THE BEST OF SLOVAKIA
Bratislava is wonderful: Why didn't you come before?
The capital of Slovakia, Bratislava, is a pleasant and lively city, which has much to offer the visitor. It is a city with a celebrated past, where empresses lived and musicians like Mozart and Liszt performed. Dating back to 9th century, Bratislava became a centre of trade in the River Danube Basin. Bratislava rejoiced its glory days in 16th century, when it became a coronation city of the Kingdom of Hungary. Another heyday was the 1700s, when Maria Teresa, the Habsburgs’ Empress, made her home in a grand castle perched just above the blue Danube.
Bratislava lies very close to both the Austrian and Hungarian frontiers and has a cosmopolitan atmosphere, but with none of the sightseeing crowds of Prague or Vienna. It is a city of contrasts, where rococo palaces are neighbours to glass towers of bank headquarters, and a stunning suspension bridge.
A romantic walk in a coronation city
Bratislava is a melting pot of cultures - Habsburg, Slovak and Hungarian - as powerful a brew as borovička, the strong local spirit. With beer at 50c and cocktails 2 euro, Bratislava is cheap and it makes for a pleasant place to spend a few days. The start of a ‘Slovak tourist revolution’ was boosted by the launch of low-cost flights by the SkyEurope and LOT to the Bratislava. Now it is a time to enjoy great days off in Bratislava!
The best place to start a romantic stroll through Bratislava's medieval old town is the Hviezdoslavovo Square, at the Ganymede fountain, in front of the Slovak National Theatre and the Reduta concert hall. The most distinguished musicians paid visits to Bratislava and the city lives with music. The music festival Bratislava’s Spring is very popular with locals and tourists and far from to be an elitist pursuit of snobs. You may enjoy Carmen, Tosca, Don Giovanni, Rigoletto, the Barber of Seville, the Magic Flute or La Boheme. A little northeast of here is the adjoining Main Square (Hlavné námestie) a distinguished inlet of ornate buildings linked by a network of cobblestone pedestrian walkways. This is a cosy quarter edged with Baroque, Rococo and Gothic houses, some of which have been converted into cafes, restaurants or wine bars. The Maximilian Fountain, known also as Rolland's Fountain on the Main Square was built in 1572, when Habsburg Emperor Maximilian was crowned as Hungarian king in Bratislava. There are some myths that the statue of Roland can turn to your side if you have never lied. The east side of the square is dominated by the Old Town Hall, a lively blend of Gothic, Renaissance and nineteenth-century styles housing the main City Museum. Here you can feel the low motion of the city. Sit on a bench having bronze-cast Napoleon look over your shoulder and have your picture taken. Keep taste of a good piece of cake with coffee in a small cafe. You could easily linger here for a week, sipping coffee and taking in the view. It is amazing how statues mingle with people in Bratislava, “get on their way” and are part of street. Don't miss Bratislava's newest icons: sculptures of the Schöne Naci, a much beloved City Fool, and the Peeping Tom (Čumil). A man's head cocks out of a manhole, and from his unique observation point and with nothing to do he's clearly ogling local girls.
Close to the Main Square is the Mirbach Palace, the finest of Bratislava's Rococo structure, preserving much of its original stucco decor. The Neoclassical Primate's Palace is famous for its Hall of Mirrors, where Napoleon and the Austrian emperor signed the Peace of Pressburg (as Bratislava was then called) in 1805. Continue on the Panská Street and explore the Gothic and Rococo Pálffy’s Palace, which houses a collection of 19th century paintings. The walk continues on beautifully restored Michalská and Ventúrska Street lined with another half-dozen of Baroque palaces, good restaurants and shops. Here it is time to stop. Roast goose, pancakes, Sachertorte, apple strudel and glass of Zlatý Bažant (an excellent local beer) in a deluxe French restaurant cost a peanut.
The St. Martin's Cathedral, a great Gothic construction where 19 royal coronations took place between the mid-1500s and the early 1800s is an ultimate ‘must see’. In summer the most memorable coronations are staged for the tourists. The walk up to the castle passes brash Nový most bridge, built with a revolving flying saucer café on top. Three delightful museums are worth stopping off for - one for clocks, another for decorative arts, and a third for folk music. The best is the Good Shepherd housing the Clock Museum. The wonderful narrow building is so packed in that visitors must walk sideways in its stairwells and has a amazing display of Baroque and pre-Art Deco timepiece artistry.
The Bratislava Castle got its present shape of a ‘bed turned up’ in the fifteenth century by Emperor Sigismund. It was burnt down by drunken soldiers in 1811, but restored in the 1950s and 1960s and houses the Slovak Historical Museum now. The wonderful museum is packed with treasures to view, warm and inviting, filled with history and charm: beautiful old jewellery, antique furniture in chronological order from the 1100s to the early 1900s. From the Castle, you will enjoy breathtaking views overlooking three countries – Slovakia, Austria and Hungary.
A visit to Bratislava Opera or Ballet is an elegant conclusion to the day. But if you do not go for ‘high culture’ spend a lazy afternoon in Old Bratislava and stroll along the banks of the Danube River admiring the Baroque and Gothic buildings. In the evening, snuggle into the cosy bars of the Old Town and watch music bands playing live in the Jazz Café or Alligator. If you're combining your stay with visits to bordering countries there are plenty of road borders to and from the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Ukraine. From mid-April to September, there is a hydrofoil between Bratislava and Vienna.
Excursions around Bratislava
An ideal weekend in Bratislava is best to combine with an excursion along the Small Carpathian Wine Trail. Wine sampling and visit to the exciting Renaissance fortress of Červený Kameň are the main attractions of the Trail.
