Urban restoration has transformed Kosice, Slovakia’s second city, into an undiscovered gem
Kosice isn’t the sort of place you usually ‘end up’, but that’s exactly how it happened with me. An accommodation mix-up in the Slovensky Raj National Park, which left me roomless and tentless with dusk drifting over the karst, and the first train out of there — to anywhere — was the only option.
From an empty carriage in the dead of night, I caught my first sight of Slovakia’s second city, which lies close to both the Ukrainian and Hungarian borders. A steelworks, rusting railcars, rows of Soviet concrete housing blocks pinpricking the black with low-watt orange light. Oh dear.
But this morning, sipping a sugary cappuccino outside Café Aida, my spirits are lifted by an unexpected vibrancy. The cigar-shaped main square, Hlavne namestie, is peppered with pleasing architecture: here a rococo town hall, there a 14th-century Franciscan church restored as part of an ongoing civic project. Three buildings dominate: Urban’s medieval tower to the north, the late 14th-century funerary Chapel of St Michael to the south, and, right in the middle, the Cathedral of St Elizabeth.
Quite why St Elizabeth, a Hungarian blueblood who died in 1231 and is, among other things, the patron saint of toothache, deserved such an astonishing edifice isn’t mentioned. Her cathedral is the most easterly built in the Gothic style, and one of the finest — almost a match for Amiens or Rouen. Outside, the building is dripping with iconographic masonry. Bearded Hungarian gargoyles jostle with an intricate Passion. Inside, it’s a museum of Gothic and Renaissance art: towering vaulting and fading frescoes, giant, gold-braided wooden altarpieces that almost match those of Master Paul in the Church of St James in Levoca.
More than any of this, it’s a place that feels intensely holy. Despite Turkish invasion, Total War and state atheism, Catholic Slovaks much younger than me still kneel to pray in their droves. I step outside. It’s raining and I feel somehow guilty.
Climbing the 160 steps to the top of the bell tower is an altogether more secular experience, one that wouldn’t pass a health and safety inspection at home. For a vertigo-sufferer, it’s quite an achievement and is instantly rewarded with a close-up of the cathedral’s tessellated roof, reminiscent of Burgundy’s Hospices de Beaune.
On the hill to the east, I can see the housing blocks that provided my first, heart-sinking half-view of Kosice last night. They are a reminder that, for all that this city feels like part of a Europe I know and understand (peanut flavour crisps excepted), it isn’t so long ago that this was literally a different world.
Overall, Kosicans are pleased to see me. Dotted around the place are information boards that read ‘Welcome to Kosice, the city of Tolerance and Understanding’. Although aside from this (in English), I’m not understanding much, it’s just about enough to navigate the cultural city. Up the road, the East Slovakia Museum rewards a wander, especially its Golden Treasure of Kosice. Now, for something to get away with calling itself a Golden Treasure, it better have some dazzle to back up its bark. This treasure, almost 3,000 gold coins, measures up. It sat undiscovered for 250 years until a construction worker renovating Lenin Street came across a strange copper bowl under the floorboards.
It takes quite a lot to get me excited about coins; my numismatic knowledge is right up there with my proficiency at necromancy and love of coarse fishing. But this is something special. There are gold coins minted in 81 countries around Europe. Though most are from Hungary, Transylvania and Holland, Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain crown a few ducats, as does the Yorkist rose of Edward IV. There’s even a Thracian coin from around 300 BC among the hoard, stashed away by a panicking nobleman in the decades after the Thirty Years’ War.
With night falling, and stocked up on fried goose liver and dark Slovak beer, I head for the small park opposite the State Theatre. Locals and visitors gather beside this neo-baroque concert hall with its great wedding cake of a roof. Right next to me hundreds of little fountains dance to music broadcast on the town’s PA system, now fading to a momentary trickle, then building to a crescendo of foam as the philharmonic climaxes.
My guidebook sneers at the kitsch attraction, but tonight, with the jets lit up in lime, cyan, and amber, the effect is one of hypnotic enchantment. The perfect end to a wonderful and totally unexpected day, spent in the best place I’ve ever ended up by mistake.