At the age of 71, it was an adventure ride of a lifetime I just had to do.
The Balloon Fiesta
Features Editor John Newton is Up Up and Away
Opportunities had been offered before, but the weather had always spoiled the event.
This time it was a perfect day in Kosice in south-eastern Slovakia to take to the skies and see this charming city from the dizzy heights of a hot air balloon. After all, it was the city’s ‘Balloon Fiesta’.
So it was with some trepidation that I climbed into the balloon’s basket for what the Romanian pilot assured his four passengers would be a spectacular flight over the historic city to a landing spot in the countryside.
And indeed it was – until we came to touch down, that is.
Told to brace for landing, we just missed a tall clump of bushes and skimmed over a country road before the basket hovered over a field, hit the ground with an almighty thud and bounced not once but three times as the pilot battled to bring the balloon under control. Unfortunately, I’d fallen to the floor after losing my grip on a rope safety handle and the nearest passenger fell on top of me as I rolled around in a state of helplessness.
Slightly bruised and winded, I managed to moan and groan enough to get help to scramble from the basket, vowing at the time that this would be my last time in a hot air balloon.
However, more importantly, the hair-raising tumble did not spoil the exhilarating flight over Kosice. And, the champagne for ‘surviving’ the adventure was gratefully received by all, including the pilot, who apologised for the rough landing, adding that it could have been worse!
It was my first outdoor experience in the Kosice region – but for the rest of the trip I made sure my feet stayed firmly on the ground, although the memories will linger on of the breathtaking views once the balloon was aloft.
Once the second most important city of the Hungarian Kingdom, Kosice is a rich and diverse city on the move – in art, culture (it was the European Capital of Culture in 2013), gastronomy, industry, tourism, transport (trams are being re-introduced to the city) wine producing and new attractions for both locals and visitors.
It’s a far cry from the years of communist regime, although some grim apartment blocks are still standing in and around the city.
The birthplace of Bela Gerster, chief engineer of the Corinth Canal in Greece, and co-architect of the Panama Canal, few would believe that many houses in Hlavna Ulica - Kosice’s main street - are 500-year-old, and even 700 years-old in some parts of the city. Yet, many are in splendid condition in this relatively untapped tourist destination known, like Adelaide here in Australia, as ‘the city of churches’. And, some in Kosice have a tale of two to tell, such as St Michael’s Church, next to the massive St Elizabeth’s Cathedral - the biggest in Slovakia, with a capacity of more than 5000 people. It took 128 years to build and dominates the south end of the city’s picturesque main square.
When work stated on the church in 1378, the building dedicated to St Michael was already finished and is considered a much better example of Gothic architecture than its neighbour. Serving originally as a cemetery chapel, its lower part was an ossuary, housing bones uncovered in the old cemetery, while its upper part was a site for requiems.
It was not until 2006 that St Michael’s received re-classification as a full-on church – and is now as busy as a wedding venue as it was as a cemetery chapel.
An ‘Old Town’ walk will take you to some other fascinating places that are concealed in little side streets, such as the medieval Miklus Prison, now a museum, where every May there’s an event when the old jail comes to life with real wails and screams of prisoners and those being tortured. Also not to be missed are the City Coat of Arms - the oldest and first-ever municipal coat-of-arms in Europe from 1369, Old Town Hall, the House of Art or the synagogue on Puskinova streeet and The Executioner’s Bastion and Rodosto – the most stunning example of medieval Kosice, which protected one of the entrance points to the city.
The second largest city in Slovakia – after Bratislava – Kosice is situated in the foothills of the Slovak Ore Mountains – not far from the border with Hungary. The city is home to the oldest marathon in Europe, it boasts the largest monument reservation in Slovakia, with the biggest and most significant golden treasure in Europe – but primarily, as the city’s tourist office maintains, it’s a place where life can be experienced and enjoyed.
