©Chata Magurka

Low Tatras Mountain House: Chata Magurka

©Chata Magurka

©Chata Magurka

The light was failing, and we were despairing of ever finding our destination: perhaps someone had erected the gutterally-leaning wooden signpost on a barren rise off to to the side of the Hrebenovka, the ridge hike along the Low Tatras mountains that we’d been traipsing for the previous few days, for a joke. For the third night on the trail from Čertovica in the east to Donovaly in the west, we’d elected to descend from the ridge into the forests for our night’s accommodation. Whilst there was a mountain house, Chata Útulná, atop the ridge that would have provided shelter at a similar point on the trail, it only had a huge dormitory with mattresses spread out more or less end-to-end, and we fancied bedding down in a private room to enjoy a tad more comfort. About 1.5 hours further down the trail from Chata Útulná, from amidst the isolated ridge top nature reserve of Latiborská Hol’a, we’d scrambled down a steep path into dense woodland for about 45 minutes, then followed a winding forest trail that seemed to be leading nowhere except to lumberjacks’ log piles. Then, a scattering of chalets appeared like a mirage: we had reached the very end of the road, and what followed certainly felt like a surreal dream.

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The view outside ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

One minute, forest like this. The next? A minute, hidden hamlet with one of its several traditional chalets devoted to provide accommodation for weary hikers.

The owner and a few of his friends, amicable old timers the lot of them, were celebrating the arrival of the new vegetable juicer. “I tried it for several weeks in England once” slurred the owner, already a few glasses of slivovica to the good (or bad).  “The amount of weight I lost!” He did look quite trim for a middle-aged mountain man, and swears it’s down to embracing a diet of vegetable juice… and, er, presumably his strong homemade alcohol. He commanded us to sit down whilst he blended us one of the juices he’d tried out for the first time that very day. We waited quite a while, desiring nothing more than to check into our room. The wait was due to the fact the owner had, in the process of fetching us drinks, temporarily fallen asleep, but now we smiled: here he was, stumbling back with the promised refreshments. “Get some of this down you” he booms in exuberant but actually not bad English. It tasted like pondwater. “My favourite” he says excitedly. “Nothing in this but grass” (he did not specify exactly what he meant by grass, or indeed where his grass came from). And so saying, off he went to continue the juicer’s welcome party. I had to drink both of the foul-tasting glasses: my hiking companion steadfastly (and in retrospect wisely) refused. Grass? It was pond weed flavour, more like. Still, in true British fashion I managed to stay grinning and enthuse about how nice it all was (the drinks were, at least, on the house) and it seemed to be what was expected before we could commence with checking-in facilities.

But we did, at least, have a room – and actually it was a decent one. Nothing fancy: four- to six- bed pine finished bunk rooms, but the staff were quite prepared to arrange things so that we had one of these to ourselves. They were clean, with wash basins and piles of blankets, and – at this dead end of the road to civilisation – very quiet. Bathrooms with piping hot showers were across the hallway. Did we appreciate more after walking all day through the mountains? Undoubtedly. But by the standards of the scant accommodation options actually up in or near the mountaintop, pretty good – and not lacking in atmosphere.

Ah yes: atmosphere. The bar-restaurant area, open from 9am to 8pm for hearty Slovak food daily, is hung with low wooden rafters, and replete with long, sturdy wooden tables – plus various hunting talismans (deer’s antlers, bear skins): in short, pleasantly cosy Slovak-rustic. As with a lot of the hotels in the Scottish Highlands and other areas which have a similar “hunters’ trophy” decoration, animal-lovers might want to reconcile themselves with the fact that if they want a roof over their heads, a furry bear spread-egaled across a section of it will have to be tolerated. Outside, there is a grill area to use, and a hot tub that can be rented out at 40 Euros for two hours: pricier than the accommodation, but perhaps worth it after a tough tramp to get here!

Next morning, after a tasty breakfast of “hemendex” (ham and eggs) and very nice coffee, served in a cheerful courtyard attracting plenty of sunlight despite being fringed by thick forest, one of the owner’s drinking partners from the previous night offered us a ride into the village with the nearest bus stop.

“Let’s go quickly” he urged. “I’ve got to be back here ready to start drinking by ten.”

Perhaps the toasting of the vegetable juicer’s arrival in tiny, out-of-the-way Magurka was a multi-day affair.

In any case, the majority of places to stay do not inspire even articles, let alone feature-length Twin Peaks-style TV series. Chata Magurka, thanks to the eccentric bunch of characters gathering at this place on a daily (and nightly) basis, has enough material in-between its four walls to manage both.

GETTING THERE: Some customers, of course, will arrive at Chata Magurka by road. Classified as a holiday hamlet, and with a round-the-year population of under twenty, Magurka is not served by public transport. Buses come as close as the larger village of Liptovská Lužna – served by connections from Ružomberok (at 6:20am and then about hourly between 10am and 10pm, running from Ružomberok station on the main line to Bratislava and Košice and taking 32 minutes). From Liptovská Lužna, it’s 10km east to Magurka, up an un-signed road by a logging area just before the village of Želežne…

MAP LINK:

PRICES: From 20 Euros per room (without private bathroom) (2017 prices)

BOOK CHATA MAGURKA (Bookable via Booking.com, emailing magurka@magurka.eu or by telephoning 00421-905-649-230/ 00421-905-866-654)

  • You can be up on stage three of the Hrebenovka (Low Tatras multi-day ridge hike) from the doors of Chata Magurka in two hours of walking on some tough-but-beautiful paths through the forest (blue signposts)

 

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

 

Communism... Based on image by zscout370

On 25 Years Since the End of Communism

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

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

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

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

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

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

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Fabrika

Fabrika is one of the words Slovaks use to describe a factory, and it’s the first thing would-be drinkers should understand about Bratislava’s latest pivovar (brewpub). The industrial chic concept might have hit other parts of the globe but it never really took off before in the Slovak capital: until now… Fabrika, with its motif of a smoking clutch of factory chimneys emblazoned on the exposed brickwork behind its looong swanky bar, makes no secret of the fact that this is the concept it’s going for. It’s Bratislava’s only real exponent of this genre of drinking/dining, and not only pulls it off the concept, but pulls in customers to near capacity on a nightly basis: for its looks, true, but also for its great beer and its superb US influenced food.

It was an audacious stunt to even try to open this place, what with another top-notch pivovar in Bratislavský meštiansky pivovar being so close. Like its competitor (and competition has been oh-so healthy for Bratislava’s expanding craft beer scene) it takes the American brewpub as the role model and straddles that divide between pub and restaurant. But whereas Bratislavský meštiansky pivovar embraces traditional Slovak food, Fabrika goes very much for the Americas with its menu options.

The huge Fabrika King burger, stuffed with a hash brown to boot, gets talked about a lot, but for the same price (11.90 Euros) the smoked cheeseburger, served with smoked Slovak sheep’s cheese, tomato salsa, red chard salad, aioli and egg easily outshines it. This Slovak interpretation of US “slow” fast food is one it would have been nice to see elaborated on: it’s almost like the food here teeters on the brink of voyaging into the “very creative”, and at the last moment falls back a notch or two into the category of “varied”.  Yet the steaks are incredible: a divinely-soft Uruguayan tenderloin with crusty potato strudel and ceps (see image below) is one the best constructed dishes in all Bratislava. Vying for your attention as well on the meat front is the ostrich steak set off perfectly by its cognac jus. Then there some inventive pasta options, such as the spaghetti with shrimps, dried tomatoes, chilli and baby spinach and a nod or five to southern US barbecue food on a starters and mains list that could almost be plucked from a classy eatery menu in Dallas or Austin (pretty new for Bratislava to have it done so well). Mains are all in the 11 to 19 Euro range.

But the main moniker Fabrika wears is “the Beer Pub” and in terms of the local craft beer scene it’s up there as a contender for THE place to quaff artisan beer, as it makes seven beers on site (see the steel tanks at one end of the large open restaurant area). Seven – incidentally – is more than Bratislavský meštiansky pivovar produces. A particularly strong Pilsner made with one of Europe’s four noble hop varieties, saaz, and a complex chocolatey dark beer are the stand-outs, along with a slightly fruity stout.

Perhaps, at the end of the day, it boils down to that question of environment – and it’s Fabrika’s cool surrounds which combine with its very decent beer and food to render the overall feel so pleasant.

On a quiet side street off the rapidly rejuvenating Štefanikova street that runs up from Michalská Brana on the edge of the Old Town to Bratislava’s train station, the nearby grandiose 19th-century architecture contrasts with this retro-cool modern oasis of craft beer and grub. But Fabrika fits in with all that, too. The attached Loft Hotel is decked up in the same style, but merges effortlessly into the also-attached 19th-century residence which President Woodrow Wilson once favoured on sojourns in the city (and where you can also stay today). Fabrika’s quiet-but-animated outside terrace, in fact, fronts both: abutting a 21st-century chic-industrial and a striking 19th century facade, which is quite something. And just like much of this deceptively relaxed, ornate, leaf-fringed neighbourhood of Bratislava, Fabrika wants you here for the long-haul, and to truly take some serious time out to contemplate some of the good tastes in life.

As the official restaurant of Loft Hotel it certainly goes down as Bratislava’s most lively and enjoyable hotel restaurant.

MAP LINK:

OPENING: 11.30am-midnight Saturday to Thursday, 11.30am to 1am Friday

RESERVATIONS: This place can get very busy because, amongst a certain sect, it’s pretty in right now (do not confuse that with generic, lacklustre tourist option, which it most certainly is not). So RESERVE HERE if you want a table inside at the time of your choice.

BEST TIME TO VISIT: Best to come here on a sunny evening in spring, summer or early autumn, when you can grab your first drink outside on the terrace in the last of the day’s light before gravitating inside for more beers and a bite to eat from the extensive menu.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Fabrika, it’s 350 metres south to a great medieval-themed restaurant serving traditional Slovak classics, Traja Mušketieri.

Uruguayan steak, potato gratin ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Uruguayan steak, potato strudel… ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Low Tatras Mountains: Up Chopok the Back Way

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

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

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

Why Come Up?

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

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

Up Chopok the Unusual Way(s)

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

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

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

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

MAP LINK:

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

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

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

Rushing passed Devin on a punctured canoe ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Canoeing Down the Morava and Danube into Bratislava

Approach is everything.

With Bratislava, you have several means at your disposal. By road from Vienna isn’t bad: after all, out of the flat eastern Austrian farmland rears the forested hills of Devínska Kobyla and the otherworldly Communist-era tower blocks of Devínska Nová Ves, scored in-between by the Morava river that people died trying to cross to get to the west up until 1989 and still represents a pretty poignant entrance to what we think of today as Eastern Europe.

