Some places just won’t go out of your mind, no matter how long they stay out of sight. The same goes for people, as I’m sure you’ve already found out.
I don’t know what was stronger at the beginning – my desire to revisit Banska Stiavnica after more than 20 years, or explore the regional cuisine.
I’d been planning the trip for quite a while before it actually took place last weekend. And the timing couldn’t be more opportune. It seems it was the first, and probably the only weekend this winter when you could ski on natural snow. My daughter and her boyfriend made the most of the chance.
I opted for sightseeing rather than cross-country, but was as exhausted at the end of the day as the skiers. Those who know Banska Stiavnica and its terrain will understand what I mean. Walking the streets of this small, picturesque town is quite an exercise – you either go down or uphill, and some walkways are really steep.
But would you care if there’s so much to see – and surprise you behind each corner? I didn’t. I was determined to lay my foot on as many treasure spots as possible in one weekend.
The gem of mining history
Banska Stiavnica (or Banska Shtyiavnitsa) is a town of more than 10 000 people in Central Slovakia. It’s got a long mining history that goes back to the 3rd century BC when Celts settled in the area to exploit the ample resources of silver ore. A few centuries later Slavic people inhabited the site that was called ‘the land of miners’ (terra banensium), as documents from 1156 show.
The generous supplies of silver and gold attracted skilled Germans, who arrived in the 13th century and joined the Slavic population. Their legacy is still felt in the German names of a few preserved mines and local sites (Glanzenberg, Siglisberg, Ottergrund, Klinger etc.).
Banska Stiavnica was also known under a Hungarian name of Selmecbanya in the Middle Ages, when it was the main producer of the precious metals in the powerful Kingdom of Hungary. Its population more than doubled around that time, and the town also enjoyed quite a few royal privileges.
To protect its wealth and people against the Turks and other enemies, the town authorities built a strong fortification system. The ‘Old Castle’ and the ‘New Castle’ – as they are now called by the locals – were part of it. They have both been beautifully restored and transformed into museums.
The centre of innovation and education
Banska Stiavnica has yet another primacy, and that’s the Academy of Mining and Forestry, which was built in 1735.
Given the quality of its teachings and the number of innovative methods it brought to the mining industry, as well as the scientific world, the academy was dubbed ‘the first technical university in the world’. As other historical sites in the town, the school premises are well-preserved and cared for. The old buildings are still being used as chemical and forestry colleges. They’re set in the middle of a beautiful botanical garden, which is open to public all year round.
The garden was so quiet and serene when I walked around it, leaving my footprints in the pristine snow. Places like these are balm for the soul and body, aren’t they?
As I wandered off the main road and into the narrow, secluded walkways, I discovered still more charm. Every single house seemed to have a story to tell – they stood elegant against the white snow, their colours in perfect harmony. I fell in love with the town again after 20 years!
When it was time for a meal and a little rest, I met my daughter and her boyfriend in Monarchia restaurant – a warm, cosy place that breathed history and wonderful food. It was recommended to us by Denisa – a young, spirited girl from Banska Stiavnica whom I had met a few months before. And it turned out to be a great tip!
The place of traditional Slovak food at its best
When I entered the restaurant, Zuzana was already sipping her tea and her boyfriend snacking on a slice of garlic bread. ‘You must have this potato soup we’ve just tried’, she said. ‘It’s second to none.’ I did, and it was a pure delight!
I complimented on the soup and asked for the recipe when the waitress came back to take my empty plate. ‘Of course I can write it down for you, but it’s just so very simple’, she warned, as if I was expecting a high-cuisine deal. I knew the best Slovak meals are uncomplicated. That’s why I chose savoury potato pancakes as the main course. Sadly, these scrumptious, filling pancakes have almost disappeared from our everyday diet, as well as some other traditional dishes that are being replaced by new, fancy ones. I was quite surprised to find the meal on the menu in the first place. It’s not something you would expect to get in a restaurant. Well, if that restaurant weren’t in Banska Stiavnica, of course!
My daughter and her boyfriend went for nothing worse than our famed bryndzove halushki.
We spent a good couple of hours eating, chatting away, and listening to the joyful crack of a nicely refurbished period fireplace. Here, as anywhere in the town, I felt like frozen in time, but it was a very amiable period of time.
On leaving the restaurant, I was given the house recipe for a sour potato soup, and promised to come back for more some day. We were going to meet Denisa – our young friend from Banska Stiavnica – for a dessert and a drink later that day.
It happened in Divna pani (A Strange Lady) – another peculiar place with a soul and lots of character. I thought it would be a cafe, but in fact it was anything from a wine or coffee bar to a confectionery and an antiquated museum. My daughter remarked that their menu was the most diverse she’d ever seen. Quite true, but when we ordered three different milkshakes, they all looked the same. At least their taste slightly varied, I’m happy to admit.
Denisa took us for a walk around her hometown afterwards. If it weren’t for her, we might not have seen the Executioner’s Street and his house by night, and we would certainly haven’t found a teetering old building where she and her friend had installed their swing.
I rounded off my weekend in Banska Stiavnica with a climb to the Calvary Mount on Sunday. While Zuzana and her boyfriend were enjoying another cross-country trip, I puffed and sweated on the way up to the sacred site. It was hard work, but well worth it. I stopped intermittently to take a breath and fill my lungs with clean, fresh air. This was a better and more enjoyable detox than I could have wished for. When I reached the top of the hill, a breathtaking view opened up for me of a massive caldera the town was sitting in.
I knew instantly Banska Stiavnica would stay in my heart and my mind, although I’d only seen a fraction of what this exciting town has to offer. I felt energized and uplifted at the end of the week, and was already thinking of coming back. It won’t take another 20 years though!
Historic Town of Banska Stiavnica and the Technical Monuments in its Vicinity were proclaimed a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1993. It rightly deserves a place on the list of the world’s treasures, doesn’t it?
Banska Stiavnica can be easily reached by coach from the capital city of Bratislava. The best way to explore the town is on foot, but we were also surprised by the excellent network of cheap, reliable taxis.