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Story: about our trip with Rich Letrent from USA who visited Slovakia and looked for his ancestors in Slovakia in July 2004. He wrote about the trip:
STOPA-STS Makes the Impossible a Reality
My name is
Rich Letrent. I am a 44-year-old American. I run the Electronic Prepress
Department at a mid-sized commercial printer in Trenton, New Jersey. When
I'm not working, I am traveling or planning my next travel adventure. I've
had the travel bug since I was a kid. My first trip to Europe was circa 1975
when I went with members of my high school Latin class to Italy. Until this
summer, I had traveled to various destinations (and various times) including
France, Mexico, Japan, China, Thailand, England, Ireland, the Netherlands,
Germany and Denmark (not to mention the USA and Canada!).
This summer, I planned a solo adventure to explore my Eastern European heritage. (I am SLOVAK, Irish, Italian, Danish and... as it turns out, Hungarian.) My great grandparents were all born in the Old Countries and immigrated to the USA in the late 1800s/early 1900s. Sadly, we really know nothing about most of my great grandparents, but I did have a few leads. I knew that my great grandfather was born in a village in Slovakia called Livov and that my great grandmother's home was in a Slovak village called Lukov.
After much research, I booked a 10-day package offered by the people who bring you the Eurail Pass. The unescorted package included three nights each in Prague, Vienna and Budapest. I really wanted to visit Livov and Lukov, but it quickly became apparent that this would be a logistical challenge. I knew essentially nothing about Slovakia. In desperation, I ordered a couple of guide books and maps from a firm in Bratislava and got my International Driving Permit. My plan was to rent a car in Budapest and drive many miles to northeastern Slovakia within a very narrow time frame.
Driving hundreds of miles is not really my idea of a leisure activity. I began to reach out to various domestic travel agencies and tourist boards to find an easier way. (I have yet to get a response from mmany of these firms.) The ones who did respond, could not do anything for me. One firm was different... Veronika Austova from STOPA-STS responded to my e-mail in a matter of hours. (STOPA-STS offers multi-day, in-depth tours of Slovakia that can be focused on anything from serious mountain climbing to leisurely sightseeing.)
Over the next few days, STOPA-STS put together a custom plan that would introduce me to Slovakia and allow me to walk in my ancestors' footsteps in the tight timeframe I had available. Apparently, they even traveled to Livov and Lukov and spoke with the Village Councils about the possibility of meeting any of my relatives who might still live there!
Prague was glorious. Vienna was incredible. Before I knew it, I was having dinner along the Danube in Budapest. The next morning, Martin Koska, of STOPA-STS, arrived at my hotel in Budapest at the appointed hour. After a quick introduction (and disarming handshake) we set off towards Slovakia in a very comfortable automobile. We crossed into Slovakia at Sahy. We traveled through Zvolen and Banska Bystrica. The landscape became more impressive with each passing mile (castles, forests, mountains). Mr. Koska turned out to be an intelligent, educated, well-mannered, good-natured young man who is proud to be Slovak. All the while, he shared his vast knowledge and insights of Slovakia in perfect English. We discussed everything from geology (one of my interests) to forestry (one of his interests).
After a few hours, we stopped in the Low Tatras at a mineral spring to stretch our legs. The natural beauty and tranquility of the place was a nice change from the crowds in the European capitals. I asked Martin why his company was called STOPA. It turns out, Stopa, which means to step (as in hike), is his nickname. He grew up in the shadow of the High Tatras and began hiking in the mountains at an early age.
Having sampled the water, we continued on to a small restaurant in the mountains. The only thing better than the view was lunch which was a steaming plate of incredible cheese and potato pirogues (??) covered with sour cream and bacon (Martin's suggestion for a traditional dish)... My mouth is watering as I write!
We continued on to the High Tatras, passing through Martin's hometown of Svit. I was not prepared for the scenic grandeur of the High Tatras. An incredible alpine panorama seemed to appear out of nowhere. Mother Nature was cooperating and only a few of the highest peaks were masked by clouds. I now knew why STOPA-STS wanted to include this area in my itinerary. Words cannot adequately convey the majesty of this place!