An hour drive from Bratislava, the Červený Kameň (Red Stone) castle hovers over green hills of the Small Carpathians. The medieval castle was rebuilt to a massive Renaissance fortress by Fugger family. These were one of the richest families in Europe who in the 16th century operated the largest copper-mining company of that time. Fuggers made fortune in trade with copper, silver, gold and wine and were bankers to emperors and popes. The Červený Kameň castle originally was designed as the anti-Turkish fortress and huge storeroom of wine. The castle was wonderfully restored and converted to a museum displaying finely carved furniture and various weapons. Vast cellars beneath the castle are hewn into the red stone and give us an idea, how important the wine was for life in this region. In the meadows of historical park you may enjoy an antiquities fair, knight and falcon shows, horseback riding and pony trekking.
With some 7300 hectares the Small Carpathians Wine Region is the largest in Slovakia. Gothic churches and belfries, baroque chateaus, walled towns, smell of roasted goose and original brass music provide for a perfect day-off in Bratislava’s countryside. Two small towns located on the eastern slopes of the Small Carpathian mountains, Pezinok and Modra are known for wine. Several locals make and sell stellar vintages of Riesling, Müller Thurgau, Pinot Blanc and more. Three major events highlight the year of winegrowers: Wine Sampling in October, Blessing New Wine on the St Martin’s day (11th November) and Wine Market on the spring. The wine sampling, however, runs throughout the year. Modra’s pottery manufacture offers a chance to see how these famous Slovak ceramics have been produced for centuries. Towns of Slovenský and Chorvátsky Grob are famous for traditional needle- and lace-work, ceramics, houses painted with folklore ornaments and ancient wooden crosses in the local cemeteries.
Spectacular Banská Štiavnica
There is a legend about a shepherd who spotted two lizards gleaming in gold and silver. He followed lizards to their den and found big nuggets of gold. There is no written account on town’s origin and the lucky shepherd may be a myth. But it is clear that first mines in this area were operated by Celtic tribes. The town is rather illogically laid on the steep slopes of the Glanzenberg and Paradise Hills. The Banská Štiavnica’s wealth was based on rich deposits of gold and silver and town centre was built directly above the mine pits. The oldest buildings in the city date back to 11th century and copied the steep terrain. In 1238 Hungarian King granted Banská Štiavnica a set of privileges. The town rapidly became one of the most important mining centres in Europe. Economic advance was so strong that even earthquakes and wars for Hungarian crown were not able to stop it. Early 16th century was first golden period of Banská Štiavnica. Prosperous burgers poured their money to construction of splendid houses. Large part of the Holy Trinity Square was built in this period. The old medieval mining centre grew into a town with Renaissance palaces, 16th- century churches, elegant squares and castles. In 1526 town’s fortune turned, when Turkish hordes destroyed Hungarian army forces at Mohács. For one and half century Banská Štiavnica had to cope with Turkish attacks. Habsburgs, who overtook Hungarian Kingdom started with construction of a massive fortification system. The town also became headquarters of the Mining Chamber, which administrated mines and mints in Central Slovakia and also defence against attacking Turks. The 18th century was a golden age for Banská Štiavnica, when it became Habsburgs’ moneybag. Gold and silver mining peaked in 1740 with some 600 kilos of gold and 23 tons of silver. Banská Štiavnica enjoyed economic and culture boom. With population of 30 thousands Banská Štiavnica became the third largest city in the Hungarian Kingdom, behind only Bratislava and Debrecen. In 1762 the Mining and Forestry Academy was founded, the first Polytechnic University of the World.
When Slovakian experts prepared index of monuments for the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1993, there was no doubt, which item would be the first to add - Banská Štiavnica. The Old Town went through an impressive transformation, which changed former abandoned buildings into superb attractions. In 1950 the Old Town was designed the first Urban Preservation Area in Slovakia. It contains over 360 protected buildings and other culture monuments. The one-nave St. Catherine’s Church has gorgeous late Gothic reticulated vaulting and beautiful interior with woodcarvings and stonework. The centre of the city is the Holy Trinity Square, surrounded by beautiful Late Gothic and Renaissance houses and completed by the classical Lutheran church. In the middle of the square is imposing Baroque plague column, a work by Italian sculptor Stanetti. Former Kammerhof (Mining Chamber) is the largest complex of buildings in the town. It houses the Mining Museum, with rich collection of models of mining machines. The Starý Zámok (Old Castle) originally was built as a Romanesque basilica with three naves. In 1546-1559 the basilica was converted to an anti-Turkish fortress. The vaults were dismantled and walls transformed to fortifications. High arches and vault ribs, however, still are well-visible on the courtyard of the fortress. Lapidary in the building contains a set of interesting Renaissance sculptures and headstones.
The urban centre blends into the surrounding landscape, which contains vital relics of the mining and metallurgical activities of the past. The town area is flanked by two prominent buildings placed on hilltops. The Calvary Hill is home to an 18th-century triple-domed cathedral. A grandiose Baroque complex was constructed on the dormant volcano and is accessed by a tree-lined trail of 14 Stations of the Cross. This photogenic place is pictured on many local postcards. The Nový Zámok (New Castle) is a high rectangular citadel with four cylinder-shaped towers in the corners. It was built as a watchtower and part of alert system of Slovak mining towns in period of Turkish wars. It has not lost its Turkish relation since, as it contains the Museum of the anti-Turkish wars. Simple geometry and clear silhouette make the Nový Zámok a most eye-catching building in the town. The top of the tower offers stunning views on the town and surrounding landscape.
