Bratislava's best cafe? ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Avra Kehdabra

Wifi: Alright.

Even when I don’t write about Bratislava for a few weeks on here, something wells within me which I can only describe as a pit of hunger. Not hunger for food, per se, or for Slovak food particularly, but for kicking back in one of Bratislava’s charming little cafes or bars, imbibing the atmosphere (and yes, sustenance is likely to play a part sooner or later). Slovakia’s capital city inspires nostalgia in precisely this way: initiating withdrawal symptoms in the punters who have partaken of its cafes mighty quickly after they settle their bills and walk out the door. For Bratislava is about its cafe culture as much as its bar culture and probably more than its restaurant culture. Forget your over-crowded Viennas and Budapests if it is nursing a beverage for hours in chilled surrounds. Bratislava has been watching and learning of recent years how to concoct sublime coffee (and it never forgot how to serve tea in all its fabulous forms; just see our history of coffee and tea culture in Slovakia). And the city has become adept at fashioning attractive nooks to slurp your coffee or tea, too. Case in point (indeed, best case in point): Avra Kehdabra.

Ah yes, those two little words that have incited magic tricks a-plenty in their time denote, on one of Bratislava’s most enticing streets, perhaps the best example of a cafe in the Old Town…

MAP LINK

OPENING: 7:30am-10pm Monday to Friday, 2pm to 10pm Saturday

BEST TIME TO VISIT: Avra Kehdabra gets popular at odd times of the day: sometimes with work-shirking students, sometimes with visitors in wonder, like many of us, at the city’s tucked-away little eateries. But late afternoon to early evening on a weekday should see you grab a table without forgoing the buzz of the place.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Avra Kehdabra it’s 450m northwest to one of the city’s best bistros, Bistro St Germain

Waiting for tea ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Waiting for tea ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

 

Museum of the Slovak National Uprising

Banská Bystrica: Uncovering the Beauty in the Brutalism

Banská Bystrica, vying for fourth place with Nitra in the pecking order of Slovakia’s most populous cities, has the right to feel a tad hard done by: few other places of such importance within a country are so little written about or visited. In Banská Bystrica’s case, the reason may be the nearby drop-dead-gorgeous Unesco town of Banská Štiavnica clinging prettily to the sides of the Štiavnica mountains, for which visitors reserve their time in Central and Southern Slovakia. And the preference is understandable. It’s probably fueled in part by articles such as these which, even when they purport to be writing about Banská Bystrica, go off on a tangent about Banská Štiavnica instead…

A Brief History of BB

But the bigger “BB”, as well as being the closest city to the centre of Slovakia (and, by extension, the Geographical Centre of Europe), represents a centre of Slovakia in many other ways, and for its resonant role in Slovak history is well-deserving of a few hours of your time before you catch that bus to “BS”. “BB” is the capital of Central and Southern Slovakia, for one thing. It’s said that the most intrinsically ‘Slovak’ accent is that of folks from the city A leading light for the nation in mining since medieval times (the numerous veins of copper that lace the surroundings are considered Banská Bystrica’s lucky charm, and gave rise to its riches – the very prefix ‘Banská denotes it as a mining settlement), a leader in education since the early 20th century (its university is considered one of Slovakia’s most prestigious) and a leader in culture to this day (the country’s best museum, Muzeum SNP, is located here), the city’s chief fame came about as a result of its place at the heart of the Slovak National Uprising in 1944. This critical event in Slovak history, representing Slovakia’s rising up against Nazism, had its roots in Banská Bystrica, and protests raged daily in the city centre for 60 days during the Uprising’s zenith (August 29th through to October 27th).

Totemic Brutalist Beauty

All of these factors paved the way, during Communism, for the construction of some of the most fabulous Brutalist buildings in the country (Soviets, after all, liked to champion their defeat of Nazism by raising bombastic structures). Authorities today prefer to focus on the city’s 18th-century burghers houses on the main square, or the proximity to some glorious nature to advertise tourism but the best way to get under the skin of BB is to explore its Brutalist-era architecture (the key to understanding BB’s place in Slovakia today). This stroll around the seven seminal Communist constructions in the city centre shows you how… and illustrates that architecture behind the Iron Curtain was about far more than bland breeze-blocks…

1: Railway Station & Around (including Ulica 29. Augusta’s prototype housing estate and Slovenská Pošta’s Post Office Tower)…

Almost as soon as you alight from the train, the tour begins – with the station itself, completed in 1951 with striking interior stained glass (one of the country’s more impressive railway terminals). The main street leading into town from here, 29. August, takes its name from the date when the Slovak National Uprising kicked off. The street, perhaps appropriately, boasts some of the most classic examples of early Socialist housing in Slovakia in the residential blocks of flats on this thoroughfare. Completed in 1955 after initial plans were laid in 1939, the blocks of flats exhibit the ideals Socialist construction was always meant to have: green spaces, play areas for children and a general interweaving into the fabric of the city (as opposed to later Socialist housing which was often designed without considering such factors). These apartment blocks usher the just-arrived up to the dominant Post Office Tower of Slovenská Pošta at the end of the street. The 16-floor building was constructed in 1972.

2: The City Council of Banská Bystrica…

Turn left at the Post Office Tower on Partizánska Cesta (onto Českoslovenkej Armády) and you arrive, after a couple of blocks, at the edifice representing the heyday of Socialist construction in the city (and indeed, the last building of this type to the built here). The imposing Neoclassic entrance fronts two expansive wings of what are now the offices of the city council.

3: Matej Bel University – Faculty of Law…

A diversion from the Brutalist gems of the city centre lies a kilometre north up Komenského at the Matej Bel University’s Faculty of Law campus. Built for the ideological education of members of the Slovak Communist Party, it now houses an education facility of a different kind: and one that tops its field as far as Slovakia goes. It was designed as the landmark building of the city’s Brutalist portfolio, and sports some landmark paintings by the artists Jaroslav Kubička and Pavol Uhrík.

4: VUB Banka (the General Credit Bank)…

Backtracking to the city council offices on Českoslovenkej Armády, then continuing west two blocks to turn south (left) on Námestie Slobody, you hit what is now VUB Banka, what was the General Credit Bank and what was originally the National Bank of Czechoslovakia. Originally intended to be a theatre, the building plans were altered at the last minute to adapt it to one suitable for a financial institution. Its shape (a 5-storey cube) together with the smallness of the windows with their tavertine surrounds overlaid by aluminum are to evoke the ideas of strength and security, apparently (good virtues for a bank to have).

Hotel Lux - © www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Hotel Lux – © www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

5: Hotel Lux…

Perhaps the most hilarious collision of Communism and Capitalism anywhere in Slovakia, the first “modern” (read: 1969) hotel in the city stands 16 impassive grey floors of reinforced concrete high: as austerely Communist as hotels get. The sign on the roof, proclaiming “Coca Cola” emits a slightly different message, however. It’s nevertheless emblematic of the quality end of Communist-esque building expansion in the 1970s, just before a paucity of finances heralded a leaner and more low budget period of construction (which lasted until the Wall came down in 1989). Testament to this are, amongst other features, the ceramic artworks by Jaroslav Kubička and the glasswork by L’ubomir Blecha. The Lux (and in 1969, perhaps, it really was) backs onto the park where the star of Brutalism in BB, Muzeum SNP, also sits. If you need refreshment (or a place to stay) in your architectural journey, the Lux is the place to partake without diverting from theme. It’s been serving guests since March 20th 1970. Actually, the restaurant is alright.

6: Muzeum SNP (Museum of the Slovak National Uprising)…

Museum of the Slovak National Uprising

Museum of the Slovak National Uprising – image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The Eternal Flame blazes yet in-between the divide of the talismanic split (i.e. hewn in two) cylinder that houses the nation’s best museum, Muzeum SNP. No other museum in Slovakia deals with its subject matter so thoroughly or informatively. This National Cultural Monument won a 1959 architectural competition and was completed in 1969, as part of the same park development that saw the nearby Hotel Lux erected. Dušan Kuzma and Jozef Jankovič were the main men responsible for the realisation of the building. Its distinctive exterior alone would warrant a mention, dramatised further by the flights of steps on the approach, but the museum inside should not be missed. It charts the circumstances leading up to, and the results of the Slovak National Uprising of 1944, cleverly setting developments in Slovakia alongside world developments in the same period between 1918 and 1944.

May-September 9am-6pm, October-April 9am-4pm; Admission 2 Euros

7: Plaváreñ Štiavničky…

Time to cool off after your crash course in everything relating to the Brutalist second half of the 20th century in BB – with a dip in a Socialist swimming pool. To get there head west (but not WEST if you know what we’re saying) along Kuzmanyho 1.8km to reach the park containing this Modernist marvel from 1966 (with a 2010 revamp thrown in to give it a sauna and another Wellness facilities.)

Banská Bystrica from above - the more conventionally beautiful part!

Banská Bystrica from above – the more conventionally beautiful part! ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

MAP LINK: (each starred point is a stop on the above tour)

GETTING THERE: Trains (although perhaps not as many as there should be) connect Bratislava with Banská Bystrica direct nine times daily, roughly every two hours from 6:01am until 8:01pm. Travel time is 3 hours 24 minutes and cost is 10.46 Euros.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From the “centre” of Banská Bystrica, it’s 54km northeast to the beautifully-located Hotel Srdiečko at the foot of the Low Tatras mountains, from where you can embark on getting to the top of the best Low Tatras peaks in a rather intriguing way…

I WANT MORE ON BRUTALISM: We don’t blame you. Try A Ludicrous Little Tour Through the Communist Legacy in Slovakia or, for something more Bratislava focused, Inside the Upside-down Pyramid. or even Where to Get High in Bratislava (which has some Communist-esque stop-offs). That will sate your appetite (we hope) until we can bring you even more. And we will. Soon.

 

Vel'ky Rozsutec seen from the top of Chleb - image courtesy of Mike Clapham/Milan Šaradin

Capturing Malá Fatra: How A Photographer Transformed the Perception of a Slovak National Park

Sometimes, on rare, rare occasions, you come across someone in the annals of history who utterly transformed the place in which they lived. In the Malá Fatra National Park in Northern Slovakia, that person was Milan Šaradin. The rediscovery of thousands of Šaradin’s photographs by his granddaughter Maria Clapham and her husband, Mike, prompted them to shine the spotlight on this influential individual once more. Over the last few years the couple have been creating a fabulous online resource on Šaradin and his images, which stunningly document life and traditions in rural Slovakia over a seminal period in the country’s development between the 1940s and 1980s. Here, Mike Clapham tells the fascinating story…

Two young children enjoying the Blueberry which grows in abundance in the mountains of Slovakia - image courtesy of Mike Clapham/Milan Šaradin

Two young children enjoying the Blueberry which grows in abundance in the mountains of Slovakia – image courtesy of Mike Clapham/Milan Šaradin

Words by Mike Clapham

It is best if I begin by telling you a bit about myself, and my wife, and how the discovery of thousands of the famous Slovak photographer Milan Šaradin’s long-lost images, many in reels of film stashed away in storage chests, took place…

Roots

I was born in Sussex in the UK, in a small village called Framfield and never left that area, apart from occasional trips for work. But I have always had a very keen interest in photography, with a particular leaning towards blank-and-white images, and spent much of my early life in a darkroom. This fascination has remained with me to this day, along with the transition into digital photography and all that it entails. My other great interest has been computing, and I have been building my own systems for the last two decades. Both passions would prove very useful when it came to what my wife and I would unearth years later in a small town in the heart of one of Slovakia’s most beautiful national parks.

My wife Maria is Slovak, born in the mountain-rimmed Vrátna valley in Malá Fatra national park. Her childhood, as one might expect in such a stunning part of the world, was, she assures me, idyllic. She lived in a chalet next to the Chleb chairlift, learning to ski from a very early age and passing a great deal of time in the surrounding mountains cultivating a knowledge of the area that would likewise prove to huge value to the discovery.

In 1998 she left Slovakia for England to work, and this was how we met. Whilst we remained living in the UK, we regularly returned to Slovakia to see her family and it was during one of these visits that I began to learn about her family and in particular her grandfather Milan Šaradin (See Milan Šaradin: Life at a Glance, below).

Everything about the man was interesting but the thing that caught my imagination most of all was that he had been a famous and prolific photographer in Slovakia, with an emphasis on this area from the mid 1930s till he died in 1984.

The discovery that I made was that literally hundreds of his photographs were still around with, most importantly of all, boxes of negatives which had never been seen by anyone – not even by Šaradin himself – because they were still in rolls in the cans, developed but not printed. For a lot of people, this would have been an astounding find, but for a photographer like myself, nothing short of amazing.

Now we fast-forward to 2007, when Maria and I began to build a chalet to live here in Terchová (see Modern-Day Malá Fatra Snaps, below) and a couple of years later we left England and moved here permanently to discover all about this incredible country and its people.

Tiesnavy Pass, the only route into Vratna - image courtesy of Mike Clapham/Milan Šaradin

Tiesnavy Pass, the only route into Vratna – image courtesy of Mike Clapham/Milan Šaradin

Taking on the Past

By 2012, we had our life over here sorted out. And then came a different sort of sort-out: we approached Maria’s grandmother to ask if we could take all the negatives and photos that belonged to her husband so that I could scan them in to my computer with a view to making a website, putting them there for everyone to see. This she was happy for us to do, so we gathered up all the boxes and took them to our chalet to begin the work…… oh, if only we had known what we were taking on!

Just imagine how it was for me to open the boxes and find inside hundreds of envelopes and reels of film. This amounted to thousand upon thousand of negatives, in singles and strips, with barely any explanatory information. You have to realise that these negatives had been sitting in a cellar since 1984: people had been allowed to come and look for the odd picture once in a while, so they had basically been disrupted from any order that might have existed. Because of their many years in the cellar many were damaged by damp, which rendered them unusable.

So I decided to just start salvaging what I could, first scanning them and opting to sort them out by adding information as to the locations and people in the pictures afterwards. It soon became apparent that there were many more than I first thought. We have never counted them but by a rough estimate we think there are approximately 8000.

For those who are interested in the technical side of the scanning I will list the equipment and software used at the end of the article. (see Tech Spec: How Šaradin’s Images Were Preserved, below).

End in Site: Towards Making the Preserved Images A Reality

So I embarked on what turned out to be a long, long job: nearly four years to be exact! Nevertheless it was a magical time. Every time I put new negatives in the scanner I would find something that was too good to keep to myself and would call Maria to have a look. I think when I reached 2000 images I decided to start sorting through them more intensely and publish them on a website – at first it was my own site, and then I purchased the existing site in Milans name. And this, at long last, is the result: www.milansaradin.com.

Anyone who has ever done anything like this will know how many tasks are involved. First we had to identify each image, who or what it was and when it was taken. Very few of the images came with any accompanying detail: no locations, no names and worst of all no dates of when they were taken.

I believe this part of the process took the longest to do. It was necessary to ask family, friends and indeed anyone who could give us any information. For me this was a great learning curve. I learnt the names of mountains, valleys, villages, towns, people and events that I would never have known had it not been for this discovery. Some people even hinted that I probably knew more about the area than those who lived here. I don’t know about that but I gained a lot of knowledge about this place I live in thanks to Milan.

Eventually, anyway, we gained a database of pictures. We put most of them online and continued to scan the rest. To date I have around 4500 black and white plus 500 colour images on my computer and I estimate this to be roughly 60% of the total number of negatives – the best quality ones to be precise. On the website at the moment I have nearly 3500 pictures but I am in the process of redesigning – with the end intention of having 5000 there for all to see.

Šaradin’s Significance Today

Our thinking has always been that these photographs are of such historical value to the area that they need to be seen by everyone from the people who lived during the period the images cover down to the younger generation who never saw what it was like then. But the body of work as a whole is of immense value to a wider demographic. It spans a huge chunk of Slovakia’s recent past from the 1940s through to the 1980s, and shows unusual glimpses into how people lived, worked and played: an important insight not only into the times but also, in a country as seldom documented or championed as Slovakia is, an insight into the foundations of Slovak culture during almost the entirety of its time under Communism. All this feels, in short, like a glimpse into something which would otherwise forever have remained hidden.

Construction of the Cable Car- image courtesy of Mike Clapham/Milan Šaradin

The end of the ski season at Chleb – image courtesy of Mike Clapham/Milan Šaradin

Milan Šaradin (1910-1984): Life at a Glance

During his life Šaradin was a keen photographer, but also a campaigner for the conservation of the environment, civic developer, sports personality and publicist.

1930 – 1937 He worked as a Typographer in Zilina for a print company called Krano.

1939 – 1944 He was manager of a Malá Fatra mountain hotel in Štefanová, during which time the hotel was burned down, amongst many others in the area, by the Germans.

1944-1947 After the war he organised the rebuilding of Malá Fatra’s most popular mountain house, Chata pod Chlebom (Chalet under Chleb).

1947-1962 From 1947 he organised the building of the main chair lift in Vrátna and also played a role in the construction of other lifts in the Vrátna area. Then for a time he was the man in charge of the area’s chairlifts. He co-founded the Mountain Rescue Service in Vrátna, which became the Malá Fatra region’s key Mountain Rescue base. Mainly due to his dedication and love of the local area, he founded the first tourism centre for Terchová and its surroundings.

1962-1967 He was so successful in promoting the area that Vrátna was added, in 1962, to the international category for tourism and five years later (1967) he helped Vrátna to become an Area of Outstanding National Beauty and ultimately the National Park (národný park) of Malá Fatra that exists today.

Besides his many publications, in 1996 during Janošíkové dni (an annual festival in honour of the region’s fabled outlaw, Juraj Jánošík), Šaradin’s work was included as part of the Vrátna – Malá Fatra exhibition. A book was also produced, “Veď je tá Terchová” which contains many of Milan’s photographs. He was also an active member of a climbing club, IAMES, and he received many awards for his work with the mountain rescue service, tourism, skiing and climbing.

The majority of his work was dedicated to this beautiful area that he loved.
 “Janošik’s country fulfilled me and gave me the best days of my life” he is quoted as saying. “It gave me something to admire every day.”

Modern-Day Malá Fatra Snaps

If people are interested they can see photos of the construction of our chalet on my website. We also detail a lot of what we do over here in Malá Fatra on our blogs, Mikez Blog covering general information and Marias Blog on which she talks about beekeeping and crocheting in Slovakia.

The Tech Spec: How Šaradin’s Old Films Were Preserved

People always seem to ask how things are done so this is the techy side of the discovery.

I scanned the negatives using an Epson Perfection V700: this is a flatbed scanner with film holders and produces very good results. The scanning software is Lasersoft Silverfast Studio Ai Version 8.5.

The negatives get scanned into my Homebuilt PC. The software I use to process and archive the images was originally Adobe Lightroom but now I use Capture One Pro.

I have not retouched the images in any great amount, because they varied in condition and colour. One thing I did to them all was de-saturate the colour: thus leaving them in pure black and white and crop if needed. However I have kept the original scans before any adjustment was made (much like keeping the negatives or RAW images of today).

I am in the process of rebuilding the website with the intention of putting all or most of the images online using the Genesis framework which should allow faster access.

© Clive Tully

Paws For Thought: Extreme Wildlife Watching in the Low Tatras Mountains

Adventure travel writer Clive Tully forges off on the trail of wolves, bears and chamois in remotest Slovakia with award-winning volunteering organisation Biosphere Expeditions.

It’s late in the afternoon, and after several hours bush-whacking through dense forest while traversing steep slopes, suddenly an excited shout comes from the front of the group.

“Wolf scat!”

Scat is not a term I’ve found myself using previously, although its more common alternative, another four-letter word beginning and ending with the same letters, may have passed my lips in extremis on the odd occasion. For the purposes of a family publication, what we’re talking here is poo, or droppings. Indeed, it takes a certain kind of person to get worked up about what most would cross the street to avoid – even if the item in question is evidence of the recent passing of a beautiful wild animal – and it is with a group of just such people that I am in the company of for the next few days.

I’m in the Nizké Tatry (Low Tatras) National Park high up in the mountains of Slovakia, taking part in a scientific project run by Biosphere Expeditions. Indeed, as is pointed out on my first day, what I’ve joined is no holiday. It’s not even a trip. It’s an expedition, and the purpose is to assist local scientist Dr Slavomír Findó – Slavo, for short – to document the movements of wild animals including not only wolves but also bears, lynx and chamois.

And so it is that we photograph said wolf poo with a compass lying next to it to provide scale, log its location on a data sheet using a GPS receiver, and bag it up to take back to base for Slavo to analyse. It joins several other bags of poo, including bear and a possible lynx. Today is something of a warm-up, getting expedition members used to logging both scats and tracks of wild animals, using two-way radios and GPS receivers, not to mention an enlightening return to traditional navigation techniques using map and compass.

Animals such as wolf, bear and lynx typically can typically be found in areas within the forest-covered mountain slopes. But it is the region just above the tree line that holds what we’re all particularly excited about: the chance to observe the endangered chamois, a type of mountain goat.

Once upon a time, the closest you might get to a chamois would be when drying off your car after it’s been washed, but while in other mountain areas of Europe they’re quite plentiful, here their numbers are declining – a result of human pressure on their habitats, and climate change. But predators have an impact on their numbers as well, and that’s the purpose of the study – to establish the relationship between chamois and other animals, as well as humans in the form of hikers on the trails that run along the main east/west ridge which they inhabit.

© Clive Tully

Research has illustrated that enthusiastic volunteers are every bit as good as scientists when it comes to making these kind of observations. If anything, they’re better because they’re rather more motivated – but it does all hinge on their being properly trained. The spread of participants in my expedition is certainly pretty wide, both in age and what made them decide to join. In general, the profile tends to be someone in their 30s and older – people who’ve had a chance to live life a little, and decide there’s more to it than just self-gratification. It was having three months available and a wish to do something of a voluntary nature that led business consultant Pierre from Belgium to sign up. By contrast, Lauren, in her early 20s, is studying for an animal science degree, so what we’re doing ties in rather nicely. Others have come to escape their everyday lives, but still with the motivation to do something which will be of real use. The oldest member of the group is John from Israel, whose past hiking experiences include wandering into a minefield while out walking in the Middle East’s Golan Heights.

The hazards of the Tatras mountains aren’t to be underestimated, either, as we discover when expedition leader Melanie Schröder delivers our risk assessment on the first evening. I’m amazed to hear that statistically, going on an expedition is less dangerous than indulging in a spot of home DIY. And while the greatest risk in Slovakia is coming to a sticky end at the hands of lunatic drivers, the wildlife has been a particular problem of late. Here they have the highest density of bears in the world, and some years have seen several attacks on humans by brown bears (seven were recorded in 2007). And what are we advised to do if we suddenly find ourselves face to face with a bear? Keep still, apparently: then slowly and gradually back off, avoiding the natural instinct to run like hell.

“Bears can run much faster,” we’re told, “and they can climb trees. If it comes to it, lie face down on the ground, hands over the back of your head and neck, and elbows out to prevent the bear from rolling you over.”

It’s this advice that races through my mind on our first night, spent near the isolated hamlet of Krpáčvo in the southern part of the national park south of the high point of Chopok. I’ve opted to relieve the pressure on bed space in our base house by sleeping in a tent out in the garden. At night, the surrounding forest is replete with strange sounds, occasionally featuring the noise of breaking branches. It matters not one jot that I’ve been reassured no bear has ever come this far down into the valley. Lying in the tent in a semi-stupor, my only thought is to roll over, elbows spread wide as my over-active imagination pictures marauding bears about to slice their claws through my sleeping bag.

And so I survive the night ready for the next day, which involves some basic training. We have our maps and GPS receivers to plot our positions, and we also have compasses – used to provide a bearing for any animal sightings. We have laser rangefinders to give us distance, and radios to communicate with each other. And when things are going less than swimmingly, we have flares to indicate we have a problem, red for life-threatening, and white for non-critical emergencies.

Our first little foray into the forest above Krpáčvo with Slavo reveals a “bear tree”. This is where the bear has ripped the bark off the trunk to get at insects underneath. It could have been damage caused by a passing forestry vehicle, but the evidence of hairs stuck to the oozing sap provides the confirmation.

RELATED POST: A WONDERFUL NEW WILDLIFE DOCUMENTARY SET IN SLOVAKIA’S WILD FAR EAST

Getting to and from the study areas isn’t all about slogging up and down hills on foot, although there’s plenty of that anyway. Biosphere Expeditions is one of the few organisations, along with the Royal Geographical Society, to be sponsored by Land Rover under their Fragile Earth Policy, so we have a couple of smart Land Rover Discoveries to get us about. As a non-profit organisation, Biosphere values any help it gets, and of course the less money it has to spend on equipment means more of the income from expedition team members goes into the scientific research.

During the fortnight, expedition members pay two visits up onto the main mountain ridge, the Hrebenovka, staying overnight in mountain huts. And while the hikers sharing the huts with them are still happily snoring away, they’re up at 4am to ready for heading to their observation sites. And this is where your typical hill walker might see the difference. Instead of keeping up a BRISK pace, you have to be prepared to sit still for hours at a time with binoculars or a telescope on a tripod, so a good range of clothing is essential.

During the day, the chamois tend to keep out of the sun on north-facing slopes, but then at sunset they come up onto the ridge. Get up early enough in the morning, and that’s where you see them. The training also includes identification – male and female chamois have different shaped horns, and the males tend to wander around on their own, while females and kids will stay in groups.

Unfortunately, my flying visit of just a few days means that while I do get to climb up onto the ridge and sample its spectacular views, I don’t get to stay there overnight, but some of my fellow team members strike gold the following day. One group led by expedition leader Melanie spots two red deer heading for a stream to drink, followed by a group of eight chamois resting on cliffs. Then just as they are about to pack up and go, they see a female bear and her cub ambling up to the same stream. A shame then that the other team led by Slavo, who hiked several kilometres further to stay at Chopok and the mountain hut there were foiled by windy conditions which made observations difficult.

But while my wildlife spotting is confined to a small snake, a few piles of poo – sorry, scats – and the odd clump of fur, I’ve come away with the firm view that if you want to do something for conservation, doing something like this is far better than simply writing out a cheque for your chosen charity. This way you can provide scientists with the manpower to enable them to make a difference – in this case, the outcome will be a scientific paper – and have an unforgettable experience at the same time.

Further information:

Biosphere Expeditions (tel 0870-446-0801) promotes sustainable conservation of the planet’s wildlife by involving the public with scientists across the globe on real hands-on wildlife research and conservation expeditions, with several projects operating in Slovakia.

Outdoors and travel writer/photographer Clive Tully is former equipment editor of four walking magazines, and consultant/contributor to many more. His mainly outdoors-related travel features have been published in the majority of UK national newspapers. In 2017, he’s also going to be part of the team striving to beat the world record for circumnavigation of the world in a powerboat.

MAP LINK:

GETTING THERE: It’s possible to get to any of the places mentioned in this article, but for the experience you will need to sign up for a volunteer expedition with Biosphere Expeditions.

PRICES: Volunteers are asked to contribute towards expeditions around £1300 (for Slovakia expeditions).

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From a Low Tatras wildlife sojourn around Krpáčvo it’s only 13km north to Hotel Srdiečko and the route up Chopok (the less-known-about-way).

 

© Clive Tully

© Clive Tully

A Taste of Slovakia is one of the first books on Slovak cuisine available in English. Image by Jarmila Hlavková

Spotlight On: Jarmila Hlavková, Author of the First Slovak Recipe Book to be Published in the English Language

Slovakia is a land-locked country surrounded by five other bigger and historically more influential nations – the Czech Republic, Austria, Hungary, Ukraine and Poland – and as in other respects, this has moulded the country’s culinary development. But whilst Slovak food may feature the pickled Czech cheese, Austrian schnitzel and Hungarian goulash, circumstances have conspired to foster a very distinctive array of food enjoyed within its borders… the problem being Slovakian cuisine never really had a mouthpiece – before now. Jarmila Hlavková has recently written one of the first cookbooks ever to focus solely on Slovakian cuisine available in English: A Taste of Slovakia. The importance of this should not be under-estimated: a nation is after all defined by its food, and the international perception of it, more than anything else. Now, an international audience can get to grips with dumplings, sheep’s cheese and a huge variety of Slovak cuisine’s lesser-known treats. Englishman in Slovakia recently caught up with Jarmila to talk about Slovak gastronomy…

1) First-off, can you give us an introduction to Slovak cuisine: what is special about it and what your favourite traditional dish is (and where you would eat it in Slovakia)?

The best introduction to Slovak cuisine is through our national dish, and that’s Halušky s bryndzou or Halušky with Bryndza Cheese. Bryndza cheese is a truly Slovak invention whose origins and name are protected by the EU. As for the Halušky – it’s a special type of pasta (similar but by no means exactly the same as a dumpling) that can be easily made at home if you have the right equipment. Halušky have several variations and they feature in a number of other Slovak dishes.

The best place to eat Halušky s bryndzou is at what we call in Slovak a Salaš. Salaš is a Slovak name for a shepherds’ house – a wooden cottage usually located close to the pastures. Quite a few also have an adjacent restaurant, where you can savour traditional Slovak food and enjoy the beauty of the Slovak countryside at the same time.

My favourite salaš is one in Zázrivá, about 10km east of Terchová in the Malá Fatra region (www.salaszazriva.sk), where they prepare a wonderful selection of Slovak dishes from fresh, locally made ingredients. What’s special about the place is that you can see traditional Slovak cheeses being made on the premises, as well as watch sheep, goats, horses and other farm animals grazing the lush pastures around.

For those with a sweet tooth like me, I would definitely recommend to try our strudels. The Detvian strudel I wrote about in my blog is something to die for. The family business based in a small village near Detva, in Central Slovakia near Banská Bystrica, is barely managing to keep up with the high demand. They deliver their delicious strudels to local deli shops, cafes and hotels around the Podpoľanie region.

Bryndzové Halušky - image by Jarmila Hlavková

Bryndzové Halušky – image by Jarmila Hlavková

2) What inspired you to write a book on Slovak cooking?

My love of cooking and writing in English. When I got a huge Culinaria of Europe for Christmas more than ten years ago, I saw that Slovakia was given only a marginal mention – a couple of paragraphs about sheep’s milk cheese and Halušky. There were a few factual errors in the text, so I took it as a challenge and decided to write a book devoted entirely to Slovak cuisine.

3) People think of Slovak food as quite heavy. What are some ‘surprising’ dishes which do not fit into this category?

Slovak food is only as heavy as you want to make or have it – it’s about the choice of ingredients, the amount of fat or sugar in the dish, the portion size, and perhaps the extras. That said, you can find quite a few nutritious and healthy Slovak dishes on some restaurant menus, but you can definitely control things when you make the meal yourself. I’m not a health freak but I do like simple, nourishing food and that affected the choice of recipes for ‘A Taste of Slovakia’. There’s a good balance of soups, mains, desserts, snacks and a whole chapter on preserving garden produce, which is what the Slovaks love to do in the summer, and are very good at. So contrary to popular belief, you’ll find dishes like Baked Buckwheat Kasha, Bryndza Cheese Sticks, Scrambled Eggs with Forest Mushrooms, or Hot Plums with Ice-cream and Mead in the book.

4) What is your advice for people who wish to travel to Slovakia to experience genuine, really good traditional Slovak food but don’t know how or where?

Contact websites like yours or mine, get in touch with local people, be nice and respectful, and you’re very likely to make friends and be invited to their homes. We love having guests, sharing food and drink with our visitors, and make them feel at home.

5) What is it about your book that makes it interesting to readers in your opinion?

‘A Taste of Slovakia’ is much more than a collection of traditional Slovak recipes. It’s a journey into this small country’s culture (folk stories), the customs that evolve around cooking and eating (Celebrating summer harvest), the lifestyle (Goulash parties), as well as history of some typical ingredients (bryndza cheese, forest mushrooms, mead etc.). And for those who delve deeper into the text, there is an added bonus… but I’m not going to disclose more here – you need to buy the book for that!

A refreshing cup of countryside drink žinčica, a tart and tasty by-product of sheep's cheese - image by Jarmila Hlavková

A refreshing cup of countryside drink žinčica, a tart and tasty by-product of sheep’s cheese – image by Jarmila Hlavková

6) Did you have to travel around Slovakia sourcing the best recipes for this book? Did you have any interesting experiences on the research?

Before I even started writing, I’d read through that tome of European Culinaria to understand what makes our cuisine different from others, and what we could contribute to the European or world’s table. Then I got myself lots of Slovak books, ancient and more contemporary, and did a thorough research. But the most enjoyable part of the project was definitely travelling around Slovakia, meeting people, listening to their stories, collecting ideas, taking pictures and discovering hidden gems of our countryside. Originally, the plan was to write a single book that would map our eating habits throughout the four seasons of the Slovak year, but I soon realized there would be plenty of material to fill four books. And that’s how I took it on. The first book is about summer in a Slovak kitchen.

Interesting experiences? There were quite a few, especially when I was taken for a reporter or a professional photographer on a number of occasions, which sometimes won me a prominent place in the queue or opened the doors that were normally shut for the public. Nobody found out I was a self-taught photographer learning on the way and experimenting, often in one-time situations. Fortunately, most of the photos came out well, though I have to say I have raised my standards and become much more finicky on the way.

7) Where can people buy your book?

Through my website www.cookslovak.com, my e-mail address cookslovak@gmail.com, or in one of the bookshops in Slovakia. At the moment, A Taste of Slovakia is selling at Artforum Bookshop in Zilina and Bratislava, Oxford Bookshop at Laurinska 9, Bratislava and some other venues like Bratislava Flagship Restaurant, Vcelco Smolenice s.r.o., and Podpolianske muzeum Detva. I’m about to strike a selling contract with Halusky shop in London.

I’m also actively looking for reliable partners to help me sell the book in the USA, Canada and Australia where there is quite a large Slovak diaspora, though I believe A Taste of Slovakia could make a good read for anyone interested in food.

Near Vel'ka Javorina and the Slovak-Czech border - image by Jonno Tranter

Hiking the Cesta Hrdinov SNP, Stage Two: Vel’ka Javorina to Drietoma (near Trenčín)

The Cesta hrdinov SNP, aka the trail of the Heroes of the Slovak National Uprising, begins officially at Bradlo, the monument to the ultimate Slovak hero, General MR Štefánik: it’s a continuation of the Štefánikova magistrála trail that runs here all the way from Bratislava. In short, this is the next big chunk of the mega-hike that traverses the entire length of Slovakia, now and for the remainder of its route to Dukla Pass in far-eastern Slovakia under the new guise of “Cestra hrdinov SNP”, a 500km+ adrenaline rush of a hike on some of Eastern Europe’s most jaw-dropping mountain and forest scenery. 

We aim, over time, to have the entirety of this spectacular path featured on the site with stage descriptions for each (just as we have for Slovakia’s other long-distance trails, the Tatranská Magistrála in the High Tatras, the Hrebenovka in the Low Tatras and the afore-mentioned Štefánikova magistrála in Western Slovakia. For Stage Two, we give the floor to the intrepid Jonno Tranter. who hiked it in summer 2016…

From our campsite location near Nova Hora, situated on the green trail stretching from the high-point of the Biele Karpaty range, Veľká Javorina (at 970m) to Mikulčin Vrch, the route dips back down to straddle the border for a while.

It’s then uphill towards Velký Lopeník, at 911m, the last climb of the Biele Karpaty. The route is well indicated but still relatively hard, especially if you’ve been walking for a few days. At the top you’ll find a few benches to rest, and a large, tall, wooden tower, the Rozhledna Lopeník. The sign on the door translates as “enter at your own risk”. We decided it was worth a shot, and climbed the stairs to one of Western Slovakia’s best viewing platforms (many are situated in the upland forests to give hikers a view beyond the treetops). There’s some really nice panoramic views here as the green mountains spread out below you.

When you head back downhill towards the scattered hamlet of Lopenické, you’ll see a few taverns and places to eat. We stopped off at Horská chata Jana, which served our favourite deep fried cheese speciality, and enjoyed some Czech beer. There’s some great views over the area from the terrace and it wasn’t too busy. A note about language issues: It was relatively difficult to find English speakers in restaurants and bars like these during our stay in the area, but someone usually turned up to save us when no English menu was available. Often, it’s a good idea to ask the younger member of staff, as they are more likely to speak English. It will also help to learn a few words of Slovakian before your trip as the locals really do appreciate it, even though you’ll usually receive laughter for your strange accent. You can also download an app for your phone with a Slovak dictionary and translator.

At Mikulčin Vrch (try pronouncing that!) you can join the Cesta Hrinov SNP trail again, and we were excited to see the first signs for Trenčín. You’ll be walking along a road for a while, and once you hit Kykula, you’re back along the border (look out for the red and white stumpy posts demarcating the border). This quickly this leads to fields and as you enter Slovakia again, it’s all wide expanses with not a soul in sight. Thankfully, there are trees dotted around with marks so following the trail is pretty straightforward. There are some tracks along here and as long as you stick to those, you should be alright.

The road to Trenčín is not an easy stretch. When you get to Machnáč, you’re back in the woods, and there are some relatively steep downhill parts. These can be hard on your knees, and sometimes seem tougher than the uphills, but you should still be able to cover quite a bit of ground. The trail is indicated throughout but marks are sometimes sparse, so make you sure you keep an
eye out to check that your are on the right path.

As we were leaving the Biele Karpaty, We kept expecting to see Trenčín and Pohoda festival spread out in front of us, the Mecca of our seven day pilgrimage. In actual fact, the city is hidden behind the mountains and you’ll never get a clear view of it from here, though there are some lovely views of the hills around.

Eventually the trail leads to a path, and as it flattens off you are very much in agricultural countryside, where you may see the occasional farmer working. There’s a great spot to camp here on the right, about a kilometre before you get to Drietoma, with a nice place to make a fire, and even a table and benches.

Rather than missioning it all the way to Trenčín, we decided to camp outside of Drietoma, just north of where the festival takes place. Drietoma, like most towns in the area, is pretty and peaceful, with little in the way of tourism, but nice for a stroll. There’s an OK restaurant called Motorest Eden with great pizza and even English menus, so we went down for some food in the evening. They also serve a delicious breakfast and we returned the next morning. It’s right beside the Co-op, a good place to stock up again on supplies, though you’re not far from Trenčín which has many more shopping options.

That night we fell asleep easily, with the fatigue of seven days of walking and camping behind us, and the knowledge that a three day extravaganza of music and mayhem called Pohoda awaited us just below the hills.

The final camp - image by Jonno Tranter

The final camp – image by Jonno Tranter

What Next?

Our Coverage of the Cesta Hrdinov SNP from its official beginning (at Bradlo, and on as far as Myjava): Hiking the Stefanikova Magistrala, Stage Five: Dobrá Voda to Bradlo (and Beyond)

Hiking the Cesta Hrdinov SNP, Stage One: Myjava to Vel’ka Javorina (previous stage)

In the middle of the forbidden military area in Zahorie ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

A First Taster of Záhorie

Záhorie. “Behind the mountain” as the name translates from Slovak. The region’s title certainly heightens interest, much as a closed door behind which you know there is something but you are not sure what tempts you to twist the handle and open it – if only to take a quick peek. Perhaps the thinking went that unlike the majority of the northern half of Slovakia, there was no dramatic upland scenery to lure the prospective traveler to Záhorie, so a name that intimated intrigue might. Záhorie is by no means without its intrigue – if it was, it would not be the subject of a post on here – but it is a region with few international fans. Attention not grabbed yet? Then you will join at least 99% if not 99.9% of the foreign tourists that do come to Slovakia, and pass Záhorie by.

And for that remaining minority? This largely forgotten corner of north-western Slovakia is best accessed from Bratislava. Heading north from the capital on the E65/D2 motorway with the Malé Karpaty/Small Carpathian hill range on your right (east) and by the time you reach Stupava you will be in it. The Small Carpathians are the very mountains referred to in Záhorie’s name and now (if you have arrived from Bratislava) you are behind them. From here, for the 50km or so north on the same road via Malacky to the Czech border near Kúty, and then for a further 30km northeast to Skalica, you are in Záhorie. Záhorie is also that thin strip of inky-green farmland to your left (west) spreads away to Slovakia’s borders on the Morava river: initially the frontier with Austria which becomes, just south of Kúty, the frontier with Czech Republic. At Skalica, in a line roughly demarcated by the 23km southeast to Senica, then the 24km south to Plavecky Péter and now, with the Small Carpathians again rising to the immediate south, the 17km southwest to Rohožnik and the 28km southwest via Kuchyña back to Stupava you are, indeed, still in Záhorie. With a trip around its periphery clocking up 170km at least Záhorie represents a pretty big region of Slovakia not to know anything about, especially when you consider that at certain points the nation measures under 150km from northern to southern border.

Yet for ages, after moving to Bratislava and being a mere half-hour drive from the start of it, I did not visit Záhorie. I heard stories, from time to time. That a bear had escaped from the Carpathians proper and was running around Záhorie, scaring hikers. That the region wasn’t good for much besides foraging because most of it was an army camp and firing range and no one picked the mushrooms for fear of being blown up by an un-exploded shell (leaving prime fungi for those prepared to risk life and limb to pluck them). But the Small Carpathians, with their sheer physical presence (and let us be honest, more enticing terrain) kept me away, just like they deterred the Powers That Be of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and indeed, kept most people apart from those that lived there or had family there away in past times.

The sandy semi-desert at Slovenske Piesky ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The sandy semi-desert at Slovenske Piesky ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Záhorie – the Ambience

Yet winter gives you cabin fever; makes you impatient for adventure: and if you are based in Bratislava area, the Záhorie region makes a good escape, as much of it is easily explored in a day trip. So in January I went for the first time. It was a grey day and too bleak for serious hill walking and perhaps the winter and early spring weather is the ideal time for a trip out here, for once it warms up you are tempted, in Slovakia, up to the higher mountains. My first impression was of a distinctly otherworldly place (think of those early colour photographs from the 70s with the vividness seeped out), followed closely by impressions of a surprisingly rural place and of a bizarrely pancake-flat place.

Záhorie is perhaps best known as a through route – on the main motorway and rail routes from Bratislava to Prague – and because of this, and its absolute flatness, I was expecting lots of development. Anywhere else, this would have been taken advantage of, with lots of bland commuter settlements constructed. Yet, whilst near to the main road there are some of these (Stupava, Malacky) immediately off to either side is time-trapped farmland, with a similar heavy low country atmosphere to parts of the UK’s Cambridgeshire or Belgium’s Wallonia.

That this is a predominantly agricultural region is surprising, too, because the soil is not naturally cut out for the task. Centuries ago, much of this area was in fact sandy semi-desert. It was the fabled Austro-Hungarian Empress Maria Theresa, last ruler of the house of Hapsburg who, as part of her extensive reform campaign in the mid-18th century, ordered that Záhorie be planted with the extensive forests that cover its middle today. And these forests now theme Záhorie as much as its flatness and its farmland, because they, along with the sandy soil, make construction of any kind difficult: even roads across it are few. This makes the small towns and villages scattered about more cut off, as the routes to them are often circuitous.

In fact, so useless are the combination of sandy forests and wetlands for development of any kind that they have been given over predominantly to nature: most of Záhorie’s midriff is Slovakia’s first protected lowland area, Chránena Krajinná Oblast Záhorie, or part of the adjoining airbase and military firing range based at Kuchyña. Being cut off from major centres of the Austro-Hungarian Empire such as Bratislava (Pressburg or Pozsony then of course) had one further effect on Záhorie too: it made it pay more heed to the Moravia region of the Czech Republic (Kúty is as close to the major Czech city of Brno as it is to Bratislava) and linguistically and culturally Záhorie has more in common with the Moravians.

What follows, anyway, is a day-long driving trip around the region based on that I did. Skalica is not included here, because that really is entrancing enough to warrant an overnight stay…

All Along the Border

There is no road directly along Slovakia’s western border with Austria, as the Morava River marks the border (the E65/D2 motorway is the nearest big highway, but it’s not conducive for pottering along and stopping off to explore).

The absolute best way to explore this region (whilst it’s not 100% allowed) is to canoe right the way down the Morava itself, through a gorgeous area of wetlands and woods, to its confluence with the Danube near Devín Castle, and then to continue down the Danube back to Bratislava. (you can start at any of the small communities based right on the river – getting to a launch point will probably involve a trek through some fields too. Here you can read more about canoeing down the Morava.)

Nevertheless, canoeing isn’t for everyone, and whilst gentler than the Danube, the Morava can still be quite fast at points, plus fisherman on the Austrian side have been known to heckle. There is, however, the Eurovelo 13 (Iron Curtain) cycle route which is a brilliant second-best alternative: you can follow it all the way from Bratislava up to where it hits Route 1144 west of Moravský Svätý Ján near Kúty, at which point it crosses into Austria. The link has some interesting information about the remnants of the defences (mostly Czech-Slovak against Nazi Germany) built along this route. Starting early, the entire part of the trail within Slovakia is possible in a day (or two, if you want to make it more enjoyable and stop off en route).

Other than the pleasant woodland-wetland scenery, the main attraction is at the community of Vel’ké Leváre. Here, during the 16th century, a group of the persecuted Habans (similar to Anabaptists, who believed believers should be baptised not as babies but as young adults) settled after being forced to leave their German homeland (the other notable group of anabaptists left for America, thereby forming the origins of the Amish communities there). Local authorities liked the Habans because they were diligent workers, but didn’t want them settling in the village centre. So the Habans constructed their own community just outside, and much of this compound is still wonderfully preserved today, known as Habansky Dom or Haban House. Just like the Amish, the Habans strictly kept themselves to themselves: they had their own church, and only married within their community; they had their own Haban-only school and workshops too. This was the most significant commune of Haban people in Europe during its zenith in the late 16th, 17th and early 18th centuries. However, that Maria Theresa played a part in Vel’ké Leváre’s fate too: decreeing that the Habans must become conventional Catholics if they wished to remain. That signalled the death knell for the Vel’ké Leváre Habans and over the ensuing decades their culture here died out almost completely. You can also find out more about their story in the Záhorské museum (regional museum for Záhorie) in Skalica.

Visiting days for Habansky Dom are Tuesday and Thursday 10am-4pm (admission 1 Euro) but it is advised to contact the municipality in advance: (Tel 00421-34- 779-4493/ 00421-34-779-4107). The museum is about two thirds of the way along the cycle route from Bratislava. When you reach the lake of Rudava on the cycle route, you need to head about 6km east on small roads passing Malé Leváre.

The beautiful church of Šaštín-Stráže, Slovakia's first Basilica Minor ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The beautiful church of Šaštín-Stráže, Slovakia’s first Basilica Minor ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Záhorie: the Interior!

Swinging northeast into the heart of Záhorie from Vel’ké Leváre (remember, Skalica needs an overnight stay, so we’re not including it on this day trip experience) is what is going to give you a true impression of the region. A minor road crosses the D2/E65 motorway and heads northeast to Závod, then slightly northwest to Borský Svätý Jur, much of it traversing the Chránena Krajinná Oblast Záhorie (with plenty of places to pull over and explore the woodsy trails, crisscrossed by streams and wetland drains). Along this stretch, you pass a few small reservoirs/lakes popular with fishermen, buried within the forest, before branching northeast into open farmland and the rather bizarre sight of Šaštín-Stráže, an un-noteable town in itself, but with the grandiose towers of the Basilica of St Mary of the Seven Sorrows looming out of a nearby parkland. This unlikely site is one of Slovakia’s main pilgrimage destinations, only just behind Marianka near Bratislava in terms of devout visitors. The huge two-towered structure dates from the 16th century, and a statue of Mary that people began talking about for its reverent powers to the extent that an Archbishop was obliged to deem it officially miraculous in 1732. Consecrated in the presence of Maria Theresa herself (the Empress will keep cropping up, in Záhorie region), it is Slovakia’s first-ever Basilica Minor (giving it a higher level of privileges than most Catholic churches)  and a very impressive building – albeit with a particularly sombre feel about it.

From Šaštín-Stráže (you might want to grab some lunch here; there’s nowhere else around to do so) head back towards Bratislava on the road passing between Lakšárska Nová Ves and Plavecky Plavecký Mikuláš, where the quintessential Záhorie landscapes (forests and expanses of sand so dramatic that a part of the drive even gets named Slovenské Piesky (the Slovak sands). It’s another manifestation of a similar geological phenomenon to that found at the equally impressive but far more visited Sandberg near Bratislava (because much of sea-deprived Slovakia was once, of course, on the sea or under it many millennia ago). The catch is that much of this area, like so many stunning bits of countryside around Europe, is a military firing range: whilst there are a few official places to park and walk, all too often you find yourself restricted by “Keep Out” signs; proceed at your own risk!

The Šaštín Basilica is open 7am-6pm Monday to Friday and 8am-7pm Saturday. There are four Sunday services, too, and an information centre open from 9am to midday Monday-Saturday attached to the church. There is a website for the Basilica in Slovak only.

Back to the Small Carpathians, Stupava and Bratislava

Once done roaming the surreal Slovenské Piesky, continuing south you’ll see the hills rising up again into the Small Carpathians near Plavecký Mikuláš. From here it’s 40km southwest to Stupava and the main road back to Bratislava, or you can cut across the mountains by heading only as far as Pernek (24km southwest) and then taking the road over to Pezinok via Pezinská Baba (Pezinok is only a 7km northwest of Svätý Jur on Bratislava’s northeastern edge).

But before you leave Záhorie behind completely, it’s worth clambering up for a view of it from above (which in the heart of the region is hard to do). So from Rte 1111 which you have been following via Slovenské Piesky, turn right for 4km to Plavecké Podhradie, and follow signs to the car park for Plavecký Hrad, a spectacular ruined castle a further 2km hike up in the hills, poking out of the forest on the northwestern edge of the Small Carpathians (and free of charge). Its purpose, originally, was to be able to look out and defend the vast plain below – Záhorie – from attack in turbulent times of old. You can look out from the broken ramparts and do the same, and get a little perspective on Záhorie from here.

 

MAP LINK:

GETTING THERE: Being flat and on a major traffic corridor north to the Czech Republic, Záhorie is easy to access. The main rail route from Bratislava to Prague passes through here (stopping at Kúty). From Bratislava, there are two trains, one slow and one fast, every two hours to Kúty (fast train 40 min, 3.50 Euros) via Vel’ké Leváre (slow train only every two hours; 45 min, 2.20 Euros). Whilst there is no other reason to spend any time in Kúty other than at its railway station, you can change here for the 30-minute journey to Skalica (trains invariably connect through from Bratislava). There are also trains in Kúty to Šaštín-Stráže (12 minutes, every two hours). This makes Vel’ké Leváre, Skalica or Šaštín-Stráže a very easy day trip from Bratislava by public transport, although just using trains and buses you would struggle to see all three. For the large wild area that is the Chránena Krajinná Oblast Záhorie you’ll need your own wheels…

THE HIGHLIGHTS: Skalica is a major highlight: a beautiful old town right on the Czech border (deserving of many separate posts in its own right). Vel’ké Leváre is an ancient bastion of the non-conformist Habans, containing much singular architecture as a result. Chránena Krajinná Oblast Záhorie is a large area of surreal, flat, sandy forest with a few great spots for walking. Šaštín-Stráže is an important pilgrimage site with a beautiful cathedral.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Záhorie’s biggest settlement Senica (itself 65km northeast of Stupava) it’s 22km east to Brezová pod Bradlom in the Small Carpathians

Room at Hotel Mountain View - image courtesy of AquaCity

Poprad: the Mountain View

Perhaps it was the engaging smile of the girl on reception that did it (a welcome that appeared every bit as warm for me as for the clearly far-wealthier businessmen that had checked in beforehand). Perhaps it was that the walk to the room revealed glimpses of  what I knew lay in store for me the following morning, namely Slovakia’s premier water park, AquaCity. It could also have been the location. After all, I was bang on the doorstep of my favourite part of Poprad, the medieval neighbourhood of Spišská Sobota. Whatever the reason, I was in a jolly mood as I arrived at Hotel Mountain View, one of the High Tatras’ best hotels – and nothing occurred during my stay there to do anything other than bolster it.

