Slovak Craft Beer: Grabbing International Attention

Getting thirsty as the hotter weather comes? We don’t blame you.

Traditionally, Slovakia has been better known for its wine. But Slovakia’s craft beer is pretty amazing these days: not only in Bratislava, where there are four or five microbreweries that really stand out, but also in towns across the country from Banská Štiavnica to Poprad to Košice.

A brand new book by the leading travel publisher, Lonely Planet, Global Beer Tour, has now given Slovakia’s brewpubs the recognition they deserve. It has selected the country’s beer scene as one of the 30 around the world most worth talking about. To find out which of Slovakia’s microbreweries made the cut, you’ll have to go to the relevant chapter in the book, written by none other than Englishman in Slovakia’s Luke Waterson! The book is a bible for those of you that love beer and like travelling (most of us, surely?)

A hearty cheers, anyway. It’s always so nice to see Slovakia making a name for itself overseas. And for once, those Czechs have not stolen all of the hop headlines…

The Slovakia-Ukraine border ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

A Meditation on Borders

For the 200th post on this site I thought I would reflect on one of the factors that defines Slovakia more than almost anything else: its borders.

Any study of Slovakia alights, sooner or later, upon the issue of borders.

It is an issue ever embedded in the psyche, too, of such a new nation with its geographical position in the very heart of Europe.

Slovakia shares a frontier with five nations: Ukraine, Hungary, Austria, Czech Republic and Poland. That’s not many compared, say, to Germany (which borders nine other countries) but it’s enough for a small, fledgling country to contend with. Particularly when it’s still trying to establish itself on grounds its bigger, more powerful neighbours long believed was theirs.

Some of Slovakia’s borders are natural ones. The Danube chisels a frontier along a portion of the southern frontier with Hungary. The Morava river performs a similar role in Slovakia’s west – along the boundary with Austria and the Czech Republic. And in sections of Slovakia’s northern border with Poland, the High Tatras mountains create a rather formidable frontier. Then there is that most talked-about border of all – the border which even if it is not at all geographically obvious forms part of the edge of the European Union, the border with Ukraine, the border that has had millions and millions of Euros spent on fortifying it with fancy security, the border which still leaks a large number of refugees and helps to line the pockets of a fair number of traffickers through its porousness.

And if you make the trip out to some of these frontier-hugging places – Kohutka, say, in the Biele Karpaty on the border with Czech Republic, or Nová Sedlica in the far east on the border with Ukraine, first by car and then on foot because very little of the border is actually road, that porousness is emphasised a hundred-fold. Borders are so much, in Slovakia (they are representative of the centuries for which Slovaks strove to have any place on this planet to call their own at all). But borders are so little at the same time. They are lines in the lonely pine forest. On one side: unbroken kilometres of pines. On the other: unbroken kilometres of pines. And in the middle, a line little wider than a firebreak with a footpath running through it, and perhaps the odd drunkenly leaning sign proclaiming pozor: Štátna hranica, warning: state border.

They might have had meaning in the Communist era, these little lines in the pines. Now they are mostly incredible places to go hiking – with the guarantees the hike will pass directly through the middle of nowhere, yet have the added allure of crossing national boundaries many times. (The Cesta Hrdinov SNP, featured on this site, follows much of Slovakia’s border and is, indeed, Slovakia’s ultimate hike).

Borders do signify other things in the Slovakia of today. On the frontier with Austria, they are both fabulous adventure playgrounds (Devínska Kobyla) and testaments to bygone wars (the bunker museum in Petržalka), on the frontier with Hungary they are both fabulous art museums and vineyards in the  Tokaj wine region, hotly-contested between both countries to this day.

But mostly, in Slovakia, borders are lines in the pines. I suppose, coming from Britain, an island that has such definitive borders, and ones which never presented an obstacle to the British colonising a large percentage of the world, these lines in the pines seem so innocuous a frontier: even though for half a century they essentially kept foreigners out, and were therefore far more dramatic than any of the UK’s lofty cliffs.

I like to think of Slovakia’s borders as reminders of the foreign influences that make up its hotchpotch history, too. They add an extra, indefinable aurora to the land on which they lie.

Once, they signified the oppression of Slovaks by other bigger powers, once, you could be shot for trying to cross one of them.

What better way to counteract that sombre past today than by the act of strolling along them to find a spot for a picnic, without a care in the world?

 

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Top Ten Best Things About Life in Slovakia

We turn away from travel, for a minute, on this site, to focus on LIFE. Life in Slovakia is a topic even less generally known about than tourism here – at least to the foreign/English-speaking world – so this is an insight into some of the best things about life here. Pretty girls and Europe’s cheapest beer are not listed… although we all know that they’re here too…

10: Sheer Potential…

Slovakia is a young country. It has a lot going for it, but also a long way still to go. Many construe this as a bad thing but I think of this as a big positive. In most countries, the order of things is well-established. In Slovakia, many aspects of life are still in the infancy of their development. There’s a sense that living in Slovakia, one is at the beginning of a journey, not the end of one. I like that (but I don’t expect Slovaks to agree with me on this necessarily!)

9: Proximity of some of Europe’s Coolest Cities

I’m not a big fan of selling a country based on the fact others are nearby, or based on assumed superior knowledge of other nearby countries. I’m a firm believer that Slovakia has its own merits, and a culture sufficient to justify being described on its own terms. But when you’re living in a country, it’s just generally quite cool to think that (from its capital) the celebrated spas of Budapest, the celebrated beer halls of Prague or the celebrated coffee houses of Vienna are all only a matter of hours away (two, four and one respectively).

8: Diversity of Drinks

Wine - and plenty of it ©englishmaninslovakia.com

Wine – and plenty of it ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

For a fair chunk of my life now, I’ve been a travel writer. And it’s the worst-concealed fact in the profession that travel writers like the odd tipple. Now I’m not talking a bottle of wine per night or anything but yeah, I am talking the odd glass of something… and the odd glass of something is something Slovakia is very adept at providing. If you want wine,  then there’s two main wine-producing regions with plenty of possibilities, the Small Carpathians wineries and the Tokaj wineries. Then of course there’s a myriad different fruit brandies, of which slivovica is only the tip of the iceberg: you name the fruit – or in some areas the herb – and there’s an alcoholic beverage to correspond (see a little more on this in our feature on Slovakia’s most quintessential foods and drinks). And the microbrewery industry has improved significantly in recent years: check our Bratislava Bars & Pubs section for proof! For the non-alcoholically inclined, Slovakia’s tea culture is also incredibly rich (English – rejoice!) and those interested in this should watch this space for more on the many fantastic teahouses – or the čajovne – of Slovakia. It’s not that you can’t get many of these drinks elsewhere, of course. But it’s not so common to find such a small country which can specialise in such an array of them.