From the north, over the top by hiking trail from Marianka is intriguing too: you’ll come down through the Small Carpathians and see Bratislava spreadeagled below you on the wide plain of the Danube.

By public boat from Vienna is a favourite too.

But canoeing in your own (or rented) vessel down first the Morava and then the Danube into the city is – especially in this scalding weather – the most fun way to arrive, and it’s all the more thrilling because whether it’s officially permitted at all or not is highly questionable…

First of all, pick your spot on the Morava river (you’ll want to start here because there are far more launching sites and the water is more gently flowing, allowing you time to adjust to the whole thing). We chose the stretch of river near the station of Devínske Jazero, because we were restricted to coming by public transport: many other places on the banks along this stretch of the Morava, though. From our elected start point, it’s two to three hours of paddling downriver to Bratislava, making it a nice half-day’s activity. Another access point for public transport users would be the slightly-further-north Vysoká pri Morave, with trains from Bratislava too – a little bit of a longer float though!

Just as with hiking or cycling, one of the delights of doing this is, due to the sedate speed, all the little things you notice on the way.

We tramped across a couple of fields, through a patch of mosquito-rich, nettle-clogged wood, skittled down a muddy bank and we were away.

For starters, the Morava river is as mentioned before the border – the old border between east and west Europe – as sleepy today as it was divisive then, but as a result very much a paddle through the history books.

On the Austrian side, secluded fishing platforms, already manned at the early hour we passed by old-timers, on the Slovak side wild tangles of woods. You head under the cross-border cycling bridge between Schloshoff (a castle on the Austrian side) and Devínska Nová Ves, then just before Devín castle sides switch and it’s the Austrian part that morphs into a quiet national park (Nationalpark Donau Auen) which runs all the way to Hainburg and beyond whilst the Slovak bank of the Morava becomes a gentle woodland walking path for castle visitors and locals.

The turn (left, downriver fortunately!) onto the Danube at the castle is a bit bumpy until you’re properly onto the new waterway, but it’s thrillingly faster too, and it will only take you 40 minutes or so from here to reach Bratislava. It’s this part where you need to watch out for the Vienna-Bratislava speed boats and the Danube’s working barges: keep eyes peeled! We did this run in an inflatable canoe and my job at this point was to keep our puncture from getting any bigger!

Bratislava, true to form, retains relative wilderness even on its very perimeter. Just before the first of the big city bridges comes up, on the left a rapid flume of water hurls you (if you choose, obviously, but it is a highlight of this trip so you’d be a fool to miss out!) into Karloveské Rameno, a woodsy arm of the Danube which has been set up as a kayaking slalom course. It’s magical to swim here, too.

Now, at the point you enter Bratislava after this (you have to properly enter the city just to appreciate the full transition of your journey, lonely farming land to riverside restaurants and residential districts) you do have one issue. You’re hurtling along now quite fast because of the current, and, unless you want to continue towards Budapest, you need to stop – when the banks are now mostly concrete and devoid of piers or mooring platforms. Here’s what you do. Pick your finish point (again make sure there’s no approaching boats) and aim to sidle into the edge JUST BEYOND, turning at the last minute to paddle back upriver, which will slow you down to a safe speed.

We picked the Eurovea shopping centre, on the east side of the city centre, as a finish point. Sure, we attracted plenty of incredulous stares from the smartly-dressed riverbank restaurant-goers and we emerged, bedraggled but beaming. Because no one else does this, it seems. No one.

Next stop: floating on to Budapest?

NECESSARY EQUIPMENT: One canoe. Paddles for that same canoe. Shorts. Flip flops. Water. Sun cream. Sorted.

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

Old Zilina Station pulsates with new life!

Žilina: Stanica

I find it astounding now how, looking back, just a few years ago Stanica was a new-on-the-scene start-up project without a secure future, and is now a byword for Žilina’s counter-culture arts movement. It’s harder than ever to keep tabs on all of Slovakia’s latest cool cafe-bar-cultural centres (because there are so many now, so many that it’s become a thing, a thing, in fact, that transcends international borders), but a nod should certainly be given to one of the earliest pioneers in the genre.

Back on my first visit, in 2011, I was shown around Stanica by a bunch of guys who had pooled together a few great ideas from their experiences backpacking around the world, and melded them together in one spot (southwest of the city centre at the still-working Žilina-Zariecie station, a stop the gorgeous railway line to the spa town of Rajecke Teplice and ultimately Banská Bystrica, out of interest, a journey which we also intend to showcase on this site soon) on a shoestring budget: they were as much hoping, then, as opposed to being able to constructively plan, for a stable, profitable business to evolve from their newly-created vision of what the city needed for a venue.

Well: it’s evolved. The vision did work out and the gap in the city’s cultural scene was filled: and then some. Most people in Slovakia now know about Stanica, what it’s doing for the arts, how it’s encouraging young’uns to express themselves artistically, what a great cafe-bar it has, and all the rest of it.

Suddenly, from the smart medieval city centre, you are transported into a Bohemian world: a surprising cocoon from the ring-road traffic nearby, and the living, breathing proof that every space in a city has oodles of potential to be developed into something productive and vibrant.

On the one hand this world is a light, industrial-chic artsy cafe (good coffee, three draught beers from Slovakia’s Černá Hora brewery, and Slovak-made brandy for just a Euro a glass) not to mention Slovak classics like kofola, a Communist soft drink, and encian, a great cheese served with pickled vegetables. There are art mags to read, a little shop, and interesting people to talk to (let’s rephrase, in many senses Stanica SHOULD be a port of call for first-time city visitors precisely because the people are not only interesting, but like to be approached and asked questions about what there is to do in the area). Spending money here also helps to fund the arts patronage that goes on behind the scenes.

For this cafe and bar, notice above proclaiming it as Žilina’s station (Stanica means station in Slovak and of course as mentioned earlier it is a fully-functioning railway station – trains depart from right outside) is only part of the deal here. Think “station” in a wider sense of the word, as coming-together place, as cultural stability and sustainability: Stanica is a gallery, it is an exhibition space, it is a creation space (with workshops etc), it is a renowned festival venue and – perhaps most impressively – an amazing theatre imaginatively created with beer crates and hay bails. Their ethos? “To make art as a usual part of everyday life, as something necessary and vital, not something extra and special.” What’s not to love about that?

MAP LINK:

WEBSITE:

OPENING HOURS: Midday to 10pm daily; longer during events (and these are regular) if people want to use the bar.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Stanica, it’s 67km south to the Geographical Centre of Europe (Kremnické Bane,a few km south, is the nearest train stop and yes, it’s on that afore-mentioned railway trip to Banská Bystrica)

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

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

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

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

History of the Healing Powers of Marianka

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

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

Welcome to Marianka… ©englishmaninslovakia.com

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

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

Most Ornate Church in Slovakia?

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

Elaborate roof panels ©englishmaninslovakia.com

Elaborate roof panels ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

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

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

Demolition Dodge!

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

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

Pilgrim Food

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

Onward from Marianka?

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

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

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

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

MARIANKA VILLAGE WEBSITE In Slovak, but could prove useful.

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

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

Around Nitra: The Arborétum

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

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

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

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

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

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

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

MAP LINK

ADMISSION: 3.50 Euros for adults, 1.50 Euros for kids

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

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

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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

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Top Ten Quintessential Slovak Foods and Drinks

It’s been a long time in coming but here, after much consideration, is my top ten of quintessential Slovak foods/drinks. I use the word quintessential to convey unique or semi-unique to Slovakia culinary delights, so these are ranked with uniqueness as well as tastiness in mind.

I am quite sure those familiar with Poland and the Czech Republic will pipe up, incensed, at a few of these being labelled Slovak foods but with this part of Europe, which has changed borders with quite a high frequency over the last few centuries, of course culinary traditions mix and merge. So the most justifiable claimant to a lot of these Eastern European specialities is the region, not any one country.

You’re not on a diet, right?🙂

10: Slivovica

Of course there has to be a top ten entry for perhaps Slovakia’s most famous food/drink export, slivovica. This plum brandy is so Slovak – you imagine the old man picking the plums and doing the home distillation as you drink a glass of this fiery brew (perfect at 52%). Whilst it’s a thing other countries including Serbia and Czech Republic can rightly claim to do as well, this is still an ultra-traditional Slovak drink. Get the home-brewed stuff: it’s almost always better than the shop brands – but also significantly stronger.

9: Makovnik

Basically: a poppy seed-filled strudel, only with a thicker pastry. Absolutely delicious. Slovaks use poppy seeds in a lot of sweet things. It’s right up there with apple as a flavour for dessert. Some of the best makovnik I had in Slovakia was actually at the spa in Piešťany.

8: Horalky

Going strong since the 1950s, the classic horalky is – well – a wafer bar. A sandwich of wafer with layers of either chocolate, hazelnuts or peanuts that for some reason Slovaks and Czechs kept to themselves for a very long time. If you’re going on a picnic, take one.

7: Kofola

This is the soft drink generations of Slovaks grew up on. Czechs have it too, but it’s Slovakia which seems to cling to kofola with the warmest nostalgia. Remember, everyone, that once Coca Cola wasn’t available here:if you wanted your carbonated drink fix kofola was it: it comes in various flavours, like cherry and looks and tastes quite similar to Coca Cola, i.e. dark, sweet and fizzy (Slovaks would say superior and they may be right – it’s got much less sugar and quite a bit more caffeine and the breadth of flavours makes the kofola world a bit more varied than the Coca Cola world). Licorice is also added to help give it that unique kofola taste.  In any case, it’s one of those soft drinks, like Inka Kola in Peru, that manages to rival Coca Cola (in terms of Czech and Slovak sales).

6: Lokše

You’ll see this as 1-Euro-a-pop snack food at almost any Slovak festival: a bargain! Lokše are basically potato pancakes stuffed with (to have it in its optimum form) goose or duck fat (goose and duck fat, by the way, would be on this list if we were doing a top fifteen or top twenty – Slovaks will often eat the fat by the spoonful with nothing else!). It can be very easy to go wrong with lokše purchasing – so look for the stall with the moistest, greasiest looking ones! (it’s something of an acquired talent – I know Slovaks who will dismiss stall after stall of lokše that all look perfectly OK to me, and then, without any warning, go “ah!” and alight upon a fix of potato and fat goodness. Well, I never claimed that typical Slovak food was healthy. A claim that’s added to by the fact that typical lokše also seem to be brushed with melted butter once they’re stuffed and rolled.

