Every month, Kafkadesk dispatches some of its writers to explore Central Europe and give you new ideas for your next trips. Last time, we went to Kutná Hora, Czech Republic. This month’s destination: Prešov, Slovakia, an enthralling city off the beaten track and a definite coup de coeur for us.
While most people travelling through Eastern Slovakia are likely to stop at Košice, very few of them will take the time to visit its northern neighbour, Prešov. A sad waste, if you ask us; but good news for those of you who will make a detour to this laid-back city, unspoilt by the throes of global tourism and low-cost backpacking. We hope you too will fall in love with its unassuming charm and small-town vibe, despite being the country’s third biggest city with over 90.000 inhabitants (yes, Slovakia is kind of small).
A troubled past
Strategically located at the crossroads of major trade routes, Prešov initially flourished with the arrival of German-speaking settlers in the late 13th century before experiencing a strong economic boom in the 15th century (salt mining, opal industry, wine commerce). Due to its prosperity and privileged position at the heart of European trade, the city often found itself at the center of power struggles and rivalries opposing neighbouring kingdoms. Interestingly enough, the short-lived 1919 Slovak Soviet Republic was founded in the city, which soon became part of Czechoslovakia, before being incorporated in the First Slovak Republic (Nazi Germany’s puppet regime).
World War II had a lasting and tragic influence on the city’s historical multi-ethnicity: first, by the deportation and death of most of its Jewish population; second, by the expulsion of ethnic Germans and Hungarians following the Beneš decrees at the end of the war. Today, Prešov is Slovakia’s third largest city but remains, economically and culturally, in Košice’s shadow.
What to see in Prešov
Most of your wandering in Prešov will start from, come back to and revolve around the city’s main street (Hlavná ulica). Its highlight is the Cathedral Saint-Nicholas, located in the middle of the main square. Contrasting with the rather low-key appearance of the whole city, its rich ornementation is stunning. While strolling on the main street, have a careful look at the various Renaissance and Baroque buildings surrounding it, take a little break in the park in front of Neptune’s fountain or admire the statue commemorating Pope John-Paul II’s 1995 visit to the town.
Don’t be afraid to get lost in the city centre’s small streets and alleyways, packed with seemingly inconspicuous architectural delights. Here are our favourite sights, off the top of our head: the peculiar Art Garden, the samovar-smelling Church of St. Alexander Nevsky, the infamous Caraffa Prison, the modernist new Theatre, the County Museum and the Orthodox Synagogue. Since we don’t want to ruin everything for you, that’s all we’ll say: it’s up to you to find your own favourite spots of the city.
You should also get out of the historical center and walk through the imposing Soviet-style concrete buildings and Roma neighbourhoods. It’s the only way to get a true sense of the city’s historical, social and urban identity. If the weather is nice, head west, cross the river and visit the Kalvária, a succession of small chapels scattered in the woods on a small hill. Your efforts will be generously rewarded with the ravishing Church of The Holy Cross and one of the best panoramic views of the city. If possible, you should also check out the ruins of Šariš castle, a few kilometers outside of Prešov.
If you ever choose to stay there for a few days, the city is also the ideal spot for short excursions. Only one hour by car and you can hit the slops in the High Tatras; half an hour to the north stands the renowned Spiš castle; half an hour to the south, Košice, Slovakia’s second biggest city and (even though we had to belittle it for the sake of this article) definitely worth a visit.
Where to drink and eat
You might get fooled by your first impression and think that there’s not much to do. As often, the most interesting places are hidden in small alleyways, without any flashy posters to advertise they’re even there. Thanks to our local contacts, we can recommend you the nicest places to hang out. Our personal favourite: Christiania (Hlavná 105), located in a small alley off the main street, a great spot for an afternoon coffee or an evening drink, set in multiple underground smoke-filled rooms and book-cased corridors. If that’s not quite your kind of place, you can also head to Dublin Café (Hlavná 103) for a fancier atmosphere and knock-out cocktails. A little bit off from the historical center, you’ll also find enjoyable places to relax, eat and drink at one of the students’ favourite hangout, Nico Caffé (17. novembra 106). To venture into Prešov’s nightlife, we recommend you head to alternative bar/club/concert venue Wave (Hlavná 121).
Don’t worry, we’re not sending you on the dancefloors on an empty stomach. If you’re on your way to or back from the Kalvária, stop by Gottwaldka (17. novembra 106) for tasty international meals mixed with local classics, or Mgr. Burger (17. novembra 128) for the best burgers in town. If you have time, you should also have lunch at Zwicker Penzion (Bardejovská 48B), far from the brouhaha of Prešov’s bustling and hectic helter-skelter life.
Think we’re being sarcastic? Watch this made-in-Prešov music video then.
And if we missed any of your favourite spots, share your own recommendations with us!