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

 

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

Low Tatras Mountains: Kamenná Chata

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

MAP LINK:

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

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

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

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

©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

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)

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Poprad: the Chocolatier

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

A Quick Guide to the Other Content We Have on Poprad

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

Places to Go: Poprad’s lavish Aqua Park

Places to Go: Nine reasons to linger in Poprad

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

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

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

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

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

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

Going Out: Poprad & the Manchester United Connection

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

Getting Around: London to Poprad Flights

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

Top Ten Medieval Towns in Slovakia

 

MAP LINK:

LOCATION: Dominika Tatarku 14

OPENING: 10am-8pm daily

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Krasňanská Kúria

If you were to ask me what was the best restaurant in Bratislava outside of the Old Town, my unequivocal answer would be the title of this post. If you were to ask me what the best restaurant in Bratislava was, my answer might very well be exactly the same. When you weigh up the wonderful ambience, the impeccable service and the high quality of food  served up at Krasňanská Kúria, in the Krasňany neighbourhood from which the restaurant takes its name, the place has few equals in the city.

You have to be in a certain mindset to fully appreciate Krasňanská Kúria, of course. You have to be in the mood for typical Slovak food, which hopefully a visitor will be. You have to be in the mood for a traditional environment, and in a less obviously photogenic part of the city : it’s locals that eat here, and in a restaurant redolent of the country’s typical rustic type of eatery, the salaš. First two boxes ticked? Then there’s nothing to hold you back from making the 20-minute tram ride from the city centre to eat here.

The atmosphere inside this low-level building on a quiet residential street corner is carefully constructed to transport you into a world of quintessential Slovak cosiness: a combination of wood and exposed stone with tables occupying a number of nooks enlivened by ornaments worthy of a visit in their own right: old wood-whittled figures and animals, a vast collection of old coffee grinders, paintings evoking mountain and forest scenes, screens resembling old castle gates to divide up the different areas, plants everywhere. In spring and summer a courtyard with an real fire also opens up. Everything gets treated stylishly here: the children’s high chair is an old wooden one; the only play apparatus for kids is an old rocking horse. The whole place is candlelit in evenings, too.

The menu boasts all the Slovak classics, but no dish is casually thrown together and each is Krasňanská Kúria’s own tasty take on tradition. The cabbage soup is so thick on cabbage and replete with seasoning; the sauerkraut salad conjures up tastes of China and Germany simultaneously with its intelligent flavourings, and this is one of the few restaurants to have the pickled encian cheese – a camembert-like affair laced in onions and gherkins: delicious!

Dessert! ©englishmaninslovakia.com

Dessert! ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Of the many meaty mains, the shining star is the potato and meat platter, a feisty sausage, chicken and vegetable concoction. Beef stroganoff and Slovak trout (pstruh) also come highly recommended. For desert, the obvious choice would be the šulance in plum and sugar sauce – but then again the ice cream in raspberry compote is pretty damned good also. They do a particularly good Viennese coffee to finish with.

We all know Bratislava is no Paris when it comes to service, either, so in an off-centre district it’s worth mentioning that the treatment of guests here is exemplary, and you will feel as well-looked after as you would at the finest restaurants of a much bigger city. Waiters go out of their way to prepare food according to your own dietary requirements: almost any dish on the menu can be made gluten-free, for example, and you’ll always get free tasters of drinks you’re not convinced you’ll like – just to give your tastebuds a try.

There are several restaurants in the centre which offer high-quality Slovak food – Traja Mušketieri for example. But Krasňanská Kúria is a fraction of the price (you’ll pay five to ten Euros for a starter and a main course here, so at least half as expensive), and the atmosphere is every bit as enjoyable.

It would be premature to suggest Bratislava has any more than just the one central restaurant district. This restaurant, however, is making a very good case for getting out of the Old Town for dinner once in a while.

MAP LINK:

GETTING THERE: Tram numbers 3 (from the big Tesco’s on Špitálska) or 5 (from outside Martinus on Obchodná) run from the city centre (end destination Rača) to Pekná Cesta. Get off and head left up Pekná Cesta, then take the second right, which brings you to the restaurant in 200m. Krasňany, the name of the neighbourhood, is really part of the bigger area of Rača which forms Bratislava’s most northeastern district.

OPENING: 11am to 11pm Monday to Saturday; 11am to 10pm Sundays. In practice, they tend to close a little earlier if there’s only a few people eating in the evening.

RESERVATIONS: If you have a big party, it does get quite busy at lunchtimes and on some evenings, so you can book a table (although communication in English may be difficult).

BEST TIME TO VISIT: 8pm on a cold weekday evening when the cosy conviviality of the joint will warm your soul towards Slovak cuisine.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Krasňanská Kúria it’s a 200m walk to Pekná Cesta and the start of some of our top Bratislava walks, including the Pilgrimage to Marianka

The pavement cafe scene of Kosice at Republika Východu ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Košice: Republika Východu

We have been featuring a lot of cuisine-related articles on the site of late. But there is a pertinent reason for that: Slovakia has come on leaps and bounds in gastronomic terms these last two or three years, and keeping tabs on the rapidly-developing food scene is a bit like keeping tabs on wildly escalating share prices. But we do keep tabs, on Englishman in Slovakia. What seems incredible, looking back, is that it’s taken us so long to feature what could claim to be one of the restaurants that spearheaded the country’s pincer movement of stylish new dining possibilities (certainly as far as the east is concerned).

Ah yes. The east. Republika Východu means the “republic in the east” – a reference to Košice’s long-standing proud rivalry against, and independence from Bratislava, one the one hand. But there’s another way of interpreting that, at this coolly sophisticated bistro in the shadow of Dóm svätej Alžbety, the city’s hugely impressive cathedral: and that’s as a bastion of great, original, delicious food, served with utter professionalism.

Indeed it can seem, in a sense, that Republika Východu is the reason to come to Košice. Not only does it offer tables on the Hlavná ulica, the city’s wide, oval-shaped central square, but these tables virtually brush the cathedral walls. They do not simply offer the so-so coffee and uninspiring cakes  they could get away with, they offer the city’s best coffee (there are up a couple of other contenders to this coveted title admittedly), and an innovative menu throughout the day. Spilling out right into the main thoroughfare, Republika Východu also has great people watching. And the staff don’t seem to mind if you linger (which most punters seem to want to do).

Feta and avocado salad with sun-dried tomatoes ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Feta and avocado salad with sun-dried tomatoes ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

I had, on this occasion, an hour in Košice before taking a train further east. Friends in Bratislava with somewhat discerning tastebuds had already told me on several occasions that in terms of decent daytime food, this was the place to head in the city centre, so I was able to make a beeline straight there. Even so, time was fairly tight, but the waitresses that served me rendered the experience a delight, telling me their recommendations from the salad menu, hurrying the kitchen along because they were aware I was in a rush, and despite having twenty or more outside tables to attend, exchanging pleasantries along the way.

I opted for a feta and sun-dried tomato salad, presented on a bed of succulent grilled vegetables, but variations with proscuitto, caramelised nuts and – perhaps most interestingly – a fig and goat’s cheese salad were also on the menu for between 7 and 9 Euros. They make for really filling lunches, too: you won’t require anything further to munch on. Although the siri z vychodu (cheese from the east) with that Czechoslovak delight hermalin (a kind of white cheese with onion and pickles combined into it) as well as mozzarella and Parmesan, all drizzled in olive oil and dished up with sun-dried tomatoes and rocket  Some of the more radical desserts include a quinoa, buckwheat and yoghurt blend available with fruit compote and chocolate: part of an extensive ‘healthy grains’ menu.

I sat outside, but on a less clement day it’s equally pleasurable to hang out at inside. The spacious interior is vaulted, with bare stone walls, subtle lighting and a total mix of seating, from rough wooden tables to armchairs to perching stalls by the windows. There is something, in all this, demonstrating a concerted effort to give all comers an agreeable experience. But this bistro never lets you forget its overriding theme, which is stamped throughout – even down to the menus, which are written in Eastern dialect Slovak – that Republika Východu is proudly, defiantly unique.

 

A Quick Guide to the Other Content We Have on Košice

Places to Go: Climbing Košice cathedral

Places to Go: Unsung charms and legends: insights into Košice city centre

Places to Go/Events & Festivals: Slovakia’s Famed Film Festival Arrives in Košice to Stay

Places to Stay: The city’s first ‘eco-hotel’

Places to Eat & Drink: Košice’s most imaginative breakfast stop

Getting Around: Košice’s flight connections

Getting Around: Quirky Košice city tours

Musings: The Definition of ‘Discussed’

 

MAP LINK: (coming straight from the railway station along Mlynská, you essentially hit the cathedral, hang a left and you’re there: absolutely unable to miss it).

OPENING: 8am-11pm Monday to Thursday, 8am to midnight Friday and Saturday, 8am to 10pm Sunday

BEST TIME TO VISIT: Early to mid-way through a sunny afternoon once the lunch rush is over and seats outside are easy to come by.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Republika Východu, why not continue RIGHT into the east proper with a visit 120km northeast to the Andy Warhol Museum at Medzilaborce

The lovely rustic-style Pizzeria Hacienda ©Alan Gilman

Lučenec: The Best Places to Eat

By Alan Gilman.

‘Where ?’, you might say. And you would be in a majority if you hadn’t so much as heard of Lučenec. Ok, it’s not on the list of standard tourist stop-offs but times change, and as they do reasons to pause in a destination you never knew before change as well.

Just to place it, the town is on the main road from Zvolen to Kosiče and is the crossroad town for the route south into Hungary via the border town of Salgotarjan. Over the years the link with Hungary has been strong with lots of the older generation, my wifes’ family included, still switching easily between the languages of Slovak and Hungarian. These roots manifest in the food as well, with spicy and sweet paprika appearing regularly.

The last few years has seen some really positive developments in the town, with none more notable than the major renovation, completed earlier in 2016, of the town’s synagogue as a new cultural centre. The synagogue was one of the largest in Central Europe but had been derelict since WW2. Since it reopened in May this year, the national opera orchestra (based in Banská Bystrica) and the popular folk-based group Szidi Tobias have already performed there. Quite a radical change for Lucenec !

Go to the Synagoga Lucenec Facebook page (the tours and sightseeing version) for more information, great photos and a time lapse video of the reconstruction.

In parallel with this, the food world has also been developing. Locals are already getting a taste for the exciting new brand of places on offer for coffee, wining and dining,  From the traditional to the new, here is the list of my favourites of those that have emerged thus far.

Café Lehár occupies a grand building ©Alan Gilman

Café Lehár occupies a grand building in one of the area’s grand old hotels ©Alan Gilman

Cafe Lehár

A very traditional cafe on the main street in the old Reduta hotel. We always head there for a mid morning coffee and either their šatka or their corn, klobasa and mayo salad in a cornet. The šatka is a triangular pasty-like parcel with a bacon and spicy tomato sauce filling.

MAP LINK:

Pizzeria Hacienda

Pizzeria Hacienda is a pizza restaurant near the Lučenec railway station and quite simply the greatest in town, with a primrose yellow decor embellished by dark-wood beams and furniture (see the feature image). For me there will never be another pizza other than the bolognese pizza ! We know Sasi, the owner, and if pushed a little she’ll speak English.

MAP LINK:

The delectable ©Alan Gilman

The delectable food at Čárda   ©Alan Gilman

Čárda

The forest is very close to the south-western side of the town centre, and hidden in the trees on the edge is probably the best known restaurant in Lučenec. Essentially a big log cabin in the woods, the Reštaurácia Čárda is cosy in winter and has an open veranda for outdoor eating. The menu draws from the Slovak and the Hungarian traditions with halušky (we all know about that one!), halaszle (the traditional Hungarian fish soup), babgulas (goulash soup) and my personal favourite ohen srdce (fire in the heart – spicy paprika pork in a potato pancake). Often our friend Norby, the owner, is around, and again he will speak English if needed.

MAP LINK:

A true "cabin in the woods" ©Alan Gilman

A true “cabin in the woods” ©Alan Gilman

Art Furman

Vidina, a village just beyond the northern periphery of Lučenec, has the tiny Art Furman restaurant. The chef/owner is a Polish guy who offers an international menu. It’s probably more one for the special occasion as it’s a little more expensive than the average. Then again, the style (chandeliers, exposed beams and bare stone walls) is appealing and it’s worth forking out the extra cash for the ambience. My favourite dishes are the beef cheeks and the chocolate soufflé.

One of the prettiest and most inviting restaurants in the Central-South of Slovakia, Art Furman ©Alan Gilman

One of the prettiest and most inviting restaurants in the Central-South of Slovakia, Art Furman ©Alan Gilman

Tančiareň a pivovar Franz

A very new addition is this bar and brasserie with its very own craft brewery on site. It only opened in early this year. Housed in an old brick warehouse-type building, it has a real urban feel and buzz to it. They’ve built a stage which has live music, film nights and comedy. Things do change !

MAP LINK:

Coming soon

On top of this, there’ll soon be a chance to go and really splash out on fine food at the renovated castle in Halič. Only about 5km out of town this sits very castle-like on the top of the hill and dominates the Lučenec area. We haven’t tried this yet as the full restaurant doesn’t open until September but the rumour is the chef at Art Furman is in charge.

Watch this space for more reports later in the year!

Getting to Lučenec

By road, the most probable route is from Zvolen via the new motorway eastwards toward Košice taking the E571 after Detva. It now takes about 45 minutes from Zvolen.

By train, again Zvolen is the main regional station with links to all other main stations in the country (namely Bratislava and Košice). Lučenec is on the main line between Zvolen and Košice. From Košice, travel time is 2 hours 35 minutes and there are four daily trains. However, direct buses also operate from Košice in-between times and the journey takes only 20 minutes or so longer.

Within Lučenec, buses can be helpful but the places noted here are generally walkable.

Your man in Lučenec

Alan is a Londoner married to Marika who is from Lučenec. Alan has been coming out to Lučenec for ten years on holidays but they are currently living there with their two small children and working in the family paper business, called Slovpap. If anyone needs more info on travel, hotels etc if they are passing that way he can be reached on email (gillmanar@gmail.com).

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From central Lučenec it’s 87km northwest to sample Banska Stiavnica’s wonderful eating scene.

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The High Tatras Mountain Resorts – Starý Smokovec: Koliba Kamzík

A Koliba, in Slovak, is a typical countryside dining spot serving traditional Slovak food. And Starý Smokovec, one of the ‘big three’ of the mountain resorts in the High Tatras, is just about the last place in the country you would expect to chance across a rustic restaurant like this. That’s because Starý Smokovec is pretty much the archetypal late-19th-century mountain holiday destination, replete with grand, elaborate Art Nouveau architecture and oozing the polished suavity of a destination which has been able to attract tourists like pins to a magnet since the very beginning of its existence. And lovely it does indeed look. But it’s far harder, in such tourist magnets, to find a restaurant which isn’t trying to charge you many times over the odds for meals, or one that takes advantage of one-off custom to compromise on quality. This is where Koliba Kamzík steps into the fray…

Inside... ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Inside… ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

With a refreshing splash of classic mountain charm, this is a place that, quite literally, stands out above a lot of its other, far-more-hyped competition (it’s a block up the hill from the Grandhotel Starý Smokovec across a cleared area of grassland, but despite the prominence of its sign most tourists pass it by). It stands out too with incredible value for money, and with the delicious simplicity of its cuisine…

A block below this joint, it’s turn-of-the-century grandeur and tourist crowds often being served unexceptional food; here it’s the far-more Slovak pine and beech wood chalet-style with spotted and chequered tablecloths garnished by fresh flowers. A beaming Kamzík (mountain goat) welcomes you into an outside eating area and subsequently an interior that sparkle with chirpy decoration (the šupulienky cockerels steal the show). The service is speedy, if a tad abrupt (which is a lot better than lackadaisical and abrupt) and this means you’ll be sitting down with your choice from the classic but brilliantly executed Slovak menu in the pleasing and peaceful surrounds all the sooner.