Overall, it is the sense of fun that permeates what at first glance might seem more of a business hotel that wins the newcomer over. Yes, individuals in suits do sit nodding gravely at meetings in the vast reception area and indeed, the hotel is well-known for its conference facilities. But families also wander through in dressing gowns on the way to the aqua park which awaits directly below. The hotel might have four stars, and many of the airs and graces of five, but it takes itself only a little bit seriously. It’s hard to be too serious, possibly, when there are fully-fledged adults squealing with glee on the nearby slides (some are reclining sedately in spa treatments or in the umpteen sauna rooms but, honestly, more are squealing).

The reception area, as intimated above, has a certain sumptuousness to accompany the friendly initiation. Contemporary it is (if not strikingly so). A long bar graces one side, and a terrace on the other side lends views of the Spišská Sobota rooftops, with the world’s only geothermally-heated football pitch in the foreground. From here, the reception-to-room walk is looong – if not quite long enough to see off dinner, then certainly enough distance to appreciate the ‘city’ part of AquaCity, and leave you feeling very glad to arrive and kick back a-while…

The cafe terrace - image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The cafe terrace – image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The standard rooms are already on the large side: over 30 sq metres each, with the suites garnering up to twice that space. The hotel is a modern steel-and-glass structure and the modernity translates to the rooms: with bands of butterscotch yellow brightening the spick-and-span greys of the bathroom tiling and the bedroom curtains and bedspreads. Small balconies gaze out towards the High Tatras although not all clock those homonymous ‘mountain views’ – this hotel is not about mountain proximity (there are many other places to stay closer to the alluring peaks themselves) because you’ll spend the majority of your time here looking in rather than out. In fact, traditional mountain life seems distant at Hotel Mountain View, with crisp decoration, rather healthy food and city sophistication much more the order of the day (there is hardly any beech or oak wood in sight). As you partake from the generously-stocked minibar, flick channels on the LCD TV’s or wander along to the hotel bar, cafe or restaurant, you’re much more likely to be contemplating what your room rate includes: and it’s this that sets the hotel apart.

This is because free access to the majority of the AquaCity facilities is included in the accommodation price: to all the indoor and outdoor pools and the 8 wellness saunas and steam rooms (nowhere else in the country can boast such a variety of water-based fun). Free access to AquaCity’s fitness centre is also on offer, and a huge buffet breakfast is included in the rate too (although you’ll have an appetite worked up by the time you arrive, because it’s a fair hike along and up to reception then down again to the breakfast room).

Yet you can relish the facilities quite guilt-free: compared to every other place to stay in Slovakia, and indeed in Eastern Europe, Hotel Mountain View’s carbon footprint is low indeed: with the vast majority of the hotel’s (and the water park’s) energy issuing forth from the geothermal waters bubbling away under the ground.

Even if you arrive in a state of despondency, actually, at this place it’s pretty hard to escape the pampering, or keep that smile off your face.

MAP LINK: (the hotel is located at Športova 1397, Spišská Sobota, Poprad – within the AquaCity complex and with the same main entrance)

PRICES: Standard double from 151.40 Euros, suite from 281.40 Euros (2017 prices)

BOOK HOTEL MOUNTAIN VIEW: (Standard) (Suite)

Approaching the hotel... image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Approaching the hotel… image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

A Quick Guide to the Other Content We Have on Poprad

Places to Go: Poprad’s funky contemporary art gallery in an old power station

Places to Go: Poprad’s lavish Aqua Park

Places to Go: Nine reasons to linger in Poprad

Places to Go/Getting Around: Taking the Mountain Railway into the High Tatras from Poprad

Places to Stay: A cool travel-friendly B&B in Spišská Sobota, Poprad

Places to Stay: A sophisticated 4-star resort right by Poprad’s Aqua Park

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s trendy burger joint

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s dignified Café La Fée

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s Coolest Wine Bar

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s gourmet chocolatier

Going Out: Poprad & the Manchester United Connection

Arts & Culture: Dedicated traditional Czech & Slovak music radio station now based in Poprad

Getting Around: London to Poprad Flights

Getting Around: The Poprad to Ždiar to Zakopane (Poland) bus

Top Ten Medieval Towns in Slovakia

The 'Stone House' at the top of Chopok ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Low Tatras Mountains: Kamenná Chata

Before you take to the snow on your ski spree in Chopok (Slovakia’s and indeed one of Eastern Europe’s main ski resort areas), it’s worth bearing in mind where the best piste stops for refreshments are. And of course, they’re not always in the big hotels in the Demänovská Dolina resort area. Far from it (or, perhaps, far above it). Swoop up in the cable car from the resort village (from Záhradky at 1028m to Priehyba at 1342m and then from Priehyba up the dizzying heights of Chopok at 2024m), passing most of the 100-odd sq km of ski slopes en route, and you’ll arrive at one of the highest points on the Low Tatras mountains: the bare, stark and spectacular Chopok ridge. This thin scree-strewn crest of the mountain range, shaped like an up-ended old-fashioned iron, exudes a feeling a little akin to tightrope-walking on top of the world, so narrow does it taper at certain points and so dramatic are the vistas. And it’s here that you’ll find one of the most singular dining experiences anywhere in the Low Tatras region: Kamenná Chata…

The 'Stone House' at the top of Chopok ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The ‘Stone House’ at the top of Chopok ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Translating as ‘stone house’, Kamenná Chata lies a stone’s throw down from the Chopok cable car terminus: one of a few places in the country where you can eat out at 2000m+ altitude (2010m, to be exact – and Teryho Chata, Chata pod Rysmi and the restaurant at the summit of Lomnický štít in the High Tatras are the other lofty eateries). There is a pricey restaurant inside the cable car terminus too, of course, but Kamenná Chata ticks to a far more animated beat and distinctly more reasonable prices. The food focuses on typical Slovak mountain delicacies: a substantial bryndzové halušky (sheep’s cheese dumplings), for example;  piping hot goulash or oh-so sweet pirohy (mini dumplings filled with plums) but it’s the quality of the view rather than the food that is the real draw.

The outside terrace leans over the tumbling slopes of the south side of Chopok, where almost lunar-like views dominated by the rocks and boulders which provide the locale’s appropriately stony backdrop crash away into the inky green valleys below. The cable car toiling up from Srdiečko adds further eye candy and shows mankind’s partial taming of this wild spot, but the taming is only a recent thing. It was only in the mid-1990s, whilst the Chopok cable cars were being constructed, that Kamenná Chata came into existence at all (as accommodation for workmen): before this these mountaintops were far less visited than they are today, and the panoramas from this mountain house still make for an awe-inspiring place to break off from your ski session (winter) or hike (summer).

Because it is old-school, Kamenná Chata: a textbook mountain house inside despite the grey-stone exterior, sporting a convivial wood-panelled space cluttered with tables and memorabilia and a big old ceramic mountain stove besides the bar area (only a rather crass menu board spoils the scene). Accommodation is offered here, too, for a bargain 23 Euros per person with breakfast included.

The ski scene can often be dominated by somewhat thoughtless and rushed-through modern development: but here, in a house originally intended for construction workers, is something far wealthier tourist accommodation can lack: a little bit of soul and value for money to go with the unbeatable views from the restaurant terrace.

 

MAP LINK:

OPENING: 7:30am-10pm year-round (the first and last parts of these opening hours may be a struggle to get food at unless you’re staying here)

RESERVATIONS: You can contact them (tel 00421-48-617-0039, kamienka@kamennachata.sk) but at busy periods they don’t normally take reservations, due to the fact that they pull in the crowds regardless. Plus, it’s not really worth reserving for the restaurant – there will always be some kind of space inside and out and you can ensure you get there a little outside of lunch hours to guarantee a table. For the attached accommodation, however, booking is essential

BEST TIME TO VISIT: Ski season is a cracking time to come here when there will likely be snow as far as the eye can see, but the light in summer from the terrace is sublime. Compromise: March – marginally warmer weather for sitting outside, and the first signs of spring, but still snow on the ground.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: Kamenná Chata features near the end of stage two or near the start of stage three on the Hrebenovka ridge hike across the Low Tatras: under three hours’ hike southeast via the Low Tatras high point of Ďumbier is Chata M. R. Štefánika mountain house whilst three to four hours west are Chata Útulná and then Chata Magurka mountain houses.

A deer in a dish...

The Far East: Your Very Own Elegy in Oak

“The other day, I was about to toss a chunk of wood onto the stove. But the light caught on the grain, at a certain angle, and I knew this piece of wood could be something. I stopped concentrating on getting the stove going – even though it’s pretty freezing right now in Eastern Slovakia – went up to my workshop, and a few hours later I’d created my latest design. That’s how it works, in this business. Pieces of wood, even the ones you’ve intended for your fire, have the potential to become beautiful gifts.”

Slovakia is a country of trees. It is one of Europe’s most forested nations – much of it beech or conifer, but a fair amount in oak, too. In the east of Slovakia, they even make their churches out of wood (so beautifully that the 50 or so wooden religious buildings peppering the countryside hereabouts are Unesco-listed). And it is in this region that Freddie Venables, an Englishman that has been living here for the last twenty years, has decided to set up shop to showcase the beauty of Slovakian wood to the world: in oak, naturally, as it remains the bottom line in quality as far as carpentry is concerned.

Freddie has an illustrious connection with oak going back decades. He ran a successful oak flooring business out in the east for some time, and designed the oak-paneled cigar room of flashy High Tatras hotel Hotel Horizont. But these days, he’s retreated to the hills of the far northeast of the country to concentrate on what he loves best: whittling away in his workshop what can truly lay claim to being some of Slovakia’s most esoteric wood-made handicrafts.

A candle holder

A candle holder

The main thing with Freddie, besides the quality, is the versatility. Whatever it is that you are seeking to have immortalised in wood, he’ll work with you to have it produced. Smaller wooden gifts are his raison d’être – candle-holders, house plaques, chopping boards, plant boxes, commemorative ornaments (Our seasonal favourites are his wooden bowls embossed with deer motifs). But he’ll happily take on larger commissions such as furniture too. His experience, together with his passion for promoting Slovakian woodwork and handicrafts, combine to render his creations some of the most original take-home souvenirs from Slovakia you could ask for.

The inspiration for his craft is in the wild landscapes around the village of Vyšný Mirošov, where he lives and works, and there is a little bit of Slovakia’s most tradition-steeped region in each of his creations. His wood-made gifts can be purchased through his online shop.

Mini elegies in oak, indeed.

See our Top Ten Slovak Gift Ideas

The craftsman with one of his recent creations

The craftsman with one of his recent creations

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The Best Ways to Experience Christmas in Slovakia

This is the season to be happy, after all.

Dinky, mountain-backed, frequently snow-blanketed and with a propensity for lighting big crackling log fires or old-fashioned tiled stoves to warm the cockles in the cold months, Slovakia is a great place for a cosy festive getaway. Several German towns, as well as Vienna, tend to steal the show in Central Europe with their well-known traditional festiveness, but the Slovaks can hold their own with their bigger rivals when it comes to Christmassy ambience – and Slovak towns and cities have the bonus that they’re not nearly so crowded at this time of year, so there will be only a fraction of the wait for that mulled wine.

If you’re Slovakia-bound over Christmas or New Year, we’ve made experiencing festive delights a little easier with this oh-so experiential post.

Christmas Markets

As in other Central European countries, Christmas markets are the perfect way to get into the festive spirit (unlike some aspects of Slovak culture, they also have the advantage of being very accessible and easy to indulge in) – serving everything from lokše (traditional potato pancakes oozing with fillings like goose fat) and roast pork through to medovina (Slovak mead), a sour but delicious mulled wine and also lots of amazing handicrafts.

The best Slovak Christmas market is Bratislava’s, spilling over between the richly ornamental central squares of Hlavné and Hviezdoslavovo námestie (see more on Bratislava Christmas Market). The market runs every afternoon/evening until December 22nd this year. Not far away, where Námestie SNP meets Klobučnicka, there is the refurbished Stará Trznica (old marketplace) which is also alive with Christmassy stalls but offers more contemporary, higher-end handicrafts and foods and is patronised by a crowd of young, cool hipster Slovaks. Stará Trznica is open year-round, actually, on Saturdays – and soon we’ll get round to finishing the more detailed post we’ve been preparing on it. For now though, the last market before Christmas is Saturday, December 17th! There is set to be 150 stalls, Christmassy workshops and live music. Get in there!

Another fabulous Christmas market is in the ancient city of Nitra, in Western Slovakia. It’s also held on the central námestie – with stalls arranged in a wide circle around the square: going every afternoon/evening until December 23rd. This market is particularly well known for its gorgeous woven baskets. If you are spending any time in Eastern Slovakia over the festive season, then the go-to Christmas market is in Košice – right along its wide central artery, Hlavná. It’s open a day longer than Bratislava’s Christmas market too: every afternoon/evening until December 23rd.

RELATED POST: Top Ten Classic Slovak Foods

Christmas Shopping

Slovakia maintains a lot of its handicrafts making traditions, and whilst some of these are on show at the Christmas, for some you’ll have to go the extra mile to find the best take-home Christmas gifts. On Englishman in Slovakia, we’ve prepared our Top Ten Slovak Gifts to give you some ideas. Bear in mind Modra for ceramics, the Malé Karpaty towns of Modra, Piešťany and Trnava for getting your hands on some Slovak wine purchased straight from the winemakers (and for sampling some in an idyllic wine bar, why not?), and for general festive loveliness with your seasonal shop, Modra and Trenčín in Western Slovakia, Banská Štiavnica in Central/Southern Slovakia and Bardejov and Košice in Eastern Slovakia.

Christmas Escapes

Slovakia has a lot of spectacular wilderness with traditional wooden houses to hole up in with the snow piled high outside. However, many of the best take a fair amount of insider knowledge, planning and time: putting them beyond the practical reach of many. For this reason we have to concur on this site with the Guardian (who put the city as their number one winter break choice in Europe for 2016/2017) and say Poprad in the High Tatras is a great choice to actually get to the snowy, Christmassy wilderness the quickest. Here is how to fly to Poprad and here is an introduction to the city, from the bottom of which article you can access all our other content on Poprad. From Poprad, you can take the Tatras Electric Railway up into the High Tatras mountains themselves where you are guaranteed snow at this time of year, can stay at a middle-of-nowhere mountain house (yes, they’re mostly open in winter too) and try all manner of wintery sports, including husky riding and skioring!

Best of the rest: where to snow-escape to get festive in Slovakia:

4: Head up above the pretty town of Modra in Western Slovakia to dine at very Christmassy Furmanská Krčma – a log cabin in the snow-covered woods.

3: Check into a lovely characterful guesthouse like Penzión Resla pri Klopacke in Banská Štiavnica – a great place from which to watch this dazzling medieval mining town unfold below you, whilst up in the hills above lie a number of great wintery hikes.

2: The Low Tatras is very snowy from December through to April, so get a fix of the white stuff whilst gazing out on one of the best views in Slovakia from the top of Chopok at Kamenna Chata – then ski back down again on some of Eastern Europe’s best slopes.

1: Undertake the traditional Three Kings (Traji Krali) Day pilgrimage to Marianka from Bratislava on January 6th – Slovakia’s biggest pilgrimage destination, and benefitting from a couple of traditional watering holes to refresh those poor weary pilgrims!

Remember Silvester!

Silvester (New Year’s Eve) is cool (indeed, veritably freezing) in Slovakia too. Celebrations kick off everywhere, but perhaps most tourist-friendly are those in Bratislava – where an ice skating rink is set up in Hviezdoslavovo namestie and fireworks are let off from the banks of the Danube.

Home is Where the Heart is

Christmas or New Year at a Slovak household, of course – should you have the chance to experience it – is by far the best way, if you can wangle it, of indulging in Christmas festivities. The main reason to partake is quite possibly the food: traditional Slovak delicacies way better than the kind on offer in the restaurants become available: all manner of gingerbread sweets in the Christmas run-up along with the most typically festive vianoce (rich fruit cake) and piping hot spiced wine, fish served on Christmas Day itself (celebrations, remember, are on December 24th as in many Catholic countries) and Kapustnica (a divine thick sauerkraut and tomato soup, and the most complex Slovak dish of all) served on Silvester/New Year’s Eve.

The Slovakia-Ukraine border ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

A Meditation on Borders

For the 200th post on this site I thought I would reflect on one of the factors that defines Slovakia more than almost anything else: its borders.

Any study of Slovakia alights, sooner or later, upon the issue of borders.

It is an issue ever embedded in the psyche, too, of such a new nation with its geographical position in the very heart of Europe.

Slovakia shares a frontier with five nations: Ukraine, Hungary, Austria, Czech Republic and Poland. That’s not many compared, say, to Germany (which borders nine other countries) but it’s enough for a small, fledgling country to contend with. Particularly when it’s still trying to establish itself on grounds its bigger, more powerful neighbours long believed was theirs.

Some of Slovakia’s borders are natural ones. The Danube chisels a frontier along a portion of the southern frontier with Hungary. The Morava river performs a similar role in Slovakia’s west – along the boundary with Austria and the Czech Republic. And in sections of Slovakia’s northern border with Poland, the High Tatras mountains create a rather formidable frontier. Then there is that most talked-about border of all – the border which even if it is not at all geographically obvious forms part of the edge of the European Union, the border with Ukraine, the border that has had millions and millions of Euros spent on fortifying it with fancy security, the border which still leaks a large number of refugees and helps to line the pockets of a fair number of traffickers through its porousness.

And if you make the trip out to some of these frontier-hugging places – Kohutka, say, in the Biele Karpaty on the border with Czech Republic, or Nová Sedlica in the far east on the border with Ukraine, first by car and then on foot because very little of the border is actually road, that porousness is emphasised a hundred-fold. Borders are so much, in Slovakia (they are representative of the centuries for which Slovaks strove to have any place on this planet to call their own at all). But borders are so little at the same time. They are lines in the lonely pine forest. On one side: unbroken kilometres of pines. On the other: unbroken kilometres of pines. And in the middle, a line little wider than a firebreak with a footpath running through it, and perhaps the odd drunkenly leaning sign proclaiming pozor: Štátna hranica, warning: state border.

They might have had meaning in the Communist era, these little lines in the pines. Now they are mostly incredible places to go hiking – with the guarantees the hike will pass directly through the middle of nowhere, yet have the added allure of crossing national boundaries many times. (The Cesta Hrdinov SNP, featured on this site, follows much of Slovakia’s border and is, indeed, Slovakia’s ultimate hike).

Borders do signify other things in the Slovakia of today. On the frontier with Austria, they are both fabulous adventure playgrounds (Devínska Kobyla) and testaments to bygone wars (the bunker museum in Petržalka), on the frontier with Hungary they are both fabulous art museums and vineyards in the  Tokaj wine region, hotly-contested between both countries to this day.

But mostly, in Slovakia, borders are lines in the pines. I suppose, coming from Britain, an island that has such definitive borders, and ones which never presented an obstacle to the British colonising a large percentage of the world, these lines in the pines seem so innocuous a frontier: even though for half a century they essentially kept foreigners out, and were therefore far more dramatic than any of the UK’s lofty cliffs.

I like to think of Slovakia’s borders as reminders of the foreign influences that make up its hotchpotch history, too. They add an extra, indefinable aurora to the land on which they lie.

Once, they signified the oppression of Slovaks by other bigger powers, once, you could be shot for trying to cross one of them.

What better way to counteract that sombre past today than by the act of strolling along them to find a spot for a picnic, without a care in the world?

 

The Englishman in Slovakia walks the walls of Bardejov ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Bardejov: Walking the Walls

There’s always an urge when you arrive in a new city to “make your mark” – to go out into the middle of it and make sense of it, somehow. The newly-arrived do this in many different ways, of course. They might climb that city’s tallest building, or ascend to the top of whatever that city’s main viewpoint is: to visualise the place in its entirety, stretching away from smart central blocks to decrepit suburbs. They might go a-wandering down that city’s streets to the main square, or perhaps to its darkest back alley, to have a drink in a notorious bar or cafe and people-watch, and become acquainted with the destination that way.

In Bardejov’s case, the best way to do it is to “walk the walk” of its recently restored town walls.

There are not many towns or cities in Slovakia with their original ancient walls in tact and this, already, propels Bardejov onto the elite list of places to visit. But Bardejov’s walls go a step further even than those of nearby and likewise Unesco-listed Levoča: you can walk them, all the way around the old town, and in so doing patrol the periphery of the country’s most impeccably preserved medieval centre, just as if you were a guard defending against the myriad invaders that once plagued the region.

Bardejov, by way of introduction, squeezes on to most people’s grand tours of Slovakia (if they do a grand tour, that is) despite its out-of-the-way location in the far north-east of the nation (Bratislava-Trenčin-Malá Fatra-High Tatras-Levoča-Spiš Castle-Košice-Bardejov is the classic travel route) and its main allure is its spectacularly maintained 14th- and 15th-century architecture, wrapped around by the afore-mentioned walls. The result is, in our opinion, Slovakia’s prettiest town. Still, though: venture here and you will nevertheless feel like an adventurer, for tourists do not come in the big flocks they do in Western Europe. On my last two visits to Bardejov, I’ve been one of only a handful of foreign visitors – and that in the high season. For such a beautiful town, and to experience it so tourist-free, you would have to travel a very long way on this continent: and what is heartening about Bardejov’s wall walk is the confirmation that the Unesco money is being spent on continuing to conserve the town’s very special heritage.

Bardejov features on our Top Ten Medieval Towns in Slovakia – click the link to find out at which position!

The way to start walking the walls ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The way to start walking the walls ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

It’ll take you around 30 minutes, at a leisurely pace, to walk around the circumference of the walls, best done in a clockwise direction from the main city entry point on the street of Dlhý Rad on the north side, right opposite where the banks are. Ascend the grassy banks via the steps and then turn left to head along a particularly rejuvenated and elevated section (as per the feature image), overlooking the northernmost of the town centre’s burgher’s houses – many of which date to over 500 years of age.

Think of the walls encircling Bardejov as a clock face, with your entry point as 12 o’clock. After the elevated section you’ll drop down to continue on a small cobbled lane passing a couple of bastions, which brings you round to the southern (upper) end of Bardejov’s vast, spectacular central square or námestie, Radničné námestie at about 6 o’clock. Following the wall on around clockwise, you’ll walk via the old monastery, Klaštor Frantiskánov and the adjoining church of Svätého Jána Krstitel’a, before bearing round to the north and the superb Hotel pod Bránou, nestled within the walls three blocks west of the square. It’s here, almost at the end of the circuit of old Bardejov, that you might want to indulge in some refreshments: either in the courtyard dining area of the hotel OR just beyond on the sunken garden area immediately to the northeast around Miškovského, with a cracking good ice cream stand: perfect for sitting and appreciating the refurbishment of the city’s northern bastions, splashed by a lovely fountain (history, THEN food – see what we did there?).

Walls patrolled? It’s time to head the three blocks east from Hotel pod Branou to the set piece of the town, the central square/Radničné námestie: crowned at its northern end by its beautiful cathedral, Bazilika Svätého Egidia.

A Little Historic Overview

Whilst the cathedral on the main square has its origins in the 13th century, the fortification of Bardejov were improved radically in the 14th century (and it is this work which provided the basis for the modern town walls). Most of the houses in the old town were originally erected in the 14th and 15th centuries and by the 16th century, Bardejov had already passed its zenith, with pandemics and a clutch of wars bringing it down to its knees.

Golden age number two could well be right now.

MAP LINK:

GETTING THERE: Getting to Bardejov isn’t as easy as it should be, because it’s on a spur train line. Coming from Bratislava by train (3 trains daily), you’ll have to change at first Kysak and then Prešov, with total journey time 7 hours 30 minutes and total cost 20.30 Euros. Coming from Košice by train (trains every two hours), you’ll have to change at Prešov with total journey time 1 hour 55 minutes and total cost 4.15 Euros. Buses are as frequent and as quick from either city to Bardejov.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Bardejov it’s 35km east to Svidník and one of the world’s most fascinating war museums.

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

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Top Ten Best Things About Life in Slovakia

We turn away from travel, for a minute, on this site, to focus on LIFE. Life in Slovakia is a topic even less generally known about than tourism here – at least to the foreign/English-speaking world – so this is an insight into some of the best things about life here. Pretty girls and Europe’s cheapest beer are not listed… although we all know that they’re here too…

10: Sheer Potential…

Slovakia is a young country. It has a lot going for it, but also a long way still to go. Many construe this as a bad thing but I think of this as a big positive. In most countries, the order of things is well-established. In Slovakia, many aspects of life are still in the infancy of their development. There’s a sense that living in Slovakia, one is at the beginning of a journey, not the end of one. I like that (but I don’t expect Slovaks to agree with me on this necessarily!)

9: Proximity of some of Europe’s Coolest Cities

I’m not a big fan of selling a country based on the fact others are nearby, or based on assumed superior knowledge of other nearby countries. I’m a firm believer that Slovakia has its own merits, and a culture sufficient to justify being described on its own terms. But when you’re living in a country, it’s just generally quite cool to think that (from its capital) the celebrated spas of Budapest, the celebrated beer halls of Prague or the celebrated coffee houses of Vienna are all only a matter of hours away (two, four and one respectively).

