For a city whose prosperity has been for decades founded on the steel industry, Kosice retains a remarkably spruce appearance. Past the circle of panel buildings perched on the hills girding the centre, this eastern Slovak city, just 85 kilometres from Miskolc and 260 kilometres from Budapest, reveals a small but lively heart made up of green, car-free promenades interspersed with mansions, fountains and late medieval monuments.
First written references to the town’s existence date from the 13th century, but growth really started in 1369 when it became the first municipality in Europe to be granted a coat of arms. Prosperity followed, spurring the type of ethnic diversity once typical of much of central Europe and still visible in the city’s historical and religious legacies today.
Several centuries on, Kosice finds itself again thrust at the fore of the European map: having been selected as 2013’s European Capital of Culture alongside France’s Marseille, now is the time to see it at its best. Running until the end of the year it is organising a multi-genre programme with highlights for the next few months including food, wine, folk, jazz, Jewish and church music festivals, and appearances by Slovak and international artists including Slovak soprano Edita Grúberová, British sculptor Tony Cragg and American actor John Malkovich (www.kosice.eu for full details).
But European Capital of Culture or not, Kosice is also worth visiting for itself, representing as it does a happy medium between small provincial town and local cultural, historical and economic centre (it is also the gateway to eastern Slovakia’s national parks, castles and ancient towns).
Because it was once a town of importance in pre-1920 Hungary, it’s no surprise that the streets of Kassa (as Kosice was then and is still now known among Hungarian speakers) are lined with marks of its previous national affiliation, from the former mansions of aristocratic families to the names on the pedestals of statues inside St Elisabeth’s Cathedral, the easternmost example of the western Gothic style.
Still today the city’s past accounts for two of Kosice’s greatest sources of pride. One is Sándor Márai, Hungarian writer and son of the city, who lived there in the decade-and-a-half after his birth in 1900. Although he mostly achieved fame in the two decades he spent in Budapest before his exile to Italy and the USA in 1948 (and again in the decades after his suicide in San Diego just months before communism fell in 1989), Kosice still proudly nurses the vestiges of its erstwhile local celebrity, particularly through the Márai Memorial House and its displays of furniture, pictures and an extensive documentary about the writer.
The other – just as much of an accident of geography as of history – is Kosice’s proximity to Slovakia’s Tokaj region. Compared with its southern neighbour, Slovakia keeps a low profile in the Tokaji wine stakes, with only 10 per cent of the entire region spread over seven villages on its own territory. One such village, Vel’ká Trna, set among the green rolling hills typical of the region, and closed on one side by the Zemplínske vrchy (hills), is home to the Ostrožovic winery, a close-to-25-year-old family business offering wine tastings in a 500-metre cladosporium cellare mold-clad labyrinth of cellars, 13 metres underground (www.ostrozovic.sk/, English spoken).
But one doesn’t even have to leave Kosice in order to taste the region’s wines: the plethora of restaurants serving bryndzové halušky (potato dumplings with sheep cheese) and pirohy (dumplings) specialities usually can be relied upon to produce the sweet golden liquid. Among these Villa Cassa also doubles up as wine shop, where tastings can be organised to discover the riches of Slovakia’s little-known wine production (www.facebook.com/pages/Villa-Cassa/265811046790977).
In a city the size of Kosice, nothing is ever very far away from the rest, something that’s also true of Golden Royal Boutique Hotel, where The Budapest Times took up residence during its visit to Slovakia’s eastern metropolis. Just a couple of streets away from the hustle and bustle of Hlávna ulica (the main street) and at the tail end of the narrow, craft-full Artisans’ Lane, Golden Royal Boutique Hotel has room for some 50 people in 24 rooms and suites.
Open in 1995 and gradually expanded and updated, it now counts among Kosice’s four-star hotels, not only for the quality of its rooms and for its spacious winter garden (used as the setting for the large breakfast spread, for lunch and dinner – the on-site restaurant serves international cuisine – and for banquets and business events) as for its spa.
The Rasajana Spa, to give it its full name, draws on traditional Indian healing methods (and staff) and comes with saunas, massage pools and showers, jacuzzi and an array of Ayurvedic therapies – enough to set you right after a busy day of visiting and wine-tasting.
By car (three hours): take E71/E79/M30 roads towards Miskolc/Slovakia, then Route 3 and E71;
By train (three hours, 30 minutes): direct MÁV services from Keleti train station for EUR 20 (return);
By coach (three hours, 30 minutes): www.cassoviaexpres.sk leaves from Budapest airport. Journey costs EUR 39 (one way).