This week’s post comes courtesy of Karen McCann, author of Adventures of a Railway Nomad: How Our Journeys Guide Us Home, which within weeks of publication became the number one best-selling travel book on Amazon. Karen recently spent three months on trains, without reservations or a fixed itinerary, traveling 6000 miles through 13 countries in Central and Eastern Europe, and the results – often hilarious, occasionally harrowing, definitely life-changing – form the basis of her new book. Part of her rail odyssey took her through Košice…
I always prefer the road less traveled, so I was delighted to discover that Košice, eastern Slovakia’s economic and cultural epicenter, remains almost entirely devoid of tourists. Despite strenuous efforts to reinvent itself as a vacation destination, the city is still, as Wikitravel sums it up so neatly, “a place not often visited from elsewhere.” Intrigued, I managed to convince my husband that it should be the next stop on our train journey through the region.
Fount of… Music!
Walking up Hlavná ulica (Main Street), we soon stumbled across one of Košice’s most ambitious civic projects, the Singing Fountain. This is a large, flat network of pipes, from which water alternately trickles, gushes, or shoots thirty feet into the air, in rhythms roughly synchronized with piped-in music ranging from Ave Maria to Feelings. At night, coloured lights pulse in time with the water and music — a sort of Trevi Fountain meets Saturday Night Fever. At first the Singing Fountain struck me as garish, tasteless, and a total waste of public funds; in fact, I laughed outright when I saw it. But I have to admit it grew on me. My husband and I soon joined the locals happily sitting on nearby benches, eating ice cream cones, and watching the water dance.
Feeling a local viewpoint might help us appreciate the city more fully, we engaged the services of a bright, enthusiastic guide-in-training named Veronica. She introduced us to such points of interest as the late fourteenth-century Tower of St. Urban (honoring the patron saint of wine growers), the Plague Column (commemorating victims of the plague that lasted from 1710 to 1711), and the bronze sculpture of a shield with lilies and half an eagle (celebrating the fact that in 1369 Košice became the first European city to be granted its own coat of arms).
We strolled together along Main Street, which houses freshly restored Gothic, Renaissance, baroque, and Art Nouveau buildings along with a bare minimum of Soviet-era monstrosities. We saw inviting cafés, a few upscale restaurants, and a rambling, quirky museum of local history, culture, and science. The city had everything you’d want in a tourist destination — except, of course, actual tourists (which can, of course, be a blessing).
An Amazing Saint
One of my favorite buildings was the vast Gothic cathedral, which happened to be dedicated to my own patron saint, St. Elizabeth of Hungary. At fourteen she was wed to Louis IV, Landgrave of Thuringia, and began devoting herself to feeding the poor and tending the sick. This naturally brought her under censure from courtiers who were afraid she’d drain the nation’s treasury to keep its humblest citizens alive. One day, while taking bread to the destitute, Elizabeth was confronted by suspicious nobles, who demanded to see what she was carrying. When she opened the folds of her cloak, a shower of roses fell out.
That’s her most famous miracle, the one depicted on the little plaque that hung on the wall of my bedroom throughout my childhood. But my favorite was the one where she brought a leper to lie in the bed she shared with her husband. At this, the ladies of the court set up such an outcry that the king came running to investigate. When he flung back the bedclothes, King Louis supposedly saw not a leper but Christ himself. And meaning no disrespect, I have to say that any wife who can convince her husband that the strange man lying in their bed is actually Jesus … that is a true miracle.
Elizabeth’s cathedral was built in high Gothic style and bristled with gargoyles, one of which resembled the wife of the builder, Štefan. While working on this glorious edifice, Štefan went home each night to be harangued mercilessly by his nagging, drunken, foul-mouthed spouse. Goaded beyond endurance, he had a gargoyle carved in her likeness, so she would spend the rest of eternity having her mouth washed out whenever it rained. And wouldn’t you love to know what Mrs. Štefan had to say about that?
According to local legend, the cathedral once housed an actual drop of Christ’s blood. “Some men came and took it away,” Victoria told us. “I don’t know where it is now.” Having seen Raiders of the Lost Ark, I assume it’s in a warehouse next to the Ark of the Covenant. This seems a pity, as a sacred artifact of that magnitude — real or fake — would certainly help with the city’s efforts to attract tourists, especially if the PR department leaked a few rumors about miraculous cures. Another great marketing opportunity lost.
Even without any miraculous blood, Košice was fun to visit. I felt lucky to catch the city at that golden moment after charming civic improvements have been made (for the city’s stint as one of the European Capitals of Culture in 2013) and before the city realizes its dream of being flooded with tourists.
Whatever happens in the future, Košice is well worth a visit now.
Karen lives in Seville, Spain, where she writes the Enjoy Living Abroad travel blog and has published three other books about travel and expat life.
NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Košice’s Old Town centre it’s 57km southeast to Malá Trňa, heart of the fascinating Tokaj winemaking industry.