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.



Banská Bystrica: The double existence of Central Slovakia’s capital

By Tom Nicholson


    
 
 Photo by Eric Smillie

Banská Bystrica is two cities. The first is a historical city, the town that was colonized by German miners and functioned as a regional capital until the mines ran out in the 1700s, catching a second wind as a part of the Slovak national awakening in the 1800s, and a third as the center of the anti-Nazi Slovak National Uprising in 1944. There’s even a fourth wind, if you count then-Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar’s idea in the mid-1990s to move the headquarters of the major banks here, and make Banská Bystrica at least the financial capital of the country.

And then there’s the second Banská Bystrica, the one that at the moment is taking a breather from its famous past, and is in kind of a doldrums. Without decent transport infrastructure, the city has not attracted any major foreign investment. Without a strong economy, it is losing its youth to better-off Slovak regions and beyond.

“Most of the friends I graduated with have already left,” says a waitress at the Pilsner Pub on the main square on a soft June evening. “They’re not even going to Bratislava any more, because it’s too expensive. They’re going to England and Ireland.”

With over 170,000 Slovaks working in other countries of the European Union, according to Foreign Ministry statistics, it would seem that Banská Bystrica is not the only Slovak city living a double life of past fame and present frustration.


Getting into town

Car

Banská Bystrica, like all Slovak cities east of Žilina and Nitra, is bedeviled by poor road connections with anywhere that matters. The 65/E571 highway from Nitra is slowly being built into a freeway, over the objections of people whose land is being requisitioned, but it’s a long process with no completion date in sight. The E77 freeway from about the Kremnica turnoff provides at least a little relief. From Bratislava, Banská Bystrica takes 2-2.5 hours of hard driving.

Train

Poor old Banská Bystrica is not on the main Bratislava-Košice line, so it gets the dirty end of the stick in train transport as well. Several direct trains serve the city every day, taking about three hours (see www.zsr.sk). The main train station in Banská Bystrica is about 15 minutes’ walk west to the main square.

Bus

Possibly even worse than the train connection, taking about four hours to or from the capital. The bus station is beside the train station in Banská Bystrica.

Excursions

Kalvária: Many Slovak towns have a “Calvary”, which in English means an artificial hill with a collection of religious buildings somehow denoting the crucifixion, but in Slovak seems to mean just a hilltop church. Whatever the case, Banská Bystrica’s entry is pretty run down and begs some major investment, but is still a stirring walk up from the main square, offering a panoramic view. Follow Národná Street off the square past the university, across the main road and the railway tracks, and up the signed path. At the top is a large forest park.

Veľká Fatra: Ringed around by mountains, Banská Bystrica is the natural jumping-off spot for some gorgeous trips, including to the wildest mountain range in the country, the Greater Fatras. The best place to start from is the Horný Harmanec pass, at around 900 meters, which is about 20 kilometers to the west on highway 578 (buses leave frequently from the main bus station). Once there, hike inland about 10 kilometers along the red trail to the Horský Hotel Kráľova Studňa, which sits just under the summit of Krížna, one of the highest peaks in the range.

Špania dolina:This is a well-preserved mining village about 10 kilometers north of Banská Bystrica. It used to be a center of the lace-making trade; in 1881 there were 2,000 lace makers in Slovakia, of whom 83% lived in the vicinity of Banská Bystrica. Today you can admire the art of lace making in its authentic setting in Špania dolina, where the most beautiful work of local lace makers is exhibited in a historical building known as the klopačka (clapper house) in the middle of the village. Accommodation can be arranged on the spot at the Klopačka turistická ubytovňa, Špania dolina 102, Tel: (048) 419-8440, www.klobacka.sk, double from Sk1,100, breakfast included.

Jaskyňa mŕtvych netopierov: The Cave of the Dead Bats is part of the mysterious underground world of the Low Tatras mountain chain, rather like the Misty Mountains from the Lord of the Rings. It got its name from the bat bones that were found there, some of which are 6,000 years old. Inspecting this cave can be a real experience - it is 16.2 kilometers long and 300 meters deep, and has 14 different levels. One sightseeing route is only a kilometer long and takes 60 minutes, but you can opt for others that take physical strength and courage and about 12 hours of your time. Caving overalls and miner’s helmet with headlamp are essential. To reach the cave drive to Trangoška under the Ďumbier peak and take the trail to the M.R. Štefánik cottage. For those who don’t fancy a long sojourn underground, Ďumbier itself is reason enough to come.

