Traditional Slovak Music: Being Showcased Across the Country ©Wipo: photo Emmanuel Berrod

Summer 2017 In Slovakia: A Guide to the Best Events

The weather might have been intimating the fact for a while now, but there’s no denying that midsummer has officially arrived and in Slovakia, this means a season of spectacular festivals. We don’t say this lightly: for a country of just five million people Slovakia’s cultural events pack a whopping great punch. Bratislava and, these days, Košice, are already making their festive clout felt well beyond the borders of Slovakia, but here at Englishman in Slovakia we feel that there are a fair few other celebrations between now and the end of summer you have to know about – and know about in English!

In case you’re new to Slovakia, its unique reach where annual celebrations are concerned is its melding of the best in modern and ancient. Take music for example. I’ve said many times on here that Slovakia’s music scene is formidable – it gets the best of all the big bands performing on tour and for far cheaper prices than almost anywhere else in Europe – but it has also preserved a rich folk culture many other countries have long since dismissed.

Below, then, find the only guide that rounds up Slovakia’s summer extravaganzas from now until autumn (21st September) by region (yes, Bratislava, Western Slovakia, Central/Southern SlovakiaMalá Fatra/Vel’ka Fatra/Orava Valley, High Tatras, Low Tatras, Slovak Paradise and Košice/Eastern Slovakia). Where possible, we’ll also point you in the right direction for getting tickets too…

JUNE

BRATISLAVA…

KONVERGENCIE, JUNE 24TH-SEPTEMBER 24TH

Classical and chamber music performed at various venues around the city – but with a youthful, innovative vibe.

Get Tickets: The festival has a great website with tickets available at Ticketportal through this link. First scroll through the website’s program to find out the title of the event you fancy.

You may also want to read: Our section on entertainment venues in Bratislava.

MALÁ FATRA/VEL’KA FATRA…

FEST ANČA, ŽILINA, JUNE 29TH-JULY 2ND

Europe’s leading animated film fest, held in the cool arts venue of Stanica in hip Žilina.

Get Tickets: Go to the festival website to get tickets or contact them about buying them on the day.

You may also want to read: Žilina: Artsy Gateway to Malá Fatra

HIGH TATRAS…

VYCHODNÁ FOLK FESTIVAL, VYCHODNÁ, JUNE 29TH-JULY 2ND

The little village of Vychodná hosts Slovakia’s most famous folk festival – a great introduction to the fabulous folk music that has been produced in this mountainous region for centuries.

Get Tickets: The festival website now has an English version but tickets cannot be bought online: you can contact the festival organisers or you can just turn up on the day.

You may also want to read: Seeing as one of Slovakia’s best long-distance hikes begins or ends in nearby Pribylina, try Hiking the Tatranská Magistrala, Stage 4: Horský Hotel Popradské Pleso to Pribylina (includes links also to all other stages)

JULY

BRATISLAVA…

SUMMER SHAKESPEARE FESTIVAL, JULY 5th-AUGUST 1ST

Now here is a claim to fame: the oldest, largest outdoor festival in the world to focus on performances of the works of William Shakespeare! It offers a good opportunity to get outside in Bratislava in some of the city’s gorgeous alfresco settings. Performances, held in the wonderfully atmospheric setting of Bratislava Castle, are in Slovak and English.

Get Tickets: Very necessary – this is a popular series of events. The problem is that the website is in Slovak only. However, Shakespeare’s play titles are quite easily recognisable. Hamlet, for example, is ‘Hamlet’ in Slovak too.

You may also want to read: Where to Get High in Bratislava

BEEFREE FESTIVAL, JULY 28TH-JULY 29TH

Edition number 19 of the classic dance music festival across two stages: the city’s ‘beach’ alongside the Danube and at exhibition centre Incheba. House, drum & bass – take your pick.

Get Tickets: It’s free – just turn up. There is an FB page.

You may also want to read: The Forgotten Banks of the Danube OR Getting Out to the Danubiana Arts Museum

WESTERN SLOVAKIA…

POHODA, TRENČIN, JULY 6TH-JULY 8TH

It’s testament to Pohoda’s success that there’s almost no need to introduce what is firmly established as one of Eastern Europe’s main summer music festivals. Everyone who’s anyone in the music world, from Slovakia and elsewhere, and perhaps more importantly, a lot of acts who aren’t so famous yet, have performed here over the years. This time round, acts include Solange (2016’s album of the year) and Jesus and Mary Chain.

Get Tickets: From the festival website.

You may also want to read: Last year was the 20th edition of Pohoda: read Thoughts and Pictures from the 20th Edition of the Festival.

BECKOV CASTLE EVENTS, BECKOV, JULY & AUGUST

A fair few castles act as dramatic backdrops to festivals in Slovakia but our favourite this summer is the castle of Beckov near Trenčin. For medieval-themed frolics there is no better venue – weaponry demonstrations, games and even film screenings.

Get Tickets: Find out all about the events on the castle website, although this year’s events are in Slovak only. July 7th/8th hosts a weekend of medieval fun and demonstrations of 12th-century weaponry. Then there is the Cinema on the Wall event at weekends during July ad August, where films are projected on to the castle – contact the castle for more.

You may also want to read: Our article on Beckov Castle

CENTRAL & SOUTHERN SLOVAKIA…

DETVA FOLK FESTIVAL, DETVA, JULY 6TH-JULY 8TH

A folk fest with themed around the fujara (that is Slovakia’s incredibly distinctive national musical instrument, by the way), as befits the region which gave birth to the fujara. The festival is held in the Detva Ampitheatre, Detva being a little town near Banská Bystrica – right at the very heart of the nation, things DO NOT come much more traditional. Lots of events celebrating Slovakia’s shepherding heritage are also part of proceedings: shepherd demonstrations etc.