7: Cheaper Costs of Living

We all know about Eastern Europe’s perennial popularity with those (quite often, the stag parties) who love how cheap it is for a weekend break. That’s true. Certain aspects of life are cheap here. The public transport and the cultural events, as detailed elsewhere on this article. And the beer (often cheaper than water for the same volume, and for the last couple of years Bratislava has come up as the number one of Europe’s cities for the cheapest beer). And the restaurant food (delicious meals at many of the better restaurants for 10 Euros or under).  And the average rent (even in Central Bratislava you could find apartments from as little as 300 Euros). Even taking into account that salaries are lower, a quick tally-round of the relative prices soon show life in Slovakia = more for less.

6: Music

Considering its size (not much bigger than Bristol and significantly smaller than Manchester) Bratislava gets literally all the big bands that stop round on their European tours – Košice and the smaller cities get a fair few too. It’s the same with music festivals – Bratislava’s programme of events is diverse, and covers everything from world music to classical and electric. Košice – European City of Culture 2013 don’t forget – now also has a wide programme of music events throughout the year. And as the two cities are only four hours apart, you’re never going to be more than two hours or so from cracking live music! Traditional Slovak music, it should be emphasised, is really worth checking out too: Slovakia has one of the most eclectic folk music legacies in Europe.

5: Meal tickets!

I guess it’s one of those things that dates back to Communism. For the vast majority of workers in Slovakia, the employer will cough up at least 50% of the money for meal tickets (generally in 4-Euro blocks) which can be redeemed not only at most restaurants but also supermarkets. If you bear in mind that a set-menu lunch even in Bratislava can cost 3 Euros, you’ve got your lunch taken care of and some money towards your supermarket shopping. Many readers from Europe and the US on here will laugh at the very idea of a company so generously contributing towards employee’s lunch and evening grocery shop: but in Slovakia, it’s a rather lovely reality!

4: Accessibility of Culture

Culture… accessible in Slovakia ©englishmaninslovakia.com

Culture… accessible in Slovakia ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Even considering the cheaper costs of living, the prices of tickets to the theatre or cinema are exceptionally reasonable. 25 Euros maximum can buy you premium seats at Bratislava’s Slovak Philharmony or Slovak National Theatre.

The accessibility isn’t just about price though – often, the very best events are organised by a young and bohemian crowd who go out of their way to make you feel welcome. There’s no pretension with most Slovak cultural events (not to deny that other aspects of life here have incredible pretentiousness) but this doesn’t mean that the standard is low. Slovakia actually has an incredibly important role within the development of Central European classical music and this role translates today into very highly-regarded performances that many people will come especially to see even from Vienna.

The events on offer are numerous, too. In Bratislava, there’s rarely a fortnight that passes without something of cultural significance (and clout) going on..

3: Public Transport

Going some place like Slovakia

Going some place like Slovakia – image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Slovaks will laugh loud when they read some of the things that I find particularly good about life here, and perhaps this point most of all. But whilst it’s generally a bit more battered than in some countries, it’s a brilliant system. For starters, a great website coordinating all bus and train transport helps you plan your journey across the country precisely (something sorely lacking in the UK).

Then there’s the trains themselves. Old, but very sophisticated, and with very affordable (15 Euros for a cross-country ride) travel in style (proper dining cars serving quite decent food) – see my enthusiastic post on this, Want Fried Cheese With That view, for more!

And within the cities, the tram and trolleybus system is just brilliant (especially Bratislava trams). The lines are almost never closed for repairs, and they always run on time, up to thirty minutes either side of the  centre, for a maximum of 90 Euro cents. They’re rarely crowded, either. Learn from this, public transport in nearly every other European city!

2: Lack of Crowds

Crowdlessness

Crowdlessness ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

I’ve lost count of the number of times I have walked into a cool place – invariably a cafe, bar or pub – in London, Paris or other big cities and soon formed the impression that it wasn’t so cool based solely on the crowdedness. For me, if I’m waiting to elbow through five rows of punters just to get to a bar to be served, or queue too long for a table in a cafe, then however good the joint it’s unlikely to form a positive impression on me. Such levels of crowds do not, contrary to popular opinion, signify the place is good. They just signify over-populatedness. Right now, even Bratislava never has that problem in Slovakia. You can sit down in your favourite place, or hike your favourite footpath – and breathe, and relax, because there’s never half a dozen people jostling behind you, spilling your drink or spoiling your moment of quiet contemplation.

 

1: Hiking

In reality, nature (which is Slovakia’s biggest draw to visit, or to live in) should probably fill several sections of this particular top ten. But this is nature made accessible by easily the best system of hiking trails I have ever encountered – anywhere. From right in Bratislava, these red-, blue-, yellow- or green-marked signs kick off, with detailed destinations on down the trail and how many minutes’ walk they are away. Sometimes the signs have timings down to the nearest minute! But they always prove to be uncannily accurate and – even if you are a fast walker – very hard to “beat”, although it’s fun trying! Some real TLC goes into making and maintaining these trails and the resulting signage.

This is coupled, even in remoter parts, by the endearing addition of rather elaborately-constructed barbecue spots.  The culture of the opekačka, or barbecue-bonfire in the wilds, is a very important part of Slovak life, especially at weekends. And to this end, it seems hiking trails go out of their way to wind up at great barbecue places. Mostly these are made from wood, and are found in small clearings within the woods, but sometimes they’re made from the old stones of ruined castles (my secret suspicion about why so many hiking trails here link up with ruined castles).

Slovaks also are pretty picky about where they hike: it has to be beautiful. So whilst hikes abound in the woods and mountains (i.e. the majority of the country), the very idea of them walking across farmland like us English is laughable. Then again, Slovak farmland does look rather ugly (the hedges have generally been gutted creating wide, intensively farmed, bleak-looking fields) so I do understand their preference!

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Tatras trail with Ždiar below ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Bratislava high rises - image ©Wizzard

Child of the Revolution: A Poem

Not so long ago I was walking through Rača, the north-eastern-most part of Bratislava, when I was inspired to write this. So here we are:

 

You walk down the street, and it’s straight – without end,

And the breeze blocks and smokestacks do not relent,

And abysmal spectral faces spectate

And you’re spent – so sick so tired and spent.

 

The angles stab you, the sad fog grabs you,

All-day casino bars shriek from the pavement,

Tannoys play Patrioticheskaya,

And you wonder what the words could have meant.

