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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.

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Bratislava’s Best Pivovar (Brewpub-Gastropub)

This site does not usually seize on the obvious (recommending places people are more likely to know about anyway) but there is a way to subvert every trend (for example, writing about somewhere people are less likely to really know about because those people won’t be expecting me to write about anywhere people are likely to know about). Nah, I’m a contrary type on occasion, but not so contrary as all that. The reason I want to write about Bratislavský Meštiansky Pivovar is because it sets the standard of craft beer in Slovakia very high – and praising this establishment will achieve my ultimate aim of hoping others follow suit.

As I intimated, it’s hardly as if this pivovar, or brewery pub, is unknown: with its location right under the Crowne Plaza just off Obchodná. Even if it was less central, the audacity (OK, ingenuity too) of its design would bring in the crowds from miles around. The immediate impression is that it looks akin to some of the cool new craft brewery bars you see in the southern USA: voluminous (by the standards of the average Bratislava drinking establishment) and with high vaulted ceilings. Stairs then usher you up to a separate, more intimate dining area on the right and up again into the vaults themselves, with stalls and smaller tables arranged to form another large bar area.

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As is often the case with brewery pubs, it doubles up with food that very nearly matches its beer, making it the perfect place for those business dinners, or for men that need to meet up and would feel awkward, perhaps, in a more formal restaurant. It’s got the blend of casual/formal just right here, too (although the service could be marginally more attentive). But as I’ve lamented on this blog before, in Slovakia there are precious few eating places which are either informal with quality food, or decent quality and non-pretentious, so it’s nice to see this joint fill the gap.

So groups of guys down Ležiak (the lighter lager) or Bubák (the dark beer) in the relatively sophisticated dining area whilst Bratislava intellectuals (OK, mostly male again) browse newspapers in suave solitary beer drinking mode downstairs. And, a Meštiansky special: why not try a half light, half dark beer, mixed? It sounds crazy but strangely works (the Slovaks have never had inhibitions about mixing drinks other countries would never dream of doing – just ask them what they do with wine sometimes – but in this case they pull it off). If you ask in advance, you can get someone to show you around the brewery part of the enterprise, too – although earlier in the evening is better for this as, being a fairly well-established venue, the crowds can descend later on…

Serving beer!

Serving beer! ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

 

Whilst the menu is diverse, though, I’m still going to personally recommend going for one of the myriad sausage options (like a simple-but-satisfying utopenec, a sausage seved with pickles and chilli). Slovaks feel at home preparing sausages. And start off with a grilled sheep’s cheese hot from the capital of sheep’s cheese in Slovakia, Liptovský Miklauš. Main meals are between 8 and 21 Euros, with the top end reserved for a rather overpriced double steak tartare.

Now we’ve dealt with the booze and the food, it’s certainly worth mentioning the history. “History” might seem like an odd word to bring into a conversation about one of the Slovak Capital’s best-designed modern drinking and dining establishments, but there is a precedent here. Actually, whilst everyone bangs on about the Czechs and their beer, Bratislava has a proud brewing history that goes back to the middle ages. Back then, of course, Bratislava was known as Pressburg (in German) as it was a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. And the town’s burgesses then strove, come the mid-18th century, to create one of Europe’s original brew-pubs (!) – a well-to-do restaurant attached to a working brewery that would rival the very best of Bavaria’s beer houses: and… they succeeded. Thus was born Bratislava’s original Meštiansky Pivovar (in a different location to the current one).

Bratislava’s best pivovar? Yes. The competition is not as stiff as it first appears, and even if it were there’s a high chance this place would still come up trumps. It’s a great place to come and show off to visitors one of the city’s stylish sides.

