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The dance of friendship…

A real taste of Indonesia came to Slovakia when dancers performed in Bratislava as part of the Kulturne A Informacne Stredisko 2017.

Indonisian dances have specific meanings, sacred ritual dances in temples like the sanghyang dedari and Barong dances involving a trance-like state – and story dances like the, legong and kecak …

Indonesian Ambassador to Slovakia, Adiyatwidi Adiwoso, thanked Slovaks for their interest in the art and culture of his country and said his homeland is open to opportunities in the small but determined Central European country which is rapidly becoming a “friend of Indonesia”.

The festival was held at one of Slovakia’s largest shopping centers Eurovea Mall, famous for its cultural events, lounge bars and magnificent views of the Danube.

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Rosko and AquaCity’s Dr Jan talk the language of memories and success…

In a moving meeting at London’s plush Savoy hotel, financial angel and businessman Dr Jan Telensky (left) spoke with the man who helped him learn English when he first arrived in the UK after fleeing communist Czechoslovakia.

Dr Jan, the man who created AquaCity water park in Poprad, Slovakia, arrived in Britain when he was 21 with no money and unable to speak the language.

Dr Telensky said: “When I arrived in Luton all those years ago, for a short-time I was homeless and had almost no money as I waited for friends to meet me … but I didn’t know they had gone on holiday. It was very frightening as they were going to help me find work and I couldn’t speak English.

“Anyway, I spent my last few pounds on a bedsit and I began listening to the radio, trying to pick up a smattering of the language … and one of the people I listened to was Emperor Rosko. I began to understand  a little and things just grew from there.

“Now, all these years later I have had the chance to meet the man and thank him for something he had no idea he had done.”

Rosko (centre), who is 74 now and lives in LA, was riding the airwaves in the UK again to boost charities.

The Remember A Charity started its 2017 Awareness Week campaign with the launch of Last Pirate FM, a new pop-up pirate station ‘sailing’ across the UK with Rosko at the helm.

He said: “What an amazing story, it was an honour to meet Dr Telensky and I can only say I’m glad I helped him start on the road to success.”

Pictured with them is Eric Wiltsher, programme director of RTI.fm, one of the most successful European-based radio stations of the last few years, where Rosko still broadcasts on RTI Rosko Radio and has recorded ‘jingles’ for the station.

Eric said: Brilliant to meet up with my old pal Rosko and to be there when he and Dr Telensky finally got a chance to chat!

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Made in Slovakia – some of the world’s Porsche-st cars!

Slovakia is really on the road to success as some of the world’s greatest cars begin to be made there.

Porsche has revealed a new generation of SUV which is to be “Made in Slovakia” for the first time. Up until the annoucement the Cayenne’s bodywork and driving gear has been built in Slovakia before being sent to the Porsche plant in Leipzig for putting together.

The pledge to move production in 2014 to Bratislava and a year later a  foundation stone of the new factory in the Devínska Nová Ves area was laid .

And next year the Audi Q8 followed by Lamborghini’s first SUV will be made in Bratislava too.

The new Cayenne model is longer and lower but about 65 kilograms lighter. Volkswagen  claims the new SUV will excel off-road. It is also said that it will be able to accelerate to 100 km in less than five seconds. Both engines are combined with an eight-speed automatic transmission and all four-wheel drive.  

Picture by PATRICK CIMPRICH

Ancient Slovak castle’s new gateway to yet more mystery

** Picture by PATRICK CIMPRICH

Exciting reports say that the mysterious missing main gate to Viniansky Castle has finally been found.

The castle ruin in eastern Slovakia originally dominated a hill overlooking the trade route into Poland. But nobody has been able to pinpoint the original fortified entrance…  until now.

Historic researcher Jaroslav Gorás is reported as saying: “When we started our research six years ago, we had no gateway, now we have two of them.”

The new gate is thought to date back to the thirteenth century, and is located in the oldest part of the small but important castle.

However archaeologists are still said to be puzzled because the second gate is actually only 100 feet away from it. It begs the question, why would ancient strategists have put the two entrances so close to each other?

“It was a big investment, moreover, every extra opening in a castle wall was harder to keep from enemies,” said Peter Bednár, of the Slovak Academy of Sciences.

Viniansky Castle still stands imposingly north-west of the East-Slovakian village  Vinné and like other castles in the area, it served as sentry on the  Magna  Via old trade road  leading from the region of Potisie  in to Poland.

Sadly, the castle was destroyed during the Rebellion of Estates at the beginning of the 18th century.

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How Slovakia launched itself into a cosmic club without boundaries

Somewhere, out there in the firmament a small cube of technological excellence is finally showing the world that Slovakia has joined the slow but determined battle to conquer space.

At 5.59 CET on June 23, 2017,  radio ham Dmitry Paškov, who lives in the Russian city of Ružajevka, started to receive data packets from skCUBE, which had been launched in conjunction with the Indian Space Research Organisation.

The main scientific experiment is its VLF receiver and a camera used to photograph Earth.  Part of the aim is to scan Slovakia from outer space.

Originally, the satellite was to be launched by the US firm Space X in May 2016, but it was postponed several times.

Space research has become part of the modern history of Slovakia going back to Soviet space programmes – but in 2015 this small country at the heart of Europe signed the European Cooperating State Agreement with ESA prompting Education Minister Juraj Draxler to say: “We have become a member of an exclusive club.”

In becoming an ESA member Slovakia gained knowledge of  important strategic information over cosmic activities and satellite development.”

Education Ministry spokeswoman Beáta Dupaľová Ksenzsighová said at the time: “ESA coordinates a joint space programme in its whole extent – from construction of space ships, via training of astronauts up to construction of satellites.”

Lucia Labajova, marketing manager of the Slovak Organisation for Space Activities, has said: “We see the development of skCUBE as a first spark of light in showing the world that Slovakia belongs to countries with a potential in space science and industry. We want to show that Slovakia has excellent universities, science institutions, and companies which innovate and make our country a good name around the world and going to prove it through our first satellite Made in Slovakia.”

Slovakia has been actively involved in space research and has two cosmonauts, Vladimír Remek, who flew in space in 1978, and Ivan Bella, who spent nine days on board the Mir space station in 1999.

The  Faculty of Mathematics, Physics and Informatics of the Comenius University in Bratislava has studied processes caused by cosmic radiation in meteorites and the Institute of Experimental Physics at SAV has designed and constructed space hardware for dozens of scientific probes and has conducted space weather research. 

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Why these bikers are real ‘Angels’ of Slovakia

When health company boss Miroslav Hruška realised just how much of his ‘old’ stock he was having to throw away, it gave him an idea which turned out to be really ‘good for Slovakia’.

Miroslav, aged 33, who lives in Presov, East Slovakia, got on his motorcycle and set off delivering the products that would normally be dumped to deserving causes across the region.

Very quickly he enlisted the help of his biker mates and volunteers and set up the World Charity Road team to collect and deliver everything from food and clothing to people in need across Slovakia.

Miroslav, who runs Dobré zo Slovenska (Good for Slovakia), said: “Basically, we were looking for a deeper meaning to riding motorcycles than just the  freedom of the road.  World charity road responds to a need to help  people families and organisastions that really need support. They might need food, clothing and toys, things that people should have a right to.”

Now, every Sunday about 50 bikers set off through the dramatic landscape of Slovakia delivering a bit of happiness to the needy.

Eric Wiltsher, programme director at the independent international radio station RTI.fm, has shared his exclusive interview with Miroslav with the consumerwatchfoundation.com.

during the Premier League match between XXX and XXX at Old Trafford on May 21, 2017 in Manchester, England.

How AquaCity moves mountains for Manchester United hopefuls

Heroes of British soccer have revealed one of the best-kept secrets of Slovakia  … for the last eight years Manchester United has been sending its young hopefuls there to a specialist mountainside training camp.

