Despite an ex-boxer prime minister who arranged to have the country’s president’s son kidnapped, beaten up, and dumped at the border, Slovakia was one of my favourite destinations some 15-20 years ago. More particularly, Starý Smokovec, in the Tatra mountains.
Slovakia was a country with an attitude in the early 1990s. In next-door Hungary the prime minister had just announced he was not prime minister of Hungary, but of all Hungarians; tantamount, just about, to a declaration of war. With its sizable Hungarian minority, history of being invaded by Hungary (the last time in 1968, as fighting strafed the streets of Prague during the Prague Spring), and while Yugoslavia nearby crumbled, Slovakia tensed.
Mercier, the infamous Slovak prime minister, argued for Slovakia joining the newly formed CIS, formed from the ex-USSR, to become the”richest state in the CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States) instead of the poorest in the European Union, and banned shops using only the Hungarian language on their signs.
I loved the atmosphere of turmoil in Eastern Europe at the time. Writers need tension, conflict and pressure – just ask the Czechoslovak authors who wrote the masterpieces they did under the communist regime, permanently fighting censorship or worse.
But most of all I loved coming to Starý Smokovec.
I was in various locations in Eastern Europe in those early years of the decade, but whenever I wanted to add a few more chapters to my burgeoning book, I would head straight for the mountain town for a few weeks, in summer, winter, spring and autumn. I stayed in various different pensions, each one clean, charming, with a table in a room with a view. Considering the pensions started around €5 per night at that time, I was able to spend all my breaks ensconced in a room, coming out for breathtaking walks among trails, or a few Tatran beers, surely the world’s finest beer, made on site.
Starý Smokovec was the ideal writer’s retreat. A small town in the Tatra mountains, with clean air, not too much to do except walk, and write, a language that I did not understand but was charming to the ear, and prices that meant I was able to concentrate on the book without worrying about where my next meal would come from.
The Tatra mountains were just right for the writer – easily accessible but out of the way, with those great mountain hikes and lubrication. Even the tea was good. I wrote in all seasons, in chalets and pensions and bars, over garlic soup, cheese and bread. I took trips to Moldavia, in the new Czech Republic, just as Dubček, one of the architects of the 1968 Prague Spring died in a mysterious car crash. I took trips down to Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia, where I travelled with false documents as the Serbs in Belgrade tried to get rid of Milosovic and his Lady Macbeth, until the Serb police got rid of me. I took trips to Romania, during those infamous days when miners were paid to come to Bucharest to crack a few demonstrating student heads open, after the fake ‘revolution’ that got Ceaucescu and his Lady M out of the way (more about that in my book!). And I travelled to the Ukraine, with its visas issued not to the day of departure, but hour.
And I returned to Starý Smokovec to write. Those were special days of change.