A Subtle Dissolution

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Slovakia – April 2015

It’s an odd place for a village – the steep, exposed slope of a high mountain. I wonder if the twenty or so souls who still inhabit Vlkolínec move about with their toes curled under, instinctively gripping the Earth. I pause and sweep my eyes over the landscape. Villages were built with a purpose. Lush green hills below. Bald patches in the forest above. This was once the home of farmers, shepherds, and lumberjacks.

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Rough-hewn wood statues greet visitors at the entrance. There is a rustic sweetness to their features. A group of beaming nuns passes by. The soft glow of a gentle spring sun. Stillness permeates the air. Even the trickle from the tiny rivulet which runs down the center of the village is audible. Is anyone home?

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I walk to the end of the main street and turn back. I stand a respectful distance away from the homes before taking photos. My self-conscious efforts are most likely unnecessary. The parking places are empty. An elderly woman shuffles down the road. An empty bucket swings over her arm. All water must be fetched from a communal well.

She nods at me. “Dobrý deň.”

I return the greeting. The muffled chop of a small axe on soft wood emerges from a shed. Another statue in progress, possibly. There are no costumed performances of authentic tasks. Folk art is created in solitude. If there’s a souvenir shop or a cafe, I haven’t come across it. The defiance of modernity has earned Vlkolínec a coveted place on the UNESCO list. It is said to be the best-preserved village in the entire Central European Carpathians.

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I meander the tiny cemetery at the edge of the village. Votives and plastic flowers adorn the graves. No one is forgotten. I step out of the iron gate, swing it closed, and set off on the trail down the mountain to Ružomberok.

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Two days later. Čičmany under an ashen sky. Sunday afternoon somnolence. A cluster of bikers putters by, then I am alone again. Aren’t Sundays supposed to be busy in these parts?

The driveways are devoid of cars. The lace curtains are drawn. They do not undulate. The only face that peers back is that of the Blessed Mother.

Čičmany was the first example of folk village conservation in the world. The white lime paint is meant to protect the timber houses from sun rays. Over time, practicality became art. In spite of the dreary day, the whimsical hieroglyphs blaze. Gingerbread daydream. I want to lean over and take a bite.

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The remaining residents are fiercely protective of their traditions. Cultural festivals featuring traditional music and dance take place every year. They are said to be rowdy, vibrant celebrations. I wish I could have seen one.

Languages disappear. Traditions vanish. Cultures die out. Not an abrupt demise, but a subtle dissolution. Teardrops on a watercolor painting. The uniqueness is blurred into obsolescence. Those who come after look back with curiosity rather than nostalgia. If they look back at all.

I am grateful to live in a time when cultural individuality still exists. For one day it will vanish completely. Will there even be a need for tradition if everyone is the same?

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The door to the cafe/folk art shop is open. I step inside. A small selection of the renowned embroidery is on display. The shopkeeper acknowledges me with a deep sigh. I pluck two painted eggs from a bowl and hand them to him. A sarcastic lift of the eyebrows is his reply. Big spender.

If it were another place, I would probably turn and walk out. Despondency seeps out of his bitterness. He wraps the eggs in a carton. Careful, lethargic motions. There is no one waiting behind me.

He hands the package to me with a nod. The slightest flicker of gratitude in his tired eyes.

“Dovidenia.” I say as I walk out the door. Goodbye.

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47 thoughts on “A Subtle Dissolution

  1. thanks for bringing me to this remote island of humanity!
    too bad he couldn’t come right and and say
    you were the best thing that happened
    to him that day 🙂

  2. This looks to be a true village ~ something created with purpose and a beating heart. Your photographs of Vlkolínec are inspiring in a sense of getting back to nature. I wonder if such villages are soon going to go the way of the memories of the old days… Great post.

    • Hi Dalo – both villages are slowly losing their year-round residents. Many of the homes are vacation homes. Because they are protected – Čičmany and Vlkolinec by the Slovak government, and Vlkolinec by UNESCO – there will probably always be caretakers to keep up appearances. But, other than the festivals, the traditional lifestyle in these two villages has all but vanished. There are many other small villages in Slovakia that still carry on the lifestyle, but their architecture isn’t impressive enough to give them protected status.

  3. I remember this village museum very well, dear Julie, and thank your for having me taken back to it and its special surrounding, the cemetery included.🌷 All the best Martina

  4. You remind me that there is so much in the world that I am completely unaware of – the gingerbread simile is perfect. Another excellent post – keep travelling, Julie. Sounds like you found an ideal candidate for robotics in the folk art shop 😉

    • I can just imagine the cultural history discussions of the future – “Once upon a time, long ago, humans served other humans and they were sometimes rude!” Hahaha. 😀

  5. How exquisite these photos and the images you conjure are. Gorgeous. And sad. That life seems to be missing in these museum towns. Complex. I nice place to visit but I wouldn’t want to live there? Well, maybe Vikolinec. I wouldn’t mind a gig hacking out those quirky sculptures. Beautiful piece.