Mushroom soup ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Mushroom soup ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

What to choose? (you’ll probably have to fend the waitress – she’ll be clad in traditional Slovak folkloric dress, by the way – off a couple of times). Soup, that quintessential way of embarking on a Slovak meal, is a worthy starter. I went for the hríbová polievka (mushroom soup) but the cesnaková polievka (garlic soup) looked like it tasted equally delicious. Soups with meals in Slovakia are generally thin, with the key ingredients not totally blended in but bobbing in tasty bite-sized morsels within, and rich in taste: mine was no exception. My choice of main was the “koliba plate” involving hearty amounts of dumplings (two kinds, the pirohy which are more like parcels containing meat, and halušky, solid dumplings cooked in bryndza sauce) and Slovak spicy sausage, klobasa. Venison, beef and an incredible grilled trout also flank the menu.

And perhaps here comes the deal maker. A proper Slovak eatery, rather than one of its pale imitations, is one thing. One that embraces Slovak food and does it with aplomb is another thing. The view (from the restaurant interior, if you grab a window seat, you’ve got the resort of Starý Smokovec ushering in a view down the hill slopes into the wide valley between the High and Low Tatras massifs) is a third thing. That all this comes together in such a touristy locale makes it four things. But the fifth thing trumps the others: the price. The mains start at a mere 5.50 Euros, and the grilled fish is only 8.50 Euros. You are saving money by coming here, and harbouring the feeling that, in the midst of all those tourists, you’ve somehow thwarted the tourist traps. So. Come!

MAP LINK:

LOCATION: Starý Smokovec 8 (Starý Smokovec is the road which rises up behind Penzion Tatra (itself looming up above the Starý Smokovec mountain railway station) and you’ll see the big sign looking to the right as you head up this lane.) The website gives you a fuller idea of the menu (if you can read Slovak).

OPENING: 11am to 10pm daily.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Koliba Kamzik it’s 100m west along the road behind the Grand Hotel Starý Smokovec to the cableway up to Hrebienok on stage three of the Tatranská Magistrala

Do what the flyer urges and try the food here!

Banská Štiavnica: BS Streetfood

The place we were staying in was so nice, we decided to eat in on our latest visit to Banská Štiavnica. This meant take-away – not something I’m generally in the habit of getting in Slovakia unless I’m at at a festival, because eating in restaurants is so reasonable price-wise.

Already – before the discussion about what we would have began – I was in relatively uncharted territory; certainly as far as takeaway in this smallish mountain town went. Then: the stipulations. My dad’s requirement was something “meaty and hot”, my mum’s “some sort of curry” (she’s also vegetarian), my girlfriend’s “anything gluten and soya free.” With the exception of my dad, it did seem like we might be having problems finding a joint that satisfied all parties.

A couple of questions in town however, and we were pointed to Banská Štiavnica newest culinary offering – so new that at the time of our visit it had only recently begun operations!

BS Streetfood – “BS” presumably being a tribute to the town’s initials – exemplifies the latest hipster concept to hit Slovakia. Yes, street food. Streetfood, for me, will always raise a smile when I see it in the western world: the coolest kids in town, the see-and-be-seen sort, hanging out in places that are trying to reproduce the food and atmosphere old grandmothers have been ladling out on the streets of Peru or Thailand for generations. Street food concept restaurants are invariably either vastly over-priced because you’re paying for something that is in right now or ludicrously off the mark in terms of environment (street food in a posh restaurant doesn’t work – it defeats the point, which is good, hearty, informal food-for-the-masses). In London and – more recently – in Bratislava I’ve seen the attempts at offering the street food thing fall far short of what they should: in a fair few cases, little more than a re-branding of standard junk food. It took a tiny street food outlet in the wilds of Central Slovakia to change my mind about it all.

And why? Well, there are a lot of hipsters from the Bratislava area moving to Banská Štiavnica to open alternative businesses (take the Archangel Cafe-Bar, take the antique bookshop on the main square) and BS Streetfood is part of that wave: but unlike a lot of the world’s hipster-run joints, it’s not only hipsters that stop by. It’s everyone. No insular hipsterism here at all. Just an unassuming, no-frills place that offers delicious well-cooked take-out food – that all manner of locals are queuing up to get a piece of.

One key thing BS Streetfood has is quality bio meat – sourced with care. Another thing is that it is incredibly flexible – even when there was nothing on the menu my girlfriend with her current diet could have, the owner was happy to innovate (in itself a welcome change from the sometimes steadfast beaurocracy of the Slovakian service industry). That night, they did have a curry (Thai, but just sold out when we arrived) so we went for noodles, in beef and vegetable, and egg-vegetable sauces – simple, gingery, cayenne-y and divine, and no shying away from liberal use of spices! It was all cooked up with ample theatrics by the energetic owner, who contrasted sharply with the sombre, pot-bellied older sous-chef. Desert? Šulance from a local babka (grandmother). We’d only shelled out 4-5 Euros per main dish, and my dad was in raptures, my mum content, my girlfriend quite pleasantly surprised.

Then, you realise, that is just it: BS Streetfood, taken on paper (or on computer screen) is not spectacular. It’s more a wonderful surprise (particularly because it’ll be different food every night). And still more than that, an experience, as the owner/head chef swoops between a clutch of vats of bubbling Slovak-Asian food. Let’s hope the owner can keep up his enthusiasm!

NB: B… S: Brilliant Streetfood? Best Streetfood?

 

A Quick Guide to the Other Content we Have on Banská Štiavnica:

Places to Go: Banska Štiavnica’s Mining Museums

Places to Go: Banska Štiavnica’s Kalvaria

Places to Stay: Banska Štiavnica’s Nicest Guesthouse

Places to Stay: Great Value Banska Štiavnica Accommodation at the Aura

Places to Eat & Drink: the Coolest Cafe in Banska Štiavnica

Arts & Culture: Partaking of the Most Sexually Charged Easter Tradition Ever in Banska Štiavnica

Top Ten Medieval Towns in Slovakia

 

MAP LINK Too new to be on Google Maps! (But it’s on the junction just right of the post office which we’ve marked)

LOCATION: Junction of Dolná and Remeselnícka (officially Remeselnícka 17). Dolná is the main road heading down from the historic heart of Banská Štiavnica towards the modern part of town by the bus station.

OPENING: Every afternoon and evening until about 10pm

PHONE THEM: (0) 907-487-174

FACEBOOK THEM

BEST TIME TO VISIT: Around 7:30pm before they’ve sold out of whatever’s on.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: 50km north of BS Streetfood (following Dolná down then turning left on the main road towards Ždiar nad Hronom) is the Geographical Centre of Europe!

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The Cork Wine Bars… First Bratislava, Now Poprad!

Wine Bars in the High Tatras? You’d Better Believe it – Poprad’s Going Posh!

Saturday night, party night? (not for me, I’m sitting here writing this, but for you, dear reader…) In Bratislava, Cork Wine Bar was and still is, after one acclimatised to the serendipitous vibrant-but-relaxed, understated-but-suave cafe and bar culture permeating the city, exactly what you might hope to find strolling the Old Town streets to get that party started in. A veritable oasis from the bustle of Panská, that most lively of central Old Town streets, it was and is, with its burnished wood and bare brick interior, firstly a quiet respite and sloooooowly, as glass after glass of that spectacularly agreeable wine trickles through you, a place to segue, in sophisticated style, into the party-yet-to-be.

Now Michal, and his business partner Miro, have just opened the Cork Wine bar, take two: in Poprad. Yep, in the High Tatras – where you might hold out hopes of finding an outdoor shop or a koliba (rustic Slovak eatery) but would never have imagined until recently that you would run into an elegant wine bar.

©Eric Wiltsher

©Eric Wiltsher

The opening hours in the new Poprad bar (opening at 8am every morning, as opposed to the Bratislava bar’s far later 5pm start) intimate that this is going to be an even more chilled affair than the branch in the capital and indeed, so it seems: a place where the emphasis on the phenomenal cheeses, Italian meats and the snacking of other daytime treats as well as the wine and where the vibe is far more intimate. It’s rather like walking into your own home-from-home, actually – oozing warmth and positive energy.  A few more words about that cheese. It’s some of the most heavenly Englishman in Slovakia has ever tasted from a Slovak producer (Slovaks make great mild sheep cheeses but have never really made progress producing strong cheeses that could be described as “packing a punch”). Try the cheese at Cork Poprad, and you will consider your taste buds well and truly punched. Seriously, it puts many of the world’s copy-cat cheddars to shame. We’ll ratchet up the rave one notch: this range of cheese is very simply world class. Delve beyond it deeper into their deli selection and you will just everything you could want to compliment quality wines.

To chat too much about the wine would be to steal the limelight from the enthusiastic owners and staff. Michal is keen to share that Cork (initially Bratislava and now Poprad) was an extension of his passion/hobby for wine. He left the rat race of finance to pursue that passion because good wine meant more to him than money, and that passion shows. The wines on offer scan rather like the Who’s Who of wine but, the way Michal talks about them, like the much-loved members of a family, too. What’s more the team at Cork Poprad have ALL been to wine school prior to the venue opening here – yes, they have studied wine.

Cork Poprad's Owners ©Eric Wiltsher

Cork Poprad’s Owners ©Eric Wiltsher

The Cork Wine Bars were originally set up to supply quality wines from around the world to hotels and restaurants, and the Poprad bar is a natural progression for the owners. You can tell you are in the right place when you walk in. The welcome is fantastic, with staff all able to converse in English and eager to find the perfect wine to match your palate’s particular preference (such a level of service is still worth commenting on anywhere in Europe) . Cork Poprad seems reminiscent of the excellent initial wine bars in the UK, opened by those passionate about great wines and quality foods, but offering an inviting and inclusive overall experience that has you champing at the bit to return.

 

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 Eat & Drink: Poprad’s trendy burger joint

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

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

 

MAP LINK: (Poprad) MAP LINK: (Bratislava)

LOCATION: Levočská 15 (Poprad) Panská 4 (Bratislava)

OPENING: 8am to midnight Monday to Thursday, 8am to 2am Friday, 5pm to 2am Saturday and 5pm to midnight Sunday (Poprad, which does indeed have much longer hours than the original Bratislava branch) AND 5pm to midnight Monday to Thursday, 5pm to 2am Friday/Saturday and 5pm to midnight Sunday (Bratislava)

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Cork Wine Bar in Poprad it’s 400m west to the lovely Café La Fée (although coffee THEN wine might be the more logical way round of doing it)

 

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Image ©Eric Wiltsher

 

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Around Piešt’any: Reštaurácia Furman

Imagine it: the biting wind of a mid-winter afternoon, the dismalness of night-time already looming although there has barely been any daylight to speak of. Still, you’ve made the best of it and hiked into the hills, only to find the weather has got too much for you. It’s gnawed its way into the marrow of your bones. The only thought that keeps flashing around your brain is not how beautiful the landscape is (although, in its own bleak way, it does have a beauty) but how to get warm, and that quickly. As extensions of that thought are the dual fantasies of hot food and hot drink, ideally in somewhere atmospheric although you’d settle for less, you’d settle for anything with four walls and a roof – and at the same time you’re entertaining this fantasy you know that you’re in the countryside and any kind of shelter is a long shot. This was the context in which we rounded the brow of a bare hill and saw, in the dip below, Reštaurácia Furman for the first time.

Furman is part of that delightful breed of places to eat in Slovakia that rears the meat that winds up on the plate in a wood out back. For fresh jeleň (venison) or bažant (pheasant) there are few better places in the country to come than here, as we soon discovered.

Dog or Deer?

The welcome is an unusual one. Strangely, the first thing you see is an immense yellow dog galloping around in a paddock of its own, as if it were a dangerous creature, but that should not deter you: the dog is deceptively friendly, and not on the menu. The deer in the field behind, however, are. Whilst first-timers to this type of restaurant might find it cruel that these sweet- and sombre-seeming animals should act, on the one hand, as a diversion outside the restaurant (to pet them, to pose for pictures with them, etc) and yet should be served up as the speciality of the day inside, I personally find it refreshing: the animals have an entire wood of their own to roam in, and you can be sure the meat here is fresh, and the animals well-cared for during their lives. A beast-to-meat relationship, vividly there for all to see, is an honest one – one no meat-eater should shy away from.

Vitame Vas… Welcome! ©englishmaninslovakia.com

Vitame Vas… Welcome! ©wwwenglishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The Menu

Once we’d peeled off our layers, got our blood circulating again and settled down at a table in an interior somehow combining traditional Slovak with just a touch of the Wild West, the obvious choice (from the dishes of the day, which I always go for) was either the deer goulash or the pheasant in red wine sauce and it was the latter that I went for. It came deliciously and richly seasoned with herbs, and accompanied with potato croquettes that rank up there with the very best I’ve had in Slovakia – again impeccably seasoned with rosemary and thyme and ladled with cranberries on top. Washing it down was the mulled wine my chilled body craved (served sour, in the typical Slovak way, with honey and sugar provided). My dining companion ordered grilled oštiepok, and they were very accommodating in making it gluten-free. Several other styles of venison (as ragout with dates, or a leg cut with a sauce concocted from forest mushrooms) were also available. Prices were invariably between 5 and 9 Euros for main courses.

Unabashed Tradition

What you are getting with Reštaurácia Furman is a gloriously typical Slovak eatery (the sheepskins are draped over the chunky wooden seats, the stag’s heads gaze haughtily down from their fixtures on the walls, the ceiling is studded with old cart wheels) proud of its tradition – but not once compromising on either quality of food or ambience. This is how a typical rural restaurant would have been (give or take) 60 or 70 years ago. Now their rustic wood hunter-friendly decor and self-reared meat reared is something that should be highly prized, because it is actually increasingly rare. Sorry, vegetarians, or members of anti-hunting sects: this is how a quintessential Slovak restaurant should be. If you don’t like it, there are plenty of other more modern joints in bigger towns and cities. But if you came to Slovakia expecting an eatery exuding raw, rural Slovak-ness (as you would be entitled to do) then voila: this is it.

The pheasant…. ©englishmaninslovakia.com

The pheasant…. ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

 

Room With A View

It is the sort of spot that, on any walking holiday, you would dream of chancing upon. After all, it has an enviable location – a few kilometres’ walk above Piešt’any and right on the cusp of the woodsy hills that form an arm of the Small Carpathians, Povazsky Inovec, through which you can stroll through stunning upland countryside to Tematín Castle. Part of the panorama from the restaurant and the bar next door is across the summer terrace down over rolling farmland to the rather dramatic grey-white spread of Nádrž Slňavaone of the country’s biggest reservoirs. And just down the track too are the ruins of Villa Bacchus, where Beethoven once stayed whilst composing his Moonlight Sonata. But from the look of the clientele, it’s also a place well-heeled Piešt’any folks and those from further a-field would willingly venture up into them hills to sample.

Little Bit of History Repeating

And a furman? It’ss an antiquated profession that would translate most closely in English to “Coachman”. But there is no real equivalent. A furman would have been a man who lived on a smallholding in the countryside, with a carriage that he would hire out for different purposes (taking goods to market, or ferrying paying passengers around from A to B.) In Slovakia it is the ultimate epitome of a return to rural roots. And therefore a return to traditional, fresh Slovak food.

A Quick Guide to the Other Content We Have on the Piešt’any Area:

Places to Go: Piešt’any’s Best Thermal Pools

Places to Go: A Great Castle near Piešt’any

Places to Go: in the Footsteps of Beethoven Above Piešt’any

Places to Eat & Drink: Piešt’any’s Best Cakes

RELATED POST: Furmanská Krčma, near Modra

One thing. Whilst I wasn’t really expecting (just hoping, somehow) for the Deliverance soundtrack that might have been most appropriate on the stereo, the tame R&B playing for most of our visit did slightly undermine the atmosphere. Music is important. If the guys in charge of Reštaurácia Furman realised that, this place would be truly exceptional.

MAP LINK: Top of the screen is Piešt’any, with spa island in the middle of the river there; mid-right to the right of the reservoir is the restaurant. Getting to the restaurant by road, it’s just a couple of km from the other side of the River Váh from the town centre.

OPENING: 10am-10pm daily

BEST TIME TO VISIT: A winter lunchtime after a walk.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: 2km northwest you can relax with treatments in the best of Piešt’any’s spas whilst a 20km drive or walk (through the hills) north brings you to Tematín Castle.

©englishmaninslovakia.com

©englishmaninslovakia.com

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Bratislava’s Best Pivovar (Brewpub-Gastropub)

This site does not usually seize on the obvious (recommending places people are more likely to know about anyway) but there is a way to subvert every trend (for example, writing about somewhere people are less likely to really know about because those people won’t be expecting me to write about anywhere people are likely to know about). Nah, I’m a contrary type on occasion, but not so contrary as all that. The reason I want to write about Bratislavský Meštiansky Pivovar is because it sets the standard of craft beer in Slovakia very high – and praising this establishment will achieve my ultimate aim of hoping others follow suit.

