These articles were published in the Spectacular Slovakia travel guide, published annually by The Slovak Spectator since 1996. The latest editions can be obtained from our online shop.



Levoča’s ghosts

By Tom Nicholson


Levoča

Population: 14,346
Nearest urban center: Poprad (40 km)
Economy: agriculture, forestry, tourism
Mayor: Miroslav Čurilla, Tel: (053) 451-2467, hovorca@levoca.sk

Important contacts

www.levoca.sk (also in English)

Municipal Office:
Nám. Majstra Pavla 4
Tel: (053) 451-2467
mesto@levoca.sk
open Mon, Wed, Fri 08:00 to 11:00, 12:00 to 14:00

Information Center:
Nám. Majstra Pavla 54
Tel: (053) 451-3763

Town Museums:
Museum of Spiš Creative Arts, Nám. Majstra Pavla 40
Tel: (053) 451-2786
open Tues-Sun 09:00 -17:00

Master Pavol Museum:
Nám. Majstra Pavla 20
Tel: (053) 451-3496
open Tues-Sun 09:00 to 17:00

Emergency medical service:
Tel: (052) 712-5111

Police:
Tel: (053) 451-2467 (operator)


    Levoča´s White Lady is said to roam the streets of the town at night.
 Levoča´s White Lady is said to roam the streets of the town at night.
 Photo Ján Svrček

Central European folklore is replete with White Ladies, figures of pity and misfortune who wander castles or nighttime streets in mourning for some tragic loss. By and large they are kind and sympathetic ghosts.

Slovakia has three White Ladies. One infests the Bratislava Old Town, another the Bojnice castle, and the last haunts the medieval Catholic bastion of Levoča in central Slovakia.

The White Lady of Levoča is unique in that she really existed. Her name was Júlia Korponayová, and she came from Ožďany, a village near Rimavská Sobota in southeast Slovakia. During a rebellion of the Hungarian estates against the Hapsburg monarchy at the end of the seventeenth century, she married Ján Korponay, one of the leaders of the rebellion.

However, in an attempt to regain some confiscated assets for her son, she agreed to act as a spy for the Hapsburg emperor, and was sent to Levoča, which at the time was besieged by the Hapsburg army. She became the lover of the rebel baron Štefan Andrássy, and after stealing his keys, let the besieging army into the city, which fell without a struggle.

According to legend, she lost the emperor’s favor in 1712 when she agreed to receive letters from rebel exiles in Poland, who were trying to foment a new rebellion. She was charged with treason - the only woman in Hungarian history to have been so accused - and was executed on September 25, 1714 in Györ.

The White Lady of Levoča is also the name of a book by Hungarian romantic writer Móric Jókai, who was responsible for making a legend of the real Júlia Korponayová by dramatizing a painting that still hangs in the Levoča town hall. The painting, by Viliam Forberger (1848-1928), depicts a woman in a white dress with a red sash over her shoulders fitting a key into a lock.

According to Jókai, Korponayová was subjected to terrible tortures. Her hands were crushed, they put a wooden “crown” on her head that worked like a vise, and finally executed her.

Interestingly, Slovak folk hero Juraj Jánošík was also part of the rebellion as one of the soldiers of leader František Rakóczi. He was captured at a battle in Trenčín, and was found guilty of preparing further revolts. He too was brutally tortured and executed.


    Levoča´s historical core with the magical Mariánska hora church above in the background.
 Levoča´s historical core with the magical Mariánska hora church above in the background.
 Photo Ján Svrček

Levoča is one of those towns that refers to itself as a crossroads. In fact, during the Middle Ages it simply lay on the main Hungary-Poland road (there wasn’t an east-west route to “cross” it), and for years battled (quite literally) with Kežmarok further to the north for control of the commerce that flowed along it.

After reaching its pinnacle from the 13th to the 15th centuries as one of the richest towns in the Hungarian kingdom, with its mostly German inhabitants making fortunes from trading iron, copper, leather, gold, furs and woodcarvings, Levoča began a slow decline marked by a ruinous fire in 1550, participation in a rebellion against the Hapsburgs in the 17th and 18th centuries, and exclusion from the main Košice-Bohumín railway line in 1871. Today the town numbers 15,000 inhabitants.

If not a crossroads, you do get the feeling that Levoča lies on a kind of boundary, perhaps that separating east from west. Despite the town’s stunning architecture and the amount of historical buildings that have been preserved, there is a kind of tumbledown poverty here not seen in the richer west of the country. At the time Levoča celebrated the 750th anniversary of its first written mention in 1999, it was battling over 31% unemployment, and while that had been cut to 20% by the beginning of 2006, the lack of jobs remains almost tangible, like a chill in the air.

Visitors will also notice the size of the Roma population in the town, another sign that you are in Slovakia’s east. It was here two years ago that a wave of Roma protests against welfare cuts began in the form of looting, and while passions have since cooled, the number of Roma walking the streets during normal work hours is a reminder of how vulnerable they remain to unemployment.

The service industry is also still in its infancy in Levoča. One local restaurant offers “mixed drinks” that turn out to be Coke mixed with Fanta, or ginger ale and soda. The famous 14th century Church of St Jacob, which houses the world’s largest gothic altar (over 18 meters) made by Master Paul, is open for guided tours on the hour - on the condition that at least 10 people be found to take the tour. As Levoča is not exactly thronging with tourists during the off-season, people who want to see one of Slovakia’s best-known cultural monuments at times other than high summer had better either come in groups of 10, or go enjoy a mixed drink instead.

