Europe Day Nine: Slovakia : No Relatives In Smolnik But A Wonderful Drive Through The Mountains And Countryside

Europe Day Nine: Slovakia : No Relatives In Smolnik But A Wonderful Drive Through The Mountains And Countryside

Europe Day Nine Slovakia Smolnik (5 of 17)
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After my early morning walk through the streets of Kosice , I was looking forward to my drive to the village of  Smolnik.   I learned Smolnik  was a small village situated in the mountains of  eastern Slovakia about 35 miles west of Kosice. It has a population of a little under a 1000 residents. I had information from relatives that my maternal grandfather’s  father Michael Butala was born here in 1867.   I hoped to find his  family’s grave site in a local cemetery ,  and,  possibly distant relatives still living in the village.  But, as I stated in earlier blog posts, this was a last minute decision to make this trip. I did not do a lot of research. I was excited to explore the village but I also knew  I may find nothing.  So, knowing this, my driver, and now friend,  arrived at the hotel early and we were off before 9 a.m. driving into the Slovakian countryside. 

I should have paid more attention to our route, but I was engaged in an informative conversation with Marek.    I believe we took Highway 548 out of the city. They countryside immediately changed from the busy city traffic   to quiet farmland and forest roads. 

It reminded me a lot of the rural roads back home in Northeastern Pennsylvania. 

As we drove through the countryside Marek and I continued our conversations  about our love of the outdoors and our mutual love of gathering and eating wild mushrooms. We knew, and ate so many of the same species that grow in the woodlands of our respective homelands.  He also provided me so much information about the local culture, history, customs and food. He knew the area well, and had relatives living in the same area as my great-grandfather. We also discussed the village where  my great grandmother, Elizabeth Szorokacs was born.  She was born in an even smaller village, Valaskovce , in 1875.  It is located about 55 miles northwest of Kosice. There were only 50 homes in this tiny mountain village when they were remove in the 1950 when a military base was built in the area. A small  stone Greek Catholic church remains on the now abandoned military base. I learned while in Kosice that special permission from the government is needed to access the former village and church. I was disappointed I couldn’t visit the village on this trip but I  am already planning to return. 

We continued our drive through the rural countryside. Sadly there was a lot of logging of the old forests. 

We passed a few small villages, each with it’s own church, 

and one larger town

where an old factory was the largest employer in the region when Slovakia was under  communist rule.

We  now turned north and drove into the higher mountains. 

The trees in the mountains were lush and green and the air in the forest was cool and smelled so fresh. I imagined my great-grandfather walking in these same mountains as a boy growing up in this remote area. 

After reaching the summit of a mountain we started our descent and the beautiful village of Smolnik came into view.  

What a wonderful place to live, I thought to myself, as I took in the spectacular view of this small, remote village nestled in the mountains. 

Overlooking the village was this chapel or shrine.  I again imagined my ancestors visiting this shrine and enjoying this same view. 

Looking down at the village  we saw the glistening domes of a Greek Catholic or Eastern Orthodox Church. My maternal grandfather Greek  Orthodox.  I remember the domes on his church in his hometown. I took this to be a good sign. 

We drove down into the valley and found the  domed church. It was closed.

There was a cemetery across from the church and I asked Marek to let me off so I could , hopefully , find a gravestone with my mother’s maiden,  Butala inscribed on it. 

It was a beautiful morning as I  walked through the high grass and weeds of the cemetery looking for my great grandfather’s surname. 

The sun was shining  through breaks in the clouds and the views of the surrounding mountains were spectacular. 

Song birds, such as this European goldfinch and

common chaffinch sang in the tree tops and utility wires. 

I soon realized it would be an almost impossible task, for two reasons.  First the cemetery was much bigger than it looked. There were hundreds, maybe thousands of graves, 

and second many of the only markers on the graves were iron crosses. ( I would soon learn the significance of these crosses) The names of the deceased on the crosses had long rusted away. I came to the conclusion I was not going to find a family grave without some more help or additional  research. 

I walked through the cemetery for about an hour, and waited for Marek to return. I told him what I had found and he told me the significance of the iron crosses. Smolnik was once an important iron mining town. There was a lot of iron ore in the surrounding hills. The men  who worked in the mines would mark their family graves with the iron crosses. 

As were leaving the cemetery  Marek stooped an elderly man on a bicycle. He asked him if  knew anyone named Butala. He said he lived here all of his life and knew everyone in he villages and many of the surrounding villages but never heard that name before. Of course, I  was disappointed.  He also asked the man about the  Eastern Orthodox church.  He told us the church was new. It was built by Ukrainians who sought safety here after the Chernobyl  nuclear accident. He told   Marek, that,  historically,  there were never Eastern Orthodox or Rus Slovakians living in Smolnik. He said there were a few  Orthodox communities in even more  remote surrounding villages. Marek told me it would be a common practice for people to use the larger town as a place of origin rather than the smaller villages they lived in.

So we decided to visit a village he though had an Eastern Orthodox church. Here is a link to a gallery on my blog website with more photos from my visit to Smolnik. Europe Day Nine: Slovakia. Smolink June 8 2022

We drove through Smolnik and headed north to Helcmanvoce,

a larger town in this remote mountainous region, where Marek thought there might be an Eastern Orthodox church. 

We parked at a restaurant in the quaint little town

and were lucky to run into a retired postmaster. She told  Marek she knew everyone in the region but never heard of  the name Butala.  This was not good news for me . Well, it was over 125 years since Michael Butala left  this region. His remaining  family may also have left or died off in the time period. We could not find an Eastern Orthodox church either. I was a little disappointed, but . I still  hope to return, with more information  about the graves of my ancestors, and to get permission to visit my great-grandmothers village. 

It was now past noon so we decided to eat at the  Zlaty Orol  restaurant in the small town. It was a good choice. It had a charming dining room,

and I had, a bowl of potato soup,

and, of course, the house specialty, halusky. Once again it was delicious and I it is so hard to say which one of the many dishes was best. They were all a little different and all very good. And, as usual they gave you a large portion. I was very full. 

It was a nice meal and we continued our wonderful conversations about  our countries, our families and the world in general.  And we continued them again when we left the town and  drove north. 

We visited the ruins of and old castle on the way. 

I took one last look at the scenery of the beautiful mountain landscape as we made our way back to  Kosice.

Earlier in our conversation we  discussed the wildlife that live in the region.  Marek told me their were eagles in the mountains, but that he had never seen one. Well, my good luck with seeing wildlife continued.  As we drove along a field Marek noticed a large bird in the field It was an eagle. It had just taken a rabbit and was flying off with it’s prey. I am not sure which of the five species of eagle that live in Slovakia it was, but it was a wonderful sight to me. And, I took it as a sign from my ancestors that they were happy  I was here looking for them.  I knew  I must return to  this land where part of me originated. And, God willing, I will, and hopefully soon, like this fall during mushroom season.    

We soon left the narrow mountain roads and onto the modern highway and a five mile tunnel trough the mountains.  I was dropped off at my hotel around 3 p.m. I didn’t see  see the graves of my kinfolk but  I learned to love the land they lived in. It was another great day in Slovakia. Here is another link to a gallery with some more photos from my drive to Smolnik  and  through the beautiful Slovakian countryside. Europe Day Nine Slovakia drive June 8 2022.

 To forget one’s ancestors is to be a brook without a source, a tree without a root. – Chinese Porverb

Every book is a quotation; and every house is a quotation out of all forests, and mines, and stone quarries; and every man is a quotation from all his ancestors. – Ralph Waldo Emerson

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