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.

Nitra: Ecclesiastical charms

By James Thomson

    The attractive grounds of St Emeram’s Cathedral in Nitra.
 The attractive grounds of St Emeram’s Cathedral in Nitra.
 Photos by James Thomson

Nitra is not a city which attracts very many tourists, despite being one of Slovakia's biggest. This may be because relatively little of its rich history is still visible: it has been sacked numerous times over the past thousand years, most recently being bombed (by Russian forces) during World War II. Communist-era construction projects then finished off much of what remained.

However, the city may be due a reassessment. The cathedral hill fortifications have been renovated and parts opened to the public; the cathedral is being restored; and the surrounding 'upper town', with its churches, seminaries and cobblestone streets, is picturesque. The more modern 'lower town' of shops, bars and cafés is also far from unpleasant. The city is easily accessible by road, with a direct motorway link to Bratislava, though getting there by rail (it is not on any of the main lines) is more of an adventure.

Nitra styles itself the 'mother of Slovak towns', because it was from here that Saints Cyril and Methodius helped establish Christianity among the Slavs. The pair were Greek brothers who came from Thessaloniki in 863 AD at the request of the local ruler, Prince Rastislav.

They had developed the glagolitic alphabet (which, after later adaptation, became the Cyrillic script still used in Russia and elsewhere) in order to codify the Slavic tongues and used it to translate Christian scripture into the local language. A statue of the pair stands beneath the cathedral fortifications.

The cathedral itself(map D1) , dedicated to Saint Emeram (or Emmeramus, a seventh-century bishop and martyr), is actually an amalgamation of three religious structures, and excavations in 2008 suggest it is built on as many as four even older churches. Archaeologists believe one of these may be a seventh-century Frankish church, pre-dating even the Great Moravian Empire of Prince Rastislav.

    Looking out over Nitra, from the cathedral.
 Looking out over Nitra, from the cathedral.
 Photos by James Thomson

To get to it, visitors pass through an imposing double gate (angled to prevent battering rams breaching both in one push) and an iron-clad door said (without much supporting evidence) to be a thousand years old. The stone gate is inscribed with the heraldry and title of the noble Pálffy family and proudly records the date of its construction: 1673. Unfortunately for the occupants, this was ten years too late.

The Ottoman army arrived in 1663 and during a relatively short stay converted the upper, fourteenth-century, part of the church into a mosque and used the rest as stables. The upper church contains a recently-uncovered large stone pastiforium, the oldest in Slovakia. The carvings on it were defaced by the Ottomans, and remain so; those on the altar of the lower church, carved from a single block of red alabaster by - it is believed - the Italian sculptor Donatello, were also defaced but have been restored. The provenance of the sculpture is to be explored during ongoing restoration of the cathedral, when the altar will be removed to see if Donatello's mark is to be found anywhere on it.

 Photos by James Thomson

The upper part of the cathedral, clad in dark red and grey eighteenth-century artificial marble, is a gloomy but atmospheric place, with spectacular ceiling frescoes and plump, carved cherubs crawling up the walls. The lower part is much the same. The contrast with the spare stone arches and simple white plaster of the cathedral's third section, a ninth-century chapel (rebuilt many times since) could not be starker. The door to this is hidden behind the altar of the lower church, but the cathedral staff should be able to let you in. The acoustics are said to be excellent.

Across the cathedral precinct is the Diocesan Museum. On the upper floor is a selection of the cathedral's most interesting artefacts and books - most of these are replicas, though well done - accompanied by notes in rather eccentrically-translated English. The texts include some written in Cyril and Methodius's glagolitic alphabet, and a ninth-century codex believed to have been annotated by Methodius himself. Downstairs is an exhibition of some of the church's gaudiest baubles - golden chalices, jewel-encrusted crosses, and the like - of which the museum's officials seem inordinately proud. None of the notes here are in English.

Parts of the cathedral fortifications are open to the public and afford good views of the surrounding city. In addition, one of the castle casemates, overlooking the gate, has been excavated (it is open daily in the summer, and can be opened upon request at other times by the information office). The excavations revealed stone age and bronze age artefacts, as well as skeletons (now on display) of Great Moravian vintage. The exhibition also shows the double-walled defences built after the Ottomans left in the 1660s, and has some contemporary arms, including a seventeenth-century mortar (a sort of miniature artillery piece).

