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.



Mining country

By James Thomson

The area south-west of Banská Bystrica boasts some of Slovakia's most handsome urban architecture. Banská Bystrica itself has a large, impressive town square studded with Renaissance buildings. The whole town of Banská Štiavnica, and the industrial architecture which surrounds it, high in the hills to the south-west, has won recognition from UNESCO for its unique character. And just over the ridge to the west of Banská Bystrica, the charming town of Kremnica is home to the world's oldest mint (680 years old, and still going strong), as well as another stunning Gothic and Renaissance main square. Further afield, towns like Nová Baňa and the surrounding villages also have an interesting tale to tell. The wealth on display above ground came mainly from below: all these towns were built on mining the rich seams of gold, silver, copper and other minerals beneath them. Sometimes, literally right underneath: most of the older buildings in Banská Štiavnica, for instance, have domestic mine workings in their cellars. The clue is in many of their names (baňa is Slovak for mine; Kremnica was once known as Chremnichbaňa), and in the numerous tunnel entrances dotted around the region, the legacy of hundreds of years of digging.

Kremnica

    The entrance to Adit Andrej at Kremnica’s mining museum.
 The entrance to Adit Andrej at Kremnica’s mining museum.
 Photos by James Thomson

Appropriately, there are several visitor attractions which allow you to go underground. Kremnica's new mining museum, which opened in 2008, is a good place to start. On the hillside just west of the town centre, it's based in an old mines building complete with pit lift. You don't get to go 'down' the pit - instead, a short walk away is the horizontal entrance to Adit Andrej.

It is an interesting reflection of how recently this area was actively mined that the adit (a horizontal passage, as opposed to a vertical shaft) was first dug only in 1982, in a fresh stab at accessing the gold seam which runs through the hill. Mining had been suspended in the 1970s; the adit was an attempt to revive it.

Many locals still have family who worked in the mines. One is Dušan Roob, who personally re-excavated the Adit Andrej (mines are deliberately blocked up after they become inactive) and now manages the museum. His assistant, Marianna Melcerová, speaks good English and also conducts tours.

The tunnel, though recent, cuts across some very old workings, including some hand-cut fourteenth century tunnels, which are presented in displays throughout the mine and supplemented by nuggets of information from Marianna.

For instance, she explains that - whatever Walt Disney might have had you believe - miners did not 'whistle while they worked', since rats fleeing a mine make a similar sound, which miners used to listen out for as an important danger signal. The museum's mine also has the remnants of a more recent safety system: ventilation pipes, down which a pungent gas could be released to warn people deep under ground of imminent danger.

There is no active mining in the area at the moment. But with gold prices rising in recent years, there are plans to begin (open-cast) mining again in these hills.

For enthusiasts, or as an alternative, there is another mining museum near Banská Štiavnica, which runs a similarly comprehensive tour through a slightly longer series of tunnels in a hillside outside the town. But, in terms of the enthusiasm of the staff and the standard of the equipment, the Kremnica mining museum now sets the standard.

    Kremnica’s main square, featuring Slovakia’s largest plague column
 Kremnica’s main square, featuring Slovakia’s largest plague column
 Photos by James Thomson

Kremnica itself is one of the older Slovak towns, receiving its royal charter in 1328, along with mining and minting privileges. Even if you're just passing, the grass-covered, tree-lined main square, crowned with Slovakia's largest plague column, is worth a peek.

On the south side of the square, which is fairly steeply raked as it's built on the side of a hill, is the town's museum, housing an exhibition of mining and coins. In the north-west corner is the mint itself. And towering above them all is the Gothic St Catherine's church, part of the town's castle.

Skalka

Atop the ridge of hills west of Kremnica, at 1232 metres, is the Skalka ski resort.

Currently being revamped with European Union assistance, it now boasts all manner of leisue facilities including squash courts, a gym and a small indoor swimming pool. The views from the top of the new ski lifts, across the Kremnica hills to the west and the Low Tatras to the north-east, are dramatic: Chopok peak, around 50 kilometres distant, is visible on a clear day.

Events in Kremnica

February: Biela stopa Kremnica (The White Snow Track Race) International cross country skiing competition www.bielastopa.eu

April: Cez sedem kremnických vrchov (Over the Seven Kremnica Hills) For those who like hiking

May: Majstrovstvá EÚ v gulkách (EU Championship in Balls) Competition for children and adults www.gulky.wibic.net

July: Hudba pod diamantovou klenbou (Music under theDiamond Dome) Festival of classical music

August: Kremnická bašta Festival of folk music www.tajf.sk

August: Kremnické gagy (Festival of Humour and Satire) Festival of satire and humour www.gagy.sk

September: Ľudový trh (Folk market) Market connected with folk traditions and crafts

October: Kremnické jablko (Kremnica apple) Exhibition of fruit and vegetables

November: Výročie mesta (Town anniversary)


Banská Štiavnica

    Banská Štiavnica‘s new castle, and plague column.
 Banská Štiavnica‘s new castle, and plague column.
 Photos by James Thomson

Perhaps the most celebrated town in central Slovakia, Banská Štiavnica is a shadow of its former self.

