Slovensky Grob is a village just outside of Bratislava which hosts the annual Kingdom of the Goose Festival every September. This is our story of its origins, our experience and a story about opening ourselves to a new culture through food and burčiak!
A Slow Travel Story: Slovakia’s Kingdom of the Goose Festival
We arrive at a half-finished bus station, cranes tower over us, they are in the process of building Slovakia’s first skyscraper. This modern cityscape has quickly developed since we arrived in the capital city of Bratislava some months ago. New windows glisten in the September sun as the buildings stretch skywards. As impressive as this is, we’re too busy grumbling about how far the walk is from the bus stop to the central station because of said works! We’re in a rush to meet a group of people for the first time. Not to look at the future of Slovakia, but to learn about its traditions. Namely, the Kingdom of the Goose festival!
While social media is the bane of all existence for most folks, it becomes the best tool to scope out local events, expat groups and connect with locals. We had come across a group led by an admirable woman who had lived through the Soviet regime. She was eager to dispel the myth that Slovak people were cold and uninviting to foreigners like us. 2019 marked the thirtieth anniversary of The Velvet Revolution, the separation of Czechoslovakia and the instigation of the new Slovak Republic. Until we met Henrietta, we had no idea what any of that really meant.
She embraces us at the bus stop with a big smile and enthusiastically introduces us to fellow expats. Henry’s big beard is an instant winner with her. After a bit of beard fondling, we get closer acquainted with our day trip companions and learn more about the background of our tour guide. Henrietta explains that this is entirely voluntarily run by her. Its purpose is to show newcomers local traditions and to delve deeper into Slovakia’s turbulent past and become more involved in the direction of a new, more open Slovakia.
Her own stories of her childhood give a fuller picture of life under Soviet rule. No religion. No choice in what you can buy at the supermarket. No freedom of movement or freedom of speech. In a communist country, this kind of gathering would not happen, and all that took place just thirty years ago.
Yet, despite warnings from friends and family, she organises these tours and meetings to show them people can be integrated. She shows that foreigners aren’t trying to change or attack their culture and traditions. Rather, they want to learn and be involved!
A kingdom not so far away…
The bus pulls up, and our limited Slovak buys us two bus tickets to a local village not far from the city called Slovensky Grob. Today is the centenary celebration of The Kingdom of the Goose. To say we’re intrigued by the name would be an understatement. We understood that it’s a seasonal dish as it is in lots of other countries in Europe, but what was so royal about this small village? Why did thousands of people from all over Slovakia descend here?
If you were to drive to Slovensky Grob it would take twenty minutes, but where’s the sense of adventure in that? The public bus takes an hour to get there. During that time, we talk to fellow locals and our tour guide, sharing what we do and why we moved to Slovakia. As soon as the bus stops, we make our way down the main street of Slovensky Grob with quizzical looks from locals as we snap photos, looking like the tourists we are.
The story of the golden goose!
Stalls line the street on one side with tempting cakes, gorgeous wines from neighbouring wine towns and beautiful hand-woven wares. We then arrive at the star attraction, the wonderful golden goose! Henrietta launches into the story of the royal feast and the ingenious plan hatched by the housewives of this village
A hundred years ago, there was an economic crisis, and this was a village that relied on its trade, (mostly of our feathered friends), but there were no customers. The farmer’s housewives decided to start roasting geese instead of selling raw meat in local village markets. It then became clear that people were willing to make the journey to Slovensky Grob and eat a fresh, hot meal from the source. The housewives started to invite people into their homes.
Slowly over time, the various farming families turned their homes into fully-fledged restaurants offering roast goose, every year from September to December. It transformed the village, and now every year they celebrate with the Kingdom of the Goose festival. The golden goose is a symbol of how this bird changed a village, with a sustainable future, and it’s a tradition that has endured for generations.
A taste of Slovakia at Kingdom of the Goose
The story whets our appetite, we’re ready to see how good a goose can be. It turns out, surprisingly good. Not merely good, but melt in your mouth, ‘why haven’t I been eating this for my whole life’ territory. We’re taken to a local restaurant, a former house of one of the families in the village. Each family have their own recipes, which involves basting in milk to get the juiciest birds.