MAP LINK:

LOCATION: Drevená  8 – see the website for reservations (recommended on weekday evenings)

OPENING: 11am-11pm Monday to Wednesday & Saturday, until midnight Thursday/Friday, until 10pm on Sunday

BEST TIME TO VISIT: After work through to closing time, but get in early before the main rush (say 5:30) to guarantee a good pew.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: An 800m walk south from Bratislavský Meštiansky Pivovar is Verne

NB: Shortly after this I went to Zamocký Pivovar up near the castle thinking hey – seems everyone’s opening great craft breweries in Bratislava! Wrong. Zamocký Pivovar is a disappointment: terrible food, mediocre beer and despite deceptive first impressions are surprisingly bland atmosphere (3 big no-no’s) – and it will not, until it improves, get a further mention on Englishmaninslovakia. Which makes me relish Bratislavský Meštiansky Pivovar more.

The Train Station Cafe – Vestiges of Old Glamour

Wifi: Non-existent  (regrettably, given the name of the joint)

On a visit to Budapest recently I was reminded again of just how many glamorous cafes of old there are in the city – Ruszvurm near the castle, for instance, that Austrian Empress Elizabeth used to send for cakes from, or New York Cafe, that all the famous turn-of-the-century Hungarian writers like Ferenc Molnár once hung out in.

Bratislava cannot really boast such a pedigree of coffee houses – not ones with this kind of colourful history. On Hlavné Námestie there is Kaffee Mayer (which, it is true, used to count among its patrons the colourful city character Schöner Náci – statue outside the doors). There is the nearby Caffe Roland. And these cafes do admittedly lend a touch of that bygone elegance – but the ambience is someone detracted from by the numbers of tourists and the service as frosty as a layer of wedding cake icing.

But there is a touch of that bygone cafe glamour of old – just a touch – in the unlikeliest of Bratislava locales. Yes, the otherwise shabby Hlavná Stanica, Bratislava’s main railway station. The station forecourt might be a mass of decrepit snack stands but, up the steps by the departures/arrivals screen and next to the Slovenská Sporitel’ňa bank ATM, there is the inconspicuous, unassuming and somewhat puzzlingly named Caffe Internet.

Its name, one imagines, was not always thus – and, as the ailing computer terminal has now been removed – should perhaps no longer be. But there are the worn leather-upholstered booths, the ancient dark wood furniture, the stately old mirrors, the swinging chandeliers and the ceiling with the motif of an eagle alighting on a globe – trappings from another very different age. The service, a stoic old lady who gets confused if you order much above coffee or a beer, is not reminiscent of the glory days. But something in the ambience certainly is.  The ghosts of train travellers of yore, you feel, flit around the walls of this place. A shadowy bowler-hatted character from a Graham Greene novel could be behind the unfurled newspaper someone – who knows who? – at the next booth is holding aloft.

And the thing about Caffe Internet is that you are obliged to pass by its creaking old doors when you get your train out of (or into) Bratislava. It’s my most-visited coffee shop in the entire city for that reason. So take the extra twenty minutes out to stop in for a cup of the fairly decent espresso and imagine yourself transported decades back to train travel at the height of its sophistication – when young men of means took their “Grand Tours” to Austro-Hungary and when waiters in restaurant cars wore suits. It’s a step up from the disconsolate Pumpkin cafe chain that peppers many railway stations in the UK, at least…

MAP LINK:

LOCATION: Hlavná Stanica railway station.

OPENING: About 6am-9pm daily

BEST TIME TO VISIT: Any time you need to take a train…

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Bratislava’s Hlavná Stanica station, it’s a 2km walk north to Kamzík, at which point you are all set to embark on a pilgrimage to Marianka

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Embers

Somewhere, in an unspecified location in the wild Carpathians, an ageing General and his long-estranged friend Konrad are preparing for one final dinner together. It’s been 41 years since they last met up like this, and – one feels – the remoteness of the venue is far from the whole reason why such a large amount of time has elapsed without them communicating with one another…

This is the premise for Sándor Márai’s Embers (Hungarian title translating as The Candle Burns to the Stump), his last and perhaps his best-known book,  and it’s one that hooks you. Sándor Márai, after all, is perhaps, on an international scale, Slovakia’s most famous writer, and certainly would have known a thing or two about the Carpathians. Such celebrated native sons talking about these mountains in fiction are few and far between.