 

And you’re not in the motherland anymore –

You’re in a land of your own – of cement,

You can’t see the future for the travesty,

Nor all those nice woods for the barbed-wire fence

 

And the ones that taught you: where are they now?

They sold you or bought you and told you: relent.

And the new generation: where did they go?

All the way down to get stoned in the basement.

 

Na prenájom, všetko na predaj*

Is all you see from the cracks in the pavement

Or maybe the smoke as it rises from ashes

From the sixth-floor window of your tenement.

 

And the tram trawls by but it’s gone – you’re too late,

And the bar is warm and convenient,

The brandy fires you, the ice-cold wires you,

Crystalised, you see your life; where it went.

 

* For rent, everything for sale

Communism... Based on image by zscout370

On 25 Years Since the End of Communism

A quarter of a century since the fall of Communism was marked in Slovakia perhaps as it should be: in a quiet and analytical way, with a lot of discussions in the media on the progress the country had made during this time.

We have mentioned on Englishman in Slovakia some of the tributes paid to the tumbling of the regime which still, 25 years later, has such a profound effect on so much of this part of Europe (those with a Slovak theme anyway): that compilation of various docufilm directors’ impressions on the country two decades after gaining independence, Slovensko 2.0, is a good starting point.

But the main question on everyone’s lips: has Slovakia developed in a good way, in the way people imagined or hoped that it would? And of course a lot of voices answered: no, not nearly as “good” as expected.  To paraphrase from one of the discussion programmes I got a chance to listen to: Slovakia, whilst technically the easternmost reach of the “west” is more accurately in politics the westernmost outpost of the “east”.

It’s not our place on this site to dwell so much on thorny Slovak state issues. There are plenty of them, which are perhaps best summarised in the word “corruption”. Slovakia’s PM Fico can argue, citing such successes as the Kia and Peugeot automotive plants, that he’s helped the economy (well, at least in the west of SlovaKIA) but culturally? Democratically? In its legal system? Ahem. Polls by CVVM (Czech) and IVO (Slovak) showed only 51% of Slovaks viewed what took place in that autumn of 1989, up to and including November’s Velvet Revolution, with positivity, and that’s no doubt based on disillusionment with those facets of life where there’s a country mile of room for improvement today.

But on the subject of travel, I can say that I’m happy to be here right at the beginning. And I really do mean the absolute nascence – because for years the Slovak tourism industry was dormant and for years more it developed in the wrong way (ski package deals, stag weekends). The beginning of the opening of Slovakia to tourism is now. As new flight connections to Poprad and Košice illustrate, the “set piece” – the east of the country – is more accessible than ever. Enterprising Slovak adventure agencies are getting international recognition. Cool places to eat that aren’t afraid to champion the Slovak character of their menus are introducing foreigners to the nation’s traditional food. Slovakia is now catering to a more discerning type of traveler: the kind that really wants to discover. And the potential is as great as the mountains and forests are vast.

Raise a glass of your finest Demänovka (herbal liqueur) to the next 25 years. Actually, Slovaks are generally more partial to Becherovka, which is a Czech version of the same drink…

Looking down through the vineyards to Bratislava - image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Mapping My Run in the Small Carpathians

A weekday night in a typical Andean hostel; salsa filtering in from a bar across the way; the smell of engine oil and fried guinea pig and crisp wintry mountains wafting in. Incredibly this room has a desk and I’m feeling inspired to write (until my frustration with Windows 8 prompts me to slam this computer against the walls) or, at least, I’m not able to sleep just yet.

What do I write about, in terms of this site, when I’m half the world away from Slovakia? Well, what I miss. What I get nostalgic about. Going out for a run in the vineyard-clad foothills and forests of the Small Carpathians behind Bratislava.

Out round the back of the Rača garages, doors all prettily painted in pastille hues, contrasted with the rather starker red of the local gang’s favoured slogan “Mio Bača”, over the stagnant stream meandering through its concrete channel, where the setting sun nevertheless cuts a glorious figure as it illuminates the water and the floundering ducks with a lazy summer peach melba orange, the vineyards open up (crowned thickly, impenetrably by distant forest). The high rises have faded away, the shudder of the distant trams echoes yet but is slowly, blissfully removed, soon enough to hear the cicadas, as loud a chorus of them as I ever heard, plus the rustle of the dozy trackside snakes a-sun-basking.

Nature encroaches little by little; the evening suburban strollers are slowly replaced by the serious hikers and bikers because from here of course begin hardcore wilderness adventures; pick your direction right and you can stay off-road on vineyard tracks, then meadow paths and finally forest trails for 100, 200km. It’s this promise of unadulterated countryside beckoning that drives you on.

You climb higher (the disadvantage, or perhaps, advantage of the run is that you have to climb because all paths lead UP into the woods from Bratislava). You bypass typical Slovak mountain houses, positioned just so on the cusp between cultivated land and wild land, their front doors in the vineyards, their back doors in the forest; it’s as if they want to lose themselves in the trees but something – just – is holding them in civilisation. The fields get more overgrown, more screened by foliage and then you’re in the woods, deer scuttle before you, there’s often wild pigs scuffling in the undergrowth nearby.

A little further on you cross a road – a forestry track known as Pekná Cesta (nice road) but that’s the last incursion of mankind you need see for some time (for tens and tens of kilometres, no less) except for the well-marked trail signs, trails that wind away into the hills, to Pezinok, to Modra, beyond. That and the occasional barbecue spots and the odd hunting tower and the sporadic mountain cottage offering sustenance (beer, dumplings) and the smattering of ruined castles that hide here. Other than that, a refreshing absence of human influence (unless you count your own ragged breaths – you will have ascended several hundred metres and Bratislava, below you, gleams at its most enticing in the last of the day’s light, smoking factories, shimmering offices, flat great green Danubian floodplain fields).

And behind you – in those woods – it’s getting very dark, thrillingly dark, the dark that could hide not just wild pigs but, possibly, bears. All things weighed up, it’s possibly time to return home. But this run is one of the quickest, most poignant big city-to-remote countryside transitions you can do in Europe. A run like this gives you hope (especially if you are a city dweller). It reminds you that nature still wins – sometimes.

This post also serves as a taster to further explore our huge  variety of content on the Small Carpathians – click the link for more. (Let’s face it, it’s the hugest bank of travel content on the Small Carpathians on the web in English or any other language)

Fancy staying up in the lovely vineyards around Bratislava? See our posts  on Penzion Zlatá Noha and the Kamzík area for more!

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

On Forests

We’re in Obyvačka, a pretty Bratislava cafe-restaurant, on a sunny summer’s day. I like the joint because the coffee’s good, the food’s decent but unpretentious and the tattoos of the chef never cease to amaze. And there’s plenty of free tables during the middle of the day to idle undisturbed; do a bit of writing; get a bite to eat. If I’m meeting anyone for business, as today, chances are I’ll meet them here.

