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: City of culture

By James Thomson

    An old tram graces Košice’s Main Square, with St Elizabeth’s Cathedral in the background.
 An old tram graces Košice’s Main Square, with St Elizabeth’s Cathedral in the background.
 Photos by James Thomson

Despite being the second biggest city in Slovakia, Košice has in recent years found itself somewhat eclipsed by Bratislava. As the fifth largest city in Czechoslovakia, it enjoyed a more equal footing with its western rival. Until the Iron Curtain fell in 1989, Bratislava's proximity to Vienna counted for little, and the size of Košice's housing developments, its factories (most notably the gigantic East Slovak Steelworks (VSŽ) south of the city) and even its urban tram system signalled its rank.

That changed with statehood in 1993 and despite both cities being large by Slovak standards (the capital has around half a million inhabitants and Košice about 250,000; no other Slovak city has many more than 100,000) it was Bratislava that captured the lion's share of attention and investment.

But despite being the easternmost big centre, Košice is unmistakably a western-oriented city. It has a magnificent Gothic cathedral, St Elizabeth's, and an almost equally impressive State Theatre. It is well-connected to Hungary: the border is only 20 kilometres away, and Budapest can be reached by a fast highway. The city's airport, a mere twenty-minute ride from the centre, boasts direct links to western and central Europe.

U.S. Steel's acquisition of VSŽ in 2000 signalled a new outlook. As well as securing the future of the works, U.S. Steel's sponsorship helped equip the city with a fine ice hockey stadium-cum-live music venue.

The city also has a long and distinguished history of cosmopolitan living and art. In 2013 it will get the chance to showcase this to the world when it becomes the European Capital of Culture. But that's no reason to wait, since it already has a lot to offer tourists.

Visitors to the city are naturally drawn to the Main Square(map E6-C1), which like Prešov's is 'lenticular' (i.e. long, with a bulge in the middle). If you arrive by train or bus at the main stations (which are next to each other) it's a pleasant 20-minute walk through a park and then along mostly traffic-free streets to the square.

The square was completely renovated in the 1990s, at considerable expense to the city (there are still grumbles about the cost) but to great effect: this is one of Slovakia's best urban public spaces.

Characteristic of eastern Slovakia's lenticular squares, there was originally a stream running through it: this has now been re-created in a narrow channel. Also still there are the tracks for horse-drawn trams, which plied the square from 1891 (they were the first in what is now Slovakia). The old trams (plus horses) are sometimes given a run out in the summer.

But dominating the square are some of Košice's finest and oldest buildings, all of them grouped at its centre: St Elizabeth's Cathedral (map D5), St Michael's Chapel, Urban's Tower and the State Theatre.

Also standing proud at the foot of this group is a scuplture representing Košice's coat of arms, which is the oldest in Europe to be used on the basis of a royal warrant, granted on May 7, 1369, by King Louis I of Hungary. In fact, the coat of arms has undergone various amendments since 1369; the sculpture represents its 1502 incarnation, though the most significant previous versions are recorded on the base.

St Elizabeth's Cathedral is the city's pearl. Construction began in about 1380, at a time when the city was flourishing - during the fifteenth century it became the second biggest city in the Hungarian empire, after Buda.

Work continued until 1508, when the presbytery was finished. The cathedral was never completed in its planned form, as its asymmetrical appearance suggests: only the left of the two towers rises to its full height. But what was accomplished, most notably under the mediaeval master craftsman, Štefan, is awesome.

It was an enormous undertaking: more than 200 different masons' marks can be found in the stonework of the five-nave basilica. Inside, the relatively spare stonework of the interior is reminiscent of a German or English cathedral, possibly a legacy of its time as a Protestant church in the eighteenth century.

It is the most easterly Gothic cathedral in Europe and contains one of only five Gothic double-spiral staircases in the world (the others are in Prague, Graz, and two more in Romania), which leads to the Emperor's Balcony. The staircase would allow the emperor and empress to ascend separately.

The cathedral was built on the site of an earlier church, of which the late 13th- or early 14th century bronze font is the only surviving relic. Among more recent adornments, the black and gold steel altar on the south side of the church is made from melted-down World War I armaments and is dedicated to victims of the war.

The interior has excellent acoustics; if you want to experience them, a service is held, in Latin, with orchestral accompaniment, every Sunday at 9am (except during July and August).

