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White knuckles and white water

Leigh G Banks tells of his experience in Slovakia


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thrashing

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

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

… But then I was gone again beneath the surface.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Trenčin: the Lesopark

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Places to Go: A stunning castle near Trenčin

Places to Stay: Trenčin’s recently refurbished historic hotel

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

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

Top Ten Medieval Towns in Slovakia

 

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

OPENING: The lesopark is always open really.

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

On the trail ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

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

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

Surprise, Surprise…

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

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

The Start…

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

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

Cute Kosodrevina…

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

Near Rovienky

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

Onto the Ridge…

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

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

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

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

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

WHAT NEXT?

Hiking the Hrebenovka: an Introduction

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

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

Staying on the Trail

Chata pod Čertovicou (before you start)

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

Hotel Srdiečko (end of Stage Two)

Chata Magurka (end of Stage Three)

Museum of the Slovak National Uprising

Banská Bystrica: Uncovering the Beauty in the Brutalism

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

A Brief History of BB

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

Totemic Brutalist Beauty

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

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

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

2: The City Council of Banská Bystrica…

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

3: Matej Bel University – Faculty of Law…

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

4: VUB Banka (the General Credit Bank)…

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

Hotel Lux - © www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Hotel Lux – © www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

5: Hotel Lux…

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

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

Museum of the Slovak National Uprising

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

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

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

7: Plaváreñ Štiavničky…

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

Banská Bystrica from above - the more conventionally beautiful part!

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

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

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

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

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

 

© Clive Tully

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

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

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

“Wolf scat!”

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

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

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

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

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

© Clive Tully

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further information:

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

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

MAP LINK:

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

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

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

 

© Clive Tully

© Clive Tully

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The final camp - image by Jonno Tranter

The final camp – image by Jonno Tranter

What Next?

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

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

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

Bardejov: Walking the Walls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Little Historic Overview

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

Golden age number two could well be right now.

MAP LINK:

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

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

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

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

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

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

The "English style" grounds ©englishmaninslovakia.com

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

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

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

©englishmaninslovakia.com

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

English Country Garden…

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

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

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

The HotelThe Hotel ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

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

Wine

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

©englishmaninslovakia.com

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

MAP LINK:

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

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

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

OUR OTHER SLOVAK WINE CONTENT:

Svätý Jur, Small Carpathians Wine Region

Limbach, Small Carpathians Wine Region

A typical Small Carpathians Wine Tasting in Trnava

Adventures in the Tokaj Wine Region

Image by Jonno Tranter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

STAGE OVERVIEW MAP LINK:

WHAT NEXT?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plus: More on the Cesta Hrdinov SNP Trail…

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Go on. Relaaaaaaaaaaaaax!

MAP LINK

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

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

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Low Tatras Mountains: Up Chopok the Back Way

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

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

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

Why Come Up?

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

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

Up Chopok the Unusual Way(s)

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

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

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

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

MAP LINK:

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

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

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

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

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

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

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

History of the Healing Powers of Marianka

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

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

Welcome to Marianka… ©englishmaninslovakia.com

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

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

Most Ornate Church in Slovakia?

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

Elaborate roof panels ©englishmaninslovakia.com

Elaborate roof panels ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

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

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

Demolition Dodge!

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

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

Pilgrim Food

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

Onward from Marianka?

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

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

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

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

MARIANKA VILLAGE WEBSITE In Slovak, but could prove useful.

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

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

Around Nitra: The Arborétum

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

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

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

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

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

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

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

MAP LINK

ADMISSION: 3.50 Euros for adults, 1.50 Euros for kids

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

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

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

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

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

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

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

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

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

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

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

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MAP LINK:  

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

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

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

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

The entrance to the Old Town of Hainburg - image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Around Bratislava – the West: Going Over the Border to Get Good Stuff

As you drive across the border between Slovakia and Austria at Berg you get a poignant sense of how it must have seemed, pre-1989. There’s Austria’s flat, open farmland, broken by gentle wooded hills, suddenly erupting up on the other side of the dramatic Danube-Morava river confluence into the steep forested karst of Devínsky Kobyla with starkly Communist-era Bratislava suburbs like Devinska Nova Ves rising out of the trees.

Czechoslovakians and others from the once sectioned-off Iron Curtain countries often died trying to cross to the west from here. Now many Slovaks would die if they didn’t make the regular crossing into Austria (excuse the terrible pun but talking to a lot of Slovaks, it really does seem as if they depend whole-heartedly on proximity to Austria a lot of the time).

The queue to get across the border might not be quite what it was after November 1989 but coming into the first major town on the Austrian side, Hainburg an der Donau (or Hainburg on the Danube) still entails enduring some lengthy jams – and the traffic’s nearly all Slovak.

Indeed, this small Austrian settlement might justifiably be called Slovakia’s very own foreign territory. The town’s population is significantly Slovak, and you can’t walk two paces without hearing Slovak spoken on the main street. Menus are often translated into Slovak and quite frequently the hotel receptionist or cafe waitress is, indeed, a Slovak.

It’s a curious cultural phenomenon but Slovaks, much like the English, can be incredibly disparaging about their own country. The English, however, do not usually move out of their country because of any feelings of dissatisfaction while the Slovaks often go out of their way to do it (well, in fairness having several countries nearby makes this a whole lot easier). If Western Slovakians don’t live just across the border, send their kids to school just across the border or use the healthcare just across the border then you can bet your bottom dollar they will at least do their shopping just across the border. The mentality is akin to a “if they won’t make it better in our country then we’ll go to where it’s better” and, to the loss of Slovakian services, Hainburg is the town that benefits. Even the salt, I have heard it claimed quite seriously, tastes superior in Austria!

It’s a veritable  Slovak colony, this amiable castle town, but what’s strange is that Slovaks often don’t embrace Austria fully. They come across, make use of the good stuff (higher quality supermarket produce) and return. Even if they live here, the chances are that this will only be for registering with Austrian doctors/schools. They’ll still most likely work or hang out in Bratislava. It’s a curious “one foot in, one foot out” policy from Slovakians in this regard; a deep love, perhaps, of innate Slovakia-ness coupled with a reality check that Austria (i.e. Hainburg) has, well, good stuff.

Hainburg really does have good stuff. At least, the supermarkets have fresher produce, more lactose-free products and prices that are no higher than supermarket prices in Slovakia. But Hainburg, in contrast to most border-hugging towns, exudes far more goodness. It’s got great castles, spectacularly-preserved town walls and gates, and a wonderful national park right by the town, Nationalpark Donau-Auen, which pretty much stretches up to the Slovak border. It’s actually got so much good stuff, that Englishmaninslovakia may very well be writing more about what there is to do in Slovakia’s very own foreign territory. But it’s also worth coming here, to far-eastern Austria, to glean a little further insight into Slovakia and the way it works.

MAP LINK:

GETTING THERE:

To Hainburg from Bratislava…

Driving – Route 61, signposted off the D1 highway immediately west (right) after you cross Most SNP bridge from the Old Town towards Petržalka. This becomes Route 9 on the Austrian side.

Bus – Hourly bus 901 (1.50 Euros) from Most SNP

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: Well, we only concern ourselves with journeys in Slovakia on this blog, so pursue your route west elsewhere! Rearing up on the other side of that confluence of the Morava and Danube rivers is the first sign you’re in Slovakia, the massif of Devinska Kobyla, accessed from Devínska Nová Ves 27km northeast of Hainburg.

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Around Bratislava – the North: The Pajštún Castle Hike

The sultry weather in Bratislava continues, and the yearning for countryside escapes grows in proportion. So yet again we found ourselves heading out to explore one of the many outdoor adventures in close proximity to the city. This time we were bound for Stupava, 15 km north of the centre, for the hike up to the romantic ruin of Pajštún Castle.

The castle is one of Bratislava region’s best-kept secrets – at least in terms of fortresses. Bratislava’s own castle, or if not Devín Castle, grab all the foreign visitors and leave Pajštún alone and lovely high up in the forests of the Malé Karpaty (Small Carpathians).

There are several ways to get to Pajštún: it’s a hearty five- to six-hour hike from Bratislava through the Mestské Lesy (quickest on the blue trail from Pekna Cesta in Rača, but accessible too via the Marianka pilgrimage route utilising either the yellow trail from Pekna Cesta or the red trail from central Bratislava) or by good paths from both Marianka and the village of Borinka just to the north-east (just a couple of hours’ hiking from these last two).

But we began in Stupava, a town just off the E65 road heading north to Brno. It fancies itself as a separate town but is in reality little more than a commuter satellite of Bratislava. As ever, Englishmaninslovakia went with high hopes, as I’d heard of Stupava’s beautiful town park and wanted to check it out.

In fact, first impressions were good. The town had a church and, yes indeed, a striking chateau, all with a new lick of paint on an attractive cobbled central námestie. But the church was closed (only one old lady hobbling up to inspect the new notices about the just-deceased by the gates), and the chateau is a senior citizen’s home. However, they were very lucky old people, because their copious, lavish, exclusively-for-old-people castle-like abode looked our, from the rear, upon the most beautiful urban park within the Bratislava region. Zámocký Park is by far the superior of Bratislava’s Medicka Záhrada or Horský Park.

Zamocký Park in Stupava... nice view for the old folks

Zamocký Park in Stupava… nice view for the old folks – image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The castle-backed lake is flanked by a few examples of Slovakia’s protected trees (nb – I’ll post the name here when I remember it) and a path leads away through manicured grounds in a manner reminiscent of an English country estate to connect up with the trails into the mountains after about 30 minutes’ walk. We took a bit of a shortcut and headed along by car (the next turning right after the park from the main road) to the cross which marks where the Zámocký Park path comes out.

There is parking just before the cross, and it’s a one and a quarter hour walk from here up through woodlands to Pajštún ruins, which you see from below leaning gutturally out of the wooded hills above you. If signs are to be believed, this is a forest where you can bump into the mouflon (big-horned wild sheep). We didn’t see any, but on the quiet paths near the castle we did cross paths with the biggest herd of wild deer I’ve ever seen in my life – at least 15, bounding through the trees just above us. On the way up, there is one point where the yellow-waymarked path veers almost without warning up off what looks like the main track, and the path is steep in places, but generally, head up and you shouldn’t miss the castle.

Pajstun Castle appears through the trees

Pajstun Castle appears through the trees

It does appear, at times, as if the castle does not want to be found. It’s so secreted by trees that it only becomes visible right at the last moment. The castle was built in the late 13th century (1287) during a wave of Tartar-Hungarian conflict in the region. Powerful regional families, who invariably had as much power as the official monarch in these war-torn times, didn’t shirk to battle the Crown itself, and the Kösegiovcov family were one such audacious group. As a reward for helping them in battle, Rugerius of Tallesbrau received the very lands on which  Pajštún was then built.

I did a fair amount of oohing and aahing at just what a defensive masterpiece this castle is. Despite being struck by lightening in the 18th century and then blown up by Napoleon in 1809 (what a nasty fellow to blow up an already ruined castle eh?) the castle is still incredibly in tact. It’s so surrounded by trees it’s hard to get an overall perspective picture, but from the shot below you can see just how vast the walls are: mighty enough to have become the Bratislava region’s best (natural) climbing spot!

Climbing Pajstun's southern ramparts

Climbing Pajstun’s southern ramparts – image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Anyway, this is a great castle to explore, even if you don’t fancy the rather giddying climb up the cliffs of the ramparts to get there. Kids will love the ruins too. There’s great picnicking spots and fabulous views of Stupava, Borinka and, in the distance, Kamzik. In fact, the castle continued to dominate even after its decline, and Borinka was actually known as Predtym Pajštún (the translation of which is something like village under Pajštún) until 1948.

The paths continues on the other side of the castle (if there were few walkers before, on this side of the castle there’s almost none) and loops round on red and blue trails for a further two hours or so back down to the cross and the walk back through the park to Stupava.

Pajštún Myth…

The info board below the castle entrance also displays one of those cool Slovak myths – featuring the castle and going something like this: the lady of the castle meets a beggar woman with two children who asks for some food. The lady refuses because she has a fit of jealousy about the beggar-woman’s fertility. The beggar-woman gets irate and puts a curse on her. She will give birth to not one but eight children and endure 16 years of misery to boot. The prophesy comes true. The lady of the castle gives birth to eight children, keeps one and tells some other dignitary/attendant to take the other seven into the woods and kill them. The dignitary/attendant has a change of heart and decides he’ll raise the seven kids himself (they’re all sons by the way). Years pass. All the time the lady of the castle is ruing her decision (well, it was quite harsh).  The time comes when the seven sons are due to celebrate their passage into manhood (by now they’re 16 years old). The dignitary/attendant has kept their survival a secret from the lady of the castle, who is of course invited to the festivities, sees the seven beautiful young men she asked to have killed and repents. They forgive her; everyone lives happily ever after.

NB: Admission to the castle is free and year-round.

MAP LINK

GETTING THERESlovak Lines run hourly buses to Stupava from Bratislava’s Mlynské Nivy bus station (which is just the other side of Medicka Záhrada in the Nové Mesto/Ružinov area). Marianka, another start-point for the hike to Pajštún, is within the Bratislava public transport zone, and is therefore accessed by city bus 37 from the Most SNP bus station (a bit more convenient to get to). It’s 0.90 Euros to Marianka or 1.50 to Stupava.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Pajštún it’s 44km northeast to Plavecky Hrad, a feature on our Western Slovakia Castle Tour

 

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Low Tatras Mountain House: Chata M.R. Štefánika

Shortly before I arrived at Chata M.R. Štefánika, the heavens opened. What had been a sun-kissed start to my hike along the Hrebenovka, the three-day ridge trail across the Low Tatras mountains, became a downpour. I could barely discern the path in front of me. Then, looming through the rain clouds at precisely the right moment, the place I’d reserved a bed at for the night surreally, mystically came into view, perched on a curving apple-green ridge of its own at 1740m.

This mountain house is still the classic within the Low Tatras range, as evidenced by its name (Štefánik, a Slovak freedom fighter, does not get his name given to just any old spot). The USP of the mountain house, found in lots of Slovakia’s mountains, as well of course as in the Alps and the Pyrenees, is that these are accommodation options actually up in the peaks (no need to hike down to the valley to kip at the end of the day). But even by such high standards Chata M.R. Štefánika, going strong since 1924, commands a sensational view, as well as a key place at the intersection of a couple of major hiking routes. The red trail, the Hrebenovka, climbs up from here to Ďumbier, the high point of these mountains at 2046m (the full title of the chata in English would be the house of Štefánik under Ďumbier), and then on again towards Chopok, the peak above Slovakia’s major ski resort. Meanwhile, a green trail cuts down in well under an hour to the Dead Bat’s Cave and then on to the nearest road access by Chata Trangoška and Hotel Srdiečko. Blue and yellow trails branch off from here too.

Not that I was in any mood for further hiking as I hastened, dripping, into the snug wood-pannelled confines of the Chata’s legendary restaurant. Yes, other mountain houses have wood interiors too but Chata M.R. Štefánika’s is finished with a lot more love and panache (perhaps because it is the granddaddy of all those others, and also because of the current manager, Igor Fabricius, who is so enthused about this mountain house he’s been at the helm here over 25 years) and it’s bursting with activity more or less constantly, too. This makes it a great place to make friends and chat about hikes completed or yet to be embarked upon, and I ordered a piping hot Ďumbier fruit tea and a bowl of soup and settled down to thaw. As well as a comprehensive array of all the classic Slovak mountain food available in the restaurant (dumplings, schnitzel, beer) there is also a small souvenir shop selling really cool merchandise emblazoned with the Chata’s logo, and a map room by the entrance with bundles of information on the surrounding area. Upstairs, the accommodation is in four- to eight-bed dorms with sinks and shared bathrooms. It’s all kept remarkably spick and span despite the muddy overnighting hikers, because there is a no footwear rule observed inside.

ridge-walk-certovica-stefanika

But with such a setting, it’s difficult to stay seated inside for too long. Especially not when the clouds start to retreat again and the chance to take a peek at the surrounding peaks arises. The chata, with a wood pile endearingly stacked all the way up one wall, has a decking area where some superb views down towards Brezno open up. But a couple of short walks (and don’t worry, they really are just leg stretches to counter the seizing-up of muscles that sets in after a long tramp) also await. 100m back down on the path to Čertovica (the start point of the Hrebenovka) is a monument to those who fought for the liberation of Czechoslovakia during the First World War.

Monument near the mountain house ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Monument near the mountain house ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Suddenly, the setting sun streamed out enticingly from under the storm clouds, though, and I wanted a better glimpse of the mountains ahead. Up a grassy rise immediately behind the wood store at the end of the chata, I clambered to the perfect viewpoint. The curved nature of the ridge I was hiking meant the next ten kilometres of mountains on tomorrow’s route were visible, now tinted in a glorious fiery evening light. I took a few necks of the hip flask every good Slovak hiker carries with them, and felt privileged to be here.

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

MAP LINK:

PRICES: 21 Euros per adult and 5 Euros for breakfast (2017 prices)

BOOK CHATA M.R ŠTEFÁNIKA

Hiking up to Kremenec ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Poloniny National Park: Kremenec and the Ukraine Border Hike – A Journey Along the Edge of the European Union

6am. We set off as the sun begins to break through the mist cloaking the steep slopes of the beech tree-clad hills and climb up into the Poloniny National Park, a wild 300 sq km tangle of upland forest in the far east of Slovakia abutting the frontier with Ukraine. The valley slowly narrows. Once or twice we pass a lone border control guard, leaned against his vehicle and starting with surprise as our engine breaks the early morning silence. A fat-bellied white stork almost hits us, too, as does a horse and cart carrying a family of Roma, but for the most part, the road is quiet.

After the border village of Ulič, fields flanked by sheep (a rarity to spot in Slovakia, despite the nation’s shepherding traditions), and hay bails quaintly twisted around a stick by hand rather than by machine, as well as a fair few more horse-and-cart drivers are signs that this part of the country ticks to a slower and more traditional beat. Brutalist architecture made few inroads into the time-trapped villages hereabouts and the landscape feels softer, greener, more beguiling. Even the forests are far less managed. In fact, the beech forests of the Carpathians (of which Poloniny National Park comprises a significant part) are so renowned for their virgin nature (meaning no forestry is practiced and the ecosystems are among the world’s most intact) that Unesco has added them to their worldwide list of protected sites. In Nova Sedlica, the start point for our hike, the brightly-painted houses with their wooden outbuildings have smoke curling into the sky from back-garden bonfires, and a stream babbling through their midst. We stop off for a presso (strong, sludgy Communist-era coffee) alongside a party of gloomy Czech hikers, then head up the lane which ascends the valley to the final ridge of hills before the EU gives up the ghost for good. At a bus stop proudly proclaiming it is “the last” the lane kinks left, passes an occasionally-open ranger’s hut selling hiking maps and then that’s it: no more dwellings before Ukraine looms up. What follows is one of Europe’s most superb and fascinating forest hikes.

About a kilometer above Nova Sedlica, we branch off the metalled track on a red-arrowed sign pointing steeply up to the right: a gruelling initiation to this 22km circular hike. Red is top dog as far as categories of trail in Slovakia go and the route remains on red-marked and well-marked trails all the way up to Kremenec on the tri-border with Ukraine and Poland (at approximately the half-way point). The path rises up to a basic lumber yard at 525m of elevation (presumably just outside of the national park boundaries) then sheers up through forest that certainly feels just as primeval as the sporadic information boards claim it to be.

The main point of note is at the ridge of Temný Vršor at 838m where two further boards urge you to rediscover the balance with nature that humans often lose in everyday life: but in all honesty little urging is required. I am already lost, and already contemplating the fact that brown bear, wolf, lynx and bison regularly roam this area. In few other locations in Europe can quite so many of the continent’s “big” mammals be found in such close proximity or in such numbers. It’s a thought that gladdens, rather than frightens me. It’s not just the sea of forests swooping away in all directions underlining the extent of this wilderness: it’s the wildlife too. It’s also, unfortunately, a less savoury side of human life: people traffickers are also known to take advantage of this isolated region to smuggle clients into the perceived sanctuary of the European Union.

Virgin forest ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Virgin forest ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

It’s as the path shimmies down to a potok (mountain stream) that makes for a good picnicking point that we understand the consequences of Poloniny being Unesco-protected: when trees fall here, they are left fallen to rot, and whilst the trunks regularly obstruct the route, they are all contributing to the richness of the flora and fauna here (nigh-on 6,000 recorded species all told). We are heartened to find the route, as it zigzags through the trees on the final climb to Slovakia’s eastern border, marked by small posts depicting brown bears: had they not been there, a straying off the beaten track into zones where actual bears hung out would have been a distinct possibility!

“It’s hard to find trees this thick any more” my hiking companion, Freddie, who has called this part of the world home for the last twenty years, tells me. His trade is in oak flooring, and he travels far and wide to find trees of the girth that Poloniny has, because commercial forestry sees them felled decades before they have opportunity to grow up as splendidly as these forests.

A steep scramble, and we are there: the Štatna Hranica, or state border, with a small (old, Communist-era) sign warning that it could be dangerous. In common with Slovakia’s other borders that lie within the depths of its dense forests, there is a few metres of cleared trees, so that the view opens up invitingly to reveal the mist-swathed mountains of western Ukraine, and otherwise? Otherwise there is no change between Slovak forest and Ukraine forest. There is not even a fence, or the remains of one. Nothing to prevent people from walking out, or in (although I am assured that concealed in the nearby tree branches is plenty of the multi-million Euro sophisticated monitoring equipment we read that Slovakia’s eastern EU border has been fortified with, the only man-made thing I can see is a bunch of intertwined sticks presumably left by a creative hiker as a small tribute to the no-man’s land on which we now stand).

Our route turned sharply left at this point, and after a moment of contemplation upon what this land once signified or signifies, we embarked on the final thigh-busting climb along the Ukraine border up to the obelisk of Kremenec, at 1220m, and a tough three-hour tramp from Nova Sedlica. Three gaudily decorated posts in the colours of Slovakia, Poland and Ukraine rise out of the forest clearing and Polish and Slovak hikers sit around picnicking: a somewhat sedate period, one thinks, for a territory which has conventionally marked Europe’s outer edge, and endured traumatic times a-plenty as a result. We take a seat next to one of them, a long-haired man who attracted our attention as he overtook us on the climb up for doing this fairly demanding hike in bare feet, and with only an apple for sustenance. He’s just getting up as we collapse gasping next to him, but has these words for us before he leaves.

