Picture by PATRICK CIMPRICH

Ancient Slovak castle’s new gateway to yet more mystery

** Picture by PATRICK CIMPRICH

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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…

 

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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

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

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

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

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

The Bratislava skyline from the Štefánikova magistrála

Hiking Western Slovakia on the Trail of Slovakia’s Heroes: the Štefánikova Magistrála

When I heard there was a path themed around one of Slovakia’s greatest all-time heroes, Milan Rastislav Štefánik, running from the Austrian border at Hrad Devín through the entirety of the Small Carpathians to Bradlo, where the man is buried, my interest was, I’ll admit it, piqued.

120km Showcase of Slovakia’s Best-Of

The Štefánikova Magistrála is a 120+km path in total and encompasses the very best of Western Slovakia along the way – unforgettable forest, several of the most magnificent castles in the country, and – of course – that poignant finish at Bradlo, Štefánik’s tomb. At this point, the path does not end (the name alone changes) and you can continue on the trail of the Cesta Hrdinov SNP (path of the Heroes of the Slovak National Uprising) all the way across Slovakia through yet more-untouched, more-unknown countryside to the far east of Slovakia at Dukla Pass on the Polish border.

It transplants you to the pretty, river-hugging village of Devín, invites you on the clamber up to the sandy escarpments of Devínska Kobyla (which, once upon a time not so long ago, protected East from West in Europe), shows you the modern face of Bratislava’s western suburbs, and then, slowly but steadily, those woods and hills – rising only up to 700m (about 2300 feet) but quickly metamorphosing into a little-traipsed wilderness replete with wild pigs and deer. A narrative thread, in other words, linking the majority of the West’s best tourist attractions.

And part of it runs only about 1.5km away from my home of three years, Rača!

Fellow Small Carpathians lover Jonno  Tranter hiked the entirety of the Štefánikova Magistrála to get to the 2016 edition of the famous Pohoda festival at Trenčin and we are featuring his most updated version of trekking the trail, broken down into day-long hiking stages, for stages two to five of the hike on this site (scroll down for more on this, and for his further two days of hiking on the Cesta Hrdinov SNP).

The Tatranská Magistrála it Ain’t…

Unlike the Tatranská Magistrála, with all its provision for tourists, including many convenient mountain houses to bed down in, the Štefánikova Magistrála is a different proposition. It is far less walked, and not always as well maintained. Its signage – even at its best – is worse, and often dies out completely. There are no designated accommodation options en route, either – you have to make the best of what happens to be nearby! Perhaps therein lies its appeal: on the Tatranská Magistrála, you will always meet other hikers – here not. Much of this route lies on forgotten paths, only used by local dog walkers or cyclists. True, it lacks the mountainous intensity of Eastern Slovakia – but it is greener and, for leading you astray into increasing isolation, perhaps more beguiling in its own way.

Every Last Bit of the Path (Almost)

On a sweltering July day when I needed to get away from my desk I finally got round to starting this walk. Now, from Rača, Bratislava’s north-eastern edge, where I was living for three years, I could have cut up behind my house and skipped all of stage one, which does encompass getting through Bratislava – a surefire way to get to the most beautiful parts of the hike sooner. I didn’t do that. I wanted to walk the Štefánikova Magistrála from beginning to end. With such a resolution, I had to therefore go to Devín Hrad (Devin Castle).

The Štefánikova Magistrála According to the Englishman

It’s a somewhat contradictory concept, these paths in the footsteps of famous people. You want to believe, mid-tramp, that yes, it’s OK, Štefánik (in this example) really was sweating it out on these very paths. But of course there is that growing suspicion in the back of your mind that the route planners just want to take you via as many showcase sights as humanly possible. This suspicion grows within you mighty quickly on the Štefánikova Magistrála. Circuitous would be describing this path mildly. Therefore, what follows in the stage descriptions is the Štefánikova Magistrála according to Englishmaninslovakia, with shortcuts inserted where following the path would be an illogical detour.

A Final Few Things About Štefánikova Magistrála on this Site

This route also takes you from the castle walls of Devín (which, in a symbolic gesture, I felt I had to touch before I could get on with the walking thing). If you want to cut straight to the seriously wild, woodsy part of this hike, you might want to skip Stage One and pick up from the start of Stage Two at Kamzik.

(Kamzik is a start point for several other great hikes up in the forests too, including the pilgrimage trail to Marianka.)

We’ve tried to divide each stage of the Štefánikova Magistrála into five to eight hour walking days, with accommodation/camping possibilities at the end of each. Especially with the first stage, there are a fair few sights to see that should (quite rightly) detain you, and there is a lot of steep ups and downs, plus the highest chance of getting lost (for reasons that will become apparent) – so we’ve given you an easy first days’ hiking!

And about that accommodation… the end of Stage One (Hotel West) and the end of Stage Two (the motel at Pezinská Baba) have hotels but the end of Stage Three (Vápenná) and Stage Four (Dobrá Voda) have none – meaning your best bet really is to camp (technically, unofficially) in the vicinity – our stage directions do cover good places to camp! On Stage Five, there is one of our Top Ten Places to Stay in Slovakia just above Brezová pod Bradlom in Košiarska (on a cunning side trail up to Bradlo, too!) and beyond Bradlo, in Myjava, the well-regarded Hotel Štefánik. Nevertheless, as two stages minimum will entail camping, you’ll need to bring all the necessary camping gear (as well as food, as food stops along the trail are scant).

Finally – getting there. The easiest way by public transport to Devín is to go to the Most SNP bus station (under the bridge) and take the hourly 29 bus which goes straight to the castle forecourt.

Map Check

You WILL need maps for this hike (green-coloured 1: 25,000 and 1: 50,000 VKÚ Harmanec maps; see our post on where to buy hiking maps). It is not enough to rely on the signage. Grab copies of Malé Karpaty Juh (south Small Carpathians), Malé Karpaty Stred (central Small Carpathians) and Malé Karpaty Sever (North Small Carpathians). On each of the stages we’ll provide an overview MAP LINK but there are no online maps that show the hiking trail in sufficient detail…

WHAT NEXT?

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: Dobra Voda to Bradlo (featured in our Places to Go/Western Slovakia sub-section)

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 (near Trenčin) (featured in our Places to Go/Western Slovakia sub-section)

From Bratislava to Wild Western Slovakia: an Intro to the Small Carpathians (Male Karpaty)

Before I wax lyrical about one of my favourite ranges of hills and forests (the Small Carpathians, or Malé Karpaty) too much more on this blog it’s probably necessary to give you some context. So here we go.

In terms of mountains in Slovakia, it’s the Carpathians that rule the roost. They’re the peaks that start in the Czech Republic, run through the north of Slovakia (and therefore encompassing the Mala Fatra/Vel’ka Fatra, Orava ValleysHigh Tatras and Low Tatras chapters under the “Places to Go” section of this site) and the south of Poland, cut the corner of Hungary, charge south through the west of Ukraine and wind up cutting across the central massif of Romania. All-told, they’re longer than the Alps – and Europe’s second-longest mountain range.

The Carpathians are well-known, and, in Slovakia at least, much visited. But there’s several less-visited extensions of these mountains: “arms” if you like, that bisect Slovakia. And of these, the Small Carpathians are the most significant. These forested hills run from the edge of Bratislava northeast to their join with the Carpathians proper somewhere outside Trenčin: and they dominate the landscape of all Western Slovakia. Almost entirely tree-clad and never rising above 770 metres, they are a far gentler prospect than the Carpathians – but can nevertheless be dramatic, and full of little-discovered treasures.

Englishmaninslovakia loves the Small Carpathians and, by way of an introduction, here’s why. As a result we have by far by largest selection of information about this beautiful range of hills anywhere on the web!

Below, we’ve set it out for you nice and easy. You can find links to ALL our posts on the Small Carpathians both under the What’s There? heading (which takes you through our available content by theme) and then our Access heading (which takes you through our available content in geographical order from south-west to north-east).

The places to watch out for which help make up our Small Carpathians content here start off with the forests north of Bratislava and then continue in a north-easterly direction with Svätý Jur, Limbach, Pezinok, Modra, Smolenice, Piešt’anyNové Mesto and Váhom and (a little further to the east) Nitra: and of course everything in the forests above these destinations. Of course, it almost goes without saying that a foray into the Small Carpathians has to be included at some point in the article for it to feature in our catch-all Small Carpathian article compilation. Thus a post exclusively on Piešt’any’s spas, Modra’s ceramics or Nitra’s coffee scene does not feature here (it will, however, feature in our more general Places to Go/Western Slovakia sub-section, which encompasses the Small Carpathians). Clear? We hope so…

1) What’s There?

It would be wrong to cite anywhere in the Small Carpathians as a key sight: because they’re all relatively low-key. BUT…

– CASTLES Some of Slovakia’s greatest castles are located here, ranging from stupendous stately affairs like Červený Kameň to a myriad hidden ruined castles like Tematin, Gýmeš or Beckov.

– HIKING Then there’s the hiking: through forests which, now trees in the Tatras have been hit by storms, are the densest and perhaps most untrammelled in Slovakia. Signed trails often lead to some of these castles, and also include the likes of viewing platforms (mammoth multi-tier wooden platforms that give you a birds-eye view above the treetops) and open up into flower-dotted meadows. On all trails you will find the lovingly built fire pits where Slovaks come in summer with their barbecued picnic lunches. There are also some formidable biking trails (marked with a C). Try combining a hike with a pilgrimage (to Marianka), a castle (at Pajštún) or with a formidable restaurant (and just a touch of romantic history) above Piešťany. Better yet, hike the hike that runs across the entire Small Carpathians range: the Štefánikova magistrála! (broken down into five guided stages on this site – follow the link for more)

Vineyards, with Bratislava in the distance

Vineyards, with Bratislava in the distance

– WINE And for something more relaxed after all that energy, the hills are home to the homonymous wine route (the erratic nature, lack of updates and lack of in-English info on the official site mean we’re only linking to our updated posts on this now).

The Bratislava suburb of RačaSvätý JurLimbach, PezinokModra and Trnava are the hotbeds of this  wine route, and home to many of the wine cellars open for tours and tastings: the happy end product from the surrounding vineyards, which carpet the lower reaches of the Small Carpathians. Read our post on attending one of the many locally-organised wine tastings (in Trnava) here.

– RUSTIC RESTAURANTS For something still more relaxing, the trees sometimes give way to reveal a number of great places to eat and drink. Some of these places are proper, rustic, typically Slovak eateries, too – traditional yet refined wooden cottages with huge stoves and bundles of charm – and easily accessible: try our post on Furmanska Krčma above Modra or Reštaurácia Furman above Piešt’any for starters.

– BIZARRE BUILDINGS Try our post on Kamzik (a TV mast shaped like a wine bottle in honour of the Male Karpaty wine region) or the poignant tomb-monument of Bradlo, dedicated to Slovakia’s greatest 20th-century hero, Štefánik.

 – SPIRITUAL SPOTS

Slovakia’s main pilgrimage site, Marianka, is hidden in the hills here.

– But above all, what the Small Carpathians are best for is providing a lot of quintessential Slovak experiences (so yes, those undiscovered hikes, those hauntingly ruined castles, that delicious wine, that typical Slovak food – and all in mysterious forested low mountains) and having precious few other visitors outside Slovakia – despite being on Bratislava’s doorstep.

SCROLL DOWN to the bottom of the post for our Top Six Things To Do in the Small Carpathians

2) Access

Bratislava Mestské Lesy

Bratislava Mestské Lesy

 

a) From Bratislava’s Mestské Lesy

The part of the Small Carpathians closest to Bratislava is known as the Mestské Lesy (local city forest). It has its own defined boundaries but there’s no visible distinction between the Mestské Lesy and the Small Carpathians. From Bratislava, the two main entry points to the Mestské Lesy (and thus the Small Carpathians too) are:

– Kamzik, the large TV mast you will not fail to spot wherever you are in the city (whilst it’s a TV mast, it’s also a really beautiful section of forest, and a popular outing at weekends for Bratislava folk). It’s possible to drive up here (through the suburb of Koliba north of the main railway station), take a cable car up here (you have to take a train from the main railway station to Bratislava Zeležna Studienka railway Station, then follow Cesta Mládeže up the couple of km to Železná Studnička, a lake from above which the cable car runs) or, easiest, take trolleybus 203 up here from the central Hodžovo Námestie to the end of the line in Koliba and then walk up about 20 minutes on obvious trails. So much is there to do in and around Kamzik, in fact that we have a whole (rather extensive) separate section on the place – read our post about it here…

– Pekná Cesta, a car park, barbecue area and forestry ranger post above the district of Rača in northeastern Bratislava. It’s possible to drive up here (or walk the 2km) straight up the road of Pekná Cesta from the tram stop of the same name (trams 3 and 5 run here from the centre of Bratislava). This is the preferred start point for our Pilgrimage to Marianka hike: see c) From Marianka below.

