DoubleTree by Hilton is set to debut in Slovakia’s capital city, Bratislava, this April. The hotel will be part of a new sport complex and tennis arena, a short drive from the historic city centre. The hotel will offer 120 comfortable guest rooms in three categories: Guest rooms, Deluxe rooms and One Bedroom Suites. Each room will feature king or twin Sweet Dreams by Doubletree Sleep Experience beds, MP3 alarm clock, LCD satellite televisions, wifi and walk-in shower or bath. The hotel will boast an indoor heated swimming pool, saunas (dry and steam) and a fitness centre.
I’ve written about similar trips before so was excited to hear that the UK’s leading trekking holidays company, Walks Worldwide, is now working closely with conservation group, Projekt Medved, and has created a unique trip called ‘Walking with Bears’ in the High Tatras mountains of Slovakia.
The High Tatras are the highest mountains in the Carpathian Arc which stretch from Romania to the Czech Republic. The range is small in area but they are very steep and provide the only High Alpine environment in Europe north of the Alps. There are a number of well-marked tourist trails but the highlight of this new trip are the days spent off the trail, following animal tracks and ancient smuggling paths in the company of guides who know the region and wildlife inside out.
This trekking holiday with a big difference, provides the chance to walk not only in a spectacular mountain area populated by bears, but with the intention of seeking the mighty beasts on foot! The tour actually begins in Poland and initially follows recognised way-marked trails across the High Tatras, descending into Slovakia. On reaching the Ticha, the group will be joined by a Park Ranger who will take the group ‘off piste’ and walk among the mountains and valleys in an area where tourists are normally forbidden. This unique opportunity is restricted to a maximum group size of eight people in order to minimise disturbance. Walking is graded as demanding, hiking at altitude in mountainous terrain for up to 9 hours per day.
The one-off trip departs on Sunday 14 August and costs from £985 pp (land only). This includes ground transportation, 7 nights’ accommodation, most meals and the services of and expert walking and wildlife guide. Call 0845 301 4737 or visit www.walksworldwide.com
The babičkas of 16th century Moravia were wise old women who were revered by their communities for having mystical healing powers and practising the art of witchcraft. It was the babičkas who freely used the essence thujone which is extracted from wormwood, an aromatic plant of the Old World, in their potions and charms for its reputation of enhancing well-being, sensuality, creativity and love, not to mention its mildly hallucinatory effects. This history has laid the foundations for the new Babička vodka, the first ever wormwood vodka. A green thujone-ometer is on every Babicka bottle to mark the amount of this wormwood extract that has been infused with the highest quality vodka, giving Babička its unique taste. Plus, the vodka is packaged in a contemporary interpreation of the medicine bottles of old – so it really embraces its cultural heritage.
Babička is available from Harvey Nichols priced at £35.
Tomorrow the Hlavné námestie square and the Františkánske námestie square in Bratislava will become a hub of activity with the splendid atmosphere of Christmas. The most beautiful part of the town is full of savour of various delicacies and Christmas carols can be heard. Here it is possible to purchase wonderful gifts such as handicraft products, ceramics, wood, glass, cornhusk and textile products of the counters of the lovely stalls in the square as well as in the courtyard of the Old Town Hall.
Visitors can enjoy Christmas dished and drinks corresponding to the traditional national gastronomy, mainly cabbage soup and dishes of fish and meat barbecued directly in the front of them. There is also an abundance of sweets for sale such as wafers, lokše (baked potato pancakes), honey cakes, plus a tasty hot toddy of punch or Christmas mead. Then, just before Christmas vats with live carp and Christmas trees appear for sale!
To get into the Christmas spirit visit Bratislava this December for some festive cheer!
On the 13th and 14th of November wine enthusiasts are invited to meet wine-makers and their vintages, the lanes of tiny hillside wine-cellars, and the local cooking and music of Slovácko, on the Czech-Slovak border.
Slovácko is home to the Chřiby and the White Carpathians. The Morava river meanders through and nourishes a wide valley full of green meadows and enchanting Lužní forests between the mountains. There are delightful chateaux of Milotice , Buchlovice and Bojkovice and steardy fortifications of Buchlov and Malenovice Castles. Alongside all this history there are numerous vineyards and picturesque paths to wine cellars in Petrov, Vlčnov and Mařatice, where you will find industrious vintners.
February half-term is a great time for a snow trip, with cross-country skiing, dog sledding and snowshoeing all available on trips organised by The Adventure Company. Bulgaria and Slovakia, both alpine destinations with thick blankets of snow guaranteed are perfect winter playgrounds.
The following trips still have availability for February 2010 but, as with all school holidays, families are advised to book early for the best deals on flights.