Every October Manchester United’s Youth Team spends time in the city of Poprad training at one of the world’s most exciting stadiums, playing ‘friendlies’ against locals and recuperating in the world’s greenest hotel.

Poprad is an extraordinary place, tacked to the foot of the High Tatras mountains and near to the Polish border.

Thirty years ago though it had daunting metaphorical mountains to climb having been abandoned to the remnants of the Velvet Revolution politics.

But people of vision were already making things happen and now Poprad is one of the most important cities in Slovakia. It has become the administrative, economic, cultural and tourism centre for the whole Tatras region.

And at its heart stands AquaCity, once voted the world’s greenest hotel … and this is where Manchester United hopefuls stay while they undergo training regimes against one of the most powerful natural backdrops in Europe.

Former Manchester United assistant manager Ryan Giggs said this: “It is vital in a young players development that they get to gain as many different types of football experience as possible. Because of the training in Poprad they can relate to playing against different opposition, experience new cultures and food, travelling and adapting to new surroundings. The training camp in Poprad allows all this to happen.”

And last week it all paid off in a big way – youth team  players who trained in Poprad were chosen to play against Crystal Palace  when Jose Mourinho   rotated his squad ahead of the Europa League final.. Manchester United won the game 2-0, with Josh Harrop and Paul Pogba scoring the goals.

The story really begins with former car worker  Dr Jan Telensky, his geo-thermal lake 2,000 metres inside the earth – and his belief in cryogenics.  Three little minutes   that can change your life.

He said:  “When I first came to Poprad, I saw a pipe coming up out of the ground. It had breath hot enough to melt your soul. So, I looked into the history of it and pretty soon I realised there was a natural miracle two miles below the earth. An eternal source of power, warmth and health. It’s been there for millions of years and it’ll be there for millions more.

“I decided to harness it, that’s all. The government and the town of Poprad worked with me on it.”

Next door to AquaCity  is a magnificent new football stadium, designated as a Slovak National Training Centre (NTC). It is the only ground in the world to be heated by an underground lake and have an all-weather pitch.

The NTC is where you can watch the Manchester United football’s stars of tomorrow train and play some of Slovakia’s Premier League and other overseas teams for a fraction of the price it would cost at Old Trafford.   There is a Hall of Fame board inside AquaCity with a list of the stars who have played there.

 David Moyes, a former manager at MU who was involved in the training experiment: “This the ideal place for a sports training camp, the fourteen swimming pools and the leisure facililities are enormously popular with our young players.”

And AquaCity  offers all sorts of fitness and enjoyment, not only for professional sportsmen but for families too with pools, massage jets, children’s pools  and water slides,  laser lights to change the color of the water, outdoor thermal pools, blue Sapphire pools, blue diamond pools, and a 50 metre swimming pool.

In the wellness and spa suites there is Vital World, the K-Vital Beauty Centre, the Massage Centre, and the Thai Massage Centre with edible massage treatments such as chocolate, honey and green apples.

Then there is the controversial cryogenics chamber which has been helping sports people and visitors with injuries and ailments.

It is the Big Chill, an oversized deep-freeze which makes you feel wonderful. It works  wonders for the skin and muscles, can boost your immune response, ease chronic pain, heal nerve damage, and improve sporting performance.

And Poprad too  really is a beautiful place to be, sitting as it does on a vast plain leading to the foothills of the perpetually snow-capped Tatras Mountains.

It came into being in the 13th century, when the king of Hungary persuaded German colonists to move to what was nothing more than isolated arable land. Way back then Poprad was just one of more than 20 farming communities dotted across the plains.  It soon garnered importance however, as a main stopping-off point on the trade route between Poland and Hungary.

Another ‘revolution’ took place in 1938 when a military airfield with grass for a runway was built  west of Velko village as World War II loomed. The first real runway wasn’t actually built until 1970.

Poprad Tatry Airport finally came into its own in the early 21st century when it was classed as of International standards.

The 13th century Early Gothic church of St. Egidius in the town square still retains pieces of  wall paintings  dating from the Middle Ages. And then of course there is the Renaissance bell tower built in 1592 with its three original bells. 

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Back to the future in enigmatic Slovakia

Going on holiday in Slovakia really is like going back to the future.

On the one hand time stands still, sometimes deliberately and sometimes because there  simply has been no reason to change it.  On the other  Slovakia  has the proud Tatra Tiger, the nickname of its burgeoning economy. And of course it also has its incredibly successful hi-tech motor and aviation industries.

But there is no doubt that Slovakia remains the beating heart of European history with its ancient cities and towns, its boiling underground lakes and its snow-capped mountains where great bears and wolves still roam like antediluvian shivering armies

It is a small enigmatic country, bordered by Poland, Ukraine and Hungary, and is so ancient that you can taste history in the air … the smell of  Kapustnica soup cooking on a stove in a witch’s hat of a hillside  Koliba or the sulphur of the great Poprad River flowing from the Carpathians.

         And then of course there is the world’s greenest  and technologically astounding hotel, AquaCity,  Poprad, Central Slovakia, a town which now in so many ways brags the best in the ancient and modern.  The hotel was built by reknowned British and Central Europe visionary Dr Jan Telensky.

History has made Slovakia what it is today …  look at the stone tools dating back to the Ice Age and the Venus of Moravany, a female figure  carved out of  mammoth tusk  dating to 22,800 BC. The ivory figure was dug up by a farmer in 1930 in  Podkovica,  less than two hours from Poprad.

Sometimes in Eastern Slovakia you will come across the remains of hill forts standing against the skyline. Some date back to the First Century and are stark monuments to the Celtic invasion at the first documented turn of the pages of history.  Name some eastern forts

Yes, the history of the glorious little country just goes on and on. It is rife with tales of invasion and revolution. The Romans, the Huns, the Mongols, the Bohemians, Hungary, Poland and Germany have all wanted to steal a piece of it.

And then of course  in November 1989 there was  the Velvet Revolution which led to the downfall of Communism in Czechoslovakia and finally showed the way to the independence Slovakia had battled so hard to win.

The final revolution of course was in 2004 when it   joined the EU and was placed firmly on the international tourism map.

So, here we are in the first quarter of the 21st Century with politics and the economy, hopes and aspirations taking on an  entirely different complexion.

Eastern Slovakia is a wonderful and evocative place to be, with its hills and mountains  and,   its lowlands with its sublime vineyards. Tokaj is probably the most famous wine fermented there.

Poprad is likely to be your first experience of the mountainous country of the East, it is the closest city to the High Tatras Mountains and boasts the region’s major transport links, trains, buses and planes.  There is Poprad airport which was renovated and updated a few years ago and a there is a plethora of taxis waiting there to take you to the ancient city centre or indeed AquaCity, quite simply the place to stay and be seen.

Poprad is alive with quaint and charming bars and restaurants and is the gateway to the Tatra Mountains. But it has its own ‘hidden gem’, Spišská Sobota, a village less than ten minutes walk away which is a conservation site boasting Baroque burghers houses, merchants and artisans houses and a beautiful market square with a 15th century church and Renaissance bell-tower.

The real draw in the region though has to be AquaCity with its saunas, Olympic swimming pool, outdoor pools, centres of well-being, laser light shows, bars, restaurant, cafes, sumptuous rooms and its cryochamber. Amazingly the  hotel is powered by a  geothermal lake and the sun itself.

It’s the place to be to take part in all the things the mountains – described as the teeth of Slovakia – offer from dog sledding, skating on the mirrored lakes, snowboarding, horse riding, climbing and even golf.

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Poprad, a postcard across time is voted winter’s real wonderland

The beautiful city of Poprad had daunting metaphorical mountains to climb less than 30 years ago.

Foders Travel Guide to Eastern Europe said in 1993 that Poprad was a place you ‘don’t want to linger’.

And certainly when I first set down there more than a decade later it was a place that appeared to have been in a state of suspended animation for decades. The political dark ages of Communism were still throwing a zombied shadow across its streets.