RELATED POST: Bratislava Mestske Lesy (Local City Forest)

b) From Devínska Nová Ves, Bratislava. 

The Small Carpathians falls away into Bratislava only to rear up again for one last, brief hurrah on the city’s western edge, accessed from the suburb of Devínska Nová Ves. There is backdoor access to Devín Castle from here, as well as superb views across to Austria from the top of Devínska Kobyla. Read our destination post about it here.

c) From Marianka (on the northern edge of Bratislava).

Marianka is Western Slovakia’s key pilgrimage site: a nice village in the foothills with good places to eat – and connected directly to the Bratislava public transport grid. Take bus 37 (hourly) from the bus station under Most SNP to the end of the line. Several hiking trails lead off from Marianka, including the trail to Borinka and on up to Pajštún Castle. Read our post about hiking to Marianka here, our destination post on Marianka here and our destination post on Pajštún here.

FOR MORE ON GETTING TO KAMZIK, PEKA CESTA, DEVINSKA NOVA VES OR MARIANKA, SEE OUR POST ON BRATISLAVA’S MAIN TRAM, BUS AND TROLLEYBUS ROUTES TOO!

d) From Svätý Júr, just outside Bratislava

On this blog, we don’t really count Svätý Júr as outside Bratislava, but more as a commuter suburb. Perhaps this is unfair, but there you go. Yet already, the Small Carpathian landscapes are starting to have their undulating rusticating effect on Svätý Júr  and as it’s connected via good and regular bus connections from Bratislava’s Mlynske Nivy bus station, and the hills are only a short walk up through town from the bus stop, it makes a viable access point. Read our destination post on Svätý Júr here.

e) From Western Slovakia.

Best access points are (in order from Bratislava) the towns of Limbach, Pezinok, Modra, Smolenice (which lies within the hills and has access to the highest point of the Small Carpathians, Zarúby), Piešt’any, Nové Mesto nad Váhom and Trenčin. Nitra, further east, also has access – although as detailed above, all of these destinations with the exception of Limbach and Smolenice are big (for Slovakia) towns so you won’t find links to our articles on them on our compilation of Small Carpathians content UNLESS they involve getting up into them hills…

RELATED POST: Checking out the wine in the only Small Carpathians wine route town PROPERLY in the Small Carpathians

RELATED POST: Ľudovít Štúr’s Modra (coming soon)

RELATED POST: Feasting in the woods above Modra

RELATED POST: In the Footsteps of Beethoven above Piešt’any

RELATED POST: A great traditional Slovak restaurant in the hills above Piešt’any

RELATED POST: Exploring the remotest of the incredible fortresses in the Small Carpathians, Tematin

RELATED POST: Roaming the ruins of Beckov Castle above Nové Mesto nad Váhom

RELATED POST: Checking out the monument to Czechoslovakia’s founder, Štefánik

RELATED POST: Hiking the whole Small Carpathians hill range on Slovakia’s spectacular long-distance trail, the Štefánikova magistrála – or jump straight in to stages 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5 of the hike

The Saint's Trail from Marianka to Svätý Jur

The Saint’s Trail from Marianka to Svätý Jur

3) The Small Carpathians on Englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The Small Carpathians span two sub-sections on this blog.

a) Bratislava & Around

Falling within the Bratislava & Around section are many posts that focus on places well and truly in the Small Carpathians, but also within the geographical range detailed on the map in our Places to Go/Bratislava & Around sub-section, namely:

– Heading North from Bratislava centre:

Up to Marianka (and the hikes around Borinka, Stupava and Pajštún Castle which lie a fraction beyond the northerly extent).

– Heading East/Northeast from Bratislava centre:

Anything up to and including the small village of Svätý Jur.

b) Western Slovakia

Beyond the limits just specified, the rest of our blog posts on the Small Carpathians fall in this section.

 4) Top Six Things To Do in the Small Carpathians

1: Go wine-tasting in some of the small wine cellars in the countryside around Limbach, Pezinok or Modra

2: Visit the majestic castle of Červený Kameň near Časta. (see our Western Slovakia Castle Tour for more)

3: Climb up to Záruby, the high-point of the Small Carpathians from the small, pretty village of Smolenice – which has a gorgeous castle (where you can climb the tower for more lovely views)

4: Spend a day hiking the trails of the central tract of the Small Carpathians and round it off with a night’s stay at plush Zochova Chata and a dinner of typical Slovak fare at traditional Furmanska Krčma.

5: Hike up to the hidden ruins of Hrad Tematin – and spend the night in the mountain hut there! (see our Around Piešt’any: the Mysterious Ruins of Tematin article for more).

6: Descend into Western Slovakia’s only explorable cave system, Jaskyňa Driny (Driny Cave) near Smolenice.

MAP LINK:

GETTING THERE: As previously detailed, Bratislava, as well as the towns of Svätý Júr, Pezinok, Modra, Piešt’any, Smolenice, Nové Mesto nad Váhom and Trenčin have the best access to the Small Carpathians and, with the exception of Smolenice, have excellent, regular bus connections from Bratislava. Smolenice is more remote, thus has less buses (about every 1.5 hours from Bratislava direct, at a cost of 2.80 Euros, so still not bad). Pezinok, Piešt’any, Nové Mesto nad Váhom and Trenčin are also served by trains every 1.5 hours from Bratislava.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Červený Kameň at the epicentre of this range of hills, it’s  23km east to Trnava and 60km northeast to recuperate at the country’s best-known spa in Piešt’any.

High Tatras Mountains: Tatranská Magistrala – the Kit List

There is a running joke in Slovakia about the Czechs. Lots of Czechs come to the Tatras mountains each year. Of all visiting nations, the Czechs are apparently the most Gung-ho when it comes to forging off alone in the peaks without a guide (perhaps with the mentality that, if they speak 99% of the same language, Slovakia can’t possibly hurt them). Other nations are much more likely to plan a trip with a certain degree of caution. And of those who do get into difficulty in the mountains and need assistance from mountain rescue, the Czechs form the highest percentage. The Tatras claim several hundred lives from the tourists that visit them every year, in fact. Exposure, avalanches, falls down precipices and the like.

To be honest, I think by nature I’m quite like those daredevil Czechs too. The Slovak mountains are so much higher and more dramatic then anything I’m used to in the UK. Thus the temptation is to run off into them, squealing with delight like a small child, and not think properly about the very real danger these mountains can pose to those who, like me, love trekking into the great outdoors. Hiking the Tatranská Magistrala taught me a few things about what you need to bring with you when you embark on an adventure in such mountains and so, Czechs and indeed adventurers from any land who might under-estimate the power of the mighty Tatras, this is for you: an essential kit list!

CLOTHING

1: Warm, waterproof jacket OR better still, a waterproof jacket with a detachable fleece. That way, you can keep wearing the fleece in the mountain houses you’ll be staying at in the evening, which can still be quite cold inside.

2: Warm, woollen hat: temperatures even in June can get down to minus 5.

3: Gloves, but ideally not woollen ones. Ones with grip are better for hauling yourself up or down on those chains.

4: Hiking boots, well broken in. Do not attempt this hike without them.

5: Waterproof trousers. Pack these, and you can get away with just packing one pair of light trousers to wear underneath. You’re likely to get wet, at some point, and there’s often no cover in the Tatras.

6: Shorts are often better for summer hiking as it frees up your movement, but remember the definition of “summer” can be literally only July to September, so don’t come without a pair of long trousers too.

7: Sunglasses: great to cut out the glare.

8: A dry change of clothes for the evening: you’ll appreciate them no end.

9: If you suffer from any kind of problem in your legs, a knee support: some of the downhill sections are jarring on the bones.

GEAR

1: Rucksack with waterproof covering. Self-explanatory, right?

2: Walking poles: not essential, but you are going to feel the benefit on the often punishing ups and downs.

3: Torch: a head torch would be perfect as it keeps your hands free, or a maglite that’s light but powerful and can help if you’re caught on the trail after dark or can’t find the light switch in the night.

4: Whistle and, ideally, a flare. This sounds over the top but it isn’t: you could easily get into difficulty and phone reception could be non-existent. This could be your only way of getting help.

5: Mobile phone and charger: for similar reasons to the above. Make sure you at least have a phone that will function if the reception comes.

6: A good map: Again, it sounds obvious but you’d be surprised. See our guide here to buying hiking maps in Slovakia.

7: A compass: Pretty important, especially on some of the less well-signed trails.

8: Book/ pack of cards: for evening entertainment.

9: Cash. Don’t bank on being able to pay by card.

10: Camera: you’re going to get some great pics.

11: Sharp knife. It’s going to come in useful.

12: Lighter. Probably good. At the mountain houses it’s possible to have a camp fire.

FOOD

1: A good supply of water. At least a 1.5 litre bottle (this should be enough to get you between one mountain house and the next, where you can fill up).

2: Sugar fixes: for morale boosts and energy. Whatever you like.

3: A hip flask filled with something strong. That’s the way the Slovaks do it!

Where to Go After Reading this Post

Got the general idea? Now it’s time to go to our Tatranská Magistrala Stage Descriptions and our recommended High Tatras Mountain Houses (under the Places to Stay/High Tatras sub-section) which of course tie in with the Stage Descriptions.

Hiking in the Tatras can be tough, with intense quickly-changing weather

Hiking in the Tatras can be tough, with intense quickly-changing weather…

High Tatras Mountain House: Zamkovského Chata

It was summer, but we were still rubbing our hands together to keep the circulation going whenever we had to remove our gloves to study the map. A cold wind was blowing belated flurries of snow down from 2500m peaks over the long, exposed, boulder-strewn stretch of the Tatranská Magistrala between the lurid mountain lakes of Zelené Pleso and Skalnaté Pleso, shaking the timbers of each man-made structure, hut to signpost, that it could find. Re-entering the pine forests after a long descent from these wild climes was for us a relief: a respite, if you like. It’s a particularly majestic stretch of forest: one that has survived the strong winds (a phenomenon known as the Tatranská bóra) that have plagued the high-altitude forests of the High Tatras for decades; one which feels as old as, or older than, the glam days of Tatras tourism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. And it is here that we eagerly sought refuge in one of the most interesting accommodation options of the many dotted across these high mountains.

Zamkovského Chata is one of the oldest High Tatras mountain houses: an expansive two-floor log cabin that resonates with history. Štefan Zamkovský, a renowned mountain guide and ranger, and one of the key figures behind the development of the High Tatras as a tourist destination, built the house between 1942 and 1943, lived there with his family, and let part of it out as a refuge from the weather for weary walkers. Despite his efforts for the local tourism industry, Zamkovský had his property confiscated in 1948 under the Communist regime (the house subsequently became named after one captain Nalepka) and it was only after 1989 that the lodge was returned to the Zamkovský family,  and reassumed the name Zamkovského Chata.

The story of Štefan Zamkovský is touchingly retold in the log cabin restaurant of Zamkovského Chata – which has become a museum of sorts to the development of tourism in the High Tatras (and a museum where you can slurp Slovak mulled wine and wolf down pirohy – great by us!). A one-hour walk up from the cable car station at Hrebienok (connecting tourists to the resort village of Starý Smokovec below) and a one hour walk down from Skalnaté Pleso (where another cable car connects tourists with the more easterly resort village of  Tatranská Lomnica below), it is accessible enough for families and afternoon strollers to trek here for lunch, and close enough to the serious mountain hiking/climbing to act as a magnet for the outdoor adventure-obsessed. Its location is sedate and sheltered, in contrast to the other more exposed mountain houses out on the slopes, but at the same time, breaking through the gaps in the trees, are signs of the sheer rock faces close by. As if by way of reminder, the tough green trail spirals away from outside the chata, climbing from 1475m on the edge of the lodge grounds to Téryho Chata,  the remotest mountain house at 2000m, in one hour and 45 minutes.

