He experienced the horrors of two wars and during this time he also covered an immense geographical area. The trip described in this blog is an attempt to retrace his steps from Prague across the Eurasian continent to beyond Lake Baikal in Siberia. The first part of the trip will follow the precisely described route of Josef Švejk, Hašek's inspired literary creation. I left home on April 30 2010 and was back on October 29.

Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Up the Laborec valley

The Laborec valley near Brestov.
Švejk's journey through  Upper Hungary went along the Laborec Valley, in the far east of current Slovakia. Former Upper Hungary was  in fact almost identical to current Slovakia and  was ruled by Hungary for more than 900 years. The Czech, Slovak and Rusyn part of what from 1919 was to become Czechoslovakia had never been a united territory until that year.

The Laborec Valley still has a large Rusyn minority and also a large gypsy contingent. The Rusyn language is close to Ukrainian and during WW1 the Rusyns were, apart from the Czechs, considered the least reliable of the Dual Monarchy's subjects. They identified more with their Russian "adversaries" than with their Emperor and King. This is reflected in Švejk when the author describes how the Rusyns in Humenné were treated by the Hungarian state police after the Central Powers had re-conquered the area from the Russians in May 1915. The scenes from the Laborec Valley also include the first impressions of war damage, from Trebišov up the valley to Medzilaborce. I will get back to this in an imminent entry which purely covers the events on the Eastern front from the outbreak of war until July 1915.  At this time Jaroslav Hašek had reached at the front by the river Bug and Švejk would also have been there if the author had been able to finish his classic.
The points along the route in Slovakia mentioned by Hašek are Lastovce, Trebišov, Michalovce, Humenné, Brestov, Radvaň and Čabyna. As the author  most probably based his description on military maps from before the war (with Hungarian place names), the names, translated to Czech, are often bungled but still recognisable. This is the assumption of Antonín Měštän and sounds plausible.
I started off by walking from Sátoraljaújhely across to Slovenské Nové Mesto and in ten minutes I was in Michal'any where I back in 2004 had a few wonderfully tasty  and hallucinogenic Gemer Pivo. The beer was so outstanding that I instead of continuing to Trebišov, my sense of direction got muddled, and the misfortune happened to me that  I ended up on the train back to Nové Mesto.
The brewery in Rimavská Sobota has since been closed and the label is now owned by the Heineken group who brew it somewhere else. Nowadays the exquisite flavour and hallucinogenic effect is a distant dream. Have you ever noticed those  features in a Heineken? Still Heineken make some good beers in Slovakia, where they have a large market share. Zlatý Bažant can easily compete with the best Czech beers and Kelt and Corgoň are also excellent. The other big player is SABMiller with it's Šariš. Some of  their Czech beers are widely available and popular (Pilsner and Kozel). Still the Slovaks have not fully adopted the Czech beer culture despite 70 years of co-habiting. There are few if none of the classic hospody of the Czech Republic, and electronic receipts are used in place of the famous Czech paper tab.
I walked the 3 km from Michal'any to Lastovce. The village is quite extensive, with a sizable part of the population being gypsies. The station is  tiny, little more than a concrete shack full of flies and dozy passengers. I stumbled across a tiny but pretty pub where the owners let me in for an excellent Corgoň desítka despite it being two hours before they officially opened! It was an excellent welcome to Slovakia which  Hašek would have enjoyed. The next stop was Trebišov, who welcomes the guests with an ugly and dilapidated station. Unfortunately the town fits the picture, a collection of dreary socialist constructions strung out along one central street. I was only too well aware of the fact that this was only the first of several towns and cities of this type that I would visit in the next few months. There was still a noticeable difference from most places I had been to in Hungary; there was more bustle and it appeared altogether wealthier. The same could be said of Michalovce and Humenné.
In Michalovce I decided to watch Slovakia-Netherlands in the station cafe. Here the station was impeccably clean and modern but that was of little comfort as someone stole my camera while I was busy supporting his national team (he surely wasn't Dutch). Some might conclude that this misfortune happened because I was in "gypsy country". To that I can add that my fellow football fans in the cafe all seemed to the decent, white, patriotic Slovaks, proudly supporting their nation.
Petr Tymeš, Petr Procházka and Josef Švejk
A few days before Richard Hašek had put me in contact with the local český spolek in Humenné and two of them welcomed me at the station, carrying huge Pentax cameras. The brave soldiers  were Petr Tymeš and Petr Procházka and I was driven to the improbably named Hotel Alibaba. I had stayed at this high-rise monstrosity in 2004, then it had the more appropriate name Hotel Chemes, associated with the chemical plant which by 2010 was out of business. Humenné station was also the scene of the famous episode where Švejk saves his obrlajtnant from embarrassment by gulping down a whole bottle of "cognac" in one go.
In many ways Humenné is a typical purpose-built "Soviet" town; a mix of ugly high-rise, good town-planning and bankrupt industry. All is not gloom though: the central Námestie Slobody is a pretty enough pedestrian area and the local Skansen (open-air museum) is well worth a visit. The surroundings are pleasantly green and hilly like the rest of the Laborec valley. The town can also pride itself on the first Švejk statue in the world, erected in 2000. Since then a number of Švejk-statues have popped up; in Sanok, Przemyśl, Skelivka, Lviv, Kolodno, Omsk and St.Petersburg. When will the greatest of all Czechs be similarly honoured in his own homeland?
On the second day I went back all the way to Lastovce to retake all the photos I had lost the day before. This time I walked through Michalovce and it was not the grey communist town I had expected, it actually was far more agreeable than Trebišov. In it's attractive main street there was even a Švejk-pub but it was too early to visit it, and now my photo-activities had priority.
In the editorial offices of Pod Vihorlatom with
Marián Šimkulič and Anna Šimkuličová.
The stay in Humenné was a delight, not least because of the welcome I was given by the český spolek members. Petr Procházka even invited me along to the editorial offices of the local weekly, Pod Vihorlatom, where he is employed. I was interviewed by editor Anna Šimkuličová, not without language-difficulties, and was also told the story of how the Švejk-statue came into existence, and about various Švejk-arrangements, often in co-operation with enthusiasts in Poland and Hungary. There had been big arrangements, and celebrities Radko Pytlík and Richard Hašek from far-away Prague had taken part. I was given a tour of the Skansen by Jarmila Bříská, český spolek chairperson and teacher at a local college. The showed me around the Skansen, which has a good collection of wooden buildings from the region, amongst them one of the typical wooden churches.
On the third day the the two Petrs saw me off by the Švejk-statue on the station and took some more pictures. On the station premises alone there are four pubs, two of them are named after Švejk and they open at 6 in the morning! This is so workers can get the best possible start to the day when arriving to town from the surrounding area. Both serve excellent and fresh beer, the Kelt and Zlatý Bažant is a delight.

