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Growing up in the Colorado mountains, I was always surrounded by mines. But I never went into one, until a recent trip to Eastern Europe. In the heart of Europe, we visited the Slovak Mining Museum (commonly called the Open Air Mining Museum Banská Štiavnica) to learn about mining techniques and how it changed the people and the country.
While the town of Banská Štiavnica is a remarkable specimen of medieval small-town life in central Slovakia, it is unlikely the town would be much more than a few small huts in the steep valley between the Paradajz and Glanzenberg mountains if it weren’t for the unique geology (technically, this valley is actually part of an ancient volcano caldera).
Banska Stiavnica sits atop The Theresa Vein – one of the world’s most lucrative silver deposits in the Middle Ages. The silver brought tremendous wealth to Banska Stiavnica and made it the third largest town in the entire Hungarian Empire (and the oldest mining town in what is now Slovakia).
At the Slovak Mining Museum (called the Banska Stiavnica Muzeum in Slovak), we learned that the first known miners were the Celts in the 3rd century BC, although it is probable that surface mining was occurring in the region as early as the 8th century BC. Written records of the mining activity in region date from the middle of the 12th century.
But the year 1627 etched Banska Stiavnica mining into the history books forever: for the first time, gunpowder and explosives were used in mining. The rest is history. Over the next 200 years, many of the world’s pioneering advancements in mining, metallurgy, forestry (it takes a lot of wood to mine) and chemistry took place in this tiny little valley.
We came to Banska Stiavnica because the town is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, both for the town, as well as the important mining advancements and technical achievements that took place here. Thankfully, the museum explains both. We were able to quickly see why they call it an open-air museum – the surface is filled with small buildings creating a kind of “living history” village to show mining operations.
The central structure of the open air mining museum was a church. The museum uses the building to show a brief 15 minute video (thankfully in English) explaining the site and mining operations as well as brief visitors on what they will experience in the mine.
Our guide, Magdalena Valkovicova, explained that the miners would meet in the church each morning before descending into the mine to work. Throughout the day, we followed in the miners footsteps: safety gear, into the mine, exiting the mine and debrief. In a way, the museum takes great pains to actually make you feel like a miner.
Our next stop was a long, wooden building to receive our safety gear: hardhats; bright, long yellow coats and flashlights. At the time, I thought the hardhats were a little comical and we posed for a picture. I had expected the mine tour to be sanitized for tourists, but there were several points where I banged my head and was thankful for the protection.
At each point in the tour, our dutiful guide Magdalena explained how mining had evolved over time. First, the Celts dug for surface deposits and then later in the Middle Ages when the rock was extracted from within the mountain to be sorted on the surface.
Finally, the miners dug the rock and sorted it underground, leaving the tailings within shafts and caverns underground. Most of the mines in Banska Stiavnica are horizontal tunnels into the mountain paired with vertical shafts sunk deep inside the mine.
In fact, most of the buildings in the town have mine entrances on their first level. Our hotel, the Penzion Cosmopolitan II, was no exception — just behind the hotel’s front desk is a mine tunnel leading back into the mountain. The hotel uses it as a wine cellar/art gallery today.
At the museum, we entered the Bartolomej (Bartholomew) tunnel horizontally before descending into part of The Ondrej Shaft, which dates back to the 17th century. Inside the tunnels at the Open-Air Mining Museum, informative panels explain the evolution of mining from the Middle Ages to the present. Technical exhibits show how drilling technology and transporting the ore within the mine (the carts and trains) has progressed over the years.
We really didn’t know what to expect when visiting the Slovak Mining Museum, but we had a great time and found it to be an extremely informative experience. For an hour, we felt like we were miners in Banska Stiavnica’s most visited attraction. Since visiting the Banska Stiavnica mines, I think about metals differently.
Slovak Mining Museum Visitor Information
Hours for the Museum
From April-June open Tuesday-Sunday from 9:00am-5:00pm. From July-August open Monday from 12:00pm-5:00pm and Tuesday-Sunday from 9:00am-6:00pm. From September-October open Tuesday-Sunday from 9:00am-5:00pm. These times are for the surface exhibits.
Slovak Mining Museum Tours
Tours into the mine are only available when there is a minimum of 5 visitors. During peak periods, this is no problem as there are always plenty of visitors. During the summer (May-September), tours into the mine are on the hour. In off-season, tours are only available at 9:00, 12:00 and 15:00. However, times are subject to change, so have your hotel or the Banská Štiavnica Tourist Information Centre call for you.
€8.00 for adults. To take photos, a photo license is required for €2.00.
Where is the Slovak Mining Museum?
Located 1.5km from the Banska Stiavnica town center on Jozefa Karola Hella road. There is limited on-road parking on Jozefa Karola Hella and a small lot opposite the Open-Air Mining Museum Banska Stiavnica.
Website: http://www.muzeumbs.sk (Some parts of the website have limited information in English).
Accommodations: Check the current prices on lodging in Banska Stiavnica.
We were the grateful guests of the Slovak Tourist Board. As always, all opinions are our own.
And because you can never have too many pictures, here are few more from our visit: