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Rolling into the Mountains of the Slovak Republic

Wednesday, October 5th, 2005

For most of us with Slovak roots, meeting family in Slovakia is like the coming together of two worlds – two lifetimes. It’s like filling a hole in a puzzle.

My puzzle had a few extra pieces. Once I discovered a living relative in Slovakia it took me about two years to arrange the trip. My puzzle includes getting around in a wheelchair. The solution came, oddly enough while I was in Brazil.

I was born among Chicago Slovaks (MAZALAN, JANOTA, KLIMCIK) who worked at Benet’s “Wiretown” Factory in Blue Island as tool and die makers and whose children took up insurance and flooring. Metalwork and floor tiles run for generations through our family story. In Slovakia I learned of chapters involving the Rockefellers importing Mazalan’s proprietary sharpening stones, family stoneworkers repairing the lintels in Trencin Castle, and Oravsky Podzamok’s display of the Mazalan quarry and the family’s master stoneworkers. I also learned that the family property, expropriated under the Communists, is now the seedy Medzibrodie nad Oravou grocery and pub. I laughed to learn that several of my grandfather’s “favorite nephews” never really existed! It turns out that one relative mastered both stoneworking and prevarication. For years he graciously accepted donations of clothing and money from my grandfather to support his fictitious children!

Communist Era Pub on our Expropriated Homesite

Family history is so much better than TV soap operas. And I never would have known any of it without visiting our ancestral villages of Medzibrodie nad Oravou, Bziny, Pribis, and Presov in Orava.

I was born in Chicago but Seattle is home for me. The family moved there when I was young. So, Slovak cultural influence on me, that far from a Slovak enclave, was pretty much limited to Catholicism, paprikosh, and kolachkes. Oh yes, there were the high-spirited music and dancing sessions when we visited Chicago. We’re Gorals after all! Still, I never learned a word of Slovak.

But I did learn Portuguese. In high school and college I was an exchange student in Brazil. To celebrate my 20th wedding anniversary I arranged a return with my wife decades after losing touch with my Brazilian host family. I began an Internet-assisted search for them. Offhandedly, just to master the Internet, I applied my successful search strategies to researching my Slovak roots. I found both families at about the same time. In Rio, amid a festive “family” reunion, I asked about a missing host family member. “Oh, she married an American,” I was told. “He works for the American Consulate – in Bratislava.” Bingo! Suddenly I had more family in Slovakia. By the time I left Rio my calendar showed multiple family reunions throughout Slovakia for the following Easter.

Main Street in Medzibrodie nad Oravou

Easter in Slovakia is a wonderful time for meeting family. Many extended families naturally gather for the season. We fit right into the festivities. Younger people, who frequently speak English, were home from school to translate. In fact, we found several eager to drive us around the country to visit castles, spas, scenic spots, cousins and a whole branch of the family in Nitra that we knew nothing about. Easter rates at hotels and airfare rates are still off-season. Stay for a couple weeks and you can watch the trees unfurls their leaves and the earliest spring flowers pop up. Tourist sites are sparsely visited this early in the season and I found staff more than willing to help me around their wheelchair obstacle courses. Street vendors are ready to bargain too. But, take note, castles and museums open a bit later in Slovakia than next door in the Czech Republic so plan to stay into May to make the cultural tour.

So, what did I learn that I can pass on to another disabled traveler?

Our travels required a rental car. Germany had the nearest rental agencies offering cars with hand controls. Even then, they insisted that the controls be mounted for right hand use. I use my left hand. We picked up a regular rental car in Vienna and my sister did all the driving.

Basilica at Nitra Castle

The wheelchair-accessible room at the Hotel Danube ( in Bratislava was very comfortable. At lobby level is an accessible computer room with Internet access, a restaurant and a bar. I recommend the hotel but it’s not perfect. If you’re a long-time wheelchair user you’ll be familiar with the drill of using the garbage-bin elevators to get into the mezzanine-level restaurant through the kitchen. Don’t imitate me and risk your life being carried up the stairs to the tiny mezzanine-level gift shop. You won’t miss anything. The small first floor gift shop was pricey for high-end items that can be easily be found in shops a block or two away. The shop did have a helpful selection of literature on Slovakia in English. Stock up!

Orava and Nitra were our other main stops. The Park Hotel in Dolny Kubin has a wheelchair ramp. Their small accessible room includes adaptations made to the bathroom. Typical of hotels that look on disabled guests as a burden, the room I stayed in was at the far, unlit end of the hall. The front desk staff was gracious but the owner was positively cruel to my sister and unapologetic when the mistake proved to be entirely his own. I would steer you away from this untidy hotel if it were not the only choice in town.

Nitra offered several wheelchair accessible hotel choices. I selected Koruna Hotel ( on a hillside overlooking the city. I can recommend it although family kept us so busy that I never explored anything beyond the well-designed room itself.

Watch for positive changes in accommodating people with disabilities in Slovakia. Joining the European Union is bringing in new industry and raised expectations of tourists. Do your best to enlist family or anyone you know who is visiting Slovakia to research the sorts of accommodations required by your particular disability.