But the lack of a cable car terminal means Zamkovského Chata still retains a blissful isolation; a Germanic “lost house in the woods” feel. Six 2-, 4- and 5-bed rooms above the restaurant offer beds for 23 people: if it’s full there is also an attic with several mattresses for bedding down if you have your own sleeping bag. It’s one of the High Tatras mountain houses that’s open year-round, too – and therefore the facilities (available information on nearby hikes, options of food in the restaurant – are better than at many other mountain accommodations. You’ll be charmed by it whatever the circumstances of your arrival. Hiking here from Zelené pleso in bitter weather on , it will seem nothing short of a cosy woodsy paradise.

This mountain house is our recommended stopover between stage 2 and stage 3 of the Tatranská Magistrala, Slovakia’s most famous long-distance hiking trail that runs right across the High Tatras from Ždiar to Podbanské/Pribylina.

MAP LINK: The remoteness of Zamkovského Chata means it’s not possible to get sufficient detail and useful nearby landmarks on one map. This map is zoomed to the level that shows where it is in relation to the Hrebienok cable car terminus; zoom in one level and the paths between the two and on up to Skalnaté pleso become visible.

PRICES: High-season (summer) prices are 19 Euros per person per night; these reduce to 16 Euros per person per night in the low (winter) season. Not included in the above are Breakfast (costs 5 Euros) and dinner (costs 8 Euros). (2016 prices)

BOOK ZAMKOVSKÉHO CHATA: This is an extremely remote mountain house, without a regular internet connection,so booking is generally done by phone (or, if sufficiently in advance, email.) There may be a problem getting someone to speak English if you do telephone – although it is policy to usually have one English-speaking member of staff on duty at all times. Telephone 00421-(0)-905-554-471 (mobile). Email zamka@zamka.sk.

High Tatras Mountain House: Horský Hotel Popradské Pleso

For a good six months of the year, the snow piles so high against the timber walls of Horský Hotel Popradské Pleso that it rather resembles a giant igloo than a mountain lodge. Abutting the rugged lakeshore of Popradské Pleso, this hotel is surrounded by sheer mountain slopes that soar to over 2000 metres. The difficult ascent/descent from/to the lake on the isolated Tatranská Magistrala trail is a 500 metre wall of scree, boulders and scrub clinging on for dear life. And the weather reflects the wild location. Already at almost 1500 metres altitude, the lake and the hotel receive their microclimate from over 2000 metres: the rain, the ice and the snow stack up here having poured straight off those upper slopes.

Incredibly though, a metalled service road somehow twists from the lake through the pine forests down to the Tatras Electric Railway station of Popradské Pleso and the main Poprad to Štrbské Pleso road. So despite the blissful feeling of isolation it’s still well connected enough. If you want to stay in the mountains but don’t like the resort feel of Štrbské Pleso then Horský Hotel Popradské Pleso is the place to make for: lakefront accommodation, but in a far more romantic, untrammelled wilderness than Štrbské Pleso’s somewhat manicured environs a one-hour walk down the mountain.

Forest hideaway...

Forest hideaway…

The hotel itself, in the style of a giant mountain chalet, manages to be aesthetically pleasing where (for example) Hotel Patria on Štrbské Pleso fails. It’s all finished in dark wood, and the atmosphere is more of the easy-going, hiker-meets-hiker ilk. There are no pretensions such as at the hotels down at Štrbské Pleso. The staff are friendly – they went out of their way to pick us up at Popradské Pleso Electric Railway station, in fact, when we had been traipsing through the rain-drenched night to get there and realised our gross under-estimation of the distance there was still to cover. The food is hearty mountain fare – hot, meat-dominated, seasoned but stodgy Slovak delights that in many cases match or supersede what most Štrbské Pleso lakeshore hotels serve.

As to the rooms, well. There are various price brackets. The most basic accommodation, in hostel-of-yore-type dorms, is 16 Euros per bed. Bathrooms are shared. For 38 Euros you can get a 2-bed private room, small and simple, but still with shared bathrooms. Both are very clean, albeit spartan. But the 56-Euro standard and 60-Euro superior rooms are very good for the price – well furnished (TVs, fridges and the works) and with huge bathrooms (with baths) and scalding-hot towel rails (what you need after a damp hike). For comfort, this is what Englishmaninslovakia recommends. You’re getting scintilating lakeshore views, remember, with any of these options. There are a couple of apartments, too.

The restaurant is popular throughout the day with hikers passing by. The cosy tables in booths by the windows looking out on the lake and the mountains are best. This is where the generous 5-Euro breakfast buffet is served, and where you can feast on all kinds of the afore-mentioned Slovak fare (we recommend the divine gulaš/goulash). Then there’s a games room – perfect for those wet days. Pool and table football are free here! And then there’s the sauna. When the temperature is what it was on our first visit here, you’ll quickly see the appeal…

The hotel is Englishmaninslovakia’s recommended stopover point between stages 3 and 4 of the Tatranská Magistrala hike that traverses the High Tatras. In short, its access to the true wilds of the mountains – alongside its having maintained the creature comforts associated with a larger plusher hotel – make it ideal for Tatras first-timers.

If you don’t get a room here, but want to stay on the lake, there’s another penzión right nearby.

MAP LINK: 

PRICES: From 17 Euros (dorm), from 20 Euros (2-bed room with shared bathroom),  56 Euros (double with private bathroom), 80-110 Euros (2- or 4-bed apartments) – 2016 prices.

BOOK HORSKÝ HOTEL POPRADSKÉ PLESO (There is no facility to book online – book by phone, Skype or email through this link)

High Tatras Mountains: On the Edge at Skalnaté Pleso

It’s a turbulent collision of worlds, Skalnaté Pleso. The cut-off point between the lower slopes of the High Tatras mankind has succeeded in taming to some extent and the wild peaks rearing above that mankind (let’s hope) never will tame. Cowering just below the point where the mountains sheer away in broken walls of rock in a natural frontier, of sorts, between Slovakia and Poland, this windswept mountain lake is a place you should visit for any number of reasons.

1: Getting There!

It’s connected by a gondola cableway (via Štart, a mid-station where you can disembark) down to Tatranská Lomnica one of the three main High Tatras mountain resort villages – from where there’s access via the Tatras Electric Railway to Starý Smokovec (mountain resort village number two) and then along to Štrbské Pleso (mountain resort village number three) or down to Poprad for mainline rail connections west to Bratislava and east to Košice.

The train journey from Bratislava is beautiful, with the last hour or so to Poprad a sensational Central European montage of lakes and Alpine scenery (find out a bit more about why this journey is great). The final part of the route takes you from the valley bottom to the prettiest of the resort villages, Tatranská Lomnica, and then becomes increasingly dramatic as you rise out of civilisation onto the scree-strewn Tatras slopes, with the farmland around Poprad soon just a green gleam below. You’ll pay 1.50 Euros on the Tatras Electric Railway from Poprad to Tatranská Lomnica and 15/18 Euros single/return on the cableway from Tatranská Lomnica to Skalnaté Pleso (which is closed in May, incidentally, for maintenance, and obviously does not run in bad weather).

2: The Ultimate Cable Car Adventure!

Most people arrive at Skalnaté Pleso via the gondola cableway from Tatranská Lomnica, and many want to come here for the more hair-raising cable car journey ahead. Supported only by a steel wire you can ascend from the lake up the precipitous slopes of Lomnicky Štít, Slovakia’s second-highest mountain, to the summit at 2630m high (just 20m shy of the highest mountain in Slovakia, Gerlachovský štít). Lomnicky Štít is Slovakia’s most-visited mountain thanks to this cable car route, a 26 Euro/22 Euro adult/child return journey with a 50-minute stop-off at the summit, where there’s a cafe and, in fact, the possibility of staying over in surely Slovakia’s plushest wilderness accommodation option, a sumptuous suite located within the summit weather station buildings. The meteorological station on the summit is one of Slovakia’s most important, and there’s an observatory here, too (if you’re staying in the suite – 549 Euros per night, mind you – star observation is included – as is dinner at the cafe). The Englishman in Slovakia will test the Lomnicky Štít cable car out soon, and write more about this adventure then.

3: The Hiking

Skalnaté Pleso is an important stop-off on the Tatranská Magistrala long-distance path that runs across the Tatras between Ždiar and Podbanské/Pribylina. On this blog we feature a detailed breakdown of the hike (in four stages) – coming from Ždiar, you’re on stage 2 of the hike at Skalnaté Pleso. The section from the Skalnaté Pleso cable car station southwest to Zamkovského Chata is a good, rocky trail descending into woodland but yielding some wonderful views beforehand. Heading north on the path to Chata pri Zelenom Plese, however, be warned that there are two routes. The lower (and simple enough) path descends down the contours of the mountain on a round-about path to reach Chata pro Zelenom Plese (and Zelené pleso alongside) the easy way. The tough route is still part of the trail, but is strictly a summer-only route, ascending a dizzying pass through the mountains where, despite the chains laid down to  cling on to, parts of the path are vertigo inducing, and very dangerous to attempt in snow.

The Cable Car up from Tatranská Lomnica ©englishmaninslovakia.com

The Cable Car ©englishmaninslovakia.com

4: Chill at the Lake

With the strong winds that whip off the peaks from here, Skalnaté Pleso is very exposed – none of the leafy sedateness of Štrbské Pleso here! – and chill you very well might on most days of the year. But should the weather be clement enough, the lake shore makes a good place for a picnic. A learning trail (naučný chodnik, in Slovak) enlivens the 20-minute stroll: here you can find out about the flora and fauna (a funny section on the bear residents hereabouts) and the Skalnaté Pleso meteorological station, located just above the shore. It’s a station of worldwide significance, with astronomical breakthroughs made here including important discoveries about meteor shower and crucial research for much of the content that appears in star gazetteers.

The meteorological station, like the other buildings here, serves to heighten the remoteness of the location rather than lend the lake any atmosphere of cosiness. The wind buffets the brick and sings along the wires. In the cable car building is a restaurant, however (closed in May, open at other times) whilst just 100m down from here, on the trail to Zamkovského Chata, is the small Skalnatá Chata (open year-round), one of the High Tatras mountain houses, where you may stay over.

There is something undeniably eerie about this lake, granted. The cable car which gives you the best access here also uglifies it somewhat, and it cannot compete in beauty with, say, Zelené pleso to the north. It’s also – inexplicably – shrinking in size: it used to be significantly wider and deeper. But if you want a departure from the magnificent but manicured shores of  Štrbské Pleso into somewhere, well, closer to the wild soul of these mountains, and one where you can base yourself whilst you scale Lomnicky Štít, then it’s a great, and fairly otherworldly destination in the High Tatras.

MAP LINK:

GETTING THERE: As described in our “getting there” section above

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: Take a look at Skalnaté Pleso’s posher but less-wild sister lake, Štrbské Pleso, a 1.5 day walk southwest on the Tatranská Magistrala

The High Tatras Mountain Resorts: Štrbské Pleso

Štrbské Pleso, probably Slovakia’s most famous lake and certainly the number one tourist destination in the High Tatras, may not seem the most likely choice for Englishmaninslovakia.com to write about – except that, somewhat surprisingly, it’s not actually been covered in English in much detail anywhere else on the web. When we realised this, dear readers, we thought we’d create a comprehensive post on it for your reference.

There’s a number of ways you can approach writing on what, in Slovakia at least, is such a well-known attraction. Rant about it as one of Slovakia’s must-sees, as much Slovak tourist promotion seems to (nah, we’re not going to do that). Write about the less-obvious things to do in the vicinity, as a gentle but stubborn resistance to the disproportionate info on the better-known sights (namely Hotel Patria, flanking all the most famed pics of the lake, just like in the shot above, or Grandhotel Kempinski which is the Slovakian countryside’s most glamorous accommodation) that only constitute a small percentage of the points of interest. Or, a third approach: subvert the subverters and just write about the good and the bad of this popular tourist hangout (the approach we’ve decided on here). Popular, let it be emphasised, but still nevertheless with a very real appeal: and plenty of the magnetism old turn-of-the century resorts such as this one exude.

The name, which is rather a bother to type on a UK computer keypad with all those accents, means the lake (pleso) of Štrba – Štrba being a small settlement beneath Štrbské Pleso. The Tatras Electric Railway actually runs from Štrba up to Štrbské Pleso (see the link for further information and, indeed, for the other main way to get to Štrbské Pleso by public transport – from Poprad. There are also, of course, several ways to get there by road.)

