Our plan for this trip was to learn about the Slovak ancestry of our grandchildren. We had learned the names and locations of several A resident of a small village villages in the eastern part of the country which produced the immigrants who founded American branches of the Hopko, Jurus and Links families. Before the trip, we had prepared scrapbooks containing photos of those families -- whatever old family photos we had, plus photos of the living American relatives, so that if we did find relatives, we could show them their American cousins.
We had no idea that our plan would succeed so well. Despite major difficulties with language, we were able to make contact and have friendly visits in several villages. Inside a Greek Catholic cathedral We learned that the Catholic religion -- Roman, Greek or Byzantine Catholic -- is an integral part of the life of most Slovaks. We saw ancient castles and modern cities, and many museums which taught us that this area has a very long and rich history. And we learned about an ethnic group which were probably some of our more distant ancestors -- a people the Polish call Lemko, but known in Slovakia as Carpatho-Rusyns.
We were a group of four: Bob and Elsa, plus cousins Marilyn and Tom, who are also descended from Slovak and Polish families. Coming from different airports, we met in Bratislava, did some sightseeing while we recovered from jet lag, and then drove across the country to the area near Presov, One of the ancient wooden churches where we stayed for nine days, with excursions to Poland, meeting relatives and learning a great deal more about our family history. Then we turned west, to Martin, near the center of the country, learning about the region from which some Jewish ancestors originated. We finished our trip with three more days in Bratislava, where we met more relatives and explored quite a few museums and city attractions.
Driving in Slovakia was part of the adventure. Some drivers drove over 130 km per hour on open country roads, even though the speed limit was 90 and the roads had just two lanes with no shoulders. Perhaps the drivers engaged in wishful thinking, hoping that the roads between towns were actually motorways -- which, in fact, were rapidly being constructed. We witnessed numerous dangerous maneuvers, Stará L'ubovn'a castle and learned of the deaths of family members in three separate highway accidents. With all that, a cautious driver could enjoy driving in Slovakia, although some general familiarity with European driving would help.
Trains connect the major cities, but they did not look too inviting, and in any case the most charming sights and experiences were in the small villages where there was no train service. On the other hand, the trains and buses are reliable and inexpensive, and would be suitable for younger adventurers.
This was an exceptionally fortunate trip -- we were lucky in our genealogical work, lucky in sightseeing, and lucky in the weather, which could have been cold and rainy, but instead gave us nearly two weeks of uninterrupted mild sunny autumn weather, in the range of 40 to 65 degrees (Fahrenheit).
A produce market in Martin The language barrier was less serious than we feared, but for an unexpected reason -- the people would go out of their way to try to communicate, and there always seemed to be an English-speaker willing to lend a hand (although once we had a conversation in German just to be understood). We were grateful we had spent a year struggling with a Slovak language course, and equally grateful that we carried our dictionary so we could slowly write out sentences in Slovak.
For American visitors, Slovakia is remarkably inexpensive, especially the food. This made it possible for us to sample a variety of restaurants and select hotels without worrying about cost.
Eastern Europe, it seems to us, has all the technological savvy of a Western country, but needs to catch up after decades of state-run economies. This is happening rapidly, although the Eastern Europeans we met still complain of losing young workers to Ireland and England, and occasionally America. The good news is that they are all planning to return, and we have no doubt that the Eastern Europe of 2020 will be like the Western Europe of 2000 -- sophisticated and comfortable.
All in all, it was a joyous intense experience, and we hope that the more detailed reports to follow will communicate some of our happy discoveries.