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In Nitra, illustrious history blends with modern bustle

On Castle Hill in Nitra, the higher you walk, the further you travel back in time. Passing upwards through the archway from Župné námestie, a heroic bronze statue of Pribina welcomes you to a sloping granite square flanked with seminary and church buildings. Higher up still, the Upper Gothic Cathedral, built in 1333, hides stunning frescoes and an ornate choir loft.
The Slovak nation first sunk its roots here in the late 7th century, when small Slavic tribes began to join together. Today, Nitra has grown into Slovakia's fourth-largest city, bustling day and night with students, factory workers and businessmen. This city of 90,000 is home to Agricultural and Pedagogical Universities, the Agrocomplex convention center, the Nitra Winery and the Corgoň Brewery, which often scents the night air with simmering hops. Nitra's other big factory employers are tucked away in the suburbs, while the city's cultural life flourishes in the center.


With its dramatic spire, Nitra Castle dominates the town's skyline. Visible from throughout the city, the castle and its churches serve as reminders of the town's interesting past.
photo: Ján Svrček

On Castle Hill in Nitra, the higher you walk, the further you travel back in time. Passing upwards through the archway from Župné námestie, a heroic bronze statue of Pribina welcomes you to a sloping granite square flanked with seminary and church buildings. Higher up still, the Upper Gothic Cathedral, built in 1333, hides stunning frescoes and an ornate choir loft.

The Slovak nation first sunk its roots here in the late 7th century, when small Slavic tribes began to join together. Today, Nitra has grown into Slovakia's fourth-largest city, bustling day and night with students, factory workers and businessmen. This city of 90,000 is home to Agricultural and Pedagogical Universities, the Agrocomplex convention center, the Nitra Winery and the Corgoň Brewery, which often scents the night air with simmering hops. Nitra's other big factory employers are tucked away in the suburbs, while the city's cultural life flourishes in the center.

The history of Nitra is a long and illustrious one. By the early 9th century, the Nitra principality had enveloped most of present-day Western Slovakia. Pribina, the principality's only well-known ruler, had the first Christian church on Slovak territory consecrated here in 828. In 833, Mojmír I of Morava conquered Nitra, which then became one of the major city-centers in the Great Moravian Empire. It continued to be an important administrative and religious center throughout the Moravian and Hungarian Empires. Today, Nitra's former ruler, Pribina, is pictured on the 20-crown note.

Touring today through Nitra generally begins on the town's central avenue, Ďurkova Mostná. To get out of the crowds for a minute, take a quick detour to the Babkové Divadlo (puppet theater) on the street called Pešieho pluku. Whimsical creatures dance across the mural that covers the building; inside, the painted floors and hanging puppets create a fairy-tale world.

Past the puppet theater, Štefánikova trieda turns into a pedestrian shopping zone, which spills out onto Svätoplukovo námestie, with its central fountain and gargantuan Andrej Bagar Theater. From here the castle comes into full view. But before heading up, consider wandering past a few of the lower town's sites. The twin-towered Baroque Piarist church and monastery presiding over Cyrilmetodské námestie, the pinnacle-spired St. Cyril, and the Jewish synagogue on Pri synagóge ul. are all worth a peek.

Nitra's brightest spot, though, is definitely the castle hill. The first thing you will encounter is Pribinova ulica, the old town square. The square's largest building, the Velký Seminár (Great Seminar), may at first seem disappointingly modern inside, but one room still holds the secrets of the past: the seminary library.

Sixty thousand books line carved oak shelves that stretch to the ceiling in the neo-classical diocesan library, an exact copy of the Szécsenyi National Library in Budapest. The oldest book, under lock and key, is from 1475, while most of the tomes in this room date back to the 16th century.

From the seminary, follow the steep walkway up past the plague column, across a bridge and through a series of archways to the castle, still the seat of the Bishop of Nitra. Three combined churches form the bishop's cathedral at the heart of the castle - the apse of the 13th century St. Emeram Basilica, the Upper Gothic Cathedral and the Lower Cathedral extension (1622-1642).

The hills around Nitra offer opportunities to dig further into the city's past. From the castle, walk up through residential streets (or take bus number 10 to the end station) to the base of Zobor mountain. Hike up to the 588-meter peak to explore the castle ruins at the top, or search for the ruins of the oldest monastery in Slovakia.

The tiny 12th-century church of Saint Michael the Archangel, on a treeless hill above Dražovce village, offers another charming glimpse into the past. One legend says that St. Štefan recognised the hill as a holy place, while he was coming from the Zobor monastery in the early 12th century. He summoned his faithful and told them to build a church there. After much ground-breaking toil, blood trickled from the stone hill, confirming that this was indeed a holy place. Through the years, many stories of Virgin Mary appearances established this as a pilgrimage destination. A special mass every September 29th honours Saint Michael on his name day.

From the village you can take the blue trail across the hills to Zobor mountain and back to Nitra. Dražovce is a five minute ride on Nitra's bus number 4 from Wilsonovo nábrežie along the river.

Nitra Travel Tips

Getting there
By bus - Frequent buses between Bratislava and Nitra take 1 hour and 30 minutes. There are no direct train connections, so this is the best public transportation option.
By car - It's a one-hour trip on the E571 highway from Bratislava.


Info Center
Nisys - Nitrianský informačný systém, Štefánikova 46, 949 01 Nitra. Tel.: 087/410-906 or email: nisys@nr.sanet.sk. Open Mon. - Fri. 8:00-18:00, Sat. 8:00-13:00.


Lodging
Hotel Zlatý kľúčik - Svätourbánska 27, 949 01 Nitra, tel.: 087/550-289. Ultra-modern hotel with loud, friendly owner. Located at the foot of Mt. Zobor, with trips up the chair-lift possible on the weekends. Good staff, sauna and fitness center. Great restaurant. Prices: Double room from 2,200 to 2,900 Sk for both Slovaks and foreigners.

Hotel Nitra - 1, 949 01 Nitra, tel.: 087/534-242. Renovated 1960's style hotel. Large swimming pool and sauna. Prices: Double room, 2,000 Sk for foreigners, 800 Sk for Slovaks.

Hotel kaštieľ Mojmírovce - Mojmírovce 1, 951 15, tel.: 087/982-01. A nice alternative from the chic hotels in Nitra, located in a refurbished chateau 15 minutes from the city toward Nové Zamky. Prices: Double room, with TV and bath: 700 Sk for both Slovaks and foreigners.


Dining
There's no shortage of pizzerias or pubs pouring Nitra's own Corgoň beer. Other options are less plentiful.

Reštaurácia/Pizzeria Boccaccio- This place throws a tasty thin-crust pizza for a reasonable price. One of the few places in the country where they slather on the sauce. Pizza cooked in an open-hearth, white-washed oven in plain view. Corgoň on tap. Farská 36, $, CC: no, Eng. Menu: no, Res.: no. Open daily 10:00-20:00.

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