When you follow the road to the village of Štiavnické Bane, you cannot miss two other landmarks. The Klopačka (Knocking Tower) was used to announce the new day by pounding a mallet on a resonant wooden board. The Baroque white-painted square tower is covered with wooden shingles and has a small spire on the top. On the bottom floor of the building today is an excellent teahouse. The Outdoor Mining Museum (about 20 minutes on foot from the centre) has been a prime tourist attraction more than 30 years. You may descend over 70 meters below the surface and explore a real 17th century silver mine. Put on a helmet and coat and discover ancient shafts and halls, pumps, wooden trolleys and old machine rooms.
Landscape around Banská Štiavnica is stunning. It is one of the few places on Earth where human activity harmonises with the nature. The Štiavnické vrchy are one of the largest ranges of volcanic mountains in Carpathians. They were designed Nature Reserve and contain over 120 species of birds and more than 40 species of mammals. A unique system of 60 water reservoirs was designed to supply water for mines in 18th century. Now the aquamarine waters are scattered across the Štiavnické vrchy and glimmer in the autumn sun to please the tourists. A dense web of hiking trails covers the whole area. You may walk the woods and search for remnants of old mining works, or simply sit down and listen to the birds.
Trenčín is one of the nicest Slovakia’s big cities. It boasts of a great castle perched on the limestone cliff and looming high above the quietly flowing Váh River picturesque and Old Town below. The oldest part of the castle is probably the Romanesque tower, with ancient and very well-restored tower of Matúš. The most romantic part of the castle is the Well of Love. The story said, Štefan Zápoľský the castle owner brought a hostage Fatima after his victorious battle with the Turks. Fatima’s fiancé Omar, came to ransom her with great riches. Zápoľský, however, asked him to make a well, as there was no water on the castle. After three years the Omar dag a well 79,2 meters deep and saved his beloved Fatime. On the castle rock a 2nd century AD a Roman inscription has been preserved. It confirms the farthest northern memory of Roman stay in central Europe. The Old Town preserved many original features including 16th century City Gate, Gothic carner of St Michal, Baroque plague column and gorgeous burger houses.
When you leave main highway from Ružomberok to Banská Bystrica a winding lane brings you to a different world. It is best to leave the car and go on foot. A clear river runs through lovely woods, the air smells of grass and forest. A sense of peace and tranquillity instantly falls upon you. Suddenly, first timber houses emerge. We are in Vlkolínec.
The village, situated in the heart of the Veľká Fatra National Park, has spectacular settings. A bundle of log houses lays in lush amphitheatre of valley and mountains. Steep slopes are laced with fields, woods, meadows and cobwebbed by footpaths. Set some 700 meters above the sea level, the Vlkolínec has harsh mountain climate. Summers turn to winters and these switch to summers again. Springs and autumns are short and fieldworks must be done quickly. The village is surrounded by terrace fields where locals used to grow potatoes, cabbage and some vegetables. A rapid stream has been a main axis of this tiny village. It is the only source of water and the main (and the single) street flanks it slopes. Here you can meet most of the locals. They live in traditional log houses built on stone basements. Longhouses are set perpendicular to the main street. They look at you with tiny windows half-hidden behind flower boxes. Most houses have similar design: a living room is followed by a black kitchen and a larder. There also are double longhouses with a common black kitchen. Local timber was the main construction material. Rifts between the logs used to be filled in by coloured clay. Houses are topped with saddle roofs and their gables face main street and stream. Handmade shingles were a traditional cover for roofs. Some houses were painted lime green, pale blue and cream, but most of them retained chocolate-dark colour of weathered wood. The greatest architecture jewels are in the middle of the settlement – a wooden well and a belfry built in 1770. The No 17 House was converted to a Peasant Museum. Its furnishing dates to 1910 and preserved wonderfully – benches, wardrobes and kitchen utensils are put on display. Each house was protected by a “baba”, a magical wooden doll. For children it was a toy, for their parents a house goddess, which connected generations.
The village with 45 houses has only some 30 permanent inhabitants now. The first record on the Vlkolínec goes back to 1376. The name of the village (translates like Wolf Place) refers to the local regulation from 1630, which instructed village inhabitants to maintain wolves' trap-pits. Since that the surrounding world has changed completely, but in Vlkolínec the time paced by a different speed. The Vlkolínec is an example of a remarkably intact settlement with the traditional features of a central European village. It is the most complete group of these kinds of traditional log houses in Central Europe. There are plenty pieces of wooden architecture in Poland, Hungary and Ukraine, but nowhere else so many original elements preserved and are not found in such a compact unit as is in Vlkolínec. The village seem to be stuck in time for centuries. Since 1993, when Vlkolínec was added on the list of the UNESCO World Heritage, moviemakers and photographers outnumbered locals. Everybody left enchanted by beauty of this magical place.
Despite its small area, Slovakia has a great variety of beautiful landscapes, from lush fields of River Danube Plain to the rocky barrier of the High Tatra mountains. The Liptov and Orava regions or Banská Štiavnica, all these are stunning. But none of these match the Spiš region. The Spiš region has everything – rolling hills and rocky peaks; the Slovak Paradise National Park with breathtaking labyrinth of gorges, waterfalls and lakes; lovely historical cities of Levoča, Spišská nová Ves and Kažmarok; the Pieniny National Park with timber rafts passing through a deep canyon. And of course, the most admired symbol of the Spiš region – the Spiš Castle.
