Museum of the Slovak National Uprising

Banská Bystrica: Uncovering the Beauty in the Brutalism

Banská Bystrica, vying for fourth place with Nitra in the pecking order of Slovakia’s most populous cities, has the right to feel a tad hard done by: few other places of such importance within a country are so little written about or visited. In Banská Bystrica’s case, the reason may be the nearby drop-dead-gorgeous Unesco town of Banská Štiavnica clinging prettily to the sides of the Štiavnica mountains, for which visitors reserve their time in Central and Southern Slovakia. And the preference is understandable. It’s probably fueled in part by articles such as these which, even when they purport to be writing about Banská Bystrica, go off on a tangent about Banská Štiavnica instead…

A Brief History of BB

But the bigger “BB”, as well as being the closest city to the centre of Slovakia (and, by extension, the Geographical Centre of Europe), represents a centre of Slovakia in many other ways, and for its resonant role in Slovak history is well-deserving of a few hours of your time before you catch that bus to “BS”. “BB” is the capital of Central and Southern Slovakia, for one thing. It’s said that the most intrinsically ‘Slovak’ accent is that of folks from the city A leading light for the nation in mining since medieval times (the numerous veins of copper that lace the surroundings are considered Banská Bystrica’s lucky charm, and gave rise to its riches – the very prefix ‘Banská denotes it as a mining settlement), a leader in education since the early 20th century (its university is considered one of Slovakia’s most prestigious) and a leader in culture to this day (the country’s best museum, Muzeum SNP, is located here), the city’s chief fame came about as a result of its place at the heart of the Slovak National Uprising in 1944. This critical event in Slovak history, representing Slovakia’s rising up against Nazism, had its roots in Banská Bystrica, and protests raged daily in the city centre for 60 days during the Uprising’s zenith (August 29th through to October 27th).

Totemic Brutalist Beauty

All of these factors paved the way, during Communism, for the construction of some of the most fabulous Brutalist buildings in the country (Soviets, after all, liked to champion their defeat of Nazism by raising bombastic structures). Authorities today prefer to focus on the city’s 18th-century burghers houses on the main square, or the proximity to some glorious nature to advertise tourism but the best way to get under the skin of BB is to explore its Brutalist-era architecture (the key to understanding BB’s place in Slovakia today). This stroll around the seven seminal Communist constructions in the city centre shows you how… and illustrates that architecture behind the Iron Curtain was about far more than bland breeze-blocks…

1: Railway Station & Around (including Ulica 29. Augusta’s prototype housing estate and Slovenská Pošta’s Post Office Tower)…

Almost as soon as you alight from the train, the tour begins – with the station itself, completed in 1951 with striking interior stained glass (one of the country’s more impressive railway terminals). The main street leading into town from here, 29. August, takes its name from the date when the Slovak National Uprising kicked off. The street, perhaps appropriately, boasts some of the most classic examples of early Socialist housing in Slovakia in the residential blocks of flats on this thoroughfare. Completed in 1955 after initial plans were laid in 1939, the blocks of flats exhibit the ideals Socialist construction was always meant to have: green spaces, play areas for children and a general interweaving into the fabric of the city (as opposed to later Socialist housing which was often designed without considering such factors). These apartment blocks usher the just-arrived up to the dominant Post Office Tower of Slovenská Pošta at the end of the street. The 16-floor building was constructed in 1972.

2: The City Council of Banská Bystrica…

Turn left at the Post Office Tower on Partizánska Cesta (onto Českoslovenkej Armády) and you arrive, after a couple of blocks, at the edifice representing the heyday of Socialist construction in the city (and indeed, the last building of this type to the built here). The imposing Neoclassic entrance fronts two expansive wings of what are now the offices of the city council.

3: Matej Bel University – Faculty of Law…

A diversion from the Brutalist gems of the city centre lies a kilometre north up Komenského at the Matej Bel University’s Faculty of Law campus. Built for the ideological education of members of the Slovak Communist Party, it now houses an education facility of a different kind: and one that tops its field as far as Slovakia goes. It was designed as the landmark building of the city’s Brutalist portfolio, and sports some landmark paintings by the artists Jaroslav Kubička and Pavol Uhrík.

