Painted eggs… a typical Slovak handicraft – pic by Picture by Doko Ing. Mgr. Jozef Kotulič

Top Ten Slovak Gift Ideas

Whether it’s bringing home a present for the folks from your summer hols or getting that classic traditional festive treat at one of Slovakia’s legendary Christmastime markets, knowing your quality souvenirs from your tourist tack is important in Slovakia – and actually makes choosing a gift to take home enjoyable rather than tedious.

To that end, we’ve produced our top ten of the must-buy traditional Slovak souvenirs. We’re focussing here on things that really aren’t the same if you buy them outside Slovakia, that have a touch of the “only in Slovakia” about them. For more ideas, take a look at our ever-expanding shopping section! Of course, all of the below ideas are not just for Christmas…

10: A Book on Slovak History: In-English translations of Slovak writers are regrettably limited. The big exception is in the area go historical reference where several great reference books await. As readers of this blog will have intimated, Slovakia’s history is varied and rich. Slovakia’s castles and wooden churches are particularly rich veins worth tapping into, with the topics producing several books available in good bookstores like ArtForum (who also have a great section of Slovak movies) or Oxford Bookstore (soon to be the subject of a post on this blog; link currently to the Facebook page, address on Laurinska 9).

9: A Log Basket: No one likes collecting logs as much as the Slovaks; they stack them up proudly against their mountain cottages and even adapt the roofs so that the logs stay sheltered. Needless to say the country has one of the best selections of log baskets you ever will see. Buy them from Nitra Christmas Market, in the main Námestie in Nitra. Oh – and in case you want another kind of basket (košik in Slovak) plenty of other varieties for other purposes await…

8: Lacework: Lacework (Paličkovanie) in Slovakia has a fine tradition, with the old mining towns such as Banská Štiavnica and Kremnica having some of the most traditional work. Originally this would have been work for folk costumes at festival time and normal everyday clothes to boot; now it’s just nice to get a piece to appreciate the exquisite workmanship. Úl’uv have a great selection.

7: Some traditional Slovak music: Classic Slovak folk music may not be what the average Slovak listens to in their car but folk music is still big here and closely associated with the hugely traditional folk festivals that occur throughout summer in rural Slovakia. Get a taste at stores like Martinus on Obchodná where you can pick up albums by quintessential folk groups like Lučnica, classic contemporary artists like Jana Kirschner or wacky experimental stuff like that by Marek Brezovský.

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Banská Štiavnica – an ancient mining town with a lot of ore still under the surface… ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

6: Mineral Ore from Banská Štiavnica: This old mining town really does come up with some of the best gifts in the country. The legacy of mining here is showcased in the mining museum here, where the on-site shop is the place to buy nuggets of silver, gold and other ore unearthed in the mineral-rich hills.

5: Smoked meats: The zabíjačka (pig killing) is a Slovak tradition going back centuries and many of the products from one of these rituals make for good Christmas gifts. For starters, try the good butchers on the right side of Stara Tržnica (the old marketplace) in Bratislava. Why smoked meats? They transport better, of course…

4: Painted eggs: These can be seen in many gift shops around Slovakia. Usually ceramic, they are an important part of the Easter tradition of Šibačka (where the women present them to their menfolk – read more about the tradition here). Buy them in most craft shops, including Úl’uv.

Painted eggs… a typical Slovak handicraft – pic by Picture by Doko Ing. Mgr. Jozef Kotulič

Painted eggs… a typical Slovak handicraft – pic by Picture by Doko Ing. Mgr. Jozef Kotulič

3: A bottle of alcohol: Slovakia, unlike the neighbouring Czech Republic, is first and foremost a wine-drinking country. For white and red wines, pay a visit to the wine shops and cellars of Svätý JurLimbach, Pezinok, Modra, and – in the far east of the country – one of the Tokaj wine-making villages like Malá Tŕňa.

Don’t like wine for a gift? Not a problem. Slovakia is also famous for medovina, a honey-like wine available on many of the stalls in christmas markets. Then there is a whole range of fruit brandies, such as slivovica (plum brandy). However far better than getting any of these potent fruit liquors from the supermarket is to get some of the homemade stuff (made by a large number of folks in the countryside) which is generally far superior.

Not to be outdone, there is also whiskey to be found in Slovakia. Slovakia makes a honey-like bourbon from Nestville Park near Stará Ľubovňa in East Slovakia. Buy the whiskey in the White Mouse whiskey shop in Bratislava or better still direct from Nestville Park after a tour there.

2: Šupulienky: These intricate corn husk figures, mostly people carrying out traditional trades such as wood-carving or butter churning, but also occasionally depicting animals, are intimate reminders of Slovakia’s rural past. Buy them from Úl’uv or from a couple of outlets on the Bratislava Christmas Market.

