Looking west from Trnava’s tower, towards the Franciscan church and the Little Carpathians
Photos by James Thomson
"Trnava is not a tourist town."
This was the commendably frank verdict of my new-found local adviser, over lunch, in the city that likes to call itself the 'Little Rome'. Later, having trudged around town for a few hours, I was inclined to agree with him.
Not that my companion, who had happened to find himself sharing a table with me in a popular city restaurant, was a blow-in from Bratislava, which is less than an hour away by train. He told me he had been born in, had studied in and now worked in this city of around 70,000, of which he was proud.
"But once you've seen the churches, you've pretty much seen it all", he concluded, before helpfully suggesting that I visit Bardejov or Banská Štiavnica instead.
In fact, I discovered, there is more to Trnava than just its churches. But he was right in one way: they are its main attraction.
The main reason for the preponderance of spires and bell towers (and hence the 'Little Rome' sobriquet) is the Ottoman army's occupation of Hungary in the first half of the sixteenth century. The hammer blow fell at Mohács, in 1526, where the Ottoman army routed the Hungarians and King Louis II was killed. Advancing northwards in subsequent years, the Ottomans approached Esztergom, then the seat of the Hungarian church. As a result, ecclesiastical headquarters were relocated to Trnava, then part of Hungary's northern hinterland.
In the church's wake came a seminary, printing houses and, in 1635, a university, which the city claims to have been the first in Hungary. Also, naturally, came the construction - or reconstruction - of many of the city's churches.
A good place to catch a glimpse of some of them, and get your bearings, is from the city's tower, to be found in the main square, Trojičné Námestie. The tower was built as a defensive precaution against Ottoman attack in the 1570s and 80s. At each floor as you grapple your way up are information boards (in English) with some interesting snippets about the town and its history.
Trnava’s city centre.
Photos by James Thomson
At almost 30 metres above ground level (still only around half of its total height), the tower's main observation deck provides an excellent view of the city, sections of its walls (which were reconstructed at around the same time that the tower went up) and, on clear days, the Little Carpathians away to the west.
One of the most prominent churches, the first to be built in Slovakia in the early Baroque style, is the cathedral of St John the Baptist, north-east of the main square. Between it and the tower is the University of Trnava's modern campus, which could serve as a metaphor for the city's modern history.
Because while the arrival of the Hungarian bishops in the sixteenth century may have ushered in the city's golden age, their departure (back to Esztergom) in the early nineteenth also helped usher it out. The university had decamped to Buda even earlier, in 1777, as the Ottoman threat receded.
The golden age blessed the city with some wonderful buildings (not least its Baroque churches). But more recent efforts have been lamentable. A summary of the city's history, posted in the tower, pulls no punches. Referring to the post-war period, it describes "a lot of ruthless and destructive interference in the historical centre of the town" and the replacement of some of the most valuable buildings by what it calls "pompous socialist new works".
Photos by James Thomson
If evidence were needed, the view from the tower into the main square below reveals a decaying concrete 'Dom Kultúry' (House of Culture) and adjacent shopping centre, while those recent campus buildings (the university was only re-established here in the late twentieth century) consist of an equally sorry-looking series of quasi-futuristic concrete modules. The rest of the town is littered with unimaginative communist-era (and capitalist-era) blocks.
Fortunately, the cathedral is, as you would hope, rather more graceful. Outside, a statue of a cheerful-looking Pope John Paul II grins at passers-by, commemorating his visit here in September 2003. Inside, the church is richly decorated with sculptures, ceiling frescoes and a gigantic black wooden altar, said to be the biggest in central Europe. The frescoes are beautiful, despite their altitude and the large cracks spreading across each of them. These may be the result of some uneven settling of the cathedral's foundations since it was built in 1629-1637, which has also given parts of the façade a slightly lop-sided appearance.
Highlighting the poverty of more recent efforts, some of the university's fine original sixteenth- and seventeenth-century buildings are on nearby Ulica Jána Hollého. Further down the street (which turns into Halenárska) is the city's former synagogue (see box), built between 1891 and 1897 and now the Centre of Contemporary Art. The lower floor serves as an exhibition space for the town's main gallery; the upper floor has an exhibit of salvaged Jewish artefacts.
The cathedral of St John the Baptist.