In the seventeenth century the population was several times greater than it is today; as recently as the nineteenth century it was the second-biggest town in Slovakia. Its centre was filled with buildings fit for a wealthy and important town. A mining school, one of the earliest technical colleges in Europe, was founded here.

Now, most of the people are gone: even on a warm autumn weekend the town has a sleepy feel. It livens up for several annual festivals, but the rest of the time it can appear positively comatose. Fortunately, the buildings remain. Along with the area's early industrial infrastructure - especially a complex system of reservoirs and channels which surround the town - they have earned it a place on UNESCO's World Heritage List.

It is a marvellous place just to wander around. There are two castles, the older one in the centre of town, the newer one (built to defend from Ottoman raiders, for whom the mines and the town were an extremely juicy target) on a hill just outside it. There is a picturesque Calvary on another hill (actually a dormant volcano).

Best of all are the Renaissance burgher houses, some of which are being converted into restaurants, cafes and hotels - but at a pleasingly slow pace: there is still plenty of the crumbling old plaster which has been banished from the old towns of other Slovak cities, in particular Bratislava's, over the last twenty years. The town's position, at the confluence of several steep valleys, means there are great views wherever you go.

Events in Banská Štiavnica

May: Majáles Traditional ball in The Open Air Mining Museum

May: Festivalu kumštu, remesla a zábavy (Craft Festival) Famous Craft Festival including not only a traditional craft market, live astronomical clock and medieval bath, but also a varied programme for both children and adults. (Old Castle)

June: Silver veteran rally Traditional veteran car competition (City centre)

July: Jazznica Summer Jazz Fest, Slovak and foreign jazz musicians perform at various places in the historical centre. Amphitheatre, Church of St Catherine (Kostol sv. Kataríny)

July: Animatus Lusus - Live Chess Chess played on Námestie Sv. Trojice with local volunteers in historical dress serving as chess figures. (Nám. sv. Trojice)

July: Festival peknej hudby (Festival of Nice Music) Classical music in the Old Castle and picturesque chapel of the Sv Anton Manor House.

August: Folk & World Music Fest Folk, Rock, Jazz and other kinds of world music

August 1: Nezabudnuté remeslá (Unforgotten Crafts) Traditional craftsmen from the Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary and Slovakia take over Námestie sv. Trojice during a festival

August: 4živly (4elements) Summer film festival and seminar (Amphitheatre, Old Castle, Cinema Akademik)

August: Noc na Starom zámku (Night at the Old Castle) Night tour of the Old Castle in July and August

August: Cap a l’Est - Cesta na Východ (Road to the East) A multicultural European festival of poetry, drama and music; French and Slovak are the main languages of the event. (Amphitheatre, Old Castle, Cinema)

September: Salamandrové dni (Salamander Days) The citizens of Banská Štiavnica dress in traditional costumes and weave like lizards through the streets of the Old Town in an annual parade recalling the town's past as a leading European mining centre. Legend has it that a poor shepherd first discovered silver in the Banská Štiavnica hills when he noticed silver dust on the backs of lizards.


Nová Baňa

    Nová Baňa is surrounded by wooded hills.
 Nová Baňa is surrounded by wooded hills.
 Photos by James Thomson

Nová Baňa, another former mining town, is a fairly unlikely tourist destination at first blush. But on closer inspection, the town and the surrounding hills have quite a lot to offer. A visit to Nová Baňa's museum reveals that the town was once at the cutting edge of the industrial revolution.

The first record of mining in the town dates from 1337. It declined to almost nothing by the 1600s, as the easily accessible seams were mined out. But technology changed things in the eighteenth century. Continental Europe's first industrial steam engine, designed by British engineer Isaac Potter, was built here in 1722. It solved the problem of how to drain the deep shafts and the industry underwent a renaissance.

There is a model of Potter's 'fire engine' in the museum, along with a range of other interesting exhibits, many labelled in English. Among them are archaeological finds including a ceramic jug from the 5th century 'mass migration', during which Slavs are first believed to have arrived in Europe, and so-called miner's art created by the German settlers who were crucial to the mining industry.

Old mine entrances are dotted around the town; the tourist information office can point them out. They can also direct you to some nice walks, including one to a waterfall, in the steep valleys surrounding the town.

One of Slovakia's best motorcamps is at Tajch lake on the outskirts of the town. There are also many holiday rentals in the surrounding countryside.


Žarnovica

Žarnovica is perhaps best known among Slovaks as a bus stop. Until it was bypassed by the highway a few years ago, long-distance coaches on their way across the country used to pull up in a pot-holed carpark on the main road to exchange passengers and take a break. The dingy bar (and toilets) of a nearby restaurant were all that most casual visitors got to see.