1: Ceramics from Majolika: Slovakia’s best ceramics are produced by this small Modra-based firm, the signature designs being old-fashioned dark blue, yellow and green floral motifs. Our two top recommendations would be their set of slivovica cups and/or hip flask, or their meat-roasting dish, with a jug-shaped spout to let juices drain off. For the best prices, buy them direct from the Majolika shop in Modra.

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Banská Štiavnica: Penzión Resla pri Klopacke

In Banská Štiavnica, where one can’t walk a pace without another delightful 18th-century edifice looming photogenically into view, it’s not easy to stand out on architectural merits. But sometimes, pretty facades can be just shells – or not live up to their external promise in their interiors. Particularly where the plethora of places to stay in this lovely ancient mining town are concerned, there is also a lack of love when it comes to the service – as if visitors should be in raptures just to stay in a historic building, and are not deserving of any more. There are other places, and then there is Penzión Resla pri Klopacke.

Off one of the rabbit warren lanes twisting up from the centre south towards the Nový zámok (New Castle), the thick age-stained walls of the guesthouse with their rose-painted window frames top a landscaped two-level terrace, commanding a stunning view over the town in all directions.

The view from the apartment windows ©englishmaninslovakia.com

The view from the apartment windows ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

From the off, this is the courteous service complemented by deft, unusual (nay, quirky), tasteful touches to decor that are sometimes a rarity out in the provides and much more synonymous with the standards set by upmarket rural bed and breakfasts in England.

Even the lobby impresses, with its miniature likeness of the spectacular relief remembering the history of mining in the region that flanks the lower side of the town’s central square. The proprietress engages you in conversation and it seems genuine; then ushers you up narrow, steep wooden stairs to the boutique apartments.

Boutique, we should say, in an unashamedly old fashioned Slovak style: sizeable two-room affairs, wood throughout, magical views down over the corkscrewing valley in which Banská Štiavnica lies scattered. They feel remarkably cosy on the notoriously cold nights hereabouts, too. One apartment has a fully appointed self-catering kitchen too.

You have to return back out of this main building to descend down steps and across the garden to the breakfast area but it’s worth the walk. In actual fact, it’s quite possibly the nicest breakfast area of any guesthouse in the entire country, painted pale blue and adorned with hand drawings of different birds possible to spot in the mountains. There are no fewer than three rooms for the breakfast, plus outside picnic tables (it’s outside that you’ll also find the open grill area, which gets going on summer nights); indeed one room is taken up with the substantial buffet alone. Like everything else the buffet goes beyond the call of duty with its variety of tasty breads, cakes, cheeses, fruits and yoghurts.

And what of the “Resla”, the strange statue of a woman swilling wine that is mounted in pride of place outside the front of the house? Apparently, an infamous aristocrat from the 19th century who lives in luxury whilst the citizens of the town starved – and even gloated about it – until, that is, the day she got her comeuppance…

A Quick Guide to the Other Content we Have on Banská Štiavnica:

Places to Go: Banska Štiavnica’s Kalvaria

Places to Go: Banska Štiavnica’s Mining Museums

Places to Stay: Great Value Banska Štiavnica Accommodation at the Aura

Places to Eat & Drink: Banska Štiavnica Streetfood

Places to Eat & Drink: the Coolest Cafe in Banska Štiavnica

Arts & Culture: Partaking of the Most Sexually Charged Easter Tradition Ever in Banska Štiavnica

Top Ten Medieval Towns in Slovakia

The breakfast room ©englishmaninslovakia.com

The breakfast room ©englishmaninslovakia.com

MAP LINK:

 PRICES: Apartments per 1/2 people 30-35/50-55 Euros (2016 prices)

BOOK PENZIÓN RESLA PRI KLOPACKE:

Banská Štiavnica: The ‘Weird Woman’

Just as a ship is a woman, so a cafe or bar can be – and a decidedly strange one at that. Weird and wonderful Divná Pani (English translation = “strange lady”) on the main street of Banská Štiavnica’s historic Old Town is an ambassador for a side to this beautiful mountain settlement that many people overlook: its well-established tradition of cool counterculture cafe-bars.

Many people know these days about the Unesco status, the wonderfully preserved medieval Old Town and the local mining legacy (not so many people that the town has lost its charm, but it’s not quite as undiscovered these days: more and more to Slovakia what Český Krumlov is to Czech Republic). But a lot of people use Banská Štiavnica as a weekend escape from the big cities because it combines rural bliss with city sophistication (or at least a relative degree of it). Easter weekend here saw an Icelandic folk-indie band, jazz performances, poetry readings and the like and such a lineup is not exceptional. Venues like here, Archanjel and Artcafe put on tons of great cultural events throughout the year.

But it cannot be denied that of all these, Divná Pani looks wackiest.

People come in just to take pictures then leave again. There are busts of various figures (ancient Greek to Slovak), shelf upon shelf of ancient Austro-Hungarian Empire books, larger-than-life Latin inscriptions, bird-less birdcages and yet garden birds adorning the walls, strings of garlic besides abstract paintings, ship’s portholes displaying champagne and Slovak wine alike, a central rock garden of curios, plants and statues. There is the “literary” end (where you come just to curl up on sofas and bury yourself in the myriad books), a room lined with sofas (see picture) where friends gather amidst Latin inscriptions and more books, the bar (with windows onto the garden) where Banská Štiavnica’s bright young things come, sit and look casually aloof on their laptops, a really nice little kids area and the outside courtyard for the good weather and the dog owners.

The garden

The garden, image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

In a small mountain town Divná Pani does something that isn’t easy: it seems effortlessly cosmopolitan. The clientele is generally a mix of the Slovaks from the bigger cities in the know and on holiday or some discerning group of locals, with whom the to-die for hot chocolate is another big draw. Foreign tourists don’t necessarily find it because it’s not the most obvious of the cafe-bars on this main stretch of Andreja Kmet’a, the continuation of Kammerhofská (the part with the raised pavement on the right as you head uphill to the námestie (central square) just beyond. It’s set back in a recess with its very own chocolate shop outside. The approach is kind of like you are entering some slightly intimidating arcade of tarot card reading stalls, but Divná Pani is not intimidating at all. It’s a place where you can linger for hours and not feel bad about it (Englishmaninslovakia’s kind of place).

And you would want to linger. Regardless of the time of day. Because this place is open for breakfast, lunch, dinner and most of the evening. Whether it’s a breakfast coffee or a late-night glass of wine or three, Divná Pani is your woman (OK, lady). There is food here. Paninis, or maybe some Icelandic caviar… But the stand-out on the menu is the hot chocolate, followed not far behind by the tea. A chilli-infused Colombian hot chocolate, thick with just the right balance of bitterness with sweetness, goes down a treat after a brisk hike in the mountains. As does a pitcher of tea with crushed oranges, lemon, lime and mint. Or if it’s hot, a fruit/veg smoothie of carrot, apple, celery or plum (seriously, it works). The service is courteous. The evening vibe is as animated as the daytime one. If you came here for the fresh mountain air, you’ll probably end up relishing Divná Pani’s drinks – and strangeness – just as much.

 

A Quick Guide to the Other Content we Have on Banská Štiavnica:

Places to Go: Banska Štiavnica’s Kalvaria

Places to Go: Banska Štiavnica’s Mining Museums

Places to Stay: Great Value Banska Štiavnica Accommodation at the Aura

Places to Stay: Banska Štiavnica’s Nicest Guesthouse

Places to Eat & Drink: Banska Štiavnica Streetfood

Traditions: Partaking of the Most Sexually Charged Easter Tradition Ever in Banska Štiavnica

Top Ten Medieval Towns in Slovakia

 

MAP LINK

LOCATION: Andreja Kmet’a 120/8

OPENING: 7:15am-10pm Mon-Thu, 7:15am-midnight Fri, 8am-midnight Sat, 9am-10pm Sun

BEST TIME TO VISIT: Late morning for hot chocolate, mid- to late-evening for wine, caviar and maybe jazz!

THE ONLY DOWNSIDE: Fake flowers, guys! So much attention to detail and yet fake flowers. Lose them, and you’re perfect.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: A 250m walk downhill from the cafe and you reach the coolest street food joint in the whole region, BS Streetfood.

Banská Štiavnica: The Mining Museums

Approaching the main mine shaft

For those of you not in the know, Banská Štiavnica is the most famous place that’s not famous in Slovakia. Its location is off the main Bratislava-Tatras-Košice trail but then it has to be: the town is in the rolling Štiavnica Mountains, in Central-South Slovakia, for a reason – that’s where, back in the day, Slovakia’s mineral wealth was concentrated. Well, Bratislava had the crowning of the Hungarian monarchs for centuries and Košice has, well, that famous Slovak writer Sándor Márai (well, he spent most of his time hanging out in Budapest but he was born in Košice) but neither city succeeds in so evocatively capturing an aspect of its history so well as Banská Štiavnica does its mining legacy.

This wasn’t just any old mining town. As a study of the intriguing mural in the centre (Radničné Námestie) just down from the tourist information office reveals, silver and gold was mined hereabouts since the middle ages. The prolificness of the minerals meant the town shot to prominence as one of the jewels of the Hungarian and Austro-Hungarian Empires: indeed, it was for many years the second city of the Kingdom of Hungary. Abundance of silver and gold made it not only a mining centre, but at the very forefront of world mining technology. In 1627 the first use of gunpowder in peacetime was carried out here. The world’s first technological mining school was founded here in 1762. The system of tajchs (small water reservoirs in the hills above town which store water high up to maximise flow efficiency; see our forthcoming separate post) was, once again, pioneered here. Oh, and coins for as far away as Africa were minted with gold and silver from the mines of the Štiavnica Mountains.