The only other clients on this particular day are a couple of middle aged ladies; one immense, one minuscule, who seem to be discussing their husband’s respective shortcomings – I don’t catch all the words and that’s probably just as well.

And the question comes, not for the first time, probably not for the last: “why Slovakia?” And of course, as the about section of this site details, there are several answers to this. There was work, first of all. And then there was love. But there’s a number of reasons why, irrespective of other factors, I like hanging out in this little nation.

But the question of the guy I’m meeting isn’t about why I’m here; it’s about what I specialise in, as a travel writer.

Because I’ve just been telling him about my other speciality: the Amazon. The rainforest, you know, not the online shop. And he doesn’t see the link, or rather, he thinks the link a bizarre one. If I’d paired the Amazon with Argentina as a specialisation, or Slovakia with, perhaps, the Ukraine, it might not seem like such a disparity of interests.

Of course I was already obsessed with this corner of Eastern Europe long before I moved here – and the Amazon, at least the Peruvian, Bolivian and Brazilian bits of it, had also been a long-standing obsession. So much so it even became the subject of my first novel. Why? It’s obviously not the similarities in architecture or language. I love mountains, but the Amazon doesn’t possess too many of those. I love adventurous day-long river trips, but that’s not really Slovakia’s forte. No. It’s forests.

Slovakia is among Europe’s most forested nations. The tatranska bora – those storms that ripped through the pine forests in the Tatras not so long ago didn’t help. But still, forest coverage here exceeds 40% – not bad compared to the UK, which clocks up a mere 11% of forests across its land mass. The thing about Slovakia’s forests, too, is that they kick off right outside the district of Bratislava where I lived for three years and continue pretty much all the way across the country to the Ukraine. You can get lost in the woods in Slovakia within five or six kilometres of the Capital’s very centre. And I like that. I like that a lot. There’s something otherworldly, humbling, exciting about that. The idea that forests surround you is part of every experience you have in Slovakia. They’re always, well, there.

Forests provide a very particular kind of adventure. Mountains are great, but let’s face it, you are going there for the views. The desert? Good again, but what you’re looking for is that wide-open sandiness, right? With forests, you’re going there to get immersed. To feel the wet leaves brush your skin, for that all-encompassing earthy smell to hit your nostrils, to see the animals hiding-rustling-snuffling in the foliage, to discover that hidden path through some tunnel of trees.

I get that when I take a walk outside Bratislava and I get it in the Amazon too.

Most SNP bathed in sunlight

Waiting

I’m waiting in the concrete starkness of the Most SNP Bus Station; eyes dimly fixed on the rather fetching new digital departure screen; realisation slowly dawning that I have indeed missed the hourly bus to Devín. As it’s early, and I’ve got up punishingly prematurely to make this bus I have now missed, I decide to go and console myself with a coffee in the cafe across the road. When a voice in a distinctly Aussie accent calls out to me if I know what’s going on with the buses. Of all the people there someone asks me if I know what’s going on? Or maybe it’s more that, of all the people there, I’m the only one that looks like they speak English…

Enter Tyson, on the road for two years, having shied away from the dull grind of mortgages and meaningless unfulfilling jobs etc for a life of international adventure. And he’s rocked up in Bratislava. Well, I decide to help give him a positive impression of the place (after all, if I was backpacking round Europe I’d want to meet someone like me; the encounter would make a mildly interesting end-of-the-day anecdote in a hostel when it comes to trading-anecdotes-with-other-travellers time).

Problem being that Tyson’s not really giving himself much of a chance with Slovakia’s fair capital city. Uh-uh. He’s fresh off a night train from Krakow, he’s checked into Hostel Blues (view of Tesco’s and the Number 5 tram route) and, sleep-deprived, given himself the day (ahem, it’s Monday morning) to see Bratislava, before heading off tomorrow to Budapest.

Well, I entertain him with a few stories for a while and show him the secret delights of the bus station’s metropolitan area ticket machines (he’s headed to Devin too, on account of the wonderful castle there, and happily that falls inside this transport zone) but there’s no getting away from the fact that he’s looking for recommendations on things to do – no doubt partly because, being sleep deprived and having glimpsed only Hostel Blues reception area and the bus station thus far in Slovakia,  he’s wondering if everything he heard about this little country was maybe a tad overhyped…

He’s not wondering that. Not really. Of course he’s not. What would he have heard about Slovakia? The Slovak Tourist Board don’t know how to promote Slovakia and most Slovaks you meet will look at you like you are crazy if you start enthusing about their country, you know, the “why would you CHOOSE to live here” attitude.

The fact he’s heard almost nothing about Slovakia is part of the reason he’s allowed himself only a day to see it – a day on almost no sleep. So he’s essentially treating Bratislava as a glorified place to crash whilst he recovers from Krakow and psyches himself up for Budapest.

To be fair to Tyson, he’s trying to make it a worthwhile experience, he’s fighting against the urge to sleep, listening to me wax lyrical about Kamzik, about my favourite cafes, about a couple of decent clubs that won’t be open on Monday morning or indeed Monday night, he’s showing willing by going to Devin to check that out. Trying, but…

That’s the thing. For most tourists, Slovakia is a great unknown. Slovaks rarely care about recommending it – either because they genuinely believe it to be shit compared to most other parts of Europe OR because they’re coy, yes coy about their nation’s charms OR because they’re more than mildly xenophobic and the last thing they want are outsiders coming here and – for example – hiking in their mountains. Any road, they’ll still hold it’s a mighty odd tourist who would want to spend significant amounts of time here. So information on travel to Slovakia is left in the hands of the Slovak Tourist Board (and would you want to be driven by a blind driver?) or remains just in Slovak, for Slovaks (well, and Czechs of course).

Thus it is not really Tyson’s fault he’s only given himself a day here. In fact, I can understand why the guy will be glad to make it to Budapest where they know how to promote their city and make it seem attractive to tourists.

So hey, Tyson, this post is for you.

Brezová Pod Bradlom Area

The little town (well, the main town around here) of Brezová Pod Bradlom, a hiking centre crouching on the north-west face of the Small Carpathians, is proof of how very versatile Western Slovakia/The Middle is in its landscapes. Here it feels a world away from the sedate winemaking towns like Modra and Pezinok in the south of this same range of hills. You’re that much further north, here, and the landscapes are accordingly wilder! The highlight of this region (at least, its most prominent landmark) is the monument/tomb of Slovak hero (and creator of Czechoslovakia) General Štefánik: Bradlo. Among the fascinating hiking options here are the start/end points for the long-distance Štefánikova magistrála and Cesta Hrdinov SNP trails: the latter continuing all the way across the country.

