If you’re partial to an undulating hill or a winding mossy way, Central Slovakia is your kind of place. Quiet and agrarian, it’s the heart of Slovakia; the cradle of Romantic Nationalism in the nineteenth century and the seat of the Slovak National Uprising in 1944. The way of life is slow, as are the trains, but what it lacks in zip it repays in beauty.
Lying in a great caldera created by the collapse of a volcano, BANSKÁ ŠTIAVNICA is Slovakia’s oldest mining town. In the third century the Huns discovered precious metal here, and by the Middle Ages it was the largest source of gold and silver in the Hungarian Empire. During the Ottoman Wars the town sprouted fortifications, watchtowers and a castle to repel marauding Turks. As the metal reserves dwindled the inhabitants migrated, leaving the town unmodernized. Nowadays the population of about 10,000 is divided between the blue-collar descendants of mining families, and hotel-owning entrepreneurs from out of town, who tolerate each other grudgingly.
Main square Námestie sv Trojice is dominated by the Holy Trinity column, a red marble monolith marking the end of the plague in 1711. Southeast is Radničné Námestie, the Gothic Church of St Catherine and the Town Hall (Radnica), the latter with a clock that marks hours with its big hand and minutes with its little hand – according to an unusually credible local legend it was the work of a drunk clockmaker. Continuing southeast you’ll come to the minimalist New Castle (Nový Zámok) and Church of Our Lady of the Snows.
The hills around Štiavnica are perfect for strolling, berry-picking and idling. Centuries of mining with gunpowder left the hills scarred with pits, which in time became lakes. On a hot day you can hike, swim, picnic, and be back by teatime. The most interesting walk is up to Calvary (Kalvária, 1km northeast of Old Town), a cluster of red and white Baroque chapels and churches perched on an inactive volcano, each one representing a stage in Christ’s journey to the cross. Hiking maps are available at the tourist office and hotels.
Up A. Sládkoviča street is the Clapping Tower (Klopačka), home to a giant clapping contraption built for waking up miners. Today it claps for the amusement or irritation of tourists, and contains a teahouse (see Čajovňa Klopačka).
Štiavnica is museum-rich. First up is the Jozef Kollár Gallery on Námestie sv Trojice, which exhibits everything from medieval madonnas to twentieth-century watercolours. A few doors down is the Mineral Museum, which houses exhibits on the technical development of mining. New Castle contains a little museum about the Ottoman Wars in Slovakia. All of these museums are run by the Slovak Mining Museum (muzeum.sk) and have the same opening hours and prices.
At the Open Air Mining Museum, 1.5km from town, you can take a trip down the old mines, while 3km from town the Museum of St Anton (msa.sk) is the kind of tapestry-heavy, trophy-stuffed manse that helps to while away a rainy morning.
To the west of the main square is the Old Castle (Starý zámok), which is not a castle at all but a fortified Romanesque church used as a storage facility for municipal wealth. It’s part of the Slovak Mining Museum, and exhibits Baroque sculptures, archeological remains and medieval blacksmithery. You can also discover what life was like in a medieval jail.
If the weather’s bad, hop on a bus at Križovatka and whizz over to Sklené Teplice Spa (kupele-skleneteplice.sk). You’ll be instructed to jump into hot springs and take cold showers alternately, an ordeal that leaves you exhausted to the point of relaxation. The spring is 42°C, with high levels of magnesium and calcium, and the spa claims it heals visitors with muscle and locomotive conditions. There’s also a pool, saunas and massage.