As I intimated, it’s hardly as if this pivovar, or brewery pub, is unknown: with its location right under the Crowne Plaza just off Obchodná. Even if it was less central, the audacity (OK, ingenuity too) of its design would bring in the crowds from miles around. The immediate impression is that it looks akin to some of the cool new craft brewery bars you see in the southern USA: voluminous (by the standards of the average Bratislava drinking establishment) and with high vaulted ceilings. Stairs then usher you up to a separate, more intimate dining area on the right and up again into the vaults themselves, with stalls and smaller tables arranged to form another large bar area.

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As is often the case with brewery pubs, it doubles up with food that very nearly matches its beer, making it the perfect place for those business dinners, or for men that need to meet up and would feel awkward, perhaps, in a more formal restaurant. It’s got the blend of casual/formal just right here, too (although the service could be marginally more attentive). But as I’ve lamented on this blog before, in Slovakia there are precious few eating places which are either informal with quality food, or decent quality and non-pretentious, so it’s nice to see this joint fill the gap.

So groups of guys down Ležiak (the lighter lager) or Bubák (the dark beer) in the relatively sophisticated dining area whilst Bratislava intellectuals (OK, mostly male again) browse newspapers in suave solitary beer drinking mode downstairs. And, a Meštiansky special: why not try a half light, half dark beer, mixed? It sounds crazy but strangely works (the Slovaks have never had inhibitions about mixing drinks other countries would never dream of doing – just ask them what they do with wine sometimes – but in this case they pull it off). If you ask in advance, you can get someone to show you around the brewery part of the enterprise, too – although earlier in the evening is better for this as, being a fairly well-established venue, the crowds can descend later on…

Serving beer!

Serving beer! ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

 

Whilst the menu is diverse, though, I’m still going to personally recommend going for one of the myriad sausage options (like a simple-but-satisfying utopenec, a sausage seved with pickles and chilli). Slovaks feel at home preparing sausages. And start off with a grilled sheep’s cheese hot from the capital of sheep’s cheese in Slovakia, Liptovský Miklauš. Main meals are between 8 and 21 Euros, with the top end reserved for a rather overpriced double steak tartare.

Now we’ve dealt with the booze and the food, it’s certainly worth mentioning the history. “History” might seem like an odd word to bring into a conversation about one of the Slovak Capital’s best-designed modern drinking and dining establishments, but there is a precedent here. Actually, whilst everyone bangs on about the Czechs and their beer, Bratislava has a proud brewing history that goes back to the middle ages. Back then, of course, Bratislava was known as Pressburg (in German) as it was a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. And the town’s burgesses then strove, come the mid-18th century, to create one of Europe’s original brew-pubs (!) – a well-to-do restaurant attached to a working brewery that would rival the very best of Bavaria’s beer houses: and… they succeeded. Thus was born Bratislava’s original Meštiansky Pivovar (in a different location to the current one).

Bratislava’s best pivovar? Yes. The competition is not as stiff as it first appears, and even if it were there’s a high chance this place would still come up trumps. It’s a great place to come and show off to visitors one of the city’s stylish sides.

MAP LINK:

LOCATION: Drevená  8 – see the website for reservations (recommended on weekday evenings)

OPENING: 11am-11pm Monday to Wednesday & Saturday, until midnight Thursday/Friday, until 10pm on Sunday

BEST TIME TO VISIT: After work through to closing time, but get in early before the main rush (say 5:30) to guarantee a good pew.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: An 800m walk south from Bratislavský Meštiansky Pivovar is Verne

NB: Shortly after this I went to Zamocký Pivovar up near the castle thinking hey – seems everyone’s opening great craft breweries in Bratislava! Wrong. Zamocký Pivovar is a disappointment: terrible food, mediocre beer and despite deceptive first impressions are surprisingly bland atmosphere (3 big no-no’s) – and it will not, until it improves, get a further mention on Englishmaninslovakia. Which makes me relish Bratislavský Meštiansky Pivovar more.

Everyone loves fantastically cooked Italian cuisine, image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Trencin: La Piazetta

La Piazetta, for a long time, epitomised the classic travel writer’s dilemma: whether to shout about its existence, or whether to keep it hidden from the outside world, as an atmospheric local restaurant, to return to when one found oneself in Trenčin, Western Slovakia’s most picturesque medieval town (well, one does, occasionally).

I needn’t have worried. La Piazetta became known about all by itself – at least amongst Slovaks (which in a town only really seasonally visited by tourists is crucial). That it did so pretty much without any advertising whatsoever (the place is terrible at advertising itself, actually, in stark contrast to the wonderful cooking) is testimony to its quality.

I’ve seen La Piazetta grow in stature over the years since I chanced upon it on a rainy lunchtime on my first visit to Trenčin a few years back. Back then, it was up the same alley as the then-famous Lanius (a decent pivovar, or brewery pub, but hardly in the same league food- or wine-wise) and you’d often end up going in the latter by mistake and missing the entrance to the underground La Piazetta of old entirely. Certainly, in the first instance, there were teething problems. Trenčin has become much more cosmopolitan of late but it’s not an international city like Bratislava: locals, apparently, needed some time to grasp the fact that unlike the typical Slovak menu which breaks down oh-so-precisely the exact weight of your meal, Giovanni at the helm of La Piazetta is more about sprinkling a liberal dose of classic Italian generousity in with his cooking. But no longer: who couldn’t be convinced by a place that would hold its own in Bratislava or Vienna?

Yes, Giovanni is Italian, but he’s mastered Slovak impeccably and speaks good English too. And he’s transformed La Piazetta from its original role in town as a high-end wine bar to an informal but upmarket Italianate restaurant with that same ever-changing, ever-great wine list (really, you just have to ask him to explain – the other waiting staff know too but really, it’s Giovanni that breathes life into the whole thing). I say Italianate because the most mouth-watering dish I tried here had a little nod towards the Slovak: a deliciously prepared lamb with divine grilled courgette and aubergine. It was probably the tenderest meat I ever put my fork to: one prod and it separated into melt-in-your-mouth chunks. That said, for 7 to 10 Euros there is always a meat and a fish secondi and invariably a must-try tiramasu for dessert…

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Times change, and places to eat have aspirations to maximise the customers they can attract, so it’s fair enough that La Piazetta did relocate: it’s now a stone’s throw outside the Old Town’s main pedestrian drag on a quiet side street. What the new location lacks in cosiness it compensates for with urbane modernity: a large, light interior, pine-topped tables, oodles of room, a tank you can select your fish from, the whole exposed brick thing going on around the bar. It’s still not the easiest place to find – either in physical address or online.

But the place now most certainly given Trenčin what it needed: an intelligently set-out top-end restaurant that challenges the restaurant at Hotel Elizabeth for the best in town. Not that Giovanni would ever say that – he wouldn’t need to. Some restaurants are more about cooking the cuisine than talking the talk. Cooking and, of course, memorable Italian wines. And I would go out of my way to return to eat at La Piazetta.

All this makes me realise that this is only the first Italian restaurant I have written about in-depth for the site. But it’s got me thinking, and my belly rumbling: there are so many more great ones…

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

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

Top Ten Medieval Towns in Slovakia

 

MAP LINK

LOCATION: Horný Šianec 228/7

OPENING: 7am until late (Monday to Saturday)

BEST TIME TO VISIT: Late evening once it’s really buzzing, say 8 to 9pm, easing into it with help from the Italian wine list, then dinner then more drinks.

BEST DISH: It’s the lamb – although it’s not always on, as the menu changes in accordance with what’s available.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: 6km north and then east from La Piazetta is one of Trenčin’s great unknown gems, the monastery of Klaštor Vel’ka Skalka

 

Image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The New Bistro St Germain

Wifi: slow.

My memories of the old St Germain are fond, I must say (even although the old location is now ancient, and the new one no longer quite so new). Previously tucked into a cosy little courtyard off bustling Obchodná, this dinky but dignified spot with its elegantly old-fashioned Frech decor, from the black-and white figures on the wallpaper to the ornate iron-and-stained-glass bar and tiled floor, was Bratislava’s first true bistro – and a match for a lot of what Paris could muster in quality.

RELATED POST: See which coffee shop is now locating into Bistro St Germain’s old premises

The problem with the old location was space. They were always full – especially so at lunch time – and customers were being turned away a lot of the time. With the new location there is no such issue. On the same pedestrian street as the cool art house cinema, Kino Lumière, the new location is spacious.

And for first-timers to Bistro St Germain, the effect is impressive.

The decor is the same, and provides a welcome oasis of originality in the somewhat bland environs of Špitàlska behind the monstrous Tesco’s – a bland area but a necessary one to visit if you want to do some supermarket shopping, or catch a movie. The service has actually improved. Staff are friendly as ever and perhaps a little more attentive.

The food is still great. St Germain remains one of a handful of Bratislava cafes where lunch is a real pleasure and salads are good. The burgers (7 Euros) – tanked full of avocado – are equally as delicious as in the old venue, you can’t get better ciabatta (5 Euros) or quesadilla (4.50 Euros) in the centre of town. And the cake selection (really good cheesecake) is phenomenal – in a multi-tier attention-grabbing glass counter by the bar. Besides really good coffee, their homemade lemonade is also notoriously popular for a reason. A lot of Slovak red and white wines are on offer, too: Frankovka modrá on the reds front and Château Topoľčianky on the whites (tip – the nation makes OK red wine but really delicious white). Despite the above, there’s a lightly-seasoned French feel to the menu to add to the timelessly Parisian ambience.

Indeed, for a quality-price-ambience trade-off you couldn’t do much better in the area (the only other place to rival it would be near-by Obývačka). In fact, whilst St Germain still treads a tightrope between “cafe” and “restaurant” (and is arguably both at different times of the day), in its new location it is leaning increasingly close to being more a restaurant, just like Obývačka.

And yet… the cosiness isn’t there any more. Bistro St Germain have done the best job they could in replicating the atmosphere of the old spot in a larger premises. And hey – pop in for lunch or drinks before catching a movie across the street (they are open until late). But it’s not the same. Just as many of the best Parisian bistros are in secluded serendipitous locations that you would have difficulty finding if you tried, so the St Germain of yore retained a hidden-from-the-masses magic. Now it announces itself to the masses. Why, oh why, could they not have at least retained the old locale as a second branch? Because without it, the magic has marginally diminished…

MAP LINK: Tip – The address is Rajska 7 but actually the entrance is a block back, across from the Kino Lumière cinema.

OPENING: 10am until 11pm (Monday to Friday), midday to 11pm at weekends.

BEST TIME TO VISIT: Late morning or early afternoon, say eleven thirty to twelve thirty, when idling a while with one of their great coffees, a cupcake and – should you wish – an early lunch, is perfectly acceptable and a totally guilt-free activity.

BEST DISH: The burgers. But you should definitely have a cake too.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: Round off refreshing yourself at Bistro St Germain with a walk 900m west to the Bratislava City Gallery

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Poprad: Café La Fée

On a summer’s afternoon on a tree-shaded pavement cafe, groups of businessmen and suave young urbanites sit and slurp cafe au lait. The sunlight dapples their faces and slants into the interior, rendering the premises light, spacious, modern, inviting. The dapper old waiter deftly manages the clientele and pauses (at a sufficient distance not to cause offense, of course) for a cigarette. On the wall opposite the counter, the names of great French writers – Verne to Baudelaire – are scrawled in italics. Paris? Not a bit of it. La Fée lies at the heart of the High Tatras Mountains hub of Poprad. But it could have been plucked from a Montparnasse side street, it’s so French.

The menu is French, from its Quiche Lorraine to its mineral water. The service is French: it’s elegant, it’s respectful, it’s knowledgeable. The wine served is French. The cafe is still very new (it only opened in late 2012) so in this respect it is perhaps a little less French, but the place has been done tastefully to avoid the unfortunate ‘furniture showroom’ look a lot of totally refurbished restaurants have. It is not French in its prices, either (its coffees are under 2 Euros, its cakes are under 3 Euros, even a quiche will set you back less than 4 Euros). But in every other respect, Frenchness exudes throughout.

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Image ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

When I kick back with a coffee in a cafe, I like to do so with the intent of lingering a long while. I linger for the atmosphere, I linger for courteous service and I linger because I like to be allowed to linger. On all three counts, La Fée scores highly. Outside the pavement-fronting terrace is most popular but inside the conservatory-style outer room catches the best of the day’s light and would be perfect for when the weather is less clement than it was on my visit there. Here and around the counter (decorated with those legendary writerly names) is where the loners coveting caffeine fixes and the families on a proper a few hours of “cafe downtime” frequent: there are some sofas to encourage them in this. Getting the oldest of the waiters (pictured above) to serve you would secure you the dream Poprad cafe experience but being attended to by any of the friendly waitresses is no bad thing: they’ll explain the cake menu, for example, which changes daily as each of the fabulous cakes here is fresh, and takes several minutes due to the sheer variety. When I stopped by the last time it was a tough tussle between the Crème brûlée and the lemon and raspberry cheesecakes. But service complete, you’ll be allowed to linger as long as you want – and people do. 

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Image ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

La Fée (translating from French as the fairy, and indeed perhaps bestowing a certain magic on Poprad’s prime shopping street) is an anomaly in a sense, of course. Despite defiantly stamping on Poprad an air of timeless sophistication, perhaps what it illustrates more than anything is how Poprad is no longer the sleeping giant relying on its proximity to some sublime mountain scenery to pull in the punters – how it is very much a destination in itself, and how the wining and dining to be done around town (framed by those photogenic peaks) is a big part of the appeal.

 

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 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

 

MAP LINK:

LOCATION: Right on Námestie Svätého Egidia (number 114) next to the new Forum shopping centre (ooh, it’s all so glitzy and new).

FACEBOOK:

OPENING: 10am-10pm daily

BEST TIME TO VISIT: Come in the sun, any time, when you’ve got a spot of time to linger: after a long mountain leg-stretch, perhaps

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From La Fée it’s 2.3km northwest to Restart, one of the best new places for evening eating and drinking in Poprad

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©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Kava.Bar

Wifi: Good.

I ducked in out of the afternoon murk of Obchodná, one of Bratislava’s main shopping streets, the other day, into the convivial warmth of the Martinus Bookstore.  As I slurped a coffee in their street front cafe, watching the trams creak by and perusing my Slovak for Beginners book, I noticed that the menu claimed the establishment I was drinking in was striving to recreate the atmosphere of those Parisian cafes of the 1920s – a platform for animated discussion and creative thought, etcetera. Interesting. But there’s a lot of cafes making claims these days. One stop up on the number 5 tram in the direction of Dubravka, Kava.Bar is perhaps most refreshing because it makes no claims whatsoever. It just quietly goes about serving some of the city’s best coffee, in an unpretentious street corner location on the way up to the castle.

The view out ©englishmaninslovakia.com

View out ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

So effortlessly serving coffee that is concocted with skill rather than a “close your eyes, press the button of the expensive Italian machine and hope” approach is not as straightforward as you might imagine. Many times over the last few months, in cities that purport to have a coffeehouse culture far greater than Bratislava’s (Budapest, Vienna) I have been served, with the sombre theatrics of airs-and-graces bow-tied waiters in ornate chandelier-hung surrounds which prepare you for food and drink far better, coffee that is barely acceptable, and that – were it not for the fact that I was in those coffeehouses where you need to behave – is 100% returnable. Kava.Bar brews espressos thick with crema, and macchiatos where the milk enhances the flavour of the coffee rather than concealing the fact it has not been made well enough.

Bratislava’s cafe scene reached a peak probably some time during 2014. The closure of Prešporák that winter brought it down again a few notches. It’s somewhere like Kava.Bar that seems set to get in back to that pinnacle.

Blackboard art… ©englishmaninslovakia.com

Blackboard art… ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Black-and-white Art Deco-esque tiled floor, big blackboards, displaying intricate sketches and fun messages, championing daily specials, just a cluster of small iron tables but plenty of higher-up window seat perches: Kava.Bar is definitely not about main meals and much more about people watching with a cake, quiche or beverage (they also make really nice tea, plus the joint lends itself well to a glass of good wine in the evening).

