water mill was a life-changing acquisition for Ivan Sali, former veterinarian, now custodian of Slovakia's only floating mill and purveyor of eco-wisdom to thousands of summer campers.
dotted European rivers, anchored midstream, wheezing and moaning all summer long, as their massive wooden wheels, powered by river current, turned mighty stones that ground local farmers' grain. With the communist take-over, watermills joined a long list of historic icons deemed outmoded - they interfered with faster-moving river traffic - and so they were destroyed or abandoned.
On the Small Danube in southern Slovakia, in his home town of Kolarovo, Mr. Sali discovered a mill, rotted beyond redemption. He abandoned his veterinary practice in nearby Kosice, acquired five hectares along the Small Danube, and with two friends, a welder and a carpenter, and his wife, Jaroslava, turned the mill - and his life - around.
"The history of this village and all around it was disappearing very fast," he explained. "So much was lost during the war and in the last 50 years. The bridge and the synagogue were destroyed in war time. The town walls were knocked down by the communists in the 1950s - we hope to rebuild them. We had to try to save what we could and remember the rest of it."
Today a precise model of the crumbling mill is anchored at the shoreline - the original could not be saved. A shipyard in nearby Komarno built the basic boat, then Mr. Sali and his friends replicated the mill in every detail - the jungle of chutes and bins and gears that moved grain to the grinding wheels and stored it as flour and the crowning glory, the huge water wheel. All that wheel needs is the river's current to set it turning and the stones grinding, just like 100 years ago.
Sadly, the handsome final product caught the eye of a local communist boss who confiscated the mill and left it to deteriorate. When communist rule finally ended, Mr. Sali bought it back from the local government and set to work to restore it. Today, it rests at the shoreline, linked by a narrow walkway, open to the public.
Long before environmentally friendly energy sources became a world obsession,
and watermills were grinding away across Slovakia. "Watermills were so numerous that they formed little communities at mid-river, where entire families lived all summer on the floating mills," Mr. Sali explained. "The millers and farmers had barter agreements - sausages or other farm products in exchange for milling. In winter, the mills were towed back to shore by teams of horses.
"Kolarovo once had nine watermills but when a new law decreed that they must be permanently attached to the river bank and powered by electricity, most disappeared. Then the communists banned them entirely."
Preserving history takes time and money so Mr. Sali developed an environmental education program and opened his spread to Scouts, school groups and casual campers who flock there each summer for a no-frills, no-fuss outdoor experience.
He and his friends built a two-storey restaurant/pub that's rustic but welcoming, its upstairs walls ringed with photographs, maps and drawings of historic local buildings destroyed in recent decades. Mr. Sali's wife, Jaroslava, oversees the pub, serving up cool drinks and snacks.
To reach the island, they built a an 86-metre wooden footbridge, spanning the Small Danube, one of the longest covered wooden footbridges in Europe. Copying time-honoured designs, they crafted a huge outdoor clay oven where fresh bread is baked on weekends. It's now the epicentre of a mid-August bake-off that attracts bakers from all over Europe to demonstrate their skills and swap bread lore.
Next, they created an exact replica of a local village home, built in 1856 in a style dating back to the sixth century. Its walls are locust wood, interwoven with willow and plastered inside and out with clay; its roof, supported by huge beams, is thatched with a local wetlands reed; its floor is earthen. The main room, used for living, eating and sleeping, has a huge clay stove - handmade of course - and smoke from its chimney exits through a 'cold room' to create a smoke house for sausages and bacon.
Last year, they build an outdoor stage next to the pub for summer concerts and shows, inaugurating it with an international folk festival that attracted some 500 participants from five countries.
Lacking government assistance, Mr. Sali and friends now build little wooden cabins and playhouses to support their not-for-profit business.
"We are a group of retired natural scientists and botanists," he explained. "We have an eight-member lecture team and four programs for kids, one to five days, that explore folk architecture, renewable resources, ecology of the wetland forest and eco-games."
Visitors can also enjoy bird-watching, nature treks, boat rides on the river and a visit to nearby 'Frog Castle,' originally the Castle of Peace, built in 1349 by
Ludovit the Great.
Constructed of willow and clay, and surrounded by a moat, it is now reduced to remnants of the soil ramparts.
Milan Chvostek (www.travelscribe.ca) and Isobel Warren (www.isobelwarren.com) are a husband and wife team of travel journalists based in Newmarket, just outside Toronto, Canada. Their collaborations have included travel articles for dozens of magazines and newspapers across North America, books including 'Florida, Eh? A Canadian Guide to the Sunshine State', Fodor Guides to Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island and television programs for On Top of the World TV. Milan was for two decades the award-winning producer/director of CBC's The Nature of Things. Isobel was founder, publisher and editor of Hands, the Canadian craft magazine, producer and on-air travel commentator for The Senior Report (TVO), and a producer of On Top of the World. Both are members of the Travel Media Association of Canada.
If you go
Slovakia Tourism: www.slovakia.travel
Access: By air to Bratislava. By car or bus, 110 km. south of Bratislava, near Hungarian border.
Languages spoken: Slovak, Hungarian, Czech, German, a little English.
Open: May to September, 10 a.m. -7 p.m.
Contact: Tel: 011 421 35 777 20 45 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Address: Water Mill Museum and Eco-Centre - Vodnym Lyn, Petofiho rad 23, 946 03 Kolarovo, Slovakia.
Admission: adults, 20SK, children 10SK (about CDN .75 and .35)
Camping: SK50 (about CDN$2.) Usually booked solid in summer.
Services: Snacks and drinks at pub. Simple meals for groups available with advance notice.
Food supplies available in town. Fire pits and barbeques onsite. Toilets and showers onsite.
Nearby accommodation: Hotel Leonor, a short walk away in Kolorova: email@example.com or
035 777-1341. More hotels and restaurants in Komarno, about 20 km. away.
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