dancers

The dance of friendship…

A real taste of Indonesia came to Slovakia when dancers performed in Bratislava as part of the Kulturne A Informacne Stredisko 2017.

Indonisian dances have specific meanings, sacred ritual dances in temples like the sanghyang dedari and Barong dances involving a trance-like state – and story dances like the, legong and kecak …

Indonesian Ambassador to Slovakia, Adiyatwidi Adiwoso, thanked Slovaks for their interest in the art and culture of his country and said his homeland is open to opportunities in the small but determined Central European country which is rapidly becoming a “friend of Indonesia”.

The festival was held at one of Slovakia’s largest shopping centers Eurovea Mall, famous for its cultural events, lounge bars and magnificent views of the Danube.

Eurovea_shopping_centre,_Bratislava_(Slovak_Republic)

Festival

A country where folk is the lore of culture

Slovakia has fought long and hard to keep its traditions and customs alive and today folk song and dance are  treated as family heirlooms, passed down from generation to generation.  

Historically all districts and regions had their own  music, dialects, customs and costumes.  Today these are kept alive, not only within families, but are also taught at local schools.

Slovaks sing about love and happiness at the drop of a traditionally knitted hat but they also sing with pride about the beauty of their homeland.

Folk festivals abound. The annual folk festival  at the foot of  the Poľana Mountains,  a small  range in central Slovakia  has been held  in the second week of July in the amphitheatre in the town of Detva for more than 50 years. Very often there can be 1500 performers taking part.

The open air Museum of the Slovak Village  is definitely worth a visit too. It is  a celebration of the harvest home and the ancient ways of collecting the  harvested.

It stands  on the outskirts of the northern city of Martin in the North of the country and came into being in the 1960s to commemorate Slovak buildings, farm methods and day-to-day living in the 19th  century. The  15 hectares  site consists of more than 100 buildings, farms, croft lofts, a pub, a village store, a garden house, a firehouse, a wooden Renaissance bell-house and an elementary school.

And then of course there is the  handicraft fair in Nitra,  at the foot of Zobor Mountain, in the   Nitra River  valley. Nitra is the oldest Slovak town.

Slovaks have a long tradition of handicrafts, woodcutters, ceramists, potters, tinkers, weavers, blacksmiths and makers of fujary,  a  musical instrument used by Slovak shepherds – a wooden  pipe as tall as a man.

There also makers of cat-o´-nine-tails, bobbin and point laces, embroideries and jewellery.

Almost every ruined castle in Slovakia has its legend. Sometimes these legends are blood-curdling. One such legend is the story of Csejte. In this tale, a ruthless countess murders three young girls and bathes in their blood, thinking it will renew her youthfulness.

Belief in witches, ghosts, and other supernatural beings persist in some areas. Morena, a goddess of death, is the object of a springtime custom. In it, young girls ritually “drown” a straw doll in waters that flow from the first thaw.

In rural areas, some Slovaks still believe that illnesses can be caused by witches or by the “evil eye.” They seek the services of traditional healers who use folk remedies and rituals.

Traditional Slovak Music: Being Showcased Across the Country ©Wipo: photo Emmanuel Berrod

Summer 2017 In Slovakia: A Guide to the Best Events

The weather might have been intimating the fact for a while now, but there’s no denying that midsummer has officially arrived and in Slovakia, this means a season of spectacular festivals. We don’t say this lightly: for a country of just five million people Slovakia’s cultural events pack a whopping great punch. Bratislava and, these days, Košice, are already making their festive clout felt well beyond the borders of Slovakia, but here at Englishman in Slovakia we feel that there are a fair few other celebrations between now and the end of summer you have to know about – and know about in English!

In case you’re new to Slovakia, its unique reach where annual celebrations are concerned is its melding of the best in modern and ancient. Take music for example. I’ve said many times on here that Slovakia’s music scene is formidable – it gets the best of all the big bands performing on tour and for far cheaper prices than almost anywhere else in Europe – but it has also preserved a rich folk culture many other countries have long since dismissed.

Below, then, find the only guide that rounds up Slovakia’s summer extravaganzas from now until autumn (21st September) by region (yes, Bratislava, Western Slovakia, Central/Southern SlovakiaMalá Fatra/Vel’ka Fatra/Orava Valley, High Tatras, Low Tatras, Slovak Paradise and Košice/Eastern Slovakia). Where possible, we’ll also point you in the right direction for getting tickets too…

JUNE

BRATISLAVA…

KONVERGENCIE, JUNE 24TH-SEPTEMBER 24TH

Classical and chamber music performed at various venues around the city – but with a youthful, innovative vibe.

Get Tickets: The festival has a great website with tickets available at Ticketportal through this link. First scroll through the website’s program to find out the title of the event you fancy.

You may also want to read: Our section on entertainment venues in Bratislava.

MALÁ FATRA/VEL’KA FATRA…

FEST ANČA, ŽILINA, JUNE 29TH-JULY 2ND

Europe’s leading animated film fest, held in the cool arts venue of Stanica in hip Žilina.

Get Tickets: Go to the festival website to get tickets or contact them about buying them on the day.

You may also want to read: Žilina: Artsy Gateway to Malá Fatra

HIGH TATRAS…

VYCHODNÁ FOLK FESTIVAL, VYCHODNÁ, JUNE 29TH-JULY 2ND

The little village of Vychodná hosts Slovakia’s most famous folk festival – a great introduction to the fabulous folk music that has been produced in this mountainous region for centuries.

Get Tickets: The festival website now has an English version but tickets cannot be bought online: you can contact the festival organisers or you can just turn up on the day.

You may also want to read: Seeing as one of Slovakia’s best long-distance hikes begins or ends in nearby Pribylina, try Hiking the Tatranská Magistrala, Stage 4: Horský Hotel Popradské Pleso to Pribylina (includes links also to all other stages)

JULY

BRATISLAVA…

SUMMER SHAKESPEARE FESTIVAL, JULY 5th-AUGUST 1ST

Now here is a claim to fame: the oldest, largest outdoor festival in the world to focus on performances of the works of William Shakespeare! It offers a good opportunity to get outside in Bratislava in some of the city’s gorgeous alfresco settings. Performances, held in the wonderfully atmospheric setting of Bratislava Castle, are in Slovak and English.

Get Tickets: Very necessary – this is a popular series of events. The problem is that the website is in Slovak only. However, Shakespeare’s play titles are quite easily recognisable. Hamlet, for example, is ‘Hamlet’ in Slovak too.

You may also want to read: Where to Get High in Bratislava

BEEFREE FESTIVAL, JULY 28TH-JULY 29TH

Edition number 19 of the classic dance music festival across two stages: the city’s ‘beach’ alongside the Danube and at exhibition centre Incheba. House, drum & bass – take your pick.

Get Tickets: It’s free – just turn up. There is an FB page.

You may also want to read: The Forgotten Banks of the Danube OR Getting Out to the Danubiana Arts Museum

WESTERN SLOVAKIA…

POHODA, TRENČIN, JULY 6TH-JULY 8TH

It’s testament to Pohoda’s success that there’s almost no need to introduce what is firmly established as one of Eastern Europe’s main summer music festivals. Everyone who’s anyone in the music world, from Slovakia and elsewhere, and perhaps more importantly, a lot of acts who aren’t so famous yet, have performed here over the years. This time round, acts include Solange (2016’s album of the year) and Jesus and Mary Chain.

Get Tickets: From the festival website.

You may also want to read: Last year was the 20th edition of Pohoda: read Thoughts and Pictures from the 20th Edition of the Festival.

BECKOV CASTLE EVENTS, BECKOV, JULY & AUGUST

A fair few castles act as dramatic backdrops to festivals in Slovakia but our favourite this summer is the castle of Beckov near Trenčin. For medieval-themed frolics there is no better venue – weaponry demonstrations, games and even film screenings.

Get Tickets: Find out all about the events on the castle website, although this year’s events are in Slovak only. July 7th/8th hosts a weekend of medieval fun and demonstrations of 12th-century weaponry. Then there is the Cinema on the Wall event at weekends during July ad August, where films are projected on to the castle – contact the castle for more.

You may also want to read: Our article on Beckov Castle

CENTRAL & SOUTHERN SLOVAKIA…

DETVA FOLK FESTIVAL, DETVA, JULY 6TH-JULY 8TH

A folk fest with themed around the fujara (that is Slovakia’s incredibly distinctive national musical instrument, by the way), as befits the region which gave birth to the fujara. The festival is held in the Detva Ampitheatre, Detva being a little town near Banská Bystrica – right at the very heart of the nation, things DO NOT come much more traditional. Lots of events celebrating Slovakia’s shepherding heritage are also part of proceedings: shepherd demonstrations etc.

Get Tickets: Just turn up. There is a list of events scheduled on the municipality website but booking might be tough as English is not spoken much this far out in the sticks. Pass through here on the days in question, however, and you’ll get to experience one of the most authentic of Slovak folk festivals – even the folk extravaganza at Vychodná will seem mainstream by comparison!

You may also want to read: 39km northwest of Detva is Banská Bystrica, with some fabulous quirky Communist sights.

LIVE CHESS FESTIVAL, BANSKÁ ŠTIAVNICA, JULY 8TH-JULY 16TH

Chess was never more fun! The highlight of this festival is a live chess tournament on a giant board with costumed characters making the moves. And there was never a better setting for it than ancient Banská Štiavnica, where traditional food, drink and dance accompany the chess side of things, in typical old-fashioned venues around town.

Get Tickets: Best to contact the town’s tourist information office for more information – they are helpful and speak alright English.

You may also want to read: Where to begin? We’ve got tons of content on the lovely old town of Banská Štiavnica

HIGH TATRAS…

EL’RO (EUROPEAN FOLK CRAFT FESTIVAL), KEŽMAROK, JULY 7TH-JULY 9TH

This is Slovakia’s (and one of Europe’s) most important folk craft festivals. Held under the lofty High Tatras mountains in beautiful Kežmarok, just a short drive from Poprad, this extravaganza features everything from demonstrations of Slovakia’s Unesco-listed musical instrument the fujara to artisans making the quintessential national craft, the cornhusk figures known as Šúpolienky. Oh, and there is huge quantities of traditional food and booze… and music… and general revelry…

Get Tickets: There is more about the festival on the website – for tickets follow the instructions given on this page too (they’re available at the town’s Tourist Information Centre at Hlavné námestie 64.)

You may also want to read: More on typical Slovak crafts (including Šúpolienky of course).

AUGUST

BRATISLAVA…

SUP MARATHON

The highlight of August in the city of festivals that is Bratislava is surely this open-to-all paddle adventure from Karloveske Rameno on the western side of Bratislava down to the Danubiana Art Museum to the south-east of the city.

Join In: It’s best to contact the guys at Divoká Voda if you want to participate: watching it is free, almost as much fun… (and drier)

You may also want to read: Our piece on canoeing down the Danube!

WESTERN SLOVAKIA…

TRNAVA JAZZ FEST, TRNAVA, AUGUST 4TH-AUGUST 5TH

Bratislava’s jazz festival is possibly better known, but Trnava sports a great Slovak jazz festival too – and this one’s in summer. It’s held in the singular venue of the town ampitheatre. Funk, soul and ethno music are represented as well as jazz.

Get Tickets: The festival website does not have much information; it’s best to purchase tickets from Trnava Tourist Information Office at Trojičné Námestie 1 .

You may also want to read: A Touch of 1920’s Paris at Cafe Thalmeiner

MALÁ FATRA/VEL’KA FATRA…

JÁNOŠIKOVE DNI (JÁNOŠIK’S DAYS), TERCHOVA, AUGUST 3RD-AUGUST 6TH

One of Slovakia’s better-known festivals, this – although still not really that well-known. Terchová is the main town actually within the Malá Fatra National Park and Juraj Jánošik, who hails from the area, is Slovakia’s folk hero (the country’s very own Robin Hood, and one that actually did exist). This festival is in the outlaw’s name and is a celebration of folklore, theatre and folk and world music.

Get Tickets: Get tickets at this link or (if you read Slovak) here is more about the festival on its website.

You may also want to read: Two Short Walks in the Vrátna Valley by Terchova

EASTERN SLOVAKIA…

BARDEJOVSKÝ JARMOK (BARDEJOV FAIR), AUGUST 24TH-AUGUST 27TH

A ‘Jarmok’ roughly translated is a fair – and there are few better chances this summer to experience a classic Eastern Slovak-style fair than this one which sets Bardejov ablaze come the end of August with traditional food stalls and performances. It’s got a drop-dead gorgeous setting (the old town square).

Get Tickets: None needed; just show up in Barejov during these dates!

You may also want to read: Bardejov: Walking the Walls

SEPTEMBER

BRATISLAVA…

CRAFTSMEN DAYS, SEPTEMBER 1ST-SEPTEMBER 3RD

Over 100 different craftsmen showcasing traditional handicrafts from Slovakia, run by the wonderful folk craft centre of Úl’uv.

Get Tickets: When you’re in Bratislava, it’s probably best to pop into the centre itself for information (at least one member of staff speaks English and they’re very friendly, see link right below). The website is notoriously unreliable. You can also just turn up! A good one for families, or for those who can’t make it out to the bigger El’ro (in July in the High Tatras, above) with many free ‘interactive’ events.

You may also want to read: About Bratislava’s centre of folk craft production, Úl’uv

EASTERN SLOVAKIA…

INDIAN SUMMER FESTIVAL, LEVOČA, 8TH SEPTEMBER-12TH SEPTEMBER

Wo! The summer is not over yet, as this high-quality festival of classical music in venues around ornate Levoča show.

Get Tickets: The festival has a good in-English website with contact details for further information on getting tickets for performances

You may also want to read: Our feature on the Indian Summer Festival

© Clive Tully

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

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

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

“Wolf scat!”

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

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

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

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

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

© Clive Tully

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further information:

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

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

MAP LINK:

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

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

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

 

© Clive Tully

© Clive Tully

Room at Hotel Mountain View - image courtesy of AquaCity

Poprad: the Mountain View

Perhaps it was the engaging smile of the girl on reception that did it (a welcome that appeared every bit as warm for me as for the clearly far-wealthier businessmen that had checked in beforehand). Perhaps it was that the walk to the room revealed glimpses of  what I knew lay in store for me the following morning, namely Slovakia’s premier water park, AquaCity. It could also have been the location. After all, I was bang on the doorstep of my favourite part of Poprad, the medieval neighbourhood of Spišská Sobota. Whatever the reason, I was in a jolly mood as I arrived at Hotel Mountain View, one of the High Tatras’ best hotels – and nothing occurred during my stay there to do anything other than bolster it.

Overall, it is the sense of fun that permeates what at first glance might seem more of a business hotel that wins the newcomer over. Yes, individuals in suits do sit nodding gravely at meetings in the vast reception area and indeed, the hotel is well-known for its conference facilities. But families also wander through in dressing gowns on the way to the aqua park which awaits directly below. The hotel might have four stars, and many of the airs and graces of five, but it takes itself only a little bit seriously. It’s hard to be too serious, possibly, when there are fully-fledged adults squealing with glee on the nearby slides (some are reclining sedately in spa treatments or in the umpteen sauna rooms but, honestly, more are squealing).

The reception area, as intimated above, has a certain sumptuousness to accompany the friendly initiation. Contemporary it is (if not strikingly so). A long bar graces one side, and a terrace on the other side lends views of the Spišská Sobota rooftops, with the world’s only geothermally-heated football pitch in the foreground. From here, the reception-to-room walk is looong – if not quite long enough to see off dinner, then certainly enough distance to appreciate the ‘city’ part of AquaCity, and leave you feeling very glad to arrive and kick back a-while…

The cafe terrace - image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The cafe terrace – image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The standard rooms are already on the large side: over 30 sq metres each, with the suites garnering up to twice that space. The hotel is a modern steel-and-glass structure and the modernity translates to the rooms: with bands of butterscotch yellow brightening the spick-and-span greys of the bathroom tiling and the bedroom curtains and bedspreads. Small balconies gaze out towards the High Tatras although not all clock those homonymous ‘mountain views’ – this hotel is not about mountain proximity (there are many other places to stay closer to the alluring peaks themselves) because you’ll spend the majority of your time here looking in rather than out. In fact, traditional mountain life seems distant at Hotel Mountain View, with crisp decoration, rather healthy food and city sophistication much more the order of the day (there is hardly any beech or oak wood in sight). As you partake from the generously-stocked minibar, flick channels on the LCD TV’s or wander along to the hotel bar, cafe or restaurant, you’re much more likely to be contemplating what your room rate includes: and it’s this that sets the hotel apart.