It’s not quite designed for lingering like the city’s best cafe of recent years, Prešporák, was. They would certainly never claim their coffee was the equal of Hangout Cafe’s and there’s none of the cafe-for-the-masses feel of Panta Rhei’s Café Dias or the amenable mini coffee chain atmosphere of Stur. Kava.Bar is a proudly independent joint that merely tries to be itself, and does well at it. Its location, on the main route up to Bratislava Castle, will always win it visits (although currently it doesn’t appear to be receiving as many as it deserves). But it has the added merit of having more extensive opening hours than a lot of the other cafes around. I don’t know how they manage to get up so early on Sunday mornings, actually. But I’m very glad they do.

I’m just not sure about the name… it sounds a little too modern. When inside, in fact, kava.bar is much more akin to those Parisian cafes of old that other places wax lyrical about emulating.

MAP LINK:

LOCATION: Right on the corner of Zamocká and Skalná, just over the dual carriageway from the old town centre.

OPENING: 8am-10pm daily

BEST TIME TO VISIT: A wintry Sunday morning when almost every other good place for coffee is shut.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Kava.bar it’s a 600m walk southwest to Bratislava Castle, one of the city’s best viewpoints

Obývačka

It’s a fairly simple, but mind-blowingly effective recipe. Take breakfast (three-cheese omelette, eggy bread or pancakes, perhaps, alongside one of Bratislava’s best possibilities for a good macchiato). Take lunch (maybe the Obývačka special, a tasting platter of aubergine dip, feta, olives, grilled courgette, shrimps and a dash of chilli). Take dinner (the chicken and mozerella salad or the grilled river fish cooked in saffron and white wine sauce are simplistic and divine, but just a standard salad is crisp and complemented by at least three types of leaf when Slovakia’s standard is precisely no leaves whatsoever). Mix well into one effortlessly fluid, incredibly informal blend that begins with the early morning commuters and culminates with the afterwork partiers and the romantic dinner seekers.

Obývačka, which translates into English as “living room” or “living space” is, above all, relaxed. The ethos is clearly the “cosy” Slovak eatery of old mixed with a liberal smattering of youthful, trendy Bohemia. Typical Slovak cuisine, in other words, made somewhat cooler by good coffee, healthy salads, gluten-free options, decent wine and all those bright young twenty-somethings gabbing either downstairs or up top. It’s a rarity for an eatery to follow through from breakfast to lunch to dinner and come up trumps in all departments and the laid-back attitude (the staff are young, multi-lingual and eager to help or recommend the ever-changing specials) is key to this.

Let us contextualise, as we ever need to do in Slovakia. It’s not every cafe-bar-restaurant that opens for breakfast, let alone decent breakfasts with good espresso. It’s not every trendy lunch stop that offers such good-value lunches. Creative salads and good wine are far from being ubiquitous, even in Bratislava. Friendly, courteous service at dinner is not a guarantee. And the Obývačka-like interior – a bar hung with beads, retro wallpaper covered with flowers (in the design of the typical rural krčmy, or pubs, only more hip), an upstairs decorated in opened books, their pages rustling in the breeze – is conducive to lingering. One could go so far as to say it comes closest to providing anything approaching Slovak fusion cuisine in Bratislava. And it’s brightening up the ever-more lively Dunajska street in an area of town the average visitor wouldn’t stroll into unless, well, unless Englishmaninslovakia had recommended it, really…

Nothing in Obývačka is stand-out. There are better restaurants around. But for the price-quality trade-off (meals here are all between 4 and 9 Euros, about mid-range for Bratislava) – and particularly for their decent range of gluten-free options, the Old Town has few better places. And of course everything is very, very cosily convivial. Much like your living room, really.

MAP LINK

LOCATION: Dunajská 54: that’s the street leading west from the big city-centre Tesco’s. Head three blocks west on Dunajska and you’ll see it. The website is Slovak-only but staff speak good English.

OPENING: 8am until 11pm (Monday to Thursday), 8am-1am (Friday), 11am-1am (Saturday) and 11am-11pm (Sunday)

BEST TIME TO VISIT: Mid- to late evening, say around 8:30pm, for a glass of wine, then dinner and more drinks.

BEST DISH: The zubáč (a freshwater fish) in our humble opinion – pictured above in a saffron and pine nut garnish.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: 600m southwest of Obývačka is Tulip House Boutique Hotel

Poprad: Restart

I returned to Poprad for the first time in almost a year the other day, but this article is nothing about turning over a new leaf, wiping the slate clean or any sort of spiritual journey: it’s about burgers. More specifically, it’s about the hottest new burger joint in town. Restart is emblematic of a new breed of eateries in the capital of the High Tatras – establishments that catapult the place dangerously close to being a culinary beacon in the east of Slovakia. And Poprad on a sunny late spring day did indeed seem pleasant (simmering if not over-boiling with animated cafes and packed restaurants). Of which Restart was one.

Whilst as a post title Restart conjures a certain mystique the name puts one off. Me at least. I’m not a fan of the trend in Slovakia to give English names to restaurants and bars just because it’s cool. Slovak is a language with few enough to champion its cause: nothing wrong with a Slovak name (Ludevít Štúr would be turning in his grave). But even the codifier of the Slovak language would be impressed by what goes on behind the pink-beige 19th century facade of this gourmet burger stop in the attractive Vel’ka district.

The idea? A Slovak interpretation of posh American fast food. And name aside, the feel is very modern-Slovak. There is a nod to the cosy “obývačka” or living room vibe – you know, battered armchairs, old standard lamps, framed paintings, antique furniture. But the staff? Modern Slovak. Young, true, but really caring about the menu and the dining experience. Some even speak English. The other diners? Modern Slovak. Youthful again, contributing to a bubbly but sophisticated ambience. One of the most striking things about Restart, indeed, is how full it always is. If you want to hang here with the bright young things of Poprad over your burger and fries, you’ll need to book, particularly in the evenings.

And the food? Just really very high quality burgers (all between 4 and 6 Euros). High quality, and high on the plate. Veritably teetering towers of bread-capped meat. Each of the signature burgers is dosed full of a homemade sauce which themes the filling. The Swiss, which uses a mushroom salsa to complement the smoked ham and Swiss cheese. The Teriyaki, which hooked me, and used a Restart version of the Japanese soy sauce dressing to sit with the gouda, crisped bacon and avocado (it works). There’s a Tennessee triple cheese burger with a Jack Daniels-based sauce that I’ve already eyed up for the next visit. I would have liked to see a better range of beers (although the standard Zlaty Bažant was available) – with maybe a few of the Slovak start-up breweries featured – perhaps one area to work on. Anyway. You’re not coming here to experience traditional Slovak cuisine, you’re coming here to see how a city like Poprad is evolving and exuding a quiet self-confidence, and how young entrepreneurs have turned the once-staid Slovak eating scene on its head.

Maybe Štúr would quit rolling over in his grave and just go order a Teriyaki burger with a side of fat hand-cut fries. Typically Slovak, that. Curious for the new, yet finding the tried-and-tested comforting.

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 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

 

MAP LINK

LOCATION: in Poprad’s Vel’ka district north of Poprad Tatry railway station. In the evenings, especially at weekends, it’s good to reserve: call (00421) 918 305 001

OPENING: 12 midday-10pm Sunday to Thursday, 12 midday-12 midnight Friday/Saturday

BEST TIME TO VISIT: Check it out on a Friday or Saturday evening, booking a table for perhaps 8-ish, to see the place buzzing.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: Heading 2.4km southeast you reach Poprad’s AquaCity, one of Eastern Europe’s coolest (and yet hottest, as it is geothermally heated) waterparks

Around Modra: Goulash Karma at Furmanská Krčma

There are fancy Italian restaurants. There are up-and-coming microbreweries. But when all is said and done, there is one Slovak eating experience that stands out from all the rest, and that’s a trip to one of the rustic krčmy – pubs, basically.

What are they exactly and why do they stand out? Well, pub should be translated in the loosest possible sense (there are precious few specialty beers here). A krčma in its urban form is a traditional drinking den, pure and simple. But out in the sticks, the krčma is invariably transformed – at least in destinations popular with outdoors-lovers – into a cosy wooden wilderness retreat with roaring fires and just the kind of food you want to wolf down at the end of an arduous hike (the beer is still overly frothy and more often than not Zlaty Bažant but no one seems to mind).  It metamorphoses, in short, into what should be the pin-up for Slovak cuisine: a quality stodge stop with a fire, a sweet aroma of woodsmoke and a damned fine view.

There are a few of these celebrated krčma stodge stops across Slovakia – with a charming rustic wood exterior, smouldering log fires inside and an out-of-the-way, often forested location as common features. The out-of-the-way-ness usually prevents foreign tourists from ever finding out about them, which – due to their afore-mentioned place at the summit of the hierarchy of Slovak eating experiences – is a shame. Depending on where you find yourself, there are a ton of such places I could recommend. But for now I want to focus on one of the very best, and that is Furmanská Krčma above the small town of Modra (famous for its connection with the number one national hero Ľudovít Štúr, but that’s another story and another post).

Serendipity…

The best thing about Furmanská Krčma is that you never expect it to be there in the first place. After all, it’s on a something-to-nothing road over the middle of the Malé Karpaty, or the Small Carpathians hills – it’s not in a national park where you would expect such friendly wayside hostelries.

Forge up into the woods about 5km above Modra on what is now quite a good and busy road until you reach the summit of this particular Malé Karpaty ridge and, just where the trees seem thickest, Furmanská Krčma appears, in a cleared area of forest that actually contains a beguiling complex of buildings – all of the steeply-pitched roof log cabin variety.

A Historical Footnote…

This is the small community of Piesok. It has an intriguing history. It was one of those parts of Western Slovakia which, back in the age of the Hungarian empire, was blessed with an inundation of German settlers who came at the request of the Hungarian ruling elite to ignite the farming industry, much like Limbach outside of Bratislava, although it appears this particular community of Germans came much later (19th century). Under Communism Piesok also had an important role. It was one of the youth learning/holiday camps of which there are several across Slovakia and one can’t help but feel a tug of sadness as one strolls through the pine trees to the idyllic Handsel-and-Gretel-esque chaty (cottages) that once thrived with life (kids learned about nature here and there used to be several penzións) and are now often neglected.

On the Bright Side…

This is not to imply, of course, that Piesok is a lifeless place. People come here now with different motivations. The visitors are almost all Slovaks – so “outsiders” that make it here will feel a certain sense of having discovered the undiscovered. As well as Furmanská Krčma, there’s the top-end hotel of Zochava chata on the other side of the road that in fact are owners of the krčma (Zochava – named after Samuel Zoch, first commissioner of Bratislava after the establishment of Czechoslovakia). It’s a very nice hotel – tucked away from the road somewhat and recently refurbished, and I’d love to write more about it. I keep meaning to stay there, so I will then – as for now I have neither the time nor the money. Not having the money is why most folks seem to favour Furmanská Krčma over the hotel as a place to eat, but there’s also something very genuine and down-to-earth about partaking of a beer and hot traditional grub in the atmospheric rusticity of this krčma. Ultimately, if I am going to be eating typical Slovak food, I don’t want to be doing it in a modern hotel. I want to be doing it in place with a toasty old ceramic oven, a smouldering fire, oak beams and old farming implements on the walls. Why? Because it complements the cuisine.

It’s true that there’s been a bit of a refurbishment at old Furmanská Krčma which – depending on your viewpoint – either improved or slightly marred the ambience.  If you check the website (in Slovak only) you’ll see the camera panning around a distinctly more rustic space – with just rough wooden tables. It’s been refurbished (and differently) for a few years now, and makes no secret of catering to an “upmarket” crowd. If it was left to me I’d have taken Furmanská Krčma, as was: but the advantage is that the menu is now a lot more versatile: Slovak food with panache, if you will.

Inside Furmanska Krcma ©englishmaninslovakia.com

The Food

One of the most critical elements of typical Slovak food, of course, is the soup. Take away the soup from most lunch time meal deals and there would probably be a national revolt. Furmanská Krčma obligingly rustles up a couple of classic soups, any of which will set you back 3-4 Euros. Our first recommendation? Their delicious kapustnica (that is the best I’ve tasted in Slovakia apart from that rustled up in the kitchen of my friends’ mother). Secondly? Their feisty herb-infused local game gulaš (goulash) served with nigh-on a loaf of bread (if you thought goulash was solely Hungarian think again – this country made up a significant part of the Hungarian empire and Slovaks know how to make a classic goulash – their ancestors were probably the ones serving it to Hungarian nobility half the time).

The main courses are themed around furmanský platters, or coachmen’s platters. I think this has about the same significance as a ploughman’s salad in the UK. Original coachmen’s platters, back in the day when Piesok would have been an important staging post and horse-changing point on the route through the mountains, would have been far different. The significance now is more”large-sized and with meat” than anything else. Thus furmanský halušky are dumplings that come with a hearty klobasa (sausage) and the proper coachmen’s plate consists of numerous grilled meats and potatoes (16 Euros). The šulance here is also divine. This is hunger-busting food but it is also cooked with aplomb – it’s one of the top five in Slovakia for traditional tasty Slovak food that’s served in the rustic environs it should be served in.

The food is getting to that point where you think “that had better be good if I’m paying this price” because the menu bracket (14-20 Euros) is expensive for rural Slovakia (the deer with cranberries is certainly overpriced, for example). But I’m going to stick my neck out there and say it’s worth forking out for. Because you’re getting a microcosm of Slovak weekend life here. Inside it’s the traditional restaurant. But outside are the hiking/cycling trails to work up your appetite on and everyone, from meandering families to hardcore mountain bikers, is out there doing it, relishing what Slovakia excels in providing above all: a hefty portion of the Great Outdoors.

Because you are bang in the middle of the best of the Malé Karpaty here. Heading west, you can be within the vicinity of Bratislava in just over a half day’s walk (via Stage Three of the Štefanikova Magistrala, which also leads invitingly north-east from here to Bradlo en route (thereafter under the guise of the Cesta Hrdinov SNP, to Trenčin): the access point for the trail in either direction is a short walk up from Piesok at Čermák. You can also hike down to Modra from here, via the intriguing L’udovit Štúr trail, in about 2.5 hours.  Heading east? Aha, that’s going to be the subject of a post very soon: a walk involving old castles and one of the very best views in this whole hill range, by climbing what you see below…

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

Places to Go: L’udovit Štúr’s Modra

Places to Go/Shops: Modra’s fascinating ceramics

Places to Go: Hiking up in the hills above Modra all the way to Bratislava (the Štefánikova magistrála, stage three)

Places to Stay: Modra’s ceramic-themed hotel

© englishmaninslovakia.com

© englishmaninslovakia.com

 

MAP LINK: (notice the bottom of the map has the edge of Modra on; it has to be zoomed to this level to show the details of the buildings; Furmanská Krčma is directly opposite Zochava Chata hotel at the bottom end of the large parking area).

OPENING: Thursday-Sunday, late morning-10pm

BEST TIME TO VISIT: A winter’s mid- to late-afternoon, after the first fall of snow, when the small ski slope is working and you’ve finished your walk through the woods and are in need of sustenance.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: Tired after a hike and not refreshed by a hearty Slovak bite? Descend out of the hills and head 63km northeast to sample Piešťany’s best patisserie then sooth yourself in the spas there…

The Train Station Cafe – Vestiges of Old Glamour

Wifi: Non-existent  (regrettably, given the name of the joint)

On a visit to Budapest recently I was reminded again of just how many glamorous cafes of old there are in the city – Ruszvurm near the castle, for instance, that Austrian Empress Elizabeth used to send for cakes from, or New York Cafe, that all the famous turn-of-the-century Hungarian writers like Ferenc Molnár once hung out in.

Bratislava cannot really boast such a pedigree of coffee houses – not ones with this kind of colourful history. On Hlavné Námestie there is Kaffee Mayer (which, it is true, used to count among its patrons the colourful city character Schöner Náci – statue outside the doors). There is the nearby Caffe Roland. And these cafes do admittedly lend a touch of that bygone elegance – but the ambience is someone detracted from by the numbers of tourists and the service as frosty as a layer of wedding cake icing.

