2015 Youngstown/Spišská Nová Ves Tour: Unbelievable

A warm sunny day greeted us as we arrived in Vienna, viagra sale a preview of the unusual heat we would experience for the next twelve days. Having an air conditioned bus waiting was convenient and although a little travel weary, the group was anxious to begin a combination walking and bus tour of Vienna prior to the short ride to Bratislava. A quick registration at the strategically located Radisson Carlton Blue Hotel in Bratislava allowed time for a brief tour of the city prior to the delicious evening meal. A good night’s sleep sufficiently prepared us for the busy day that included a tour of the city and its historical sites, followed by a welcome dinner in Svaty Jur that featured wine tasting. As usual, the wine samples were numerous and the presentation interesting, thus a good start to an eventful two weeks.

Traveling northward, a stop was made in Smolenica to visit the gravesite of Stefan Banic, inventor of the modern parachute, who made his home in Greenville, PA, before returning to Slovakia in his retirement years. His story is quite interesting, and for years a Stefan Banic parachute festival was held in Greenville. The next stop was made in Kosariska to visit an impressive monument and museum of a prominent Slovak hero, General Milan Rastislav Stefanik. A statue of General Stefanik also serves as a centerpiece memorial in the Slovak Cultural Gardens in Cleveland, OH. In addition to the history lesson, and lovely scenery, the group enjoyed a very good lunch in the quaint village.

The Folk performance in Krakovany complete with a “mock wedding”, proved to be a hit with Mona Lepis and Dr. John Adan, chosen for the bride and groom role during the wedding ceremony and celebration. Mona has been on the tour for five consecutive years, besting the three years of John’s participation. Of course there is a video tape of the wedding, which serves as “proof” of the ceremony. During the festivities, David Olinzok demonstrated, as claimed, that he really is a good polka dancer, as he kept the women in the folk group quite busy, and their delight was highly evident. David, a retired math teacher took every opportunity available to dance throughout the tour including a waltz along the Danube River with Christine Hovanec as the brave dancing partner.

Trencin, always a highlight of the tour, was comprised of an evening with special friend Jozef Duraci and his gold-medal, award- winning youth folk group “Kornicka.” The friendship with Jozef dates back many years when he stayed with (Youngstown/Spisska Nova Ves Sister Cities President Emeritus) Steve Bacon in Youngstown, OH, for seven months working for Edward Demechko in his construction business. (Another interesting story too long for the telling here). In addition to “Kornicka’s” success in winning gold medals in international competition, the young members of the group excel in academics and other related activities. Joe delights when he is credited with making the best goulash, and it is always served in ample portions, along with breads and pas- tries too numerous to list. He also makes and bottles under his name, a variety of wines and palinky (beverages distilled from fruit) for which Slovakia is widely known. These include slivovica (made from plums), boravicka (made from juniper berries), hruskavica (made from pears), along with a host of others. Of course a variety of these drinks were available, along with Joe’s legendary hospitality. The performance was splendid, and the evening ended after much socializing and picture taking— with the young performers delighted to pose when asked.

Despite a relatively heavy schedule, a tour of Trencin with a visit to Trencin Castle for those interested, was accomplished as well as a visit to the world-famous spa town of Piest’any. Joyce Arnoff along with daughter Ellie, and Carol Berger were able to squeeze in a brief treatment (with some influential help) upon arrival in the well-known city. The rest of the tour chose to independently shop, have lunch, and visit the many sites in the square.

Traveling to the Tatra Mountain region included a stop in Terchova, home of the legendary Juraj Janosik, (1690-1713) known as the “Slovak Robin Hood.” There are many stories regarding this national hero, and reminders of Janosik are everywhere.

Arriving at the Grand Hotel Praha in Tatranska Lomnica allowed only for a short shower prior to traveling to sister city, Spisska Nova Ves, for a special affair (which is a separate story–stay tuned.) The Grand Praha, which is really grand as its name denotes, enjoys a strategic location, allowing easy access to the beauty of the Tatra Mountains to which we took advantage. An evening was spent in Stara Lesna at the Zbojnicka Koliba (Shepherd’s hut) where owners Strojni and Bicko, made every effort to ensure an enjoyable evening. The long held tradition of cutting off the necktie of any unsuspecting patron wearing one is custom- ary. The owners well aware of the previous year in which Kay Bench had supplied ties for the entire group including guide Viera Marecova, and bus driver Arnie Mesaros. The owners caught off guard in the past were prepared, but once again thwarted as only the males were wearing ties. However, the cutting machete was sharpened for the evening-ending ceremony and the ties dis- patched to decorate the walls. The evening of eating, drinking, dancing, and overall merriment was enhanced by the Roma (gypsy) musicians who seemingly know virtually every song, Slovak and American, and are anxious to please.

