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

Summer 2017 In Slovakia: A Guide to the Best Events

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

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

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

JUNE

BRATISLAVA…

KONVERGENCIE, JUNE 24TH-SEPTEMBER 24TH

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

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

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

MALÁ FATRA/VEL’KA FATRA…

FEST ANČA, ŽILINA, JUNE 29TH-JULY 2ND

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

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

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

HIGH TATRAS…

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

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

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

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

JULY

BRATISLAVA…

SUMMER SHAKESPEARE FESTIVAL, JULY 5th-AUGUST 1ST

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

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

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

BEEFREE FESTIVAL, JULY 28TH-JULY 29TH

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

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

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

WESTERN SLOVAKIA…

POHODA, TRENČIN, JULY 6TH-JULY 8TH

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

Get Tickets: From the festival website.

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

BECKOV CASTLE EVENTS, BECKOV, JULY & AUGUST

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

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

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

CENTRAL & SOUTHERN SLOVAKIA…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HIGH TATRAS…

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

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

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

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

AUGUST

BRATISLAVA…

SUP MARATHON

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

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

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

WESTERN SLOVAKIA…

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

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

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

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

MALÁ FATRA/VEL’KA FATRA…

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

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

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

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

EASTERN SLOVAKIA…

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

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

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

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

SEPTEMBER

BRATISLAVA…

CRAFTSMEN DAYS, SEPTEMBER 1ST-SEPTEMBER 3RD

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

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

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

EASTERN SLOVAKIA…

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

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

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

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

Slovak Craft Beer: Grabbing International Attention

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

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

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

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

Bratislava's best cafe? ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Avra Kehdabra

Wifi: Alright.

Even when I don’t write about Bratislava for a few weeks on here, something wells within me which I can only describe as a pit of hunger. Not hunger for food, per se, or for Slovak food particularly, but for kicking back in one of Bratislava’s charming little cafes or bars, imbibing the atmosphere (and yes, sustenance is likely to play a part sooner or later). Slovakia’s capital city inspires nostalgia in precisely this way: initiating withdrawal symptoms in the punters who have partaken of its cafes mighty quickly after they settle their bills and walk out the door. For Bratislava is about its cafe culture as much as its bar culture and probably more than its restaurant culture. Forget your over-crowded Viennas and Budapests if it is nursing a beverage for hours in chilled surrounds. Bratislava has been watching and learning of recent years how to concoct sublime coffee (and it never forgot how to serve tea in all its fabulous forms; just see our history of coffee and tea culture in Slovakia). And the city has become adept at fashioning attractive nooks to slurp your coffee or tea, too. Case in point (indeed, best case in point): Avra Kehdabra.

Ah yes, those two little words that have incited magic tricks a-plenty in their time denote, on one of Bratislava’s most enticing streets, perhaps the best example of a cafe in the Old Town. Stroll down Grősslingova, a model city thoroughfare lined with leafy trees and independent shops and restaurants and the eyecatching facade of Avra Kehdabra hits you, bright signs propped against pillars intimating of tea, coffee, wine and cake within. This den styles itself as a literary teahouse first and a cafe second, and it is the tea that is most in evidence: stacked on shelves for sale in packets and/or lovingly prepared in front of you by the knowledgeable staff. The tea – fruit, herb, white, black, green, with oolong and pu-erh tea from China – is served with ceremony, and you can prepare your cuppa yourself with the aid of various specialised pouring devices (no, not just teapots, but ornate percolators too). It is not going to be just refreshment you get here, but a veritable lesson in the origins of the tea you taste and its place in society, and the overall impression is that Avra Kehdabra is enthusiastically continuing that age-old association of Bratislava with fine tea-drinking joints. The coffee is sensational too, with the ristretto and lungo particularly impressing.