Bulgarian Winter Experience, 13 – 20 February 2010
An action packed centre-based week surrounded by Bulgaria’s Rhodope Mountains. Staying in the village of Chepelare, which boasts the longest ski run in the country, holidaymakers will have the opportunity to test it out with some downhill and cross-country skiing. A snowshoeing expedition through the forest in search of deer, foxes and wild boar is just one of the highlights of the trip.
The trip costs from £869 for adults and from £789 for children. These prices include flights, accommodation, transport, activities on the itinerary and some meals (seven breakfasts, one lunch and two dinners).
Teenage Slovakian Snow Adventure, 14 – 21 February 2010
Slovakia is one of Europe’s most mountainous countries and the Tatras Mountains provide the ideal location for a centre-based activity week. Learning how to dog sled and handling a team of between two and six dogs is an exciting part of the trip. Travellers will learn how to mush their team and navigate the snow-covered tracks. Also included in the itinerary are skiing and snowboarding, snowshoeing, swimming in thermal pools and dinner with a Slovak family.
The trip costs £899 per person. These prices include flights, accommodations, transport, activities on the itinerary and some meals (seven breakfasts and two lunches).
For information about these and other trips organised by The Adventure Company visit www.adventurecompany.co.uk or call 0845 609 0890.
Slovakia kicked off its ski season this weekend with the opening of the Strbské Pleso resort in the High Tatras. The resort has a new six seater chairlift that can carry 1200 people per hour and, thanks to its high altitude (1840m) and excellent snow making, is relatively snow-sure from December to April. In addition to the new chairlift it features another two chairlifts and three cableways. The total length of Strbské Pleso’s down hill runs is over seven km and there is also extensive ski-touring and night-skiing as well as good free riding for snowboarders.
Mountain Paradise offers a week’s skiing in Strbské Pleso for just £499 per person between January and March 2010 (excluding half-term) and a three-night weekend break for only £375 per person. While New Year ski breaks departing on 27th December are available from just £699 per person.
Packages include: return flights from London Luton to Poprad (just a two-hour flight), airport transfers to the resort (only 15 minutes), seven- or three-nights accommodation on a bed and breakfast basis in Pension Fortuna, Pension Plesnivec, Pension Sabato or Pension Slalom and a six- or two-day ski pass.
It’s very humbling to realise how you could so easily have never been born, how random it is that you were born. I am half Slovak and half English, born in Canada in 1963 at a time when Slovaks remained behind the Iron Curtain. Consequently, it is a miracle that my father, Jan Sisolak, while not a notable war hero but indeed a villager who like many others made a contribution to Slovak history, survived a period of repression and terror.
My grandmother, Jan’s mother, was Helena Sisolakova nee Winko, who married Imrich Sisolak of Zavod in Slovakia around 1920. Helena was one of about 9 children. At the turn of the 20th Century her parents decided to emigrate to America. They agreed to leave behind their youngest child Helena for the grandparents to raise and care for (a very common practise among emigrating families throughout Europe).
Helena lived in the village of Zavod where nearly everyone, or so it seems, is named Sisolak. Helena’s eldest brother was one Vendolin Winko and they were able to maintain a close relationship by post. This was no mean feat considering the events of history during their lifetimes. After all, around the time of their weddings the First World War Versailles treaty of 1918 was signed; the regions of Slovakia and the Czech Republic were united as Czechoslovakia; while the population of villages throughout Slovakia were devastated by the effects of World War I and the flu pandemic of 1919.
Helena married Imrich Sisolak, a local business man and in 1924 she gave birth to Jan. He lived in the village with many cousins and other relatives. Jan was encouraged by his father to take exams in business. When Jan was 14 in 1938 Slovakia declared its autonomy within the federal state. On the 15th March 1939 Hitler invaded a non-German country for the first time and Britain realised that his desire was not for unity of the German people but instead for world domination. During this time the Hlinka Guard, a militia force maintained by the Slovak People’s Party until 1945 and named after Andrej Hlinka, drew recruits from all walks of life.
In 1939, neighbouring country Poland was invaded by Germany. By 1942 Jews in Slovakia were taken by train to Auschwitz, the organisation of which fell to the Hlinka Guard. In many respects the situation in Slovakia during World War II was much the same of Vichy France; while the government collaborated with the Nazis the will of the general populace was vastly opposed to Nazism.
In 1944 Jan and his brother, Martin, answered the call to arms of the Slovak resistance known as the Slovak National Uprising. It amazes me that in present time of email and internet how a country in the midst of war could organise and galvanise such patriotism, action and courage. Nevertheless, the resistance movement was successfully orchestrated from Banská Bystrica to oust the government.
Unfortunately, Martin was killed in 1944 in a village called Trubin alongside five other men all aged just 19 years. To this day his grave and indeed the village cemetery is tended to by villagers and who on All Souls’ Day adorn the graves with flowers and candles.
