The country’s Ambassador Lubomir Rehak recounts a trip he hosted for diplomatic friends and family
In May, a group of London-based Ambassadors and friends joined my wife and I on a trip we organised to Slovakia. We were keen to show our friends and colleagues the real Slovakia, because the Iron Curtain caused decades of physical and mental separation, warping the overall perception of our country. The reality almost always surprises those who visit Central Europe for the first time. Our guests were more than curious to discover what Slovakia can offer.
After a two-hour flight from Luton airport to Poprad-Tatry, the group arrived in the Spiš region in northern Slovakia, hidden between the mountainous High and Low Tatras. The Tatras are a well-known destination for climbing, trekking, walking or swimming, and relaxing in thermal waters. Good weather allowed the guests to fully enjoy the beautiful surrounding vistas at the Mountain View Hotel in Aquacity Poprad, a property originally built with British investment.
Ambassadors are used to attending summits, and in Slovakia they were geographically elevated to the country’s second tallest peak of Lomnický štít (2,634m), enjoying magnificent views of the country and Poland from the top.
Known as ‘the pearl of Slovakia,’ Spiš is a region that houses numerous historic monuments, and is surrounded by fascinating nature. In Kežmarok, ambassadors and guests were solemnly welcomed by the town’s mayor, and visited a world-renowned UNESCO monument: a wooden seventeenth-century Protestant Trinity church, Catholic fifteenth-century Holy Cross Basilica and Lyceum with its own historic library. During a musical afternoon, guests listened to organ music in two churches, Baroque music at a castle and a colourful show from children in folklore group, Maguráčik. The mayor hosted dinner that night in Hotel Hviezdoslav, eponymously named after the national poet (Pavol Országh Hviezdoslav) who lived there while studying, during which I read my favourite poem by the poet. Guests enjoyed samples of local cheese and schnapps, courtesy of local producers as a thank you to the ambassadors for their visit.
Representative of the Christian Embassy Michael Leary and his wife particularly enjoyed the gothic architecture and art explored during trip. For example, St George’s Church in Spišská Sobota, which was also visited by Queen Elizabeth II during her state visit to Slovakia in 2008. Ambassador of Georgia Tamar Beruchashvili admired St George’s wooden sculpture found at the main altar, the patron saint of her country.
The group soaked up culture in the ecclesiastical town of Spišská Kapitula, visiting St Martin’s Cathedral, and taking pictures of the majestic medieval Spišský Castle, the largest castle complex in Europe.
In Free Royal Town of Levoča, also a UNESCO World Heritage site, the group admired the Renaissance Town Hall, Protestant Church and it’s library and St James’s Basilica that houses the highest gothic wooden altar in the world. Created by mysterious carver Master Paul of Levoča, this masterpiece is 500-years-old.
Following an amazing Tatras sunset, the group dined at Koliba, a typical chalet in Stará Lesná, where they enjoyed the same menu served to former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon when he dined there with foreign minister Miroslav Lajčák. There was also dancing and singing from a fantastic local gypsy band.
On the fourth day, the group travelled through the picturesque Liptov Valley – known for its bryndza, a sheep cheese that is a typical ingredient of most Slovak dishes – on their way to Orava Castle in Central Slovakia, a strong fortress on top of the rock, overlooking the river. The group enjoyed a theatrical performance of Palatinus Thurzo, who symbolically knighted Alderman Peter Hewitt as a Knight of Orava Castle. No royal consent was required this time…
Passing through Terchová – the birthplace of Slovakia’s answer to Robin Hood Juraj Jánošík – the group stopped to enjoy breathtaking views of the canyon of Tiesňavy. The group then saw thousands of new cars being made at the huge KIA Motors automotive plant in Žilina. In Rajecké Teplice, guests had a chance to relax in thermal mineral waters at the majestic Aphrodite Palace Hotel and Spa. The hotel cabaret that evening provided amazing entertainment, with Latin American music, especially appreciated by diplomatic couples from Honduras, Costa Rica, Uruguay and Ecuador.
Leaving Rajecké Teplice, Ambassadors visited the Rajecká Lesná sanctuary that houses an amazing wooden-carved mechanical nativity scene, surrounded by scenes of Slovak traditions and monuments. A few kilometres away, the scenic village of Čičmany unveiled its own set of treasures: wooden houses painted with local folklore ornaments.
The group visited another of Slovakia’s most photogenic castles, Bojnice. Rebuilt in the late nineteenth century by Count Pálffy, it was inspired by the French chateaus of the Loire Valley. Guests enjoyed various West Slovakian traditions including: a local men’s folklore choir, excellent cuisine, and wine tasting at the Starý Klíž estate. On their journey to the Slovak capital of Bratislava, the group observed the impressive new Jaguar Land Rover plant being built in Nitra, and the Peugeot-Citroen factory in the PSA Trnava Plant.
The following day was a busy one. The ambassadors met the Auxiliary Bishop of Bratislava, a historian who explained about the city’s history and coronation ceremonies at St Martin’s Cathedral. They listened to an organ concert at a Jesuit church, enjoyed Europe Day celebrations in the Main Square, explored fascinating views from Bratislava Castle over the Danube and a Soviet military cemetery at Slavín Hill. After lunch at the Foreign Ministry, the group visited the fabulous Presidential Palace. That evening, the group enjoyed a classical concert at the Slovak Philharmonic concert hall, performed by a Dutch violinist and English pianist.
The last day was an opportunity for some shopping, and guests visited the Eurovea complex next to the Danube River. Some Ambassadors returned to London directly from Bratislava, while others travelled via Vienna Airport, just 40km away. The closest capital cities in Europe, Vienna and Bratislava are often called the Twin City.
The programme demonstrated to our honourable guests that Slovakia can provide itineraries for all tastes and interests, and can be combined with a visit to neighbouring countries like Austria, the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary or Ukraine. Slovakia revealed itself to be a land proud of its people, rich in history, culture and gastronomy. It is a country with a developed economy and is a devoted member of the European Union. The visit was a good idea, much like the country’s new marketing slogan: ‘Good Idea-Slovakia!’ Inspired by the trip, Ambassador of Slovenia Tadej Rupel, kindly promised to organise a trip to Slovenia next May reflecting our joint programme ‘Distinguish Slovenia and Slovakia.’