And what better place for such a crash course in delicious beverages could there be? Not since the days of the lovely, cosy Prešporák has there been a rival in the city for Avra Kehdabra in terms of antiquated elegance, where dark wood tables and stalls are complemented by Asian-style rugs and throws draped everywhere, by shelf upon shelf of books and, in an even more intimate room at the back, massive armchairs to curl up in and drink and read in. It will account for all the time that you are waiting for your drink to take in all the types of tea stashed in old medicine jars behind the counter. At some point as the hours slide happily by and tea number two is coming to its end, you might decide to order one of the light snacks (hummus with vegetable dipsticks) or graduate to a glass of wine.

It’s mostly young folks that will stop by during your reverie or loooong chat with friends or acquaintances: twenty-something couples, students skiving lectures, the odd intrepid visitor. And whilst the place can fill up in the evenings, there is never any rush for you to sip up and leave: relaxation is the raison d’être here. Rather, this Čajovna comes across much like the optimistic person’s drinking glass: it never appears as much as half empty of customers, and almost always feels at least half full.

And here’s a final thought. This place stays open until 10pm. At 8 or 9 in the evening, people are here socialising drinking tea. There is something beautiful in that. Something quite pure. In England, we’d likely already be on the fifth pint by then.

MAP LINK

LOCATION: Grősslingova 49

OPENING: 7:30am-10pm Monday to Friday, 2pm to 10pm Saturday

BEST TIME TO VISIT: Avra Kehdabra gets popular at odd times of the day: sometimes with work-shirking students, sometimes with visitors in wonder, like many of us, at the city’s tucked-away little eateries. But late afternoon to early evening on a weekday should see you grab a table without forgoing the buzz of the place.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Avra Kehdabra it’s 450m northwest to one of the city’s best bistros, Bistro St Germain

Waiting for tea ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Waiting for tea ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

 

marianka4

The Best Ways to Experience Christmas in Slovakia

This is the season to be happy, after all.

Dinky, mountain-backed, frequently snow-blanketed and with a propensity for lighting big crackling log fires or old-fashioned tiled stoves to warm the cockles in the cold months, Slovakia is a great place for a cosy festive getaway. Several German towns, as well as Vienna, tend to steal the show in Central Europe with their well-known traditional festiveness, but the Slovaks can hold their own with their bigger rivals when it comes to Christmassy ambience – and Slovak towns and cities have the bonus that they’re not nearly so crowded at this time of year, so there will be only a fraction of the wait for that mulled wine.

If you’re Slovakia-bound over Christmas or New Year, we’ve made experiencing festive delights a little easier with this oh-so experiential post.

Christmas Markets

As in other Central European countries, Christmas markets are the perfect way to get into the festive spirit (unlike some aspects of Slovak culture, they also have the advantage of being very accessible and easy to indulge in) – serving everything from lokše (traditional potato pancakes oozing with fillings like goose fat) and roast pork through to medovina (Slovak mead), a sour but delicious mulled wine and also lots of amazing handicrafts.

The best Slovak Christmas market is Bratislava’s, spilling over between the richly ornamental central squares of Hlavné and Hviezdoslavovo námestie (see more on Bratislava Christmas Market). The market runs every afternoon/evening until December 22nd this year. Not far away, where Námestie SNP meets Klobučnicka, there is the refurbished Stará Trznica (old marketplace) which is also alive with Christmassy stalls but offers more contemporary, higher-end handicrafts and foods and is patronised by a crowd of young, cool hipster Slovaks. Stará Trznica is open year-round, actually, on Saturdays – and soon we’ll get round to finishing the more detailed post we’ve been preparing on it. For now though, the last market before Christmas is Saturday, December 16th! There is set to be 150 stalls, Christmassy workshops and live music. Get in there!

Another fabulous Christmas market is in the ancient city of Nitra, in Western Slovakia. It’s also held on the central námestie – with stalls arranged in a wide circle around the square: going every afternoon/evening until December 23rd. This market is particularly well known for its gorgeous woven baskets. If you are spending any time in Eastern Slovakia over the festive season, then the go-to Christmas market is in Košice – right along its wide central artery, Hlavná. It’s open a day longer than Bratislava’s Christmas market too: every afternoon/evening until December 23rd.