The exact history of Jan’s service is unknown but it is known he spent much of his time in the forests. He regularly recalled eating lamb, cooked quickly on a fire at the bottom of the forest so that the enemy did not notice the fire. This was particularly unusual as lamb was and is not a meat traditionally eaten by Slovaks. Nevertheless, despite the awful texture of the meat, it provided vital sustenance for the resistance movement.
Unfortunately, despite the valiant efforts of the resistance movement, Germans were victorious; although the Partisans remained active until the Soviets liberated Slovakia in 1945. Post war Slovakia was grim under Russian occupation. Those who had acted as Partisans were at continual risk of enduring lengthy prison sentences, torture and worse. The Communist and pro-Russian government wanted to quash Slovak spirit and those who had or continued to collaborate with capitalists.
Dark Blue World, a Czech film starring Tara Fitzgerald and Charles Dance does a good job of illustrating this era. The film portrays two pilots who escape Czechoslovakia in 1939 and retrain in England to fight during World War II.
It was in this same era that Jan could no longer cope with the economic, political or social situation in Slovakia. In August 1951, aged 26, he slipped a note under his nephew’s pram cushion stating that he had to leave. Jan left with a friend in the dead of night with their clothes wrapped around a tyre. They crossed the Morava River at a narrow but well policed point into Austria successfully evading Russian Soldiers patrolling the border. From there they made their way to Salzberg to the Refugee Council.
The friends had a choice between Canada and England. It was due to the assisted passage programme, operating between England, America and Canada, that Jan met his English wife (my mother) and they married in 1962. Although his mother- and father-in-law never met Jan they took a coach trip in the 1960s to Czechoslovakia and insisted the guide take them to Zavod to meet Jan’s family. It is important to bear in mind that during this decade, the Soviet Union were willing to use severe coercion to maintain control of the area and thus on 20 August 1968 Czechoslovakia was invaded and its so-called Prague Spring of liberalisation was crushed. Despite this and somewhat remarkably, the guide was persuaded and at great personal risk, the English couple met Jan’s family. During the trip they learned that Imrich, Jan’s father, was regularly imprisioned for his Catholic tendencies.
Jan and his wife separated in 1970 and I came to live in England. Finally, in 1991, Jan and I were reunited in Canada shortly before he died. I learned that during his lifetime he never wore the colour red as a personal stand against Communism.
The federation dissolved peacefully in 1993 in a so-called velvet divorce. By 2001 I desired to meet my family and flew to Prague and took a train to Bratislava. I was almost too scared to get off and when I met the family at the station I looked into their eyes, finally reinforcing my inkling that I truly belonged as part of their family and as part of Slovakian history.
Thanks to the merit of the internet, just last year, Vendelin Winkos’ great grandson, who lives in the United States of America, tracked me down and sent me a photograph of Helena and Imrich Sisolakovci on their wedding day.
When in 2004 Slovakia joined the EU and NATO non-residents were finally allowed to legally own land and property in villages. I now own cottages built in 1875 which I run as a holiday business encouraging tourists from all over the world to discover this gem of a country. With a population of only five million people and an incredible 40% of land covered in forest, the country is beautiful with a rich culture and history.
Robert Fico visted UCL this week to give a lecture on Slovakia in the 21st Century. He spoke about Communism, the 1989 wind of change and British and Slovak international relations. The highlights of the speech can be viewed below, as can the short question and answer section.
Dan, the son of a diplomat, was born into an affluent Czechoslovak family in 1922. The early years of his life were filled with extraordinary events including meeting Stalin and sitting on his knee, and watching the Germans test jet engine prototypes prior to World War II. However, both of these incidents are eclipsed by his remarkable and desperate escape from Communism.
Having obtained an engineering degree and wishing to embark on a career in the international oil industry, Dan earnestly sought a means of escape from Communism. He considered trekking over mountains and swimming across rivers in order to avoid frontier controls. However, ultimately, he decided on hijacking an aeroplane. On the 6th of April, 1948, Dan, the leader of seventeen determined Czechs (three members of the crew, including the pilot, and fourteen passengers) seized a commercial aeroplane at gunpoint and flew it to the United States-controlled zone of Germany. The Czechoslovak National Airlines aeroplane was flying from Prague to Bratislava when the hijackers tried to divert the aeroplane to London but, ultimately, landed in Munich. Despite being given a chance to escape the poor living conditions and oppression within Eastern Europe at that time, only three other passengers grasped the opportunity to flee Czechoslovakia.
Unfortunately, the plot to hijack the Czechoslovak National Airlines aeroplane had dire consequences for Jan Masaryk, the son of Tomas Masaryk, the founder and first President of Czechoslovakia and founder of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies. Jan Masaryk held the position of Foreign Minister for Czechoslovakia between 1940 and 1948. He was supposed to join the hijackers but had died, falling out of a window, on the 10th March, 1948 at his Czernin Palace apartment.