At mid afternoon, we stopped in the town of Poprad where I checked into the Fantazia guest house. My accommodations were wonderful. The room was really a spacious private suite with windows overlooking the village and mountains. I had not seen a bathroom this nice since I left the States! Martin returned within the hour and we set off on what was billed as a "small hiking trip." I had no idea what to expect and, to be honest, was a bit apprehensive about this portion of my adventure.
We drove into the foothills, passing by a number of beautiful resorts and hamlets. We parked the car at the trailhead and set off on foot to a mountain lake (Popradske Pleso). The trail was clean and well-marked. We passed a few other hikers, but pretty much had the place to ourselves. As we climbed, Martin pointed out various facts about what I was seeing in the forest and gave me an interesting lesson in botany. After about an hour, the trees thinned and we found ourselves on the side of a valley, surrounded by majestic peaks. This was incredible! This has to be the most beautiful spot on Earth. I had to make a point of watching where I was walking because the scenery was so distracting.
The trail descended to cross a pristine stream. The rushing water was icy, but the easily-visible trout did not seem to mind. The air is so clean here, that people with respiratory ailments travel to the High Tatras to convalesce. We continued up over a short rise and reached the shores of an alpine lake. We had dinner at a rustic lodge next to the lake. I chose a chicken and mushroom dish with potatoes (mushrooms are among my favorite things and had been mentioned several times during the day as to growing in fields and being sold roadside by Gypsies). This was washed down with a couple of the most enjoyable beers I've ever had (Staropramen).
The light began to fade and it was time to walk back down out of the mountains. It rained for a while, making the stones and roots a bit slippery. I really had to pay attention to where I was stepping, but I did manage to take in the spectacular vistas as well. By following Martin's sure-footed lead, we were safely (and sadly) back at the car in about 90 minutes.
After one of the best night's sleep I've ever had, I awoke to a perfect day and really began thinking about my Slovak heritage and wishing I did not have to fly back to New York the next day. The high peaks were shrouded in clouds, but the sun was shining in Poprad. The innkeeper, a cheerful young woman, had a huge breakfast laid out for me. My table was covered meats, cheeses, coffee AND tea, breads, rolls, yogurt, cereals and sausages. I may not have been the only guest, but the level of service suggested that I may as well have been. What a great place!
Martin arrived at the agreed upon time (having spent the night visiting his parents) and we set off on foot into the Centrum (pedestrian area in the center of town) for some sightseeing and shopping. I told him that I had to buy some souvenirs for my family back in the States. He showed me where I could get the best exchange rate for my American dollars. We wandered through the Centrum with its picturesque buildings and friendly inhabitants. Not many stores were open yet, so we headed back to the car and set out for Livov and Lukov in the Bardejov region.
Enroute, we stopped in Kezmarok, an historic village known for its native crafts. I finally found the perfect gifts (with a little help from Martin). On the road again, we passed by castles and manor houses as the High Tatras receded in the rear window. The green, rolling, hills were filled with traditional farms and postcard-like villages. We passed gypsies selling mushrooms and blueberries. We saw the Polish border crossing. We were getting close and I started to get nervous. What would the villages be like?
This is why I traveled thousands of miles to Slovakia. I had a few ideas as to what nineteenth century Slovakia may have been like, but what about the twenty-first century reality? The winds of time had sent many a change to Slovakia. One of my aunts had visited here during the Cold War. She brought back a home movie showing a couple of tiny villages filled with picturesque traditional log houses with chickens wandering the streets. Noticeably absent from the film were the inhabitants of the villages. Aside from some sterile maps and statistics, my research had turned up only the fact that Lukov contained one of the wooden churches that this part of the world is known for. I had come across virtually nothing about Livov. I was trying to come to grips with my Slovak heritage and was having a hard time doing it.