RELATED POST: Top Ten Classic Slovak Foods

Christmas Shopping

Slovakia maintains a lot of its handicrafts making traditions, and whilst some of these are on show at the Christmas, for some you’ll have to go the extra mile to find the best take-home Christmas gifts. On Englishman in Slovakia, we’ve prepared our Top Ten Slovak Gifts to give you some ideas. Bear in mind Modra for ceramics, the Malé Karpaty towns of Modra, Piešťany and Trnava for getting your hands on some Slovak wine purchased straight from the winemakers (and for sampling some in an idyllic wine bar, why not?), and for general festive loveliness with your seasonal shop, Modra and Trenčín in Western Slovakia, Banská Štiavnica in Central/Southern Slovakia and Bardejov and Košice in Eastern Slovakia.

Christmas Escapes

Slovakia has a lot of spectacular wilderness with traditional wooden houses to hole up in with the snow piled high outside. However, many of the best take a fair amount of insider knowledge, planning and time: putting them beyond the practical reach of many. For this reason we have to concur on this site with the Guardian (who put the city as their number one winter break choice in Europe for 2016/2017) and say Poprad in the High Tatras is a great choice to actually get to the snowy, Christmassy wilderness the quickest. Here is how to fly to Poprad and here is an introduction to the city, from the bottom of which article you can access all our other content on Poprad. From Poprad, you can take the Tatras Electric Railway up into the High Tatras mountains themselves where you are guaranteed snow at this time of year, can stay at a middle-of-nowhere mountain house (yes, they’re mostly open in winter too) and try all manner of wintery sports, including husky riding and skioring!

Best of the rest: where to snow-escape to get festive in Slovakia:

4: Head up above the pretty town of Modra in Western Slovakia to dine at very Christmassy Furmanská Krčma – a log cabin in the snow-covered woods.

3: Check into a lovely characterful guesthouse like Penzión Resla pri Klopacke in Banská Štiavnica – a great place from which to watch this dazzling medieval mining town unfold below you, whilst up in the hills above lie a number of great wintery hikes.

2: The Low Tatras is very snowy from December through to April, so get a fix of the white stuff whilst gazing out on one of the best views in Slovakia from the top of Chopok at Kamenna Chata – then ski back down again on some of Eastern Europe’s best slopes.

1: Undertake the traditional Three Kings (Traji Krali) Day pilgrimage to Marianka from Bratislava on January 6th – Slovakia’s biggest pilgrimage destination, and benefitting from a couple of traditional watering holes to refresh those poor weary pilgrims!

Remember Silvester!

Silvester (New Year’s Eve) is cool (indeed, veritably freezing) in Slovakia too. Celebrations kick off everywhere, but perhaps most tourist-friendly are those in Bratislava – where an ice skating rink is set up in Hviezdoslavovo namestie and fireworks are let off from the banks of the Danube.

Home is Where the Heart is

Christmas or New Year at a Slovak household, of course – should you have the chance to experience it – is by far the best way, if you can wangle it, of indulging in Christmas festivities. The main reason to partake is quite possibly the food: traditional Slovak delicacies way better than the kind on offer in the restaurants become available: all manner of gingerbread sweets in the Christmas run-up along with the most typically festive vianoce (rich fruit cake) and piping hot spiced wine, fish served on Christmas Day itself (celebrations, remember, are on December 24th as in many Catholic countries) and Kapustnica (a divine thick sauerkraut and tomato soup, and the most complex Slovak dish of all) served on Silvester/New Year’s Eve.

The Englishman in Slovakia walks the walls of Bardejov ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Bardejov: Walking the Walls

There’s always an urge when you arrive in a new city to “make your mark” – to go out into the middle of it and make sense of it, somehow. The newly-arrived do this in many different ways, of course. They might climb that city’s tallest building, or ascend to the top of whatever that city’s main viewpoint is: to visualise the place in its entirety, stretching away from smart central blocks to decrepit suburbs. They might go a-wandering down that city’s streets to the main square, or perhaps to its darkest back alley, to have a drink in a notorious bar or cafe and people-watch, and become acquainted with the destination that way.

In Bardejov’s case, the best way to do it is to “walk the walk” of its recently restored town walls.

