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.


Beautiful city, dark past

 photo: Ján Svrček

The Bartdejov city centre has barely changed over the past few hundred years. This is a good thing, for today it is the most beautifully preserved Old Town core in the country.

But because the city is so attractive, visitors are often surprised by Bardejov’s dark past. The cobbled Main Square and its baroque buildings bring to mind images of promenades and warm spring afternoons, where gentlemen stroll arm-in-arm with young ladies in long dresses. And one can practically hear the distant singing of the faithful in the grand Cathedral of St. Egídius.

In other words, Bardejov does not inspire images of corpses hanging from the gallows. But, as it turns out, it should.

Bardejov was granted the Right of the Sword by King Lewis I in the 15th century, entitling it to deal with bandits in any manner town leaders saw fit. They were merciless, executing a steady line of suspected robbers. While this may have pleased local merchants, Fedor Hlavatý, the leader of a notorious pack of thieves along the local trade routes, was enraged. In 1493 he sent the town leaders a letter vowing to wreak revenge on Bardejov for hanging a gang of his men.

Evidence of this agitated past is found in the town museum, located on the main square in the Old Town Hall, where the first exhibit is a model of the city from the 19th century. On a hill outside the moat, a noose is prominently displayed.

I learned more of this lovely city’s volatile history on a walking tour with Brian Chung, a Peace Corps volunteer from Texas who helps out at the tourist information centre. While tracing a section of the original fortification wall, we came to Hrubá bašta, or Thick Bastion. Formerly used as the town’s gunpowder storage, the bastion is three-stories tall with walls made of a mortar mix rather than stones. Yet red lines have been painted on, an apparent attempt to create the illusion of large slabs of rock.

“This has a purpose, it’s not just that the city was cheap,” Brian says. “They painted these lines so that attacking troops, from a distance, wouldn’t know it was a relatively weak structure. They’d see the lines and think it was made of solid stone and then maybe think twice about charging.”

 photo: Ján Svrček

Bardejov’s violent history has long since passed, but its charm remains as strong as ever. For visual proof of how little the centre has changed, check out the last stop in the town museum, where photos of the main square from the late 19th and early 20th centuries are displayed. It’s uncanny, really, how little has changed. Besides the erection of the cathedral tower in 1897, the square is virtually the same as it was in the 1800s. Unesco recognised this in 1986, awarding the town the Gold Medal for Monument Preservation for its square, fortifications and cathedral.

The dominant feature of the square is the Cathedral of St. Egídius. With its Gothic-revival interior, massive main altar and 11 smaller altars flanking the pews, it makes standing at the rear an attack on the senses - you just don’t know what to focus on. For me, two features were of particular interest.

The first: Jesus. He is hanging from a massive cross in the archway separating the sanctuary from the nave. The cross, 7.5 metres above the floor, is itself eight metres high and, stretching to the cathedral ceiling, towers over parishioners. Second: the pews. Intricately carved and elaborately decorated, these are pieces of art in themselves. I’ve never before seen such attention paid to pews, which often seem to have been added as mere afterthoughts.

Next, up the spiralling tower staircase. Even on a drizzly, cold day the view of the square is stupendous.

Back down on the square, Brian explains that beneath the city centre is a maze of ancient wine cellars, some collapsed, some intact, some unknown. Construction workers laying pipes have just unearthed a centuries-old door frame leading to a long-since-buried cellar.

“Are any of them still accessible?” I ask.

“Café 42,” he says, which turns out to be a perfectly maintained cellar - hundreds of years old, mind you - that now serves as a café/restaurant/pub. As I buy Brian a drink to thank him for the tour, he says with a grin: “One more thing you ought to see.”

Back at the Old Town Hall, Brian points up under the eaves at a series of gargoyles and statues hanging above the square. “See that one?” he says, pointing to a statue of a squatting man bent over in a suggestive position. “The town stiffed the architect, so he left this little gift for them. To show his appreciation.” And decades later, the bitter architect’s statue is still symbolically defecating upon the square he once made so lovely.

- Chris Togneri

These articles and related information were published in Spectacular Slovakia 2002.

See also:

Make your comment to the article... (3 reactions already made)