This is because free access to the majority of the AquaCity facilities is included in the accommodation price: to all the indoor and outdoor pools and the 8 wellness saunas and steam rooms (nowhere else in the country can boast such a variety of water-based fun). Free access to AquaCity’s fitness centre is also on offer, and a huge buffet breakfast is included in the rate too (although you’ll have an appetite worked up by the time you arrive, because it’s a fair hike along and up to reception then down again to the breakfast room).

Yet you can relish the facilities quite guilt-free: compared to every other place to stay in Slovakia, and indeed in Eastern Europe, Hotel Mountain View’s carbon footprint is low indeed: with the vast majority of the hotel’s (and the water park’s) energy issuing forth from the geothermal waters bubbling away under the ground.

Even if you arrive in a state of despondency, actually, at this place it’s pretty hard to escape the pampering, or keep that smile off your face.

MAP LINK: (the hotel is located at Športova 1397, Spišská Sobota, Poprad – within the AquaCity complex and with the same main entrance)

PRICES: Standard double from 151.40 Euros, suite from 281.40 Euros (2017 prices)

BOOK HOTEL MOUNTAIN VIEW: (Standard) (Suite)

Approaching the hotel... image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Approaching the hotel… image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

A Quick Guide to the Other Content We Have on Poprad

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

Places to Go: Poprad’s lavish Aqua Park

Places to Go: Nine reasons to linger in Poprad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A deer in a dish...

The Far East: Your Very Own Elegy in Oak

“The other day, I was about to toss a chunk of wood onto the stove. But the light caught on the grain, at a certain angle, and I knew this piece of wood could be something. I stopped concentrating on getting the stove going – even though it’s pretty freezing right now in Eastern Slovakia – went up to my workshop, and a few hours later I’d created my latest design. That’s how it works, in this business. Pieces of wood, even the ones you’ve intended for your fire, have the potential to become beautiful gifts.”

Slovakia is a country of trees. It is one of Europe’s most forested nations – much of it beech or conifer, but a fair amount in oak, too. In the east of Slovakia, they even make their churches out of wood (so beautifully that the 50 or so wooden religious buildings peppering the countryside hereabouts are Unesco-listed). And it is in this region that Freddie Venables, an Englishman that has been living here for the last twenty years, has decided to set up shop to showcase the beauty of Slovakian wood to the world: in oak, naturally, as it remains the bottom line in quality as far as carpentry is concerned.

Freddie has an illustrious connection with oak going back decades. He ran a successful oak flooring business out in the east for some time, and designed the oak-paneled cigar room of flashy High Tatras hotel Hotel Horizont. But these days, he’s retreated to the hills of the far northeast of the country to concentrate on what he loves best: whittling away in his workshop what can truly lay claim to being some of Slovakia’s most esoteric wood-made handicrafts.

A candle holder

A candle holder

The main thing with Freddie, besides the quality, is the versatility. Whatever it is that you are seeking to have immortalised in wood, he’ll work with you to have it produced. Smaller wooden gifts are his raison d’être – candle-holders, house plaques, chopping boards, plant boxes, commemorative ornaments (Our seasonal favourites are his wooden bowls embossed with deer motifs). But he’ll happily take on larger commissions such as furniture too. His experience, together with his passion for promoting Slovakian woodwork and handicrafts, combine to render his creations some of the most original take-home souvenirs from Slovakia you could ask for.

The inspiration for his craft is in the wild landscapes around the village of Vyšný Mirošov, where he lives and works, and there is a little bit of Slovakia’s most tradition-steeped region in each of his creations. His wood-made gifts can be purchased through his online shop.

Mini elegies in oak, indeed.

See our Top Ten Slovak Gift Ideas

The craftsman with one of his recent creations

The craftsman with one of his recent creations

Levoča's Indian Summer Festival ©David Conway

Levoča: In Full Swing During the Indian Summer Festival

As you journey east from the High Tatras, the next stop on the classic traveller’s route (before Bardejov and then Košice) is Levoča, one of Slovakia’s most striking medieval towns, with its historic centre a Unesco World Heritage Site. For this article, the founder of what is now one of the town’s foremost annual events, David Conway, explains exactly what inspired him to set up the Indian Summer Festival

It was in 1973 that I first laid eyes on Levoča, where my father-in-law Laci had taken me. My wife Nadia, at the time classified by the Czechs as a criminal illegal emigrant (having remained in London after the 1968 Russian invasion), was unable to be with us. What I experienced was an incredible sleeping beauty; an exquisite late-Gothic renaissance town almost perfectly preserved, seemingly untouched for centuries under a magic spell which had left it in shadow, despite its showcase architecture and setting within an exquisite Slovak landscape.

RELATED POST: Top Ten Medieval Towns in Slovakia

When I next visited Levoča (now with Nadia) in the 1990s, it was already picking itself up after Communism and beginning to restore and celebrate its unique heritage. The idea of taking part somehow took root and in 2003 we purchased and began to restore one of the town’s many merchant’s houses, with vast cellars dating to the 12th century, a vaulted hallway and staircase of the 16th century, and numerous wonderful features of carving and woodwork.

With our house renovated, Nadia began thinking about how we could attract others to this forgotten pearl of Central Europe. And the idea of a music festival arose. With the cooperation of the town, which has enabled us to utilise the magnificent 18th-century theatre and congress hall amongst other venues, we contacted our musician friends, or just barefacedly invited musicians we admired, buttonholing them after their concerts in London, Prague and elsewhere.

Amazingly, these brazen tactics worked, and thus ‘Indian Summer in Levoča’ (in Slovak ‘Levočské babie leto’) was born. Run on a not-for-profit basis through an NGO set up with our local friends, and with support from grants, patrons and visiting audiences to maintain standards and reputation, over the years we have had wonderful performances from artists including the Stamic and Zemlinsky quartets, the Vienna Piano Trio, the European Union Baroque Orchestra, Julian Lloyd Webber and many others. Amongst our ‘regulars’ – who have become local heroes to the townsfolk – are the charismatic Slovak cellist Jozef Lupták and the virtuoso British pianist, Jonathan Powell.

©David Conway

There have been some phenomenal renditions at the festival ©David Conway

At first I think the local people thought we were mad. But gradually they have come – first out of curiosity, and now out of devotion – to hear incredible music. A key aspect is that there is no prejudice on the part of the local audience; they respond according to the commitment of the performer, whether he or she is playing Schubert, Shostakovich, Brahms or Beethoven. And gradually we have attracted visitors from all over Europe and even America and Australia. The Gramophone magazine has called our festival ‘Europe’s best-kept secret’ – but now the word has begun to spread.

One of our chief delights has been programming the concerts – so as to ensure that we can introduce music we think people ought to hear, as well as the established concert classics. So you won’t just hear the great classics, but also, for example, in our 2016 festival, Xenakis, Sterndale Bennett, Dohnanyi, Busoni and other exciting-but-neglected music.

Of course we have not been without our crises – but here perhaps is not the place to discourse on the grand piano which was dropped by the removers, the pianist who had her passport lost in the Hungarian embassy in Washington three days before her concert with us, or the heroic efforts of the Levoča dustmen in getting yet another piano up several flights of stairs when the deliverers had forgotten their equipment…..

In 2016, our ninth year, we welcomed the Kodaly Quartet of Budapest, the young Israeli violist Avishai Chaimedes playing Mozart string quintets, Mark Viner, performing works by the astonishing virtuoso Charles-Valentin Alkan and Alkan’s friend Franz Liszt, and Jonathan Powell playing Mussorgsky’s original piano version of the monumental ‘Pictures from an Exhibition’. Danish tenor Jakob Vad and pianist Eisabeth Nielsen brought us music form England and Denmark, and we heard medieval Slovak choral music and works from Mendelssohn, Mozart and Boccherini to Bartók, Arensky and Prokofiev. The Festival closed with a performance of Schubert’s great B flat Piano Trio.

The Levoča Indian Summer Festival is informal, it’s fun, and it provides a great opportunity to visit one of Slovakia’s finest old towns after the summer tourist crowds have left but whilst the weather remains warm. You will hear great music and meet wonderful musicians, due to the festival’s intimate nature. That’s a key difference here: with other larger festivals, you can be so far away from the performers it almost feels like you’re watching them on a screen. Not here! So so come and join us for our festival on September 8-September 12 2017, which will be extra special because it will be a landmark tenth anniversary for us: and will hopefully attract many more unmissable performers to this relatively unknown pocket of Eastern Slovakia.

MAP LINK: (showing the main town theatre venue)

FESTIVAL WEBSITE: (line-ups for 2017’s festival now available)

COST OF TICKETS:

GETTING THERE: The east of Slovakia benefits quite well from international flight connections these days: Poprad, 20 minutes to the west of Levoča via route E50, has 4 weekly flights to London Luton.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Levoča, it’s 63km north to Stará Ľubovňa, home of Slovakia’s only whiskey distillery

 

A moving encounter between long-lost relatives bought together through the Slovakia genealogy tours. ©adventoura

Tours: Ancestry Trips Through Slovakia

Slovakia’s turbulent history – with stints under the control of several different empires – means tracing your roots can be tough. Nevertheless, many of those with Slovak ancestry do want to take up the challenge, and it’s here that one of the country’s newest tour operators comes in handy.

Based in the High Tatras, Ancestry and Genealogy Tours Slovakia have many years’ previous experience as an adventure tour operator, Adventoura, but have recently added this separate arm to their enterprise: partly because of the owner’s interest in uncovering more information about his own heritage (he’s connected to the Rusyn people of Eastern Slovakia, and to a small village in Slovakia’s whiskey-producing region of Stará L’ubovña. The premise is simple: if you want to discover more about your roots, either Slovak or (as investigations sometimes pan out) any roots that originate in the countries surrounding Slovakia such as Poland or Ukraine, then get in touch with them beforehand, allow them a few weeks to do the wider research into your family history in the region and then, when the necessary information has been gleaned, and family members in Slovakia and vicinity contacted, book your flight to Slovakia to commence the experience.

Packages with such specifics being researched and incorporated into the tour are all unique and tailor-made to the individual requirements of the customers. The key theme of the trip will be the reunion with long-lost relatives – if Ancestry and Genealogy tours Slovakia have managed to locate them, and if the customers so desire. Trips can last up to 14 days in some cases, with every aspect from food to accommodation possible to arrange with the agency.

Often, partly because migration was historically higher from Eastern Slovakia, and because the agency is based in the eastern half of the country, tours take in sights in this part of Slovakia of historic interest. There is the personal level, too: generally, those intrigued by their family’s past are also fascinated to see what the places their family were surrounded by in their daily lives are like. Thus Eastern Slovakia’s wooden churches and the gorgeous Unesco-listed town of Bardejov and Levoča (where the historic archives for the area are located, and which can be visited as part of the tour) are popular stop-offs on the itinerary.

“Every trip involves a totally different story or set of anecdotes” smiles Erik Ševčík, who set up the company. “Quite funny is when, because of the family’s excitement and getting back in touch, the customers and the relatives they have been reunited with forget they can’t speak the same language (because older people in Slovakia rarely speak English, and many of those retracing roots have English as their mother tongue, not Slovak any longer). So they are chatting to each other and neither can understand the words the other is saying, yet on some deeper level they really are getting on with each other like old family members already after just one meeting!

I have been doing this a while now, but the circumstances of meetings are so touching that leaving with customers to continue on the journey never gets any easier – it’s always tough and emotional.”

FULL DETAILS OF HOW TO START ARRANGING YOUR TRIP WITH ANCESTRY AND GENEALOGY TOURS SLOVAKIA ARE AVAILABLE ON THEIR WEBSITE

 

The Chopin Hotel in Bratislava ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Bratislava’s Business Airport Hotels

Location: Ružinov.

Little-known fact: Bratislava is one of the best conference venues in middle-Europe. It boasts a big advantage over almost any other destination, and that trump card isn’t necessarily overtly cool office spaces or flashier suit shops, so much as its strategic location. Vienna is one hour west, Prague three hours north-west and Budapest two hours south-east. It is, after all, capital of the country which sits at the very geographical centre of Europe.

So Bratislava’s two airport hotels aren’t just airport hotels. They are also – straddling either side of the large Galvaniho Business Center – two of the city’s premium business hotels. Their location right by Bratislava Airport and also the main E75 road to the rest of Slovakia gives the two of them the advantage over the city centre’s hotels that cater for conferences. These two hotels make conferences their raison d’etre.

Getting There

I made the mistake of not showing up at the Vienna House Easy-run Chopin Hotel, as close to the airport as you can sleep without crashing on the runway, by public transport. That was a mistake because the nearest bus stop is at Avion Shopping Centre (the Bratislava airport bus stops there, see the map link at the bottom for more). Whilst the hotel is under 10 minutes’ walk from here, it’s also the other side of a rather large by-pass: easy for a car, I thought to myself as I struggled with my wheelie bag along the edge of a pavement-less main road; less so for a pedestrian.

Of course, round the back of the retail park there is actually another way to walk there. But more to the point, this is a business hotel to the core: you really need your own wheels to arrive. In the US this would hardly come as a surprise; in dinky, generally pedestrian-friendly Bratislava, to be suddenly plunged into this modern out-of-town world of big business came as a shock.

Arrival

Once arrived, though, the otherworldly feeling became one of snugness and homeliness: almost unheard of with this kind of accommodation. Chopin Hotel, much like its counterpart NH Gate One Hotel just along the road, is an anomaly: better-connected than any other hotel in the city (on the edge of the airport and within a stone’s throw of Slovakia’s main west-east motorway) yet by the same token cut-off from the rest of the city – even though both lie a mere 6km from Bratislava’s Old Town. In the same way as coming home after a days’ work, pouring yourself a cold beer and collapsing in front of the sofa enable you to shut yourself off from the world and create your own mini version of it, thus works a stay here. Within this maze of busy roads, Chopin Hotel really is an oasis of calm.

Cosiness

Once you’ve got your head around the fact that this is no typical chain hotel and that staff actually like to talk to you and engage you in conversation, Chopin Hotel really does make for an enjoyable stay.

Chopin Hotel's cosy rooms

Chopin Hotel’s cosy rooms – image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

It’s the little touches: such as the fiery earthy colour schemes in the rooms (cosy), the fruit on arrival, the bar where workers from Avion Shopping Centre mingle with businessmen in a surreal but convivial manner – and a restaurant than can cook well, with imagination beyond the average airport hotel or indeed the average Slovak hotel. It was also one of the first hotels in Slovakia to introduce long-stay rooms, where you have that extra leeway to feel at home. But most of all it’s the friendliness.

Down to Business!

And on the business end, there’s conference space here for around 320. Chopin Hotel divides its meeting space into several smaller conference rooms: five, to be precise. It works with the larger NH Gate One Hotel up the road to host large conferences, and because of the intimate way rooms divide up it’s perfect for smaller business events.

Must-have chocolate cake

Must-have chocolate cake

The Food

A couple of words, finally, about Chopin Hotel’s food. Norwegian trout, or Wiener Schitzel with Slovakian-style potato salad (it comes in a compacted slightly-sweet dome) are  good main courses (although it would have been nice to see a few more Slovak-produced items on he menu), whilst the peanutty chocolate cake was one of the best that Englishmaninslovakia, a confessed chocolate cake addict, has sampled in Bratislava. The breakfast, meanwhile, matches a four-star hotel toe to toe, with a great selection of fresh fruit, cakes and another Slovak specialty: the scrambled egg with roasted peppers and mushrooms. Coffee: good; only downfall: no fresh orange juice.

