Going underground: a guide leads the way into the opal mine at Dubník.
Photos by James Thomson
If salt isn't enough for you (see article about Solivar), then near to Prešov are other opportunities to go mining.
The name of one village, Zlatá Baňa, which actually means 'gold mine' in Slovak, says it all. It's a favourite spot for enthusiasts to pan for gold in the nearby streams, and the small village is already gearing up to host the playfully named 'Czechoslovak World Championships of Gold Prospecting', due to take place here in 2011.
Gold mining of one kind or another has been going on in this area since at least 1450. When the Solivar salt mines were flooded in 1752, many of the suddenly unemployed miners headed to these hills in search of a living.
More recently, the village, which nestles among forested hills, was a key supply point for partisan groups, including the noted Čapajev Group, during the latter part of World War II. On September 7, 1944, Nazi German forces surrounded the village and burned down every house except one, which they used as a headquarters. The local people were spared, though more than a dozen were sent to concentration camps. A memorial stands in village, which was re-built after the war.
Further up the same valley is the (rather poorly signposted) Dubník opal mine, which is open for visitors. It's hard to believe now, but this was once one of the world's most significant opal mines, with hundreds of people mining, working and polishing the semi-precious stones. One mine alone, owned by the Goldschmidt family, employed 350 miners in the nineteenth century.
The biggest opal ever found, a 3,035-carat (607-gram) monster, nicknamed the Harlequin, was unearthed here. Estimated to be now worth about half a million dollars, it is on display at the Natural History Museum in Vienna.
The mine is now a mom-and-pop operation, but professionally run and with some tours of the mine conducted by local students who speak good English; visitors are provided with a hard-hat and waterproof (you'll need both) and given an informative hour-long tour of a small part of the underground workings. If you've never been down a mine before, it’s an interesting experience, though wrap up warm - it's cold down there, even in summer.