There is it – irresistibly photogenic, hanging on the edge of a rocky outcrop 634 metres above sea-level in the centre of Slovakia, Spiš Castle (Spišský hrad)—hovers over a green rug of gently sloping hills and valleys. Chalk white ruins on a bleak rock bath in light, undisturbed by the wind blowing off the Tatra mountains. The castle, one of the largest in Europe, was built on an extremely strategic spot that has been inhabited since the Stone Age, No other castle in central Europe has such extensive fortifications. Looming watchtowers and enormous ramparts hint how many armies marched through this region in the last millennium. Today the ruins are declared national cultural monument and accommodate a museum.
What makes the castle so romantic and shining so bright is the travertine. The stone is very similar to that you can find in Lombardy and many of the visitors ask whether it was built with the Italian material. But the travertine comes from a quarry on the opposite Dreveník hill. Daunting when seen from the roadside, the interior is equally intriguing. The museum displays instruments used to torture wrongdoers, photos of how it looked over the past hundred years. There is a spectacular view of the surrounding snow-capped High Tatra mountains. Striking landscape and spectacular ruins of Spiš Castle provided a stunning visual background to the medieval fantasy adventure Dragonheart (1996) with Sean Connery.
When you enter the place, you bring to a halt for a while. Immense white stone structures do not let you go on. Passing the halls of ruin, a big bowl like hole on the upper corner of the Romanesque palace strikes your eye – a witness of troubled past. The palace has seven delicately decorated windows and is the finest part of the castle.
The very first history of the castle, however, is much older than the Romanesque period. The site has been inhabited since the 5th millennium BC. Archaeological surveys conducted since 1960s discovered thousands of artefacts. Among these, three Celtic coins bearing symbol of a horse on the back ranked to the most interesting finds. Allegedly, the same horse can still be seen on the back of Irish coins. The castle rock, topped by a huge walled settlement was densely populated in Celtic period and most probably there also was a mint making silver coins - the so called Spiš type, found exclusively at this location.
The mighty fortress was one of few strongholds to resist the Mongol invasion in 1241. When the pillaging hordes left Europe, Hungarian kings invited German colonists to the area to repopulate it. To stop Mongols repeat their attacks, dozens of massive fortifications were built especially in Slovakia. ‘There is castle for every mountain’ wrote Washington Post about Slovak landscape. Almost all of them are ruins now. The Spiš castle is the largest and best known. It spreads over almost 4 Hectares (10 acres) and many tourists suppose at first that that there is a whole walled city perched on the rock.
The castle is made from three main parts. The upper castle, together with a Romanesque citadel was built at the time of the Mongol invasion. The middle court serves as the main entrance today and the lower yard was designed as a military base for the troops of Jan Jiskra, the warlord in the 15th century. After the death of the King Sigismund in 1437, Jiskra promoted interests of the Queen Elizabeth, opposing the Polish King Vladislaw. Jiskra completed the castle's construction to the present-day size. He started with construction of a separate small fortress in a shape of a round fortified keep. It was protected by a deep moat and by a cleverly constructed palisade on the western slope – a real seat of supreme commander in the middle of a military encampment. As if it was not enough, all the vast encampment had been fortified by construction of massive ramparts, measuring 285 x 115 m. This structure exceeded by its size the whole older part of the castle and was defended by two huge watchtowers. When the Jiskra’s soldiers left the castle, nobody else was able to summon such a mighty army and since that time the lower yard was used only for economic purposes. After 1460 the castle passed to the hands of the mighty Zápolský family, which spent much time and money with conversion of the fortress to a prestigious family seat. Romanesque palace was rebuilt and redecorated in Gothic style. A new chapel, two palaces and a garden house were added. Construction activity continued in Renaissance and Baroque periods. Storied arcade corridor and fenced garden was created. The entrance to the castle was protected by a palisade consisting of pillars made of stone, with wooden logs placed between them.
In 1700s magnate families moved to more comfortable palaces in nearby towns. The castle was several times destroyed by fire and wars, then rebuilt and finally gutted by fire in 1780. In 1993 the monumental ruins were included on the UNESCO'S World Heritage List.
Two charming spots complete landscape beneath the Spiš Castle. The Spišská Kapitula (Canony) is a beautifully preserved collection of churches, canonical houses, farm buildings and gardens built around a Romanesque cathedral. Surrounded by the old ramparts and original gatehouse, its silhouette peacefully looms against the green countryside. The Žehra village is remarkable by its ancient church fortified by white ramparts and embellished by a lovely staircase. Inside the church, unique frescoes dating from the thirteenth to the seventeenth centuries line the interior.
Levoča is fascinating from the very first moment you see it from the roadside. Spires protrude from medieval city walls, surrounding hills bear handful of chapels. As you park next to the ramparts, you directly enter the city centre, the Master Pavol’s Square. Area of the square seems enormous for such a small city and proves wealth of the town in the Middle Ages. A couple of centuries ago Levoča had its glory days. It laid on the crossroads of trade routes and enjoyed substantial economic and political privileges. Burgher’s purses swelled with gold and so did the town's treasure. It was the period of architectural, educational, cultural, artistic and crafts splendour.
Dozens of wonderfully restored Gothic and Renaissance burghers' houses from the 14th - 15th century catch your eyes, for frescoes on their facades, beaten oak doors with rusted latches archways, pointy roofs of different colours and arched windows. Several buildings catch the most attention: the Town Hall with its archways and paintings placed between the windows (you may find it on the 100 koruna banknote), the 16th century Cage of Shame with a delicate wrought iron grille and, above all, the St. Jacob’s Church which hides one of the world's most remarkable gothic secrets sculpted by a simple woodcarver.
