View across to the Kalvaria ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Banská Štiavnica: the Aura

When you’re considering staying in one of Slovakia’s most gorgeous (and still relatively secret) medieval towns, chances are you might be in the market for a bargain on your accommodation.

When you book somewhere to stay last-minute as I often do (because in my own life outside of work I am incredibly disorganised) you rarely expect to arrive, experience, and come away from the place feeling that you might just have discovered the best deal in town. But such is the experience with Ubytovanie Aura, a small gaggle of huge, well-appointed self-catering apartments perched above Unesco-listed Banská Štiavnica Old Town with easily the best views of any accommodation around.

Maybe it was that everything went right from the start (I memorised the Google Map directions successfully despite the phone dying; as we pulled up outside a rather idyllic sunset was unfolding etc) but to put Aura’s charms down to luck is unjust.

The disadvantage of many of Banská Štiavnica’s accommodation options is that their views are somewhat impeded by the hills and other houses soaring up above them, but Aura gets round that problem by being – if not on top of the hills – at least far enough to feel like you’re in the hot seat of a glider as you relax on the terrace. So the view – across to the iconic Kalvaria (a grassy hill and sublime viewpoint adorned with 25 temples depicting, among other things, the Stations of the Cross) – is a big plus at Aura.

Then there’s the size. The self-catering apartments here are generously proportioned for a mere 25 Euros per night, which is a bargain compared to prices of about 10-15 Euros per night more for accommodation right in the centre. The apartments are clean, and the kitchens (oven, fridge-freezer included) are well-appointed, and there’s Wifi available (with a medium signal).

Bundles of bedroom space, plus a large kitchen and bathroom

Bundles of bedroom space + a large kitchen/bathroom ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

And then there is of course the hospitable managers who welcome you and provide you with plenty of unusual tourist information, including some of the great local hikes and cycle trails. They speak English, so you don’t need to be worried about phoning if you don’t speak Slovak!

It’s a ten minute walk to the centre of the town from here (and thus, of course, the many great Banská Štiavnica cafes). Go back down Staromestská (the lane you’ve wound up to get here) and follow Horna Ružová until you hit the steps down to the town square at the end. There’s an entrance to Banská Štiavnica’s beautiful botanical gardens just down from where Staromestská meets Horna Ružová, and you can walk down into town this way too. And if you score one of the topmost two apartments, you get a terrace/garden with barbecue facilities and a spot right on a hiking trail to the Kalvaria. Perfect for pilgrims – or outdoor lovers – or families!

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

Places to Go: Banska Štiavnica’s Mining Museums

Places to Go: Banska Štiavnica’s Kalvaria

Places to Stay: Banska Štiavnica’s Nicest Guesthouse

Places to Eat & Drink: Banska Štiavnica Streetfood

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

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

Top Ten Medieval Towns in Slovakia

 

MAP LINK From Mierová, the main road into town from the Banská Bystrica (north) side, hang a right (steep) when you reach the edge of the Botanic Garden, and follow this lane, Botanická, along the edge of the garden until the end. Turn right, and Statomestská is the first (narrow) lane which curves up to Aura’s parking.

PRICES: 16 to 26 Euros per self-catering apartment per night.

BOOK UBYTOVANIE AURA  (has to be done through Booking.com or by telephoning on 00421-908-052-344 (outside Slovakia) or 0908-052-344 (in Slovakia). The Booking.com pics really don’t do the place justice.)

NB: Ubytovanie, by the way, just means rooms that are for rent

Hrabušice: Relax Farma Marianka

At Poprad I got off the mainline train and whilst the other travellers hurried off on their way home or transferred to the mountain railway to the High Tatras, I waited in the gathering gloom of a temperamental spring day and the rapidly dispersing crowds for the slow train to Hrabušice. An hour or so later when me and the only other disembarking passengers, a group of Roma schoolchildren, alighted at the small concrete house framed by mountains that constituted Hrabušice station, the following things occurred to me: it was almost dark, I was in the Slovak Paradise, one of Slovakia’s remoter national parks, I had no knowledge of where I was going other than the name of the guesthouse scribbled on a page of my travel diary, no map, no obvious signposts (or indeed anything) in the vicinity and precious little grasp of Slovak to ask anyone to help me. It was one of those slightly concerning, but also thrilling, moments which are all too rare in Europe these days: being totally off the grid of technology. One of those you, the luggage and the land moments.

I followed the lane into the Hrabušice village: a supply centre and accommodation base for tourists on the northern edge of the Slovak Paradise, or Slovenský Raj as it’s known in Slovak. Beyond that, the only direction I could get (that I understood) to where I was staying was a jab of a finger at the hills looming beyond. I had just walked out of Hrabušice far enough into the countryside to wonder whether in fact I had come the correct way when Majo, the owner of Relax Farma Marianka, came pedalling on his bicycle to find me.

So I was saved from the encroaching night – and in a memorable way. The “relax farm”, run by amenable Majo and his wife, has an undeniably peaceful feel. That is largely due to the owners: easily the two most contented people I have ever met in Slovakia, who have embraced rural living with a passion (they enthuse over local hiking and climbing routes – and boy, there are plenty in Slovenský Raj, they concoct delicious healthy vegetarian meals with produce from their own garden, Majo’s wife Janka unwinds by making ceramics and might even give you one of her works to take away if you are lucky).

