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.

Košice: Second city? Second to none

By Howard Swains

    The shattered bell in front of the State Theater in downtown Košice.
 The shattered bell in front of the State Theater in downtown Košice.
 Photo by Howard Swains

If Košice suffers from second-city syndrome, it does a pretty good job of disguising it. Despite deferring to Bratislava in terms of population number and administrative clout, the character and diversity in the capital of eastern Slovakia is second to nowhere. Its streets are stacked with wonderful monuments and palaces; its cultural scene is spirited and innovative; and official city literature boasts of ten national minority groups that call Košice home.

Tour guides in the city take great pleasure in listing the superlatives associated with the place: it has the oldest coat of arms in Europe, the largest Gothic cathedral in Slovakia, the eastern-most university, the only Roma theatre and technical museums, and it hosts the second-oldest marathon in the world. It is also known as the city of youth, where the average age of its population is just 35.

More subjectively, the sculpted figure that stands, torch in hand, atop the State Theatre is described as "the most beautiful lightning conductor in Slovakia". Beat that, Bratislava.

All jokes aside, Košice has blossomed in the past 50 years into one of the most attractive cities in central Europe, drawing on a number of influences for its current progress and prosperity. It combines an indigenous Slovak population with visiting Hungarians, crossing the border just 20km away, as well as a large smattering of Roma from the eastern provinces. A huge steelworks, now owned by American behemoth U. S. Steel, has also boosted the city's economy and ensured a procession of business visitors from across the globe. Košice's first five-star hotel is due to open next year, but the city already offers some fine accommodation options, considerably cheaper but by no means inferior to anything offered in the capital, all those hours west.

    St Urban’s Tower in front of the cathedral.
 St Urban’s Tower in front of the cathedral.
 Photo by Howard Swains

At the centre of Košice is a large pedestrian zone, similar to many other towns in Slovakia, but on a considerably grander scale. This spindle-shaped "square" was the focus of a major redevelopment funded by Rudolf Schuster, a mayor of Košice before he became president of Slovakia, and is the location for most of the major sights in the city.

Along the edges are a number of shops, interspersed with Neoclassical and Baroque palaces, beautifully restored and now housing museums, galleries and offices behind their spectacular facades. It's also worthwhile looking upwards at the roofs, where you can spot, for instance, a cheery character doffing his hat on the top on number 71, known as the "Beggar's House" (map D3) after this chap. On ground level, a long, narrow water channel runs along the main thoroughfare, symbolically remembering the stream that used to course through the town centre, redirected to allow for development of the shopping area.

Central to all this, and dominating Košice's skyline, is the peerless St Elizabeth's Cathedral (map D5), arguably the finest man-made construction in the whole of Slovakia and a serious rival to anything found in Prague for the pan-continental accolade. It is a staggeringly beautiful Gothic construction, both inside and out, built between 1378 and 1508 and with a black and gold cupola at the top of its clock tower visible from across the city. Its multicoloured roof features slates arranged in diamond formations and patterns befitting a complex, crocheted blanket.

Lower down, its northern and western portals are the most artistically valuable areas of the cathedral's exterior, depicting biblical scenes in a number of paintings and sculptures. Less austerely, one gargoyle above the western entrance is carved in the form of a lunatic woman, prompting idle speculation that the architect had nothing better to do that cast in stone the visage of his drunken wife.

    St Michael’s Chapel is dwarfed by Košice’s cathedral.
 St Michael’s Chapel is dwarfed by Košice’s cathedral.
 Photo by Howard Swains

Inside, the church is still very much in use, which means that the countless tour parties may feel a little intrusive among those deep in prayer.

But it is worth overcoming any slight discomfort to marvel at the cathedral's rich adornments, including a main altar featuring 48 panel paintings, and a rare double spiral staircase, dating from the 15th century. The staircase, one of only five in Europe, leads to the emperor's balcony, and is designed so that the king and queen can ascend simultaneously, meeting at every floor as they corkscrew upwards.

On the southern side of the cathedral is St Michael's Chapel, the parish church which dates from the first half of the 14th century. It sits at the centre of what was once the city cemetery, and some gravestones were saved from destruction by their incorporation into the church walls during an early 20th century reconstruction. Nowadays, paving slabs outside the church are dedicated to famous visitors to Košice.

On the other side of the cathedral sits the authentically-cracked original bell from the nearby St Urban's tower (map D5), damaged during a fire in the 1960s. The seven-tonne clanger, dedicated to the God of wine, previously took pride of place at the top of the 15th century Gothic Renaissance tower, whose weathered, simple, form still manages to hold its own beside the ornate cathedral. The tower itself is worth climbing for the view, but it also now houses the national Wax Museum, the artistry of which is hardly likely to threaten Madame Tussauds.