What There is to Do: In a Nutshell

Hiking: At 1355 metres up (Štrba and the other communities along the foot of the High Tatras are around 800 metres altitude) the geography around Štrbské Pleso is pretty thrilling: within a few kilometres of here you can be hiking up on paths a further 1000m+ higher, such as the peak of Krivan (2494m, to the northwest) or Vysoká (2560m, to the northeast). Pine forests cloak the lake’s shores to the east, west and, particularly, north (the crazy Communist-built structure of Hotel Patria on the northern shore is framed by them). Beyond that, it’s bare rocky crags that look incredibly dramatic on a moody day and photogenic on a decent one – often reflected in the lake water.

Skiing: Štrbské Pleso has taken advantage of its geology to build one of the better skiing centres in Slovakia – and certainly the best in the High Tatras.

Ostentatious Architecture: Ornate turn-of-the-century or Communist: the choice is yours, architecturally, at Štrbské Pleso and a tour to take in the different styles is a must. See our Ludicrous Little Tour of Communist Architecture!

Learning Trail: This skirts the lake perimeter and tells you about the area’s history.

Rowing Boats: You can go rowing on the lake: very nice and old-fashioned.

Eating: A couple of very good restaurants can be found around the lake.

Staying: Likewise, and as already mentioned, there are some rather striking accommodation options too.

More detail on these activities below…

But First: The Arrival

First impressions when you get off the Tatras Electric Railway at this end-of-the-line station of Štrbské Pleso aren’t great, actually. The “village” such as it is around the railway terminus has fallen prey to some pretty crass 1960’s and 70’s development and in places actually looks like a construction site. There are several hotels in this part of the village – none amazing, although this one won prizes for its architecture back in the day:

strbske pleso

 

About the best thing you can do here is to go for a bite to eat in the very good cafe/restaurant, Reštauracia Furkotka. It’s got outside seating and does all the typical Slovak dishes very nicely. Walk up passed the souvenir stands towards the ski centre to find the access road to the actual lake part of Štrbské Pleso cutting up to the left (which, of course, is the part deserving of your time).

Staying, Eating and Activities

Check In,Eat Out…

From where most visitors reach the  lakeshore (the south-east corner), stretching away along the south shore are Grandhotel Kempinski and Hotel Solisko. Both are beautiful early 20th-century buildings worth checking out. Also on the southern shore at this point is the pretty jetty you can hire rowing boats from. The restaurant of Grandhotel Kempinski is of course very nice, but it’s not the most atmospheric: that honour goes to Koliba Patria which you will find by following the lake path round anti-clockwise, about half-way along the eastern side. It looks palatial enough too in its own way, but favours the Slovak mountain way of building: with wood. Koliba Patria is actually owned by the distinctive building you could see from outside those first two hotels: Hotel Patria. How do describe this somewhat imposing building: an enormous, stark, but inside very lovely mountain chalet?

Architecture…

As intimated above, the contrasts between the turn-of-the-century resports (Grandhotel Kempinski, Hotel Solisko) on one side of the lake and the Communist style of Hotel Patria on the other are worthy of a look-see and some camera shots.

Learning Trail…

The path going around the shore, you’ll notice is a learning path which tells you a lot of information about the history of the area. Jozef Szentivnyi was evidently an important chap: more or less pivotal, actually. He built the original lodges here (where Hotel Solisko now stands), he constructed the first tourist paths, he built the first hunting lodge here. He made, in short, this village into a proper resort.

Hiking…

As far as outdoor activities away from the lakeshore go, number one has to be hiking. You soon lose the other gaggles of tourists once you start to climb away from the lake up through the forest. Another learning path, in fact, has been constructed to connect Štrbské Pleso via a one-hour red trail hike to Popradské Pleso, a higher lake (also with two very nice accommodation options, including the fun Horský Hotel Popradské Pleso) at 1494 metres and still more immersed in stupendous mountain scenery.

As a sample of the hiking ops, this route, heading north from Štrbské Pleso, and also the red trail heading west from Štrbské Pleso forms stage four of the Tatranská Magistrala hike, Slovakia’s most-famous long-distance hiking trail. Our trail description of this hike, which runs across the Tatras, begins from east to west (thus as Štrbské Pleso is towards the western part of the mountain range it features near the end of the route). For a general overview of the hike (which you can of course do both ways), please see our introduction to the Tatranská Magistrala. This aforementioned red trail, anyhow, leads you right up to the points from where you can access the high peaks like Krivan (following the path west from Štrbské Pleso) or Vysoká (following it north).

Skiing…

A close second activity back nearer the lakeshore is skiing. Facilities and snow coverage make Štrbské Pleso Ski Centre facilities quite good. Please see the link to the website which gives a good overview of facilities – but in Englishmaninslovakia’s opinion, and this is also based on discussions with a number of Slovak tour guides, the standards are not “the best”. They are good – and they are available at cheaper prices than in the Alps – but they are not top-notch.

MAP LINK: Poprad Airport is in the bottom right corner of the map; you can see Route 534 heading up from here into the mountains at Starý Smokovec, then continuing west to Štrbské Pleso in the top left-hand corner of the map.

GETTING THERE: The Tatras Electric Railway, from Poprad

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: Right by the lake, you’re on stage 4 of the Tatranská Magistrala long-distance footpath which transects the whole High Tatras range of mountains (or stage 1, if you fancy heading west-east). Go on, give at least a stage a go!

RELATED POST: London to Poprad Flights!

High Tatras Mountains: An Intro to Slovakia’s Classic Hike, the Tatranská Magistrala

Ever since moving to Slovakia, hiking its most renowned mountain trail, which traverses the entire length of the Tatras mountain range, was something I had been obsessed with doing.

The opportunity presented itself this weekend just gone with a friend (and fellow hiking enthusiast) out from the UK so this introduction to the hike and the posts that follow it on the stages of the walk itself are the most bang-up-to-date in-English info on hiking across the Slovak Tatras: online, or indeed anywhere else. In fact, the paucity of available online info is what has prompted me to write about this path.

What is the Tatranská Magistrala?

Essentially, the Tatranská Magistrala is a tough 42km hiking trail that runs from the White Tatras (the northeast section of the High Tatras) through the High Tatras themselves to the western edge of the Western Tatras. The White Tatras, High Tatras and   Western Tatras mountains are all usually referred to by the umbrella term “High Tatras”.  Seen from a distance, this relatively short but extremely impressive range of mountains in northern Slovakia seems to come out of nowhere: a jagged series of peaks reaching 2654 metres, the tops of which often remain snow-covered even in the summer months, rearing abruptly out of the green plains below. The hike takes in the very best of Slovakia’s mountain scenery – from pine forests to boulder-scattered ridges and ice-blue tarns.

Where to Start/Finish the Tatranská Magistrala

Officially the hike runs west-east, starting at the remote village of Podbanské in the foothills of the Western Tatras and finishing at the far-more remote lake of Vel’ké Biely Pleso on the cusp between the High Tatras and the White Tatras. However, given the remoteness of Vel’ké Biely Pleso (you will need in any case to hike on down to the nearest road from here), a far-better end point is the large, scenic village of Ždiar, below the White Tatras peaks at the eastern end of the mountain range.

In fact, given the decent transport connections (buses to Poprad which is on the main Bratislava railway line and is now at the receiving end of a new flight route from London) accommodation options and loftier elevation (i.e. it’s less of a lung-buster to hike up to the high peaks from here) Ždiar is Englishmaninslovakia’s recommended starting point for the hike, and the route we have described here is from Ždiar.

Meanwhile, Podbanské,  despite being a gorgeous little village, has limited accommodation/transport options – and these are only available from the end of June to the end of October unless you’re a big group booking in advance. Therefore you will often need to make your way the 8km further west to the larger village of Pribylina to conclude the hike (from here there are ample accommodation possibilities and decent bus connections to Liptovský Mikulaš, a large town on the Bratislava main railway line).

Practically, therefore, the Tatranská Magistrala is usually a Ždiar to Pribylina hike (almost 60km rather than the official 42km): and it is this hike which is described here.

What to Expect on the Tatranská Magistrala

Most of the publications available will tell you that this hike is relatively straightforward, and doable by most people of middling fitness. That’s not entirely true. Whilst mostly staying within the 1200 to 1800 metre elevations, the path drops and rises (rapidly) more than 500 metres on several occasions, and at one point crests the 2000 metre mark too. This would already make it reasonably demanding walking. Then you have to factor in the snow and ice, which obstructs the higher parts of the trail even into July. Bear in mind the following before attempting this beautiful but challenging hike:

a) Trail Opening Dates

For this reason the trail has an official opening date of June 13th and closes at the end of October (as for the opening date, this is to a large extent immaterial as the afore-mentioned ice and snow is still on the higher reaches of the trail then, but temperamental weather means it really is dangerous to walk it after the closing date). In practice no one will prevent you from hiking it outside of the official dates, and late May through to the end of October should be fine for hiking it.

b) Sedlo Pod Svištovkou – For the Experienced Only

Weather aside, the high point of the trail at the eastern end, Sedlo Pod Svištovkou (2023 metres high; above Chata pri Zelenom Plese and the lake of Zelené Pleso), is a tough and formidable climb at any time. The steep, slippery and often crumbling (the rock underfoot, that is) ascent will induce vertigo in many and is a serious undertaking: you have to cling to chains whilst pushing up precarious rock faces at a few points and strong gusts of wind from the top hardly improve balance.

c) Storm Damage

The other major factor to consider after high winds this May that brought hundreds more trees down (on top of the already destructive Tatranská Bora storm that devastated the same band of forest in 2004) is that beyond Štrbské Pleso heading west to Tri Studničky and Podbanské there are hundreds of fallen trees blocking the path. The priority for authorities after these storms was to clear roads and get access to the villages cut off. Still, the determined could forge a way through (we did, as far as Tri Studničky) but the path is currently out of sight at points just beyond Jamské Pleso, and fallen trees at Tri Studničky have made finding where the Tatranská Magistrala goes at all after the forestry chalets here extremely difficult (we tried for about an hour to find the path and failed). UPDATE 2016: The trail is now clear!

d) Distances in Times not KMs/Miles!

In Slovakia, all distances for hikes are given not in km but in the time any particular stretch of hike will take the average hiker (i.e. in hours and minutes, rounded normally to the nearest 5 minutes). I would say I’m of reasonable fitness with regards to hiking and I found that when walking with a medium sized pack the times given for High Tatras point-to-point destinations are incredibly accurate. With a push, you can beat the stated times – but only by a matter of minutes. Overall, giving distances in times is, I think, good because you know the on-the-day time you’ll need for the walk, which gives you a more realistic idea of gradients than a distance in km or miles would.

e) Food and Accommodation En Route

The trail skirts high above the main High Tatras resorts like Starý Smokovec and Štrbské Pleso: so it’s just as well you don’t have to descend to get your evening meal or night’s sleep. Instead, there exists a very good network of mountain hotels (horský hotels, rustic hotels with ample rooms and good facilities) and slightly more basic chalets (chaty; usually wooden structures that provide basic rooms and, like the mountain hotels, good evening meals and breakfast). These are all found on the trail itself, so you’ll be well-poised the next morning to get up and walking again.

The best horský hotels/chaty are, from east to west (and shortly to be reviewed in-depth on our Where to Sleep section):

1: Chata pri Zelenom Plese

2: Zamkovského Chata

3: Horský Hotel Popradské Pleso

In addition to these options, there are a few other choices en route (to be mentioned in the stage descriptions, have no fear), with the best choices at Štrbské Pleso (on the path) and at Ždiar (beginning of route) and at Pribylina (end of route).

Tatranská Magistrala: the Stage Descriptions 

The full Ždiar to Podbanské hike makes for two and a half to four days walking, allowing time for breaks and for not really rushing (which of course you would not want to do). Our trail description is therefore divided into:

Stage OneŽdiar to Chata pri Zelenom Plese

Stage Two: Chata pri Zelenom Plese to Zamkovského Chata (with side trip to Teryho Chata)

Stage ThreeZamkovského Chata to Horský Hotel Popradské Pleso

Stage Four: Horský Hotel Popradské Pleso to Pribylina

At a push, you could potentially walk from Ždiar to Zamkovského Chata in a day, on to Popradské Pleso next day and finish in Podbanské/ Pribylina half-way through the next day: doing the hike quicker than this is possible, but it would really be rushing it.

Where to Go After Reading this Post

Got the general idea? Now it’s time to go to our Tatranská Magistrala Hiking Kit List (complete with info on Slovakia hiking maps/apps), followed by our Tatranská Magistrala Stage Descriptions and our recommended High Tatras Mountain Houses (under the Places to Stay/High Tatras sub-section) which of course tie in with the Stage Descriptions.