8: Diversity of Drinks

Wine - and plenty of it ©englishmaninslovakia.com

Wine – and plenty of it ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

For a fair chunk of my life now, I’ve been a travel writer. And it’s the worst-concealed fact in the profession that travel writers like the odd tipple. Now I’m not talking a bottle of wine per night or anything but yeah, I am talking the odd glass of something… and the odd glass of something is something Slovakia is very adept at providing. If you want wine,  then there’s two main wine-producing regions with plenty of possibilities, the Small Carpathians wineries and the Tokaj wineries. Then of course there’s a myriad different fruit brandies, of which slivovica is only the tip of the iceberg: you name the fruit – or in some areas the herb – and there’s an alcoholic beverage to correspond (see a little more on this in our feature on Slovakia’s most quintessential foods and drinks). And the microbrewery industry has improved significantly in recent years: check our Bratislava Bars & Pubs section for proof! For the non-alcoholically inclined, Slovakia’s tea culture is also incredibly rich (English – rejoice!) and those interested in this should watch this space for more on the many fantastic teahouses – or the čajovne – of Slovakia. It’s not that you can’t get many of these drinks elsewhere, of course. But it’s not so common to find such a small country which can specialise in such an array of them.

7: Cheaper Costs of Living

We all know about Eastern Europe’s perennial popularity with those (quite often, the stag parties) who love how cheap it is for a weekend break. That’s true. Certain aspects of life are cheap here. The public transport and the cultural events, as detailed elsewhere on this article. And the beer (often cheaper than water for the same volume, and for the last couple of years Bratislava has come up as the number one of Europe’s cities for the cheapest beer). And the restaurant food (delicious meals at many of the better restaurants for 10 Euros or under).  And the average rent (even in Central Bratislava you could find apartments from as little as 300 Euros). Even taking into account that salaries are lower, a quick tally-round of the relative prices soon show life in Slovakia = more for less.

6: Music

Considering its size (not much bigger than Bristol and significantly smaller than Manchester) Bratislava gets literally all the big bands that stop round on their European tours – Košice and the smaller cities get a fair few too. It’s the same with music festivals – Bratislava’s programme of events is diverse, and covers everything from world music to classical and electric. Košice – European City of Culture 2013 don’t forget – now also has a wide programme of music events throughout the year. And as the two cities are only four hours apart, you’re never going to be more than two hours or so from cracking live music! Traditional Slovak music, it should be emphasised, is really worth checking out too: Slovakia has one of the most eclectic folk music legacies in Europe.

5: Meal tickets!

I guess it’s one of those things that dates back to Communism. For the vast majority of workers in Slovakia, the employer will cough up at least 50% of the money for meal tickets (generally in 4-Euro blocks) which can be redeemed not only at most restaurants but also supermarkets. If you bear in mind that a set-menu lunch even in Bratislava can cost 3 Euros, you’ve got your lunch taken care of and some money towards your supermarket shopping. Many readers from Europe and the US on here will laugh at the very idea of a company so generously contributing towards employee’s lunch and evening grocery shop: but in Slovakia, it’s a rather lovely reality!

4: Accessibility of Culture

Culture… accessible in Slovakia ©englishmaninslovakia.com

Culture… accessible in Slovakia ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Even considering the cheaper costs of living, the prices of tickets to the theatre or cinema are exceptionally reasonable. 25 Euros maximum can buy you premium seats at Bratislava’s Slovak Philharmony or Slovak National Theatre.

The accessibility isn’t just about price though – often, the very best events are organised by a young and bohemian crowd who go out of their way to make you feel welcome. There’s no pretension with most Slovak cultural events (not to deny that other aspects of life here have incredible pretentiousness) but this doesn’t mean that the standard is low. Slovakia actually has an incredibly important role within the development of Central European classical music and this role translates today into very highly-regarded performances that many people will come especially to see even from Vienna.

The events on offer are numerous, too. In Bratislava, there’s rarely a fortnight that passes without something of cultural significance (and clout) going on..

3: Public Transport

Going some place like Slovakia

Going some place like Slovakia – image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Slovaks will laugh loud when they read some of the things that I find particularly good about life here, and perhaps this point most of all. But whilst it’s generally a bit more battered than in some countries, it’s a brilliant system. For starters, a great website coordinating all bus and train transport helps you plan your journey across the country precisely (something sorely lacking in the UK).

Then there’s the trains themselves. Old, but very sophisticated, and with very affordable (15 Euros for a cross-country ride) travel in style (proper dining cars serving quite decent food) – see my enthusiastic post on this, Want Fried Cheese With That view, for more!

And within the cities, the tram and trolleybus system is just brilliant (especially Bratislava trams). The lines are almost never closed for repairs, and they always run on time, up to thirty minutes either side of the  centre, for a maximum of 90 Euro cents. They’re rarely crowded, either. Learn from this, public transport in nearly every other European city!

2: Lack of Crowds

Crowdlessness

Crowdlessness ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

I’ve lost count of the number of times I have walked into a cool place – invariably a cafe, bar or pub – in London, Paris or other big cities and soon formed the impression that it wasn’t so cool based solely on the crowdedness. For me, if I’m waiting to elbow through five rows of punters just to get to a bar to be served, or queue too long for a table in a cafe, then however good the joint it’s unlikely to form a positive impression on me. Such levels of crowds do not, contrary to popular opinion, signify the place is good. They just signify over-populatedness. Right now, even Bratislava never has that problem in Slovakia. You can sit down in your favourite place, or hike your favourite footpath – and breathe, and relax, because there’s never half a dozen people jostling behind you, spilling your drink or spoiling your moment of quiet contemplation.

 

1: Hiking

In reality, nature (which is Slovakia’s biggest draw to visit, or to live in) should probably fill several sections of this particular top ten. But this is nature made accessible by easily the best system of hiking trails I have ever encountered – anywhere. From right in Bratislava, these red-, blue-, yellow- or green-marked signs kick off, with detailed destinations on down the trail and how many minutes’ walk they are away. Sometimes the signs have timings down to the nearest minute! But they always prove to be uncannily accurate and – even if you are a fast walker – very hard to “beat”, although it’s fun trying! Some real TLC goes into making and maintaining these trails and the resulting signage.

This is coupled, even in remoter parts, by the endearing addition of rather elaborately-constructed barbecue spots.  The culture of the opekačka, or barbecue-bonfire in the wilds, is a very important part of Slovak life, especially at weekends. And to this end, it seems hiking trails go out of their way to wind up at great barbecue places. Mostly these are made from wood, and are found in small clearings within the woods, but sometimes they’re made from the old stones of ruined castles (my secret suspicion about why so many hiking trails here link up with ruined castles).

Slovaks also are pretty picky about where they hike: it has to be beautiful. So whilst hikes abound in the woods and mountains (i.e. the majority of the country), the very idea of them walking across farmland like us English is laughable. Then again, Slovak farmland does look rather ugly (the hedges have generally been gutted creating wide, intensively farmed, bleak-looking fields) so I do understand their preference!

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Tatras trail with Ždiar below ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The High Tatras Mountain Resorts − Starý Smokovec: the Funicular to Hrebienok

Mountain resorts are an occasionally unerring type of destination. They represent the most straightforward ways, on paper, of accessing the prime mountain country of any given destination. But the flip side of that is that they can appear austere and inauthentic tourist centres, full of people milling around but not actually knowing how to inject life into their trip (or people content in just milling around: fine if you fit into that category but then this probably isn’t the article for you!).

Starý Smokovec can be like that. Its age-old charm (it was, after all, the original mountain resort here, dating back to the late 19th century) ensures it is the suavest place to stay in these parts. There are some very decent restaurants around too. Yet it as neither as obviously in the mountains as Štrbské Pleso (where it’s more apparent how to at least get up to the namesake lake for a flavour of the surrounding Alpine scenery), and has less to do than Tatranská Lomnica (where a good museum and the cable car ride of the country, up to Slovakia’s second-highest peak, Lomnický štít, await). The bottom line is that if you are just-arrived in Starý Smokovec and want to get up towards the tops of those peaks looming above your guesthouse or hotel window, 19th century architecture and nice places to eat will not divert your attention too long. 

From the Tatras Mountain Railway station (with direct connections from Poprad’s mainline railway station every hour), it’s a couple of blocks’ walk up to the funicular railway station to Hrebienok, via this route. Taking the funicular up to Hrebienok is the sure-fire way to get up and into cracking mountain scenery quickly. It’s one of the few funicular railways in the Slovak mountains (most transport up into the peaks is by cable car or chair lift). The regularity of the Starý Smokovec-Hrebienok connections also means this is a plausible half-day trip (time for a bite to eat in the Hrebienok funicular station restaurant and a stroll around).

For the 8-minute trip up to Hrebienok, you’ll part with 8 Euros one-way or 9 Euros return trip, with daily trains leaving on average half-hourly between 8:30am and 4:30pm (in the summer season between June 1st and October 1st, 7:30am to 7pm). (In February trains only run at weekends and in March just Monday through Friday).

Hrebienok, honoured with a visit from Queen Elizabeth a few years back, is little more than a glorified funicular station, although the restaurant inside serves good food. Here, however, you are at an elevation of 1,285m, and surrounded by gorgeous high-altitude pine forest, with the serious climbs to the peaks at your fingertips. You are ideally poised for any number of hikes, including on Stage Three of the Tatranská Magistrala multi-day hike across the High Tatras (north on an easyish hike to Zamkovského Chata and west on a tougher trek to Popradské Pleso and Štrbské Pleso… an exciting place for hikers to be…

 

Bryndza natierka - image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

An Easy Bryndza Recipe

Bryndza, the tart, tangy sheep’s cheese that forms one of the backbones of Slovak cuisine, can be used in a variety of dishes – most famously, of course, in the national dish Bryndzové Halušky (potato dumplings with sheep’s cheese, to be featured in another post, because actually getting those dumplings right is an art many non-Slovaks can’t grasp). But just about the easiest thing to do with bryndza other than eat it straight is to make it into a tasty spread (natierka) which could also be used as a dip – perfect for a dinner party extra whether you’re in Slovakia or out of it.

Bryndza Natierka Ingeredients

– Bryndza – one good-sized piece (it’s sold now at a lot of Polish delicatessans, as well as Czech and Slovak delicatessans across Europe but THE place to get this cheese is in the Slovak mountains and the area around Liptovský Miklauš is famous for producing the very best. Stalls sell it at the roadside in that area.)

– Butter

– Half a red onion

– Cumin

– Powdered sweet red pepper (this is used more for colour than for taste. You could also use paprika for this, which will be the nearest widely-available thing in the UK – but then it would be more feisty).

NB: No specific quantities are given because there is no correct measure of ingredients for this recipe. Ignore, to a large extent, any bryndza natierka recipe which gives you specific measures for the ingredients. It’s all about what feels and tastes right for you. Be more organic about it. As a yardstick, I used, with a ball of about 200g of bryndza, maybe just under a quarter of a normal block of butter. That gives the spread a pretty creamy taste. Oh, and SOFTEN THE BUTTER for an hour or so outside the fridge before you use it. Otherwise it’s Hell to work with🙂

Bryndza Natierka Method:

OK: here’s the method:

1: Mash the ball of bryndza down on a plate, like so:

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2: Cream in the pre-softened butter, having cut the butter into small knobs. Cream until the mixture has a smooth consistency.

3: Thoroughly mix in the sweet red pepper powder or paprika, as in the pic below. Note how the colour slowly changes to a vibrant salmon pink.

IMG_2526

4: Again, being quite liberal, mix in the cumin (try a teaspoon full for starters):

5: Mix in about half a finely chopped red onion. Chop it really fine: it improves the taste.

6: Eat! I personally like bryndza natierka a little soft and spreadable – in which case leave it out a half hour or so before serving. It’s good with crackers or bread – or you can have it as a dip if you’re making a buffet. Celery dipped in bryndza? Mmmm

The approach to the hotel - image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Low Tatras Mountains: Horský Hotel Srdiečko

The first time I clapped eyes on the Horský Hotel Srdiečko, it was from above, along the spectacular Low Tatras mountain range ridge hike, the Hrebenovka. The hotel was nestled in an ink-green spread of forest just at the foot of the seriously sheer slopes ascending to Chopok, Slovakia’s main ski area.

And because of the great cable car system in operation in this section of the Low Tatras, this meant arrival itself was a novelty: rocking up (or, more accurately, rocking down) at the hotel reception by the combination of cable car and chair lift, which connect the top of Chopok with Hotel Srdiečko, the southern foot of the mountain and the end of the road to Brezno – via the mid-mountain cable car station at Kosodrevina. I’d only experienced a handful of cable cars in ski resort areas before, and I’d only taken this one old-fashioned, somewhat ricketty but very thrilling chair lift (that’s me leaning out quite precariously in the feature image to take that!), where your feet are dangling in mid-air as you descend or ascend through pine trees to/from a corridor ushering you in a matter of paces to the hotel’s front door. So suffice to say that I was in a good mood already as I set foot inside for the first time.

What strikes you instantly at this hotel is that they are trying to do things a bit differently to your standard Slovak mountain location. For all the cockle-warming tradition and charm of Slovakia’s mountain houses, they are, by the very nature of their lofty mountain-top locations, generally quite rustic (they are designed for hikers, after all, and don’t stand on much ceremony). Hotel Srdiečko does stand on ceremony. A fair amount of it, in fact. Its obvious draw is that it enjoys the right-on-the-doorstep fantastic scenery of many of the remoter mountain houses, yet a level of comfort that relatively few mountain hotels obtain. And all this, inexplicably, without any of the crowds you get on the busier north side of the mountain…

The hotel from above ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The hotel from above ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

At the tail end of a long, snaking road down through the forest to civilisation (in the form of the southern Low Tatras town of Brezno), Hotel Srdiečko cannot really be considered a mountain house. But the drama of the nature is so immediate and apparent from all parts of the hotel that, despite the structure itself representing the typical imposing style of wood-built Communist-era mountain hotels, it’s difficult not to walk around with a smile on your face. The hotel is, more than just a place to stay, a veritable life-saver up in these wild parts for all kinds of things: ski slope base, snow sports rental outlet, shop, restaurant… Downstairs it has a games room with a pool table, too. And then of course there is the rather well-endowed wellness centre: steam sauna, Finnish sauna, relaxation room, outdoor terrace with whirlpool jacuzzi and before- and apres-ski specific treatments, with the pine tree massage (yes, a little bit of the vast forests outside your window) perhaps the best of these. In short, there is no shortage of refined “horský” (mountain-themed) ways to while away the time, and your mind is constantly racing to the contemplation of what to do next: so the rooms themselves become, well, almost a secondary consideration. You are not, in essence, going to be spending much time in them.

That is not to say that they are not pleasant enough: they are. They’re finished in the pine wood style of much of the hotel. The furniture is all solid wood from the beds to the wardrobes, there are phones and TVs and perfectly decent en suite bathrooms, with colour schemes brightened by bright carnelian on one wall. The views of some rooms aren’t quite as good as they good be given the location (pokey prospects of corners of buildings) but they’re spacious rock-solid three-star digs. There is a notable mark-up in standard to the suites, which for only 50 Euros per night more than the standard rooms are a great bargain, with ample sitting rooms and bundles more space for those travelling in slightly larger groups.

The restaurant is an altogether more impressive prospect – and many people journey up for the afternoon or evening solely to eat here. The floor-to-ceiling views of the high ridge leading to Chopok already get diners in an amenable mood. Then there’s the size (simply loads of space, with a lot of the tables having low cushioned seating around them in their own small enclaves within the larger dining area). And last but not least: the food. It’s important to place the context: Slovak mountain food, whilst delicious, is quite heavy, so the restaurant is a nice break from that. Bryndza comes on a chive-sprinkled bruschetta here. Fresh vegetables are sprinkled throughout the menu offerings, and the heavenly salmon again offers that chance to enjoy the mountains fuelled by a lighter, healthier diet than the average!

All told, there’s so much to do at Hotel Srdiečko, in fact, that we’ve been obliged to assemble this little guide to our favourite things to indulge in whilst here…

1: Take the combination of chair lift (to Kosodrevina) and then cable car up to Chopok.

2: Hike from here to one of Slovakia’s most interesting cave systems, the Dead Bat’s Cave.

3: Take advantage of the decent wellness centre and have a splash in the idyllic hot tub on the upper terrace.

4: Lounge in the lovely restaurant (floor-to-ceiling views of the mountains conquered or yet to conquer).

In addition to all this, Hotel Srdiečko is our recommended stop-over at the end of the second stage of the Hrebenovka ridge hike

No wonder they don’t accept stays of less than two nights during busy times (December and January, plus the rest of ski season until March, are peak visiting time)… (their stay four nights, pay for three deal, regularly occurring, means a 4-night stay is just about perfect for a first visit)

MAP LINK:

 PRICES: Standard room/suite from 68/113 Euros (2016/2017 room prices based on two adults sharing the room)

GETTING THERE: Two daily buses run between Brezno (on the national railway network and with further bus connections to Bratislava and other big cities) and the turning circle in front of the hotel: meaning very much that this is a great base to start a long, in-depth Low Tatras adventure. Departure times from Brezno railway station are 07:50 and 14:35. In the other direction, the departure times to Brezno are 08:50 and 15:30.

BOOK HORSKÝ HOTEL SRDIEČKO

A kamzik - something you'll see on the ridge above the hotel ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

A kamzik – something you’ll see on the ridge above the hotel ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Lučnica’s Take on Slovak Folk Music

Lučnica – the Slovak National Folklore Ballet – have been the international face of Slovakia’s traditional folk music for over seven decades. Their performances, complete not just with the vocals and rhythms, but also the costumes of Slovak folk, have been instrumental in preserving and showcasing to the world what is surely one of the European continent’s most spectacular traditional musical legacies.

Unlike many folk music cultures – which have in real terms died a death and are only resuscitated for special events – Slovakia’s is alive and kicking, particularly if you adventure into the mountains of Central and Eastern Slovakia.

Where to Tap into Slovak Folk Music, Courtesy of the Englishman in Slovakia!

The Fujara and Where to Experience it – the Fujara is perhaps the most iconic and distinctive instrument in Slovak traditional folk music…

The only traditional Slovak and Czech music radio station

And (of course) with far more ways to experience Slovak folk coming soon…

Slavin War Memorial, Bratislava (far from actually falling down!) ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

In Pictures: A Ludicrous Little Tour Through the Communist Legacy in Slovakia

Is Slovakia one of the easternmost outposts of Western Europe or one of the westernmost of Eastern Europe? During Socialism in Slovakia the answer was certainly the latter. And as a result, Socialist Slovakia became, architecturally, and particularly in Bratislava, something of a showcase for the Brutalist architecture that defined the Eastern Bloc: a “look-what-we-can-do” brag to the West. The results? Some of the strangest Brutalist buildings you ever will see…

More on Slavín and Most SNP: Where to Get High in Bratislava

More on Petržalka: Petržalka‘s New Tram Link, Getting to Danubiana the Cool Way, The Forgotten Banks of the Danube

More on the Slovak Radio Building: Inside Bratislava’s Upside-Down Pyramid

More on Banská Bystrica: Free-running Around Banská Bystrica, Uncovering the Beauty of Brutalism in Banská Bystrica

More on Štrbské Pleso: The High Tatras Mountain Resorts: Štrbské Pleso, Mountain Lakeshore Dining at Štrbské Pleso

Slavin War Memorial, Bratislava (far from actually falling down!) ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Slavin War Memorial, Bratislava (far from actually falling down!) ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Petržalka, Bratislava: one of Eastern Europe's largest Communist housing complexes ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Petržalka, Bratislava: one of Eastern Europe’s largest Communist housing complexes ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Most SNP, Bratislava: with a UFO on top ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Most SNP, Bratislava: with a UFO on top ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Slovak Radio Building, Bratislava ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Slovak Radio Building, Bratislava ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Museum of the SNP, Banská Bystrica ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Museum of the SNP, Banská Bystrica ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The Panorama Resort at Štrbské Pleso in the High Tatras ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The Panorama Resort at Štrbské Pleso in the High Tatras ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Image ©Eric Wiltsher

The Only Round-the-Clock Radio Station for Traditional Slovak & Czech Music Hits the Airwaves!

You’re never more than a minute away from the music. So claims the most interesting radio station to air in Slovakia of late. And it’s interesting, primarily, because it plays the music people with an interest in this little nation will most want to hear: Slovak music.

The history of Slovak music is a fascinating one: like other aspects of Slovak history, it factors in the influence of the Hungarians, the Austrians, the Polish and other Slavic nations. It wasn’t really until the coming of one of the many famous sons of the city of Liptovský Mikuláš, Ján Levoslav Bella (the less-known contemporary of Dvorják), in the late 19th century, that true Slovak-ness was injected into the music of the nation. As well as composing Slovakia’s first opera, he also introduced elements of the country’s distinctive folk music into his works. Slovakia’s other two famous classic composers, Béla Bartók and Eugen Suchoň, as well as Marián Varga today, further elaborated on the folk theme in their music. There is, all things considered, an immense legacy of folk within Slovakia’s musical output, and it themes a lot of pop music to this day. But other music influences are strong, too: rock has a significant tradition through bands like Elán, as does country, besides pop rock and more straight-down-the-line pop.

New radio station RTI2, from the same people that run RTI (Radio Tatras International, with studios in the High Tatras city of Poprad, Slovakia, as well as the UK and Australia), now plays a large swathe of Slovakia’s music 24-7. Focussing on a range of genres of popular music, primarily that produced on Slovak, Czech and Czechoslovak soil since the 1960s, but also tapping into the rich vein of age-old Slovak folk, it’s a huge window into Slovakia’s culture that previously didn’t exist.

CATCH A LISTEN HERE

AND… we’ll be featuring an interview with the station’s founder soon!

RTI is licensed and regulated in the UK with an OFCOM license.

 

Image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Chateau Topol’čianky: Wine, Horses & Grand Old Houses

Soon enough, many of us in the northern hemisphere will get snow. Copious amounts of it perhaps. Still, it might be a stretch of the imagination for most to remember (or even conceive of) what enduring over a month of snow on the ground, layer on layer of it, ice and slush as much as fresh, is like. So allow me to indulge you briefly. A month of struggling down streets more or less constantly under drifts of a half meter or more, a month of not seeing grass, a month of traffic jams and transport failures, the hope once the novelty wears thin of it all melting only for more to pelt down out of the sky, damned annoying in short.

In this context you can understand, perhaps, how Château Topol’čianky – as I saw it for the first time at the end of last winter – seemed everything it was billed to be and more: namely a rather idyllic English-style mansion (and its grounds) plonked in a tucked-away pocket of Western Slovakia farmland. The snow line finished, on the particular drowsy weekend afternoon I first glimpsed the place, just outside Topol’čianky town. This left the Château, in the northern part of the municipality, bathing in late-in-the-day winter sunlight that cast a glorious gold-green everywhere. It would have looked beautiful at any time of year, but on this afternoon (through the eyes of one lately deprived of any other weather but snow, remember) not a lot short of exquisite.

The "English style" grounds ©englishmaninslovakia.com

The “English style” grounds ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The name speaks volumes. Château? It’s so… French… Slovaks normally call a grand, castellated mansion such as this zámok or kaštiel – not château. Perhaps the international reputation of the place has a lot to do with it. Following the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, it was Czechoslovakia which seized the reins, so to speak, on the Hapsburg dynasty’s superb stock of thoroughbred steeds. And so Château Topol’čianky, as an internationally regarded stud farm breeding of Nonius, Lippizan, Arabian, and English Half-blood/Hucul horses, was born (1921).

In reality, the building – dating mainly from the mid-17th century, but with an early 19th-century Classicist wing to boot – was already courting a glam crowd of celebs by then. First President of the new Czechoslovakia, Masaryk, had the château as a holiday home during WW1 – setting a precedent of Czechoslovak Presidents stopping by not just for holidays, but also for work. Before this, it was in any case established as a major beacon of learning in Central-Eastern Europe: with a library (still one of the highlights of a visit to the house itself, which features period furnishings from the 18th- and 19th- centuries and Slovakia’s greatest ceramics collection🙂 ) containing hugely important Slavic writings such as Anton Bernolák’s Grammatica Slavica.

©englishmaninslovakia.com

Nice Holiday Home… ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

English Country Garden…

I am an Englishman, it should be emphasised. And in at least one way, I possess a characteristic the majority of the world associates with Englishmen: I love strolling around charismatic old houses and their grounds (although rather with an espresso in my hands than a cup of tea). I am also an Englishman spending long amounts of time overseas in lands like Slovakia: small wonder, that when, whilst here, I clap eyes on a place which epitomises a sedate, grandiose abode seemingly plucked out of a quintessential English village postcard I am pretty enthused.

RELATED POST: The Arboretum Near Nitra (more English Garden loveliness in this neck of the woods)

No one can claim English architecture from the 19th century sticks out, definitively, as superior to other styles of the age. But English landscaped gardens? They have a certain something, an esotericness in their ornamental lakes or their manicured woodland paths that always lures me in for a stroll. Enter Château Topol’čianky’s “English style” gardens – a fancy 4km stretch of dignified woodland (300 types of trees here) bordered by a river canalised to form several ornamental lakes connected by leats on the one side, and by glorious vineyards on the other. And arranged delicately in-between: terraced lawns, an old wine cellar, an old 17th century mill, an orangery, a grotto. It’s not surprising Masaryk loved to potter around here. Part of the Château also serves as a hotel nowadays, with rooms set attractively around an internal courtyard (not a common design in Slovakia):

The HotelThe Hotel ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

That’s not to be confused, of course, with the other hotel within the park grounds, Hotel Hradna Straz (a pretty alright restaurant, which aims for old English hunting style, encompassed within).

Wine

All those vineyards do mean something: some of the country’s best-regarded (and certainly most dominant in terms of market share) white wines, in fact – including a delicious late winter harvest wine. Grapes cultivated here are mostly Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc, Grüner Veltliner and WelschReisling. The wine is so famous at Château Topol’čianky that it is, in many ways, the defining characteristic of Château Topol’čianky – and a very good wine outlet at Cintorínska 31 in Topol’čianky town (see this little MAP) sells the stuff. Check the winery website (they’re not afraid to brag) for more.