Master Pavol ranks among most gifted artists of the Renaissance period. A square was named after him and a movie was shot about his life. Pavol’s masterpieces got it onto Slovak banknotes. Thousands of tourists came every year to Levoča to see the tallest wooden alter in the World. Yet, he remains a great mysterious character of the Slovak history. We do not know, when and where he was born (the 1460 is a guess), where he spent his apprentice years. He may have come as well from Germany or Italy as from France. But he also may have been born in Levoča, leant basics of his art in this city and then travelled to visit workshops of his colleague artists in Poland and Germany. Pavol firstly emerges in Levoča in 1506, when he set up a workshop. Very little is known about his personal life. Investigation in Levoča’s archives revealed that he married into a wealthy family of city mayor and had four children. He owned a little house and operated a carpenter workshop there (today this house is Pavol’s museum), and bought a garden and several acres of land in the city. Some very basic facts about Pavol’s life are shrouded in mystery. There is no report about his death and we can only speculation that he died in 1540. Even Pavol’s family name is unknown. Master Pavol of Levoča is an epithet disguising a real entity.
The less we know about Master Pavol, the better we know his work. Pavol chiselled some of the finest Gothic and Renaissance wood sculptures in the world. None of his contemporary colleagues - Micheal Pacher, Tilman Riemenschneider, Veit Stwosz – was lucky enough to left so many works preserved. Pavol’s works can be admired in Banská Bystrica, Bardejov, Prešov, Sabinov and other places. In most cases, complete altars survived centuries of wars, fire and floods.
Pavol’s work has several outstanding qualities. The first is a perfect architecture of altars: a beautiful symphony of columns, triangles and circles and lines. Each altar is tailored for its church. Pavol was brilliant in handling matter and space – the central altar of the St. Jacob’s Church entirely fills out area of presbytery. Large parts of the altar are covered with thin leaves of gold. The gold decor was not used to symbolise affluence of the donors, but Heavens and eternal life. It is the clear architecture concept and gold coating, which made Pavol’s alters so venerable that they resemble to a monstrance.
While altar architecture was taken from Heavens, figures carved by Pavol from local wood bear very earthy characters. They may depict apostles and saints, but once you look at heir faces, you can see the real people. A sample of 16th century society is passing in front of your eyes. Students, merchants, artisans and soldiers, but also beggars and ragging mob populate Master’s Pavol’s altars.
Master Pavol's masterpiece is the Main Altar in St. Jacob the Apostle’s Church in Levoča. With 18.6 meters, the huge altar is the tallest gothic altar in the world and barely squeezes into the archway. The centre of the altar is occupied by three figures - the Madonna, St. Jacob and St. John. The lower part of the altar is taken by the Pavol’s vision of the Last Supper. Here you can see the finest carvings of its time. Apostles just heard about Jesus’ betrayal and their faces and postures show a great variety of human moods – anger, fear, despair, but also resignation and contemplation. Altar wings are covered with wonderful paintings, which provide background scene for Pavol’s carvings. Paintings also are very realistic – you can see here St. Mary’s Mountain with a chapel built in that time, Levoča‘s city walls and churches and the very first landscape portrait of the High Tatras. Nobody can see Pavol’s work and left unmoved.
Kežmarok is another lovely town in the Spiš region. Town castle, two fascinating churches and the Old Market Place are prime tourist attractions. The New Evangelical Church originally was designed for the Orient, but the architect donated his plans to Kežmarok instead. The church was built in eclectic style and combines Romanesque, Renaissance, Byzantine, Moorish, and various Oriental features. What may end as a hotchpotch of styles became a stunning work of art, drawing sight of each tourist. The Evangelical Wooden Articular Church is quite different. It dates to time, when Protestants were allowed to build their churches outside of the town walls. The church has ship-like form and there are conjectures that it was built with help of Swedish and Danish sailors. Church’s interior is completely carved from wood. The church roof rests on four thick pillars made of the yew wood and is painted with murals depicting blue skies, white clouds and pink angels. The Castle was home of the mighty Thököly family, who ran resistance movement against Habsburgs.
The Pieniny National Park – Gorges and Red Cloister
The main feature of Pieniny National Park is the narrow, 10km long Dunajec gorge. The River Dunajec created a romantic ravine in the limestone reefs with 80-meter-high rock walls. Log rafts tow up tourists with a folk-dressed guide down the Dunajec River. At its narrowest point the gorge shrinks to a width of 12m and the waters are quite fast, although for much of the journey the river is wider and calmer. Above the river looms the Three Crowns, the main limestone massif of the park. This watery corridor separates Slovakia and Poland and offers scenery of beauty and repose. Under the rocky cliffs, the original Gothic monastery of Červený Kláštor (Red Cloister) is set. It was home to legendary botanist, doctor and glassblower - father Cyprian. The educated monk was also said to master alchemy and mechanics and cosmology and to have constructed a flying machine, which he used for flying over the Dunajec Canyon – that all in 18th century! In a reconstructed monk house you can admire a very interesting exposition of the interior of a middle aged chemist's, including a well-preserved herbarium consisting of more than 270 plants, collected by Cyprian himself.
Bardejov is a spectacular town in the north-eastern Slovakia, on the fringes of the High Tatra mountains and the Polish border. It is called the most gothic town of Slovakia. Because of its outstanding urban, architectural, artistic, historic and cultural values, the UNESCO awarded Bardejov with the European Prize for preservation and restoration, in 1986. So much the fact file. You may expect anything when reading about the town, but nothing matches the real Bardejov, when it emerges in front of your eyes. Long walls, mighty towers and bastions and then, like in a nutcase, a town square gradually descending towards the gothic vertiginous fifteenth-century St. Egidius church and the Town Hall. All is beautifully preserved – over forty steeply gabled pastel burghers' houses around the town square, churches, fortified walls and most of the gates and bastions. Medieval beauty in its heights is everywhere.