There are not many towns or cities in Slovakia with their original ancient walls in tact and this, already, propels Bardejov onto the elite list of places to visit. But Bardejov’s walls go a step further even than those of nearby and likewise Unesco-listed Levoča: you can walk them, all the way around the old town, and in so doing patrol the periphery of the country’s most impeccably preserved medieval centre, just as if you were a guard defending against the myriad invaders that once plagued the region.

Bardejov, by way of introduction, squeezes on to most people’s grand tours of Slovakia (if they do a grand tour, that is) despite its out-of-the-way location in the far north-east of the nation (Bratislava-Trenčin-Malá Fatra-High Tatras-Levoča-Spiš Castle-Košice-Bardejov is the classic travel route) and its main allure is its spectacularly maintained 14th- and 15th-century architecture, wrapped around by the afore-mentioned walls. The result is, in our opinion, Slovakia’s prettiest town. Still, though: venture here and you will nevertheless feel like an adventurer, for tourists do not come in the big flocks they do in Western Europe. On my last two visits to Bardejov, I’ve been one of only a handful of foreign visitors – and that in the high season. For such a beautiful town, and to experience it so tourist-free, you would have to travel a very long way on this continent: and what is heartening about Bardejov’s wall walk is the confirmation that the Unesco money is being spent on continuing to conserve the town’s very special heritage.

Bardejov features on our Top Ten Medieval Towns in Slovakia – click the link to find out at which position!

The way to start walking the walls ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The way to start walking the walls ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

It’ll take you around 30 minutes, at a leisurely pace, to walk around the circumference of the walls, best done in a clockwise direction from the main city entry point on the street of Dlhý Rad on the north side, right opposite where the banks are. Ascend the grassy banks via the steps and then turn left to head along a particularly rejuvenated and elevated section (as per the feature image), overlooking the northernmost of the town centre’s burgher’s houses – many of which date to over 500 years of age.

Think of the walls encircling Bardejov as a clock face, with your entry point as 12 o’clock. After the elevated section you’ll drop down to continue on a small cobbled lane passing a couple of bastions, which brings you round to the southern (upper) end of Bardejov’s vast, spectacular central square or námestie, Radničné námestie at about 6 o’clock. Following the wall on around clockwise, you’ll walk via the old monastery, Klaštor Frantiskánov and the adjoining church of Svätého Jána Krstitel’a, before bearing round to the north and the superb Hotel pod Bránou, nestled within the walls three blocks west of the square. It’s here, almost at the end of the circuit of old Bardejov, that you might want to indulge in some refreshments: either in the courtyard dining area of the hotel OR just beyond on the sunken garden area immediately to the northeast around Miškovského, with a cracking good ice cream stand: perfect for sitting and appreciating the refurbishment of the city’s northern bastions, splashed by a lovely fountain (history, THEN food – see what we did there?).

Walls patrolled? It’s time to head the three blocks east from Hotel pod Branou to the set piece of the town, the central square/Radničné námestie: crowned at its northern end by its beautiful cathedral, Bazilika Svätého Egidia.

A Little Historic Overview

Whilst the cathedral on the main square has its origins in the 13th century, the fortification of Bardejov were improved radically in the 14th century (and it is this work which provided the basis for the modern town walls). Most of the houses in the old town were originally erected in the 14th and 15th centuries and by the 16th century, Bardejov had already passed its zenith, with pandemics and a clutch of wars bringing it down to its knees.

Golden age number two could well be right now.

MAP LINK:

GETTING THERE: Getting to Bardejov isn’t as easy as it should be, because it’s on a spur train line. Coming from Bratislava by train (3 trains daily), you’ll have to change at first Kysak and then Prešov, with total journey time 7 hours 30 minutes and total cost 20.30 Euros. Coming from Košice by train (trains every two hours), you’ll have to change at Prešov with total journey time 1 hour 55 minutes and total cost 4.15 Euros. Buses are as frequent and as quick from either city to Bardejov.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Bardejov it’s 35km east to Svidník and one of the world’s most fascinating war museums.

