Banská Štiavnica: the Aura

When you’re considering staying in one of Slovakia’s most gorgeous (and still relatively secret) medieval towns, chances are you might be in the market for a bargain on your accommodation.

When you book somewhere to stay last-minute as I often do (because in my own life outside of work I am incredibly disorganised) you rarely expect to arrive, experience, and come away from the place feeling that you might just have discovered the best deal in town. But such is the experience with Ubytovanie Aura, a small gaggle of huge, well-appointed self-catering apartments perched above Unesco-listed Banská Štiavnica Old Town with easily the best views of any accommodation around.

Maybe it was that everything went right from the start (I memorised the Google Map directions successfully despite the phone dying; as we pulled up outside a rather idyllic sunset was unfolding etc) but to put Aura’s charms down to luck is unjust.

The disadvantage of many of Banská Štiavnica’s accommodation options is that their views are somewhat impeded by the hills and other houses soaring up above them, but Aura gets round that problem by being – if not on top of the hills – at least far enough to feel like you’re in the hot seat of a glider as you relax on the terrace. So the view – across to the iconic Kalvaria (a grassy hill and sublime viewpoint adorned with 25 temples depicting, among other things, the Stations of the Cross) – is a big plus at Aura.

Then there’s the size. The self-catering apartments here are generously proportioned for a mere 25 Euros per night, which is a bargain compared to prices of about 10-15 Euros per night more for accommodation right in the centre. The apartments are clean, and the kitchens (oven, fridge-freezer included) are well-appointed, and there’s Wifi available (with a medium signal).

Bundles of bedroom space, plus a large kitchen and bathroom

Bundles of bedroom space + a large kitchen/bathroom ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

And then there is of course the hospitable managers who welcome you and provide you with plenty of unusual tourist information, including some of the great local hikes and cycle trails. They speak English, so you don’t need to be worried about phoning if you don’t speak Slovak!

It’s a ten minute walk to the centre of the town from here (and thus, of course, the many great Banská Štiavnica cafes). Go back down Staromestská (the lane you’ve wound up to get here) and follow Horna Ružová until you hit the steps down to the town square at the end. There’s an entrance to Banská Štiavnica’s beautiful botanical gardens just down from where Staromestská meets Horna Ružová, and you can walk down into town this way too. And if you score one of the topmost two apartments, you get a terrace/garden with barbecue facilities and a spot right on a hiking trail to the Kalvaria. Perfect for pilgrims – or outdoor lovers – or families!

A Quick Guide to the Other Content we Have on Banská Štiavnica:

Places to Go: Banska Štiavnica’s Mining Museums

Places to Go: Banska Štiavnica’s Kalvaria

Places to Stay: Banska Štiavnica’s Nicest Guesthouse

Places to Eat & Drink: Banska Štiavnica Streetfood

Places to Eat & Drink: the Coolest Cafe in Banska Štiavnica

Traditions: Partaking of the Most Sexually Charged Easter Tradition Ever in Banska Štiavnica

Top Ten Medieval Towns in Slovakia

 

MAP LINK From Mierová, the main road into town from the Banská Bystrica (north) side, hang a right (steep) when you reach the edge of the Botanic Garden, and follow this lane, Botanická, along the edge of the garden until the end. Turn right, and Statomestská is the first (narrow) lane which curves up to Aura’s parking.

PRICES: 16 to 26 Euros per self-catering apartment per night.

BOOK UBYTOVANIE AURA  (has to be done through Booking.com or by telephoning on 00421-908-052-344 (outside Slovakia) or 0908-052-344 (in Slovakia). The Booking.com pics really don’t do the place justice.)

NB: Ubytovanie, by the way, just means rooms that are for rent

Banská Štiavnica: Penzión Resla pri Klopacke

In Banská Štiavnica, where one can’t walk a pace without another delightful 18th-century edifice looming photogenically into view, it’s not easy to stand out on architectural merits. But sometimes, pretty facades can be just shells – or not live up to their external promise in their interiors. Particularly where the plethora of places to stay in this lovely ancient mining town are concerned, there is also a lack of love when it comes to the service – as if visitors should be in raptures just to stay in a historic building, and are not deserving of any more. There are other places, and then there is Penzión Resla pri Klopacke.

Off one of the rabbit warren lanes twisting up from the centre south towards the Nový zámok (New Castle), the thick age-stained walls of the guesthouse with their rose-painted window frames top a landscaped two-level terrace, commanding a stunning view over the town in all directions.