NH Gate One Hotel

The larger (and pricier) NH Gate One Hotel back up the road is Chopin Hotel’s only competitor and has an extra star (four as opposed to three) but the only real difference comes in its wellness centre. Chopin Hotel’s rooms are a little smaller but just as inviting – and, quite crucially, with better wifi connection (Englishmaninslovakia checked this). Oh. That, and the fact that NH Gate One is nearer the bus stops!

And, businessmen, being right next to the biggest shopping centre in Slovakia means there’s no excuse, whichever of Bratislava’s airport hotels you are staying in, for forgetting that gift for the wife (or indeed husband) and kids. Perhaps that’s why quite a bunch of the city’s hotels (the Sheraton and the Grand Hotel River Park too) are located by shopping centres: because Slovakian businessmen need that extra prompt to remember last-minute gifts for the family…

RELATED POST: Cognac Express: Bratislava’s Luxury Taxis

MAP LINK

LOCATION: In the Nové Mesto/Ružinov neighbourhood – see our post on Bratislava’s Main Tram, Bus and Trolleybus Links

PRICES: Double rooms start at 59 Euros without breakfast (7-day advance-purchase website rates) or 71 Euros including breakfast (normal rate). Prices correct as of 2016.

BOOK CHOPIN HOTEL

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

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

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

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

History of the Healing Powers of Marianka

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

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

Welcome to Marianka… ©englishmaninslovakia.com

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

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

Most Ornate Church in Slovakia?

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

Elaborate roof panels ©englishmaninslovakia.com

Elaborate roof panels ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

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

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

Demolition Dodge!

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

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

Pilgrim Food

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

Onward from Marianka?

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

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

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

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

MARIANKA VILLAGE WEBSITE In Slovak, but could prove useful.

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

img_4300

Poprad: the Chocolatier

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

A Quick Guide to the Other Content We Have on Poprad

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

Places to Go: Poprad’s lavish Aqua Park

Places to Go: Nine reasons to linger in Poprad

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

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

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

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

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

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

Going Out: Poprad & the Manchester United Connection

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

Getting Around: London to Poprad Flights

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

Top Ten Medieval Towns in Slovakia

 

MAP LINK:

LOCATION: Dominika Tatarku 14

OPENING: 10am-8pm daily

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

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

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

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

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

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

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

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

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

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image ©didier descouens

Getting Around Bratislava: The Cognac Express

Yes, that image depicts a brandy glass. Commonplace enough in a bar or even on a website run by someone who likes his drink. But how about in a taxi in Slovakia at 4:30am?

I don’t, generally, get enthusiastic about getting from A to B in style (read: luxury cruise, first-class train, business-class flight).

If it does happen, fine. But if not, no matter, such modes of travel are in any case too often synonymous for me with an experience which by no means matches the inflated cost – call it anti-climax, call it parting with umpteen pounds or euros merely to have the soul of the journey sucked out of it. Inordinate column inches have been filled with such means of travel and for me phrases like “fully reclining seats” and “complimentary champagne” just don’t get me salivating with desire.

Not as much as the enthused conversation with the guy in the next seat, or at the lonely en route diner, or at the wheel of the truck which stops to pick you up after you’ve been waiting a few hours for a lift at a roadside in the middle of nowhere.

Unforgettable experience always trumps generic luxury for me when travelling, in other words (I’m happy to wait until I get to B for the fancy meal or hotel) – and the time when that changes will be the time I stop writing about my travels.

Having harped on about all that, I’m going to surprise you here with an entry that might – just – slot under the luxury travel category. Might. But I like to think it could also get filed, like most of the stuff we tell you about on here, under plain bizarre.

Travelling to see family and friends in the UK from Bratislava often implies get up at an ungodly hour in the morning to do so, and fair play – we want cheaper flights; something presumably has to give and it seems it is destined to be our sleep. Ryanair, as some may know, have since early 2015 got a new regional base in Bratislava (the reliability of the air connections and customer service is therefore going to theoretically increase, and there are probably other positive consequences although I have no idea what they are).

But what has been slower to move with this development (I mean the increase in early-morning flight departures) is the transport to and from the airport. The public transport in Bratislava is great for a fairly small city, but it’s not up and running for the day by the time you need to be setting off to the airport for boarding time. Therein lies a problem because most taxi companies (at least, those for the most reasonable prices) are of the call-them-and-they-turn-up-almost-immediately kind. Not the kind you can reserve for a pre-appointed time in the future. And very few companies fancy the journey out to the outlying city districts such as Rača where I was living for three years for a pick-up at the best of times (04:30 is not the best of times).

It being a bit of a risk to bank on the fact a regular taxi would be prepared to come out at such an early hour to our neck of the woods, we decided to do a cursory Google search to see what our options were for making one such before-the-crack-of-dawn departure recently.

And we soon ascertained that, for these very scenarios, Bratislava Airport does have an official taxi company. And that it was far from just being a convenient set of wheels.  Methinks that, judging from the phone conversation, they mainly get businessmen as clients. They spent a long time emphasising how they, Bratislava Airport Taxi (tel 00421 903 853 359) , were the airport’s only luxurious official taxi cabs – Mercedes cars, always punctual, always turning up with a bottle of cognac prepared for the journey….  Imagine the company’s disappointment when they turned up and found, far from businessmen that might secure them a nice regular series of future bookings with affluent well-suited clients, just yours truly, looking unkempt and pretty un-affluent.

RELATED POST: Bratislava’s Airport Hotel(s)?

But there was the luxurious Mercedes car with the cognac, glasses provided, no cap on the number of glasses, and the incongruously suited chauffeur gruffly commanding you to partake. I partook. Total price from the city to the airport: 19 Euros. Reliable, comfortable, available and reservable any time, for any day. 19 Euros is a sweet nine Euros more, I should again stress, than the going rate a Slovak pays for a taxi in Bratislava (10 Euros), but still less than the price a foreigner just arrived will pay on average to get from the airport to the centre (20-25 Euros).  Now you just need to calculate how much cognac (they provide damned good stuff) you will need to quaff to arrive at Bratislava airport having made a profit!

Suggestion for improvement: no dire R&B on the radio? That would make my cognac sipping in transit in the dead of night so much more pleasurable.

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Around Bratislava – the North: The Pajštún Castle Hike

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pajstun Castle appears through the trees

Pajstun Castle appears through the trees

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

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

Climbing Pajstun's southern ramparts

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

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

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

Pajštún Myth…

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

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

MAP LINK

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

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

 

Europe by Train...

Trains: From the UK to Slovakia on the Rails – Why Do It?

People gave me incredulous looks when I told them I’d be taking the train from the UK to Slovakia the next time I needed to do the journey. People often give you incredulous looks, I’ve found, when you attempt to do something that is not done in the most efficient or obvious way. So of course I had all those “why don’t you just fly?” types of responses. Well here’s why.

The question would not even have been asked as little as twenty-five years ago, before cheap flights existed to Eastern Europe. Across the continent within that quarter of a century, the soul-sapping trek to the airport for the ungodly departure times, the agonising hour-long negotiating of check-in/security alongside hundreds of other fed-up people, the being cooped up like a chicken in a hard plastic seat with zero leg room and the arrival at an airport anything from 30 minutes to several hours from where you actually want to end up has become the standard practice. And we have forgotten that the way we would have travelled across Europe back in the day was by train, and dispensed with the notion that we still could – and, perhaps, should.

It is hard to fathom why, because time is not the only factor when travelling. Comfort is also a factor. Actually seeing the places you are passing through can be a factor. The environment is definitely a factor. Having an adventure can be a factor.

For me the journey can (if you pick the right method) be as enjoyable as the arrival; sometimes more so.

Cheap flights are painless at best but very rarely enjoyable, and quite frequently nightmarish experiences. Travelling by train retains some of the old-fashioned glamour travel possessed in the past. You invariably get a seat to yourself. You always get decent amounts of leg room. There is no shortage of space to put your luggage. There are aisles and corridors to take a leg-stretch. There is, across Europe, dining cars and often bars to which you can sojourn, where you can eat half-decent food from proper plates, with real knives and forks, and be waited on by waiters or waitresses who actually understand what the word “service” means.

The scenery unfolding outside is certainly more absorbing than a view of clouds. More to the point, if you really like it, it’s possible to stop off en route for a lunch or a little exploration. No – I’ll go further: it’s advisable to stop off: at least once. Celebrating slow travel and the heightened cultural experience that goes with it are part of the philosophy of long-distance railway rides. And when you stop, you’re not going to be in a far-from-the-centre airport: you’ll be smack bang in the thick of your destination.

The environmental argument is one that fans of train travel can also use: it’s considerably less of a carbon footprint than a plane journey.

And because we seldom think these days of using train as a plausible means of travel between the UK and any other point beyond Eurostar’s Paris and Brussels terminals (or if we do, only as part of a gap year one-off Interrailing session) you are embarking on an actual adventure: one that will have a lot more to relate than a typical cheap flight story of torturous queues, duty free and cramped seating.

Of course, in the second decade of the 21st century, we are more obsessed by time than ever (even though we probably waste more than ever on TV, video games and social media) so train travel takes a back seat: it remains a somewhat “maverick” form of travelling long distances across Europe.

Perhaps that’s the real reason I like it.

Particularly where Slovakia is concerned, however, travelling by train also has some other real plusses. It allows you to visually connect up Europe and the place of Slovakia (or whatever happens to be your destination) within it. It puts it concretely “on the map” so to speak, which given the fact so many people cannot place the nation on a map whatsoever can be a good idea. And there is a great sense of fulfillment in journeying to the frontier of the EU (the westernmost point of the EU’s eastern border, in fact). When you alight from the train here you can let it sink in how far you have come overland, via each twist and rattle of the track, to a place where things are very clearly very different: where the hills are high and green, where the churches are made of wood and the Eastern Orthodox Faith takes hold, where wolves and bears thrive in the dense forests.

And here’s the other thing. I am a writer. And coming on such a journey on the train I can sit with a good wifi connection, devices charging, and write. I can’t do that on any cheap flight. And that’s important to me: recording the journey as it unfolds right outside the window, every forgotten farmstead, copse, castle, family barbecue and smartly-dressed station master of it. In an age of selfies, a lot of time is spent capturing the moments of a journey in pictures, but train travel affords the opportunity to capture it in words.

So whilst riding the rails loses out to cheap air travel time-wise where Slovakia is concerned, and nearly always cost-wise (you’re looking at £200, most likely, for a one-way trip to the east of Slovakia from the UK – if purchased a little in advance), it wins for the glamour, the green-ness and yes, the sheer joy of the experience.

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Levice: Where Fodor’s Guidebooks Were Born

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

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

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

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

The 16th century castle & museum

The 16th century castle & museum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©Jonno Tranter

Trenčin: Pohoda – Thoughts (and Pictures!) on the 20th Edition of the Festival

Report By Jonno Tranter.

We arrived at Pohoda festival exhausted, dirty, and deprived of social interaction, having hiked all the way from Bratislava along one of Slovakia’s most beautiful long-distance trails. Fortunately, the festival was to provide the cure to all our woes. It seems that everyone here really loves this festival: it’s their baby. We were told by several folks that Pohoda’s relatively high entrance fee attracts only the crème de la crème of Slovakian people, and you won’t get anyone here who wants to rob you or start a fight. While this may seem a little smug, it’s true that everyone we met at Pohoda was incredibly warm and welcoming.

The festival is spread around Trenčín airport, where small planes still regularly use the airstrips just outside the festival grounds. While the area is very flat, the Biele Karpaty to the East and the Strážov Mountains to the west surround the festival, providing amazing scenery, especially for the sunsets and sunrises. We didn’t hear much English spoken at the festival, and it seemed that over 90% of the attendees there were Slovak or Czech, making it a great opportunity to meet locals.

Upon entering the festival we headed straight for the showers, and were pleasantly surprised to be offered free shampoo and shower gel – not something you would expect in the UK! The toilets also seemed to stay reasonably clean throughout the festival: in the UK that’s not so common, either.

Pohoda is really the perfect size. Walking from the main stage to the Orange Stage, at the other end of the festival, takes less than ten minutes, so it’s easy to catch all the acts you plan to see. There are eight stages in total, with many other tents offering a plethora of activities, from silent disco to roller blading, speed dating and tightrope walking. There’s plenty to keep the kids busy too, and the festival seemed very family-friendly. For the foodies, there’s a decent selection, catering to vegetarians and vegans, but also with plenty of Slovak and Czech options to choose from.

At night, Pohoda lights up, the kids go to bed, and the alcohol really begins to flow. Don’t expect cocktails and shots though, stalls and bars only sell beer, cider, and wine, apparently to minimise drunkenness and aggressiveness. Guests are permitted to bring their own, however, and anything in a plastic bottle will be good to go through security. The music carries on officially until 5am, but with the sun rise at about that time, you’ll find pockets of activity everywhere.

What really makes Pohoda stand out amongst a saturated European festival market is it’s lineup. On the Saturday night at what was the 20th Pohoda, we managed to catch James Blake, The Prodigy, Flying Lotus, and DJ Shadow, all in the space of about 4 hours. That’s a really incredible musical evening! Nevertheless, it seems that many guests aren’t too fussed about planning their night based on whom they want to see. A good few seem to trust the organiser, Michal Kaščák, and his team’s taste in music – enjoying wandering from stage to stage and discovering new talent along the way. The quality of the sound at Pohoda was also impressive, and Sigur Rós have since stated that the sound quality on the main stage was the best they’ve had during their whole tour.

Camping at Pohoda 2016 ©Jonno Tranter

Camping at Pohoda 2016 ©Jonno Tranter

The July heat does get to you at Pohoda, and you’ll see many sunburned people by the end of the day, so make sure to bring your sunscreen! Sleeping beyond 9 or 10 am is not really an option as you’ll be sweltering inside your tent, and there are no places to camp under the shade. However, this simply means that all Pohodans do what they do best during the day: chill. Pohoda means “relax” in Slovak and everyone seems to be happy finding a grassy spot to lie down in the shade, while making little escapades off for food and drink, and to sample the delights of the day.

With an amazing lineup, affordable prices, beautiful scenery, great weather, and a positive, relaxed atmosphere, Pohoda ranks amongst the best festivals in this part of the world. With flights to Bratislava so cheap from the UK, it’s a wonder there aren’t more Brits here. But shhh, don’t tell too many people, it’s perfect the way it is!

 

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

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

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

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

Places to Go: A stunning castle near Trenčin

Places to Stay: Trenčin’s recently refurbished historic hotel

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

Top Ten Medieval Towns in Slovakia

 

Jonno Tranter is a freelance graphic designer and illustrator who lives in Bristol, UK. In his spare time he likes to write, have adventures, and attend music festivals. This year, he decided to combine all three into an epic trip to Slovakia! Read more about him on his online portfolio.

Jonno hiked to Pohoda from Bratislava for this year's festival - an incredible feat being documented soon on this site! ©Jonno Tranter

Jonno hiked to Pohoda from Bratislava for the 2016 festival – an incredible feat now documented on this site! ©Jonno Tranter

Outside the Gallery ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Poprad: the Elektráreň

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Quick Guide to the Other Content We Have on Poprad

Places to Go: Poprad’s lavish Aqua Park

Places to Go: Nine reasons to linger in Poprad

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

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

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

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

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

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

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s gourmet chocolatier

Going Out: Poprad & the Manchester United Connection

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

Getting Around: London to Poprad Flights

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

Top Ten Medieval Towns in Slovakia

 

MAP LINK

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

ADMISSION: 3 Euros

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Cryotherapy…

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

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

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

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

Getting Warmed Up

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

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

Poolside Fun

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

AquaCity’s Eco-Friendliness

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

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

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

A Quick Guide to the Other Content We Have on Poprad

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

Places to Go: Nine reasons to linger in Poprad

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

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

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s gourmet chocolatier

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

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

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

Going Out: Poprad & the Manchester United Connection

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

Getting Around: London to Poprad Flights

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

Top Ten Medieval Towns in Slovakia

MAP LINK

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

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

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

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

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Bojnice Castle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What to Do?