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Slavin War Memorial, Bratislava (far from actually falling down!) ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

In Pictures: A Ludicrous Little Tour Through the Communist Legacy in Slovakia

Is Slovakia one of the easternmost outposts of Western Europe or one of the westernmost of Eastern Europe? During Socialism in Slovakia the answer was certainly the latter. And as a result, Socialist Slovakia became, architecturally, and particularly in Bratislava, something of a showcase for the Brutalist architecture that defined the Eastern Bloc: a “look-what-we-can-do” brag to the West. The results? Some of the strangest Brutalist buildings you ever will see…

More on Slavín and Most SNP: Where to Get High in Bratislava

More on Petržalka: Petržalka‘s New Tram Link, Getting to Danubiana the Cool Way, The Forgotten Banks of the Danube

More on the Slovak Radio Building: Inside Bratislava’s Upside-Down Pyramid

More on Banská Bystrica: Free-running Around Banská Bystrica, Uncovering the Beauty of Brutalism in Banská Bystrica

More on Štrbské Pleso: The High Tatras Mountain Resorts: Štrbské Pleso, Mountain Lakeshore Dining at Štrbské Pleso

Slavin War Memorial, Bratislava (far from actually falling down!) ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Slavin War Memorial, Bratislava (far from actually falling down!) ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Petržalka, Bratislava: one of Eastern Europe's largest Communist housing complexes ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Petržalka, Bratislava: one of Eastern Europe’s largest Communist housing complexes ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Most SNP, Bratislava: with a UFO on top ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Most SNP, Bratislava: with a UFO on top ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Slovak Radio Building, Bratislava ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Slovak Radio Building, Bratislava ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Museum of the SNP, Banská Bystrica ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Museum of the SNP, Banská Bystrica ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The Panorama Resort at Štrbské Pleso in the High Tatras ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The Panorama Resort at Štrbské Pleso in the High Tatras ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Dunaj the River ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Bratislava: the Unique Beat of Dunaj

The view from KC Dunaj ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The view from KC Dunaj ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

I often use Dunaj as an example of how Bratislava can make cool stuff happen. For anyone who thinks the city is a place of staid white people going about their daily business with a scowl on their face that only deepens at the first sign of counter-culture, a visit to this bar/club/cultural venue on the top floor of a part-abandoned old shopping centre right in the heart of the Staré Mesto will change your mind sufficiently.

Dunaj is the Slovak word for the Danube – the huge waterway you can see winding its way through town – and just as that river carries all manner of things in its wake, from fallen tree trunks to kayaks, rather weird-looking cargo ships and that famous trio of botels (boat hotels), well, so Dunaj the cultural venue bears all manner of music gigs, docu-films, theatre and topical discussions within its seemingly never-ending stream of events.

What I also like about this place apart from its great location (you get there in a rickety old lift and come out into the huge fourth-floor main bar area with a big terrace gazing out over the burnished steeply-pitching rooftops of the city centre, see the featured image) is how effortlessly you can become part of Bratislava’s young, sharply-dressed alternative set – one of the hipsters, basically. No slack-jawed stares for the new-in-town visitor here: only smiling acceptance and struck-up conversations – emblematic of the city’s burgeoning reputation as an arts destination. It’s the place that proves the cliché true that it’s possible to walk in to a joint a stranger and leave having had some surreal bonding experience with the locals.

Daytime yoga? Balkan club night? Rock and Roll classics? Experimental board games? The choice is yours… and that’s not forgetting that Dunaj is a host venue virtually every time an avant-garde festival comes around: Fjúžn, for example, which promotes different cultures in Bratislava and, of course, gets a mention on this very blog.

Put it this way. It’s the first impression of Bratislava nightlife you’d want to have.

MAP LINK

LOCATION: Nedbalová 3

OPENING: 12 midday to 12 midnight Monday to Wednesday, 12 midday to 2am Thursday and Friday, 4pm-2am Saturday and 4pm to Midnight Sunday.