Poprad to the Mountains: Tatras Electric Railway

The electric trains that run between Poprad and the High Tatras mountain resorts are more than a means of getting about: they are an experience in themselves. I, being quite passionate about public transport, am a huge fan of a transport network that not only gets you from A to B but also does so via beautiful mountain scenery, and runs reliably throughout the day, every day. It’s something not all visitors would necessarily know much about and I have the selfish motivation that detailing the route/logistics also helps link up many of my posts on the mountains and makes them make more sense. So find everything you need to know about the route, known variously as the Tatras Electric Railway, the Tatras Mountain Railway or indeed in Slovak as Tatranská Elektrická Železnica below.

A Map of the Tatras Electric Railway - image by Wizzard

A Map of the Tatras Electric Railway – image by Wizzard

From the mainline station of Poprad Tatry there are essentially three lines running: from Poprad via Starý Smokovec to Štrbské Pleso; from Starý Smokovec to Tatranská Lomnica and from Štrbské Pleso via Tatranský Liesovec to Štrba (at the mainline station of Štrba you change for the regular, frequent trains back to Poprad). This means that you can do a loop from Poprad up into the mountains (changing at Štrbské Pleso and then again at Štrba) and come down again a different way – all on this railway line.

It’s the least complicated way of getting up into the mountain villages which are the base for all those exciting High Tatras activities (hiking, ice climbing, caving, skiing, whatever). Arrive in Poprad Tatry mainline station; walk up to the Tatras Electric Railway departure point, voila. Of course, there are also buses from the bus station quite near the train station, but the schedules take some finding and are not as dependable as the trains. The trains are also just as cheap: although no quicker and often slower in actual speed.

The Price of the Tickets

For the journey from Poprad to Štrbské Pleso which is the maximum distance you can do without changing on the Tatras Mountain Railway tickets are 2 Euros one-way. The journey from Poprad to Starý Smokovec or Tatranská Lomnica (less distance) will be 1.50 Euros one-way. Štrbské Pleso to Štrba is only 1 Euro but if you want to go back to Poprad via Štrba it will be 2 Euros.

Frequency of the Trains

Trains run more or less hourly on all three routes. On the Poprad to Štrbské Pleso route the first train is at 5:04am and the last at 22:40. Going back on this route, the first train leaves Štrbské Pleso at 5:13am and the last leaves at 22:13. The journey takes a shade over one hour. There are other connections you can take going via Štrba but only within these same hours. From Poprad on this same line you’ll reach the station of Starý Smokovec after 40 minutes, where you can change for the Starý Smokovec to Tatranská Lomnica route. On this route the first train is at 5:56am and the last at 22:02. Coming back on this route, the first train 5:14am and the last is at 22:34. The journey is only 15 minutes. On the Štrbské Pleso to Štrba route the first train is at 5:17am and the last at 22:44. Going back from Štrba, the first train back up to Štrbské Pleso is at 5:56 and the last at 20:26. The journey is again just over 15 minutes.

The Logistics

If you’re a first-timer, you can buy your ticket at Poprad Tatry station in the main ticket office. You always have to remember to validate this ticket on board. Most other stations on all three routes also have ticket offices, and ticket machines (which accept Euro coins only). If you imagine a line with Štrba at the western end and Poprad at the eastern end and then – in the mountains above – Starý Smokovec almost parallel with Poprad towards the eastern end of the mountain range (and Tatranská Lomnica, indeed, further east) with Štrbske Pleso parallel with Štrba towards the western end of the mountain range. There: you hopefully have a picture in your head now.

Where to Stop and What to Expect (Main Stops are Bolded and Underlined, Noteworthy Places Just Bolded)

Starý Smokovec is perhaps the main mountain resort village (although Dolný Smokovec just before it also has decent accommodation). Still, it’s Starý that has most tourist facilities. Overall it has the feel of an old Victorian-era resort and a lot of it retains its old-world charm. Guesthouses, hotels and restaurants a-plenty. From Starý Smokovec there is a cable car up to Hrebienok where you can link up with the Tatranská Magistrala (Stage 3) an hour’s walk south of Englishmaninslovakia’s recommended stage 2/stage 3 stopover, Zamkovského Chata.

Tatranská Lomnica (east from Starý as previously described) is another fairly pretty village with plenty of accommodation options. From here you can also take the cable car up to Štart and then onto Skalnaté Pleso at which point you are on the Tatranská Magistrala (Stage 2). At Tatranská Lomnica you can also get fairly regular buses onto the village at the very eastern edge of the High Tatras, Ždiar – which is where you can also start the Tatranská Magistrala hike.

Heading west from Starý Smokovec there’s a few more stops which are of no major interest to the majority of visitors (except as start points for hikes – but there’s too many of those to detail here) before arriving at Vyšné Hágy, where there’s a back route to link up with Tatranská Magistrala (Stage 3, but little else besides a sports pub.

The next stop on is remote Popradské Pleso (read our additional post about Popradské Pleso here*) but, despite the name of this station, it’s still a one-hour hike from here up to the lake and lakeside hotel, Horsky Hotel Popradské Pleso (see a description at the end of Tatranská Magistrala (Stage 3) about this route and yet more about Popradské Pleso and its surrounds on Tatranska Magistrala (Stage 4).

The final stop on the Poprad to Štrbské Pleso line (Štrbske Pleso unsurprisingly) is one stop further beyond Popradské Pleso. It’s the least appealing of the mountain resort villages. The lower parts around the train station have been destroyed a tad by development (although there’s a great cafe-restaurant here, Furkotka – I’ll write about it some day) but up by the lake it’s still a very serene and beautiful place. There are several hotels here and of course the ski developments. In the High Tatras, Štrbské Pleso is probably the best – or at least the most popular – place to ski. Read more about Štrbské Pleso as it features on the final stage of the Tatranska Magistrala (Stage 4). You may well not be in Štrbské Pleso for the hiking and therefore we have additionally prepared this fascinating article on what else there is to do at Štrbské Pleso (a fair amount).

All in all, though, imagine it: this is a commuter train, that ushers you up to some superb mountain getaways. And for a couple of Euros.

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

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

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

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

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s gourmet chocolatier

Going Out: Poprad & the Manchester United Connection

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

Getting Around: London to Poprad Flights

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

Top Ten Medieval Towns in Slovakia

 

MAP LINK: This map shows the whole network of routes: remember, Poprad, Štrbské Pleso and Tatranská Lomnica are the three extreme points.

GETTING THERE: Well, this post IS about getting there! But you’ll start your ride on the railway, 99% of the time, from Poprad

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: We’ve said it here already and we’ll say it again: the end of the line on the railway is Štrbské Pleso – great access to the high peaks from here!

RELATED POST: London to Poprad Flights Are Flying!

Low Tatras Mountain House: Chata Pod Certovicou

8:30am. The only other guest was chuckling to himself. He simply couldn’t believe it. The manager had just given him a bottle of wine (Château Topoľčianky, not bad), well, just because, too often these days there is a reason for everything and what is nice about Chata Pod Čertovicou is that everything about it confounds reason. Being a rather early hour even for a Slovak to polish off a bottle of wine, however, he requests our help and we stand on the terrace of this serendipitous little place in the middle of the forests of the Low Tatras and contemplate our good fortune.

He was hiking the ridge path, he told us, just as we were about to set off on it (great start getting tipsy on white wine right?), and his hiking companions had spied, from high above, this cottage and being aesthetes, had sworn never to stay there on account of its rather gaudy roof (not blending in with the surrounding environment, or somesuch). He’d made no comment but, a little later on that same hike, lost his glasses, and come back alone to hunt for them. And something, he said, drew him to this place as a base from which to kickstart the spectacles search.

The Mountain House in the Valley

It’s an anomaly, right? A mountain house down in the valley. But the first cool accommodation possibility we’re featuring in our new Low Tatras section on the site only seems so ensconced in the valley because the surrounding peaks are so high. With all those trees around, it’s a nicely-sheltered change from those blustery ridges nearby…

Where?

Chata pod Čertovicou (cottage below Čertovica) sits at around 1100 metres, a 15-minute hike down from the minuscule hamlet/hiking trailhead of Čertovica. Čertovica is itself an important way station on the 600km-long Cesta Hrdinov SNP (Way of the Heroes of the Slovak National Uprising) which trailblazes all the way across Slovakia – initially in the guise of the Štefánikova magistrála in the west and all through the Biely Karpaty, the national park of Malá Fatra, the Low Tatras and eventually through to Dukla Pass in the east of Slovakia.

It’s a path which zigzags very much in order to showcase as much of the best of Slovakia as possible (fair enough) and Čertovica is certainly in the best-of-Slovakia category.

You alight from the twice-daily bus from Brezno at Čertovica Motorest – a pleasant roadside eatery with great view back down through the pines towards Brezno. You’re now on a dramatic dip between two high, green ridges here which form some great skiing in season – and the path up towards Hotel Totem on the other side of the road from the bus stop is indeed the beginning of a fabulous four-stage hike, the Low Tatras Hrebeňovka (Ridge Hike) towards Donovaly, which we’ve just traipsed and are currently in the process of writing up for you, dear site followers.

And Chata pod Čertovicou is our recommended accommodation from which to begin stage 1 of this hike, despite it being the furthest away of the guesthouses from the bus stop. There’s one right opposite the Motorest, actually – not a bad joint, and with a restaurant too, but also on the main road and only mentioned here to orientate you down the little lane plunging steeply behind its grounds, into the woods. A trail sign at the top indicates that it’s about 100m to Chata pod Sedlom (accommodation op number two, but often closed) and 0.9km to Chata pod Čertovicou. The lane heads down through the trees, and then, at a sign, a turning bears sharp right down to where the forest reaches a cleared patch of land at the foot of a ski area. And at this point, above a small blue-green lake, you will see the image at the top of this page: a tucked-away three-floor penzión that, outside of ski season, you’ll have pretty much to yourself.

The Vibe

The feeling that permeates, actually, as you walk up the drive and climb the steps up onto the entrance terrace, is one I’ve only had in hotels in low-land, wetland areas – in the Norfolk Broads, for example, in the Dutch countryside. Analysing this, I can’t really say why – but it’s the polar opposite of a typical Slovak mountain house in its vibe, something to do with all the land around being much higher, with the horizon being filled with woods, with the proximity of water, with the burble of the lakeside pump house, with the quaint backwater ambience you only feel in rural pubs in the middle of a flat nowhere.

Whatever the vibe is for you, one thing I think all first-timers here will agree upon is the friendliness of the staff. With the ultimate laid-backness, they warm you with their generosity (complementary afternoon cookies (well, they have to be eaten), free bottles of mineral water (it’s just water), extra-huge portions of dinner because charmingly the restaurant special of the day is also what the family in charge is eating). The free wine, well, that’s been mentioned already.

Restaurant and Rooms! 

The terrace sidles along the side of the creaking wooden restaurant area, hung with vast wall maps of the area’s hiking trails, where fresh fruit and the cake of the day are also displayed. Both yield views up to the ski area, devoid of other tourists in summer and resembling no more than a rather scenic break in the treeline. A restaurant alcove leads into a bar billiard room, further cementing the Norfolk Broads pub atmosphere for me. I still harboured a thought at this point that the rooms themselves, given the place was so deserted, might be in want of a little TLC. But no. Recently redone, with sparkling new bathrooms (square toilets, you don’t see them very often) and spacious showers – and views out onto giant sagging private balconies. Everything, in short (save a closet) that you would expect in a midrange hotel room, and (and here is an important point) for a budget mountain-house price (just 30 Euros). Unbelievably, for this room, and for the views you’ll see below, and for two evening meals, a couple of beers each and at least two or three teas/coffees, our bill for the night was a mere 50 Euros.

©englishmaninslovakia.com

©englishmaninslovakia.com

©englishmaninslovakia.com

©englishmaninslovakia.com

©englishmaninslovakia.com

Skis – and artistically arranged ones ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

We did (and you should too) realise that Chata pod Čertovicou does not set a trend for how Low Tatras accommodation in the wilderness generally is. Normally it’s basic. Beds in a dorm. This place is the exception. It is an anomaly, in fact, in its very survival: an August weekend was when we showed up, and there was no one staying.

Except our friend on the lookout for his spectacles, of course.

So did you find them, we asked, a couple of Château Topoľčianky’s in.

“The glasses? No. But I don’t mind. They were expensive, but I don’t mind. Look at this view.”

We looked.

