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Banská Štiavnica: Uncovering a rich vein of mining history

One of the loveliest cities in Slovakia, Banská Štiavnica is also one of its most strikingly different. Situated on the slopes of the Glanzenberg and Paradayz hills, which were once rich with deposits of gold and silver, the town was erected on the steep hills as early as the 11th century, with construction forced to conform to the uneven landscape.
The discovery of the precious metals encouraged rapid expansion. The mining centre was awarded with the official status of a town during the period when the first Borough Charters in the Hungarian Kingdom were granted by King Béla IV (1237-1238). The world's first technical university devoted to chemistry, physics and mineralogy was established here in 1762, and by 1783, Banská Štiavnica was the third largest city in the Hungarian Empire behind only Bratislava and Debrecen.


A storm moves in over Námestie Svätej Trojice (Holy Trinity Square), which has been undergoing a massive reconstruction since the town was named a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1993.
photo: Ján Svrček

One of the loveliest cities in Slovakia, Banská Štiavnica is also one of its most strikingly different. Situated on the slopes of the Glanzenberg and Paradayz hills, which were once rich with deposits of gold and silver, the town was erected on the steep hills as early as the 11th century, with construction forced to conform to the uneven landscape.

The discovery of the precious metals encouraged rapid expansion. The mining centre was awarded with the official status of a town during the period when the first Borough Charters in the Hungarian Kingdom were granted by King Béla IV (1237-1238). The world's first technical university devoted to chemistry, physics and mineralogy was established here in 1762, and by 1783, Banská Štiavnica was the third largest city in the Hungarian Empire behind only Bratislava and Debrecen.

Although mining prospects were exhausted at the beginning of the 20th century, the town of 10,000 is today banking on the potential tourism its unique location and rich history can attract. In 1993, the town was named a Unesco World Heritage Site, and the city centre has since been the focus of an ambitious transformation, changing derelict buildings into polished attractions.

At the summit of the town is Námestie Svätej Trojice (Holy Trinity Square), which has a collection of museums and burgher houses. At the top of the square is a small white and grey Renaissance-Baroque style building from the late 17th century. Although it appears beautifully preserved from the exterior, the interior is a source of controversy.

The former head of the Eastern Slovak Steelworks (VSŽ) company, Alexander Rezeš, received permission to change the roof timbers of the cultural monument in 1998. Without receiving permission, however, he had the entire building besides the exterior walls torn down and replaced with a swimming pool and sauna, which is now closed to the general public. The original two-storey interior, with its renaissance arches and ceilings, was completely destroyed. Charges against Rezeš over the reconstruction were dropped last year.

Going back down the square, follow the road leading to the new castle until you find the Klopačka (Miner's Knocking Tower). Dating back to 1861, the building served as the town's signal that the work day had begun by means of pounding a mallet on a resonant wooden board. Today, the building houses an exquisite and eccentric tea house on the bottom level.


This tea house is located on the bottom floor of the town's Klopačka ('knocking tower') where the pounding of a mallet on a resonant wooden board signified the start of the workday for Banská Štiavnica miners.
photo: Ján Svrček

Continue on to the New Castle, which was built in the 16th century. The rather unspectacular structure houses an exhibition documenting the Turkish invasions and is located nearby the Jewish cemetery.

The town's mining tradition can be traced either through the open-air Mining Museum two kilometres outside town, or at the Slovak Mining Museum's Mineralogical exposition back on Holy Trinity Square.

Banská Štiavnica also has an outstanding collection of churches, including the refurbished Lutheran Church in the centre. The Church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary (on Akademická ulica), built in the 13th century, stuns visitors with its detailed interior and grand organ balcony.

Just up the street is an intriguing botanical garden, planted between 1838 and 1861 for use by the city's Mining and Forestry Academy. The garden covers 3.5 hectares of land and is home to 250 non-native species of plants and trees from around the world, including Giant Sequoias from North America's Pacific region and the Crytomeria from Japan.

But for many visitors to Banská Štiavnica, the highlight is the Calvary, visible from atop Scharffenberg Hill for miles around. A tree-lined trail leads to a small triple-domed chapel with Baroque panel paintings inside. The trail then winds up the hill to the highest chapel where visitors can peer through the entrance gate at more Baroque panels, or take in the sprawling view of the surrounding countryside.


A complete version of this article will be published this summer in The Slovak Spectator's sixth annual travel guide Spectacular Slovakia 2001. Leading up to the magazine's publication, travel stories will be printed in this space over the following weeks.

To pre-order copies of this year's Spectacular Slovakia, contact Martin Aksamit at 02 5923 3302, or e-mail him at circulation@spectator.gpp.sk.

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