What is the ‘must see’ in Bardejov? The Town Fortifications are the most elaborate and best preserved medieval fortifications in Slovakia and listed on the European Fund of Cultural Heritage. The fortification system originally comprised 30 bastions and towers, plus 4 gates, surrounded by a moat. Sometimes even these fortifications were not enough to protect the city and the builders helped with a trick. Let’s take, for example, the Hrubá bašta, (Thick Bastion), which formerly was used as the town’s gunpowder storage. The three-stories tall bastion was made of a mortar mix rather than stones. As to mask this relatively weak structure, the constructors painted red lines on the wall. An illusion of large slabs of solid rock was created. The attacking troops could not see it from a distance and may thought twice about charging. The Town Square has a rectangular shape, is paved with cobblestones and flanked on three sides with burgher houses built in Gothic and Renaissance styles. The original form of the square dates to back to the 15the century and changed little since that. Two great structures adorn the square. The Town Hall (the National Cultural Monument) is constructed in two styles, the Late Gothic and the imported Italian Early Renaissance. It has lovely high stepped gables and pitched roofs, as well as the staircase oriels. The ground floor of the central corridor served business purposes, the upper floor served exclusively for the work of the city council, archives and the treasury. Just a stone throw from the Town Hall is the St. Egidius Church, which dominates the town square. It was completed in 1464 and presents the finest examples of Late-Gothic architecture in Eastern Slovakia. There is a massive main alter and 11 eleven smaller wing altars that have retained more or less their original arrangement. The interior is remarkable for numerous handicrafts, set of patron’s benches from 16th and 17th century, chandeliers and liturgical instruments.
The key to the question “why precisely the Bardejov was so rich and why did it preserved so well?” lies in the town’s history. Bardejov originally was established as a stop on the business route from Hungary to Poland about 1241. In 14th century Hungarian kings awarded Bardejov with a great array of privileges. The town was authorised to build fortifications, arrange trade fairs and keep it own executioner. The Bardejov never hesitated to use all of these privileges. For many years the town enjoyed a monopoly on bleaching of and trade in linen. This business was extensive and had a character of an early capitalist manufacture, managed by wealthy merchants in the cloth trade. This people also made up the city burghers. The 15th century was Bardejov’s heyday. The town enjoyed economic boom. There were approximately 500 houses and the population of 3000. Beside the linen and weaver's guild the town registered guilds of the dressmakers, furrier, potters, locksmiths, fishers and butchers, blacksmiths, sword-maker's and many others. Most of the buildings still standing and restored to their original beauty were built in this time.
Life in medieval time, however, was not easy. Robber attacks on the merchants travelling from Bardejov to Poland were a dark side of the town’s wealth. Bardejov mayors fought back. In 1454 some 46 robbers were executed, but after some time, robber groups formed anew. The most dangerous band was led by ill-famous Fedor Hlavatý. When two of his companions were put to death in 1493, Hlavatý wrote an angry letter to the Bardejov burghers: “You wicked and unfair people of Bardejov! You have hung our brothers, who were good and innocent people...” In a charming 15th century Slovak, Hlavatý lists virtues of his late comrades and demands a ransom of 400 golden coins. Should the money been not paid, Hlavatý menaced to act against the town and its inhabitants. As to explain his intentions more in detail, Hlavatý drew amiable pictures on the same letter – a sabre, a riffle, a fire and a broom. Images of ‘unfairly decapitated and hung’ fellows of Hlavatý garnish margins of the letter. Instead of a seal, six holes were burnt in the bottom of the mail, which ranks to most original documents from medieval Slovakia.
Bardejov flourished in 16th century, but the 17th century was a turning point in the town’s history. Civil wars related to counter-reformation resulted in plundering of the town and its vicinity. The one-time prosperous town was brought on the verge of poverty. Changes in direction of trade routes stopped economic development. Town’s population was also decimated by various disasters, as plague in 1710, earthquake in 1725 and great fire in 1878. These events cut town’s prosperity, but, on the other hand, conserved Bardejov in the shape of its glory days. There are few places in Europe, where history merges with present as much as in Bardejov.
The medieval atmosphere of the city is best to be explored on the foot. Walk through the magnificent towns square and then stray in small lanes of Bardejov. Go into the courtyards and enjoy looks on the town’s buildings from these hidden spots. Each time a different picture emerges. Bardejov really is fabulous.
The county capitol Prešov is situated at the eastern fringe of the lush hills of Šarišská vrchovina highlands. The city was set at the confluence of the Torysa and the Sekčov rivers, on the trade route connecting Istanbul, Belgrade and Warsaw. The heyday of the Prešov dates to 17-18th century, when the city was one of the largest centres of the Hungarian kingdom. Today, Prešov with population of 100 thousands is a refreshingly youthful and vibrant place, partly due to its university. The city has a beautiful lozenge-shaped main square - Hlavná ulica. It has been treated to a wonderful face-lift over the last few years. The square is adorned by the Neptune Fountain and flanked by creamy, pastel-coloured eighteenth-century facades. Several beautiful buildings attract tourist attention. The Greek-Catholic Cathedral standing at the square's southern tip is a wonderful Rococo structure with a huge iconostasis. The fourteenth-century Catholic cathedral of St. Mikuláš features modern stained-glass windows and sumptuous Baroque altarpiece. Unlike many massive churches in the Western Europe, this is a working church, with people always praying inside. Services take place also in the Jewish Synagogue, which also houses the oldest Jewish museum in Slovakia. The Lutheran Church, built in the mid-seventeenth century, and the town museum in the Rákocy House are also worth a visit.