    Cobbled streets ring Košice’s main town square.
 Cobbled streets ring Košice’s main town square.
 Photo by Howard Swains

Although you can no longer hear it peel, the grounded bell can neatly fill the foreground of a photograph of Košice's State Theatre (map D4), which will also include the park and illuminated "singing fountain" that separates the theatre from the cathedral, chapel and tower. The theatre, built in the late 19th century on the site of an 18th century playhouse, is every bit as eye-catching as anything produced on its stage. It is a terrific, much-imitated Neo-Baroque structure, while its interior is decorated with plaster ornaments and paintings depicting scenes from Shakespearean tragedy.

Much more of Košice demands and deserves thorough exploration. The former Mikluš's prison (map E3) now accommodates a part of the city museum, providing an often-gruesome delve into the Košice's unsavoury history. Východoslovenské múzem, the East Slovak Museum (map C1), displays a hoard of nearly 3,000 medieval gold coins, unearthed by developers in 1935. The archaeological museum (map D4)is fittingly housed in a network of tunnels discovered in the 1990s that burrow deep beneath the city centre. Meanwhile, the Slovak Technical Museum (map C3), the only of its kind in the country, has exhibitions focusing on mining, metalwork and communications and their developments through the ages.

More modestly, a museum dedicated to the Hungarian novelist Sándor Márai, who came from Košice, can be found on Mäsiarska street, while a sculpture of the writer on the corner is seated next to an empty chair, allowing passers-by to join the provocative thinker in conversation or contemplation.

New flight routes are promised to link Košice to the rest of Europe, and it seems certain that increasing numbers will discover the city as a wonderful short-break destination. The simple advice is to get there as soon as possible and beat the crowds.

Jewish Košice

    The interior of the former synagogue, ready for reconstruction.
 The interior of the former synagogue, ready for reconstruction.
 Photo by Howard Swains

In 2001, while at home in Israel, Rabbi Jossi Steiner received an invitation from Košice, in eastern Slovakia, from a small Jewish community in search of a leader. The community of about 240 was seeking a Slovak-speaking rabbi who, in Steiner’s own words, was “not too conservative, who wasn't watching too well, and wasn’t listening too well”. Their search had led them to him. Despite resistance from his family, who were reluctant to see Steiner leave, he accepted the invitation to return to the country of his birth, the same country from where he had fled in 1939, one week before the mass transportations began that resulted in the deaths of thousands of Slovak Jews. It was also the country where he had hidden in a cellar for nine months with 14 others, as Hlinka guards patrolled the streets; the country he had left, apparently permanently, in 1945 to find a new life in Israel.

Steiner, however, went back. There was work to do in Slovakia, where more than 60 years under either fascist or communist rule had eroded those Jewish traditions that it had not destroyed outright. “The mission here was to teach the people what was lost or forgotten,” he said in late 2007, from his new home in Košice. “And to teach them in Slovak.”

The latter condition was more out of necessity than choice. The traditional chain of education, from grandfather to father to son, had been crudely severed by murder and enforced exile and Hebrew had become all but obsolete. Most Slovak children did not even know what Jews looked like, let alone understood their traditions, and those Jews who had returned to Košice were aging.

“There's a lack of really young people and their interest in Judaism is low,” Steiner said. “The young ones here are 50 to 60 years old. This might be the last Jewish generation in Košice. Anything is possible, but that’s the reality.”

The past 50 years also resulted in great structural damage to Jewish property, which had been built to support a thriving turn-of-the-century population. The ritual bathing area – or "mikveh" – was reduced to little more than rubble, while one formerly grand synagogue was used as a book storage unit by the Nazis and then allowed to slip into disrepair.

However, despite all that has gone before, Steiner is keen to focus on the present. This synagogue's interior walls are now stripped bare and it is without a floor, but remarkably the structure has remained largely intact, including a narrow balcony along two sides supported by columns. A main altar remains, and while some of the colour has dulled from the ceiling murals and stained-glass windows, the patterns are still clear and plans for restoration are nearing completion. There is also a small classroom where Steiner conducts increasingly-popular Hebrew lessons, overcoming an initial lack of confidence to find a keen body of students among Košice's Jewish and gentiles alike. "The first reaction was that people couldn't learn it," he said. "But I'm happy to report that on October 26 there were people calling and demanding more Hebrew lessons."

