Monday, 25 August 2008

Michael Palin was right

About Slovakia, that is. Eddie persuaded me to drive down from Dobra to the Slovak border, and given that we're all in Schengen now, to cross over to see the place. Now, unlike my well-travelled children, I've not been to Slovakia (Czech Republic many a time, but never to Poland's south-eastern neighbour). The plan seemed like a good one, especially when linked to the chance to see other attractions on the Polish side of the border (see next post).

Above: We crossed into Slovakia without even knowing it (Lysa nad Dunajcem, the first village on the Slovak side, is so full of shops selling things to Poles that we were confused by the fact that nearly all signs were in Polish). The picture was taken from just inside the Slovak border, looking in. The customs shed is still there, the border checkpoints unmanned.

I like Schengen. I like being able to drift across national borders the way an Englishman can pop into Scotland or Wales. Extensions of personal freedom are to be welcomed! Slovakia will join the Eurozone on 1 January (not a good idea, but that's a personal macroeconomic view). Left: A post-communist (note PR - Polish Republic, not PRL - People's Republic of Poland) but pre-Schengen sign, a fading reminder that the once people would queue for hours to get from one country to the other.

Below: This sign is still valid, a reminder that, though passport controls are gone, this is border country. (Click here to see my visit to the Polish-Czech border)

After passing through Lysa nad Dunajcem, Eddie and I walked to the nearest town. Spisska Stara Ves is not a good advertisement for Slovakia, a country that took umbrage at Michael Palin's portrayal of the country in his New Europe series. The scenes of drunken excess at a village pig-slaughtering, yokels who could not remember the words of their own folk songs, provoked a strong letter to the BBC from the Slovak Ambassador to Britain. Slovakia appeared in the series to be a contrast between cultured, historic Poland and the cultured, historic Czech Republic.

Spisska Stara Ves reminded me of Victor Lewis-Smith's Ipswich. "Yes, there's plenty to do in Ipswich. You can pick your nose, or you can blink..." Compared to the villages we drove through in Poland, full of Sunday crowds going to church or socialising in the street, pursuing their hobbies or just shopping, Spisska was dead; the few people around seemed sullen, lacking purpose. It's difficult to make generalisations about a country from one small town, but this was so unlike what I'd chanced upon in the Czech Republic (a well-ordered, tidy place) that the idea of the two having ever being together in one state seems odd.

Above: What was this (evidently) state-owned building once used for? The local Higher School of Fashion and Design? Whatever is was, it's now dead. Unless you're looking for a film set to stand in for Chernobyl.

Above: another run-down institution, no doubt dating back to the days of 'Granny Austria'. Below: the bus stop advertises 'Non-Stop Taxi', presumably to get people out of here.

What else? "It's the little differences..." "Example." Traffic signs. Is this a slimline version of Alexei Sayle on his way to a Two-Tone party? Or Elwood Blues heading for the Palace Hotel Ballroom? What's the cultural significance of the pork pie hat?

We returned to Poland, stopping at Lysa nad Dunajcem to eat and do some obligatory shopping. For the equivalent of 12 quid, (50 zlotys) I bought nine half litre bottles of Zlaty Bazant, Slovakia's most famous beer (and excellent it is too - sharper and cleaner tasting than Polish beer), a plate of knedliki and goulash (knedliki are boiled dough balls), a portion of chips, two bags of crisps, four chocolate bars and a half-litre bottle of mineral water. Not bad, eh? But much of the rest has had its day - the old border trade in spirits is alive only because few Poles seem able or willing to do some hard-nosed price comparisons - international spirits brands are much the same price in Warsaw hypermarkets as they are here.


Anonymous said...

Hi there, interesting post. I was born in Spisska Stara Ves and lived there first 10 years of my life. Haven't visited the place for more than 10 years.

Sp St Ves has always been a sleepy small town. It is quite isolated from the rest of the country - no railway, cars/buses/trucks have to get through a mountain pass Spisska Magura, etc. Hence the poverty. Zamagurie region has always been poor and under-developed. If you want to see a different, prosperous town, you'd have to travel further to Kezmarok or even Poprad.

Michael Palin wasn't right - you can't judge Slovakia by what you see in Sp St Ves. Incidentally, Michael Palin stayed in the village of Zdiar if I recall correctly, which is not too far from Sp St Ves.

The "state-owned building" on your picture is an old textile factory. They went bust in 2008. They used to do clothes for Marks & Spencers amongst others.

Please don't be put off by what you saw in Sp St Ves. Go to Slovakia again, visit places like Poprad (Spisska Sobota), Levoca, Kezmarok, Bardejov,... there's much more than Sp St Ves in the country.

Jay, Bristol

Michael Dembinski said...

Jay - we're on our way. This very weekend. Plan this time is to cross the border at Chyżne. Let's hope for some variety!

Thanks for the comment.

Anonymous said...

Oh dear. You'll get to Trstena in Orava region - another under-developed part of the country. Beutiful countryside though. Enjoy your stay.


Katz said...

I remeber having one of the best ice-cream in my life in SSV back in the summer of 1998 when we were travelling across the Polish-Slovakian borderlands as teenagers. Imagine what the place must have looked back then. Anyway, the ice-cream was delicious and cheap as chips.