Old tenement buildings and 1950s new-age housing projects were decaying symbiotically and  community gardens and parks were choked with weeds and litter.

But people of vision were already making things happen and a decade further on Poprad is one of the most important cities in eastern Slovakia. It has become the administrative, economic, cultural and tourism centre for the whole Tatras region.

Poprad really is a beautiful place to be, sitting as it does on a vast plain leading to the foothills of the perpetually snow-capped Tatras Mountains.

It came into being in the 13th century, when the king of Hungary persuaded German colonists to move to what was nothing more than isolated arable land. Way back then Poprad was just one of more than 20 farming communities dotted across the plains.  It soon garnered importance however, as a main stopping-off point on the trade route between Poland and Hungary.

The next major spurt of growth came almost six centuries later when the Industrial Revolution brought the rail-road clattering across the mountains.

Another ‘revolution’ took place in 1938 when a military airfield with grass for a runway was built  west of Velko village as World War II loomed. The first real runway wasn’t actually built until 1970. 

Poprad Tatry Airport finally came into its own in the early 21st century when it was classed as of  International standards.

Despite Foder’s proclamation Poprad is definitely a place to linger with its historical buildings  reflecting German and Polish influences.

The 13th century Early Gothic church of St. Egidius in the town square still retains pieces of  wall paintings  dating from the Middle Ages. And then of course there is the Renaissance bell tower built in 1592 with its three original bells.

If history fascinates you then it’s worth visiting  the  Podtatranské Muzeum where there is a permanent exhibition of artefacts found in the Poprad over the centuries, some of which came to light recently when a work began on a new industrial park. And of course there is the Tatranská Galeria – the Tatras art gallery. More avant gard art can be found at the Power Plant building on  Hviezdoslavová 12.

Also ‘linger’ in the main square with its pastel facades of buildings which excellent cafes, rstaurants and bars … you have to taste the hearty peasant cooking that dominates Slovak cuisine. The traditional dish of bryndzové halus, gnocchi-style dumplings with tangy sheep’s cheese and bacon cubes, is best appreciated after a long hike in the mountains.

Take time too to visit the wooden huts which are actually market stalls selling everything from local honey and shots of Demänovka, a herbal liqueur.

In so many ways Poprad is the perfect place to ‘linger’. 

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A country where folk is the lore of culture

Slovakia has fought long and hard to keep its traditions and customs alive and today folk song and dance are  treated as family heirlooms, passed down from generation to generation.  

Historically all districts and regions had their own  music, dialects, customs and costumes.  Today these are kept alive, not only within families, but are also taught at local schools.

Slovaks sing about love and happiness at the drop of a traditionally knitted hat but they also sing with pride about the beauty of their homeland.

Folk festivals abound. The annual folk festival  at the foot of  the Poľana Mountains,  a small  range in central Slovakia  has been held  in the second week of July in the amphitheatre in the town of Detva for more than 50 years. Very often there can be 1500 performers taking part.

The open air Museum of the Slovak Village  is definitely worth a visit too. It is  a celebration of the harvest home and the ancient ways of collecting the  harvested.

It stands  on the outskirts of the northern city of Martin in the North of the country and came into being in the 1960s to commemorate Slovak buildings, farm methods and day-to-day living in the 19th  century. The  15 hectares  site consists of more than 100 buildings, farms, croft lofts, a pub, a village store, a garden house, a firehouse, a wooden Renaissance bell-house and an elementary school.

And then of course there is the  handicraft fair in Nitra,  at the foot of Zobor Mountain, in the   Nitra River  valley. Nitra is the oldest Slovak town.

Slovaks have a long tradition of handicrafts, woodcutters, ceramists, potters, tinkers, weavers, blacksmiths and makers of fujary,  a  musical instrument used by Slovak shepherds – a wooden  pipe as tall as a man.

There also makers of cat-o´-nine-tails, bobbin and point laces, embroideries and jewellery.

Almost every ruined castle in Slovakia has its legend. Sometimes these legends are blood-curdling. One such legend is the story of Csejte. In this tale, a ruthless countess murders three young girls and bathes in their blood, thinking it will renew her youthfulness.

Belief in witches, ghosts, and other supernatural beings persist in some areas. Morena, a goddess of death, is the object of a springtime custom. In it, young girls ritually “drown” a straw doll in waters that flow from the first thaw.

In rural areas, some Slovaks still believe that illnesses can be caused by witches or by the “evil eye.” They seek the services of traditional healers who use folk remedies and rituals.

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MUSIC AND LAUGHTER IN THE KOLIBAS

If you ever decide to take tea in a koliba as eccentric as the one in Stara Lesna, take a fire extinguisher too. They spike your tea with a lethal dose of Slivovica and serve it in flames.

It gives you a heartburn that can only be put out by a bottle of red wine while the resident gypsy trio plays bohemian rhapsodies in this tiny village off Route 534, two miles from Tatranska Lomnica.

A stately Kalinka, Kalinka, Kalinka Ki-ya on a double bass, violin and a percussive cimbal gets the diners dancing hand-in-hand round the stone rotisserie where tiny game birds hiss and spit.

The gypsies kylinka to a halt. The diners return to their tables and raise their glasses solemnly.

Then the waiters take over, singing as they serve brynza (chopped onion and crusty bread) before the main course of kapustova polievka – dumplings with sheeps‘ cheese and fried bacon.

Kolibas really are the places to eat – smoky and boisterous, charming, funny and cheap.

They are the historic memories of the sheep sheds dotted across the mountains. For centuries those sheds were beacons to snowbound hunters. Roofs like witch’s hats pulled down against the elements, hickory smell of smoke, heavy soups, incendiary brandy and a roaring fire.

Restaurants, cafés and burger bars are springing up all over the place as Slovakia tourism booms and, because of them, an important part of the past is fading into the background.

But the real kolibas are worth tracking down. You can recognise them by the folk music behind closed doors.

Climbers and skiers like the koliba in Tatranska Lomnica because of its good beer and proximity to the ski slopes of Skalnate Pleso. Music lovers like it there too, particularly in August – it’s only a short trip to Zakopane into Poland for the International Highland Music Festival.

The kolibas and folk music are the cultural heart of Slovakia‘s society. They are the taverns they still write songs about.

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White knuckles and white water

Leigh G Banks tells of his experience in Slovakia


 

I’ve just had the most fun it’s possible to have whilst drowning.

White water rafting is for crazy people … and, you know what, it should be compulsory for everybody to go crazy at least once in their lives.

And it was on a river under the Tatra mountain landmark of Krivan   that my mad adventure began.

After a brief briefing that basically consisted of hang on no matter what, we pushed off in to the cold cold water   in a dinghy that groaned and undulated more than the river itself.
As we sailed down the rapids backwards, sideways, and in some cases in the boat, out the boat, my attention was drawn to   an eagle that flew as silent as plane with a rabbit in its claws.

But it was that split second’s lack of concentration that nearly drowned me … the dinghy skimmed round a rock, leaped to the left and dumped me into the river to the right.

Well, as the river took me, all I   knew was that it didn’t matter any longer whether I could swim or not, I was rolling and tumbling beneath the waves, devoured by the current that miraculously slid me safely through the rocks.

And as the river turned me and began to choke me with my own hair, I remembered what the group’s captain said – lay your   head on the pillows of the water and refuse to struggle.

Thrashing

My body skimmed across a rock and I shot into a syphonic alley as if I was an eel. The shale turned into smoke as I shimmied through it.

I finally broke the surface like a maniac, thrashing my arms around and coughing and splashing and for that split second I was back amongst the living I couldn’t tell if the looks on the faces of my companions were of horror or hysterical laughter.

… But then I was gone again beneath the surface.

I   was jettisoned over a small waterfall and crashed feet-first in to the next natural lock   of white water. I grabbed a slice of breath before the surface closed over me as tightly as the whale closed over Jonah.