 

Image by Jonno Tranter

Hiking the Cesta Hrdinov SNP, Stage One: Myjava to Vel’ka Javorina

The Cesta hrdinov SNP, aka the trail of the Heroes of the Slovak National Uprising, begins officially at Bradlo, the monument to the ultimate Slovak hero, General MR Štefánik: it’s a continuation of the Štefánikova magistrála trail that runs here all the way from Bratislava. In short, this is the next big chunk of the mega-hike that traverses the entire length of Slovakia, now and for the remainder of its route to Dukla Pass in far-eastern Slovakia under the new guise of “Cestra hrdinov SNP”, a 500km+ adrenaline rush of a hike on some of Eastern Europe’s most jaw-dropping mountain and forest scenery. 

SCROLL TO OUR COVERAGE OF THE CESTA HRDINOV SNP PATH FROM ITS VERY BEGINNING (AT BRADLO – AND ON AS FAR AS MYJAVA) WITH OUR ARTICLE ON HIKING THE ŠTEFANIKOVA MAGISTRÁLA, STAGE FIVE: DOBRÁ VODA TO BRADLO (AND BEYOND)

We aim, over time, to have the entirety of this spectacular path featured on the site with stage descriptions for each (just as we have for Slovakia’s other long-distance trails, the Tatranská Magistrála in the High Tatras and the afore-mentioned Štefánikova magistrála in Western Slovakia. For Stage One, we give the floor to the intrepid Jonno Tranter. who hiked it this summer…

We were hiking the Cesta Hrdinov SNP as a continuation of our walking the entire Štefánikova magistrála trail from the Slovak capital of Bratislava. We’d walked from Dobrá Voda over Bradlo to Myjava the previous day, and after the wild terrain we’d been experiencing, the fact that the trail now followed the high street of Myjava, a fairly sizeable town by the standards of the hamlets we’d so far passed through, represented a big contrast.

If you plan on travelling like us, in summer, make sure to look up when the bank holidays are, as Myjava was like a ghost town when we walked through on what turned out to be a bank holiday morning. Apparently, there is a bookshop here where you can buy maps, but we were sadly to go without (closed for the day). However, we got by during the rest of our trek by taking pictures of the local maps fortuitously posted along the trail to guide us. Once you’re past Billa (a large supermarket, a good place to stock up), the town peters off and you’re quickly back into the fields above.

Slightly disheartened, we continued on the trail, which rises to the highest peak (970m) of our particular Slovakian adventure. Fortunately, the ascent is very spread out and gradual, and it doesn’t feel as tough to hike up as earlier rises on the Štefánikova magistrála like Vápenná in the Malé Karpaty.

The trail here is easy to follow and you’ll even spot a few other hikers in the area, something we hadn’t experienced earlier on our march across the hills from Bratislava. A little after entering the forest, about thirty minutes from Myjava, there’s a well on the right of the path, so make sure you have a drink before the ascent. You’re now in the Biele Karpaty proper, and once you hit Dibrovov pomník, the trail actually follows the Czech/ Slovak border. When the forest thins out, you’ll be in open grassland rising towards the top of the 970m-high Veľká Javorina, where there are some great views. Veľká Javorina is the high point of the Biele Karpaty range (and thus considerably higher than the highest elevations of the Malé Karpaty). The peak has long been symbolic of the healthy relationship between the Czech and Slovak republics, too, with a stone inscribed with words that translate as “here the brothers will meet always”.

Walk about 20 minutes further along the trail, past the communications tower, and you’ll get to Holubyho chata, which serves delicious food and has a nice terrace for summer days. With a wooden interior, the building looks like a chalet and doubles up as a hotel. There’s a road that leads here for tourists so it’s quite busy, though we had no problem getting served. The area is full of ski slopes and seems to also merit a winter visit.

At this point, we decided that to make it to the Pohoda festival (our end destination) in time, we would need to find a shorter way through than the red SNP trail. We decided to go for a green route which bypasses the “U” shape of the red trail and will save you about 15km.

