedral hosted a bike-stunt competition, the next, a protest of a corrupt official.
Kosice exceeded my modest expectations, but Levoca was a small-scale medieval marvel by any standard. Two hours to the northeast, through increasingly pleasant countryside, Levoca makes a great base for exploring castles and national parks. Founded in 1249, this walled town of 14,500 people has an intact center of Gothic, Baroque and Renaissance structures painted in pastels.
In the town square sits a circa-1550 Gothic town hall and the St. James’s Church, with an altar carved by Levoca’s famous (well, relatively) native son, Master Pavol. A 16th-century wrought-iron cage of shame for unlucky locals also sits in the square.
Despite its iconic status in Slovakia, you’ve probably never heard of Spis Castle. A 20-minute drive east of Levoca, the sprawling ruins of one of Central Europe’s largest fortresses – a UnescoWorld Heritage site – first appeared in the distance as a mysterious white smudge in the lush hills. Gradually, the walls and ruins perched on a ridge became discernible. The castle, parts of which date from the 11th century and which housed 2,000 people in the 17th century, overlooks multihued fields, red-roofed villages and rolling hills with a backdrop of snowy mountain ranges. Traipsing around the 10 acres of atmospheric ruins and taking in the views can take several hours.
Nearby national parks, although not exactly untrammeled wildernesses, showcase Slovakia’s significant natural assets. Swarming with local hikers, Slovak Paradise National Park (also called Slovensky raj) is loaded with user-friendly amenities and covered with signage and hiker assists. We did the popular Sucha Bela trail, which follows a stream and waterfalls via hair-raising gorge-side catwalks and metal ladders. Acrophobics, beware. As I nervously waited in a line of 50 or so people to climb the first intimidating 90-foot ladder, mere inches from a waterfall, I watched fearless five-year-olds and dog-toting adults scampering up. This was my last chance to turn back: Heading the wrong way on the trail henceforth could incur fines.
I somehow mustered the courage to continue. After several hours of hoisting myself up on chains and praying that the ladder rungs would hold, I emerged at the top of the canyon where, to my delight, mountain bikes awaited. For about $10, you could rattle down the mountain on squeaky-braked, rusty bikes and be back at the base in no time to enjoy a fried dough snack at any of the park’s several cafes.
Thirty minutes northwest of Levoca, the ski resort town and former Soviet playground of Stary Smokovec serves as a gateway to hikes in the rugged, Alp-like mountains of Tatra National Park, a Unesco Biosphere Reserve.
And the best was yet to come. Pushing southeast to complete the Slovak circuit, we arrived in Banska Stiavnica. (Not to be confused with Banska Bystrica, which is rumoured to be worthy of a visit and unlike Banska Stiavnica, made it into DK’s guidebook.) It is a perfectly preserved medieval town whose main street winds its way up to the cobblestoned town center, Trinity Square, and whose charms, culture and food rival those of any Italian hill town.
Set in a valley, it has two small-scale castles on either side – the 13th-century “old castle” and the 16th-century “new castle” – both with panoramic views. The town celebrates its mining history with museums. Because our pension was built over a mini-mine museum of its own, we skipped them. But we did take in an organ concert of Bach compositions in a 15th-century church and a medieval festival that fittingly took over the town square, complete with armored knights, blacksmiths, stilt-walkers and makers of chocolates and dumplings, all of them dressed in period garb.
Medieval towns, natural beauty, cultural riches, magnificent castles, great food, a thriving cafe culture – all at affordable prices and with no tourist crowds. Slovakia turned out to be a fine destination after all.