The next day involved a soothing raft ride down the Dunajec River which serves as the natural boundary with Poland. The beautiful scenery remains too difficult to adequately describe. Following the raft ride, which included many entertaining stories, we were afforded an opportunity to visit Poland via a newly constructed bridge. It should be mentioned that prior to the raft ride, a delicious surprise picnic lunch had been provided by the tour hosts.

Always notable is a visit to the famous walled city, Levoca, which also is known as The “Holy City”. Located in the city square is the awe inspiring cathedral of Svaty Jakub (St. James) with the world’s highest hand carved wooden altar. The altar carved by Master Pavol is one of his many carvings and its beauty is beyond description. This lovely city is the destination of the annual pilgrimage (Odpust) every July.

Most members of the group met the challenge associated with the long uphill, semi-circular walk to Slovakia’s largest castle: Spis castle. Although recent improvements to a road allows closer bus, and automobile proximity, the final walking phase requires some effort. For first time visitors, the castle is worth the effort.

Always impressive, and a tour highlight is the official reception with the Mayor of Spisska Nova Ves Jan Volny PhD. Dr. Volny, highly popular with the people, seems to enjoy the visit and exerts maximum effort to make the visit memorable and enjoyable. An added advantage accorded to our group is that Mayor Volny and our extraordinary guide Viera Marecova have been friends dating back to their school years; and, as such, we know the high value that the mayor places upon the sister city relationship.

Proceeding the mayor’s official greeting was a succession of highly talented performers. Young Lucas Francovic sang so beautifully that tears were evident in the eyes of many. Once again some of the women joked about “taking him home in a suitcase”. Equally impressive was young (18 year old) Patricia Pravlikova who demonstrated a maturity beyond her years, while thrilling everyone with musical magnificence. Her lovely voice is matched by beauty and charm in addition to a warm gracious personality. Zuzanna Kleinova, administrative aid to the mayor, absolutely dazzled the crowd earning a standing ovation with her rendition of “Smoke gets in your eyes”. Following Mayor Jan Volny’s welcome and short address related to the history and significance of Spisska Nova Ves, and a brief response from James M. Bench, President of the Youngstown/Spisska Nova Ves Sister Cities Program, the tour participants were called individually to sign the official city registry. Mayor Volny greeted each person while presenting a variety of gifts which included a large impressive historical book about Spisska Nova Ves and the Spis Region. Following the formal ceremony the tour group was led to the Reduta Concert Hall for a sumptuous meal, informal socializing, and a few more vocals with pianist Elana Tancosova accompanying.

Mayor Jan Volny – discovering that Joyce Arnoff, daughter Ellie, and Carol Berger had a personal interest in their Jewish heritage – had his staff requisition an automobile, taking them to the Jewish cemetery, synagogue, and other pertinent sites. It certainly was a nice gesture on the part of the popular mayor. Joyce, Ellie, and Carol were very busy with side trips to various villages as they traced their ancestry, with the assistance of Anton Marec, husband of our charming guide Viera.

Following the memorable meeting with the mayor, the evening was spent in the hotel where another fine meal was offered. Entertainment was provided by a talented local band who involved our entire group following demonstrations of various dance steps. In actuality, some people were quite good including Ellie Arnoff, Dorothy Tesner, Nancy Troha and Jerome Blasko. The young entertainers from the reception had joined us for the evening and, of course, the dance steps were familiar to them. They were graceful, fluid and danced with enthusiasm, and laughingly stated that they had mastered the dance steps at age four. Lucas Frankovic and Patricia also volunteered to sing a few songs with Jerry Blasko accompanying them on the piano. Jerry is a talented musician who can play several instruments, and he along with his lovely wife Glenda immensely enjoyed their initial visit to Slovakia.

Two days in Kosice allowed for a little free time to explore the city independently, visit relatives or simply enjoy the biggest city in eastern Slovakia – one that was named the 2013 European Capital of Culture together with Marseille, France. Of course, a city tour included visiting the gorgeous Cathedral of St. Elizabeth, and the numerous interest- ing sites in this historical, and restored city. Staying at the Doubletree Hilton located on the main square was beneficial given its proximity to shopping, restaurants, colorful water cascades, parks and fountains. The two days passed quickly, the next stop being in Sliac at the luxurious Spa Hotel Kaskady which allowed the group time to relax while enjoying the soothing thermal pools and oth- er amenities. A visit and short tour of nearby Banska Bystrica proceeded the special dinner at the Cerveny Rak restaurant, where we enjoyed the singing and dancing of a folk group directed by Josef Mak.

