Wood Altars and Ice Caves

Trip Start Jun 08, 2010
Trip End Aug 26, 2010

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Flag of Slovakia  , SK.,
Wednesday, August 11, 2010

This morning I had a little bit of left-over touring to take care of before I left Kežmarok. I wanted to go into the synagogue-looking church I had seen, and I read the ticket to that included admission to the wooden church next door. It turned out the Evangelical Church had never been a synagogue, but was consciously designed in that style when it was built in the 1800s. When I saw the inside, it was missing the balcony levels for the women, and was too thin to have had them, so even before reading the brochure, I was pretty sure it was never a synagogue. Interestingly, the church's guidebook kept saying it was built in a "mosque" style, but the prominent Stars of David made me think more synagogue than mosque.

The interior of the wooden church was much more impressive. While from the outside it looked like stone with a wooden roof, from the inside you could clearly see the entire structure was made of wood, and the walls on the outside were only coated in plaster. Inside, the wooden walls were painted with the usual murals of bible scenes and personages. What was unusual was all of the altars and the pulpit were also made of wood, although some of them had been painted with marble patterns. The main altar was done in a Baroque style, complete with faux-marble columns of impressively twisting wood. Unfortunately for readers, no pictures allowed, but I do have a book that includes shots of the church interior.

The elaborate interior was quite a contrast with the plain exterior. According to the information provided in the church, rules existed at the time of its construction requiring Protestant churches to be build outside of the main town and requiring the churches be built only of wood. The eastern portion of Slovakia was known for it's wooden churches, and I'm planning on seeing several more in the next week. I hope I will be able to go inside of those as well.

Last night, I did another bit of schedule-juggling to fit in a sight I hadn't planned. I think when I got down to the end of my trip, I got very lazy with my planning. I allocated an entire day for the city of Levoča, but it was clear from reading the guidebook yesterday that it would probably be closer to a half-day. On the other hand, I only had one day for Slovensky Raj National Park. The name meant "Slovak Paradise", and while the park was smaller than the set of parks covering the Tatras, Slovensky Raj had gotten better reviews from some of my Czech friends who'd been to the area.

Most of Slovensky Raj contained trails running along, through, or across a series of gorges, but I'm saving those for tomorrow. Today I decided to visit the Dobšinská Ice Cave. I know, visiting an ice cave in August sounds like as poor a plan as looking for sheep-pigs at the end of July, but I did some internet research and confirmed the cave temperature stayed below freezing year-round because of it's unusual bag shape, which allowed heat to escape while keeping the sun from reaching the interior. I expected there would be some ice left, even if it wasn't the best time.

The cave was at the end of a short, but uphill, climb that took around 10-20 minutes (I didn't time it), and was only accessible via a guided tour. In August, there was a regular Slovak-language tour scheduled every hour. When I got to the visitor's center at the cave entrance, there was an electronic board displaying the next tour times, and it had a 12:40 tour in German listed. When I looked at my watch, it was 12:36 and the line to buy tickets was short but slow. I confirmed at the ticket window there were no English tours and just barely made it to the entrance with my ticket as the last of the German group was going through the gate.

One small problem. I had driven to the cave straight from my hotel, and started the climb as soon as I got to the parking lot, so at this point I really needed to go to the bathroom. I asked the woman taking the tickets when the next German tour was and found out there wasn't one. The current German offering was only because a large group had called ahead and scheduled one, but I was free to tag along. I apologized to my bladder and went through the gate.

It turned out, I might as well have waited for the Slovak tour. My grasp of German cave-terminology was even worse than my knowledge of castle terms. I didn't understand very much of it, but from what I did understand, the tour verbiage probably wasn't very interesting anyway. It seemed to be a lot of "this thing is that high", or "this deep", or "X degrees cold", etc.

To add to my problems, I had been planning on changing into my thermal shirt when I used the bathroom, so I started out a little cold. Because I was behind the rest of the group, at our first stop, I decided to change while no one was looking. That plan went awry when the guide turned everyone around to look at the tunnel we had just come through. Don't worry, my method of changing was extremely modest, I could do it in front of a room full of people, but I'm sure I looked ridiculous. The Germans, or Austrians, certainly looked more involved in the ice-formations anyway.

So apart from all of that, the caves were great. I believe it was the lowest-altitude glacier in Europe. Parts of the cave were like walking through the largest snow-fort ever built, in the summer. Because it was summer, and melting apparently starts around May, there weren't as many ice stalactites and stalagmites as there could have been, but there were still a few large formations in the "Great Hall".

Part of a World Heritage site, the caves had been open for tours since 1871, having some of the the first electric lights of any cave installed between 1881 and 1887. Concerts had been held in the "Great Hall", which had been visited by dignitaries including several members of European royalty. From 1893 until 20th century, visitors were even allowed to ice skate there.

I took plenty of pictures because a photo ticket cost 10 euros, more than the adult entrance fee of 7 euros, and more than probably all the other photo tickets I've bought combined, and more than any entrance fee I've paid. I didn't mind splurging since I would have loved to have been able to take pictures in Skocjan Cave back in Slovenia, but couldn't. So anyway, appreciate the pictures!

After the cave I bought a cheap hiking map so I could plan a route for tomorrow and it was off to Levoča. The old-town was pretty but small, not much more than two blocks on a big square, and there weren't any museums that interested me, so half a day was plenty. The most prominent feature of the town was the Church of St. James.

My third UNESCO World Heritage site of the day (including the wooden church and the ice caves), St. James specifically, as well as Levoča in general, was included in the list as part of the area around Spis Castle (I'll go there soon). The interior featured a massive, Gothic, wooden altar carved over a period of years by Master Pavol, considered the best medieval artist in Slovakia, finishing in 1510. The nearly 19m high work was assembled without any nails. There were several side altars, also of wood, some also made by Pavol and some by later sculptors.

The interior was only accessible as part of a Slovak-language tour, but I found if you went into the church as part of a tour and then stood by the woman selling post-cards looking confused, she would ask you if you spoke German. If you said you preferred English, she would give you an English guide to the church artwork and allow you to wander on your own.

For me, the most impressive part of the main altar was a 3D carving of the Last Supper. Figures sat almost the entire way around the table with only a small opening between them at the front so you could see the table and Jesus. I also liked an unrelated epitaph that caught my attention because the upper section appeared to depict a man catching a baby as it was falling out of the sky, or maybe the baby was being tossed off a cloud by an angel. Reading the brochure, the baby represented his soul with the upper part symbolizing his birth and the bottom his death.

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