Tuesday, April 22, 2014

An excursion to Banská Bystrica

Terezia, her mom and I decided to take off one Saturday morning in mid-April to Banská Bystrica, the capital city of the central Banská Bystrica region. We actually ventured there once before back in 2010 when we were visiting Slovakia for my first time over the winter holidays that year. Since it only takes about an hour to get there by car from Terezia's parents' village, we thought it was time to go back and reassess the place.

The city of Banská Bystrica actually holds considerably more importance for many Slovaks than a foreign tourist might realize when first laying eyes on the place. Nestled in a narrow, curving, forested valley along the Hron River, Banská Bystrica has come to represent a kind of national heartland for Slovaks, partly due to its location in the center, or heart, of the country, but also because of its role in the Slovak national awakening in the 1800s and the Slovak National Uprising during World War II.

Banská Bystrica came to prominence in the middle ages as a copper mining town colonized by German miners. In fact, a vast part of this broader region was a hotbed of mining activity, and many of the towns have Baňa or Banská in their name ("baňa" means mine, "banská" means mining; "bystrica" is a swift stream).

Today, this small city of ~78,000 is a relatively bustling urban area with a big university and several factories and wood processing plants. Its historical center (which, like many such centers is pedestrianized) is definitely on the smaller side, but bears an uncanny resemblance to several other historical centers in Slovakia with its long, narrow, lenticular main square/thoroughfare lined by colorful and ornate renaissance and baroque burgher mansions, as well as a big fountain, a plague column, and the requisite WWII Soviet memorial obelisk in the center. There's enough to do and see here to keep one occupied for an afternoon, but not much beyond that.

Entering the city through its communist-era layer panelaks.

As with all Slovak cities, getting to the historical heart of Banská Bystrica first involves winding one's way through a network of drab communist-era panelaks, industry, and general concrete greyness. If driving in from the southerly direction, you'll pass what I was told was during communism one of the most popular shopping centers in the region, but which now resembles the kind of scary, depressing, abandoned bunker where abducted university students are gruesomely tortured to death in horror films. After passing that pigeon poop-encrusted, brutalist heap, you come to the modern and sleek Europa shopping mall.

This super creepy building was a shopping mecca during communism.

Once past the Europa mall, the historical section begins with a wide, inviting, pedestrianized street that gently meanders up a gradual slope before depositing you into the sprawling main square. Most newcomers are first drawn to the jumble of old clock and church towers that they see at the square's northern end. The clock tower leans at a somewhat disconcerting angle (which some say was the result of the communists having demolished a building just to the left of it), while the two towers a bit further back and to the left belong to the city's castle compound and cathedral.

Part of what lends Banská Bystrica a nice feel (and offers a pleasing contrast to the greyness) is the way that it is surrounded on nearly all sides by steep, tall, green, densely wooded hills, which feel like protective walls.

If you're here on a Saturday and the weather's nice, in the morning this area will likely be pulsing with life, with a mixture of locals and tourists ambling around, shopping, drinking beer or coffee, pushing strollers, or just gawking. But like all Slovak cities and towns, most of the privately-owned shops close on Saturdays by noon, at which point the locals all suddenly scurry home for lunch, leaving the streets deserted.

As nice as it is, I do think that Banská Bystrica's historical center/main square is rivaled by the slightly more picturesque centers in Košice, Banská Štiavnica, and Levoča. Still, it's nice to grab a bench in the middle of the square and soak up the scenery.

One of my very favorite communist-era friezes on the front of the town's main post office

The castle complex, or what remains of it, is fairly small, but visually interesting enough with its two colorful towers, one of which belongs to the cathedral, a medieval structure whose interior was at some point given an ornate, Baroque makeover. It's definitely one of the more impressive cathedral interiors I've seen in Slovakia, with its massive, barrel-vaulted ceiling and rich detail. Also on the castle premises is a massive medieval defensive barbican, some bastions, sections of the old stone wall, a cemetery, and the clock tower. The castle's defensive walls were beefed up in the late 1500s to protect it against the Ottomans, who were making serious incursions into the Kingdom of Hungary at that time, but the Turks never ended up occupying the region.

The castle

The one essential site outside the historical center is the Slovak National Uprising (SNP) museum. The building alone is worth trekking the few blocks away from the main square for a gander, as it's one of the most spectacular and well-preserved examples of communist-era modern architecture in the country. Unfortunately, I've never had the chance to go inside, as both times that we were there it was closed. But the futuristic, oblong-shaped exterior is wildly impressive and unique. It's worth walking around to the other side, where the building looks off over a vast, communist-era park, which Terezia's mom said used to be (and may still be) the site of massive parades to commemorate state holidays. At the other end is the super-commie looking Hotel Lux, which Terezia's mother told us was the place to stay in Banská Bystrica back in the day.

SNP Museum
The sprawling park with Hotel Lux in the background

Back around front of the SNP is an outdoor museum of Soviet WWII artillery, with tanks and even a fighter plane, all sitting in a characteristically dilapidated Soviet-era park.

The Slovak National Uprising was a major event in Slovak history. In WWII, after Hitler took Czechoslovakia, the Slovak half split to become a Nazi-allied fascist/puppet state, led by infamous Catholic priest Jozef Tiso, under whose leadership the nation's Jews and Roma were deprived of their rights, rounded up, and eventually sent off to places like Auschwitz. In 1944, a group of anti-fascist partisan soldiers (some of whom defected from the fascist Slovak army, but there were also partisans from France, Poland, and elsewhere) mobilized and rose up against the Nazis, and this short-lived but fierce uprising emanated from Banská Bystrica and the surrounding environs. They knew the mountainous and forested terrain like the backs of their hands and used that to their advantage when waging campaigns against the Nazis. Despite some initial early success, the Nazis eventually crushed the uprising and killed just about everyone involved who they could get their hands on, including entire villages whose inhabitants were believed to have assisted the uprising in one way or another. But the Nazis were by this point already facing imminent retreat and it was only a matter of time before they were ultimately driven back by the Soviet Red Army. The uprising is still celebrated every year with a national holiday, a bit like July 4th in the US, and this is partly why Banská Bystrica is seen today as the spiritual and cultural heart of Slovakia.

For a full timeline of events in Slovakia during WWII, check this out.

Given the anti-fascist history that's associated with the place, is is therefore hugely ironic that last November the Banská Bystrica region's voters elected far-right, fascist-sympathzier Marian Kotleba as the regional governor. I mentioned him briefly in this post, but his election came as quite a shock to many. He has led a few far-right extremist groups over the years (one of which was even officially banned by the government), and is widely known for his hostility to Roma and other minorities, and his praise of the fascist wartime Slovak state and its leader, Tiso. He recently took the EU flag down from the regional government office, as he, like many far-right extremists and nationalists, is vehemently anti-EU. I'll do a post on Kotleba soon, but the irony of having a fascist as the region's governor can be explained not just by intolerance on the part of many Slovaks (largely towards the Roma), but also a sad lack of understanding of the history and events of WWII, especially among younger generations. Scary.

At any rate, once you've strolled through the historical center and seen the SNP museum, there's not really a helluva lot left to do here. Unless you're a tourist on a quest to delve deep into Slovak culture and history, or if your goal is to check out all of the country's major communist-era modern architecture sites, or if you're just passing through, I honestly wouldn't go too far out of my way to see Banská Bystrica. Banská Štiavnica, to the south, is a prettier and more scenically rewarding town, as are Levoča and Košice in the east, and I might be more inclined to make the trek to those places before committing to Banská Bystrica. But if you do happen to be passing through, it's worth stopping by for a couple of hours.

Click here to see the full set of photos.

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