But there is a touch of that bygone cafe glamour of old – just a touch – in the unlikeliest of Bratislava locales. Yes, the otherwise shabby Hlavná Stanica, Bratislava’s main railway station. The station forecourt might be a mass of decrepit snack stands but, up the steps by the departures/arrivals screen and next to the Slovenská Sporitel’ňa bank ATM, there is the inconspicuous, unassuming and somewhat puzzlingly named Caffe Internet.

Its name, one imagines, was not always thus – and, as the ailing computer terminal has now been removed – should perhaps no longer be. But there are the worn leather-upholstered booths, the ancient dark wood furniture, the stately old mirrors, the swinging chandeliers and the ceiling with the motif of an eagle alighting on a globe – trappings from another very different age. The service, a stoic old lady who gets confused if you order much above coffee or a beer, is not reminiscent of the glory days. But something in the ambience certainly is.  The ghosts of train travellers of yore, you feel, flit around the walls of this place. A shadowy bowler-hatted character from a Graham Greene novel could be behind the unfurled newspaper someone – who knows who? – at the next booth is holding aloft.

And the thing about Caffe Internet is that you are obliged to pass by its creaking old doors when you get your train out of (or into) Bratislava. It’s my most-visited coffee shop in the entire city for that reason. So take the extra twenty minutes out to stop in for a cup of the fairly decent espresso and imagine yourself transported decades back to train travel at the height of its sophistication – when young men of means took their “Grand Tours” to Austro-Hungary and when waiters in restaurant cars wore suits. It’s a step up from the disconsolate Pumpkin cafe chain that peppers many railway stations in the UK, at least…

MAP LINK:

LOCATION: Hlavná Stanica railway station.

OPENING: About 6am-9pm daily

BEST TIME TO VISIT: Any time you need to take a train…

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Bratislava’s Hlavná Stanica station, it’s a 2km walk north to Kamzík, at which point you are all set to embark on a pilgrimage to Marianka

The Tea Tent in Medická Záhrada

Wifi: None.

The first time. It’s important, right? On my first time – with the tea tent in Medická Záhrada, that is – a bare-footed, bearded man engaged me in an interesting discussion about birdwatching in Slovakia: besides recommending then serving me with a very good iced tea…

It’s illustrative of the ease – the slightly Bohemian, but very serene ease – with which “Tvoja Čajovna” (your teahouse) has operated, now, for several years.

In Medická Záhrada, possibly Bratislava’s best-kept city park (Záhrada means garden), this double marquee (the larger of the two tents is for sitting, in far-Eastern style on the floor or cushions, and sipping; the smaller of the two is for the kitchen) announces the start of summer proper when it opens its doors – or perhaps more accurately lifts its flaps – at the beginning of May. And it does so in the gentlest, least assuming way that a place which by now has the deserved status of a city institution possibly could.

It would be easy for Tvoja Čajovna to put on grand airs (being quite simply the city’s nicest eatery to be actually enclosed within a park) or to serve unappealing Slovak stodge for food (it serves healthy platters of hummus, pita bread and salad) or indeed to charge high prices for the privilege of the beautiful location (they don’t).

Instead this veritable encampment (because there’s also two other covered drinking/dining areas separate from the main tent) concentrates on attentive service: particularly where tea is concerned. You can even order a Japanese tea ceremony here!

©englishmaninslovakia.com

©englishmaninslovakia.com

It’s not Bratislava’s finest čajovna, but when you factor in the location, and the beautiful Moroccan-style interior, it’s also not that far off. And when the sun beats down in the 35-degree midday summer heat, it’s the best place to cool off – whilst remaining relatively sophisticated:)

Relevant civic authority: don’t screw up and make it hard for Tvoja Čajovna to return next year, OK?

MAP LINK:

OPENING: 10pm-around 8pm May until October – in fair or good weather only (so don’t come here hoping for shelter in a thunderstorm)

BEST TIME TO VISIT: A sweltering hot June lunchtime

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: 4km east of Medická Záhrada is the neighbourhood of Ružinov

Trnava: A Touch of 1920’s Paris at Thalmeiner

There are a few things that can really make a regional town proudly independent from its big city rivals. A thriving arts scene (a theatre, perhaps), a particular point of interest… or just maybe an exceptional restaurant or cafe. Such things can create a buzz, generate an aurora of sophistication, stick a middle finger up at the big city and say “thanks, but we can do very nicely without you.”

Trnava, on paper, on your map as you unfurl it in the car on the drive east out of Bratislava, is a regional town: it’s close enough to Bratislava to commute for locals, it is not far enough away from Bratislava to waylay tourists with limited time bound for the wilder adventures of the Slovak mountains beyond. On paper. The tourist board makes much of the town’s exceptional churches, quite rightly, as a way of attracting visitors. But perhaps Trnava’s most obvious attraction is staring everyone in the face, gracing the side of the main square there: one of Slovakia’s most elegant cafes. One which will impress you even when compared to Bratislava’s, or indeed Vienna’s selection of coffeehouses.

I walked through the door of Thalmeiner and I was transported: the stylish Art Deco-style prints on the walls, the abstract tiled tabletops, the burnished brass old coffee roaster, the suave waiters. This is the type of joint far-bigger cities than Trnava (Bratislava and London included) would love to covet and no wonder – I can think of very few places in Bratislava or in London to compare with here. Thalmeiner transplanted to either place would be overcrowded, with weary, curt staff and probably queues out the door. And when I go in someplace for coffee, I don’t want curt staff or queues. I want to lose myself in the atmosphere, people-watch, order a damned good macchiato, and sketch out a scene in my novel, write that article or that shopping list without hassle but with a smidgeon of the old-fashioned glamour so regrettably absent from the world these days. Which makes Thalmeiner and me pretty well suited.

The Decor…  

One would be content to sit quite some time without even ordering, and just checking out the decor. Thalmeiner’s specific and finely-honed style is an intelligent Art Deco-ising with its original artwork: even the town’s water tower is made into an iconic print here, with a larger-than-life chess piece advancing across an imaginary board in front of it. Or take the cafe’s flagship image: a thundering old steam engine with a cup of coffee emblazoned across the foreground and a sign proclaiming “EXPRESS” (a clever play on old express trains and espresso). The gleaming old coffee grinding machine might waylay you on the way in, too, as will choosing your nigh-on obligatory cake from the counter.

The Vibe…

I took a pew out back in the covered leafy courtyard, because there were no seats free in the main part. I took a look around me. What I liked was that clearly all types of Trnava folks (not just the law students or the middle-class artsy types) were descending on Thalmeiner for their caffeine fix. Not that there weren’t a fair few intense-looking younguns tap-tapping away on their laptops, there were. But there was none of the cliquishness that exists in some cafes and bars intent on creating a certain ambience: there were grizzled locals, too, even a group of very macho-looking men you wouldn’t expect to see in any type of place other than the nearest krčma (pub)! The service overall? Ultra-professional and friendly, rather than over-the-top and condescending.

The Coffee – Presentation Honed to a Fine Art

And when that coffee comes – ah! Presentation, as with everything else at Thalmeiner, is integral down to the finest insignia on the saucer.

Drinks come on chunky silver cups with more of the Art Deco imagery on the sides. The condiments are all Thalmeiner-brand. A glass of water and a small chocolate cake come with the coffee.

I always look forward with relish to that moment when the fruitiness of a well-made coffee hits the back of your tongue, and Thalmeiner, unlike many places that make far greater claims, does not disappoint. The crema here is soupy-thick but the taste doesn’t go overboard with the bitterness. But it is strong enough to leave the sipper needing to take their time (perhaps that is the intention).

The coffee on offer each week at Thalmeiner changes, too, to keep you on your toes, and at least one brew on the menu will be roasted by Slovak coffee roaster, Komarno-based Green Plantation (thus the coffee is always fresh-roasted).

©englishmaninslovakia.com

The Extra Mile…

Perhaps it’s giving that extra thought into how they source their ingredients which is what I was most impressed by at Thalmeiner. They make an evident effort to utilise local suppliers and local recipes for their cakes and sandwiches (a nice touch) and, in the absence of local produce, they at least try to be a bit ecological about where they get their food from (for example, those with a sweet tooth will, like me, also be tempted by Thalmeiner’s hot chocolate – with chocolate sourced from the Mexican plantations).

At any rate, what is guaranteed at Thalmeiner is a sophisticated respite from the real world, with the whiff of glamour in that decor of theirs redolent of… Well. Surely it’s not just writers who get excited about coffeehouses that hark back to those Montparnasse cafes of 1920s Paris? You know, ornate interior, Bohemian types scraping together their last few centimes to buy the next drink that will eke out their stay, animated conversation, ideas being formed…

MAP LINK: (it’s on Trojičné námestie – number 4)

OPENING HOURS: 8am-10pm Monday to Thursday, 8am-midnight Friday, 10am-midnight Saturday, 10am-10pm Sunday.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Thalmeiner it’s 46km south-east to another of Slovakia’s best cafes, the Antikvariat in Nitra.

Košice: Fairytale Breakfast

I’m not (for once) using artistic licence. Raňajkáreň Rozprávka means just that: a fairytale breakfast joint. This cute little brunch stop on the back streets of Košice even invented the word “raňajkáreň” – as a cukráreň serves cakes, is the idea, so a raňajkáreň specialises in breakfasts. Good breakfasts. This place, in fact, gives itself over utterly to breakfast (although it stays open until 8pm). If this is the birth of a new craze in Slovakia, so be it – although I rather think that Raňajkáreň Rozprávka is likely to hold the monopoly on the concept. Because the plethora of original breakfast options they offer (and the atmosphere in which they offer them) begs the question “why, if you want a breakfast fix in Košice, would you go anywhere else?”

We arrived on a hot Friday afternoon when Raňajkáreň Rozprávka was in the process of making itself that little bit more enticing to passersby: laying turf on the alleyway outside the main entrance so that you’re effectively walking across a small field as you walk passed the door. And who doesn’t want to stop off for coffee or cake in a small field in the middle of a city?

Raňajkáreň Rozprávka is half-way down the quirky little alleyway of Hrnčiarska, which has been in recent years converted into a series of traditional handicrafts shops (a potter’s, a jeweller’s etc). It’s already a step back in time. Enter the environs of this “raňajkáreň” and you’ll think yourself properly in another world of fantasy breakfasts – where combinations of almost anything go: particularly the freshly-squeezed juices (nicely rounded off with a dose of cinnamon). Add then the breakfasts themselves (fresh vegetable or fruit salads, cheese plates and of course the muffins and cakes) and finally the decor (surreal fairy-tale city inside, and a serene little street cafe garden outside, not to mention the corridor of books on the way to the toilets) and you have, quite simply, Košice’s most out-of-this-world breakfast joint. The coffee is a cut above anything you would get on the bigger restaurants on the main square too.

Given they’ve gone out of the way to make this a breakfast place it’s perhaps surprising they stay open as long as they do (because all the customers come in the morning/early afternoon for brunch). But Raňajkáreň Rozprávka makes this little street more special; special enough that you might just end up preferring it as a place to hang to the main square – yes, even though you won’t be next to the musical fountain.

A Quick Guide to the Other Content We Have on Košice

Places to Go: Climbing Košice cathedral

Places to Go: Unsung charms and legends: insights into Košice city centre

Places to Go/Events & Festivals: Slovakia’s Famed Film Festival Arrives in Košice to Stay

Places to Stay: The city’s first ‘eco-hotel’

Places to Eat & Drink: THE bistro to be seen at in Košice

Getting Around: Košice’s flight connections

Getting Around: Quirky Košice city tours

Musings: The Definition of ‘Discussed’

 

MAP LINK: 

OPENING:

BEST TIME TO VISIT: Lazy late morning at a weekend for brunch

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY:

LAST UPDATED: April 2017

Štúr (the Cafe)

Wifi: Good.

I like cafes. And perhaps part of the reason I like them, over, let’s say, restaurants, is because I like sitting in them with a coffee and a laptop, eking away hours stealing subtle glances at newcomers to see if they could become characters in my next book, or will at least add some interesting colour to the article I’m working on (all things that are very hard to do in restaurants). Looking like a writer in them, basically.

In a cafe like Štúr that’s easy. The very theme of the joint is, after all, the father of the Slovak language, Ľudovít Štúr (Shtoor, as it mistakenly gets spelt by some, is NOT the correct way of writing it). Štúr is Slovakia’s national hero, but unlike most national heroes he did not heroically prove himself in some conflict or other. Štúr’s war was with words. That was the crusade he fought. The crusade – whilst Slovakia was a reluctant but increasingly proud and distinct part of the Hungarian Empire – to get Slovak recognised as a language.

RELATED POST: MODRA: THE L’UDOVĺT ŠTÚR TOUR (coming soon!)

Štúr the cafe has been successful enough to build up its own mini-coffee-chain in Bratislava – a novel thing in itself for a city which, to its credit, has none of the soulless international coffeeshop chains like Starbucks. I always patronised the original branch on Panská (pictured above, alas now as you will see this image will become a piece of cafe history), sitting at street level as close to the huge bearded likeness of Ľudovít as I could in order to gaze out at the crowds milling about on the cobbles. Yet, in the rapidly evolving world of Bratislava’s cafes, this branch has lamentably closed. Nevertheless, the caffeine tinted gleam on the horizon is that the mini-chain’s two other locations in the city centre are wonderful: near the Tulip House Boutique Hotel at Štúrova 8 (nice touch to have it on the namesake street) and, better yet, in the former location of Bistro St Germain in an atmospheric little courtyard back from Obchodná 17 (very peaceful and cosy). Map links below!

I certainly think that the Slovak national hero would have approved of the Štúr the cafe. You can usually tell a good cafe from its unassuming facade, in my experience, and the old-fashioned pink-brown sign with Štúr’s solemn countenance staring balefully through the window glass is the very antithesis of flashy (this is also the reason those not in the know might stroll by it oblivious). The waitresses that take your order are effortlessly urbane and welcoming simultaneously which lends the cafe a cosmopolitan feel. You don’t feel bad nursing your delicious espresso a couple of hours. No one will tell you it’s time to move on (even though the place does get busy and tables do fill up). The decor is simple, yet beautiful wooden chairs and tables are evocative of a decade – maybe quite a few ago now – of glamorous cafes frequented by artists, and writers of course, and people who thrashed out ideas as they hung out with drinks. And Štúr would undoubtedly approve of how the menu is laid out: in old Slovak, or in other words the nation’s language as he established it (none of the Czech-, German- or English-isms Slovak has today).

Regular double espresso is 2.20 Euros but there are some fancier, sweeter Štúr specials for only a fraction more (iced caramel and vanilla latte, as an example). Of the light lunches available, we love the cheese and spinach quiche most, whilst the cake selection (normally at least three types of cheesecake, including a chocolate one, and a divine lemon cake) will waylay you as you pass the counter on the way in long enough to have queues building up outside.

Štúr was 200 years old in 2015. Honour him with a visit here!

Štúr the Cafe’s Current Locations in Bratislava Old Town:

1:Right near the Tulip House Boutique Hotel, at (appropriately) Štúrova 8… MAP LINK TO ŠTÚROVA BRANCH

2: Bratislava’s cool mini coffee chain has also recently nabbed a very cool location – in those old premises of Bistro St Germain, in an idyllic little alley-courtyard off Obchodná (No. 17). In my view it was a mistake for Bistro St Germain to let this premises go.. MAP LINK TO OBCHODNÁ BRANCH

OPENING: – 8am-midnight Monday to Friday, 9am-midnight weekends

BEST TIME TO VISIT: – Any time in daylight: not because it’s dangerous afterwards, but because daylight shows up the place for what it is: a wonderful street cafe with an eye out on the bustling activity of the city centre.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY:  25 metres further down from Štúr the Cafe’s Obchodná branch (following Obchodná, that is) and you’ll hit the crossroads with Poštova: from here it’s another 25 metres north up to the Panta Rhei bookshop/cafe and 40 metres north to the Austria Trend Hotel or, one block further down Obchodná, a full 50 metres from Štúr the Cafe’s Obchodná branch, there is the cool Bratislavský Meštiansky Pivovar.

Verne

It’s always the way, right? You come to a beautiful city centre, you see the key sights and then you build up a thirst – or even a hunger – for after all, being a tourist or a traveller or a wanderer or whatever word you choose to use for it is, sometimes, draining. And of course when you are in afore-mentioned city centre in x country you realise nearly all the places to eat are fearfully expensive, devoid of atmosphere and certainly devoid of locals: the last places, if you are anything like me, that you would ever wish to eat.

