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Roma ("gypsy") mushroom vendor along the road as we drove in Slovakia.
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Peppers, so fresh and full of flavour, at the market in Levoča
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Architectural gems in Levoča
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More vernacular architecture of Levoča

We headed into Slovakia today, for a few days in that country before returning to Zakopane for the weekend, for the highland festival primarily as well as for more hiking. The border crossing was busy, even though it was only a minor crossing on a small road through the Tatra national park, which straddles both sides of the border. We crawled forward. I got cross at the occasional driver who was ignoring the queues, driving forward in the lane for oncoming traffic. Slowly we made it, bit by bit, to the border and across into Slovakia. At first, not much changed. There was less traffic as many cars peeled off for trails that started on this side of the border. Signs were in a different language, but since we could hardly understand the previous one, it made little difference to us.

We left the Tatra mountains behind. Fantastic views of them remained visible in Eddie’s rearview mirrors for a long time. We headed down into the lower altitudes, through stretches of different forest. Soon we came across Roma, gypsies, by the roadside. Some were selling mushrooms, holding out large specimens for drivers to see. Others were selling berries or something else and holding their wares aloft similarly. We saw small groups of children and teenagers and just by the look of them we knew they would swarm all over the car if we stopped. I asked Ness, who was driving, to turn back so I could take a picture of one of the mushroom men. It took us several goes before I had the picture I wanted. We saw other cars who had stopped and were surrounded the groups of brown-faced kids. It was so reminiscent of the Peruvian in-your-face culture, a complete contrast to Poland where we had not really seen any Roma at all. In Slovakia they are a significant minority. The landscape was now very different too (although I’ll probably fail to capture it!), with vast stretches of grain fields, green fields, slowly undulating in a way which reminded me a little of the Great Karoo in South Africa, but fertile and full of agriculture. Far to the south was another range of hills/mountains. The fields seemed to occupy a very wide high valley in between.

We passed a few nondescript and rather drab Soviet-style towns, collections of apartment blocks and industrial estates, such as Poprad. Hard to believe how such a charmless town, with its large Whirlpool and Tatramat industrial estates sprawled along its outskirts, could be in such a scenic place as this, against a fabulous backdrop of fields and the High Tatras visible beyond. The view reminded me a bit of the view of Calgary and the Rockies beyond, but the Tatras were much nearer. We reached Levoča early in the afternoon. The outskirts were ordinary but within the town lay the walled old town, as if completely isolated from the rest. We entered it through the gate in the town wall which took us into a rather Mediterranean, Italian atmosphere, quiet as if it were a Sunday. We had not made a booking here but passed the decent-looking Barbakan hotel, on a street off the main square, the námestie Majstra Pavla. Ness went in to have a look at the rooms and we decided to stay and checked in, and parked Eddie round the back, squeezing through the narrow entrance. The hotel felt dated, well cared for but “out of step”, reminding us of the Uruguayan hotels. We had a nice big room on the second floor which was rather dark but cosy with it, with lots of dark wood. We settled into our room and I “beccie’d” Ness again.

We went out and found the tourist information office at a corner of the square and got some information about walks, and then went for a bit of a tour around the town centre. First we strolled around the main square. It was not a single open square as such but was occupied by a series of important buildings. At the top of the square there was a small public space, and parking for tour buses, then the new town hall, followed by the church of sv Jakub, then came the old town hall, and beyond that the oddly squat domed Evanjelický kostol, the Lutheran church, which looked rather different. It had a broad flat dome on top of a rather boxy main church. The sides of the rectangular square were lined with old merchant town houses. Some had already had “the treatment” and were restored, replastered, repaired. Others were still “languishing” in their original state, with brickwork in poor repair and exposed by crumbling grey plaster. Works were ongoing in various places. Levoča had clearly been a wealthy place in bygone days, judging by the large houses. We visited the Lutheran church first. Our Rough Guide dismissed it as hardly worth bothering with. The peculiar dome, topped with a large cross and covered in what looked like bronze before it goes green, in its original shiny state, and reminded me of an opening scene in the Dracula film, a shot of a similar dome in the introduction. Inside it was spacious, a single open space, and an ornate dome covered in frescoes. It was definitely worth a look.

We stopped for a drink at one of the few pavement cafés, where the clientele seemed to consist, for once, more of locals than of tourists. After a refreshing beer we went over to the Roman Catholic church, timing it just right for tickets (half-hourly slots to get in). Inside, the more traditional church was covered with religious art, large gilded panels and paintings, and the star attraction was the early sixteenth century wooden altarpiece by Master Pavol of Levoča, topped by “finials and pinnacles” and, at nearly nineteen metres, the tallest of its kind in the world. It was full of figures, with a last supper scene across the bottom, Judas resting his head on Christ’s lap. A guide gave some spiel in Slovak, and for other languages you could put a coin in one of the automats at the back of the church. No pictures, as usual. Near the south-eastern corner of the town hall, across from the church, was a cage of disgrace, a wrought-iron contraption, a pillory for women.

After having “done” the main square we strolled round some of the surrounding streets. Nothing here by way of “sights” but they were all the more interesting for the glimpses of daily life and population. The streets were lined with the same houses as on the square, somewhat smaller, some having been repaired but most were in their original crumbling state. Dark-skinned, dark-haired, rather grubby Roma kids were playing and hanging about. Through some open gates you could get a glimpse of the “gypsy alleys” and courtyards beyond. They looked medieval, with paths of cracked slabs (concrete maybe?), looking dark and dingy, like a different world. When I took a picture of the scene through one of the gates, a little boy ran up and started to hit me on the legs, a proper slap. The streets were very interesting, and no doubt their days are numbered as the houses are bought up and restored. Back to the main square. A festival was in preparation. At the top end stood a large municipal looking building, its front looked allright but the rear was abandoned and run-down. We bought ice creams from a corner shop. I didn’t like mine and childishly handed it back. We returned to the hotel and chilled out in room, and later came down for dinner in the conservatory at the back. A group of German bikers were the only other guests, until later. Dinner wasn’t a gourmet affair and took a long time to arrive, but the mood was relaxed and a little “Fawlty Towers”, just perfect. Nice to be in Slovakia, which already feels like a little discovery. We had an early night, under the very thick heavy quilts which weighed a ton!