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.

Jasov: Spiritual and temporal symmetry

By James Thomson

    The interior of St John the Baptist’s Church, the centrepiece of the monastery complex at Jazov.
 The interior of St John the Baptist’s Church, the centrepiece of the monastery complex at Jazov.
 Photos by James Thomson

If Čečejovce exemplifies the understated power of village church art to persuade, the nearby monastery church at Jasov represents a full-bore attempt at ecclesiastical shock and awe.

This is the biggest monastery complex in Slovakia and the St John The Baptist church, which forms its centrepiece, is considered one of the country's most important late-Baroque buildings.

Though the present complex dates unquestionably from the eighteenth century, there has been a monastery here since 1170. The first, probably made of wood, was destroyed by the invading Tatars in 1242. A Romanesque stone monastery soon replaced it and was rebuilt in a fortified style in the fifteenth century. The site was then completely levelled again in the 1700s to make way for the present Baroque structure.

Little expense was spared: an Austrian architect, Anton Pilgram, was brought in to design the new church; German artists Jan Lukas Kracker and Jan Anton Kraus painted the interior and created its sculptures respectively.

The result, depicting scenes from the life of St John The Baptist, is certainly impressive, all the more so for the church's echoing emptiness for most of the week. The monastery, which has 365 windows, 12 chimneys and four gates (representing the days, months and seasons of the year) used to host 150 monks; it now has five priests plus the abbot. Under communism, it was used as an asylum, and some of the doors still bear their institutional labels.

The church draws crowds on Sundays and at Christmas, who are serenaded by the still-working eighteenth-century organ, but otherwise visitors will probably find they have it pretty much to themselves, apart from the workmen who are due to spend the next one-to-two years renovating the church's soaring twin towers.

Going under

Jasov lies on the edge of the Slovenský Kras, an area of dramatic limestone (or karst) landscapes. The nearby valley between Moldava nad Bodvou and Rožňava, with its wide bottom, high cliffs and a picturesque gorge (at Zádiel), is typical.

But karst landscapes are noted for what lies beneath their surface as much as what can be seen above, and the Slovenský Kras is no exception. The area is littered with cave complexes, several of them open to the public. One of these is in the hillside a short distance from the monastery at Jasov.

The air inside is cool (a constant 8 degrees Celsius) and humid (96 percent humidity) and is believed to have curative effects for those suffering from respiratory ailments; patients are occasionally prescribed sessions inside the cave.

In a comprehensive half-mile underground tour traversing six floors of limestone caverns visitors are introduced to some of the features inside, which have been given the usual range of fanciful names which such caves seem to invite: the Elephant's Ear (a stalactite shaped like one, if you use your imagination); the Blacksmith's Hall (some of the rocks look like his family and, even more improbably, his trousers, apparently); the Leaning Tower of Pisa (you get the idea...).

More intriguingly, the cave has also been found to contain the remains of the extinct cave bear (ursus speleanus) and cave hyena (crocuta spelaea). It is still home to a sizeable colony of bats in the winter.

If caves are your thing, this is an interesting one. If they're not, there is a pub-restaurant located conveniently close to the entrance where you can wait for any fellow speleologists in your group to re-emerge.

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

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