Snow blankets Bardejov's main square as the steeple of St. Egídia Church reaches skywards.
photo: Matthew Evans
Bardejov, a town of 33,000 in Slovakia's far east, is just such a destination. Even at this time of year, under heavy grey skies and in the teeth of biting winter winds, the Bardejov area offers a variety of sights unparalleled in Slovakia.
Besides possessing Slovakia's best preserved medieval town square, Bardejov boasts awe-inspiring churches, 14th century fortification walls with bastions and Slovakia's only museum of icons. In 1986, the town was awarded the UNESCO Gold Medal for Monument Preservation.
Bardejovské Kúpele, eastern Slovakia's most luxurious spa, lies just six kilometers away. Visitors to this stately spa can wander around the nation's oldest museum of folk architecture, which includes two early 18th century wooden churches and thatched-roofed wooden houses.
Bardejov's written history as a regional trade and culture center dates back to the mid-13th century, just after the Mongol hordes invaded Hungary and then suddenly disappeared. King Bela IV of Hungary, as part of an effort to revitalize his kingdom, invited German miners, merchants and tradespeople to what is now Slovakia.
Many of the merchants came to set up shop in Bardejov, a Slovak settlement along the Polish-Hungarian trade route. During the next two centuries, the German colony flourished, earning the privilege to build walls (1352) and the status of an Independent Royal Town (1376), joining Budapest and Košice as the only holders of such an honour. By the 15th century, Bardejov was a major producer and exporter of linen and crafts.
The Germans, however, brought new ideas along with their entrepreneurial spirit, as the Catholic Hungarian Empire would discover. Leonard Stöckel, a disciple and follower of Martin Luther, championed the Protestant Reformation in his Humanistic School of Bardejov. Meanwhile, Luther's "Catechism," the first book written in the biblical Czech language, was printed here in Gutfesall's printing house in 1581. Appropriately, this printing house beside downtown Bardejov's St. Egídia Church today houses a copy center and a Christian bookshop.
St. Egídia, like many churches in Central Europe, has been transformed by fires and changing architectural fashions through the centuries. The three-nave Romanesque basilica visible today is actually a 15th century reconstruction, by Masters Nicholas and Štefan of Bardejov, of an earlier 14th century incarnation. The eleven wooden triptych altars date from the late 15th century. The tower collapsed during the fire and earthquake of 1725, but was repaired. Then, after another fire in 1879, the building was completely redesigned in the Gothic Revival style. The facades were remodelled and the tower was rebuilt, receiving its signature pinnacled roof.
The fountain and statue of St. Florian in the main square, beside the church, was erected to commemorate the fire of 1774.
The Old Town Hall, the oldest example of early Renaissance architecture in Slovakia, stands in the center of the square. Its high-stepped gables, steep-pitched roof and staircase oriels, dating from the early 15th century, form a terrific counterpoint to St. Egídia. A branch of the Upper Šariš Museum inside (Radničné nám. 48, tel.: 0935-6038, open Tues. to Sun. 8:00-12:00, 12:30-16:30) tells the story of Bardejov, punctuated by countless medieval artifacts.
Radničné námestie, the main square, is lined on both sides with wonderfully restored Gothic-Renaissance houses. Looking away from St. Egídia, the yellow and purple building on the left (No. 16) is the old school house - today's town hall, with its richly decorated Renaissance portal and the town arms displayed above. The colourfully painted facade on house No. 26, at the upper end of the square, dates from 1770. At the corner of Rhodyho ulica stands another branch of the Šariš Museum in a Gothic building with a projecting Renaissance arcade.
The Icon Museum is just across the street. There you can study fascinating 15th century religious icons depicting the lives of Jesus and various saints. But don't waste 200 crowns on a photo pass; they sell snapshots of all the best icons at the ticket window.
When you've had your fill of icons, take a stroll around the walls encircling the town. These well-preserved fortifications were built in 1352 and beefed up during the Hussite movement of the 15th century. All bastions have historical plaques in Slovak and English. Continue down Rhody Street past the Gunpowder Bastion to the Lamp Column on the right, a cheerful commemoration of the very site where people condemned to death were beheaded.
Take a right on Jiráskova ulica and head for the twin onion domes of the 1902 Greek-Catholic Church of Saints Peter and Paul. Here Ruthenian parishioners carry on the orthodox tradition before a massive wall mural encircling the altar. Separate paintings of each of the Twelve Apostles, various other saints and The Last Supper are outlined in gold.
A right on Ulica Františkánov will take you to the Franciscan Monastery and church of St. John the Baptist, originally constructed in the Gothic style around 1460. Nearby is the School Water Bastion, which protected the town water supply. Continue down Baštova ulica to the small park beside the Archival Bastion. There in the park is a music school named after the Bardejov composer Vojtech Keller. This is the former Humanist School, mentioned above. Nearby on Dlhý Rad is the former Jewish Suburb, with a synagogue and a cemetary.