With population of 240,000 the regional capital of Košice is Slovakia’s second largest city. The town centre is a pleasant surprise this far east. The first written reference to Košice dates back to 1230. Since the beginning of the 15th century, the city had been in the leading position of Pentapolitana - which was the alliance of five eastern Slovak cities. Since 1347 until the beginning of 18th century, the City of Košice has kept the position of the second city after Budapest in the Hungarian Kingdom. City‘s rich history is reflected in a great number of architecture jewels.
Most marvels of Košice concentrate on the beautiful Main Street (Hlavná ulica). The street is the main pride of the city. The whole area underwent a thorough revamp in the late 1990s and the result is brilliant. The Main Street, actually a place, is flanked by dozens of historical buildings. The most eye-catching attraction is the Saint Elizabeth‘s Cathedral - the largest cathedral in Slovakia and the most inspiring Gothic church in all of central Europe outside Prague, The 14th century Dome is a real jewel of European value. Its vast compound also include St. Urban's tower originally a Gothic prismatic campanile with a massive seven-tonne bell, Gothic St. Michael's chapel and the Baroque Plague column. A medieval open drain was recreated during reconstruction of the square and runs across the street. The Singing Fountain is another major attraction. Pulsating water dances to the rhythms of select songs and it is illuminated by a colourful whirl of lights in the night.
No less interesting are city’s undergrounds. During the 1996 reconstruction an extensive collection of city ruins was discovered. Subsequent archaeological excavations took two years and unearthed artefacts revealing over 500 years of Košice city history. The most precious finds have been preserved and are now presented to the public in the Underground Museum.
Tucked away in the rugged solitude of the North-East Slovakia is a country of wooden churches. For a long time it has been practically unknown, isolated and preserved much of its past. The region under the Poloniny National Park (designed the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1998) has a strange fascination of its own. Most of its area is covered by virgin forests, largely untouched by human hand. The Carpathian ridge rises to a height over 1300 m. The picturesque country is sparsely populated. Small villages are scattered over long and narrow valleys. Horses and sheep graze mountain meadows.
Wood has been the main construction material and carving a flourishing craft in this land. As you go over villages you can see plenty of carved furniture and household equipment. Figures and ornaments chiselled from local wood embellish local chapels and churches. Handling the wood only with axe and some primitive tools, the native craftsmen were stunningly gifted. No metal nails were used to joint the logs and other parts of the building.
There were some 300 wooden churches built in Slovakia, but only some 50 preserved up to now. The oldest ones were Roman Catholic and built mostly in north-western Slovakia around the year 1500. The newer Protestant prayer houses with a Greek-cross plan were constructed after the Habsburg Emperor Leopold I. made a peace offering with the Protestant Church. Protestants were allowed to have two churches in each fiefdom, but church buildings had to be made of wood only. Some thirty-eight wooden churches were built by end of the seventeenth century, but only five of those remain today. The most interesting of these churches is located in the Svátý Kríž and could hold up to six thousand people.
The most superb wooden churches were built by the Greek Catholic and Orthodox Church people in Eastern Slovakia. Most of these churches were built during the 17th - 19th century, but the oldest one in Tročany dates as far as to the late 15th-century. A group of 27 the Greek Catholic churches (so called tserkvas) embodies the finest example of wooden architecture. These tserkvas were declared the National Culture Monuments in 1968. The finest churches in this region are largely Baroque (Bodružaľ, Miroľa, Uličské Krivé, Ladomirová) and mostly Greek Catholic. Application has been made to add them on the UNESCO list of the World Heritage. Wooden churches, however, are not mere museums, but centres of local culture and religion, as services plus weddings and funerals are held in most of them.
Most of the churches have beautiful settings. In Western Europe cathedrals were placed in the middle of the village. Wooden churches are usually situated on elevated places. Some of them are eccentric to the other buildings in the village and rather difficult accessible. While small in their size, all wooden churches dominate the surrounding landscape. They are encircled by ancient little cemeteries, typical with simple wooden, sandstone and cast-iron crosses and the whole compound is enclosed by a log or stone fence with a shingled gate. Several churches are flanked by original wooden belfries. The very substance of the wood material provides for harmonious relationship between buildings and the nature. Moss-grown timber and shingles covering the roofs, cupolas, roofing, eaves and walls of the church merge with the surrounding landscape.
Churches have various ground plan designs, but there are some common features given by religious guidelines. The three-room blockhouse plan symbolized the Holy Trinity. This plan is intensified with design of three towers that are gradually higher towards the west. All these churches have some form of an onion dome on the roof, which symbolises Heaven in the Orthodox tradition The roofs are covered with ancient chocolate-brown shingles, stained from sun and decorated with various geometric ornaments. But sometimes the decoration was made via putting and profiling the shingles and lathwork. In some churches metal was applied as a decorative material for railing and window’s and door’s mounting.
Wooden churches are very appealing and their interiors often miniature. Usually they have no more than seven meters across. There are few pews reserved for the elderly, but most people have to stand through the services.
The most expressive component of wooden churches is iconostas (from Greek ‘eikon’ – picture and ‘stasis’ – building), a wooden wall separating the altar from the nave. It has rich collection of frescos and paintings and is creative and functional core of the church. Icons have a predetermined number and a rigid order. Iconostas has a characteristic composition of topics. Few people were literate in the time when churches were built and iconostas should help people to understand events from bible and saints’ lives. Instead of ‘icon painters’ authors of icons called themselves ‘icon writers’.