    The fortified entrance to the cathedral precinct.
 The fortified entrance to the cathedral precinct.
 Photos by James Thomson

A walk down the hill from the church, past a large seventeenth-century plague column, takes you towards Pribina Square (another ninth-century prince of Nitra, Pribina is represented by a statue in the middle, map D2, D3), with its two seminaries: the yellow building on the upper side is the more recent, nineteenth-century institution; the older is the grey building on the lower side which also contains the Diocesan library (map D3) - well worth a look, if you can arrange access with church officials.

At one corner of the square Corgoň (Slovakia's Atlas) props up a building; he also lends his name to the local beer(map D3)

At the foot of the upper town, within the ornate regional government building, is the Nitra Gallery(map C3) . Aside from traditional exhibition spaces, a former cold war bunker under the building has been converted to house art installations.

These can be fairly avant-garde: in autumn 2008 they included videos of one semi-naked woman writhing around on the floor clutching a severed pig's head, and another eating poisonous plants. Even if this isn't really your thing, the bunker itself is worth a visit: it's an innovative use for one of dozens like it which are scattered across Slovakia (another, in Bratislava, serves as an underground dance club).

Alone on a hill

    The Nitra Gallery
 The Nitra Gallery
 Photos by James Thomson

As well as the historical sights on offer in the city, there is another which would make a fine walk, if you have the time, the weather and the energy.

The small, Romanesque church of St Michael the Archangel stands alone on a bluff above the suburb of Drážovce. Its position, with unbroken views over the Nitra valley, makes it one of the most picturesque (and most-photographed) churches in Slovakia.

Its exact origins are uncertain, with some ascribing it to Cyril and Method, some to Saint Stephen (the first Christian king of Hungary), and others to his eleventh-century successors. Whoever is right, it's almost certainly around one thousand years old.

The church is normally locked - the interior is in any case extremely simple, partly because its isolated position means that it has been repeatedly looted over the years - but its unique setting alone makes the five-or-six kilometre walk through the hills north-east of Nitra worth the effort


February: Nitrianske fašiangy Folk tradition festival

March-May: Nitrianska hudobná jar Classical music festival

May: Posviacka vinohradov (Vineyard consecration)

July–September: Summer of culture in Nitra 2008 Folk crafts, concerts, street theatre and other events

August: Klokocinský jarmok Klokocina traditional market

August: Agrokomplex International trade fair of agriculture and food industry

September: Divadelná Nitra 2008 International theatre festival

September: Autosalon Nitra International exhibition of passenger and commercial vehicles and accessories

October: Agrofilm International Agricultural and Environmental Film Festival

October–November: Nitra Musical Autumn Vocal and instrumental concerts

October: Cithara aediculae International festival of classical guitar music

December-January: Christmas in the town Christmas market, various cultural events on the city square


 © MAPA Slovakia Plus s.r.o., 2008

1.Andrej Bagar Theatre

(Divadlo Andraja Bagara), Svätoplukovo nám. 1 (map D4)

2.Art Gallery

(Art galéria), Kupeckého 7 (map C4)

3.Bishop’s Palace

(Biskupský palác), Castle complex (map C1)

4.Bus Station

(Autobusová stanica), Staničná ulica (map B7)

5.Cathedral of St Emmeram

(Katedrála sv. Emeráma), Castle complex (map D1)

6.Great Seminary of St Gorazd and Diocesan Library

(Veľký seminár sv.Gorazda a Diecézna knižnica), Samova 14, (map D3)

7.Church of St Peter and Paul

(Kostol sv. Petra a Pavla), Samova ulica (map C3)

8.Little Seminary

(Malý seminár), Pribinovo nám. 5 (map D2)

9.Nitra Information System

(Nitriansky informačný systém), Štefánikova 1 (map D4)

10.Nitra Museum

(Ponitrianske múzeum), Štefánikova 1 (map D4)

11.Nitra State Gallery

(Nitrianska štátna galéria), Župné nám. 5 (map C3)

12.Pribina Square

(Pribinovo námestie) (map D2,D3)

13.Statue of Corgoň

(Socha Corgoňa), Samova 16 (map D3)

14.Statue of Pribina

(Socha Pribinu), Pribinovo nám. (map D3)


(Synagóga), Pri synagóge 3 (map C5)

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

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