The green trail is quite narrow and slightly more rough than what we were used to. However, it’s on this part of the trail that we saw the most people, and it was refreshing to meet other hikers and enjoy the mountains together. The path starts by following the Slovak-Czech border but then dives across into the Czech Republic. It then cuts through Květná, a small town with a few bars on the high street where you’ll be able to enjoy a meal, though no shops were open when we visited in the early afternoon. Although you are in the Czech Republic, all the restaurants and bars in this part of the country seemed to accept euros.

Continue through on the green trail past Nová hora and you’ll get to a little bridge above the Březová stream, a small river that’s just big enough to bathe in. There’s a few fields and farmhouses around, but right by the river is a small expanse, a perfect place to camp. That night we made friends with a few other campers and enjoyed some Czech pear liquor around a warm fire…

Setting up camp near Vel'ka Javorina - image by Jonno Tranter

Setting up camp near Vel’ka Javorina – image by Jonno Tranter

STAGE OVERVIEW MAP LINK:

WHAT NEXT?

Hiking the Štefánikova Magistrála (the prequel to the Cesta Hrdinov SNP – 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)

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

Plus: More on the Cesta Hrdinov SNP Trail…

Hiking the Cesta Hrdinov SNP, Stage Two: Vel’ka Javorina to Drietoma (Next Stage)

 

The room pictured is just the entrance room! ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The Tulip House

Location: Old Town

A couple of friends were in town and were staying at the Tulip House, which gave me my second opportunity to check out what is widely regarded as one of Bratislava’s best boutique hotels.

Second viewings concluded what the first had: that there’s very little to fault. The Tulip Cafe at street level sets the tone: those smart whites, beiges and dark-wood trim that a lot of upper-end places across Slovakia favour; that cool elegance that seems torn between sticking to the traditional and striving to be modern.

The suite: a closer look

The suite: a closer look – image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The theme continues up to the rooms. The rooms are all suites, here. You could fit two of most normal hotel rooms into each. The reception areas are large (made larger by the presence of strategically placed mirrors) with tea- and coffee-making facilities, the rooms have wall-mounted plasma TVs and, among other more unusual features, bed mattresses are designed to be allergy-proof and shoe shine services are offered whilst you sleep (!). They were serving complementary mulled wine upon arrival, too. The “but” which of course you sense is coming? Something is lacking. Atmosphere. Esotericism. Struggle as I might, I could find nothing exceptional to say about the Tulip House (and I can be verbose): for a 5-star boutique hotel in a capital city, it falls short of my expectations.

From outside the looks are promising. A haughty old building smack bang in Bratislava Old Town, within five minutes’ walk of all the city centre attractions, and nothing but a very suave layout inside which would make any business traveller immensely content: one could say I’m being too critical. Perhaps it’s because, at the end of the day, we’re pretty quirky ourselves at www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk. And when I stay in a boutique hotel, I want it to be rich in character. I want its take on luxury to be OUT  of the ordinary. That would be why I would stay there, instead of, for example, at a bona fide business hotel. Character, Tulip House? Rather lacking for me. But for large, smart, centrally-located Old Town rooms, you could not fare any better, and this, of course, would appeal to a lot of people.

For the finer details, breakfast and lunch, and coffee and cakes, are served in the Tulip cafe; the Rhapsody Restaurant is for more formal dining. There’s also a spa (Turkish bath, Finnish sauna) and fitness centre.

The disclaimer with the Tulip House is that its real speciality, for those who really wish to splash the cash on their stay in Bratislava are its penthouse suites – five of them – with the pièce de resistance having a fireplace, a terrace with good views of Bratislava castle, and 200 metres squared of leg room. So there’s two sides to every story.

ANOTHER BLOG ENTRY ON TULIP HOUSE:

MAP LINK: 

ADDRESS: Štúrova 10

PRICE: For 2016, suite prices (there are five different kinds including the two types of penthouse) start at 135 Euros for a double. Thats without breakfast, which is really worth having; with breakfast it’ll be around 161 Euros starting rate). But for this you need to book online – and in advance, often, and the cheapest deal by the time you book will likely be in the region of 200 Euros. However, the penthouses will set you back around 550 Euros for the smaller ones or 850 Euros for the biggest one.