You’ll almost certainly arrive here from our Places to Go/Western Slovakia/The Middle sub-chapter (Piešťany Area) – and you will probably return the same way, or move further north into Places to Go/Western Slovakia/The North-Western Part (The Biele Karpaty). There’s also a possibility to head southwest from here via Jablonica into Places to Go/Western Slovakia/The Middle (Smolenice Area) 

Prievidza Area

Neatly defined as the Horna Nitra, or Upper Nitra Valley, this area can be bracketted pretty much as the upper reaches of the River Nitra and its watershed, which kicks off near Klačno right on the border of our Places to Go/Mala Fatra/Vel’ka Fatra chapter and wends down through Bojnice and Prievidza before bending away after Partizánske into our Places to Go/Western Slovakia/The South-Eastern Part sub-chapter at Topol’čany (the river does flow onto Nitra, hence the name, and then to Nové Zamky, before joining up with the River Váh and then the Danube).

For the most part, this is a part of Slovakia much forgotten about: steep hills frame it on two sides and offer stunning diversions, but it’s off the beaten path of classic hiking areas. But there is one huge exception: the fairy-tale chateau at Bojnice, Slovakia’s (understandably) most-visited castle. The pretty village of Bojnice is more or less joined to the biggest regional town, Prievidza, and the area is known for its mining (out in them hills).

So north from Prievidza and you strike our Mala Fatra/Vel’ka Fatra chapter, going southeast you very soon enter our Places to Go/Central/South Slovakia chapter at Žiar nád Hronom and spreading north-west/west, you’ll stay in the Prievidza Area until:

a) You reach Valáska Belá way up in the hills on route 574, where there’s a cut-through to Čičmany in the Mala Fatra/Vel’ka Fatra chapter (beyond here you head into Places to Go/Western Slovakia/The North-Western Part (Trenčín Area)

b) You reach Bánovce nád Brebravou on highway E572 (beyond here you’re also back in the very same Trenčin Area.)

A Different Take on the Fall of Communism: Central European Symposium 2015

Twenty-five years on from the collapse of Communism, this intriguing series of lectures at the Central European Symposium 2015 will discuss, there is more than one way of looking at the period from the 1940s to the end of the 1980s when much of Central and Eastern Europe was under a rigidly left-wing regime. Rather than remembering 1989 as the end of a failed experiment of Communism, these lectures focus on Central/Eastern Europe in a broader context over the preceding hundred years – with the region’s Communist dictatorships as one stage within a turgid century of historical change.

The venue? London’s UCL school of Slavonic and East European Studies (inaugurated exactly a century ago by Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk – the future first President of Czechoslovakia). The time and date? From 10am to 5pm on Tuesday 21st April. And finally – a map of the venue. Sign Up here for the event (which is free).

Aha – and the follow-up to the event? A drinks reception at the London Embassy of Slovakia.

Bratislava Castle Restaurant

Slovak cuisine tastebud-tickling time. And this, primarily, for a friend who is Bratislava-bound soon after a lengthy time away, and has been asking me about classic places to eat really good Slovak food in Bratislava Old Town.

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

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

©englishmaninslovakia.com

©englishmaninslovakia.com

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

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

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

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

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

Presentation (generous portions, yet thoughtfully arranged on the plates) is key with Hradná Hviezda’s food. The chefs clearly know exactly what they are doing. A meal here, consequently, is not cheap (mains are around 15 Euros, which puts it in a similar price bracket to one of our other favourite city centre Slovak restaurants, Traja Muškietieri).

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

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

MAP LINK:

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

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

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

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

The People you are Walking Passed are NOT the People you are Used to Walking Passed

Now you realise it. That airport, that pleasantly bland business hotel, that centrally located restaurant with Depeche Mode on repeat, they were homogenous enough – they could have been, if you focussed your gaze just on them, plucked from more or less any European scene. Even that castle or those forests were, in essence, a deception, not representative of anything really other than themselves – and certainly no defining snapshot of your destination.

But now you realise, now when you step out onto the long, straight street with the apartments angularly yet endearingly repainted from their erstwhile greys in pastille greens and pinks, the people you are walking passed are not the people you are used to walking passed. The people you are walking passed grew up with a different set of influences, Russian more than French, Kofola not Coca-cola, no foreign holidays, no sight of the sea, no snow-less winters, no free speech, no Oasis, no bananas (except on special occasions). You look into each face you pass and you imagine their stories far more intensely than you would if you were on that more familiar type of turf where you could get through the day almost on auto-pilot (this is why one should live somewhere foreign or unfamiliar at least once in their lives)  – the bent old babka dragging her shopping trolley, the moody teenager kicking his trainers through the puddles, the surprisingly well-dressed man rooting through the bins, the businessman in his dark car, the high-heeled blonde leading the party of schoolchildren by the hand, the housewife slewing a pail of water methodically over the path to her high-rise. This is the essence of it all, you think.

Of course, this cast of characters is a Slovak cast. But you could trade them with a similar set of personalities, from Argentina, from Azerbaijan. It does not matter. They are the cast of characters you see only when, as a foreigner, you realise that where you are making all these observations from is not a weekend break, not a fleeting holiday, not a gap year. This is where you live; this is a day-in day-out reality. And the glitter, of course, disperses in day-in-day-out realities. Even if you already saw through its sheen on your brief visit to so-and-so destination, there was another sheen of it on your eyes (the sheen of WANTING TO ENJOY YOURSELF because what are holidays for if not for pretending that everything’s OK, or at least forgetting that everything is NOT OK for a while) and this sheen prevented you from seeing things too negatively. And if you did glimpse something negative, your tendency was to put that down to the weather, or not really knowing the place, or not having the licence to judge whether it was really on balance such a negative thing. When you live somewhere, you slowly start to… how shall I put it… the glitter still sparkles but you see something of the picture underneath for what it is.

I do not believe in the majority of travel writing. Cast the net wider. I do not believe in the majority of writing – not where phrases like “the industry”  and “press trips” and “Google rankings” hack away at, erode, sully what are nuggets of pretty damned good content and turn them into commercially viable products where the communication of a reality (if it’s journalism) or a vision (if it’s fiction) has to be twisted out of its original shape in order to be sold: the travel article where you are obliged to slip in the mention of that 5-star resort; the book where in order to sit on the coveted entrance table in Waterstones or Barnes and Noble it needs a myriad chops, changes, dilutions of the bold text, insertions of the marketable text). We can say that these hackers and the eroders are really the knights in shining armour of writers everywhere, of course: saving the writerly text from untold perils, errors, faux pas. That could be true but it is as likely to be false (a myth we are fed by certain people who value their jobs, perhaps). Presumably, the increase in blogs is directly proportional to the number of people that object to having what they can and cannot say monitored – who moreover don’t see a need for what they say to be monitored or even hold that unmonitored, unfettered, uncompromised, their words are significantly better.