MAP LINK:

 PRICES: Double room 32-52 Euros (Higher prices for the most refurbished ones, summer season) OR 35-55 Euros, winter season) and dorms available for a mere 14/16 Euros per person summer/winter season) (2017 prices)

BOOK CHATA POD  ČERTOVICOU

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Poprad: Nine Reasons to Linger

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

1: Get the Info

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

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

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

2: Spišská Sobota

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

Culinary Cool

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

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

3: Aqua City

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

The High Tatras in their morning glory from Kvetnica

The High Tatras in their morning glory from Kvetnica

4: Kvetnica

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

5: Podtatranské Muzeum 

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

6: The Tatranská Galeria (Tatras Art Gallery)

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

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

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

See our article on Poprad’s suavest new cafe

 8: Bon Bon Chocolates

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

Our post on Bon Bon

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

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

Our post on Poprad’s new gourmet burger joint.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poprad: Penzión Plesnivec

Sometimes, you want to get back from your hike, bike or climb in the mountains and crash in a good, sturdy, cosy room with a thunderous hot shower and the promise of a hot meal and traveller camaraderie. You don’t want the fancy trappings of the big hotels (after all this is the mountains). And in steps this mountain chalet-style guesthouse on the edge of Poprad’s Spišská Sobota district to oblige.

After all, when you weigh up the potential of a hotel with a slightly bigger room and an attached restaurant against Penzión Plesnivec’s digs with their abundance of Tatras travel-friendly info, hearty veggie evening meals and the happy vibe of tourists debating strategies for mountain hikes… well, Penzión Plesnivec comes out on top. Because you never feel alone here. You feel like a traveller is supposed to feel: on the brink of a great adventure (which of course you are).

The five rooms here (three twin-bed and two double-bed) are all very large. There’s plenty of space to get a family in to most of them (and families can also use the small play park at the back of the house downstairs, making this, actually, a very good family travel option in Poprad.) Healthy wifi speeds are also available throughout the house and there’s cable TV in each room too.

But the real stand-out draw of this guesthouse is downstairs, in the shape of charismatic owners Dusan and Lubica. Between them they speak English, Spanish and Russian (besides Slovak of course) but most importantly they GET travellers because they are travellers themselves – and have plenty of their own stories to share.

Poprad's best collection of historic skis...

Poprad’s best collection of historic ski memorabilia :)

That is illustrated in their amenable common room downstairs: an Obývačka (living room)-cum-bar decorated, well, in a very original romp through the history of skiing: bizarre old skis mounted on the walls (some of which are true collector’s pieces) and quirky old travel posters for the Tatras and skiing holidays in the days of yore. It’s a place where people come to sit, slurp a beer, partake in the veggie food that’s usually offered nightly and get great tips into what and where to see in the mountains proper. You even get detailed weather reports for the morning of your day’s adventures! It’s your ideal first port of call for Tatras info, in short.

There is a reason why Plesnivec has been going seven years. It’s because it’s get a far warmer, more convivial feel compared to the large hotels.  And it’s also right next to what are easily Poprad’s two main attractions: the Aqua City just back along the main road and, just up the hill, the beautiful medieval district of Spišská Sobota with its myriad fine dining options (one of Slovakia’s top medieval attractions).

Oh, and what’s a plesnivec? It’s that famous Alpine mountain flower, edelweiss…

 

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 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

PRICES: Single 30 Euros, Double 40 Euros, Treble 50 Euros, breakfast (good coffee, Slovak hemendex or ham and eggs, yoghurt, bread and cheese) 5 Euros  (2016 prices)

BOOK PENZIÓN PLESNIVEC

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

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

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

Inside… check out that stove!

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

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

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

FULL MENU

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

Good cake...

Good cake…

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

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

LOCATION: Eastern lake shore, Štrbské Pleso

OPENING: 11:30am-10:30pm daily

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

LAST UPDATED: April 2017

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

High Tatras Mountain House: Chata Pri Zelenom Plese

A picture, you see, is often worth a thousand words – or more. Who wouldn’t want to stay here, on the banks of Zelené Pleso, with this sensational view of jagged mountains rearing up above you, scarred with waterfalls and part-coated in snow? I turned up here not knowing anything about the place, as I was starting off on the Tatranská Magistrala hike which runs from one side of the High Tatras mountains to the other. Chata Pri Zelenom Plese is only a 45-minute hike (heading up to the start point) or 30-minute hike (heading down) shy of the official start point of the walk, Vel’ké Biele Pleso  (see more details on the first stage of the Tatranská Magistrala from Ždiar to Chata Pri Zelenom Plese). This Chata is not by any means the most famous of the High Tatras Mountain houses (that would probably be Zamkovského Chata or Teryho Chata). But it’s my favourite, and I’ve stayed in/visited a few.  

Being unknown, whether you’re a weary hiker, a cross-country skier or climber (no more explanation of these last two activities need be given than the pictures above and below) or just someone who likes staying in formidable wilderness, you’re going to be pleasantly surprised by this place, the English translation of which is “House on the Green Lake.” The only way in is to hike or bike, unless you’ve got a fairly resilient 4 x 4. A long bumpy track of about 8/9km winds up from just south of the hamlet of Kežmarské Žl’aby on the 537 Highway northeast of Tatranská Lomnica, the easternmost of the High Tatras resort villages (see the end of this entry for directions here). There’s an established mountain biking circuit heading up too.

Being way off the most hiked sections of the High Tatras to the west, Chata Pri Zelenom Plese has something of a remote feel, but once you’re ensconced in the restaurant and you’re tucking into the decent range of very well-cooked meals (they cook better than Zamkovského Chata) you’ll feel, with the dizzying view of the high peaks through the restaurant window, very cosy and – given there’s skiers to watch and waterfalls to gawk at, very well entertained.

Room with a view...

Room with a view…

For the accommodation, there are two options: a “hikers room” for a mere 8 Euros per person, with just mattresses, where you’ll need your own sleeping bag, or slightly more expensive digs in private rooms with bunk beds. It’s basic, but in a clean and friendly way.  Showers are down in the basement: a slight disadvantage but hey, you’re an outdoor lover, right? This is warm, simple accommodation and anyway – you’ll be spending most of your evening in the restaurant with beer and that view we mentioned. Slippers to wear (as per Slovak custom) and towels are available for free.

The evening meals (set dinner 8.80 Euros or you can order meals individually) and breakfast (buffet 5.50 Euros) are of high quality. Bryndové pirohy (see our Top Ten Slovak Foods & Drinks for more on this classic national dish) makes for a divine main and follow it up with the not-to-miss poppy seed and cherry strudel.

For when the weather’s not too wild, you can sit on the lakeside terrace and stare out at the ever-changing colour of water (a kind of algae gives the water that surreal green-blue colour). If the snow’s not too deep, you can also follow the path anti-clockwise around the lake and up to the first of the waterfalls, but the ascent beyond here this way is for professionals only. If you’re here for the hiking, there are red and yellow trails to follow from here. Red is the Tatranská Magistrala Stage 2 and heading west is a very tough hike (read that last blog entry for a warning) whilst yellow takes you up to Skalnaté Pleso and on to the centre of the High Tatras via an easier route (see the same blog entry for this route description too).

Getting There

Road access is northeast of Tatranská Lomnica just southwest of the hamlet of Kežmarské Žl’aby (drivers: Google maps reveal all). See our Tatras Electric Railway post on how to get from Poprad (on the main train line to Bratislava) to mountain resort villages Starý Smokovec and Tatranská Lomnica. From Tatranská Lomnica take a bus a few minutes to Stará Lesná from where there are hourly buses throughout the day to Kežmarské Žl’aby; there are some additional buses direct from Starý Smokovec. Ask the driver to be dropped at the beginning of the Chata Pri Zelenom Plese access track.

MAP LINK

PRICES: 10 Euros per person (a mattress in the hikers room, excluding breakfast which is another 6 Euros); 23 Euros for twin room with two bunk beds (inc breakfast, subsequent nights are 21 Euros including breakfast). (2017 prices)

LAST UPDATED: April 2017

BOOK CHATA PRI ZELENOM PLESE Please note that this is an extremely remote mountain house; as per the left-hand menu on the website, booking is best through the email tatry@chataprizelenomplese.sk (where you’ll stand the best chance of a reply in English) or, if you’ve only a little time before your stay, telephone (00421) (0)901 767 420.

Tours: Tatras Adventure Trips with Adventoura

Adventoura runs some of the coolest organised tours of the Slovakian Tatras around. It’s based out of Poprad. Here www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk talks to the founder to give you an idea of what you can see and do with the company… 

Adventoura on tour in the Tatras

Question One: What inspired you to set up Adventoura? And why in Poprad?

At the time Adventoura went on market there was a big gap that needed filling with the inbound travel agencies in Poprad and the Tatras mountains. As I grew up in Poprad I knew what this region needed. I believe that Adventoura with its services will make more options for tourists who visit us here. And I am happy to make clients happy!

Simply put, if a visitor came to the Tatras there never used to be anything for them to do outside of their accommodation and beyond the activities of skiing, snow-boarding or trekking. As I have lived and travelled in New Zealand, South Africa and in California, I have seen the potential wildernesses have for outdoor activities and I had a lot of ideas that I am now bringing to our region.

Question Two: Tell us something about the different tours you offer?

People are just discovering Slovakia. We were closed for many years to new explorers. And as I actually guide my groups and have experience with many international clients, it’s nice to see their respective reactions while travelling through Slovakia. A good example: a client from New Zealand during his stay in Poprad told me “why to travel to New Zealand? You have New Zealand here!!!” I guess it is getting the chance to see just how special other nationalities find Slovakia that motivates me to do tours mainly around Poprad and Tatras.

My summer is busy with tours in the mountains. One of my most popular is called “Hut to Hut”. Basically I spent 5 full days with my clients on the walks through the High Tatras staying in the fabulous mountain houses there.  Another popular summer tour is cycling across the Tatras within a week! We do 270 km in 6 days – of course a service car is also provided

The winter season is also very popular. Almost any skiing package you want is available through my website. Another fun option are two tours called “Summer Active” and “Winter Active.” Again based in Slovakia, they are essentially weeks full of fun. The summer option can involve hiking, beginners down hill biking, rafting, rock climbing etc. The winter one has skiing, snowshoeing, horse sleigh ride, dog sledding, geo caching and the like. All those sports I also do in my free time: like we say in Slovakia: “you are having it from first hand!” :)

Adventoura in action

Question Three: What can tourists do this winter with Adventoura, and where can they do it?

I mentioned many of the winter activities we do above, but also very popular is a day trip we call “Become a musher in a one day.” It is a 2-hours program with huskies, refreshment and barbecue. We will teach you how to put a pulling harness on a dog, how to attach him to the pulling rope and finally how to ride with a Slovakian dog sled! People who are waiting for their turn can be at the fire cooking some sausage :) It’s worth noting that we are likely to be able to do this activity close to your hotel (of course it depends where do you stay). If there is no place for it, we are happy to transfer you to our “base camp” :)

Then there is snowshoeing. Basically, I will take you to the places with untouched snow and you will get to try walking with snowshoes in deep snow.

A more relaxing day trip is a horse sleigh ride: we are providing it in evening hours in a sleigh pulled by two horses. The ride is torch-lit and finished with an barbecue, and traditional Slovak music in the forest.

Question Four: What’s your favourite place in the Tatras? And do you have any tips for how to get away from the crowds in the Tatras?

This sounds a simple question, but it’s not! Tatra is full of steep walls, deep valleys and forests, and really any one would deserve to be called the favourite!

Every valley has something nice. In the western Tatras you could climb the peak of Kriváň, and you will get impressive view from it. In the central area, try visiting some mountain hut and stay overnight: you can have a beer and meet great people from all around the world talking about interesting stories from their travels :) And check out the eastern region too: especially Biele Pleso (White lake). In the valleys here you will be there almost by yourself; there’s nobody around. You might even meet a brown bear or to see our mountain goat, the Chamoix…

Question Five: The actual town of Poprad is often overlooked in favour of the mountains nearby. What’s the best thing to do in the city itself?

Poprad is great place for explorers who love to come to the Tatras by train, bus or even, these days, by aeroplane, with flights several times per week to London. It has a straight train connection from Prague (the journey takes about 8 hours, and the night train is very comfortable and safe) as well as Slovakia’s two main cities, Bratislava and Košice.

What I would say about Poprad itself is that I am happy to live and have my office there.

It has everything you need, right by some of the best mountain scenery in Slovakia – supermarkets, shopping malls, a nice historical medieval main square, lots of concerts and theatre performances – and a great traditional Christmas market in winter.

