The Neptune fountain in Prešov ‘s main square was built by Marcus Holländer, the first Jew allowed to settle in the city.
Photos by James Thomson
With exceptionally pretty towns like Bardejov, Kežmarok and Levoča nearby, Prešov is at risk of being written off by visitors as just a regional centre or a transport hub. In fact, the city's central square is as impressive as any in Slovakia, and the town is well worth a visit in its own right.
Prešov is big by local standards: the third largest city in Slovakia, with almost 100,000 people. Only a thousand or so live in the centre, which comprises the main square, Hlavná Ulica, and the streets around it. The square's name gives the game away: ulica is Slovak for street, and the 'square' is in fact a long thoroughfare, wide enough in the middle to comfortably accommodate the huge Gothic Church of St Nicholas.
This shape of square - reminiscent of a snake swallowing a particularly large rodent - is officially described as 'lenticular' (lens-shaped) and is peculiar to eastern Slovak cities. Something similar can be found in Košice, Sabinov and Spišská Nová Ves.
Prešov’s centre juxtaposes the residences of city burghers with towering religious structures.
Photo by Howard Swains
St Nicholas' Church (map D3) is in fact the only Gothic building in the square, but in spite of its authentic appearance only parts of the original 14th-century decorative details remain. The impressive stained glass windows, for instance, were replaced in 1950 after being damaged by Russian bombing during the war. It does, however, contain a statue of the crucifixion by Master Paul, the renowned master craftsman of Levoča. Visitors can climb the stairs of the tower for a panoramic view of the city and - on a fine day - the surrounding hill-top castles.
These castles guard the main roads into the town. Prešov's historical prosperity was in part a virtue of its position at the crossroads of two major trade routes: the Amber Road, linking Poland and Hungary, and the Via Magna, linking Vienna with Austrian territory in Transylvania. As well as salt production (see following article), wine was one of the city's most important traded goods.
Wine is not grown on a commercial scale in Prešov Region, but the legacy of the wine business - mainly supplied from the Tokaj region to the south - lives on in the Wine Museum, housed in cellars beneath the fine Town Hall. The museum sports a collection of wines from around the world, as well as some historical exhibits from the city's past (including the ever-popular torture chamber).
But the real point of a wine museum (map D4) is to taste wine, and visitors are encouraged to try them, especially the Tokaj. This is best known as a Hungarian dessert wine, but is also made in Slovakia (the Tokaj region straddles the border), and in (rather good) dry versions.
The museum sells wine and there is a steady stream of locals dropping in to fill their large glass carafes from the shop's vats.
The Renaissance comes to eastern Slovakia: Prešov’s main square.
Photos by James Thomson
Returning to the square, many of the burgher houses which line it are in Renaissance style, some of them positively Venetian in their flamboyance. Probably the most striking is the Rákóczi Palace, across the road from the Protestant (or 'Evangelical', in Slovak parlance) church(map D3). Covered in a type of sgraffito decoration peculiar to eastern Slovakia, it now houses the Museum of National Geography.
Similar decoration adorns number 65, on the opposite side. Just along the street, at number 61, is the house of Marcus Holländer, the first Jew allowed to settle in the city, in 1780. Despite efforts by local traders to have him expelled, he had the statue of Neptune which now stands south of St Nicholas' Church erected in gratitude.
There are a number of public artworks in the broad expanse of the square. A slightly disturbing-looking, Donnie Darko-style 'angel', said to be protecting the city, stands in front of the Town Hall. Elsewhere, another eclectic sculpture and a brass line inlaid in the pavement mark the 49th parallel, which passes directly through Prešov. And Paris, as locals are wont to point out.
The houses fronting onto the square typically extend much further back. A few on the eastern side have open courtyards: a glimpse into one or two reveals the size of the houses and suggests how rich the town must once have been. Sadly, it has also witnessed plenty of strife.
General Carafa, with executioner in attendance.
Photos by James Thomson
The city particularly suffered during the religious conflicts of the seventeenth century, when it had a reputation for Protestant anti-Habsburg sentiment. In 1687, General Carafa, an emissary of the Austrian emperor, imprisoned a group of local noblemen suspected of insurrection in a former wine warehouse off the square now known as Caraffa's Prison. He subsequently, and notoriously, had 24 of them tortured, executed and their heads placed on spikes around the town, after what we would now call a show trial.
There is a monument to the victims on the corner of the Protestant College in the centre of the square; Pope John Paul II prayed for forgiveness there when he visited the city in 1995. The college itself was an important seat of learning in Slovakia. Jan Comenius, the famous teacher after whom Bratislava's main university is named, studied here.
Prešov was also the site of an ill-starred attempt in summer 1919 to set up a Slovak Soviet Republic hard on the heels of the Soviet Union's creation following the Russian Revolution of 1917.
Central Europe in general - and eastern Slovakia in particular - was in flux at the time. Hungary, defeated in World War I and recently stripped of more than half its former territory by the Treaty of Trianon, had been taken over by communist forces led by Béla Kun. They had already occupied Košice to the south, and were threatening Bratislava. Meanwhile, the forces of the newly-formed Czechoslovakia had moved to occupy the lands ceded to it under the new treaty: in the east (Podkarpatská Rus, now part of Ukraine) and the south (along the border with modern-day Hungary).
After Kun's forces took Košice in early June, the town hall balcony in Prešov was the scene for Czech journalist and communist leader Antonín Janoušek to proclaim the Slovak Soviet Republic on June 16, 1919.