When I start to see the picture underneath for what it is, my instinct as a writer is to want to paint that picture in words for what it is. A blog is one of the few places on Earth where you can do that publicly. Any other form of publication and the hoops you have to jump through skew what you want to say.

This blog is on Slovakia. And what it is, much as I love it, is not always gushingly positive. I do gush. I whoop with delight, I shriek with excitement, because my front door opens out on Slovakia and I love that. (Call it a slowly-smouldering crush, anyway). But besides the gushing on Slovakia, I also complain and I ridicule (where there’s a call for it – and to be fair I usually reserve this for politicians).

So just don’t expect this site to reveal a wholly positive picture of Slovakia. That’s all I’m saying. To je všetko. And now please read on…

Danubiana Art Museum – & Why It's Cool

Some of the cool sculpture around the Danubiana Museum

Some of the cool sculpture around the Danubiana Museum

This isn’t my first post about the Danubiana Meulensteen Art Museum (see this post for an example of the type of stunning exhibitions they get here). And, given that a trip here is possibly the best thing to do in the whole of Bratislava, it’s unlikely to be my last. But this post is more about how to get there, and how fun getting there can be.

For those of you not in the picture, the Danubiana Museum is a modern art gallery that’s been created on a promontory of land jutting into the Danube near the town of Čunovo some 15km downriver from central Bratislava. Everything about it from its design to its exhibitions is first-class, and has helped put Bratislava on the map as a sort of boutiquey arts destination. It has a good art shop and cafe too, where there’s a decent range of books on Slovak artists, and postcards. In the years following its opening in 2000, many more boutique art galleries opened in the Old Town. Yet surprisingly few foreigners make it out to the gallery itself. (it’s interesting to note that Danubiana only seems to get Slovak and German wikipedia entries, and it’s not overly prmoted in Bratislava, either, which perhaps partly accounts for it).

From inside the museum space, looking out at the Danube

From inside the museum space, looking out at the Danube

But with spring well on the way (at least, Bratislava is bathed in glorious sun as I write this) it’s not just the art that constitutes a reason to go here. It’s the journey itself. Particularly if you’re in the city for just a few days, having a green getaway on one of them is nice. Most visitors choose Devín Castle for that getaway, and rightly so, because that’s wonderful too. But heading in the opposite direction to Devín, i.e. downriver to the museum, is just as tempting. There are three ways you can do it:

1: Hiking, Cycling or Roller-blading along the trails on the Dunaj (Danube)

Cross over either of Bratislava’s two central bridges across the river (well the Košicka bridge is best for your purposes, as you’ll be heading east/south-east) and you’ll see the start of a cycle trail that takes you all the way out of the city, close to the course the Danube takes as it wends south to Čunovo and then almost immediately on into Hungary. It’s possible to hike, of course, but cycling or roller-blading are the main ways people do it.

The great thing is that along here there are bars you can rock up to on your skates/bike, stop at one of the picnic tables for a good mix of Slovak fried meat and a frothy beer, then continue on your way. As I’ve said, it’s probably 15km to Čunovo but it’s really quite beautiful: small lakes to stop at for a picnic just “inland” and, at one point, an old chateau. Patches of old forests and the lakes provide cooling off opportunities, as it gets very hot here in summer.

One possibility for bike hire is Bike Bratislava, located near the Downtown Backpacker’s Hostel. Hire will cost in the region of 15 Euros per day for adult mountain bikes. Or, try Bratislava Bike Point, a new-for-2014 service based under Most SNP (on the Petrzalka side) of the Danube.

2: A Boat Trip Down the Danube (Dunaj) From Central Bratislava

These trips don’t run all the time: just Saturdays and Sundays from May through to September. Take the boat trip, and you get free entry to the museum at the other end. It’s also an amazing experience to see Bratislava from the water, and as you wind out of the city you’ll see lots of the river that it’s impossible to glimpse from the cycle paths. Departure times are 2pm from central Bratislava (get there half an hour or so before). It’s a 45 minute trip to Danubiana. The return voyage is at 4:30pm and it takes 90 minutes as it’s against the current. This gives you a good 1.5 hours to look round the museum, have a coffee in the cafe or peruse the wonderful selection of art books in the shop.

Ticket sales are through Lod (10/6 Euros per adult/child for the boat trip that includes museum entry) but because their website is not abundantly clear I’ll tell you where the departure dock is. Head towards Most SNP (yeah with the spaceship up top) then walk left along the path besides the river.  You’ll see some of the boats they use moored ahead on the near bank. You will have to go to the ticket office first, however, on Fajnorovo 2 (basically, when you can’t go along the river any more bear left around the building impeding you and you’ll see the entrance). This is also where the boats to Devín and Vienna depart, incidentally (I’ll write something else on this later).

Don’t despair if you don’t see 2014 pricing information up there yet. The trips have run every other year and there’s no reason why they won’t this one. They’re probably waiting for the season to start (in May) and for the Danubiana Museum to finish its mini reconstruction in time for the main tourist season.

Weird & Wonderful Sculpture by Danubiana Museum

Weird & Wonderful Sculpture by Danubiana Museum

3: Bus From Most SNP to Čunovo 

I want to say a few words about this bus, because the museum website and indeed every other source in English says nothing about the logistics of this. On paper it sounds easy enough. Bus number 91 from the station right under Most SNP goes to Čunovo and takes 30-40 minutes to do so. You can also take bus number 91 from Most SNP and change in Rusovce. But these buses stop in the town of Čunovo. And Danubiana, despite having its address listed as Čunovo, is someway outside the town.

So here’s what you do. From where the bus drops you, continue on down the main street until it bends. Directly ahead lies a metalled track which goes passed a few houses on the left into woodland. Keep going. After five to ten minutes this comes out on a road which runs below the raised bank ahead which is the cycle path you could have taken from Bratislava. You won’t be able to get up immediately onto the cycle path as there is a stream in the way, so turn right and follow the road along until it comes out on a larger road. Then bear left, keep the snack stand you’ll see on your left and follow the signs, keeping on the cycle path you’ve now been able to join, which take you out onto the spit of land jutting into the river where the museum is. As a point of interest, you’ll first pass on the right Bratislava’s white water rafting centre, where Slovakia’s multi-medal winning rafting twins, Peter and Pavel Hochschorner, often train. There’s a hotel here too – the Hotel Divoká Voda, but I’m not going to vouch for its quality.