The back patio ©relax farma marianka

The back patio ©relax farma marinaka

There are eight large, farmhouse pinewood-style rooms here (four with private bathrooms) – nothing complicated, but all recently refurbished (you can practically still smell the polish). Four of these have balconies looking out on the lonely foothills of Slovenský Raj, too.

One of the rooms… ©relax farma marianka

One of the rooms… ©relax farma marianka

Public areas sport more of the same smart, modern-yet-traditional pine finish, decorated with intriguing contemporary art. Downstairs, the true “relaxing” commences: a massage room, ceramics lessons and a function room that gets used for everything from traditional dancing (Slovak style of course) to Reiki. Outside, the long, thin garden yields a sun terrace, hammocks (not so common in this part of Europe) and a hot tub. Beyond, it fades into fields that rise up into the hills.

And the hills of course are the main draw. They are, after all, why you are here. Relax Farm Marianka is so called for a reason: it is where you come to crash after a hard days’ hiking.

And anyone who has experienced that plethora of samey mountain guesthouses in the High Tatras resorts or – worse – the popular tourist areas of the Alps will know exactly what we mean when we say that Relax Farm Marianka is a clean break with those often clinical, cold, soulless breed of typical hiker’s digs: yes, the kind whose stunning location is detracted from by the bored gaze of the tourist-inundated proprietor, where the rooms can only be described as roofs over your head (and nothing more complimentary), where the entire purpose of the joint seems to be to get you in, bedded, fed and out as quickly and blandly as possible.

Jumping for joy in Hrabusice ©englishmaninslovakia.com

Jumping for joy in Hrabušice

Yes, Relax Farm Marianka is different, alright. Majo and Janka’s philosophy is simple: they live on the edge of Slovenský Raj and love it; they want you to love it too. They could get away with a lot less. The hiking trail that leads from the corner of their road up to Pondlesok (a hamlet with the final few accommodation options before the Slovak Paradise thrusts upwards in a classic green expanse of hiking trails, including the famous ladder-and-chain ascents through the gorges that the park is famous for, i.e. Suchá Bela, just 2km away) soon reveals quite a few of the kind of guesthouses that DO get away with a lot less. But Majo and Janka try hard – and succeed. And their place has soul.

Make a list of all the things you might want after being out on the hills all day. Just do it. Hot, home cooked, healthy meal? Tick. Informative locals who will welcome you back and advise you on your next days’ trekking? Tick. Soak in the hot tub? Tick. Massage? Tick. Clean, comfortable, quiet room in which to collapse at the end of all of this? Once again, tick.

MAP LINK:

GETTING THERE: By public transport? Train to Poprad, then train to Hrabušice, then walk!

PRICES: 13 to 14 Euros per person per night; breakfast 4 Euros extra (2016 prices)

BOOK RELAX FARMA MARIANKA

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Banská Štiavnica: Penzión Resla pri Klopacke

In Banská Štiavnica, where one can’t walk a pace without another delightful 18th-century edifice looming photogenically into view, it’s not easy to stand out on architectural merits. But sometimes, pretty facades can be just shells – or not live up to their external promise in their interiors. Particularly where the plethora of places to stay in this lovely ancient mining town are concerned, there is also a lack of love when it comes to the service – as if visitors should be in raptures just to stay in a historic building, and are not deserving of any more. There are other places, and then there is Penzión Resla pri Klopacke.

Off one of the rabbit warren lanes twisting up from the centre south towards the Nový zámok (New Castle), the thick age-stained walls of the guesthouse with their rose-painted window frames top a landscaped two-level terrace, commanding a stunning view over the town in all directions.

The view from the apartment windows ©englishmaninslovakia.com

The view from the apartment windows ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

From the off, this is the courteous service complemented by deft, unusual (nay, quirky), tasteful touches to decor that are sometimes a rarity out in the provides and much more synonymous with the standards set by upmarket rural bed and breakfasts in England.

Even the lobby impresses, with its miniature likeness of the spectacular relief remembering the history of mining in the region that flanks the lower side of the town’s central square. The proprietress engages you in conversation and it seems genuine; then ushers you up narrow, steep wooden stairs to the boutique apartments.

Boutique, we should say, in an unashamedly old fashioned Slovak style: sizeable two-room affairs, wood throughout, magical views down over the corkscrewing valley in which Banská Štiavnica lies scattered. They feel remarkably cosy on the notoriously cold nights hereabouts, too. One apartment has a fully appointed self-catering kitchen too.

You have to return back out of this main building to descend down steps and across the garden to the breakfast area but it’s worth the walk. In actual fact, it’s quite possibly the nicest breakfast area of any guesthouse in the entire country, painted pale blue and adorned with hand drawings of different birds possible to spot in the mountains. There are no fewer than three rooms for the breakfast, plus outside picnic tables (it’s outside that you’ll also find the open grill area, which gets going on summer nights); indeed one room is taken up with the substantial buffet alone. Like everything else the buffet goes beyond the call of duty with its variety of tasty breads, cakes, cheeses, fruits and yoghurts.

