Kosice: Shock and ore!
Slovakia's steel city is about to become a cultural giant.
The city of Kosice is dominated by the Gothic St Elisabeth Cathedral, the biggest church in Slovakia
Hot on the heels of Slovakia's capital, Bratislavia, is the republic's second city Kosice; a city that is finally emerging from the shadows to be named Capital of Culture for 2013.
The city's famous singing fountains are at the epicentre of Kosice's wonderful medieval old town on Main Street, just across from its once bustling and highly influential Jewish quarter and surrounded on all sides by historical buildings now restored to their colourful former glory.
The wonderfully Gothic St. Elisabeth Cathedral stands proudly nearby, a rather grand building almost out of character with the rest of the town, but nevertheless taking the plaudits as the stately old lady which is Slovakia's biggest church.
Lying in the far east of the country, not far from The Ukraine and Hungarian borders, Kosice used to be an industrial backwater under the former Soviet regime, but since the 'velvet revolution' in 1990 it's rediscovered its historical roots and invested heavily in a celebration of restoration.
Industrial it might still be - US Steel is its biggest employer - but it holds the second oldest marathon in the world each year.
It was at one time, one of the most important cities in Hungary (Slovakia used to be a part of Hungary) and it has a few famous former residents: Martina Hingis no less, the legendary writer Sandor Marai and none other than a certain Andrej Varchola, otherwise known as Andy Warhol, whose family lived very close by.
Kosice's old town is a warren of cobbled streets, each one uncovering another hidden treasure or two. I came across a wonderful remnant of its hammer-and-sickle past at a tiny blue collar bar straight out of the cold war called Krcma Nositel Radu Prace. It serves the cheapest beer in town at almost 50p a litre, so you sit and sip whilst portraits of Lenin and Marx peer down at you from the yellow/brown peeling walls. Utterly brilliant. Although the portrait of Queen Elizabeth sitting proudly adjacent to them both was a little bizarre.
Get there ahead of the crowds
Next year, even before its capital year begins, the city has several events worth experiencing:
● May: International music festival featuring the Slovak and Czech Philharmonics.
● June: Balloon Fiesta takes places on June 6-10.
● August: Andy Warhol's birthday is celebrated with songs, pop art parties and parades with his works projected on building facades at night.
● October: The World's second oldest marathon is on the first weekend. Also, Nuit Blanche, a night of organised walks.
● The annual jazz festival takes place when artists from around the world converge on the city from October 4-6
● December: Concerts and fireworks herald the new year throughout the city on December 31.
More information: www.visitkosice.eu
One of Kosice's great strengths is its diversity, lying so close to the clutches of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
It has a deep mix of Hungarian, German and Slavic influences that manifest themselves in daily life; in its language, its food and its culture.
And talking of cultures, it had one of the most important Jewish communities in the Hungarian region before the particularly brutal Nazi occupation in WWII extinguished most of its Jewish population.
It was literally at the crossroads of east and western Europe and was held in high esteem by the Jews of the region. Today, the old town offers up many remarkable clues to its Jewish past including four magnificent synagogues no less, with just one of them, on Puškinova Street, still used by Kosice's small but thankfully growing community.
One is now a concert hall, another is used as an industrial laboratory, whilst the third is undergoing extensive renovations.
Kosice's Jewish history is held in high esteem by the city's tourist office and there are regular walks, taking in the orthodox community compound around Zvonárska Street where an old mikvah was discovered recently, and the 19th century synagogue, used for years as a library soon to become a major Jewish memorial museum.
For me though, Bajzova street was the most significant. After the occupation, this small street served as the entrance to the Ghetto.
An unremarkable place today, the former ghetto is now a residential area inhabited in the main by students and artists, but in 1942 it was a pit of despair for thousands and a grim reminder of a time when a once thriving community was almost extinguished in under a month.
In the run-up to its Capital of Culture year, Kosice is planning events to celebrate its rich cultural heritage from theatre productions to Warhol inspired art exhibitions.
But its gastronomic prowess has come of age too. Just walk down Main Street in the hot summer months and you'll find a busy outdoor café society akin to that of a Paris andorissement whilst many talented chefs and restaurateurs have opened up establishments that would rival London's finest. Marek owns Le Colonial remembers when he had to line up to buy furniture during the Soviet days "It was a very depressing time" he said. These days he is one Kosice's many successful entrepreneurs and life is now very different.
Fellow entrepreneur, Erica Garagova agrees. She is the owner chef of Villa Regia a restaurant specialising in traditional Slovak food such as Macanka, a mushroom soup with croutons and the ubiquitous national dish bryndzové halušky, small potato dumplings similar to gnocchi in a cream sauce.
Joining in with the locals at a wine and food festival, I felt the old town come alive while supping a glass of the mysterious Kosice Gold, a drink whose ingredients remain a secret, but who cares as long as it tastes good.
Slightly further afield, there is plenty to do and see over a long weekend break. Eastern Slovakia has many medieval castles such as Spis for example, the exceptional beauty of Slovak Paradise National Park is a joy and nearby the 15th century quaint town of Levoka, whose highly unusual houses are worth venturing out for.
With such a torrid past, you would be forgiven for thinking that perhaps this would be a city of depressed people, and in some ways they may seem a little despondent.
However, inside they celebrate and rejoice their freedom and a quick chat will elicit a smile or two so don't be put off by first impressions.
Kosice is a hidden gem of Slovakia that simply must be discovered well before the covers come off for good in 2013.