Category: What I Did on My Summer Vacation

What I Did on My Summer Vacation: July 18–Banska Stiavnica (More Pictures!)

(500) Days of SummerTime to return to my What I Did on My Summer Vacation series (now with yet another pic–surely you can guess what the theme is to these pictures by now, yes?). As I’ve said before, I was multi-tasking on this trip. One thing I really wanted to do was go to a place I’d never gone before, where I could potentially set another book in the Vodnik series. I was pretty specific in my “checklist” for a perfect spot: it had to be old, it had to be a place with a more significant Roma population than Trencin has, it had to be uniquely Slovak, and it had to have a lot of history and folklore for me to drawn on. Thankfully my brother-in-law Milos came to the rescue, finding the perfect spot: Banska Stiavnica.
I’m not kidding, folks. This city is a hidden gem. Hidden for good reason–it ain’t easy to get to. I wouldn’t be surprised if I went to some places that less than 100 Americans have seen. Maybe less than 50. (More on that tomorrow.) There are no real highways to get there: you have to take windy back roads that are steep enough to make you wonder how in the world anyone survives a single winter there. The area’s smack dab in a dense forest that crowds in on the city from all sides, like the place is under siege. You finally get out of the switchbacks, and all of a sudden you see this:
This little town draped over steep hills (that make walking around it a real joy, let me tell you). It has a history that goes back to 9500 BC. Legend has it, a guy was out hiking and took a nap. When he woke up, there were two salamanders sitting there, watching him. One was coated in gold dust, one in silver dust. He followed them back to their homes and discovered the jackpot of all gold and silver mines. Where there’s gold, there’s interest. Once, Banska Stiavnica was the second largest city in Slovakia. It Then the mines dried up. It was visited by kings and was even the site of the first technical university in the world: a university devoted to mining. (They have a mural in town that commemorates the legend. It’s pretty cool: here are a couple of pieces of it)
One of the hallmarks of the city is a series of reservoirs (called Tajchy) that were devised to help the miners work better. At one point there were something like 60 of them around the area. Now there are only 20 or so left. (We visited a couple. They’re more places recreation spots these days, although Denisa was overjoyed to see that skinny dippers love to take advantage of them, too. She and I were sitting there talking, and a completely naked old man started lounging around next to us. Ah, Europe . . ) Here’s a picture. (Of a tajch, not a naked old man. Sorry to get your hopes up.)
While we were there, we first went to a chateau in the neighboring town of Svaty Anton. This place as absolutely incredible, but they didn’t allow any pictures of the interior. Remember, I’d just gotten through touring Vienna, so it wasn’t like I was going to be blown away by just any old building. But where in Vienna, all the old buildings have been restored (and updated with some modern amenities), Svaty Anton felt like the rulers had just left the room a few minutes before. It felt so much more authentic. (They have a website–check out the virtual tour in particular–but it doesn’t do it justice.) It just felt more real to me, and that’s the only way I can think of to describe it. Here’s a pic of the outside:
We then headed into the town. Milos had gone to school in the city, so he knew the place pretty well. We didn’t have a whole lot of time left for the day, so we mainly toured the outside of the city. (We did take a tour of the town, which boasted all about the “7 Wonders of Banska Stiavnica”: check ’em out here online). So I’ll leave you now with a few last shots of the city, and then some random people pics.
That’s the “new castle” in the back there. The old castle is from the 1200s. The new one is from the 1500s. And we wonder why Europeans look at us Americans as being such whippersnappers.
This is a church. Interesting story, actually. They set this church up as part of a complex for pilgrims. If you walk up and down the hill, it has a series of sculptures and reliefs that are supposed to recreate the life of Christ. For more info, check here. I was particularly surprised this made it through Communism. In fact, the whole city emerged from Communism pretty much unscathed, due in large part to the fact that since no more gold was there, the city didn’t draw much attention to itself.

Here’s a pic of the Mormon branch in Trencin. That’s about every active member, plus the missionaries and my family. Not very big.

Milos is a sucker for these pics. I took one:

And so did he:

Auditioning to be the 8th dwarf.

I might be a bit big for the role:

What I Did on My Summer Vacation: July 15–Barbecue! (and Trencin Pictures)

*Stumped about the connection between Firefly and yesterday’s post? Here’s another clue for you in the pic today. Somebody’s gotta get it now, right? (Denisa’s not allowed to respond–I told her in person yesterday.)*


We’re up to July 15 now, and I think we might stop there for the next few posts, just because there’s so much material to blog about. Denisa and I took the kids into Trencin to get several Vodnik-things done at once. First up was finding some Slovak story books. Remember, the hope is that I get to write a second book set in the setting of Vodnik. One of my main goals on my trip to Slovakia this time was to get research done for that book. Not saying it’s actually going to happen, but I figured while I was there, it wouldn’t hurt.

