Slovakia’s east (východoslovenský kraj) has one foot in the past. Protected from the west by the Tatras, traditional dialects and folk customs thrive, and the land is bleaker and grander than the west. Stretching northeast up the Poprad Valley to the Polish border, and east along the River Hornád towards Prešov, is the Spiš region, for centuries a semi-autonomous province in the Hungarian kingdom.
KOŠICE was once a vital commercial crossroad for the Hungarian Empire, and today the pleasing centre forms a kilometre-long promenade, lined with historical buildings, churches, cafés and restaurants. Warm days see residents emerging in packs to enjoy the sun and listen to the musical fountain located in the park next to the State Theatre. A lively university town, Košice was named the European Capital of Culture for 2013, leading to a number of new and improved attractions. If Kraków or Budapest are in your travel plans, the city makes a great mid-way stopping point for a couple of days.
Košice’s action is pretty much centred on its main street, Hlavná, which is lined with parks interspersed with some historical sites. Wandering the side streets provides some interesting sightseeing; this is also where you’ll find various places to stay.
Some of the city’s festival highlights include Košice City Day (the first week in May), followed by the City Festival at the end of the month, both offering a variety of middle-aged entertainment including crafts, historic parades, knight fighting and more such merriment. There’s a birthday party for Andy Warhol at the beginning of August and the Košice Wine Festival in mid-September. The oldest marathon in Europe, the Košice Peace Marathon, is run on the first Sunday in October.
Reconstruction of Hlavná street in the mid-1990s uncovered the original gateway to the city and parts of the original fortifications. Lower Gate (Dolná brána) has been turned into an underground museum of sorts in which you can see these ancient constructions.
The symbol of the city’s patron, St Elizabeth’s Cathedral (Dóm svätej Alžbety) is the country’s largest place of worship. It houses an intriguing rare Gothic double spiral staircase and a sundial dating from 1477. The cast-iron altar, reportedly the only one in Europe, is said to have been crafted from weapons used in World War I. For a view of the town and out to the hills, climb the 60m-high northern tower.
Smaller, and more charming, St Michael’s Chapel (Kaplnka Sv. Michala) sits next to St Elizabeth’s and was originally surrounded by the city’s cemetery, which has now been turned into an attractive park.
Famed local sculptor Vojtech Löffler donated a significant body of work to the city, leading Košice to open this museum at Alžbetina 20, dedicated to him and his work. In addition to his sculptures and painted portraits of local personalities, the museum also gives space to contemporary artists.
Pop artist Andy Warhol has Slovak roots; his parents immigrated to the US in the early 1900s. Born Andrej Varhola Jr, the artist has been commemorated in the town of Medzilaborce (120km north of Košice) with the Andy Warhol Museum of Modern Art, which displays his works of art and artefacts from his childhood and life. There’s one direct bus and one direct train to Medzilaborce daily, each taking about 2hr 30min. Or you can arrange a tour at the tourist office in Košice, which includes a visit to Warhol’s parents’ village.
What inspired the great Hungarian writer Kálmán Mikszáth to make LEVOČA the star of his 1910 revenge saga The Black Town is a mystery. The medieval town is as neat and respectable as a privet hedge, and if there are any passions seething they’re well buried. The town’s main attraction is the wonderful religious art at the Church of St James, but it’s also a good base for visiting Spiš castle, and a gateway to beautiful Slovak Paradise National Park.
Levoča is a grid-plan town. The main streets run from Námestie Majstra Pavla (the main square) to the city walls, becoming darker and shabbier as they go. Churches, hotels and museums congregate in the main square, with the cheaper pensions, hostels and pubs scattered near the town walls. From the north side of Námestie Majstra Pavla you can see the graceful white church at Mariánska hora (Mary’s Mountain), a Catholic pilgrimage.
The splendid Church of St James (Chrám sv Jakuba) soars above the north side of the main square. It houses a magnificent 5.5m-high wooden altarpiece containing the Last Supper, and a baby-faced Madonna, both the work of sixteenth-century master-carver Pavol of Levoča. The church can only be entered with a guide, and tours are conducted on the hour. The ticket office is opposite the main entrance. A small and uninspiring museum, dedicated to Master Pavol, stands opposite the church and exhibits replicas of the art in the church.
An endless mass of ramshackle bone-white walls, roads and broken towers, Spiš Castle (Spišský hrad; spisskyhrad.com) is a monumental twelfth-century fortress built over a much older castle. It’s a bleak, dreamlike place, so isolated that the only sounds are birds and crickets. Inside are exhibits giving a clear picture of medieval life (short and dirty), audioguides and a tower to climb. To get here you need to catch a bus from Levoča to Spišské Podhradie, then it’s about an hour’s walk to the castle.
Between St James and the squat, Neoclassical Lutheran church (Evanjelický kostol) is a wrought-iron contraption called the Cage of Shame (klietka hanby), built in a flourish of sixteenth-century misogyny: women caught on the streets after dark were imprisoned here overnight in their petticoats, heads shorn, as an example to other females. The third building on the square is the old Town Hall. The Spiš Museum(snm.sk) exhibits paintings and icons.