5: Demänovka

This is a complex herbal liqueur cobbled together with 14 different herbs, honey and alcohol – weighing in at 33-38% proof which is admittedly less than slivovica but actually, for me, a much richer drink, with a slightly bitter, aromatic taste. The Czechs do becherovka which is similar and equally tasty but demänovka is Slovak through and through – made near the Low Tatras town of Liptovský Mikulaš.

4: Halušky

Tragically only one type of dumpling can go on this top ten list although – in terms of the food in the average Slovak stomach – the ratio should probably be a bit higher. The obvious candidate amongst Slovakia’s many different types of dumplings are the halušky – small dumplings made out of a grated potato batter. It’s not just the bryndza (scroll further down this top ten for more on bryndza) which combines with these little gluten-rich balls of delight – oh no – that other usual suspect of Slovak cuisine, cabbage, also gets added on top to make strapačky. You can also add a meat like liver to the dough for something a little different.

Bryndza being made into the delicious spread, bryndza natierka - image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Bryndza being made into the delicious spread, bryndza natierka – image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

3: Bryndza

For outsiders, this is the must-try: a tangy sheep’s cheese that gets used in a huge variety of traditional Slovak meals. For starters, there’s the national dish, brynzové halušky: small potato dumplings in a sauce made with bryndza and topped (as with quite a few Slovak dishes) by bacon. Another classic is the brynzové pirohy – Slovakia’s classic take on the stuffed dumpling also common in Poland. The best place to buy bryndza is NOT in a supermarket but on a salaš – a rural farm, the signs for which are found on country roads all over Western, Central and Eastern Slovakia. Our special guide to the salaš will be available soon – until then you have been warned. Here’s Englishmaninslovakia’s easy bryndza recipe.

2: Tokaj

Austro-Hungarian rulers use to bathe in tokaj (so say some legends) or drink it as medicine (so say others). If you happen to have enough of this delicious amber-coloured wine to bathe in, lucky you. This wine region is in Slovakia’s far south-east next to the border with the Hungarian wine region, Tokaji (see the difference?). There is far, far too much to say about Tokai to fit in this post, so please check out our article on the Slovak Tokaj cellars of Eastern Slovakia, but basically Tokaj has a unique sweet  taste because of a controlled rot that is allowed to part-infect the grapes. It’s one of the most singular wines you will ever try – and it’s delicious (I say, sipping a glass as I write this).

1: Kapustnica

This delicious soup shoots in at the number one spot for me. It’s got a sauerkraut base, with the taste bolstered by tomatoes, mushrooms, pork sausage (some use a spicy chorizo) and, for Slovak cooking, an incredible amount of seasonings ranging from garlic through to nutmeg and even apple sometimes. Slovaks eat this on New Year’s eve, and sometimes over the entire festive season. There is simply no other typically Slovak dish that can touch it for complexity: kapustnica is to Slovakia what mole is to Mexico! I’ve tried a similar cabbage soup in Poland and it was not anywhere nearly as tasty as those I’ve had in Slovakia (but hey – I don’t want to start a war!). Here’s a link to a good recipe.

Pink dreams?

Pink Dreams: Fairytale Ending?

There’s a moment at the end of one of my favourite Slovak movies, Pink Dreams (or Ruzové Sny) which I really hope is prophetic. At the very least, it has not lost any of its relevance nigh-on 40 years on and – like the film as a whole, really – is a brave, brave vision for Slovak cinema.

I do not like to reveal endings to films but in this case, I don’t think talking about this scene spoils anything.

Dusan Hanák’s Pink Dreams is about young love, somewhere in the Eastern Slovak countryside. Young love, no less, between a white postman (name of Jakub) and a pretty gypsy (Jolanka).

And at the very end of the film, the dream sequences which have been growing in frequency throughout (confusing the viewer whether they are in fact watching what happens or what the vivid imaginations of the main characters would like to happen) suddenly take over. And everyone in the film is dancing together. All the white characters of the film as well as the gypsies. It really seems – for one beautifully put-together scene – like the problems which have plagued the main characters throughout are at last over, and that all are united.

Wouldn’t it be nice if that was the reality in Slovakia today, too? White Slovaks and Roma Slovaks dancing together…

Well. It was a cracking good movie anyway.

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

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

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

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

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

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

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

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

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

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

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MAP LINK:  

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

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

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

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

Great antiques - image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Bratislava: The Best of the City’s Antiques (Souvenirs)

One can rush through Bratislava – see only its ugly outskirts – and come away thinking there is nothing there. Even should one find one’s way to the maze of cobbled Old Town alleys, one can come away not glimpsing a fraction of the quirks they contain. I’ve said so on this site before – and lamented it publicly to others on multiple occasions: the city’s charms are not the most obvious. As with any true quest, you have to hunt them down…

Such is the case even with those charms that are, so to speak, smack bang under your nose: Bratislava’s best antique shop, for example…

Cafe l’Aura and its attached antiques shop marry inside one lemon-and-cream facade a great deal of the things central Bratislava does best: a wonderful (and reasonably priced) little cafe, a fabulous antique shop and bundles of epoch-old atmosphere.

bratislavaantique3

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The first striking thing about it is its location: right by imposing St Martin’s Cathedral; indeed abutting one end of the cathedral buildings. The second striking thing is that, once you dip inside the low doorway and get accustomed to the gloom, you find a shop-cum-cafe not only oozing with understated unpretentious appeal but also one that is often utterly devoid of customers.

The equivalent in another city could not be conceived of. A shop near St Pauls Cathedral or Notre Dame or Vienna’s Ringstrasse like this would be rammed to the gills with milling tourists – and most probably rammed to the gills with insipid tack, too.

Whilst the enterprise masquerades under the name of Cafe l’Aura (advertising itself only by a humble engraved wooden sign) I think of it primarily as an old curiosity shop and second as a cafe.

Normally, I scan the heavily-laden shelves for some of the reasonably priced wares, and only afterwards retreat to turn them lovingly over in my hands over a coffee or two.

And what wares! Ancient coffee grinders, some stunning oil paintings, piles of old travellers’ trunks,  ceramics and clocks from the city’s 18th- and 19th-century heyday.

Any antique shop must necessarily be a reflection of the past of the city in which it sits, but the past that comes alive in a shop like Bratislava is a particularly fascinating one: because it is the German and Hungarian influences on the city that become evident when you peruse the curios here. Because half a century ago or more, Slovakia existed only as an idea…

Which brings up another thing. One which, admittedly, it is far easier for an outsider to see than someone born here. Slovakia has come a long way. In under a quarter of a century, it has become a place with its own identity (bashful at times admittedly) which can casually display its often subjugated history on some sagging old shelves and – in so doing – make it a reason to visit Slovakia today. Because antique shops are becoming a real reason to visit – not just in Bratislava, either.

There is little of the “Portobello Road” syndrome just yet (though perhaps it will come): i.e. inflated prices for what is ultimately not very much. Even Bratislava is, in this respect, very much a bargain-hunters playground where antiques are concerned.

And in the case of humble yet ambience-rich little Cafe l’Aura, it would be one of my first choices in the city centre to look for that authentic souvenir for the folks back home…

MAP LINK:

LOCATION: Rudnayovo Námestie 4

OPENING: 10am-6pm

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MAP LINK:

GETTING THERE:

To Hainburg from Bratislava…

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

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

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

The pavement cafe scene of Kosice at Republika Východu ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Košice: Republika Východu

We have been featuring a lot of cuisine-related articles on the site of late. But there is a pertinent reason for that: Slovakia has come on leaps and bounds in gastronomic terms these last two or three years, and keeping tabs on the rapidly-developing food scene is a bit like keeping tabs on wildly escalating share prices. But we do keep tabs, on Englishman in Slovakia. What seems incredible, looking back, is that it’s taken us so long to feature what could claim to be one of the restaurants that spearheaded the country’s pincer movement of stylish new dining possibilities (certainly as far as the east is concerned).

Ah yes. The east. Republika Východu means the “republic in the east” – a reference to Košice’s long-standing proud rivalry against, and independence from Bratislava, one the one hand. But there’s another way of interpreting that, at this coolly sophisticated bistro in the shadow of Dóm svätej Alžbety, the city’s hugely impressive cathedral: and that’s as a bastion of great, original, delicious food, served with utter professionalism.

Indeed it can seem, in a sense, that Republika Východu is the reason to come to Košice. Not only does it offer tables on the Hlavná ulica, the city’s wide, oval-shaped central square, but these tables virtually brush the cathedral walls. They do not simply offer the so-so coffee and uninspiring cakes  they could get away with, they offer the city’s best coffee (there are up a couple of other contenders to this coveted title admittedly), and an innovative menu throughout the day. Spilling out right into the main thoroughfare, Republika Východu also has great people watching. And the staff don’t seem to mind if you linger (which most punters seem to want to do).

Feta and avocado salad with sun-dried tomatoes ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Feta and avocado salad with sun-dried tomatoes ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

I had, on this occasion, an hour in Košice before taking a train further east. Friends in Bratislava with somewhat discerning tastebuds had already told me on several occasions that in terms of decent daytime food, this was the place to head in the city centre, so I was able to make a beeline straight there. Even so, time was fairly tight, but the waitresses that served me rendered the experience a delight, telling me their recommendations from the salad menu, hurrying the kitchen along because they were aware I was in a rush, and despite having twenty or more outside tables to attend, exchanging pleasantries along the way.

I opted for a feta and sun-dried tomato salad, presented on a bed of succulent grilled vegetables, but variations with proscuitto, caramelised nuts and – perhaps most interestingly – a fig and goat’s cheese salad were also on the menu for between 7 and 9 Euros. They make for really filling lunches, too: you won’t require anything further to munch on. Although the siri z vychodu (cheese from the east) with that Czechoslovak delight hermalin (a kind of white cheese with onion and pickles combined into it) as well as mozzarella and Parmesan, all drizzled in olive oil and dished up with sun-dried tomatoes and rocket  Some of the more radical desserts include a quinoa, buckwheat and yoghurt blend available with fruit compote and chocolate: part of an extensive ‘healthy grains’ menu.

I sat outside, but on a less clement day it’s equally pleasurable to hang out at inside. The spacious interior is vaulted, with bare stone walls, subtle lighting and a total mix of seating, from rough wooden tables to armchairs to perching stalls by the windows. There is something, in all this, demonstrating a concerted effort to give all comers an agreeable experience. But this bistro never lets you forget its overriding theme, which is stamped throughout – even down to the menus, which are written in Eastern dialect Slovak – that Republika Východu is proudly, defiantly unique.

