Záhorie. “Behind the mountain” as the name translates from Slovak. The region’s title certainly heightens interest, much as a closed door behind which you know there is something but you are not sure what tempts you to twist the handle and open it – if only to take a quick peek. Perhaps the thinking went that unlike the majority of the northern half of Slovakia, there was no dramatic upland scenery to lure the prospective traveler to Záhorie, so a name that intimated intrigue might. Záhorie is by no means without its intrigue – if it was, it would not be the subject of a post on here – but it is a region with few international fans. Attention not grabbed yet? Then you will join at least 99% if not 99.9% of the foreign tourists that do come to Slovakia, and pass Záhorie by.
And for that remaining minority? This largely forgotten corner of north-western Slovakia is best accessed from Bratislava. Heading north from the capital on the E65/D2 motorway with the Malé Karpaty/Small Carpathian hill range on your right (east) and by the time you reach Stupava you will be in it. The Small Carpathians are the very mountains referred to in Záhorie’s name and now (if you have arrived from Bratislava) you are behind them. From here, for the 50km or so north on the same road via Malacky to the Czech border near Kúty, and then for a further 30km northeast to Skalica, you are in Záhorie. Záhorie is also that thin strip of inky-green farmland to your left (west) spreads away to Slovakia’s borders on the Morava river: initially the frontier with Austria which becomes, just south of Kúty, the frontier with Czech Republic. At Skalica, in a line roughly demarcated by the 23km southeast to Senica, then the 24km south to Plavecky Péter and now, with the Small Carpathians again rising to the immediate south, the 17km southwest to Rohožnik and the 28km southwest via Kuchyña back to Stupava you are, indeed, still in Záhorie. With a trip around its periphery clocking up 170km at least Záhorie represents a pretty big region of Slovakia not to know anything about, especially when you consider that at certain points the nation measures under 150km from northern to southern border.
Yet for ages, after moving to Bratislava and being a mere half-hour drive from the start of it, I did not visit Záhorie. I heard stories, from time to time. That a bear had escaped from the Carpathians proper and was running around Záhorie, scaring hikers. That the region wasn’t good for much besides foraging because most of it was an army camp and firing range and no one picked the mushrooms for fear of being blown up by an un-exploded shell (leaving prime fungi for those prepared to risk life and limb to pluck them). But the Small Carpathians, with their sheer physical presence (and let us be honest, more enticing terrain) kept me away, just like they deterred the Powers That Be of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and indeed, kept most people apart from those that lived there or had family there away in past times.
Záhorie – the Ambience
Yet winter gives you cabin fever; makes you impatient for adventure: and if you are based in Bratislava area, the Záhorie region makes a good escape, as much of it is easily explored in a day trip. So in January I went for the first time. It was a grey day and too bleak for serious hill walking and perhaps the winter and early spring weather is the ideal time for a trip out here, for once it warms up you are tempted, in Slovakia, up to the higher mountains. My first impression was of a distinctly otherworldly place (think of those early colour photographs from the 70s with the vividness seeped out), followed closely by impressions of a surprisingly rural place and of a bizarrely pancake-flat place.
Záhorie is perhaps best known as a through route – on the main motorway and rail routes from Bratislava to Prague – and because of this, and its absolute flatness, I was expecting lots of development. Anywhere else, this would have been taken advantage of, with lots of bland commuter settlements constructed. Yet, whilst near to the main road there are some of these (Stupava, Malacky) immediately off to either side is time-trapped farmland, with a similar heavy low country atmosphere to parts of the UK’s Cambridgeshire or Belgium’s Wallonia.
That this is a predominantly agricultural region is surprising, too, because the soil is not naturally cut out for the task. Centuries ago, much of this area was in fact sandy semi-desert. It was the fabled Austro-Hungarian Empress Maria Theresa, last ruler of the house of Hapsburg who, as part of her extensive reform campaign in the mid-18th century, ordered that Záhorie be planted with the extensive forests that cover its middle today. And these forests now theme Záhorie as much as its flatness and its farmland, because they, along with the sandy soil, make construction of any kind difficult: even roads across it are few. This makes the small towns and villages scattered about more cut off, as the routes to them are often circuitous.