©englishmaninslovakia.com

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

MAP LINK:

THE CHATEAU – WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW: Whilst it serves primarily as a wedding venue, the house does open for guided tours between May and September (Entry Tuesday to Friday from 9 until 2.30pm by hourly guided tour, Saturday/Sunday midday until 4pm by hourly guided tour). Adults/children 3.80/2.50 Euros.

GETTING THERE: From Bratislava, the quickest way is actually by bus (i.e., from Bratislava Bus Station) changing in Zlaté Moravce, the underwhelming big town nearby. Buses run more or less hourly, cost 6.60 Euros one way and take about two hours 40 minutes.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Château Topol’čianky it’s 52km north to Prievidza

OUR OTHER SLOVAK WINE CONTENT:

Svätý Jur, Small Carpathians Wine Region

Limbach, Small Carpathians Wine Region

A typical Small Carpathians Wine Tasting in Trnava

Adventures in the Tokaj Wine Region

Dušičky

November 1st is All Saint’s Day. This is usually known colloquially as Dušičky in Slovakia and it is one of the most poignant occasions in the calendar year. “Occasion” is less the word than “honouring”.  For all of this day and the preceding one, Slovaks  – just like those in several countries around the world at this time of year – will be busy buying fresh flowers and arranging candles around the graves of their parents, grandparents and older ancestors, in a solemn and almost universally-practiced tribute to the dead. But All Saint’s Day is remembered with a particularly moving formality in Slovakia.

Some graves, for sure, have candles burning on them for much of the year. But increasingly, during the night of Halloween and the morning and afternoon of November 1st, the cemeteries across Slovakia become a mass of flickering light in the gathering darkness as families go to pay their respects and remember the departed.

Dušičky means “little souls” and perhaps that is what is contained in each individual guttering candle flame.

Dunaj the River ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Bratislava: the Unique Beat of Dunaj

The view from KC Dunaj ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The view from KC Dunaj ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

I often use Dunaj as an example of how Bratislava can make cool stuff happen. For anyone who thinks the city is a place of staid white people going about their daily business with a scowl on their face that only deepens at the first sign of counter-culture, a visit to this bar/club/cultural venue on the top floor of a part-abandoned old shopping centre right in the heart of the Staré Mesto will change your mind sufficiently.

Dunaj is the Slovak word for the Danube – the huge waterway you can see winding its way through town – and just as that river carries all manner of things in its wake, from fallen tree trunks to kayaks, rather weird-looking cargo ships and that famous trio of botels (boat hotels), well, so Dunaj the cultural venue bears all manner of music gigs, docu-films, theatre and topical discussions within its seemingly never-ending stream of events.

What I also like about this place apart from its great location (you get there in a rickety old lift and come out into the huge fourth-floor bar area with a big terrace gazing out over the burnished steeply-pitching rooftops of the city centre, see the featured image) is how effortlessly you become part of Bratislava’s young, sharply-dressed alternative set. No slack-jawed stares for the new-in-town visitor here: only smiling acceptance and struck-up conversations – emblematic of the city’s burgeoning reputation as an arts destination. It’s the place that proves the cliché true that it’s possible to walk in to a joint a stranger and leave having had some surreal bonding experience with the locals.

Daytime yoga? Balkan club night? Rock and Roll classics? Experimental board games? The choice is yours… and that’s not forgetting that Dunaj is a host venue virtually every time an avant-garde festival comes around: Fjúžn, for example, which promotes different cultures in Bratislava and, of course, gets a mention on this very blog.

Put it this way. It’s the first impression of Bratislava nightlife you’d want to have.

MAP LINK

LOCATION: Nedbalová 3

OPENING: 12 midday to 12 midnight Monday to Wednesday, 12 midday to 2am Thursday and Friday, 4pm-2am Saturday and 4pm to Midnight Sunday.

Image by Jonno Tranter

Hiking the Cesta Hrdinov SNP, Stage One: Myjava to Vel’ka Javorina

The Cesta hrdinov SNP, aka the trail of the Heroes of the Slovak National Uprising, begins officially at Bradlo, the monument to the ultimate Slovak hero, General MR Štefánik: it’s a continuation of the Štefánikova magistrála trail that runs here all the way from Bratislava. In short, this is the next big chunk of the mega-hike that traverses the entire length of Slovakia, now and for the remainder of its route to Dukla Pass in far-eastern Slovakia under the new guise of “Cestra hrdinov SNP”, a 500km+ adrenaline rush of a hike on some of Eastern Europe’s most jaw-dropping mountain and forest scenery. 

SCROLL TO OUR COVERAGE OF THE CESTA HRDINOV SNP PATH FROM ITS VERY BEGINNING (AT BRADLO – AND ON AS FAR AS MYJAVA) WITH OUR ARTICLE ON HIKING THE ŠTEFANIKOVA MAGISTRÁLA, STAGE FIVE: DOBRÁ VODA TO BRADLO (AND BEYOND)

We aim, over time, to have the entirety of this spectacular path featured on the site with stage descriptions for each (just as we have for Slovakia’s other long-distance trails, the Tatranská Magistrála in the High Tatras and the afore-mentioned Štefánikova magistrála in Western Slovakia. For Stage One, we give the floor to the intrepid Jonno Tranter. who hiked it this summer…

We were hiking the Cesta Hrdinov SNP as a continuation of our walking the entire Štefánikova magistrála trail from the Slovak capital of Bratislava. We’d walked from Dobrá Voda over Bradlo to Myjava the previous day, and after the wild terrain we’d been experiencing, the fact that the trail now followed the high street of Myjava, a fairly sizeable town by the standards of the hamlets we’d so far passed through, represented a big contrast.

If you plan on travelling like us, in summer, make sure to look up when the bank holidays are, as Myjava was like a ghost town when we walked through on what turned out to be a bank holiday morning. Apparently, there is a bookshop here where you can buy maps, but we were sadly to go without (closed for the day). However, we got by during the rest of our trek by taking pictures of the local maps fortuitously posted along the trail to guide us. Once you’re past Billa (a large supermarket, a good place to stock up), the town peters off and you’re quickly back into the fields above.

Slightly disheartened, we continued on the trail, which rises to the highest peak (970m) of our particular Slovakian adventure. Fortunately, the ascent is very spread out and gradual, and it doesn’t feel as tough to hike up as earlier rises on the Štefánikova magistrála like Vápenná in the Malé Karpaty.

The trail here is easy to follow and you’ll even spot a few other hikers in the area, something we hadn’t experienced earlier on our march across the hills from Bratislava. A little after entering the forest, about thirty minutes from Myjava, there’s a well on the right of the path, so make sure you have a drink before the ascent. You’re now in the Biele Karpaty proper, and once you hit Dibrovov pomník, the trail actually follows the Czech/ Slovak border. When the forest thins out, you’ll be in open grassland rising towards the top of the 970m-high Veľká Javorina, where there are some great views. Veľká Javorina is the high point of the Biele Karpaty range (and thus considerably higher than the highest elevations of the Malé Karpaty). The peak has long been symbolic of the healthy relationship between the Czech and Slovak republics, too, with a stone inscribed with words that translate as “here the brothers will meet always”.

Walk about 20 minutes further along the trail, past the communications tower, and you’ll get to Holubyho chata, which serves delicious food and has a nice terrace for summer days. With a wooden interior, the building looks like a chalet and doubles up as a hotel. There’s a road that leads here for tourists so it’s quite busy, though we had no problem getting served. The area is full of ski slopes and seems to also merit a winter visit.

At this point, we decided that to make it to the Pohoda festival (our end destination) in time, we would need to find a shorter way through than the red SNP trail. We decided to go for a green route which bypasses the “U” shape of the red trail and will save you about 15km.

The green trail is quite narrow and slightly more rough than what we were used to. However, it’s on this part of the trail that we saw the most people, and it was refreshing to meet other hikers and enjoy the mountains together. The path starts by following the Slovak-Czech border but then dives across into the Czech Republic. It then cuts through Květná, a small town with a few bars on the high street where you’ll be able to enjoy a meal, though no shops were open when we visited in the early afternoon. Although you are in the Czech Republic, all the restaurants and bars in this part of the country seemed to accept euros.

Continue through on the green trail past Nová hora and you’ll get to a little bridge above the Březová stream, a small river that’s just big enough to bathe in. There’s a few fields and farmhouses around, but right by the river is a small expanse, a perfect place to camp. That night we made friends with a few other campers and enjoyed some Czech pear liquor around a warm fire…

Setting up camp near Vel'ka Javorina - image by Jonno Tranter

Setting up camp near Vel’ka Javorina – image by Jonno Tranter

STAGE OVERVIEW MAP LINK:

WHAT NEXT?

Hiking the Štefánikova Magistrála (the prequel to the Cesta Hrdinov SNP – an introduction (featured in our Places to Go/Bratislava & Around and Places to Go/Western Slovakia sub-sections)

Hiking the Štefánikova Magistrála – Some Useful Tips (featured in our Places to Go/Bratislava & Around and Places to Go/Western Slovakia sub-sections)

Hiking the Štefánikova Magistrála, Stage One: Hrad Devín to Kamzík (featured in our Places to Go/Bratislava & Around sub-section)

Hiking the Štefánikova Magistrála – Stage Two: Kamzík to Pezinská Baba (featured in our Places to Go/Bratislava & Around and Places to Go/Western Slovakia sub-sections)

Hiking the Štefánikova Magistrála, Stage Three: Pezinská Baba to Vápenná (featured in our Places to Go/Western Slovakia sub-section)

Hiking the Štefánikova Magistrála, Stage Four: Vápenná to Dobra Voda (featured in our Places to Go/Western Slovakia sub-section)

Hiking the Štefánikova Magistrála, Stage Five: Dobrá Voda to Bradlo (and Beyond) (Previous Stage)

Plus: More on the Cesta Hrdinov SNP Trail…

Hiking the Cesta Hrdinov SNP, Stage Two: Vel’ka Javorina to Drietoma (Next Stage)

 

The room pictured is just the entrance room! ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The Tulip House

Location: Old Town

A couple of friends were in town and were staying at the Tulip House, which gave me my second opportunity to check out what is widely regarded as one of Bratislava’s best boutique hotels.

Second viewings concluded what the first had: that there’s very little to fault. The Tulip Cafe at street level sets the tone: those smart whites, beiges and dark-wood trim that a lot of upper-end places across Slovakia favour; that cool elegance that seems torn between sticking to the traditional and striving to be modern.

The suite: a closer look

The suite: a closer look – image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The theme continues up to the rooms. The rooms are all suites, here. You could fit two of most normal hotel rooms into each. The reception areas are large (made larger by the presence of strategically placed mirrors) with tea- and coffee-making facilities, the rooms have wall-mounted plasma TVs and, among other more unusual features, bed mattresses are designed to be allergy-proof and shoe shine services are offered whilst you sleep (!). They were serving complementary mulled wine upon arrival, too. The “but” which of course you sense is coming? Something is lacking. Atmosphere. Esotericism. Struggle as I might, I could find nothing exceptional to say about the Tulip House (and I can be verbose): for a 5-star boutique hotel in a capital city, it falls short of my expectations.

From outside the looks are promising. A haughty old building smack bang in Bratislava Old Town, within five minutes’ walk of all the city centre attractions, and nothing but a very suave layout inside which would make any business traveller immensely content: one could say I’m being too critical. Perhaps it’s because, at the end of the day, we’re pretty quirky ourselves at www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk. And when I stay in a boutique hotel, I want it to be rich in character. I want its take on luxury to be OUT  of the ordinary. That would be why I would stay there, instead of, for example, at a bona fide business hotel. Character, Tulip House? Rather lacking for me. But for large, smart, centrally-located Old Town rooms, you could not fare any better, and this, of course, would appeal to a lot of people.

For the finer details, breakfast and lunch, and coffee and cakes, are served in the Tulip cafe; the Rhapsody Restaurant is for more formal dining. There’s also a spa (Turkish bath, Finnish sauna) and fitness centre.

The disclaimer with the Tulip House is that its real speciality, for those who really wish to splash the cash on their stay in Bratislava are its penthouse suites – five of them – with the pièce de resistance having a fireplace, a terrace with good views of Bratislava castle, and 200 metres squared of leg room. So there’s two sides to every story.

ANOTHER BLOG ENTRY ON TULIP HOUSE:

MAP LINK: 

ADDRESS: Štúrova 10

PRICE: For 2016, suite prices (there are five different kinds including the two types of penthouse) start at 135 Euros for a double. Thats without breakfast, which is really worth having; with breakfast it’ll be around 161 Euros starting rate). But for this you need to book online – and in advance, often, and the cheapest deal by the time you book will likely be in the region of 200 Euros. However, the penthouses will set you back around 550 Euros for the smaller ones or 850 Euros for the biggest one.

Levoča's Indian Summer Festival ©David Conway

Levoča: In Full Swing During the Indian Summer Festival

As you journey east from the High Tatras, the next stop on the classic traveller’s route (before Bardejov and then Košice) is Levoča, one of Slovakia’s most striking medieval towns, with its historic centre a Unesco World Heritage Site. For this article, the founder of what is now one of the town’s foremost annual events, David Conway, explains exactly what inspired him to set up the Indian Summer Festival

It was in 1973 that I first laid eyes on Levoča, where my father-in-law Laci had taken me. My wife Nadia, at the time classified by the Czechs as a criminal illegal emigrant (having remained in London after the 1968 Russian invasion), was unable to be with us. What I experienced was an incredible sleeping beauty; an exquisite late-Gothic renaissance town almost perfectly preserved, seemingly untouched for centuries under a magic spell which had left it in shadow, despite its showcase architecture and setting within an exquisite Slovak landscape.

RELATED POST: Top Ten Medieval Towns in Slovakia

When I next visited Levoča (now with Nadia) in the 1990s, it was already picking itself up after Communism and beginning to restore and celebrate its unique heritage. The idea of taking part somehow took root and in 2003 we purchased and began to restore one of the town’s many merchant’s houses, with vast cellars dating to the 12th century, a vaulted hallway and staircase of the 16th century, and numerous wonderful features of carving and woodwork.

With our house renovated, Nadia began thinking about how we could attract others to this forgotten pearl of Central Europe. And the idea of a music festival arose. With the cooperation of the town, which has enabled us to utilise the magnificent 18th-century theatre and congress hall amongst other venues, we contacted our musician friends, or just barefacedly invited musicians we admired, buttonholing them after their concerts in London, Prague and elsewhere.

Amazingly, these brazen tactics worked, and thus ‘Indian Summer in Levoča’ (in Slovak ‘Levočské babie leto’) was born. Run on a not-for-profit basis through an NGO set up with our local friends, and with support from grants, patrons and visiting audiences to maintain standards and reputation, over the years we have had wonderful performances from artists including the Stamic and Zemlinsky quartets, the Vienna Piano Trio, the European Union Baroque Orchestra, Julian Lloyd Webber and many others. Amongst our ‘regulars’ – who have become local heroes to the townsfolk – are the charismatic Slovak cellist Jozef Lupták and the virtuoso British pianist, Jonathan Powell.

©David Conway

There have been some phenomenal renditions at the festival ©David Conway

At first I think the local people thought we were mad. But gradually they have come – first out of curiosity, and now out of devotion – to hear incredible music. A key aspect is that there is no prejudice on the part of the local audience; they respond according to the commitment of the performer, whether he or she is playing Schubert, Shostakovich, Brahms or Beethoven. And gradually we have attracted visitors from all over Europe and even America and Australia. The Gramophone magazine has called our festival ‘Europe’s best-kept secret’ – but now the word has begun to spread.

One of our chief delights has been programming the concerts – so as to ensure that we can introduce music we think people ought to hear, as well as the established concert classics. So you won’t just hear the great classics, but also, for example, in our 2016 festival, Xenakis, Sterndale Bennett, Dohnanyi, Busoni and other exciting-but-neglected music.

Of course we have not been without our crises – but here perhaps is not the place to discourse on the grand piano which was dropped by the removers, the pianist who had her passport lost in the Hungarian embassy in Washington three days before her concert with us, or the heroic efforts of the Levoča dustmen in getting yet another piano up several flights of stairs when the deliverers had forgotten their equipment…..

In 2016, our ninth year, we welcomed the Kodaly Quartet of Budapest, the young Israeli violist Avishai Chaimedes playing Mozart string quintets, Mark Viner, performing works by the astonishing virtuoso Charles-Valentin Alkan and Alkan’s friend Franz Liszt, and Jonathan Powell playing Mussorgsky’s original piano version of the monumental ‘Pictures from an Exhibition’. Danish tenor Jakob Vad and pianist Eisabeth Nielsen brought us music form England and Denmark, and we heard medieval Slovak choral music and works from Mendelssohn, Mozart and Boccherini to Bartók, Arensky and Prokofiev. The Festival closed with a performance of Schubert’s great B flat Piano Trio.

The Levoča Indian Summer Festival is informal, it’s fun, and it provides a great opportunity to visit one of Slovakia’s finest old towns after the summer tourist crowds have left but whilst the weather remains warm. You will hear great music and meet wonderful musicians, due to the festival’s intimate nature. That’s a key difference here: with other larger festivals, you can be so far away from the performers it almost feels like you’re watching them on a screen. Not here! So so come and join us for our festival in September 2017, which will be extra special because it will be a landmark tenth anniversary for us: and will hopefully attract many more unmissable performers to this relatively unknown pocket of Eastern Slovakia.

MAP LINK: (showing the main town theatre venue)

FESTIVAL WEBSITE: (2017 line-ups not yet available)

COST OF TICKETS:

GETTING THERE: The east of Slovakia benefits quite well from international flight connections these days: Poprad, 20 minutes to the west of Levoča via route E50, has 4 weekly flights to London Luton.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Levoča, it’s 63km north to Stará Ľubovňa, home of Slovakia’s only whiskey distillery

 

Bratislava high rises - image ©Wizzard

Child of the Revolution: A Poem

Not so long ago I was walking through Rača, the north-eastern-most part of Bratislava, when I was inspired to write this. So here we are:

 

You walk down the street, and it’s straight – without end,

And the breeze blocks and smokestacks do not relent,

And abysmal spectral faces spectate

And you’re spent – so sick so tired and spent.

 

The angles stab you, the sad fog grabs you,

All-day casino bars shriek from the pavement,

Tannoys play Patrioticheskaya,

And you wonder what the words could have meant.

 

And you’re not in the motherland anymore –

You’re in a land of your own – of cement,

You can’t see the future for the travesty,

Nor all those nice woods for the barbed-wire fence

 

And the ones that taught you: where are they now?

They sold you or bought you and told you: relent.

And the new generation: where did they go?

All the way down to get stoned in the basement.

 

Na prenájom, všetko na predaj*

Is all you see from the cracks in the pavement

Or maybe the smoke as it rises from ashes

From the sixth-floor window of your tenement.

 

And the tram trawls by but it’s gone – you’re too late,

And the bar is warm and convenient,

The brandy fires you, the ice-cold wires you,

Crystalised, you see your life; where it went.

 

* For rent, everything for sale

Elán hit New York ©Jaro Nemčok

Death Watching Over Us: Introducing Elán

Whenever the Prague Old Town square’s Astronomical Clock strikes you’ll see one of the figures emerging to do the chiming is Death (a skeleton). Here’s the premise for one of Slovak rock group Elán’s greatest ever hits, smrtka na pražskom orloji (The Grim Reaper on the Astronomical Clock). In case you ever wanted to know what Czechoslovak rock was all about, this was it. So here we go: perhaps Slovakia’s most popular all-time band, going strong since 1968 and still with regular performances around the country that sell out, every time… 

The vast lake, Western Slovakia's biggest, stretches away to the horizon. ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Around Trnava: Král’ová – a Beautiful Journey Breaker on the Road East

I’m going to write possibly the first in-English post on the rather random – but rather cool, I think – body of water Vodna Nádrž Král’ová (Western Slovakia’s largest body of water, and one of Slovakia’s largest after the likes of the Liptovská Mara near Liptovský Mikulaš). If you happen to be travelling on the R1 highway (the main road east from Bratislava towards Banska Bystrica) and want a journey-breaker, this is infinitely better than the service stations.

You’ll see it about half-way between Trnava and Nitra as you cruise through Western Slovakia: the dammed river Váh morphs into a huge lake at this point. Take the turning off right to Šoporňa just after the main road crosses the water and head down into the village. Šoporňa is an otherwise unremarkable settlement but as you go through it, at the end you’ll see a couple of lanes heading right back down towards the water. Take one of these (to stay on the right track follow the signs to Hotel/Sanatorium Relax Inn West) and keep heading down to the water.

Go in spring/summer and you’ll never see Slovakia looking so green and be amazed that, just a couple of KM from such a big road, could be such a peaceful and relatively unvisited spot (we were last there on a gorgeous spring day and had the place to ourselves).

You park just below the dam itself, then walk up.

What is there to do? Watersports are available on the lake. A small booth rents out rowing boats and there’s a small island (as in the pic) to make your way out to. It’s a great picnicking spot too. A wide track runs along the side of the water, with woods and meadows off left. You can follow the track all the way along the water to a ricketty gravel-dredging factory (actually quite surreally photogenic and possible to explore to observe the gravel being sorted then wobbling along on a conveyer belt). Beyond the path continues right down the lakeshore to a small peninsular at the end where you can cross to the other side.

Back up near where you parked, there’s also the afore-mentioned Hotel/Sanatorium Relax Inn West (terribly named but actually a wonderful little place). You can access it from the road you drove down to the lakeshore on or from a little path into the woods over a bridge a few hundred metres down the track to the factory. It’s totally secluded in woodland, this little place (we can’t mention it in an individual accommodation review because we haven’t spent the night there) but it’s got a wellness centre and several walks through the serene woodsy grounds.

Go on. Relaaaaaaaaaaaaax!

MAP LINK

GETTING THERE: Kral’ova is a place you pass through, usually, but public transport serves it (or, at least, Šoporňa, from where you’d need to find your own way to the Relax Inn and the reservoir, then a further 1-2km walk away). Buses run direct from Nitra (45 minutes, 1.30 Euros) about hourly during the day – in early mornings and evenings there is direct access by bus from Sered’ and Hlohovec.

 NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Kral’ova it’s 25km northwest to Trnava and 26km east-northeast to Nitra

©Chata Magurka

Low Tatras Mountain House: Chata Magurka

©Chata Magurka

©Chata Magurka

The light was failing, and we were despairing of ever finding our destination: perhaps someone had erected the gutterally-leaning wooden signpost on a barren rise off to to the side of the Hrebenovka, the ridge hike along the Low Tatras mountains that we’d been traipsing for the previous few days, for a joke. For the third night on the trail from Čertovica in the east to Donovaly in the west, we’d elected to descend from the ridge into the forests for our night’s accommodation. Whilst there was a mountain house, Chata Útulná, atop the ridge that would have provided shelter at a similar point on the trail, it only had a huge dormitory with mattresses spread out more or less end-to-end, and we fancied bedding down in a private room to enjoy a tad more comfort. About 1.5 hours further down the trail from Chata Útulná, from amidst the isolated ridge top nature reserve of Latiborská Hol’a, we’d scrambled down a steep path into dense woodland for about 45 minutes, then followed a winding forest trail that seemed to be leading nowhere except to lumberjacks’ log piles. Then, a scattering of chalets appeared like a mirage: we had reached the very end of the road, and what followed certainly felt like a surreal dream.

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The view outside ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

One minute, forest like this. The next? A minute, hidden hamlet with one of its several traditional chalets devoted to provide accommodation for weary hikers.

The owner and a few of his friends, amicable old timers the lot of them, were celebrating the arrival of the new vegetable juicer. “I tried it for several weeks in England once” slurred the owner, already a few glasses of slivovica to the good (or bad).  “The amount of weight I lost!” He did look quite trim for a middle-aged mountain man, and swears it’s down to embracing a diet of vegetable juice… and, er, presumably his strong homemade alcohol. He commanded us to sit down whilst he blended us one of the juices he’d tried out for the first time that very day. We waited quite a while, desiring nothing more than to check into our room. The wait was due to the fact the owner had, in the process of fetching us drinks, temporarily fallen asleep, but now we smiled: here he was, stumbling back with the promised refreshments. “Get some of this down you” he booms in exuberant but actually not bad English. It tasted like pondwater. “My favourite” he says excitedly. “Nothing in this but grass” (he did not specify exactly what he meant by grass, or indeed where his grass came from). And so saying, off he went to continue the juicer’s welcome party. I had to drink both of the foul-tasting glasses: my hiking companion steadfastly (and in retrospect wisely) refused. Grass? It was pond weed flavour, more like. Still, in true British fashion I managed to stay grinning and enthuse about how nice it all was (the drinks were, at least, on the house) and it seemed to be what was expected before we could commence with checking-in facilities.

But we did, at least, have a room – and actually it was a decent one. Nothing fancy: four- to six- bed pine finished bunk rooms, but the staff were quite prepared to arrange things so that we had one of these to ourselves. They were clean, with wash basins and piles of blankets, and – at this dead end of the road to civilisation – very quiet. Bathrooms with piping hot showers were across the hallway. Did we appreciate more after walking all day through the mountains? Undoubtedly. But by the standards of the scant accommodation options actually up in or near the mountaintop, pretty good – and not lacking in atmosphere.

Ah yes: atmosphere. The bar-restaurant area, open from 9am to 8pm for hearty Slovak food daily, is hung with low wooden rafters, and replete with long, sturdy wooden tables – plus various hunting talismans (deer’s antlers, bear skins): in short, pleasantly cosy Slovak-rustic. As with a lot of the hotels in the Scottish Highlands and other areas which have a similar “hunters’ trophy” decoration, animal-lovers might want to reconcile themselves with the fact that if they want a roof over their heads, a furry bear spread-egaled across a section of it will have to be tolerated. Outside, there is a grill area to use, and a hot tub that can be rented out at 40 Euros for two hours: pricier than the accommodation, but perhaps worth it after a tough tramp to get here!