 

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 Go/Events & Festivals: Slovakia’s Famed Film Festival Arrives in Košice to Stay

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

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

Getting Around: Košice’s flight connections

Getting Around: Quirky Košice city tours

Musings: The Definition of ‘Discussed’

 

MAP LINK: (coming straight from the railway station along Mlynská, you essentially hit the cathedral, hang a left and you’re there: absolutely unable to miss it).

OPENING: 8am-11pm Monday to Thursday, 8am to midnight Friday and Saturday, 8am to 10pm Sunday

BEST TIME TO VISIT: Early to mid-way through a sunny afternoon once the lunch rush is over and seats outside are easy to come by.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Republika Východu, why not continue RIGHT into the east proper with a visit 120km northeast to the Andy Warhol Museum at Medzilaborce

The lovely rustic-style Pizzeria Hacienda ©Alan Gilman

Lučenec: The Best Places to Eat

By Alan Gilman.

‘Where ?’, you might say. And you would be in a majority if you hadn’t so much as heard of Lučenec. Ok, it’s not on the list of standard tourist stop-offs but times change, and as they do reasons to pause in a destination you never knew before change as well.

Just to place it, the town is on the main road from Zvolen to Kosiče and is the crossroad town for the route south into Hungary via the border town of Salgotarjan. Over the years the link with Hungary has been strong with lots of the older generation, my wifes’ family included, still switching easily between the languages of Slovak and Hungarian. These roots manifest in the food as well, with spicy and sweet paprika appearing regularly.

The last few years has seen some really positive developments in the town, with none more notable than the major renovation, completed earlier in 2016, of the town’s synagogue as a new cultural centre. The synagogue was one of the largest in Central Europe but had been derelict since WW2. Since it reopened in May this year, the national opera orchestra (based in Banská Bystrica) and the popular folk-based group Szidi Tobias have already performed there. Quite a radical change for Lucenec !

Go to the Synagoga Lucenec Facebook page (the tours and sightseeing version) for more information, great photos and a time lapse video of the reconstruction.

In parallel with this, the food world has also been developing. Locals are already getting a taste for the exciting new brand of places on offer for coffee, wining and dining,  From the traditional to the new, here is the list of my favourites of those that have emerged thus far.

Café Lehár occupies a grand building ©Alan Gilman

Café Lehár occupies a grand building in one of the area’s grand old hotels ©Alan Gilman

Cafe Lehár

A very traditional cafe on the main street in the old Reduta hotel. We always head there for a mid morning coffee and either their šatka or their corn, klobasa and mayo salad in a cornet. The šatka is a triangular pasty-like parcel with a bacon and spicy tomato sauce filling.

MAP LINK:

Pizzeria Hacienda

Pizzeria Hacienda is a pizza restaurant near the Lučenec railway station and quite simply the greatest in town, with a primrose yellow decor embellished by dark-wood beams and furniture (see the feature image). For me there will never be another pizza other than the bolognese pizza ! We know Sasi, the owner, and if pushed a little she’ll speak English.

MAP LINK:

The delectable ©Alan Gilman

The delectable food at Čárda   ©Alan Gilman

Čárda

The forest is very close to the south-western side of the town centre, and hidden in the trees on the edge is probably the best known restaurant in Lučenec. Essentially a big log cabin in the woods, the Reštaurácia Čárda is cosy in winter and has an open veranda for outdoor eating. The menu draws from the Slovak and the Hungarian traditions with halušky (we all know about that one!), halaszle (the traditional Hungarian fish soup), babgulas (goulash soup) and my personal favourite ohen srdce (fire in the heart – spicy paprika pork in a potato pancake). Often our friend Norby, the owner, is around, and again he will speak English if needed.

MAP LINK:

A true "cabin in the woods" ©Alan Gilman

A true “cabin in the woods” ©Alan Gilman

Art Furman

Vidina, a village just beyond the northern periphery of Lučenec, has the tiny Art Furman restaurant. The chef/owner is a Polish guy who offers an international menu. It’s probably more one for the special occasion as it’s a little more expensive than the average. Then again, the style (chandeliers, exposed beams and bare stone walls) is appealing and it’s worth forking out the extra cash for the ambience. My favourite dishes are the beef cheeks and the chocolate soufflé.

One of the prettiest and most inviting restaurants in the Central-South of Slovakia, Art Furman ©Alan Gilman

One of the prettiest and most inviting restaurants in the Central-South of Slovakia, Art Furman ©Alan Gilman

Tančiareň a pivovar Franz

A very new addition is this bar and brasserie with its very own craft brewery on site. It only opened in early this year. Housed in an old brick warehouse-type building, it has a real urban feel and buzz to it. They’ve built a stage which has live music, film nights and comedy. Things do change !

MAP LINK:

Coming soon

On top of this, there’ll soon be a chance to go and really splash out on fine food at the renovated castle in Halič. Only about 5km out of town this sits very castle-like on the top of the hill and dominates the Lučenec area. We haven’t tried this yet as the full restaurant doesn’t open until September but the rumour is the chef at Art Furman is in charge.

Watch this space for more reports later in the year!

Getting to Lučenec

By road, the most probable route is from Zvolen via the new motorway eastwards toward Košice taking the E571 after Detva. It now takes about 45 minutes from Zvolen.

By train, again Zvolen is the main regional station with links to all other main stations in the country (namely Bratislava and Košice). Lučenec is on the main line between Zvolen and Košice. From Košice, travel time is 2 hours 35 minutes and there are four daily trains. However, direct buses also operate from Košice in-between times and the journey takes only 20 minutes or so longer.

Within Lučenec, buses can be helpful but the places noted here are generally walkable.

Your man in Lučenec

Alan is a Londoner married to Marika who is from Lučenec. Alan has been coming out to Lučenec for ten years on holidays but they are currently living there with their two small children and working in the family paper business, called Slovpap. If anyone needs more info on travel, hotels etc if they are passing that way he can be reached on email (gillmanar@gmail.com).

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From central Lučenec it’s 87km northwest to sample Banska Stiavnica’s wonderful eating scene.

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The High Tatras Mountain Resorts – Starý Smokovec: Koliba Kamzík

A Koliba, in Slovak, is a typical countryside dining spot serving traditional Slovak food. And Starý Smokovec, one of the ‘big three’ of the mountain resorts in the High Tatras, is just about the last place in the country you would expect to chance across a rustic restaurant like this. That’s because Starý Smokovec is pretty much the archetypal late-19th-century mountain holiday destination, replete with grand, elaborate Art Nouveau architecture and oozing the polished suavity of a destination which has been able to attract tourists like pins to a magnet since the very beginning of its existence. And lovely it does indeed look. But it’s far harder, in such tourist magnets, to find a restaurant which isn’t trying to charge you many times over the odds for meals, or one that takes advantage of one-off custom to compromise on quality. This is where Koliba Kamzík steps into the fray…

Inside... ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Inside… ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

With a refreshing splash of classic mountain charm, this is a place that, quite literally, stands out above a lot of its other, far-more-hyped competition (it’s a block up the hill from the Grandhotel Starý Smokovec across a cleared area of grassland, but despite the prominence of its sign most tourists pass it by). It stands out too with incredible value for money, and with the delicious simplicity of its cuisine…

A block below this joint, it’s turn-of-the-century grandeur and tourist crowds often being served unexceptional food; here it’s the far-more Slovak pine and beech wood chalet-style with spotted and chequered tablecloths garnished by fresh flowers. A beaming Kamzík (mountain goat) welcomes you into an outside eating area and subsequently an interior that sparkle with chirpy decoration (the šupulienky cockerels steal the show). The service is speedy, if a tad abrupt (which is a lot better than lackadaisical and abrupt) and this means you’ll be sitting down with your choice from the classic but brilliantly executed Slovak menu in the pleasing and peaceful surrounds all the sooner.

Mushroom soup ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Mushroom soup ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

What to choose? (you’ll probably have to fend the waitress – she’ll be clad in traditional Slovak folkloric dress, by the way – off a couple of times). Soup, that quintessential way of embarking on a Slovak meal, is a worthy starter. I went for the hríbová polievka (mushroom soup) but the cesnaková polievka (garlic soup) looked like it tasted equally delicious. Soups with meals in Slovakia are generally thin, with the key ingredients not totally blended in but bobbing in tasty bite-sized morsels within, and rich in taste: mine was no exception. My choice of main was the “koliba plate” involving hearty amounts of dumplings (two kinds, the pirohy which are more like parcels containing meat, and halušky, solid dumplings cooked in bryndza sauce) and Slovak spicy sausage, klobasa. Venison, beef and an incredible grilled trout also flank the menu.

And perhaps here comes the deal maker. A proper Slovak eatery, rather than one of its pale imitations, is one thing. One that embraces Slovak food and does it with aplomb is another thing. The view (from the restaurant interior, if you grab a window seat, you’ve got the resort of Starý Smokovec ushering in a view down the hill slopes into the wide valley between the High and Low Tatras massifs) is a third thing. That all this comes together in such a touristy locale makes it four things. But the fifth thing trumps the others: the price. The mains start at a mere 5.50 Euros, and the grilled fish is only 8.50 Euros. You are saving money by coming here, and harbouring the feeling that, in the midst of all those tourists, you’ve somehow thwarted the tourist traps. So. Come!

MAP LINK:

LOCATION: Starý Smokovec 8 (Starý Smokovec is the road which rises up behind Penzion Tatra (itself looming up above the Starý Smokovec mountain railway station) and you’ll see the big sign looking to the right as you head up this lane.) The website gives you a fuller idea of the menu (if you can read Slovak).

OPENING: 11am to 10pm daily.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Koliba Kamzik it’s 100m west along the road behind the Grand Hotel Starý Smokovec to the cableway up to Hrebienok on stage three of the Tatranská Magistrala

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Around Bratislava – the North: The Pajštún Castle Hike

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pajstun Castle appears through the trees

Pajstun Castle appears through the trees

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

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

Climbing Pajstun's southern ramparts

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

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

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

Pajštún Myth…

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

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

MAP LINK

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

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

 

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Low Tatras Mountain House: Chata M.R. Štefánika

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

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

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

ridge-walk-certovica-stefanika

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

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

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

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

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

MAP LINK:

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

BOOK CHATA M.R ŠTEFÁNIKA

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

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

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

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

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

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

Virgin forest ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Virgin forest ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MAP LINK:

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

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

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

Slovak Vodka Corners the UK Market!