    The green hills that surround the city nestle up to the square.
 The green hills that surround the city nestle up to the square.
 Photo by Eric Smillie

Key areas

Old Town: As with many Slovak cities, the Old Town district is the only really interesting part of the town - the rest is a tangle of housing tenements, factories and wood processing plants.

If you have a mind to explore, the Štiavnicky neighborhood to the west of the main square, Námestie SNP, contains the SNP football stadium and the largest swimming option, the Plážové kúpalisko (Beach Pool).

To the east is the heavily communist-inspired Trieda SNP, and the massive Smrečina wood plant.

On the south side of town, just below the Kalvária hill, is the upscale Uhlisko suburb, where the quality lives.

Things to do

    
 
 

The first thing to do is to get yourself to the main square, Námestie SNP, and head north, or uphill. Just off the north corner are the grounds of the Mestský hrad (town castle), which comprises religious and secular buildings grouped around a 13th century central parish church, the Kostol Panny Márie (the Virgin Mary), the oldest building in the city. The altar of St Barbara in the church, dating from 1509, was made by Master Pavol of Levoča. The castle area includes three bastions, which were buildings that represented the headquarters of various guilds - the Clerical, Miners’ and Parish bastions, with the Shoemaker’s bastion a little to the north. The complex was built from the 13th to the 17th centuries, and includes the only fortified gate with tower, or barbican, that remains in the city. It was used as a storage place for ammunition and weapons, and had a bell and clock installed as well.

Between the old castle and the square is the old radnica (Town Hall, Tues-Fri 10:00 to 17:00, Sat-Sun 10:00 to 16:00, Tel: (048) 412-4167), which was built in the 1500s by a rich local miner. It now houses an art gallery that stages showings of contemporary Slovak art.

    The learning tower of Banská Bystrica at night.
 The learning tower of Banská Bystrica at night.
 Photo by Eric Smillie

At the top of the square, the Hodinová veža (Clock Tower), also known as the šikmá (leaning) tower, is about 68 centimeters off true, and offers great views of the city (Mon-Fri 11:00 to 18:00). Locals blame the crookedness of the tower on a decision by the communists in the 1960s to get rid of the “butcher’s house” building beneath it, or the decision by Warsaw Pact troops during the 1968 Prague Spring to position heavy military equipment just beneath it. The basement of the tower was originally used as a prison and a torture chamber.

    The Mariánsky stĺp column on the main square
 The Mariánsky stĺp column on the main square
 Photo by Eric Smillie

Heading down the square, you will notice the Mariánsky stlp(Virgin Mary Column), an 18th century piece that you wouldn’t have seen 20 years ago - the communists decided in 1964 to take it down and move it to the castle complex. It was moved back after the 1989 revolution.

The other similar edifice you will notice on the square is the Pomník padlým Sovietskej armády (Memorial for the Fallen Soldiers of the Soviet Army), a 15-meter obelisk erected to the Soviet (and Rumanian) armies that liberated Banská Bystrica on March 25, 1945.

The SNP Square is actually replete with interesting and historical buildings, and if you’re interested, visit the Kultúrne a informačné stredisko (Cultural and Information Center) at Nám. Štefana Moysesa 26, Tel: (048) 16-186, Mon-Fri 08:00 to 19:00, Sat 09:00 to 13:00. In honor of Banská Bystrica’s 500th anniversary in 2005 of its town privileges, some new material has been printed up that is quite useful, and will tell you more than we have room for here.

But one thing before we move on - you have to go see the SNP Múzeum a short distance to the east of the square. It’s impossible to miss - a fascinatingly ugly concrete structure built in 1969 in honor of the 25th anniversary of the Slovenské národné povstania (Slovak National Uprising, or SNP), and event which did not throw off the yoke of Nazism in this country but is revered in national lore. The museum inside contains an exhibition of Second World War arms and the SNP movement, and was renovated in 2004 on the 60th anniversary of the SNP (Kapitulská 23, Tues-Sun 09:00 to 18:00, www.museumsnp.sk).

Hotels, Restaurants and Amusements

Hotel Arcade***
Nám. SNP 5
Tel: (048) 430-2111
www.arcade.sk
9 rooms, 5 suites

Generally regarded as one of the best hotels in Banská Bystrica, the Arcade has a number of annoying shortcomings that keep it from being wholeheartedly recommended. It’s convenient, on the main square, and in a beautiful building, but it may suffer from noise pollution, and could do better with breakfast.

