On a surreally misty grey morning the other weekend we drove up into the northeast portion of the Small Carpathians (Malé Karpaty) not far from Trenčin to find out a little more about the most famous Slovak personality of the last 115 years, Milan Rastislav Štefánik.
Štefánik, one of the most influential figures in the founding of the Czechoslovak state after World War One, was born up here in the pretty village of Košiarska, cradled in a pea-green swathe of grazing land between two forested ridges. A whitewashed gaggle of cottages in the village, including the house he grew up in, is to this day a museum dedicated to the man’s life.
Štefánik’s Life At A Glance
Štefánik was born in 1880 when Slovakia was still very much a rural extension of the Austro-Hungary. And Košiarska was strongly influenced by the Hungarian part of the Empire, where Štefánik’s intensely pro-independent Slovakia views didn’t go down too well. So whilst his childhood was here and in the surrounding hills, his formative years were in Prague (where he studied, and met during lectures the future first President of the new Czechoslovak state, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, who gave Štefánik the idea of Czech-Slovak cooperation in a struggle for independence). Subsequently Štefánik was in Paris, where he rose to prominence at the Observatoire de Paris: here he honed his talents for astronomy and was soon being sent on astronomical/diplomatic missions by France around the world. The diplomatic skills, particularly, would serve him well. In 1916, with Masaryk, he formed the Czechoslovak National Council, the official resistance of the Czechs and Slovaks during World War One to Austria-Hungary – a body which won the respect and support of the Allies, and was recognised, after the Allied victory, as the platform for the new government of Czechoslovakia. Štefánik’s combination of military bravery and diplomacy were integral to getting Czechoslovakia recognised internationally as an independent nation.
As is so often the case with bright young things (the man was only 39 at the time of his most untimely death) Štefánik’s end is more remembered than his beginning. Along with the three other passengers of the plane that was carrying him from Italy, where he was engaged on business, to Bratislava, he crashed, fatally, just outside the city on May 4th 1919. He had been returning home because he wanted to see his family. And he barely lived to see the Czechoslovak state he had fought so hard to create come into fruition.
Of course, there is a chance that had Štefánik lived he would have become an embittered old politician prone to corruption, just as there is a chance James Dean would have developed gout and flatulence and rapidly made people forget what a heart-throb he had been. Unsurprisingly, this is not a school of thought Slovaks subscribe to. On the contrary, Štefánik is perceived as a great, a fighter and a diplomat, a man that commanded respect, who was plucked from this world far too prematurely. And that air crash in 1919 had aftershocks throughout Slovak culture that resonated far further. First: a wariness that the Czechs, in any potential dual state, sought only to further their own interests and not consider Slovak ones – Czech involvement in Štefánik’s death is the source of much debate. Second: a Slovak apathy towards almost all politicians that would claim to represent them during the following century – Štefánik left behind him a void unfilled to this day).
What does live on is his memory – enshrined in what is doubtless Slovakia’s finest monument.
The location alone lends it a certain poignant grandeur. From Košiarska the road (one of only four, incidentally, to transect this wild hill range in over 100km) bends down into otherwise unremarkable Brezová pod Bradlom, the main settlement hereabouts, from where another lane corkscrews up onto the forested ridge that looms above the town at 543 metres. But the trees on the crest of the ridge have been cleared, and so the Mohyla Generála M.R Štefánik (tomb to General Štefánik) is visible from afar.
It is a bizarre structure, as monuments in Slovakia go. It was designed and constructed during the years following Štefánik’s death – completed in 1928. This three-level stone pyramid flanked by obelisks at each corner harks of the Mayan temples of Mexico and Guatemala and is a striking sight indeed in the north Slovak countryside. The architect was Dušan Jurkovič (generally considered the greatest Slovak architect ever, and also responsible for the cable car up to Lomnický štít in the High Tatras). The top of the monument (up which you can climb) yields tremendous views both back over the Small Carpathians and forward to the Biele Karpaty/White Carpathians.
Continuing in Štefánik’s Footsteps…
At the north-eastern end of the Small Carpathians that roll all the way southwest to Bratislava, Bradlo sits at something of a terminus of hiking trails – or a starting point for hiking trails, depending on your perspective.
1: Forging southwest from here is the Štefánikova magistrála– a long-distance hike that traverses the hills southwest (broken, as already mentioned, by a mere four roads) to Bratislava and then across Devinska Kobyla, the last hurrah of the Carpathians, to Devin Castle. On this site we are very soon going to be featuring the entire Štefánikova magistrála trail in stages and with pictures, starting at the Devin Castle end (we’ve already hiked and written up stage one – the rest will follow, but there is A LOT of hiking to do and we only have one pair of legs and one set of fingers to write it up afterwards.)
So the red-marked Štefánikova magistrála heads southwest from Bradlo (zigzagging down, first of all, down a nice 1.5km stretch through woods to Brezová pod Bradlom), while the red trail continues northeast from here too, in the new guise of the Cesta Hrdinov SNP (trail of the heroes of the Slovak National Uprising – a trail which continues all the way across Slovakia to Dukla Pass in the far north-east (total hiking time Devin Castle-Dukla Pass 28 days – or Bradlo to Dukla Pass 24 days).
Meanwhile, a green trail runs due east from Bradlo and connects after 25 minutes of walking with a little connecter trail down to Košiarska, for those that are interested in seeing Štefánik’s birthplace/museum via a more interesting route.
Three to four days of hiking from Bradlo on the Štefánikova magistrála gets you to Devin Castle. But there is one final place you should visit to truly honour one of Slovakia’s most revered all-time heroes. And that is somewhere almost every visitor to the country inadvertently does visit: Bratislava’s airport (!). The airport is in fact called the MR Štefánik airport, but the title goes beyond mere words. It was near Bratislava, after all, that Štefánik died in that plane crash in 1919. And just before security on the upper floor of the airport – just before you depart Slovakia into international airport space – there it is, suspended above you: a faithful replica of the Caproni Ca.3 in which Štefánik had his fatal accident.
MORE ON CZECHOSLOVAK MILITARY HISTORY: There are two very informative military history museums in Slovakia which elaborate further on this subject – in Piešt’any and in Svidník.
MORE ON DUŠAN JURKOVIČ: The only museum to be dedicated to the architect lies down in Brezová pod Bradlom – ask for details at the Town Hall (MAP)
OPENING HOURS: The monument at Bradlo is always open. These days, at least. There was a time when this was not so. For reasons which have yet to be fully explained to me (I am guessing due to a Soviet fear that allowing access would create strong feelings of nationalist sentiment), during Communist times – until 1968 – Bradlo was closed to the public (although it had been finished for some 40 years). In 1968 this changed when hundreds and hundreds of people descended on Bradlo (my girlfriend’s father included) to voice their opinion that people should be allowed to visit the monument freely to find out about Štefánik and properly honour his memory.
NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Bradlo it’s a 35km drive southeast to Piestany’s best spa on the Kúpeľný ostrov (Spa Island).