Into Slovakia

A bridge that crosses time

 

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How often in life is it the obscure or unexpected that ends up being so rewarding.

An early morning coach departure from Budapest in Hungary saw us headed for Hlohovec in southern Slovakia where the Sunshine Coast Oriana Choir was to give a performance in the little-known town.

It is part of a Central Europe tour by the 60-strong choral group from Australia.

The coach-ride through rolling agricultural land in Hungary brings us to the banks of the Danube River mid-morning.

Yet crossing the border into Slovakia was a non-event. It virtually went unnoticed … it was so easy.

No passport checks. No border control point. Instead, a great big bridge at Komarno where the Danube and Vah rivers come together.

This freedom of passage contrasts strongly to past times, especially during the communist era.

The years of totalitarian rule from 1948 to 1989, in what was then Czechoslovakia, saw the country’s political decisions dictated by the Soviet Union through the Komunisticka Strana Ceskoslovenska (KSC).

The country belonged to the Eastern Bloc and was a member of the Warsaw Pact.

During the era of Communist Party rule, thousands of Czechoslovaks faced political persecution for various offences, such as trying to emigrate across the borders, commonly known as the Iron Curtain.

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Komárno was formed from part of a historical town in Hungary situated on both banks of the Danube. Following World War I, the border of the newly created Czechoslovakia cut the town in half.

The smaller part, based on the former suburb of Újszőny, is in present-day Hungary as Komárom.

The two towns are connected by the Elisabeth Bridge, which used to be a border crossing between Slovakia and Hungary until border checks were lifted due to the Schengen Area rules.

The Danube here is not glamorous, being used industrially for transport of goods and machinery.

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The countryside is rural, displaying the bright faces of sunflowers turned towards the south-trending sun’s track.

“Tiny houses” could have been invented here. Re-invented and claimed in the trendy, greening western world.

There are no spaces wasted on the landscape as we drive on B-grade roads.

From the high view available on the coach we overlook agricultural pursuits on a minute scale.

An apple tree in someone’s back yard, absolutely dripping with ripe fruit as summer melds into autumn. A little square planting of grains and vines.

That is contrasted with the neighbouring broad-acre farming of crops as farmers pool their resources to remain cost-effective in today’s world economy.

At the same time this co-operative approach is a reminder of the communist system.

Roads here in southern Slovakia are lined with trees reminiscent of Australia’s coastal areas.

Avenues within forests of sycamore and beech – beautiful, bold white trunks beneath the lush green foliage.

While there are huge expanses of corn and grain fields, there is something missing from the landscape.

Animals. Where are the animals?

There are many decaying agricultural buildings. A hangover from communist planning?

Are the animals being housed inside barns to escape the harshness of winter?

Suddenly we see three horses tethered by an old barn.

Poplar trees line the waterways. Autumn, not yet properly here but approaching in a tinge of yellow on the edges of some.

Slovakia. Peaceful now but not always.

And how harsh was communism here?

How much of a change did the Velvet Revolution make in 1989? How did the locals feel then?

For so many years made to speak Russian instead of their native language. Just like they had been made by the Austro-Hungarian Empire before that.

Freedom, taken for granted in Australia, yet only new to the people here.

A power plant of windmills emerged on the landscape. A symbol of the new energy sweeping through this country.

No wind, they just stood still in the landscape of field after field of maize and sunflowers.

When sunflowers become ready to harvest they go grey/black.

Some live, bright yellow sunflower patches brightened the landscape.

A cemetery, marbled and tended with colours of flowers everywhere, in remembrance of loved ones.

This region must be harsh in winter. Matched by the way the spirit of the people was downtrodden by continual occupation.

Yet there is hope under the new-found freedom of an independent Slovakia.

The Slavic peoples arrived in the 5th and 6th centuries and were eventually integrated into the Kingdom of Hungary which itself became part of the Habsburg and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

With a population of more than five million, the Slovak Republic joined the European Union in 2004 and is now a high-income advanced economy.

It has a high standard of living and performs favourably in civil liberties, press freedom and democratic governance.

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Today we pass blocks of flats to house industrial and farm workers. Very sanitised.

There are attempts to brighten life, update the buildings and apply brighter colours.

There’s an odd colour in the sky … actually no colour. Like a faded, hazy old photo where the blue died out of it.

The hazy grey similar to the dulled decayed shades of old buildings.

There’s some massive factory off in the distance. I’m wondering what that is for.

“That’s the nuclear power plant,’’ I am told.

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