Stará Ľubovňa has a fair amount to answer for when it comes to Slovakia spirits. Just beyond town, the highly successful Nestville Park distillery in Hniezdne produces Slovakia’s only whiskey. But in Stará Ľubovňa itself, the Gas Familia distillery produces a number of alcoholic drinks and one of these, the singular Goral Vodka, has recently become Slovakia’s first vodka to break into the UK market. In fact, it’s one of Slovakia’s very first alcoholic drinks to really make it in Britain – other distinctive Slovak drinks such as Eastern Slovakia’s Tokaj wine or the famous Tatranský čaj from the High Tatras have never yet secured their position on UK supermarket shelves.

The “Goral” in the vodka’s title comes from the Goral people who inhabited the Slovak High Tatras around the community of Ždiar, and whose culture remains prevalent there today. Folks from this neck of the woods are said to be have physical strength and a purity of spirit and this is what Goral vodka strives for as it makes inroads on your palate. An initial creaminess as well as lighter notes of spice and citrus are the other hits your taste buds can expect.

The vodka is produced using durum wheat which then undergoes seven-column distillation through natural materials like charcoal before the cool, clean water flowing off the High Tatras peaks gets added.

Goral vodka has been available since 2010 in Slovakia but in the UK it’s now available at a growing number of outlets, including the boutique hotel Hampton Manor and online at www.masterofmalt.com or www.lokiwine.co.uk

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.

A selection of different bottles of Slivovica/Slivovitz from the Slovak and Czech Republics

How to Make Slivovica (Plum Brandy) in Seven Steps

Insights from a Producer in Myjava region, Western Slovakia.

Myjava region, located in Western Slovakia on the edge of the Biele Karpaty (White Carpathians) and somewhere between Záhorie region (generally west), Považie region (generally east) and southern Morava in the Czech Republic (mostly north), is the capital of slivovica production in Slovakia. This is saying a lot because no one else makes Slivovica like the Slovaks: not even the Czechs! Myjava‘s dispersed rural settlements, delightful old orchards and picturesque rolling landscapes that receive large amounts of summer sun have the perfect terroir for plum-growing and have been home to the authentic tradition of making slivovica for centuries. In Myjava itself and in the villages around, the plums are so abundant on the trees that much of the fruit falls unused on the pavements and roads each autumn, creating a sweet-smelling mush everywhere. But how do you make slivovica?

  1. Take care of the plum trees. Prune them with care and bring them light with love. Plums are ready for picking from late August until October. It is recommended to pick them little by little, every one or two weeks. Plums know when to fall down: when they are ready. Help them to fall from the trees only very gently – if you have to yank them you should be leaving them to further ripen!
  2. Put the ripened (and sweetest) plums into the barrel/barrels. Do not use the moldy or unready fruit. A wooden barrel is recommended to achieve a smoother taste. Choose a barrel that your quantity of picked plums will almost fill and cover with water so that the top-most plums are just immersed. The precise ratio of plums to water does not matter that much. Use a special sharp tool to cut the plums thoroughly. Level (in Slovak we say zarovnať) the surface of this plum-and-water mixture, which we call „kvas“. Do not add any sugar or anything else. Put the barrels of „kvas“ in a place that is neither too hot nor too cold (5-15°C) and has no weird smells that could permeate the mixture.
  3. Wait a month or three. Check the condition by a shake of that „kvas“. If you can hear bubbling, the „kvas“ is still not ready for the next step. The usual time by which you can reckon on the „kvas“ becoming ready (based on a September barrelling) is December or January.
  4. When the „kvas“ is ready, you’ll normally need to call the distillery (and across Slovakia there are many willing distilleries) and agree the fee that you will pay the distillery worker, or „páleník“, for the handling of your batch of Slivovica-to-be. Arrange the time, allow 4-5 hours for the whole process (if you have up to 400 litres) or 6-7 hours (if 400-800 litres of kvas). Put the „kvas“ into smaller barrels and transfer into the distillery.
  5. At the distillery, and perhaps or perhaps not with the assistance of the „páleník“ depending on what you are paying him(!), transfer the „kvas“ into the big tank and lift your „kvas“ up to a height of 2.5-3 metres. From this tank, a peculiar-looking pipe will pour the „kvas“ into the first boiler. The boiler is heated by the wood from local forests. What’s happening now is that the „kvas“ is being mixed around with a funky automatic handle and becoming distinctly more alcoholic! The first stage of the alcohol (a sort of „vodka“) is made here – and then automatically transferred into the second boiler. Do not forget to keep an eye on the fire heating this whole operation and be prepared with plenty of logs to keep it alight.
  6. Once in the second boiler, the „Vodka“ is being further processed. During this time (about two hours, although depending on your attitude to the production it can be less) you will need to keep sporadically putting logs onto the fire to keep it stoked. And then, voila, your lovely home-grown final drops are becoming a reality! Depending on character and quality of plums, you can expect about 8-15% of the original mixture becoming finished, ready-to-drink slivovica.
  7. To truly be called Slivovica, your alcoholic plum mixture does have to be a particular percentage of alcohol (at least within 2%). And you need not worry: our man, the „Páleník“ has a special tool to measure the strength, and is ready to prepare your desired strength thanks to pristine water from a local spring. In Slovakia, 52% is considered the ideal and what we recommend. Na zdravie!

In Myjava region, as long as you are not straying onto private, enclosed land to do so, no one usually minds if you pick the plums from the trees overhanging public roads or footpaths! And there are some great footpaths hereabouts: not least the wonderful Štefánikova Magistrála which leads across the entirety of Western Slovakia from Bratislava to Trenčín!

©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)

Do what the flyer urges and try the food here!

Banská Štiavnica: BS Streetfood

The place we were staying in was so nice, we decided to eat in on our latest visit to Banská Štiavnica. This meant take-away – not something I’m generally in the habit of getting in Slovakia unless I’m at at a festival, because eating in restaurants is so reasonable price-wise.

Already – before the discussion about what we would have began – I was in relatively uncharted territory; certainly as far as takeaway in this smallish mountain town went. Then: the stipulations. My dad’s requirement was something “meaty and hot”, my mum’s “some sort of curry” (she’s also vegetarian), my girlfriend’s “anything gluten and soya free.” With the exception of my dad, it did seem like we might be having problems finding a joint that satisfied all parties.

A couple of questions in town however, and we were pointed to Banská Štiavnica newest culinary offering – so new that at the time of our visit it had only recently begun operations!

BS Streetfood – “BS” presumably being a tribute to the town’s initials – exemplifies the latest hipster concept to hit Slovakia. Yes, street food. Streetfood, for me, will always raise a smile when I see it in the western world: the coolest kids in town, the see-and-be-seen sort, hanging out in places that are trying to reproduce the food and atmosphere old grandmothers have been ladling out on the streets of Peru or Thailand for generations. Street food concept restaurants are invariably either vastly over-priced because you’re paying for something that is in right now or ludicrously off the mark in terms of environment (street food in a posh restaurant doesn’t work – it defeats the point, which is good, hearty, informal food-for-the-masses). In London and – more recently – in Bratislava I’ve seen the attempts at offering the street food thing fall far short of what they should: in a fair few cases, little more than a re-branding of standard junk food. It took a tiny street food outlet in the wilds of Central Slovakia to change my mind about it all.

And why? Well, there are a lot of hipsters from the Bratislava area moving to Banská Štiavnica to open alternative businesses (take the Archangel Cafe-Bar, take the antique bookshop on the main square) and BS Streetfood is part of that wave: but unlike a lot of the world’s hipster-run joints, it’s not only hipsters that stop by. It’s everyone. No insular hipsterism here at all. Just an unassuming, no-frills place that offers delicious well-cooked take-out food – that all manner of locals are queuing up to get a piece of.

One key thing BS Streetfood has is quality bio meat – sourced with care. Another thing is that it is incredibly flexible – even when there was nothing on the menu my girlfriend with her current diet could have, the owner was happy to innovate (in itself a welcome change from the sometimes steadfast beaurocracy of the Slovakian service industry). That night, they did have a curry (Thai, but just sold out when we arrived) so we went for noodles, in beef and vegetable, and egg-vegetable sauces – simple, gingery, cayenne-y and divine, and no shying away from liberal use of spices! It was all cooked up with ample theatrics by the energetic owner, who contrasted sharply with the sombre, pot-bellied older sous-chef. Desert? Šulance from a local babka (grandmother). We’d only shelled out 4-5 Euros per main dish, and my dad was in raptures, my mum content, my girlfriend quite pleasantly surprised.

Then, you realise, that is just it: BS Streetfood, taken on paper (or on computer screen) is not spectacular. It’s more a wonderful surprise (particularly because it’ll be different food every night). And still more than that, an experience, as the owner/head chef swoops between a clutch of vats of bubbling Slovak-Asian food. Let’s hope the owner can keep up his enthusiasm!

NB: B… S: Brilliant Streetfood? Best Streetfood?

 

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

Places to Go: Banska Štiavnica’s Mining Museums

Places to Go: Banska Štiavnica’s Kalvaria

Places to Stay: Banska Štiavnica’s Nicest Guesthouse

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

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

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

Top Ten Medieval Towns in Slovakia

 

MAP LINK Too new to be on Google Maps! (But it’s on the junction just right of the post office which we’ve marked)

LOCATION: Junction of Dolná and Remeselnícka (officially Remeselnícka 17). Dolná is the main road heading down from the historic heart of Banská Štiavnica towards the modern part of town by the bus station.

OPENING: Every afternoon and evening until about 10pm

PHONE THEM: (0) 907-487-174

FACEBOOK THEM

BEST TIME TO VISIT: Around 7:30pm before they’ve sold out of whatever’s on.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: 50km north of BS Streetfood (following Dolná down then turning left on the main road towards Ždiar nad Hronom) is the Geographical Centre of Europe!

Jana Kirschner ©Pavol Frešo

Why Jana Kirschner is Great for Slovak Music

It’s true. I did make some comments about Jana Kirschner being Slovakia’s Kate Bush which are, admittedly, a little previous. But what is undeniable is that the lady is a cornerstone of Slovak music today and, especially with her most recent work, is flying the flag for what is being achieved amongst contemporary musicians in the country.

I’ve seen Jana a couple of times live and realised recently that she has actually been making music almost twenty years. In this sense she really is the voice of post-Communist Slovakia – and it’s an incredible voice at that. And she’s kept that all-important connection with Slovakia by singing in Slovak, too – tapping into several Slovakian music traditions, and perhaps most interestingly the country’s incredible folk music. I personally love the change in her music since she’s been living in the UK and working with music producer Eddie Stevens.