Photos by James Thomson
The main gallery itself is in the north-west of the old town, and named after Ján Koniarek (1878-1952), described within as the founder of modern Slovak sculpture. It features a permanent exhibition of his works, many of them studies for public memorials, but also sculptures of famous individuals such as Leo Tolstoy, John the Baptist, and pre-WWII Slovak nationalist leader Andrej Hlinka.
Koniarek himself was serious when it came to patriotism, declaring: "There is no loftier mission than the work of the artist for his nation." This is reflected in his war memorials, and monumental tributes to Slovak literary heroes such Ján Hollý and Anton Bernolák. Bernolák was the first scholar to codify the Slovak language, and used the Trnava dialect as his model; however, subsequent codification by Ľudovít Štúr established the central Slovak dialect as the standard form.
The rest of the gallery hosts well-presented temporary exhibitions of Slovak artists.
Having tasted its culture, attempts to taste the city's cuisine can prove problematic. If you like kebabs or (Slovak-style) baguettes you will find yourself well catered-for. The same goes for lovers of cake, coffee or ice cream (of which there are numerous vendors). The Aida Café on Hlavná will furnish you with a tasty - and competitively priced - 'Trnava strudel': I can recommend the plum and tvaroh (cottage cheese) variety. The Tété Café at the bottom of Františkánska, opposite St Jacob's church serves good Italian coffee.
However, for a wider choice of 'proper' food, the best of a rather thin selection of restaurants is to be found on Štefánikova, where there is also a smattering of hotels and pensions. U Hladného Býka offers good lunch-time deals, even if in summer you do have to perch on cast-iron garden benches to eat them. My fellow diner, and Trnava booster, told me it was the best restaurant in town. Given the accuracy of his other pronouncements, he may well be right.
Remembering and forgetting
The interior of the former synagogue on Halenárska
Photos by James Thomson
One of Trnava's two former synagogues has been turned into an interesting exhibition space by a sympathetic restoration in which the ground floor has been re-plastered and the rest of the building left cleaned, but otherwise unchanged.
Oddly, it is not marked on the map of the town handed out to visitors by the tourist information centre (you will find it on the east side of Halenárska, near the junction with Haulíkova).
Even more oddly, an information sheet given to visitors to the gallery briefly summarises the history of the synagogue and Trnava's Jewish community, but neglects to mention its fate, eliding the synagogue's late-nineteenth-century construction and its post-1950 employment as a warehouse. The Slovak- and German-language versions of the sheet do make a passing reference to the fact that the city's 3,000-strong Jewish community did not survive the war.
This is probably just a translation oversight, albeit a startling one. But it is regrettable given the role of the city's former top bishop in an ongoing controversy related to Slovakia's wartime experience.
Trnava's church leader, Archbishop Ján Sokol, who recently retired, has attracted criticism for his self-appointed role as an apologist for Slovakia's wartime Nazi-allied leader, Jozef Tiso. Tiso, who was also a Catholic priest, oversaw the deportation of more than 58,000 Slovak Jews during World War II. Most of them were murdered in Nazi concentration camps.
Even before the deportations, Slovakia's Jews were dismissed from public positions, had their property seized, were forced to wear the Star of David on their clothes in order to mark them out, and were subject to a range of further anti-Semitic laws. Yet Sokol has in recent years expressed his admiration for Tiso, who was executed as a traitor after the war. In 2008 he held a memorial service for him and in 2006 told a TV news channel “I respect President Tiso … very much, as I remember when I was a child we were very poor, but during his times we had a high standard [of living]."
The Jews of Trnava - who might not have been inclined to endorse Archbishop Sokol’s views - are for the most part no longer here to recall their own experiences of the war. A memorial to them stands in the grounds of the former synagogue.
Events in Trnava
May: Open-air festival Lumen
- Light in the City
Festival of gospel music
(Trojičné námestie, Open-air cinema)
Summer of culture
Various cultural events in the city centre
For regular weather updates and forecasts, please see www.spectator.sk, brought to you in cooperation with the Slovak Hydrometeorological Institute.
Getting to Trnava
Please see www.cp.sk for information on public transportation in Slovakia (lines, arrivals, departures...)
Trnava lies on the D1 freeway about 50 kilometres (30 minutes’ drive) from Bratislava.
The bus station is next to the main railway station close to the downtown. It is about five minutes’ walk from Hlavná street. The city has good connections with other parts of Slovakia. For city bus transport, you buy a ticket when you enter the bus, rather than from a kiosk or vending machine.
The main train station is close to down-town. An express train ticket from Bratislava costs €2.88