He is little appreciated as a writer outside of the Hungarian literary world, not even in Slovakia. Whilst Márai’s home city Košice, as part of their 2013 preparations for European City of Culture, established a fascinating “Sándor Márai trail” around the key sights in the city associated with the writer, there can be little denying that the writer preferred Budapest as a place to hang out (those infamous coffeehouses particularly) and wrote exclusively in Hungarian. As Márai’s works were not available to read in English until the 1990’s though, his talents remained unknown for a long time, and all this served to add to the allure of the book when I picked it up in a Budapest bookstore recently. An intriguing mystery wrapped within the greater mystery of the writer’s life.

He was, back in the day when Budapest was a centre of European intellectualism, one of the prominent pre-WW2 voices of realism and it’s clear from the off this book is very much in that style. With Márai, and particularly with Embers, it’s the intricate, methodical mini-sketches of detail (devoting two pages to preparing a dinner set, for example) that conjure, out of the remoteness of the Europe’s far east, a world that seems very tangible. You taste the food the two main protagonists are eating, you live each carefully-assembled detail of their two lives that have led, through the strict course that high society in the Austro-Hungarian Empire set, to this moment.

What permeates through the pages of this novel, though, is the sense of yearning for what once was. Márai was writing this book in the 1940s, when Budapest had already lost the glamourous place at the pinnacle of European sophistication it had until recently held. The main character, the General, has relived the fateful events that forced him and his old friend apart, for 41 years. He has devoted the majority of his adult life to little else and, tellingly, beyond that to dwelling on the glory of those bygone days: how good it all was, how it no longer is. Yet he does so in a house where each of those fond memories have a cruel backlash. For each party he recreates in his head from 41 years ago, he hears the far greater silence of his now-empty abode echoing back at him. For each moment of laughter or love he recalls, he is surrounded by loneliness and coldness.

And like the house, the book is cold: frostily so. As Embers progresses, the idea of the General’s isolated house, little more than a magnificent but soulless museum of memories from the glam times, becomes so unbearable that you end up virtually begging the narrator to dwell once again on the past as an escape.

And the course of events that sour a once-inseparable friendship are compelling, retold through the General’s pedantic yet slightly superior way of expressing himself. There are more twists, too, than a path through the woods of the two main characters’ hunting trips. These trips, like so many aspects of the much revisited old friendship between the General and Konrad, highlights the key difference between them. The General is of moneyed, top military stock; Konrad is poor and rarely has a couple of krona to rub together. The latter is as critical of and embittered towards the status quo as the former is a contented part of it. Perhaps things were always, therefore, destined to go pear-shaped. And when that finally happens, it is little surprise that a woman is at the root of the problem…

But the problem for the reader, in a book like Embers, is a little different. In a tale set up to focus around two old men taking a trip down memory lane to a youth where their own intense friendship dominates over almost everything else, it’s essential to care for one of the characters. The General seems a righteous individual who has dwelt far too long on the past and who never makes a real effort to understand anyone without the ability to enjoy unlimited wealth. At the same time, his generosity towards his friend goes almost entirely unappreciated; Konrad spends the majority of the book sulking or – in the later stages – sullenly silent and unapologetic as the General continues a rant that has presumably been pent up for four decades. This is a beautifully constructed book but it chills you – and its main characters move you to pity or repulsion. Which means you cannot really feel sorry for either of them.

And perhaps an insight into Márai’s own opinion about Slovakia resonates throughout the book too. Whilst Vienna and Paris are described in lively detail, Slovakia is conspicuously absent. You can infer that it is the location of the house in the Carpathians, the melancholy and remote tomb of memories where the present part of the book takes place, but you never once have it made clear to you.

But as a piece of literature, it stands out as a testament of the heyday of Austro-Hungary: Slovakia, other incorporated territories and all. That’s why you should read it.

