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The past, present and future of Banská Štiavnica

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The night is falling on the ancient Slovak mining town of Banská Štiavnica. It’s 7pm on the second Friday of September, and hundreds of men wearing black miners’ uniforms are lining up at the lower end of the town to set out for a march along the main street to the historical centre in the light of torches and lamps. The centuries-old miners’ rite, called the Salamander march, recalls a legend. According to lore, a shepherd found two lizards covered with golden and silver dust, which is how gold was found in Štiavnica. Today, the animal species salamandra salamandra is threatened with extinction. The miners in Banská Štiavnica are not much better off. All of the exhausted and unprofitable mines in the vicinity of the town were closed down years ago, and the golden age is over.

The Celts used to extract gold in what is now Banská Štiavnica as early as the third century before Christ. In the Middle Ages, “terra banensium” was the biggest source of precious metals in the Hungarian empire, and was just as important for the Habsburgs. Contemporary records show that in 1690 alone gold output reached 605kg and silver output 29,000kg. A regular at the U jaštěríc (Lizard) cafe offers a theory on where the treasure ended up: “They used it to build Vienna!” And it was not just the Austrian capital. In the late 18th century, Banská Štiavnica with 23,000 residents was the third-largest town in Hungary, behind Bratislava and Debrecen. The then wealth is still fascinating. On the original gothic foundations of the town emerged grand renaissance palaces and baroque landmarks such as Nový zámok and Kalvária. 

Banská Štiavnica is a town made up of layers and several horizons. Apart from a patrician palace and a baroque church at the front, the visitor can see, on the second or third look, what was built on the hillsides above: the Klopačka tower, Starý zámok, burghers’ houses, miners’ houses … The visible town on the surface is then accompanied by a second “invisible town” under the ground, a network of mine tunnels dozens of kilometres long and hundreds of metres deep. 

Writer Anton Hykisch has lived in Bratislava for a few decades already and worked as ambassador to Canada for four years, but he still returns to his native town. Asked what is the most valued about urbanism in Štiavnica, he gave a prompt and short answer: “The symbiosis between the human being and nature, between the old and the new.” Even though there were ore mines right in the town, their operation left no environmental damage. For example, the town’s new presentable centre – Námestie svätej Trojice (the Holy Trinity Square), with its monumental plague column – was built right above the extracted mine tunnels.

Best times under Maria Theresia
The iron gate in one of the oldest mining tunnels in the centre of the town of Glanzenberg is opening, and tourists wearing helmets on their heads disappear under the ground. More than 150 years ago, on 7 July 1852, Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Joseph I went down the tunnel in Glanzenberg. To show his satisfaction with the work the miners had done, he ordered an extraordinary three-day wage for them.

During the Austro-Hungarian Empire, described by 19th-century nationalistic movements as a “prison of nations”, Slovaks, Hungarians, Carpathian Germans, Catholics, Protestants and Jews lived together in the cosmopolitan Banská Štiavnica. “The best times were under Maria Theresia,” the locals say. But, at the end of the 19th century, the ore was exhausted and mining had declined and become unprofitable. The pits were closed down, and not just because Vienna feared social upheavals. The foundation of Czechoslovakia led to the escape of the Hungarian intellectual elite in 1919, and the Mining and Forestry Academy, the first technical university in the world, was moved to the Hungarian town of Sopron and later to Miskolc. Banská Štiavnica started to experience economic and cultural decline. After the 1948 communist coup, the new government promoted heavy industry, including mining, but did not care about the cultural heritage or sights. Residents began to leave the neglected town centre for prefab blocks of flats on the outskirts. 

The Velvet Revolution of 1989 brought more radical changes. In the new conditions of the market economy, mines were closed down, the tobacco and textile plants went bankrupt. The town of 11,000 residents suddenly lost 4,000 jobs. The latest blow came three years ago, when two university faculties moved away, with hundreds of students and dozens of employees disappearing.

The decline in purchasing power is apparent. After 4pm, bored shop assistants are hanging around in front of their stores and the town becomes empty. Most businesses close by five. The streets now belong to lone walkers and to groups of young people shifting from one pub to another.