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

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

Where to Eat and Drink?

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

And Now For the Set Piece: Bojnice Castle

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

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

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

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

Not Just A Pretty Face…

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

©JamesSilvesterAuthor.com

©JamesSilvesterAuthor.com

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

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

What’s On?

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

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

When to Go?

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

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

About the Writer…

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

 MAP LINK:

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

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

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

Image by Felix O

Getting Around Bratislava: the Main Bus, Tram and Trolleybus Routes

The main Bratislava public transport website is imhd.sk – here, if you know your journey’s beginning and end point, you can plan any trip on tram, bus or trolleybus within the greater Bratislava public transport network (which extends to include Marianka in the north, Hainburg, Austria in the west, outermost Petržalka in the south and outermost Rača, Vajnory and Podunajské Biskupice in the east). But we thought it might be a good idea if we mentioned all the public transport routes you’re likely to need for every destination in and around Bratislava on this blog (which are relatively few, as most Bratislava sights and activities are within the compact city centre and can be walked to). You can use this post in conjunction with:

* Our Definitive Bratislava Transport Hub Guide which details everything you need to know about the main transport hubs for arrivals/departures by air, train, bus and boat.

* Our comprehensive entry on how to get from the airport to the city centre by public transport.

* Our more-or-less foolproof guide to how to get to all of Bratislava’s main hotels – again by public transport.

As a key in the summary below:

BOLDED AND IN CAPITALS refers to one of the 16 transport route featured in this list.

IN CAPITALS refers to the start/end points of each transport route.

in bold lower case refers to the worthwhile stops on these transport routes.

[square bracketed and italicised] numbers after transport routes are reference points to denote at what point on the list 1-16 below that transport route is detailed in full

  1. BUS 61 – As detailed in our how to get from the airport to the city centre post, runs from the AIRPORT to the MAIN TRAIN STATION, HLAVNA STANICA. Passes on the way, in order, Avion Shopping Centre (the country’s biggest retail outlet space no less) Freshmarket (one of Bratislava’s coolest markets), Trnavské Mýto (for the Ondreja Nepelu stadium, the main place for catching ice hockey matches, the Lindner Gallery Hotel AND changes to TRAM 8 [6]) and TRAM 4 [4] and  Račianské Mýto (for changes to TRAM 5 [5] and TRAM 3 [3])
  2. TRAM 1 – Runs from the MAIN TRAIN STATION, HLAVNA STANICA to PETRŽALKA. Passes, on the way, in order, Postová (for all city centre points of interest, which are walkable from here AND changes to TRAM 5 [5] and TRAM 3 [3]) and Sad Janka Kráľa (for linking up with the Danube cycle path).
  3. TRAM 3 – Runs from PETRŽALKA to RAČA (a suburb in Bratislava’s northeast). Passes, on the way, in order, Sad Janka Kráľa (for linking up with the Danube cycle path) Námestie SNP  (the Square of the Slovak National Uprising, and also in the centre), Kamenné Namestie (for the big city-centre Tesco’s, Tulip House Hotel, Obyvačka and Bistro St Germain) and then joins up with the same route as TRAM 5 [5].
  4. TRAM 4 – Runs from ZLATÉ PIESKY (Bratislava city’s nominal lake/water activities space) to DUBRAVKA (a suburb in Bratislava’s northwest). Passes, on the way, in order, Polus City Centre (a big shopping centre), Trnavské Mýto (for the Ondreja Nepelu stadium, the main place for catching ice hockey matches, the Lindner Gallery Hotel AND changes to BUS 61 and TRAM 8 [6]), Americké Námestie (for Caffe Trieste, Medická Záhrada AND changes to TRAM 5 [5] and TRAM 3 [3] via a short walk), Mariánska and Jesenského (for all city centre points of interest, which are walkable from here), Nám. Ľ. Štúra (for Bratislava’s main boat terminal and for the Slovak National Gallery and Slovak Philharmonic), Most SNP (for one of the best viewpoints in Bratislava not to mention the short jaunt across the river to Aurpark) and Chatam Sofer (for the Chatam Sofer Jewish memorial, River Park shopping centre and Kempinski Hotel). Afterwards this follows the same route as TRAM 5 [5] to Dubravka.
  5. TRAM 5 – Runs from DUBRAVKA (a suburb in Bratislava’s northwest) to RAČA (a suburb in Bratislava’s northeast) via the city centre. Passes, on the way, in order, Alexyho (for changes to BUS 20 [9]), Vodárenské Muzeum (for the homonymous museum on the history of Bratislava and water – which actually looks pretty cool), Botanická Záhrada (for the botanical garden), Lafranconi (for changes to BUS 37 [11]), Park Kultúry (for the River Park shopping centre and Kempinski Hotel), Kapucinska (for Bratislava Castle, City Walls, Hangout Cafe and Kava.Bar), Postová (for all city centre points of interest, which are walkable from here), Vysoká (for Úl’uv and Starosloviensky Pivovar), Americké Námestie (for Caffe Trieste and Medická Záhrada)Račianské Mýto (for changes to BUS 61 [1]), Vinohrady (for Bratislava Vinohrady mainline railway station, with trains to all major destinations east) and Pekná Cesta (for accessing some of the greatest hikes in the Small Carpathians AND changes to out-of-town buses to Sväty Júr, Pezinok and the like)
  6. TRAM 8 – Runs from NÁMESTIE SNP (the Square of the Slovak National Uprising, and also in the centre) to ASTRONOMICKÁ (in Ružinov). Passes, on the way, in order, Postová (for all city centre points of interest, which are walkable from here AND changes to TRAM 5 [5] and TRAM 3 [3]), Vysoká (for Úl’uv and Starosloviensky Pivovar AND changes to TRAM 5 [5] and TRAM 3 [3]), Trnavské Mýto (for the Ondreja Nepelu stadium, the main place for catching ice hockey matches, the Lindner Gallery Hotel AND changes to BUS 61 [1] and TRAM 4 [4]) and Tomášikova (for Martinský Cintorín).
  7. TROLLEYBUS 203 – Runs from BÚDKOVÁ (near Horský Park and Slavín) to KOLIBA (for access to the Bratislava Forest Park or Bratislava Mestské Lesy – which begins a 30-minute walk uphill from the terminus). Passes, on the way, in order, Hrad (for Bratislava Castle and Bratislava Castle restaurant), Hodžovo Namestie (by the Presidential Palace; for all city centre points of interest, which are walkable from here AND changes to BUS 93 [14] and BUS 208 [15]) and Jeséniova (for Penzión Zlata Noha).
  8. TROLLEYBUS 210 – Runs from the MAIN TRAIN STATION, HLAVNA STANICA to the MAIN BUS STATION, MLYNSKÉ NIVY. Passes, on the way, in order, Karpatská (for changes to TROLLEYBUS 203 [7]) and Račianské Mýto (for changes to TRAM 5 [5] and TRAM 3 [3]).
  9. BUS 20 – Runs from the Alexyho stop in DUBRAVKA (a suburb in Bratislava’s northwest) to DEVÍNSKA NOVÁ VES (a commuter town on the Morava river known for its access to some great nature). Passes, on the way, in order Hradištná (for Sandberg and Devinska Kobyla) and Devínska Nová Ves Railway Station (on the railway line to Malacky, Vel’ke Leváre and Kúty in the Zahorie region.
  10. BUS 28 – Runs from the NOVÉ SND (new building of the Slovak National Theatre, by the Eurovea shopping centre to DEVIN (jump-off point for Devín Castle). Passes, on the way, in order, Most SNP (for one of the best viewpoints in Bratislava not to mention the short jaunt across the river to Aurpark) and Štrbská (for Devín Castle). BUS 29 plies a similar route.
  11. BUS 37 – Runs from MOST SNP (for one of the best viewpoints in Bratislava not to mention the short jaunt across the river to Aurpark) to MARIANKA (Slovakia’s main pilgrimage site, end point for an exciting hike from Bratislava and possible start point for another great hike to Pajštún Castle). Passes, on the way, in order, Lafranconi (for changes to TRAM 5 [5]) and Zoo (for Bratislava Zoo).
  12. BUS 43 – Rus from Vojenská Nemocnica (for one of the main city hospitals AND changes to the BUS 212 [16] to Lesopark (for access to Bratislava Forest Park or Bratislava Mestské Lesy). Passes, on the way, in order, several great jumping-off points for hikes in the forest including Železná studnička.
  13. BUS 91 – Runs from MOST SNP (for one of the best viewpoints in Bratislava) to ČUNOVO (for the 2.5km hike to Danubiana Art Museum). Passes, on the way, in order, Aurpark (the big shopping centre that’s closest to the city centre), Petržalka train station (for trains to Vienna, Austria) and Kaštiel’ Rusovce (for access to the Kaštiel’ Rusovce chateau and the surrounding riverside woods which include walking trails along the Danube).
  14. BUS 93 – Runs from the MAIN TRAIN STATION, HLAVNA STANICA to PETRŽALKA. Passes on the way, in order, Hodžovo Námestie (by the Presidential Palace; for all city centre points of interest, which are walkable from here AND changes to BUS 208 [15] and TROLLEYBUS 203 [7]), Zochova (also for all city centre points of interest, which are walkable from here, including the 5-minute walk south to the Most SNP bus station), Aupark (the big shopping centre that’s closest to the city centre) and Petržalka train station (for trains to Vienna, Austria).
  15. BUS 208 – Runs from ŠULEKOVÁ (in the swanky embassy district below Slavin) to  CINTORÍN VRAKUŇA (a cemetery and district in Bratislava’s southeast). Passes, on the way, in order, Hodžovo Námestie (by the Presidential Palace; for all city centre points of interest, which are walkable from here AND changes to BUS 93 [14] and TROLLEYBUS 203 [7] and the main bus station, Mlynské Nivy)
  16. BUS 212 – Runs from Zimný štadión (Ondreja Nepelu stadium, the main place for catching ice hockey matches) to Vojenská Nemocnica (for one of the main city hospitals AND changes to the BUS 43 [12]). Passes, on the way, in order, Americké Námestie (for Caffe Trieste and Medická Záhrada), Hodžovo Namestie (by the Presidential Palace; for all city centre points of interest, which are walkable from here AND changes to BUS 93 [14], BUS 208 [15] and Trolleybus 203 [7]) and Sokolská (for Hlavna Stanica, Bratislava Railway Station).
  17. BUS 901 – Runs from MOST SNP (for one of the best viewpoints in Bratislava not to mention the short jaunt across the river to Aurpark) to HAINBURG (in Austria, but usefully included in the Bratislava public transport network because Slovaks love to come here to do shopping). Passes, on the way, Einsteinova (for the Incheba exhibition centre) and a small fairly nondescript town on the Austrian side called Wolsthal.

* From HLAVNA STANICA, BRATISLAVA RAILWAY STATION, a handy-to-know-about shortcut along Šancová (10-minute walk or accessible by multiple buses/trolleybuses, including TROLLEYBUS 210) goes to RAČIANSKÉ MÝTO from where you can hook up with TRAM 5 [5] and TRAM 3 [7].

**It should be noted that Svätý Júr, the rather fetching commuter village just northeast of Raca that we include in our Places to Go/Bratislava & Around sub-section, is not on the Bratislava public transport grid, but as we include it in our Bratislava chapters on this site, we’ll tell you: you should head to Mlynské Nivy bus station (Bratislava’s main bus station) from where hourly buses depart for Svätý Júr.

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

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

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

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

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

The Main Reasons to Come Out Here…

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

The Abrázna Jasykňa (Abrasion Cave)

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

Sandberg
Sandberg ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Sandberg – Where Bratislava Meets the Sahara!

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

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

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

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

The Sandberg Loop: The Most Dramatic Approach to Devín Castle

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bike/Hike Out to Schlosshof

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

A Final Thought on Practicalities…

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

MAP LINK:

GETTING THERE:

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

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

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

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

RELATED POST: Buying Hiking Maps & Apps

RELATED POST: The Small Carpathians: An Intro

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

Piešt’any: the Pick of its Thermal Pools

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

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

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

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

Thermia Palace & Irma Spa from the Outside

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

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

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

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

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

Other Treatments…

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

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

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

Places to Go: A Great Castle near Piešt’any

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

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

 

MAP LINK:

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

ADMISSION: 12 Euros

OPENING: 10am-7pm

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

image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Around Piešt’any: the Mysterious Ruins of Tematín

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

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

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

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

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

tematin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

MAP LINK:

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

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

Getting Around Bratislava: Petržalka’s New Tram Link

Ah, the good old days. Bratislava’s Starý Most, or “old bridge” – seen in the foreground in the feature image back in the days when it still existed – personified them for me insofar as the city centre stretch of the Danube went. Did. It’s quite a shock, when you’re going for a stroll around a city you know well, to suddenly see something you assumed was a permanent fixture in the skyline utterly demolished. So it was when, the other week, I saw Starý Most, (one of only three bridges spanning the river in central Bratislava, along with Most SNP to the west, and the newest city bridge on Košická seen in the feature image background here to the east) gone for good and replaced by an imposter – the all-new, less-romantic, pedestrian/cyclist/tram connection to Bratislava’s high-rise suburb south of the river, Petržalka. Which opened in its entirety, trams and all, in August 2016.

Petržalka, with the largest population of any Bratislava neighbourhood, has long had a tram connection in the pipeline. The problem, however, was that plans hinged on totally reconstructing Starý Most. In its pre-demolition state the old bridge rocked even when you cycled across it and the first tram that tried going over would have been swept on downriver to Budapest. Now, as of August 2016, that reconstruction has been completed: and tram service over it courtesy of the No 1 Tram route from the main train station of Hlavná Stanica and the No 3 Tram Route from Rača goes through Šafárikovo Námestie as far as Jungmanova in Petržalka. The other stops it calls at on the Petržalka side of the Danube are, in order, Sad Janka Kráľa and Farského.  

But I have to say I’ll always remain sad about the old bridge going. It had, after all, been around since the 1890s. Emperor Franz-Joseph personally oversaw the opening, for Godsakes (although the actual steel part of the bridge was rebuilt after 1945). Since it was closed to traffic, and the greenery grew up around its pedestrian crossing, it provided a peaceful and (for the romantics) uplifting crossing from the Old Town to the Danube hiking/cycling trails out to Čunovo on the other side. In short it had personality. And personality is something reasonably lacking in more recent Bratislava riverside development.

Danube sunset from Most SNP

Danube sunset from Most SNP by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The plan is anticipated to take away a lot of the congestion and tram traffic around Šafárikovo Námestie too. Bratislava, it seems, will have one significantly extended tram route – and all within the next month, according to the latest estimate. A multi-million Euro grant from the EU paid for the destruction/ reconstruction of the bridge by the way.

New Possibilities

Whilst the plan will no doubt far more interest Petržalka’s 100,000+ residents, it’s also a heads-up for visitors to the city. Why? It could well usher in a new spell of development on the southern shore of Bratislava’s Danube.

Let’s remember that one of the key factors in a city’s success/failure lies in its connectivity. There’s a direct correlation between problematic or poor districts of a city and how isolated those districts are. Connectivity=progress; progress=prosperity; prosperity is something that wouldn’t go amiss in Petržalka and the south-of-the-river area.

At the moment, the Most SNP bridge crowned by its UFO restaurant is the only real access to the south side of the river for pedestrians or cyclists. When finished, Starý Most will make strolling or pedalling over to the south shore much more conducive.

And the south shore is currently very under-developed (unusual in a city as thirsty for development as Bratislava normally is). This is partly a great thing, of course – you can lose yourself in woodlands almost immediately on the other side. But the beauty is counter-balanced by a lot of derelict buildings and construction sites. Room for improvement: yep. And coaxing that improvement along? Well, a large number of classy places already exist on the south side – a really good theatre and a few good restaurants (more on these in other posts).

Could all this pave the way for a rebirth of the Danube’s southern shore akin to the makeover of the South Bank of the Thames in London? Some readers may give a knowing laugh, but crazier things have happened…

Anyway, for now it’s RIP Starý Most.

See Petržalka in relation to the Old Town on a map.