Kiosk 2011

Žilina: Artsy Gateway to Malá Fatra National Park

Here’s the insiders guide to the city most people think of as just a jump-off point for the delights of the Malá Fatra National Park: with some classic tips from artistic community at the now-renowned venue of Stanica. And hey: it’s not just me or the Stanica lot saying Žilina is cool: it was recently listed as one of the 101 Places to Get F*cked up Before You Die.

Stanica

Number one is, we are compelled to admit, the wondrous cultural hub of Stanica, the city’s well-established arts venue, created in revamped station buildings southwest of the city centre at the still-working Žilina-Zariecie station (on the line to the spa town of Rajecke Teplice and Rajec, out of interest). It doubles, or triples, or quadruples up as pretty much everything: cafe, bar, theatre, exhibition space… read more about it in our separate post on the place.

Kiosk Festival in Žilina's Stanica

Kiosk Festival, Žilina – image courtesy of Stanica

Great Counterculture Festivals

There are a couple of stand-out events in the city. Fest Anča is an international animation film festival which is one of the the largest events of the year, taking place in a few venues across Žilina. It attracts a Europe-wide audience. Then there is Kiosk, a festival of contemporary dance and theatre, which is also taking place during summer. There is a park next to Stanica where summer festival visitors can camp in the tents for free.

Insider Tours of Žilina

Stanica is designed as a place where people from different walks of life will meet, feel welcome and exchange ideas and, unlike a lot of places which claim this, it really is (certainly based on the crowd during my visits there anyway). You will, if you’re a first-time visitor wanting an insight into Žilina life, do well to head to Stanica, get talking to some of the clientele and see if they might even show you around town – or at least recommend some places to see. It’s worth noting too, of course, that because Žilina is one of the most famously by-passed destinations in the country, your experience of Slovakia here is likely to be much more authentic.

Synagogues, Churches and Squares

The remnants of Slovakia’s once-significant Jewish culture (Hlohovec in Western Slovakia was once one of the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s centres of Jewish learning and culture) are sadly now few and far between. An exhibition on Bratislava’s Most SNP Bridge recently recorded, in black and white, the destruction of the Capital’s Jewish quarter to make way for the bridge to be built). So it’s heartening to see a synagogue being reconstructed, as with the Neologic Synagogue [in central Žilina] and its transformation into a gallery of contemporary art. This national cultural heritage, built in 1930’s by Peter Behrens, is one of the most significant architecture pieces in Žilina and also in the whole of Slovakia. The five-year reconstruction is now nigh-on complete, and the results are an utterly rejuvenated building, retaining that original iconic design but now also thrumming as an ultra-modern centre of the arts, with new exhibitions running as of autumn 2016. It’s also easy to get a glimpse of what’s going on inside, and the scale of the colossal refurbishment project which has taken place, if desired with a guide and commentary by some of the guys from Stanica, no less. Here’s a link to the best online in-English info on Žilina’s synagogue. Žilina has among the most active Jewish communities in Slovakia.

Then there is the must-see visit to Žilina’s oldest building, Kostol Sv. Štefana krála (Church of St Stephen the King). It’s a Romanesque building dating from the 15th century, with impressive 13th-century medieval wall paintings. (Location: Zavodská Cesta, corner with Škultétyho).

The city’s impressive squares, flanked by restaurants, are also great for a stroll: cosier Mariánske Námestie and grand, ampitheatrical Námestie Andreja Hlinku. And there are actually some really great hotels, which you wouldn’t necessarily expect for a city of this size here: Dubna Skalá for example, or grand 18th century Villa Nečas. More on them in other posts.

Oh, and the bus station is right next to the train station (where you will most likely be arriving – it’s 2.25 to 2.75 hours from Bratislava), so for those of you wanting to ignore this article and head straight for Malá Fatra, well – that’s easy to do. Buses bound for Terchová and Vrátna ski resort (the heart of the national park) leave every one to two hours, 6:30am to 6:30pm:)

MAP LINK

GETTING THERE: 12 trains daily cruise from Bratislava’s Hlavná Stanica station to Žilina. Ticket prices are 9.40 Euros for the regional trains and 15.90 Euros for the high-speed trains.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: 30km east of Žilina’s Stanica you hit the heart of the Malá Fatra National Park at Vrátna from where you can access some great hiking around Chleb just passed Terchova.