The view from the apartment windows ©englishmaninslovakia.com

The view from the apartment windows ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

From the off, this is the courteous service complemented by deft, unusual (nay, quirky), tasteful touches to decor that are sometimes a rarity out in the provides and much more synonymous with the standards set by upmarket rural bed and breakfasts in England.

Even the lobby impresses, with its miniature likeness of the spectacular relief remembering the history of mining in the region that flanks the lower side of the town’s central square. The proprietress engages you in conversation and it seems genuine; then ushers you up narrow, steep wooden stairs to the boutique apartments.

Boutique, we should say, in an unashamedly old fashioned Slovak style: sizeable two-room affairs, wood throughout, magical views down over the corkscrewing valley in which Banská Štiavnica lies scattered. They feel remarkably cosy on the notoriously cold nights hereabouts, too. One apartment has a fully appointed self-catering kitchen too.

You have to return back out of this main building to descend down steps and across the garden to the breakfast area but it’s worth the walk. In actual fact, it’s quite possibly the nicest breakfast area of any guesthouse in the entire country, painted pale blue and adorned with hand drawings of different birds possible to spot in the mountains. There are no fewer than three rooms for the breakfast, plus outside picnic tables (it’s outside that you’ll also find the open grill area, which gets going on summer nights); indeed one room is taken up with the substantial buffet alone. Like everything else the buffet goes beyond the call of duty with its variety of tasty breads, cakes, cheeses, fruits and yoghurts.

And what of the “Resla”, the strange statue of a woman swilling wine that is mounted in pride of place outside the front of the house? Apparently, an infamous aristocrat from the 19th century who lives in luxury whilst the citizens of the town starved – and even gloated about it – until, that is, the day she got her comeuppance…

A Quick Guide to the Other Content we Have on Banská Štiavnica:

Places to Go: Banska Štiavnica’s Kalvaria

Places to Go: Banska Štiavnica’s Mining Museums

Places to Stay: Great Value Banska Štiavnica Accommodation at the Aura

Places to Eat & Drink: Banska Štiavnica Streetfood

Places to Eat & Drink: the Coolest Cafe in Banska Štiavnica

Arts & Culture: Partaking of the Most Sexually Charged Easter Tradition Ever in Banska Štiavnica

Top Ten Medieval Towns in Slovakia

The breakfast room ©englishmaninslovakia.com

The breakfast room ©englishmaninslovakia.com

MAP LINK:

 PRICES: Apartments per 1/2 people 30-35/50-55 Euros (2016 prices)

BOOK PENZIÓN RESLA PRI KLOPACKE:

Banská Štiavnica: The Mining Museums

Approaching the main mine shaft

For those of you not in the know, Banská Štiavnica is the most famous place that’s not famous in Slovakia. Its location is off the main Bratislava-Tatras-Košice trail but then it has to be: the town is in the rolling Štiavnica Mountains, in Central-South Slovakia, for a reason – that’s where, back in the day, Slovakia’s mineral wealth was concentrated. Well, Bratislava had the crowning of the Hungarian monarchs for centuries and Košice has, well, that famous Slovak writer Sándor Márai (well, he spent most of his time hanging out in Budapest but he was born in Košice) but neither city succeeds in so evocatively capturing an aspect of its history so well as Banská Štiavnica does its mining legacy.

This wasn’t just any old mining town. As a study of the intriguing mural in the centre (Radničné Námestie) just down from the tourist information office reveals, silver and gold was mined hereabouts since the middle ages. The prolificness of the minerals meant the town shot to prominence as one of the jewels of the Hungarian and Austro-Hungarian Empires: indeed, it was for many years the second city of the Kingdom of Hungary. Abundance of silver and gold made it not only a mining centre, but at the very forefront of world mining technology. In 1627 the first use of gunpowder in peacetime was carried out here. The world’s first technological mining school was founded here in 1762. The system of tajchs (small water reservoirs in the hills above town which store water high up to maximise flow efficiency; see our forthcoming separate post) was, once again, pioneered here. Oh, and coins for as far away as Africa were minted with gold and silver from the mines of the Štiavnica Mountains.