The most special thing about Poprad is that it lies on hot geothermal springs. One of them is used for second biggest aquapark in Slovakia: Aquacity. Here there are slides and outdoor pools – and it runs all year round, even in the winter.

NB: Adventoura are the winners in the tour operator category in 2017’s Europe-wide Luxury Travel Awards, truly putting the High Tatras on the international stage as a travel destination! Read more about it on their Facebook Page

woodpecker-1186209_1280 - kopie

Bratislava – A Birdwatching Haven

For our 150th post on Englishmaninslovakia.com we are honoured to have a guest article on birdwatching in and around Bratislava from one of the city’s most experienced birdwatchers, Tomáš Novák. A keen birdwatcher, nature lover, and “bike birder”, his particular passion is urban birding (spotting the birdlife that inhabits urban areas) and owing to the variety of terrains around Bratislava, there is rather a large amount of bird diversity…

Birdwatchers… ©Tomas Novak

Birdwatchers near Bratislava ©Tomáš Novák

It may be that birdwatching in Slovakia is not as popular a pastime as it is in the UK or U.S. Yet Bratislava definitely offers great opportunities to explore the world of birds. There are various habitats on offer: from open fields in the Pannonian lowlands to the forests of the Small Carpathians; from the Danube and its wet floodplain meadows to vineyards and forest steppe. We should not omit, in the city itself, urban parks, bodies of water or high-rise buildings. So where in Bratislava is best to enjoy birdwatching?

Danube

Hrušovská zdrž water reservoir below Bratislava is a large water body that attracts plenty of bird species. It is one of the most important wintering site for some species of waterbirds in Central Europe. Beside thousands of wintering Tufted Ducks, Goldeneyes, Pochards or Mallards, you can spot some more unusual species such as the Pygmy Cormorant, Greater Scaup, Velvet Scoter, Long-tailed Duck, Smew or Red-breasted Merganser. During migration season it is possible to observe various species of waders and Marsh Terns as well – and, to name just some of the others – the Dunlin, Ringed Plover, Curlew or Black Tern. It is one of the last refuges of breeding Mediterranean Gulls in Slovakia. And last but not least I need to mention the uncrowned king of the Danube’s sky. The majestic White-tailed Eagle breeds here and the numbers swell every winter with birds that come from Northern Europe to spend the winter months by the Danube.

© Tomas Novak

© Tomáš Novák

 

How to get there: Bus 91 to Čunovo, bus 90 to Areál vodných športov or by bike from Petržalka along the seepage canal MAP

 

 

Železná studnička Area

Bratislava lies in the foothills of Small Carpathians. You can dive into the 1500 km long arc of Carpathian beech forests, which begins right above the city. At the entrance to the Bratislava Mestske Lesy (which leads you up into the Small Carpathians from Železná studnička railway station in western Bratislava) the proximity of these forests brings a handful of interesting bird species. I’ll start with woodpeckers. In Slovakia you can find all ten species that live in Europe. Nine of them can be spotted in or next to the forests around Bratislava – the Middle Spotted, Great Spotted, Syrian, White-backed, Green, Grey-headed, Black, Lesser Spotted Woodpecker and Wryneck. For all save the last two, you have to go a little way into the forests, for the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker you’ll find them on the edge of forest vegetation and for the Wryneck focus your attentions on the border between the forest and vineyard-covered slopes – where it might breed in old orchards or small clumps of trees. The Wood Warbler, Collared and Red-breasted Flycatchers breed in the Bratislava forests as well. Have you tried birding during the night? You need to try it – and one of the rewards is the call of the Tawny Owl, which can also be found here.

How to get there: Bus 43 from Patrónka (once you’re up in the forests, any stop will do to get out and start exploring) MAP

Sandberg and Devínska Kobyla

The old sandstone quarry in Devínska Nová Ves, easily accessible by walk, is one of the top natural sites in Bratislava. From early May you can find here colony of breeding European Bee-eaters, the most colourful Slovak bird. A stunning surrounding landscape

Sandberg, above Devínska Nová Ves ©englishmaninslovakia.com

Sandberg, above Devínska Nová Ves ©englishmaninslovakia.com

comprising Marchfeld, the Morava River and iconic Devín castle is a good motive for a walk. The hunting Red-backed Shrike, the singing Chiffchaff, soaring Red Kites, White Storks and, if you are lucky, the Imperial Eagle could be spotted. This is a forgotten world of steppe habitats, orchid meadows, rare insects, endemic animal and plant species, and high diversity of snakes, butterflies and flowers. Need more be said? Definitely a must if you are a nature lover.

How to get there: Buses 21 or 28 to Devínska Nová Ves MAP

Morava River floodplain

A classic (and, by foreigners, rarely visited) natural treasure is the greenbelt of the Morava River, the former “iron curtain” area. You can find here a mosaic of wet meadows, oxbow lakes, alluvial forests and agricultural land. This beautiful landscape is a shelter for the breeding of water birds and a roosting site for migrating geese. Various birds of prey – the Marsh Harrier, Red Kite, White-tailed Eagle or Imperial Eagle – could be observed here. Even Black Storks are searching for the food in the moist meadows. Not enough? The Barred Warbler, Corncrake or Golden Oriole may convince you. In addition the bike path is lined with the old military bunkers. Discover a green paradise no further away than the northern outskirts of a Capital city!

How to get there: Train to Devínske Jazero, by bike from Devínska Nová Ves following the marked trail to Vysoká pro Morave MAP

Cycling out to the River Morava floodplain on a birding trip © Tomáš Novák.

Cycling out to the River Morava floodplain on a birding trip © Tomáš Novák.

Urban Bratislava

One could complain that busy people do not have enough time to explore the nature around the city. But when you take a closer look at the fine birding spots right in the city centre, you have to concede that nature is so close in Bratislava, you barely have to do more than glance up to see it! During a lunch break, a walk in the Medická záhrada public garden and nearby Ondrejský cintorín cemetery could reveal a Green Woodpecker, Nuthatch, Wood Pigeon, Chaffinch, Greenfinch, Spotted Flycatcher or Icterine Warbler. Similar and more diverse list can be observed in Sad Janka Kráľa public park, across the other side of the Danube from Most SNP. The water bodies of Štrkovec, Kuchajda and Zlaté Piesky offer you a nice walk after work with good views of Black-headed Gulls, Common Terns, Coots, Mute Swans or just lovely Mallards. So does the Chorvátske rameno canal and Veľký Draždiak in Petržalka. Kingfishers in Bratislava? Yes, at Karloveské rameno – an arm of the Danube next to Karlová Ves. And the very fortunate can spot Beavers as well. Large flocks of wintering Rooks and Jackdaws can be spied flying over the city center around sunset. And did you know that Peregrine Falcon use to roost on the top of the Incheba Exhibition Centre highrise building in the winter?

This is not, by any means, a complete list of birdwatching spots in Bratislava. Many more posts would be needed to fully showcase them all. I just tried to provide here a taster of the natural diversity of the Slovak capital. Would you like to have a birdwatching guided walk or bike trip? Feel free to contact me on e-mail (tomas.novak@ymail.com) or Twitter (@titodaking). It’s easy. Just grab your binoculars, camera and backpack and let’s go exploring the nature of Bratislava.

 

Around Bratislava – the North: The Mestské Lesy (Local City Forest)

IT IS BY NO MEANS the first time I have raved about, nor the last time I will write about, Bratislava’s Mestské Lesy: the wonderful forest that rises up above the city on its northern side. If people ask me what’s so great about living in Bratislava, this is one of the first things I say. A wild tract of hilly forest that begins right on the edge of the city (only a few km from the Old Town) and continues – well – pretty much all the way across Slovakia, actually.

The most popular part of the forest is around the Kamzik, or TV Mast, that sticks up like a sore thumb out of the greenery that frames Bratislava’s northern edge. But venture beyond this, or indeed approach the forest from another entrance, and you’ll have it much more to yourself. What’s exciting, in a nutshell, about the gorgeous deciduous and conifer woods here is that they continue, unfettered, beyond the limits of the city forest into the Malé Karpaty (Small Carpathians) which feed into the Carpathians themselves. Embark on a walk here and you know that nature stretches before you, should you be game, right the way into Romania, and with literally a handful of roads to cross during that time.

As blog followers know, I lived for three years+ in Rača, a large neighbourhood in Bratislava’s northeast, so my main entry point into the forest was always via Pekná Cesta. From the tram stop (on the No.3 or No.5 line out to Rača you walk straight up the “nice road” (as Pekná Cesta translates into English) passing two supermarkets and then following straight uphill out of the city. After 30 minutes’ walk or a few minutes’ drive you reach a car park with some barbecue grills, a small, invariably closed booth selling warm soft drinks, the nexus of several mapped-out running routes and, most importantly, the start of an intriguing forest-themed hiking adventure.

I was lucky enough to live on the fringes of this forest and go for runs in the lower echelons (and the vineyards below them) all the time but on my first serious hiking exploration – as it happened, on the 6th of January, Monday, Traja Králi or Three Kings’ Day as it is known in Slovakia – myself and my girlfriend were for several days prior in the frame of mind for a longer adventure… a much longer adventure. The day we chose was beautiful, with temperatures reaching 12 degrees C (when we started out I didn’t even need to wear a coat) and Bratislava folk were out for a spot of post-Christmas fresh air. It was an amazing advert for the city, with the smoke of venison wafting over from the barbecues, young families merrily embarking on the myriad trails and Bratislava’s large contingent of hardcore cyclists toiling up on the steep climbs out of the car park into the forest…

…In this part of the forest there are no refreshments (in fact there’s probably scope for some enterprising young individual to open a cafe/ restaurant like the abundance there are around Kamzik) but that’s hardly the point: you are getting straight out into a forest wilderness here where (seriously) there are wild pigs and bears abroad after night fall (either of which could easily kill people, meaning the wildlife here is nothing to be taken lightly. The Czechs (probably because they come more often to Slovakia than any other nation but also because they’re Czechs) have a reputation here for coming to Slovakia’s wildernesses, setting off into the blue yonder and getting into difficulties because they underestimate just how wild it is here.

It all adds an extra sense of adventure to any hike you do (provided you come prepared and aren’t out after dark). And isolated as it becomes in these forests, you are always accompanied by great signage, good noticeboards indicating where on the forest map you are and as already inferred, shelters/fire pits for typical Slovak opekačka (cooking meat on an outdoor fire in the woods, basically). It’s not for nothing hiking is one of Englishmaninslovakia’s top things about living in Slovakia.

This time out, we didn’t come prepared. Or rather, we didn’t realise how long the circuit we did would take. There we were, enjoying the sun slowly sinking over the treetops and then we were suddenly thinking: “ah, yes, when that goes down fully it will be dark – and isn’t that the hour when those wild pigs emerge?” I tried planning one of my legendary shortcuts back to the starting point. It would have been an amazing moment for a shortcut of mine to pay off. But it didn’t. We had to backtrack. By now it was getting seriously dusky. We couldn’t read our map (the green 1: 25000 Malé Karpaty Juh – available in all good bookstores; see our post on buying hiking apps & maps for more if you want a good map on either local hiking or hiking in Slovakia generally). The mythical stories of those wild pigs and bears seemed much closer.

Then a serendipitous short, portly bearded man (oh, such a classic Slovak, and with that absolutely essential hiking companion – a huge hip flask of the very, very strong stuff) tramped by and asked us if we were lost. It turned out we weren’t so off-the-beaten-path after all and he was able to direct us back to Pekna Cestá. Because despite all this tree-coated wilderness, we were only a few kilometres from the edge of Bratislava.

The man bid us farewell, and when he had guided us to the edge of recognisable territory, he turned off on some darker, far wilder looking path that was going in the opposite direction to civilisation.

“Where are you going now?” we cried, for it was almost pitch black by this point.

“Oh, I’ve got another 1 1/2 hours of walking yet” he replied. “I’m going to Marianka.”

Marianka, famous for being Slovakia’s main pilgrimage site, was a good 10km off. And indeed this man was a pilgrim. He was going to pray to the Panna Mária  (Virgin Mary); he did it every year on Traja Králi and, in the true style of pilgrims of old, by foot through these very forests. He took a long swig of strong-smelling alcohol. Whether that was a good idea if he was going to be contending with wild pigs and bears, I am sure he knew best.

NB: to the best of my knowledge, the forests around Bratislava contain no bears (there’s plenty in the High Tatras and Eastern Slovakia) but lots of wild pigs.