The Pixies hit Pohoda in 2006 - Image by Jo Fjompenissedalheibakke

Trenčin: Pohoda!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Places to Go: a stunning castle just outside Trenčin

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

Places to Stay: the coolest hotel in Trenčin

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

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

Top Ten Medieval Towns in Slovakia

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

image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

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

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

Arrival

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

The Case of the Hidden Castle

Studeny Hrad nr Gymes

Studeny Hrad near Gymes

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

Firepit within Gymes ruins

Firepit within Gymes ruins

Gýmeš Fortress

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

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

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

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

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

Hiking On From Gýmeš…

The path on to Oponicky Hrad

The path on to Oponicky Hrad

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

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

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

MAP LINK:

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

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

RELATED POST: Western Slovakia’s Best Castles

Bratislava by night...

Getting Around Bratislava: How to Get to the Main Hotels

Imagine this. It’s late. The Ryanair flight’s just landed. To cap a long journey, you’ve had to deal with officially the most ridiculous airport bus transfer in the world (yes Bratislava really is a record-breaker in this respect). You just want to get to your hotel. But actually, it’s not always as simple as that. The airport doesn’t always have enough taxis and you might not have the taxi numbers or, perhaps, object to being charged over twice the odds (20 Euros plus) a local would be for the ride from the airport to your hotel. There might be any number of other reasons, too, why you need directions to your chosen accommodation.

The good news is that most of the main city centre hotels are in a very small area of the Old Town, and here’s our fool-proof guide on how to get from the airport right to the Old Town.

Once there (ie at the Postová tram stop described in the afore-mentioned link), Austria Trend Hotel and Crowne Plaza are right by you.

If you head straight ahead on Obchodná, cross over the wide, tram track-lined road directly ahead and make a beeline for the pretty street (Michalská) heading down between the strip club and the bank, you’re through the Old Town gate of Michalská Brana, in the heart of the Old Town and right by Skaritz. Hotel Marrol’sPark Inn Danube and Radisson Blu Carlton are all within five minutes’ walk (just head down towards Hviesdoslavo Námestie and the Danube for these last three). For any of these bang-in-centre hotels, public transport to Postová followed by the five to ten minute walk through the Old Town is a great and atmospheric introduction to your time in Bratislava.

More info on good hotels:

Our article on Skaritz

 – My review of Hotel Marrol’s for the Telegraph

Our article on Bratislava’s Best Boutique Hotel (near the Old Town but not quite in it)

But for some of the other most popular hotels, things are slightly more complicated. Slightly only mind. There’s still not really a need to taxi it from the airport/bus station for any of the below either…

River Danube - Provides the pleasant backdrop to the Kempinski or Sheraton Hotels

River Danube – Pleasant backdrop to Grand Hotel River Park or the Sheraton Hotel

Grand Hotel River Park

This hotel is west along the riverside by about 2.5 km from Most SNP, next to the River Park shopping centre. It’s not the worst walk in the world from the Old Town as it’s along the river, but with a big road right on the other side, you might also want to consider public transport. Take bus 61 to Tranavské Mýto, then tram 4 which takes you eventually down alongside the river, under Most SNP and along to Chatam Sófer stop (from the airport). OR take bus 93 (bound for Petržalka) to Zochova (on Staromestská) followed by bus 39 which takes you along the river to Chatham Sófer stop (from the station).

See our comprehensive guide to the bus 61 and tram 4 routes on our Bratislava’s Main Tram, Bus and Trolleybus Routes guide.

Sheraton Bratislava

The Sheraton Bratislava is in the Eurovea Shopping Centre, following the happy theme of big hotels in the city centre locating themselves near shopping centres. Look out the window from the Grand Hotel River Park or Sheraton in Bratislava and your view will be the same (beautiful Danube flanked by modern otherwise modern but unspectacular shopping centre; difference being they’re on opposite sides of the Old Town). Anyway. Take bus 61 to Tranavské Mýto, then tram 4 to Šafarikovo Nám (from the airport) OR trolleybus 1 to Šafarikovo Nám with a change at Most SNP (from the station).

See our comprehensive guide to the bus 61 and tram 4 routes on our Bratislava’s Main Tram, Bus and Trolleybus Routes guide.

Hotel West (former Best Western )

Bratislava’s Hotel West is, once more, independent, and as of this year not part of the Best Western chain (which means it’ll be getting reviewed on here real soon, although in Google it still comes up as a Best Western). It’s in a strange – if rather stunning – location: up in the woods of the Mestské Lesy by the Kamzik TV mast. This is the only hotel where you really might rule public transport out, just because it’s otherwise a bit of a walk through the woods – but it is possible – and very nice if you’re staying a few days and don’t always want to get a taxi. Take bus 61 to one stop beyond Račianske Mýto, Karpatská (coming from the airport) OR bus 61/74/502 one stop to Karpatská (coming from the station). Walk a few paces up Karpatská to change to Trolleybus 203 and take the bus to the end of the line. Then continue walking up the road from approximately 1.5km. Just head up if in doubt – it goes into the woods but don’t worry – eventually the road will divide, with the left branch curling up to Kamzik and the right branch going to the hotel. A taxi from the centre: about 7 Euros. A taxi from the airport: about 25 Euros.

See our comprehensive guide to the bus 61 and trolleybus 203 routes on our Bratislava’s Main Tram, Bus and Trolleybus Routes guide.

Holiday Inn

The city’s Holiday Inn is in RužinovBus 61 to Bajkalská, then bus 74 a few stops south to Mliekárenská (from the airport). Bus 61 or bus 74 to Tranavské Mýto then tram 9 to Slovanet from where you’ll have to walk a few hundred metres south on Bajkalská (from the train station)

Bratislava’s Airport Hotels

For the NH Gate One and VI Hotel Chopin, the two out-of-centre airport/business hotels, take Bus 61 from the airport (5 minutes) OR train station (30 minutes) and get off at Avion Shopping Centre. See our post on Bratislava’s airport hotels for more.

A Footnote

I should add, by the way, that me mentioning these big hotels is by no means an absolute endorsement of them. Quite the contrary. With the exception of Austria Trend Hotel, Skaritz and Hotel Marrol’s, all of these hotels fall for me into the category of slightly samey international chain options, and as a rule quirky quintessential Slovakia-ness is what we like to wax lyrical about on this site! Moral of this post: save 20 Euros on the taxi from the airport and spend it on a good meal out for two (possible in Bratislava) or dirt-cheap beer.

If you want to say To Hell with this post, I’m getting a taxi, then a cross-town (across the Old Town that is) or train station to Old Town taxi ride is around 5 Euros, and from the airport to the Old town you’ll pay 15 to 20 Euros (more for the Best Western Hotel West and Kempinski Hotel River Park because they’re through the Old Town and out the other side).

RELATED POST: The Cognac Express Taxi to the Airport!

Image ©Yusuke Kawasaki

Getting Around Bratislava: the Definitive Guide to its Transport Hubs

Here’s how to find how Bratislava’s main transport links… because we know you’ll want to…

1 – Air:

Bratislava’s M. R. Štefánik Airport lies to the east of Ružinov 8km outside the city centre. All flights to Bratislava come here (click here for a post on Slovakia’s air connections). It’s a modern place, although don’t get here too long before your flight departure time, as there’s nothing to do once you’ve gone through security and queues almost never take longer than fifteen minutes to pass through. Awaiting on the other side of security? A shop and three cafes (Arrivals boasts a further two cafes). In Arrivals are also the gaggle of rent-a-car offices, an ATM and money-changing facilities. Departures is a hardly-leg-busting 2 minute walk from Arrivals, in the same building, and there’s another cafe here. The most likely way you’ll be spending time here if you’ve just arrived is waiting for the ridiculous plane-to-customs bus, where you wait about 20 minutes for it to leave for the 400m-odd journey…

There is also the larger international airport in Vienna, Austria – just one hour’s drive away.

Here’s the official LINK to the very good in-English info at the Bratislava Airport website, which includes a map of where the airport is and all kinds of FAQs related to the airport.

RELATED POST: Getting from the airport to the bus station, train station (Hlavná Stanica), central Vienna and Vienna airport

RELATED POST: Where to stay close to the airport

RELATED POST: How to get from the airport (or the train station) to Bratislava’s main hotels

2 – Train:

The main (and pitifully ugly) train station is Hlavná Stanica, just north of the Old Town (Predstaničné Námestie, which runs back from Šancová). It’s full of tatty baguette and kebab booths, as well as one endearing train station cafe. The much-talked of refurbishment is still a long way from becoming a reality. Prize for Europe’s most lamentable capital city main train station and a deceptively poor advert for a lovely city, but good connections nationwide…

You should not need to go anywhere else to get a train within Slovakia as the overwhelming majority of national and international trains depart from here.

Here’s the LINK to good in-English info including a list of station facilities, a map of where the station is and all kinds of FAQs relating to the station, including public transport connections from the train station to the rest of Bratislava.

RELATED POST: Getting from Hlavná Stanica to the bus station & airport.

3 – Bus:

Most buses to other parts of Slovakia and international destinations leave from the Mlynské Nivy bus station (on Mlynské Nivy). It’s far from being up with the usual standards of modern capital city bus stations but it’s a damned sight nicer than the train station.

Here’s the LINK to the best in-English info, with a map and info on public transport connections from the bus station to the rest of Bratislava.

RELATED POST: Getting from the bus station to Hlavná Stanica (the train station) & to the airport

4 – Boat:

The main port from which all boat trips, both national and international, arrive/depart is just down from the Old Town on the Danube (Fajnorovo Nabrezie 2).

Here’s a LINK to the best in-English info, including a map and a list of the port facilities. The port is within easy walking distance of the Old Town centre.

RELATED POST: Getting to Bratislava by Boat

5 – Public Transport Around Bratislava:

The most updated source of information on Bratislava public transport, and the first port of call for in -English info on planning your route on public transport around Bratislava is imhd.zoznam.sk which also includes this very useful page on where to purchase Bratislava public transport tickets (for single or multiple journeys or long-term passes). But it can be confusing, nevertheless, to work out how and where you want to go in Bratislava city and for this reason we have created this handy post on Bratislava’s main tram, bus and trolleybus routes.

RELATED POST: Map of Greater Bratislava (to see the city in perspective)

6 – Public Transport Across Slovakia:

The most updated source of information on public transport across Slovakia, and the first port of call for in-English info on planning your route on public transport across Slovakia, is Cp.atlas.sk.

Beckov Castle ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Around Trenčin: Beckov Castle

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

Beckov vs Stonehenge!

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

The Arrival

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

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

Beckov view… ©englishmaninslovakia.com

Beckov view… ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

 

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

A Brief History of Beckov

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

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

©englishmaninslovakia.com

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

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

The teahouse… ©englishmaninslovakia.com

The teahouse… ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

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

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

The lookout tower ©englishmaninslovakia.com

The lookout tower ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

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

 

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

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

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

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

Places to Stay: the coolest hotel in Trenčin

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

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

Top Ten Medieval Towns in Slovakia

 

MAP LINK:

ADMISSION: 3.50/1.70 Euros per adult/child.

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

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

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

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

The Art Film Festival in its old home in Trencianske Teplice

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

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

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

Jeremy Irons at Art Film Fest - photo by Radovan Stoklasa

Jeremy Irons at Art Film Fest – photo by Radovan Stoklasa

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

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

Kosice by night

Kosice by night

 

A Quick Guide to the Other Content We Have on Košice

Places to Go: Climbing Košice cathedral

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

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

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

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

Getting Around: Košice’s flight connections

Getting Around: Quirky Košice city tours

Musings: The Definition of ‘Discussed’

The gorgeous garden...

The Greatest Boutique Hotel in Bratislava

Location: Old Town.

Travel up above the city centre into Koliba, or the neighbourhoods around Slavin, and you enter wealthy Bratislava – where city intellectuals attend piano concerts and abodes are designed by fashionable architects. With its maze of steep leafy streets, this is the perfect poster for enticing people to move to the city. It’s peaceful, it’s relatively traffic free, and the views back down over Bratislava are wonderful.

I had several criteria for the Bratislava hotel I would select for my parents when they visited. I wanted it to be in an idyllic area, and a quiet one, and within walking distance from the centre. (This already whittled the options down considerably. In fact, according to a Google Map search, it almost completely reduced them to zero). But I also wanted this hotel to be small, intimate, non-chain, more like the bed and breakfasts they were accustomed to in the UK.  And now I was left with one choice.

View of Bratislava from a bedroom window...

View of Bratislava from a bedroom window…

Hotel No 16 fitted all those criteria – and then some. It serendipitously appears as you turn a sharp corner on Partizánska – a white-washed building spreading over several levels because of the pitching gradient of its grounds. The home of a composer and his wife, it’s furnished with exquisite taste (you are serenaded with some of the compositions over breakfast). Light and spacious courtesy of the huge windows, the garden outside with its fish pond and terraced lawn seating nevertheless creates a special feeling of being cocooned  from the outside world. And whilst it markets itself as a business hotel, boutique hotel is much nearer the mark. In fact, it has far more claim to being boutique than Bratislava’s far-more famous boutique hotel The Tulip House, because here the rooms all exude far more originality and character.

It could be the personable service – this is a family-owned establishment, after all, and the staff are all part of the family – but it’s as likely to be the TLC with the decoration which make Hotel No 16 such a breath of fresh air. Antique furniture abounds, graceful art adorns the public areas, bathrooms have baths and the vistas out over Old Town Bratislava towards the castle over the burnished rooftops will have you wanting to stay in at nights – just gazing out…

MAP LINK:

ADDRESS: Partizánska 16A

PRICE: Doubles are 70 Euros

BOOK HOTEL NO 16: (their website sometimes crashes – hey, they’re only a small business – so you can always email them on hotelno16@hotelno16.com – you will need to arrange payment by email anyway to reserve a room (for the deposit). And paying in cash for the remainder is preferred.

The High Tatras Mountain Resorts – Stará Lesna: Hotel Horizont Hits the High-End Accommodation Scene

The Grand Opening...

To many manic drum rolls, not to mention a spectacular light show, a traditional Eastern Slovak Orthodox blessing and the release of several doves into the High Tatras night, Hotel Horizont, Slovakia’s latest luxury hotel, officially opened last Thursday evening – and under precisely the mountainous backdrop depicted!

It was a noteworthy occasion for several reasons.

Hotel Horizont’s location, in Stará Lesna just below the traditional “big three” mountain resorts in the High Tatras (the Smokovec resorts, Tatranská Lomnica and Štrbské Pleso for your information), deservedly catapults Stará Lesna up to the status of mountain resort too. The pretty village of pastille-hued houses straddling a single street sits a couple of kilometres below Tatranská Lomnica, the nearest stop on the Tatras Electric Railway (and as well as being connected by road is also linked by a very pleasant woodland walk). It’s a far more undisturbed community than the sometimes hectic touristy villages of Starý Smokovec and Štrbské Pleso) but is positioned at the very beginning of the foothill forests of the mountains, meaning that the landscape to the north, just as with the “big three”, has protected status.

Four-star hotels do not open in the High Tatras (or in Slovakia, for that matter) every day, either. The “big three” each sport one top-end resort – most notably Grandhotel Kempinski on the lakeshore above Štrbské Pleso – and each of these is a veritable grand dame. But the Horizont, despite its significantly more modern appearance, is comparable for quality and unlike the others, it’s an utter individual: and not a part in any way of an international chain.

The Inside Perspective

Colour-wise, the interior is flecked geometric greys, reflecting the grains of the crystalline Slovak stone which themes the decoration in the public areas and the rooms. The reception ushers you through spaciously to a bar with a terrace overlooking the lofty peaks. Off to the right is arguably the hotel highlight: a gorgeous English-style cigar snug bar designed by renowned Humenné wood specialists and constructed entirely with glossy oak. Behind that, the restaurant is already gaining a reputation for its scrumptious hriba polievka (mushroom soup). As reception is on the second floor, it’s easy to miss upon first arrival the beautiful ground floor pool, poolside bar and fitness centre…

A beer with a view…

The rooms (six floors of them all told) are a tad above average size for a four-star joint: the tasteful modern decoration extends here too. None of the rooms have baths, which is perhaps the sole disadvantage but they do have balconies, which even rooms at the “big three’s” biggest hotels often lack. However, with the pool below and – another candidate for Horizont’s pièce de resistance – with the seventh floor rooftop sauna and Jacuzzi with their birds-eye view out towards the soaring summits of Gerlachovský štit and Lomnicky štit, pampering at this place is never more than a stone’s throw distant.

