The little town of Szelmenc, better known as the divided village, derives its uniqueness from its resemblance to a miniature version of Cold War Berlin, thanks to a troublesome border.
With its population of Hungarians, Slovaks and Ukrainians, sleepy little Szelmenc sits right on the Slovakian–Ukrainian border, halfway between Uzhgorod/Ungvár and Chop, although far from any beaten tourist track.
I often go to Uzhgorod on business and have a special relationship with the region. It was around 2012 when I got to hear more about Szelmenc, or Slemence, as it has been officially called since the 1920 Trianon treaty.
As I come from the other side of Europe where the ocean waves have defined the frontiers for as long as anyone can remember, I’ve learned that in Central and Eastern Europe it is better not to become too embroiled with border issues.
Not knowing what to expect, I felt compelled though to visit Szelmenc, Europe’s forgotten village, a place I remain to this day surprised so few people know about.
Getting to Little Szelmenc was simple and pleasant enough. 15 kilometres in one hour by bicycle from Uzhgorod along dusty country lanes, with storks flying by. Not much appeared to have changed in anyone’s lifetime there. It looked like most of the locals must either be retired or work as casual labourers or border guards. I did not see many young people. After visiting the church, the buffet and having a brief rest at a fine traditional folk-art bus stop, all within half an hour, I finally made my way along to the disputed border.
During the night of 30 August 1946, the Red Army established Szelmenc as a borderline between the USSR and the rest of Europe, thus dividing land, property, families and friends for the foreseeable future. By 1949, a three-metre-high electric fence was in full operation. Armed guards patrolled the grounds and were positioned in watchtowers. The village was torn in two, engulfed by a political tide still not subsided even 70 years on.
After taking in the Little Szelmenc atmosphere, I stood in line at this particular dividing line to show my passport and walk into Slovakia where I cycled around the more developed Big Szelmenc. I parked myself on a bench for a while and enjoyed the sight of more storks flying overhead, perhaps from right over the border. After taking a look at another church and a few more photographs, I decided half an hour later that I had seen it all and returned back to Ukraine the same way as I had come to continue my journey.
Hungarian-majority Szelmenc became part of Czechoslovakia after 1920. After the Red Army’s invasion, the larger part of Szelmenc stayed on the Western side and was renamed Veľké Slemence (Big Szelmenc). The smaller part went to the Soviet Union and was renamed Mali Slemence (Little Szelmenc). Later the two sides became part of EU Slovakia and Ukraine respectively.
During these transitional times however, in order to communicate with the other side, villagers were forced to either converse to one another at a distance of several metres over the fence, or apply for visas to cross over which meant a lengthy journey to Uzhgorod to obtain the permits. If anyone complained, they were deported and most likely, never returned home again.
The Hungarians tended to make do with conversations over the border, particularly as the border guards were unable to understand them. Hungarian is still widely spoken in Szelmenc today, and I was able to communicate with the locals despite my foreign accent.
After the death of Stalin, the border restrictions eased a little and it became possible to walk to church along the lane, but very strict regulations remained in place until the end of the Soviet Union.
These days, there is a very different atmosphere. The frontier is now controlled by the Slovaks under today’s EU Schengen border treaty. Szelmenc’s border today is now less about keeping villagers apart than keeping out illegal immigrants from far beyond from entering into the European Union.
With this in mind, some improvements may be in store for both relations and conditions on both sides of the village, despite the generational time differences between the two sides and the ease in border crossing regulations.
A lot remains to be done in order to allow the free movement of all persons but particularly those from the poorer relation, Little Szelmenc, who with their Ukrainian citizenship still face tighter restrictions at the border.
Whilst outsiders like myself with privileged EU passports can cross the border at Szelmenc and elsewhere in Ukraine hassle-free, the mayor of Little Szelmenc has apparently only once ever visited the other side of the same village.
The obvious solution for Szelmenc would be if Ukraine were to join the European Union. The new Schengen border would then however have to move further eastwards, causing problems elsewhere. The continued functioning of a “wall” at Szelmenc simply does not appear to be worthy of the attention of European politicians, particularly since the collapse of another much higher profile “Wall”, the one in Berlin.
Another perk for those on the EU side of Szelmenc, providing they have factored in the one hour time difference between Slovakia and Ukraine, is that they can walk down the village lane, buy cheaper wine or vodka from “abroad”, return home and put a bottle on the table all in a matter of minutes. At the same time, by way of meagre compensation, those on the other side do what they can to boost their more modest incomes by buying, selling and perhaps smuggling with their neighbours, that is if they haven’t opted for leaving the village altogether and searching for prosperity elsewhere.