Compared with Western European countries, Slovakia is top value-for-money when it comes to food and drink and accommodation. And Kosice is no exception, with many downtown cosy cafes, fine restaurants and stylish wine bars bursting at the seams on warm spring and summer nights. Diners can discover a plethora of traditional Slovak dishes, which have been influenced by Hungarians, Carpathian Germans, the Balkans and the Turks. Try one of the most widely-known Slovak dishes, bryndzove halusky – made up of sheep cheese dumplings. It’s more than likely you’ll get to taste it – and a host of other Slovak dishes - at the food festival, Gurman Fest (Gourmet Festival) in Kosice. Every June, people from all walks of life descend on City Park as aromas of sumptuous food fill the air. The best restaurants and hotels – together with well-known Slovak and international chefs – create mouth-watering morsels to tempt the tastebuds of young and old.
If time is on your side, a side trip or two out of the city is highly recommended. Locals like nothing better than to go on holiday to Zemplinska sirava, a man-made lake in the Kosice region, dubbed the ‘Slovak Sea’. Here, you can take to the lake on jet skis; water bikes and yachts or just relax on a sightseeing cruise, or in one of several swimming pools and beaches next to the lake. Nearby are a number of resorts, restaurants and camping sites. Rising in popularity and also close to the lake in Kaluza is a giant thermal park, where geo-thermal water is used for all wellness activities, including Finnish and herbal saunas, steam bath and whirlpool, as well as in its ‘Aqua World’, which consists of massage, relaxing and thermal pools, wave and swimming pools and kids pool.
Further afield, close to the Ukraine border, is Ruska Bystra – a Greek-Catholic wooden church, built without nails, in the first half of the 18th century. In 2008, it was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List – along with seven other wooden churches in the Slovak part of the Carpathian Mountain area. The churches were built in small, poor villages and are examples of a rich local tradition of religious architecture, marked by the meeting of Latin and Byzantine cultures.
In the centre of Slovak Tokaj is one of the country’s best winemakers – awarded Slovakia’s winery of the year in 2009, 2010 and 2011. Located in village of Mala Trna, Tokaj Macik Winery claims to produce the most famous Tokaj wines from the finest grapes in the best vintages using the oldest procedure, saying it’s keeping the classical oxidative method of aging wine in a medieval cellar in wooden barrels for several years. Many investors don’t even see their wines after they’ve purchased them - keeping them stored indefinitely in the spooky medieval cellar. Classic Tokaj wines have also been the choice of royalty, including Louis X1V of France, and by the Russian Tzar’s. They’re also favoured by three and two-star Michelin restaurants in Belgium, as well as some of London’s top restaurants.
Upmarket pension accommodation, home-made food and wine tasting in the cellar are a memorable Slovac winery experience.
Despite its sad, but always interesting history, Kosice is a lively, enjoyable and safe city – which is yet to be fully discovered by visitors from outside of Eastern Europe.
Kosice has its hands firmly on the most significant golden treasure in Europe. In 1935, a group of Czech workers were digging in the cellar of the city’s old financial directorate’s building when they found 2920 gold coins, three gold medals and a Renaissance gold chain in a copper casket. Weighing in at 11.5 kilograms, it was one of the largest coin finds in European history.
The one, two and three-day Kosice Welcome Card provides free entry or discounted offers at cafes in the city, museums, restaurants and wine shops. Available from the Visitor Centre on Hlavna Street, it also offers free travel on public transport. For more details on Kosice go to www.visitkosice.eu – or www.kosiceregion.com
Place to stay:
In Kosice, the Bristol Boutique Hotel - one of the city’s finest properties – is located in the historical centre. It has 32 rooms and offers free entrance to a luxurious Roman Spa. It also features a top-class Italian restaurant and lobby bar. More details at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Getting there: The writer travelled from Singapore to Vienna with Air France before taking a train for the 525-kilometre, seven-hour 25-minute journey from the Austrian capital to Kosice via Bratislava. Rail Plus in Melbourne will provide full details on train times and the appropriate rail passes to buy before leaving Australia for travel in Europe. www.railplus.com