Banská Štiavnica: The ‘Weird Woman’

Just as a ship is a woman, so a cafe or bar can be – and a decidedly strange one at that. Weird and wonderful Divná Pani (English translation = “strange lady”) on the main street of Banská Štiavnica’s historic Old Town is an ambassador for a side to this beautiful mountain settlement that many people overlook: its well-established tradition of cool counterculture cafe-bars.

Many people know these days about the Unesco status, the wonderfully preserved medieval Old Town and the local mining legacy (not so many people that the town has lost its charm, but it’s not quite as undiscovered these days: more and more to Slovakia what Český Krumlov is to Czech Republic). But a lot of people use Banská Štiavnica as a weekend escape from the big cities because it combines rural bliss with city sophistication (or at least a relative degree of it). Easter weekend here saw an Icelandic folk-indie band, jazz performances, poetry readings and the like and such a lineup is not exceptional. Venues like here, Archanjel and Artcafe put on tons of great cultural events throughout the year.

But it cannot be denied that of all these, Divná Pani looks wackiest.

People come in just to take pictures then leave again. There are busts of various figures (ancient Greek to Slovak), shelf upon shelf of ancient Austro-Hungarian Empire books, larger-than-life Latin inscriptions, bird-less birdcages and yet garden birds adorning the walls, strings of garlic besides abstract paintings, ship’s portholes displaying champagne and Slovak wine alike, a central rock garden of curios, plants and statues. There is the “literary” end (where you come just to curl up on sofas and bury yourself in the myriad books), a room lined with sofas (see picture) where friends gather amidst Latin inscriptions and more books, the bar (with windows onto the garden) where Banská Štiavnica’s bright young things come, sit and look casually aloof on their laptops, a really nice little kids area and the outside courtyard for the good weather and the dog owners.

The garden

The garden, image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

In a small mountain town Divná Pani does something that isn’t easy: it seems effortlessly cosmopolitan. The clientele is generally a mix of the Slovaks from the bigger cities in the know and on holiday or some discerning group of locals, with whom the to-die for hot chocolate is another big draw. Foreign tourists don’t necessarily find it because it’s not the most obvious of the cafe-bars on this main stretch of Andreja Kmet’a, the continuation of Kammerhofská (the part with the raised pavement on the right as you head uphill to the námestie (central square) just beyond. It’s set back in a recess with its very own chocolate shop outside. The approach is kind of like you are entering some slightly intimidating arcade of tarot card reading stalls, but Divná Pani is not intimidating at all. It’s a place where you can linger for hours and not feel bad about it (Englishmaninslovakia’s kind of place).

And you would want to linger. Regardless of the time of day. Because this place is open for breakfast, lunch, dinner and most of the evening. Whether it’s a breakfast coffee or a late-night glass of wine or three, Divná Pani is your woman (OK, lady). There is food here. Paninis, or maybe some Icelandic caviar… But the stand-out on the menu is the hot chocolate, followed not far behind by the tea. A chilli-infused Colombian hot chocolate, thick with just the right balance of bitterness with sweetness, goes down a treat after a brisk hike in the mountains. As does a pitcher of tea with crushed oranges, lemon, lime and mint. Or if it’s hot, a fruit/veg smoothie of carrot, apple, celery or plum (seriously, it works). The service is courteous. The evening vibe is as animated as the daytime one. If you came here for the fresh mountain air, you’ll probably end up relishing Divná Pani’s drinks – and strangeness – just as much.