This is where a joint like Verne comes in. You’ve come down to the Old Town through the beautiful Michael’s Gate, taken a picture (for some reason) of the compass on the cobbles, checked out each of the quirky statues in the city centre (like the bronze man emerging from the manhole) and amiably strolled through those gorgeous medieval central squares. You’re bang in the centre of things and you want lunch (or indeed dinner). Verne is there to help out… if, that is, you want your city centre meal to be the opposite of what’s described above (i.e. somewhere reasonably priced, brimming with ambience and always bustling with local clientele.

Verne is on the north side of Hviezdoslavovo Námestie, my favourite of Bratislava’s squares because of its length, leafiness and the gorgeous Slovenské Národné Divadlo (Slovak National Theatre) at one end. Its entrance, as with most under-the-tourist-radar places, is not obvious: in the hot weather they have a few tables out front but otherwise you have to descend some steps within an ornate tree-shaded building on either side of two far brasher bar-restaurants that, if you weren’t know, you’d end up in. (Fear not – with the Englishman in Slovakia, you are IN the know.)

I’ve been going to Verne on and off two years now.

This wine was actually pretty good :)

This wine was actually pretty good :)

When you come into the bar area, you’ll see why, too. In its own understated way this place exudes elegance. Namely normal, everyday Bratislava folks tucking into their food in a dimly lit underground dining area that looks a bit like the aftermath of a party in a sumptuous aristocratic house about, say, 1880: old slightly crooked standard lamps, lavish but rumpled tapestried seats, cupboards stocked with old wines that look like they’ve been sitting in the same positions since Slovakia was still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. A carefully orchestrated atmosphere of ailing grandeur, in other words. And, unlike quite a few city restaurants I could mention, people talk here. Conversation fairly ricochets off the beamed ceilings. But the talk is almost 100% locals – families, large groups of friends… it’s a popular ex-pat hangout too (those slightly-drunk older guys speaking about city politics in English loudly at the bar, you know).

Steak on a bed of rice… a Verne staple

Steak on a bed of rice… a Verne staple

The atmosphere is why to come to Verne.

The food is very reasonable price-wise but don’t expect top quality. The steaks are too well-done. The salads are heavy on the grated carrot which reminds one of typical English pub salads (so ask for the feta and tomato salad instead, which Verne does very well).

But there is variety. It’s the ideal place for a breakfast the morning after the night before (good, well-cooked comfort food). The soups are very tasty. The stuffed chicken with mozzerella always goes down a treat. There are a lot of different tasty pasta options (the spinach lasagne is my favourite).  The cooking mixes up the more typical Slovak fare (dumplings, potatoes and sheep’s cheese) with plenty of healthier veggie offerings. The wines? They veer from OK to wince-ably acidic.

But you’re always going to have a good-enough meal here and with prices this cheap and an atmosphere this good, the overall experience is going to be better, and a fair bit more authentic, than anywhere else in this part of Bratislava.

And if you want dinner before heading for a concert at the wonderful Slovak Philharmony or opera at the afore-mentioned Slovak National Theatre, this place is the perfect choice.

MAP LINK: The pinpoint on Google maps goes to Kogo Bar, which doesn’t exist; nevertheless this is the approximate location of Verne

LOCATION: Hviezdoslavovo Námestie 18 – there’s no website (just the Facebook page given above) which means pre-booking is tough. In any case, it’s unnecessary. Verne is a veritable rabbit warren inside with lots of tables, and it’s rare to find it with no free space. So just turn up. This is Bratislava, remember, not London or Paris.

OPENING: 9am-midnight Monday to Friday, 10am-1am Saturday, 10am-midnight Sunday.

BEST TIME TO VISIT: Come in for dinner about 9-9:30pm to find this place at its liveliest – or mid-afternoon/early evening in summer you can grab a pew on the outside tables overlooking the pretty Hviezdoslavovo Námestie.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: Precede a visit to Verne with coffee at Kava.Bar, a 700m walk northwest

Traja Mušketieri

It had been a long time in coming. Circumstances had thwarted us from visiting Traja Mušketieri, Bratislava’s medieval-themed Slovak restaurant, on many an occasion. Now we were to be thwarted no more… although its location, on one of the elegant old back streets behind the Presidential palace, can be hard to find.

As you descend into the vaulted interior to be greeted by courteous waitresses clad in medieval garb you might be forgiven for thinking of the anachronism: the traja mušketieri (aka three musketeers, of course) were 17th century, right, not medieval? OK – so let’s call the theme here “century-old” or “swashbuckling days of yore” perhaps.

As you pull up a pew at one of the heavy-set banquet tables inside, though, you’ll soon start to focus your attention on the food itself. Or let your eyes wander over the swords mounted on the walls, the old tapestries, the very fetching (but definitely medieval-looking) tankards… the cosy old-world charm, in short. And the service – which is anything but medieval. It’s actually one of the things that make the place. These staff are – by Slovakia’s “on a learning curve” standards and by English standards too, which certainly fall in the lower echelons of European table service – profession, polite, friendly and competent. They know the menu, they know which meals to recommend for dietary requirements, they know which wines to recommend for which dishes, they’ll speak English too.

Onto the food. Pretty expensive by the city’s standards but if my bank balance permits I have no problem with paying for the extra quality. I went for a deer in cranberry sauce with chantarelle buns; my dining companion for a thick juicy fillet of steak with those delicious soft-roasted rosemary potatoes Slovakia does so well. The food was really good – those chantarelle buns particularly were divinely fluffy. And for a starter, Traja Mušketieri’s pate is justifiably renowned. What I liked best is that this restaurant is happy to offer Slovak classics with a touch of classy creativity, rather than compromise and have a menu peppered by, say, French dishes which is a trend in many good Bratislava restaurants.

Deer in cranberry sauce with chantarelle buns

Deer in cranberry sauce with chantarelle buns

It was, overall, a really good eating-out experience in Bratislava. What I would say, though, is that I do not understand why you have to pay prices that would not look amiss in a central London restaurant (12-20 Euros for mains) to get good food and courteous service. Because when you start paying much below that in Bratislava (the average main meal cost in the city is probably 5-8 Euros) one of those two essential tests of quality start slipping a little when you’re talking about evening meals. So well done Traja Mušketieri for getting it right, and here’s to hoping more will follow the high standards.

MAP LINK:

LOCATION: Sládkovičova 7 (see the website for map and reservations – although reservations I would say are only necessary on Fridays or Saturdays – the place was only a third full when we were there in mid-evening)

OPENING: 11am-10pm Tuesday to Saturday.

BEST TIME TO VISIT: Mid-evening, around 8-9pm.

LAST UPDATED: April 2017

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: Dined? Time, perhaps, for drinks at Starosloviensky Pivovar, a 600m walk east

Banská Štiavnica: The ‘Weird Woman’

Just as a ship is a woman, so a cafe or bar can be – and a decidedly strange one at that. Weird and wonderful Divná Pani (English translation = “strange lady”) on the main street of Banská Štiavnica’s historic Old Town is an ambassador for a side to this beautiful mountain settlement that many people overlook: its well-established tradition of cool counterculture cafe-bars.

Many people know these days about the Unesco status, the wonderfully preserved medieval Old Town and the local mining legacy (not so many people that the town has lost its charm, but it’s not quite as undiscovered these days: more and more to Slovakia what Český Krumlov is to Czech Republic). But a lot of people use Banská Štiavnica as a weekend escape from the big cities because it combines rural bliss with city sophistication (or at least a relative degree of it). Easter weekend here saw an Icelandic folk-indie band, jazz performances, poetry readings and the like and such a lineup is not exceptional. Venues like here, Archanjel and Artcafe put on tons of great cultural events throughout the year.

But it cannot be denied that of all these, Divná Pani looks wackiest.

People come in just to take pictures then leave again. There are busts of various figures (ancient Greek to Slovak), shelf upon shelf of ancient Austro-Hungarian Empire books, larger-than-life Latin inscriptions, bird-less birdcages and yet garden birds adorning the walls, strings of garlic besides abstract paintings, ship’s portholes displaying champagne and Slovak wine alike, a central rock garden of curios, plants and statues. There is the “literary” end (where you come just to curl up on sofas and bury yourself in the myriad books), a room lined with sofas (see picture) where friends gather amidst Latin inscriptions and more books, the bar (with windows onto the garden) where Banská Štiavnica’s bright young things come, sit and look casually aloof on their laptops, a really nice little kids area and the outside courtyard for the good weather and the dog owners.

The garden

The garden, image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

In a small mountain town Divná Pani does something that isn’t easy: it seems effortlessly cosmopolitan. The clientele is generally a mix of the Slovaks from the bigger cities in the know and on holiday or some discerning group of locals, with whom the to-die for hot chocolate is another big draw. Foreign tourists don’t necessarily find it because it’s not the most obvious of the cafe-bars on this main stretch of Andreja Kmet’a, the continuation of Kammerhofská (the part with the raised pavement on the right as you head uphill to the námestie (central square) just beyond. It’s set back in a recess with its very own chocolate shop outside. The approach is kind of like you are entering some slightly intimidating arcade of tarot card reading stalls, but Divná Pani is not intimidating at all. It’s a place where you can linger for hours and not feel bad about it (Englishmaninslovakia’s kind of place).

And you would want to linger. Regardless of the time of day. Because this place is open for breakfast, lunch, dinner and most of the evening. Whether it’s a breakfast coffee or a late-night glass of wine or three, Divná Pani is your woman (OK, lady). There is food here. Paninis, or maybe some Icelandic caviar… But the stand-out on the menu is the hot chocolate, followed not far behind by the tea. A chilli-infused Colombian hot chocolate, thick with just the right balance of bitterness with sweetness, goes down a treat after a brisk hike in the mountains. As does a pitcher of tea with crushed oranges, lemon, lime and mint. Or if it’s hot, a fruit/veg smoothie of carrot, apple, celery or plum (seriously, it works). The service is courteous. The evening vibe is as animated as the daytime one. If you came here for the fresh mountain air, you’ll probably end up relishing Divná Pani’s drinks – and strangeness – just as much.

 

A Quick Guide to the Other Content we Have on Banská Štiavnica:

Places to Go: Banska Štiavnica’s Kalvaria

Places to Go: Banska Štiavnica’s Mining Museums

Places to Stay: Great Value Banska Štiavnica Accommodation at the Aura

Places to Stay: Banska Štiavnica’s Nicest Guesthouse

Places to Eat & Drink: Banska Štiavnica Streetfood

Traditions: Partaking of the Most Sexually Charged Easter Tradition Ever in Banska Štiavnica

Top Ten Medieval Towns in Slovakia

 

MAP LINK

LOCATION: Andreja Kmet’a 120/8

OPENING: 7:15am-10pm Mon-Thu, 7:15am-midnight Fri, 8am-midnight Sat, 9am-10pm Sun

BEST TIME TO VISIT: Late morning for hot chocolate, mid- to late-evening for wine, caviar and maybe jazz!

THE ONLY DOWNSIDE: Fake flowers, guys! So much attention to detail and yet fake flowers. Lose them, and you’re perfect.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: A 250m walk downhill from the cafe and you reach the coolest street food joint in the whole region, BS Streetfood.

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Poprad: Nine Reasons to Linger

Poprad is the gateway to the High Tatras. Whether you’re coming here by road or rail you’ll have to pass through this sizeable city to those tempting and frankly quite bizarre looking mountains just beyond. And of course the question is: why stop? Why indeed, when there’s the beginnings of a mountain wilderness with scintillating hiking, and climbing – and some pretty exceptional skiing just a half hour’s drive or mountain rail ride away? The question seems more poignant yet when you see Poprad’s centre which, somewhat marred by tasteless ’60’s and ’70’s development, is no Levoča – not, in other words, with a great deal of old-fashioned charm (although in fairness it has been spruced up no end of late and now sports leafy boulevards, revamped museums and a burgeoning pavement cafe culture). But after a concentrated couple of days in Poprad recently, Englishmaninslovakia has come up with a list of Poprad’s plus points – and the list is longer than many might think.

1: Get the Info

Before you rush off into the mountains, it’s worth pausing to find out exactly what you can (and, sometimes, can’t) do there – and Poprad is the fount of all Tatras outdoor activities knowledge. There are several key bases you might want to head to – Ždiar for culture, Tatranská Lomnica for the highest mountains, Starý Smokovec area for some of the main chairlifts up into the mountains proper (and the most abundant accommodation) or Štrbské Pleso for the biggest ski resort, great hiking and that cherry on the cake of Tatras Hotels, Grand Hotel Kempinski. Do you, for example, want to go husky sledding? Would you like to stay in fancy accommodation or huddle in a mountain house? Do you like hanging from a chain off a precipice or not?

The answers to all these and more will influence where you want to end up, and Poprad’s perfect for providing answers. You can check out the pleasant little tourist information office or scout out the veritable mine of Tatras information that is Adventoura tours (actually Poprad’s coolest tour agency and offering loads of different activities).

Yeah – so get all the info you need, which will take an hour or two, and then go off and do something like – well – one of the things right below!

2: Spišská Sobota

Spišská Sobota is one of the best-preserved clutches of medieval architecture anywhere in Slovakia. It doesn’t grab the headlines like nearby Levoča does but it’s almost as splendid. The Gothic Kostol Svätého Juraja (Church of St George) at the western end of the long tapered oval of the námestie dates from the 13th century originally and – get this – the enigmatic but highly regarded Master Pavol was responsible for the altar here. Just across the way is the church architect’s old workshop.

Culinary Cool

But quality is kept high in the modern day too in Spišská Sobota. Arguably Poprad’s best restaurants flank the square here (such as Vino & Tapas, where the owner cooked for the Queen when she visited Poprad, on the northern side – or Fortuna on the southern side). Then there’s the atmospheric accommodation options in and around the square (again, in our opinion, Poprad’s best (Penzión SabatoPenzión Fortuna or, a block off the square, Penzión Plesnivec).

Oh, and how do you find Spišská Sobota? You take the main road Štefánikova and follow it (or the river running alongside it) east from the centre for about 1.5km, past Aqua City, then turning left at the sign for Penzión Plesnivec. Or follow the river along passing Aqua City until you hit the bridge by Hotel Sobota, turn left then take the first right up the hill to where you can already see the Spišská Sobota church tower.

3: Aqua City

Poprad’s Aqua City is the perfect way to counteract and sooth any aches and pains from a strenuous few days’ worth of hiking. Nigh-on 20 indoor and outdoor geothermal pools, all with temperatures in the mid- to high thirties (and that’s after being reduced from a natural 49 degrees): Aqua City might look starkly modern but its comforts are guaranteed – it’s one of Eastern Europe’s most well-appointed spa/wellness centres. There’s a hotel and wellness centre, of course, with cryotherapy and Thai massage centres & the like…

The High Tatras in their morning glory from Kvetnica

The High Tatras in their morning glory from Kvetnica

4: Kvetnica

Ten minutes’ drive outside Poprad is a forest park which gives you better views of the High Tatras than you get in the High Tatras (if you want an overview of the whole range, that is). There’s a farm here which may be your best chance to see the timid mouflon (large-horned mountain sheep) that have a large enclosure of several acres here. In Kvetnica there’s also a network of hiking and mountain biking trails and a chateau. Kvetnica is also much more verdant than a lot of the Tatras are – it makes for a gentle and enjoyable afternoon’s walk. Ask at the Poprad Tourist Information how to find it – it can be quite tricky.

5: Podtatranské Muzeum 

This museum has a fascinating new exhibition on the ancient treasures of a 4th-century Germanic prince dug up recently during construction of an industrial park, as well as permanent exhibits on Poprad since, er, Neolithic times. It’s recently moved to a new location in Spišská Sobota

6: The Tatranská Galeria (Tatras Art Gallery)

This art gallery is well worth a visit – you don’t expect to encounter culture in a mountain resort supply town but here it most definitely is. We’ve recently written this new post about the venue at  Hviezdoslavová 12 known as the Elektráreň (Power Plant). It hosts some pretty damned good exhibitions!

7: Cool Cafes (and Caffes) from Belltowers to Bistros!

In one of several buildings that still retains its old-fashioned grace (the bell tower right behind the church in central Poprad), the mean espresso mini-chain Caffe Trieste has opened its doors. I mean “mean” in terms of the cafe’s ability to produce a mean espresso, of course; not that its staff are mean (they’re not!). There’s also a wine bar here (upstairs up the spiral staircase) – making this the city centre’s most atmospheric drinking spot by a country mile.

