Of all the destinations I’ve seen in Europe, no country has wedded human-made and natural beauty with such success as little Slovakia. There are few places in the world where a vacation among cities can also pass as an outdoor spectacle, but one of these can be found nestled within the back roads that wind through the verdant Carpathian Mountains in which Slovakia is situated. The land has unknowingly been tailored to become a romantic getaway for the 21st century traveler; its history as a violently-contested territory, vied for by a disparate amount of groups—southern Hungarians, local Slovaks, cold Poles to the north, and brazen Tatar hordes to the east—has birthed impossibly-majestic castles that loom over lazy hamlets of medieval charm. The timelessness of the area still ticks on, thanks to the isolation ensured by the rugged terrain, and one is comfortably shielded from the stresses of the outside world by the looming mountains and incandescent fields of yellow rapeseed.
Prievidza: Getting There
As could be guessed, getting to this backcountry wonderland from the capital of Bratislava takes a bit of determination and planning, so waking up with the worst hangover-induced headsplitter of your life is really going to limit your progress eastward. On Thursday morning, I came to with a start on my hostel bed, in my clothes, and immediately knew I had missed the bus to Prievidza, the cute castle town where I was supposed to be headed for the day. Grasping my temple, in which my brain was hard at work grinding its halves together down the Corpus Callosum, I got all of my crap together and made for the reception to check out and get new bus and trains times to Prievidza. Not only had I missed my best transport option, but the schedule disruption was likely to throw off my Couchsurfing host Eva, who was to meet me at the bus station in Prievidza round noon.
Waiting in the rain for the bus to the train station felt like dying from poisoning, and along with this I was all but sure I would miss the last morning train to Prievidza and thereby screw everything up royally. It’s hard to have any wiggle room when you are trying to see an entire country in 4-and-a-half days. Thus, I bolted out of the bus when it hit the station and got a ticket to some goodness-forsaken town that had a connection to Prievidza, and jumped on the train with naught but seconds to spare before the conductors hopped on.
The ride was a messy one for me, purely in the mental sense, as I couldn’t sleep on my awkwardly-composed backpack and had no water to sake my post-binge thirst. When the trolley man unexpectedly came by with overpriced water I was clawing my way through my bag for Euros before I knew what was happening. The drink helped immensely, but a new problem presented itself when the train dropped me off at the nondescript destination where I had my connection (Its name lost to the pages of history/Google search). I was minutes away from missing my connection, as the bus terminal was miles from the railway station, but the station’s sympathetic railmaster drove me to the terminal just in time. You can always count on finding good hearts on the road.
A few liters of life-giving water and a bus ride later, I was in Prievidza, and waited at the station for an hour-and-a-half until a girl with black hair—my host Eva—showed up searching for no one in particular. I’m currently armed with a high-powered beard and a pair of Indigo spectacles, which makes me look like a total stranger compared to my profile on Couchsurfing, so I approached her and introduced myself by apologizing for the wait. She was totally chilled out and didn’t mind a bit about it, and we got on to friendly conversation quite readily.
Prievidza and Bojnice:
Eva was a great host to have. We spent the rest of the day just relaxing at her apartment, where she lives with her brother and mother, and talked about a hundred different subjects (e.g. Slovak culture, medical expenses, university, funny sounds in Arabic) until the sun went down. She made some really good cheesy chicken for dinner, which didn’t seem to be traditionally Slovak or anything but it hit my cramped-up stomach just right. Furthermore her two cats were a delight and I could feel the pet-deprived neurotransmitters in my noggin going crazy when I got to pet them and hear them purr. I treat everybody’s pet like my own, now that I haven’t got one!
The next day was castle time. Located nearby as the one saving grace of Prievidza, magnificent Bojnice Castle is home to the annual Festival of Ghosts and Spirits, an entertaining string of supernaturally-themed events that fuses just enough kitsch and artfulness to be a good time for local visitors. So what happens at a ghost festival? Well, special tours headed by a ‘parapsychologist’ are conducted through the uniquely-contrived hallways and chambers of the romanticism-inspired castle, which happens to be inhabited by mischievous ghosts that can argue, tell jokes, swordfight, sing, and dance. The local youth have a great time with it all as they constitute the white face-painted labor force tasked with populating the place. Eva recognized one of her high school classmates as a severed head which had a comic tussle with a murderous Mongol.
Along the way, there was the Addams family, vain ghost girls screaming about developing wrinkles, a flamboyant vampire that looked like a blond Liberace, undead burlesque dancers, and hilarious paper hydras suspended on poles by unenthused boys hiding under a low-lit railing. The finale of the event occurred when all the supernatural hosts had a ball in the castle’s main hall and, immediately after showing up, I was led away by a smokin’ hot lady-specter to join the fun. Well, I danced with her for about a minute, during which time I tickled the crowd with my best worst dance moves, including the unstoppable Back Bender (Back to back, you raise the gal up), and then I fled back to Eva’s side in the darkness (I seem to be a target for this kind of shenanigans, and something similar went down when I was hoisted up onto a fashion show runway in Turkey last year. Of course, I didn’t let the spectators down then either).
The tour ended when our parasychologist guide fell in love with a cowled ghost man who gave her a flower. Uh…right.
Despite this, and despite the entire thing having happened in the Slovak language, I really enjoyed it all and would recommend it to all possible visitors in the future. Just be sure to bring along a little Slovak girl to translate everything for you if need be!
Prievidza: Getting Away
Eva and I were waylaid by a Spanish man and his Slovak girlfriend on the way out of the castle for a picture, and I got the opportunity to show off my dreadful Spanish for fifteen minutes of strained talking, but it did the trick and we had a nice conversation about the Camino de Santiago and castles. I can’t say much in Spanish, but I can definitely make my love of ancient fortifications clear as day (OYE CHICO, ME GUSTAN LOS CASTILLOS MUCHOOOOO).
After getting some marginal Slovakian ice cream in cones that were disgustingly soft, we got back to Eva’s flat and then realized that the last bus to Levoca—my next town—was leaving in minutes. For the second time on my trip, I had to run my ass to a bus station, this time with Eva panting next to me, and I thanked my lucky stars for getting there about 30 seconds before departure. With one sweaty hug and excited goodbye delivered to Eva, I got on the bus and had another wonderful evening of confusing connections and waiting at bus/train stations. Still, any opportunity to listen to a random album like Electric Light Orchestra’s Greatest Hits to discover two awesome songs should be valued.
Coming Up Next: Final days in Slovakia in magical Levoca and Bardejov