Sunday, 14 September 2008

I wanna live like common people

So much of being a tourist, particular in Europe it seems, is checking out how the rich people lived. In towns and cities your guide books direct you to the posh bits, the former homes of burghers, merchants and bankers, with their richly decorated squares and attractive town houses. Or else you might go really up-market and check out the former abodes of royalty, the castles, palaces and mansions of lineages current and ancient. Even those represented in museums tend to be those better off, which is hardly surprising seeing as those with wealth were better able to document and preserve their lives in diaries, letters and business ledgers for those to come.

So yesterday in Slovakia we did the exact opposite. Heading to the Museum Slovenske Dediny (The Museum of Slovak Villages) just outside the Mala Fatra National Park, we spent an hour or so nosing round four preserved villages from different regions of Slovakia. With some of the earliest buildings dating back from the beginning of the 1700s this was a chance to see how the vast majority of people - landless peasants, farmers, cloth makers, weavers, hatters, smiths - lived while their so-called-betters were swanning it about in the various (now ruined) castles we've seen dotting this country's beautiful landscape.

It was a charming place, the buildings with their thatched roofs, cheerful market gardens and dark timbers giving the whole place a picture postcard look, especially in the warm autumn sunshine under clear blue skies. However there was no escaping the functionality of these buildings - there was no false glamour. Peering in through doorways or tiny windows we could see small rooms clearly used for both sleeping, eating and cooking and perhaps more: several were occupied by looms, spinning wheels and wool carders, the means by which agriculturalists would supplement their income on cold winter days.

Today we followed this up by detouring (on our way to Bratislava) via the little village of Cicimany which, our guidebook said, is a fine example of village tradition. The dark wooden houses decorated with geranium filled window boxes and painted white patterns on the timbers were charming as were the little wooden footbridges crossing the stream. But two things really made it for us. The first was venturing into a local cafe for a coffee at 10am and finding it full of merry male locals hard at work drinking beers and shots of Slovakian gin while singing at the tops of their voices. Brilliant. One of them spoke a bit of English and when we asked what the occasion was he simply said "alcohol." Apparently they'd been at it for three days. Hurrah! Equally entertaining was the "guide" in the village-life museum down the road. All the exhibit labels for the traditional costumes and craft items were in Slovak, so we asked if they had an English version. The receptionist obligingly put on a CD which then played on speakers throughout the museum describing for us what we were seeing. As far as we could tell the text was perfect English, but whoever was reading it had obviously little skill with the language. As a result the heavily-accented speech moved at a monotonal snail's pace, as the female narrator not so much stumbled as tripped, slipped and fell headlong over the words giving us such gems as "Frish Vorld Vah" (WWI). Special.

Although going from gorgeous city to gorgeous city is hardly a tiresome experience, it made an extremely refreshing change to go rustic for once.

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