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.

Bardejov: Adopting an ungentlemanly pose

By James Thomson

    Part of the UNESCO-listed centre of Bardejov, including St Egidius’ Church.
 Part of the UNESCO-listed centre of Bardejov, including St Egidius’ Church.
 Stephanie MacLellan

Bardejov was once one of the richest towns in the Hungarian kingdom. You would hardly guess, arriving at its dimly-lit, end-of-the-line railway station. But a short walk away is one of the best-preserved mediaeval town squares in Europe.

Radničné Námestie – unusually for this part of the world, this square is at least rectangular - is lined with preserved mediaeval burgher houses on three sides. The fourth side is formed by the austere St Egidius’ church. At its centre is the superb sixteenth-century former Town Hall.

This two-storey structure, with its high gables and dozens of carved statues and stone corbels, is considered Slovakia's earliest significant Renaissance building. Built in 1505-9, it is now the town's museum.

The ground floor was once an open arcade, and served as a market place: upstairs were the municipal rooms. The museum, whose exhibits are labelled in English, includes a model of the town in its 1450 heyday, including the then-recently built fortifications, comprising city walls, 23 towers, three main gates and a moat which was in places up to 10 metres deep and 23 metres wide, giving an indication of the town's contemporary significance.

Also on the museum's lower floor are examples of traditional 'Bakačiny' woven cloth - the textile trade was responsible for much of the town's wealth - and 54 ornate religious statuettes.

Upstairs are the state rooms, including a stunning meeting room with a rose-painted ceiling denoting the 'sub rosa' principle of confidentiality. Justice was handed down in these rooms by the city fathers; Bardejov's first Renaissance painting, by Teofil Stanzel, of the Last Judgement hangs symbolically on the wall. The museum also houses a collection of richly illuminated, hand-written fifteenth-century books, including legal texts.

Judgements were frequently harsh: the ornately-glazed alcove (above the building's external staircase) was traditionally where judges retired to ponder sentences of death - though presumably not while perched on the suspiciously 1970s-looking chairs it now contains. The fact that there were two execution sites outside the city walls (one for hangings; one for beheadings) suggests that clemency was rare.

But it is the details of the building which most delight: the Renaissance door frames and windows on the inside; and the carvings on the outside. The latter were commissioned to glorify the town and its civic leaders, but that didn't prevent some mischief on the part of the masons. Look at the corbels beneath the eaves of the external staircase and you should be able to spot one figure adopting a decidedly ungentlemanly pose (said to be an artist's riposte to the mayor of the time for an unpaid bill).

The church, St Egidius', is a must-see for lovers of winged altars: the three naves of the basilica contain no fewer than eleven of these works of artistic devotion. The building itself is about 800 years old - or at least parts of it are. In just the last 300 years it has survived two catastrophic fires and an earthquake, undergoing its most recent major reconstruction about 120 years ago.

The spiritual upheavals at the church were scarcely less dramatic; now a Catholic church, the town's people heeded Luther's call in the fifteenth century and it served as a Protestant place of worship for more than 150 years until the Counter-Reformation reclaimed it in the early eighteenth century. The conflict which attended this process contributed to the town's decline.

But in fact this had probably already begun by the time the Town Hall was being built: the loss of its royal monopolies to bleach and sell linen had already occurred. By the twentieth century, Bardejov was a provincial backwater.

In a far-sighted move in 1950, the authorities declared the old town a historical reserve and blocked any development within it. Its buildings were subsequently restored and the square and surrounding streets and fortifications are now listed as a world heritage monument by UNESCO.

This has left the square and its precincts great places to stroll around. What lies beyond the remains of the city walls makes the town’s mediaeval heart seem all the more precious, as the delightful lines of the burgher houses quickly dissolve into the concrete ubiquity of 1950s and 60s blocks.

Events in Bardejov

April: Musical Spring in Bardejov The festival presents various musical performances

June: Bardejov Town Days - "Knight Roland’s Games" Traditional market and attractions reflecting the town’s past and present

June: St John Fires Tradition of making fires on St John’s Day in the “Grobľa” stadium.

July-August: J. Grešák Days Organ music at St Egidius Church

August: Traditional Market in Bardejov Traditional market with various craft presentations, folklore performances and street theatres.

September: Pontes Mosty porozumenia International festival of orchestral music in St Egidius Church

December: Koledy spod brány Favourite Christmas event connected with singing of carols on the main square

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

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