We left Bratislava and headed northeast toward Vlkolínec, a UNESCO World Heritage village in Slovakia. It was a particularly dreary day, punctuated occasionally by the squeak of the windshield wipers and the raising and then dismissing of other places to stop along the way. Trnava and Banská Bystrica – nahh, too big. The abandoned castle Pustý hrad in Zvolen – meh, tired of castles. How about a Benedictine monastery in Hronský Beňadik? A unique wooden church in Hronsek? Let’s not bother, we yawned.
Stuck in the middle of my trip notes was the name Špania Dolina. Thinking it was an area (dolina means valley) and not a specific town, I had relegated it to last place, so when we finally looked it up and saw it was a picturesque mining village, home to fewer than 200 people on the border of the Veľká Fatra and Low Tatras forest and mountains, we said Bingo.
We exited the main artery and navigated a heavily wooded, winding road up to the village. Pulling into the main square, we saw no signs of morning life. There was a cute bus stop with library books (but no people) inside, a covered stairway leading to an old church on the hill above us, and through the morning mist, we spied a smattering of stone and wood houses above us. We parked the car, grabbed our umbrellas, and tentatively peeked in the windows around the square. Nothing open.
Let’s climb up and look at the church and the views from there, I suggested, but I’m not going up inside those dark steps! (160 of them, said a sign at the bottom.)
We found a lane curving steeply up to the left and in minutes we found ourselves among quaint houses that we later learned were from the 17th and 18th centuries and typical examples of the rustic folk architecture in parts of rural Slovakia. Within view of the newer houses built into a hillside across a small valley, these old wooden homes were lovingly cared for, with decorative windows and neatly tended gardens and flower boxes. We crunched up the gravel road, trying to be quiet in the morning stillness, until we reached the church.
Although J had no interest in peeking inside, I stole up to the door and cracked it open, finding to my complete surprise a congregation in the midst of a murmured prayer. It was Sunday! Oh, that’s why there’s no one out and about. I gently closed the door and rejoined J, and we crept down through the covered stairway to the square, chuckling at our vacation-induced obliviousness and, ultimately, our luck in finding this tiny, authentic place in the middle of the Slovakian countryside.
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We continued on toward Vlkolínec, which we knew was situated near the bigger town of Ružomberok. We had planned to park in the latter and walk into Vlkolínec, but the rain discouraged us, and we punched the village name into Googlemaps to drive in. We saw a vague sign or two for the village, and got two orders to turn at places where we saw no real roads, so we kept going. Finally, the impatient mapping lady told us to turn where there was a path of sorts, and we obeyed; three minutes later we found ourselves rattling through a meadow full of cows on a track of gravel, destroyed asphalt, and mud.
Cursing my husband (because of course) and GPS inadequacy, I looked for a place to turn around, but there would be none of that. The “road” fell sharply off into pastureland and was barely wide enough for our little rented Audi (which I was now worried about damaging in the 6-inch deep ruts), let alone any oncoming traffic or a turnaround. Four anguished miles and at least twenty minutes later, as the trail became increasingly thin, muddy, and steep, we entered the village of Vlkolínec at its highest point, suddenly confronted by tourists and realizing that we had come in on a bike path and were now driving through a pedestrian village of twenty permanent residents and perhaps twice that many visitors on foot. Oops.
Embarrassed and apologetic, we steered our way slowly down through the village to the parking lot, where our punishment was a drenching downpour the minute we opened the car doors. In spite of the ignominious entrance and wet welcome, we took our time wandering this place out of time. Like Spania Dolina, Vlkolínec contained the wooden houses endemic to this part of forested Slovakia, but here the entire village had been preserved as if in a state of suspended life. These residents weren’t in church; they were probably hiding in the six enchanting log houses the villagers themselves still owned while we interlopers roamed their streets and snapped photo after photo of their water wheels, charmingly composed window vignettes, and wooden totems.
UNESCO’s synthesis of the town’s World Heritage designation notes its roots in the 10th century, its first records from the 14th, and the 55 or so remarkably intact homes of original folk architecture, primarily built in the 19th century. It felt a little as if Vlkolínec were not quite real as we drifted through its streets, but it was still the best kind of tourist spot, an understated place where the visitors were respectful and courteous, perhaps because most seemed to be fairly local themselves. There were families with dogs, couples huddled under ponchos, and intrepid hikers who braved deep grooves of mud to view the farm buildings and terraced fields on the edge of the unpretentious village. We didn’t hear a single word of English.
Back in the car, we felt we had just left the pages of two fairy tales, set in the big dark woods and replete with old stories of elves who helped the miners in Špania Dolina and the solemn but folksy wood figures that watched over Vlkolínec. It was a perfect way to spend a rainy day, and we felt lucky to have been offered a fleeting window into the Slovakian rural life tucked away in this wild and rugged countryside.