See our article on Poprad’s suavest new cafe

 8: Bon Bon Chocolates

Oh, what is that beautiful correlation between mountain town resorts and chocolatiers? I don’t know, but I’m very happy with it. This is one of the best chocolatiers in Slovakia, and it’s right by the train station. I’d argue it’s even worth missing your train for. Small (and quite inviting) area for actually sitting and sipping – but you can always take that hot chocolate “to go” (yeah, in Slovakia now they actually often use the English “to go” for takeaway food which is rather comical when you listen to an ancient Slovak babka (grandmother) that cannot speak another word of English uttering it). Anyway, Bon Bon is on Dominika Tartarku – heading north from Štefánikova towards Poprad Tatry train station.

Our post on Bon Bon

9: Pizzeria Utopia – and the rest of the City’s Cool New Eateries

In an old schoolhouse out in the paneláky, Poprad’s coolest and liveliest pizzeria has been going ten years and is still every bit as popular as ever. Inside, it looks cosy too, with three dining areas and a great array of tasty pizzas. I’ve actually never seen a pizzeria even in Bratislava look as inviting as this one. It’s just south of the hospital on the other side of Rte 18 from the centre – and perfectly walkable from there. Pizzeria Utopia might be one of the first of this new breed of cool Poprad restaurants but it’s the tip of the iceberg as far as local dining goes.

Our post on Poprad’s new gourmet burger joint.

The final thing to remember is that Poprad is a far more pleasant mountain supply town than Zakopane on the Polish side of the Tatras and is certainly no worse than, say, Aviemore in Scotland or in fact many of those terrible big, soulless French ski resort towns. It’s not as beautiful as what lies just beyond, true. But it does have plenty of hidden charms… and yes, a little soul.

MAP LINK: (Kvetnica is indicated by the pinpoint at the bottom of the map)

GETTING THERE: Trains run every 1.5 to 2 hours from Bratislava’s Hlavná Stanica station to Poprad, take 3.5 to four hours and cost 11 Euros for regional trains or 19 Euros for the flashy IC trains (which have wifi).

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Poprad, the obvious choice is heading 32km north to Ždiar to hike some of the lovely Tatranská Magistrála, or – for those that don’t like hiking – it’s 72km south to Rožňava, nearby which are some of Slovakia’s best caves

RELATED POST: London to Poprad Flights Alive and Kicking (could that in fact be reason 10 to get out to and hang out in Poprad?)

RELATED POST: How to get between Poprad, Zdiar and Zakopane in Poland by public transport (could this be reason number 11?)

Nitra: The Antikvariat

It happened like this. We were wandering around Nitra, on a snowy evening in December,  checking out log baskets on the Christmas market (a present for my father). They had a great deal of choice. The selection process took some time. We were cold and exhausted in the way that only shopping for presents can exhaust you. Our car, for some reason, was parked far away. We struggled off, basket-burdened, down Kupecká, one of the pedestrianised streets that fans out from Nitra’s circular Námestie.

And there was the Antikvariat (aka antiquarian bookstore) – pretty much the only welcoming light on an otherwise dark wintry street. In we went, based on afore-mentioned tiredness primarily but also because wherever I am in whichever city, I’m always happy to give secondhand bookstores a browse. And based also, perhaps, on the fact that the welcoming signs on the glass (come read on our terrace, come speak a little English at our speaking table – speaking table is not quite as fairytale like as it sounds, but the phrase Slovaks give to weekly foreign-language practicing sessions) gave the feel of the place a certain something that whetted our curiousity.

The Antikvariat, or to give it its official name, Pod Vrškom, is far more than any old secondhand bookstore. Temporarily, in fact, as you come through the door you temporarily forget about the books because you find yourself in a rather elegant (and I mean the word in the hipster sense, “hipster” being the term by which most cool, alternative places run in a kinda counter-culture way by young people are known) cafe. Cafe Libresso. Yeah. Ancient standard lamps lean gutterally to provide subtle lighting over the kind of creaking old coffee tables you’d expect at your grandmother’s house. Books and magazines pile against one wall hung with photographs of trees. The ceiling when you look up is a huge abstract mural. The counter when you look down again is full of temptations (three types of cheesecake, several types of homemade biscuit, genuinely alluring baguettes – and anyone who has spent long in Slovakia will know that as a rule baguettes sold in kiosks and cafes are the very opposite of enticing) that made me think of Kerouac gushing about the sweet treats on offer in a diner when he walks into one, cold and hungry, in the dead of night at the beginning of Visions of Cody.

Cosy...

Cosy…

The speciality coffee came thick and rich and strong (they bring it with water to dilute but have it without and it’s Slovakia’s best coffee experience). Or you could have your brew Pod Vrškom style, that is, with banana and whipped cream. The chocolate cheesecake, if it’s on, is pretty much essential – er – eating. And the ambience – the cafe part of Pod Vrškom only opened in 2013 – is just what you want for a respite from a chilly winter’s evening.

The secondhand bookshop out the back is another delight – a veritable Aladdin’s cave of books with one of Western Slovakia’s best record selections (they’re expensive, mind but the selection is good-quality). All told, it’s couple of hours you could while away here.

And the BUT? For me, the Antikvariat is a wintertime place – perhaps because of this first, favourable impression. A summer visit recently did not feel quite the same. Perhaps because, on this occasion, I mis-remembered what type of coffee I’d gone for before. Perhaps because they didn’t have on any of the promising homemade cider. Perhaps because it was a different and less-friendly waitress serving. Perhaps because the bookshop/record shop was closed (it closes daily at 6pm, although the cafe goes on until 9pm). The summertime street front seating area has been done very well – a delightfully disordered mix of leather sofas, garden benches and beat old wooden chairs for the seats, some books to peruse).

But you know how it is. Ever been back to that lovely restaurant you lounged on the terrace of in summer in, I don’t know, Greece? Then gone back on a cold rainy day, necessarily wanted to sit inside and found the ambience somewhat lacking. Some places have an outside ambience but no indoor ambience. And Cafe Libresso is the opposite. It’s indoors where you want to be and that’s not so desirable in summer.

I’ll be back. But I’ll leave it until dusk on a November afternoon when I want a pick-me-up. Before 6pm, of course, so I can buy some vinyl and some old dusty volume too.

MAP LINK: 

LOCATION: Kupecká 7 – that’s not the main pedestrianised shopping street leading off from Svätoplukovo Námestie but the next one round in a clockwise direction.

OPENING: 9am-9pm (cafe); 9am-6pm (bookshop/record shop)

BEST TIME TO VISIT: 4pm-5pm on a winter afternoon

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From the Antikvariat it’s 30km east to Arborétum Mlyňany

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The High Tatras Mountain Resorts – Štrbské Pleso: Mountain Lakeshore Dining at Koliba Patria

Štrbské Pleso is a place people end up at. Its beauty is much touted in Slovakia (and it even makes a point of stating, on the banks of this lake ensconced beneath the High Tatras peaks, about how it got on the long list for the Seven Wonders of Nature). To be honest, such a bid was a bit of a long shot. For a start, a Wonder of Nature probably shouldn’t have hotels along two of its shores. It’s a very pretty place, however. And the chances are you’ll come here on your High Tatras sojourn because it’s a great base (those hotels, remember) for some truly amazing hiking (the lake is right on the country’s most-famed hiking trail, the Tatranská Magistrala), skiing and mountain climbing – not to mention being the end of the line of the Tatras Electric Railway (and “end of the line” stations always hold a certain fascination).

We’ve created a separate post on Štrbské Pleso which covers the attractions of this mountain lake and the village below it (which makes the Wikipedia entry look, dare it be said, scant). But for this post we want to focus on Koliba Patria, a fairytale-like chata (i.e., mountain cottage) restaurant on the eastern shore of the lake. It doubles up as being the most beautiful building in the area and serving the best food.

Inside… check out that stove!

Inside… check out that stove! – image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

As you hit the southeast corner of the lakeshore on the main path up from the mountain railway station and the village “centre”, head anti-clockwise on the lakeside path and, half way around to Hotel Patria (who own the joint) you’ll not fail to spot the place. The inside (nice and light with lots of windows and a balcony looking out on the lake) is utterly traditional Slovak: everything done in dark wood with a huge ceramic stove typical of rural Slovakia, ski apparatus and other old farming implements on the walls, along with several pictures of the Tatras back in the days of yore. Seating is in a series of alcoves (separated by screens and making the eating experience quite private) and there’s an upstairs too generally only open for functions. Service is very good here, and they’re used to all kinds of bizarre tourist requests. But it’s certainly not just a spot for foreign tourists: it’s mostly Slovaks on a weekend day out lunching here.

You’ll find it easy to read the menus (options are in German and English besides Slovak) but not quite so easy to choose. But whilst the menu is fairly international, the Slovak classics are the thing to go for here. There’s a good intro to the Slovak sheep’s cheese known as bryndza (a tasting platter of the stuff) – or you can go for a deliciously creamy version of the national dish, bryndzové halušky (sheep’s cheese dumplings with bacon). In fact, sheep’s cheese has rarely been glimpsed in a restaurant in as many combinations – you can even (unusually for Slovakia) order it with just a salad (apples and tomatoes). The Slovak mains also have the advantage of being quite cheap (5 to 8 Euros). On the meat front, the deer with plums and Slovakia’s delicious herb-infused way of preparing roast potatoes goes down very nicely… and, if you dare, you may wish to try Slovakia’s deadliest drink, Tatranský Čai or “Tatras Tea” – a potent locally-brewed spirit with a taste like Jagermeister.

FULL MENU

When we arrived the last time, we were in need of cake, however, and coffee: and here Koliba Patria does very well. A light fluffy sponge doused in wild berry sauce and good espresso. It was excusable, of course, on that occasion: we had a long way still to walk…

Good cake...

Good cake…

So there we have it: caught between the at-times pretentious glamour of the Grandhotel Kempinski on one side and the ostentatious bulk of Hotel Patria on the opposing shore,  Koliba Patria is, quite simply, a nice and very welcoming place to stop, eat and get acquainted with Slovak cuisine in a serene surrounding. Gone, thank God, is the village centre bustle and the terrible souvenir shops. The hikes, the hotels and the beckoning ski resort have managed to absorb the crowds and left this spot relatively relaxed.

MAP LINK: Here you can see most of the lakeshore sights, plus Štrbské Pleso and Popradské Pleso stops on the Tatras Electric Railway back to Poprad

LOCATION: Eastern lake shore, Štrbské Pleso

OPENING: 11:30am-10:30pm daily

BEST TIME TO VISIT: Around 12:30pm for an early lunch, when it’s none too crowded and it’s still perfectly acceptable to begin it all with some of the delectables cakes and coffee. As it’s on the lake shore, be sure to come here when it’s still light so you can see something of the view.

LAST UPDATED: April 2017

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: Koliba Patria can be visited on Stage 4 of the Tatranska Magistrala

Bratislava Castle Restaurant

Slovak cuisine tastebud-tickling time. And this, primarily, for those who have been asking me about classic places to eat really good Slovak food in Bratislava Old Town.

On first examination, the question itself appears bizarre – what other kind of food would restaurants in the Slovak capital be serving up? Well, the current trend in the city centre seems to be leaning towards the international=cool approach. But traditional Slovak cuisine? More the domain of the old folks and the tourists (the old folks aren’t so bothered about gourmet, the attitude goes, and the tourists, ha, they can easily be conned into what constitutes good Slovak food), with the result that, outside of a few dingy krčmy (pubs) and a clutch of high-in-price, far-lower-in-quality joints around Hlavné námestie (the main square), really good typical Slovak restaurants are fairly elusive.

RELATED POST: Bratislava Christmas Market – A Great Op for Trying Traditional Slovak Food

©englishmaninslovakia.com

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

So, dearth of top-end Slovak cuisine-oriented restaurants revealed, it was both shocking and heartening to discover that one of the very best in Bratislava is actually situated right next to Bratislava Castle. Shocking because who expects a really good showcase for national cuisine right by one of the most touristy spots in the whole country? Heartening because – well – we know that however much we celebrate off-the-beaten-track places on this site, it’s those big attractions where foreign visitors often gravitate and if they do, we would much rather they had the option of seeking refreshment in a decent restaurant (we know it’s easy to resort to the fast food stand or conveniently-close-to-where-hunger-strikes-but-bland eatery, but don’t). And one that can stand in, with some panache, as a showcase for Slovakia’s culinary offerings.

You will come across Hradná Hviezda in the stately cream-yellow courtyard buildings immediately on the west side of the castle (the side furthest away from the city centre, in other words). With a name translating as the Castle Star, it’s the sister restaurant of Modra Hviezda (Blue Star) a little further down in the Jewish Quarter near the Clock Museum – but it is the more dazzling of the two sisters. The setting exudes refinement, although inside, whilst the interior is pleasant enough with its walnut wood furniture and chandeliers, this is hardly what impresses. Nor is it the service (although, poised somewhere between the luke-warm and the congenial, the service is more than adequate). No, Hradná Hviezda will only have you planning your next visit back when you taste what it can do (cook well).

Deer and plums go so well together… ©englishmaninslovakia.com

Deer and plums go so well together… ©englishmaninslovakia.com

There are seven or eight choices of typical Slovak main courses, and each whets the curiosity (and the palate). The meat, always soft, flavoursome and embellished by rosemary and thyme, is hardest to resist. There is the mangalica (the wild boar that roams in the forests above Bratislava) with a pumpkin sauce and chestnuts – chestnuts being a typical accompaniment to Slovakia’s game-centric meat dishes. There is a rabbit served with paprika sauce and dumplings – rabbit is a common meat for country folks who regularly go out bagging them but in Bratislava it is far rarer, and enhanced here by a combo of traditional Hungarian and Slovak sides, the paprika that sets Hungarian food a-blaze and the dumplings which prop up typical Slovak food. Jeleň (venison) is also offered – with the sauce concocted from Slovakia’s signature fruit, the plum, and a rich, creamy potato puree. But Hradná Hviezda also does a mean strapačky (dumplings with sauerkraut) and one that’s enticingly presented in contrast to the sometimes colourless versions of the dish served up elsewhere.

Presentation (generous portions, yet thoughtfully arranged on the plates) is key with Hradná Hviezda’s food. The chefs clearly know exactly what they are doing. A meal here, consequently, is not cheap (mains are between 13 and 22 Euros, which puts it in a similar price bracket to one of our other favourite city centre Slovak restaurants, Traja Muškietieri).

It would have been nice to wash down the delicious food with a choice of better Slovak beers (only offering Zlaty Bažant and Krušovice, two of the dullest beers in the country, is a definite shortcoming). It’s definitely recommended, therefore, to sample their wine list which in contrast goes overboard to offer a wide variety of Slovak wines. White wines in Slovakia, especially those from the Small Carpathians (Male Karpaty) Wine region, can rival the world’s best, and the dry white from Rulandske, in the Limbach/Pezinok region, is a true delight here.

Perhaps a glass of the latter would have been better paired with their trout… But we have only ever had eyes for Hradná Hviezda’s game. You’ll spend a lot longer than the walk up here takes if you were to keep to the lower reaches of the city centre scouting around to find game that compares to that available in the serendipitously twinkling Castle Star…

MAP LINK:

GETTING THERE: Directions are the same as for the castle, and this is an easy stroll up from the very centre, but for those with walking difficulties there is trolleybus 203, catch-able from Hodžovo námestie (and get out at the stop conveniently called “Hrad”).

OPENING: 10am-10pm. Sometimes it can be a good idea to book –  as the restaurant caters to tour groups (locals too, but also tour groups).

BEST TIME TO VISIT: Oh, a dark wintry lunchtime when huddling by their cozy fireplace seems pretty much the best thing to do. Hradná Hviezda’s best dishes are the heavy, hearty, wintery kind. And a visit in out of the cold means the perfect excuse to sample one of their oh-so-typically Slovak fruit brandies… mahrulovica (with apricots), borovička (with pears). The list goes on.

LAST UPDATED: April 2017

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Hradná Hviezda it’s 2km north to another restaurant on a great viewpoint, Kamzík

Hanging Out at The Hangout

Wifi: slow but steady.