Such excitement aside, the town's main occupation was as a market town and as home to a timber mill, now much reduced in size. The town's officials are currently trying to use its improved highway connections to attract new investors.

Humble Žarnovica has one contemporary claim to fame: Slovakia's only speedway track. The sport, which involves riders careering around a dirt oval on motorbikes with no brakes is a great spectacle. A local, Martin Vaculik, was crowned Czech speedway champion in 2008. Since it's the only circuit in Slovakia, races here are restricted to occasional international meetings in the summer. Catch one if you can.


Banská Bystrica

    SNP Square in Banská Bystrica.
 SNP Square in Banská Bystrica.
 Photos by James Thomson

Banská Bystrica, the regional centre, is Slovakia's central crossroads. The best way to arrive, if you have time, is by the Horehronec train from Košice which follows a beautiful route through the Slovenský Raj national park and the Hron valley.

The main square, named after the Slovak National Uprising of 1944, is one of Slovakia's best, lined with Renaissance and Habsburg townhouses. At the top of the square, the town's sixteenth-century clock tower leans to the left in a rather disturbing manner, the result of the collapse of a neighbouring building. If you're brave enough, you can go to the top for a panoramic view of the town and surrounding valley.

The castle(map D4), also near the top of the main square, is where the town's revenues from the surrounding silver and copper mines were stored. Parts of the wall and barbican remain, but the oldest structure is the 13th-century Romanesque Church of the Assumption.

Other notable buildings include the Central Slovak Museum(map C5), housed in a sixteenth-century house covered in sgraffito decoration which once belong to the Thurzos, a prominent mine-owning family; and the Benický House, with its unique first floor open arcaded gallery.

Like Banská Štiavnica, the city's architecture rewards the wanderer. There is a pleasant park west of SNP Square, near the university. Across the Hron River from the centre is a hill with a Calvary which was reopened after renovation in 2008.

One other historical curiosity in Banská Bystrica is on the main road south towards Zvolen. The first Slovak branch of McDonald’s opened here in the mid-1990s, before even Bratislava was so blessed. Strange to say now, but there was a time when it attracted homesick ex-pats on long diversions in search of a comforting burger. It is still there, should you wish to re-live their heady experiences...

Events in Banská Bystrica

February: International Tourist Guide DayFree sightseeing tour of Banská Bystrica www.kisbb.sk

February: Banskobystrická latka International high jump contest

March-April: Banskobystrická hudobná jar (Banská Bystrica Musical Spring) Classical music festival www.kisbb.sk

April: Day of model building International model building contest www.modelday.sk

April: The Viliam Figuš-Bystrý Choir Festival Classical music festival

May: Envirofilm International film festival www.envirofilm.sk

May: International Dixieland Festival Jazz festival - at Námestie SNP in Banská Bystrica, as well as in three other European towns in Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic www.kisbb.sk

August: The Barbakan multimedia project International music, film and fine art festival www.vresk.sk

September: Banská Bystrica Town Days Traditional Radvan market (Radvanský jarmok) and many attractions reflecting town’s past and present www.kisbb.sk

October: Art Therapy: From the Margin to the Middle International comunity theatre festival www.divadlozpasaze.sk

November: AMFO - national amateur photo competition Exhibition www.kisbb.sk


MAP OF BANSKÁ BYSTRICA


    
 
 © MAPA Slovakia Plus s.r.o., 2008


























1.Barbakan with Baroque Tower

Nám.Š. Moyzesa (map D4)

2.Baroque Church of St Francis Xavier

(Kostol sv. Františka Xaverského), Nám. SNP 26 (map D5)

3.Benický’s House

(Benického dom), Nám. SNP 16 (map C5)

4.Central-Slovak Gallery

(Stredoslovenská galéria), Dolná 8 (map B6)

5.Central-Slovak Gallery / Former Town Hall

(Stredoslovenská galéria / Stará radnica), Nám.Š. Moyzesa 25 (map D4)

6.City Clock Tower,

Nám. SNP 29 and 24 (map D5)

7.Cultural and Information Centre

(Kultúrne a informačné stredisko), Nám. SNP 14 (map C5)

8.Dance Theatre

(Štúdio tanca), Nám. Slobody 3 (map G5)

9.Church of the Holy Cross

(Kostol sv.Kríža), Nám.Š. Moyzesa (map D4)

10.Church of the Virgin Mary

(Kostol Nanebovzatia Panny Márie), Nám Š. Moyzesa (map D4)

11.Matthias House

(Matejov dom), Nám Š. Moyzesa 20 (map D4)

12.Museum of the Slovak National Uprising

(Múzeum SNP), Kapitulská 23 (map E5)

13.Puppet Theatre

(Bábkové divadlo na Rázcestí), Skuteckého 14 (map F3)

14.State Opera Banská Bystrica

(Štátna opera v Banskej Bystrici), Národná 11 (map C7)

15.Thurzo House /Museum of Central Slovakia

(Thurzov dom / Stredoslovenské múzeum), Nám.SNP 4 (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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