Kosice and the Tides of History

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A walk through the beautiful streets of this city in Eastern Slovakia can teach you a thing or two about Europe and its common culture

Many people like to sneer at the whole concept of the “European Capital of Culture”, but there is some good thinking behind it, as there is behind so many of the EU’s initiatives (yes, English readers, that even includes the common currency.)

European culture, so the thinking goes, is not something that only happens in a few select places. The tectonic shifts and movements of culture that have created Europe over time – ancient Rome, Christianity, the Reformation, the Enlightenment and so on – have shaped more than just a peak or two, while the storms that have devastated Europe in regular intervals throughout its history – quarrels about dynastic successions or questions of belief – have all been part of the same local weather system.

European culture is Paris and Rome, without a question, but it is also Mons and Plzen (the current European Capital of Culture), San Sebastian and Wroclaw (their designated successors).

And Kosice.

"Alley street in Kosice"

Kosice is the second largest city of Slovakia, one of Europe’s smallest and most vulnerable countries and one that has always been precariously perched on the frontier between East and West, wedged in between the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Austria and the Ukraine (formerly the Soviet Union), all of which are considerably larger and more powerful countries and all of which have dominated little Slovakia at some point or the other of her history.

Kosice was the European Capital of Culture in 2013, the first Slovak town thus honoured, and a walk through the town centre is much like reading a 19th century novel (another great gift of Europe to global culture) such as, say, War and Peace. Both embed the particular into the universal and connect individual fates with the tides of world history: Tolstoy connects Pierre and Natascha with Napoleon and the Czar. The walk shows the traces that the Middle Ages, the Baroque, WWI, the Holocaust and Communism have left behind in provincial Slovakia – as we shall see.

Walking through the tides of history in Kosice

Leave Kosice train station and continue down Mlynska until you reach the neo-Gothic Jakabov Palace (which also, towards the end of WWII, briefly served as the official residence of Edvard Benes, Czechoslovakia’s last pre-Communist President).

"neo-Gothic Jakabov Palace in Kosice on a walk through the tides of history"

Turn left into Stefanikova past the Kunsthalle, the former municipal swimming pool transformed into a multi-purpose art centre …

"inside the Kunsthalle in Kosice Slovakia"

… and left again (into Hviezdoslavova) at the roundabout with the Marathoner sculpture (erected to honour Kosice’s annual Peace Race, the oldest continuously run Marathon Race in Europe.)

If you have the time, visit the East Slovak Museum right behind the statue with its unique collection of coins (a hoard that was discovered during building works in 1930s, after the coins had remained hidden under the floorboards for 300 years.)

Continue left into Masiarska until you reach the Sandor Marai sculpture.

"statue of Sandor Marai in Kosice Slovakia""

Marai (1900 – 1989) is Kosice’s most famous citizen, and the city proudly proclaims in its official literature that he is “the second most translated author in the world” – although he did not write in Slovak but in Hungarian. (In the years before WWI, when Marai grew up here, Kosice (then called “Kassa” by the Hungarians and “Kaschau” by the Austrians) was essentially a Hungarian town. It was much smaller than today, too, counting just 30,000 inhabitants, and only grew to its modern size of 250,000 people after becoming part of Czechoslovakia in 1918.)

Now turn left into Zbrojnicna and right into Hlavna, Kosice’s beautiful main street, which used to follow the direction of a small local river (commemorated by the narrow stream in the middle of today’s boulevard).

"Kosice high street - a walk through the tides of history"

Continue past the Baroque church of St Anthony and the Immaculata Plague Column, erected after the end of an epidemic in 1710 …

"Immaculata Plague Column in Kosice town center on a walk through the tides of history"

… to the “Singing Fountain” in the back of the State Theatre.

This fountain was constructed in the 1970s after the city’s mayor had seen a similar contraption in Kosice’s Soviet twin town and had liked it so much that he wanted one for his own town. Even the fact that the patent for this type of fountain had to be bought from a US company could not hold him back – which is how this piece of Las Vegas (you may have seen a similar show outside Bellagio’s) found its way into provincial Slovakia. (You simply cannot make this stuff up.)

"Singing Fountain of Kosice Slovakia"

The church on the other side of the garden is St Elizabeth Cathedral, one of the easternmost Western-style Gothic cathedral in Europe.

"St Elizabeth Cathedral of Kosice on a walk through the tides of history"

The church is a site of pilgrimage for Hungarian nationalists, because of its close connections with Ferencz Rakoczi, Hungary’s Braveheart and the leader of his country’s doomed uprising against the Habsburgs (1703 to 1711). He is buried in the crypt, and the large mural on the church’s northern wall tells the story of his heroic downfall.

"Mural in the St Elizabeth's cathedral in Kosice"

One little detail: if you stand outside on the western side of the cathedral, you can see this little gargoyle balancing merrily, if precariously on the fine line between heaven and earth.

"human figure gargoyle on the St Elizabeth's Cathedral in Kosice"

Local legend has it that this figure represents the estranged wife of the cathedral’s master builder, and that this was his way of having the last laugh – by letting the world in on the fact that his Missus liked more than a tipple or two.