“Corporations are destroying the world” he laments. “And we can’t trust any of them.”

Profound words. And ones Freddie opens his mouth to debate. But before he can, the man, point made, has continued calmly on his way.

“Upstaged by a man in bare feet” Freddie sighs.

The obelisk of Kremenec - this is the Ukrainian side, as the language "Kremenec" is written in reveals ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The obelisk of Kremenec – this is the Ukrainian side, as the language “Kremenec” is written in reveals ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Our route heads west (left) from Kremenec, no longer following the Ukraine border, but the Polish one, and initially on the red trail still via some open ground replete with fabulous bunches of blueberries. From a tor here, a vista of the hills on the Polish side rears up before the path plunges to Čiertač and the relentlessly steep yellow connector trail to Nova Sedlica. As the forest plunged back into the meadows surrounding the village, we pass a party of locals, a little the worse for wear after an extremely boozy picnic.

One ox of a man, clad in a pair of rather soiled dungarees and very little else, appears particularly wasted.

“A few hours” he moans as he staggers along. “A few hours rest in my house and I’ll be good to go again.”

Often, there are dramatic contrasts evident at borders. But on the border between the EU and Ukraine, there is mainly just nature. Some slivovica-tanked villagers, some intrepid hikers, and one man who did not think much to Capitalism, sure. But primarily the beech trees, undulating off in hues of green and, further away, grey. Which makes you think in a slightly different way about this continent we have chiselled out for ourselves.

MAP LINK:

ADMISSION: There is no admission charge for entry to the Poloniny National Park

GETTING THERE: There are trains every two hours between 10.40am and 6.40pm from Humenné, on the direct line from Košice, and Stakčin. Taking the train usually gives you an hour and a half’s wait in Stakčin during which time you can grab a bite to eat at the very pleasant Hotel Armales (the hotel is a 7-minute walk northeast of the train station and the bus stop, confusingly called Železničná Stanica, actually a 4-minute walk south-west.) From Stakčin buses take one hour and 15 minutes to wind up the valley to Nova Sedlica.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Nova Sedlica, on the eastern edge of the EU, it’s either on in to Ukraine or back 65km west to one of Eastern Slovakia’s best craft brewpubs, Pivovar Medved in Humenné.

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Levice: Where Fodor’s Guidebooks Were Born

Ah Levice! The stunning medieval town square; the church with the sublime craftsmanship of the architect Master Pavel; the famous pilgrimage site of Mariánska Hora; stunning national parks nearby… No. That’s Levoča, one of the pearls of Eastern Slovakia and a million spiritual miles away. Sorry to disappoint. This piece is about Levice, a rather less-celebrated town that might well be relying on the similarities with the names to get any tourists at all.

But Levice does have one very interesting sight, which is worth the stop-off if you’re on the way through from west to east. And that’s the castle complex.

It does not jump out at you as sensational (it’s not on a hill, which somewhat hampers the dramatics). You approach it via a park off Hwy 51 which comes out of the blue, surrounded by a plethora of out-of-town housing and retail parks. The park has as one of its perimeters the outer wall of the old castle buildings but, despite having some clearly had some air of grandeur once, has long lost it. It’s overgrown, walls are graffiti’d, once ornate benches lie in various states of collapse.

Then you round a corner, duck through a gate and suddenly you are in a little bubble of medieval Europe. Well, medieval and renaissance, to be precise. The old ruined castle on the small ridge dates from the 13th century whilst the newer (and nicely whitewashed, you’ll notice) part of the castle which encircles this is 16th century, and the work of Turkish resistance hero István (Stephan) Dobo. It is these 16th century buildings which contain the rather impressive, and nicely refurbished Trekovské Muzeum, a museum with some fascinating exhibits in the area’s history and role in defending the area from those marauding Turks.

The 16th century castle & museum

The 16th century castle & museum

As we wandered across the peaceful grassy forecourt and into the museum buildings to begin looking around I was really thinking: “wow, why is no one ever talking about this castle as a big attraction of Central Slovakia? (there was even, in a very endearingly English way, a little teahouse perched in one of the castle bastions – as if a piece of York had suddenly alighted in Levice.)

But perhaps here’s why. Despite the outer door’s notice posting a closing time of 4pm, and our entry into the buildings at approximately 3:15pm, an aggreessive woman emerged from the bowels of the museum to inform us looking around was not allowed as the castle was closing. We pointed out to her the posted closing time of 4 but she wasn’t interested, and even threatened to lock us in if we did not leave. Not a great way to treat what were probably your only visitors of the day…

Is Levice really so bad? It really didn’t have to be. The castle complex has real potential for a delightful tourist diversion. But because of the attitude of the castle staff, it was. They ruined the one jewel of the town for me. But let’s hope that, if you’re passing this way, you’ll risk the unfriendly castle employees for the clear reward of the fascinating castle buildings around. And arrive at a time they deem it suitable to let you in.

It should be noted, though, that however friendly or unfriendly Levice seems to tourists its role in travel writing and the travel industry cannot be underestimated. It was the birthplace of Eugene Fodor, founder of Fodor’s travel guidebook series.

MAP LINK: (This’ll give you a better idea of location than a street address)

GETTING THERE: Trains run from Bratislava direct every two hours for a mere 4.90 Euros.

CASTLE OPENING: 9am-4pm daily Oct-Apr, 9am-5:30pm May-Sep (if you go by the notices outside) 9am-3:15pm daily Oct-Apr (if you go by the staff’s closing-up times)

CASTLE ADMISSION: 2 Euros (adults) 1 Euro (children, senior citizens)

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Levice Castle it’s 40km northeast to medieval Banská Štiavnica and its superb mining museums.

NB: we changed the title of this post after the original posting of “Is Levice Really So Bad?” – this one sounded like it might do more for the tourism industry:)

NB2: Please don’t think we’re giving up on Levice! Far from it. We aim to bring you, in the future, posts on some of the rather (surprisingly) fascinating things to do around Levice, including one of the Trekovské Muzeums: some ancient rock dwellings! But more on that later (we have to find a reason for you to return to this site, you know)

Looking out from Bradlo towards the Biele Karpaty at the end of the Štefánikova Magistrála ©Jonno Tranter

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

By Jonno Tranter.

From Dobrá Voda, you can join the red-marked  trail just behind the church, and you’re very quickly alone in the wilderness again. The absence of other people hiking in this area in this area is a real pleasure if you are looking for some peace of mind, but it’s also a novelty: such a gorgeous hike in the UK would have you passing at least a few other walkers en route. Look out along this stretch for wild cherry trees, a welcome treat when you need a sugar kick and some vitamins! There are also plenty of raspberries, apples and pears along the way, although those were out of season for us.

Towards Bradlo! ©Jonno Tranter

Towards Bradlo! ©Jonno Tranter

You’re now back in the forest for a few hours. This is a very pleasant part of the walk, and relatively flat, so you’ll be able to cover ground quite quickly. Being so expansive, however, it’s quite easy to lose the trail and you might find yourself doubling back, or cutting across to it as you spot a mark in the distance. After a couple hours you’ll eventually find yourself walking down a road, a sure sign that civilisation lies near. Make sure you follow the trail here through the residential streets into the town of Brezová pod Bradlom. We arrived desperate for some lunch. Though there seems to be a couple bars in the area, the only place that served any food was a small ice cream parlour and a bakery. Fortunately, the locals came to our rescue and pointed out the only restaurant open, right next to the local Tesco! Here we manage to feast on a delicious two course meal for €3.50, a bargain!

This was day four of our Slovakian adventure. Our feet were swollen with blisters, our shoulders were aching from the weight of our backpacks and tent, and the 30-degree+ heat was crushing us. We were beginning to have doubts that we would actually reach our goal of getting to the Pohoda festival entirely by foot from Bratislava. Though the mountains are relatively small (all in the Malé Karpaty range are under 1000m) the trail can be very tiring, as it rises and falls very often, and rarely stays at the summit. We were limited by time (7 days to get to Trenčín, Pohoda’s location) and so each day (i.e. each of the stages 2, 3 and 4 previously described) had been filled with about 7-8 hours of walking. For those who are disheartened or simply want to end their trip here, there is a bus station here with trips back to Bratislava (although even the disheartened should at least make it to the top of Bradlo, above the town, for incredible views from the historic monument there). In any case, we were not to give in so easily! We downed a coffee, gathered up some willpower, and headed back into the hills.

Once you reach the monument to General Štefánik, at the top of Bradlo (Bradlo is often how the whole area gets referred to as), about an hour from Brezová pod Bradlom, you’ll find a herd of tourists who have driven up to the landmark. You’ll be able to take in the amazing views just like that of the lead image in this article, not to mention the cool breeze: admiring the mountains that lie behind you and the route you’ve walked up to that point (the whole trail from Hrad Devin at the beginning of stage one to here is thus far some 120km). If you choose to continue along the red trail here, you’ll be leaving the Male Karpaty (Little Carpathians), and heading through some flat farmland to the Biele Karpaty (White Carpathians). From this point onward, the Štefánikova Magistrála ends and the trail is just known as the Cesta hrdinov SNP: continuing all the way to the Dukla Pass in Eastern Slovakia.

After Bradlo, perhaps the only point of frustration comes a few hundred metres past Jandova doling when you’ll enter a huge open expanse with absolutely no indication of where the trail continues. Some trial and error may be needed: and trying any option involves walking to the nearest tree, a good 10 minutes walk away on every side of you. After a lot of trial and error, we finally found the path leading up, a sharp right from where it suddenly ended.

This next swathe of the trek is flatter and you’ll be walking through the village of Polianka, amongst others. This is more open country, here, and the scenery is truly spectacular. As we had found in most towns in these parts, the houses are very pretty and people seem to live comfortably. Wherever we went, we were met with looks of surprise, but also with smiles and greetings.

The trail continues, obviously marked, in this manner: through pleasant but otherwise unremarkable agricultural land. At this point you’ll be slowly walking towards Myjava, the biggest town on the trail between Bratislava and Trenčín. We arrived exhausted and desperately in need of food and sleep. We found the huge Tesco which overlooks the town, stocked up on dinner and breakfast, and couldn’t muster much energy to camp far from the town. We found a quiet spot in the hills behind Tesco, sat down to heal our blisters and sores, and crashed off to sleep…

Jonno Tranter is a freelance graphic designer and illustrator who lives in Bristol, UK. In his spare time he likes to write, have adventures, and attend music festivals. This year, he decided to combine all three into an epic trip across Slovakia! Read more about him on his online portfolio (and on stages two to five of our series of features on the Štefánikova Magistrála trail – for Jonno, part of a gruelling adventure which saw him hiking from Bratislava all the way to Trenčin: discover it through the links below).

STAGE OVERVIEW MAP LINK:

WHAT NEXT?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plus: More on the Cesta Hrdinov SNP Trail from Bradlo on towards Dukla – coming soon!

AND: If you’ve had enough of hiking by this point, try heading 35km southeast from Bradlo to the spa island (kupel’ny ostrov) in Piešt’any

On the trail ©Jonno Tranter

On the trail ©Jonno Tranter

Image by Jonno Tranter

Hiking the Štefánikova Magistrála, Stage Four: Vapenna to Dobrá Voda

By Jonno Tranter.

After spending the night camping out at a spring just beyond Vápenná, we headed back along the trail. This curls downwards slowly towards Buková and you soon step back into the forest that you’ll have become accustomed to seeing at regular intervals throughout the walk by now. This part of the trail is well indicated, and you shouldn’t run into any problems heading down.

After three days in the intense heat and no shower, we were desperate for a wash, and decided to make a slight detour from the Štefánikova Magistrála trail to bathe in Buková lake. This is just under an hour’s walk from the trail, but well worth the stop. There’s a yellow connecter trail that leads north from the Štefánikova Magistrála to the the lake that’s indicated and hard to miss: it’s just before the Štefánikova Magistrála zigzags up to the ruined castle of Ostrý Kameň and then Záruby, the highest point in the entire Malé Karpaty range at 768 metres (the peak can also be accessed from the southern side, via the scenic village of Smolenice.)

The lake is surrounded by a ring of trees and farmland, and looks like an oasis to a weary walker. Even though it had rained all night, the lake wasn’t too cold, and we had it to ourselves. For those needing a proper break at this point, there’s a campsite by the lake and a fast food eatery which serves your standard Slovakian deep fried cheese and chips. With a cold beer, it’s a real treat after a long walk. We made friends with a fellow hiker and headed back on the road!

From the lake, you can join the green trail at Breziny, and follow it along the road through the town of Buková. Once you’ve reached the end of town, however, make sure to follow the main road (not the most scenic part of the walk) until Vítkov Mlyn, where the red-marked Štefánikova Magistrála trail picks up again (it’s easy to see why the trail designers took the trail over the top via Záruby). When you’re back on route and past Nespalovci, you’ll hit a nice residential area, where it’s easy to lose the trail. Look out for a sharp bend towards the right as you enter the neighborhood. After that you’ve got a long straight stretch ahead of you with few red signs to help you out, so keep an eye on the map and make sure you take a sharp left at Dolná Raková.

©Jonno Tranter

©Jonno Tranter

From there, it’s back to the forest, and a very pleasant part of the walk which is relatively flat, so you’ll be able to cover quite a bit of ground. Being so expansive, however, it’s quite easy to lose the trail and you might find yourself doubling back, or cutting across to it as you spot a mark in the distance. It’s about four hours from here to a sleepy, pretty village called Dobrá Voda. The houses and farm are really a beautiful sight as you head down through the fields. Upon entering, we were greeted with the cacophonous barking of every dog in town, a recurrent event during our venture through the Malé Karpaty’s inhabited parts.

Excited to have arrived and eager for a drink, we found the only bar in town: typically next door to the church! The kitchen had closed at six, but the staff still managed to cook up some snacks for us. The locals were very surprised to see some foreign backpackers and a singalong in broken English soon followed. The bar closed at ten, and that night we found a field and slept under the stars, which truly illuminate the sky in this isolated part of the country.

Dobrá Voda has a spectacular ruined castle just above the village – which itself has a shop, about 200m downhill from the bar, and you’ll be able to find enough for a decent breakfast. There’s also a spring here and it’s a good place to refill your bottles, and perhaps have a cheeky wash before another long day of hiking ahead.

Jonno Tranter is a freelance graphic designer and illustrator who lives in Bristol, UK. In his spare time he likes to write, have adventures, and attend music festivals. This year, he decided to combine all three into an epic trip across Slovakia! Read more about him on his online portfolio (and on stages two to five of our series of features on the Štefánikova Magistrála trail – for Jonno, part of a gruelling adventure which saw him hiking from Bratislava all the way to Trenčin: discover it through the links below).

STAGE OVERVIEW MAP LINK:

WHAT NEXT?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plus: More on the Cesta Hrdinov SNP Trail from Bradlo on towards Dukla – coming soon!

©Jonno Tranter

Hiking the Štefánikova Magistrála, Stage Two: Kamzik to Pezinska Baba

By Jonno Tranter.

©Jonno Tranter

©Jonno Tranter

From Kamzík, it’s easy to find the signs for the Cesta Hrdinov SNP Trail (Trail of the Heroes of the Slovak National Uprising), which encompasses (between Hrad Devín and Bradlo) the Štefánikova Magistrála. Look out for the white and red flag which you’ll grow to love – and hate – along the hike. The trail at first follows closely the cycle paths, but relatively quickly carves out a route of its own. A word of warning: the trail is not always well indicated. Very often you’ll arrive at a junction with no trail mark anywhere to be found. In this case you’ll just have to try both options, and perhaps backtrack. Having the Malé Karpaty region maps handy, however, will make your life a lot easier – see Hiking the Štefánikova Magistrála: Some Useful Tips for more information on the maps you’ll need, as well as for a host of other things it’s a good idea to know about walking this path before you start!

The heat in July is very intense, up to 30+ degrees, so make sure to wear light clothing if you’ll be hiking in the summer. A redeeming factor is that most of the time, you’re walking amongst very tall conifer trees which will block the majority of the sun’s rays. In the shade therefore, walking conditions can actually be very pleasant. For those uphill walks though, you’ll be sweating buckets, with little breeze to cool you off. Fortunately, there’s a few springs along the way after Kamzík, and the water is cool and clean. There are also a number of places for opekačka (the Slovak tradition of having open-air barbecues) with especially constructed wooden shelters and kindling provided.

©Jonno Tranter

The forests around Bratislava near the start of the trail ©Jonno Tranter

The trail from the forests immediately around Bratislava in which Kamzík stands (known as the Mestské Lesy) up into the Malé Karpaty is mostly forested; interspersed with the odd plain or clearing, but boasting few viewpoints, though this still makes for a very enjoyable walk. Your first stop along the Štefánikova Magistrála is Biely kríž, which comes after about three or four hours of walking through the woodlands. It’s a resting place where you’ll find a small shop selling drinks, energy bars and pastries. You’ll need the sustenance as from there it’s about four more hours to Pezinská Baba, where the trail opens up to some stunning scenery. Along this section, you’ll pass Tri Kamenne Kopce, from where you can intersect with a blue trail to walk down to the pretty wine-making village of Limbach (plenty of wine cellars offer tastings!). There’s a relatively steep downhill run before reaching the small settlement of Baba, so take care and make sure you’ve the got the proper shoes. You’ll know you’re close to civilisation when you see a few derelict mansions beginning to appear.

At Baba, high up on the road through the Malé Karpaty between Pezinok and Pernek, on the edge of the starkly contrasting and startling pancake-flat Záhorie region, the trail intersects a road, and you’ll find a couple places to eat and the quirky Motel Na Vrchu Baba, should you need a bed for the night. Baba, incidentally, is also the start point of the annual Baba-Kamzik run (although we were quite relieved to have conquered this distance by walking it!) We ate at the restaurant along the road, which serves very nice Slovak cuisine and some great desserts. Full and sleepy, we continued on the trail for a short while, set up the tent, lit a fire and watched as the sun set behind the mountains, and Mars, Saturn, and Jupiter appeared in the night sky.

The hills really do come alive when you do not have any other distractions, and at night you can hear the dear, rabbits, and other wildlife scurrying about. Though wild camping is not really encouraged in Slovakia, it’s very easy in this area as the trail is not policed at all, and you won’t encounter many other walkers. In fact, from Kamzík all the way to Bradlo, we only passed by a dozen or so other hikers, meaning you really get the area to yourself.

For us, the first full day of walking was over, but the trip had only just begun!

Jonno Tranter is a freelance graphic designer and illustrator who lives in Bristol, UK. In his spare time he likes to write, have adventures, and attend music festivals. This year, he decided to combine all three into an epic trip across Slovakia! Read more about him on his online portfolio (and on stages two to five of our series of features on the Štefánikova Magistrála trail – for Jonno, part of a gruelling adventure which saw him hiking from Bratislava all the way to Trenčin: discover it through the links below).

STAGE OVERVIEW MAP LINK:

WHAT NEXT?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plus: More on the Cesta Hrdinov SNP Trail from Bradlo on towards Dukla…

Hiking the Cesta Hrdinov SNP, Stage One: Myjava to Vel’ka Javorina (featured in our Places to Go/Western Slovakia sub-section)

Hiking the Cesta Hrdinov SNP, Stage Two: Vel’ka Javorina to Drietoma (featured in our Places to Go/Western Slovakia sub-section)

Chleb, with the Vratna Valley beyond and Janosikove Diery just hidden... ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Around Terchová: Hotel Diery

What’s better than paradise? Another paradise that’s less crowded, right?

Take Slovenský Raj, for example, or the Slovak Paradise, as the name translates. Sitting just southeast of Poprad, Slovenský Raj national park is rightly known for its paradisaical qualities: namely its steeply-twisting narrow rocky valleys, carpeted by conifers and splashed by rushing waterfalls up which you can climb on the country’s most-famed ladder and chain ascents.

But sitting a solid two hours closer to Bratislava, Malá Fatra National Park can also boast – yes indeed – a series of narrow rocky valleys, carpets of conifers and rushing waterfalls, all connected by a lesser-known but nevertheless magnificent ladder and chain ascent. It’s much more accessible. And surprisingly few people, particularly if you exclude Slovaks, ever make it here. The name of the locale is Jánošíkove diery (or Jánošík’s holes; Jánošík being a 16th-century highwayman who robbed from the rich, supposedly, to give to the poor; holes as in hidey-holes, by the way…) and it is beautiful. So beautiful in fact, and so relatively tranquil, that you would never guess that at the start of what must qualify as one of Slovakia’s most beautiful short hikes there would be a really enticing place to stay.

For me, Hotel Diery, at the start of the track into the leafy depths of Jánošíkove diery just outside Terchova, is a more enticing entry point into Malá Fatra than the Vrátna area where most people access the park from (via the chairlift up to the lofty heights of Chleb – an ascent of almost 750 metres to 1500m altitude). Vrátna suffers from the same symptoms many ski areas suffer from: an over-used and at times worn and tacky feel which extends to many of the places to stay thereabouts. Hotel Diery doesn’t feel like that. It feels a bit more intimate, because it’s a bit more removed.

What you notice first about it, though, is not the hotel, but the restaurant, Koliba (click the link for some hilarious pictures that totally don’t do it justice).

Koliba, the restaurant at Hotel Diery

Koliba, the restaurant at Hotel Diery

It’s an open-sided, rustic, wooden affair (a thankful departure from the all-too-common closed-up, dingy Slovak eateries) with chunky wooden furniture at which you can sit whilst tucking into some of the best-cooked traditional Slovak food in these parts. Cuisine is meat-oriented in true country style, and with little in the way of salad (although they do offer vegetarian options) but the cooking is good, and imaginative, and for 10 Euros you can procure a platter the hungriest of mountain men would be sated by. The crowd is a nice mix of happy outdoorsy types (Koliba is a good enough restaurant that in Bratislava it would probably be a pretentious place, so we’re very glad it’s here in Malá Fatra)

Englishmaninslovakia’s only bugbear is that Koliba faces the car park and the road, rather than the verdant woods behind but hey – it’s not a bad car park and on the other side of the road the hills soar up again very aesthetically…

A comfortable double at Hotel Diery

A comfortable double at Hotel Diery – image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

And despite this rather rustic entrée to Hotel Diery, the rooms are very modern. Not outstanding in their décor, but very clean, fresh and manicured in a way many of Bratislava’s business hotels would be jealous of. And many open up at the back (via balconies) onto just the views we were just lamenting were absent in the restaurant – making them very light places to spend the night. Down in the friendly reception, there’s also information on a lot of the nearby walks in Malá Fatra (click here for a selection of the best of them). But what is best about Hotel Diery is that, unlike much of the surrounding accommodation and restaurants, it doesn’t appear to be resting on its laurels. It would be very easy to do just that, as tourists are a near guarantee. Yet these guys are still trying hard to please – and to prevent the place becoming one of those Malá Fatra locales with its glory days buried in the past…

MAP LINK: (If coming from Žilina, follow the road through Terchova, past the Vratna turn-off, and you’ll see Hotel Diery and the entrance to Jánošíkove diery on the right after about 3km)

PRICES: 35/59 Euros for single/double room respectively (with a balcony) – and check holiday season specials on the website which offer you doubles from 44 Euros for two nights!