Despite some initial sympathy with the aims of the putative revolution, local hackles were raised by the fact that the new republic's declarations were issued in the regional Šariš dialect and not Slovak. Slovak leaders and intellectuals, who might otherwise have been expected to back it, smelled a rat and argued that it was merely a front for Hungary to re-occupy the country (only the USSR and Hungary had recognised the new republic).
Nationalism trumped communism and the military and political tide soon turned against the revolutionaries: largely denied popular support, the republic collapsed after only three weeks, and by July 17 Hungarian forces had withdrawn from Slovak territory. Communists would have to wait another 29 years before their next stab at running the country.
Two other buildings worth noting are at opposite ends of the square. At the southern end is St John the Baptist Greek Catholic Cathedral(map E6). The Greek Catholic church is unique to this part of Europe and follows some aspects of the Greek rite while deferring to Rome. The 18th-century Bishop's Palace is alongside the cathedral, which houses one of only four replicas of the Turin Shroud. The others are in Jerusalem, Vilnius, and Turin (presumably a spare).
At the northern end of the square is Prešov's only notable Art Nouveau building, known as Bosák's Bank after the Slovak emigré, Michal Bosák, who had it built in 1923-1924. Bosák came from this part of Slovakia, but left in the late nineteenth century to make his fortune in America. This he did in fine style: he achieved success as a financier and his signature can be found on US 10-dollar bills printed in the early twentieth century. The building was the Prešov branch of his American-Slovak Bank.
The wine-trading tradition of the town means the older buildings on the square all have deep cellars, many of which have now been turned into bars and cafés. One houses the cosy Christiania café (which is attached to a bookshop selling English titles, including cheap secondhand paperbacks). An above-ground alternative, this one in a more traditional Viennese style, is the Berger café. It has a brewery-style pub attached.
To walk off your cake or beer, head west of the city centre and across the Torysa river, to the Calvary Hill from the top of which this very agreeable town is laid out beneath you.
Prešov’s Jewish legacy
Inside the synagogue on Švernova.
Photos by James Thomson
In 1940, on the eve of the Holocaust, Prešov contained five synagogues and more than one in six of the city's population – 4,308 people - was Jewish. Three of the synagogues are still standing, but the Jewish community now numbers fewer than 60.
Outside the sole functioning synagogue(map D2), on Švermova just off the main square, is a memorial to the 6,400 Jews from Prešov and the surrounding region who died in the Holocaust. The broad path leading to the tombstone-shaped monument, surrounded by prison-like bars, is intended to represent the Jewish pre-war population; the narrow path that leads on from it to the synagogue, those who survived.
The building was used as stables by Nazi German troops during the war, and the devastation found in 1945 by the few Jews who returned can be seen in a series of photographs inside.
The interior of the synagogue, which was built in 1897-1898, was restored in the 1990s and is one of the best-preserved in Slovakia. The walls are decorated with Oriental-style paintings, and the wooden Ark with carvings and floral designs.
Upstairs, in what was once the women's gallery, is the Museum of Jewish Culture (a branch of the Slovak National Museum), which was originally founded in 1928 as the first of its kind in Slovakia. Some of its exhibition of Judaica (Jewish artefacts) is from the pre-war collection; all of it is labelled in English.
The synagogue is part of a compound which developed in the 1880s and once included rabbinate offices, a study hall, slaughterhouse and mikvah (ritual bath). Most of the buildings are still standing, though now used for other purposes. The synagogue and its compound are part of the Slovak Jewish Heritage Route (see ‘Slovakia’s Jewish Heritage’ in the section on Bratislava Region).
February: Architecture Festival and "Clubovka"
International presentation of painting workshops of European designers and architects
June: Prešov Town Days
Open-air presentation of various performances on the main square
June: Festival dobrej hudby „Sigord “
Annual music festival of minorities in Prešov
October: Craft Days
Presentation of folk artist and traditional crafts on the main square
October: Jazz Prešov 2008
Annual international jazz festival
December: Christmas in Prešov
A series of the cultural performances, traditional Christmas market and various craft presentations on the main square
Mestské informačné centrum
(Town Information Centre)
Hlavná 67 (map D4)
Tel: +421 (0)51 773-1113
Open: Mon-Fri 09:00-18:00,
Climate in Prešov
8.1°C / 46.6°F
Maximum recorded temp.:
36.4°C / 97.5°F (20.7.2007)
Minimum recorded temp.:
-29.5°C / -21.1°F (13.1.1987)
Warmest month (average temp.):
July (18.4°C / 65.1°F)
Coldest month (average temp.):
Jan (-4.0°C / 24.8°F)
Temp. below 0°C / 32°F :
122 days (per year)
Temp. above 25°C / 77°F:
51 days (per year)
Days of snowfall (per year):
Annual precipitation total:
606 mm / 23.9 in
For regular weather updates and forecasts, please see www.spectator.sk, brought to you in cooperation with the Slovak Hydrometeorological Institute
Getting to Prešov
Please see www.cp.sk for information on public transportation in Slovakia (lines, arrivals, departures...)
Prešov is connected to Košice, some 20 kilometres away, by a highway. But its link to the rest of the country is the E50 highway, which is slow and crowded.
There is a regular service between Prešov and Bratislava, but the 345-kilometre journey takes seven to eight hours. Prešov bus station is about a kilometre south of the main square about a 15-minute walk to downtown.
There are about four trains a day between Bratislava and Prešov. The trip can take as long as 7.5 hours. Prešov train station is beside the bus station.