Get Tickets: Just turn up. There is a list of events scheduled on the municipality website but booking might be tough as English is not spoken much this far out in the sticks. Pass through here on the days in question, however, and you’ll get to experience one of the most authentic of Slovak folk festivals – even the folk extravaganza at Vychodná will seem mainstream by comparison!

You may also want to read: 39km northwest of Detva is Banská Bystrica, with some fabulous quirky Communist sights.

LIVE CHESS FESTIVAL, BANSKÁ ŠTIAVNICA, JULY 8TH-JULY 16TH

Chess was never more fun! The highlight of this festival is a live chess tournament on a giant board with costumed characters making the moves. And there was never a better setting for it than ancient Banská Štiavnica, where traditional food, drink and dance accompany the chess side of things, in typical old-fashioned venues around town.

Get Tickets: Best to contact the town’s tourist information office for more information – they are helpful and speak alright English.

You may also want to read: Where to begin? We’ve got tons of content on the lovely old town of Banská Štiavnica

HIGH TATRAS…

EL’RO (EUROPEAN FOLK CRAFT FESTIVAL), KEŽMAROK, JULY 7TH-JULY 9TH

This is Slovakia’s (and one of Europe’s) most important folk craft festivals. Held under the lofty High Tatras mountains in beautiful Kežmarok, just a short drive from Poprad, this extravaganza features everything from demonstrations of Slovakia’s Unesco-listed musical instrument the fujara to artisans making the quintessential national craft, the cornhusk figures known as Šúpolienky. Oh, and there is huge quantities of traditional food and booze… and music… and general revelry…

Get Tickets: There is more about the festival on the website – for tickets follow the instructions given on this page too (they’re available at the town’s Tourist Information Centre at Hlavné námestie 64.)

You may also want to read: More on typical Slovak crafts (including Šúpolienky of course).

AUGUST

BRATISLAVA…

SUP MARATHON

The highlight of August in the city of festivals that is Bratislava is surely this open-to-all paddle adventure from Karloveske Rameno on the western side of Bratislava down to the Danubiana Art Museum to the south-east of the city.

Join In: It’s best to contact the guys at Divoká Voda if you want to participate: watching it is free, almost as much fun… (and drier)

You may also want to read: Our piece on canoeing down the Danube!

WESTERN SLOVAKIA…

TRNAVA JAZZ FEST, TRNAVA, AUGUST 4TH-AUGUST 5TH

Bratislava’s jazz festival is possibly better known, but Trnava sports a great Slovak jazz festival too – and this one’s in summer. It’s held in the singular venue of the town ampitheatre. Funk, soul and ethno music are represented as well as jazz.

Get Tickets: The festival website does not have much information; it’s best to purchase tickets from Trnava Tourist Information Office at Trojičné Námestie 1 .

You may also want to read: A Touch of 1920’s Paris at Cafe Thalmeiner

MALÁ FATRA/VEL’KA FATRA…

JÁNOŠIKOVE DNI (JÁNOŠIK’S DAYS), TERCHOVA, AUGUST 3RD-AUGUST 6TH

One of Slovakia’s better-known festivals, this – although still not really that well-known. Terchová is the main town actually within the Malá Fatra National Park and Juraj Jánošik, who hails from the area, is Slovakia’s folk hero (the country’s very own Robin Hood, and one that actually did exist). This festival is in the outlaw’s name and is a celebration of folklore, theatre and folk and world music.

Get Tickets: Get tickets at this link or (if you read Slovak) here is more about the festival on its website.

You may also want to read: Two Short Walks in the Vrátna Valley by Terchova

EASTERN SLOVAKIA…

BARDEJOVSKÝ JARMOK (BARDEJOV FAIR), AUGUST 24TH-AUGUST 27TH

A ‘Jarmok’ roughly translated is a fair – and there are few better chances this summer to experience a classic Eastern Slovak-style fair than this one which sets Bardejov ablaze come the end of August with traditional food stalls and performances. It’s got a drop-dead gorgeous setting (the old town square).

Get Tickets: None needed; just show up in Barejov during these dates!

You may also want to read: Bardejov: Walking the Walls

SEPTEMBER

BRATISLAVA…

CRAFTSMEN DAYS, SEPTEMBER 1ST-SEPTEMBER 3RD

Over 100 different craftsmen showcasing traditional handicrafts from Slovakia, run by the wonderful folk craft centre of Úl’uv.

Get Tickets: When you’re in Bratislava, it’s probably best to pop into the centre itself for information (at least one member of staff speaks English and they’re very friendly, see link right below). The website is notoriously unreliable. You can also just turn up! A good one for families, or for those who can’t make it out to the bigger El’ro (in July in the High Tatras, above) with many free ‘interactive’ events.

You may also want to read: About Bratislava’s centre of folk craft production, Úl’uv

EASTERN SLOVAKIA…

INDIAN SUMMER FESTIVAL, LEVOČA, 8TH SEPTEMBER-12TH SEPTEMBER

Wo! The summer is not over yet, as this high-quality festival of classical music in venues around ornate Levoča show.

Get Tickets: The festival has a good in-English website with contact details for further information on getting tickets for performances

You may also want to read: Our feature on the Indian Summer Festival

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.

