Slovakia's Spis - a region where traditions spill across borders
When the former communist countries of Central Europe began the process of joining the EU, most of them had to develop a new layer of government - regional administrations. The centralised communist system did not have such devolved decision making. Slovakia was one of the countries which quickly developed official regions in order to tap into development funds from Brussels. But you won't find the Spis region of Slovakia on any map. It's a place where cultural traditions, local dialect and food have been around much longer than the new regional borders.
Slovaks love to praise the beauty of their country's regions in their folk songs. Most of them take deep pride in being born in a particular region, especially when it is one that includes very distinct elements such as the High Tatra Mountains and a famous type of plum brandy called Spisska borovicka.
"If you were born and live in the Spis region you call yourself Spisan. I am proud of being one" says one local resident.
"People from Western Europe asked me to explain what is the Spis region because if you look at Slovakia's map you don't find it and I keep on talking about it. To me it's more than geography, it's about good and friendly people, our own dialect and beautiful traditions and tasty food" says another.
Indeed, the Spis region is not marked on any contemporary map of Slovakia because it ceased to exist as an administrative unit in 1949. It remains just a historical province in the North-Eastern part of the country with a territory of around 500 square kilometres, clearly defined by a dialect and customs. In the late 90s it was divided between two administrative units functioning as counties. They were established to satisfy the European Union's request for an administrative division of the country so that structural funds can more easily flow to less developed areas. But this division causes problems for locals such as Dana Rosova a researcher at the Spis Museum.
"The Spis region borders Poland but that part at the border belongs to Presov county while our town, Spisska Nova Ves, is in Kosice county. We have had cross border cooperation projects related to culture and traditions of the Spis region, including a photo exhibition done in cooperation with our Polish partners. Our county could not finance it because we are located in an area that does not border Poland. Presov county could not give us money because we, the project managers, are not located in their county despite the fact that the project was about Spis".
At least on paper, Slovakia has tried hard to promote its regions to the EU and its institutions. In 2005 it set up a House of Regions in Brussels where representatives of the eight official counties that currently form Slovakia lobby for their area. Asked whether it also promotes traditional regions such as Spis, this organisation issued this statement....
"Both Kosice and Presov counties have the brochures about Spis and distribute in here. Last winter. The Spis label is certainly promoted as an interesting tourist destination."
People from Spis are less than satisfied with this approach. They don't think Slovakia is sufficiently descentralized and blame decisionmakers in the capital Bratislava for undervaluing traditional regions. Dana Rosova..
"The funny part is that I was born in Bratislava but I moved to Spis as a child and now I have stronger feelings for this region than for Bratislava. Yes, I would like to see more people involved in promoting it, namely locals because sometimes I have the feeling that there is too much talk and blaming others and too little action from our side".