In fact, so useless are the combination of sandy forests and wetlands for development of any kind that they have been given over predominantly to nature: most of Záhorie’s midriff is Slovakia’s first protected lowland area, Chránena Krajinná Oblast Záhorie, or part of the adjoining airbase and military firing range based at Kuchyña. Being cut off from major centres of the Austro-Hungarian Empire such as Bratislava (Pressburg or Pozsony then of course) had one further effect on Záhorie too: it made it pay more heed to the Moravia region of the Czech Republic (Kúty is as close to the major Czech city of Brno as it is to Bratislava) and linguistically and culturally Záhorie has more in common with the Moravians.
What follows, anyway, is a day-long driving trip around the region based on that I did. Skalica is not included here, because that really is entrancing enough to warrant an overnight stay…
All Along the Border
There is no road directly along Slovakia’s western border with Austria, as the Morava River marks the border (the E65/D2 motorway is the nearest big highway, but it’s not conducive for pottering along and stopping off to explore).
The absolute best way to explore this region (whilst it’s not 100% allowed) is to canoe right the way down the Morava itself, through a gorgeous area of wetlands and woods, to its confluence with the Danube near Devín Castle, and then to continue down the Danube back to Bratislava. (you can start at any of the small communities based right on the river – getting to a launch point will probably involve a trek through some fields too. Here you can read more about canoeing down the Morava.)
Nevertheless, canoeing isn’t for everyone, and whilst gentler than the Danube, the Morava can still be quite fast at points, plus fisherman on the Austrian side have been known to heckle. There is, however, the Eurovelo 13 (Iron Curtain) cycle route which is a brilliant second-best alternative: you can follow it all the way from Bratislava up to where it hits Route 1144 west of Moravský Svätý Ján near Kúty, at which point it crosses into Austria. The link has some interesting information about the remnants of the defences (mostly Czech-Slovak against Nazi Germany) built along this route. Starting early, the entire part of the trail within Slovakia is possible in a day (or two, if you want to make it more enjoyable and stop off en route).
Other than the pleasant woodland-wetland scenery, the main attraction is at the community of Vel’ké Leváre. Here, during the 16th century, a group of the persecuted Habans (similar to Anabaptists, who believed believers should be baptised not as babies but as young adults) settled after being forced to leave their German homeland (the other notable group of anabaptists left for America, thereby forming the origins of the Amish communities there). Local authorities liked the Habans because they were diligent workers, but didn’t want them settling in the village centre. So the Habans constructed their own community just outside, and much of this compound is still wonderfully preserved today, known as Habansky Dom or Haban House. Just like the Amish, the Habans strictly kept themselves to themselves: they had their own church, and only married within their community; they had their own Haban-only school and workshops too. This was the most significant commune of Haban people in Europe during its zenith in the late 16th, 17th and early 18th centuries. However, that Maria Theresa played a part in Vel’ké Leváre’s fate too: decreeing that the Habans must become conventional Catholics if they wished to remain. That signalled the death knell for the Vel’ké Leváre Habans and over the ensuing decades their culture here died out almost completely. You can also find out more about their story in the Záhorské museum (regional museum for Záhorie) in Skalica.
Visiting days for Habansky Dom are Tuesday and Thursday 10am-4pm (admission 1 Euro) but it is advised to contact the municipality in advance: (Tel 00421-34- 779-4493/ 00421-34-779-4107). The museum is about two thirds of the way along the cycle route from Bratislava. When you reach the lake of Rudava on the cycle route, you need to head about 6km east on small roads passing Malé Leváre.
Záhorie: the Interior!
Swinging northeast into the heart of Záhorie from Vel’ké Leváre (remember, Skalica needs an overnight stay, so we’re not including it on this day trip experience) is what is going to give you a true impression of the region. A minor road crosses the D2/E65 motorway and heads northeast to Závod, then slightly northwest to Borský Svätý Jur, much of it traversing the Chránena Krajinná Oblast Záhorie (with plenty of places to pull over and explore the woodsy trails, crisscrossed by streams and wetland drains). Along this stretch, you pass a few small reservoirs/lakes popular with fishermen, buried within the forest, before branching northeast into open farmland and the rather bizarre sight of Šaštín-Stráže, an un-noteable town in itself, but with the grandiose towers of the Basilica of St Mary of the Seven Sorrows looming out of a nearby parkland. This unlikely site is one of Slovakia’s main pilgrimage destinations, only just behind Marianka near Bratislava in terms of devout visitors. The huge two-towered structure dates from the 16th century, and a statue of Mary that people began talking about for its reverent powers to the extent that an Archbishop was obliged to deem it officially miraculous in 1732. Consecrated in the presence of Maria Theresa herself (the Empress will keep cropping up, in Záhorie region), it is Slovakia’s first-ever Basilica Minor (giving it a higher level of privileges than most Catholic churches) and a very impressive building – albeit with a particularly sombre feel about it.
