31 July 2010

Around Banska Stiavnica

Last time I wrote about the beauty at the heart of Banska Stiavnica and now I want to move on to the surrounding area. The town is surrounded by hills and a relatively short walk soon takes you away and up.

The New Castle can be seen from many places in the centre of the town as it sits on top of one of the nearby hills.

It's lofty location makes it a more convincing castle than the old one despite its lack of walls but it takes just a few minutes climbing up cobbled roads to breach the defences.

The New Castle now has a new role telling the history of Banska Stiavnica.

Coming from England where we are soon to celebrate a millennium without a successful invasion of our borders the story is an unfamiliar one featuring armies from territories now found within the borders of Austria, France, Poland, Turkey, Hungary and others.

The museum winds up through the large square rooms offering armour, weapons, maps, paintings and posters.

Most of the stories are related in Slovak so I have to make do with the artifacts but that's OK as you can easily have too much history if you are not careful.

The language is no barrier for the other reason for going to the New Castle, the views from the top.

Here we can see the town squeezed in between the hills that surround and oppress it. Here also the frailty of the Old Castle is exposed as it lies well below its replacement. In the middle of the picture, the main town square (Trinity Square) winds slowly up a less severe hill.

Further out of town and even higher up is Calvary.

Getting there proved to be non-trivial as the map I had did not show all the footpaths and the roads seemed to be scared of the area. I found myself walking around the wealthy suburbs to the chorus of guard dogs before I found somebody who could interpret the map well enough to get me through the last 200m.

From the English perspective, this looks like a folly on a grand scale but it has a serious history. It was built in the eighteenth century by the Jesuits and consists of 23 objects depicting the last moments in the life of Jesus.

These neglected monuments are spread around a steep hill and are connected by even more neglected paths. Serious tourists only need apply.

Here we can see one of the larger chapels, which is about 2/3 of the way up the hill, two of the smaller ones and the towers of the main chapel at the summit. The walk is challenging and all of the chapels are in need of some TLC but both add to the interest rather than detracting from it.

I had met the architect behind the restoration of Calvary previously at an event at the Slovak Embassy and was able to meet up with her for another tour out of the town.

This time we carried on up the hill out of Trinity Square and headed in to the hills.

Here we found some of the reservoirs that were integral  to the local mining industry.

We also found fields of flowers where butterflies danced, wild raspberries that demanded to be eaten, small twisting paths that seemed to have no purpose other than to confuse and entertain, and occasional views of the town and the hill top monuments that keep a watchful eye over it.

Then, unexpectedly, a path leads steeply downwards and the town that was hiding successfully is suddenly revealed and, soon after, occupied.

Banska Stiavnica is a small town and does not have much in the way of traditional tourist attractions but the three full days I spent there flew past and there was more that I would have liked to do. Another day perhaps.

29 July 2010

In Banska Stiavnica

Banska Stiavnica was the longest section of my tour of Central Europe (four nights) and it earned this distinction thanks to a recent presentation on the town that I attended at the Slovak Embassy in London.

From this I learnt that the town was architecturally interesting and is surrounded by countryside worth walking through. I'll talk about the town first and leave the countryside for another day.

Banska Stiavnica is not big.

My hotel was on the southern edge of the centre and it took less than five minutes to get there and less than that to pass through the other side.

The town is on the side of a hill, rather than at the bottom which is what I had assumed, so there are no flat roads and every stroll is like a trip to the gym.

The are one"main" road cleaves its way through the town to produce something that looks not unlike an English market town. Only the architecture betrays the location.

The centre is pretty and clean, benefiting from restoration and new paint. There are no stunning buildings, and there are quite a few that have yet to feel the tender caress of restoration, but the overall picture is of a living town that is well proportioned, well loved and well presented.

The Old Castle is on the edge of the town preferring to be close to the action instead of adopting the more usual isolated spot high above it.

The modest walls around the inner building support a walkway that both defies health and safety regulations and provides views over the town that confirm just how close it is in distance and height.

You can see why this is the Old Castle and there is a new one elsewhere.

But what the Old Castle lacks in defensive qualities it more than makes up for with its history clearly revealed by the mix of stone and brick that have been used to extend and rebuild it. It's bit of a mess but it's an interesting mess.

There are also (small) towers to climb and artifacts to examine which all means that time there is well spent.

Climbing back down the steps to the town quickly takes you to the town square.

Here you can see a church, town hall and monument to the plague, all while enjoying a drink and a pizza (incidentally, every restaurant seems to be a pizzeria) but the square lacks focus and it is better to move on.

And just next to the square is the road to move on to. Climbing out of the town in the other direction is a short terrace of neat cottages decorated with roses.

You can easily do all of Banska Stiavnica in half a day but it is not a place to rush as its beauty seeps in rather than directly assaulting you. It is best savoured slowly taking in all the streets, alleys and steps more than once and pausing for a leisurely beer or ice cream when the exertion take its toll.

19 July 2010


I was last in Bratislava some ten years ago and then I stayed several days but this time it was just a brief stop on the long train journey between Brno and Banska Stiavnica. Even in just one day it was easy to spot some of the big differences and also the things that have not changed very much.