The entrancing dancey folk of a song like Sama, from her 2013 album Moruša: Biela is a great contrast with some of her earlier, and perhaps more pop ballad, work. She’s a former Miss Slovakia finalist too: not bad for a country replete with absolutely gorgeous women:)

The clip above is from Krajina Rovina (Flat Country) (2010) with some beautiful shots of the Slovak countryside. Below: afore-mentioned Sama. Enjoy!

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

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

By Jonno Tranter.

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

Towards Bradlo! ©Jonno Tranter

Towards Bradlo! ©Jonno Tranter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

STAGE OVERVIEW MAP LINK:

WHAT NEXT?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the trail ©Jonno Tranter

On the trail ©Jonno Tranter

Image by Jonno Tranter

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

By Jonno Tranter.

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

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

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

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

©Jonno Tranter

©Jonno Tranter

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

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

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

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

STAGE OVERVIEW MAP LINK:

WHAT NEXT?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Cork Wine Bars… First Bratislava, Now Poprad!

Wine Bars in the High Tatras? You’d Better Believe it – Poprad’s Going Posh!

Saturday night, party night? (not for me, I’m sitting here writing this, but for you, dear reader…) In Bratislava, Cork Wine Bar was and still is, after one acclimatised to the serendipitous vibrant-but-relaxed, understated-but-suave cafe and bar culture permeating the city, exactly what you might hope to find strolling the Old Town streets to get that party started in. A veritable oasis from the bustle of Panská, that most lively of central Old Town streets, it was and is, with its burnished wood and bare brick interior, firstly a quiet respite and sloooooowly, as glass after glass of that spectacularly agreeable wine trickles through you, a place to segue, in sophisticated style, into the party-yet-to-be.

Now Michal, and his business partner Miro, have just opened the Cork Wine bar, take two: in Poprad. Yep, in the High Tatras – where you might hold out hopes of finding an outdoor shop or a koliba (rustic Slovak eatery) but would never have imagined until recently that you would run into an elegant wine bar.

©Eric Wiltsher

©Eric Wiltsher

The opening hours in the new Poprad bar (opening at 8am every morning, as opposed to the Bratislava bar’s far later 5pm start) intimate that this is going to be an even more chilled affair than the branch in the capital and indeed, so it seems: a place where the emphasis on the phenomenal cheeses, Italian meats and the snacking of other daytime treats as well as the wine and where the vibe is far more intimate. It’s rather like walking into your own home-from-home, actually – oozing warmth and positive energy.  A few more words about that cheese. It’s some of the most heavenly Englishman in Slovakia has ever tasted from a Slovak producer (Slovaks make great mild sheep cheeses but have never really made progress producing strong cheeses that could be described as “packing a punch”). Try the cheese at Cork Poprad, and you will consider your taste buds well and truly punched. Seriously, it puts many of the world’s copy-cat cheddars to shame. We’ll ratchet up the rave one notch: this range of cheese is very simply world class. Delve beyond it deeper into their deli selection and you will just everything you could want to compliment quality wines.

To chat too much about the wine would be to steal the limelight from the enthusiastic owners and staff. Michal is keen to share that Cork (initially Bratislava and now Poprad) was an extension of his passion/hobby for wine. He left the rat race of finance to pursue that passion because good wine meant more to him than money, and that passion shows. The wines on offer scan rather like the Who’s Who of wine but, the way Michal talks about them, like the much-loved members of a family, too. What’s more the team at Cork Poprad have ALL been to wine school prior to the venue opening here – yes, they have studied wine.

Cork Poprad's Owners ©Eric Wiltsher

Cork Poprad’s Owners ©Eric Wiltsher

The Cork Wine Bars were originally set up to supply quality wines from around the world to hotels and restaurants, and the Poprad bar is a natural progression for the owners. You can tell you are in the right place when you walk in. The welcome is fantastic, with staff all able to converse in English and eager to find the perfect wine to match your palate’s particular preference (such a level of service is still worth commenting on anywhere in Europe) . Cork Poprad seems reminiscent of the excellent initial wine bars in the UK, opened by those passionate about great wines and quality foods, but offering an inviting and inclusive overall experience that has you champing at the bit to return.

 

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 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: (Poprad) MAP LINK: (Bratislava)

LOCATION: Levočská 15 (Poprad) Panská 4 (Bratislava)

OPENING: 8am to midnight Monday to Thursday, 8am to 2am Friday, 5pm to 2am Saturday and 5pm to midnight Sunday (Poprad, which does indeed have much longer hours than the original Bratislava branch) AND 5pm to midnight Monday to Thursday, 5pm to 2am Friday/Saturday and 5pm to midnight Sunday (Bratislava)

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Cork Wine Bar in Poprad it’s 400m west to the lovely Café La Fée (although coffee THEN wine might be the more logical way round of doing it)

 

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Image ©Eric Wiltsher

 

Mads Mikkelsen stars in Move On...

The One About the Suspicious Border Guard, the Pretty Girls and the Deer

I always love scouting out depictions of Slovakia on TV and Film – mostly Slovak or Czech ones, admittedly, but the occasional Western European one too.

So it was only a matter of time before I discovered Move On, a gritty European road movie which was released in 2012 in eight staggered short episodes online. A whole section (episode 3) of Move On, about an international man of mystery, played by Mads Mikkelsen, and his attempts to deliver a yet-more mysterious silver suitcase across Europe, is entirely dedicated to Slovakia. In fact, let’s give Slovakia a little more kudos: the eight different episodes respectively featured eight different European countries, and Slovakia was one of those coveted eight. Well, let’s face it. After less fortunate representations in the Hostel series of gory horror films and 2004’s highly forgettable Eurotrip it was about time Slovakia received a slightly more realistic movie portrayal.

Move On is actually a pretty compelling thriller – although it’s presumably set before Slovakia became part of Schengen in 2007, as the first scene entails a rather tense border interrogation for our protagonist (yes, it’s true that once we British depart the European Union such interrogations could again become commonplace but as for now, the scene really evokes images of Slovakia’s erstwhile stint as part of the Communist Bloc: flashlights scanning our hero’s car, a surly armed guard growling “what is your business in Slovakia?” and salivating Alsatians champing at the bit to get their teeth into unwelcome newcomers should those grim-faced border officials so command).

Mikkelsen (aka Nicholas) is tired in this episode (it’s a long drive from the Netherlands, from where he set out in episode one), so it’s a relief when he gets passed the guards and on into Bratislava. Here he checks in to a smart-looking hotel (the Austria Trend Hotel perhaps– Nicholas is an intense character who looks like he needs to be in the thick of the action). Then, instantly, a couple of paces passed reception, Nicholas bumps into a hot chick who is clearly smitten with him after a mere glance whilst waiting for the lift. Nicholas is too fatigued for a one night stand, however (it’s also true that when strange hot chicks start making suggestive remarks to you in lifts even the most desirous and desirable of us men have to treat the move with caution, and at least entertain the thought that they might be spies sent to assassinate us). In any case, our protagonist has to prepare for what will prove to be a demanding driving stunt next day.

The stunt involves losing the car tailing him by a canny manoeuvre between two approaching trams, and then high-speed reversing into an underground parking lot (to be fair in Bratislava he’d have had several options in that regard). It’s a neat move, but Slovak drivers do attempt similar things on the highways every day – and they don’t even charge you one Euro cent to watch.

A few more fraught moments and he’s on back the road – to Serbia this time. But the best-laid plans seldom play out as anticipated and, driving fast (he’s a good driver, he probably couldn’t resist) along a country lane he accidentally writes off his car after a collision with a deer. The accident was 100% the deer’s fault.

Crashed car = big problem. Nicholas has a long distance yet to drive.

But help is at hand, in the form of the second – and still hotter – chick of the episode, pulling up in a battered old truck she’s been hitching a lift in. I very much doubt such a beautiful hitch-hiker has ever alighted from such a battered old truck but our protagonist (currently sitting disconsolately in a closed, middle-of-nowhere garage) is hardly in a position to mull over the anomaly for too long. The girl and the amenable old driver are going “where the winds blow” which isn’t amazingly helpful, actually, for Nicholas, who needs to get down to Southern Europe, pronto. But love interest number 2 is pretty, and he’s got no better offers, so what the Hell. At least it’s wheels, right?

Methinks, however, that this love interest (Slovak actress Gabriela Marcinkova, who hails from the good city of Prešov) is here to stay a while…

Episode 4 sheds a little more light on that. Just a little. Because the grand finale has to take place in that fabled frontier between west and east… that hotbed of espionage… that’s right. Berlin. And Nicholas is still very far from Berlin…

Bratislava: The White Mouse (Whisky)

Whenever I’m feeling down and out in Bratislava, whenever the winter cold gets a little too much, not too many days elapse before I’m making a pilgrimage down to my favourite whisky shop in the city to procure a bottle of the Good Stuff. Such is the manner of the shop that the pilgrimage becomes almost an event in itself: a ritual, if you like.

Why do I like the White Mouse over the city’s other whisky outlets, apart from the overwhelming impression veritably exuding from its pores that it’s by far the nicest?

Most importantly of all, it’s whisky presented with panache. The owner is incredibly knowledgable (I’ve vetted him) and knows what he’s talking about when he recommends you a bottle. His son studied over in Scotland and it was during such visits to see him that the man became obsessed with Scottish whisky (absolutely fair enough). So his selection is comprehensive where all the Scotch whiskies are concerned (particularly intriguing bottlings of the Islays, including several from new-kid-on-the-block Islay distillery Kilchoman), and he has Japanese whiskey and North American bourbons too (so yes, it’s a whiskEy as well as a whisky store). He’s even started carrying the little-known Slovak whiskey Nestville Park which certainly flies the flag for quality Slovak uisge beatha.

English is spoken in the White Mouse: it’s a tourist-friendly place, and in a pretty Old Town cobbled side street. People, as the picture above evidences, enjoy hanging out here: visitors and locals alike. And there are regular tastings put on too: just turn up at the shop to enquire.

That’s it. Import costs do make many of their whiskies 5-15 Euros more expensive than their equivalents in the UK. But when you’re on the other side of Europe and you fancy a take-home single malt, it’s worth it. And that Slovak whiskey? Here’s a trailer: soft, sweet, bourbon-esque. As I end up saying a lot in Slovakia: Na zdravie.

MAP LINK

LOCATION: Klariska 6

OPENING: 10am to 10pm Monday to Saturday

©Jonno Tranter

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

By Jonno Tranter.