Now, there is a natural corkscrew in a fast-flowing river – and that corkscrew with the conspiring of the rocks can knock you inside out, crack your skull and disembowel you all at once. But I’d been taught well and allowed myself to glide as if I was riding the edge of the air.

And I survived. They found me perched on a rock … the dinghy shuddered and jerked as my colleagues helped me back in. And yep, they’d been laughing all along – while it had been a journey of discovery and trauma for me, to them it had been a big   joke that actually lasted less than 30 seconds.

But it was like a right of passage … I knew how Davy Crockett must have felt in all those 1950s B movies.

Whitewater rafting is a big thing in Slovakia now with bases across the country … but the best must be in the Tatras mountains or at least near them.

For instance, the Dunajec is a river running through southern Poland and forms a border between Poland and Slovakia for 27 kilometers in the Pieniny Środkowe (Slovak: Centrálne Pieniny) range, east of the Czorsztyn reservoir. It is the only river taking waters from the Slovak territory to the Baltic.

What’s different about rafting here is that you can take the ride on a wooden raft!

Rafting on River Orava offers smooth sailing and is ‘suitable for beginners and   children. Orava river is navigable throughout its course from Tvrdosin to its confluence with the river Vah in Kralovany.

Ondrej Cibak Area water slalom   is located 1.5 km far from the city of Liptovsky Mikulas in the North and is worth a visit.     The area is fed by water from the river Vah. The best conditions are in the spring months of May or June the course is open from early April to late October. It is suitable for everyone.

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Plum madness of Slivovica

One of my favourite libations is Slivovica (pronounced slee-woh-weetza). Absinthe may have a mythological, illegally glamorous reputation all over Europe – but Slivovica is rightfully seen as Slovakia’s plum madness.

The best is aged for years in oak barrels; it smells like molten gold and has a fire that incinerates your taste buds. The very best is distilled from Adriatic plums from the oldest trees along the coast.

Good brandies such as Amice or Karnataka come from Pelion, a town at the heart of Western Slovak’s wine region.

The worst is the un-aged variety sold in the darkest kalians and in back street supermarkets. It’s harsh but does its job.

So, let’s imbibe in a glass or two…

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Kosice, a Warhol-ian film of the past and the future

Kosice was like a black and white film as the snow fell heavily from a sky so low it seemed to be held aloft only by the stark bible-black fingers of trees. We’d arrived there after a long road journey from Bratislava.

It was mid-December and at the heart of each tree was a spikey nest of holly.  Winter is as sharp as night and day in this darkly charming city of culture. But winter or summer, night or day this is a dramatic and beautiful place to visit.

In reality Košice is an industrial powerhouse and yet it was picked as Europe’s Capital of Culture in 2013, the reward for years of vision and invention  which has seen art claw its way up from the labyrinths of dissident youth and disaffected Beat Generation wannabes.

But Košice is the epitome of the ancient and modern … on the one hand old buildings have become home to amazing and evocative art installations and the streets are alive with musicians and artists.  There is a permanent exhibition of Andy Warhol’s paintings.

Košice is also still a medieval gem.   Its vast oval-shaped central square boasts the largest collection of historical monuments in the country.  In 1369 Košice was the first city in central Europe to receive a coat of arms and for centuries was the eastern stronghold of the Hungarian kingdom.

The main square should be your first port of call where beautiful flowerbeds surround the central musical fountain near the Victorian State Theatre, the Shire Hall and a number of galleries.

The brooding 14th-century Cathedral of St Elizabeth is Europe’s easternmost Gothic cathedral. It dominates the square.  It’s almost a requirement of your visit to climb the 160 circular stone steps up the church’s tower where the views of the city are stunning.

The underground remains of medieval Košice – lower gate, defence chambers, fortifications and waterways dating from the 13th to 15th centuries – were excavated in 1996 and now visitors can spend hours  in the newly-revealed maze of passages at the south end of the

To the southwest of the city is Kosice international airport with regular flights to many part of Europe. Košice actually has the oldest public transport in Slovakia, dating back to 1891.  In the 1950s the bus finally appeared on the streets and in the 60s trams rumbled in.


 

Courtesy of http://www.consumerwatchfoundation.com/kosice-warhol-ian-film-past-future/

Image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Trenčin: the Lesopark

On the map, as you home in on the lovely city of Trenčin, you’ll notice the medieval city seems to be clustered around something on its southeastern side. Its streets coil up only so far above Mierové námestie, the central square, then get lost in a blur of greenery. The cause of all this is the wonderful Lesopark, and the best thing about the Lesopark is its serendipity: you wouldn’t even think it existed at all as you stroll around the city centre far below.

If one looks up at all in Trenčin it’s at the castle. This is quite understandable given its dramatic situation on a crag high above the Vah river: it’s not for nothing all the guidebooks shout about this fortress as one of the best in Western Slovakia (the link, incidentally, reveals the castles that are really the best). And indeed, it’s the castle which provides the most fairy-tale of entrances  to the Lesopark. You ascend up the narrow lane of Matúšova until it kinks around the Fatima restaurant to rise to the castle gates and there, off to the right, is a courtyard which appears to be a dead end, albeit one with a cracking view of the old town below you. As you turn around from the viewpoint, a secreted old gateway in the wall leads directly into this:

Trees, beautiful trees: the lesopark has them in abundance. ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Trees, beautiful trees: the lesopark has them in abundance. ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The Lesopark, or forest park, has to be the most elusive of any urban park in Slovakia: of the ilk of Bratislava’s better-known Mestské Lesy, and actually better-kept in many parts. But once you’re inside (you enter into the old orchard which served the castle initially, then climb into denser woods), you’ll realise just how huge a space this is: over 200 hectares, and the veritable lungs of the city with everyone from dog walkers to canoodling couples to off-road runners coming up here to do their thing. That said, the place still has a deserted feel. And this is due to the substantial size of the ancient 19th-century beech, birch and spruce woodlands crowding the steep slopes here.

There are numerous trails to plan a walk through this inviting woodland, as well as a 5km running track (the Oxygen track) – with purpose-built training apparatus at the rest stops! One path leads to the Memorial of the Tortured, pictured below: not a particularly appealing name but a poignant monument nevertheless. Nearby here, Hotel Brezina, enveloped within the trees, can make for a good refreshment break… There are playgrounds and even a learning trail too.

It’s a brilliant spot to work up an appetite for a tasty bite to eat at one of Trenčin’s increasingly well-regarded eateries…

A memorial inside the park. ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

A memorial inside the park. ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

A Quick Guide to the Other Content We Have on Trenčin:

Places to Go: Slovakia’s best music festival in Trenčin

Places to Go: Hiking up in the hills above Trenčin all the way to Bratislava (the Cesta Hrdinov SNP, Stage Two)

Places to Go: A stunning castle near Trenčin

Places to Stay: Trenčin’s recently refurbished historic hotel

Places to Eat & Drink: One of Slovakia’s Finest Restaurants in central Trenčin

Arts & Culture: Celebrating 20 Years of the Pohoda Music Festival

Top Ten Medieval Towns in Slovakia

 

MAP LINK (we recommend the entrance by the castle – the most convenient to town and also pretty dramatic)

OPENING: The lesopark is always open really.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: After you’ve worked up a hunger with a stroll round the Lesopark, it might be time for dinner at La Piazetta 800m southwest of the park entrance next to the castle.

Traditional Slovak Music: Being Showcased Across the Country ©Wipo: photo Emmanuel Berrod

Summer 2017 In Slovakia: A Guide to the Best Events

The weather might have been intimating the fact for a while now, but there’s no denying that midsummer has officially arrived and in Slovakia, this means a season of spectacular festivals. We don’t say this lightly: for a country of just five million people Slovakia’s cultural events pack a whopping great punch. Bratislava and, these days, Košice, are already making their festive clout felt well beyond the borders of Slovakia, but here at Englishman in Slovakia we feel that there are a fair few other celebrations between now and the end of summer you have to know about – and know about in English!