We left the main road and headed through lush green meadows on a well maintained smaller road, bordered by a rushing stream. We saw men and women working in the fields with wooden tools. We must have seen six or seven amazing scarecrows. The gentle hills crept in on either side and we found ourselves in a small valley. Directly ahead was a sign indicating that we were about to enter Lukov. My great grandmother's home had been here. The small village was a mixture of traditional and twentieth century architectural styles. There was a stork nest with a pair of the monogamous birds in place. The tiny wooden church hid behind a larger gothic/baroque church in a dark grove of trees. The excesses of capitalism had not reached this place, but poverty seemed absent as well. Lukov was alive with people (and chickens).
Passing through a group of smiling gypsy children near the school, we parked in front of the village hall. We were greeted by an official-looking matron. She and Martin spoke for a few minutes with an occasional glance in my direction. My great grandmother Olga had lived here and... she was probably of Hungarian descent! (I would have to pay more attention to Budapest.) Unfortunately, none of the family remain in Lukov today. We said good-bye and continued to the other end of town.
We stopped again at a Communist era monument to the people of Lukov who lost their lives during WWII. Nearby was a bus stop, an ancient-looking speaker -- part of an old public address system -- and a small store. Martin pointed out that a surprising number of buses stopped here -- indicating a healthy local economy. The store was not officially open for business yet, but the smiling, rosy cheeked, shopkeeper let us in. Martin bought a snack and explained why we were here. The woman said that an American lady had been here just last week looking for her family, but had found they were gone as well.
Leaving Lukov, we continued up into the valley. The road narrowed and the forest drew closer. More scarecrows in tiny fields. There were logging trails into the surrounding hills. The forest receded and we rounded a bend into Livov. The tiny village was possibly even more picturesque. Well-maintained, small, traditional homes were surrounded by gardens. There were wooden fences and small barns. My great grandfather had been born here. It could not have looked much different in his time. Veronika had learned that none of my family remain in the village. (I must get my wanderlust from this side of the family!)
On the way back down, we stopped for a couple of photo opportunities. It was now early afternoon and Budapest was hundreds of miles away. The plan was to retrace our route to Zvolen where Veronika would relieve Martin behind the wheel... the poor guy had been driving for nearly two full days. It started to rain. We encountered a car laying on its side in a ditch. Martin stopped and offered to help. The trapped occupants signaled that they were fine and had already summoned assistance by pointing to a cell phone. The rescue team arrived a few moments later. Wow.
We had lunch somewhere in the Spis region. I had a dish of spicy chicken heaped between two big crispy potato pancakes... incredible. The restaurant was in an ancient barrel-vaulted building. Martin said the place reminded him of a bomb shelter. Prior to the Velvet Revolution, school children were regularly drilled in nuclear preparedness (complete with gas masks and smoke bombs). As a child, he had been taught Russian and Slovak in school. Since 1989, English and German have replaced Russian in the curriculum.
The conversation remained focused on twentieth century history as we drove through the afternoon. The weather improved as we once again approached Svit and the mountains were revealed. We stopped and scrambled up over a railroad track into a huge open field to take in the view. The peaks of the High Tatras loomed to the north while the immense bulk of the Low Tatras filled the southeastern horizon. I took a lot of photos.
We stopped again at the mineral spring. The water felt and tasted great. We met the beautiful Veronika in Zvolen. She greeted us with hugs and a box of chocolates. I had looked forward to this meeting since our early e-mails. I filled Veronika in on my experience while Martin relaxed in the back seat and the sun settled to the west.
As promised, I was back at my hotel in Budapest by 8:00 PM. I would begin my 12-hour journey back to New Jersey the next morning. Veronika and Martin insisted that I send them an e-mail the moment I got home safely. They are really nice people.
I am still sorting out what all of this means to me. It was an amazing 36 hours. As travelogues go, I realize that this is a bit long-winded and over-the-top, but I did really have an impressive adventure. I have to thank my friends Veronika and Martin for making it all possible and sharing Slovakia with me. I am already planning my next vacation with STOPA-STS!
I wish you all happy travels.
Rich Letrent July 2004