BOOK HOTEL DIERY:

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Hiking the Štefánikova Magistrála, Stage One: Hrad Devín to Kamzík

This first stage of the five-stage hike across Western Slovakia between Hrad Devín (Devín Castle) and Bradlo is an easy initiation into the walk. We’ve allowed more time for this because of the points of interest en route and because the part of the walk that negotiates Bratislava is a little complicated (hence the reason for the loooong write-up, which is deceptive as the stage itself isn’t so long!).

For stages two and up, we are most fortunate to have had them given a thoroughly up-to-date hike by fellow Small Carpathians enthusiast Jonno Tranter – so see his articles on walking the trail from Kamzík right through Western Slovakia to Bradlo – and beyond on the Cesta Hrdinov SNP (which eventually leads to Dukla Pass in Eastern Slovakia) as far as Trenčin.

A Little Tip

Of course, for those worried about whether Štefánik actually spent much time traipsing through Bratislava’s western suburbs, and that they will be missing out on an essential cultural chunk of the man and his life by not walking this part, the answer is almost certainly NO. In fact, it’s advised to start walking on stage two of the walk, at Kamzík, if you don’t dig walking through cities OR get public transport between the end of the Devínska Kobyla part of the walk and Kamzík (we’ll advise you how to do this at the appropriate point). There is the added caveat that if (as is likely) you set out from Bratislava to Devín to begin this hike, you will necessarily end up walking back through Bratislava halfway through this stage – time you could otherwise have spent getting out into the really cool woods. STILL a hiking trail is a hiking trail and, city section notwithstanding, there are some great things to see on this stage of the trail, and I have also always been a big fan of how cities and their surrounding countryside merge and mingle, which this stage also exemplifies rather poignantly.

Devín & the Beginning of the Hike

Devin Castle, accessed by Bus 28 from Most SNP at least hourly, is your starting point for the hike. The castle, dating from the 9th century, is a spectacular ruin, and is undoubtedly point of interest number one – along with its surrounds which include the confluence of Morava and Danube rivers and, above, the massif of Devínska Kobyla, the furthest extent of the Small Carpathians. There are other sites that detail more information on the castle, but we have prepared this general (and, we like to think, fairly detailed) post on the castle and Devínska Kobyla right here). From the castle, the Štefánikova Magistrála takes you through Devín and up out onto Devínska Kobyla, brings you down into Bratislava, then up out of the modern part of the city up to Slavin monument and through one of the most pleasant city parks en route to Kamzík.

Bus 28 drops you, at the end of the route, in the castle forecourt. From here my first thought was to walk across in front of the hotel here to touch the castle walls. I doubt Štefánik ever did this but when hiking a peculiar sense of thoroughness kicks in for me that actually gets me into all kinds of scrapes. Anyway, I touched the castle walls, so there. Then turning round and keeping the hotel on your right (and following the edge of the property along to its end) you reach a couple of noticeboards, a sign pointing to Cafe Eden, and a little lane leading to the right, ascending slightly past a restaurant on the left (the beginning of the hike).

Cafe Eden, one of the nicest cafes in Bratislava area. ©englishmaninslovakia.com

Cafe Eden, one of the nicest cafes in Bratislava area. ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

This lane ushers you up passing some houses to skirt what becomes the edge of the castle grounds – after a short while it turns sharp left. You now head straight on another lane taking you passed the delightful Cafe Eden – one of the Bratislava area’s top cafes and certainly worthy of its own separate forthcoming post on this very site.  Afterwards, bear immediately right on Hutnicka and then left on Rytierska to reach Devín’s church after a small pedestrianised section. At the corner of the church grounds is the first actual Štefánikova Magistrála sign: reading “Uzky Les (narrow wood!)” 35 minutes and “Slavin (as in the monument in central Bratislava) 3 hours 55 minutes.” Here you want to go straight over the main road and up to the left of the church on a narrow lane. The houses soon give up the ghost, and at a rather-too-subtle red trail sign on a tree an even narrower lane along the bottom of a tree-lined gully climbs steeply left. Take it: soon the views begin to open out. This lane turns into a track just after one rather idyllic secluded house, and vistas of Devín with the pancake-flat fields of Austria become visible.

The Devínska Kobyla Section

Now on a path through thick foliage, you climb onto Devínska Kobyla, the afore-mentioned last (or first, if you’re coming from this direction) bastion of the Small Carpathian hills that it’s no secret I have an affection for.

It’s a massif worth spending some time in (diversion number two on today’s stage) because of the phenomenon of Sandberg, a spectacular sandy outcrop left over from the time when all this part of Slovakia was submerged by the sea, and because of the views along the Morava river and Austrian border, near where many Cold War-era bunkers and military paraphernalia remain.

Views of flat Austria to the west ©englishmaninslovakia.com

Views of flat Austria to the west ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Your path kinks to the right of an escarpment area (lush views again, but don’t be tempted to head left down into the escarpment) continuing gently up alongside a few open clearings before dipping into the woods again to arrive at Uzky Les. Here you have a choice. A yellow trail continues (fairly levelly) 30 minutes from here to arrive at Dúbravská Hlavica, the next significant point on the trail. The official red-marked Štefánikova Magistrála winds up into the woods and back to the same point, but in one hour 30 minutes. Englishmaninslovakia took the shortcut, but following red 40 minutes and then green for an hour brings you to Sandberg, at the other end of Devínska Kobyla. All in all, this full diversion adds on an extra three hours to you arriving at Dúbravská Hlavica and makes today’s walk 7.5 hours rather than 4.5 – but it’s worth doing if it’s your first time in these parts, and here (again) is our post with a few pictures on what you can see along this stretch.

At Dúbravská Hlavica (accessed on yellow from Uzky Les by continuing on the gorgeous yellow trail up through woods and then bearing right on a much-larger track) you are still in Devínska Kobyla. You are, once you come through a red-and-white forestry gate, on a metalled road, too. Keep straight on, passing a turning to an old hotel on the left, following the road over the top of a small hill passed a TV mast and a house. A little down from here, on the right, look for an information board demarcating a yellow cycle trail. You can’t see the red way marks from the road, but enter into the woods  to stand alongside the information board and sure enough, there is your red trail, zigzagging off through a dark but nevertheless fetching stretch of wood.

At a bunch of Slovakia’s speciality – weekend mountain houses, some of which look fairly bizarre here – the woodland path once more turns into a track, metalled in places, which you turn right on and continue along with the weird weekend mountain houses on the right. The weirdness is accentuated by the fact that now, accompanying the red way marks, are red eight-point stars, like the symbol of some cult, emblazoned on the trees. After a while this main road-track bends right and the Štefánikova Magistrála (marked red and blue at this point) carries on straight, at what will be around the one- to 1.5-hour mark on today’s stage, or the four to 4.5-hour mark if you’ve taken the extended Sandberg diversion).

At a small clearing a little along this wide woodland path, keep on the main route (bearing straight on, not right) and soon, staying on the level, you reach the first real sign of modern Bratislava at a gaggle of clearly expensive but not particularly pretty houses. The path goes down to the left of these, plunging through the woods with the modern city districts of Zaluhy, Kútiky and Karlova Ves soon poking through the trees, and providing a stark but eye-catching rural-urban contrast:)

The path descends to a minor road, crossing straight over into a residential district down on another path to the rude awakening of a junction with a major road. Look ahead of you and you’ll see red signs on lamp posts which guide you forward to a bridge over the major Karlova Ves-Dúbravka road, with tram tracks. Pay attention – because if you don’t like city walking, then TAKE PUBLIC TRANSPORT AT THIS POINT TO REACH KAMZÍK (Take Tram 5 towards Rača; get off at Martinus bookshop; cross to Hodžovo Námestie and take trolleybus 203 to the end of the line, from where it’s a 25-minute walk up to Kamzík.

The City Stretch

Once you cross the bridge above the tram stop of Karlova Ves, the way marking of the Štefánikova Magistrála dies a death for a while, so this guide may be your only salvation.

Turn left across the bridge at the crossroads and follow Pupavova street around to the left. This curves clockwise until you are level, on the other side of the houses, with the bridge you’ve just crossed. On the lefthand side, at the first break in the block of flats you see head down left on a small path that almost immediately bears left again and cuts diagonally down between houses before opening into a park.

The path becomes a flight of concrete steps and does, in fact, sport a couple of red way marks. Follow the concrete path until it emerges down at the bottom of the dip on a road. The official path climbs almost immediately up passed houses into the woods you can see ahead of you, but remains frustratingly elusive. Englishmaninslovakia’s solution was to turn right on the road, passing a red-and-white park gate into the valley-bottom park (picnicking, barbecue and play areas for a few metres either side of a wide metalled road) which is part of Mlynská Dolina (valley of the mill). Trees rise steeply up on both sides at this point. Just before the high-rise buildings of Karlova Ves come into view again, a distinct track on the left cuts up through the trees, just after one of several play areas. Take it – at which point you are around the two-hour mark, or the five-hour mark with the Sandberg diversion. It’s a fairly short stretch of wood that you climb through. At the top, bear to the right of the hues you see ahead to emerge on a driveway that you follow to the right, and to the only unpleasant kilometre of the walk.

The driveway becomes a proper road; follow and take the first right downhill on the only through-route for cars to meet, at a warehouse, the winding and rather dull road of Staré Grunty (it sounds as bad as it looks). Frustratingly, whilst there are two parks within virtual touching distance, for the moment this road should be followed left in a wide loop via housing developments, on first the 39 bus route (one or two red way marks appear) and then, hanging left around the edge of a shopping centre, the 139 bus route. Now things are more straightforward and you follow this busy road straight to a bridge over the out-of-town motorway to the Czech Republic. Over the bridge, and the route immediately becomes much more enjoyable.

The road narrows into a lane, rising between houses on the left and old woodland on the right (nb: little terraced restaurant here which although nothing special might come as a welcome break). After the houses, about 750 metres up, there is a split in the lane. A tiny lane (but one nevertheless passable by cars, sheers up steeply (at least 1:4 or more) passed some houses clearly designed by the city’s fancied architects to join a larger road. Turn right. This is Drotárska Cesta, and you follow this road round left and down to join the main road of Budkova. Another example of how the trail does something a bit strange here: rather than cutting into the lovely Horský Park the quickest way, which would be left, the route takes you diagonally across Budkova and then turns left after the bus stop on Stará vinárska, before bearing sharp left back on itself up the pleasant lane of Francúzských partizánov to reach the park this way. This is probably because, at the junction of Stará vinárska and Francúzských partizánov, you have the option of continuing straight on to check out the very impressive Bratislava viewpoint of Slavín (it’s significant worthwhile diversion number three).

Horsky Park ©englishmaninslovakia.com

Horsky Park ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Horský Park through to Kamzík

Missing the nature by this point? As you arrive at the three-hour/six-hour mark of today’s stage by Horský Park – one of the nicest Bratislava parks – countryside-lovers will be pleased to know that a further 30 minutes of hiking from here gets them into nature – unadulterated nature – that doesn’t let up for the next 100-odd kilometres of this path. The city part of this route – whilst it may to some seem unworthwhile – for me provided that beautiful sense of contrast which some long-distance paths have: busy Bratislava district, with people going about their daily business which has nothing to do with hiking, one minute, the next endless woods.

When you hit the woods on the edge of Horský Park, bear right at the information board and follow the stone steps right down through the park to the cafe of Libresso Horáren; yay – a refreshment stop again, and quite a nice one) at the bottom. Turn left on the leafy path along the bottom of the park, which after ten minutes of walking or so comes to the park entrance. Cross straight over onto Bohúňova, continue several blocks to Jaseňová, head up to the end where the road bends left into Brnianska, and emerge to cross over the busy main road directly under a railway bridge on a small concrete path. On the other side of the bridge the path leads left passing garages up to Limbová. Turn left on this fairly busy road, following it down under a bridge to – phew – then bear right after a bus stop up steps on a small path into – ahem – those endless woods we just mentioned.

An ambience delightfully reminiscent of old English woodland kicks in quite quickly. Ducking under (duck quite low) the old railway bridge, the path leads left, initially near a railway track and then right at a junction, then almost immediately left, already rising on the contours of the ascent to Kamzík. Quite soon there is another three-way junction of tracks and this time you want the right-most (uppermost) of the three. This will take you up through woodland, across a clearing, and right up to the very door of the Kamzík TV mast itself.  Kamzík is, as we have mentioned a few times on this site, more than just a landmark: it’s undoubtedly diversion number four on this stretch, and you’ll have time, because this is virtually the end of today’s stage. Check our Kamzík article for more, but first let us guide you to your accommodation for the end of the day which yes, is right up amidst these lovely woods.

It’s fairly simple, this last bit. Go down the steps at the entrance of the TV tower. Turn left on the little approach road. After the road curves round sharp right by a parking area you’ll see a minor path cutting down through the woods. Take it and in about three minutes you emerge on the approach road to Hotel West – your accommodation tonight. (it was formerly a Best Western but hey, we’re doing our best here to find you accommodation EN ROUTE – and this is a pretty nice former Best Western, as they go…) And as the post on Kamzík details, there’s a fair few things to do around here.

STAGE OVERVIEW MAP LINK

WHAT NEXT?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plus: More on the Cesta Hrdinov SNP Trail from Bradlo on towards Dukla…

Hiking the Cesta Hrdinov SNP, Stage One: Myjava to Vel’ka Javorina (featured in our Places to Go/Western Slovakia sub-section)

Hiking the Cesta Hrdinov SNP, Stage Two: Vel’ka Javorina to Drietoma (featured in our Places to Go/Western Slovakia sub-section)

©englishmaninslovakia.com

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Outside the Gallery ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Poprad: the Elektráreň

In stark contrast to a lot of Slovak cities, Poprad has rejuvenated the area around its main station. Heading into town from here, out of the station which in itself is something of a multi-floored Modernist marvel, you’ll walk down the verdant double-boulevard of Alžbetina or across the park four blocks south to the main drag of Štefanikova, and from there most likely a block further into the city centre. But there are some interesting diversions even before you’ve gone that far. On the other side of the imaginatively named Park pri železničej Stanici (railway station park!) an old power station has been converted into one of Slovakia’s best provincial art galleries: the Elektráreň.

Standing screened by trees, the building, lovingly restored in cream and red brick and huge green windows, focuses on thought-provoking modern Slovak art. It would be a breath of fresh air in the culture scene of a far larger city than this, but here in the capital of the High Tatras, where outdoor lovers would flock regardless, the presence of this branch of the Tatranská Galéria (Tatras Gallery, there is another branch south of Štefanikova) is particularly impressive, and talismanic of new, culturally resurgent Poprad.

Even so, it’s an elderly Slovak babka (grandmother), as in so many artistic institutions in the country, that welcomes you in to the Elektráreň and transports the experience into the realms of the surreal right from the off as she gives you an incredulous stare as probably one of her first visitors of the day (yes, it is likely you will have this gallery absolutely to yourself during your visit).

The downstairs space is reserved for changing exhibitions, and ones of a high international pedigree too (running right now is an exhibition of Edgar Degas works, and preceding this has been a whole host of other big names in Eastern European art, including already in 2016 a retrospective of one of Slovakia’s greatest ever 20th century artists, Albín Brunovský). It’s an impressive, multi-faceted space and the soaring ceilings of the old power station lends dramatic spaciousness and acoustics.

The upper levels are graced with a permanent collection of the Slovak wood carvings and sculptures particular to this part of Slovakia and, perhaps most fascinatingly, some surrealist works by contemporary Slovak artists. Most striking is the photography of Ľubomír Purdeš – his otvorena horá shows one of the High Tatras peaks with a huge circular chunk cut away, then suspended ethereally above, like a separate planet.

The best thing about the Elektráreň – over, say. bigger contemporary art galleries and museums in Slovakia such as Bratislava’s Danubiana – is certainly its prismatic focus on Slovak art and artists. These always get priority here, and the fabulous space is a true championing of the far-reaching nature of art in the country, in all its forms, in the 21st century.

A Quick Guide to the Other Content We Have on Poprad

Places to Go: Poprad’s lavish Aqua Park

Places to Go: Nine reasons to linger in Poprad

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

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

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

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

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

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

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s gourmet chocolatier

Going Out: Poprad & the Manchester United Connection

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

Getting Around: London to Poprad Flights

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

Top Ten Medieval Towns in Slovakia

 

MAP LINK

LOCATION: Hviezdoslavova 12 (the building is right on the corner, and there is also an entrance on Halatova.

ADMISSION: 3 Euros

OPENING: Monday 10am to 8pm, Tuesday to Friday 9am to 5pm, Sundays 1pm to 5pm

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: 1.2km east of the Elektráreň, and a pleasant walk along the Poprad River, is the immensely fun mega water park of AquaCity

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Modra: Majolika (Handicrafts)

For anyone wanting to bring home a memento of their time in Slovakia, this renowned ceramics shop in the beguiling little town of Modra 28km northeast of Bratislava is a sure-fired bet (excuse the pun).

Whilst many outlets, once they become moderately successful, gravitate to capital city high streets and shopping centres, Majolika has remained refreshingly low-key. Its signature store is still the unassuming little shop and workshop in the middle of Modra (right opposite the central church) –  even though its pottery is now sought after across Slovakia.

Going strong since 1883, it’s Majolika’s old-fashioned blue-and-white, and green/yellow/blue/white colour schemes with their intricate images floral motifs that have become what every self-respecting Slovak wants to line their dressers with. Particularly interesting, too (given that Modra is also a key stop on the Malé Karpaty wine route) are the cups with the vineyard scenes on.

RELATED POSTS: For more on the Malé Karpaty wine route see our Svätý Júr and Limbach posts.

Cups, plates, vases, slivovica flagons, butter dishes, painted eggs, piggy banks, plant pots, urns and figurines of traditional Slovak professions are amongst the wide array of the florally-decorated ceramics. They then also have a range of great (one-tone) baking dishes and jugs for hot sauces – including the special casserole dish used for baking duck, with a handle and a spout for draining off the juices!

Prices are incredibly cheap, too, considering the quality of the workmanship: ranging from a few Euros for a cup or small jug to only 30 Euros for larger items.

Majolika understandably features on our Top Ten Slovak gift ideas, too! Whilst it’s one of those shops that warrants a visit to the town it sits within by itself, Modra has the afore-mentioned viticulture industry, the legacy of Slovak national hero (well, the man did almost single-handedly found the Slovak language) L’udovit  Štúr) to explore and a dozen or more sensational hikes to try out in the nearby Malé Karpaty (Small Carpathians) surrounding the lovely Furmanská Krčma. Perhaps because of this, Modra’s also imminently going to be the subject of its own separate post on this blog, detailing all its lovely (mainly Štúr-themed) activities.

 

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

Places to Go: L’udovit Štúr’s Modra

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

Places to Eat & Drink: A beautiful traditional restaurant in the hills above Modra

 

MAP LINK Google maps doesn’t mark the Modra town centre location: it’s just above the Slovenská Sporitelňa bank on this map.

LOCATION: Štúrová at junction with Dukelská. The larger workshop location on Dolna can be found at this map link but it’s more inconvenient for visitors. Get there by bus from Bratislava bus station running every 20-40 minutes throughout the day.

OPENING: 9:30am-6pm Monday to Friday, 9:30am-midday Saturday.

 ANOTHER RELATED POST: Cruise up a few km above Modra to sample the delights of Furmanská Krčma

©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

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Poprad: AquaCity – The Most Fun You Can Have in the High Tatras With Your Clothes Off

The impression dawns, some small time after you arrive in the AquaCity reception area (by which time you can already discern the excitable babble of squeals filtering in from outside) that what you are about to embark on is a rollicking good time. You’re going to experience some world-class treatments, sure – but above all, you’re going to enjoy yourself.

AquaCity, on the outskirts of the High Tatras city of Poprad, enjoys a cracking view out to the rearing mountain peaks of Northern Slovakia in one direction, and a birds-eye panorama out over one of Slovakia’s most beguiling medieval centresSpišská Sobota, in the other. But what it offers itself is a big diversion from the stunning scenery and century-old architecture the country is so famous for. It offers Slovakia’s greatest array of water-based fun – and in a nation well known for spas, too. The spa or kúpele concept at Piešt’any, Rajecké Teplice or Bardejovské Kúpele attracts thousands of foreign visitors annually for the fantastic thermal waters bubbling under Slovakia’s soil. But they all take themselves quite seriously. Straight faces and respectful silences are not the norm at AquaCity: it’s no more possible to keep them than it is to keep yourself from licking your lips when you’re eating a jam doughnut.

There is nothing ancient about the strikingly modern (and, more strikingly, massive) AquaCity complex – except perhaps the thermal waters on which the entire thing rests. At a time when it was unknown that Poprad possessed thermal springs under its bedrock, the story goes that AquaCity’s owner, Jan Telensky, stumbled upon a rusty old pipe with the naturally heated 49-degree water gushing out of it whilst taking a walk on some nearby waste ground – and that thus was the idea of AquaCity born. Nowadays, after the High Tatras mountains themselves, this wondrous wellness experience is the city’s top attraction. As often as not, people come to Poprad to luxuriate in the (quite literally) piping hot waters and don’t give the mountains any more than an admiring glance.  The “scrap to riches” success story is all the more impressive once it becomes clear that AquaCity is so vast it is difficult even to begin to know how to describe it – let alone how to explore it.