The tour was now nearing the end as we arrived in Nitra, and there was concern relative to a challenging uphill walk to the Cathedral of St. Emmeram, a must see in Nitra. In previous years, Father Martin Stefanec had provided the transportation as buses are prohibited, but Father Martin had been called out of the country. We stopped a local tour trolley inquiring of the driver if his trolley traveled near the cathedral. The driver ex- plained that the trolley only toured the down- town section and surrounding parks. How- ever, upon learning that we were Americans of Slovak heritage, he responded by saying that he could not disappoint such a group, and changed his route to accommodate us. As we started to board the first of his two cars, the Slovaks occupying the car exited and boarded the second car thus allowing our group to stay together. No request had been made, and it was another example of Slovak courtesy. What good people! Additionally the trolley operator adamantly re- fused to accept a tip. He lost that argument. The visit to St. Emmeram as always, was inspiring, as was the Chapel of Pribana with its monastic choir niches or choir stalls. It is the place where monks chant in prayer. In order for us to experience the variations of tones acquired through the indentations in the concrete wall, Christine Hovanec was chosen to demonstrate the tonal qualities, which she did beautifully. She was joined by Jerome Blako who added his masculine voice.

Wine rich Pezinok was chosen for the farewell dinner with good friend Justin Sedlak Sr. making the arrangement at Tres Wine Cellar. He also supplied the table wine in generous quantities that had everyone raving about the quality. The dinner and wine was a fine conclusion to an eventful tour.

Although the fourteen-day tour was ending with a return to Bratislava and the flight from Vienna, memories are forever; and, as in the past, many friendships were formed. We will fondly remember the small village of Tichy Potok, where we were so warmly greeted by the longtime Mayor, Lubica Dzuganova, and her folk group. Lubica was the youngest female ever elected to that post in Slovakia. Her story in saving the village from becoming a victim of a dam proposal is yet another interesting story. Lubica had spent almost a year in Youngstown and is always delighted to entertain the Youngstown Sister Cities group. The young female folk group is a delight and the older women add to the festivities. The home cooked meal is always enjoyable, and Lubica is very generous with the alcoholic drinks. As usual, David Olinzock was busy on the dance floor, how- ever Dorothy Tesner as his dancing partner displayed a variety of twists, turns and intri- cate steps to the delight of our small crowd. It was our version of “Slovaks got Talent.”

We will always remember the visit to Litmanova where apparitions of the Blessed Mother Mary occurred in the 1990’s. Christine Hovanec led the group in prayer and Kay Bench, as in past years, read a list of people remembered in our prayers. Many in the group left the Holy Site with a bottle of water taken from the spring that the Holy Mother had blessed.

A big thank you is in order to John Adan M.D., a brilliant heart surgeon, from Arizona for historical input. Dr. Adan, born in Slovakia, has extensive knowledge relative to “Slovakia in total.” Along with our incomparable guide Viera Marecova, their combined knowledge can be best described as encyclopedic. Dr. Adan will once again be with us for his fourth Sister Cities Tour in July 2016.

In terms of a thank you segment, we appreciate the efforts of Peggy Berger for a pre-tour luncheon, and her role in recruiting Carol Berger, Joyce Arnoff, and her delightful daughter, Ellie. Ellie as a younger member can be remembered for her enthusiasm, vitality and energy, especially in the dances. Others on the tour visiting ancestral villages included Larry Palguta, Dorothy Tesner, William and Mary (Lynn) Simmons, Jerome Blasko and wife Glenda. Larry Palguta had done an astonishing geological study, of course one would expect as much from such an extraordinary attorney. Greg Maurer also impresses with an avalanche of family information. Imagine traveling to Slovakia and discovering that you are related to a per- son on the tour unknown previously to each other. Such was the case of Greg Maurer and Mary (Lynn) Simmons who live approximately 40 miles from each other in western Pennsylvania. Another amazing twist was Greg’s discovery that a close co-worker in his business office is also related; one can never be sure what a 4000 mile journey will produce.

The 2015 tour was fortunate to have had a number of individuals from previous tours in addition to the aforementioned Dr. John Adan, Mona Lepis, best friend of Kay Bench dating back to their nurses’ training, has been on five consecutive tours and has in Slovakia developed many friendships. Like her best friend Kay neither are actually Slovak, however the Slovak people have designated them as “Man Made” Slovaks. Bob Matsco, with many friends and relatives in Slovakia was welcomed back for his fourth tour. A quiet intelligent man with a successful career of accomplishment, Bob is proud of his heritage, and his actions reflect that pride. It is a pleasure to associate with such an honorable man. Returning after a few years absence were Shirley and Robert (Bob) Troha. The retired teachers were accompanied by their daughter Nancy who added greatly to the tour with charm, wit and a sparkling personality. Shirley and Bob greatly enjoyed the incomparable Slovak Medovino (Honey wine) and their return suitcase undoubtedly contained the legal allowance. A great trio and enjoyable companions to be sure.

As we look forward to the 2016 tour which celebrates the 25th year of the Youngstown/ Spisska Nova Ves Sister Cities Program, and the many accomplishments since its inception, we invite those who are interested to join us. The 2015 members as in past groups, formed an immediate bond and were a pleasure to accompany.

Submitted by: James M. Bench