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The cigar lounge…

Why to Stay in a Nutshell

Perhaps, to synopsise why a stay here should be a part of your High Tatras holiday, Hotel Horizont must best be described as tranquil, modern, affordable mountain resort luxury: these six words put it in a category all of its own. Grandhotel Kempinki puts a hefty price tag on its sumptuousness; neither the best digs that the Smokovec resorts or Tatranská Lomnica can offer come close for modernity.

And at the same time, the mountaintops (the highest accessible point in Slovakia for non-professional climbers, no less) are a 25-minute walk and an unforgettable cable car trip away.

The Hike to the to Lomnicky štit Cable Car

To hike to Tatranská Lomnica and the cable car station up to Lomnicky štit, turn left out of the hotel’s main entrance and walk along the dead-end lane passing one other hotel (to your left) and skirt on a trackway to the left of a second hotel. A gravelled path then continues in the same direction of through woodland. Follow the gravelled path to cross the Tatras Electric Railway and after more woodland turn left on the road into Tatranská Lomnica.

Along this road, a pavement-path follows the right-hand edge. The main road eventually turns to the left but proceed on the path through a small park to come out on the left-hand side of Reštauracia Stará Mama. Turn right on the pedestrian precinct to reach Tatranská Lomnica’s Tatras Electric Railway station (where you can take the train to Starý Smokovec or Štrbské Pleso). Cross the railway line to ascend to the main road at the left-hand edge of the village’s gorgeously maintained main park (where, turning left, you will pass a historic ski museum (good fun!), the tourist office and the sky-blue Penzión Encian (on the right). Just after this point, by which you will see the cable car complex above you, turn right on the road up to the cable car – where a new adventure to the second-highest point in Slovakia, Lomnicky štit, begins…

MAP LINK

PRICE: from 110/140 Euros single/double

BOOK HOTEL HORIZONT

Boat: Getting to Bratislava by River

Everyone knows about those grand old Central European trains, right? Kicking back in the dining car with a frothy beer and a plate of fried cheese (well fried cheese is unquestionably the dish all Central European trains do best) as you cruise between nations is undeniably one of the continent’s very best experiences. And of course, being a through-stop between west and east, Bratislava’s Hlavná Stanica train station is one of the great the jump-on points for such a journey. For Bratislava train connection info, let’s give the floor to the Man in Seat 61. But Bratislava is blessed with an arguably still grander possibility of approach (or indeed departure): on, oh yes, the Blue Danube itself – from Vienna (or, if you just want to glimpse Bratislava from the water but not stop, Budapest).

OK, the Danube (Dunaj) is not always as blue as Strauss insinuates in his music:) Nevertheless, large swathes of the journey between Vienna and Bratislava are very pretty (through Nationalpark Donau Auen) and the water really does seem cobalt at points when contrasted with the green of the forests on either side. The prettiest part of the journey is around the town of Hainburg near the Austrian border and, just beyond, by the confluence of the Morava at Devín Castle.

Vienna to Bratislava Boats (and back)

1: Lod.sk Vienna-Bratislava Hydrofoil: Hydrofoil boats leave from late April to late October. They run Wednesday to Sunday from late April to late June, daily in July/August and Friday to Sunday from September until the end of the season in late October. Departure from Vienna is 17:30, departure from Bratislava is 9:00 (the boats, Slovak-run, give you the day in Vienna or the night in Bratislava). Journey duration is 90 minutes downriver to Bratislava and 105 minutes upriver to Vienna. Prices are 20/29 Euros single/return. Of course with your ticket you don’t have to travel back next morning; it’s valid for when you want to travel back. The Lod.sk website is now in Slovak (of course), German and English.

2: Twin City Liner Boats: The Austrian-run Twin City Liner runs regular (almost) year-round connections from Vienna to Bratislava. Departure from Vienna is at 8:3012:30 and 16:30 with departure from Bratislava at 10:3014:30 and 18:30. From March to October there are usually one or two additional services as well each way. Boats are a bit quicker than the Lod.sk Hydrofoil boats as a rule (75 minutes downriver to Bratislava, 90 minutes upriver back again). Prices however seem a tad steep, at an average 30 Euros for a single trip – meaning that overall Englishmaninslovakia recommends Lod.sk when possible during the tourist season. The Twin City Liner website is in German, but has a basic English version.

Departure in Vienna: Schiffstation Reichsbrücke, Handelskai 265. All Bratislava boats depart from here, unless you’re on a cruise ship, in which case you’ll likely be told everything and won’t require this blog to help. Nearest subway: Vorgartenstraße (on U1 line).

Departure in Bratislava: International port, Fajnorovo nábrežie 2, just down on the river from the Old Town east of Most SNP. Here’s a list of facilities available in the terminal building.

Between the beginning of June and the end of August, a Budapest to Vienna Hydrofoil passes through Bratislava but ridiculously does not stop off (it used to; they scrapped it). Departure times are 9:00 from Budapest (Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday) and 9:00 from Vienna (Wednesday, Friday, Sunday). You’ll pass through Bratislava at approximately 13:45/10:30 respectively depending on which way you’re going. Total journey time is between 5.5 and 6.5 hours.

GETTING TO BRATISLAVA BUT NOT BY BOAT: See our list of air connections to Slovakia.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: On the way from Bratislava to Vienna by boat, the most diverting spot, just over the Austrian border, is Hainburg, 16km west.

Wizz Air Take-off!

Flights: Poprad to London Route Now Established Air Link to Slovakia

A few years ago, the now-defunct SkyEurope airline offered the incredibly useful connection between London and the High Tatras of Slovakia which are one of the country’s main tourist attractions. Now, thanks to Wizz Air, that flight is not only back – but booming. Which is particularly great news in a world of flight routes that come and go in the blink of an eye.

Since October 28 2014, flights have been running like clockwork from London Luton to the tiny but terribly useful Poprad Tatry airport on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays at 08:35 (and returning from Poprad Tatry on the same days at 12:35) according to the schedule on the Wizz Air website. Planes will be 180-seater Airbus A320’s. And flight prices start at £29.99 (one way). Flight time? About 2 hours 35 minutes.

It’s a very important connection for Slovakia, whose main airline is currently Ryanair (those guys have the monopoly on international flights). And with Poprad/the Tatras (hub of Slovakia’s winter sports and many of its outdoor adventures) being four hours train ride from Bratislava (where most international flights including the UK arrive at present) and over one hour from Košice (where the only other international flights arrive – check here for info on London to Košice flights) by train – the London-Poprad connection saves holiday-makers considerable time.

So everything seems set for your break to Slovakia – straight, as we say, to the good stuff! And we already have on the site a huge amount of info to help plan your High Tatras visit, with tons more on the way. So without further ado:

A Quick Guide to the Other Content We Have on Poprad

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

Places to Go: Poprad’s lavish Aqua Park

Places to Go: Nine reasons to linger in Poprad

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

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

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

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

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

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s gourmet chocolatier

Going Out: Poprad & the Manchester United Connection

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

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

Top Ten Medieval Towns in Slovakia

And… an overview of what awaits in the High Tatras just outside Poprad… see our comprehensive guide to hiking across the mountains, experience other adventures in the Tatras from climbing to kayaking with the No.1 adventure company in the Tatras and see our recommended High Tatras accommodation options – from hotels to remote mountain houses.

And lastly but not leastly, bon voyage. Dobrý letu!

Trains: Want Fried Cheese With That View? (A Welcome to Riding the Rails in Slovakia)

Friday afternoon; I have my ticket from the sour-faced woman in Bratislava’s Vinohrady station; I’m waiting on the broken platform with a view of vineyards in spring bloom; there’s a moan and a clank and a sound a bit like what I imagine a minotaur sounds like when it despairs because it got lost in the labyrinth and… yes, in hobbles the train heading east.

I’ve done this journey a dozen or more times in spring sunshine and winter snow alike but the feeling of elation – of getting on a train and heading cross-country, east from Bratislava – never ceases to enrich the senses.

That is partly, of course, because I’m going somewhere; somewhere exciting; where is not important right now. But it is mostly because trains in Slovakia – and in Central Europe generally – are experiences in themselves. They are that essential first stage of the journey – getting there would just not be as fun without them.

I dodge the beggar and the skinheads and the businessmen and the giggling students and the gaggle of babky (old grandmothers) and make for the front carriage. The rest of the train is full (even the aisle outside the compartments decked out in brown and green is chock-a-block). So I head to the restaurant car, brown and green colour scheme persisting; colours that in any other context would look outdated but on this groaning old train, with the Carpathians rising out of the window, seem just natural.

There’s the other usual suspects too. Outside, the middle-of-nowhere stations (the Vrútky’s of this world) where the station masters hurry out of their offices smoothing their uniforms and donning their hats whilst the train passes before returning to their afternoon nap, tea or slivovitz. And within – fake flowers that look almost dead even though they were never alive. Mirrors – why???? – high up on each compartment wall as if passengers really like to stand up on tiptoe and arrange their hair in the 2-inch wide strip of glass. A serious middle-aged waiter with a pencil moustache dishing out cold Czech beer (Kozel seems a favourite). A menu which appears to have a myriad options but which when you break it down does eggs, admittedly in several different forms, wiener schnitzel, goulash , pancakes and fried cheese – all with a “vegetable garnish” of grated carrot and cabbage.

After a studied sampling of all possibilities over the last year or so I now always go for the fried cheese (the risk of an upset stomach afterwards is minimal and, in any case, this battered piece of stodgy goodness is in fact a Slovak staple – you’re eating a proper piece of Slovak culture if you eat this). Rubbery, battered and with well-seasoned potatoes on the side with that cabbage salad. If you’re lucky, you’ll have the option of the battered Hermelin – one step deeper into the Czech-Slovak cultural immersion as the batter is thicker and Hermelin is the Czech Republic’s very own take on camambert. Ah! As Europe rolls passed the window.

Because thats the thing. Your average Slovakian place-to-place train is also often a trans-European train. That pencil-moustached waiter has some words of German and Hungarian up his sleeve, most likely, because the train could be going across three, four, five country borders. There’s something internationally titillating about that. And even a little bit grand.

Sit back, feast, down a froth-topped Kozel and wait for some of Europe’s greatest mountains to rise up before you, without moving a muscle (other than those you need to chew and swallow).

Cue Kraftwerk for the soundtrack. Trans – Europe – Express…

Trains: Regiojet – Too Good to be True?

Until recently, ZSSK, the state-owned Slovak train company, ran all train routes in Slovakia. This was not a wholly bad thing, because as monopolies go, this was a pretty fair one, with reasonable prices for train travel nationwide, and several notable efforts of recent years to step up quality (the introduction of smart new two-tier trains to run many routes, the introduction of wifi on the IC train routes between Bratislava and Košice). BUT.

But competition is always healthy, and competition has finally been provided by the expansion of Czech-owned Regiojet into Slovakia. Actually, RegioJet have been operating on Slovak turf since 2011 (when they began running the Bratislava to Komarno route). But it was their additional routes added in 2014 which captured people’s attention, because that was when they began operating some trains on the main railway route in Slovakia – from Bratislava through Poprad to Košice.

We recently caught up with one of Slovakia’s leading tour operators, Erik Ševčík of Adventoura, who lives in Poprad in the High Tatras and welcomes the new service.

“I have done the journey between Bratislava and Poprad Tatry several times now” says Erik. “It takes three and a half hours, which is the same as the IC Trains. Why do we welcome the RegioJet service? Well, the first big thing is the ticket price: as little as 9 Euros one-way for a 350km journey. This is for the most basic category, standard class (in 6-person compartments usually), but this is still very comfortable – and there is also relax class and business class for those who want something more. Second, even in standard class, you get mineral water or coffee for free, plus a complementary newspaper. Third, everyone likes free Wifi and RegioJet has that too. It’s just a pleasure to travel with them, and the state-run trains for the same journey cost around 13 Euros and don’t have these kind of services.”

The seats also deserve a mention: leather, reclining and with comfy arm rests, as well as small tables and plenty of leg room. They actually beat those on a great deal of airlines. Relax Class and Business Class get even more comfort (mainly the space per person, the comfort of the seats and the table space improve).

“In Slovakia we think they are doing a great job” says Erik “not just for Slovaks, but also for travellers.”

Your next trip east in Slovakia, it seems, could certainly be in more style… and for a cheaper price.

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.

Getting Around Bratislava: From the Airport to the City Centre

After the confusion I have had myself over the years, I thought a few notes on Bratislava’s actually very good but initially flummoxing public transport system might come in handy. There is very little thorough info in English on the web so: voila. This post is about getting from Bratislava Airport, aka M. R. Štefánik Airport (which is the way nearly all Brits arrive) to the centre.

Arriving at Bratislava’s Airport

Slovakia does not have its own airline, meaning Ryanair has almost become the (bone-shakingly bumpy) substitute. Don’t worry though: most flights still land with almost zero fatality rate. There is a reason a lot of British visitors arrive by air other than simple logistics: Bratislava is connected to London Luton, London Stansted, Birmingham, Liverpool and Edinburgh – making the UK easily the most connected country to Slovakia by air. (NB – you can also fly from London to Košice and from London to Poprad in the High Tatras).

Once through customs, the arrivals hall, such as it is, ushers you straight ahead through the double doors and into the car park. Here, unless you miraculously have your own limo waiting for you (or a strategically placed friend waiting in a revving Skoda, for example), you have one of two options to get to your accommodation in the centre:

 – Taxi

You will have no difficulty spotting the taxi rank immediately outside arrivals. The official price a Slovak pays to get from the airport to a destination within the city centre is between 8 and 10 Euros one-way. However, you are probably not Slovak (the chances of this, after all, on a worldwide scale, are limited) and you are coming from the airport. Prices to city centre destinations will vary between 15 Euros, if you bargain hard and the destination really is central, to 25 Euros, if the taxi driver thinks he can milk you for extra Euros and the destination is slightly beyond the centre, for example Koliba. Taxi drivers are, in my personal experience, relatively unlikely to speak much English (nothing against that – just sayin’). For taxi rides, it’s best to come armed with cash (two 10 Euro notes and change in 1 Euro coins would be ideal)  

– Bus

For buses, walk across the taxi rank/pick-up/drop-off  road (using the pedestrian crossing) to the second pavement. Turn right. Walk along (just where the happy chappy with the wheelie bag in the picture is going) until you see the bus stop for busses to all city destinations at the end of the pavement. There is a shelter, some ticket machines and several other anxious first-time visitors like yourself waiting there, along with the usual group of grimly determined locals (to be joined by a lot of exuberant teenagers just one stop later when you pass the nearby Avion Shopping Centre). A word about the ticket machines. They do not take credit cards, British pounds, American dollars, forints or indeed any other currency than Euros. So have some Euro change handy. For journeys of 15 minutes or less, press the button for the 0.70 Euro ticket. For journeys of 15 minutes up to one hour (into which category any journey to the city centre, including yours, will almost certainly fall) get the option for the 0.90 Euro ticket.

Remember that you must validate your bus ticket on-board for bus 61 and any Bratislava city public transport. If you don’t validate the ticket (you’ll see the little validation machines by the doors on the bus) your ticket will be essentially invalid and you can face a 50 Euro+ fine! OK. Now you are ready to get your bus.

