Cultural tourism could be a significant societal and economic aspect – also in Slovakia. Although it is not apparent in Slovakia, in industrialised countries, this kind of tourism ranks among the highly important industries with permanently increasing trends. Slovakia has got an excellent foundation for for this kind of tourism: the concentration of cultural heritage and natural sights over a relatively small area, however this potential is used at a minimum level. There are indications of interest in the offer and demand, but only in larger cities, the countryside has been remaining almost untouched so far …
Let us take a look at a particular example: the Gemer region. Of natural attractions, it is worth mentioning a part of the Slovenský raj (“Slovak Paradise”) area with the Dobšinská Ice Cave, the Dobšinská Maša dam, the Slovak Karst area with the caves Domica, Gombasecká, Ochtinská, Krásnohorská, as well as a couple of the winter ski resorts. The well-known cultural sites include the Betliar manor house with a large English park, the Krásna Hôrka Castle (although it is not yet restored after a fire), a number of manor houses and mansions, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque churches, a variety of technical monuments – the evidence of the local development of mining from the Middle Ages, and, in some villages, picturesque folk architecture, too. Throughout the region you will not find any big factory, and not even a kilometre of a motorway (this time I do not find this a disadvantage). There is a dense network of twisty roads from one valley to another, and railway tracks, most of which do not serve passengers, only sporadic cargo transport. There are smaller and larger villages — many of them once had the status of a town (for example, Štítnik, Plešivec), and the administrative and economic centre is the city of Rožňava district with quite a small conservation area around the square.
Similar to the allure of the majority of Slovak regions. Nevertheless, one may find a whole lot of medieval churches in the region of Gemer, decorated by wall paintings from the 14th and 15th centuries. The origins of the phenomenon of “Gemer-type painted” churches dates back to the 13th century, when an unprecedented growth began as a result of the boom of mining and processing of copper and iron ore, as well as gold and silver. The local landowner, at that time very important persons of the Hungarian royal court, made sure their family churches in Štítnik and Plešivec were built by great Italian fresco masters. The paintings in the two churches then served as a model for the decoration of the village churches in the area, probably decorated by the painters of that time, learning from the Italians – in some details, it seems that they replaced their scarce experience with their own inventions. In a relatively short period of time, a unique set of wall paintings was created,
examined today by historians and art restorers. The paintings are preserved in their authentic condition, particularly because in the 16th century, in the period of the occupation of part of Hungary by Ottoman – the building boom calmed down and, subsequently, the wave of Reformation, strictly refusing any depictions of saints, covered the whole areas of wall paintings with lime plaster. This preserved the paintings perfectly for the next generations. It was not until the late 1800s when pieces of paintings began to emerge underneath the layers of plaster, which started to be knowingly uncovered, examined, and gradually restored.
The Gemer churches with the paintings witnessed a short, but major economic and cultural upswing of this territory, which suddenly ended to be never repeated on a similar scale. In fact, in the years of recatholisation, the nobility were not very kind Protestant rebels, to the mostly evangelical and Calvinist population of Gemer. The region got a brief chance in the 19th century, when the development of the industry revived the local mining and metal processing activities. Iron ore companies were founded, railway built, and the then landlords, the Andrássy family, had a good sense of investment development (did you know, for example, that the parts of the great chain bridge in Budapest were cast in the Andrassy foundry in Drnava?). The disintegration of Hungary and the formation of Czechoslovakia divided the Gemer-Malohont region: the smaller part remained in Hungary. The Slovak part was trying to redirect its economic activity to the new centres. By the end of the 20th century, however, the local iron ore industry appeared to be disadvantageous, depending only on state subsidies, and the mines, as well as the related factories, were gradually closed down. The development has stopped, and it is not easy to earn one’s living today. Many workers leave for whole weeks, while more qualified professionals prefer to move to a larger city for a better paid job. Primary schools in smaller villages have been closed, children commute to school by bus through a number of villages. There are also villages, where you will get only by your own car on Sunday, because the public transport operates on workdays only. High unemployment rate is also indicated by the fact that many women leave their homes for two-and three-week turns to work abroad as carers. Many rely on occasional jobs in addition to social benefits and seasonal work, however, Gemer is not a high-yielding farming area, and one also has to travel to do a job. It is not easy to stay and live here, when there is no prospect that something will happen and circumstances will improve. How to invite people here for some cultural tourism, when many locals do not feel well here? For tourists, it is tempting to visit places (unknown to them) where they expect pleasant experiences, where they can see something which is nice, unique, interesting, unusual or informative, and where the locals apparently feel good.