I’m soon laughing with the rest of the day’s thousand-odd visitors when I check in for my pampering session (I should perhaps be referring to it as a pampering adventure, because quite quickly the experience takes you forth into uncharted waters). From excitement, yes, but first of all when the manager in all seriousness suggests I’ll need an absolute minimum of a day to appreciate everything the complex has in store.

I am not a spa writer and the idea of spending a day doing, well, nothing really besides a little lounging in various pools and saunas, doesn’t immediately appeal: not besides getting out in the mountains hiking, or biking, or climbing, or caving. But I am won round fairly quickly (I attribute it to the friendliness of the staff showing me the ropes and the sheer innovation evidently behind AquaCity). As a writer you require something to really write about regardless of the subject matter: I would rather gush over a quirky hostel with nothing but dorm beds than I would over a lacklustre top-of-the-range hotel. Similarly, with AquaCity, I found the many USPs revealed on my cursory tour caused me to prick up my ears even though I have been known to doze off whilst listening to the intro spiel for some of the world’s better-known spa resorts.

Let’s deal with one issue, straight off. AquaCity is not a spa. It’s a resort without much precedent anywhere in Europe, sporting three hotels and great conference facilities (business travellers), too many eating and drinking options to count (food lovers), world-class leisure facilities from football to tennis to minigolf (sports lovers), some seriously ground-breaking health and beauty treatments (treatment seekers) – and then of course that immense collection of pools, Jacuzzis and saunas (pleasure lovers and fun-seekers!). Geothermal water-themed leisure and pleasure complex will suffice as a general description for now…

image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Cryotherapy…

I am advised to commence with the serious stuff (because AquaCity does have a serious side, like all wellness centres). There is good sense behind the advice: in absolute contrast with the geothermal waters for which the complex is most renowned, I am about to get cold – very cold (and it’s much better to wind up at the end of the day with a warm feeling lingering).

The cryotherapy unit, in its own special wing at AquaCity, is a European leader (cryotherapy was first developed here in Eastern Europe): the body is frozen at a temperature of first -60 degrees and then -120 degrees for a total of two and a half minutes in two different chambers. Whilst it is available in bigger cities like London, AquaCity offers the experience at a fraction of the price. Said to treat all manner of sporting injuries, the treatment involves first donning a warm hat, special thick-soled shoes and mittens, getting a medical examination (in this case by a jovial and somewhat flamboyant doctor) to check the temperature shock won’t kill you, then being ushered into first an ante-chamber (at a mere -60 degrees) and then, in 30 seconds time, being summoned into the main chamber at -120 degrees, where you have to walk around for two minutes (four minutes would induce death but two is fine) whilst the merry doctor communicates with you on a tannoy to check that you’re not in agony. And incredibly, you are not – because the iciness has very little moisture content. You walk out feeling invigorated and then engage in half an hours’ warm-up in the cryotherapy section’s gym. By which time you are more than ready for those warm waters…

One of the many pools ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

One of the many pools ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Getting Warmed Up

Back up a level, across AquaCity’s four-star Mountain View hotel, down again and along a twisting series of corridors (by which point, after almost a kilometre of walking, you will certainly be understanding the appropriateness of the ‘city’ part of the name of the complex), one enters the area known as Vital World – which is perfect for those that just imagined moments before they would be frozen to death.

Changing into nowt but a towel (the towel is optional, but you cannot proceed wearing swimming costumes – welcome to Central European-style spas!) you can embark on a veritable round trip of extravagant relaxation, circling through a steam sauna, a flower sauna, a salt sauna, a Finnish sauna and a beautiful snow cave (yep, High Tatras snow and ice in a cute little enclave that will have you thinking you’re in Santa’s grotto rather than a mega-resort). To truly luxuriate you’ll need a couple of hours here at least (I luxuriate quite rapidly as a rule and it still took me nearly that long) – particularly if you throw in the hot tub, the official relaxation area (after all that hard work in the saunas, some time on sunbeds with classical music is not amiss) and Slovakia’s premier Thai massage centre. Thai massage options include the Rit Tee (a hot, herbal massage) and the popular Tok Sen, which uses small sharp sticks to poke through your skin at the tissue and bones and thus, somehow, improve your circulation…

Poolside Fun

Vital World is wonderful, but there’s no denying that the part of AquaCity where you really let the inner child within you out is the extensive range of pools, indoor and outdoor, and water slides: a 50-metre Olympic-sized swimming pool, plus (between the inside and outside areas) 13 more pools with temperatures ranging between 27 and 40 degrees. Kids love AquaCity’s newest water-based fun, the Treasure Island pool – themed around a huge pirate ship. Even an a cool day the outside pools are packed (although the water slides open only in the height of summer). Fountains, more Jacuzzis, a swim-up bar and a healthy restaurant sandwiched midway through your between-pool wanderings embellish the experience. Best of all, each evening, a spectacular laser light show is projected around one of the larger pools (the Blue Sapphire): a fitting way to cap a day of being good to yourself…

AquaCity’s Eco-Friendliness

It would be tempting to think there was something wasteful in all this lavish use of hot water. But the opposite is the case.

The bore hole on which the complex sits gushes out 49-degree water that would otherwise not get used for very much at all. Instead, AquaCity’s modern steel-and-glass design allows for the water to travel around the buildings, heat up the centre from the pools to the rooms (in conjunction with solar energy), and still have sufficient quantities to power the world’s only geothermally heated football stadium, right next-door. Other deft green touches will have you feeling a whole lot better about your spa-going, too. Lights, for example, switch on and off automatically when you enter or exit a room. Pools were constructed with steel rather than concrete, which meant far less impact on the environment. The centre was even the first in Central Europe to attain the highly-coveted Green Globe award, the highest mark of internationally recognised environmentally friendly excellence. AquaCity brands itself as an immersion in ecological luxury and that, it seems, it most definitely is.

For sure, there is a fair amount to write home about – even for those for whom spas normally leave feeling luke-warm – and no need to feel guilty, due to those glowing green credentials, about indulging in AquaCity’s rather unique blend of fun… there are few places in Slovakia that cater quite so well simultaneously to poker-faced business conferences, to romancing couples – and to young families shrieking in unrestrained joy.

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: 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 gourmet chocolatier

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: Sportova 1397/1: from Poprad Tatry train station head east (left) on the main road, Štefanikova.

ADMISSION: 22 Euros (Aquapark only day ticket) or 34 Euros (Vital World and Aquapark day ticket)

OPENING: 9am to 10pm daily (Aquapark), 9am to 10pm Monday, Tuesday, Friday and Saturday (Vital World), 4pm to 7pm Tuesday to Saturday (Cryotherapy)

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: 42km northeast of AquaCity is Slovakia’s only whisky distillery at Hniezdne.

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Inside Bratislava’s Upside-Down Pyramid

The Slovenský Rozhlas, or Slovak Radio Building, is known by Bratislava tourists mostly only as a bizarre addition to the city skyline, standing in something of a Modernist no-man’s land outside the periphery of the Old Town. And it is bizarre – in shape, at least. It’s an upside-down concrete pyramid, for Chrissakes: it rivals even the concrete spaceship poised in mid-air above the Danube (the UFO as it’s affectionately known, on Most SNP bridge) for Bratislava’s most surreal structure. But once you’re done with the gawping, its role in Slovak culture, nay, its role in shaping the Slovak psyche, should not be under-estimated. All state-run radio stations have, after all, offices here: including my favourite, Radio FM.

At any time of day you can go in and wander around the rather expansive reception area, where cases display exhibits from 80 years of Slovak radio (old phones, communication equipment and the statue of a golden man with his head buried in a radio). There is also a decent cafe, that looks very 1980s, with a great deal of magenta furnishings, on the ground floor.

But the best time to visit is for one of their concerts. Radio FM are well-known for their discerning music selection, and they put on a fair few of the concerts that happen here. But there are also other organisers, including several of the embassies in Bratislava. These events happen regularly, and are pretty word-of-mouth. They’re not announced on the Rozhlas.sk website, for example, nor even at the building itself, but only on the organiser’s website, if they have one, and on posters around the city – making just finding out about upcoming events something of an adventure.

I would like to say I’m not being biassed with my glowing recommendation to catch concerts here at the upside-down pyramid – if it’s the only live music you see in Bratislava. But I fear I am. One of the very greatest gigs I ever saw in my life was on there for my first experience of the venue: the exceptionally gifted Japanese pianist Yosuke Yamashita, performing with flute-and percussion duo Lotus Position – I have NEVER seen three musicians gel so well or devote so much of themselves to a gig (or such a mesmerising improvisation on Dvorjak!)

RELATED POST – The Only Round-the-Clock Czech and Slovak Music Station Hits the Airwaves

The intelligent and original selection of concerts at the Slovak radio building means more fantastic performances are a guarantee – and have been for years. I can say the space is fantastic – one of the city’s best for sit-down concerts, with really good acoustics (and the added benefit of all that fascinating Slovak communications history just outside). It’s not as restricted for space as you would imagine the narrow end of a pyramid to be, either…:) (because the actual pyramid part of the structure, of course, veers up from the second floor only). The concerts are invariably free, too. Because of this they attract a very diverse range of people. There is something inexplicably wonderful about a music venue of such high quality that is still so under-the-radar, and about coming here to check out an eclectic mix of music acts – all for absolutely nothing.

MAP LINK:

GETTING THERE: Slovenský Rozhlas/ the Slovak Radio Building is a ten-minute walk from the city centre.

ADMISSION: As mentioned: invariably free.

WHEN TO COME?: Your guess is almost as good as ours. Maybe better. Posters around town will advertise any upcoming gigs here, so keep your eyes peeled: if Slovenský Rozhlas is on the flyer you’ll know it’s here (and dates on flyers in Slovakia are invariably written in numerical form). Keep a lookout on Bratislava’s embassy websites too: they arrange a lot of events here themed around the esoteric musical outputs of the nations they represent.

MORE ON BRATISLAVA’S BRUTALIST BUILDINGS: A Ludicrous Little Tour Through the Communist Legacy in Slovakia

Bojnice Castle

Prievidza & Bojnice: Local Insights into the Valley of the Upper Nitra

We’re extremely grateful to fellow Czech- and Slovak-ophile, novelist James Silvester for writing this article for us on the delights of the little-visited town of Prievidza and nearby Bojnice, crowned by its majestic chateau.

It almost seems unfair to the Central-Western City of Prievidza to make it share an article with its much smaller but more glamorous neighbour, Bojnice and I mean absolutely no disrespect in doing so; it is simply that, for me at least, the two places are so intertwined that I find it hard to think of one without the other and consider them both to be, in effect, my second home.

Prievidza, in reality of course, is by no means the poor neighbour. Indeed, it is the industrial centre of the area with a relatively sizeable population (approx. 50,000 at last count) and an industry that has grown from a base in coal mining and the nearby power plant to include in recent years what seems a heavy investment in retail outlets and modernisation.

On my first visit to Prievidza, the fearsome, imposing letters of TESCO loomed out from between the branches at me, like the sinister Headquarters of a Bond villain. Since then, that particular corporate giant (and the adjacent Kaufland) have been joined by a freshly built shopping complex, housing coffee shops, eateries and all manner of branded retailers as the city aims to provide everything the everyday consumer could want. Heading further into the City centre, the square is complimented by another, more traditional shopping centre with smaller, more bespoke outlets lining the streets, and the attractive St. Bartholomew’s Church serving as a gateway.

Biograf, one of the best places to eat in the area ©JamesSilvesterAuthor.com

Biograf, one of the best places to eat in the area ©JamesSilvesterAuthor.com

What to Do?

Staving off a mention of the inevitable (the blockbuster nearby attraction of Bojnice Castle) for a little longer, Prievidza and the wider Horná Nitra region offer an impressive number of pastimes, with quite literally something for everyone.

For the active traveller there are some truly beautiful hiking/biking routes as well as a nearby ski slope and, if being strapped to the wings of a plane and dropped out of the sky is your bag, the chance to skydive from Prievidza’s small, local airport. In town there is a Museum of the Upper Nitra Valley Region (focussing on the fascinating history and geology of the area) and there is a beautiful golf course (and mini golf not too far away). Up in Bojnice village, the Museum of Prehistory (great for the kids) is right by its very own cave, which you can also visit as part of the experience.

Where to Eat and Drink?

Some truly great places to eat are scattered around Prievidza and Bojnice too. A personal favourite venue is Biograf, just off Bojnice high street (and happily a way away from the tourist hoards at the castle). A unique little venue with a mix of Slovak and British meals available (and garnering double points for always having blues playing), Biograf is actually the first ever cinema in the town which has been converted into a restaurant/wine bar of the unpretentious and extremely beguiling kind. Another classic place to head is the Kipi Casa Pub and Beer Garden, a stirling example of the very in záhradná piváreň (garden pub) concept a short distance away in Lazany.

And Now For the Set Piece: Bojnice Castle

From the Prievidza McDonalds (perfect for those who really can’t do without their little Western pleasures, and just why the Menu is so much better than in Britain is a mystery) runs the main road connecting the city with Bojnice. And it’s as you continue up this thoroughfare that it hits you: The Castle. It really does smack you in the face, as the row of trees lining the road give way to a suddenly unspoiled view of this piece of real life fairy tale, nestled with an almost nonchalant arrogance in the bosom of the densely forested mountain. It’s Sexy and It knows it.

The first mention of the castle (and the town) came in 1113 in the Bills of the King and it has often been described as Slovakia’s most visited castle. I could offer you a number of reasons why it deserves this epithet, but it ultimately comes down to one reason: It’s awesome. I mean, truly jaw dropping; it’s like Disneyland without commercialised mice, or Hogwarts without magic sodding adolescents. It’s current appearance owes much to the reconstruction sponsored by the last aristocratic owner in the early 20th century, but parts of the original castle wall still remain. Beneath the castle is a cave system with a well reaching deep down, which visitors to the tour can see for themselves.

All along the Watchtower… Bastion in Bojnice's grounds ©JamesSilvesterAuthor.com

All Along the Watchtower… Bastion in Bojnice’s well-castellated grounds ©JamesSilvesterAuthor.com

Not Just A Pretty Face…

It would be wrong to think Bojnice was all about the castle as there is so much more on offer, even before the investment put in for the Town’s 900th anniversary a couple of years back (yeah, the village harks back to 1113 and has the documents to prove it). Across from the castle is the expansive zoo (the oldest municipal zoo in the country) which is a whole day visit in itself. With plenty of rest points dotted around, the zoo reaches high up into the hills, affording some truly spectacular views of Prievidza and the whole area, not really done justice by a fat guy with an iPhone, but here goes:

©JamesSilvesterAuthor.com

©JamesSilvesterAuthor.com

Behind the castle lies a small, but effective, Dinosaur Park where you can let animatronic beasties frighten your kids, and alongside that (in the Summer season only) is a large and quite wonderful outdoor community swimming park. With a kid’s and full size pool and a couple of slides to choose from and plenty of sunbathing spots and eateries lining it, it rivals the zoo as an easy place to lose a day for just a few euros.

A short walk from there lies one of the main sources of tourism: Bojnice Spa. Surrounded by the forest, the spa is home to several indoor and outdoor heated pools (there really is nothing like swimming outdoors at night in winter with snow falling around you) and some rather impressive hotels, while a variety of treatments are available from the multi-lingual staff. Well worth a visit, even just for a swim – and definitely one of Slovakia’s loveliest spas.

What’s On?

The region plays host to several festivals throughout the year, perhaps the most famous being the International Festival of Ghosts and Spirits.

Although missing the festival this year, I was able to take part in a nice little community ‘clean up’ event in which a few volunteers cleared rubbish from the forest paths around the town ahead of it. This was made all the better by the participation of the Town’s Mayor, who resembled Joe Pesci, but tempered somewhat by my six year old son finding his first condom (which he mercifully believed to be an empty sausage). Thank God for gloves…

When to Go?

In truth there is something here all year round. Obviously, high season in the summer is perfect for those with young families as most of the attractions are open every full time and days will be packed, but that isn’t to deter from visiting at other times too (particularly because Bojnice Castle itself gets so crowded at peak times).

The area is a fun, friendly, clean and safe environment that epitomises the best of Slovak hospitality and offers something about as different to the bright lights of Bratislava as it’s possible to get in Western Slovakia. If you are heading into Eastern Europe, make the time to pay a visit and you might just find that Prievidza and Bojnice, just as they have with me, become your home away from home.

About the Writer…

James Silvester has been soaking up Slovakia’s unique atmosphere since 2005, with Prievidza and Bojnice becoming his much loved second home. In that time he has well and truly fallen for the beauty of this region of Central Europe and, more importantly, has realised that charming British befuddlement will in no way protect One from the repeated offer of Slivovice. A former Mod DJ for internet radio, James’s debut novel, Escape to Perdition, set in the Czech & Slovak Republics, was published in June 2015 with Urbane Publications.

 MAP LINK:

GETTING THERE: Four direct trains daily (a shade over three hours) serve Prievidza from Bratislava Hlavna Stanica (otherwise change at Šurany). From Prievidza it’s 2km up to Bojnice and bus is the way: they run hourly from the Prievidza bus station and take 8 minutes.

BOJNICE CASTLE ESSENTIALS: Website Opening Hours Admission by one-hour tour from 9am to 4pm from Easter to September, or from 10am to 3pm October to Easter. Closed on Mondays from October to May. Admission Price 8 Euros per adult.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Prievidza it’s 62km north to Žilina.

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Around Bratislava – the West: Devínska Nová Ves & Devínska Kobyla (the Slovak Sahara)

We’ve talked a bit in posts about the countryside around Bratislava: the rearing Carpathian forests of the Mestské Lesy to the north and the wooded trails stretching southeast along the River Danube. But there is also some phenomenal countryside to the west. On a map, of course, Bratislava looks like it’s already so far west within Slovakia that going any further in that direction would mean you’d be in Austria. That’s not quite true. There’s a good ten kilometres of interesting sights sandwiched between the capital and the Austrian border and because this is Slovakia there’s a caveat: most of them are hidden.

The one everyone knows about is Devín Castle, or Hrad Devín: that’s the ruined castle perched spectacularly on a rocky bluff overlooking the confluence of the Morava and Danube rivers. (Here’s a link to the best and most comprehensive web entry I could find on the castle itself). Devín Castle, in the small homonymous town, is the day trip to do from Bratislava: but neither castle nor town should be confused with Devínska Nová Ves, a largely unappealing suburb with some of the least inspiring paneláky (high-rise communist-built apartments) around and exactly the place I want to focus on in this post. Now, the question you may ask is: why focus on a largely unappealing suburb with  some of the least inspiring paneláky around? Well…

Devínska Nová Ves, in common with several of Bratislava’s suburbs and indeed Communist-built suburbs the world over, may not look picturesque at first glance. But because a lot of these suburbs in Bratislava were built right on the city’s edge, they have a proximity to some stunning natural landscapes. And the high-rise tower blocks and the big Volkswagen Slovakia plant (the country’s largest company, as a matter of interest) bely the fact that Devínska Nová Ves was a pretty village before they arrived on the scene and indeed, in parts, on its steeply-sloping hills, still is.

The Main Reasons to Come Out Here…

  • The best views possible of Devín Castle & the confluence of the Morava and Danube rivers
  • A fascinating insight into Slovakia’s geological past in and around Sandberg.
  • The closest you’ll get to the Sahara in Slovakia (Sandberg).
  • The imposing, little-known castle of Schlosshof
  • Slovakia’s best cycle path
  • The most exciting back route/hike to Devín Castle itself, through the lovely Devínska Kobyla

The Abrázna Jasykňa (Abrasion Cave)

The main entrance from Bratislava brings you under the railway and onto Eisnerova street. Follow this road to the end (through the high-rises) and then bear left on the road that goes alongside the Morava river. On the left, after you pass Rolando restaurant, you’ll find the best place to park in Devínska Nová Ves, right below the Abrázna Jasykňa. This is a cool sight in itself: a former quarry wall which, through the rock that has been exposed, showcases the area’s intriguing geology. 13-14 million years ago, Slovakia was not the coast-less country you see today, but was actually largely submerged under a Tertiary sea, and the resultant strata of rock deposits are strikingly clear here. On the left-hand side higher up on the cliff face is the cave itself, but it’s difficult to get up to go into the mouth.

Sandberg
Sandberg ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Sandberg – Where Bratislava Meets the Sahara!

From the car park, head back up towards the centre to the first road junction (Primoravská), turn right and then take the Slovinec street up from Pension Helios up to the weird and wonderful sight that is Sandberg (pictured above).

This is another (far more spectacular) remnant of the Tertiary Sea that once spread out across this part of Central Europe (Záhorie to the north of Bratislava along the western edge of Slovakia is another impressive example). Some 300 kinds of fossils and animal skeletons have been found at Sandberg, including shark’s teeth and whale vertebrae – as well as the distinctly non-marine wooly rhinoceros.

Sandberg is the northern end of the massif of Devínska Kobyla, a long forested ridge that forms the westernmost extent of Slovakia’s Carpathian Mountains and runs south from here to the afore-mentioned Devín Castle. It’s a palaeontologist’s dream come true but it’s a dramatic sight too: a series of part-fossilised dunes that rear up out of the side of Devínska Kobyla like some ancient natural fortress.

It should be noted at this point that climbing on the sand formations is not encouraged – a fence is supposed to deter entry but people often ignore this and risk endangering what is a precious and extremely fragile environment.

The Sandberg Loop: The Most Dramatic Approach to Devín Castle

Most visitors get the bus or drive to Devín Castle from Bratislava but for a more rewarding way to get there, make the journey out to Sandberg (drive or take bus 28 every 30 minutes from Most SNP to Devínska Nová Ves).  From here, a beautiful path cuts along just below the Devínska Kobyla ridge through forests above the Morava River valley as it flows towards its confluence with the Danube. It’s a 50 min to 1 hour brisk walk along and finally down to Devín Cintorín (Devín Cemetery) which marks the edge of Devín town, and 10 minutes’ further walk to the castle. You can return the same  way or make the walk into a loop which will bring you back above Sandberg.

