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.
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
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.
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
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
July: Hudba pod diamantovou klenbou (Music under theDiamond Dome)
Festival of classical music
August: Kremnická bašta
Festival of folk music
August: Kremnické gagy (Festival of Humour and Satire)
Festival of satire and humour
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‘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
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.
June: Silver veteran rally
Traditional veteran car competition
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
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
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 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 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.
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
Free sightseeing tour of Banská Bystrica
February: Banskobystrická latka
International high jump contest
March-April: Banskobystrická hudobná jar (Banská Bystrica Musical Spring)
Classical music festival
April: Day of model building
International model building contest
April: The Viliam Figuš-Bystrý Choir
Classical music festival
International film festival
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
August: The Barbakan multimedia
International music, film and fine art festival
September: Banská Bystrica Town Days
Traditional Radvan market (Radvanský jarmok) and many attractions reflecting town’s past and present
October: Art Therapy: From the Margin to the Middle
International comunity theatre festival
November: AMFO - national amateur photo competition
Mob: +421 (0)911 430-777
Open Mon-Thu 08:00-24:00,
Fri 08:00-02:00 Sat 11:00-02:00,
Population: 7,505 Nearest urban centre: Levice (30 km)
Námestie slobody 1
Tel: +421 (0)45 685-6486
Open: MaSep: Mon-Fri 07:00-17:00
Off-season Mon-Fri 07:00-16:00
Tel: +421 (0)45 685-5178
Open: May-Sep: Mon-Fri 08:00-16:00, Sun 13:00-17:00
Oct-Apr: Mon-Fri 08:00-16:00
Population: 6,000 Nearest urban centre: Zvolen (40 km)
Námestie SNP 33
Tel: +421 (0)45 683-0016
Open: Mon-Wed 07:00-15:00
Kultúrne a informačné stredisko
(Cultural and Information Centre)
Nám. SNP 14 (map C5)
Tel: +421 (0)48 415-5085
Mob: +421 (0)907 846-555
Open May 15-Sep 15:
Sep 16-May 14:
Climate in Banská Bystrica
8°C / 46.4°F
Maximum recorded temp.:
37.8°C / 100°F (20.7.2007)
Minimum recorded temp.:
-30°C / -22°F (8.1.1985)
Warmest month (average temp.):
July (17.9°C / 64.2°F)
Coldest month (average temp.):
Jan (-3.3°C / 26.1°F)
Temp. below 0°C / 32°F :
127 days (per year)
Temp. above 25°C / 77°F:
58 days (per year)
Days of snowfall (per year):
Annual precipitation total:
778 mm / 30.6 in
For regular weather updates and forecasts, please see www.spectator.sk, brought to you in cooperation with the Slovak Hydrometeorological Institute.
Getting to B.Bystrica
Please see www.cp.sk for information on public transportation in Slovakia (lines, arrivals, departures...)
The 65/E571 highway from Nitra is slowly being built into a dual carriageway, but it's a long process with no completion date in sight. The E77 dual carriageway from about the Kremnica turnoff provides at least a little relief. From Bratislava, Banská Bystrica takes 2-2.5 hours of hard driving.
Banská Bystrica is not on the main Bratislava-Košice line either. Several direct trains serve the city every day, taking about four hours (see www.zsr.sk). The main train station in Banská Bystrica is about 15 minutes' walk west of the main square.
The bus takes about four hours to or from Bratislava. The bus station is beside the train station in Banská Bystrica.
EXPRESS TAXI Námestie Slobody,
Tel: 18-111, Mob: +421 (0)902 410-041, www.taxibb.sk
FUN TAXI Tel: +421 (0)48 16-777, www.funtaxibb.com
Internet cafe in Banská Bystrica
InsOmnia cyber cafe
Nám. SNP 15 (map C5)
Mob: +421 (0)903 617-932
Located in the courtyard of the OTP Banka building, on the second floor
Nám. SNP 3 (map C5)
Tel: +421 (0)48 429-9905
Located at the end of the second floor corridor
Accommodation in B. Bystrica
Nám. SNP 5 (map C6)
Tel: +421 (0)48 430-2111
Double rooms start at €66
Horná 45 (map F4)
Mob: +421 (0)910 903-095
Open Mon-Sat 11:00-02:00,
Sun from 14:00
Nám. SNP 5 (map C5)
Mob: +421 (0)915 971-886
Open Wed, Fri, Sat 20:00-04:00
Galleries, museums and theatres
Dolná 8 (map B6)
Tel: +421 (0)48 470-1615
Open Tue-Fri 10:00-17:00,
Sat, Sun 10:00-16:00
(Museum of Central Slovakia)
Nám. SNP 4 (map C5)
Tel: +421 (0)48 412-5895
Open Mon-Fri 09:00-17:00,
Múzeum slovenského národného
(Museum of the Slovak National Uprising)
Kapitulská 23 (map E5)
Tel: +421 (0)48 412-3258
Open May-Sep: Tue-Sun 09:00-18:00
Oct-Apr: Tue-Sun 09:00-16:00
Ticket price: €1.50
Bábkové divadlo (Puppet theatre)
Skuteckého 14 (map F3)
Tel: +421 (0)48 412-5513
Štátna opera (State Opera)
Národná 11 (map C7)
Tel.: +421 (0)48 245-7101
Štúdio Tanca (Dance Theatre)
Nám. slobody 3 (map G5)
Tel.: +421 (0)48 414-5154
Shopping centre in B. Bystrica
Na Troskách 25 (off map )
Tel: +421 (0)48 413-2052
Open daily 09:00-21:00