The day before New Years Eve we set off on a hop, skip and a jump through Slovakia, with only a week before our time to be exiled from the Schengen area, and kissed Austria goodbye. My mind was completely open to whatever this country of former Czechoslovakia had to offer and I was hoping to explore the best parts within our restricted time-schedule. Banská Bystrica was our first target in Slovakia (not counting Bratislava)– a small, university city on the south-western edge of the Low Tatra Mountains.
Probably the first hotel we’ve ever stayed in on our Europe trip, Hotel SAD was a grey block in the dusty outskirts of Banská Bystrica, created as a place to sleep for factory workers from the nearby industrial area. Our room was surprisingly large and clean, but bare as a bone. It was a place where a monk would feel at home, with a bed, a table, and no kind of embellishment whatsoever. I liked it!
On New Year’s Eve we caught the bus back into Banská’s town centre, away from the ugly industrial district. Downtown Banská Bystrica did not take long to explore, but it was marvellous. The Christmas lights had been left up and added to the splendour of SNP square (Slovenského národného povstania). The Slovak National Uprising Square, the hub of the city’s life, was once the site of an insurrection by the Slovak resistance against German troops in World War II.
On August 29th 1944, German troops moved in to occupy Slovakia. This sparked an uprising by Slovakian rebel forces, and on August 30th their first victory was the recapture of Banská Bystrica. Though the rebels eventually failed in retaking their homeland, guerilla warfare continued until the Soviet Army liberated Slovakia in 1945.
From the main square one can find many interesting attractions nearby, making the exploration of Banská Bystrica simple and enjoyable. Slovakia’s own “Leaning Tower of Pisa” stands in the upper part of SNP square. A clock tower, built in 1552, tips 60 cm from its vertical axis, and if you stare long enough you begin to notice all the other towers in the square look a bit crooked… Or maybe it’s just your imagination?
A quick turn to your right from the clock tower brings you in front of the 330-year old St. Francis Xavier Cathedral. Even though it started as a duplicate of the church II Gesu in Rome, I thought it contained its own, unique beauty. 66% of Slovaks claim to be Catholic so the gorgeous frescoes and golden adornments within St.Francis Xavier’s Cathedral do not go to waste.
Just a few seconds stroll north-east of SNP Square lies all that’s left of the original town fortress: the Barbican and the Church of Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Also, a quarter of the original town walls and three bastions – Farská (Parish), Banícka (Mining), and Pisárska (Scriveners) – have survived the oppressive winds of time. Today the Barbican has been converted into a “stylish” cafe and restaurant, the bastions are surrounded by a serene graveyard, and the 13th century church is still well in use. The castle quarter was a quiet and peaceful place, and as I sauntered from the courtyard into the graveyard, I fell into deep contemplation about what the New Year would have in store for us.
When night fell Ashleigh and I were worn out but highly anticipating the amazing New Year’s events that would go down in the main square. We waited a while, sipping drinks at a nearby bar, but as time went on the SNP Square remained quiet, with only a few stragglers criss-crossing to different bars along the town centre. A little sad and disappointed, we returned to Hotel SAD, but not before picking up some booze and a bottle of cheap champagne with a cork that could blow a hole in the wall.
As we sat and drank in alone our room, every once in awhile we could hear fireworks popping off nearby and we leapt to our window to watch like eager children. As the evening wore on, the amount and consistency of fireworks increased until there wasn’t a moment of silence in between explosions. As we counted down to midnight and popped the cork from our cheap champagne (it almost popped us) the whole cityscape of Banská Bystrica lit up in a brilliant display of colourful detonations fired from hundreds of backyards and rooftops. Even a few people from our hotel ran outside to light a few sparklers and roman candles.
I was truly amazed and happy with the way Banská Bystrica celebrated New Year’s Day with a firework show, produced by the whole city, that lasted for six hours that night. The old town was delightful to walk around during the day, with its elegant architecture and tranquil atmosphere, but I think Banská’s fireworks extravaganza will stand out in my memory with the greatest clarity.