It’s a Friday evening, just around six, and the Hangout Cafe at the beginning of Kapucinska is uncharacteristically quiet. All day it’s been buzzing with cool young things, busy on their laptops, on their speedy business lunches. And now it’s just us. It’s a rarity. Normally, day-time, Hangout Cafe is full. Heaving would be the wrong word. Just pleasantly full. In a casual, metropolitan kind of way. Maybe it’s because Lukáš the owner is not here. He does, admittedly, add a certain gravitas to the place. He is the one, after all, who claims to make Bratislava’s best coffee, which is quite a claim these days.

But first, the place. It’s right on the main street which leads from the big church on the corner of Hurbanovo Námestie up towards the castle – an ideal location – and is perfectly poised for those middle-of-the-day or after-work business lunches. Indeed it is a place which seems to be the “hangout” of men – often single, well-dressed men, sometimes groups of two, comparably well-dressed men. They’re always well-dressed, and they’re invariably men. What do they like about the place? The high window-facing tables? The seats at the bar? The free wifi? The partial industrial vibe, created by large, obscure pictures of brightly-coloured cars whooshing through various monochrome but ultra-modern cities?

Who knows? We came in with two girls in our party and caused a stir. Everyone else left. But that was cool too. It was prime, after-work time in Bratislava and we had a stylish hangout all to ourselves. And their house red wine is some of the best in the Old Town too! It made us linger. As for the coffee, it was better than most of the other top cafes in the Old Town (and an espresso is a mere Euro). But I am going to say something controversial here. I’ve tried better in Nitra. Having said that, there’s few places in the Old Town that so stylishly oversee the transition from daytime cafe to evening hangout.

Evening Hangout

And often, especially now in these days of savvy web searches to plan where you’re going to go to grab a good glass of wine, “hangout” is an understatement of what the evening scene is like here. “Positively humming” might be nearer the mark. But if you want to come away from the evening having learned something about wine, come when Lukáš is around. He knows a thing or ten, and he isn’t reticent to share his knowledge…

Still, this joint is still (just) more cafe than bar. Its great coffee sets it apart from the competition more than its good wine.

MAP LINK:

LOCATION: – Zupné Námestie 9 (beginning of Kapucinska near tram stop no 5/8)

OPENING: – 9am-10pm daily, until 1am (semi-unofficially) Friday/Saturday

BEST TIME TO VISIT: – Early to mid evening, for a damned good espresso or an afterwork glass of wine.

LAST UPDATED: (Spring 2014) Same vibe, but met the owner this time (and the coffee was way better as a result, not that it had been bad before). A few words are worth a thousand pictures, to twist an old saying: Lukáš told us all about the type of coffee bean he was using (Kimbo, from Naples) which creates a potent, richly oily brew. That’s the bean that was his favourite when he was working as a barista in Italy. As for the opening hours, he said that, true to the Italian style, weekend hours were more like whenever the last customer left… (April 2017) Place is firing on all cylinders, especially come night time!

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Hangout Cafe it’s a 1km walk east to more good coffee at Bistro St Germain

Update March 2014:

 

Piešťany: the Very Best Cakes

Many people know about Piešťany, Slovakia’s most famous spa. But what to do when you’re done with a dunk in the pools? Well, the answer is of course an exploration of the town and when you’re done with that (it won’t take too long to explore the town itself) you want a cake. Right? No? Then don’t read on. Yes? You’re in the right place.

Monsalvy may not be the fanciest place in Piešťany. But, to follow an adage adopted worldwide, save the lavish-looking but often unremarkable (cuisine-wise) bigger restaurants for the tourists and save the quality coffee and delicious cakes for the locals, which make up the majority of the clientele here. Another testimony to the place’s quality is that lots of the other cafes in Western Slovakia hanker after Monsalvy’s sweet treats to the extent Monsalvy has to supply cakes to many of the region’s other outlets.

A huge counter of cakes awaits when you push back the curtains and enter into this refreshing retreat from the nearby blandness of Aurpark shopping center. But there’s a snug cafe area stretching both back behind the counter and also in front (if you want a street view). It focuses on supplying locals and local businesses with high-quality cakes which are particularly enticing if you are a fan of cakes with fruit on (fresh cherries, kiwis and grapes feature prominently).

Presentation is key at Monsalvy, who are best known as chocolatiers. The chocolates, especially the pralines, are highly recommended and are displayed on top of the counter as you walk in, but there is one offering that combines the best of the chocolate and the fruit together in one divine helping of goodness: the chocolate košik, or basket. A crumbly chocolate base (the basket part) is filled with a chocolate cream filling up to about half-way. Then on top of these are arranged slices of different fruits, just as if they were positioned in a mini fruit bowl. Try a couple of them alongside a coffee better than the spa restaurants offer and a complementary handmade sweet.

There is no finer treat for your (sweet) taste buds than wiling away some time at this cafe, particularly when winter hits Piešťany and it’s cold out. In a serendipitous turn of events, Monsalvy also serves as something of a wine bar, with a good selection of Slovak wine fave tokaj, and does lunches and dinners too (these are not vouched for by this review but look pretty tempting).

A Quick Guide to the Other Content We Have on the Piešt’any Area:

Places to Go: Piešt’any’s Best Thermal Pools

Places to Go: Hiking in the Footsteps of Beethoven Around Piešt’any

Places to Go: A Great Castle near Piešt’any

Places to Eat & Drink: A Great Restaurant in the Hills Above Piešt’any

 

MAP LINK: 

LOCATION: Teplická 10, Piešťany

OPENING: 9am-9:30pm Monday-Thursday, 9am-11:30pm Friday-Saturday, 10am-9:30pm Sunday

BEST TIME TO VISIT: Get the shopping done across the road in Aurpark, then head here for elevensies!

LAST UPDATED: April 2017

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: 800m southeast on spa island, Piešťany’s best thermal pools await

Starosloviensky Pivovar: Where the Foam Comes Free

So there I was, all ready to start writing a post about Slovak wine. I even have a glass of wine in my hand, for Goodness sake. But I remember someone saying to me the other day I hadn’t written enough about places to go for a drink in Bratislava yet (which is surprising, because I like drinking a lot) and this place seemed the obvious candidate, namely because I spent an evening there last week getting wasted.

Inside the Pivobar...

Inside the Pivovar…

So there we go. Starosloviensky Pivovar is a place that sticks in your memory – boozily veering between the sophisticated and the raucous, but with a beer selection that most locals say is better than Bratislava’s Meštiansky Pivovar and with food that’s certainly way better than Slovak Pub (to equate it to another nearby boozy Bratislava joint serving food).

Starosloviensky Pivovar, if you still have time for a beer having uttered its name, is on Vysoká, which is the street that loops around the back of Obchodná and comes out again by the Austria Trend Hotel. The location is great. Vysoká is an infinitely nicer street than Obchodná on which to hang and, what with the Film Hotel on the same block has a kind of antiquated Broadway-in-the-1920s feel to it. It’s got an outside area of decking (nice when the temperature gets into the plusses) and big rustic wooden tables inside.

The beer selection? Great – the delicious hoppy Stupavar, brewed just north of Bratislava, and the Pressburg – particularly the weisenbier and the radler – were two very complex beers – a relief from the Zlatý Bažant-dominated beer scene in Slovakia. I can recommend it as a decent after-work (or, if you’re a tourist, even after-breakfast) spot for a drink in this area of town (compared to the other pivovars in Bratislava this one is more laid-back and popular with a younger crowd) but what got me was that, for a place that has its own brewery, they have no idea how to pour beer. When the first glasses came with a leaning tower of pena (foam) we queried it, got the response that the barman did not know how to pour drinks, and promptly got served two more with equally foamy heads. Foam, let me tell you, that represented nearly a quarter of the glass. A way of economising? Bad service? Whatever the reason, be warned that for every four glasses of beer you buy, one will be foam. And despite this I liked the place.

MAP LINK:

LOCATION: Vysoká 15

OPENING HOURS: Until 11pm

LAST UPDATED: April 2017

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From the Staroslovensky Pivovar, it’s a 650m walkk north, over Hodžovo Námestie to the cool Fabrika brewpub-restaurant

An article about Bratislava’s Pivovars

My chapter on the Slovak beer scene for the brand-new Lonely Planet Global Beer Tour

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Top Ten Bratislava Cafes (March 2017)

Fun at the Hangout Cafe... after hours when there's less peeps hanging there

Fun at the Hangout Cafe… after hours when there’s less peeps hanging there

OK, so this list is subject to change – when I hear of a new entry worthy of the list or of one of these entries deserving a different position I’ll update it. But as of right now, here we go:

10: Café Dias

Only come here for coffee and cake. These two items on the menu are pretty damned fine. The coffee at Café Dias is fair trade, often from Africa, and you’ll salivate over choosing your cake from the many-tiered display cabinet. It’s in the bookshop, Panta Rhei, and the other reason it goes in at number 10 is as a great people-watching spot.

Location: Poštová under Austria Trend Hotel

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9: Next Apache

Next Apache does good coffee, including its own special blend, amidst one of the best selections of English and Slovak language second-hand books in the city.

Location: Panenská 28

Website: 

8: Caffe l’Aura

A great hidden-away little spot by St Martin’s Cathedral: at front it doubles as the Old Town’s coolest antique shops, at back the café, decorated with quirky knickknacks, is a place where you can sit and sip and never be rushed.

Location: Rudnayovo Námestie off Panská

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7: Corny Café

Another hidden-away place in an interesting area just east of downtown near the Blue Church. There’s a small outside garden, and the inside is lovably, cosily retro: you could imagine Communist leaders making breakfast business deals here. The coffee is great (fair trade, with produce from coffee growers around the world available, and in my opinion a candidate for the city’s best) and the cake selection is very good. It’s slipped down the list a tad of late because sometimes if you go in it can be quiet, and this can detract from the atmosphere.

Location: Grösslingová 20

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6: Caffé Trieste

This little place at Floriánske Námestie goes in at 6 for the quality of its coffee. It is up there with the city’s best, and for the quality/ price ratio (an espresso costs just €1) for a caffeine fix it could be top. It falls down for having a poor cake selection and for there being a lot of competition for seating: you often feel rushed. It’s so popular though that the outside seats are taken even in winter!

Location: Floriánske Námestie 1

Website: 

5: Avra Kehdabra

And indeed, perhaps you will feel as though uttering the classic incantation to incite magical happenings (the name is the Slovak way of saying Abracadabra by the way) really can occasionally work, when you clap eyes on this cute, tucked-away place on Grösslingová, which styles itself as a literary teahouse, but also serves incredible coffee amongst heavily book-stacked shelves. Places come, and places close, but this little joint has become a permanent fixture in the Bratislava hot drinks scene and comes the closest to replacing the lamentably departed Prešporák – my all-time favourite Bratislava cafe (but watch this space for an interesting update on that score).

Location: Grösslingová 49

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4: Bistro St German

Most people know about Bistro St German now, tourists included. But that’s because it’s a great place: with an atmosphere reminiscent of the Parisian bistros of old, formidable cakes, including a gluten-free option, decent (although betterable) coffee. The soups and lunches (a delicious burger, a succulent quiche) are worth a stop too.

Location: Rajská 7 (It’s now moved as of May 2014 to this new location from its former one off Obchodná – it’s new location is not QUITE as atmospheric which means its position on this list has now changed.)

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3: Štúr

A bit of an institution now but a pretty good one,  has a menu in old-fashioned Slovak (faithful to founder of the Slovak language, Ľudovít Štúr, after whom it takes its name) and great baguettes and lunches. The cakes are also very good, and it’s open until 10pm.

Location: Štúrová 14

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2: Hangout Café

The owner claims he does the city’s best espresso and he could well be right; the word on the street often backs him up at least. It’s a nice interior: bare-brick walls, seating at the bar or at window tables and a nice big blackboard touting the specials. It only doesn’t get a higher entry because the quality in the centre is getting pretty high.

Location: Kapucinská, right by the tram stop.

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1: Kava.Bar

Kava.Bar was treated with much excitement by englishmaninslovakia.co.uk when we spotted it on a walk up to the castle a couple of winters back. It’s a small place, but huge blackboards and cute window seats and a liberal decoration with various curios make this very eye-catching as cute cosy cafes go. The coffee is great, the cake selection not bad, but  I would also have liked to see a little more in the way of food. But the ambience is perfect.

Location: Skalná 1 

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Panta Rhei And Café Dias (Central Bratislava Branch): Good Coffee, Great Books

Café Dias, next to Panta Rhei Bookstore

Café Dias, next to Panta Rhei Bookstore – image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

 

Wifi: Alright.

I’m always a bit dubious of cafes in, or affiliated with, bookstores. So it was with some trepidation that I snuffed out Café Dias the other night after a spot of Christmas shopping. Would it be another dreary collaboration of the Borders-Starbucks or Paperchase-Caffé Nero ilk, full of depressed, angry people so utterly out of keeping with what a bookish cafe should be like?

Not a bit of it. Café Dias might rather grandly advertise itself as a place where “Great Adventures Live Forever” but in the waste ground of good, welcoming places to eat/drink at this end of town between Obchodná and Hodžovo Námestie, it’s a nice find.

Not that locals think of it as a “find” – Panta Rhei, the bookstore adjoining the cafe, is hardly a secret. It’s a massive bookstore. It is a way above-average bookstore, actually, with a really great selection, American Christmas classics on repeat right now and my favourite bit: a wonderful craft and design section of the DIY variety. They also have a decent selection of cards (in a country where card-giving is not the standard practice it is in the UK) and gorgeous notebooks (I love browsing various shops’ notebook selections).

But back to the cafe. No one would ever think Dias would be so good, being surrounded by that fierce, vigorous brand of commerce which can all too often turn outlets into piles of direness. Yet there it is: cosy, tribal-themed décor, big wide windows from which to spectate on the scurrying passers-by heading to the Billa supermarket in the snow (currently a sweet old 15cm deep), and, of course the most important, innovative food and drink.

Café Dias Food and Drink

After a careful scrutiny of the cake section (there was fruity cheesecakes and a zesty apple tart which I also ended up trying), I opted for the chocolatiest option – chocolate sponge topped by a couple of layers of lighter, creamier chocolate mouse and a fruity dark chic topping (I like chocolate) and a mulled wine. The only problem with this was that I didn’t sample the coffee, which a friend had recommended me as excellent – the same one as introduced me to the now lamentably-closed Prešporák actually but I can’t reveal my sources :) – but I did smell it, and it smelt good. What Dias has is a selection of plantation brews from the likes of Guatemala, Indonesia, Peru and the rest of the world’s coffee kingdoms-on-high – and each one comes with a tempting description and general tips on appreciating coffee: for a reasonable 2 to 5.35 euros.

The service was, well, courteous but on the slow side. I had to beg to be allowed to pay the bill. As I was waiting, I found out that the cafe takes its name from Portuguese explorer Bartholemeu Dias, the first-known man to sail round the coast of Africa. Café Dias might not quite take you to a place as strange and new as that. But in an absence of other enticing eateries in this neck of the woods, its well worth the voyage here (and the wait for the table).

It should be noted that the Café Dias-Panta Rhei double act is not unique to this part of the city centre. Elsewhere in Bratislava, in the big shopping centres of Aurpark and Avion,  as well as in other city shopping centres in the likes of Piešťany, Nitra, Žilina and Košice, a Panta Rhei along with a Café Dias sitting plumb in the corner of it, will be found. But these are shopping centres. And whilst they seem pretty popular places to eat in Slovakia, they are vacuums as far as atmosphere goes. This store – call it the flagship Café Dias-Panta Rhei combo – is a bit different. It has personality. A more-or-less guaranteed delightful book- or stationery purchase. And great people-watching ops whilst you peruse afore-mentioned purchase over that coffee and cake…

An adventure that lasts forever? A pleasant diversion from the daily grind that seems set to stay a fixture in Bratislava’s Old Town, for sure…

MAP LINK

LOCATION: – Vysoká 2, by (indeed, on the ground floor of) the Austria Trend Hotel (seen on the map), and attached to Panta Rhei. It’s right outside the other side of the underpass when you’re coming from Hodžovo Nam.

OPENING: – 8am-10pm

BEST TIME TO VISIT: – Late morning or early lunch, for a good coffee and cake after a book purchase.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: On the next street, Drevená, 100 metres southwest, is Bratislava’s best brewpub, Bratislavský Mestiansky Pivovar

LAST UPDATED: April 2017