After my visit, I tried to find out more about Szelmenc. Not coming across much at all I finally happened upon an interesting Slovak documentary Hranica: The Border. The film is an intimate portrayal of Szelmenc and its people. The stories they tell are full of sadness. The border may come down one day, but the soul of the village has been fundamentally destroyed. Perhaps sometime, hopefully soon, some kind of proper compensation will be given to Szelmenc and its people, by all sides. Until then, the long shadows from the border watchtowers will continue to linger over this slumbering, fated place.
Cycling away, I found myself taken with grief over the fate of the place, but yet I felt very glad to have been there. Szelmenc is not an orthodox attraction, but is definitely worth a visit.
To get to the divided village from the Slovakian side is a longer and more time- consuming process with many country lanes to contend with. Once there, visitors must leave their vehicles in Slovakia, walk into Ukraine, and turn back before the border closes for the day. Getting up-to-date information about the Szelmenc border opening hours is highly recommended. Tourist facilities or accommodation services were non-existent when I visited.
Bicycle enthusiasts should note that it is permitted to take bikes across the Szelmenc border, in interesting contrast with the new “no bicycles allowed” policy at the Chop and Uzhgorod borders close by. If you attempt to cross those bigger and busier borders by bicycle, expect to be sent back as happened to me recently.
Finally, a note of caution on how to behave in Szelmenc: it is best not to come across too much as an indiscreet tourist or curious onlooker with a camera. It may be taken as an offence by villagers or the authorities.
Szelmenc of course is not the only place of interest for tourists or Hungarians in this region. Nearly 10 years ago, I cycled to Verecke Pass, a highly significant landmark of the Hungarian conquest. In 896, the Hungarians, led by Árpád, the chieftain of the Magyar tribes, crossed through this pass into the Carpathian basin.
For the next thousand years and more until Trianon, Verecke Pass was the border of Hungary. The region of Transcarpathia’s fate however was to be cut off, changing hands between the neighbours throughout the 20th century before finally landing in Ukraine.
Given that Verecke Pass is such an important Hungarian historical site, I was surprised to find that so few Hungarians had actually been there, most likely a result of the restricted access to Transcarpathia over the decades, while today’s Ukraine crisis does not encourage tourism. I am sure though that the Carpathians will prevail just as neighbouring Transylvania has managed. The bicycle rides I took along the graceful hills and valleys were truly wonderful and rewarding, as were the local hospitality and lifts on horse-drawn carts I received.
Should the reader wish to see the wooden houses and churches typical of the region, but cannot manage the peaks to see them in person, the elegant outdoor Transcarpathia Architecture Museum in Uzhgorod is a fine alternative. The museum has a wonderful display of original beautifully restored structures brought in from the Carpathian range.
Elsewhere there is much to enjoy in Uzhgorod, which makes for a good introduction to the Transcarpathia region. It’s a must-see university town with fine museums, a beautiful castle, cafés, churches and lovely walks along the river Uzh, as well as friendly, welcoming people who contribute to a lively social scene.
50 kilometres east of Uzhgorod is Munkács Palanok Castle. This magnificent newly restored fortress stands before the Carpathian Hills. Palanok dates back to the 10th century and played a very important role in Hungarian history. Inside the castle, there is a memorial for Sándor Petőfi, the iconic poet and freedom fighter who visited this region in the 1840s. The castle also accommodates an art gallery which exhibits local and international artworks alike.
A statue of the fearless Ilona Zrínyi and her son Ferenc Rákóczi II also stands at Palanok Castle. She defended her castle from the Habsburgs in the late 17th century, and Ferenc led the first Hungarian uprising against Austrian rule between 1703 and 1711.
Munkács is perhaps best known for the world famous 19th-century Hungarian artist Mihály Munkácsy, who changed his surname as a tribute to his birthplace. His grandiose artworks are exhibited all over the world.
Some 30 kilometres south of Munkács is Beregszász, the only town in Ukraine with a Hungarian majority. Despite various national identities and border changes, Beregszász has always maintained its Hungarian identity and atmosphere. The most famous landmark is the beautiful Ferenc Rákóczi II Hungarian school, which reminds this writer of a Buckingham Palace in miniature.
For those who wish to go further, there is the picturesque Mount Hoverla, the highest mountain in the Ukrainian stretch of the Carpathians, standing at 2,061 metres. Szinevéri Lake, a timeless wonder, is considered meanwhile the most beautiful part of the Carpathian range. Heading northwards then from the lake is Lviv, a major cultural centre with much to see and do.
Transcarpathia is a poor part of the world but one with much to offer including a sufficient level of comfort for the tourist. What the region really needs to promote is outside awareness of it through someone like Prince Charles, a famed environmentalist. This would bring a new media spotlight into this region which it doubtlessly deserves, after being closed off for so long.
There is a Ukrainian motto that inspires me: “It is OK to be poor, but it is not OK to look poor.” Much care goes into how local people present themselves, in particular the women, who always dress well.
I know there are many more places in this region I still have to see. As long as the people of the Carpathians continue to welcome me, I will return.