 

A Taste of Slovakia is one of the first books on Slovak cuisine available in English. Image by Jarmila Hlavková

Spotlight On: Jarmila Hlavková, Author of the First Slovak Recipe Book to be Published in the English Language

Slovakia is a land-locked country surrounded by five other bigger and historically more influential nations – the Czech Republic, Austria, Hungary, Ukraine and Poland – and as in other respects, this has moulded the country’s culinary development. But whilst Slovak food may feature the pickled Czech cheese, Austrian schnitzel and Hungarian goulash, circumstances have conspired to foster a very distinctive array of food enjoyed within its borders… the problem being Slovakian cuisine never really had a mouthpiece – before now. Jarmila Hlavková has recently written one of the first cookbooks ever to focus solely on Slovakian cuisine available in English: A Taste of Slovakia. The importance of this should not be under-estimated: a nation is after all defined by its food, and the international perception of it, more than anything else. Now, an international audience can get to grips with dumplings, sheep’s cheese and a huge variety of Slovak cuisine’s lesser-known treats. Englishman in Slovakia recently caught up with Jarmila to talk about Slovak gastronomy…

1) First-off, can you give us an introduction to Slovak cuisine: what is special about it and what your favourite traditional dish is (and where you would eat it in Slovakia)?

The best introduction to Slovak cuisine is through our national dish, and that’s Halušky s bryndzou or Halušky with Bryndza Cheese. Bryndza cheese is a truly Slovak invention whose origins and name are protected by the EU. As for the Halušky – it’s a special type of pasta (similar but by no means exactly the same as a dumpling) that can be easily made at home if you have the right equipment. Halušky have several variations and they feature in a number of other Slovak dishes.

The best place to eat Halušky s bryndzou is at what we call in Slovak a Salaš. Salaš is a Slovak name for a shepherds’ house – a wooden cottage usually located close to the pastures. Quite a few also have an adjacent restaurant, where you can savour traditional Slovak food and enjoy the beauty of the Slovak countryside at the same time.

My favourite salaš is one in Zázrivá, about 10km east of Terchová in the Malá Fatra region (www.salaszazriva.sk), where they prepare a wonderful selection of Slovak dishes from fresh, locally made ingredients. What’s special about the place is that you can see traditional Slovak cheeses being made on the premises, as well as watch sheep, goats, horses and other farm animals grazing the lush pastures around.

For those with a sweet tooth like me, I would definitely recommend to try our strudels. The Detvian strudel I wrote about in my blog is something to die for. The family business based in a small village near Detva, in Central Slovakia near Banská Bystrica, is barely managing to keep up with the high demand. They deliver their delicious strudels to local deli shops, cafes and hotels around the Podpoľanie region.

Bryndzové Halušky - image by Jarmila Hlavková

Bryndzové Halušky – image by Jarmila Hlavková

2) What inspired you to write a book on Slovak cooking?

My love of cooking and writing in English. When I got a huge Culinaria of Europe for Christmas more than ten years ago, I saw that Slovakia was given only a marginal mention – a couple of paragraphs about sheep’s milk cheese and Halušky. There were a few factual errors in the text, so I took it as a challenge and decided to write a book devoted entirely to Slovak cuisine.

3) People think of Slovak food as quite heavy. What are some ‘surprising’ dishes which do not fit into this category?

Slovak food is only as heavy as you want to make or have it – it’s about the choice of ingredients, the amount of fat or sugar in the dish, the portion size, and perhaps the extras. That said, you can find quite a few nutritious and healthy Slovak dishes on some restaurant menus, but you can definitely control things when you make the meal yourself. I’m not a health freak but I do like simple, nourishing food and that affected the choice of recipes for ‘A Taste of Slovakia’. There’s a good balance of soups, mains, desserts, snacks and a whole chapter on preserving garden produce, which is what the Slovaks love to do in the summer, and are very good at. So contrary to popular belief, you’ll find dishes like Baked Buckwheat Kasha, Bryndza Cheese Sticks, Scrambled Eggs with Forest Mushrooms, or Hot Plums with Ice-cream and Mead in the book.

4) What is your advice for people who wish to travel to Slovakia to experience genuine, really good traditional Slovak food but don’t know how or where?

Contact websites like yours or mine, get in touch with local people, be nice and respectful, and you’re very likely to make friends and be invited to their homes. We love having guests, sharing food and drink with our visitors, and make them feel at home.

5) What is it about your book that makes it interesting to readers in your opinion?

‘A Taste of Slovakia’ is much more than a collection of traditional Slovak recipes. It’s a journey into this small country’s culture (folk stories), the customs that evolve around cooking and eating (Celebrating summer harvest), the lifestyle (Goulash parties), as well as history of some typical ingredients (bryndza cheese, forest mushrooms, mead etc.). And for those who delve deeper into the text, there is an added bonus… but I’m not going to disclose more here – you need to buy the book for that!

A refreshing cup of countryside drink žinčica, a tart and tasty by-product of sheep's cheese - image by Jarmila Hlavková

A refreshing cup of countryside drink žinčica, a tart and tasty by-product of sheep’s cheese – image by Jarmila Hlavková

6) Did you have to travel around Slovakia sourcing the best recipes for this book? Did you have any interesting experiences on the research?

Before I even started writing, I’d read through that tome of European Culinaria to understand what makes our cuisine different from others, and what we could contribute to the European or world’s table. Then I got myself lots of Slovak books, ancient and more contemporary, and did a thorough research. But the most enjoyable part of the project was definitely travelling around Slovakia, meeting people, listening to their stories, collecting ideas, taking pictures and discovering hidden gems of our countryside. Originally, the plan was to write a single book that would map our eating habits throughout the four seasons of the Slovak year, but I soon realized there would be plenty of material to fill four books. And that’s how I took it on. The first book is about summer in a Slovak kitchen.