Next morning, after a tasty breakfast of “hemendex” (ham and eggs) and very nice coffee, served in a cheerful courtyard attracting plenty of sunlight despite being fringed by thick forest, one of the owner’s drinking partners from the previous night offered us a ride into the village with the nearest bus stop.

“Let’s go quickly” he urged. “I’ve got to be back here ready to start drinking by ten.”

Perhaps the toasting of the vegetable juicer’s arrival in tiny, out-of-the-way Magurka was a multi-day affair.

In any case, the majority of places to stay do not inspire even articles, let alone feature-length Twin Peaks-style TV series. Chata Magurka, thanks to the eccentric bunch of characters gathering at this place on a daily (and nightly) basis, has enough material in-between its four walls to manage both.

GETTING THERE: Some customers, of course, will arrive at Chata Magurka by road. Classified as a holiday hamlet, and with a round-the-year population of under twenty, Magurka is not served by public transport. Buses come as close as the larger village of Liptovská Lužna – served by connections from Ružomberok (at 6:20am and then about hourly between 10am and 10pm, running from Ružomberok station on the main line to Bratislava and Košice and taking 32 minutes). From Liptovská Lužna, it’s 10km east to Magurka, up an un-signed road by a logging area just before the village of Želežne…

MAP LINK:

PRICES: From 20 Euros per room (without private bathroom) (2017 prices)

BOOK CHATA MAGURKA (Bookable via Booking.com, emailing magurka@magurka.eu or by telephoning 00421-905-649-230/ 00421-905-866-654)

  • You can be up on stage three of the Hrebenovka (Low Tatras multi-day ridge hike) from the doors of Chata Magurka in two hours of walking on some tough-but-beautiful paths through the forest (blue signposts)

 

A moving encounter between long-lost relatives bought together through the Slovakia genealogy tours. ©adventoura

Tours: Ancestry Trips Through Slovakia

Slovakia’s turbulent history – with stints under the control of several different empires – means tracing your roots can be tough. Nevertheless, many of those with Slovak ancestry do want to take up the challenge, and it’s here that one of the country’s newest tour operators comes in handy.

Based in the High Tatras, Ancestry and Genealogy Tours Slovakia have many years’ previous experience as an adventure tour operator, Adventoura, but have recently added this separate arm to their enterprise: partly because of the owner’s interest in uncovering more information about his own heritage (he’s connected to the Rusyn people of Eastern Slovakia, and to a small village in Slovakia’s whiskey-producing region of Stará L’ubovña. The premise is simple: if you want to discover more about your roots, either Slovak or (as investigations sometimes pan out) any roots that originate in the countries surrounding Slovakia such as Poland or Ukraine, then get in touch with them beforehand, allow them a few weeks to do the wider research into your family history in the region and then, when the necessary information has been gleaned, and family members in Slovakia and vicinity contacted, book your flight to Slovakia to commence the experience.

Packages with such specifics being researched and incorporated into the tour are all unique and tailor-made to the individual requirements of the customers. The key theme of the trip will be the reunion with long-lost relatives – if Ancestry and Genealogy tours Slovakia have managed to locate them, and if the customers so desire. Trips can last up to 14 days in some cases, with every aspect from food to accommodation possible to arrange with the agency.

Often, partly because migration was historically higher from Eastern Slovakia, and because the agency is based in the eastern half of the country, tours take in sights in this part of Slovakia of historic interest. There is the personal level, too: generally, those intrigued by their family’s past are also fascinated to see what the places their family were surrounded by in their daily lives are like. Thus Eastern Slovakia’s wooden churches and the gorgeous Unesco-listed town of Bardejov and Levoča (where the historic archives for the area are located, and which can be visited as part of the tour) are popular stop-offs on the itinerary.

“Every trip involves a totally different story or set of anecdotes” smiles Erik Ševčík, who set up the company. “Quite funny is when, because of the family’s excitement and getting back in touch, the customers and the relatives they have been reunited with forget they can’t speak the same language (because older people in Slovakia rarely speak English, and many of those retracing roots have English as their mother tongue, not Slovak any longer). So they are chatting to each other and neither can understand the words the other is saying, yet on some deeper level they really are getting on with each other like old family members already after just one meeting!

I have been doing this a while now, but the circumstances of meetings are so touching that leaving with customers to continue on the journey never gets any easier – it’s always tough and emotional.”

FULL DETAILS OF HOW TO START ARRANGING YOUR TRIP WITH ANCESTRY AND GENEALOGY TOURS SLOVAKIA ARE AVAILABLE ON THEIR WEBSITE

 

Communism... Based on image by zscout370

On 25 Years Since the End of Communism

A quarter of a century since the fall of Communism was marked in Slovakia perhaps as it should be: in a quiet and analytical way, with a lot of discussions in the media on the progress the country had made during this time.

We have mentioned on Englishman in Slovakia some of the tributes paid to the tumbling of the regime which still, 25 years later, has such a profound effect on so much of this part of Europe (those with a Slovak theme anyway): that compilation of various docufilm directors’ impressions on the country two decades after gaining independence, Slovensko 2.0, is a good starting point.

But the main question on everyone’s lips: has Slovakia developed in a good way, in the way people imagined or hoped that it would? And of course a lot of voices answered: no, not nearly as “good” as expected.  To paraphrase from one of the discussion programmes I got a chance to listen to: Slovakia, whilst technically the easternmost reach of the “west” is more accurately in politics the westernmost outpost of the “east”.

It’s not our place on this site to dwell so much on thorny Slovak state issues. There are plenty of them, which are perhaps best summarised in the word “corruption”. Slovakia’s PM Fico can argue, citing such successes as the Kia and Peugeot automotive plants, that he’s helped the economy (well, at least in the west of SlovaKIA) but culturally? Democratically? In its legal system? Ahem. Polls by CVVM (Czech) and IVO (Slovak) showed only 51% of Slovaks viewed what took place in that autumn of 1989, up to and including November’s Velvet Revolution, with positivity, and that’s no doubt based on disillusionment with those facets of life where there’s a country mile of room for improvement today.

But on the subject of travel, I can say that I’m happy to be here right at the beginning. And I really do mean the absolute nascence – because for years the Slovak tourism industry was dormant and for years more it developed in the wrong way (ski package deals, stag weekends). The beginning of the opening of Slovakia to tourism is now. As new flight connections to Poprad and Košice illustrate, the “set piece” – the east of the country – is more accessible than ever. Enterprising Slovak adventure agencies are getting international recognition. Cool places to eat that aren’t afraid to champion the Slovak character of their menus are introducing foreigners to the nation’s traditional food. Slovakia is now catering to a more discerning type of traveler: the kind that really wants to discover. And the potential is as great as the mountains and forests are vast.

Raise a glass of your finest Demänovka (herbal liqueur) to the next 25 years. Actually, Slovaks are generally more partial to Becherovka, which is a Czech version of the same drink…

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Fabrika

Fabrika is one of the words Slovaks use to describe a factory, and it’s the first thing would-be drinkers should understand about Bratislava’s latest pivovar (brewpub). The industrial chic concept might have hit other parts of the globe but it never really took off before in the Slovak capital: until now… Fabrika, with its motif of a smoking clutch of factory chimneys emblazoned on the exposed brickwork behind its looong swanky bar, makes no secret of the fact that this is the concept it’s going for. It’s Bratislava’s only real exponent of this genre of drinking/dining, and not only pulls it off the concept, but pulls in customers to near capacity on a nightly basis: for its looks, true, but also for its great beer and its superb US influenced food.

It was an audacious stunt to even try to open this place, what with another top-notch pivovar in Bratislavský meštiansky pivovar being so close. Like its competitor (and competition has been oh-so healthy for Bratislava’s expanding craft beer scene) it takes the American brewpub as the role model and straddles that divide between pub and restaurant. But whereas Bratislavský meštiansky pivovar embraces traditional Slovak food, Fabrika goes very much for the Americas with its menu options.

The huge Fabrika King burger, stuffed with a hash brown to boot, gets talked about a lot, but for the same price (11.90 Euros) the smoked cheeseburger, served with smoked Slovak sheep’s cheese, tomato salsa, red chard salad, aioli and egg easily outshines it. This Slovak interpretation of US “slow” fast food is one it would have been nice to see elaborated on: it’s almost like the food here teeters on the brink of voyaging into the “very creative”, and at the last moment falls back a notch or two into the category of “varied”.  Yet the steaks are incredible: a divinely-soft Uruguayan tenderloin with crusty potato strudel and ceps (see image below) is one the best constructed dishes in all Bratislava. Vying for your attention as well on the meat front is the ostrich steak set off perfectly by its cognac jus. Then there some inventive pasta options, such as the spaghetti with shrimps, dried tomatoes, chilli and baby spinach and a nod or five to southern US barbecue food on a starters and mains list that could almost be plucked from a classy eatery menu in Dallas or Austin (pretty new for Bratislava to have it done so well). Mains are all in the 11 to 19 Euro range.

But the main moniker Fabrika wears is “the Beer Pub” and in terms of the local craft beer scene it’s up there as a contender for THE place to quaff artisan beer, as it makes seven beers on site (see the steel tanks at one end of the large open restaurant area). Seven – incidentally – is more than Bratislavský meštiansky pivovar produces. A particularly strong Pilsner made with one of Europe’s four noble hop varieties, saaz, and a complex chocolatey dark beer are the stand-outs, along with a slightly fruity stout.

Perhaps, at the end of the day, it boils down to that question of environment – and it’s Fabrika’s cool surrounds which combine with its very decent beer and food to render the overall feel so pleasant.

On a quiet side street off the rapidly rejuvenating Štefanikova street that runs up from Michalská Brana on the edge of the Old Town to Bratislava’s train station, the nearby grandiose 19th-century architecture contrasts with this retro-cool modern oasis of craft beer and grub. But Fabrika fits in with all that, too. The attached Loft Hotel is decked up in the same style, but merges effortlessly into the also-attached 19th-century residence which President Woodrow Wilson once favoured on sojourns in the city (and where you can also stay today). Fabrika’s quiet-but-animated outside terrace, in fact, fronts both: abutting a 21st-century chic-industrial and a striking 19th century facade, which is quite something. And just like much of this deceptively relaxed, ornate, leaf-fringed neighbourhood of Bratislava, Fabrika wants you here for the long-haul, and to truly take some serious time out to contemplate some of the good tastes in life.

As the official restaurant of Loft Hotel it certainly goes down as Bratislava’s most lively and enjoyable hotel restaurant.

MAP LINK:

OPENING: 11.30am-midnight Saturday to Thursday, 11.30am to 1am Friday

RESERVATIONS: This place can get very busy because, amongst a certain sect, it’s pretty in right now (do not confuse that with generic, lacklustre tourist option, which it most certainly is not). So RESERVE HERE if you want a table inside at the time of your choice.

BEST TIME TO VISIT: Best to come here on a sunny evening in spring, summer or early autumn, when you can grab your first drink outside on the terrace in the last of the day’s light before gravitating inside for more beers and a bite to eat from the extensive menu.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Fabrika, it’s 350 metres south to a great medieval-themed restaurant serving traditional Slovak classics, Traja Mušketieri.

Uruguayan steak, potato gratin ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Uruguayan steak, potato strudel… ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Painted eggs… a typical Slovak handicraft – pic by Doko Ing. Mgr. Jozef Kotulič

Bratislava: Úl’uv

Úl’uv is Slovakia’s centre for folk art production and, with several strategically-placed outlets in Bratislava, is the obvious first port of call for any visitors to Slovakia who are seeking a souvenir beyond the bog standard tourist tat.

There is a branch now on Hlavné Námestie (Bratislava Old Town’s central square) and then the main premises at Obchodná No. 64 right opposite the Vysoká tram stop (tram numbers 3, 5, 6, 8). The Obchodná branch, particularly, is well-deserving of a half-hour or more of your time if you’re in the market for a decent gift for those back home. It spans both sides of a small alleyway which leads back into a courtyard of sculptures, from which there’s access to a number of small ateliers, or craft workshops. These workshops do put on demonstrations and even classes, but if you miss these there is still the shop itself…  and a very nice daytime cafe-restaurant for refreshments afterwards.

The shop. Giftcards made with lace, lace wallhangings, handcrafted wooden animals, Majolika ceramics from Modra (with its striking blue, yellow and green colouring), ceremonial axes, šupulienky (figures fashioned from corn husks), ceramic bottles for serving slivovica, the painted eggs which form such an important part of Slovak Easter traditions… there is a world of choice here. The other section of the shop across the alley focuses more on materials – tablecloths, scarves, traditional clothing.

It’s all very beautiful. It’s also incredibly expensive. Úl’uv’s defence will be that handicrafts take time and incur costs – and that the best work is necessarily pricey. But the prices go beyond high. They are astronomical. Over 10 Euros for a birthday card? 300 Euros for a table runner? With such prices Úl’uv is putting itself firmly beyond the financial reach of most Slovaks and quite a lot of tourists too.

But most importantly, if I am to pay such sums for good Slovak handicrafts, I want to know something about them. Axes, colourful eggs and lacework are all very well. But what’s the story behind them? Where do they come from? Why are they so traditional for Slovakia? Well,  Úl’uv, englishmaninslovakia can explain on this blog in time but this is really down to you – you’re the experts! And everyone these days likes to know a bit about what it is they are buying. I appreciate Slovakia isn’t a big enough country to divide into craft regions – but say something about Orava’s sheep-farming heritage next to those models of sheep, or explain Slovak Easter customs alongside those wondrous displays of painted eggs. You would probably see interest pique, because then the products for sale would have more meaning, and sales would increase…

Incidentally, the all-time coolest item I have seen in Úl’uv, and only in the Hlavné Námestie branch, is a huge traditional ceramic oven for roasting goose… I’ve just got no idea how you’d get that one in your baggage allowance…

OPENING: Tuesday to Friday, midday to 6pm – and Saturdays 10am-2pm.

MAP LINK  (Obchodná branch)

RELATED POST: Úl’uv also features in our Top Ten Slovak Gift Ideas

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Low Tatras Mountains: Up Chopok the Back Way

It’s not long until ski season. It never is, in the Low Tatras mountains around Jasná. Jasná is Slovakia’s (and one of Eastern Europe’s) biggest ski area and has deservedly had numerous articles written about it: as a new frontier for skiing (Guardian), as an affordable, fun family ski break (Telegraph) and generally as an off-the-beaten-track but nevertheless first-class resort. There are several resort complexes here sporting well over 100km of piste, which renders the Low Tatras, served by the mountain base town of Liptovský Mikuláš, an insanely popular winter destination.

Why? Well, skiing here is way cheaper than over the border in Austria, and the surroundings are incredibly beautiful. The USP is that because of the extended dramatic 80+km ridge that the peaks here surge together to form (one which you can essentially access the very top of with ease, and have dramatic views tumbling away on either side), whether you’re skiing or hiking you will feel like you’re on top of the world.

The ski slopes blanket the sides of the 2024m-high mountain of Chopok, but concentrate mostly on the northern side of the peak: fanning out around the spread-out village of Demänovská Dolina from where you can access all the Jasná slopes and resorts, and ascend via the popular chairlift to the saddle a few metres shy of the Chopok summit. Almost everyone that comes up to Chopok arrives this way, and the experience can seem shockingly over-populated by holidaymakers for Slovakia’s standards (although still nothing like the numbers at the tops of most cable car-accessed summits in the Alps).

Why Come Up?

There are plenty of reasons to come all the way up to Chopok: there is the main Chopok summit cable car terminus building, in which you’ll find a souvenir shop, restaurant and a couple of high-end (quite literally) rooms. And there is the far-sweeter nearby building of Kamenná Chata, an understated cafe-restaurant-mountain house with arguably the best views in the entire Low Tatras. Then, of course, there is that previously mentioned ridge (which you can hike the whole of), stretching away in either direction and fairly untrammeled away from the Chopok saddle development.

But there is also is a much less obvious way to get up here: from Chopok’s southern side.

Up Chopok the Unusual Way(s)

1:Starting from Brezno, the southern gateway to the Low Tatras mountains, it’s a 30-minute drive via Bystrá to the end of road 584 at Hotel Srdiečko, a great and, for the area, non-touristy place to base yourself. Because this is Slovakia, and public transport is great, there are still two daily buses connecting Brezno’s railways station with the Srdiečko turning lot (7:50am and 2:35pm, taking 50 minutes and costing 1.85 Euros).

2:From the hotel, an old-fashioned chairlift where you have to already be in position, ready to sit as the next row of seats swing passed the embarkation point, wobbles just above the tops of the spruce forests to halfway up the mountain at the Hotel Kosodrevina: a hotel that’s only seemingly open in peak ski season. (Kosodrevina, in Slovak, is the word for the forest edge on a mountain slope, when the conifer trees are already reduced to stunted shrubs and the wide open slopes of the mountains are rearing ahead). Here there is a restaurant/bar and a short walk to the embarkation point for the next cable car, a fancy modern affair, up to the Chopok summit. A full journey up from Srdiečko to Chopok and back costs 19 Euros per adult.

Of course, there is also the option of taking the chair lift to Kosdrevina and then walking back on a gorgeous cut-through path to the intriguing Dead Bat’s Cave and then along the green hiking trail back to the road at Trangoška (then heading uphill back to Srdiečko, total walking time from Kosodrevina approximately 1.5 to 2 hours).

And there is the option of hiking all the way up from Srdiečko for the very fit: you’ll need the best part of three hours for this, and probably a beer half-way at Kosodrevina.

MAP LINK:

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Chopok you can pick up our featured Hrebenovka ridge hike, running along the best of the Low Tatras mountains. At Chopok, you’re at the end of the second stage of the hike as described on Englishman in Slovakia.

The path into the Kosodrevina ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The path into the Kosodrevina ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Rushing passed Devin on a punctured canoe ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Canoeing Down the Morava and Danube into Bratislava

Approach is everything.

With Bratislava, you have several means at your disposal. By road from Vienna isn’t bad: after all, out of the flat eastern Austrian farmland rears the forested hills of Devínska Kobyla and the otherworldly Communist-era tower blocks of Devínska Nová Ves, scored in-between by the Morava river that people died trying to cross to get to the west up until 1989 and still represents a pretty poignant entrance to what we think of today as Eastern Europe.

From the north, over the top by hiking trail from Marianka is intriguing too: you’ll come down through the Small Carpathians and see Bratislava spreadeagled below you on the wide plain of the Danube.

By public boat from Vienna is a favourite too.

But canoeing in your own (or rented) vessel down first the Morava and then the Danube into the city is – especially in this scalding weather – the most fun way to arrive, and it’s all the more thrilling because whether it’s officially permitted at all or not is highly questionable…

First of all, pick your spot on the Morava river (you’ll want to start here because there are far more launching sites and the water is more gently flowing, allowing you time to adjust to the whole thing). We chose the stretch of river near the station of Devínske Jazero, because we were restricted to coming by public transport: many other places on the banks along this stretch of the Morava, though. From our elected start point, it’s two to three hours of paddling downriver to Bratislava, making it a nice half-day’s activity. Another access point for public transport users would be the slightly-further-north Vysoká pri Morave, with trains from Bratislava too – a little bit of a longer float though!

Just as with hiking or cycling, one of the delights of doing this is, due to the sedate speed, all the little things you notice on the way.

We tramped across a couple of fields, through a patch of mosquito-rich, nettle-clogged wood, skittled down a muddy bank and we were away.

For starters, the Morava river is as mentioned before the border – the old border between east and west Europe – as sleepy today as it was divisive then, but as a result very much a paddle through the history books.

On the Austrian side, secluded fishing platforms, already manned at the early hour we passed by old-timers, on the Slovak side wild tangles of woods. You head under the cross-border cycling bridge between Schloshoff (a castle on the Austrian side) and Devínska Nová Ves, then just before Devín castle sides switch and it’s the Austrian part that morphs into a quiet national park (Nationalpark Donau Auen) which runs all the way to Hainburg and beyond whilst the Slovak bank of the Morava becomes a gentle woodland walking path for castle visitors and locals.

The turn (left, downriver fortunately!) onto the Danube at the castle is a bit bumpy until you’re properly onto the new waterway, but it’s thrillingly faster too, and it will only take you 40 minutes or so from here to reach Bratislava. It’s this part where you need to watch out for the Vienna-Bratislava speed boats and the Danube’s working barges: keep eyes peeled! We did this run in an inflatable canoe and my job at this point was to keep our puncture from getting any bigger!

Bratislava, true to form, retains relative wilderness even on its very perimeter. Just before the first of the big city bridges comes up, on the left a rapid flume of water hurls you (if you choose, obviously, but it is a highlight of this trip so you’d be a fool to miss out!) into Karloveské Rameno, a woodsy arm of the Danube which has been set up as a kayaking slalom course. It’s magical to swim here, too.

Now, at the point you enter Bratislava after this (you have to properly enter the city just to appreciate the full transition of your journey, lonely farming land to riverside restaurants and residential districts) you do have one issue. You’re hurtling along now quite fast because of the current, and, unless you want to continue towards Budapest, you need to stop – when the banks are now mostly concrete and devoid of piers or mooring platforms. Here’s what you do. Pick your finish point (again make sure there’s no approaching boats) and aim to sidle into the edge JUST BEYOND, turning at the last minute to paddle back upriver, which will slow you down to a safe speed.

We picked the Eurovea shopping centre, on the east side of the city centre, as a finish point. Sure, we attracted plenty of incredulous stares from the smartly-dressed riverbank restaurant-goers and we emerged, bedraggled but beaming. Because no one else does this, it seems. No one.

Next stop: floating on to Budapest?

NECESSARY EQUIPMENT: One canoe. Paddles for that same canoe. Shorts. Flip flops. Water. Sun cream. Sorted.

The Chopin Hotel in Bratislava ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Bratislava’s Business Airport Hotels

Location: Ružinov.

Little-known fact: Bratislava is one of the best conference venues in middle-Europe. It boasts a big advantage over almost any other destination, and that trump card isn’t necessarily overtly cool office spaces or flashier suit shops, so much as its strategic location. Vienna is one hour west, Prague three hours north-west and Budapest two hours south-east. It is, after all, capital of the country which sits at the very geographical centre of Europe.

So Bratislava’s two airport hotels aren’t just airport hotels. They are also – straddling either side of the large Galvaniho Business Center – two of the city’s premium business hotels. Their location right by Bratislava Airport and also the main E75 road to the rest of Slovakia gives the two of them the advantage over the city centre’s hotels that cater for conferences. These two hotels make conferences their raison d’etre.

Getting There

I made the mistake of not showing up at the Vienna House Easy-run Chopin Hotel, as close to the airport as you can sleep without crashing on the runway, by public transport. That was a mistake because the nearest bus stop is at Avion Shopping Centre (the Bratislava airport bus stops there, see the map link at the bottom for more). Whilst the hotel is under 10 minutes’ walk from here, it’s also the other side of a rather large by-pass: easy for a car, I thought to myself as I struggled with my wheelie bag along the edge of a pavement-less main road; less so for a pedestrian.

Of course, round the back of the retail park there is actually another way to walk there. But more to the point, this is a business hotel to the core: you really need your own wheels to arrive. In the US this would hardly come as a surprise; in dinky, generally pedestrian-friendly Bratislava, to be suddenly plunged into this modern out-of-town world of big business came as a shock.

Arrival

Once arrived, though, the otherworldly feeling became one of snugness and homeliness: almost unheard of with this kind of accommodation. Chopin Hotel, much like its counterpart NH Gate One Hotel just along the road, is an anomaly: better-connected than any other hotel in the city (on the edge of the airport and within a stone’s throw of Slovakia’s main west-east motorway) yet by the same token cut-off from the rest of the city – even though both lie a mere 6km from Bratislava’s Old Town. In the same way as coming home after a days’ work, pouring yourself a cold beer and collapsing in front of the sofa enable you to shut yourself off from the world and create your own mini version of it, thus works a stay here. Within this maze of busy roads, Chopin Hotel really is an oasis of calm.

Cosiness

Once you’ve got your head around the fact that this is no typical chain hotel and that staff actually like to talk to you and engage you in conversation, Chopin Hotel really does make for an enjoyable stay.

Chopin Hotel's cosy rooms

Chopin Hotel’s cosy rooms – image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

It’s the little touches: such as the fiery earthy colour schemes in the rooms (cosy), the fruit on arrival, the bar where workers from Avion Shopping Centre mingle with businessmen in a surreal but convivial manner – and a restaurant than can cook well, with imagination beyond the average airport hotel or indeed the average Slovak hotel. It was also one of the first hotels in Slovakia to introduce long-stay rooms, where you have that extra leeway to feel at home. But most of all it’s the friendliness.

Down to Business!

And on the business end, there’s conference space here for around 320. Chopin Hotel divides its meeting space into several smaller conference rooms: five, to be precise. It works with the larger NH Gate One Hotel up the road to host large conferences, and because of the intimate way rooms divide up it’s perfect for smaller business events.

Must-have chocolate cake

Must-have chocolate cake

The Food

A couple of words, finally, about Chopin Hotel’s food. Norwegian trout, or Wiener Schitzel with Slovakian-style potato salad (it comes in a compacted slightly-sweet dome) are  good main courses (although it would have been nice to see a few more Slovak-produced items on he menu), whilst the peanutty chocolate cake was one of the best that Englishmaninslovakia, a confessed chocolate cake addict, has sampled in Bratislava. The breakfast, meanwhile, matches a four-star hotel toe to toe, with a great selection of fresh fruit, cakes and another Slovak specialty: the scrambled egg with roasted peppers and mushrooms. Coffee: good; only downfall: no fresh orange juice.

NH Gate One Hotel

The larger (and pricier) NH Gate One Hotel back up the road is Chopin Hotel’s only competitor and has an extra star (four as opposed to three) but the only real difference comes in its wellness centre. Chopin Hotel’s rooms are a little smaller but just as inviting – and, quite crucially, with better wifi connection (Englishmaninslovakia checked this). Oh. That, and the fact that NH Gate One is nearer the bus stops!