©Jonno Tranter

©Jonno Tranter

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

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

©Jonno Tranter

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

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

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

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

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

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

STAGE OVERVIEW MAP LINK:

WHAT NEXT?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©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

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

Around Terchová: Hotel Diery

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

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

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

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

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

Koliba, the restaurant at Hotel Diery

Koliba, the restaurant at Hotel Diery

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

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

A comfortable double at Hotel Diery

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

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

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

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

BOOK HOTEL DIERY:

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

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

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

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

A Little Tip

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

Devín & the Beginning of the Hike

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

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

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

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

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

The Devínska Kobyla Section

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

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

Views of flat Austria to the west ©englishmaninslovakia.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

The City Stretch

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

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

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

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

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

Horsky Park ©englishmaninslovakia.com

Horsky Park ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Horský Park through to Kamzík

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

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

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

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

STAGE OVERVIEW MAP LINK

WHAT NEXT?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©englishmaninslovakia.com

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Outside the Gallery ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Poprad: the Elektráreň

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Quick Guide to the Other Content We Have on Poprad

Places to Go: Poprad’s lavish Aqua Park

Places to Go: Nine reasons to linger in Poprad

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

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

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

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

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

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

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s gourmet chocolatier

Going Out: Poprad & the Manchester United Connection

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

Getting Around: London to Poprad Flights

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

Top Ten Medieval Towns in Slovakia

 

MAP LINK

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

ADMISSION: 3 Euros

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

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

Painted eggs… a typical Slovak handicraft – pic by Picture by Doko Ing. Mgr. Jozef Kotulič

Top Ten Slovak Gift Ideas

Whether it’s bringing home a present for the folks from your summer hols or getting that classic traditional festive treat at one of Slovakia’s legendary Christmastime markets, knowing your quality souvenirs from your tourist tack is important in Slovakia – and actually makes choosing a gift to take home enjoyable rather than tedious.

To that end, we’ve produced our top ten of the must-buy traditional Slovak souvenirs. We’re focussing here on things that really aren’t the same if you buy them outside Slovakia, that have a touch of the “only in Slovakia” about them. For more ideas, take a look at our ever-expanding shopping section! Of course, all of the below ideas are not just for Christmas…

10: A Book on Slovak History: In-English translations of Slovak writers are regrettably limited. The big exception is in the area go historical reference where several great reference books await. As readers of this blog will have intimated, Slovakia’s history is varied and rich. Slovakia’s castles and wooden churches are particularly rich veins worth tapping into, with the topics producing several books available in good bookstores like ArtForum (who also have a great section of Slovak movies) or Oxford Bookstore (soon to be the subject of a post on this blog; link currently to the Facebook page, address on Laurinska 9).

9: A Log Basket: No one likes collecting logs as much as the Slovaks; they stack them up proudly against their mountain cottages and even adapt the roofs so that the logs stay sheltered. Needless to say the country has one of the best selections of log baskets you ever will see. Buy them from Nitra Christmas Market, in the main Námestie in Nitra. Oh – and in case you want another kind of basket (košik in Slovak) plenty of other varieties for other purposes await…

8: Lacework: Lacework (Paličkovanie) in Slovakia has a fine tradition, with the old mining towns such as Banská Štiavnica and Kremnica having some of the most traditional work. Originally this would have been work for folk costumes at festival time and normal everyday clothes to boot; now it’s just nice to get a piece to appreciate the exquisite workmanship. Úl’uv have a great selection.

7: Some traditional Slovak music: Classic Slovak folk music may not be what the average Slovak listens to in their car but folk music is still big here and closely associated with the hugely traditional folk festivals that occur throughout summer in rural Slovakia. Get a taste at stores like Martinus on Obchodná where you can pick up albums by quintessential folk groups like Lučnica, classic contemporary artists like Jana Kirschner or wacky experimental stuff like that by Marek Brezovský.

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Banská Štiavnica – an ancient mining town with a lot of ore still under the surface… ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

6: Mineral Ore from Banská Štiavnica: This old mining town really does come up with some of the best gifts in the country. The legacy of mining here is showcased in the mining museum here, where the on-site shop is the place to buy nuggets of silver, gold and other ore unearthed in the mineral-rich hills.

5: Smoked meats: The zabíjačka (pig killing) is a Slovak tradition going back centuries and many of the products from one of these rituals make for good Christmas gifts. For starters, try the good butchers on the right side of Stara Tržnica (the old marketplace) in Bratislava. Why smoked meats? They transport better, of course…

4: Painted eggs: These can be seen in many gift shops around Slovakia. Usually ceramic, they are an important part of the Easter tradition of Šibačka (where the women present them to their menfolk – read more about the tradition here). Buy them in most craft shops, including Úl’uv.

Painted eggs… a typical Slovak handicraft – pic by Picture by Doko Ing. Mgr. Jozef Kotulič

Painted eggs… a typical Slovak handicraft – pic by Picture by Doko Ing. Mgr. Jozef Kotulič

3: A bottle of alcohol: Slovakia, unlike the neighbouring Czech Republic, is first and foremost a wine-drinking country. For white and red wines, pay a visit to the wine shops and cellars of Svätý JurLimbach, Pezinok, Modra, and – in the far east of the country – one of the Tokaj wine-making villages like Malá Tŕňa.

Don’t like wine for a gift? Not a problem. Slovakia is also famous for medovina, a honey-like wine available on many of the stalls in christmas markets. Then there is a whole range of fruit brandies, such as slivovica (plum brandy). However far better than getting any of these potent fruit liquors from the supermarket is to get some of the homemade stuff (made by a large number of folks in the countryside) which is generally far superior.

Not to be outdone, there is also whiskey to be found in Slovakia. Slovakia makes a honey-like bourbon from Nestville Park near Stará Ľubovňa in East Slovakia. Buy the whiskey in the White Mouse whiskey shop in Bratislava or better still direct from Nestville Park after a tour there.

2: Šupulienky: These intricate corn husk figures, mostly people carrying out traditional trades such as wood-carving or butter churning, but also occasionally depicting animals, are intimate reminders of Slovakia’s rural past. Buy them from Úl’uv or from a couple of outlets on the Bratislava Christmas Market.

1: Ceramics from Majolika: Slovakia’s best ceramics are produced by this small Modra-based firm, the signature designs being old-fashioned dark blue, yellow and green floral motifs. Our two top recommendations would be their set of slivovica cups and/or hip flask, or their meat-roasting dish, with a jug-shaped spout to let juices drain off. For the best prices, buy them direct from the Majolika shop in Modra.

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Modra: Majolika (Handicrafts)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Places to Go: L’udovit Štúr’s Modra

Places to Go: Hiking up in the hills above Modra all the way to Bratislava (the Štefánikova magistrála, stage three)

Places to Stay: Modra’s ceramic-themed hotel

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

 

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

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

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

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

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Coffee and Tea Culture in Slovakia: the Kaviaren versus the Čajovna

Before 1989, partaking of a good beverage was significantly more limited than it is today in Slovakia.

But particularly where coffee was concerned. Almost everyone drank the same brand, heralding from Poprad – an underwhelming and grainy affair by most accounts (and that is only to mention the best of them). No one thought to question its origin beyond that. It was there, and that was what counted. Better beans were available on a prestigious foreign market that you could buy with bonds – if you happened to have foreign currency to pay for them, which you could only really obtain if you had relatives living “in the west”.

A quality array of teas was more widespread. After all, tea could be made with the herbs and fruits that grew in the woods and hills looming large across Czechoslovakia (foraging is still a popular alternative to relying on what is offered in the supermarkets today). This is much more likely to explain why discerning tea culture continued to develop whilst coffee culture took a tumble (ironic, with Vienna so near and yet so far) than, for example, the age-old influence of the Turkish on the region.

Come the 1990s and tea in Slovakia was often a fine-tuned and sophisticated thing, enjoyed in a range of čajovny (teahouses) which were as often as not the hangouts of the Bohemian sect. Coffee – at least the half-decent varieties of coffee enjoyed in kaviarne, or cafes, continued to be at best what Slovaks know as presso, low-grade espresso made in a simple presso machine.

But Slovaks, since then, and in spite of the fact they are ultimately a home-loving people, began spending time away in other parts of Europe, North America and Australia. When they did, they often ended up working in catering. They got exotic ideas and brought them back to Slovakia.

Slovaks jump to adopt and embrace foreign trends if those trends seem like winners. Pizza and pasta caught on quickly. Craft beer is the latest craze. Good coffee came somewhere between the pasta and the craft beer. It seems to have been a learning curve, slow, but steadier and steadier and only really developing into a “scene” worth talking about in the last five or six years. And a scene it is. The likes of Bratislava’s Štúr (2010) and Bistro St Germain, plus perhaps Košice’s Caffe Trieste spearheaded it: good coffee in atmospheric surroundings, in these cases with cheap, healthy lunches on offer too.

A ton more places have followed suit. This new brand of cafes have several traits. They seem, like the čajovny have been for a while now, to be real “worlds” – autonomous provinces free from the regulations, realities and disappointments of external goings-on, or at least refuges from them. They are also uncrowded worlds, which renders them all the more inviting. They are generally owned/operated by young people who have a passion for stamping their own unique take on how things should be. In Bratislava and Košice, many inhabit Old Town buildings looking out on streets where aimless wandering is often a visitor’s main concern – and at a slow pace, because of the cobbles:) – it would not take too beguiling a pavement cafe table to waylay anyone here. And there is not just one or two – there are many. They veritably assail you from within 18th-century buildings (buildings which, it must be admitted, suit standing in as cafes very well). They invariably capitalise on one major Achilles heel of the average Slovak – an inability to think about going through the day without a hearty lunch – and do well from it. All told, it is no surprise why Slovakia, in 2013, were the world’s sixth-biggest per capita coffee drinkers.

If anything, in Slovakia it’s the quality čajovna that now seems underground (underground meaning the scene generally but sometimes, yes, literally underground) compared to the kaviareň / cafe. That said, more places serve up top-notch tea than they do top-notch espresso, so it seems to me. With the coffee, it’s a work in progress. But already a very good work.

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Around Piešt’any: Reštaurácia Furman

Imagine it: the biting wind of a mid-winter afternoon, the dismalness of night-time already looming although there has barely been any daylight to speak of. Still, you’ve made the best of it and hiked into the hills, only to find the weather has got too much for you. It’s gnawed its way into the marrow of your bones. The only thought that keeps flashing around your brain is not how beautiful the landscape is (although, in its own bleak way, it does have a beauty) but how to get warm, and that quickly. As extensions of that thought are the dual fantasies of hot food and hot drink, ideally in somewhere atmospheric although you’d settle for less, you’d settle for anything with four walls and a roof – and at the same time you’re entertaining this fantasy you know that you’re in the countryside and any kind of shelter is a long shot. This was the context in which we rounded the brow of a bare hill and saw, in the dip below, Reštaurácia Furman for the first time.