 

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

Places to Go: Banska Štiavnica’s Kalvaria

Places to Go: Banska Štiavnica’s Mining Museums

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

Places to Stay: Banska Štiavnica’s Nicest Guesthouse

Places to Eat & Drink: Banska Štiavnica Streetfood

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

Top Ten Medieval Towns in Slovakia

 

MAP LINK

LOCATION: Andreja Kmet’a 120/8

OPENING: 7:15am-10pm Mon-Thu, 7:15am-midnight Fri, 8am-midnight Sat, 9am-10pm Sun

BEST TIME TO VISIT: Late morning for hot chocolate, mid- to late-evening for wine, caviar and maybe jazz!

THE ONLY DOWNSIDE: Fake flowers, guys! So much attention to detail and yet fake flowers. Lose them, and you’re perfect.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: A 250m walk downhill from the cafe and you reach the coolest street food joint in the whole region, BS Streetfood.

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Around Trnava: Hlohovec, Beethoven & The Founder of the Slovak Language

The River Vah Flowing Through Hlohovec

The River Vah Flowing Through Hlohovec – image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

As you’ve probably worked out by now, Englishmaninslovakia.co.uk doesn’t focus on well-known Slovakian places so much. We prefer to dig deep to find the truth under the cliches and to this end, on a cold, blustery and crisp day in February, we went to Hlohovec.

I confess we did go there with an attitude of determination to discover something beautiful, if only for the reason that people told us there was nothing beautiful there. Hlohovec is a good example of a medium-sized town in Western Slovakia (on the main route northeast from Bratislava between Trnava and Trenčin) that gets overlooked: because it doesn’t have quite the spectacular location of, say, Poprad, nor the beauty of, say, Bardejov AND because it is near enough to Bratislava and Trnava that its residents simply go to one of these larger cities if they need anything like a night out.

Hlohovec does have some claims to fame. It has a castle, Hlohovsky Zámok, in an expansive park just outside the town. It’s got landscaped gardens and a quite impressive theatre that often has Beethoven concerts in memory of the town’s most famous visitor, who stopped over for a night at the castle en route to the spa at Piešt’any and may have given a recital there, depending on which version of the story you listen to (actually, no joke, Bratislava and Western Slovakia do have a rich heritage of attracting top-notch composers – see a separate post on this very topic). The problem (aha I hear you say) is that whilst the park is great for a walk (you can even carry on walking above the castle into the hills and get to a small observatory with good views of Western Slovakia) it is, ahem, closed. And also in a bad state of repair.

If they invested money in the castle refurbishment, this town really would regain some more of the life it clearly once had back. In fact, a consortium tried to do this about ten years ago but local government officials doubted its potential to succeed and rejected the bid. More recently, some aspiring young inhabitants of the town tried to join the local council with a promise to focus on restoring the castle gardens and the castle.They too were crushed. In fact, it could quite accurately be said that Hlohovec is not a Trenčin (in terms of beauty) mainly because of terrible management by government officials. The castle refurbishment issue remains unresolved because, ignorantly, local officials just don’t seem to see the point.

Because there is a (very poorly publicised) castle tour here. I mean, in this sense, a tour of the many unheralded but spectacular castles in the immediate vicinity of Hlohovec. Starting at Červený Kameň to the southwest you can progress northeast via a spectacular Western Slovakia Castle Tour that will be the very next post on this blog; a castle tour that cuts right through Hlohovec. I have rarely seen a town with so much unfulfilled potential as here. It’s not just the castle: Hlohovec lies in astoundingly beautiful scenery.

Looking Back on Hlohovec as you ascend into the Male Karpaty

Looking Back on Hlohovec as you ascend into the Male Karpaty

You can follow trails, right from where this picture is taken, up west above the banks of the Váh into the wooded hills of the Malé Karpaty, on red and yellow-marked trails through abandoned castles and old quarries almost all the way to Trenčin (there are chaty, or mountain houses, en route, and this particular arm of the hills is known as Považský Inovec). A cycle path also connects it along the river bank itself to Piešt’any.