All this on Slovak mining and more is showcased in a number of locations throughout the town of Banská Štiavnica. The tourist information (Námestie Svatej Trojice, tel 421-45- 694-9653) is not a bad starting point, with info and its own mini mine  to explore, along with some of the gemstones extracted from the nearby hills. Then of course is the museum just back down the main street, called first Andreja Kmet’a (where the wonderful cafe-bar of Divna Pani is located) and then Kammerhovská –  another well-worked showcase of town history with an obvious mining theme. But the ultimate mining fix (and where you need to head for a proper hands-on insight into Slovak mining) is located just outside the town centre, about a km southwest on Jozefa Karolla Hella: the Slovak Mining Museum (official website but in Slovak only)

Miners' statue

You’ll know you’ve hit the right spot if you’re coming from the centre because of the gaggle of well-preserved old mining buildings, all in wood, at a sharp kink in the road. In several different buildings here are housed the miner’s church, and various mining apparatuses, as well as a lowdown of the area’s geology. There is plenty of information in English. There is also a great shop selling various rocks extracted from the mine (cool enough to warrant a separate post). For the really fun part, i.e. going down inside the mine, you have to wait for one of the more-or-less hourly guided tours (5-person minimum) – but the complex of other mining buildings provides enough to keep you entertained in the mean time.

After listening to the guide (a former mine employee who knows loads of insightful little details about life as a mine worker) in the miner’s church introducing himself and playing you a short video (with English subtitles) you don yourself in cloak and hard hat and descend through the trees to the old mineshaft of Štôlňa Batolomej. The shaft was last used in the 1990s: no mining goes on here now.

What commences is one of the best tours of an old mine shaft available in Europe today. It’s around 2km that you’ll walk along the old miners’ tunnels (not for the claustrophobic; there’s some tight gaps!) with a steep descent down a twisting ladder and a couple of places where you’re stooping almost to all fours if you’re tall. Along the way, you stop off in antechambers where a history of mining is exhibited as well as, perhaps most poignantly, a visit to the miners’ dining area, and the railway system that transported carriages of ore out of the mines. The normal guide only speaks Hungarian and Slovak: you’ll need to arrange an English guide in advance. If possible, take someone who speaks Slovak with you and go with the Slovak/Hungarian speaking guide who used to work in the mines and so has all the juicy tales.

Before you ogle too much at the gold and silver and general medieval lavishness of Banská Štiavnica’s architecture, it’s essential to come here and see the dark, dank conditions in which it was extracted. Children will love it, too, as an open-air museum like this sure beats some dusty old exhibits.

At some point along the way, you’ll probably hear the story of how it all began: the cowherd who, back in the day, saw two lizards in the fields shining, respectively, with gold and silver, followed them back to their holes and inadvertently made the region’s first mining discovery – and thus Slovak mining history.

A Quick Guide to the Other Content we Have on Banská Štiavnica:

Places to Go: Banska Štiavnica’s Kalvaria

Places to Stay: Great Value Banska Štiavnica Accommodation at the Aura

Places to Stay: Banska Štiavnica’s Nicest Guesthouse

Places to Eat & Drink: Banska Štiavnica Streetfood

Places to Eat & Drink: the Coolest Cafe in Banska Štiavnica

Arts & Culture: Partaking of the Most Sexually Charged Easter Tradition Ever in Banska Štiavnica

Top Ten Medieval Towns in Slovakia

 

MAP LINK

GETTING THERE: Banská Štiavnica has a railway station – on a small spur line from Zvolen or Žiar nad Hronom. You’ll probably have to change twice to make it here by train from any other major destination – from Bratislava, total journey time will be almost four hours. So bus is often a good option. Buses leave direct from Bratislava at 1pm and 4.25 pm. And here we’ve included another map of how to get from the train/bus stations up into town (if in doubt, head up, basically, it’s just over 1km walk to the centre, and the bus station is on the way up from the train station, by the Billa supermarket.)

CONTACT: (for arranging English info tours; if not phone tourist information office in town as per the beginning of this post)

ADMISSION: Adults 5 Euros; Kids 2.50 Euros; Family Ticket 12 Euros (tour needs 5-person minimum to take place)

OPENING HOURS: 9am-5pm Tues-Sun; in holiday hours (July/August) there are also Monday afternoon tours at 12, 2 and 4pm. As a tour is obligatory (you can’t go down the mines yourself – you’d get lost in some small dark twisting passageways just like many miners did) be sure not to show up later than 4pm to see the mines.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: A 1.5km hike/drive northeast from the museum brings you to Banská Štiavnica’s best place for refreshments, Divna Pani