From Sandberg, the first part of the walk stays in the open, with great views looking south of the Morava, looking ahead to Devín Castle. To the west, you’ll see the outline of Schloshof castle, over the other side of the river on the flat farmland of Austria (see below for more details on Schloshof). Right below you, along the Morava itself, you’ll see Slovakia’s best dedicated cycling trail, which runs from the suburb of Dúbravka (connected by tram number 5 to the city centre) through the edge of Devínska Nová Ves and on to Devín.) Then you’ll pass some old quarries (with a good grassy picnicking area below) and on your right the old remnants of the Iron Curtain’s border defence towers. Whilst the vista today looks peaceful, many people died trying to cross the Morava River from East to West before 1989. This was the Iron Curtain: right here.

Tree Tunnels on the path to Devín Castle
Tree Tunnels on the path to Devín Castle ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The route at this point goes through some wonderful tunnels of trees, then rises through woods to reach a wildlife information board and the confluence of the path coming down from the top of the Sandberg ridge. Here is a great view across to Devín Castle. The path comes out into the open again here and descends to the cemetery, but just as it starts to descend, the exciting return route sheers off up to the left.

You climb steeply up on a minor path to come out on the bare southernmost edge of the Devínska Kobyla ridge (where the best views possible of Devín Castle await). It was around here we got a bit lost and some whimsical old guy wearing inexplicably just slippers on his feet sung us some old Slovak songs without us really inviting it… Wend your way through the scrub and thinning woods just passed here to come out on a signed red trail which starts to curve back into the woods in the direction of Sandberg, almost on top of the ridge this time. You follow first a cycle path and then a wide, clearly-marked green trail, and finally a yellow trail to take you down onto the ridge right above Sandberg, then around the edge and back to the start point.

Devín Castle from the Sandberg-Devín Path
Devín Castle from the Sandberg-Devín Path – ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Bike/Hike Out to Schlosshof

Just north of where you turn off on Primoravská to get to Sandberg, you’ll find the unlikely tourist information office of Devínska Nová Ves, and the beginnings of the Cyclomost Slobody (Libery Cycleway) – a great cycle path that crosses the Morava into Austria and ushers you forth to the lavish and stately Schlosshof castle, which in terms of the castle’s lavish interiors and serenely beautiful formal gardens looks quite like Austria’s Versailles. This last weekend it was unfortunately closed (the castle is open from March 25th through to the beginning of November) although you can still of course use the cycle bridge at any time: I’ll head back there soon and will have a more detailed post on the castle then. For now, here’s the link to the Schlosshof official website.

A Final Thought on Practicalities…

What with the Sandberg-Devín Castle walk AND a stop-off at Devín Castle it will be extremely difficult to fit Schlosshof castle into the same day’s trip. You could combine the Sandberg walk with Devín Castle or the Sandberg site itself with the cycle out to Schlosshof in a day, however.

MAP LINK:

GETTING THERE:

As mentioned above, drive or (best of the public transport ops) take bus 28 every 30 minutes from Most SNP to Devínska Nová Ves.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Devínska Nová Ves it’s a 25km journey round to the southwest across the border to Hainburg in Austria.

RELATED POST: Pajštún Castle Hike (an alternative castle to see around Bratislava – lying a few km north of Devínska Nová Ves)

RELATED POST: Ružinov, Cemeteries & Communist Cafeterias (another random neighbourhood of Bratislava no tourists visit)

RELATED POST: Buying Hiking Maps & Apps

RELATED POST: The Small Carpathians: An Intro

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Piešt’any: In the Footsteps of Beethoven

Slovakia has only been a nation twenty-three years. Before that it was a region within regularly chopping and changing borders: Turkish, Austrian, Hungarian, Czech, German, Russian: all have had a stab at meddling with the frontiers here. And so, through the ages, a huge diversity of famous personages stopped by for one reason or another: people you never would have associated with Slovakia. One of these was Beethoven. We’ve already detailed in our post on Hlohovec how the great composer famously stopped off for one night in the town and performed for them. He was stopping off en route to Piešt’any: and there he stayed some time.

Ludwig was hastening here for the spas of course: Piešt’any is a spa town and the obvious reason to come is to take the waters. But there are other things to do besides luxuriating in the healing mud treatments. There are now, and there was then, and Beethoven has a lot to do with it.

It’s not recorded for precisely how long Beethoven stayed, but most sources reckon it was during the winter of 1801-1802. He resided in Villa Bacchus, a grand still-standing but currently unused building in the hills north of the town, and popularised the culture of winter sleigh rides between the villa and Piešt’any’s spa island (great fun on the way there, as it is all down hill, but tough, quite possibly, ascending again from Piešt’any.) The composer was lucky enough to visit Piešt’any pretty much at its zenith: its glamorous status of the age helped no end by the most eponymous of the Erdödy family, Jozef, who had owned the spa town since 1789 (his family, in fact, since 1720).  Jozef Erdödy liked beautiful things (I know this from reading a plaque in the Balnea Esplanade Hotel), had Hlohovec Castle lavishly redecorated with treasures from the corners of the known world, and took his state-of-the-art (then) sleigh (adorned with dragon’s heads to symbolise power) up to see Beethoven at Villa Bacchus whilst the composer was in town.

As we set off on a chilly spring walk from spa island, we didn’t know any of this. We just fancied a leg-stretch and, having already walked the lengths of the River Váh in both directions from the town centre, decided on heading up into the hills directly above the Thermia Palace hotel (into the lower reaches of the Považský Inovec uplands).

A blue-marked trail twists up into the woods from just left of the road bridge across the Váh. At this point it’s a concreted path, and hung with gas lamps (signs of a lovelier age that we pondered upon on the climb). After perhaps 20 minutes of walking you cross a road at a large castellated ruin, which looks impressive (if slightly malevolent) and a branch-off path to the Koliba Restaurant (where there’s good rustic Slovak cooking and nice views back down over spa island and the town).

But the blue trail, also a yellow cycling route, continues on a gorgeous path through woods and then, unusually for a Slovak trail, cuts across farmland. The scene is surprisingly reminiscent of the English South Downs. A tree-lined path through open fields with gentle patchwork quilt-type landscapes falling away on one side and a vast reservoir rearing into view on the other. Not previously knowing anything about the landscapes on this side of Piešt’any both the Englishness and the reservoir (Nádrž Slňava, where a country music festival takes place in the summer) were a surprise.

The one thing we did know at this stage was that we were following a route to Villa Bacchus which, in the biting January wind, assumed almost mythical proportions for us. There would be a beautiful cosy restaurant there, we fantasised. With a crackling open fire, we guessed. Surrounded by beautiful vineyards, we hoped.

The vineyards appeared first. Then, maybe 1km further on, after a ridge route above the reservoir, the scattering of houses which must surely contain Villa Bacchus reared into view, crouched below the higher hills of the Small Carpathians looming behind. In the distance, you could spy the summit where Tematín Castle sits. On a sunnier day, we would have kept walking. From here, beguiling hill hikes both south to Hlohovec and north to Tematín await. But it was cold, and it seemed we were to be disappointed: Villa Bacchus was no longer operational as a dignified lodging house that hosted the like likes of Ludwig. But then, in the lee of the hill, a striking yellow building appeared, with smoke coming out of the chimney. Every one of our fantasies about a cosy place to retreat from the weather were, bizarrely in this out-of-the-way spot, about to become reality, in the form of Restauracia Furman (just down from the old Villa Bacchus).

So a 2km hike from Piešt’any can conjure up some rather wondrous surprises. The best route back to spa island is by returning the same way and there we discovered the sleigh that could very well have been the one Erdödy rode on to call on Beethoven in along the very hike described here. At least, as the plaque alongside conceded, it must have been one very similar…

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

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

 

MAP LINK

GETTING THERE: Piešt’any is on the main train line between Bratislava, Poprad and Kosice; this walk kicks off right from spa island (Kúpeľný ostrov).

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: Continue 23km north by road from the end of this hike at the Furman Restaurant (and a few km less if you’re hiking through the hills) to reach the dramatic ruins of Tematín Castle

NB: Round off the Beethoven tour with a jaunt to see a memorial dedicated to his stint in Piešt’any, in the town park: it was finished in 1939 by Ladislav Ľ. Pollák, a prominent sculptor.

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Stará Ľubovňa: A Journey to the Roots of Slovak Whiskey at Nestville Park Distillery

A few months back I was doing my usual, intermittent mooch around my favourite Bratislava whisky shop, the White Mouse, when I noticed something tucked away in the corner of the window display gathering dust that I hadn’t glimpsed on previous visits, or indeed anywhere else: a bottle of Nestville Park, and the caveat, in small print: ‘Distilled and Bottled in Slovakia’.

It was their No1 offering – a blend and, as it turned out, the standard bottling for the distillery – and being a purist when in comes to whisky (yes, or whiskey) I would not have normally given it any more attention. Except for that small print. I had not until that moment, having lived in Slovakia over three years, been aware that the country produced whiskey whatsoever.

“What’s it like?” I asked the owner, who is a tad taken aback, as we normally chat about the Islay’s or the Speyside’s.

He considers a moment.

“It’s not bad” he says.

Crucial, that. Slovaks are some of the planet’s most self-deprecating people, particularly where anything intrinsically ‘Slovak’ is concerned, and here was one of its more worldly wise citizens, on record saying Slovakia’s foray into whisky-making was alright.

From that moment, the idea of a trip out to see where Nestville Park was made slowly cemented in my mind.

Part of the reason I love trekking out to whisky distilleries is the sheer randomness of the experience. There is no Earthly reason to trek out to a Campbelltown in Scotland or the outskirts of a Fort Worth in Texas unless you love whisky (Springbank and Firestone & Robinson, respectably). It provides a motivation to get out to those way-off-the-beaten-track places that would otherwise remain in obscurity.

And perhaps Stará Ľubovňa, the town to which you need to head to visit the home of Nestville Park, would have otherwise floundered in obscurity, too, were it not for its whiskey production. It is prettier, in fact, than either a Campbelltown or a Fort Worth: with a castle, a folk museum and a history dating back to the 13th century (although many more easily accessible Slovak towns can claim this). And more than either a Campbelltown or a Fort Worth, it is on a road to nowhere, in a rarely-visited part of a country that already receives comparatively few international visitors. They say that once you reach Stará Ľubovňa, you have truly arrived in Eastern Slovakia, which claims cultural distinctiveness from the west in everything from its people (the Roma and the Rusyn as well as the Polish and Ukrainians have a significant influence here) to its religion (it lies on the crossroads of the Catholic and Orthodox branches of Christianity). But the most obvious reason why the town would be the gateway to Eastern Slovakia is that, as you travel east from the High Tatras hubs of Poprad and Kežmarok, you pass nothing for the preceding 30 minutes but rolling emerald hills bursting with fertile farmland, swooping up from the banks of the nascent Poprad River.

The bus from Kežmarok (full of elderly couples that hunch deep into their coats and sigh as the light drizzle becomes a steadily harder rain as we wind up the valley road) stops a few kilometres short of  Stará Ľubovňa, in Hniezdne, the smallest city in the erstwhile Kingdom of Hungary. The name is appropriate: not only does ‘hniez’ in Slovak mean ‘nest’ (from whence the distillery derives its name) but the small, sleepy town is at the very cradle of national history, being founded as one of the earliest Slovak settlements after Nitra – in the 12th century. Certainly, by  this time, Slavic people would have been working the land hereabouts and the Northern Spiš region soon became well known for its agriculture. Cream of the crops? Wheat, barley and rye – just the grain needed for the production of the water of life – and Slovakia’s first recorded distillery duly got established here by at least the 18th century.

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It’s a stark contrast between the ornate, peeling facades of the central townhouses and the spick, span entranceway to the distillery on the outskirts. I passed under the imposing wooden gateway proclaiming Nestville Park as Slovakia’s first (indeed, only) whiskey. Rain danced on an almost deserted car park: I was the sole visitor, another big difference compared to the Scottish distilleries with which I was familiar.

It’s hard to understand why is Nestville Park is an exceptionally well-laid-out tourist attraction. It is not only a whiskey distillery, it is also an exhibition on the history of whiskey making in this neck of the woods.

The two girls in the reception area glanced at me a tad incredulously when I walked in; the more so when I spoke to them in Slovak. Foreign tourists, it appeared, were none too common here. I was given the ‘English’ tour which consists of a guide (one of the afore-mentioned young ladies) who couldn’t speak a word of English pressing stop/start on an obtrusively loud American-accented recording, quite unnecessarily as it turned out because the displays in the ‘historical section’ of the distillery were in English. Nevertheless, thus we proceeded, me reading the in-English noticeboards, then having the same words replayed to me with a mechanical Deep-South twang.

The tour, though, was an enlightening romp through recreations of an 18th century cooperage and smithy, plus insights into how agriculture was practiced here in the 12th to 17th centuries. You get to have a ring of a huge bell in the belfry, too – once used to summon the workers!

Then the visit to the modern distillery commences.

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Sniffing that grain! ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Single malt aficionados should known straight off that Nestville Park is more akin to American bourbon – the maturation process ranging from three to seven years on average.

The malting process is done by hand. After 2-3 days soaked in water and malt is laid out in the malthouse for around a week to germinate. Then it gets switched to a kiln for further drying (2-3 days). The malt then has the water added to it – in Nestville Park’s case, water from a spring that has been flowing underground from the Bela Tatras part of the High Tatras mountains, and with a high iron, calcium and magnesium content, filtering through Paleogen-era bedrock en route. The fermentation room, considering Nestville Park’s products are mostly sold to a Slovak-only demographic, is huge: some 20 tanks each able to have 75,000 litres of alcohol bubbling away inside them.

The distillery overall has a modern feel – despite the historic record of a distillery around this site dating back to at least the 19th century – and the buildings are mostly very 21st century. Its pièce de résistance however, the tasting room, veritably oozes with history. Here, in an ornate hall hung on one side by what is Europe’s largest wood-carved picture, you get to partake of that well-earned sample dram – or, should I say, sizeable glass of the good stuff. The ambience is much more traditional rustic Slovak – albeit realised in an attractive way. And whilst slurping their complementary ‘green’ whisky – a grassy, earthy three year-old, you can also drink in how the whiskey production kicked off hereabouts historically: a reinterpretation of the medieval peasants that laboured to produce whiskey in Spiš region for centuries – and their life and culture.

A Nestville Park Whiskey Tasting

My favourite Nestville Park product was undoubtedly the single-barrel seven year-old. Think butterscotch and rum and raisin ice cream with a powerful shortbready afterkick. Just try it. At least the equal of most American bourbons – and coming with a good century more of history, too.

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

MAP LINK:

MORE INFO: Nestville Park website

ADMISSION: 5 Euros (standard tour with one tasting), 7 Euros (tour and three tastings)

OPENING: Daily 9am to 5pm (between May and September), Tuesday to Sunday 10am to 4pm (from October to April)

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Nestville Park in Hniezdne it’s only 58km east to Bardejov, one of the top ten most beautiful medieval towns in Slovakia and start point for visiting some of Eastern Slovakia’s famous wooden churches.

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The Old Town: the Corridor of Books

Think a myriad bound copies of Cassanova, stretching into a void which also contains, upon closer examination, an infinite number of most of the other classics, likewise piling up and plummeting down before you on shelves that shear away as far as the eye can see.

Now think Indiana Jones & the Last Crusade and the third of Indy’s three tests to get to the chamber with the Holy Grail(s) in which he has to have faith in the existence of the path in order for the path to be there at all.

OK. Now imagine that same path, seemingly suspended in mid-air, across the middle of the book-lined void.

I have not lost my mind. I’m talking about Bratislava city centre’s most ingenious tourist attraction.

It would seem to be wrong – akin to revealing the final dramatic twists of a novel to a reader who has only scanned the back-cover blurb – to say too much more about this sight on the second floor of the Bratislava City Gallery (Galéria Mesta Bratislavy) before you arrive there to see it yourself. So I won’t.

But the gallery has far more to see besides this fantasy library. No sooner do you step out  than you are ushered into a surreal recreation of a French bordello, a red-lit antechamber  with velvet drapes and various early 20th century beauties leaping out at you (figuratively, gentlemen) from the walls. You can descend to see evidence of Celtic mining and coin minting in Bratislava (from a time long before the idea of Slovakia, or of any of the other Central European nations around it, ever existed). You can ascend to see some fascinating examples of Central European art/sculpture over the last three centuries, including a romp through the history of Slovak art (19th to 21st centuries inclusive):)

These kind of art museums can go very wrong. They often seem stuffy, or just lacklustre, and a plethora of such examples spill across Europe’s big cities, masquerading as important diversions for visitors. The Bratislava City Gallery does not do that. Its Palffy Palace address which contains everything mentioned in these paragraphs is tucked away so inconspicuously on Pánska, one of the Old Town’s main dining streets with its cobbles festooned by restaurant tables in summer, that you would easily walk by the place. Unassuming it is. But once you are through the doors, you’ll find it a treasure trove of surprises. Good surprises.

Its exhibits are hardly world class. But as anyone who has trundled through Uffizi’s and Louvre’s will know, world class does not always equal sensational where art is concerned. Art is best appreciated alone, or when you do not feel jaded from the jostling of thousands of others. Bratislava City Gallery? You’ll appreciate it alone, more or less. Few come here.

And if you did walk by, oblivious, you would never know what it was to step out across a void of books.

MAP LINK

LOCATION: Pánska 19 (Palffy Palace branch). The Mirbach Palace branch of the museum is on Františkánske námestie and will form a different post, some time in the future once we have visited – and if it has anything as attention-worthy – which it quite possibly will not.

ADMISSION: 4 Euros per person for the full gallery experience, you can ask to just see the corridor of books and they’ll probably let you in for 2 Euros.

OPENING: Tuesday to Sunday, 11am to 6pm. Closed on Mondays like almost everything seems to be in Bratislava and indeed Slovakia.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: 22km southeast is Danubiana Meulensteen Art Museum

©Karen McCann

Košice: the Unsung Charms (and Legends!) of Slovakia’s Second City

Today’s article comes courtesy of Karen McCann, whose best-selling travel books include  Adventures of a Railway Nomad: How Our Journeys Guide Us Home, the story of her three-months train journey through Central and Eastern Europe. Traveling without reservations or a fixed itinerary, she and her husband covered 6000 miles through 13 countries, and the results – often hilarious, occasionally harrowing, definitely life-changing – form the basis of her book. Part of her rail odyssey took her through Košice… 

I always prefer the road less traveled, so I was delighted to discover that Košice, eastern Slovakia’s economic and cultural epicenter, remains almost entirely devoid of tourists. Despite strenuous efforts to reinvent itself as a vacation destination, the city is still, as Wikitravel sums it up so neatly, “a place not often visited from elsewhere.” Intrigued, I managed to convince my husband that it should be the next stop on our train journey through the region.

Fount of… Music!

Walking up Hlavná ulica (Main Street), we soon stumbled across one of Košice’s most ambitious civic projects, the Singing Fountain. This is a large, flat network of pipes, from which water alternately trickles, gushes, or shoots thirty feet into the air, in rhythms roughly synchronized with piped-in music ranging from Ave Maria to Feelings. At night, coloured lights pulse in time with the water and music — a sort of Trevi Fountain meets Saturday Night Fever. At first the Singing Fountain struck me as garish, tasteless, and a total waste of public funds; in fact, I laughed outright when I saw it. But I have to admit it grew on me. My husband and I soon joined the locals happily sitting on nearby benches, eating ice cream cones, and watching the water dance.

Local Insights…

Feeling a local viewpoint might help us appreciate the city more fully, we engaged the services of a bright, enthusiastic guide-in-training named Veronica. She introduced us to such points of interest as the late fourteenth-century Tower of St. Urban (honoring the patron saint of wine growers), the Plague Column (commemorating victims of the plague that lasted from 1710 to 1711), and the bronze sculpture of a shield with lilies and half an eagle (celebrating the fact that in 1369 Košice became the first European city to be granted its own coat of arms).

Jakab's Palace KarenMcCann

Jakab’s Palace ©Karen McCann

We strolled together along Main Street, which houses freshly restored Gothic, Renaissance, baroque, and Art Nouveau buildings along with a bare minimum of Soviet-era monstrosities. We saw inviting cafés, a few upscale restaurants, and a rambling, quirky museum of local history, culture, and science. The city had everything you’d want in a tourist destination — except, of course, actual tourists (which can, of course, be a blessing).

An Amazing Saint

One of my favorite buildings was the vast Gothic cathedral, which happened to be dedicated to my own patron saint, St. Elizabeth of Hungary. At fourteen she was wed to Louis IV, Landgrave of Thuringia, and began devoting herself to feeding the poor and tending the sick. This naturally brought her under censure from courtiers who were afraid she’d drain the nation’s treasury to keep its humblest citizens alive. One day, while taking bread to the destitute, Elizabeth was confronted by suspicious nobles, who demanded to see what she was carrying. When she opened the folds of her cloak, a shower of roses fell out.

That’s her most famous miracle, the one depicted on the little plaque that hung on the wall of my bedroom throughout my childhood. But my favorite was the one where she brought a leper to lie in the bed she shared with her husband. At this, the ladies of the court set up such an outcry that the king came running to investigate. When he flung back the bedclothes, King Louis supposedly saw not a leper but Christ himself. And meaning no disrespect, I have to say that any wife who can convince her husband that the strange man lying in their bed is actually Jesus … that is a true miracle.

Gargoyles! ©Karen McCann

Elizabeth’s cathedral was built in high Gothic style and bristled with gargoyles, one of which resembled the wife of the builder, Štefan. While working on this glorious edifice, Štefan went home each night to be harangued mercilessly by his nagging, drunken, foul-mouthed spouse. Goaded beyond endurance, he had a gargoyle carved in her likeness, so she would spend the rest of eternity having her mouth washed out whenever it rained. And wouldn’t you love to know what Mrs. Štefan had to say about that?

According to local legend, the cathedral once housed an actual drop of Christ’s blood. “Some men came and took it away,” Victoria told us. “I don’t know where it is now.” Having seen Raiders of the Lost Ark, I assume it’s in a warehouse next to the Ark of the Covenant. This seems a pity, as a sacred artifact of that magnitude — real or fake — would certainly help with the city’s efforts to attract tourists, especially if the PR department leaked a few rumors about miraculous cures. Another great marketing opportunity lost.

Even without any miraculous blood, Košice was fun to visit. I felt lucky to catch the city at that golden moment after charming civic improvements have been made (for the city’s stint as one of the European Capitals of Culture in 2013) but before the city had become flooded with tourists – something that, with the fabulous array of annual festivals now taking place, doesn’t seem so far off.