Furman is part of that delightful breed of places to eat in Slovakia that rears the meat that winds up on the plate in a wood out back. For fresh jeleň (venison) or bažant (pheasant) there are few better places in the country to come than here, as we soon discovered.

Dog or Deer?

The welcome is an unusual one. Strangely, the first thing you see is an immense yellow dog galloping around in a paddock of its own, as if it were a dangerous creature, but that should not deter you: the dog is deceptively friendly, and not on the menu. The deer in the field behind, however, are. Whilst first-timers to this type of restaurant might find it cruel that these sweet- and sombre-seeming animals should act, on the one hand, as a diversion outside the restaurant (to pet them, to pose for pictures with them, etc) and yet should be served up as the speciality of the day inside, I personally find it refreshing: the animals have an entire wood of their own to roam in, and you can be sure the meat here is fresh, and the animals well-cared for during their lives. A beast-to-meat relationship, vividly there for all to see, is an honest one – one no meat-eater should shy away from.

Vitame Vas… Welcome! ©englishmaninslovakia.com

Vitame Vas… Welcome! ©wwwenglishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The Menu

Once we’d peeled off our layers, got our blood circulating again and settled down at a table in an interior somehow combining traditional Slovak with just a touch of the Wild West, the obvious choice (from the dishes of the day, which I always go for) was either the deer goulash or the pheasant in red wine sauce and it was the latter that I went for. It came deliciously and richly seasoned with herbs, and accompanied with potato croquettes that rank up there with the very best I’ve had in Slovakia – again impeccably seasoned with rosemary and thyme and ladled with cranberries on top. Washing it down was the mulled wine my chilled body craved (served sour, in the typical Slovak way, with honey and sugar provided). My dining companion ordered grilled oštiepok, and they were very accommodating in making it gluten-free. Several other styles of venison (as ragout with dates, or a leg cut with a sauce concocted from forest mushrooms) were also available. Prices were invariably between 5 and 9 Euros for main courses.

Unabashed Tradition

What you are getting with Reštaurácia Furman is a gloriously typical Slovak eatery (the sheepskins are draped over the chunky wooden seats, the stag’s heads gaze haughtily down from their fixtures on the walls, the ceiling is studded with old cart wheels) proud of its tradition – but not once compromising on either quality of food or ambience. This is how a typical rural restaurant would have been (give or take) 60 or 70 years ago. Now their rustic wood hunter-friendly decor and self-reared meat reared is something that should be highly prized, because it is actually increasingly rare. Sorry, vegetarians, or members of anti-hunting sects: this is how a quintessential Slovak restaurant should be. If you don’t like it, there are plenty of other more modern joints in bigger towns and cities. But if you came to Slovakia expecting an eatery exuding raw, rural Slovak-ness (as you would be entitled to do) then voila: this is it.

The pheasant…. ©englishmaninslovakia.com

The pheasant…. ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

 

Room With A View

It is the sort of spot that, on any walking holiday, you would dream of chancing upon. After all, it has an enviable location – a few kilometres’ walk above Piešt’any and right on the cusp of the woodsy hills that form an arm of the Small Carpathians, Povazsky Inovec, through which you can stroll through stunning upland countryside to Tematín Castle. Part of the panorama from the restaurant and the bar next door is across the summer terrace down over rolling farmland to the rather dramatic grey-white spread of Nádrž Slňavaone of the country’s biggest reservoirs. And just down the track too are the ruins of Villa Bacchus, where Beethoven once stayed whilst composing his Moonlight Sonata. But from the look of the clientele, it’s also a place well-heeled Piešt’any folks and those from further a-field would willingly venture up into them hills to sample.

Little Bit of History Repeating

And a furman? It’ss an antiquated profession that would translate most closely in English to “Coachman”. But there is no real equivalent. A furman would have been a man who lived on a smallholding in the countryside, with a carriage that he would hire out for different purposes (taking goods to market, or ferrying paying passengers around from A to B.) In Slovakia it is the ultimate epitome of a return to rural roots. And therefore a return to traditional, fresh Slovak food.

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

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

Places to Go: A Great Castle near Piešt’any

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

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

RELATED POST: Furmanská Krčma, near Modra

One thing. Whilst I wasn’t really expecting (just hoping, somehow) for the Deliverance soundtrack that might have been most appropriate on the stereo, the tame R&B playing for most of our visit did slightly undermine the atmosphere. Music is important. If the guys in charge of Reštaurácia Furman realised that, this place would be truly exceptional.

MAP LINK: Top of the screen is Piešt’any, with spa island in the middle of the river there; mid-right to the right of the reservoir is the restaurant. Getting to the restaurant by road, it’s just a couple of km from the other side of the River Váh from the town centre.

OPENING: 10am-10pm daily

BEST TIME TO VISIT: A winter lunchtime after a walk.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: 2km northwest you can relax with treatments in the best of Piešt’any’s spas whilst a 20km drive or walk (through the hills) north brings you to Tematín Castle.

©englishmaninslovakia.com

©englishmaninslovakia.com

Záhrada

Záhrada (1995), like Martin  Šulík’s previous film, Všetko čo mam rád, is perhaps best watched on one of those seemingly never-ending sultry evenings in the height of a hot summer. Then you’ll be poised to recall most poignantly what it was like to be in the depths of a long school holiday from your early childhood: unlimited time; not a great deal to do; a corresponding fascination with the beauty of the small things (the heavy scent of pollen, building a treehouse, fishing for tadpoles in the local stream).

In such a state of mind, Záhrada makes most sense. Its main character, Jakub, is not dissimilar to protagonist Tomás in Všetko čo mam rád: a thirty-something for whom life seems directionless, living with his father in their cramped flat, having an affair with a married woman, in a job he cares little for, whiling away days without formulating any specific plans.

The film opens with a woman calling at his father’s flat to have a shirt repaired (his father is a tailor). Whilst his father mends it, the woman (who transpires to be Tereza, the one Jakub is sleeping with) begins to ravish Jakub there and then in the next room, but his father walks in in the middle of the foreplay, understandably incensed, and tells Jakub (we sense this is the last straw in a series of straws) to leave and get his own place. Or more specifically, he tells him to sell the old garden that Jakub’s grandfather used to have and buy a flat with the proceeds.

Garden, it should be clarified, is záhrada in Slovak. And unsurprisingly, given it is the title of the movie, Jakub, upon journeying out to the garden to check it out, soon decides it is not something he wishes to sell.

The garden in question is a rather overgrown, rambling plot of land far out in the middle of the countryside, with a small cottage on the premises where Jakub’s grandfather previously lived. Our protagonist soon falls in love with the place and its decrepit charms, and with the lazy rural life that goes with it. He is accustomed to being a city dweller, however, and experiences his fair share of problems with consequences of country life he was utterly unprepared for.

For starters, the garden and cottage are in a poor state of repair, and Jakub is none too good with repairs. Then there are the bizarre characters that live nearby: not least the beautiful but slightly crazy Helena with whom Jakub (pretty rapidly) develops a crush on. Perhaps most interestingly, there is the gradual trade-off he makes, sacrificing city life for a rustic one. Like many things in Jakub’s life, this process happens to him rather than because of any conscious decision he makes. A family that need to get to a wedding take his car; the school he teaches at informs him they no longer need his services after his protracted stay in the záhrada continues into term time. Some aspects of city life remain more difficult to shake off: namely Tereza whose presence increasingly annoys Jakub.

There is no place for the trappings of the city in the garden, because the garden is a bastion of the beautiful and inexplicable, where it is the minute and the fragile, the understated and the curious, which become the biggest surprises. Helena becomes Jakub’s initiator into this world (showing him how to deal with stray dogs, how to get cured by ants) – a world in which Jakub ends up losing material possessions but gaining inner happiness (a healthy relationship, a better relationship with his father, a purpose).

Many Slovak films have as a hallmark a reality that traps the viewer by its intensity. The buzzing of bees, a device often employed, and the chirrup of grasshoppers veritably brings the simple laziness of a summer’s day in the country through the screen in Záhrada. And Jakub, on many levels, is an intensely real character. He falls into muddy holes, he bumbles, he makes mistakes, he is clumsy. On one level, though, he is extraordinary: in his ability to let things take their course with almost no protest whatsoever (just with the odd glance of bewildered wonderment). A strange intruder appears in his garden with a flock of sheep and Jakub is unfazed (he even washes the man’s feet and listens to his somewhat crazed life story). He goes to sleep by a campfire and wakes up with a strange man embracing him and he is equally unfazed. This trait of Jakub’s is what allows the magic into Záhrada. It is allowed to seep into the film in an earthed way, but nevertheless it does seep, and in turn this is what makes it such touching and unique piece of cinema. (The subtle mannerisms of Jakub and Helena, the quirky cameos of the family en route to the wedding or of the whimsical real estate agent looking to purchase the land, and of course, the magic of the garden itself, where mirror writing is the language that unlocks secrets that have been buried there for many years).

This magic does not affect the fluidity of the film (in some Slovak movies the common magic or fairytale element disrupts the continuity) and indeed, at the very end (where the scene depicted above happens) cements its place amidst Jakub’s garden, when Helena levitates and Jakub’s father exclaims: “now everything is as it should be”.

Záhrada is such a roller coaster of the small and serendipitous that even outlining the plot in no way spoils the film. The surprises of this garden cannot all be put into words. You’ll have to watch it to see why this is one of the very best post-1989 Slovak movies – and, along with Báthory (2008), the most famous.

NB: Záhrada didn’t get Oscar-nominated like Všetko čo mam rád but its success was recognised when it won the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Cryotherapy…

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

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

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

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

Getting Warmed Up

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

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

Poolside Fun

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

AquaCity’s Eco-Friendliness

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

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

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

A Quick Guide to the Other Content We Have on Poprad

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

Places to Go: Nine reasons to linger in Poprad

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

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

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s gourmet chocolatier

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

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

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

Going Out: Poprad & the Manchester United Connection

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

Getting Around: London to Poprad Flights

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

Top Ten Medieval Towns in Slovakia

MAP LINK

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

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

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

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

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Inside Bratislava’s Upside-Down Pyramid

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

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

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

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

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

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

MAP LINK:

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

ADMISSION: As mentioned: invariably free.

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

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

Bojnice Castle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What to Do?

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

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

Where to Eat and Drink?

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

And Now For the Set Piece: Bojnice Castle

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

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

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

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

Not Just A Pretty Face…

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

©JamesSilvesterAuthor.com

©JamesSilvesterAuthor.com

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

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

What’s On?

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

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

When to Go?

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

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

About the Writer…

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

 MAP LINK:

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

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

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

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