The Old Town is still a jumble of narrow cobbled streets clustering around the Town Square for comfort.

Lining the streets are baroque buildings in various states of repair but all with that certain Central European charm.

This is why you go to Bratislava.

What is different now is that tourists have discovered Bratislava and the once quiet empty streets are lined with bars that are busy until early in the morning.

The area between the Old Town and the Danube has been transformed the most and the dark dirty street I remember is now a wide boulevard with fountains, modern art and even more bars.

It also has the friendliest American Embassy that I've come across so far in that you can take photos of it without having armed guards approach you. Yes, I'm talking about you, Budapest.

High above the town the castle dominates the skyline even more than before thanks to its Colgate White finish which becomes even more prominent when darkness falls and the spotlights play on the facade, almost fooling you into thinking it is flying.

Bratislava is not the unspoilt city that it was ten years ago but times change and genies cannot be put back into bottles and clocks cannot be wound bac. But if you ignore the bars and look at the buildings behind it is still a very pretty city and well worth spending a few days in.

15 July 2010

Brno is a very pretty town

It's unfair to blame Brno for the relentless sun and blistering heat that has made exploring it more of an endurance than an exploration at times because under that clear blue sky and bright sun there is a very pretty town.

The old town used to sit inside large walls that were cleared to make room for expansion but the old barrier is still fairly obvious in the street layouts.

Inside the now imaginary walls is quite a small town, it only takes about ten minutes to walk right across is, that shows what happens when you refuse to do any sort of town planning.

The roads meander this way and that coming together frequently in one of the many squares, i.e. open spaces, non of them are very square geometrically.

The overall effect is rather like that The House that Jack Built for Emma Peel and every road you take soon leads you to somewhere that you've been before.

There are no hidden corners.

The Old Town is ridiculously thick with Baroque buildings that have you looking up all the time, camera at the ready.

This example is slightly above average but not particularly so. I chose it more for its averageness than its uniqueness.

There are a few old buildings still waiting to be rescued and a few newer ones that should be quietly demolished but these are the exceptions that prove the rule that Brno is a very pretty town.

Filling the days has been easy with lazy walks between beautiful settings punctuated by exaggerated pauses for rest, food and the local beer Starobrno.

Brno simply did all the things that I hoped it would do.

11 July 2010


I'm in Berlin, to be honest, because it's on the road to where I want to be, Brno, and is a convenient stop on the way. Having decided to stop it here it would have been churlish not to have paused for a day just to see what Berlin has to offer.

Getting here was harder than it should have been due to the theft of signalling equipment delaying the eurostar by 30 minutes when I only had 25 minuted to make the connection to Cologne in Brussels. Got rescheduled easily enough with just two hours to kill in Brussels Midi station (there are better places to kill time) and while guards on both subsequent trains had some issue with the tickets I got to Berlin on the day intended.

It has been hot today. Far too hot for walking around sight-seeing, but that's what I did not having the luxury of a second day here. Regular stops for beers and to sit in the shade got me to the Brandenburg Gate and to Potsdamer Platz so I was happy with the day.

I cannot leave Berlin without saying something about music. Everybody knows the song Vienna and I cannot go there without it intruding on my conciousness all the time. Berlin is the same. The Berlin song that haunts me here, in a nice way, is by Fischer-z from the seriously good album Red Skies over Paradise. It was worth coming here just to live with that song for a day.

9 July 2010

Butterflies at Kew

Any excuse to go to Kew Gardens is a good excuse but exotic butterflies is a rather good one.

A home for them was made at one end of the jagged complex of glass and white steel that some call the Diana Conservatory.

The greenhouse, for that's what it is, has a number of zones that have the feel of being constructed out of the bits of Lego that you have left over after you've built the Millennium Falcon by somebody who has a perverse hatred for order and symmetry.

That's why I love it.

Our butterflies have become rarer over the years so to enter a room thick with them was something of a shock. As was being buzzed by some as big as bats. As also was the bright colours that so few of our native species aspire too.

Most of the butterflies fluttered by incessantly but just a few were kind enough to settle for a while and to pose elegantly for the main keen photographers who braved the unnaturally temperate climate for the opportunity to do.
This was my fourth visit to Kew this year. There will be more.

6 July 2010

Architects build small spaces

Architecture has been a passion of mine for many years and Friday Late at the V&A has become a recent habit so it when the two combined I cast work weariness aside and plunged in.

Architects build in small spaces is an exhibition of, er, small spaces built by architects.

These diverse spaces are spread throughout the museum which adds to the fun greatly as the V&A is wonderfully confusing and exploring it takes you past unexpected pleasures.

Luckily one of the spaces, Ark, was in the central courtyard so was easy to find! It was the only organic space and it worked well surrounded by unnaturally straight walls and windows.

Other spaces included a house on stilts, a block of stone with narrow corridors and small rooms carved in to it and a confusion of white and clear plastic.

Another space was a tall bookcase.

It was several stories high and while it could hold dozens of people only four were allowed in at a time as it wobbled in just the way that you would expect a tall Ikea bookcase to wobble.

The walls were composed of books that you were encourages to pause and read.