Now, in the paragraph when I mentioned city destinations? That was a bit of an exaggeration because really there’s actually only four options by bus from Bratislava Airport:

1: The Bratislava to Vienna Express Bus

This bus, run by Slovaklines in conjunction with Eurolines, runs between Bratislava Airport and Vienna’s central train station, Vienna HBF. En route, it will stop in Bratislava at the bus station and then the train station, in the town of Hainburg just across the border in Austria (that’s where Slovaks go to do shopping because… no, no, that’s another article), at Vienna’s Schwechat Airport and then on to the centre of Vienna at Vienna HBF (Hauptbahnhof, the main central train station). Here is a link to the latest timetable for the route. The first bus is 8:30am from the airport; the last is 9:35pm (so for the late-night flights arriving from the UK this option won’t be possible; you’ll need to wait an hour for the last Blaguss service, below). Journey time to central Bratislava is 30 minutes and to central Vienna one hour 30 minutes (three services stop at Erdbergstrasse, which is 1:10, but to Vienna HBF it’s 1:30). The full journey from Bratislava to central Vienna costs 7.50 Euros (luggage is 1 Euro extra). If you’re headed to the city centre, you can take this option too but there is little point as Bus 61 below is cheaper and more frequent. There are 7 services between Bratislava Airport and central Vienna daily.

2: Blaguss to Vienna

This service offers almost exactly the same route as the Slovaklines Bratislava-Vienna bus above: only with even fewer stops (and also 7.50 Euros to central Vienna). This service just calls at the airport, Most SNP bus station, Petržalka Einsteinova, Vienna’s Schwechat Airport and central Vienna’s Erdbergstrasse. Here’s a link to the latest timetable for the route. The first bus is an incredible 4am from Bratislava Airport, the last is 22:45. Bratislava airport-central Vienna travel time is billed as one hour 15 minutes although in reality this can take a little longer. There are 14 services between Bratislava Airport and central Vienna daily.

3: Bus No 61

This Bratislava city bus links the airport (signposted only as “letisko” in Bratislava) with the train station and runs up until at least midnight. This bus runs every 15 minutes but can get crowded. Try and get a seat (at the airport you should be able to) and keep your luggage in sight. The following stop (in Slovak: zastávka) will be announced on a very futuristic talking scoreboard (wo, yeah!) The stop of interest you will need to watch out for is Račianske Mýto (the name translates as Rača tollway because in times gone by this would have demarcated the edge of Bratislava and Rača (now a suburb) would have been a separate settlement). Get off at Račianske Mýto to change for connections to the city centre. Otherwise this bus continues to, you’ve guessed it, the train station (Hlavná Stanica).

From where the bus drops you on the far side of Račianske Mýto*, you have to double half-way back across the main road to the tram line to catch the tram to the city centre. You’ll see which way the trams are heading and you want those that are heading right (as you stand with your back to the terrible-looking restaurant and the park, facing the way you’ve come) to take you direct into the city centre. Getting tram number 5 is best (although tram 3 will also take you to the centre). After three stops on tram 5 (trams every 10 min or so, your ticket you got at the airport still covers you) you’ll enter the pedestrianised Obchodná street. Get off at the second stop on this street (so four after Račianske Mýto) at the stop called Postová for destinations in the Old Town centre. At Postová, continue to the next big crossroads (a beautiful church known as Kostol Nasvätejšej Trojice is now on your right) and straight across the tram lines is the very pretty entrance to Bratislava Old Town.

*You can get off Bus 61 earlier than Račianske Mýto, at Trnavské Mýto, and change for tram 4, which will bring you down into the centre by the Danube and the bridge across it of Most SNP (aka the UFO and it really does look like one). However, it’s slightly more complicated to give directions from Trnavské Mýto so Englishmaninslovakia recommends Račianske Mýto to change at…

4: Bus 96 to Petržalka

You are very unlikely to need the bus out to Petržalka (more, much more on Petržalka in other forthcoming posts, including the lovely cycle ride from Petržalka to Danubiana Art Museum or the new tram line that’s set to connect Petržalka with the city centre by 2016) when you first arrive in Bratislava but there is that option too.

Right. You’ve arrived. Thank Goodness for that.

RELATED POST: Every other public transport connection in Bratislava you are ever likely to need

RELATED POST: How To Get to Bratislava’s Main Hotels

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In Pictures: Finishing Touches to Hotel Horizont, the Latest High Tatras Hotel

The latest luxury wellness hotel in the High Tatras: almost good to go! Here we sneaked up close to get some images of the finishing touches being laid – and not as you might think! Of course, we returned for the official opening – see our full juicy review!

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Všetko co mam rád (Everything that I Love)

I sat watching this in a friend’s flat on dusty Moskovská, in one of those big, old, grey-brown apartment buildings the other side of the Medicka Záhrada, on a late lazy summer evening, and felt, perhaps more than with any other  Slovak film I’ve yet seen, that I could, in fact, have been seeing a scene unfolding outside on the street rather than on a TV screen.

Všetko čo mam rád takes place in the early 1990s (it was made in 1992), in that uncertain period after the fall of Communism but before Slovakia had yet become a nation. It follows the story of an out-of-work divorcee and the important relationships of his life – with his pretty, flamboyant love interest, an English teacher, with his son and with his father (and, even though perhaps he doesn’t want it, the continued relationship with his ex-wife).

It is hard not to see the connection between the main character, Tomas, and Slovakia the country (an out-of-work divorcee, remember) pulled unwillingly back to the life he had with his ex yet compelled forward, initially with lust and happiness, but later with uncertainty, toward his spirited foreign girlfriend. Then there is the pull in the other direction: family. His father is disapproving of him having left his wife, whilst Tomas’ son is just plain embarrassed of him. Then there is the very first scene, where Tomas, during a passionate exchange with his girlfriend, shouts “I am Slovak” in English before adding, in Slovak, “unfortunately”.

Tomas is an amiable, likeable but somewhat directionless protagonist. He means well, is not confrontational, and there seems to be few reasons for him to object to his girlfriend’s request for him to come back to England with her. There seems to be little tying him to Slovakia, in other words (his ex-wife empties his house of possessions in a fit of rage, he and his father are hardly close, he has no work). Yet as the film progresses, against all likelihood he seems to be swaying more towards staying. Something in his identity is irrevocably tied to Slovakia, a tie which becomes evident during some fascinating, if melancholy, shots of Slovak landscape, culminating in the moodily-filmed final scene where he drives to a lake (Zlaté Piesky?) with his son.

The director, Martin Šulík, was the light that emerged in the lean period of post-communist Slovak film-making. He went on to make the more famous Záhrada, and kept developing what became his hallmark elements of strained relationships and original, tongue-in-cheek, gently comic dialogue in that movie. And perhaps Všetko čo mam rád does often get overlooked as a result. But this film is a little-known gem. Its slow pace works because the characters are built up into people that do seem realistic – people you might meet on the streets (and in this regard a movie Hollywood could learn a great deal from). It does far more than sketch the difficult transition from Communism in Slovakia. It taps into “Slovakness” (not just Slovakness in the 1990s, of course, but Slovakness generally) and therefore permeates the boundaries of the challenging, scantly-funded era in which it was made. And – touchingly, unpretentiously, albeit with a slight sepia tint – stands the test of time.

BUY THE MOVIE: At Artforum or the other top Slovak movie outlet, Gorilla

How to Get Between Poprad, Ždiar and Zakopane in Poland

It’s a topic that’s thrashed out on travel forums again and again, because the online info is always conspicuously lacking in some of the necessary detail: how to take the beguilingly scenic trip across the east of the High Tatras between Poprad (Slovakia) and Zakopane (Poland), the two big mountain supply towns on either side?

I was the same, back in the day, frantically scrabbling online for decent info on this, but having done the trip a couple of times I thought I’d share my thoughts here. This is more an adventure/experience than it is an essential transport artery so I’ve included it in this High Tatras “things to do” section.

First off: the trip is amazing – a timeless foray ascending into and traversing the most gorgeous High Tatras mountain scenery (this part is known as the Belianske Tatry, studded by beautiful little Goral villages like Ždiar) before, on the Polish side, running into dense forest and eventually descending to Zakopane. For those on round-Europe trips, this one’s a good’un.

Chances are if you know anywhere in Poprad you’ll know the main railway station. Right alongside is the bus station. Whilst you can take the Tatras Electric Railway for part of this trip (as far as Tatranská Lomnica) you’ll have to change to a bus there anyway so it’s probably best to take the bus for this journey from the beginning.

The Direct Way

From (usually stand four) Poprad bus station, a direct bus runs across the border at Lysa Polana to Zakopane BETWEEN JUNE 15th AND OCTOBER 15th. Departure times from Poprad’s bus station are at 8:50am, 11:50am, 4:50pm and 5:50pm (times in the other direction from Zakopane bus station are at 6am, 9am, 11am and 4pm). The journey takes approximately one hour and 45 minutes and costs a bargain 5 Euros. If you’re in a group of over 10 people, you’ll get a discount which will knock the price down to about 3.50 Euros (but you’ll have to book this in advance – this is best done through the Zakopane-based ticket office – email them at biuro@nosal.pl.) In order from Poprad, buses go through Tatranská Lomnica, Ždiar (maybe stop off here for a few days – we recommend the Ginger Monkey Hostel) the Bachledova ski area (10km shy of the border) and Tatranská Javorina 2-3km before the border.

Outside of these dates, travel is a bit more problematic.

Poprad-Zakopane in the Off-Season

Getting from Poprad to the border is easy. Direct buses leave Poprad bus station for Lysa Polona at 5:40, 9:10, 12:45, 14:10 and 18:45 for the one hour twenty minute journey. You’ll be dropped on the Slovak side near a convenience store. Follow the road as it twists across the border passed the old (and no longer used) control point to the bus stop and bus timetable sign on the Polish side. Here, wait. This is a very beautiful but fairly remote spot and buses on the Polish side are more erratic (although Polish schedules from Zakopane ironically suggest there should in fact be more connections from there through to Lysa Polona, every 40 minutes to one hour) . One should turn up within an hour, but they have been known not to run so frequently in winter. (I’ve done this journey in March and in November and, starting with one of the early buses from Poprad which gives you flexibility to make alternative plans if something goes wrong, I’ve always made it to Zakopane waiting no more than an hour at the border). The reason given is usually bad weather conditions. Still, you wanted an adventure, right?

Zakopane-Poprad in the Off-Season

Buses according to this schedule leave Zakopane bus station every 40 minutes to one hour, the first at 7:40am and the last and 6:40pm. They will likely be signed to Morskie Oko (a mountain lake up a long, lonely side road, so communicate to the driver you want the stop nearest to Lysa Polona). Don’t plan this journey finely (i.e., aim to begin the journey around 8 or 9 which gives you scope for coming unstuck). Some of these buses won’t run – largely because there’s often no passengers. Or bad weather. Or something. Once dropped at the border, you’ll have to walk around the curving road to the Slovak side, where you’ll see the bus stop by the convenience store. Buses from this side of the border leave at 7:05am, 10:40am, 2:30pm, 3:30, 5:05 and 8:15pm for Poprad (even on Sundays).

Tatranská Javorina, 3km from the border on the Slovak side, has accommodation. It’s probably best to jot down a Zakopane or Poprad taxi cab number before you go, use in case things go pear-shaped. Stuck in Lysa Polona? There’s some fantastic hiking that goes off from here, up the road towards Morskie Oko lake. Having said that, you probably wouldn’t be in the mood if you were waiting for a bus… maybe you’ll have to make do with the Lysa Polona convenience store coffee machine.

 

A Quick Guide to the Other Content We Have on Poprad

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

Places to Go: Poprad’s lavish Aqua Park

Places to Go: Nine reasons to linger in Poprad

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

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

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

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

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

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s gourmet chocolatier

Going out: Poprad & the Manchester United connection

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

Getting Around: London to Poprad Flights

Top Ten Medieval Towns in Slovakia

 

MAP LINK:

GETTING THERE: Well this post is all about getting there, but to Poprad it’s best by train from Bratislava’s Hlavná Stanica: trains run every 1.5 to 2 hours and cost 11/19 Euros depending whether you travel first or second class.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: 32km north of Poprad on the way to the Polish border is Ždiar where you can stop off and, if you want, embark on Slovakia’s renowned long-distance hike, the Tatranská Magistrala

 

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 Tokaj Wine Cellars of the Far East: Drinking Like a King

Mmm. Culinary adventures. What better way to explore than one which has as its motive the discovery of a food or drink? I don’t just say this for my own palate’s sake. In a country I care about, it is also a beautiful thing to see a product flourishing which is a distillation of the land – of its peculiar soil, of its history. Scotland has whisky. France has cognac. Portugal has porto. Slovakia has its Tokaj wine.

Before we get started, it’s Tokaj. Not Tokaji like the Hungarians spell the region. Not Tokay, as the word usually gets Anglicised. No: Tokaj is the Slovak wine region. And I’m going to be honest: I’m writing this not purely because I heartily recommend a trip to this little-known viticultural region of Slovakia, but also to redress the unfair balance of online content that praises Hungarian Tokaji and dismisses or ignores Slovak Tokaj.

Slovak Tokaj vs Hungarian Tokaj

Cluster of Fermint grapes ready for making Tokaj ©andrs.kovacs

Cluster of Fermint grapes ready for making Tokaj ©andrs.kovacs

Just because this rather unique wine first shot to prominence whilst Slovakia was part of the Hungarian Kingdom, don’t be fooled into thinking Hungary’s Tokaji wine is the superior product and Slovak Tokaj just a humble cousin.  Far from it. The historic Tokaji-Tokaj wine region here encompasses territory in Hungary AND Slovakia. True, the Hungarians are better at promoting the wine on their side of the border to an international market (and at promoting Hungarian Tokaj as superior on online articles), but that’s also because the Slovaks are quite happy keeping their Tokaj to themselves – much like the Cubans don’t export much of their very best tobacco.

As for the taste, I’ve tried Tokaj in Hungary and in Slovakia. I’ve visited Tokaj wineries in both countries. And what becomes clear is that saying one country’s Tokaj is better and one is worse evidently boils down to territorial rivalry. Hungarians are angry Slovakia “took” part of “their” Tokaj region following the Treaty of Trianon after WW1 (their anger is intensified because Malá Trňa and Vel’ka Trňa, the villages on the Slovak side, are often able to produce better cibéba, the botrytised grapes that as you will see below are crucial to the Tokaj process). Slovaks are angry with the Hungarians for having subjugated them for the best part of 1000 years, and for having set foot on what was Slavic soil in the first place. When it comes to Tokaj – in fact when it comes down to it full stop – the arguments can run both ways with equal validity and are to an extent pointless. The fact is that Hungary and Slovakia now share the historic Tokaj wine region, and Tokaj wines in both countries have geographically protected designation of origin status.

It’s also true that certain Slovak Tokaj’s can out-trump the more numerous Hungarian Tokaji wines. In Hungary, the Tokaji wine region is much bigger. The wineries themselves are usually larger, and more commercially-focussed or business-minded, and also concentrate on producing more dry white wines (it is the amber-coloured Tokaj which, as you will see in the next section, is such a distinguished product in world terms, but this is also sells less than white wines). In Slovakia, Tokaj is still a niche product. It’s produced in far smaller quantities: sometimes just for family, friends and the odd passer by. Most of the little cellars therefore can concentrate on producing Tokaj Vyber (the afore-mentioned amber nectar-wine) because they’re not so concerned with getting their wines on restaurant tables.

There are two more major differences between Slovak Vyber Tokaj and Hungarian Tokaj Aszu (its cross-border equivalent):

1: Foreign investment: Hungarian Tokaj has seen a lot of French firms taking control of wineries. This has had positive consequences (more money to spend on latest technology methods, for example, and making the wineries more tourist-friendly) but it’s also meant a modernising of the brand. Slovak Tokaj (much less foreign investment) has remained more concerned with traditional methods of production that date back centuries (although Hungarians will claim this is Slovak Tokaj not adhering to certain standards).

2: Cibeby: It’s a little-known fact but cibeby (those sweet rotted grapes) just often seem to flourish more on the Slovak side. This (along with the older cellars that have acquired far more of the black mould on their walls that is essential for a rounded Tokaj taste) means Slovak Tokaj has a nuanced pungent aroma.

At the end of the day, of course it would be best to visit wineries on both the Slovak and Hungarian sides and make up your own mind! Just don’t listen to one side telling you the other side isn’t worth bothering with!

