Welcome to Gelnica!
We went to Tomy's hometown for Christmas. Gelnica is situated 40 minutes driving up a winding road from the Eastern capital of Košice. Although he says it's not exciting enough to write an entire post about, I think differently. Gelnica is a perfect example of the common Eastern Slovak town. Being raised mostly in the capital, I always felt like I was missing out on some huge part of Slovak culture by not ever being exposed to the common Slovak citizen. The villages or dediny (or dzedziny, depending on who's talking).
Though I've been to parts of Eastern Slovakia with my father, we never stayed longer than a day. Recently I've come to find that much of my paternal family members come from the East, but I myself have never had much exposure to the area other than listening to Tomy's stories, trying to mimic his adorable accent (actually, it's a dialect), and a few bottles of hand-labeled pálenka (home made fruit liquor).
...for the people
In the west we say that the big bad easterners love to drink, be loud (obnoxious), and work for cheap. It's not the prettiest of stereotypes, but it stems from a deep historical tension that dates back to the days of Austria-Hungary and its collapse during World War I. As a westerner who mostly avoided these annoying stereotypes I decided to come to the East with no expectations.
Here's what I learned: Eastern Slovakians are hard working people with big city aspirations. I was pleasantly surprised to see neighbors invite us in for sweets and a drink, the elderly taking care of each other, and an overall sense of community throughout the neighborhood. Sure, there was talk of a few kids from the neighborhood taking the bottle, but it was always the success stories that drove the conversation. I've never seen parents more proud of their kids than Tomy's parents.
...for the food
Food and drink are an important part of Slovak culture, especially in the East. This is when that famous "Eastern Hospitality" thing really turns on its charm. Christmas and Easter holidays are high time for delicious (and fattening!) foods like kapustnica (cabbage soup), bryndzové halušky (potato dumplings with local sheep cheese), závin (rolled cake filled with chocolate, cottage cheese, poppy seed, or nuts), and bobal'ky aka lokše aka makowki aka opekance (milky bread with poppy seed).
Tomy's parents gave me quite the decent introduction to the significance of a home cooked meal with their many portions of said bobal'ky and roasted poultry! Being a food lover, I simply could not resist indulging into every single thing that was put in front of me. After all, Christmas is all about the feast. Let's just say I'm on a very strict diet ever since...
... for the history
The land is dusted with castles and fortresses, some destroyed by the many wars and others beautifully preserved. I have been lucky to see a few of the still standing stone marvels (see below) as a kid and hope to see many more of them as I get older. It's inspiring to walk through what were once powerful headquarters of a powerful empire.
Tomy and his brother Peter took me up to Zámčisko Gelnica, the resting place of a 12th century castle. Today the land where the castle once watched over the land is covered in rows of chestnut trees and the best view in town (above).
If you're really into castles and knights, take a drive just a bit further out to the Spiš region, where one of the largest castle sites of Central Europe looks over the land. Still mostly standing, this 41,426 m² structure has much to offer in terms of interior and exterior. My dad took me there with my brother when we were teenagers. I highly recommend the Spiš Castle for anybody visiting Slovakia, or Central Europe even.
...for the nature
Although it may seem that much of Slovakia is now made up of those blocky Soviet apartment buildings (panelák), human strustures only take up 8% of the country's 49,035 km². Any train ride across the country (now free for students and the elderly) will convince you that Slovakia is actually quite green. Slovakia is a great place to just take some time off and be one with nature, as there is so much of it. Meadows, forests, rocks, a geyser, mountains, rivers, and lakes are all around.
It's very common for locals to vacation in a cottage near or in the forest. In fact, that's what we did for the new year! All that nature plays a huge role in the cultural feeling of the Slovak people. After all, river rafting is kind of our claim to fame along with ice hockey, our national sport.
Overall, there are plenty of reasons to see Eastern Slovakia. Sure, it may not have as much glitz and glamour as some of its surrounding countries and their giant refurbished towers, but at least it's authentic.