And there is also a new synagogue, built between 1925 and 1928 with a capacity of 800, which was recently fully restored and is now the heart of Jewish Košice. In addition to regular services, school parties visit the synagogue to learn about Judaism, often for the first time.

They are also educated on the plight of the wartime Jews, who were rounded up in the building before being transported to the death camps, a moment remembered by a chilling inscription discovered on an interior wall. During refurbishment of the synagogue, Steiner found a note scrawled in Hungarian, dated 21 April, 1944.

"We are here and we don't know where they are taking us," it reads.

While the plight of the note's writer, and many more like him, will never be forgotten, the work continues to improve acceptance, knowledge and opportunities for those who remain in Slovakia. And while Steiner admits that "there are many things that cannot be fixed", there is still plenty to encourage and impress visitors to Jewish Košice.

Events in Košice

April: Bratislavské Jazzové Dni (Bratislava Jazz Days) Spring jazz festival in Košice

April: Stavanie májov Traditional event presents Slovak folklore typical for last April day (Hlavná ulica)

May: Dni mesta Košice (Days of Košice) A programme with all kinds of entertainment

May: Košická hudobná jar (Košice Spring Music Festival) Spring festival of classical music Dom umenia (House of Arts)

June: Cassovia Folkfest International folklore festival

June: Balloon Cup International balloon meeting traditionally organised for Slovak and foreign balloonists Cassovia Shopping Centre

July: Cassia Dance Fest International dance festival

August: Európsky festival kultúry národov a národností (European Festival of Culture of Nations and Ethnic Minorities) Festival offers folklore, classical and rock music, but also the taste of gastronomic specialties from many European countries

September: Festival nezávislých divadiel (Festival of Independent Theatres) Traditional street performances, fire show, circus acrobatics and walk on stilts

September: Medzinárodný organový festival (International Organ Festival) The oldest festival of organ music at St Elizabeth's Cathedral

September-December: Višegrádske dni (Visegrad Days) Festil brings music, dramatics, fine art from V4 countries (Slovakia, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic)

October: Medzinárodný jazzový festival (International Jazz Festival) Festival of jazz music

October: Medzinárodný maratón mieru (International Peace Marathon) The oldest marathon in Europe and the second oldest in the world

November: Festival súčasného umenia (Festival of Contemporary Art) Festival of contemporary music Dom umenia (House of Arts)

December: Košické Vianoce a Košické vianočné trhy (Košice Christmas and Christmas Fair) Christmas market (Hlavná ulica)


 © MAPA Slovakia Plus s.r.o., 2008


(“Žobrákov dom”),Hlavná71(map D3)

2.Bus and train stations

(Autobusová a železničná stanica),Staničné nám.9 (G4/offmap)

3.City information centre

(Mestské informačné centrum), Hlavná 59 (map D4)

4.East Slovak Gallery / Július Jakoby Gallery

(Východoslovenská galéria), Hlavná 27 and Alžbetina 22 (map E5 and C5)

5.Executioner’s Bastion

(Katova bašta), Hrnčiarska ulica (map E4)

6.Jakabov Palace

(Jakabov palác),Mlynská 30(map F4)

7.Kopa Design Gallery

(Galéria Kopa Design), Kováčska 42 (map D3)

8.Košice Gold Treasure

(Košický zlatý poklad), Nám.Maratónu mieru 2 (map C1)

9.Lőffler Museum

(Múzeum V. Lőfflera), Alžbetina 20 (map C5)

10.Lower Gate

(Dolná brána), Hlavná ulica (map E6)

11.Mikluš’s Prison

(Miklušova väznica), PriMiklušovej väznici 7 (map E3)

12.Museum of Eastern Slovakia

(Východoslovenské múzeum), Hviezdoslavova 3 (map C1)

13.Puppet Theatre

(Bábkové divadlo), Rooseveltova 1(map E6)

14.Romathan Theatre

(Divadlo Romathan), Štefánikova 4(map F4)

15.Slovak Technical Museum

(Slovenské technické múzeum), Hlavná 88 (map C3)

16.St Elizabeth’s Cathedral

(Dóm sv. Alžbety), Hlavná ulica (map D5)

17.St Michael’s Chapel

(Kaplnka sv.Michala), Hlavná ulica (map D5)

18.St Urban’s Tower

(Urbanova veža), Hlavná ulica (map D5)

19.State Philharmonic

(Štátna filharmónia), Moyzesova 66 (map C7)

20.State Theatre

(Štátne divadlo), Hlavná ulica (map D4)

These articles and related information were published in Spectacular Slovakia 2008, which you can obtain from our online shop.

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