Church in Hlohovec's old monastery complex

Church in Hlohovec’s old monastery complex – image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

So, as for nature, Hlohovec is first-class. The architecture tells a slightly different story (yeah – a bit obliterated by Communism) but nevertheless in the centre there’s an attractive pedestrian street with a few surprisingly good cafes (and, get this, a jazz club!); there’s also the grounds of an old monastery (C. late 15th century) where the father of the Slovak language, Ján Hollý, lived for a while. Don’t shoot me down. I know Ľudovít Štúr gets credited with being the father of Slovak, but Hollý actually wrote in Slovak first (he was the first poet/writer to famously do so) and Štúr came asking for Hollý’s advice when he was establishing Slovak as an official written language. The grounds also contain a museum with lots of old pictures of the town back in the days when it was also one of the most prominent centres of Jewish culture and learning in the old Austro-Hungarian empire.

So should you stop off there when you’re heading northeast for the more famous beauty of the Tatras? Probably. Just to see how a real Slovak town ticks along. And possibly to do some really amazing hiking.

Hlohovec Best-of:

Best Cafe: Coffee Berry, Kapitána Nálepku 4. The cakes come from the Piešt’any cake shop I’ve raved about on another post and with quite a modern vibe, it’s the place where everyone hangs in Hlohovec! It’s right in the centre: here is their map.

Best Restauraunt: Jašter. An out-of-town place on a hill backed by a wood which has nice summer barbecues and a high quality of food. The link here gives good directions.

Best Sights: The castle and the park, the museum, the river and the surrounding hills. Oh, and a special meadow called Poniklecová Lúcka, which is one of the best places in Slovakia to see the rare pasque flower growing.

Best Place to Stay: U Janásov. This is unconfirmed as I’ve not stayed there, but it has the best location (it’s where pic no. 2 is taken), looks by far the most photogenic spot in town and by all accounts is the best deal (it’s sometimes closed in the winter months). Hotel Jeleň is in the centre and is another option.

MAP LINK

GETTING THERE: Leopoldov is the nearest station on the main Bratislava-Košice train line and it’s here you’ll need to change for trains to Hlohovec. (42 minutes past the hour every hour between 6:42 and 20:42, journey time 6 minutes – you can see the station on the map link above)

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From the lovely town of Hlohovec it’s 24km north to one of our most idyllically located Western Slovakia restaurants, Reštauracia Furman

LAST UPDATED: April 2017

Michael Portillo Does Bratislava (Autumn 2012)

The other week, Michael Portillo (fey-looking former Conservative UK MP turned railway explorer – logical progression, no? – for those of you who aren’t familiar) in his latest series of Great Railway Journeys took a rail trip through the old Austro-Hungarian empire. Starting in Budapest, he wends his way by train through Bratislava and then on into Austria by boat. I would have liked to add at this point that it’s worth checking BBC Iplayer (UK followers only) to watch for a riveting insight into Bratislava and its place in that empire. Sadly I can’t.

Whilst the programme is relatively informative if you’re interested in Budapest’s bridges or waltzing in Vienna, Bratislava and Slovakia (as usual in the media) get precious little airtime. This is unfortunate, given Bratislava’s pivotal role in the empire. We’re talking the old second city of the empire here. Pozsony as Bratislava was then known was THE place where Hungarian monarchs were crowned and hung out after Budapest got occupied by the Turks: this was the royal seat of the monarchy from the 1530s into the 19th century, for Godsakes.

Mr Portillo gets off the train, mooches around St Martin’s Cathedral (the place of coronation of the afore-mentioned monarchs) and then gets on the fast boat to Vienna, asap. The only other shot in Bratislava is the terribly insightful, momentary camera-full of three nuns strolling through the Old Town. It’s so edited it’s basically not worth showing Bratislava at all. It certainly offers no insight into Bratislava’s part in the empire.

A wasted opportunity to put an interesting spotlight on a city that doesn’t often get the spotlight, and, really, at precisely the moment it should have done. Instead we get more of the same old stuff on Budapest and Vienna. Sigh.

Thanks, Michael.