And what of the “Resla”, the strange statue of a woman swilling wine that is mounted in pride of place outside the front of the house? Apparently, an infamous aristocrat from the 19th century who lives in luxury whilst the citizens of the town starved – and even gloated about it – until, that is, the day she got her comeuppance…

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

Places to Go: Banska Štiavnica’s Kalvaria

Places to Go: Banska Štiavnica’s Mining Museums

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

Places to Eat & Drink: Banska Štiavnica Streetfood

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

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

Top Ten Medieval Towns in Slovakia

The breakfast room ©englishmaninslovakia.com

The breakfast room ©englishmaninslovakia.com

MAP LINK:

 PRICES: Apartments per 1/2 people 30-35/50-55 Euros (2016 prices)

BOOK PENZIÓN RESLA PRI KLOPACKE:

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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Penzión Zlatá Noha – Basement Prices, Beautiful Views

Bratislava from Koliba

Bratislava from Koliba

Location: Koliba.

This is, as near as dammit, the view from a pension (guesthouse) that is long overdue on this blog. That’s right: Zlatá Noha (which translates as golden leg). Golden leg refers to their dog, but I digress. Bratislava has hills: beautiful hills. Beautiful hills = beautiful views. The district of Koliba (haunt of diplomats and made-it-good lawyers and bankers and full of very nice, lavish hillside mansions) is one such vantage point. There are few better city panoramas than from here. And it’s here you’ll find the pension that, for better or for worse, I invariably used when staying as a visitor in the city.

In essence, the reason you’d want to stay at Zlatá Noha is to get an ok room with a pretty fabulous view at a price far cheaper than in the centre. It is, as far as I know, the cheapest half-decent guesthouse in town and double room rates are cheaper than the city centre hostels.

You get there by trolleybus 203 from the cross-section of Šancová (that’s the road that the main train station is off) and Karpatská (it’s about the third stop but just say “Pension Zlatá Noha” to the driver and he’ll get you). From here, actually, a plethora of signs point the way – head uphill from the trolleybus stop and you are sure to see them.

I remember the first time I stayed there. Fish in a large tank flit psychedelically in an otherwise largely dim and silent front reception area and then an old man, amiable enough but with scant English, comes out to unceremoniously thrust you the key to your room and add to the whole Ray Bradbury Scifi feel of the place when you arrive, invariably in the dead of night due to flight connections.

But fear not. You are in for a fairly pleasant surprise with the view, which looks down, as per the picture, across Bratislava’s largely unheralded but rather beautiful vineyards down into the city centre. Even at night, the Bratislava lights and smoking out-of-town factories have the desired effect: a sense, if you have come from Western Europe or the US, of having landed somewhere “other”.

The actual room facilities are pretty simple. There are no frills here. They are clean, but done in cheap wood, but have plenty of blankets and equally clean bathrooms (with very hot water, don’t worry). Then again, the price is only 30/40 Euros single/double if you pay cash rather than on card (small surcharge) with breakfast a pretty reasonable 5 Euros on top. By comparison, guesthouses that are little or no better in the centre charge 60 Euros plus. And Zlatá Noha has the views. Trolleybus 203, in any case, whisks you right down into the city centre at Hodžovo Namestie very quickly (and every ten minutes).

Breakfast is, well, full of those amazing cross-vineyard views, in a very convivial breakfast room (you can also order a beer here at the makeshift bar at night because you are a long way from the next nearest drinking establishment). If the younger guy is on duty he makes great “hamundeggs” aka “ham and eggs” a kind of great, gooey omelette. There’s also a buffet-style spread of cereal, yoghurt, some croissants or other interesting bready snacks and boiled eggs, along with cold meats. All in all, it’s scrumptious and good value.

The downsides are the dog (of golden legs fame) barking at impromptu parts of the night at nothing in particular (maybe the moon, who knows?) so if you get a room to the top of the stairs and THEN RIGHT in the other wing that’s best. But the dog doesn’t always bark so maybe you’ll be alright. Another little-celebrated UPside is that here you are actually within walking distance (if you continue up the road) of the Bratislava Mestské Lesy (Local City Forest) which spreads away around and beyond the Kamzik TV mast in swathes of unadulterated wildness right the way across the Carpathians.

The thing is, with guesthouses like Pension Zlatá Noha: they just don’t make them like this any more. Now they’re a bit fancier, with better wifi connections, and abstract art on the walls, and charge significantly more for such privileges. But really? Honestly? Pension Zlata Noha is one of the good ole fashioned Bratislava guesthouses. Go on. Try your Slovak out. Chow down on hamundeggs. And celebrate staying in a capital city in a private en suite room with a view for 50 Euros or less!

MAP LINK

PRICES: 36.50 Euros (single w/ private bathroom), 46.50 Euros (double w/ private bathroom) – breakfast is included with both prices. (2017 prices)

LAST UPDATED: April 2017

BOOK PENZIÓN ZLATA NOHA