Interesting experiences? There were quite a few, especially when I was taken for a reporter or a professional photographer on a number of occasions, which sometimes won me a prominent place in the queue or opened the doors that were normally shut for the public. Nobody found out I was a self-taught photographer learning on the way and experimenting, often in one-time situations. Fortunately, most of the photos came out well, though I have to say I have raised my standards and become much more finicky on the way.

7) Where can people buy your book?

Through my website www.cookslovak.com, my e-mail address cookslovak@gmail.com, or in one of the bookshops in Slovakia. At the moment, A Taste of Slovakia is selling at Artforum Bookshop in Zilina and Bratislava, Oxford Bookshop at Laurinska 9, Bratislava and some other venues like Bratislava Flagship Restaurant, Vcelco Smolenice s.r.o., and Podpolianske muzeum Detva. I’m about to strike a selling contract with Halusky shop in London.

I’m also actively looking for reliable partners to help me sell the book in the USA, Canada and Australia where there is quite a large Slovak diaspora, though I believe A Taste of Slovakia could make a good read for anyone interested in food.

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The Best Ways to Experience Christmas in Slovakia

This is the season to be happy, after all.

Dinky, mountain-backed, frequently snow-blanketed and with a propensity for lighting big crackling log fires or old-fashioned tiled stoves to warm the cockles in the cold months, Slovakia is a great place for a cosy festive getaway. Several German towns, as well as Vienna, tend to steal the show in Central Europe with their well-known traditional festiveness, but the Slovaks can hold their own with their bigger rivals when it comes to Christmassy ambience – and Slovak towns and cities have the bonus that they’re not nearly so crowded at this time of year, so there will be only a fraction of the wait for that mulled wine.

If you’re Slovakia-bound over Christmas or New Year, we’ve made experiencing festive delights a little easier with this oh-so experiential post.

Christmas Markets

As in other Central European countries, Christmas markets are the perfect way to get into the festive spirit (unlike some aspects of Slovak culture, they also have the advantage of being very accessible and easy to indulge in) – serving everything from lokše (traditional potato pancakes oozing with fillings like goose fat) and roast pork through to medovina (Slovak mead), a sour but delicious mulled wine and also lots of amazing handicrafts.

The best Slovak Christmas market is Bratislava’s, spilling over between the richly ornamental central squares of Hlavné and Hviezdoslavovo námestie (see more on Bratislava Christmas Market). The market runs every afternoon/evening until December 22nd this year. Not far away, where Námestie SNP meets Klobučnicka, there is the refurbished Stará Trznica (old marketplace) which is also alive with Christmassy stalls but offers more contemporary, higher-end handicrafts and foods and is patronised by a crowd of young, cool hipster Slovaks. Stará Trznica is open year-round, actually, on Saturdays – and soon we’ll get round to finishing the more detailed post we’ve been preparing on it. For now though, the last market before Christmas is Saturday, December 16th! There is set to be 150 stalls, Christmassy workshops and live music. Get in there!

Another fabulous Christmas market is in the ancient city of Nitra, in Western Slovakia. It’s also held on the central námestie – with stalls arranged in a wide circle around the square: going every afternoon/evening until December 23rd. This market is particularly well known for its gorgeous woven baskets. If you are spending any time in Eastern Slovakia over the festive season, then the go-to Christmas market is in Košice – right along its wide central artery, Hlavná. It’s open a day longer than Bratislava’s Christmas market too: every afternoon/evening until December 23rd.

RELATED POST: Top Ten Classic Slovak Foods

Christmas Shopping

Slovakia maintains a lot of its handicrafts making traditions, and whilst some of these are on show at the Christmas, for some you’ll have to go the extra mile to find the best take-home Christmas gifts. On Englishman in Slovakia, we’ve prepared our Top Ten Slovak Gifts to give you some ideas. Bear in mind Modra for ceramics, the Malé Karpaty towns of Modra, Piešťany and Trnava for getting your hands on some Slovak wine purchased straight from the winemakers (and for sampling some in an idyllic wine bar, why not?), and for general festive loveliness with your seasonal shop, Modra and Trenčín in Western Slovakia, Banská Štiavnica in Central/Southern Slovakia and Bardejov and Košice in Eastern Slovakia.

Christmas Escapes

Slovakia has a lot of spectacular wilderness with traditional wooden houses to hole up in with the snow piled high outside. However, many of the best take a fair amount of insider knowledge, planning and time: putting them beyond the practical reach of many. For this reason we have to concur on this site with the Guardian (who put the city as their number one winter break choice in Europe for 2016/2017) and say Poprad in the High Tatras is a great choice to actually get to the snowy, Christmassy wilderness the quickest. Here is how to fly to Poprad and here is an introduction to the city, from the bottom of which article you can access all our other content on Poprad. From Poprad, you can take the Tatras Electric Railway up into the High Tatras mountains themselves where you are guaranteed snow at this time of year, can stay at a middle-of-nowhere mountain house (yes, they’re mostly open in winter too) and try all manner of wintery sports, including husky riding and skioring!

Best of the rest: where to snow-escape to get festive in Slovakia:

4: Head up above the pretty town of Modra in Western Slovakia to dine at very Christmassy Furmanská Krčma – a log cabin in the snow-covered woods.

3: Check into a lovely characterful guesthouse like Penzión Resla pri Klopacke in Banská Štiavnica – a great place from which to watch this dazzling medieval mining town unfold below you, whilst up in the hills above lie a number of great wintery hikes.