And, businessmen, being right next to the biggest shopping centre in Slovakia means there’s no excuse, whichever of Bratislava’s airport hotels you are staying in, for forgetting that gift for the wife (or indeed husband) and kids. Perhaps that’s why quite a bunch of the city’s hotels (the Sheraton and the Grand Hotel River Park too) are located by shopping centres: because Slovakian businessmen need that extra prompt to remember last-minute gifts for the family…

RELATED POST: Cognac Express: Bratislava’s Luxury Taxis

MAP LINK

LOCATION: In the Nové Mesto/Ružinov neighbourhood – see our post on Bratislava’s Main Tram, Bus and Trolleybus Links

PRICES: Double rooms start at 59 Euros without breakfast (7-day advance-purchase website rates) or 71 Euros including breakfast (normal rate). Prices correct as of 2016.

BOOK CHOPIN HOTEL

Old Zilina Station pulsates with new life!

Žilina: Stanica

I find it astounding now how, looking back, just a few years ago Stanica was a new-on-the-scene start-up project without a secure future, and is now a byword for Žilina’s counter-culture arts movement. It’s harder than ever to keep tabs on all of Slovakia’s latest cool cafe-bar-cultural centres (because there are so many now, so many that it’s become a thing, a thing, in fact, that transcends international borders), but a nod should certainly be given to one of the earliest pioneers in the genre.

Back on my first visit, in 2011, I was shown around Stanica by a bunch of guys who had pooled together a few great ideas from their experiences backpacking around the world, and melded them together in one spot (southwest of the city centre at the still-working Žilina-Zariecie station, a stop the gorgeous railway line to the spa town of Rajecke Teplice and ultimately Banská Bystrica, out of interest, a journey which we also intend to showcase on this site soon) on a shoestring budget: they were as much hoping, then, as opposed to being able to constructively plan, for a stable, profitable business to evolve from their newly-created vision of what the city needed for a venue.

Well: it’s evolved. The vision did work out and the gap in the city’s cultural scene was filled: and then some. Most people in Slovakia now know about Stanica, what it’s doing for the arts, how it’s encouraging young’uns to express themselves artistically, what a great cafe-bar it has, and all the rest of it.

Suddenly, from the smart medieval city centre, you are transported into a Bohemian world: a surprising cocoon from the ring-road traffic nearby, and the living, breathing proof that every space in a city has oodles of potential to be developed into something productive and vibrant.

On the one hand this world is a light, industrial-chic artsy cafe (good coffee, three draught beers from Slovakia’s Černá Hora brewery, and Slovak-made brandy for just a Euro a glass) not to mention Slovak classics like kofola, a Communist soft drink, and encian, a great cheese served with pickled vegetables. There are art mags to read, a little shop, and interesting people to talk to (let’s rephrase, in many senses Stanica SHOULD be a port of call for first-time city visitors precisely because the people are not only interesting, but like to be approached and asked questions about what there is to do in the area). Spending money here also helps to fund the arts patronage that goes on behind the scenes.

For this cafe and bar, notice above proclaiming it as Žilina’s station (Stanica means station in Slovak and of course as mentioned earlier it is a fully-functioning railway station – trains depart from right outside) is only part of the deal here. Think “station” in a wider sense of the word, as coming-together place, as cultural stability and sustainability: Stanica is a gallery, it is an exhibition space, it is a creation space (with workshops etc), it is a renowned festival venue and – perhaps most impressively – an amazing theatre imaginatively created with beer crates and hay bails. Their ethos? “To make art as a usual part of everyday life, as something necessary and vital, not something extra and special.” What’s not to love about that?

MAP LINK:

WEBSITE:

OPENING HOURS: Midday to 10pm daily; longer during events (and these are regular) if people want to use the bar.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Stanica, it’s 67km south to the Geographical Centre of Europe (Kremnické Bane,a few km south, is the nearest train stop and yes, it’s on that afore-mentioned railway trip to Banská Bystrica)

Looking down through the vineyards to Bratislava - image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Mapping My Run in the Small Carpathians

A weekday night in a typical Andean hostel; salsa filtering in from a bar across the way; the smell of engine oil and fried guinea pig and crisp wintry mountains wafting in. Incredibly this room has a desk and I’m feeling inspired to write (until my frustration with Windows 8 prompts me to slam this computer against the walls) or, at least, I’m not able to sleep just yet.

What do I write about, in terms of this site, when I’m half the world away from Slovakia? Well, what I miss. What I get nostalgic about. Going out for a run in the vineyard-clad foothills and forests of the Small Carpathians behind Bratislava.

Out round the back of the Rača garages, doors all prettily painted in pastille hues, contrasted with the rather starker red of the local gang’s favoured slogan “Mio Bača”, over the stagnant stream meandering through its concrete channel, where the setting sun nevertheless cuts a glorious figure as it illuminates the water and the floundering ducks with a lazy summer peach melba orange, the vineyards open up (crowned thickly, impenetrably by distant forest). The high rises have faded away, the shudder of the distant trams echoes yet but is slowly, blissfully removed, soon enough to hear the cicadas, as loud a chorus of them as I ever heard, plus the rustle of the dozy trackside snakes a-sun-basking.

Nature encroaches little by little; the evening suburban strollers are slowly replaced by the serious hikers and bikers because from here of course begin hardcore wilderness adventures; pick your direction right and you can stay off-road on vineyard tracks, then meadow paths and finally forest trails for 100, 200km. It’s this promise of unadulterated countryside beckoning that drives you on.

You climb higher (the disadvantage, or perhaps, advantage of the run is that you have to climb because all paths lead UP into the woods from Bratislava). You bypass typical Slovak mountain houses, positioned just so on the cusp between cultivated land and wild land, their front doors in the vineyards, their back doors in the forest; it’s as if they want to lose themselves in the trees but something – just – is holding them in civilisation. The fields get more overgrown, more screened by foliage and then you’re in the woods, deer scuttle before you, there’s often wild pigs scuffling in the undergrowth nearby.

A little further on you cross a road – a forestry track known as Pekná Cesta (nice road) but that’s the last incursion of mankind you need see for some time (for tens and tens of kilometres, no less) except for the well-marked trail signs, trails that wind away into the hills, to Pezinok, to Modra, beyond. That and the occasional barbecue spots and the odd hunting tower and the sporadic mountain cottage offering sustenance (beer, dumplings) and the smattering of ruined castles that hide here. Other than that, a refreshing absence of human influence (unless you count your own ragged breaths – you will have ascended several hundred metres and Bratislava, below you, gleams at its most enticing in the last of the day’s light, smoking factories, shimmering offices, flat great green Danubian floodplain fields).

And behind you – in those woods – it’s getting very dark, thrillingly dark, the dark that could hide not just wild pigs but, possibly, bears. All things weighed up, it’s possibly time to return home. But this run is one of the quickest, most poignant big city-to-remote countryside transitions you can do in Europe. A run like this gives you hope (especially if you are a city dweller). It reminds you that nature still wins – sometimes.

This post also serves as a taster to further explore our huge  variety of content on the Small Carpathians – click the link for more. (Let’s face it, it’s the hugest bank of travel content on the Small Carpathians on the web in English or any other language)

Fancy staying up in the lovely vineyards around Bratislava? See our posts  on Penzion Zlatá Noha and the Kamzík area for more!

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

On Forests

We’re in Obyvačka, a pretty Bratislava cafe-restaurant, on a sunny summer’s day. I like the joint because the coffee’s good, the food’s decent but unpretentious and the tattoos of the chef never cease to amaze. And there’s plenty of free tables during the middle of the day to idle undisturbed; do a bit of writing; get a bite to eat. If I’m meeting anyone for business, as today, chances are I’ll meet them here.

The only other clients on this particular day are a couple of middle aged ladies; one immense, one minuscule, who seem to be discussing their husband’s respective shortcomings – I don’t catch all the words and that’s probably just as well.

And the question comes, not for the first time, probably not for the last: “why Slovakia?” And of course, as the about section of this site details, there are several answers to this. There was work, first of all. And then there was love. But there’s a number of reasons why, irrespective of other factors, I like hanging out in this little nation.

But the question of the guy I’m meeting isn’t about why I’m here; it’s about what I specialise in, as a travel writer.

Because I’ve just been telling him about my other speciality: the Amazon. The rainforest, you know, not the online shop. And he doesn’t see the link, or rather, he thinks the link a bizarre one. If I’d paired the Amazon with Argentina as a specialisation, or Slovakia with, perhaps, the Ukraine, it might not seem like such a disparity of interests.

Of course I was already obsessed with this corner of Eastern Europe long before I moved here – and the Amazon, at least the Peruvian, Bolivian and Brazilian bits of it, had also been a long-standing obsession. So much so it even became the subject of my first novel. Why? It’s obviously not the similarities in architecture or language. I love mountains, but the Amazon doesn’t possess too many of those. I love adventurous day-long river trips, but that’s not really Slovakia’s forte. No. It’s forests.

Slovakia is among Europe’s most forested nations. The tatranska bora – those storms that ripped through the pine forests in the Tatras not so long ago didn’t help. But still, forest coverage here exceeds 40% – not bad compared to the UK, which clocks up a mere 11% of forests across its land mass. The thing about Slovakia’s forests, too, is that they kick off right outside the district of Bratislava where I lived for three years and continue pretty much all the way across the country to the Ukraine. You can get lost in the woods in Slovakia within five or six kilometres of the Capital’s very centre. And I like that. I like that a lot. There’s something otherworldly, humbling, exciting about that. The idea that forests surround you is part of every experience you have in Slovakia. They’re always, well, there.

Forests provide a very particular kind of adventure. Mountains are great, but let’s face it, you are going there for the views. The desert? Good again, but what you’re looking for is that wide-open sandiness, right? With forests, you’re going there to get immersed. To feel the wet leaves brush your skin, for that all-encompassing earthy smell to hit your nostrils, to see the animals hiding-rustling-snuffling in the foliage, to discover that hidden path through some tunnel of trees.

I get that when I take a walk outside Bratislava and I get it in the Amazon too.

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Around Bratislava – the North: Marianka (Pilgrim’s Rest)

Marianka is the end of the road. I certainly felt that when I traipsed into this pretty village nestled into the forested uplands of the Malé Karpaty recently – having just completed the path through the hills from Bratislava by which the pilgrims typically arrive to this, Slovakia’s main pilgrimage destination.

It hardly seems possible that Marianka, with its isolated feel, is in essence a district of Bratislava connected to the city transport network and a mere 90 Euro cent ride from the city centre’s Most SNP bus station. But perhaps the sense of isolation originates not just from the fact that the narrow road up from Záhorská Bystrica finally dies out here, to be smothered by the rows of pine trees sheering away above the village, nor the fact that on my first visit, the metre-deep snow everywhere emphasised the otherworldliness of Marianka’s surrounds. Perhaps Marianka does have that special, unique feel of a place that has grown up independently of anywhere else and anything else except, well, faith.

History of the Healing Powers of Marianka

Not only is this Slovakia’s biggest pilgrimage destination, it is also the oldest. It ranks up there with Central Europe’s most important pilgrimage sites, in fact.

The spiritual history of the place dates back almost a millennium. Historical records of Marianka being a pilgrimage site can be traced to 1377. In this year, one Louis of Anjou, attracted here by rumours of healing waters and of a wooden likeness of the Virgin Mary with special curative powers, decided after he had clapped eyes on Marianka, to build a chapel in which to house the wooden Virgin. But the rumours that enticed Louis of Anjou go back several hundred years further: to a hermit who resided in the valley here in the early 11th century and carved the Virgin out of pear wood. This Holy man subsequently had to leave the area in a hurry because of riots in the Kingdom of Hungary (there were many at the time) and hid his handiwork in a hollow in a tree. For decades the Virgin remained lost. After some time, so goes the most colourful version of the story, a local crook, despairing of his severely handicapped children, vowed to change his ways if he received some sign from the Lord that his fortunes would change. He was told of the whereabouts of the Virgin whittled from pear wood, and found her resting right on top of a spring of water which when applied to his children miraculously cured them. The outlaw did change his ways, and devoted the remainder of his life to God.

Welcome to Marianka… ©englishmaninslovakia.com

Welcome to Marianka… ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

When you arrive in Marianka, just after this sign appears on a wall to the left, the village’s main pilgrimage site rears into view below the road: the vast former monastery, now a lodging house for weary pilgrims, and behind it the Gothic-Baroque Church of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary, built originally in the 1370s.

Most Ornate Church in Slovakia?

Inside the pastille yellow building, the first reaction is one of surprise: the weary pilgrim is ushered into a far-from miraculous antechamber with a guestbook on a bench and little more. Then you round the corner and enter one of the most stunningly decorated churches in Slovakia – for me one that easily eclipses even the mighty dome of St Martin’s Cathedral in Bratislava (although not the wooden churches of the far east). It is the ceiling decoration that transfixes you: richly-painted depictions of scenes from the lives of the Saints – Sts Paul and Anthony feature prominently – in a striking arcing montage of gilt-edged panels. Shrines flank the sides of the church and on the altar at  the far end is – so they say – the wooden Virgin as fashioned by that hermit all those centuries ago. It’s a place to sit in, for some minutes, gawping up at the view.

Elaborate roof panels ©englishmaninslovakia.com

Elaborate roof panels ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Outside in the churchyard the Chapel of Santa Anna (1691) sets the tone for the six smaller Temples to the Virgin – ushering the visitor up a tree-lined lane to the round Chapel of the Holy Well which is allegedly built on the site of the spring of water with the rejuvenating powers. On the other side of the processional route to the Chapel of the Holy Well, some five other shrines, more haphazard and less refined in design, but with the flickerings of a myriad candles rendering them equally poignant places of worship. Most moving of these is the calvary, on the right as you approach the Chapel of the Holy Well (pictured above).

Hidden away in the steep bank behind the temples to the Virgin, what you initially mistake for another shrine transpires to be a 17th-century mine shaft – the only remaining example of black shale mining in Slovakia. The shale was discovered during construction of the temples, and extraction continued until the First World War – Marianka shale became a highly-prized material.

Demolition Dodge!

It is incredible to think that a place that not only provided one of Central Europe’s most important pilgrimage sites – a place visited by Hungarian emperors from Leopold I to Maria Theresa to Charles III – but also some rather crucial roofing material for the valley, should have been slated for demolition under Communism. Equally incredibly, Communists never got round to executing the plan, so the very fact of Marianka’s survival is something of a miracle.

The Chapel of the Holy Well ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Pilgrim Food

Pilgrims get hungry on the long march, and there are a couple of good places to feast in town. Right by the bus turning circle is Pútnický Mlyn (pilgrim’s mill), the fanciest restaurant with a modern decor and an outside terrace with a mill wheel (they also offer accommodation) and a few paces up from the turning circle on the red trail is a decent bistro. But far and away the best eatery is Hostinec U Zeleného stromu (the Green Tree Hostelry) which has a history of accommodating tired pilgrims going back centuries.  It’s the most atmospheric option, too: somehow, a pilgrim’s watering hole should be old, with worn walls, dim lighting and a grave old bar lady that has been working there so many decades she appears part of the creaking furniture – no? There are two parts (both extremely popular): a restaurant and below a bar, all done in the style of an old wine cellar that could have stood in as the set for the Prancing Pony in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy if required. It’s open for ridiculously reasonable food and drink (one Euro for a good frothy Bernard beer) from 11am to 10pm daily, and has rooms too.

Onward from Marianka?

From the entrance road to the monastery, church and shrines, a signed trail (red) heads up on a narrow lane into forest, going via Borinka to Pajštún Castle in about 1.5 hours. Up above town, red intersects with yellow at a woodsy spot called Klčovanice. It’s worth the deviation here (almost two hours longer to reach Pajštún Castle) to forge on the blue path through along to Svätý Vrch (Saint’s Mountain) – then steeply down and as steeply up again to Dračí Hrádok. This is another significantly more ruined castle (only a few mossy stones of the outer walls remain) but it’s nevertheless a moving place, sequestered away in trees that have reclaimed the fortress for themselves. From Dračí Hrádok a yellow trail corkscrews steeply up to Pajštún. Starting early, there’s time to get the bus from Bratislava’s Most SNP, see the Marianka pilgrimage sites, lunch in Marianka, hike up to Pajštún and return from the castle to Stupava, from where there are also buses back to Bratislava.

MAP LINK: We’ve kept the map panned out so you can see the road heading north from Bratislava via Záhorská Bystrica (and eventually on through the Záhorie region to the Czech Republic).

GETTING THERE: Bus 37 runs every two hours from Most SNP to Marianka.

WHEN TO MAKE THE PILGRIMAGE? Well, possibly not in the snow like I did. The main days to visit are on January 6th (Three Kings’ Day or Traja Krali) and also on St Mary’s birthday, September 8th. When we say the main days, we mean “days when it will be really crowded with the devout” so of course these could equally be days to give a wide berth… churches and shrines always look better for me in solitude…

MARIANKA VILLAGE WEBSITE In Slovak, but could prove useful.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: In addition to the pilgrimage route from Bratislava, we recommend two great hikes from Marianka: the route north up to Pajštún Castle (1.5 hours) or the route east to Svätý Júr via Biely Kameň (4 hours).

Approach to the arboretum ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Around Nitra: The Arborétum

Nitra, I was reading the other day in my steadily-accumulating library of Slovak literature, was the original cradle of Slovak learning. The very first Slovak bishop ruled the roost from ecclesiastical buildings here. And the main attractions of the modern city can still be found in its very oldest part on the castle hill. We will write about them, of course, in due course. But if you’re lingering in the area (and you would be wise to, if time permits) then the journey out to Slovakia’s most stunning arboretum, Arborétum Mlyňany, is another must.

To get there, you need to travel to the very edge of Western Slovakia (the Western Slovakia as defined by this site, at least). By public transport the route is rather complicated (involving a change at Vráble or Nova Ves and Žitavou). But by car it is a short 15km drive from Nitra along the R1 highway to the otherwise lacklustre village of Tesárske Mlýňany – from where, heading south on the road after passing through the village – the arboretum slides into view: a gently rising wooded knoll, with the genteel buildings of a manor house peeping through.

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The house and grounds were established by one Dr. Štefan Ambrózy-Migazzi in the 1890s. As a lot of aristocrats of his time did, he had a lot of money, big ideas and the means to execute them – and his plans came into fruition in the shape of Slovakia’s (and one of Central Europe’s) largest and most important collections of exotic plant species.

So many species, in fact, that the Arboretum here has become much like a botanical stroll through continents. There is a Japanese section, an American section, an English section – and many plant representatives from Africa and continental Asia besides. Blossoming with the pinks of rhododendrons, the purples of hydrangeas and hundreds more species of flowers and trees beyond my capability to describe here, the landscaped grounds incorporate woods, ornamental lakes backed by temples and manicured avenue pathways. There’s enough to wander around here for a good couple of hours. Highlights for me were the sequoias and, in the southeast of the arboretum, the Asian walk which ushers you on a path studded with magnolias (so impressive they constitute the main reason to come here during March and April).

It’s the sort of place you come on that first proper spring day when your desire to see some colour in the landscape after the grey of winter overwhelms you. Great for the families and old folks alike. And great for Englishmen in Slovakia, too, except for the fact that, after some considerable time sauntering through the gardens, I was in need of a nice cafe and none was forthcoming. A beautiful old mansion house, lying virtually unused, in the middle of botanical gardens where visitors would be falling over themselves for a tea or coffee – and yet no refreshments available save a vending machine. A market – I feel – has been missed.

I whiled away a few minutes posing by the statue of Michurin at the entranceway instead. Ivan Vladimirovich Michurin was a Soviet scientist who made a name for himself in creating and developing plant hybrids for use in wide scale agriculture. Particularly fruit. Deserts during the Communist era would probably have been very different were it not for Michurin…

MAP LINK

ADMISSION: 3.50 Euros for adults, 1.50 Euros for kids

OPENING: 7am-6pm Monday to Friday and 8am-6pm weekends from April-October; 8am-5pm Monday to Friday and 9am-4pm weekends November-March

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Arboréte Mlyňany it’s 30km southeast to  Levice

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Poprad: the Chocolatier

Never did the adage “short but sweet” more aptly apply to the subject of my writing than with Bon Bon, Poprad’s world-class chocolatier.

We’ve mentioned before on the site how the Dominika Tatarku boulevard between Poprad’s railway station and the city centre has been refined and improved no end over the last few years (the funky Elektáreň art gallery on the same street exemplifies this revamp) but this little chocolate shop has been here since the word go, making a name for itself all by itself with the sheer delectability of its chocs.

The choice of dark, milk and white chocolates awaiting you behind the counter is intimidating. My personal favourite is the dark chocolate chilli praline, although the quality is as high as the choice is diverse. But this is not even to mention the highlight – which is their hot chocolate. Now, my previous best hot chocolate experience was on a Moscow side street in January, but then it was also the evading the cold outside, admittedly, which played a part in my enjoyment. Bon Bon’s hot chocolate, I concede, out-trumps Moscow’s. It’s so thick you can tilt your beverage up and it won’t spill but simply amble, in an agreeable gooey chocolate glacier, towards the lip of the cup. It hits the perfect note between sweet and bitter and feels exactly like the chocolatiers here have melted a big slab of their chocolate into a cup (which sure enough they have). It’s rich enough, too, that you’ll need to take your refreshment slowly, with a glass of water and a table, perhaps, on the dinky terrace.

For those just leaving Poprad by train: allow an extra 45 minutes to get waylaid at this place on the way to the station. For those just arrived by train: what with this place and the Elektáreň across the way, you’ll need a good couple of hours for that ten minute walk into the centre.

Short, you see, but sweet and, with the days closing in and the temperatures dropping, an utterly essential sweet fix to counteract the mountain chill…

Bon Bon - image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Bon Bon – image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

 

A Quick Guide to the Other Content We Have on Poprad

Places to Go: Poprad’s funky contemporary art gallery in an old power station

Places to Go: Poprad’s lavish Aqua Park

Places to Go: Nine reasons to linger in Poprad

Places to Go/Getting Around: Taking the Mountain Railway into the High Tatras from Poprad

Places to Stay: A cool travel-friendly B&B in Spišská Sobota, Poprad

Places to Stay: A sophisticated 4-star resort right by Poprad’s Aqua Park

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s trendy burger joint

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s dignified Café La Fée

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s Coolest Wine Bar

Going Out: Poprad & the Manchester United Connection

Arts & Culture: Dedicated traditional Czech & Slovak music radio station now based in Poprad

Getting Around: London to Poprad Flights

Getting Around: The Poprad to Ždiar to Zakopane (Poland) bus

Top Ten Medieval Towns in Slovakia

 

MAP LINK:

LOCATION: Dominika Tatarku 14

OPENING: 10am-8pm daily

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Top Ten Quintessential Slovak Foods and Drinks

It’s been a long time in coming but here, after much consideration, is my top ten of quintessential Slovak foods/drinks. I use the word quintessential to convey unique or semi-unique to Slovakia culinary delights, so these are ranked with uniqueness as well as tastiness in mind.

I am quite sure those familiar with Poland and the Czech Republic will pipe up, incensed, at a few of these being labelled Slovak foods but with this part of Europe, which has changed borders with quite a high frequency over the last few centuries, of course culinary traditions mix and merge. So the most justifiable claimant to a lot of these Eastern European specialities is the region, not any one country.

You’re not on a diet, right?🙂

10: Slivovica

Of course there has to be a top ten entry for perhaps Slovakia’s most famous food/drink export, slivovica. This plum brandy is so Slovak – you imagine the old man picking the plums and doing the home distillation as you drink a glass of this fiery brew (perfect at 52%). Whilst it’s a thing other countries including Serbia and Czech Republic can rightly claim to do as well, this is still an ultra-traditional Slovak drink. Get the home-brewed stuff: it’s almost always better than the shop brands – but also significantly stronger.

9: Makovnik

Basically: a poppy seed-filled strudel, only with a thicker pastry. Absolutely delicious. Slovaks use poppy seeds in a lot of sweet things. It’s right up there with apple as a flavour for dessert. Some of the best makovnik I had in Slovakia was actually at the spa in Piešťany.

8: Horalky

Going strong since the 1950s, the classic horalky is – well – a wafer bar. A sandwich of wafer with layers of either chocolate, hazelnuts or peanuts that for some reason Slovaks and Czechs kept to themselves for a very long time. If you’re going on a picnic, take one.

7: Kofola

This is the soft drink generations of Slovaks grew up on. Czechs have it too, but it’s Slovakia which seems to cling to kofola with the warmest nostalgia. Remember, everyone, that once Coca Cola wasn’t available here:if you wanted your carbonated drink fix kofola was it: it comes in various flavours, like cherry and looks and tastes quite similar to Coca Cola, i.e. dark, sweet and fizzy (Slovaks would say superior and they may be right – it’s got much less sugar and quite a bit more caffeine and the breadth of flavours makes the kofola world a bit more varied than the Coca Cola world). Licorice is also added to help give it that unique kofola taste.  In any case, it’s one of those soft drinks, like Inka Kola in Peru, that manages to rival Coca Cola (in terms of Czech and Slovak sales).

6: Lokše

You’ll see this as 1-Euro-a-pop snack food at almost any Slovak festival: a bargain! Lokše are basically potato pancakes stuffed with (to have it in its optimum form) goose or duck fat (goose and duck fat, by the way, would be on this list if we were doing a top fifteen or top twenty – Slovaks will often eat the fat by the spoonful with nothing else!). It can be very easy to go wrong with lokše purchasing – so look for the stall with the moistest, greasiest looking ones! (it’s something of an acquired talent – I know Slovaks who will dismiss stall after stall of lokše that all look perfectly OK to me, and then, without any warning, go “ah!” and alight upon a fix of potato and fat goodness. Well, I never claimed that typical Slovak food was healthy. A claim that’s added to by the fact that typical lokše also seem to be brushed with melted butter once they’re stuffed and rolled.