If you have the time (and the energy), you should also walk up the 160 steps of the North Tower. There is an observation deck on top from where you get splendid views all over Kosice’s old town.

"north tower of the St Elizabeth's Cathedral in Kosice"

Just behind the large Cathedral, you can find another, much smaller church. This is St Michael’s, originally a graveyard chapel, but for centuries the main church of the Slovak minority when the Hungarians prayed in the far more sumptuous surroundings of St Elizabeth next door.

"St Michael's church behind the cathedral in Kosice"

Continue down Hlavna to the ancient Lower Town Gate, which was only discovered twenty years ago during road works. Turn left into Rooseveltova and, after one block or so, left again into Pushkinova. This is where you can find what used to be Kosice’s main synagogue, the last visual memory of the city’s once thriving Jewish community of more than 10,000 members.

"Main Synagogue in Kosice Slovakia"

The building is reasonably well preserved but nowadays just an empty shell, towering over the modest low-rise houses of Pushkinova street like a ghost.

According to the statistics, about 200 Jews are living in the modern city, but the number of local people who are regularly attending prayers appears to be very small. I have seen an estimate of “less than ten”, and most people who do attend these services, it is said, are Israeli medical students from one of Kosice’s four universities. This is at the same time very sad, of course, but also an encouraging glimpse into the future of the continent. Maybe we Europeans, finally, have managed to learn something from our past catastrophes.

We will continue our stroll through Kosice with our next post when we explore the city’s present rather than its past. Surprises are guaranteed!

"artwork on a rooftop"

The Easy Hikers are most grateful to Wizz Air for a smooth and comfortable flight from London to Kosice. But most of all, we thank the Kosice Tourism Board for allowing us to discover the charms of Kosice on this city break with the able guidance of Veronika Holeckova.

We have more to tell you about European Culture Capital Kosice through the tides of history in our coming posts. Make sure you don’t miss them by getting our free updates via email or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

16 comments to Kosice and the Tides of History

  • Kosice has done well in celebrating their status as European Capital of Culture, Sophie.

  • It is a very charming city indeed, Miranda. Worth discovering.

  • This city looks so beautiful. Like a living history lesson. The synagogue is especially stunning, so sad that it’s barely used any more.

  • I like the European Capital of Culture concept, especially as it brings out some of the lesser-known cities. Kosice looks so pretty and interesting.

  • Jisy, the traditional dishes we got to sample in the many good restaurants in Kosice were excellent. What more, the prices are amazingly affordable compared to restaurants in more famous tourist destinations.

  • I love this look inside a city most people have never heard of. There are so many gems in Europe and it’s a shame most tourists stick to the big names. Your post shows there’s so much to see and do in Kosic and I’m glad to hear it was named a cultural capital in 2013. Was the food as appealing as your images?

  • Meg, it would really be an oversight if you don’t visit Kosice. We heard it’s more charming than Bratislava. Pencil it in your next itinerary.

  • Marcia, it was such an unexpected surprise for us too. We’ve only been to Prague this side of Europe and we were not expecting much. But it was one of the more memorable cities we’ve visited.

  • I love the sound of Kosice – sounds like a fab place to visit. I don’t think of Europe’s culture as Paris and Rome necessarily, I actually really love that it is such a huge melting pot, and I have come to find that Eastern Europe actually has more to offer than some of the other cultural hotspots in the West.

    I really loved my time in Eastern Europe, so I’ going to have to head back to check out Kosice – gothic architecture really speaks to me so I can’t believe I haven’t yet been! … And we had the same thought btw…my first thought on seeing your photo of the fountain was that it reminded me of Bellagio in Vegas too!!

  • Wow, Michael & Marlys, what a lovely walk! I’m thoroughly impressed by Kosice – the most spectacular European city I’d never heard about.

  • We did half of the city in one day with generous stops for meals. Another day was needed to see more of the city. It is a lovely city, Priscilla, worth a visit for a city break.

  • This looks super! How long did it take you to walk the city? You look like you did a lot in one day!

    Gorgeous photos, especially the first one with the sidewalk cafes.

    Cheers,
    Priscilla

  • We’ve not been to Bratislava but one in our group said, Kosice was a lot more charming than Bratislava. It’s a lovely city with very friendly people.

  • From what I can see and read in your article, Kosice is well deserving of its European Capital of Culture designation. What a wonderful gem of a city. I’ve only been to Bratislava in Slovakia. I’m looking forward to venturing further into the country and visiting Kosice. Looks like it has all the elements of places I like to visit.

  • Kosice does deserve more than a day’s visit, Heidi. This is after all the 2nd biggest city in Slovakia and offers quite a lot to visitors.

  • Sold! Oh it looks absolutely perfect. I love walking through old towns and villages and trying to imagine what it was like so many years ago. We visted Budapet Hungary and while on a day tour. We were given a few minutes to hop out and cross a bridge to step foot in Slovakia. That is it for us, just a quick step into the country. I guess I need to get it on our list, while we are back in Europe. Kosice seems to be a place I could fall in love with. I can’t wait to see what you show for the modern side of things.

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