For generations, they’ve kept their own specific methods like using a clay oven for the best roast. Roasted goose is served with salty potato pancakes (lokše) with apples, sour cabbage or chilli peppers. You can also start your meal with a serving of goose liver. Another seasonal treat to try at the Kingdom of the Goose is young wine (burčiak) which comes from local wine producers. This cider-like libation makes you a little giddy!
With a pep in our step and full bellies, we pass on sumptuous looking apple strudel and continue to another family-run operation on the other side of the village. Here we stop for a drink and meet a very talkative local restaurant owner. You could tell he’s been waiting for a captive audience. This sweet old man totters up to us, and our tour guide translates for him, he introduces himself as Henrich, the owner of this restaurant and house.
He explains that he bought the home, restaurant, and garden for his wife so she could share her family recipes. We met his daughter who wore traditional Slovak attire, as did all the staff for the sake of the festival, and it seemed an altogether wholesome affair. Then it took a turn…
Naked calendars and pickled vegetables
As he gets more comfortable, we learn about his succession of marriages, “each wife younger than the last.” He tells us how he was an athlete in his younger days, in all kinds of water sports. This meant he got to travel to places like Mexico and Asia. One of our group was Mexican, and Henrich’s eyes light up as he reminisces about his adventures in Mexico – “Cancun is a wonderful place!” Henrich had many lovers we learn, indeed, for an 80-year-old he wasn’t slowing down either.
As the conversation turns to details about these lovers, our host politely declines to keep translating. Still, we can’t help having a soft spot for old Henrich and his eccentricities. Before we leave, he ushers us into his private office. We’re greeted by a naked lady calendar and a wall of pickled vegetables – his two pride and joys.
He’s found what makes him happy and it’s always enriching to meet local characters, even if he seems like he’s eyeing up wife number four from within our troupe. We all get photos with the lovely Henrich and quickly exit to join in with the festivities back in the centre of the village.
A typical Slovak village
As we amble back to the Kingdom of the Goose festivities, Henrietta points out the architecture of the buildings. The village is colourful, shades of orange, yellow and pink, but the shape and size of the houses are quite uniform. It’s a leftover from communist times. They only had permission to build their home in a specific style, with no individual flair or anything too extravagant. Adaptations have been made in the last thirty years, but this was, according to Henrietta, quite typical of Slovak villages everywhere.
She talked about a town called Hainburg, it’s just twenty minutes outside of Bratislava. Still, it’s over the border in Austria. She goes there to climb the Braunsberg Hill and look at the Danube River from above. Henrietta compares Hainburg with typical Slovak towns and villages like this. She remembers her utter amazement when she first crossed the border thirty years ago…
“The buildings were so beautiful; I had never seen anything like it! Even the shops sold more than one brand of bubble gum, and the shelves were so full, there was a whole other world I had never experienced.”
A woman no older than my mum had spent her youth without choice, freedom of speech. Now, here she is showing complete strangers the traditions Slovakia have fought to regain.
The time for reflection is over as we join the street party. Henrietta grabs us for a dance, and we warm up the dancefloor for the locals, getting funky to covers of Jamiroquai and The Jacksons. Burčiak in hand, goose in our bellies, this is the meaning of full cultural immersion. With no other English speakers around, we are somewhat of an oddity. Still, we feel welcomed, which is thanks to one incredible woman.
With one royal goose feast we’re no longer tourists in a country we would call home for a year. As we wait on the bus, we ask Henrietta what had changed for her since starting this venture.
Her response is, “I was so scared to start this but frustrated. I read so many bad experiences from expats. Now I feel it was the best idea! I have new friends from all around the world. Now, I can say to my friends and family they don’t have to feel scared by change.”
If you are an expat in Bratislava or nearby, why not join Enjoy Bratislava on one of their cultural tours?! It’s an affordable and great way to meet friends and learn about the real culture of Slovakia. The tours are in English, and it may also have the added benefit of helping you with Slovak!
For more slow travel stories read Jen’s memoir on living as an expat in Bratislava. Looking for a travel guide to Slovakia’s capital city? Why not check out our three-day guide to Bratislava’s City Card!