Doing research for Slovak-oriented subjects can be difficult. Since the country only has about 5.5 million people, digitization of their cultural knowledge doesn’t quite happen at the same rate as in America. (Think of it like this: imagine if American internet influence was spreading as fast as the population of Wisconsin would allow. And don’t forget: not all 5.5 million people are actually online. 75% of them are. Broadband penetration was at 4% in 2006, and even if it’s skyrocketed since then, there just hasn’t been that much time for people to get hold of the huge backlog of information any society has on hand. Even in America, if you go back to the 70s or earlier, good luck on finding much digitized (outside of the New York Times or other bigger publications.) It’s getting better, but it takes time.

This is just to say that I knew going to Slovakia that if I wanted to get some information, it would be easier and cheaper to do while I was there. So Denisa and I took the kids around town, visiting bookstores. I wanted to get some books of traditional Slovak fairy tales. So much of what you can find easily is just reheated Grimm. I wanted the real deal, and I found plenty. We also got some books for TRC and DC–their Slovak did so well during the 5 weeks we were there. We wanted to try and keep that up once we got home. (Denisa already speaks almost only Slovak to the kids, but TRC has very little experience reading in the language.)

Anyway, while we were at it, I also took pictures of the town–trying to get a shot of the site of all the major events in the novel.

Tomas and Katka’s Apartment Building:
An East German car, with TRC place in the picture to give a sense of scale:

The town park:

The bakery downtown:

The plague column:

Random Communist building plunked down into the town center:

The Vodnik, again:

A look at what the Vodnik is looking at:

The closest thing to a “mall” downtown Trencin has. It’s really getting run down:

A certain fountain that roller bladers in the city really ought to watch out for:

The movie theater downtown:

I know: most of these pics probably don’t do much for you if you haven’t already read the book. Fear not. Because after we ran errands downtown, we went up to the castle to do some grilling. After the grilling, we’d arranged for a professional photographer to meet us at the castle to take pictures of yours truly. I need something decent for my book. Help me decide, tomorrow. (And the day after that, get excited: I’m posting princess pics of DC (and Denisa).)

Meanwhile, here are a few BBQ pics.
DC had so much fun riding horses, she kept it up at the castle:

TRC in action. Who knew bungee cords were a lethal weapon?

Speaking of lethal weapons, Milos teaches TRC how to maim tourists:

No pics of the food this time, alas. It was the same menu as last time–check the pics I took from three years ago here: Yes–we dressed up then and shot arrows, too. Kind of a walk down memory lane. TRC and DC were so much younger . . .

Until tomorrow . . .

What I Did on My Summer Vacation: July 14–Horse Riding (Mainly Pictures)

Firefly: The Complete Series [Blu-ray]July 14 was taken up by mostly relaxing for the first half of the day. Denisa was still recuperating from her sun exposure the day before, and I was happily enduring a head cold, so we slept quite a bit that morning. In the afternoon and evening, we went to visit a horse ranch owned by one of Denisa’s high school friends. Had some great grilled sausages, and the kids and Denisa all rode a horse (which they really enjoyed).

(I didn’t ride the horse. I’ve ridden one many times, and riding a horse in a circle doesn’t quite excite me as much as it might have at one time in my life.)

*Extra credit to you if you can come up with the link between the pic for this post and the topic.

TRC and DC say hi to the horse:

Forget the Pied Piper. Any time you want to attract a young boy, just find a big pile o’ dirt. TRC ran up and down this hill more times than I can count.

TRC, very proud of his horse riding abilities:

DC, a bit more tentative:

The inside of the restaurant at the ranch:

A traditional Slovak dress: (I’m trying to convince Denisa that she really needs to own one of these. She says it would look silly. Come on, people–help me convince her!)

What I Did on My Summer Vacation: July 13–Orava Castle and Strecno (with Pictures!)

Summer NightsJuly 13 we were up bright and early for a drive up to Orava Castle, the most visited castle in Slovakia (although I’d never been before this trip). It also happens to be the place where most of the exterior shots of Nosferatu were filmed, if you’re into that sort of thing. Which I am. My brother-in-law Milos was our guide for the trip, and Denisa and I brought the kids with us this time. It’s only about 100 miles, but it was around 3 hours of driving.

(On a side note, driving in Slovakia can be very confusing to an American. First of all, they have highways, but you need to know that you have to pay a fee and get a sticker to use them–otherwise you face a hefty fine if you’re caught. The speed limit on freeways is around 75. If you’re not on the highway, there are two speed limits: 30 if you’re in a town, 55 if you’re out of a town. You need to know this, since the town markers themselves serve as the speed limit signs. (There are only numbers for speed limits when the speed limit is different than the 55/30 rule.) We didn’t buy a highway pass, so we had to take the back windy roads (which is preferable, if your goal is to the see the country, anyway. Hence the long trip.)