Whatever happens in the future, Košice is well worth a visit now.

Karen lives in Seville, Spain, where she writes the Enjoy Living Abroad travel blog and has published three other books about travel and expat life.

 

A Quick Guide to the Other Content We Have on Košice

Places to Go: Climbing Košice cathedral

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

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:

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Košice’s Old Town centre it’s 57km southeast to Malá Trňa, heart of the fascinating Tokaj winemaking industry.

35-degree waters - image y www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Piešt’any: the Pick of its Thermal Pools

Whether in summer, for a well-earned languishing and luxuriating session, or in the colder weather for a quick warming dip, Slovakia’s spas – and one in particular – are an absolute must-visit.

The best bathing spots in the country, of course, are much easier to narrow down if that country doesn’t have a coastline. In landlocked Slovakia, bathing is all about spas: there is a stunning variety of therapeutic thermal waters flowing under the earth here, and a clutch of great spa towns for those with a desire to take the waters.

But it’s Piešt’any that is Slovakia’s number one spa town. The quality of services is higher and, located on the serene “spa island” alongside the pleasant town of Piešt’any, the spa buildings with their ornate neoclassical design help create the dignified spa atmosphere of bygone centuries more atmospherically than other spa towns around.

Over the bridge on spa island itself, the most lavish building is the five-star Thermia Palace Hotel (now part of the Danubius group). Adjoining this is the Irma Spa – and what many people don’t know is that the treatments are available to non-guests, and not at so very high a price. There is no need to stay here if your wallet doesn’t stretch. BUT hotel guests do understandably get first priority and therefore there is no way to book in advance the delightful outdoor thermal pool which probably qualifies as Slovakia’s best. You have to turn up and hope that it’s not full (this puts many people off from so doing). But full it almost never is.

Thermia Palace & Irma Spa from the Outside

Outside Thermia Palace & Irma Spa – image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Turn right along the corridor inside the entranceway with its stained glass scene of rural Slovak life at one end and its mural depicting the thermal currents flowing under Piešt’any on the other side. Check at reception for the number of spaces at the outside thermal pool that you would like (12 Euros per person, but for as long as you wish). Then you’ll be guided along to the entrance to the pool. You can go out and put your things by the pool first, then change after (there’s a poolside custodian).

The changing rooms themselves are few but spacious, with high wooden park benches to put clothes on (not quite up there with my favourite Slovak spa changing rooms, the prize for which goes to the glamorous 19th-century hammam at the Trenčianske Teplice spa just outside Trenčin, but still very nice).

And here’s the shocker. This beautiful pool, with a temperature of 35 degrees in summer and 38 in winter, surrounded by the ornate environs of one of Slovakia’s loveliest spa hotels, and abutted by an old English garden replete with statues, is almost always virtually empty – even at weekends. The only people in the know seem to be a steady stream of visitors from the Middle East – but even they are only sporadically in evidence at the pool itself. For 12 Euros you can stay as long as you like here, bring a picnic to munch on the beds around the edge in if you want or wander along the path to the equally refined cafe-restaurant in the Thermia Palace Hotel – with outside tables overlooking the English garden.

If you’re used to Europe’s better-known spas, like Széchenyi in Budapest, you’ll be amazed by the quietude of Piešt’any. The surrounds are not quite as glamorous as Széchenyi but it’s a fair trade-off for having the water almost to yourself. The best thermal pool in Slovakia? Quite probably, yes.

Other Treatments…

That is of course in addition to having the luxury of 60+ treatments involving the famous Piešt’any sulphurous mud, including the indoor mud pool with its lofty domed roof, right nearby. For an insight into the treatments available, check the Thermia Palace website’s list of treatments. And a tip: the hot water churns into the pool right on the left-hand side below the steps in and is the cosiest place to hang out.

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

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: Piešt’any’s Best Cakes

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

 

MAP LINK:

GETTING THERE: Trains run from Bratislava’s Hlavná Stanica Station to Piešt’any every one to two hours. Costs for a ticket are 4.30 Euros.

ADMISSION: 12 Euros

OPENING: 10am-7pm

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Piešt’any’s spa island, it’s 26km north to Beckov Castle and 20km south to Hlohovec

image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Around Piešt’any: the Mysterious Ruins of Tematín

Just a short distance north of Piešt’any, where the world and his wife come to take the waters, and a short distance south of Trenčin, another town of renown because of its medieval centre and annual music festival, Pohoda, there is a densely forested portion of the Malé Karpaty (Small Carpathians) which seems to have slipped off the radar of more or less anyone for the last few centuries. Of all the castles in this region of Western Slovakia (and there are several secreted up in the hills here) Tematín feels most remote.

A large-enough sign actually advertises the ruins as you’re approaching on the Rte 507 from Piešt’any: near the small village of Luka. And the castle is even visible, soaring surreally high above the tree-coated hills, from here. But we continued on through this village to start our hike up from the next village along, appropriately named Hrádok (approximate translation: castle town). Here again there is an information board but it’s far more hidden from the road and already by this point you are thinking that maybe that glimpse of Tematín was a hallucination – because the ruins themselves have disappeared from view and the signs are old, so ancient in fact it would be entirely plausible that since they were erected the final stones of Tematín had crumbled into dust.

And the feeling of uncertainty about whether Tematín does exist or not persists. You park your car at an old barn – having driven up the main entrance to Hrádok from Rte 507, passed the long street to the right where the football pitch is, continued over the bridge and headed uphill and around a sharp bend to the right passed two or three houses. Sound obscure? It’s about to get more so (although it’s also about to get more beautiful too). You’ll find yourself at a V junction of tracks. The right-hand (lower) of the two is the one you want. From here it’s a 1.5 to 2 hour hike up to Tematín.

Whilst there is a sign fairly early on detailing how it’s only 5km to the ruins, this is overly optimistic. As quick hikers it took us a good hour and a half – I would say from the parking to the ruins is probably between 8 and 9km. The track, a good forestry track, winds through gorgeous woodland that has hardly any other hikers passing through (perhaps because it’s off the official way marked trails). There is one point quite early on where there is a significant dividing of the ways at another V junction (this time be sure to keep left) but otherwise the route is quite obvious. The route traverses the grounds of a few holiday houses and climbs, joining a yellow trail but remaining on the same main forest track. A little later it doubles back on itself, climbing more steeply to rise up above the side of the forest valley you’ve been walking in and just after a narrower, steeper path cuts up to the right. Take this and you’ll climb to a path junction from which Tematín itself can be glimpsed.

Why you have followed this somewhat obscure, but very lovely path up here immediately becomes obvious. Tematín Castle is huge – and fairly in tact, actually. It was built in the late 13th century and played an important role in the anti-Habsburg insurrection of the early 18th century (the first major attempt to prevent Habsburg Austria from ruling over Hungary). The castles last owner was, indeed, Count Mikulaš Bercésnyi, the General of the insurgent army, and the siege of Tematín in 1710 marked the end of the insurrection and the end of the castle as an important stronghold.

tematin

The lower part where the main entrance is has a small wooden bunkhouse (pic above) where you can stay for free overnight if you have your own sleeping bag. There’s a fire pit here, too – and the isolated location (about a 1.5 hour hike from the nearest village) makes this some of Western Slovakia’s best wilderness accommodation. The reason for this serendipitous find is in fact the non-profit group than often come up here to do repairs and archaeology work on the castle (you’ll see the tools of their trade scattered around the site): they often stay over in the bunkhouse but at other times its all yours. In Slovakia, several old ruins are just being left to nature, so it’s nice to witness this castle benefitting from some TLC.

Ascend to the upper end where the tower is for the pièce de résistance: a stunning panoramic view of a huge section of the Malé Karpaty. And then? Well, get a fire going and indulge in a good old-fashioned sesssion of Slovak opekačka (roasting meat on an open-air fire, basically), crack open a cold (or perhaps by this stage luke-warm) beer and prepare for a night in the wilderness in one of Slovakia’s remotest castles. Otherwise, continue on the hike back down into Luka (1.5 hours) from where there are buses running about hourly back to Hrádok, where you parked your car.

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 Eat & Drink: Piešt’any’s Best Cakes

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

 

MAP LINK:

GETTING THERE: Hrádok and Luka are both accessible by bus from Nové Mesto and Váhom, notable only for being near Beckov Castle, and for having mainline train connections to Bratislava and Košice.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Tematín Castle it’s only 18km north to Beckov Castle

A cellar of Small Carpathians wine... image by Smuconlaw

Limbach: the Stop on the Wine Route No One Knows About

An autumnal article here and a heads-up, if you’re thinking of visiting Western Slovakia, that autumn might indeed be THE time to do it! Without more ado, here is an introduction to the very first place you’ll come to of interest as you drive northeast from Bratislava…

A misty October weekend afternoon; the itch to get out into the hills and away from Bratislava overwhelms. The woods are on the turn. It’s been over a month since I’ve been hiking in them. Part yellow, part orange, part cloud-cloaked green, the tree-backed vineyards of the Small Carpathians await – seeming as mysterious as ever they did.

We don’t fancy going far. The shorter days mean there’s only four hours of daylight left. But we want a walk and we want a change of scene and we don’t want to solely be walking in thick woodland because the sun looks as though it could break through.

We get out the map and decide on Limbach. It’s a village between Svätý Jur and Pezinok, poised between the vineyards and the woods and bang in the middle of the Malé Karpaty/Small Carpathians Wine Route (perhaps Slovakia’s prime wine route, which runs from the northeastern edge of Bratislava at Stara Rača through Svätý Jur and Pezinok and on to Modra) – but one that gets precious little publicity in that regard or, indeed, any regard whatsoever. Quite evidently, this is a key reason why Englishman in Slovakia was intrigued to stop by.

Setting

The road to Limbach cuts up from the main Rte 502 just after the turn-off to Slovenský Grob (a village famous for its fine roasted duck dishes in various pop-up style restaurants but that is another story and another post). Perhaps the reason for its inconspicuousity is right here. Unlike Svätý Jur, Pezinok and Modra, which are all on the main road, Limbach is set much further back in the vineyards. It is, in fact, properly surrounded by vineyards – whereas the other locales on the wine route are only backed by them. This lends Limbach a special feel, as of course does the addition of the woods which are much closer here than they are in the other wine route stop-offs: veritably brushing the church, in fact.

History

The upper part of town beyond the roundabout is the prettiest part. Here, the first of the town’s two churches, which originally dates back to 1530, presents itself. It’s a beguiling white tower inscribed with what translates as “in castles, the strength of our Lord” above a motif of a palm leaf, a bible and a glass of wine. The reference is a telling insight into Limbach’s history. After Mongols ransacked the region in the 13th century, the Hungarians (who were in charge at the time) invited German settlers in to compensate for the previous inhabitants that had been killed. It was Germans, therefore, that built this village up, along with its churches, its charming houses with facades screened by vines and – certainly most critically for the economy – its wine industry.

More recently wealthy Bratislava residents have built lavish second homes deeper up into the woods and their presence probably gives the village a fair bit of an economic boost too.

Hotel/Restaurant

Up above the ruddy-coloured, immaculate tiers of houses, interspersed with the odd vinoteka (wine shop, invariably with degustation) wine cellar, or vinaren (wine bar) in the main part of Limbach, is one of the village’s main draws: the delightful Hotel Limbach. (and actually, Bratislava explorers, at only 15 minutes from the edge of the city, a great alternative Bratislava accommodation option – especially if you have your own car).

This mottled century-old yellow hotel, draped in curtains of ivy and flanked by pretty gardens, cements the idea already forming in your mind that Limbach is about as close as you get to a quaint old English village in this part of Slovakia. It’s something of a focal point for village life, with a restaurant that once again, resembles one of those rural British hotels where quirky bygone signs and curios line the walls along with a lot of hunting memorabilia. Fortunately the stag’s heads are confined to one grand dining area at the end. But the food – particularly the game – is good and reasonably priced  (about 9-12 Euros for mains) and there is the added advantage that a huge selection of local wines are showcased in the hotel: available to drink there, or buy and take home.

Wine

Of these, the best is probably the Rulandské modré (red – and one of Slovakia’s best reds) or the Irsai Olivér (white) – the latter one of the southeast-facing Small Carpathians’ few fruity whites (climatic conditions mean most wines here are dry). It’s good wine, and for only 5 or so Euros.

It can be great fun to tour Limbach’s tucked-away little wineries first to get your palate acquainted with a few of the wines so you know which bottles you’re likely to want. Or, if you want a more sedate wine-tasting experience, you can also relax in Villa Vinica – a wine bar just across from the hotel (they have rooms too for those who have over-imbibed).

But Limbach is enjoyable too just to wander. Paths lead off the quiet lanes of the centre both into the vineyards and – via a well-marked blue trail – up onto the higher hills to Tri Kamené Kopce (almost 600m up, and on the Štefánikova magistrála long-distance hike between Bratislava and Brezová pod Bradlom).

And wherever you are, the senses are always refreshed at this time of year by the smell of wine being pressed, fermented, bottled… almost to the intensity with which malt wafts around Scotland’s main whisky towns.

So there is no better time than Autumn to pay a visit.

MAP LINK:

Hotel Limbach is open 10am-10pm for food, drink and general merriment…

GETTING THERE: Through the day, direct buses run about hourly to Limbach from Mlynské Nivy bus station in Bratislava. In the evenings, you’ll first have to change in Pezinok (at the Tesco’s stop). Ticket prices? Around 2.20 Euros one-way.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From central Limbach, it’s a 7km drive (or a hike through the Malé Karpaty) southwest to Svätý Júr or 11km northeast to Modra, the hub of an interesting ceramics industry and the birthplace of national hero L’udovit Štúr.

The Pixies hit Pohoda in 2006 - Image by Jo Fjompenissedalheibakke

Trenčin: Pohoda!

Imagine it: a delightful medieval castle town in Western Slovakia with a buoyant arts scene on the cusp of where two of its main ranges of hills, the Malé Karpaty and the Biele Karpaty, come together. The town in question is Trenčin, the quirkiest parts of which are going to get a lot of publicity on this site – and indeed already do. Here (well actually just outside, on the old airport, which boasts great views of said hills) every July, Pohoda, one of Europe’s greatest music festivals is held.

Pohoda was celebrating its 20th year in 2016, and it’s important people realise what that means.

After Slovakia became an independent nation in 1993, this festival really helped put Slovak music and culture on the map. Founder Michal Kaščak started Pohoda when no one knew anything about the country except during the time when it had “Czecho” at the front of it. He started it when times musically in Slovakia were fairly sterile and he built it up into a festival which is at least as important in Central/Eastern Europe as Glastonbury is in the UK: and it is now the biggest and best music extravaganza in this part of the continent, with rock to dance to classical to folk to electronic all (and always) represented with panache.

That’s really no exaggeration:  acts such as the Prodigy, Gogol Bordello, Roots Manuva and Nick Cave helped establish Pohoda as a fixture on the calendar of Europe’s coolest festivals during the last decade. It’s not just international acts: lots of Czech and Slovak groups (the Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra are always astounding when they come on) feature annually too and often wind up being the most incredible surprises of the entire weekend. And it’s not just the music, either: it’s also an advert for Slovakia’s alternative foodie scene, and a mouthpiece for many voices in Slovakia that rarely get heard from environmental to human rights groups. As far as the music is concerned, funny we should mention those first two acts. Because for the 20th edition of this party, the Prodigy and Gogol Bordello returned to Pohoda! Meaning 2016 had one of the best festival line-ups thus far – and paved the way for even greater line-ups in the future!

Anyway, Pohoda is no longer just in the category of annual event. It’s in the category of institution! And it’s thoroughly worth using it as a reason to visit Trenčin and this corner of Slovakia. On this site, we’ve already got a bunch of content to help you with your visit to Trenčin!

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

Places to Go: A tucked-away forest park behind the castle in Trenčin

Places to Go: a stunning castle just outside Trenčin

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

Places to Stay: the coolest hotel in Trenčin

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

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

Top Ten Medieval Towns in Slovakia

For full updates on the lineup go to the Pohoda site. For the 20th anniversary festival in 2016, do check this exciting festival report: The 2018 festival dates have not yet been announced.Ticket prices in 2017 were 89 Euros

image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Around Nitra: Hiking Near Gýmeš Castle – The Ultimate Turkish Defence

The prequel is innocuous enough. A sharp turning in the dozy village of Jelenec, just north-east of Nitra on the E65 (an already forgotten village on a largely forgotten road). The landscape is pretty but not dramatic (dusty farms, low but gradually rising wooded hills. Then the road, already bad, terminates near the lake of Jazero Jelenec. In itself, the water is a pleasant spot for picnicking, particularly on the grassy banks on the far side. There’s a small waterside bar. Fishermen hunch over their lines whilst cracking open bottles of Šariš. There’s even a campsite, the appropriately named Autocamping Jelenec. But the only dusty tourist sign indicating “Hrad” (castle) has not been followed up by another. You would not think that hidden up in those woods was one of this region’s most interesting and remote hikes – nor indeed one of its mightiest castles: Gýmeš.

Arrival

Continue on the road passed the campsite (two adults with a caravan will set you back 8.50 Euros for the night). The road looks like it just leads to houses but it kinks round to the left and there, a couple of hundred metres later, a drunken hand-written sign (now confirming you are, after all that, in the right place) points you to a lay-by in which you can park and, indeed, start walking. The nearest public transport to the start point (scant, in any case) terminates in Jelenec which is still a fair walk (and an uninspiring one; 3km) for day-trippers, but, go-it-alone hikers, do not despair and stay tuned for an adventurous alternative approach…

The Case of the Hidden Castle

Studeny Hrad nr Gymes

Studeny Hrad near Gymes

The path winds up not steeply but nevertheless persistently from the parking spot up through woodland – a popular spot for mushroom-picking (post on Slovakia’s best mushroom-picking spots in the making). We even saw two off-duty soldiers filling a basket together. Finally the trees thin after a couple of kilometres and a path ascends a steep slope to a castle – but not the one you were expecting to find (that would be Gýmeš, remember?). No, this is Studeny Hrad – or cold castle – a broken series of rocks which form tiered ridges, leering out over the surrounding forest. It’s a superb viewpoint and – far further above, poking out of a tree-coated hill – is the actual Gýmeš – a disappointment for those who saw the “Hrad” sign and thought they’d arrived at the summit but, for adventurers, a thrilling taste of what is still to come.

Firepit within Gymes ruins

Firepit within Gymes ruins

Gýmeš Fortress

The first glimpse – of the ruins peeping out of the tree canopy – hardly prepares you for how vast Gýmeš Castle is. The path skitters through more trees and then joins a wider path which you follow to the left up the wooded rise to the castle entrance. Gýmeš is one of those ruins that grows on you, quite literally. At first only the broken entranceway reveals itself but through that, you climb up to one of the still intact towers, then continue into the keep and the interior rooms. A fortified area far larger than almost all other ruins in Slovakia reveals itself: larger yet than landmark Beckov Castle near Trenčin, and yours alone for the exploring (the route up puts most off); yours, too, for free (Beckov will charge you a 3 Euro entry).

Also great about Gýmeš is how inviting it is for picnicking. It’s not just the view, nor the feeling that descends of having discovered somewhere hidden, but one of those serendipitous barbecue spots often featuring in ruined castles on Slovak hill walks – and even a small shelter in which to camp out, if you so desired. Moral of the story: come with meat to cook.

The castle from the other side, rising out of the trees...

The castle from the other side, rising out of the trees…

Gýmeš has an interesting history – and one in which those first impressions of a fortress a cut above the norm start to make contextual sense. It was, indeed, a big cut above the norm – even by the high standards of Slovak castles. It was part of a mighty defence system, along with six other castles in the surrounding area, which came to create a chain of bulwarks against invading Turks. The other two castles nearby in the same chain were Oponicky Hrad and the fortifications at Nitra: castles with the girth and strength to outlast the most vicious of onslaughts. In the case of Gýmeš, its builders outdid themselves. Only in the 19th century did it finally fall (although the Turks did manage to invade it in the end, after which some rebuilding was necessary in the 18th century). But in total the fortress lasted almost 600 years following its original mid-13th century construction. In the latter days, occupants found a different way to deter visitors. Newcomers were welcomed with what became known as the shovel dance: basically, being whacked with a shovel upon arrival.

Hiking On From Gýmeš…

The path on to Oponicky Hrad

The path on to Oponicky Hrad

The easiest way back to the parking place is to return the way you came. But another, more overgrown route descends steeply from the ruins (to the left of where you first entered). Recent storms have knocked a few tress down on this route, and the path has not been well maintained, but with long trousers and hiking boots it’s not too challenging a route back down to the red trail (a wide forest track, some 2km down from the castle) where turning left takes you back passed a fishing lake to the start point.

But Gýmeš, it turns out, is a stop-off on a far longer route – a trail which leads all the way to connect the other castles involved in the defence of the land against the Turks. The next leg continues (hiking time from Gýmeš = three hours and 45 minutes) to Oponicky Hrad.

Or you could continue still further. Beyond Nitra Castle, this same path extends to Hrušov (not too far away north of Topol’cianky Castle in Slovakia), Visegrad, Esztergom (both on the Danube in Hungary) and Tata (in northern Hungary west of Budapest) castles.

MAP LINK:

The castle is free to enter with no restrictions on admission…

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Gýmeš its just 21km southeast to Slovakia’s most famous Arboretum, Arborétum Mlyňany.

RELATED POST: Western Slovakia’s Best Castles

Bardejov ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Top Ten Medieval Towns in Slovakia

It’s not just the nature that’s spellbinding in Slovakia: some of the smaller towns – whether as a result of castle strongholds against marauding Turks, or being major Medieval mining centres or having healing spas – grew up in magnificence centuries ago and have not lost any of their glory since.

Note that we’re talking towns (or large villages with decent facilities) here: not either Slovakia’s big cities (which will get tons of other mentions anyway) or the country’s myriad small folksy villages – which will be the focus of later articles!

10: Rožňava

Rožňava is yet another of those former mining centres – and along with Skalica by far the least known about destination on this list. That’s partly to do with its location, in the east of Slovakia. The town centre is meticulously preserved: studded with more of those incredible burgher’s houses (17th and 18th centuries). The cathedral is particularly interesting – artwork inside includes depictions of mining activity in times gone by – with more about the mining legacy in the nearby museum.

Get There: Direct bus from Bratislava or train to Košice and then bus (6-7 hours).

