As I promised in my last post, this time around I’ll tell you a bit more about the city I will be staying in for most of my exchange, Banská Bystrica! (Pronounced ban-skaa bistrit-sa).
It is a medium-sized Slovak city with around 80,000 inhabitants, which is pretty big compared to the 6,000 here is Melfort that I’m used to! That makes it the 6th most populous city in Slovakia. It is also the capital of the province of Banská Bystrica which extends down to the southern border of the country. It is located pretty much dead center of Slovakia geographically, and therefore is referred to by some as ‘The Heart of Slovakia.’ That has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it? I think it’s fitting considering its a modestly sized city with such a vibrant cultural and historical landscape.
As for other locational facts, the city lies nestled between three different mountain ranges- the Low Tatras, the Vel’ka Fatra, and Kremnicka- making for a beautiful and picturesque skyline. With its convenient and beautiful location, it is popular for local tourists in Winter and Summer alike. Speaking of convenience, from Banská Bystrica, it is only a short (2-3 hours- short for us prairie people used to driving 8 hrs at a time 😉 ) train ride to get to several major centres such as Bratislava, Kosice, Budapest (Hungary), Krakow (Poland), and Vienna (Austria).
Within the actual city, there are plenty of sights to see. The most famous, as is true for many Slovak cities and towns, is the central square. Home to ancient catholic churches and the beautiful city castle, which was built in the 13th century, it is the cultural center of the city. Lucky for me, it is also only a short 5-10 minute walk from the school I will be attending. I can foresee hours spent in the various cafés, shops, and historic buildings lining the square. Or even just sitting down to read a book, surrounded by it all. What a dream!
Along with this beautiful central city district, there are several other attractions to see in and around the city. The recently constructed Europa SC is a massive shopping mall located in the western portion of the city, a popular spot for teenagers. There is also (to my absolute delight) a 9-screen movie theater, showcasing both mainstream blockbusters and local Slovak films. Along with these more millennial hotspots, there are several other historic and art buildings such as a local opera house, a marionette theater (which organizes the only marionette festival in all of Slovakia! I found that entertaining.), and the Matej Bel University, which has over 15,000 students in attendance. Even better, less than half an hour’s drive away from Banská you can find hundreds of hiking trails, several mineral or hot springs, 3 national parks, many ski resorts, and cave systems opens for exploration.
Undoubtedly though, one of the most iconic buildings in Banská Bystrica (and also the one I’m most excited to visit!) is the Museum of the Slovak National Uprising. That leads me into the history section of this blog post!
Banská’s exact origins are debated, but some historians presume it was originally settled as far back as the 9th century. People have been in the area much longer though, as the nearby historic site of Spania Dolina had mining tools unearthed from around 2000-1700 BCE. This makes sense, as the area is known for its rich natural resources, especially copper- the deposits of which were mined and exploited mainly in the 15th and 16th centuries. The name ‘Banská Bystrica’ itself is a rough translation (through Hungarian and Slovak dialects) of ‘Mining river.’ By the 18th century copper deposits were largely depleted, but by that time the town had grown and expanded into other industries such as textiles, timber, and paper, and had gained enough recognition to be self-sustaining. The connection of the railway from nearby Zvolen, along with the building of a municipal hospital, theatre, and museum in the town further increased its presence in the 19th century.
In the 20th century, after years of Nazi rule and pressure over Czechoslovakia, Banská Bystrica became the famed centre for the Slovak National Uprising in 1944. It was met with large Nazi opposition, and the main uprising was defeated, but the statement was made, and months of resistance and fighting continued until the liberation of Slovakia by the Soviets in 1945. The uprising started with around 18,000 supporters, but soon grew to 60,000 partisan supporters, along with an additional 18,000 people from over 30 countries. The uprising, though unsuccessful due to unreliable aid from Soviet backers, occupied a large number of Nazi troops, causing their forces to be weakened on the Eastern front and contributing to their defeat in 1945. Nonetheless, the uprising and battles that took place had a large toll on Slovakia, with an estimated 12,000 Slovaks and supporters killed in action. Almost 5,000 of these deaths alone were through German raids, which also saw the destruction or burning of over 90 Slovak villages and towns.
Despite this grim history, Banská Bystrica has prospered since, and grown into a vibrant centre for the entire country of Slovakia. The Museum of the Slovak National Uprising details these events that redefined the city during the war, and preserves the memory of those lost in the fighting. It contains documentation on the long struggle of Slovaks against Nazi rule, as well as many historical vehicles, including tanks used in the war and planes that provided supplies for the uprising.
And there you have it! A brief history/overview of the city I will be lucky enough to call my home for a year. I cannot believe in less than a month, I will be on a plane to Vienna (!!! a dream come true for a classical music fan), then driving through the beautiful Slovak countryside to reach this lovely city. Just thinking of it gives me goosebumps!
If I think of it, I will make another post once more before I leave, but I can already foresee this next month being absolutely crazy with packing and saying hard goodbyes to family and friends. As much as I’d like to, I can’t guarantee another post in August, at least not one at the quality I’ll accept for myself (hehe). If that is the case, I’ll write in a month, and until then- all I can say is: Uvidíme sa na slovensku!