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.



Central Slovakia

Banská Bystrica

    Main Square in Banská Bystrica
 Main Square in Banská Bystrica
 Photo: Ján Svrček

Banská Bystrica has the country's grandest SNP square and a beautiful old town, it is surrounded by the majestic mountains so typical of Slovakia, and it has a long, proud history. Consider its Slovak National Uprising (SNP) Square. While cities around the country have renamed their main squares SNP, in honour of the Slovak partisans who fought the Nazis in World War II, Banská Bystrica's is the biggest and brightest. This is appropriate, for it was in the nearby mountains where much of the fighting took place, and it was in Bystrica itself where the movement was originally concentrated. The SNP Museum, two blocks from the square, examines Slovakia's controversial role in World War II. A large white oval split down the middle, the museum is designed like a klobúk, the traditional Slovak hat. English-speaking visitors are guided through the tour with a portable cassette player and a tape explaining the exhibits in English. The adjoining Štefan Moyzes Square is home to several historical sites, like the Church of the Virgin Mary (or 'German Church'), the oldest building in town, capped by a red and beige spire. The church was originally constructed in 1255 and until 1948 was surrounded by 15th century castle walls. The crumbling fortification system was torn down, however, to make room for a new post office. Nearby is the Church of the Holy Cross (or 'Slovak Church'), which although crumbling is still a site. An important building on SNP is the Thurzo House (SNP Námestie 4), where the Central Slovak Museum is located. In the 15th century, it was the administrative office of the Thurzo-Fugger Company, an enormously successful copper-mining and smelting operation.

Getting there

By train: From Bratislava, trip take between three and four hours and usually requires a switch in Zvolen.

By bus: Direct routes from the capital city leave several times a day and take between three and four and a half hours.

By car: Take route E 571 to Nitra, then continue another two hours on E571 to Banská Bystrica.

Information centre

Kultúrne a informačné stredisko - Nám. Št. Moyzesa 26, 974 01 Banská Bystrica. Tel: 048 415-2914.

Banská Štiavnica

Carved like a jewel into a hill that once abounded with gold, Banská Štiavnica is one of Slovakia's prettiest towns. Miners first alighted here in the 11th century. The world's first technical university devoted to Chemistry, Physics and Mineralogy was founded here in 1762; and Štiavnica was the third largest city in the Hungarian Kingdom by 1783, behind only Bratislava and Debrecen.

Although mining for gold and silver ceased in the early 20th century, the tradition can still be observed at the Outdoor Mining Museum, about 20 minutes on foot from the centre. To get there, follow the road to the village Štiavnické Bane.

Banská Štiavnica also has a fine selection of churches. The Church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, on Akademická Ulica, is the highlight. If the doors are open, step inside and check out the wooden organ balcony. Also worth seeing are the St. Catherine and Lutheran churches near the top of town. The town's most remarkable ecclesiastical buildings, however, are found on Calvary Hill. Cities around Slovakia pay tribute to the site where Christ was crucified, but none do it better than Štiavnica with its leafy trail leading past 14 Stations of the Cross up to an 18th-century triple-domed cathedral at the top of Calvary (or Scharffenberg) Hill. This is the scene found on many a local postcard, and one of the main reasons why UNESCO designated the town a World Heritage Site in 1993. Besides mining and religion, Banská Štiavnica is also known for its greenery.

On Akademická Ulica there is a botanical garden, with species planted from 1838 to 1861. The garden is home to 250 non-native plant species, including Californian Giant Sequoias and Japanese Crytomeria. In the spring it trembles with birds and fresh greenery. The main tourist site is at the top of town, namely Námestie Svätej Trojice (Holy Trinity Square) where visitors find a collection of burgher houses, the town gallery, the Slovak Mining Museum's mineralogical exhibition, and, rising above all these, the Old Castle.

After a challenging hike, one way to revive is over a cup of tea at the teahouse in the old klopačka building toward the bottom of the Old Castle hill. Most Slovak mining town had klopačka, or building in which a giant wooden clapper would wake miners in the morning. Klopačka, the tea house, now awakens Štiavnica to higher states of consciousness. It is a wonderfully quirky café with great tea and desserts.

Getting there

By train: From Bratislava trip takes between three and four and a half hours, and includes a switch in Hronská Dúbrava.

By car: Take E571 from Bratislava through Nitra. At Žarnovica (one hour from Nitra) make a right at the sign for Banská Štiavnica and follow the road through Hodruša-Hámre.

Žilina

Since 1990, the city centre has undergone a massive reconstruction. As a result, the old town has one of the country's largest pedestrian zones, stretching from the railway station to Ľudovít Štúr Square.

The highlights of the historical core - which was declared a Protected Urban Area in 1987 - are its two main squares, separated by the Church of the Holy Trinity. From the railway station, the first square visitors find is named after Andrej Hlinka. A priest and politician, Hlinka is considered by many a heroic Slovak patriot as he was the leading advocate for Slovak independence between the World Wars, plus a reputed humanitarian. Others consider him a strident nationalist, even a fascist.

A statue of Hlinka is found on the square, as is a multi-tiered fountain in the shadows of the Church of the Holy Trinity. Beyond that is the Square of the Virgin Mary, a cobblestone zone with several outdoor cafes and benches, a fountain and a bronze statue of an angel. The square is surrounded by burgher houses above and behind arcades.

A key Žilina site outside the old town is Budatín Castle, a 20-minute walk from the railway station. At the confluence of the Váh and Kysuca rivers, the powder-white fortress with Romanesque tower is home to the Považské Museum. Among archaeological and historical exhibitions is the Tinker Trade display, which claims to be the only one of its kind in the world.