More Info: We don’t have any more info on Rožňava ourselves – yet! (although this will change very soon). There is precious little English information anywhere, in fact: but for now perhaps the best is on Visit Slovakia.

9: Spišská Sobota, Poprad

We’re not including the whole of Poprad here. Poprad’s got enough, right, what with the wonderful adventures awaiting in the High Tatras just above town?:) And the majority of tourists will come to Poprad and never see this gorgeous Medieval neighbourhood, because they’ll be busy getting up into the mountains asap. Mistake: Spišská Sobota is a tranquil locale of Renaissance buildings about 1.5km northeast of central Poprad, just past Aquacity Poprad. It boasts architecture by the enigmatic Master Pavol, who was of course the man behind the amazing altar in Levoča.

A Quick Guide to the Other Content We Have on Poprad

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

Places to Go: Poprad’s lavish Aqua Park

Places to Go: Nine reasons to linger in Poprad

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

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

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

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

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

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

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s gourmet chocolatier

Going Out: Poprad & the Manchester United Connection

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

Getting Around: London to Poprad Flights

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

Get There: Train to Poprad (4 hours).

8: Ždiar 

OK, it’s debatable whether to include Ždiar in the town or village category, but its Tatras location makes it enough of a popular stop with tourists that it’s got half-decent facilities – and the sheer length of it, stretching up the foothills of the High Tatras as it does, mean it’s a town for the purposes of this list. With Ždiar, it’s not any one building that stands out but all of them (at least in the centre) because this place is dotted with great examples of Goral-style painted wooden houses. Goral culture is an important and distinctive element of the culture in this part of Slovakia. For Englishmaninslovakia’s post about Ždiar, follow this link.

Get There: Train from Bratislava to Poprad, then bus, which continues to Zakopane, Poland in the summer (5.5-6 hours)

Typical Ždiar building
Typical Ždiar building ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

7: Skalica

Skalica receives little attention outside of Slovakia: except perhaps from the good people of the Czech Republic, as the town sits right on the border. But Skalica is cool. And very, very pretty. The postcard pictures are of the Baroque-domed rotunda, originally dating from the 1100’s – but the town also has several intriguing churches and an early 20th-century Kultury Dom (culture house) inspired by Czecho-Slovak folk culture.

Get There: Train from Bratislava, changing at Kúty (1.75 hours).

More info: We don’t have any more info on Skalica ourselves – yet! (but we do have this lovely article on the Skalica region, Zahorie). There is precious little English information anywhere, in fact, on Skalica: but for now perhaps the best is on Skalica.sk (where the English translations are dubious at best but can be made sense of)

6: Kežmarok

Kežmarok often gets overlooked in favour of Levoča or Bardejov in Eastern Slovakia and whilst it’s not quite as spectacular as either, this town in the shadow of the High Tatras has a better castle than both and has a very smartly done-up Renaissance town centre, including its two famously contrasting places of worship: the stunning wooden church and the rather more stark pink Lutheran cathedral.

Get There: Train from Bratislava, changing at Poprad (4.5 hours).

More info: We don’t have any more information on Kežmarok ourselves – yet! But for the moment the town tourist information website has the best in-English info available on the net.

5: Trenčin

The easiest of Slovakia’s great Medieval towns to visit is Trenčin. As you’re heading along the main route east in Slovakia its vast castle, rearing out at you above the Vah river valley, would be reason enough to visit. Clamber up for great surrounding views of the Small Carpathian mountains through one of Eastern Europe’s curious covered staircases from the Staré Mesto (Old Town) but don’t forgo a stroll around the centre – with the central square of Mierové Námestie a trapped-in-time treasure trove of largely 18th-century buildings. There are a load of great castles in the Trenčin area, too: the city’s castle itself is sublime, and just outside there are more fortresses such as Beckov Castle.

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

Places to Go: A tucked-away forest park behind the castle in 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 Eat & Drink: One of Slovakia’s Finest Restaurants in central Trenčin

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

Get There: Direct train from Bratislava (2 hours).

Trenčin as seen from the castle
Trenčin as seen from the castle ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

4: Levoča

Just east of Poprad and therefore easily factored into any trip heading east in Slovakia, Levoča is justifiably one of Slovakia’s most celebrating medieval beauties (as far as towns go at least). The big draw here (standing out above a host of alluring buildings stationed around the central square) is the Gothic church of Chram Svätého Jakuba, which has the world’s highest wooden altar – replete with elaborate decoration. The work is the great legacy of Master Pavol of Levoča: responsible for much of Slovakia’s best Medieval architecture. There’s also a great hike that you can do from the centre up to Mariánska Hora, a famous pilgrimage destination.

Get There: Train from Bratislava to Poprad, then bus (5 hours)

More info: See our article on Levoča’s wonderful autumn music festival. Otherwise, try the English section of the town’s tourist information website.

3: Banska Štiavnica

A few more people have heard of this other ancient mining town (also Unesco-listed) southwest of Banska Bystrica and south of Kremnica. Banska Štiavnica was once the Hungarian Empire’s second-most important city. It rose to prominence at a similar time to Kremnica (actually slightly earlier) but on the back of silver ore deposits in the local mines, this time. Steeply-pitching cobbled streets, a brace of castles and a dramatically-situated Kalvaria number amongst its many architectural jewels.

A Quick Guide to the Other Content We Have on the Banska Štiavnica Area:

Places to Go: Banska Štiavnica’s Mining Museums

Places to Go: Banska Štiavnica’s Kalvaria

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

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

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

Get There: Bus/train from Bratislava to Zvolen or Žiar nad Hronom, then bus (3.5-4 hours)

2: Kremnica

The most beautiful of Slovakia’s ancient mining towns is the least-visited. It owes its splendour to the presence of lucrative goldmines in the area – which have been used since the first centuries AD and, since the 13th century, actually made this one of the world’s foremost mining centres. West of Banska Bystrica, it’s still the site of the world’s oldest-working mint, which once produced coinage for locales as far-distant as the Middle East.

Get There: Train from Bratislava, changing at Zvolen or bus/train from Bratislava to Žiar nad Hronom, then bus (3-4 hours).

RELATED POST:  The geographical centre of Europe is just outside Kremnica – our more detailed post on the town itself is coming soon.

1: Bardejov

In the north-east of Slovakia, Bardejov’s Unesco-listed námestie (central square; see the pic above) is one of the largest, most in-tact and visually stunning in the country: flanked by 17-18th century burgher’s houses and with a Town Hall placed unusually in the middle of the square, dating from 1505 in Gothic/Renaissance style. Around the edge of the Staré Mesto (Old Town) you can walk much of the old city walls.

Get There: Train from Bratislava to Poprad, then bus (7 hours).

More info: Bardejov is a great base for visiting Eastern Slovakia’s fabled wooden churches. and soon on the site we are making Bardejov into one of our Top Slovak Stop-offs (as well as Modra, Piešt’any, Trenčin, Banská Štiavnica, Poprad and Košice)!

The church at Stred Europy ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The Geographical Centre of Europe

The “roof of Europe” or the “extreme edge of Europe” might be more dramatic monikers. But Slovakia, without the Alps and without a sea coast, can nevertheless claim one of the continent’s geographical titles for itself: “centre of Europe” or “Stred Európy” as it’s known in Slovak.

As with many such titles, it is contested by others. Places in Lithuania and Poland claim the same honour. God knows how the statisticians work them out. Is it mainland Europe? Is it EU Europe? Is Russia included, and how much? And how exactly do you calculate a centre when, in Europe, such outlying islands as Iceland muddy the waters of calculation no end?

But no matter. Go to Stred Európy anyway. It’s a peaceful, bucolic spot. From the idyllic old mining town of Kremnica it’s only a 10-minute drive north on Hwy 65 through Kremnické Bane (the nearest public transport, about 3km away, with trains through Kremnica to Zvolen which is on the Bratislava line). When you come out of the woods, look for the small white church on a rise on the right, and park outside.

And there you are. It has the surreal feel of Scotland’s northwest highlands, here. The grassy, tussocky picnicking spot, the stone with the inscription (that’s the centre folks, go pose for those pictures, all Slovaks have this on their “bucket lists” so you’ll be in good company), the beautiful whitewashed 15th-century church, the ubiquitous sheep (contrary to popular belief Slovakia actually has very few sheep out in the fields, and in fact very few churches like this either).

The forested hills roll away. There’s a salaš (farm that usually has good home-grown/ home-reared food for sale) nearby doing mean bryndza (sheep’s cheese). You’ve looked round lovely Kremnica, most likely, if you’re in this neck of the woods. So now come here, take some time out and have a picnic.

MAP LINK: Incredibly, Google maps don’t mark this sufficiently to warrant putting in our customary map link, but remember if you get as far as Turček, you’ve come too far!

GETTING THERE: Kremnické Bane actually has a train station, on the beautiful line between Martin and Banska Bystrica – from the latter there are connections to Zvolen and therefore Bratislava. It’s a pleasant 3km walk north to the church at Stred Europy.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Stred Europy it’s a 65km journey north through Vel’ka Fatra and then Malá Fatra National Parks to Žilina

RELATED POST: Check out more on Kremnica in our Top Ten Slovak Medieval Towns and for more historic village-related stuff, 38km north from here is the Museum of Slovak Villages in Martin. Like churches? Check out the Unesco-listed wooden churches of Eastern Slovakia

Beckov Castle ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Around Trenčin: Beckov Castle

I remember, sure, the first time I left the beloved Southwest England of my childhood for a long while, but oddly enough, what I remember more vividly is returning to it again after that first lengthy absence. The Berry’s Coach out of Hammersmith bus station in the afternoon winter murk, the London suburbs falling away, the neat commuter belt semi-detached houses and slowly, the fields and woods rearing up into what I call true countryside, right around Stonehenge. Passing Stonehenge for me was always a sign of coming home, but it was also representative of the beginning of wild England after being cooped up in the city. There are a myriad Stonehenge’s, in this sense,  around the world: points that mark where wilderness wins the tussle with city sprawl and out-of-town business parks; points that make me, personally, feel truly human. Hrad Beckov, or Beckov Castle, is for me that point in Slovakia. And it is one of the nation’s best and most poignant fortresses.

Beckov vs Stonehenge!

Beckov shares with Stonehenge that gobsmacking, surely multiple accident-causing location off-side of the main west-east road from Bratislava to those really exciting parts of Slovakia’s nature (Malá Fatra, the High Tatras, Slovenský Raj and the far eastern Slovakia). In fact, in honesty, it’s many times more impressive than Stonehenge. Were this dramatic ruined castle placed anywhere in England, it would be swarming with crowds, and tour buses. Not so with Beckov. The lack of crowds is one of the great joys of life in Slovakia, as I have said several times on this site. But even by the standards of what constitutes crowdedness here (this is a nation, remember, where more than twenty cars moving at reduced speed on a main road is considered a tailback), Beckov is not overrun with visitors. On a summer Saturday midday we were among perhaps 15 other people roaming the ruins. Ruins, I should add, that you can get right up to and touch, unlike Stonehenge.

The Arrival

After that stunning first glimpse of the castle straddling a sharp crag a few kilometres shy of Trenčin, looking like some besieged prop from the Lord of the Rings, you take the Nové Mesto nad Váhom exit (before the castle) and arrive in the diminutive village of Beckov via routes 515/507. At the main village “triangle” there’s a small cafe doing rather alright ice cream and offering a little terrace to partake of it on. But save the urge for something sweet until you’re up at the castle – the approach road to which is just south (right) from here. On the way you pass a Jewish cemetery in a wild state of abandon, before climbing up to the left to the custodian office (in-English historical leaflets available), where you’ll part with the entrance fee of 3.50/1.70 Euros per adult/child.

From the broken parapets here you already get some great views of Western Slovakia rising up into the Biele Karpaty, the fore-runners of the bigger mountains further east:

Beckov view… ©englishmaninslovakia.com

Beckov view… ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

 

The route initially leads to a wide grassy forecourt below the base of the craggy upper part of the castle, where there’s a souvenir shop (knight’s armour, anyone?) and an amphitheatre of sorts where maidens in medieval garb explain the castle history for those that want it and offer tours of the ruins in a rather fun way. There are also demonstrations of Slovakia’s blacksmith craft.

A Brief History of Beckov

For those that don’t want to wait for the explanations of the medieval maidens, and who aren’t interested in Wikipedia’s cumbersome but quite informative article on the castle’s legends, the gist of Beckov’s past is that to understand it is to understand the rather infamous local character of Mathias Čak. The area’s all-time top persona non grata, Čak made waves in the medieval Hungarian Empire by proclaiming his own empire, pretty much, in what today is Western Slovakia and Northern Hungary. He was a powerful and power-hungry warlord that, whilst looking out exclusively for his own interests, gave this region an absolute, if short-lived autonomy from about the year 1296 through to his death in 1321. Fair play to the man: during these two decades even the King of Hungary, despite a couple of attempts, could not oust Čak from his lofty perch. Many of the Western Slovakian castles, including Červený Kameň, were under his command during this time (although the guys over at Gýmeš Castle were his enemies), and Beckov, at the time a relatively new fortress, was his too. After Čak’s death, the castle was passed between various lords and, just before fire destroyed it in the 1720s, served as a prison.

Disliking tours at the best of times, we opted against the maiden-guided explanations and instead headed across the forecourt to where there is some serious castle-destroying equipment, namely a huge catapult. Passing here, a path bends down steeply to a wishing well, worth descending to to get the view back up the sheer sides of the bluff on which the castle is built:

©englishmaninslovakia.com

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The upper levels, accessed by returning to the forecourt, are a must to explore – great for the kids, with several nook-and-cranny rooms. One of these contains a dragon – I joke not, one yields superb views of Beckov village and the Biele Karpaty, one is the remains of what at one time was considered Central Europe’s most beautiful chapel, and one contains one of Slovakia’s coolest teahouses – a little place where you can also grab a cold beer and a slab of strudel, for insanely cheap prices.

The teahouse… ©englishmaninslovakia.com

The teahouse… ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Gazing down from, or up at, Beckov’s precipitous walls today, its not hard to understand how, in over four centuries, the castle was never breached but succumbed in the end to fire rather than attacking force.

If you’ve the time, back down under the custodian office a track bends left to another interesting sight: a scale model of the castle in a recess in the rock. You can continue from here, along a vaguely-defined path along a ridge, passed an old watch tower to descend to the road where your car is parked on the edge of Beckov village.

The lookout tower ©englishmaninslovakia.com

The lookout tower ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

And so now you are officially in the North-Western part of Western Slovakia. It’s a moody and dramatic entrance to the region, Beckov, and should not be dismissed with a simple glance as you drive east. Devote an hour or two of your time to it. You’ll never encounter another such mythical beast, or eat strudel in such beautiful surrounds, anywhere else in the country…

 

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

Places to Go: A tucked-away forest park behind the castle in 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 Stay: the coolest hotel in Trenčin

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

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

Top Ten Medieval Towns in Slovakia

 

MAP LINK:

ADMISSION: 3.50/1.70 Euros per adult/child.

OPENING: 9am-5pm (April) 9am-5:30pm (May-August) 9am-4:30pm (September and October) 9am-3:30pm (November)

CASTLE WEBSITE: (now with a much-improved English section)

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Beckov Castle it’s 100km northeast to Žilina and 17.8km south to another great castle, Tematín

ALSO READ: Beckov also features in my article for Travel Super Mag on the coolest castle experiences in Slovakia and the Czech Republic, Ruin-Nation

Shrine - photo by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Around Bratislava – the North: Pilgrimage to Marianka

Perhaps I would make a good pilgrim. There is no other real reason (excepting madness) to explain why, on an icy Saturday when the snow out in the countryside was still almost knee-deep and most roads – let alone the hiking trails – required a Herculean effort to negotiate, I should decide this was the time for doing a hike I’d long talked about: the route to Marianka, a village on the other side of the first wave of the Malé Karpaty hills that rise behind Bratislava, which happens to be Slovakia’s (and one of Central Europe’s) biggest and oldest pilgrimage destinations. Pilgrims like arriving the hard way, right? Crawling; in bare feet; backwards… snow as thick as what I ended up traipsing through certainly required plenty of determination – and perhaps a touch of devotion.

I was also, quite possibly, spurred on through the white because I love hikes with themes: aimless forest or mountain rambles are fine, but when they can be done to follow in historic footsteps, it adds an interesting dimension. For these reasons (interest, great scenery) this is a walk worth considering for any visitor to Bratislava who feels like a rewarding leg-stretch during their stay. And you will not find more radiantly beautiful countryside so close to the city.

©englishmaninslovakia.com

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The way to Marianka has in fact been tramped by the devout for almost a millennium and weaves in a colourful history involving some famous names (Holy Roman Emperors Leopold I and Joseph II – son and successor of Maria Theresa).  Over such a lengthy period, it’s little surprise that an official pilgrimage route became defined. This begins at Bratislava’s rather nondescript Kalvaria and continues past a small cave, Lurdská Jaskyňa (Lourdes Cave; a slight exaggeration on the part of the namer) before ascending into the hills via Źelezná Studnička and Kačín to get to the pilgrimage site. Having had, since I first mastered the art of walking, a loathing of “official routes” I have to confess to absolutely out-trumping (and out-tramping!) the pilgrims here with a far prettier route (although it totally circumnavigates the Kalvaria and Lurdská Jaskyňa) that starts at the tram stop of Pekná Cesta (served by trams 3 and 5 from the centre). Sometimes these pilgrims can’t see the best woods for the trees.

The Start…

The vineyards above Pekna Cesta ©englishmaninslovakia.com

The vineyards above Pekna Cesta ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

From Pekná Cesta it’s a straight walk up passed the supermarkets to the mini roundabout at the top, then on again along the narrow lane which eventually ascends to the main Pekná Cesta entrance to Bratislava’s Mestké Lesy. 200m up here, a stony track cuts up from the lane plunging you immediately into forest. This is the yellow path which you will be following (in my rather sodden footsteps) for the next two hours of hiking. It ushers you along the rear of some new-builds, skirts around to the right of a picnic area and then, where the better forest track swings round to the right, branches steep left up through the forest on a far smaller path.

It was a route, on my snow-encumbered pilgrimage, much frequented by families trying out rather fetching sledges, not to mention a few snowshoers and nordic skiers – but also a surprising number of very determined single older men going it alone with just walking poles and their own two feet. Age required I give way to them, and given there was only a thin strip of semi-beaten path between the knee-deep banks of snow either side, giving way meant getting wet (talk about penance).

This stretch of the yellow trail skitters up through the woods like a back-to-front slalom course, then more or less follows contours about three quarters of the way up the hill on a pleasant little path for almost an hour before reaching the crossroads with the red trail, at which point you are a 25-minute walk from Kamzík.*** On the next leg, straight over the red trail and down to the Kamzík cable car base above Źelezná Studnička, there was only one intrepid set of steps in the snow before mine, and going was very tough, although again hauntingly beautiful, with the snow-laden pines emphasising the silence, broken only when the weight of snow on branch became too great, and the trees shed their load in a snow shower to the forest floor.

 

Down on the forest road near the cable car base there was more activity. I turned right and followed the road gently up through woods which are normally classic picnicking spots to the end of the drive-able stretch (and terminus of the seasonal bus 43) by the old sanatorium, which with its long-drained swimming pool and closed-up buildings creates a slightly eerie feeling in otherwise unspoilt and increasingly lonely woods. At some point up this valley, the reins of civilisation that gentrify some lower slopes of Bratislava Mestké Lesy are dropped, the picnicking spots thin and the other people you pass become increasingly hardier hikers, rather than families or afternoon strollers. You pass two disused quarries, but before the main forest road reaches a third quarry, and after about 45 minutes’ walk on what is normally a metalled track but now was little more than a mound of ice and snow, a notice board and deserted cottage mark a division of paths.

Up into Prime Pilgrim Territory

Walking in a winter wonderland ©englishmaninslovakia.com

Walking in a winter wonderland ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Here, the yellow route nips up through a break between trees for a further 45 minutes to join the red trail and bona fide pilgrimage path from Kačín (the latter another major picnicking spot at the north-western limit of Bratislava Mestké Lesy). For me, the last part of this route along the top was in virgin snow – stunningly winter wonderland-esque, but further soaking by already damp shoes and trousers. It was time to bring that time-honoured weapon of devout pilgrims into play: a hip flask of strong liquor, in this case becherovka. A generous swig, and I beheld a vision: a sign post which told me I was only one hour from my goal.

As it turned out, it was slightly less. The route from hereon was either level or downhill and again, through snow-bowed tunnel after snow-bowed tunnel of trees, in gorgeous forest scenery. Now on the official pilgrim trail, there were also a couple of shrines – the most impressive at Sekyl, the point where red and yellow routes separates, with yellow descending to Záhorská Bystrica and red – our route, zigzagging down through the trees. On this chilly but bright afternoon, it would have made a great cross-country ski but was a struggle to walk, although the views that soon open out – of the flat western tip of Slovakia stretching away through farmland into Austria – are ample compensation.

Marianka - and the view to Austria beyond ©englishmaninslovakia.com

Marianka – and the view to Austria beyond ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

And soon, at about three hours-worth of snow-walking (or slightly less in normal conditions) the path skitters down to pass the uppermost of the mountain cottages (chaty) signalling the beginnings of Marianka. The path turns into a track, and the track a lane (Šturová). Follow this lane, ignoring any side turnings, which will bring you down, with many kinks (as this is a very spread-out place) via the first of the town’s many shrines, to Marianka’s lekáreň (pharmacy) – then abruptly ascends to meet the main road from Záhorská Bystrica. Turn right at this crossroads, and you are gently ushered into the venerable old centre of Slovakia’s number one pilgrimage site.

Weary pilgrim, fear not. Your endeavours will not have been in vain. Marianka’s reputation does not rest on thin air. Accordingly, our post on Marianka itself will be here soon!

NB: The bus stop which becomes immediately obvious in the historic centre of Marianka has connections (on bus 37) back to Bratislava every two hours – useful return times to be aware of are 3:04pm and 5:24pm.

MAP LINK: Start Point Next Part The Part After That  Final stretch to Marianka

GETTING THERE: Start from Pekná Cesta (take tram 3/5 from the centre) or, more conventionally, from Kamzik (take trolleybus 203 from Hodvovo Namestie to the end of the line then walk up. From Kamzik, take the paved lane on down towards the cable car base on the other side of the hill from Bratislava (not a public road, but nevertheless shown on maps one and two). At the cable car base, you’re on our route (a point underlined for your benefit above).