2: The Low Tatras is very snowy from December through to April, so get a fix of the white stuff whilst gazing out on one of the best views in Slovakia from the top of Chopok at Kamenna Chata – then ski back down again on some of Eastern Europe’s best slopes.

1: Undertake the traditional Three Kings (Traji Krali) Day pilgrimage to Marianka from Bratislava on January 6th – Slovakia’s biggest pilgrimage destination, and benefitting from a couple of traditional watering holes to refresh those poor weary pilgrims!

Remember Silvester!

Silvester (New Year’s Eve) is cool (indeed, veritably freezing) in Slovakia too. Celebrations kick off everywhere, but perhaps most tourist-friendly are those in Bratislava – where an ice skating rink is set up in Hviezdoslavovo namestie and fireworks are let off from the banks of the Danube.

Home is Where the Heart is

Christmas or New Year at a Slovak household, of course – should you have the chance to experience it – is by far the best way, if you can wangle it, of indulging in Christmas festivities. The main reason to partake is quite possibly the food: traditional Slovak delicacies way better than the kind on offer in the restaurants become available: all manner of gingerbread sweets in the Christmas run-up along with the most typically festive vianoce (rich fruit cake) and piping hot spiced wine, fish served on Christmas Day itself (celebrations, remember, are on December 24th as in many Catholic countries) and Kapustnica (a divine thick sauerkraut and tomato soup, and the most complex Slovak dish of all) served on Silvester/New Year’s Eve.

©Lucnica

Lúčnica’s Take on Slovak Folk Music

Lučnica – the Slovak National Folklore Ballet – have been the international face of Slovakia’s traditional folk music for over seven decades. Their performances, complete not just with the vocals and rhythms, but also the costumes of Slovak folk, have been instrumental in preserving and showcasing to the world what is surely one of the European continent’s most spectacular traditional musical legacies.

Unlike many folk music cultures – which have in real terms died a death and are only resuscitated for special events – Slovakia’s is alive and kicking, particularly if you adventure into the mountains of Central and Eastern Slovakia.

Where to Tap into Slovak Folk Music, Courtesy of the Englishman in Slovakia!

The Fujara and Where to Experience it – the Fujara is perhaps the most iconic and distinctive instrument in Slovak traditional folk music…

The only traditional Slovak and Czech music radio station

And (of course) with far more ways to experience Slovak folk coming soon…

Slavin War Memorial, Bratislava (far from actually falling down!) ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

In Pictures: A Ludicrous Little Tour Through the Communist Legacy in Slovakia

Is Slovakia one of the easternmost outposts of Western Europe or one of the westernmost of Eastern Europe? During Socialism in Slovakia the answer was certainly the latter. And as a result, Socialist Slovakia became, architecturally, and particularly in Bratislava, something of a showcase for the Brutalist architecture that defined the Eastern Bloc: a “look-what-we-can-do” brag to the West. The results? Some of the strangest Brutalist buildings you ever will see…

More on Slavín and Most SNP: Where to Get High in Bratislava

More on Petržalka: Petržalka‘s New Tram Link, Getting to Danubiana the Cool Way, The Forgotten Banks of the Danube

More on the Slovak Radio Building: Inside Bratislava’s Upside-Down Pyramid

More on Banská Bystrica: Free-running Around Banská Bystrica, Uncovering the Beauty of Brutalism in Banská Bystrica

More on Štrbské Pleso: The High Tatras Mountain Resorts: Štrbské Pleso, Mountain Lakeshore Dining at Štrbské Pleso

Slavin War Memorial, Bratislava (far from actually falling down!) ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Slavin War Memorial, Bratislava (far from actually falling down!) ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Petržalka, Bratislava: one of Eastern Europe's largest Communist housing complexes ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Petržalka, Bratislava: one of Eastern Europe’s largest Communist housing complexes ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Most SNP, Bratislava: with a UFO on top ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Most SNP, Bratislava: with a UFO on top ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Slovak Radio Building, Bratislava ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Slovak Radio Building, Bratislava ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Museum of the SNP, Banská Bystrica ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Museum of the SNP, Banská Bystrica ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The Panorama Resort at Štrbské Pleso in the High Tatras ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The Panorama Resort at Štrbské Pleso in the High Tatras ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Do what the flyer urges and try the food here!

Banská Štiavnica: BS Streetfood

The place we were staying in was so nice, we decided to eat in on our latest visit to Banská Štiavnica. This meant take-away – not something I’m generally in the habit of getting in Slovakia unless I’m at at a festival, because eating in restaurants is so reasonable price-wise.

Already – before the discussion about what we would have began – I was in relatively uncharted territory; certainly as far as takeaway in this smallish mountain town went. Then: the stipulations. My dad’s requirement was something “meaty and hot”, my mum’s “some sort of curry” (she’s also vegetarian), my girlfriend’s “anything gluten and soya free.” With the exception of my dad, it did seem like we might be having problems finding a joint that satisfied all parties.

A couple of questions in town however, and we were pointed to Banská Štiavnica newest culinary offering – so new that at the time of our visit it had only recently begun operations!

