Bad Timing, Good Timing

Trip Start Jun 08, 2010
Trip End Aug 26, 2010

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Flag of Slovakia  , Banskobystrický,
Saturday, August 7, 2010

The day did not start off as planned. I arrived in Banská Štiavnica last night. The town was famous for being a major mining center from the Middle Ages, and the area was included on the UNESCO World Heritage list. The world's oldest technical university was founded in the city in 1763.

The city symbol was two lizards, one with a silver stone and the other with a gold. Legend had it that a herdsman had seen these two lizards in the surrounding hills one day and chased them only to find two rich ore veins. The town was a mixture of richly-preserved and in-need-of-restoration. It reminded me of an old Northeastern industrial town from the US where old women at bus stops regale you, unprompted, with tales of how great things used to be.

At any rate, I got up early to begin my day with a visit to the Open Air Mine Museum just outside of town. The "museum" was actually a tour of an old mine from the town's prosperous years. Unfortunately, because of torrential rain the previous night, part of the mine was flooded and the electricity wasn't working down in the mine, so there were no tours. That was disappointing, but there was a short section of a mine shaft originating in the town itself I was able to see, so I would make do.

Driving back to my hotel also did not work out as I had hoped. Several days this summer, Banská Štiavnica hosted a street festival with booths and live performances. Unfortunately, the festival filled the street between my hotel and the rest of the town. In the morning, a police officer had let me slip through on my way out of the hotel, but at this point the festival had really gotten underway and that wasn't a possibility.

One of the traffic controllers, who didn't speak English or German, pointed me towards a one-lane road I could use to go the back way (I think). That road turned out to be one-way in the wrong direction, but I went anyway because I didn't want to pay for parking just a few blocks from my hotel. It was one way for quite some time, but luckily, I didn't meet anyone coming in the right direction.

My hotel had a gated lot and each guest was given a key to the gate lock. Trying to re-lock the gate after parking was giving me problems as I couldn't get the key in just-right. But my problems turned out to be good luck for a confused and very tired woman who wandered by as I was trying to get the lock to close.

She said something to me, which of course I didn't understand, and then she walked on. I decided she was asking for directions, and when she came back by a short time later (I was still fooling with the gate), I grabbed my map and managed to get her to stop. Out of breath because the city was on the side of a hill, she repeated "Starý zámok". This time I paid attention to what she said, and I knew from Slovenia and Croatia that "Stari" was "Old" and decided she must be asking for the way to the Old Castle. I pointed it out to her on the map and she set off, although I don't think she had much energy left in her after climbing up and down the wrong streets. The castle was nearby, though.

Banská Štiavnica had two "castles". After the Turkish army defeated the Hungarian King at the battle of Mohacs and started their march north, the town began to seriously upgrade its defenses. The town already had one castle, but they built a second, although the "New Castle" was basically just a really fat watchtower. In fact, after the threat of Turkish invasion had subsided, the New Castle was used by the town to keep a lookout for fires in the town and the surrounding area. Today, it housed a museum, which mainly contained a handful of items from the time of the Turkish threat and a smaller section of historical fire-fighting gear.

The Old Castle was a Gothic/Baroque Castle/Church, along the same lines as Vajdahunyad castle in Budapest, but this time the amalgamation was due to building onto the castle without destroying older parts as opposed to a Revivalist architect gone wild. The castle was never conquered or otherwise ordered taken apart, so everything was authentic, although it had been altered over the years.

I arrived just in time for the "Big Tour", and the ticket staff, who didn't speak English or German, signed me up for it as opposed to the self-guided "Small Tour". The tour was only in Slovakian, although I was given a sheet in English with an overview of each room. I learned that an hour was the limit of my attention span for a tour in a completely unknown language. This tour was an hour and a half. The tours I had taken in German were fine because I could understand them a bit, but the Slovakian tour consisted of me taking two minutes to read the blurb about the room we were in and look around a little, then standing there with nothing to do but contemplate how I might escape from the tour while the guide spent the next 10 minutes explaining everything in the room in detail.

The "Big Tour" did go into many rooms the self-guided tour didn't, and one of them made the standing and staring vacantly at the other stops worth it (well, almost worth it). There was a room full of large 18th century carvings of the life of Jesus and some of the stages of the cross. They were taken from Calvary Mount across from the town. Calvary Mount, which I had glimpsed off in the distance on my way into town, was a large religious complex where these carvings had resided in small chapels beside paths crisscrossing up the side of a hill between a few larger buildings. Unfortunately the site was subject to years of neglect during the Communist era and a more recent bout of vandalism. It had been listed by the World Monument Fund as one of the "100 most endangered sites" for 2008, so the town had moved the carvings into the castle until they figured out what to do with them permanently. It was a little sad because a couple were missing and several were incomplete.

My touring done, I spent the rest of the day at the festival. I had another one of those sweet-dough-cone-things, like I had at Sümeg, Hungary. This time they came in different flavors. My original plan was just to look confused and let the vendor pick one for me, but as I was standing in line, I noticed one of the flavors was "Vanil"-something. I figured that had to be vanilla and became motivated by my success to figure out some of the others. Looking for chocolate, I saw "Kako"-something and "Koko"-something. I can't even keep the two straight now, but the little girl in front of me ordered one of those two so I copied her and did indeed get chocolate.

The booths were a mix of food and folk-crafts, although there were some more modern items, such as tee-shirts. Several of the craftsmen were giving demonstrations, and I watched the barrel makers for a while. They used a lot of pounding and squeezing, as you would expect, but they also used a burner set inside of the barrel and sprayed the barrel with water at the same time in order to get the wood to bend. Nearby was a blacksmith's stall where children were given the chance to try to make something. Mostly I just saw a lot of random bendy or flat sticks of iron coming out of that effort.

The live performances were also good. There was a group playing Celtic music and another group of folk dancers. I assumed the folk dancers were doing Slovakian dances, but since the other group was performing Celtic songs (a few with lyrics in English), that wasn't guaranteed. I also heard what sounded like some sort of opera or other a capella singing, but I had left the festival to get dinner at that point and couldn't see the stage or hear the performer clearly.

All-in-all, I liked the town, although I suspect the festival had a lot to do with it. I think the novelty of it being a mining town also contributed. At this point in my trip, anytime I can see something totally new, like a centuries-old mine shaft, it's a plus. Two castles didn't hurt either.

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