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: At Marianka, you’re only a one-hour hike from Pajstún Castle

*** Denotes where, in the separate linked post, you have to scroll down to find the same point described.

The verdant ridges around Chleb, by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The Vrátna Valley – & Two Short Walks Around Chleb and Veľký Kriváň

If anyone were to ask me where they should go to grab the most accessible and authentic slice of mountain life in Slovakia, factoring in the obligatory stupendous viewpoint and a hike to a classic wilderness hut dishing out hearty Slovak meals, I would without hesitation say: “come here.”

Taking the cable car up from the head of the picture-postcard valley of Vrátna, to the saddle of Snilovske Sedlo just below the peak of Chleb, in the heart of Malá Fatra National Park, was in danger of being too common an activity for it to feature on this site. We debated for some time whether to include such information until we realised that actually, there was precious little good in-English info on it AND that whilst Slovaks and Czechs do indeed arrive in their droves, to other foreign tourists the delights of the Vrátna-Chleb area are still likely to be utterly unknown.

Embarking from Žilina at around 8am in time for when the cable car opens at 9am, you can do EVERYTHING mentioned here from “The Vrátna Cable Car Base & Up” paragraph down in an easy day trip – a half day if you’re quick about it – which makes what follows a superb introduction to Slovakia’s loveliest swathe of mountain scenery for those pressed for time. On the way up to the cable car base, you’ll pass through the main settlement in the area, Terchová, and up the ensuing (and gorgeous) valley – which we’ve included info on here too (and will doubtless feature more posts on at a later date, as there is enough to do in the valley alone for several days’ holiday).

Terchová – The Entrance to the Valley

The sheer shimmering verdant loveliness of the Vrátna valley begins at Terchová – the resort village that clusters at the valley’s entrance about 25km east of Žilina. Some call   Terchová overly touristy and a tad crass – I disagree. Compared to the rampant commercialism that has ruined countless other villages and towns in the world, Terchová’s development has been tasteful. It retains most of its attractive mountain-style houses with steep-pitched roofs, the accommodation and eating options are appealing, and whilst it makes a lot out of being the erstwhile holing-up spot of that prince of Slovak outlaws and folklore, Juraj Jánošík, the fanfare is mainly confined to the outlaw’s far-larger-than-life likeness on the hill outside town and a small, understated and very informative museum by the Terchova Tourist Information Centre. There is also an up-and-coming brewery in town, Vršky, which is part of the homonymous restaurant/penzion, giving you that added incentive to stop by for a beer: especially as it’s Slovakia’s first small-scale mountain brewery (as signs here proudly claim).

You can get off the bus here (and, obviously, then catch a later one), stock up on supplies here and even stay here (we recommend the afore-mentioned Vršky in town or, in a more idyllic spot right besides a great hiking back route up the valley to the Vrátna cable car base, Hotel Diery.)

Up Into The Valley: A Brief Guide

The 15-odd minute drive up the Vrátna valley from Terchová is sensational today – sheering pea-green slopes, overhanging crags and a road that somehow twists in-between them and ever upward – but it also makes the Jánošík tales assume an added dimension. This would have been perfect ambush terrain, you are soon thinking.

About half-way up, as this MAP shows, a separate road branches off left to Hotel Boboty (vast, vaguely monstrous, but quite decent rooms) and the idyllic hamlet of Štefanová, where you can also bed down at a couple of penzions therein.

A little further on is a ski area, known as the Vrátna Free Time Zone. You can see this section of the valley on this MAP. Another access road to the top of this ski resort winds up from Štefanová, via the highest mountain cottage hereabouts, remote Chata Na Gruni. At the bottom of the ski area on the Vrátna Valley road you’ll also find a very fetching rugged, traditional koliba, Koliba Stary Dvor – essentially a Slovak mountain-style restaurant. Enjoy – it’s the best place to eat in the lower reaches of the valley! Off to the right of the Koliba, a network of lanes ascends to another accommodation area – including the very good Hotel Rozsutec which has a wellness centre.

You’ll wend through all these valley attractions on the bus up to the Vrátna cable car base.

Terchová and this valley, followed by the cable car ride up to Snilovske sedlo as the final delight is all a very lovely and gentle initiation into the delights of the Malá Fatra National Park – sedate, let’s say, with easily accessible scenic spots – but up at the top of the cable car terminus the geography gets a lot more intense, wild and thrilling.

The Vrátna Cable Car Base & Up

The bus drops you at the cable car base, aka Vrátna Výťah. A couple of snack stands, souvenir stands and kiosks are scattered around, somewhat hopefully, but armed with the knowledge of what awaits up top, dearest blog follower, there is no need to linger.

Bearing in mind the opening hours and costs of the cable car as outlined at the bottom of this article, purchase your pass (and DO NOT LOSE your return one) and hop on the next of the passing cabins for the dramatic ascent to Snilovske sedlo, which at almost 1500m up will yield some absolutely superb vistas of the surrounding mountains. You’ll see some intrepid types making the steep ascent on the path up the cleared area of forest below, but if you’re going to pick a way to do this particular path, pick down:)

At the top cable car station there is a restaurant (cracking views, less impressive food, although you may decide risking the latter may be worth it to fully enjoy the former) that is a popular refuge when the bad weather cuts in and the cable car stops running. Actually, for many people, the restaurant represents the turning-back point of their foray into Vrátna – and this is a shame. Snilovske sedlo, a wide broccoli green saddle between two peaks, is a superb starting point for any number of first-class hikes – and particularly as the cable car has spared you the tough legwork by doing the majority of the climbing for you, the area fairly begs you to explore it a little. The two short hikes that follow give you a chance to investigate the very best of what the mountain tops near here offer.

Hike One: Veľký Kriváň

Behind the restaurant/viewpoint at Snilovske sedlo and with your back to the cable car, off up left is the nearest of the two peaks, Chleb (not to be confused with the Slovak word chlieb, which means bread), clocking in at a decent 1646m. Off right, increasingly visible as you climb the 50-odd metres up to the meeting point of trails hereabouts, is the summit you’re aiming for in this hike, Veľký Kriváň. At 1709m this mountain, approached by a fairly gentle path in a 45-minute hike from the junction of paths, is the highest in the Mala Fatra National Park but gives off a roof-of-the-world feeling with its moody panoramic views, down from the peaks into valleys often bathed a mysterious gold in the sun’s rays and containing two of this region’s most important towns, Žilina to the west and Martin to the south.

At the top of the cable car station ©englishmaninslovakia.com

At the top of the cable car station ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Hike Two: To Chata Pod Chlebom

45 minutes up, around half an hour drinking in the views at the summit, 45 minutes down. Just over two hours after setting off from the top cable car station and you’re probably feeling peckish. Back at that junction of paths, now follow the route to the right (if you’re descending from Veľký Kriváň) or straight on (coming from the cable car) down between the peaks with Veľký Kriváň away on your right. A straightforward path which leaves the exposed open ground (with stunning moorland views) to dip into woods emerges at the serendipitous chata (i.e. mountain hut doubling as a basic accommodation op and a hearty Slovak-style restaurant) of Chata Pod Chlebom (again about 45 minutes one-way from the path junction). Rustically charming as the hut is, the interior is nothing special so if the weather is half-decent, grab a pew outside in the lovely picnic area and then go to place your order of frothy beer, strudel or giant-sized sausages with bread to eat al-fresco. The food is good and the wild mountain locale is great – with this dark-wood, old-fashioned mountain cottage enhancing it further. Allow 45 minutes to order and eat without rushing, meaning around four to 4.5 hours overall to enjoy both of these out-and-back walks and get back to the topmost cable car station.  Still got some energy? Then try hiking back down to the Vrátna cable car base (around one hour more).

MAP LINK:

GETTING THERE: Surprisingly regular (more or less hourly) buses run from the bus station in Žilina through Terchová to the Vrátna cable car base from 6:15am to 6:30pm. The journey takes 55 minutes and costs 2.15 Euros.

OPENING HOURS: The cable car (which you don’t need to access the above hikes but will sure as Hell come in useful to beat the murderously steep clamber up to the saddle (sedlo) below Chleb) runs more or less daily throughout the year from 9am until 4pm – staying open late until 5pm or even 6pm during June and July. The caveat here is that the opening hours are rather complicated (even if you do speak Slovak) so whilst we are providing this link to the official schedule we still advise you to check before setting out into the blue yonder when the final cable car back is. Don’t car about the cable car? Then come here whenever you wish…

PRICES: Vrátna-Chleb Cable Car one way/return 8.50/10 Euros

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Terchová, below Vrátna, it’s 95km south and then east to Podbanské, the end point/ start point of our Tatranská Magistrala trail guide for the most popular path across the High Tatras.

The Art Film Festival in its old home in Trencianske Teplice

Košice: Slovakia’s Famed Film Festival Flying In Its Second Year in Town

Košice’s intimidatingly impressive arts scene just keeps growing (it’s already so big that we have quietly admitted to ourselves here at Englishmaninslovakia that one article would no longer do it justice). The arrival in June 2016, of one of Eastern Europe’s most important film festivals, Art Film Fest, might have been huge news, but it’s equally big news that it’s going from strength to strength in the city too, with 2017’s edition of the festival highlighting it really is a permanent (and well-received) fixture in the city events calendar now.

Of course, this news is all the more significant because the festival was already significant. It’s a festival as old as Slovakia, in fact – founded in 1993 as a showcase of contemporary film to promote awareness of groundbreaking cinema in this part of the continent. The festival rapidly soared up to become, behind Karlovy Vary Film Festival in the Czech Republic, the second-most important film festival in the entirety of Eastern Europe. It’s necessary to remember the precedent when this fact is mentioned. What had come before 1993 was fifty years of a stifling repression in the arts scene hereabouts (no need to utter the “C” word): Art Film Fest really was one of the primary mediums through which the world finally got to see what Slovak film could do and through which Slovaks got to see what world film could do.

Jeremy Irons at Art Film Fest - photo by Radovan Stoklasa

Jeremy Irons at Art Film Fest – photo by Radovan Stoklasa

The festival’s much-loved home became Trenčiankse Teplice, the delightful little spa town outside Trenčin in Western Slovakia. But despite garnering plenty of international clout (celebrated Slovak director Juraj Jakubisko and Roman Polanski among those who attended), limited capacity was the main issue at the venue – hence why Košice stepped in from 2016 to become the festival’s new base.

So there we have it. The 25th annual Art Film Fest kicked off (as all subsequent Art Film Fests are planned to) in Košice, a natural location given the city’s renaissance as an arts Mecca. 2017 festival dates were June 16th to June 24th – 2018 dates have yet to be announced.

Kosice by night

Kosice by night

 

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 Stay: The city’s first ‘eco-hotel’

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

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’

Around Bratislava – The North: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Kamzík

Like the Tower of London, like the Eiffel Tower, the thing that puts you off wanting to go to Kamzík, the big TV tower/mast standing sentinel over the hills above Bratislava is that it is, perhaps, too obvious.  There is admittedly not much subtle about it: nigh-on 200m of steel and glass jutting out of an already prominent forested ridge that itself sticks up another 300m above the city, and visible from pretty much everywhere in Greater Bratislava – oh, and Eastern Austria too. And, sharing its name with a type of High Tatras sheep-goat… that’s just weird.

But engaging in the obvious never seemed to be a problem for the majority of people – and certainly not for the majority of tourists – before. And voila, the crowds do converge on mass to the Tower of London AND the Eiffel Tower, yet even on a clement weekend afternoon, Kamzík can hardly be described as a crowd-puller. No, not even by Bratislava’s standards (the castle grabs ten times the numbers of visitors and the viewing platforms there are about 300m lower).

But of course, I hear you shout, you can’t compare the Tower of London or the Eiffel Tower with Kamzík! Well watch me. I have. And it is genuinely perplexing to me that more visitors to Bratislava (or locals) don’t make it up here, because if you weight the attractions up in minutes of time you need to fully appreciate them,  Kamzík comes out on top out of the three. And even for those visitors that would not go quite so far in their commendation, heading up here is well and truly cemented in the top ten best things to do in the Slovak capital – quite possibly the top five.

I am a very recent Kamzík convert. For a full year of living under its steely gaze, I had known, pretty much, what there was to see and do there. I had jogged around it. I had embarked on some great hikes from it. But at best I had viewed it as, well, the way most people tolerate TV masts in beautiful forests, with reluctant tolerance and a faint wish that it had either not been constructed or at least been constructed in a nobler architectural style.

What’s the big deal then? Well, to be clear the area known as Kamzík is not just a TV mast. It’s one of Bratislava’s premier outdoor playgrounds: marking, most significantly, the start of the Bratislava Mestské Lesy, a 30 square kilometre expanse of forested leading directly onto the Malé Karpaty or Small Carpathians, beyond  (hundreds more kilometres of forested hills await). And – as outdoor playgrounds are often blessed with – so the Kamzík area has great places to eat, great places to picnic, great places to hike and bike, great viewpoints AND, whilst it’s conveniently close to the city centre, it’s also far enough away to feel that you have truly left the city behind, and are in fact embarking on an adrenalin rush of an outdoor adventure.

The Mast Itself – and its Views!

The TV mast stands on the highest natural point around: a tree-coated 439m-high hill which would not – were it not for the 196m-high tower on top of it – afford any views whatsoever. But 439m + 194m = 633m, meaning this mast’s crest is significantly higher than anything else around. And even the brasserie here – poised 100m up the tower – is at 539m without contest the best viewing point for a very, very long way.

You enter the Kamzík tower at a lobby bar, quite modern looking but nothing special, at ground level. A pretty waitress tries to tempt you to stay and have a drink here, but there is no real reason to succumb. You want to go to the lift (straight ahead). Press C to go to the Altitude Restaurant (which revolves, Goodamnit, brilliant!) or – one level further up again – D to go to the Brasserie, which is as high as the public can get in the Bratislava region without stepping onto a Ryanair Flight. That’s why we’re recommending it. Not because its food or drink are significantly better than at the Altitude Restaurant or the lobby bar. Once at the Brasserie, it is etiquette to order something, rather than just snap a couple of pictures and leave. But a hot chocolate or tea is only a couple of Euros (main meals are 14-19 Euros and a limited selection includes foie gras with bacon dumplings and wild boar). And this is a spectacular place to drink in the view…

The Brasserie gives views on three sides (although the glass could use a clean). East of here, the Bratislava Mestské Lesy/Malé Karpaty stretch into the distance enticingly. South, the entire sweep of Bratislava is visible across the woods and vineyards, from Rača in the northeast round to the city centre (look for the castle for orientation). Looking west, the view is dramatic too: western suburbs like Dubravka give way to the flat lands beyond the hills, and Austria. You can trace the silver ribbon of Danube from the southeast near the Danubiana Art Museum right across to Devínska Kobyla in the west and beyond to Hainburg in Austria. Even the Austrian Alps are visible in the distance.

Below the Brasserie, the Altitude Restaurant yields similar views: with the neat difference that – let’s emphasise again – it rotates a full 360 degrees every 45 minutes. There are, these days, not so many fully rotating restaurants in Europe – and certainly not many with this vista out of the window(s).

It’s a great location for a business appointment – but not just because rotating restaurants invariably tend to attract the well-heeled. No: it’s a smart venue and knows it and to an extent tailors itself to attracting just that sort of crowd. It’s also right in the middle of Bratislava’s trump cards: its surrounding nature and its views. And there are conference rooms beneath.

Peruse your menu in either eating establishment and you can get the scoop on the Kamzík’s history. It was started, for example, in 1967; finished in 1975. Most hilariously, it details that the original design was intended to depict a wine bottle in homage to the Small Carpathians famous viticulture – with a disclaimer afterwards saying that it does not represent a wine bottle very faithfully and yet retains the nature of a wine bottle shape! In a word: cheers!

 Picnicking in the Meadow

Being able to drive up to Kamzík (and its proximity to Bratislava city centre) is certainly what makes it one of the very most popular places in the entire Malé Karpaty range of hills. And because you can drive up, it’s also a very frequented picnicking place. But all picnickers like a view, and the wide grassy meadow, or luka, at the top (where the road up through Koliba from the city branches into the TV Tower access road and the cable car access track) offers one of the rare opportunities within the hills to see the woods outside of the trees, as it were: with views the trees normally hide. It’s a sun trap when the sun is shining and has a few snack stalls at the top end: nothing special but hey, sausages with a view!! (or bring your own better food with you).

Kamzík’s Eats and Sleeps

In addition to the eating places mentioned thus far, there is also, at the topmost cable car station, the rather appealing Koliba Expo restaurant – a great, typically rustic slovak-style place to round off a spot of weekend hiking (so good it warrants its own post, but for now, open 11am-11pm daily). Want to bed down up in the hills here? Well it makes a fairly attractive proposition in some ways. You are properly immersed in the nature here, but at the same time within a 20-minute walk of the trolleybus terminus (trolleybus 203). So welcome to Kamzík’s own hotel: Hotel West. The setting is Hansel and Gretel-esque but the rooms and restaurant are a little short on atmosphere (something they have in common with almost every other Best Western). Still, you’re staying in the woods!  And yes, there is indeed a cable car up to Kamzík – that was not a mistake – which you can read more about in the How to Get There section below!

The Proper Outdoorsy Stuff

Views viewed, picnics picnicked and eateries eaten in, chances are you’ll want to get on with some of the great hiking, mountain biking and (in the winter) cross-country skiing hereabouts – numerous relatively deserted trails meander off through the forests seemingly tailored to these purposes.

The main hiking trail to know about from here is the red route, the Štefánikova magistrála***(trail of  Štefánik) that runs from Devínsky Hrad (Devín Castle) through Devínska Kobyla and Kamzík on northeast over 100km up the length of the Male Karpaty to the very end of the range at Bradlo, where Štefánik’s memorial sits (the whole walk will soon be featured on Englishmaninslovakia and Kamzík sits neatly at the finish of Stage One and the beginning of Stage Two of the walk).

OR follow the access road along the top of meadow we just told you was great for picnicking (hikers/bikers only, no cars) as it twists down to the cable car base, where you can pick up the Pilgrimage Route to Marianka***(turn right, following the yellow trail – and see here what Marianka actually is). A yellow trail also heads west from Hotel West at Kamzík to the Železná studnička (scroll on down below under the ‘How to Get There’ paragraph for what Železná studnička actually is) road and directly over to join the official pilgrimage trail to Marianka (yes, we admit it, our pilgrimage trail is not the official one for all of the route, but we’ll guarantee you it’ll take you through the best scenery).

Reasonably seasoned mountain bikers could manage any of the afore-mentioned trails on two wheels, but to link up with the prettiest of the nearby dedicated biking trails, take the red Štefánikova magistrála trail northeast for 25 minutes where you’ll hit a yellow trail. The route from here, both east (through to Bratislava’s northeasterly suburb of Rača) and west (down to the cable car base just beyond Železná studnička and then on towards Marianka) is a beautiful biking trail and it’s also our recommended Pilgrimage to Marianka route. When the snow falls up to 1.5 metres thick here in the winter this same trail is a great cross-country snow-shoeing or skiing route. Oh – and there are a whole network of special running routes around Kamzík too – on a mix of paved and stony paths/tracks.

The bottom line is that from Kamzík, the whole of the Small Carpathians are at your fingertips.

How to Get Here (Perhaps the Most Fun of All!)

We’ll list the ways to get up to Kamzík in order, from least interesting to most.

Driving…

From just east of Bratislava Hlavna Stanica mainline railway station (MAP) a road (named Karpatska) goes up under the rail tracks through the neighbourhood of Koliba to the afore-mentioned picnicking meadow and a couple of car parks.

Public Transport…

Trolleybus 203 heads up to the Koliba terminus. From here, keep heading uphill on the road and join a path on the right of the road which leads up through woods in 20 minutes or so to reach Kamzík.

Hiking…

A number of possibilities from the city centre: the red Štefánikova magistrála trail runs up from the western neighbourhood of Patronka (at Vojenská Nemocnica, on the Bus 212 route); a green trail leads up from Bratislava Hlavna Stanica mainline railway station (on several of the city’s major public bus and tram routes); a blue trail leads up from Mladá Garda in Nove Mesto (on the Tram 3 and Tram 5 routes); a yellow trail leads up from Krasňany in northeastern Bratislava (near Rača, on the Tram 3 and Tram 5 routes). None take more than an hour to get to Kamzík.

Cable Car!

It should be noted, before visitors get too excited, that the cable car is more akin to a chair lift but, even so, it is Bratislava’s very own, and not commonly known about. That’s because the route it takes is far from the most direct way up from where most foreign visitors. You get there from Bratislava Železná studnička mainline railway station (trains towards Kúty from Bratislava Hlavna Stanica stop here every couple of hours; otherwise hop on bus 212 from Hodžovo Námestie and get off at the last stop, the hospital Vojenská Nemocnica). Now EITHER

a) walk up say from the main road on Cesta Mládeže, which quickly rises into the Bratislava Mestské Lesy and the start of the series of lakes known as Železná studnička. 2km up this road and you’ll reach the cable car base (behind a wide meadow with a small playground in)

b) Change directly at Vojenská Nemocnica to bus 43 (1-2 buses hourly) and stay on until the Lanovka stop, where you’ll see the cable car base just above you.

The Cable Car, also known as Lanovky, costs 4 Euros/3 Euros adult/child one way. It runs Thursday through Sunday between 10am and 6pm, with the last departures being at 5:45pm. The journey whooshes you up, quite thrillingly, through the forest to Kamzík – right by the Koliba Expo restaurant we were mentioning.

And finally, why is Kamzík so called, after the quirky breed of sheep that inhabit the Slovakian High Tatras? We don’t know. Answers on a postcard, please!

MAP LINK: Also see Kamzík on our specially annotated GREATER BRATISLAVA MAP

GETTING THERE: Detailed right above!

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Kamzík, it’s a one-hour walk down to Krasňany and one of the best typical Slovak restaurants in Bratislava, Krasňanska Kúria – and a two-hour walk north to Marianka, Slovakia’s main pilgrimage destination.

*** = Denotes where, on our separate hiking posts incorporating Kamzík, you have to scroll down to to in the linked post to pick up the hike