5: Demänovka

This is a complex herbal liqueur cobbled together with 14 different herbs, honey and alcohol – weighing in at 33-38% proof which is admittedly less than slivovica but actually, for me, a much richer drink, with a slightly bitter, aromatic taste. The Czechs do becherovka which is similar and equally tasty but demänovka is Slovak through and through – made near the Low Tatras town of Liptovský Mikulaš.

4: Halušky

Tragically only one type of dumpling can go on this top ten list although – in terms of the food in the average Slovak stomach – the ratio should probably be a bit higher. The obvious candidate amongst Slovakia’s many different types of dumplings are the halušky – small dumplings made out of a grated potato batter. It’s not just the bryndza (scroll further down this top ten for more on bryndza) which combines with these little gluten-rich balls of delight – oh no – that other usual suspect of Slovak cuisine, cabbage, also gets added on top to make strapačky. You can also add a meat like liver to the dough for something a little different.

Bryndza being made into the delicious spread, bryndza natierka - image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Bryndza being made into the delicious spread, bryndza natierka – image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

3: Bryndza

For outsiders, this is the must-try: a tangy sheep’s cheese that gets used in a huge variety of traditional Slovak meals. For starters, there’s the national dish, brynzové halušky: small potato dumplings in a sauce made with bryndza and topped (as with quite a few Slovak dishes) by bacon. Another classic is the brynzové pirohy – Slovakia’s classic take on the stuffed dumpling also common in Poland. The best place to buy bryndza is NOT in a supermarket but on a salaš – a rural farm, the signs for which are found on country roads all over Western, Central and Eastern Slovakia. Our special guide to the salaš will be available soon – until then you have been warned. Here’s Englishmaninslovakia’s easy bryndza recipe.

2: Tokaj

Austro-Hungarian rulers use to bathe in tokaj (so say some legends) or drink it as medicine (so say others). If you happen to have enough of this delicious amber-coloured wine to bathe in, lucky you. This wine region is in Slovakia’s far south-east next to the border with the Hungarian wine region, Tokaji (see the difference?). There is far, far too much to say about Tokai to fit in this post, so please check out our article on the Slovak Tokaj cellars of Eastern Slovakia, but basically Tokaj has a unique sweet  taste because of a controlled rot that is allowed to part-infect the grapes. It’s one of the most singular wines you will ever try – and it’s delicious (I say, sipping a glass as I write this).

1: Kapustnica

This delicious soup shoots in at the number one spot for me. It’s got a sauerkraut base, with the taste bolstered by tomatoes, mushrooms, pork sausage (some use a spicy chorizo) and, for Slovak cooking, an incredible amount of seasonings ranging from garlic through to nutmeg and even apple sometimes. Slovaks eat this on New Year’s eve, and sometimes over the entire festive season. There is simply no other typically Slovak dish that can touch it for complexity: kapustnica is to Slovakia what mole is to Mexico! I’ve tried a similar cabbage soup in Poland and it was not anywhere nearly as tasty as those I’ve had in Slovakia (but hey – I don’t want to start a war!). Here’s a link to a good recipe.

Most SNP bathed in sunlight

Waiting

I’m waiting in the concrete starkness of the Most SNP Bus Station; eyes dimly fixed on the rather fetching new digital departure screen; realisation slowly dawning that I have indeed missed the hourly bus to Devín. As it’s early, and I’ve got up punishingly prematurely to make this bus I have now missed, I decide to go and console myself with a coffee in the cafe across the road. When a voice in a distinctly Aussie accent calls out to me if I know what’s going on with the buses. Of all the people there someone asks me if I know what’s going on? Or maybe it’s more that, of all the people there, I’m the only one that looks like they speak English…

Enter Tyson, on the road for two years, having shied away from the dull grind of mortgages and meaningless unfulfilling jobs etc for a life of international adventure. And he’s rocked up in Bratislava. Well, I decide to help give him a positive impression of the place (after all, if I was backpacking round Europe I’d want to meet someone like me; the encounter would make a mildly interesting end-of-the-day anecdote in a hostel when it comes to trading-anecdotes-with-other-travellers time).

Problem being that Tyson’s not really giving himself much of a chance with Slovakia’s fair capital city. Uh-uh. He’s fresh off a night train from Krakow, he’s checked into Hostel Blues (view of Tesco’s and the Number 5 tram route) and, sleep-deprived, given himself the day (ahem, it’s Monday morning) to see Bratislava, before heading off tomorrow to Budapest.

Well, I entertain him with a few stories for a while and show him the secret delights of the bus station’s metropolitan area ticket machines (he’s headed to Devin too, on account of the wonderful castle there, and happily that falls inside this transport zone) but there’s no getting away from the fact that he’s looking for recommendations on things to do – no doubt partly because, being sleep deprived and having glimpsed only Hostel Blues reception area and the bus station thus far in Slovakia,  he’s wondering if everything he heard about this little country was maybe a tad overhyped…

He’s not wondering that. Not really. Of course he’s not. What would he have heard about Slovakia? The Slovak Tourist Board don’t know how to promote Slovakia and most Slovaks you meet will look at you like you are crazy if you start enthusing about their country, you know, the “why would you CHOOSE to live here” attitude.

The fact he’s heard almost nothing about Slovakia is part of the reason he’s allowed himself only a day to see it – a day on almost no sleep. So he’s essentially treating Bratislava as a glorified place to crash whilst he recovers from Krakow and psyches himself up for Budapest.

To be fair to Tyson, he’s trying to make it a worthwhile experience, he’s fighting against the urge to sleep, listening to me wax lyrical about Kamzik, about my favourite cafes, about a couple of decent clubs that won’t be open on Monday morning or indeed Monday night, he’s showing willing by going to Devin to check that out. Trying, but…

That’s the thing. For most tourists, Slovakia is a great unknown. Slovaks rarely care about recommending it – either because they genuinely believe it to be shit compared to most other parts of Europe OR because they’re coy, yes coy about their nation’s charms OR because they’re more than mildly xenophobic and the last thing they want are outsiders coming here and – for example – hiking in their mountains. Any road, they’ll still hold it’s a mighty odd tourist who would want to spend significant amounts of time here. So information on travel to Slovakia is left in the hands of the Slovak Tourist Board (and would you want to be driven by a blind driver?) or remains just in Slovak, for Slovaks (well, and Czechs of course).

Thus it is not really Tyson’s fault he’s only given himself a day here. In fact, I can understand why the guy will be glad to make it to Budapest where they know how to promote their city and make it seem attractive to tourists.

So hey, Tyson, this post is for you.

Pink dreams?

Pink Dreams: Fairytale Ending?

There’s a moment at the end of one of my favourite Slovak movies, Pink Dreams (or Ruzové Sny) which I really hope is prophetic. At the very least, it has not lost any of its relevance nigh-on 40 years on and – like the film as a whole, really – is a brave, brave vision for Slovak cinema.

I do not like to reveal endings to films but in this case, I don’t think talking about this scene spoils anything.

Dusan Hanák’s Pink Dreams is about young love, somewhere in the Eastern Slovak countryside. Young love, no less, between a white postman (name of Jakub) and a pretty gypsy (Jolanka).

And at the very end of the film, the dream sequences which have been growing in frequency throughout (confusing the viewer whether they are in fact watching what happens or what the vivid imaginations of the main characters would like to happen) suddenly take over. And everyone in the film is dancing together. All the white characters of the film as well as the gypsies. It really seems – for one beautifully put-together scene – like the problems which have plagued the main characters throughout are at last over, and that all are united.

Wouldn’t it be nice if that was the reality in Slovakia today, too? White Slovaks and Roma Slovaks dancing together…

Well. It was a cracking good movie anyway.

BUY THE MOVIE: At Artforum or the other top Slovak movie outlet, Gorilla

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Medzilaborce: Serendipitous Brilliance – the Andy Warhol Museum of Modern Art

I’m jolting along in a pickup truck along the potholed back lanes of rural north-eastern Slovakia, with an ugly, utterly unremarkable-seeming small town, the centre of one of the nation’s most deprived districts, gradually looming into view. Kids walking shoeless along the street, a run-down glass factory: first impressions are not breathtaking. It would be fair to say that this is beyond the end of the road: there is nothing after Medzilaborce, the community I’m approaching, save a little-used route on into Poland. But there is, if you are a devotee of the arts, something of massive interest within the town…

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The parents of one of the twentieth century’s most famous artists, Ondrej and Julia Warhola, lived in the village of Miková in the Medzilaborce region (before seizing the opportunity to emigrate to the US in 1914 and 1921 respectively) and, once settled in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, they gave birth to a son, Andy – who, as most of the world already knows, subsequently became the world’s most renowned exponent of Pop Art. And this connection helped give this unlikely spot one of Eastern Europe’s most important art museums. The Andy Warhol Museum of Modern Art, celebrating twenty-five years of existence in 2016, is a veritable Pop Art shrine, with several original works exhibited. It’s Europe’s biggest collection of Andy Warhol originals, too: indeed, only the Andy Warhol museum in Pittsburgh itself can claim to have more.

The connection between Medzilaborce and groundbreaking art might very well have been, in the first instance, tenuous. Miková, for starters, is almost 20km outside Medzilaborce (the town’s odd name, by the way, derives from its location between (medzi, in Slovak) two sources of the Laborec river). Andy Warhol was not born in Medzilaborce, anyways, or anywhere in Eastern Slovakia for that matter, and even his parents wanted to leave when they got the chance. “I am from nowhere” Warhol himself once said. And this shabby small town is a good candidate, if ever there was one, to epitomise nowhere. Nevertheless, there is evidence to suggest that the artist’s attitude towards his roots was not solely one of renunciation. Warhol’s brother John is reported to have said that just before his death, Andy, aware that John was returning to their parents’ erstwhile Slovak home, asked him to make for him “as many photographic shots… of Miková village and local people there” as he was able. Who knows? Photographic shots could, had Andy lived long enough, have led to paintings. Paintings could have led to the artist reconnecting with the ‘Slovak’ in his blood. As it was, Warhol died in 1987. But within four years, John Warhola and others had made the connection anyway, when this art museum in Medzilaborce opened its doors in 1991.

Andy IS back in Slovakia ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Andy IS back in Slovakia ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

There is a surreal hiatus for the just-arrived Medzilaborce visitor, however, after the initial impressions described above, and that is when one pulls up at the car park outside the museum and properly gets the chance to see what a remarkable building this is: even irrespective of the valuable art within. Emblazoned in Pop Art shades of cyber yellow, purple, grey-blue and carnelian red, with brash deck-chair-striped semi-hexagonal protuberances, it certainly contrasts starkly with the town’s over-riding hues of unabashed stuck-in-the-Communist-era concrete grey (occasionally interspersed with those still-ghastlier vomit-like pastille colours sometimes used to psychologically brighten tower blocks post-1989. Meanwhile, up through parkland on the other side, the museum is flanked by the majestic pravoslávny (Eastern Orthodox) church of the Holy Spirit, rearing up like a multi-tier wedding cake in brilliant white, and with the writing above the entrance written in Rusyn – the Cyrillic language of the people which have their cultural identity stamped all over this part of the country, and whose heritage has as much in common with Ukrainian as Czechoslovakian (Warhol’s parents, indeed, were of Rusyn descent).

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

A bright red Skoda, the main automotive output of Communist Czechoslovakia, crushed by a huge weight, welcomes visitors at the entrance (read into that whatever defiance of the regime you will). On reception, a bored-looking girl hands me cool postcards decorated in the museum’s symbol, a psychedelic likeness of Warhol wearing a hat shaped like the church outside the doors, and ushers off the only other attendant, a much older lady, to open up all sections of the museum in readiness. There is something comical in all this – a visitor showing up to look round an attraction and startling the staff out of their catatonic stupor by so doing, then having an elderly babka (grandmother) scuttling ahead of me turning on the Velvet Underground soundtrack up on full volume to get the tour started, flicking the lights of each successive wing of the exhibits to illuminate the larger-than-life likenesses of Andy, then slinking back round to the doorway by which I had entered to observe me guardedly.

To begin with I ascend a wide staircase headed up by a statue of the man with camera hung in ever-readiness to snap shots around his neck (now the tables have turned full circle and he is the one who is ‘snapped-after’, I think) to where there is a touching montage on the Warhol family’s early (and very tough) life. This section is mostly presented in sepia, and it clashes most poignantly with what comes next – two vibrant, open rooms filled with Warhol’s originals alongside other Pop Artists such as Roy Lichtenstein and Jean-Michael Basquiat, plus sketches by Andy Warhol’s mother (artistic genius ran in the family quite clearly, as she was a talented embroiderer). Campbell’s soup cans, Marilyn – all the iconic works are there in some form. In total there are over 20 originals by Warhol here, including two of those soup cans, and perhaps most poignantly given the location of the exhibition, the the artist’s portrayals of Lenin and the Hammer and Sickle. There are several pictures from his endangered species series too. The extent of what Warhol achieved, coming from such humble origins, is powerfully portrayed: Warhol’s journey from monochrome to dazzling colour, from the obscure east of Czechoslovakia to stardom in the States. One could take the analogy further: the story of the museum’s founding was a controversial one; it, too, struggled to ever see the light of day, and it took some strong supporters, including the playwright-president of the new post-Communist Czechoslovakia, Václav Havel, to make it happen at all.

The entrance to the museum ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

It would be easy for a museum like this to allow tumbleweed to start blowing. Hardly anyone comes here – which given the world-class art on display is a truly incredible statistic in itself. But not only is the museum laid out with a modern vision, with love and with attention to detail, it also works on embellishing its collection. The most recent additions were Warhol’s Hans Christian Andersen set of pictures, as well as the artist’s depiction of US Senator Ted Kennedy, and an eye-catching series of portraits by the enigmatic female street artist, Bambi (her Amy Winehouse picture particularly impresses) which more or less continue in the same vein of celebrity sketching where Warhol left off.

And when a barely-decent amount of time has passed, the babka is switching the lights off again behind me (no other visitors expected today, it seems), plunging these wonderful exhibits back into darkness again for who knows how long?

MAP LINK: (Showing every part of Medzilaborce, indeed, that you could ever wish to know about)

OPENING: 10am to 5pm Tuesday to Friday, midday to 5p Saturdays and Sundays (May to September) 10am to 4pm Tuesday to Friday, midday to 4pm Saturdays and Sundays (October to April) – there’s a fairly decent museum website but it’s almost all in Slovak

ADMISSION: 3,50 Euros (adults), 1.70 Euros (children).

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From the Andy Warhol Museum of Modern Art, it’s 90km southeast to Slovakia’s easternmost village, Nova Sedlica, and the start of a fascinating hike into the Poloniny National Park

From the outside... ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

From the outside… ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Under the bridge... image y www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Around Bratislava – Petržalka & the South: The Forgotten Banks of the Danube

I’d been shopping, as I remember (not at one of the big malls because I detest them) and fancied a stroll near the city centre. I found myself heading out across Most SNP under the baleful gaze of the UFO and then, where most people would turn left if they wanted a walk/cycle with some greenery along the Danube in the direction of Danubiana Art Gallery, I turned right, passed the few buildings the southern bank of the river has on this side (the outskirts of Petržalka neighbourhood), and then dipped into the river-hugging woods, which continue – in a surprisingly extensive wilderness – all the way into Austria.

First off, ensure you don’t take the path which heads to the left at the end of the paved footpath up a bank to join the main cycle route hereabouts – yours is the muddy little path twisting ahead through the middle of the trees. Initially this is an obvious track – with circles of ashes and charred stumps marking points where groups come to have opekačka (outdoor fires) in summer. The path appears to end at a WW2 bunker, only it doesn’t… it skitters up onto the top of the bunker and continues along a high bank now directly above the water.

RELATED POST: Try Canoeing down the Morava/Danube into Bratislava!

Up until the next bridge upriver 2km away, this is a route, it should be emphasised, to glorify in the little things. A commemorative plaque from the early 20th century etched in German, at a time when Bratislava was most firmly “Pressburg” and German was the default language spoken. Ancient and now abandoned mooring posts for vessels, which for a while I believed were there to demarcate the Slovakia-Austria border because of similar border markers I had seen in the Biele Karpaty on trails marking the boundary with the Czech Republic. Woodsy paths used by no one save the odd mushroom forager, because of the snazzier new international cycleway on the other side of the trees. Neglected miniature sandy beaches (you come to understand just how sandy some stretches of the Danube’s banks can be). It is also one of Bratislava’s cruising spots, and indeed I did pass a couple of male couples as the only other “walkers”, although received no proposition I hasten to add!

And, when you do glimpse civilisation in the form of the E65 main road (you have to head back across the river at this point; there’s no over river crossing now until after Hainburg 20km upriver, although this extension is a fabulous idea if you have a bike, and a picnic, and a couple of hours spare) the vast towers of advertising boards whose feet sit in a jungle of vines in the below-the-road countryside but whose face is destined to spectate on traffic forever.

All in all, it is a walk of the gentle and neglected riverside ilk, where the buzz of the city just a few hundred metres of water away contrasts with the completeness of the silence  – and the tangled root systems and grassy picnicking places.

One of Bratislava's infamous billboards - from below ©englishmaninslovakia.com

One of Bratislava’s infamous billboards – from below ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Head across the afore-mentioned road bridge, Bratislava’s in-favour bungee-jumping spot (there is a pedestrian walkway) to where you meet the edge of Bratislava Botanical Garden (Botanicka záhrada) back under the city side of the bridge (we can’t bring ourselves to dedicate a separate post to the Botanical Garden but it is pleasant enough for a stroll if you find yourself here and is well worth doing at the end of this hike), as indeed is paying a visit to Bratislava Water Museum, aka the Vodárenské Muzeum, right nearby). To get to the nearest public transport from here, follow the road where the big under-bridge car park is up and to the right around the edge of some football pitches to reach the Lafranconi tram stop on the useful number 5 route (please see our Bratislava tram and trolleybus routes post for more).

MAP LINK:  

HIKE LENGTH: 4km one-way Bratislava Old Town-Lafranconi tram stop

WALK HIGHLIGHTS: Most SNP Bridge, the Danube, German plaque, Cycleway to Austria, Bungee-jumping, Bratislava Botanical Garden, Bratislava Water Museum

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: 9km west along the riverbank from Lafranconi tram stop is Devin Castle – a phenomenal fortress and a starting point for our Štefánikova magistrála hiking trail across the whole of Western Slovakia.

MORE FORGOTTEN DANUBE AROUND BRATISLAVA: In the district of Podunajské Biskupice in south-eastern Bratislava south of Ružinov, it might at first seem that there is very little of note apart from the gargantuan oil refinery of Slovnaft. But if you turn right off road 63 as you head from Podunajské Biskupice to Dunajská Lužná (just after passing Slovnaft) at approximately this point on the map you wind up skirting the refinery that entering a world as pretty as Slovnaft is grim. This is mainly gorgeous woodland replete with snowdrops in early spring that contains a web of hiking (and, even better, cycling) trails along the edge of the Danube on what at this point is the north-eastern bank, on the opposite side of the river from the Danubiana Art Museum.

Great antiques - image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Bratislava: The Best of the City’s Antiques (Souvenirs)

One can rush through Bratislava – see only its ugly outskirts – and come away thinking there is nothing there. Even should one find one’s way to the maze of cobbled Old Town alleys, one can come away not glimpsing a fraction of the quirks they contain. I’ve said so on this site before – and lamented it publicly to others on multiple occasions: the city’s charms are not the most obvious. As with any true quest, you have to hunt them down…

Such is the case even with those charms that are, so to speak, smack bang under your nose: Bratislava’s best antique shop, for example…

Cafe l’Aura and its attached antiques shop marry inside one lemon-and-cream facade a great deal of the things central Bratislava does best: a wonderful (and reasonably priced) little cafe, a fabulous antique shop and bundles of epoch-old atmosphere.

bratislavaantique3

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The first striking thing about it is its location: right by imposing St Martin’s Cathedral; indeed abutting one end of the cathedral buildings. The second striking thing is that, once you dip inside the low doorway and get accustomed to the gloom, you find a shop-cum-cafe not only oozing with understated unpretentious appeal but also one that is often utterly devoid of customers.

The equivalent in another city could not be conceived of. A shop near St Pauls Cathedral or Notre Dame or Vienna’s Ringstrasse like this would be rammed to the gills with milling tourists – and most probably rammed to the gills with insipid tack, too.

Whilst the enterprise masquerades under the name of Cafe l’Aura (advertising itself only by a humble engraved wooden sign) I think of it primarily as an old curiosity shop and second as a cafe.

Normally, I scan the heavily-laden shelves for some of the reasonably priced wares, and only afterwards retreat to turn them lovingly over in my hands over a coffee or two.

And what wares! Ancient coffee grinders, some stunning oil paintings, piles of old travellers’ trunks,  ceramics and clocks from the city’s 18th- and 19th-century heyday.

Any antique shop must necessarily be a reflection of the past of the city in which it sits, but the past that comes alive in a shop like Bratislava is a particularly fascinating one: because it is the German and Hungarian influences on the city that become evident when you peruse the curios here. Because half a century ago or more, Slovakia existed only as an idea…

Which brings up another thing. One which, admittedly, it is far easier for an outsider to see than someone born here. Slovakia has come a long way. In under a quarter of a century, it has become a place with its own identity (bashful at times admittedly) which can casually display its often subjugated history on some sagging old shelves and – in so doing – make it a reason to visit Slovakia today. Because antique shops are becoming a real reason to visit – not just in Bratislava, either.

There is little of the “Portobello Road” syndrome just yet (though perhaps it will come): i.e. inflated prices for what is ultimately not very much. Even Bratislava is, in this respect, very much a bargain-hunters playground where antiques are concerned.

And in the case of humble yet ambience-rich little Cafe l’Aura, it would be one of my first choices in the city centre to look for that authentic souvenir for the folks back home…

MAP LINK:

LOCATION: Rudnayovo Námestie 4

OPENING: 10am-6pm

Image ©didier descouens

Getting Around Bratislava: The Cognac Express

Yes, that image depicts a brandy glass. Commonplace enough in a bar or even on a website run by someone who likes his drink. But how about in a taxi in Slovakia at 4:30am?

I don’t, generally, get enthusiastic about getting from A to B in style (read: luxury cruise, first-class train, business-class flight).

If it does happen, fine. But if not, no matter, such modes of travel are in any case too often synonymous for me with an experience which by no means matches the inflated cost – call it anti-climax, call it parting with umpteen pounds or euros merely to have the soul of the journey sucked out of it. Inordinate column inches have been filled with such means of travel and for me phrases like “fully reclining seats” and “complimentary champagne” just don’t get me salivating with desire.

Not as much as the enthused conversation with the guy in the next seat, or at the lonely en route diner, or at the wheel of the truck which stops to pick you up after you’ve been waiting a few hours for a lift at a roadside in the middle of nowhere.

Unforgettable experience always trumps generic luxury for me when travelling, in other words (I’m happy to wait until I get to B for the fancy meal or hotel) – and the time when that changes will be the time I stop writing about my travels.

Having harped on about all that, I’m going to surprise you here with an entry that might – just – slot under the luxury travel category. Might. But I like to think it could also get filed, like most of the stuff we tell you about on here, under plain bizarre.

Travelling to see family and friends in the UK from Bratislava often implies get up at an ungodly hour in the morning to do so, and fair play – we want cheaper flights; something presumably has to give and it seems it is destined to be our sleep. Ryanair, as some may know, have since early 2015 got a new regional base in Bratislava (the reliability of the air connections and customer service is therefore going to theoretically increase, and there are probably other positive consequences although I have no idea what they are).

But what has been slower to move with this development (I mean the increase in early-morning flight departures) is the transport to and from the airport. The public transport in Bratislava is great for a fairly small city, but it’s not up and running for the day by the time you need to be setting off to the airport for boarding time. Therein lies a problem because most taxi companies (at least, those for the most reasonable prices) are of the call-them-and-they-turn-up-almost-immediately kind. Not the kind you can reserve for a pre-appointed time in the future. And very few companies fancy the journey out to the outlying city districts such as Rača where I was living for three years for a pick-up at the best of times (04:30 is not the best of times).

It being a bit of a risk to bank on the fact a regular taxi would be prepared to come out at such an early hour to our neck of the woods, we decided to do a cursory Google search to see what our options were for making one such before-the-crack-of-dawn departure recently.

And we soon ascertained that, for these very scenarios, Bratislava Airport does have an official taxi company. And that it was far from just being a convenient set of wheels.  Methinks that, judging from the phone conversation, they mainly get businessmen as clients. They spent a long time emphasising how they, Bratislava Airport Taxi (tel 00421 903 853 359) , were the airport’s only luxurious official taxi cabs – Mercedes cars, always punctual, always turning up with a bottle of cognac prepared for the journey….  Imagine the company’s disappointment when they turned up and found, far from businessmen that might secure them a nice regular series of future bookings with affluent well-suited clients, just yours truly, looking unkempt and pretty un-affluent.

RELATED POST: Bratislava’s Airport Hotel(s)?

But there was the luxurious Mercedes car with the cognac, glasses provided, no cap on the number of glasses, and the incongruously suited chauffeur gruffly commanding you to partake. I partook. Total price from the city to the airport: 19 Euros. Reliable, comfortable, available and reservable any time, for any day. 19 Euros is a sweet nine Euros more, I should again stress, than the going rate a Slovak pays for a taxi in Bratislava (10 Euros), but still less than the price a foreigner just arrived will pay on average to get from the airport to the centre (20-25 Euros).  Now you just need to calculate how much cognac (they provide damned good stuff) you will need to quaff to arrive at Bratislava airport having made a profit!

Suggestion for improvement: no dire R&B on the radio? That would make my cognac sipping in transit in the dead of night so much more pleasurable.