In case you’re new to Slovakia, its unique reach where annual celebrations are concerned is its melding of the best in modern and ancient. Take music for example. I’ve said many times on here that Slovakia’s music scene is formidable – it gets the best of all the big bands performing on tour and for far cheaper prices than almost anywhere else in Europe – but it has also preserved a rich folk culture many other countries have long since dismissed.

Below, then, find the only guide that rounds up Slovakia’s summer extravaganzas from now until autumn (21st September) by region (yes, Bratislava, Western Slovakia, Central/Southern SlovakiaMalá Fatra/Vel’ka Fatra/Orava Valley, High Tatras, Low Tatras, Slovak Paradise and Košice/Eastern Slovakia). Where possible, we’ll also point you in the right direction for getting tickets too…

JUNE

BRATISLAVA…

KONVERGENCIE, JUNE 24TH-SEPTEMBER 24TH

Classical and chamber music performed at various venues around the city – but with a youthful, innovative vibe.

Get Tickets: The festival has a great website with tickets available at Ticketportal through this link. First scroll through the website’s program to find out the title of the event you fancy.

You may also want to read: Our section on entertainment venues in Bratislava.

MALÁ FATRA/VEL’KA FATRA…

FEST ANČA, ŽILINA, JUNE 29TH-JULY 2ND

Europe’s leading animated film fest, held in the cool arts venue of Stanica in hip Žilina.

Get Tickets: Go to the festival website to get tickets or contact them about buying them on the day.

You may also want to read: Žilina: Artsy Gateway to Malá Fatra

HIGH TATRAS…

VYCHODNÁ FOLK FESTIVAL, VYCHODNÁ, JUNE 29TH-JULY 2ND

The little village of Vychodná hosts Slovakia’s most famous folk festival – a great introduction to the fabulous folk music that has been produced in this mountainous region for centuries.

Get Tickets: The festival website now has an English version but tickets cannot be bought online: you can contact the festival organisers or you can just turn up on the day.

You may also want to read: Seeing as one of Slovakia’s best long-distance hikes begins or ends in nearby Pribylina, try Hiking the Tatranská Magistrala, Stage 4: Horský Hotel Popradské Pleso to Pribylina (includes links also to all other stages)

JULY

BRATISLAVA…

SUMMER SHAKESPEARE FESTIVAL, JULY 5th-AUGUST 1ST

Now here is a claim to fame: the oldest, largest outdoor festival in the world to focus on performances of the works of William Shakespeare! It offers a good opportunity to get outside in Bratislava in some of the city’s gorgeous alfresco settings. Performances, held in the wonderfully atmospheric setting of Bratislava Castle, are in Slovak and English.

Get Tickets: Very necessary – this is a popular series of events. The problem is that the website is in Slovak only. However, Shakespeare’s play titles are quite easily recognisable. Hamlet, for example, is ‘Hamlet’ in Slovak too.

You may also want to read: Where to Get High in Bratislava

BEEFREE FESTIVAL, JULY 28TH-JULY 29TH

Edition number 19 of the classic dance music festival across two stages: the city’s ‘beach’ alongside the Danube and at exhibition centre Incheba. House, drum & bass – take your pick.

Get Tickets: It’s free – just turn up. There is an FB page.

You may also want to read: The Forgotten Banks of the Danube OR Getting Out to the Danubiana Arts Museum

WESTERN SLOVAKIA…

POHODA, TRENČIN, JULY 6TH-JULY 8TH

It’s testament to Pohoda’s success that there’s almost no need to introduce what is firmly established as one of Eastern Europe’s main summer music festivals. Everyone who’s anyone in the music world, from Slovakia and elsewhere, and perhaps more importantly, a lot of acts who aren’t so famous yet, have performed here over the years. This time round, acts include Solange (2016’s album of the year) and Jesus and Mary Chain.

Get Tickets: From the festival website.

You may also want to read: Last year was the 20th edition of Pohoda: read Thoughts and Pictures from the 20th Edition of the Festival.

BECKOV CASTLE EVENTS, BECKOV, JULY & AUGUST

A fair few castles act as dramatic backdrops to festivals in Slovakia but our favourite this summer is the castle of Beckov near Trenčin. For medieval-themed frolics there is no better venue – weaponry demonstrations, games and even film screenings.

Get Tickets: Find out all about the events on the castle website, although this year’s events are in Slovak only. July 7th/8th hosts a weekend of medieval fun and demonstrations of 12th-century weaponry. Then there is the Cinema on the Wall event at weekends during July ad August, where films are projected on to the castle – contact the castle for more.

You may also want to read: Our article on Beckov Castle

CENTRAL & SOUTHERN SLOVAKIA…

DETVA FOLK FESTIVAL, DETVA, JULY 6TH-JULY 8TH

A folk fest with themed around the fujara (that is Slovakia’s incredibly distinctive national musical instrument, by the way), as befits the region which gave birth to the fujara. The festival is held in the Detva Ampitheatre, Detva being a little town near Banská Bystrica – right at the very heart of the nation, things DO NOT come much more traditional. Lots of events celebrating Slovakia’s shepherding heritage are also part of proceedings: shepherd demonstrations etc.

Get Tickets: Just turn up. There is a list of events scheduled on the municipality website but booking might be tough as English is not spoken much this far out in the sticks. Pass through here on the days in question, however, and you’ll get to experience one of the most authentic of Slovak folk festivals – even the folk extravaganza at Vychodná will seem mainstream by comparison!

You may also want to read: 39km northwest of Detva is Banská Bystrica, with some fabulous quirky Communist sights.

LIVE CHESS FESTIVAL, BANSKÁ ŠTIAVNICA, JULY 8TH-JULY 16TH

Chess was never more fun! The highlight of this festival is a live chess tournament on a giant board with costumed characters making the moves. And there was never a better setting for it than ancient Banská Štiavnica, where traditional food, drink and dance accompany the chess side of things, in typical old-fashioned venues around town.

Get Tickets: Best to contact the town’s tourist information office for more information – they are helpful and speak alright English.

You may also want to read: Where to begin? We’ve got tons of content on the lovely old town of Banská Štiavnica

HIGH TATRAS…

EL’RO (EUROPEAN FOLK CRAFT FESTIVAL), KEŽMAROK, JULY 7TH-JULY 9TH

This is Slovakia’s (and one of Europe’s) most important folk craft festivals. Held under the lofty High Tatras mountains in beautiful Kežmarok, just a short drive from Poprad, this extravaganza features everything from demonstrations of Slovakia’s Unesco-listed musical instrument the fujara to artisans making the quintessential national craft, the cornhusk figures known as Šúpolienky. Oh, and there is huge quantities of traditional food and booze… and music… and general revelry…

Get Tickets: There is more about the festival on the website – for tickets follow the instructions given on this page too (they’re available at the town’s Tourist Information Centre at Hlavné námestie 64.)

You may also want to read: More on typical Slovak crafts (including Šúpolienky of course).

AUGUST

BRATISLAVA…

SUP MARATHON

The highlight of August in the city of festivals that is Bratislava is surely this open-to-all paddle adventure from Karloveske Rameno on the western side of Bratislava down to the Danubiana Art Museum to the south-east of the city.

Join In: It’s best to contact the guys at Divoká Voda if you want to participate: watching it is free, almost as much fun… (and drier)

You may also want to read: Our piece on canoeing down the Danube!

WESTERN SLOVAKIA…

TRNAVA JAZZ FEST, TRNAVA, AUGUST 4TH-AUGUST 5TH

Bratislava’s jazz festival is possibly better known, but Trnava sports a great Slovak jazz festival too – and this one’s in summer. It’s held in the singular venue of the town ampitheatre. Funk, soul and ethno music are represented as well as jazz.

Get Tickets: The festival website does not have much information; it’s best to purchase tickets from Trnava Tourist Information Office at Trojičné Námestie 1 .