And at the end of all this, it should be noted that right now Danubiana has JUST REOPENED ITS DOORS following refurbishment. The current exhibition, Herman Nitsch’s Das Origen, runs until March 22nd.

MAP LINK:

OPENING: 10am-6pm October 1st-April 30th, 11am-7pm May 1st-September 30th

ADMISSION: Adults 8 Euros, Children 4 Euros

Košice & the East

Košice has finally come into its own gastronomically. With that typical second-city-in-the-country streak of independence fuelled by being European City of Culture in 2013, food here has come on a pace. Hlavná street with its enticing oval square of eateries bustles with culinary life of an evening and in the surrounding streets you will find bars showcasing the region’s best-known culinary export: tokaj wine. Outside Košice, good restaurants are less easy to find, but they exist, if you follow the right signposts… 

Ružinov, Cemeteries & Communist Cafeterias

Martinský Cintorín in Ružinov
Martinský Cintorín in Ružinov

I was in Ružinov earlier today for a work meeting. I was quite excited, not because I was expecting anything particularly amazing from this large neighbourhood of Bratislava just east of the city centre’s Staré Mesto and Nové Mesto (New Town), but because this was Englishmaninslovakia’s first chance to really scout out the area.

On first appearances, Ružinov appears largely industrial. Lots of Bratislava’s major businesses are based here, including the Slovak Tourist Board with whom I had the appointment. The neighbourhood’s streets are very wide, there’s a lot of traffic and a lot of rather big impassive multinational company facades (the flip side is quite a few green spaces, including a couple of cemeteries and lakes which are good enough for a jog or dog walk). The neighbourhood’s very name, actually, refers to the many rose gardens which were supposedly once hereabouts (where are you now, rose gardens?)

But I’m not going to wax lyrical about Ružinov because Englishmaninslovakia neither likes to deceive nor indeed tempt travellers away unnecessarily from a city centre which is far more charming. However it does contain two exceptional attributes, and one of them was right in the building I happened to be visiting, at Doktora Vladimira. Clementisa 10: namely the exceptional cafeteria of Apores.

What I whimsically call Communist-style cafeterias are still, 21 years on, an important part of Slovak eating culture. Picture a canteen, perhaps like one where you once had school dinners. Picture fixed formica tables, and cheap set-price lunches, and invariably surly old women ladling something unidentifiable and colourless out of a vat, and, perhaps most intense of all, water that comes with different colourings, including a garish pink. These canteens or cafeterias are perhaps not so prevalent as they once were, but they are still ubiquitous and still, I would argue – for better or for worse – an interesting cultural phenomenon for the outsider to behold. But what is almost always true about them is that the food is, well, school canteen style food. It’s not renowned for its presentation or succulent taste.

But this cafeteria was clearly cut from a different cloth. Perhaps you could even say it was a sign of how, slowly, Ružinov itself is changing. There were four gluten-free options, including delicious roasted veg, for which I opted. There were tasty soups. There was really decent espresso, which always cheers me up. There was a view onto the nearby park (so none of those starkly strip-lit canteen images that probably come to mind). Apores was a traditional Slovak cafeteria with a touch of city sophistication.

Because Ružinov, these days, does have a touch of city sophistication. The cool city hangouts are spreading out from the centre (it started with the revamped ice hockey stadium and the pretty chic eateries around Slovanet, just back across the other side of Bajkalská, which marks the conventional city centre-Ružinov divide). Watch this space. Ružinov could become an increasingly trendy place to go out.

For now, however, rest easy: a good cafe serving strong espresso will hardly get tourists flocking. Nor, indeed, will one of the city’s main cemeteries, Ružinov’s Martinský Cintorín. I checked it out afterwards: a leafy spot where a few famous people in Slovakia are buried (Jozef Budský, for example, a Czech actor who helped to raise the standard of professional theatre in Slovakia no end). Nor, quite probably, will the nearby presence of Miletičova, the city’s largest fresh produce market (best day is Saturday; for an excellent post on the market visit this blog).

Oh, and the colourful candle holders in the bottom right of the picture? They are part of Slovakia’s most touching traditions, and get lit up at night to remember the cemetery’s incumbents – particularly on November 1st when cemeteries country-wide are mysteriously-flickering seas of candlelight…

MAP LINK

GETTING THERE: Should work take you out to the Ružinov area, it’s not quite the industrial wasteland it first seems. Tram 8 or 9 from Trnavské Mýto will take you there.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: 6km southwest is the focus of Bratislava’s new Danube bridge project in the location of the loveable old Starý Most.

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On Ružinov, Cemeteries & Communist-esque Cafeterias

Martinský Cintorín in Ružinov

Martinský Cintorín in Ružinov

I was in Ružinov earlier today for a work meeting. I was quite excited, not because I was expecting anything particularly amazing from this large neighbourhood of Bratislava just east of the city centre’s Staré Mesto and Nové Mesto (New Town), but because this was Englishmaninslovakia’s first chance to really scout out the area.

On first appearances, Ružinov appears largely industrial. Lots of Bratislava’s major businesses are based here, including the Slovak Tourist Board with whom I had the appointment. The neighbourhood’s streets are very wide, there’s a lot of traffic and a lot of rather big impassive multinational company facades (the flip side is quite a few green spaces, including a couple of cemeteries and lakes which are good enough for a jog or dog walk). The neighbourhood’s very name, actually, refers to the many rose gardens which were supposedly once hereabouts (where are you now, rose gardens?)

But I’m not going to wax lyrical about Ružinov because Englishmaninslovakia neither likes to deceive nor indeed tempt travellers away unnecessarily from a city centre which is far more charming. However it does contain two exceptional attributes, and one of them was right in the building I happened to be visiting, at Doktora Vladimira. Clementisa 10: namely the exceptional cafeteria of Apores.

What I whimsically call Communist-style cafeterias are still, 21 years on, an important part of Slovak eating culture. Picture a canteen, perhaps like one where you once had school dinners. Picture fixed formica tables, and cheap set-price lunches, and invariably surly old women ladling something unidentifiable and colourless out of a vat, and, perhaps most intense of all, water that comes with different colourings, including a garish pink. These canteens or cafeterias are perhaps not so prevalent as they once were, but they are still ubiquitous and still, I would argue – for better or for worse – an interesting cultural phenomenon for the outsider to behold. But what is almost always true about them is that the food is, well, school canteen style food. It’s not renowned for its presentation or succulent taste.

