Banking on love
A mining town in Slovakia is home to a unique museum that safeguards love mementoes
On a bright sunny morning, in the heart of Banska Stiavnica, a small mining town about 170 km from Bratislava, a couple eagerly waits for the clock to strike half past nine. “Just seven more minutes,” the woman tells her boyfriend of seven years, her eyes fixed on the black iron gate of an old building. Soon to be her husband, the man counts the seconds with his arms around her.
They are outside the Love Bank, a unique Slovakian museum that is said to have one lakh drawers.
Andrea and Tomas are college sweethearts who have travelled 80 km to immortalise their love with an act that has earned cult status among countless couples — keeping mementoes in the safety of the museum’s drawers.
Lovers down the decades have been inspired by the legend of Andrej and Marina, the couple whose love story led to the creation of this museum. However, unlike the many who visit the Love Bank, Andrej and Marina did not have a happily ever after.
Marina’s affluent parents — in keeping with the age-old poor boy-rich girl trope — decided to separate the teenaged lovers by getting their daughter married to a wealthy gingerbread maker. A heartbroken Andrej, who was Marina’s tutor, turned to priesthood for solace. His love for Marina found expression in a poem (titled Marina) he wrote for her in 1846. The “world’s longest love poem” runs into 2,910 lines and is read widely across Slovakia.
I follow Andrea and Tomas into the museum — which has come up in the house where Marina grew up. I watch from a distance as they sign up for a life membership and deposit their first token of love — two heart-shaped pendants — in a tiny vault. Around them are scores of visitors in all age groups. Some are with children in tow while many are in the company of partners and friends. Interestingly, there are several singles too, and the array of love mementoes ranges from letters to cinema tickets. I spot a mother preserving the scan of her five-month-old foetus. Minutes later, I find another girl putting a photo of her pet dog in a box. Everywhere I find couples clicking selfies with the vaults in the backdrop.
Exhibition manager Katarína Javorská, who takes me around the museum, says that each love box bears a piece of the original manuscript of Andrej’s historic poem. A love box here comes at a price — €50 for a year and €100 for a lifetime. This Valentine’s Day, however, many visitors got the chance to get a love box for free. “Our mission is to bring more love to the world. You can also preserve your love for art, nature, even food,” says Javorská.
Among the many exhibits at Love Bank is the popular “love-o-meter”. Couples flock to this curious contraption to “measure the strength of their love”. They hold hands as they touch the handle of the machine, which then supposedly “gauges the electricity in their bodies” and puts out a verse from the Marinathat “best describes their love”. The technology of this machine is still “a big secret”, says Javorská, adding that it unfailingly brings smiles and joy to those who are willing to experiment.
The next section transports me to the 19th century, through an interactive exhibition, with talking portraits bringing alive the Andrej-Marina saga. Outside the museum, I find scores of people queueing up for the perfect “love pose” against the building. Some attach love locks to a metal frame, much like tourists in Paris do at the Pont des Arts.
When I had planned my trip to Banska Stiavnica, the ‘Silver Town’ of medieval ages, I had not even heard of the Love Bank. Else I, too, would have made use of its drawers. Nonetheless, it gives me another reason to revisit this Unesco-protected town that seems lost in time — one where people are in no hurry to get anywhere and where the cafés are always running full.
Banska Stiavnica urges you to slow down and walk around its churches and mansions that once belonged to rich miners. Cowering in the hills above it are small houses that were home to the ordinary miner. No one knows if love stories — of the kind that the museum celebrates — blossomed in the lanes that led to the mines. But once you are in Banska Stiavnica, love will find you.
Archana Singh is a freelance writer based in Delhi