All this on Slovak mining and more is showcased in a number of locations throughout the town of Banská Štiavnica. The tourist information (Námestie Svatej Trojice, tel 421-45- 694-9653) is not a bad starting point, with info and its own mini mine  to explore, along with some of the gemstones extracted from the nearby hills. Then of course is the museum just back down the main street, called first Andreja Kmet’a (where the wonderful cafe-bar of Divna Pani is located) and then Kammerhovská –  another well-worked showcase of town history with an obvious mining theme. But the ultimate mining fix (and where you need to head for a proper hands-on insight into Slovak mining) is located just outside the town centre, about a km southwest on Jozefa Karolla Hella: the Slovak Mining Museum (official website but in Slovak only)

Miners' statue

You’ll know you’ve hit the right spot if you’re coming from the centre because of the gaggle of well-preserved old mining buildings, all in wood, at a sharp kink in the road. In several different buildings here are housed the miner’s church, and various mining apparatuses, as well as a lowdown of the area’s geology. There is plenty of information in English. There is also a great shop selling various rocks extracted from the mine (cool enough to warrant a separate post). For the really fun part, i.e. going down inside the mine, you have to wait for one of the more-or-less hourly guided tours (5-person minimum) – but the complex of other mining buildings provides enough to keep you entertained in the mean time.

After listening to the guide (a former mine employee who knows loads of insightful little details about life as a mine worker) in the miner’s church introducing himself and playing you a short video (with English subtitles) you don yourself in cloak and hard hat and descend through the trees to the old mineshaft of Štôlňa Batolomej. The shaft was last used in the 1990s: no mining goes on here now.

What commences is one of the best tours of an old mine shaft available in Europe today. It’s around 2km that you’ll walk along the old miners’ tunnels (not for the claustrophobic; there’s some tight gaps!) with a steep descent down a twisting ladder and a couple of places where you’re stooping almost to all fours if you’re tall. Along the way, you stop off in antechambers where a history of mining is exhibited as well as, perhaps most poignantly, a visit to the miners’ dining area, and the railway system that transported carriages of ore out of the mines. The normal guide only speaks Hungarian and Slovak: you’ll need to arrange an English guide in advance. If possible, take someone who speaks Slovak with you and go with the Slovak/Hungarian speaking guide who used to work in the mines and so has all the juicy tales.

Before you ogle too much at the gold and silver and general medieval lavishness of Banská Štiavnica’s architecture, it’s essential to come here and see the dark, dank conditions in which it was extracted. Children will love it, too, as an open-air museum like this sure beats some dusty old exhibits.

At some point along the way, you’ll probably hear the story of how it all began: the cowherd who, back in the day, saw two lizards in the fields shining, respectively, with gold and silver, followed them back to their holes and inadvertently made the region’s first mining discovery – and thus Slovak mining history.

A Quick Guide to the Other Content we Have on Banská Štiavnica:

Places to Go: Banska Štiavnica’s Kalvaria

Places to Stay: Great Value Banska Štiavnica Accommodation at the Aura

Places to Stay: Banska Štiavnica’s Nicest Guesthouse

Places to Eat & Drink: Banska Štiavnica Streetfood

Places to Eat & Drink: the Coolest Cafe in Banska Štiavnica

Arts & Culture: Partaking of the Most Sexually Charged Easter Tradition Ever in Banska Štiavnica

Top Ten Medieval Towns in Slovakia

 

MAP LINK

GETTING THERE: Banská Štiavnica has a railway station – on a small spur line from Zvolen or Žiar nad Hronom. You’ll probably have to change twice to make it here by train from any other major destination – from Bratislava, total journey time will be almost four hours. So bus is often a good option. Buses leave direct from Bratislava at 1pm and 4.25 pm. And here we’ve included another map of how to get from the train/bus stations up into town (if in doubt, head up, basically, it’s just over 1km walk to the centre, and the bus station is on the way up from the train station, by the Billa supermarket.)

CONTACT: (for arranging English info tours; if not phone tourist information office in town as per the beginning of this post)

ADMISSION: Adults 5 Euros; Kids 2.50 Euros; Family Ticket 12 Euros (tour needs 5-person minimum to take place)

OPENING HOURS: 9am-5pm Tues-Sun; in holiday hours (July/August) there are also Monday afternoon tours at 12, 2 and 4pm. As a tour is obligatory (you can’t go down the mines yourself – you’d get lost in some small dark twisting passageways just like many miners did) be sure not to show up later than 4pm to see the mines.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: A 1.5km hike/drive northeast from the museum brings you to Banská Štiavnica’s best place for refreshments, Divna Pani