4: VUB Banka (the General Credit Bank)…

Backtracking to the city council offices on Českoslovenkej Armády, then continuing west two blocks to turn south (left) on Námestie Slobody, you hit what is now VUB Banka, what was the General Credit Bank and what was originally the National Bank of Czechoslovakia. Originally intended to be a theatre, the building plans were altered at the last minute to adapt it to one suitable for a financial institution. Its shape (a 5-storey cube) together with the smallness of the windows with their tavertine surrounds overlaid by aluminum are to evoke the ideas of strength and security, apparently (good virtues for a bank to have).

Hotel Lux - © www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Hotel Lux – © www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

5: Hotel Lux…

Perhaps the most hilarious collision of Communism and Capitalism anywhere in Slovakia, the first “modern” (read: 1969) hotel in the city stands 16 impassive grey floors of reinforced concrete high: as austerely Communist as hotels get. The sign on the roof, proclaiming “Coca Cola” emits a slightly different message, however. It’s nevertheless emblematic of the quality end of Communist-esque building expansion in the 1970s, just before a paucity of finances heralded a leaner and more low budget period of construction (which lasted until the Wall came down in 1989). Testament to this are, amongst other features, the ceramic artworks by Jaroslav Kubička and the glasswork by L’ubomir Blecha. The Lux (and in 1969, perhaps, it really was) backs onto the park where the star of Brutalism in BB, Muzeum SNP, also sits. If you need refreshment (or a place to stay) in your architectural journey, the Lux is the place to partake without diverting from theme. It’s been serving guests since March 20th 1970. Actually, the restaurant is alright.

6: Muzeum SNP (Museum of the Slovak National Uprising)…

Museum of the Slovak National Uprising

Museum of the Slovak National Uprising – image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The Eternal Flame blazes yet in-between the divide of the talismanic split (i.e. hewn in two) cylinder that houses the nation’s best museum, Muzeum SNP. No other museum in Slovakia deals with its subject matter so thoroughly or informatively. This National Cultural Monument won a 1959 architectural competition and was completed in 1969, as part of the same park development that saw the nearby Hotel Lux erected. Dušan Kuzma and Jozef Jankovič were the main men responsible for the realisation of the building. Its distinctive exterior alone would warrant a mention, dramatised further by the flights of steps on the approach, but the museum inside should not be missed. It charts the circumstances leading up to, and the results of the Slovak National Uprising of 1944, cleverly setting developments in Slovakia alongside world developments in the same period between 1918 and 1944.

May-September 9am-6pm, October-April 9am-4pm; Admission 2 Euros

7: Plaváreñ Štiavničky…

Time to cool off after your crash course in everything relating to the Brutalist second half of the 20th century in BB – with a dip in a Socialist swimming pool. To get there head west (but not WEST if you know what we’re saying) along Kuzmanyho 1.8km to reach the park containing this Modernist marvel from 1966 (with a 2010 revamp thrown in to give it a sauna and another Wellness facilities.)

Banská Bystrica from above - the more conventionally beautiful part!

Banská Bystrica from above – the more conventionally beautiful part! ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

MAP LINK: (each starred point is a stop on the above tour)

GETTING THERE: Trains (although perhaps not as many as there should be) connect Bratislava with Banská Bystrica direct nine times daily, roughly every two hours from 6:01am until 8:01pm. Travel time is 3 hours 24 minutes and cost is 10.46 Euros.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From the “centre” of Banská Bystrica, it’s 54km northeast to the beautifully-located Hotel Srdiečko at the foot of the Low Tatras mountains, from where you can embark on getting to the top of the best Low Tatras peaks in a rather intriguing way…

I WANT MORE ON BRUTALISM: We don’t blame you. Try A Ludicrous Little Tour Through the Communist Legacy in Slovakia or, for something more Bratislava focused, Inside the Upside-down Pyramid. or even Where to Get High in Bratislava (which has some Communist-esque stop-offs). That will sate your appetite (we hope) until we can bring you even more. And we will. Soon.

