This week’s dream: Soaking in Slovakia’s medieval charm
Slovakia gets scant coverage in most travel volumes, but “maybe it’s time those guidebooks got an overhaul,” said Erica Rosenberg in The Washington Post. Few Americans visit this former Soviet satellite, despite its rich culture, great food, beautiful national parks, and perfectly preserved medieval towns—all of which can be experienced at little cost and with no tourist crowds. To be honest, when my husband and I arrived in Kosice, Slovakia’s secondlargest city after Bratislava, I felt dismayed by all the drab Communist-era apartment buildings and the dowdy pension house that awaited us. Right around the corner, though, sat the “lovely and lively” town center, anchored by a stunning Gothic cathedral and packed with bustling shops, cafés, and restaurants serving dumplings doused with a sour cream–and-mushroom sauce.
While Kosice exceeded modest expectations, Levoca proved to be “a small-scale medieval marvel by any standard.” Founded in 1249, this walled town of 14,500 can be a great base for exploring castles and nearby national parks. Spis Castle, the largest fortress complex in Central Europe, is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and its 12th-century main structure overlooks “multihued fields,” red-roofed villages, and “rolling hills with a backdrop of snowy mountain ranges.” You could spend hours taking in the views and exploring the grounds. At Slovak Paradise National Park, we spent another day hiking the popular Sucha Bela trail, which climbs a gorge cut by a stream and its waterfalls. After hours of hoisting myself upward on chain holds and climbing 90-foot ladders just inches from falling water, I was delighted to find rentable mountain bikes awaiting us for the trip down the canyon’s back side.
“The best was yet to come.” Farther west, Banska Stiavnica is a centuries-old village whose charms, culture, and food “rival those of any Italian hill town.” Set in a mountain valley, Banska Stiavnica is bookended by two castles, both with panoramic views. We skipped the mining museums, but enjoyed a Bach concert played on the organ at a 15th-century church. One day the town square was taken over by a medieval festival— complete with blacksmiths, armored knights, and stilt walkers. At Levoca’s Hotel U Leva (uleva.sk/en), doubles start at $60 in season.