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40km (25 miles) E of Poprad; 360km (223 miles) NE of Bratislava

Levoca (www.levoca.sk) is one of the best-preserved medieval towns in the country, boasting a charmingly tumbled-down square of Renaissance and baroque burghers' houses and a church with a 15m-high (50-ft.) wooden altarpiece that must be seen to be believed. Most of the sights can be taken in during an afternoon, but a cluster of nice hotels and a few good restaurants make Levoca an excellent place to plan an overnight stop. For centuries, Levoca was the leading town of a confederation of 24 towns and villages, known collectively as the Spis, filling a large swath of central and eastern Slovakia. The Spis towns came of age in the 14th and 15th centuries, following a series of devastating raids from the east that left the area devoid of population. To resettle the region, the Hungarian kings then in power invited German-speaking Saxons to form towns, and bestowed special trading rights on the towns to sweeten the deal. The Spis soon became wealthy, and Levoca, which enjoyed the greatest number of these special trading privileges, emerged as the wealthiest of the lot.

Levoca reached its high point in the 16th and 17th centuries, and many of the most impressive buildings date from this time. The highlight of your visit will certainly be the town's beautiful cathedral, St. Jacob's, in the middle of the main square, and its exquisitely carved wooden altarpiece, the work of the local master Pavol of Levoca in the early 16th century.

Given the town's wealthy past, the state of modern Levoca comes as kind of a shock. In and around the beautifully crumbling facades of what were once the homes of the wealthiest merchants in the land, you'll see Roma children running around, mugging for the camera, and occasionally begging for a coin or two. Times are tough in the Spis region these days, and brain drain has hit these towns especially hard.

The first weekend in July sleepy Levoca is turned upside down when tens of thousands of worshippers descend for the annual Marian pilgrimage. Most of the action takes places at the Marian church, the white building on a hill about a mile outside of town and easily visible from side streets running off the main square. If your visit happens to coincide with the pilgrimage, it probably goes without saying, don't even dream of finding a room.