BS Streetfood – “BS” presumably being a tribute to the town’s initials – exemplifies the latest hipster concept to hit Slovakia. Yes, street food. Streetfood, for me, will always raise a smile when I see it in the western world: the coolest kids in town, the see-and-be-seen sort, hanging out in places that are trying to reproduce the food and atmosphere old grandmothers have been ladling out on the streets of Peru or Thailand for generations. Street food concept restaurants are invariably either vastly over-priced because you’re paying for something that is in right now or ludicrously off the mark in terms of environment (street food in a posh restaurant doesn’t work – it defeats the point, which is good, hearty, informal food-for-the-masses). In London and – more recently – in Bratislava I’ve seen the attempts at offering the street food thing fall far short of what they should: in a fair few cases, little more than a re-branding of standard junk food. It took a tiny street food outlet in the wilds of Central Slovakia to change my mind about it all.

And why? Well, there are a lot of hipsters from the Bratislava area moving to Banská Štiavnica to open alternative businesses (take the Archangel Cafe-Bar, take the antique bookshop on the main square) and BS Streetfood is part of that wave: but unlike a lot of the world’s hipster-run joints, it’s not only hipsters that stop by. It’s everyone. No insular hipsterism here at all. Just an unassuming, no-frills place that offers delicious well-cooked take-out food – that all manner of locals are queuing up to get a piece of.

One key thing BS Streetfood has is quality bio meat – sourced with care. Another thing is that it is incredibly flexible – even when there was nothing on the menu my girlfriend with her current diet could have, the owner was happy to innovate (in itself a welcome change from the sometimes steadfast beaurocracy of the Slovakian service industry). That night, they did have a curry (Thai, but just sold out when we arrived) so we went for noodles, in beef and vegetable, and egg-vegetable sauces – simple, gingery, cayenne-y and divine, and no shying away from liberal use of spices! It was all cooked up with ample theatrics by the energetic owner, who contrasted sharply with the sombre, pot-bellied older sous-chef. Desert? Šulance from a local babka (grandmother). We’d only shelled out 4-5 Euros per main dish, and my dad was in raptures, my mum content, my girlfriend quite pleasantly surprised.

Then, you realise, that is just it: BS Streetfood, taken on paper (or on computer screen) is not spectacular. It’s more a wonderful surprise (particularly because it’ll be different food every night). And still more than that, an experience, as the owner/head chef swoops between a clutch of vats of bubbling Slovak-Asian food. Let’s hope the owner can keep up his enthusiasm!

NB: B… S: Brilliant Streetfood? Best Streetfood?

 

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

Places to Go: Banska Štiavnica’s Mining Museums

Places to Go: Banska Štiavnica’s Kalvaria

Places to Stay: Banska Štiavnica’s Nicest Guesthouse

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

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 Too new to be on Google Maps! (But it’s on the junction just right of the post office which we’ve marked)

LOCATION: Junction of Dolná and Remeselnícka (officially Remeselnícka 17). Dolná is the main road heading down from the historic heart of Banská Štiavnica towards the modern part of town by the bus station.

OPENING: Every afternoon and evening until about 10pm

PHONE THEM: (0) 907-487-174

FACEBOOK THEM

BEST TIME TO VISIT: Around 7:30pm before they’ve sold out of whatever’s on.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: 50km north of BS Streetfood (following Dolná down then turning left on the main road towards Ždiar nad Hronom) is the Geographical Centre of Europe!

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.

Fujaro_ludado_tuta_bildo

The Fujara – and Where to Experience It!

Nothing represents traditional Slovak culture quite so poignantly as the fujara. This huge three-holed flute has its origins in the nation’s shepherding past, when shepherds would project resonant, melancholic tones out over the valleys in which they tended their flocks as part of a system of communication between isolated farmsteads. Later, the instrument became used more just for entertainment at special occasions, or a solemn tribute at sadder moments.

The fujara is traditionally made from elderberry wood – an easily malleable material with incredible acoustic properties – and intricately decorated in motifs gleaning their inspiration from the natural world in which countryside-dwelling Slovaks lived. It is extremely difficult to make, and not much less tough to play.

Whilst bryndza, the tart sheep cheese at the heart of so much traditional Slovak food, still props up many restaurant menus nationwide, the sheep in Slovakia today, and the practice of sheep farming, are both much less in evidence. The Communist-era društvo (large-scale farm) has been cited as one of the causes. But the fujara remains as a hallmark of times passed. Its strangely haunting melody ricochets around the mountains of Malá Fatra, Vel’ka Fatra and Central Slovakia – where the instrument was first developed – to this day. Now it’s mostly played at folk festivals – such as the national fujara players’ meeting every September in the beautiful Malá Fatra community of Čičmany, a village worth visiting in its own right for its prettily-painted log houses.

Its past – and its role in that past – is why Unesco added it onto their list of intangible cultural heritage in 2005.

View across to the Kalvaria ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Banská Štiavnica: the Aura

When you’re considering staying in one of Slovakia’s most gorgeous (and still relatively secret) medieval towns, chances are you might be in the market for a bargain on your accommodation.

When you book somewhere to stay last-minute as I often do (because in my own life outside of work I am incredibly disorganised) you rarely expect to arrive, experience, and come away from the place feeling that you might just have discovered the best deal in town. But such is the experience with Ubytovanie Aura, a small gaggle of huge, well-appointed self-catering apartments perched above Unesco-listed Banská Štiavnica Old Town with easily the best views of any accommodation around.

Maybe it was that everything went right from the start (I memorised the Google Map directions successfully despite the phone dying; as we pulled up outside a rather idyllic sunset was unfolding etc) but to put Aura’s charms down to luck is unjust.

The disadvantage of many of Banská Štiavnica’s accommodation options is that their views are somewhat impeded by the hills and other houses soaring up above them, but Aura gets round that problem by being – if not on top of the hills – at least far enough to feel like you’re in the hot seat of a glider as you relax on the terrace. So the view – across to the iconic Kalvaria (a grassy hill and sublime viewpoint adorned with 25 temples depicting, among other things, the Stations of the Cross) – is a big plus at Aura.

