On July 2, 2015, after a year of planning, I returned to the Muranska Planina region of Slovakia with several members of my extended family. On July 3 we visited our ancestral village, Muranska Lehota, and had experiences beyond anything I had imagined for the trip. Our adventures the following day were no less magical.
Saturday, July 4, 2015: Our guide Samuel led us to the heavily forested back entrance to the Muran Castle park. Jergus, Samuel’s forest ranger friend, proceeded to lead our caravan into the park further than tourists are usually allowed to travel by car. We slowly crept up a dirt path barely wide enough for a single car, let alone Jergus’s Land Rover. There were few guardrails and many steep drop offs. So when we reached a clearing, a large lush meadow, I exhaled.
Jergus introduced us to his friend who managed a horse barn at the edge of the meadow and cared for the Nordic horses, a breed local to the Muranska Planina region. These horses are used for logging as they can go where vehicles cannot. As magpies circled, he explained that the horse barn had been there for more than a hundred years and the meadow where we stood was used as an aircraft landing strip during WWII. The Nordic horses had been used to taxi the planes.
Jergus, his horse wrangler friend, and Samuel then surprised us with an impromptu folk concert of local melodies with a violin, kontra (an instrument that resembles a viola and plays off-beat chords), small wood flutes, and strong male voices. I felt like I was in a dream with the backdrop of the field, the horses, the mountain, and my ancestral village and the Muran Castle somewhere in the distance. It was surreal to hear melodies that I recognized. Growing up in America, I had listened to my great-aunt Lucy sing some and others I learned over the years through my affiliation with an American-Slovak folk ensemble and the Duquesne University Tamburitzans. It had been a long time since I recalled this repertoire but I was able to sing along every couple of words. My limited Slovak vocabulary is tied to such folk songs…I understood “boyfriend…water…beautiful…girl”. Perhaps these were once the most important words in the world.
My aunts encouraged me to join in. My husband coaxed my sleepy, sun-stroked son from my arms. I tentatively approached the band and listened to a few more melodies. When there was a break, I hummed the melody of the only song that came to mind…a tune actually from that region. They recognized my song and typical of “Detva”, they sang verses about being outlaws living in the forests with their womenfolk. I sang the only words I could recall “Oak tree, green forest…my boyfriend is bringing me boots from Budin“. Like I said, my Slovak vocabulary is inseparable from such songs. My sister joined me and we danced together in the meadow.
It turned out that Jergus was the leader of the folk band Kucetavy Javor or “Curly Maple”. I asked the guys how they learned the songs and they simply said, “We are from here…it’s here…it’s in us.”
We soon said goodbye to the wrangler and continued to the base camp for the hike to the Muran Castle. It was then that I realized the hike to the castle was an additional 6 kilometers. I crossed my fingers that no one would fall and that the youngest and oldest among the 18 of us could handle it.
We broke into groups and went at comfortable paces. We took a side trip to the hideaway where the castle’s most celebrated occupant the Venus of Muran, aka Maria Szechy, took her lovers. I climbed into her “love shack”, a shallow cool cave – just high enough to stand, with a soft floor. She must have been fit and flexible – I almost did a full split to get in there!
We all made it, smiling no less, to the bar just at the base of the last steep part of the trail. We stopped for lunch and beer and to use the outhouse. With it’s long outdoor picnic tables, the tavern was a comfortable place for those who could not climb to the top to rest and wait.
My children took off and ran up towards the castle. I hurried behind them, watching every footstep as the climb became steeper and rockier. I could not fathom how it was ever a functioning castle – it would be a day’s work just to climb up there. And then another day to climb down. I imagined the serfs of the little fiefdom…the villages who are named for the castle like Muran, Muranska Lehota, Muranska Dhla Luka, and Muranska Huta. Did they supply the castle with its provisions? Did they take refuge in it during sieges and wars? Our castle, Vera the historian of Muranska Lehota had said the day before.
After the dizzying ascent, I sat and looked at my surroundings. The front tower was the only restored/intact structure; the castle was ruins. A small placard in four languages explained that it had burned in the early 1700s and was never rebuilt. This is it?
No…there was a small path cut between two overgrown rock piles. What unfolded before me? A lush mountaintop estate, carpeted in leaf debris and moss, canopied and curtained by a roof of trees. A romantic, natural place that time forgot.
I climbed to the edges – and saw Muran and Muranska Lehota.
And then my daughter called me over. She found pottery shards and a petrified bone. Unexcavated remains were everywhere – sticking out of the earth. One could only imagine what hid beneath the soft ground.
I explored more, wanting to take in every inch of the mysterious castle that my immigrant great-grandfather “Upo” supposedly pined for. I wondered if he had been here. I teared up and said a prayer thanking my ancestors for guiding us all on this journey.
My reflection was soon interrupted by some exciting news. Our guide Samuel had just received a phone call from the mayor of Muranska Lehota claiming that he had located my grandmother’s first cousin in Muran, the village at the main entrance to the Muran Castle park. A woman named Olga wanted to meet us and was ready for us to visit her that evening.
We hurried back to the cars but managed to take a group picture…which my cousin dubbed “18 clans people”.
But before meeting Olga, there was an errand – Jergus had asked that we return the parking permits for Muran Castle park before 5pm. We soon learned that Jergus’s office happened to be next-door to Olga’s house!!!
We approached Olga’s yard and were met by a woman whose legs bowed and shoulders curved just like my grandmother’s had. The second I saw Olga, I had no doubts that she was part of our clan. She walked towards us, holding out this picture:
We all gasped – we recognized the seated older folks! The woman in the babushka with a fist on her hip was my grandmother’s maternal grandmother and the man in the traditional garb was my grandmother’s maternal grandfather. My grandmother had snapped a photo of a portrait of the pair when she visited her mother’s family house in Muranska Lehota in 1981. After much sleuthing and translation, Olga confirmed that the picture was taken in 1924, a few years after my grandmother’s mother had immigrated to America. She said that the sitting pair were also her grandparents and she explained that the generation standing behind them were her parents, aunt, and uncles. Her older sister, Maria, stood between the grandparents and her cousin, Miklus, sat on grandpa’s lap. We learned that Miklus grew up to be a famous Slovak folklorist who established two troupes and a national festival. I thought about how I had sung Slovak folk songs earlier that day with our guide, the horse wrangler, and forest ranger and choked up a bit.
Olga’s daughter, Viera, served us chilled water with herbs and lemon and a cake made with currants from her garden. Patiently and thoroughly, she went over family lines – explaining her aunts and uncles and her cousins who were all related to us. I asked her to write down everything as she spoke.
Olga’s grandnephew, Martin, also came to meet us. He was 17, quiet, but spoke English fairly well. My cousin Paul took up with him – working out a family tree and discussing common interests. Olga’s niece Marta soon arrived bringing chocolate, which made my exhausted children suddenly quite agreeable.
Olga explained that she had called her cousin Hanka and that Hanka and some other relative were on their way to Muranska Lehota that evening to meet us after church the following morning. We were all stunned at the developments and quickly changed our plans so that we could stay in the area at least until noon the next day. We took several group pictures of this unexpected reunion at our newly found relative’s house.
Olga is my grandmother’s first cousin – the youngest daughter of my great-grandmother’s younger sister. She was beautiful and elegant that afternoon hosting her long-lost American relatives with such grace. She reminded me of my grandmother in her mannerisms, looks and warm welcoming. In the midst of the excitement and wonder in finding Slovak kin, these similarities took me back for a few moments to my grandmother who died 25 years prior…who I’ve sorely missed ever since and to whom we had dedicated our trip. Of course these women were alike – their mothers were sisters after all.