What’s So Special About Tokaj?

Before you make the somewhat epic (at least by Slovak standards) trek out here you should know how special – indeed elusive – is the object of your quest.

In truth, whether it hails from Hungary or Slovakia, Tokaj is a pretty singular drink – already distinguished from most other wines by its distinct amber colour. It’s a desert wine – and quite sweet, but also with a richness desert wines often lack. But it’s how it acquires that taste which sets it out from the overwhelming majority of other wines.

Tokaj grapes get picked only when the vines have been attacked by mould (which the famously moist climate and volcanic soil hereabouts encourages) and have begun to rot.  It’s a bacteria which visits the Tokaj vineyards only sporadically. And when it does, the viticulturists are on hand to convert it into one of Slovakia’s most specialty products – with Protected Designation of Origin status. The mould-attacked grapes called cibéba are fashioned into varying concentrations of sugarry paste (distinguished on a scale of “putňa” between 1 and 6, with 6 being sweetest and strongest) and determine the  sweet, pungent taste of Tokaj.

To reiterate, bigger vineyards – such as the Tokaji wineries in Hungary possess – can navigate the problem of sporadic production periods by the extent of the vines they’re harvesting. Most of Slovakia’s Tokaj wineries are small-scale: which means no fixed quantities can be produced and therefore international buyers are rarely interested: this all serves to underscore the eclectic nature of their product.

Tokaj...

Tokaj…  ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

 

A Sweet History Lesson

Tokaj wine production goes back several centuries, and involves famous names a-plenty. Charles III of Hungary safeguarded the area as a protected wine-growing region in the 18th century – although wine had been produced here long before that. King Louis XV of France served them to his mistress. Beethoven and Goethe refer to Tokaj in their works.  Perhaps the uniquest thing about the wine, in fact, is that the cellars where it matures were originally 16th- and 17th-century (some still earlier) defences against invading Turks: underground labyrinths these days thick with the aroma of fermenting grapes.

Visiting Slovakia’s Tokaj Cellars

This post was in fact prompted by the fact that there was almost no practical information on how to visit the Tokaj wine cellars of far-eastern Slovakia. Slovaks, despite being incredibly self-depracating at times, have a more or less universal quiet pride for their Tokaj, but there’s very much an “it’s there, and we’re happy if only we know about it” attitude that prevails when it comes to visiting the places where their product is made.

Even in the tourist information in Košice, from where a trip to Tokaj terrain commences, they’re hardly forthcoming with details. They’d sooner divert you to one of  the city’s wine bars – and whilst Košice does have several of these, this is not the matter in hand.

Essentially, whilst there is in fact a little-touted Tokaj wine route which takes in several of the villages with cellars (namely Slovenské Nové Mesto, Malá Tŕňa, Veľká Tŕňa, Viničky, Čerhov, Černochov and Bara) this is even more challenging to find good information on than the Malé Karpaty (Small Carpathians) wine route. Wine routes are also impractical, remember, if the distances between the stop-offs require a drive. The best idea with the Tokaj wine cellars is to go and stay overnight in the most atmospheric of the wine-producing villages, Malá Tŕňa (or failing that nearby Veľká Tŕňa). These last two are both part of the historic Tokaj region (Slovakia has extended its Tokaj region, and the wines there are still often very good, but Malá Tŕňa and Veľká Tŕňa have that little bit more historic soul.

MAP LINK: (for Malá Tŕňa).

GETTING THERE: An unusually long Getting There section, thanks to the below:

Malá Tŕňa is pretty much 100% devoted to winemaking – and has been for centuries. If you are not travelling around Slovakia with your own car then there is a nice way to get here by public transport.

Hop on one of the ponderous, battered old trains that shunt about every two hours from Košice down to the town of Slovenské Nové Mesto (also a winemaking town but less attractive) on the border with Hungary. Walk back up the long straight road running out of town to the first bend. A little-used lane forks right. Take it, and follow this route cross-country through rolling farmland with vineyard-carpeted slopes sliding into view as you pass the hamlet of Karolov Dvor and wind up on the shady main road (appropriately named Tokajská) of Malá Tŕňa. I personally enjoyed this way of arriving as you get to see more of the “winescape” and work up a thirst in the process. It was a scalding summer day on my last visit here, and I was craving the cellar cool by the time I arrived…

As you enter the village, the proper “wine” street (Medzipivničká) is on the left. You’ll see the Greek-style mural in celebration of viticulture and then the Tolkien-esque pitched, grass-roofed stone huts built into the earth which mark the entrance to the cellars themselves…

WHICH WINERY?:  Within Malá Tŕňa, there are several wineries to choose from. All offer similar degustation experiences for $10-15 Euros. You descend 10 metres underground (it’s cold down here – a more or less constant temperature year-round – you’ll need a jacket) into a network of underground passages and antechambers that would be incredible to explore even if there wasn’t a drop of alcohol stashed within.

As it is, these endearing labyrinthine buildings are packed to the gills with wine. You’ll see the cosily-lit cellars stacked with wine, with the characteristic bubble-like black mould encasing the walls and many of the bottles. You’ll sit down and be taken through the history of Tokaj (far more in depth and fascinating than any blog post could hope to be) and then you’ll get a long and drawn-out tasting session, generally beginning with the weakest and ending in the nectar-like grade 6 vintage.

The only difference between these tours is that some of the more popular ones can have bigger groups, making the experience less personal.

That said, on the day we made enquiries about visits, none of the wineries – even the biggest – had any visitors at all. This worked to our disadvantage, because to a group of just two, most wineries thought it wasn’t worth opening up (they wanted a 4-person minimum to bother). In the end it was the smallest winery of the lot (a family who had just one cellar and who had been winemakers for generations – the details on these guys will follow in the next day or so) who we found most accommodating – and delivered a beautifully personal experience whereby the owner was happy to chat for a good couple of hours about the complexities of the winemaking process.

WHICHEVER winery you opt to visit (and of course you can visit multiple cellars, but remember that at a minimum of six sizeable glasses of Tokaj per degustation, you might not wish to navigate too many sets of steep, slippery steps) you do need to BOOK IN ADVANCE. Ideally a minimum of 24 hours before, and to be safe two or three days before. It also helps if you go in a group – many small wineries may not offer tours just to one person on their own, and require four-person minimum groups.

WINE CELLAR TOURS/TASTINGS:

– Tokaj Macik Winery – they offer 6-, 10- or 15-glass tastings (the latter the supposedly “complete” degustation) – prices range from 10 to 30 Euros per person.

– Ostrozovic Winery – this is based in Vel’ka Tŕňa (the next village)  – 6-, 10- or 15-glass tastings with a “bonus” tasting on each cost 12.30, 19.90 or 32.90 Euros. They also have accommodation. 16 glasses in, you may need it.

So there you go. Enjoy.

STAY OVER: Tokaj Macik winery in the village of Malá Tŕňa came up with the bright idea of letting its wine-sozzled visitors crash at their place. There’s eight good, spacious modern rooms here, plus a bar serving more of that Tokaj and wifi. Prices for a single/double are 48/58 Euros.

GALLERY: (courtesy of Around Guides)

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: 58km northwest of Malá Tŕňa is the fabulous city of Košice centred by Košice Cathedral

WANT TO KNOW MORE ABOUT SLOVAK WINE? SO WHAT NEXT?

–  Our post on Open Cellar Days when you can go round sampling the wines of the Malé Karpaty (Small Carpathians) Wine Route willy-nilly,

– Our posts on Slovakia’s other big wine region, Malé Karpaty (Small Carpathians) around Bratislava: on visiting Limbach, the prettiest of these wine-producing villages and on the tasting events put on by various Malé Karpaty wineries

– Our post on the fine wines produced around Chateau Topoľčianky

– Our post on Slovakia’s ten most quintessential food and drinks

– A little bit more info on different types of Tokaj… and a little bit more about general Slovak winemaking

A link to Lonely Planet’s Wine Trails where you can read my chapter on the Slovak/Hungarian wine region of Tokaj.

NB: this is one of our pages which is constantly in a state of flux – check back for updates on Tokaj wine cellar tours and particularly good bottlings :)

Trenčin: Hotel Elizabeth

Hotel Elizabeth ©englishmaninslovakia.com

Hotel Elizabeth ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

I tried thinking of several possible titles for this article: “The hotel with the Roman remains”, “A night below the foundations of Western Slovakia’s mightiest castle”, something along these lines. Either of the above headings would be true, as would any title to the tune of “Trenčin’s Most Glamorous Hotel.” But again, not quite right.

Hotel Elizabeth is one of a select number of that coveted group of hotels known as the Historické Hotely Slovenska (Historic Hotels Slovakia) who set the bar very high with accommodation standards country-wide – character-rich old buildings, a dose of the glamour of yore, resplendent bars and spas, etc – but of this group, it’s one of the more down-to-earth. It certainly doesn’t boast about its best attributes, or put on intimidating airs and graces.

Which is why a title which drew attention to any one (or more) of these attributes just wouldn’t do. That said, and with attention span for reading on the web being limited, I’ll harp on about Hotel Elizabeth’s attributes anyway (in no particular order), because they are rather singular.

Historické Hotely Slovenska is only 15 hotels strong, and with the exceptions of Hotel Marrols in Bratislava and perhaps Hotel Bankov in Košice, there are no other independent hotels in Slovakia that currently warrant inclusion. No others that tick those necessary boxes, historic characterquality refurbishment and top-notch service. And of the 15, Hotel Elizabeth is one of a handful tourists would ever normally visit, being smack bang in the middle of one of the towns well and truly on the tourist trail.

Trenčin makes the cut for Slovakia-bound holidaymakers because of its preserved medieval centre, its straight-off-the-postcard fabulous castle straddling a crag above, and its evidence of early Roman occupation in the region, plastered on the side of the same crag. If you dig any or all of the above, Hotel Elizabeth is very much the hotel for you. Perhaps it’s the only hotel for you, because it stands like a striking sentinel at the entrance to that afore-mentioned medieval centre, and hugs two sides of the crag, directly below the castle and with exclusive access to those Roman remains.

The Hotel ©englishmaninslovakia.com

The Hotel ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The Approach…

The crenellated lemon yellow and white hotel exterior achieves some nigh-on improbable angles as it skirts tightly around the crag on which Trenčin Castle sits – so tightly the cliff overhangs parts of the building and you feel prompted to park on the other side of the car park to avoid the possibility you can’t help but vaguely entertain, i.e. that there will be a landslide that’ll write off your vehicle. Car parks. I’m not just slipping in a mention of car parks as a creative attempt at listing hotel facilities: I want you to visit the car park if you stay here regardless of whether you arrive by car, because of the intriguing carving high up on the rock face above (a haughty noble with a woman prostrate at his feet). The first of many neat historical points of interest the hotel factors in.

As you make your way from car park to reception, I’m not going to deny there are a few wobbly moments. Wobble one: an outlet of the national casino chain Herňa on the premises (in poor taste, I thought). Wobble two: hideous fake flowers by the door (again I sighed but it would be far from the first high-end hotel to make this easily-avoidable mistake). Through the doors though, and you’re in a striking glass-roofed courtyard, which now beautifully joins together what had been two separate buildings: light, lovely and intelligently worked. It’s here where you understand what the hotel is trying to do: play on the history of the building and modernise it. The glass lifts shooting up to the skylights high above; the huge glass ceiling hanging cascading down to the chic lobby bar. Contrasted with the traditional, those lemon yellow old walls again and, right by the reception desk, historical point of interest number two: the ruins of a old bakery (unearthed during the construction of the hotel spa) beneath a window in the floor.

The Rooms…

We got a castle view room. A castle view unlike any other, because you’re looking up at the castle directly up a wooded cliff which has become a nature haven as development of any kind is impossible. So a myriad birds and an eyefull of looming bastions, but nice because of the extra tranquility, even if the natural light on this side is a little lacking.

The suites here are huge, with vast bathrooms that get stand-alone bath tubs ©englishmaninslovakia.com

The suites here are huge: vast bathrooms, stand-alone bath tubs ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The space of the doubles is neither bigger nor smaller than you’d expect; the decor is intriguing, however, because gone are the historic features you might have expected, replaced by an absolutely modern vibe I wasn’t anticipating at all. Safe, upmarket, beige-white. The sharp abstract impressions of the old town above the beds weren’t to my personal liking, but they were cleverly done (some would ridicule my old-fashionedness for not liking them I’m sure). Putting the flat-screen TVs in the middle of otherwise gorgeous ornate mirrors was an interesting move. And the art in the corridors doesn’t always work (glamourously dressed ladies clad to blend in with their respective historic-looking backgrounds – and not always blending in). But comfortable beds, oodles of desk space, original toiletries in the spacious bathrooms. No tea- and coffee-making facilities (except in the suites), but they’re always order-able for free – and the lobby bar makes for a good place to sit while you sip. All-told: 78 rooms – and maybe, overall, this is what modern-traditional means for a hotel. In any case, by virtue of the size and the relative glamour, this is hotel of choice for visiting celebs – Slovak premier Fico is a repeat visitor and most leading music acts in the world have bedded down here at some point due to the nearby Pohoda Festival (one of Central Europe’s best and biggest music festivals, in case you weren’t aware).

Terrace view ©englishmaninslovakia.com

Terrace view ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The Rest…

I’m a big fan of the old building subverted by adding a touch of the modern, glassy look: for me that is a definite success story of the post-refurbishment Hotel Elizabeth. From several points on the upper corridors there’s great views looking back down at the interior reception courtyard. But the best example of this is the view from the Marcus Aurelius terrace, an outside bar again sporting a modern, dark wicker vibe. Down from here, you glimpse one of the hotel highlights: those already-mentioned Roman remains, and historical point of interest number three. Essentially, this Roman Inscription , a record of the victory of a Roman detachment of soldiers over Qadi and Marcomanni tribes in 180 AD, is a proof (one of the only surviving proofs) of ancient Roman occupation of the Váh river valley area. There’s a second viewing point, from a small room with translations of the inscription in many languages, around from the terrace.

The ancient Rome theme marches on (a little) in the Caracalla spa, a small but prettily colonnaded place with a surprising variety of massage treatments. In keeping with a place that encompasses multiple epochs, the opulent Cafe Sissi on the other side of the lobby is much truer to the hotel’s late-19th century roots. In an elaborate curve (following the cliff, remember) it sweeps around the edge of Trenčin’s old town; high wide windows, exquisite breakfasts, good coffee and cakes, chandeliers, decorated glass panels, sofas standing in as seats. The Restaurant Elizabeth might take over for evening dining, but it’s the cafe that anyone would have to admit was an essential stop-off on a Trenčin best-of tour.

I think back now, as I’m writing this, to the first time I came to Trenčin, in 2012. It was raining, which already had me in a bad mood. When I got to the historic centre having (incredibly) initially walked the wrong way out of the train station into a gloomy industrial area, the hotel (it is the first thing you see as your eyes, in that first sweep over the town, wander down from the castle over the burnished steeply-pitched rooftops) was under reconstruction. Corrugated iron, scaffolding, boards on the windows and the sound of the drizzle hammering into them. The location of the building at the beginnings of Mierové námestie, the thoroughfare through the beguiling medieval heart of Trenčin, means it can’t help but be your first impression of the place. It wasn’t a great impression, back in 2012, and Hotel Elizabeth’s state of disrepair had a lot to do with that. That was then. And we reach the point. Since the dramatic makeover and its reopening (2013) the hotel continues to strongly influence Trenčin’s feel. The message it sends out now? That the town is back to being the proud, lively, history-rich place it used to be – with one truly quality place to stay.

 

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

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

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

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

Places to Go: A stunning castle near Trenčin

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

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

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

Top Ten Medieval Towns in Slovakia

 

MAP LINK: 

PRICES: Single rooms 99 Euros, Double rooms 115 Euros, Suites from 165 Euros (2016 prices). 150 Euro weekend break for two deals (see the website) include the very good buffet breakfast, unlimited wellness/spa entry, and one evening meal for two.

BOOK THE HOTEL ELIZABETH

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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.