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.

Hronský Beňadik: Fire from heaven

By James Thomson

    Inside the monastery church of Hronský Beňadik.
 Inside the monastery church of Hronský Beňadik.
 Photos by James Thomson

The small town of Hronský Beňadik stands at the gate to the upper Hron valley (Banská Bystrica Region). Its strategic position has attracted all-comers.

According to the local tourist information officer, this is the site referred to in what may be the first written mention of present-day Slovak territory.

This version of events states that in 172 AD Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius had fought a victorious battle here when it started 'raining fire'. The panic this created in his forces led some of the closet Christians among them to start praying, after which the deluge abated and Marcus Aurelius (Romans being a superstitious bunch, and fire from the heavens not normally being regarded as a good omen) cut short his campaign. The incident was later recorded in the emperor's own memoirs.

Local tradition has it that the story later prompted one of Hungary's eleventh-century kings, who by then ruled Slovakia, to endow a monastery and Romanesque church on the site.

This part of the legend may even be true: towering above the valley is one of Slovakia's most atmospheric churches, part of a monastery complex which excavations have confirmed dates back to 1075.

A Romanesque font is about all that remains of the original monastery church. The present building is a Gothic fourteenth-century reconstruction, which has burnt down a few times over the centuries, most recently in 1882, after which it underwent a major renovation.

It is a remarkable place, with an ornately carved entrance portal (dated 1530), a largely unpainted stone Gothic interior and stained glass throughout. The windows are relatively recent: they had been bricked up during the sixteenth century when the monastery was converted into a fortress to defend against the Ottomans. The church's Holy Blood Chapel contains a fragment of cloth said to be stained with Christ's blood, and an ornate and unusual diamond-patterned ceiling.

The precincts of the church are also picturesque a steep cobbled carriageway lined with mature chestnut trees leads to the church, after passing through a gatehouse which was also part of the sixteenth-century defences. Bastions on the south side of the monastery, facing the valley, once housed canons. In the inner - so-called Paradise - courtyard is a small but pretty cloister.

Visiting is recommended, and probably safe: there have been no recent reports of stray fireballs.

These articles and related information were published in Spectacular Slovakia 2009, which you can obtain from our online shop.

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