15 June 2011

Slovakia's Second City

Košice is the second city of Slovakia, a big sprawl of cement blocks rising in the rust-colored, iron-mining east of the country - on Ukaine’s doorstep and about five hours drive from the Czech border. In our time traveling in Slovakia, we’ve skirted the capital and headed further inward, deciding to leave Bratislava’s charm for another time. Approaching Košice, feeling that industry and communism had perhaps created a cubist wasteland in utter isolation, it seemed that it might have been nice to spend some time in a more cosmopolitan place. Later that night, after eating well and drinking very well, the old town was magical and we felt that the city was an oasis.
There is plenty to see in Košice, and the architecture that has survived at the heart of town is stunning. (By the way, Košice is pronounced “koh-sheets-eh”) Renaissance facades have been mixed with medieval stone buildings along the square, and the Hungarian empire’s stability – along with the town’s provincial location – allowed the buildings to be exceptionally well preserved. The cathedral of Saint Elizabeth is one of the easternmost gothic cathedrals in Europe and one of the grandest for hundreds of miles. Nearby, the older St. Michael’s chapel (dating from the 14th century), is less imposing but perhaps better attended at Sunday mass.
There is a liveliness in Košice that was refreshing. Even on a Sunday afternoon, when most European cities feel desolate, there were locals out and about, sitting at cafes and drinking in side-street bars. There aren’t many tourists, and those that are around seem content to sit at sunny tables and revel in the unhurried energy of the place. It signaled something to us about the changing of the seasons.
Finding restaurants with a more au-courant approach to food is always a joy. Appearing in the wilderness, where they’re least expected, they seem a miracle. The lushness of the dining scene might be sparse compared with more western cities, but there is nowhere nearby, that I know of, where one can find a simple plate of smoked salmon, or pans of paella served with decent Spanish wine. We even had expertly made cocktails – the bartender didn’t blink when I ordered a gin martini (not on the menu). She mixed it deftly and carefully, straining out the last remnants of ice and serving it in a chilled glass. What a pleasure! It’s difficult, actually, to find a better made drink in New York, and I have never seen anyone as adept as she in Europe.
There are certainly a good number of “herna” bars (read: “slot machine joints”) and strip clubs, but there is a thriving bar scene with a more relaxed feel – places where people go for conversation and camaraderie. Walking on the square it was suddenly apparent that summer had showed up. The pace and the light of the later hours had none of the inward looking, shelter seeking aspects of colder times. The common desire was for the outdoors and for calm, neutrally cool air.
As we headed towards home one such evening, we were struck by how exotic a city can feel on a warm night in Europe. A throng of revelers had just been let out of the cathedral after a musical event, and the square was busy with people saying goodbyes and greeting each other in the darkness. The bell towers loomed overhead and the scene seemed very ancient. It isn’t always immediately present in our mind, how old and very European everything is around us, and sometimes we are struck by a wave of awe – almost an emotional response.
As we drove eastward towards Košice - and into territory that was familiar to us from earlier, less sunny times - we expected a return to backwaters and barrenness. The city was a compromise, a destination that seemed both inevitable and necessary for our experience of Slovakia without Bratislava. It turned out that it was, indeed, representative. Instead of bleakness and hardscrabble blocks, though, it was a joy, a place that felt unique and itself.

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