Then there’s the size. The self-catering apartments here are generously proportioned for a mere 25 Euros per night, which is a bargain compared to prices of about 10-15 Euros per night more for accommodation right in the centre. The apartments are clean, and the kitchens (oven, fridge-freezer included) are well-appointed, and there’s Wifi available (with a medium signal).

Bundles of bedroom space, plus a large kitchen and bathroom

Bundles of bedroom space + a large kitchen/bathroom ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

And then there is of course the hospitable managers who welcome you and provide you with plenty of unusual tourist information, including some of the great local hikes and cycle trails. They speak English, so you don’t need to be worried about phoning if you don’t speak Slovak!

It’s a ten minute walk to the centre of the town from here (and thus, of course, the many great Banská Štiavnica cafes). Go back down Staromestská (the lane you’ve wound up to get here) and follow Horna Ružová until you hit the steps down to the town square at the end. There’s an entrance to Banská Štiavnica’s beautiful botanical gardens just down from where Staromestská meets Horna Ružová, and you can walk down into town this way too. And if you score one of the topmost two apartments, you get a terrace/garden with barbecue facilities and a spot right on a hiking trail to the Kalvaria. Perfect for pilgrims – or outdoor lovers – or families!

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

Places to Go: Banska Štiavnica’s Mining Museums

Places to Go: Banska Štiavnica’s Kalvaria

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

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

Top Ten Medieval Towns in Slovakia

 

MAP LINK From Mierová, the main road into town from the Banská Bystrica (north) side, hang a right (steep) when you reach the edge of the Botanic Garden, and follow this lane, Botanická, along the edge of the garden until the end. Turn right, and Statomestská is the first (narrow) lane which curves up to Aura’s parking.

PRICES: 16 to 26 Euros per self-catering apartment per night.

BOOK UBYTOVANIE AURA  (has to be done through Booking.com or by telephoning on 00421-908-052-344 (outside Slovakia) or 0908-052-344 (in Slovakia). The Booking.com pics really don’t do the place justice.)

NB: Ubytovanie, by the way, just means rooms that are for rent

Bardejov ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Top Ten Medieval Towns in Slovakia

It’s not just the nature that’s spellbinding in Slovakia: some of the smaller towns – whether as a result of castle strongholds against marauding Turks, or being major Medieval mining centres or having healing spas – grew up in magnificence centuries ago and have not lost any of their glory since.

Note that we’re talking towns (or large villages with decent facilities) here: not either Slovakia’s big cities (which will get tons of other mentions anyway) or the country’s myriad small folksy villages – which will be the focus of later articles!

10: Rožňava

Rožňava is yet another of those former mining centres – and along with Skalica by far the least known about destination on this list. That’s partly to do with its location, in the east of Slovakia. The town centre is meticulously preserved: studded with more of those incredible burgher’s houses (17th and 18th centuries). The cathedral is particularly interesting – artwork inside includes depictions of mining activity in times gone by – with more about the mining legacy in the nearby museum.

Get There: Direct bus from Bratislava or train to Košice and then bus (6-7 hours).

More Info: We don’t have any more info on Rožňava ourselves – yet! (although this will change very soon). There is precious little English information anywhere, in fact: but for now perhaps the best is on Visit Slovakia.

9: Spišská Sobota, Poprad

We’re not including the whole of Poprad here. Poprad’s got enough, right, what with the wonderful adventures awaiting in the High Tatras just above town?:) And the majority of tourists will come to Poprad and never see this gorgeous Medieval neighbourhood, because they’ll be busy getting up into the mountains asap. Mistake: Spišská Sobota is a tranquil locale of Renaissance buildings about 1.5km northeast of central Poprad, just past Aquacity Poprad. It boasts architecture by the enigmatic Master Pavol, who was of course the man behind the amazing altar in Levoča.

A Quick Guide to the Other Content We Have on Poprad

Places to Go: Poprad’s funky contemporary art gallery in an old power station

Places to Go: Poprad’s lavish Aqua Park

Places to Go: Nine reasons to linger in Poprad

Places to Go/Getting Around: Taking the Mountain Railway into the High Tatras from Poprad

Places to Stay: A cool travel-friendly B&B in Spišská Sobota, Poprad

Places to Stay: A sophisticated 4-star resort right by Poprad’s Aqua Park

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s trendy burger joint

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s dignified Café La Fée

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s Coolest Wine Bar

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s gourmet chocolatier

Going Out: Poprad & the Manchester United Connection

Arts & Culture: Dedicated traditional Czech & Slovak music radio station now based in Poprad

Getting Around: London to Poprad Flights

Getting Around: The Poprad to Ždiar to Zakopane (Poland) bus

Get There: Train to Poprad (4 hours).

8: Ždiar 

OK, it’s debatable whether to include Ždiar in the town or village category, but its Tatras location makes it enough of a popular stop with tourists that it’s got half-decent facilities – and the sheer length of it, stretching up the foothills of the High Tatras as it does, mean it’s a town for the purposes of this list. With Ždiar, it’s not any one building that stands out but all of them (at least in the centre) because this place is dotted with great examples of Goral-style painted wooden houses. Goral culture is an important and distinctive element of the culture in this part of Slovakia. For Englishmaninslovakia’s post about Ždiar, follow this link.