But even if you don’t get a look at Master Paul’s work, there’s still plenty to admire in Levoča, and the number of historical buildings that have been preserved is a welcome byproduct of the town’s slow movement to the economic periphery. The old town walls are largely intact, and make for a fascinating walk, past monasteries and museums and the stunning evangelical secondary school, with the paneláky of the newer town tenements far below.

    The main square is fronted by half a dozen burghers´houses that used to belong to local worthies.
 The main square is fronted by half a dozen burghers´houses that used to belong to local worthies.
 

The main square is built around the showpiece of St Jacob’s, but contains some fascinating historical monuments besides. The 16th century Cage of Shame is probably one of the more interesting; formerly used to humiliate petty criminals, it now sits in front of the town hall.

The town hall itself is a striking Renaissance structure that survived two fires, in 1550 and 1599, to eventually host the summit of Central European presidents in 1998 that bade farewell to outgoing Slovak President Michal Kováč, who was being celebrated for his refusal to bow to pressure from the Vladimír Mečiar government to resign.

Besides a variety of other storied buildings, Levoča is famous for the 14th and 15th century burgher’s houses that line the square, including dwellings that once belonged to the Thurzo, Mariassy, Spillenberg and Krupek families, as well as Master Paul.

If the weather is not cooperating, Levoča offers a number of museums, including the Spišské Muzeum (Nám. Majstra Pavla 40), which presents Spiš region art and culture; and the Majster Pavol Muzeum (Nám. Majstra Pavla 20), which contains sculptures and carvings.

Visitors to Levoča should not miss the opportunity to tour Spišský hrad (Spiš Castle), the largest castle ruins in Central Europe. Built in the 12th century to defend the trade route through Levoča, the castle was one of the few in the area to withstand the 1241 Tartar invasion, and served defense needs until a fire gutted it in 1780.

On the way back to Levoča, be sure to stop for refreshment in Spišský Hrhov, home to one of the largest reform schools in the country but otherwise a bump in the road save for the pride of its inhabitants (foto journalist Andrej Bán described the local attitude to its larger neighbor as “Levoča? It’s easy to find. It’s near Hrhov.”

The village may only have 1,200 inhabitants, but it plans to break ground on an industrial park, of all things, and in June 2006, only a week before national elections, Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda announced that a Sk16.5 billion auto sector investment was heading to Spišský Hrhov. Although the name of the investor was not revealed, and some media wondered whether the project would ever be built, government officials said a Liechtenstein prince was behind it.

Hrhovians are obviously big thinkers, and while you may not yet be able to buy T-shirts from the town, you’ll at least be able to say you’ve been and seen the wonder.


Accommodation

Hotel Satel****
Nám. Majstra Pavla 55
Tel: (053) 451-2943, -6
www.hotelsatel.com
21 doubles, 2 suites, satellite TV,
some with WiFi, restaurant and courtyard patio, garage
Double room: Sk1,700 low season, Sk2,400 high season, not including breakfast

The Satel is on the main square, offering high-standard rooms in a building that has served as a lodging since the 16th century.

Penzión u Leva
Nám. Majstra Pavla 24
Tel: (053) 450-2311
www.uleva.szm.sk
2 singles, 16 doubles, 5 suites,
satellite TV, Internet, kitchenette in suites, restaurant, gym, sauna
Double room from Sk1,600,
breakfast not included

The Lion pension is an attractive alternative to hotel accomodation, as you don’t have to give up comfort and services to get a B&B atmosphere. Now offering accommodation also in the adjacent 18-room building.

Hotel Barbakan***
Košická 15
Tel: (053) 451-3608
www.barbikan.sk
15 singles, 9 doubles, 3 suites, cable TV
guarded parking, bike rental
Double room from Sk1,600,
breakfast not included

A romantic hotel in a 14th century building that takes its name from a city gate that was erected at around the same time. The most beautiful rooms are in a part of the building that used to be a granary.

Dining

U 3 Apoštolov
Nám. Majstra Pavla 11
Tel: (053) 451-2303
www.u3apostolov.sk

Just down from the u Leva pension, the Apoštolov has an attractive interior and a grand reputation, but on our visit didn’t seem that out of the ordinary. The service was very competent, but the food relatively plain. Still, there isn’t really anywhere else in Levoča to go to dine.

Things to see and do

Mariánska Hora- This is Slovakia’s most famous pilgrimage destination and the site in 1995 of a service given by Pope John Paul II to about 650,000 people. The Basilica Minor church (a title given it by the Pope in 1984) sits atop a hill that offers a superb view of the surrounding country. It is a good hike up from the northern city outskirts, taking about 30 minutes, but you often have the church to yourself, and the site has a magic that is difficult to explain. For more information contact the Roman Catholic parish office, Námestie Majstra Pavla 53, Tel: (053) 451-2347.

Spišský Hrad- The largest castle in Central Europe is a UNESCO site and a not-to-be-missed experience. It is about 20 minutes by car to the east of Levoča. Open May to Oct and by appointment at other times, Tel: (053) 454-1336, www.spisskyhrad.sk


These articles and related information were published in Spectacular Slovakia 2006, which you can obtain from our online shop.

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