But this cafeteria was clearly cut from a different cloth. Perhaps you could even say it was a sign of how, slowly, Ružinov itself is changing. There were four gluten-free options, including delicious roasted veg, for which I opted. There were tasty soups. There was really decent espresso, which always cheers me up. There was a view onto the nearby park (so none of those starkly strip-lit canteen images that probably come to mind). Apores was a traditional Slovak cafeteria with a touch of city sophistication.

Because Ružinov, these days, does have a touch of city sophistication. The cool city hangouts are spreading out from the centre (it started with the revamped ice hockey stadium and the pretty chic eateries around Slovanet, just back across the other side of Bajkalská, which marks the conventional city centre-Ružinov divide). Watch this space. Ružinov could become an increasingly trendy place to go out.

For now, however, rest easy: a good cafe serving strong espresso will hardly get tourists flocking. Nor, indeed, will one of the city’s main cemeteries, Ružinov’s Martinský Cintorín. I checked it out afterwards: a leafy spot where a few famous people in Slovakia are buried (Jozef Budský, for example, a Czech actor who helped to raise the standard of professional theatre in Slovakia no end). Nor, quite probably, will the nearby presence of Miletičova, the city’s largest fresh produce market (best day is Saturday; for an excellent post on the market visit this blog).

But should work take you out to the Ružinov area, it’s not quite the industrial wasteland it first seems. Tram 8 or 9 from Trnavské Mýto will take you there.

Oh, and the colourful candle holders in the bottom right of the picture? They are part of Slovakia’s most touching traditions, and get lit up at night to remember the cemetery’s incumbents – particularly on November 1st when cemeteries country-wide are mysteriously-flickering seas of candlelight…

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Introducing Mr Kiska… And Slovakia’s Presidential Race

Andrej Kiska: Fico's main challenger in the Presidential race

Andrej Kiska: Fico’s main challenger in the Presidential race

What with all the attention diverted one set of borders east to the Ukraine, it’s quite possible Slovakia’s Presidential Election on March 15 won’t attract too much international attention. But it is, here in Slovakia, an increasingly interesting contest and one where the virtual unknown Andrej Kiska is set for a run-in with current Prime Minister Robert Fico.

To put all those not familiar with Slovak politics in the picture: as leader of Slovakia’s governing party, Smer-SD,  Fico has had all the money behind his campaign. This is evidenced in Bratislava by numerous billboards with Fico’s resolute face. (Slovakia do US-sized advertising billboards so it can be imagined just how large that face is). Indeed, for a while this seemed to be very much a one-horse race. Early polls put Fico twenty points plus above his nearest challenger. But in January and February, Andrej Kiska has come on a pace in most polls, some of which now actually tip him to win against Fico in the second round (two of the fourteen candidates getting the most votes will go forward to a second round of voting on March 29).

Try finding information out on Andrej Kiska and it’s not easy. There’s almost nothing in English and the Slovak wikipedia page on him didn’t exist until quite recently. Even the man’s own website doesn’t give very much away.  What’s clear is that Andrej Kiska is a businessman, hailing originally from Poprad – a millionaire several times over who made his money in selling loans and since invested it, among other things, in charitable projects including the charity Dobrý Anjel and in stopping bribery in healthcare. All of which makes him something of a philanthropist. But not really a politician. Indeed, Mr Kiska has no political experience whatsoever.

He seems to be using this as his secret weapon. He comes at this election, he says, as impartial, as an independent. It could be a much-needed quality in a Slovak political scene utterly dominated by Fico’s (centre left-leaning) Smer-SD party. And political experience is of course not so necessary for a President in Slovakia, whose role is as head of state, not head of Slovak parliament. Kiska is certainly giving the Fico Presidential bid enough of a run for its money to unnerve them slightly: there have already been a few words exchanged. More are likely to follow, too, when the fourteen Presidential candidates appear on a series of TV debates beginning March 9th (Kiska is keen, he says, to not make this debate a one-to-one between him and Fico).

The Election is also interesting because if successful, Fico will no longer be able to stay Prime Minister and his party must decide who to replace him. This could mean that the new Prime Minister of the country could be Robert Kaliňák. Food for thought hey? Now, Englishmaninslovakia.com doesn’t get political but Kaliňák would be one of the strangest looking Prime Ministers in Europe was he to be given the nod (he may be a nice enough guy but those eyes are pretty intense). Then again, Kiska looks like he’s gone a few too many rounds in a boxing ring, so it’s all relative…

Robert Kaliňák

Robert Kaliňák

Kiska will also likely argue in the near future that if Fico was elected President, the power his Smer-SD party would then have (they dominated in the regional governor elections too) would be a threat to Slovakia, and that his own election as President would provide the counterbalance to Smer-SD politics.

But does Kiska really stand a chance? Well, let’s just say that the billboard pictures at the top of this blog post (see Fico, much smaller, on the next billboard up?) are not directly proportional.

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ArtForum’s Slovak Movie Selection

Bratislava street by night

Bratislava street by night

Just a shout-out, really, this post: Bratislava is full of these labyrinthine old streets that, in and around the Old Town and Castle area, secrete serendipitous bars, cafes, galleries and shops.

On a cool, crisp night last night we were wandering in the streets just below the castle and chanced upon a place we’d seen before but not ever entered: the ArtForum, a bookshop-cum-cafe which is actually represented in a few of the larger towns across Slovakia.

The main point of the ArtForum is in its great collection of proudly avant-garde literature, music and film. Here you’ll find editions of Samo Chalupka poetry or Milan Kundera novels that you just won’t find elsewhere. It also has, of course, a great selection of international authors represented. It’s also one of the few places in Bratislava that sells records (the city is just waking up to the fact that they’re popular again). Plus there’s a little cafe at one end selling good jams and wine as well as coffee and cake.

But it’s the film selection that was actually most interesting for me. Here is perhaps the best array of Slovak and old Czechoslovak movies anywhere in the city centre, for actually purchasing at least. There are all the classics by Slovakia’s most renowned director, Jakubisko, like The Millennium Bee, Báthory and Perinbaba (which although well known in Slovakia are, for most outsiders, an eyeopening introductions to the wonders of Slovak cinema). Then there was one of my personal favourite Slovak movies, Ruzove Sný (Pink Dreams) which is a groundbreaking portrayal of how the Roma are viewed in Slovakia. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg. My girlfriend got very excited about Panna Zázračica (which we bought; it’s an adaptation of a book by Dominic Tatarka who is one of Slovakia’s most important 20th century writers). Oh, and they have copies of The Wolf Mountains, the Slovak wildlife documentary I’ve been raving about recently, as well.

But for anyone trying to understand a little bit more about Slovak cinema, this is the place to begin trying.