    Urban the bell, in front of the ‘singing fountain’and the State Theatre
 Urban the bell, in front of the ‘singing fountain’and the State Theatre
 Photos by James Thomson

As if one were not enough, right next door to St Elizabeth's is another 14th-century Gothic church. The attractive St Michael's Chapel was actually built as the charnel house for a cemetery which once occupied this site.

On the other side of the cathedral is a belltower which predates it. It was put up in the early fourteenth-century (evidently a busy time in Košice), though subsequent fires and reconstructions, most recently in the 1970s, have changed its appearance.

The remains of a fire-damaged bell cast in 1557, named Urban (the belltower is known as Urban's Tower)(map D5), lies on the ground next to the entrance.

The tower itself now houses a waxworks museum which does its occupants few favours.

Among the featured personalities from Košice's past, only two have any international profile. One is the pop artist Andy Warhol, whose family came from eastern Slovakia (there is a museum devoted to his work in the town of Medzilaborce). Warhol was a fairly odd-looking individual, so his slightly eccentric appearance here might be forgiven.

The other is Rudolf Schuster, a former president (1999-2004) and before that mayor of Košice. One is left feeling that they cannot think very highly of him given the spectral rendering that now greets visitors to the museum.

The other main building occupying the centre of the Main Square is the handsome State Theatre(map D4), topped by a statue of Aurora, friend of the muses. It was built at the end of the nineteenth century and is worth a peek inside to see the main ceiling, decorated with scenes from Shakespeare, painted by Viennese artist Peregrin Gastgeb.

Between the cathedral and the State Theatre is a 'singing fountain', which plays show- and pop-tunes accompanied by squirts of music and (at night) flashing lights. It's cheesy, but fun to watch (for a while: the tinkling goes on for quite some time).

The East Slovak Gallery(map E5), housed in a distinctive neo-Classical building on the Main Square (number 27) has recently been refurbished to create some new, and impressive, exhibition spaces. But also hidden inside the building is the

Historical Hall (Historická Sieň). This was where the re-formed Czechoslovak government held its first session on home soil near the end of World War II, on April 5, 1945, and declared the 'Košice Programme' for the new government.

The act was symbolic not just because it marked the end of Nazi occupation; it also reasserted Czechoslovakia's claim to Košice, which had been incorporated into Hungary since 1938.

In fact, Košice acted as Czechoslovakia's capital from April to May 1945, while Prague was still occupied; President Edvard Beneš resided in the distinctive multi-turreted neo-Gothic Jakabov Palace on Mlynská, between the railway station and the centre.

But Beneš and the new government lasted less than three years. After the communist coup in 1948, the richly decorated Historical Hall became a favourite venue for weddings, and for swearing in new members of the Pioneers, the communist youth movement.

    Crowds throng the Main Square in summer.
 Crowds throng the Main Square in summer.
 Photos by James Thomson

The pre-1989 world was not without its charm: the Panesi pub on Zvonárska, one of the many pedestrian side streets off the Main Square, attempts to capture some of it. Pictures of former hard-line leaders like Klement Gottwald and Gustáv Husák hang alongside (somewhat unexpectedly) one of Britain's Queen Elizabeth II and a menu which attempts, with some success, to recall (and charge) communist prices in Czechoslovak crowns.

Opposite the pub is one of Košice's former synagogues. Almost 12,000 of the city's pre-war population of around 70,000 were Jewish. Most were deported in 1944 as part of the Holocaust in what was then Hungary; the community now numbers only a few hundred. The synagogue compound on Zvonárska is a particularly significant relic, whose interior has been stripped but is still richly decorated with Moorish and geometric designs and includes the remains of a mikvah (ritual bath).

Another former synagogue, a striking domed structure on Moyzesova which used to accommodate 1,100 worshippers, is now the city's Philharmonic Hall.

Indeed, Košice is more than just the Main Square. The areas east and west of the cathedral are divided by intimate back-streets.

The narrow, cobbled Hrnčiarska, for instance, has been developed as a traditional tradesmen's district where shops sell (and in theory make) local handicrafts.

When the need arises, you are never far from refreshment in Košice. The Main Square has several bars and cafes, and just west of it, next to the Dominican church - dated 1303 and believed to be the oldest in the city - is the Golem pub and restaurant, which also has a micro-brewery making its own (very good) beer.

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

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

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

December: Košické Vianoce a Košické vianocné 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 2009, which you can obtain from our online shop.

Make your comment to the article...