Wooden churches are placed in a remote part of Slovakia, but are easily accessible, as there are often separated only by a few kilometres. When travelling from Bardejov to Polish and Ukrainian border by car or a bike, you can visit up to 10 churches in one day. Despite their status of the National Culture Monuments, visit to a church is quite informal. Just check signs near the front door for the name and address of the key-keeper. You often get an enthusiastic guide, who can make you familiar with the church architecture, fine arts and decorative woodcarving.
It is almost miracle that so many wooden churches have survived over such a long period. These exceptionally strong and well-built structures still hopefully stand for hundreds of years to come. They all help in creating an unforgettable, truly Slovak experience.
The High Tatras and Malá Fatra National Parks
Slovakia is a relatively small country, but accounts for the greatest variety of landscape in Europe. The High Tatras mountains are the most dazzling example of nature beauty in Slovakia.
The High Tatras mountains dominate the northern part of Slovakia. They are the tallest part of the massive, 1200 km long, Carpathian ridge and are the highest peaks in Europe between the Alps and Caucasus. The Tatra National Park (TANAP) has more than 740 square kilometres and is dedicated to conservation of the unique alpine and subalpine ecosystems. Over 25 of the mountain peaks in TANAP soar above 2500 meters above sea level. Once covered by glaciers, which left behind over 100 mountain lakes, the Tatras are home to over 1300 species of plants about 40 of which are unexampled elsewhere. Chamois, brown bears, lynx, eagles, wolves and marmots are some of the 170 species of fauna dwelling here.
Rising like a giant granite reef above the patchwork Poprad plain, the High Tatras are the main reason for tourists to come to the necklace of resorts, which sit at the foot of the mountains. The scattered settlements of Štrbské Pleso, Starý Smokovec and Tatranská Lomnica are the best base for accommodation in the Tatras. They are well connected to the rest of the country by road and rail. A century ago, dozens of high-gabled chalets and stuccoed neo-classical sanatoria were built among the pines. Their stained-glass covered verandas and polished wood interiors styled to suit visitors of the belle époque are delightful examples of the turn-of-the century mountain architecture. Restaurants serve wild game and other regional specialities. Narrow rocky crests soar above wide glacial valleys with precipitous walls. The lower slopes are covered by dense coniferous forest. Enhancing the natural beauty are 30 valleys, almost 100 glacial lakes and numerous bubbling streams. Once you're above the tree line, surrounded by bare primeval slopes and icy blue tarns, nothing can take away the exhilaration or the breathtaking views.
An excellent system of 600km of mountain trails leads into the heart of the mountains, providing numerous walking possibilities from broad glacial valleys and inviting tarns to high passes, saddles and peaks. There are a great variety of footpaths in terms of difficulty, from the learner to the very experiences – something for everyone. The most popular hike is the red-marked Tatranská magistrála trail, which tracks southern slopes of the mountains for 65km through a striking variety of landscapes. The most popular ascent in the High Tatras is the 2499m tall Rysy Peak. The panoramic view from the peak is stunning. In the sunshine, you can enjoy a breathtaking view of an immense part of Slovakia and Poland. A legend has it that Lenin climbed Rysy in 1912 and his red-painted footsteps still remain! Due to their exquisite natural scenery, the Tatras offer many possibilities to enjoy moments of relaxation, entertainment and physical exertion in the fresh air. August and September are the best months for high-altitude hiking and mountaineering. The Tatras have a dense network of cycling tracks of all levels of difficulty, but also terrains for skating, paragliding, bungee jumping, horseback riding, tennis, fishing and many other sport activities. Snow begins falling in October and the skiers flock the area up the April. The nine ski-resorts offer excellent downhill courses and tracks with regularly maintained ski slopes, for all age groups and degrees of difficulty.
The mountain range of the Malá Fatra spreads in the northwestern part of Slovakia, within the mighty part of Carpathians. The mountains have very diverse geological composition. Hard granite and limestone alternate with dolomite and soft slate. This colourful geology generated an enormously varied landscape. The vistas change in a short distance from open pastures and dense pine forests to bare mountain ridges and jagged alpine peaks. Hard rock of the Malý and Veľký Rozsutec mountains protrude over the ridge with high cliffs and rocky walls. In the resistant rock, wild streams have dug deep gorges and canyons. In the softer parts, the streams produced delightful valleys with moderate slopes. These secluded valleys hidden beneath towering pinnacles and grassy ridges maintained a traditional agricultural lifestyle. Many of the scattered settlements around the Vrátna Valley preserved their original wooden architecture. Folk traditions attach to the picturesque village of Terchová, the birthplace of Slovak Robin Hood – Juraj Jánošík. The Malá Fatra has a dense network of tourist trails and is known for its fabulous walking. You will walk through mystical forests and up onto high plateaux where there are panoramic views of the stunning limestone scenery of the area. The National Park has an abundance of wildlife and Alpine flowers and is home to 118 species of birds and 30 species of mammalians. Forest pine grows on sunny rocks, surviving here as a remnant of the former glacial age. The deep natural forests provide suitable habitats to rare species. Walking in this National Park is easy and you can explore most places just carrying a day pack containing your daily requirements. There are charming mountain chalets for refreshments and many great places for picnic.
The area is steeped in folklore and history and remains very much a traditional heartland of the country where inhabitants follow time-honoured customs and you are more than likely to be joined by friendly locals of all ages out enjoying the mountains.
Come and enjoy the High Tatras and Malá Fatra mountains, the magic atmosphere of the tallest part of Carpathians!