    • Thanks, Tricia. The scenery would be nice to look at, but then you’d have to deal with the possibility of tourists trespassing in your backyard or people peeping in your windows.

      • If you have the chance to visit Potsdam, you should visit the russian, french and netherlands Quarters. Friedrich Wilhelm I. let french and netherlands architects build the Quarters and when they where built, he didn’t let them go back. So the Russian didn’t sent their architects to Germany 😉
        So F. W. I. sent german architects to Russia to learn. And they did really well. Have a nice week, Juli.
        Greetings
        Ulli

  6. The most striking thing to me in these photos is that the villages are pristine. The demise of “real life” seems to have preserved these towns in idyllic, traditional states which, somehow, feels as sad to me as the dearth of residents. They are incredibly picturesque and invite all sorts of imaginings about their pasts, but they feel more like postcards than living villages. I almost want to see some trash or hear some annoying noise!

    • It’s common for Slovak villages to be very clean. The what-will-the-neighbors-think mentality is very strong. These two villages are different because of the impeccable architecture and lack of residents, which, as you said, makes them more like postcards than homes. I’ve passed though a few living villages and their imperfection is just as charming.

  7. There is always a wistful nostalgia of what once was and is no more. When we see something preserved, they is a recognition that what was in our lives was real, even if the only mark is left on our hearts. A beautiful post, Julie!

  8. You write so well…the feeling I get is the feeling you want me to have when I read. http://webb-tv.nu/dar-ingen-skulle-tro-att-nagon-kunde-bo-svt-play/
    There is a series of programs from Norway, about people living where nobody wants to live anymore…This brings me hope. Sometimes these places do not dissolve…most of them become museums of course, but In Sweden and Norway there are people moving back to remote places. Maybe not all traditions will survive, but I want to believe some of them will live on.
    Excellent post as usual.

    • Thank you, Leya. 🌻 It’s great that people are moving back to remote places. Maybe that trend will spread to the rest of Europe. With the internet, it’s not always necessary to live in a city in order to work. It’s a dream of mine to finish my days on Earth in a tranquil place in the middle of nowhere.

  9. Wow, your photos just show how quiet the village is, the art on the houses are so beautiful. It makes me want to visit this place. Thanks J for sharing your travels.

  10. A beautiful and thoughtful post Julie.
    Dissolution indeed. Not a big crash, just dissolution. made me remember our house by the sea in Africa. Across the dirt road, was the African village. Thatched hut. Les femmes pilant le mil. There was music almost every night. I would go to sleep at the sound of drums. Every now and then Masks would come out for a celebration. We would watch in awe through the hedge. I always wondered what would have happened if I had crossed the dirt road, and ask: “may I dance with you”? A little white boy of 7-8? They probably would have laughed and said yes. I checked the place in Google earth a while ago. The house seems to be there still. The dirt road has been replaced by a 4-lane high speed avenue. The thatched huts replaced by concrete buildings. Dissolution.

      • Yes and no. I was expecting anything, house rebuilt or torn down. All things must pass, right? What I did not expect was the the 4-lane avenue. 🙂 But it’s all right. That place is there eternally in a parallel universe. And it will finally fade when the last of my family and friends of time die. 🙂

  11. I’m a regular in Hungary, as I’ve probably wrote you before, and I’d always assumed Slovakia to be not that different from its southern neighbour… boy wasn’t I wrong! This is surely something else, and I agree, something to be seen before it turns into yet another theme park. But… will it? Until a few years ago I’d have said yes, but these days I see more and more places that are either resisting as “real” villages, where people live and doesn’t just spend time liberating tourists of their monies, or simply die out. And that’s quite fascinating as well, methinks.

    Fabrizio

    • Hi Fabrizio – yes I remember well your connection to Hungary. One thing I’ve learned from living in and traveling to so many different European countries is that no matter how small they are, they all have an ambiance that sets them apart. Some places resist cultural annihilation and more power to them, I say.

  12. wow such a beautiful article. Every word, every line is amazing. I loved when you asked, “Will there even be a need for tradition if everyone is the same?” I wonder the same. It’s like my soul sister is speaking to me through her journey to a land that has stopped in time to remind us of the times gone by. Love it; Love it; Love it. ❤ Going to keep it with me. Saved. Oh & the pictures are beautiful.

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