A years ago, Gemer was yet another region to use the grant support for an information system on cultural heritage: these are the brown signs with white letters along the roads, pointing the direction to the nearest or most prominent heritage site in the vicinity. Let us take a look at how it works. Indeed, tourists, sitting in a car, will be made aware that a village has a church, but when they park at the church, they will find out that the church is locked. They will find no note on the door with a person to be contacted to open the church. There used to be a parish next to almost every church where the priest lived – but today there is just one priest taking care of a number of churches, and therefore can not live next to all of them … somewhere, the keys to the church are in the custody at the local authority office, but what if a tourist comes after work time or, very probably, on holidays?
As concerns the condition of the Gemer’s churches, it also reflects the current circumstances: if a church community has got more members, not just grandmothers, old age pensioners, then the church has at least basic maintenance ensured. For many years, the “Let’s Restore Our House” grant scheme of the Ministry of Culture of the Slovak Republic has been providing owners of cultural heritage buildings on the territory of Slovakia with financial contribution for renovation and restoration. Of course, you must apply for such a contribution and submit the required application form with supporting documents, and in addition, the owner must pay a part of the planned work on the restoration. It is called the “mandatory participation of the owner” on the financing of renovation and generally represents less than five percent of the required amount of the contribution. And here comes another stumbling block: if the majority of believers live miserably on retirement pensions or unemployment benefits, it is not easy to put together even a hundred euros – and so they must consider if they may apply for a contribution and what kind. Those who are not in a position to provide hardly any participation, can be helped in raising aid from donors, for example by the Gothic Route citizens’ association. Its members promote the cultural heritage of Gemer, also by means of a website and expert conference on the results of most recent research of the sites in the region, organized in Rožnava in two-year intervals – the admission to the conference is free, all local people interested are welcome, and mainly teachers, cultural and educational professionals, experts in the field of tourism and other businesses are expected to participate. Had it not been for the work done by the Gothic Route activists, a number of churches would not have a chance to survive. However, much more is needed for cultural tourism.
First of all, for potential visitors to ever find out why they should want to visit this place – owners of heritage sites and local and regional governments should cooperate with experts and businesses in the field of tourism. In today’s digital age, success does not depend on print advertising … It is also desirable that a visitor spends more than one day here, because this brings local employment: tourists have to stay somewhere, and, during the day, have breakfast, have a coffee, lunch, ice cream, dinner, or a beer … If they have arrived by car, they need refuelling and possibly deal with minor repairs, and if they are cyclists, they also need marked cycling trails and some technical background or a bicycle service shop (the roads of Gemer are ideal for cycling). And if they are interested in historical sites and buildings, they should be welcome with open gates and doors, providing information in an appropriate way (printed multilingual texts, descriptions using QR codes or a customised app?).
The package could include predetermined prices of tickets, with a possible mass discount. Information centres in neighbouring regions and larger municipalities should also provide such information leaflets, using all Internet-enabled options. For the start, it would be appropriate to design at least one continuous route with painted churches on which willing businesses and owners would get together and do something nice for the first visitors. Indeed, this requires high initial investment – and it is not certain that the first season will be profitable straight away. People from Gemer can not expect somebody else to do their job for them, that someone else will advertise them, bring money and visitors, and when this will work, hand their well-running business over to them. However, it needs to be started at last – it is like the joke about Ignatius, who goes to the synagogue every day for a half of a year, asking God to let him win the lottery, and after a half a year through a lightning bolt strikes right next to him, and he hears a thunderous voice from above: “Ignatius, just buy a lottery ticket finally!”
Although we will be happy to help, Gemer must buy the ticket by itself.