You may also want to read: A Touch of 1920’s Paris at Cafe Thalmeiner

MALÁ FATRA/VEL’KA FATRA…

JÁNOŠIKOVE DNI (JÁNOŠIK’S DAYS), TERCHOVA, AUGUST 3RD-AUGUST 6TH

One of Slovakia’s better-known festivals, this – although still not really that well-known. Terchová is the main town actually within the Malá Fatra National Park and Juraj Jánošik, who hails from the area, is Slovakia’s folk hero (the country’s very own Robin Hood, and one that actually did exist). This festival is in the outlaw’s name and is a celebration of folklore, theatre and folk and world music.

Get Tickets: Get tickets at this link or (if you read Slovak) here is more about the festival on its website.

You may also want to read: Two Short Walks in the Vrátna Valley by Terchova

EASTERN SLOVAKIA…

BARDEJOVSKÝ JARMOK (BARDEJOV FAIR), AUGUST 24TH-AUGUST 27TH

A ‘Jarmok’ roughly translated is a fair – and there are few better chances this summer to experience a classic Eastern Slovak-style fair than this one which sets Bardejov ablaze come the end of August with traditional food stalls and performances. It’s got a drop-dead gorgeous setting (the old town square).

Get Tickets: None needed; just show up in Barejov during these dates!

You may also want to read: Bardejov: Walking the Walls

SEPTEMBER

BRATISLAVA…

CRAFTSMEN DAYS, SEPTEMBER 1ST-SEPTEMBER 3RD

Over 100 different craftsmen showcasing traditional handicrafts from Slovakia, run by the wonderful folk craft centre of Úl’uv.

Get Tickets: When you’re in Bratislava, it’s probably best to pop into the centre itself for information (at least one member of staff speaks English and they’re very friendly, see link right below). The website is notoriously unreliable. You can also just turn up! A good one for families, or for those who can’t make it out to the bigger El’ro (in July in the High Tatras, above) with many free ‘interactive’ events.

You may also want to read: About Bratislava’s centre of folk craft production, Úl’uv

EASTERN SLOVAKIA…

INDIAN SUMMER FESTIVAL, LEVOČA, 8TH SEPTEMBER-12TH SEPTEMBER

Wo! The summer is not over yet, as this high-quality festival of classical music in venues around ornate Levoča show.

Get Tickets: The festival has a good in-English website with contact details for further information on getting tickets for performances

You may also want to read: Our feature on the Indian Summer Festival

bean soup (1 of 1)

On the Slovaks and Their Soups: A Tastebud-Tingling Intro

You do not have to linger long in Slovakia before the importance – and indeed, the bubbling aroma – of soup hits you. Hailed as a starter and gracing menus the country over in a dazzling array of flavours and forms, soup is up there as a key fixture of Slovak cuisine. Naomi Hužovičová, a Canadian cook and author living in Slovakia, has just brought out a book dedicated to the wonders of the country’s soups and stews… 

THE HIRED BAND had already packed up after playing at fašiangy, the celebration before the beginning of Lent. Young musicians had taken over for the after party; the number of songs they knew was impressive. Everyone over the age of 30 was starting to look rather lethargic, but the young people played on. Even my own love of music wasn’t holding up to the late hour.

The accordion player, who looked to be in his mid-twenties, pulled out his phone to check the time. 3:30 am. “Ej,” he said, “who’s going to wake up to make soup tomorrow?”

Sunday soup is a weekly tradition so ingrained in Slovak culture that a young man thinks of it while merry making in the wee hours of the morning. Sunday lunch starts with this soup, as well as any celebration involving a sit-down meal – weddings, birthdays, Christmas, Easter.

Festival time - everyone hungry for soup! ©Naomi Hužovičová

Festival time – everyone hungry for soup! ©Naomi Hužovičová

Bones of any kind (but often chicken) are slowly simmered with vegetables for at least three hours (hence needing to wake up early) to produce a sweetish clear broth, served with thin egg noodles and soft carrots. A smattering of Vegeta, dried vegetable seasoning, and parsley adds to the characteristic taste.

Sunday soup is just one example of the Slovak obsession with flavour-rich hot broths. In fact, every lunch meal begins with soup, whether in school cafeterias, restaurants, or at home. The type of soup varies – creamy soups, ‘clear’ vegetable soups, or legume soups to list a few – but the majority precede the main meal.

I have a number of theories of why soup is such an important part of Slovak food culture.

Soup made with stock from bones gets the gastric juices going and actually helps digestion of the lunch that follows. In fact, bone broth has been in the limelight recently for its healing properties, from helping fix leaky gut to healthy smooth skin. And, to boot, it makes any soup taste amazing.

When most of your food comes from your backyard, as was true in Slovakia until recently, you use every single part, including the bones and organs, to get the most nourishment out of the animal you worked hard to raise.

Soup is also a cheap way to fill up. Between two world wars and communism during the last century in Slovakia, food was often scarce. When I asked my mother in law what a classic Slovak soup was, she immediately thought of egg drop and caraway soup, and I got the impression that this was a good soup to fill up on when there wasn’t much else.

Slovak soups are vibrant in their colours and flavours ©Naomi Hužovičová

Slovak soups are vibrant in their colours and flavours ©Naomi Hužovičová

Then there are the meal soups and stews. These hearty dishes are perfect for feeding a large group of people, much like one might cook chili or beef stew to feed a crowd. Goulash, while originally Hungarian, is a staple in Slovakia and can be seen around the country simmering in large cauldrons outside. There are even goulash cooking competitions.

Another favourite is kapustinca, sauerkraut soup with different kinds of meat, or segedínsky guláš, a creamy paprika stew made with sauerkraut. Sauerkraut, fermented with salt, was a way to eat vegetables through the winter; it’s an amazing source of probiotics and contains even more vitamin C than fresh cabbage!

Curious about the Slovak soup culture, I set out to gather soup and stew recipes, which resulted in the ebook A Bowl of Comfort: Slovak Soups & Stews.

Part of it is a cookbook, with a total of 26 recipes for both starter soups and meal soups. Part of it is a travelogue, with pictures and explanations behind some of the food culture, like salaš, sheep farms, and the resulting product bryndza for bryndza soup. It addresses how the ultimate in batch cooking, i.e. preserving food in traditional ways, influenced the resulting cuisine (sauerkraut and klobasa are good examples). It looks at how the time-honoured rituals of cooking certain foods, like Sunday soup on Sundays or vegetable soup with dumplings on Fridays, cuts out the last minute panic of “what are we going to eat?”

Included are “normal” recipes, like cream of garlic soup and barley and ham soup, and more adventurous ones, like beef tripe soup and whey soup. There is also a whole chapter devoted to the amazing properties of bone broth! Recipes for some basics, like homemade Vegeta and a couple kinds of soup dumplings. And, on top of that, all the recipes are gluten-free or have gluten-free alternatives.

In the book, you can get a peak into everyday Slovak life through soups, something most Slovaks take for granted but miss when it’s gone. But there’s something else too. The book whets your appetite not just for tasting proper, tradition-steeped Slovak food, but for getting away from the big cities out into the countryside: where Slovakia’s heart surely lies.

Naomi Hužovičová writes about life in Slovakia as a Canadian on her blog, Almost Bananas, especially the food, culture, and places.

© Christopher Bentley

Go East: the Sensual Sounds (and Sights!) of Female-led Czech and Slovak Pop From the ’60’s to the ’80’s

We’re all about niche on this site, and one of my greatest pleasures over the last year or two has been finding out just how many people have something fascinating to say about Slovak culture past and present. Today we have the first of two articles by Czech and Slovak pop music expert Christopher Bentley on why he loves the genre and its lasting importance.

 

LET US START this post by making two statements and then pulling them together.

1: If one is interested in Pop Music-related travel, and wants to do it outside of the UK, one would probably, more than likely, head west to the States.

