Exploring a Land of Ancient Forests in Slovakia

Selected Blog from the Returning to Wonder Series – 2012 to 2017

I recently had the good fortune of spending a few weeks with wonderful hosts, in the beautiful Central European country of Slovakia. There are many things I have come to love about Slovakia and one of them is their respect for trees. With a population and land size similar to that of Ireland, they have somehow managed to hold onto over 40% of their native forest cover. Their great natural forest reserves in the north and east of Slovakia are home to some of Europe’s last wild populations of boar, brown bear, wolves, bison and lynx.

To walk amongst their mature oak forests is to imagine walking through many parts of Ireland as recently as the early 17th Century. It is said that at one time, a red squirrel could travel by treetop to treetop from the lush, mossy oak woods around Cong in County Galway across south Mayo and Roscommon, to the banks of the mighty Shannon river. I dream that Ireland will once again see mighty oak forests grow skywards in her landscape to symbolise of a rekindled understanding of how important large, biodiverse, native forests are to helping prevent the spread of diseases, and to help offset our contribution to global warming and climate change.

My walk started from Dubravka, a medium-rise suburb to the north of the capital city, Bratislava. It was a little surreal to begin my walk navigating through a modern forest of medium rise-flats of between five and twelve stories high. These high density suburban developments ensured the surrounding hillsides remained largely wild and forested. The tower blocks were painted a random and refreshing kaleidoscope of pastel beiges, oranges, yellows, pinks and blues. The colours appeared with the Velvet Revolution of 1989 and the collapse of the Iron Curtain after decades of oppressive Communist rule.

My guide was Jana’s mother, Verona Wallnerova, a highly knowledgeable, articulate intellectual, and enthusiastic walker. We soon left the rush and noise of a main traffic artery in our wake and ascended a narrow concrete laneway, past a shrine dedicated to the Virgin Mary. The forest ahead began to take on its true grand scale as our feet rustled through dried, bright brown leaves from last autumn. A trail meandered up the hillside and the wooded landscape soon enveloped us. The slumbering oak forest had its own stark beauty and symbolic wisdom to offer us. Trees are deeply connected to the changing seasons, as they are to the earth.

I was curious to know why Slovakia has managed to hold onto so many of its forests and a refined respect for trees. Luckily Verona could answer my questions. It seems that the 18th century Austro-Hungarian Empress, Maria Theresa, was greatly influential in protecting Slovakia’s medieval forests as well as introducing many important social reforms. She encouraged regulations that if a tree was to be cut, two should be planted in its place.

My mind settled in the rhythm of my footsteps and in the presence of such regal, tall oaks. Verona informed me that Celtic tribes had established a flourishing empire along the banks of the River Danube, in the area of modern Brataislava and Dubrovka, during the early Iron Age. This was to be a golden age, before Celtic tribes began their great migration on foot, pushed ever westwards by the Romans and Germanic tribes, until they came to Britain and Ireland. As we discussed this history I wondered had Celtic priests once worshipped their nature deities in sacred oak groves somewhere in the forests that we now walked through.

It is often the mark of a good friendship to be to share comfortable silences while walking and the forest had its own winter language to share with us of creaking boughs and countless swaying branches, like the sound of a distant sea, as a chilly breeze rose high in the treetops. During a short break, I removed my glove and placed my hand on the base of a mighty oak. Its surface was a mosaic of tough but flexible vertical ridges of outer bark, almost warm to the touch.

We continued up a steep, winding path, until we emerged on top of a rocky ridge summit. A light snow flurry whizzed by in the wind and as the shower veil cleared, it revealed a magnificent view. Just across the mighty Danube River was Austria, while the fertile plains of Hungary were visible on the eastern horizon. Far below, perched on a massive outcrop of crop, stood the ancient stronghold of Devin Castle. Since the 5th century BC, it had been garrisoned first by Celts, then a Roman Legion, and finally by the Slavs to defend their homeland border against their hostile Germanic neighbours.

Our walk ended in the shadow of mighty Devin Castle, next to a poignant monument, which displayed the names of hundreds of Slovak people who had lost their lives trying to escape across the Danube and Moravia into Austria during the Soviet occupation. Slovakia is a yet undiscovered gem in terms of tourism – but it is clear that the Slovak people deeply appreciate and make time to enjoy their natural heritage, a legacy one powerful woman helped protect.

The Returning to Wonder continues…