Andrej Hlinka Square in Žilina, overlooked by the city’s cathedral.
Žilina has become well-known in recent years for two things: the huge Kia car factory on the outskirts of the city, which has helped turn Slovakia into the world's biggest per capita car manufacturer; and the city's former mayor, a strident nationalist whose repeated anti-Hungarian and anti-Roma outbursts have not stopped the party he leads becoming part of the current government.
But neither of these should detain visitors for long. Instead, the city offers visitors both an attractive urban environment and a convenient base for exploring the surrounding areas.
Žilina is on Slovakia's main east-west road and railway routes, and has good connections to nearby Poland and the Czech Republic. The nearby Kysuce, Rajec, Turiec and Liptov regions of Slovakia (see following articles) are all easy day trips from the city.
Photos by James Thomson
The city's historical centre is focused on two pedestrian squares (though a large shopping complex is currently under construction close by which may change the centre's character somewhat).
St Mary's Square, unusual in Slovakia for being almost entirely arcaded, is the familiar mediaeval hub, surrounded by burgher houses. Žilina was an important commercial centre in the eighteenth century, with as many as 90 percent of its citizens then recorded as being tradesmen, and their legacy survives here.
The small but attractive Old Town Hall, in a corner of the square, is probably the most notable building. On its front wall are 14 small bells which put on a tinkling routine every quarter-hour.
There are several bars and coffee shops in the square itself, and along the cobbled streets leading off it. The Artforum bookshop on Bottova ulica has English books and a cosy basement café.
The second square has a much more expansive, less intimate character. If St Mary's Square is characteristic of Žilina's eighteenth-century past, Andrej Hlinka Square embodies its twentieth-century experience.
This might sound odd, since towering above the square is one of the city's oldest buildings, the Cathedral Church of the Holy Trinity. But leading up to it is a two-storey stone balustrade comprising open stairways and balconies built in 1941-44. Alongside it, and framing the cathedral, is the Town Theatre, which was also built during the war - originally to house the city council. Designed by Otto Reichner (who also designed the balustrade) and Ferdinand Čapka, its Neo-classical style is strongly reminiscent of Italian public architecture of the 1930s.
St Mary’s Square
Photos by James Thomson
In fact the city has a number of distinctive buildings from the 1930s and 40s. The austere railway station, at the end of Národná, the main pedestrian street leading off Hlinka Square, was also designed by Čapka, an influential local architect.
And north-west of the centre is the synagogue, designed in the late 1920s by German architect Peter Behrens. Its striking Functionalist design includes a traditional Moorish dome and it became one of the most significant examples of European Modern architecture in Slovakia when it was completed in the 1930s. It now houses a cinema.
The helpful tourist information office, from which you can hire bicycles, is at the side of Hlinka Square's other main historic building, the Art Nouveau Považská Gallery, which was being renovated in 2008.
A turbulent priest
Andrej Hlinka greets shoppers.
Photos by James Thomson
Andrej Hlinka, the Slovak priest and politician after whom the square is named, is immortalised in bronze on one side of the square. He's looking pretty jolly in this incarnation, but the expression Slovaks are rather more familiar with - gazing from the one thousand crown notes used before Slovakia switched to the euro in January 2009 - was rather more severe.
That Hlinka is remembered in statues and even had a plum spot on the country's currency is an indication of his significance. He was born in Černová (in what is now Žilina Region) in 1864 and ordained as a Catholic priest in 1889. Priests had an important role in Slovakia's long struggle for independence, especially under Hungarian rule, since this was one of the few routes to higher education for Slovak-speakers. Hlinka went into politics soon after his ordination and established a reputation as an ardent Slovak nationalist.
This upset Slovakia's Hungarian rulers (not to mention the church) and he was sentenced to two years in prison in 1906. He returned to prison briefly in 1919 during the establishment of Czechoslovakia, in part because of a failed adventure to the post-war Paris peace conference (he was not given a hearing) at which he had intended to argue that Slovak national interests were not being observed in the formation of the new state.
Žilina’s Old Town Hall.
Photos by James Thomson
He was nonetheless elected to the Czechoslovak parliament in 1920 and his People's Party, which in 1925 was named after him, continued to press in sometimes strident tones for Slovak self-determination. Its chance came just after Hlinka's death in 1938, when Czechoslovakia was dismembered following the infamous Munich Agreement between Hitler, Chamberlain and Daladier.
Hlinka's followers included a motley bunch of proto-fascists who proved willing to rule in a manner compatible with the totalitarian style embodied by Hitler and Mussolini. In March 1939 Jozef Tiso, who succeeded Hlinka as party leader, went to meet Hitler himself. Immediately after returning he proclaimed Slovak independence, which Nazi Germany recognised while simultaneously invading the Czech lands. Tiso remained Slovakia's president and Hitler's ally until the Axis defeat in 1945.
Hlinka's successors also did his legacy no favours by naming a fascist militia - the Hlinka Guard, which was styled on the SS and which carried out wartime atrocities - after him.
However, the ultimate fulfilment of his goal - an independent Slovakia - has led to a reassessment of Hlinka's role as an important - if controversial - figure in modern Slovak history.
Events in Žilina
January: Carneval Slovakia Žilina
March: Vysoké hory (High Mountains)
April: Stredoeurópsky festival koncertného umenia (Central European Festival of Concert Art )
May: Staromestské slávnosti (Old Town Celebrations)
Folk traditions and craftsmanship
June: Kultúrne leto (Summer of Culture)
Street concerts in the town
July: Šperky a odevné doplnky(Jewelry and Accessories)
Exhibition, festival and meeting of wire netting masters
October: Žilinský literárny festival
(Žilina Literature Festival)
October: Jesenný organový koncert (Autumn Organ Concert)
December: Mikuláš a Vianoce (St Nicholas and Christmas in town)
For regular weather updates and forecasts, please see www.spectator.sk, brought to you in cooperation with the Slovak Hydrometeorological Institute.
Getting to Žilina
Please see www.cp.sk for information on public transportation in Slovakia (lines, arrivals, departures...)
Žilina lies on the D1 freeway route (the part in the city Považská Bystrica is under construction). As a result, you can travel the 170 kilometres from Bratislava to Považská Bystrica in about 80 minutes, while the last 30 kilometres can take another 40 minutes, depending on traffic and construction.
Buses leave for Žilina from Bratislava several times daily, taking up to four hours. There are connections from Žilina to most Slovak and many European cities; the bus station lies opposite the train station towards town on Jána Milca Street (Tel: +421 (0)41 566-0111).
Žilina is located at an international rail crossroads with direct links to Bratislava and Košice on the main Slovak line, and Prague, Warsaw, Moscow and Budapest. The station is located on P.O Hviezdoslava street (baggage claim).
Tel: +421 (0)41 561-5152
Train information:Tel: +421 (0)41 561-5154
Žilina has a small international airport that lies about 10 kilometres west of the town in the municipality of Dolný Hričov. It handles generally charter flights of up to 60 people. The runway is only 1,150 metres long, but in the near future there are plans to expand the airport.
RL Taxi Žilina, Vajanského 12
Tel: +421 (0)41 723-2044
Euro Taxi Žilina, Bus station
Tel: +421 (0)41 562-6555
Internet cafes in Žilina
Internet cafe Žilina
Bottova 16 (map E4)
Tel: +421 (0)41 500-2763
Near Mariánske námestie
M.R. Štefánika 29 (map G4)
Tel: +421 (0)41 562-4889
Located¬¬ near the main bus station