2: One of the reasons that ‘Englishman In Slovakia’ readers are probably visiting this site is to get the low-down on where might be worth visiting in the country.

With regards to the first, what you are about to read will make you think of doing the exact opposite of what the Pet Shop Boys suggest and go not west but very much east.

With regards to the second, what you are about to read will make you think of a way of travelling that has probably never occurred to you.

So how about travelling eastwards to Slovakia in particular, alongside other parts of the former Eastern Bloc… for Pop Music-related travel?

You may well, at this point, be thinking that a suggestion like this amounts to losing one’s marbles. And if you were to go back about two years in my life I might have thought exactly the same…

A Strange Journey to the Centre of the Slovak Music Scene

That was until, about this time of year in 2015, at a course I was attending to improve my employability skills, the careers advisor, knowing my interest in Modern Foreign Languages, said something to the order of “Chris, if you’re interested in careers using languages have you ever considered Eastern European languages? There’s a real future in that.”

I did start to consider it: not only Eastern European languages but the culture of the region that inevitably goes hand in hand. I started to consider it a lot.

Marcela Laiferová - image ©Christopher Bentley

Marcela Laiferová – photographer unknown

Over the years since then, I have dipped back into things ‘Carene Cheryl’ but January 2015 represented the fortieth anniversary of the release of her first single. The anniversaries of such musicians trigger particular flurries of interest in them, and certainly reignited mine in her. I discovered an article from a French youth culture magazine, written in July 1976, headlined ‘Pourquoi Londres veut nous voler Carene Cheryl’ (‘Why London wants to steal Carene Cheryl from us’). Why would London want to steal Carene Cheryl from France? Well. There was a paucity of female Pop Stars in the UK at the time, according to the article: and after the ‘Glory Days’ of the 1960s the UK was desperate to make a few ‘imports’, mostly from France. The article had a point. It made me think about female Pop of that era on the European Continental Mainland in general. Even as someone reasonably well versed in the era’s pop music, I soon realised that here was a huge gap in my knowledge. There might have been little of note happening in late ’60’s to early ’80’s UK female-led pop. But elsewhere in Europe big things were happening: and in Communist-era Czechoslovakia in particular.

 

The Pop scene in the UK of the time (the relatively dire state of the female side notwithstanding) was also characterised by fun in the teeth of hard times. The likes of Bubblegum Pop, Pop-Soul, Ska/Reggae, Glam Pop and Glam Rock lit up the gloom of industrial and social strife, an increasingly troubled economy, fuel crises and the Northern Irish ‘Troubles’. Thus, in a way, when we get tremendously nostalgic for the era’s pop music, we perhaps know all too well the enjoyment it evokes has another darker side: the wider milieu it inhabited and the escape from it that the music provided.

If we thought we were going through hard times, though, we should have taken a look (if only that had been possible!) behind the Iron Curtain.

1968: the ‘Pražské jaro’ (‘Prague Spring’) and the invasion by the Russians that brought Communism with a Human Face under Dubček (1963-68) to an end, and caused Communism generally in Eastern Europe to be viewed in a rather more negative light abroad. I was seven at the time: first becoming conscious of world events and first becoming conscious of the music scene. Words cannot describe the heartbreak that a just-turned-seven-year-old felt for the people on the streets of Prague, and that has never left me: that sense of “just when things could have continued getting so much better, they got a whole lot worse’. But music, even within the sudden intense restrictions placed on people’s freedoms across the Eastern Bloc (and particularly in Czechoslovakia which had been seen by the Soviets as a bastion of Capitalist influence) still, as in the UK, found a way of fighting back.

Although, at that time, song lyrics were subject to some very close scrutiny from the authorities and the Pop scene had to be ultra-careful about what it was saying, maybe the essential spiritedness of the music was the only way in which the youth of the Eastern Bloc could fight back and stay sane.

VC_and_JZ_cropped

Find out where this picture of Valérie Čižmárová was taken in our Top Ten Czechoslovak Female Pop Stars of the ’60’s, ’70’s and early ’80’s: A Definitive Playlist (next up on www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk)

And it was the female Pop from the post-Invasion clampdown of ‘Normalizace’ (‘Normalisation’) that particularly charmed me. The list of names seemed endless. There were several important song festivals and contests of the former Eastern Bloc which could be seen as spawning grounds for the talent that emerged, including Czechoslovakia’s Bratislavská Lýra (Bratislava Lyre) and Děčínská Kotva (Děčín Anchor). Then there was the sultry intrigue of the artists themselves. There was the very Sexy Star of Hungarian Disco, Judit(-h) Szűcs! There was Czech artist Hana Zagorová heralding from the suburb of Petřkovice in Ostrava and her memorable performance on ‘Písničky z kabinetu’ (‘Songs From The Cabinet’), where the video opens with the camera panning up Hana’s incredibly attractive legs! Attention always seems to focus on the ‘Czech’ part of Czechoslovakia which naturally made me angle for artists from the Slovak portion of the country, and to add on to this seductive list, I discovered blonde bombshell Valérie Čižmárová, born like one Andy Warhol in Michalovce and perhaps the most iconic singer not just of the Eastern Bloc but perhaps in the whole world anywhere at that time…

Many of my own early experiences with Eastern Bloc pop from this period was the covers of material of Western origin but their own tune-making was highly impressive too: not to mention the superb orchestras, accompanying groups and backing vocalists that made this a period of music as rich as other aspects of the Eastern Bloc were deprived.

The Top Six of Czech and Slovak Female Pop Stars of the ’60’s, ’70’s and early ’80’s: a Definitive Playlist

As I said, the list of high-profile names associated with Czech and Slovak pop goes on and on – helpfully disseminated by this best-of playlist:

6: Marcela Laiferová (1945-) Sometimes known as the ‘first lady of Slovakia’ because she was the first major star to ever sing in Slovak

5: Eva Sepešiová (1946-) Eva was from Košice

4: Eva Kostolányiová  (1942-1975) Eva was born in Trnava and died, tragically early on in her life, in Bratislava

3: Jana Kocianová (1946-) Go to see her birthplace in the pilgrimage town of Šaštín-Stráže 

2: Helena Blehárová (1943-) Helena was born in Žilina

1: Valérie Čižmárová(1952-2005) Valérie hails from the Michalovce region just like Andy Warhol

Christopher Bentley keeps two blogs dedicated to the music scene described in this article. Girls of the Golden East focuses generally on what can be termed a ‘golden age’ in Czechoslovak pop music (the last 1960’s through to the early 1980’s). Bananas for Breakfast is a fan blog focusing specifically on Valérie Čižmárová.

RELATED POST: Noughties Slovak Pop: Why Jana Kirschner is Great for Slovak Music

On the trail ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Low Tatras Mountains: the Hrebenovka Ridge Hike, Stage One (Chata Pod Čertovicou to Chata M.R. Štefanika)

To walk along a mountain ridge, for days, scarcely bumping into a single building in the process, would be a rarity anywhere in the world. To do so in Europe is a privilege indeed. Many chains of mountains boast hikes that clamber up to their highest echelons, but ridge hikes that allow you to stay at such continually high elevations for so long, and with views dropping away to both sides of the mountain range, are a special breed. Therein lies the appeal of the Hrebenovka, the signature hike of the little-known Low Tatras. The trail is, to the mountains it crests, what the Haute Route is to the Alps.

Surprise, Surprise…

Having hiked the official long-distance trail through the High Tatras, the Tatranská Magistrála, I believed myself well prepared for whatever the Hrebenovka could throw at me. But I was in for a few surprises. Whilst not encompassing mountains of quite such stature as those in the High Tatras, the Hrebenovka runs right along the top of those it does encompass and is therefore, overall, a higher and wilder hike, with greater distances between its pit stops of so-called ‘civilisation’ (by which, to be clear, we mean the manmade structures, ie the mountain huts or cable car terminals en route). It’s a less-traipsed trail, too (certainly by foreigners) and whilst the accommodation provision for hikers is still incredible given the remoteness of the surroundings, it is nevertheless a fair bit more basic than on the Tatranská Magistrála.