Mr Lederleiter’s heartache
Jozef Lederleiter worked in the mines for 24 years. He came to the Salamander march wearing a ceremonial black uniform. “My heart is aching,” he says when talking about the end of mining in Banská Štiavnica. But Lederleiter refuses to give up. “I am completely convinced that mining will start again. The prices of raw materials are growing, and mining will be profitable again. There are still some reserves left underground.”

The Canadian company Tourningan Energy sought to resume gold extraction in the nearby town of Kremnica, which also has a rich mining history and a functioning mint. However, its citizens reject the idea resolutely, fearing environmental damage. They see the town’s future in tourism development. Banská Štiavnica Mayor Pavol Balžanka warns against a full dependence on visitors, however: “The tourism industry will be of key importance for the future of Banská Štiavnica, but we cannot rely on it completely.”

For its extraordinary qualities, the locality, cultivated for centuries, was added to the UNESCO List of World Heritage Sites in 1993. “It is a matter of prestige, a label of quality,” Balžanka says. There are more than 1,000 beds available in Banská Štiavnica, with new projects for luxury hotels being prepared. There is even a new ski slope with artificial snow to attract visitors during the wintertime. Before the global crisis broke out, the difficult period of the town’s transformation seemed to be over. Several midsized businesses emerged there; unemployment dropped to a bearable 13%. But the crisis has reversed the favourable trend.

Balžanka regards immigrants as new potential: “We are interested in people outside the consumption mainstream, people preferring a nice, calm environment to shopping centres.” A nightmare for investors and logistics planners – a town with such poor access and complicated terrain that “even the Turks” failed to conquer it – is attractive for those searching for a calm and interesting place to live. Artists, architects and IT specialists have already discovered Štiavnica’s charm. In other words, people who can work from home using the internet and who appreciate the inspiring environment. 

Common past, but a present full of conflicts
Walking around Banská Štiavnica, András Nagy, 28, in his black uniform with appliqués and badges, looks a bit punk. “I am a metallurgist from Hungary,” he introduces himself. His great-great-grandfather studied in Štiavnica, but left for Hungary in 1919 after Czechoslovakia was established. “The town declined after the Hungarians left,” Nagy says of the painful period in history. In the evening, he proudly carries a flag in the Salamander march.

Many Hungarians coming to Banská Štiavnica still have a relationship with the town because their alma mater, the technical university in Miskolc, is the successor to the Banská Štiavnica mining academy. After all, the town is closer to Budapest than it is to Bratislava. Slovak-Hungarian relations have never been worse in recent decades than they are this year. A controversial language law is thought to be aimed at Hungarians living in Slovakia, and many Slovaks suspect Hungarians, until now frustrated by 1920’s Treaty of Trianon, of wanting to rewrite history and change the structure of Europe. Slovakia even refused to let Hungarian President László Sólyom into the country when he wanted to reveal the statue of St Stephen in Komárno, an unprecedented move in the European Union. On the day preceding the Salamander march, the prime ministers of both countries met to ease the tension. 

The cosmopolitan history of Banská Štiavnica shows that living together can be much more inspiring than living in an ethnically homogenous society. Still hanging on the former grammar school building at the Holy Trinity Square is a plate dedicated to two outstanding poets of both nations: Sandor Pötefi and Andrej Sládkovič, who studied there. And, when the Hungarians walk in the Salamander march, the audience applauds. They like to see Hungarians wearing black miner’s uniforms rather than those wearing black uniforms of the neofascist Hungarian Guard. The organisers even believe that the Salamander festival could bring a turnaround in mutual relations. But they are so damaged that a single local festivity cannot change the situation.

The Salamander march goes ahead along the ancient Kammerhofská street into the very heart of the town, the Radničné square. Thousands of people applaud miners in black uniforms. The men chant “Zdař Bůh!”, the traditional miners’ greeting, while crossing from one side of the street to another and holding miner’s lamps. The spectacular movement of lights recalls the way salamanders walk.

Gold was exhausted in Banská Štiavnica; the mining profession no longer exists there. But, once a year, the mythical salamander revives and so do the memories of the good times.

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