Orava Castle was magnificent, although the town it lords over is pretty darn tiny. Still, we weren’t there for the town. The castle is in great condition, with many original details still intact (murder holes, wood interiors, paintings, etc.) Here’s a sampling of pictures. Looking up from the castle courtyard:

A view of the countryside around it:

The fam down at the base:

The kids with Nosferatu:

From Orava, we figured we might as well get in one more castle, so we swung by Strecno (pronounced STRETCH-no) Castle on the way home. Strecno is much more ruinous than Orava or Trencin. Pieces of Dragonheart were filmed at the castle. Not quite the same pedigree as Nosferatu, but still cool. (Dragonheart was filmed in Slovakia, and many of the castles in the area can lay claim to that. My brother-in-law also got to be an extra in some of the guard scenes, as I recall.) Both castles involved steep hikes to get to them (sort of the point, with castles), and it was a tiring day for everyone by Milos, who walks up to Trencin castle fifty times a day, just for fun. He also got to marry a ghost in a comedic number performed at the beginning of the castle tour:

Denisa and DC outside Strecno:

A view of the country:

Random bearded man:

Medieval toilet:

TRC the Dragonslayer:

DC the Dragonslayer:

And . . . Milos the Dragonslayer:

And that was the day. We got home pretty wiped. Denisa had gotten too much sun, so she had a headache. (You’ll note a trend on this vacation: we were constantly doing too much. But I’d rather do too much than too little, since we only go to Europe once every three years.)

What I Did on My Summer Vacation: July 12–A Visit to Trencin (with Pictures!)

One Crazy SummerOkay, folks. Here’s how this blog series is going to run: I did a lot over the last two weeks, and I didn’t get the chance to blog about it (since I was too busy having fun). However, I thought it might be nice to be able to write about it, and share some pics with you at the same time. (I took about 900 pictures in 2 weeks. You gotta love digital photography.) I might interrupt the series from time to time, if there’s something else I feel like discussing, but for now, we’ll stick to the game plan. Since I’ve already talked about Vienna, I’m jumping ahead on my vacation, straight to my first full day in Slovakia: July 12.

Did I mention I got sick on my vacation? Because I did. Never pass up an opportunity to get really ill. That’s my motto. Denisa and I had just gotten back from Vienna, and I spent the first day in Slovakia in bed asleep. She had a visit with some of her high school friends arranged in Trencin that evening, however. And there was a problem: she needed a ride to town. We were borrowing her mom’s car, and it’s a manual transmission, which Denisa has trouble driving. I had to get out of bed to remind myself how to drive stick. (The last time I drove stick being three years ago, when I was in Slovakia before). It turned out that driving stick was much easier for me to remember than how to ride a bike (long story there–I can explain if you want to know.) So having successfully shifted into first, up to second and third a few times, Denisa, the kids and I piled into the car and off we went.

We parked outside of the city center and walked in, at which point Denisa went to reunion-ize, and I checked out some of downtown with the kids, taking some pics of places where scenes in Vodnik occur. First, the castle:

An alley where Tomas has a meeting with some characters that leave a lasting impression on him:
The Well of Love:
(And a close up of the kids, to keep the fam happy):
As well as the Vodnik statue from downtown:
The city pool from above:
And a view from the castle walls:
Plus, a pick of the kids with a cannon. Because cannons are cool:
Meeting my brother in law is always exciting, and he took me and the kids for a tour through downtown Trencin (after he let us wander the castle grounds after it was closed to the public. Love having that backstage pass).
Has Trencin changed in the last three years? Certainly. It doesn’t help that the town is seriously short on money. They started a big project to build an underground parking lot, but ran out of funds halfway through. Now, they’re left with a big hole in the ground where one of their squares used to be. In my wildest dreams, Vodnik sells like hotcakes, bringing a flood of tourists to Trencin to check out the city. It really is an awesome place, with one of the best castles I’ve ever been to–particularly noteworthy because the castle is authentic, large and an inherent part of the town. 
Of course, there are signs of growth, as well. The main hotel downtown is getting gutted, with hopes of making it more modern and tourist-friendly. There are quite a few new stores (mainly clothes and restaurants), and the downtown seems to be doing well, more or less. (Having just come from Vienna, I was again impressed with just how inexpensive Trencin is. The best way to illustrate this? Ice cream in Vienna was 1 euro a scoop. In Trencin it was .3 euros. Nice.) This was now my fourth trip to the city, and it really is becoming a place I feel I know well. 
It’s an interesting experience, being able to walk through the areas where parts of my book happen. When writing Vodnik, I made a special effort to have it all happen in real places, basing much of it on actual legends from Trencin. I think it helped make the book as good as it could be. I took some more pics on a different day–those will be posted in time.
Anyway–I’m out of time for today. Work beckons. 
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