THREE TIPS FOR MESTSKÉ LESY HIKES!

On the blue trail from here to the edge of the city forest somewhere near Malinovsky Vrch (the point where it borders the Malé Karpaty proper) a number of exciting hikes are possible…

1: In fact, you could easily embark on what would be one of the classic Mestské Lesy hikes, on blue and red trails, from the Pekná Cesta car park: on all the way to Pajštún Castle (a total of 4.5 to 5 hours’  hiking) via Pánova Lúka and Drači Hrádok (thus encompassing three of our very favourite hiking destinations near Bratislava). Beyond Pajštún, should you so choose, you can continue hiking into the Malé Karpaty in Western Slovakia).

2: For something a little easier (and more or less what we did on the above mentioned day), follow blue to begin with from the car park and then, where the trail heads off on a more minor path, circle back (staying on the metalled lane) to a ruined sanatorium where a beautiful and rarely-used trail then climbs back up through woods, and eventually descends again to join the blue trail at a noticeboard/firepit on Pekná Cesta about a km uphill from the starting point. It’s an excellent round-trip foray into these woods, with loads of smaller tracks branching off to explore.

3: Our third featured possibility for hiking from Pekná Cesta is indeed our top recommended Bratislava Mestské Lesy hike, the Pilgrimage to Marianka.

OUR FAVOURITE RANDOM LITTLE PLACES TO GO IN THE MESTSKÉ LESY:

Pánova Lúka – An idyllic, verdant little meadow a 3-hour hike from Central Bratislava via Kamzik. A great place for Slovak opycačka (barbecue) or a game of frisbee! MAP (although you need a better hiking map to find the place). It’s off the red Štefanokova Magistrala trail (stage two) before Biely Križ…

The Yellow Trail from Pekna Cesta – A beautiful stretch of woodland close to the city, and part of our Pilgrimage Trail to Marianka path.

Drači Hrádok – This is a very ruined castle (only a few stones left) but the ruins themselves are in a forgotten little pocket of woods below Pajštún Castle. MAP It’s at the end of the yellow trail down from Pajštún Castle, just east of Borinka (and still a steep climb uphill from there).

MAP LINK 

GETTING THERE: For the part of the Mestské Lesy we’re talking about here, hop on Trams No.3 or 5 in the city centre and head out to Pekná Cesta, a 20 minute tram ride three stops beyond Bratislava Vinohrady train station.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: Walk any further on the paths described and you’re well and truly in the Small Carpathians. 12km north of Pekná Cesta (and accessible via the Pekná Cesta road through the forest) just passed Marianka is, indeed, Pajštún Castle.

Around Bratislava – the North: Svätý Jur for a Day Trip?

Svätý Jur Námestie: a stop on the Small Carpathians Wine Route

Svätý Jur Námestie: a stop on the Small Carpathians Wine Routes – image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

An icy, but brilliantly sunny winter’s day: and where to roam from Bratislava when you wake up, well, reasonably late? You want to get out into the countryside, but you also don’t have so many hours before darkness falls again, and are reliant on public transport. Svätý Jur, just to the northeast of Bratislava, might just be the place for you.

From Rača, in Bratislava’s extreme north-east, where I was living for three years, getting there could not be easier. Svätý Jur is, in fact, the next village along on the main road out of town, and the first village to be in what could properly be termed “the countryside”. For us, it was a simple jaunt down to Pekná Cesta tram stop where, on the other side of the road, the Slovak Lines nation-wide buses also stop (they’ve come from the Mlynské Nivy bus station, for those readers starting in the centre of the city!), and a 0.80 Euro/ 10 minute ride to the Krajinská bus stop in Svätý Jur.

This is actually an amazingly pretty village. Amazingly pretty because:

a) it is extremely close to the Bratislava suburbs and could easily have fallen prey to either suburban anonymity or distasteful Communist “development” – but hasn’t.

b) People don’t really talk about it as a beautiful place. I’m not (quite) about to put its central námestie in the same category as that in Levoča or Poprad’s Spišská Sobota. But, with its wide oval expanse of untarnished pastille-coloured houses, grand old town hall with a plaque highlighting key dates in the community’s history, and skyline flanked by churches, and beyond by vineyard terraces and rolling forested hills, you would think you were far further from Bratislava than you actually are.

Why Come Here?

Good question.

a) Wine: The main reason to head to Svätý Jur is one that, in December, we were unable to appreciate: the wine cellars. The astonishing presence of some fifteen wine cellars in and around the village makes it a key stop on the Small Carpathians Wine Route. Get information on the cellars at the Infocentrum just up from the main square (Prostredná 47, tel.: (00) 421 2 4497 0449-53, www.ainova.sk/ic). Many wine cellars are often open for tours and tastings – particularly on Open Cellar Days!

Other than a stroll around the historic village centre (boasting of being given “town” status in the mid-17th century), the best thing to do is to take a walk up Podhradie Ulica (that’s the street that continues north up from the far end of the town square) to the ruins of Biely Kameň (white stone castle).

b) Biely Kameň: Biely Kameň is the lesser-known cousin of Červený Kameň (Red Stone Castle) further north-west and whilst the information boards at the ruin itself make little of its associations with the notorious Palffy family that controlled Červený Kameň the presence of other Palffy memorial plaques on buildings in the village centre suggests a connection. The castle itself is a wonderfully romantic ruin in the woods about 1km up from Svätý Jur. The remains of the late 13th century fortress are none too extensive, but fun to explore, and provide a prequel to the great hiking trails beyond in the Malé Karpaty/Small Carpathians, with views down into the valley carved with terraced vineyards and on up into the wilder forests (go to our HIKES section lower down this post for a suggested route). Our experience was coloured by meeting a local historian who had published articles on some to the castle’s legends,and even dug for treasure here! (links to the legends to follow!!). The route to the castle is straightforward: up through the village on Podhradie Ulica (under-the-castle street), passing both churches, then branching left on a marked footpath which ascends along the back of two houses into the woods and gets to the noticeboard below the ruins in about 30 minutes. The final few metres up to within the castle bastions is a bit of a scramble. It’s a popular opycačka (campfire for roasting meat) spot.

EATING:

The main problem in Svätý Jur was getting something decent to eat. OK, it was Sunday, and the two decent-looking restaurants (including the recommendation we had, Svätojurská Viecha at Bratislavska 2 near Hotel Maxim) were closed, but there did seem a paucity of decent eating options. We took shelter in a typical Communist-looking hard-drinking bar near the bus stop back to Bratislava, but it was hardly a place to rave about (in fact it gave us food poisoning). The best things about Svätý Jur are its wine and its nature. We’ll be returning for more of both in wine season! But if you do need to eat here:

– There’s a decent gelateria at the beginning of Prostredná (on the right as you’re walking up through the beautiful square) and (purportedly) a good cafe by the church (the lower church, that is, near the roundabout at the upper end of the square) – we’ll be checking it out soon, don’t worry.

SHOPS: A great farm shop at the lower end of Prostredná as you are walking up on the left-hand side – the cheese selection is way more tempting than any I’ve ever seen anywhere else in Slovakia – including the big supermarkets! It mostly stocks Dutch cheeses (strong feisty rounds of the stuff) but also Slovak ones. AND it has a great range of Slovak chocolate. There are also several really good wine shops along Prostredná (in and around Bratislava, here are THE best ops for sampling local wine). So many, in fact, that we’re going to be writing “Shopping in Svätý Jur” – a special tailored post elaborating on this very subject.

HIKES: Aside from the short hike up to ruins of Biely Kameň (mentioned above) there is of course all those hikes awaiting in the wider expanse of the Malé Karpaty/Small Carpathians which can be accessed from the castle. One interesting route is that on the yellow trail through to Marianka via Biely Križ (allow three to four hours): especially interesting as there are many shrines and crosses of all different shapes and sizes along the way.

MAP LINK

GETTING THERE: Slovak Lines buses run about every 15 minutes from platforms 41-45 at the main bus station stopping at Pekná Cesta on the way out of the city.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Svätý Jur it’s a 17km walk northwest to Pajštún Castle through the Malé Karpaty. A 7km drive northeast (or a hike through the Malé Karpaty) is Limbach.

Ždiar: All Hail the Ginger Monkey

View from the dorm at the Ginger Monkey Hostel, Ždiar

View from the dorm at the Ginger Monkey Hostel, Ždiar – image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

With the advent of December comes peak skiing season in the High Tatras, and no more appropriate time to mention for the first time my favourite place in these mountains, Ždiar, and the best accommodation option within, the Ginger Monkey.

On this eastern edge of the High Tatras, Ždiar (officially in the distinctive Goral-speaking region of Belianske Tatry or the Bela Tatras), with its traditional log chalets, rustic eateries (kolibe) and sharp-ridged mountains straight out of a picture book, at their most beautiful bathed in sharp late spring or autumn light, is unlikely to remain a traveller secret much longer. Some might say the secret is out.  Ždiar, Ginger Monkey et al have got a glowing write-up in the last couple of editions of the Slovakia chapter of Lonely Planet’s Eastern Europe (and having written the last edition I’m something of a guilty party). But Ždiar still feels secret, and so does the Ginger Monkey hostel within its sleepy confines.

The building, a traditionally-painted log cabin (a sight to behold in itself), slides into view on the right immediately after you pass the church in Ždiar village centre, set back on and up a grassy incline. My last visit was in the legendary tenure of Australian Dan but now Dan number two has come and gone and his successor is at the helm and, by all accounts, managing proceedings in an equally cool and offbeat way. First impressions? Well, you do have to pinch yourself. In a country that’s only slowly waking up to how to do really good hostels (well, Bratislava excepted) this is, in many ways, the ideal traveller hostel experience- I mean the one you would imagine if you plucked your twenty favourite images of what a welcoming, laid-back middle-of-nowhere bohemian crash pad should be out of your head and combined them in some best-of montage mega-image.

Chickens cluck outside and Wally the amicable hostel hound gives you an enthusiastic (and occasionally slobbering) welcome once you’re through the door. Immediately on the left is the common room/video room where obscure travel-friendly movies with an unexplained bias towards horror are watched of an evening, while across the way is the kitchen, where free tea and coffee and the complementary breakfast are partaken of, and where most of the serious traveller bonding/ drinking goes on. Beers are merely a euro each (cheap even by Slovakia’s standards of low-cost drinking) and, with the strange yet amenable assortment of travellers congregating come seven or so (sometimes they haven’t left from last night’s escapades), you’ll probably find yourself, even if you have a natural reserve, opening up and exchanging travel stories until the wee hours in a manner reminiscent of the good old days when hostels were there to do just this.

Make your way through a reception adorned in maps and tips on hikes and places to eat (Livia’s, aka the goulash hut is surely the best bet – they do beer, goulash and precisely nothing else) along a creaking corridor to the Internet terminal and then climb the stairs to the dorms. If you can, get the one at the front for sublime views (see picture above).

There are a couple of dorms, one single room and one twin room available, plus abundant information on local hikes which you can undertake with Wally. A good one wends down across the river (head left out of the hostel on the main road back towards Kežmarok to find the fording point) then curves back to come out by the ski centre on the other side of the village. Wally knows the way on this one, having been there many times before, but it’s also possible to hike up into the High Tatras from here via Kopské Saddle (which is by the beginning of the Tatranska Magistrala trail, Slovakia’s most famous hike, which crosses the Slovakian Tatras from east to west, and which Englishmaninslovakia walked all of in 2014 and 2015.

In essence, expect oodles of atmosphere and a fair level of cosy comfort (wandering around aimlessly in pyjamas and slippers is OK here).

And did I mention skiing? Ah yes, you can ski. Here’s the link to Ždiar’s Bachledova ski area. Or if you want to continue your Tatras adventure, click here for more.

And finally: check out the Ginger Monkey’s website for info on the continuation of your journey over the border with Poland to Zakopane. It’s a much-done and delightfully scenic trip. You can also read our more extensive blog post about it here.

MAP LINK: Due to Ždiar’s straggly nature it’s hard to capture the salient mapping info on just one screen but – as an explanation – the right of the map is the village entrance, and the left (where those red lines are?) the start of the Bachledova ski area. For the Ginger Monkey, take the second right-hand turn once in Ždiar village and then make for the church, basically (then you won’t miss it)

PRICES: Dorms are 14 Euros per bed, and twin rooms are 34 Euros (2017 prices). There is also now a cottage available for hire. Contact Ginger Monkey for further details.

LAST UPDATED: April 2017

BOOK THE GINGER MONKEY