Further up the valley, visits to the small places of Brestov nad Laborcom, Radvaň nad Laborcom and Čabiny were compulsory stops. I managed Brestov and Radvaň on the way to Medzilaborce, walking between the first two with full equipment. On this sunny day in June 2010, it was hard to imagine the devastation Hašek describes. Green hills, green fields, peaceful villages and the clean Laborec river were images far removed from the horrors of devastated landscapes, rotting bodies and ravens going for the eyes of the dead.
I stopped in Medzilaborce for two nights, visited Palota up by the Łupków pass, and  then traced back to Čabiny. The first was strenuous because in Budapest my friend László Polgár had given me a Diet Coke bottle of Hungarian moonshine and I had dared to sample it the previous night. The result was considerable physical unease and slight mental disruption.  These sufferings  lasted almost the whole day, even the 12 km walk down from Palota was no cure.  Only the pleasant atmosphere and good Šariš in the pub in Čabiny restored my self-perception as a fundamentally sane person. My optimistic outlook for the next 4 months  also returned.
Andy Warhol in Medzilaborce
Medzilaborce is another dreary town with high unemployment rates and depressing architecture. The population is mixed Slovak, Rusyn and Gypsy and there are even some signs in Cyrillic letters. Orthodox churches are found all over the region. The main attraction of Medzilaborce is the Andy Warhol Museum of Modern Art. I didn't visit it this time but had done so in 2002. It is a huge museum for such a small place and the art inside is modern indeed. Back in those days I got  so confused with all the modernity that I on my way out mistook the baskets labelled respectively  "špinavé" and “čisté" for artistic creations. I even took pictures of them, thus recognising their importance in the world of art. Then I discovered that they were baskets for plastic shoe-covers; the words simply meaning "dirty" and "clean". Philosophically speaking I must have had certain problems in separating art from utility, and maybe also literature from reality. Maybe it's all one big Whole, so I was perhaps right after all? Warhol himself was actually born in Pittsburgh in 1928, but his parents had emigrated from nearby Miková in the years before.
Medzilaborce and Poland is separated by the Łupków Pass. The crossing was opened for railway traffic again in 1999, but services have since been cut back and now there are only trains at weekends during the summer-season. I just managed to watch the first half of Germany's mauling of Argentina before setting off across the Carpathians. Diego Maradona may be God to some people, but "La Mano de Diós" seems by now far too shaky to hold the steering-wheel of the great Argentinian football nation.

No comments:

Post a Comment