Andy Mossack, a well-known British travel writer and the creator and presenter of BBC Radio’s “Where in the World is Andy” travelogue series, describes his visit to Košice, Slovakia in his latest installment for Fly.com. Be sure to check back in for other insightful reviews from his travel exploits.
The European Capital of Culture is a city designated by the European Union for a period of one calendar year during which it organizes a series of cultural events. This year Košice, Slovakia along with Marseille, France were designated as the capitals of culture.
Lying in the far east of the country, not far from The Ukraine and Hungarian borders, Košice used to be an industrial backwater under the former Soviet regime, but since the “Velvet Revolution” in 1990 it has rediscovered its historical past unveiling a beautifully refurbished center attracting artists and tourists.
Industrial it might be (US Steel is still its biggest employer), but it holds the second oldest marathon in the world each year, it has the biggest church in Slovakia and it was once one of the most important cities in Hungary. It also has a few famous former residents: Martina Hingis, the legendary writer Sandor Marai and Andrej Varchola, otherwise known as Andy Warhol, whose family came from near here.
One of Košice’s great strengths is its diversity, lying so close to the clutches of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It has a real mix of Hungarian, German and Slavic influences that manifest themselves in its language, food and culture. And talking of cultures, it was also an important Jewish city before the Nazi occupation in WWII extinguished most of its Jewish community. The old town still offers up many remarkable clues from its Jewish past including three synagogues, now haunting reminders of better days gone by.
Medieval Old Town, Beer Gardens and Gold Treasure
The singing fountains are at the epicenter of Košice’s wonderful medieval old town on Main Street, just across from the glorious gothic St. Elisabeth Cathedral, and surrounded on all sides by historical buildings lovingly restored to their colorful former glory. The newly renovated Main Square is now home to beer gardens, art galleries, posh restaurants and upscale hotels.
Košice’s old town is a warren of cobbled streets, each one uncovering another hidden treasure or two. I came across a remnant of its hammer-and-sickle past at a tiny bar straight out of the Cold War called
. It serves the cheapest beer in town while portraits of Lenin and Marx peer down from the peeling walls.
Another treasure, one of the largest gold coin finds in Europe, is housed at the East Slovak Museum in Košice. Discovered in 1935, the Košice Gold Treasure comprises 2,920 gold coins from all over Europe, three medals, a Renaissance gold chain and a copper casket.
Where to Stay
I stayed at the four-star Hotel Bankov that has a tradition of hospitality going back 140 years. Away from the town center, in the fresh air of the nearby Bankov hills, the famous hotels has been transformed in the hands of another of Slovakia’s young entrepreneurs, and now has all the trappings of a luxury hotel with chic modern decor, free Internet and an excellent restaurant. It is a member of the Historic Hotels of Slovakia, an association highlighting some of Slovakia’s finest historical hotels.
Joining in with the locals at a wine and food festival, I saw the old town come alive with music and celebration. It was a great opportunity to sample delicious Slovak specialities prepared by local chefs and of course a cold beer and a glass of the mysterious Košice Gold, a drink whose ingredients remain a secret—but who cares, as long as it tastes good.
With such a torrid past, you would be forgiven for thinking that perhaps this would be city of depressed people, and in some ways their demeanor may seem a little despondent. However, inside they celebrate and rejoice in their freedom. Their city is a hidden gem that demands to be explored.
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