Hotel Dixon***
Švermova 32
Tel: (048) 413-0808
www.dixon.sk
49 rooms, 4 suites

A sports hotel in the western Banská Bystrica Štiavničky district, the Dixon offers 13 tennis courts (4 year-round), 3 squash courts, and generous year-round swimming options. But it makes you pay in advance, and seems to think it doesn’t need to work so hard on its accommodation when the sports possibilities are so various.

Hotel Lux***
Nám. Slobody 2
Tel: (048) 414-4141
www.hotellux.sk
132 rooms, 9 suites

This towering hotel is not as grim as it looks - a gradual reconstruction has been restoring tourism with a human face, and you now have a choice between three standards of room. A centrally located hotel that seems to be trying to evolve.

Hotel Národný dom
Národná 11
Tel: (048) 412-3737

I stayed at the Národný dom five years ago, and found it cheap. I stayed there again in June 2006, and paid Sk1,400 for the smallest single room I had ever seen, with the toilet in the hallway in a washroom that stank. Breakfast, of course, was not included. Never again, and nor should you. There are much cheaper and much better options.

Hotel Kaskády****
Letecká 12, Sliac
Tel: (045) 544-1122, -4
www.hotelkaskady.sk

Sliač is a small town of little import beyond its airport between Banská Bystrica and Zvolen. But the Kaskády, which belongs to beer baron Karol Konárik, has a regional significance. Four-star hotels are rare in this part of the country, but this one has scored with its thermal pools and wellness center, its generous rooms and 200-person conference center.

Šachtička horský hotel
Tel: (048) 414-1911
www.sachticka.sk

A mountain hotel a few kilometers from Banská Bystrica that is geared for business and conference tourism, with meeting facilities as well as various sports and recreation options, in addition to the beautiful surroundings.

    Almost all of the city´s decent pubs are on the main square.
 Almost all of the city´s decent pubs are on the main square.
 Photo by Eric Smillie

Restaurants

Červený rak
Nám. SNP 13
Tel: (048) 472-1506
www.cervenyrak.sk
Open Mon-Sat 11:00 to 22:00

This is actually a complex of three restaurants that represents the quality on the main square among all the summer terraces. Expect a large menu with service and cleanliness that are somewhat wanting.

Steak House
Nám. Štefana Moyzesa 2
Tel: (048) 412-3091
www.steakhouse-bb.sk
Open Mon-Fri 11:00 to 22:00,
Sat-Sun from 12:00

Vaulted ceilings and wooden tables up at the far (east) end of the main square. This restaurant is fully geared to serving tourists, from the languages spoken by the staff to their cheerful and willing manner to the quality of the international cuisine.

Zlatý Bažant
Námestie SNP 10
Tel: (048) 412-4510
www.zlaty-bazant.sk
Open Sun-Mon 10:00 to 24:00,
Tues-Sat from 08:00

Another of Slovakia’s throwaway gems - this elegant 14th century building now houses a restaurant/pub that was holding a “chicken week” at the time we visited. I was accompanied by two Canadian friends, and ordered them bryndzové halušky and fried cheese; as a connoisseur of both, I can say the Zlatý Bažant did them credit, while my chicken with plums kept crying out to be washed down with more Zlatý Bažant beer.

Starobystrická pivnica
Námestie SNP 9
Tel: (048) 415-4326
Open Mon-Fri 11:00 to 22:00,
Sat-Sun from 12:00

A cheaper option with a very respected kitchen but perhaps less pizzazz than some of the new joints that have been opening up on the main square.

Koliba U Sv. Krištofa
Ulanská cesta 170
Tel: (048) 419-8151
www.usvkristofa.sk
Open Sun-Thurs 09:00 to 22:00,
Fri-Sat to 24:00

This region of Slovakia is full of great roadside restaurants that serve Slovak specialties. Here you get a log cabin with wenches in folk costume - anywhere else that would be a recipe for a disastrous dining experience, but here it’s merely the intro to an authentic Slovak experience.

Hotel Lux Restaurant
Nám. Slobody 2
Tel: (048) 414-4141
www.hotellux.sk
Open daily 11:30 to 22:00

A tough competitor to the Steak House for the best dining in the city. From soup to salad to main course to desert, with side trips for wine and coffee, the quality of the kitchen is rivaled only by the professionalism of the service - they simply know everything about the food and wine they’re serving.


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

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