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.

 

The Chopin Hotel in Bratislava ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Bratislava’s Business Airport Hotels

Location: Ružinov.

Little-known fact: Bratislava is one of the best conference venues in middle-Europe. It boasts a big advantage over almost any other destination, and that trump card isn’t necessarily overtly cool office spaces or flashier suit shops, so much as its strategic location. Vienna is one hour west, Prague three hours north-west and Budapest two hours south-east. It is, after all, capital of the country which sits at the very geographical centre of Europe.

So Bratislava’s two airport hotels aren’t just airport hotels. They are also – straddling either side of the large Galvaniho Business Center – two of the city’s premium business hotels. Their location right by Bratislava Airport and also the main E75 road to the rest of Slovakia gives the two of them the advantage over the city centre’s hotels that cater for conferences. These two hotels make conferences their raison d’etre.

Getting There

I made the mistake of not showing up at the Vienna House Easy-run Chopin Hotel, as close to the airport as you can sleep without crashing on the runway, by public transport. That was a mistake because the nearest bus stop is at Avion Shopping Centre (the Bratislava airport bus stops there, see the map link at the bottom for more). Whilst the hotel is under 10 minutes’ walk from here, it’s also the other side of a rather large by-pass: easy for a car, I thought to myself as I struggled with my wheelie bag along the edge of a pavement-less main road; less so for a pedestrian.

Of course, round the back of the retail park there is actually another way to walk there. But more to the point, this is a business hotel to the core: you really need your own wheels to arrive. In the US this would hardly come as a surprise; in dinky, generally pedestrian-friendly Bratislava, to be suddenly plunged into this modern out-of-town world of big business came as a shock.

Arrival

Once arrived, though, the otherworldly feeling became one of snugness and homeliness: almost unheard of with this kind of accommodation. Chopin Hotel, much like its counterpart NH Gate One Hotel just along the road, is an anomaly: better-connected than any other hotel in the city (on the edge of the airport and within a stone’s throw of Slovakia’s main west-east motorway) yet by the same token cut-off from the rest of the city – even though both lie a mere 6km from Bratislava’s Old Town. In the same way as coming home after a days’ work, pouring yourself a cold beer and collapsing in front of the sofa enable you to shut yourself off from the world and create your own mini version of it, thus works a stay here. Within this maze of busy roads, Chopin Hotel really is an oasis of calm.

Cosiness

Once you’ve got your head around the fact that this is no typical chain hotel and that staff actually like to talk to you and engage you in conversation, Chopin Hotel really does make for an enjoyable stay.

Chopin Hotel's cosy rooms

Chopin Hotel’s cosy rooms – image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

It’s the little touches: such as the fiery earthy colour schemes in the rooms (cosy), the fruit on arrival, the bar where workers from Avion Shopping Centre mingle with businessmen in a surreal but convivial manner – and a restaurant than can cook well, with imagination beyond the average airport hotel or indeed the average Slovak hotel. It was also one of the first hotels in Slovakia to introduce long-stay rooms, where you have that extra leeway to feel at home. But most of all it’s the friendliness.

Down to Business!

And on the business end, there’s conference space here for around 320. Chopin Hotel divides its meeting space into several smaller conference rooms: five, to be precise. It works with the larger NH Gate One Hotel up the road to host large conferences, and because of the intimate way rooms divide up it’s perfect for smaller business events.

Must-have chocolate cake

Must-have chocolate cake

The Food

A couple of words, finally, about Chopin Hotel’s food. Norwegian trout, or Wiener Schitzel with Slovakian-style potato salad (it comes in a compacted slightly-sweet dome) are  good main courses (although it would have been nice to see a few more Slovak-produced items on he menu), whilst the peanutty chocolate cake was one of the best that Englishmaninslovakia, a confessed chocolate cake addict, has sampled in Bratislava. The breakfast, meanwhile, matches a four-star hotel toe to toe, with a great selection of fresh fruit, cakes and another Slovak specialty: the scrambled egg with roasted peppers and mushrooms. Coffee: good; only downfall: no fresh orange juice.

NH Gate One Hotel

The larger (and pricier) NH Gate One Hotel back up the road is Chopin Hotel’s only competitor and has an extra star (four as opposed to three) but the only real difference comes in its wellness centre. Chopin Hotel’s rooms are a little smaller but just as inviting – and, quite crucially, with better wifi connection (Englishmaninslovakia checked this). Oh. That, and the fact that NH Gate One is nearer the bus stops!

And, businessmen, being right next to the biggest shopping centre in Slovakia means there’s no excuse, whichever of Bratislava’s airport hotels you are staying in, for forgetting that gift for the wife (or indeed husband) and kids. Perhaps that’s why quite a bunch of the city’s hotels (the Sheraton and the Grand Hotel River Park too) are located by shopping centres: because Slovakian businessmen need that extra prompt to remember last-minute gifts for the family…

RELATED POST: Cognac Express: Bratislava’s Luxury Taxis

MAP LINK

LOCATION: In the Nové Mesto/Ružinov neighbourhood – see our post on Bratislava’s Main Tram, Bus and Trolleybus Links

PRICES: Double rooms start at 59 Euros without breakfast (7-day advance-purchase website rates) or 71 Euros including breakfast (normal rate). Prices correct as of 2016.

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