From Šaštín-Stráže (you might want to grab some lunch here; there’s nowhere else around to do so) head back towards Bratislava on the road passing between Lakšárska Nová Ves and Plavecky Plavecký Mikuláš, where the quintessential Záhorie landscapes (forests and expanses of sand so dramatic that a part of the drive even gets named Slovenské Piesky (the Slovak sands). It’s another manifestation of a similar geological phenomenon to that found at the equally impressive but far more visited Sandberg near Bratislava (because much of sea-deprived Slovakia was once, of course, on the sea or under it many millennia ago). The catch is that much of this area, like so many stunning bits of countryside around Europe, is a military firing range: whilst there are a few official places to park and walk, all too often you find yourself restricted by “Keep Out” signs; proceed at your own risk!
The Šaštín Basilica is open 7am-6pm Monday to Friday and 8am-7pm Saturday. There are four Sunday services, too, and an information centre open from 9am to midday Monday-Saturday attached to the church. There is a website for the Basilica in Slovak only.
Back to the Small Carpathians, Stupava and Bratislava
Once done roaming the surreal Slovenské Piesky, continuing south you’ll see the hills rising up again into the Small Carpathians near Plavecký Mikuláš. From here it’s 40km southwest to Stupava and the main road back to Bratislava, or you can cut across the mountains by heading only as far as Pernek (24km southwest) and then taking the road over to Pezinok via Pezinská Baba (Pezinok is only a 7km northwest of Svätý Jur on Bratislava’s northeastern edge).
But before you leave Záhorie behind completely, it’s worth clambering up for a view of it from above (which in the heart of the region is hard to do). So from Rte 1111 which you have been following via Slovenské Piesky, turn right for 4km to Plavecké Podhradie, and follow signs to the car park for Plavecký Hrad, a spectacular ruined castle a further 2km hike up in the hills, poking out of the forest on the northwestern edge of the Small Carpathians (and free of charge). Its purpose, originally, was to be able to look out and defend the vast plain below – Záhorie – from attack in turbulent times of old. You can look out from the broken ramparts and do the same, and get a little perspective on Záhorie from here.
GETTING THERE: Being flat and on a major traffic corridor north to the Czech Republic, Záhorie is easy to access. The main rail route from Bratislava to Prague passes through here (stopping at Kúty). From Bratislava, there are two trains, one slow and one fast, every two hours to Kúty (fast train 40 min, 3.50 Euros) via Vel’ké Leváre (slow train only every two hours; 45 min, 2.20 Euros). Whilst there is no other reason to spend any time in Kúty other than at its railway station, you can change here for the 30-minute journey to Skalica (trains invariably connect through from Bratislava). There are also trains in Kúty to Šaštín-Stráže (12 minutes, every two hours). This makes Vel’ké Leváre, Skalica or Šaštín-Stráže a very easy day trip from Bratislava by public transport, although just using trains and buses you would struggle to see all three. For the large wild area that is the Chránena Krajinná Oblast Záhorie you’ll need your own wheels…
THE HIGHLIGHTS: Skalica is a major highlight: a beautiful old town right on the Czech border (deserving of many separate posts in its own right). Vel’ké Leváre is an ancient bastion of the non-conformist Habans, containing much singular architecture as a result. Chránena Krajinná Oblast Záhorie is a large area of surreal, flat, sandy forest with a few great spots for walking. Šaštín-Stráže is an important pilgrimage site with a beautiful cathedral.
NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Záhorie’s biggest settlement Senica (itself 65km northeast of Stupava) it’s 22km east to Brezová pod Bradlom in the Small Carpathians