Get There: Train from Bratislava to Poprad, then bus, which continues to Zakopane, Poland in the summer (5.5-6 hours)

Typical Ždiar building
Typical Ždiar building ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

7: Skalica

Skalica receives little attention outside of Slovakia: except perhaps from the good people of the Czech Republic, as the town sits right on the border. But Skalica is cool. And very, very pretty. The postcard pictures are of the Baroque-domed rotunda, originally dating from the 1100’s – but the town also has several intriguing churches and an early 20th-century Kultury Dom (culture house) inspired by Czecho-Slovak folk culture.

Get There: Train from Bratislava, changing at Kúty (1.75 hours).

More info: We don’t have any more info on Skalica ourselves – yet! (but we do have this lovely article on the Skalica region, Zahorie). There is precious little English information anywhere, in fact, on Skalica: but for now perhaps the best is on Skalica.sk (where the English translations are dubious at best but can be made sense of)

6: Kežmarok

Kežmarok often gets overlooked in favour of Levoča or Bardejov in Eastern Slovakia and whilst it’s not quite as spectacular as either, this town in the shadow of the High Tatras has a better castle than both and has a very smartly done-up Renaissance town centre, including its two famously contrasting places of worship: the stunning wooden church and the rather more stark pink Lutheran cathedral.

Get There: Train from Bratislava, changing at Poprad (4.5 hours).

More info: We don’t have any more information on Kežmarok ourselves – yet! But for the moment the town tourist information website has the best in-English info available on the net.

5: Trenčin

The easiest of Slovakia’s great Medieval towns to visit is Trenčin. As you’re heading along the main route east in Slovakia its vast castle, rearing out at you above the Vah river valley, would be reason enough to visit. Clamber up for great surrounding views of the Small Carpathian mountains through one of Eastern Europe’s curious covered staircases from the Staré Mesto (Old Town) but don’t forgo a stroll around the centre – with the central square of Mierové Námestie a trapped-in-time treasure trove of largely 18th-century buildings. There are a load of great castles in the Trenčin area, too: the city’s castle itself is sublime, and just outside there are more fortresses such as Beckov Castle.

A Quick Guide to the Other Content We Have on Trenčin:

Places to Go: A tucked-away forest park behind the castle in Trenčin

Places to Go: Slovakia’s best music festival in Trenčin

Places to Go: Hiking up in the hills above Trenčin all the way to Bratislava (the Cesta Hrdinov SNP, Stage Two)

Places to Go: A stunning castle near Trenčin

Places to Eat & Drink: One of Slovakia’s Finest Restaurants in central Trenčin

Arts & Culture: Celebrating 20 Years of the Pohoda Music Festival

Get There: Direct train from Bratislava (2 hours).

Trenčin as seen from the castle
Trenčin as seen from the castle ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

4: Levoča

Just east of Poprad and therefore easily factored into any trip heading east in Slovakia, Levoča is justifiably one of Slovakia’s most celebrating medieval beauties (as far as towns go at least). The big draw here (standing out above a host of alluring buildings stationed around the central square) is the Gothic church of Chram Svätého Jakuba, which has the world’s highest wooden altar – replete with elaborate decoration. The work is the great legacy of Master Pavol of Levoča: responsible for much of Slovakia’s best Medieval architecture. There’s also a great hike that you can do from the centre up to Mariánska Hora, a famous pilgrimage destination.

Get There: Train from Bratislava to Poprad, then bus (5 hours)

More info: See our article on Levoča’s wonderful autumn music festival. Otherwise, try the English section of the town’s tourist information website.

3: Banska Štiavnica

A few more people have heard of this other ancient mining town (also Unesco-listed) southwest of Banska Bystrica and south of Kremnica. Banska Štiavnica was once the Hungarian Empire’s second-most important city. It rose to prominence at a similar time to Kremnica (actually slightly earlier) but on the back of silver ore deposits in the local mines, this time. Steeply-pitching cobbled streets, a brace of castles and a dramatically-situated Kalvaria number amongst its many architectural jewels.

A Quick Guide to the Other Content We Have on the Banska Štiavnica Area:

Places to Go: Banska Štiavnica’s Mining Museums

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

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

Get There: Bus/train from Bratislava to Zvolen or Žiar nad Hronom, then bus (3.5-4 hours)

2: Kremnica

The most beautiful of Slovakia’s ancient mining towns is the least-visited. It owes its splendour to the presence of lucrative goldmines in the area – which have been used since the first centuries AD and, since the 13th century, actually made this one of the world’s foremost mining centres. West of Banska Bystrica, it’s still the site of the world’s oldest-working mint, which once produced coinage for locales as far-distant as the Middle East.

Get There: Train from Bratislava, changing at Zvolen or bus/train from Bratislava to Žiar nad Hronom, then bus (3-4 hours).

RELATED POST:  The geographical centre of Europe is just outside Kremnica – our more detailed post on the town itself is coming soon.

1: Bardejov

In the north-east of Slovakia, Bardejov’s Unesco-listed námestie (central square; see the pic above) is one of the largest, most in-tact and visually stunning in the country: flanked by 17-18th century burgher’s houses and with a Town Hall placed unusually in the middle of the square, dating from 1505 in Gothic/Renaissance style. Around the edge of the Staré Mesto (Old Town) you can walk much of the old city walls.

Get There: Train from Bratislava to Poprad, then bus (7 hours).

More info: Bardejov is a great base for visiting Eastern Slovakia’s fabled wooden churches. and soon on the site we are making Bardejov into one of our Top Slovak Stop-offs (as well as Modra, Piešt’any, Trenčin, Banská Štiavnica, Poprad and Košice)!

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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