Getting there

By train: Frequent trains connections along the main Bratislava-Košice line (2 1/2 hours).

By car: Take route E75 north from Bratislava to Žilina, 200 kilometres (2 1/2 hours).

Information centre

Turisticko-informačná kancelária Selinan, Burianova medzierka 4. Tel: 041 562-1478, 562-0789. E-mail: selinanck@bb.telecom.sk, selinan@zilina.sk.

Orava Region

Orava's exceptional castle, discussed in the castle section, is itself worthy of a day trip. But outdoor activity is both the chief Oravian pastime and the main draw of the area's growing tourism industry, which is cheap and accommodating. In the winter, people come to ski; almost every town has a hill and lift, while larger centres can be found in Zverovka (just south of Roháee mountain), and Kubínska Hoľa (outside Orava's largest city, Dolný Kubín). Ski trails in the village of Oravica near the Polish border are small, but visitors can soak in the town's 36 degrees Celsius thermal pool after an icy day on the slopes. Podbieľ, a village in the region's centre (northeast of Dolný Kubín on highway 59) and an excellent starting point for day trips. The village has 64 wooden cottages (drevenica) distinct to the area, five of which have been renovated and are rented out to the public. During the summer, thousands of visitors hike Orava's myriad mountain trails, while biking, canoeing, and swimming and sunning on Orava Dam Lake are also popular. Touring Orava's famous wooden churches (the most impressive of which is in Tvrdošín - less than 10 kilometres northeast of Podbieľ on highway 59), or taking the antique steam train from Chmika to Tanečník, or looking at the wood work at the Orava Outdoor Village Museum are less strenuous, but equally popular ways of spending an afternoon. Do not miss the Orava Outdoor Village Museum, a showcase of 70 to 80 wooden structures dating back to the 16th century in the town Zuberec (by car, south-east on highway 584 from Podbieľ). All of the 75 structures were complete originals that had been taken apart piece by piece, catalogued, and then put back together, the entire process taking up to a year. The museum itself is a nice compendium of the area's craftsmanship, and is appropriately set in a mountain valley cut down the middle by a babbling stream.

Down the road looms Roháče mountain, the most popular hike in Orava. The trails can be a bit rough, but some people seem to prefer it that way - the same might be said of the Orava region.

Getting there

By car: Take route E50 from Žilina to Martin, then hook up with route 70 north through Dolný Kubín, along the Orava River to the castle. Trip takes about 45 minutes.

Information centre

Turistická informačná kancelária - Slovakotour Travel Agency, Gäce3/4ská 1, 026 01 Dolný Kubín. Tel: 043 865-405.

Liptov Region

    A Slovak craftsman at work.
 A Slovak craftsman at work.
 Photo: TASR

Imagine you're an 18th-century Hungarian sheriff in the Liptov region. Slovak outlaw Juraj Jánošík could be hiding anywhere.

To the north and east: the 342 square kilomtres High Tatras, which peak at 2,655 metres. To the south: the 810 square kilometres Low Tatras (today Slovakia's largest national park) rich in caves and dense with forests. To the west: the Veľká Fatras and other smaller mountain ranges. No longer the haven for bandits it once was, the Liptov region - a 2,100 square kilometres valley - has over the past 300 years become a playground for tourists. The mountains that used to hide Slovakia's Robin Hood, as Jánošík is known, now host skiers, hikers, and sightseers; nearly every Liptov village and city contain some cultural, historical or recreational diversion; and friendly, visitor-savvy locals run a cheap, well-developed tourist industry. Liptovský Mikuláš (population 34,000) is Liptov's largest city and its geographical centre. Most of the city's sites are on Námestie Osloboditeľov (Liberation Square), where a monument commemorates the Soviet Army's liberation of the city at the end of World War II. Jánošík was sentenced to death in a building on this square that today houses the Janko Kráľ Literature and History Museum, which exhibits the hook used in the film Jánošík, shot by two Slovak-Americans in 1921.

The museum also documents in stark honesty the tale of the city's Jews, almost all of whom were deported to Nazi concentration camps during World War II. A monument remembers the name of each of the 856 deportees, and an old anti-Semitic leaflet tells a chilling tale of hatred. A few blocks away, a large synagogue (Hollého Ulica 810/14, open during the summer) attests to the stature of the Jewish community, which in the early half of the 20th century controlled 90 percent of the area's business and supported a nationally renowned high school.

Just west of the city lies Liptovská Mara, a huge reservoir created with the building of the 1,200-metre-long Liptovská Mara Dam in 1975. The massive artificial lake comes alive in the summer, when it offers camping, bike and boat rental, wind-surfing and canoeing instruction, and plenty of accommodation.

Eleven communities were destroyed when the dam was created (villagers - self-titled utopenci, or 'drowners' - still meet once a year), but the most valuable buildings were moved to a skanzen in Pribylina (25 kilometres east of Liptovský Mikuláš), where clothes villagers once wore, the tools they used, and the food they ate are laid out as if the owners had only recently left.

South of Liptovský Mikuláš a 24-kilometres cave system snakes through the northern base of the Low Tatra mountains. Five minutes south of the caves the road ends at the resort village of Jasná, one of Slovakia's most popular ski resorts and a convenient point of departure for summer hikes into the Low Tatras. Chairlifts run to just below Chopok peak (2,024 metres), centre of the 80-kilometre-long main Low Tatra ridge. Some tourists ride the lift up and hike back to Jasná.

Getting there

By train: Liptovský Mikuláš is on the main Bratislava-Košice train line, approximately four hours from Bratislava and two hours from Košice.


These articles and related information were published in Spectacular Slovakia 2003.

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