 

Hiking up to Kremenec ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Poloniny National Park: Kremenec and the Ukraine Border Hike – A Journey Along the Edge of the European Union

6am. We set off as the sun begins to break through the mist cloaking the steep slopes of the beech tree-clad hills and climb up into the Poloniny National Park, a wild 300 sq km tangle of upland forest in the far east of Slovakia abutting the frontier with Ukraine. The valley slowly narrows. Once or twice we pass a lone border control guard, leaned against his vehicle and starting with surprise as our engine breaks the early morning silence. A fat-bellied white stork almost hits us, too, as does a horse and cart carrying a family of Roma, but for the most part, the road is quiet.

After the border village of Ulič, fields flanked by sheep (a rarity to spot in Slovakia, despite the nation’s shepherding traditions), and hay bails quaintly twisted around a stick by hand rather than by machine, as well as a fair few more horse-and-cart drivers are signs that this part of the country ticks to a slower and more traditional beat. Brutalist architecture made few inroads into the time-trapped villages hereabouts and the landscape feels softer, greener, more beguiling. Even the forests are far less managed. In fact, the beech forests of the Carpathians (of which Poloniny National Park comprises a significant part) are so renowned for their virgin nature (meaning no forestry is practiced and the ecosystems are among the world’s most intact) that Unesco has added them to their worldwide list of protected sites. In Nova Sedlica, the start point for our hike, the brightly-painted houses with their wooden outbuildings have smoke curling into the sky from back-garden bonfires, and a stream babbling through their midst. We stop off for a presso (strong, sludgy Communist-era coffee) alongside a party of gloomy Czech hikers, then head up the lane which ascends the valley to the final ridge of hills before the EU gives up the ghost for good. At a bus stop proudly proclaiming it is “the last” the lane kinks left, passes an occasionally-open ranger’s hut selling hiking maps and then that’s it: no more dwellings before Ukraine looms up. What follows is one of Europe’s most superb and fascinating forest hikes.

About a kilometer above Nova Sedlica, we branch off the metalled track on a red-arrowed sign pointing steeply up to the right: a gruelling initiation to this 22km circular hike. Red is top dog as far as categories of trail in Slovakia go and the route remains on red-marked and well-marked trails all the way up to Kremenec on the tri-border with Ukraine and Poland (at approximately the half-way point). The path rises up to a basic lumber yard at 525m of elevation (presumably just outside of the national park boundaries) then sheers up through forest that certainly feels just as primeval as the sporadic information boards claim it to be.

The main point of note is at the ridge of Temný Vršor at 838m where two further boards urge you to rediscover the balance with nature that humans often lose in everyday life: but in all honesty little urging is required. I am already lost, and already contemplating the fact that brown bear, wolf, lynx and bison regularly roam this area. In few other locations in Europe can quite so many of the continent’s “big” mammals be found in such close proximity or in such numbers. It’s a thought that gladdens, rather than frightens me. It’s not just the sea of forests swooping away in all directions underlining the extent of this wilderness: it’s the wildlife too. It’s also, unfortunately, a less savoury side of human life: people traffickers are also known to take advantage of this isolated region to smuggle clients into the perceived sanctuary of the European Union.

Virgin forest ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Virgin forest ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

It’s as the path shimmies down to a potok (mountain stream) that makes for a good picnicking point that we understand the consequences of Poloniny being Unesco-protected: when trees fall here, they are left fallen to rot, and whilst the trunks regularly obstruct the route, they are all contributing to the richness of the flora and fauna here (nigh-on 6,000 recorded species all told). We are heartened to find the route, as it zigzags through the trees on the final climb to Slovakia’s eastern border, marked by small posts depicting brown bears: had they not been there, a straying off the beaten track into zones where actual bears hung out would have been a distinct possibility!