The final space I went to was architecturally not that remarkable but I did not realise that I had walked in to a performance until the actors started talking in loud voices. They moved around the structure, a tower of metal and red curtains, squeezing past us voyeurs as they conversed.

It's because of evenings of unexpected delights like this that I keep going back to the V&A.

4 July 2010

Marvelous Macbeth at Glyndebourne

Macbeth at Glyndebourne pressed all the buttons that you want Glyndebourne to press and in the right sequence and with just the right strength to make it an exceptional day out.

Glyndebourne is for sharing and this time we went with some friends that we took for the first time last year.

We arrived in good time to enjoy the gardens and the atmosphere before the opera. And some champagne.

The weather was kind so we were able to picnic on the lawn, or rather on one of the several lawns. We chose a spot close to the pond next to a tall hedge as it offered protection against the slight breeze.

The long interval is a fantastic idea. Having something to eat is obviously useful but the point of the interval is to relax with friends and to enjoy the simple pleasure of being outside in beautiful surroundings.

The opera is rather important too!

The music of Verdi's Macbeth is very approachable and the plot is not bad either.

This production is quite modern and quite simple. There is not much clutter on the stage but what is there is visually striking. I loved the 60s style caravans that the three witches lived in.

I also loved that the three witches were actually more like thirty with a group of identically dressed women for each part.

This time we had gone for the cheap seats (around £65!) which meant sitting right at the top and right at the back. But even from there the stage was clearly visible and the music carried effortlessly. I'd sat in that part of the opera house before and much prefer it to equivalently priced tickets that are closer but at the side or right at the front.

Everything I have described so far was good, or better, but what really lifted the evening was the solo singing. There are several leading roles in Macbeth and there was lots of powerful and dramatic singing but whenever Lady Macbeth sang her voice seemed to fill the hall and to slow things down so that everything revolved around her words and music. Just stunning.

Glyndebourne never disappoints, is usually very good and on nights like this it is majestic.

3 July 2010

Three more gorgeous local gardens

The Summer Season of prying into private gardens continues apace with three more in Richmond, all with interesting stories.

The Trumpeters' House commands a large plot of land between Richmond Green and The Thames.

The house itself is vast but occupies just a relatively small corner of the garden the rest of which is sweetly organised in to distinct areas (all large) each with their own character.

The long lawn sweeps down from the house to the river, turning right there takes you in to a courtyard bristling with wild flowers and turning back to the house takes you past regimental borders of mixed flowers and finally past a neat lawn guarded by two neat lines of trees.

In amongst the central flower beds, two water features mix the mood adding touches of tranquillity, slow movement and gentle noises. One of the water features is hidden by bushes and is only betrayed by the sounds it makes. The other is this large pond that proudly announces its presence and compels you to linger a while to enjoy the moment.

Ormeley Lodge is the former home of Zac Goldsmith, already famous he is now more so now that he is MP for Richmond Park.

The garden is carefully designed, like pieces from a construction set put together. There are straight lines everywhere, mostly tall hedges that divide the garden in to separate compartments for flowers, vegetables, tennis, swimming and playing.

The area furthest away from the house has been abandoned to wild flowers that rejoice in their freedom with a cloud of colour.

This garden in St Helena Terrace fits a lot of design in three dimensions in to a small place.

The more long than wide garden starts with a high viewing area, dips down in the middle then up to a studio at the far end. Two hemispheres of stone and brick defining the shape.

Water thick with lilies separates the two hemispheres but this can be crossed simply by ignoring the snake's anger and treading on him gently.

The rest of the garden is heavy with plants, many of them clustered in pots, and with just a few odd ornaments, such as a stone frog, to catch the careful eye.

Three gardens that all easily justify the time spent in them and the charitable donation it takes to get in.

1 July 2010

BCSA Garden Party 2010

In a hectic Summer Season the BCSA Garden Party stands out as one of the main events and this year it more than lived up to expectations.

It is held in the communal gardens of the Czech and Slovak Embassies in London which is well disposed to this with its courtyard layout and the large stepped paved area around the lawn.

It is here that Karpaty entertained us with their traditional Slovak folk music and dancing. This was much appreciated and some of the people who knew the songs added their own whoops at the appropriate moments.

The food was laid out inside the Czech Embassy. Also there was a tidy bar with a rather lively keg of Czech beer. Having to wait a while for each glass may not have been a bad thing!

Other attractions included a Romany band who played from the raised terrace by the Slovak Embassy and a raffle where I was persuaded to buy several tickets and got the expected no prizes.

But the main reason for being there is the people.

Here the steps outside the Czech Embassy are packed with people eating, drinking and mostly talking.

Among them are Richard, who I've known for the best part of twenty years, and Pavel, who I met more recently at another of the BCSA socials.

Also here are people that I did not know before the day but got to know through mutual friends.

The party ended with a bang when the Romany band played their second set and easily persuaded people to dance along. Even me.

The mood was really high then and a group of us retired to the pub across the road to continue the conversations and the getting-to-know-yous until frantic looking at watches suggested that it was really time to go home or risk being stranded in Central London all night.

A really superb day in so many way. It's just a shame that it only happens once a year.