RELATED POST: See why our version of the Hrebenovka starts at Chata Pod Čertovicou

The Start…

The little hamlet of Čertovica lies on the steeply twisting route 72 about halfway between Podbrezova, just west of Brezno (southern gateway to the Low Tatras), and Liptovský Hrádok, just south of Liptovsky Mikulaš (one of the northern gateways to the Low Tatras). There is not much there apart from the Motorest, a snack bar-cum-hostelry with cracking views where the bus drops you, and a few other accommodation options. Most places to stay are on or around the main road, and whilst no option here is terrible, we recommend the scenic and peaceful Chata pod Čertovicou if you want to stay overnight here before starting the hike. The chata is a well signposted 0.9km down into the woods from the Motorest.

It is, admittedly, a bit of a climb to get back to Čertovica and route 72, but worth it. As you come back onto the main road (route 72) a red-and-white pole on the left-hand side of the wide entrance indicates a hidden little path climbing up to Hotel Totem (dramatic name, less stunning accommodation) through the undergrowth. When you get to the Hotel Totem grounds just a little above the road, the main moment of confusion on the entire stage occurs. What is in actual fact a ski run during the winter season seems to be the red Hrebenovka trail soaring away up the hill. The official path sticks at road level a-while before curling back up through the band of forest to the right of here. Do not despair, however, because as long as the skiers are away, it’s possible to ascend on this steep path and you’ll join the Hrebenovka path after an uphill slog for about 30 minutes. This path curves up to the edge of the forest, then bears left (northwest) into it at about 45 minutes from Hotel Totem

Cute Kosodrevina…

What follows, for the following 45 minutes up to the first summit of the day, Rovienky, is a gorgeous section of this first stage of the hike. There is in Slovakia a phenomenon known as kosodrevina – when the low-level mountain forests slowly give way to open mountain land – best represented by the bands of fuzzy dwarf firs interspersed with patches of moorland. The Low Tatras has probably the best examples of kosodrevina in the country. (the Kosodrevina is also a hotel and the midway cable car station in our article Up Chopok the Back Way but, generally, it is a topographical zone). The ascent from Čertovica to Rovienky at 1604m is only 300 metres or so, but it is as punishingly steep over a fairly short distance as it is spectacular, and is a tough initiation to the Hrebenovka. After you reach the top of Rovienky (where there is a nice clearing within the dwarf pines for a bite to eat/ first swig of the slivovica) you will feel the rest of the hike is achievable!

Near Rovienky

Near Rovienky – image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Onto the Ridge…

The path now slopes down slightly through more dwarf pines with the serious mountains now rearing ahead (see feature image). It’s an easy-going 30 minutes to the intersection with the green trail at Kumštové sedlo from here. The path then kinks to the west (left) in a long, intense ascent onto the ridge top proper: allow two hours for this section via Králička (the worst of the climb is over by this point) to the end of stage one and your overnight stop at Chata M.R. Štefanika at 1740m. You leave the trees behind and dramatic valleys open up to the left and right whilst soon, poised at a seemingly ridiculous angle on the lip of the horseshoe-shaped ridge up ahead, is the place you will be spending the night. The last section, down from Králička to Chata M.R. Štefanika , was as is often the case extremely misty on my approach, emphasising the remoteness of the location. Just as well there is a full-service restaurant as well as bunk rooms on hand at the finish…

This – fortuitously – was what was happening as I arrived: a beer delivery!

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Allow at least four hours’ walking time for this stage – but you’ll want to rest and stop off on the way, because it is quite hard going, so five hours is a more realistic estimate for the fairly fit.

Now: congratulations. You have almost certainly earned a beer for completing the Hrebenovka’s first, challenging section.

WHAT NEXT?

Hiking the Hrebenovka: an Introduction

Hiking the Hrebenovka, Stage Two: Chata M.R. Štefanika to Chopok (Next Stage)

Hiking the Hrebenovka, Stage Three: Chopok to Chata Útulña pod Chabencom (aka Chata Ďurkova)

Staying on the Trail

Chata pod Čertovicou (before you start)

Chata M.R. Štefanika (end of Stage One)

Hotel Srdiečko (end of Stage Two)

Chata Magurka (end of Stage Three)

Slovak Craft Beer: Grabbing International Attention

Getting thirsty as the hotter weather comes? We don’t blame you.

Traditionally, Slovakia has been better known for its wine. But Slovakia’s craft beer is pretty amazing these days: not only in Bratislava, where there are four or five microbreweries that really stand out, but also in towns across the country from Banská Štiavnica to Poprad to Košice.

A brand new book by the leading travel publisher, Lonely Planet, Global Beer Tour, has now given Slovakia’s brewpubs the recognition they deserve. It has selected the country’s beer scene as one of the 30 around the world most worth talking about. To find out which of Slovakia’s microbreweries made the cut, you’ll have to go to the relevant chapter in the book, written by none other than Englishman in Slovakia’s Luke Waterson! The book is a bible for those of you that love beer and like travelling (most of us, surely?)

A hearty cheers, anyway. It’s always so nice to see Slovakia making a name for itself overseas. And for once, those Czechs have not stolen all of the hop headlines…

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. Stroll down Grősslingova, a model city thoroughfare lined with leafy trees and independent shops and restaurants and the eyecatching facade of Avra Kehdabra hits you, bright signs propped against pillars intimating of tea, coffee, wine and cake within. This den styles itself as a literary teahouse first and a cafe second, and it is the tea that is most in evidence: stacked on shelves for sale in packets and/or lovingly prepared in front of you by the knowledgeable staff. The tea – fruit, herb, white, black, green, with oolong and pu-erh tea from China – is served with ceremony, and you can prepare your cuppa yourself with the aid of various specialised pouring devices (no, not just teapots, but ornate percolators too). It is not going to be just refreshment you get here, but a veritable lesson in the origins of the tea you taste and its place in society, and the overall impression is that Avra Kehdabra is enthusiastically continuing that age-old association of Bratislava with fine tea-drinking joints. The coffee is sensational too, with the ristretto and lungo particularly impressing.

And what better place for such a crash course in delicious beverages could there be? Not since the days of the lovely, cosy Prešporák has there been a rival in the city for Avra Kehdabra in terms of antiquated elegance, where dark wood tables and stalls are complemented by Asian-style rugs and throws draped everywhere, by shelf upon shelf of books and, in an even more intimate room at the back, massive armchairs to curl up in and drink and read in. It will account for all the time that you are waiting for your drink to take in all the types of tea stashed in old medicine jars behind the counter. At some point as the hours slide happily by and tea number two is coming to its end, you might decide to order one of the light snacks (hummus with vegetable dipsticks) or graduate to a glass of wine.

It’s mostly young folks that will stop by during your reverie or loooong chat with friends or acquaintances: twenty-something couples, students skiving lectures, the odd intrepid visitor. And whilst the place can fill up in the evenings, there is never any rush for you to sip up and leave: relaxation is the raison d’être here. Rather, this Čajovna comes across much like the optimistic person’s drinking glass: it never appears as much as half empty of customers, and almost always feels at least half full.

And here’s a final thought. This place stays open until 10pm. At 8 or 9 in the evening, people are here socialising drinking tea. There is something beautiful in that. Something quite pure. In England, we’d likely already be on the fifth pint by then.

MAP LINK

LOCATION: Grősslingova 49

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)

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

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

marianka4

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 16th! 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 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

©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:

IMG_2522

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

©Lucnica

Lúčnica’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 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 main 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 can become part of Bratislava’s young, sharply-dressed alternative set – one of the hipsters, basically. 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)

 

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 on September 8-September 12 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: (line-ups for 2017’s festival now 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

 

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

©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)