“It’s hard to find trees this thick any more” my hiking companion, Freddie, who has called this part of the world home for the last twenty years, tells me. His trade is in oak flooring, and he travels far and wide to find trees of the girth that Poloniny has, because commercial forestry sees them felled decades before they have opportunity to grow up as splendidly as these forests.

A steep scramble, and we are there: the Štatna Hranica, or state border, with a small (old, Communist-era) sign warning that it could be dangerous. In common with Slovakia’s other borders that lie within the depths of its dense forests, there is a few metres of cleared trees, so that the view opens up invitingly to reveal the mist-swathed mountains of western Ukraine, and otherwise? Otherwise there is no change between Slovak forest and Ukraine forest. There is not even a fence, or the remains of one. Nothing to prevent people from walking out, or in (although I am assured that concealed in the nearby tree branches is plenty of the multi-million Euro sophisticated monitoring equipment we read that Slovakia’s eastern EU border has been fortified with, the only man-made thing I can see is a bunch of intertwined sticks presumably left by a creative hiker as a small tribute to the no-man’s land on which we now stand).

Our route turned sharply left at this point, and after a moment of contemplation upon what this land once signified or signifies, we embarked on the final thigh-busting climb along the Ukraine border up to the obelisk of Kremenec, at 1220m, and a tough three-hour tramp from Nova Sedlica. Three gaudily decorated posts in the colours of Slovakia, Poland and Ukraine rise out of the forest clearing and Polish and Slovak hikers sit around picnicking: a somewhat sedate period, one thinks, for a territory which has conventionally marked Europe’s outer edge, and endured traumatic times a-plenty as a result. We take a seat next to one of them, a long-haired man who attracted our attention as he overtook us on the climb up for doing this fairly demanding hike in bare feet, and with only an apple for sustenance. He’s just getting up as we collapse gasping next to him, but has these words for us before he leaves.

“Corporations are destroying the world” he laments. “And we can’t trust any of them.”

Profound words. And ones Freddie opens his mouth to debate. But before he can, the man, point made, has continued calmly on his way.

“Upstaged by a man in bare feet” Freddie sighs.

The obelisk of Kremenec - this is the Ukrainian side, as the language "Kremenec" is written in reveals ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The obelisk of Kremenec – this is the Ukrainian side, as the language “Kremenec” is written in reveals ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Our route heads west (left) from Kremenec, no longer following the Ukraine border, but the Polish one, and initially on the red trail still via some open ground replete with fabulous bunches of blueberries. From a tor here, a vista of the hills on the Polish side rears up before the path plunges to Čiertač and the relentlessly steep yellow connector trail to Nova Sedlica. As the forest plunged back into the meadows surrounding the village, we pass a party of locals, a little the worse for wear after an extremely boozy picnic.

One ox of a man, clad in a pair of rather soiled dungarees and very little else, appears particularly wasted.

“A few hours” he moans as he staggers along. “A few hours rest in my house and I’ll be good to go again.”

Often, there are dramatic contrasts evident at borders. But on the border between the EU and Ukraine, there is mainly just nature. Some slivovica-tanked villagers, some intrepid hikers, and one man who did not think much to Capitalism, sure. But primarily the beech trees, undulating off in hues of green and, further away, grey. Which makes you think in a slightly different way about this continent we have chiselled out for ourselves.

MAP LINK:

ADMISSION: There is no admission charge for entry to the Poloniny National Park

GETTING THERE: There are trains every two hours between 10.40am and 6.40pm from Humenné, on the direct line from Košice, and Stakčin. Taking the train usually gives you an hour and a half’s wait in Stakčin during which time you can grab a bite to eat at the very pleasant Hotel Armales (the hotel is a 7-minute walk northeast of the train station and the bus stop, confusingly called Železničná Stanica, actually a 4-minute walk south-west.) From Stakčin buses take one hour and 15 minutes to wind up the valley to Nova Sedlica.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Nova Sedlica, on the eastern edge of the EU, it’s either on in to Ukraine or back 65km west to one of Eastern Slovakia’s best craft brewpubs, Pivovar Medved in Humenné.