Bratislava high rises - image ©Wizzard

Child of the Revolution: A Poem

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

 

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

And the breeze blocks and smokestacks do not relent,

And abysmal spectral faces spectate

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

 

The angles stab you, the sad fog grabs you,

All-day casino bars shriek from the pavement,

Tannoys play Patrioticheskaya,

And you wonder what the words could have meant.

 

And you’re not in the motherland anymore –

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

You can’t see the future for the travesty,

Nor all those nice woods for the barbed-wire fence

 

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

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

And the new generation: where did they go?

All the way down to get stoned in the basement.

 

Na prenájom, všetko na predaj*

Is all you see from the cracks in the pavement

Or maybe the smoke as it rises from ashes

From the sixth-floor window of your tenement.

 

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

And the bar is warm and convenient,

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

Crystalised, you see your life; where it went.

 

* For rent, everything for sale

©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

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

Bratislava: Úl’uv

Úl’uv is Slovakia’s centre for folk art production and, with several strategically-placed outlets in Bratislava, is the obvious first port of call for any visitors to Slovakia who are seeking a souvenir beyond the bog standard tourist tat.

There is a branch now on Hlavné Námestie (Bratislava Old Town’s central square) and then the main premises at Obchodná No. 64 right opposite the Vysoká tram stop (tram numbers 3, 5, 6, 8). The Obchodná branch, particularly, is well-deserving of a half-hour or more of your time if you’re in the market for a decent gift for those back home. It spans both sides of a small alleyway which leads back into a courtyard of sculptures, from which there’s access to a number of small ateliers, or craft workshops. These workshops do put on demonstrations and even classes, but if you miss these there is still the shop itself…  and a very nice daytime cafe-restaurant for refreshments afterwards.

The shop. Giftcards made with lace, lace wallhangings, handcrafted wooden animals, Majolika ceramics from Modra (with its striking blue, yellow and green colouring), ceremonial axes, šupulienky (figures fashioned from corn husks), ceramic bottles for serving slivovica, the painted eggs which form such an important part of Slovak Easter traditions… there is a world of choice here. The other section of the shop across the alley focuses more on materials – tablecloths, scarves, traditional clothing.

It’s all very beautiful. It’s also incredibly expensive. Úl’uv’s defence will be that handicrafts take time and incur costs – and that the best work is necessarily pricey. But the prices go beyond high. They are astronomical. Over 10 Euros for a birthday card? 300 Euros for a table runner? With such prices Úl’uv is putting itself firmly beyond the financial reach of most Slovaks and quite a lot of tourists too.

But most importantly, if I am to pay such sums for good Slovak handicrafts, I want to know something about them. Axes, colourful eggs and lacework are all very well. But what’s the story behind them? Where do they come from? Why are they so traditional for Slovakia? Well,  Úl’uv, englishmaninslovakia can explain on this blog in time but this is really down to you – you’re the experts! And everyone these days likes to know a bit about what it is they are buying. I appreciate Slovakia isn’t a big enough country to divide into craft regions – but say something about Orava’s sheep-farming heritage next to those models of sheep, or explain Slovak Easter customs alongside those wondrous displays of painted eggs. You would probably see interest pique, because then the products for sale would have more meaning, and sales would increase…

Incidentally, the all-time coolest item I have seen in Úl’uv, and only in the Hlavné Námestie branch, is a huge traditional ceramic oven for roasting goose… I’ve just got no idea how you’d get that one in your baggage allowance…

OPENING: Tuesday to Friday, midday to 6pm – and Saturdays 10am-2pm.

MAP LINK  (Obchodná branch)

RELATED POST: Úl’uv also features in our Top Ten Slovak Gift Ideas

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

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

Mapping My Run in the Small Carpathians

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

On Forests

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©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).

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.

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Krasňanská Kúria

If you were to ask me what was the best restaurant in Bratislava outside of the Old Town, my unequivocal answer would be the title of this post. If you were to ask me what the best restaurant in Bratislava was, my answer might very well be exactly the same. When you weigh up the wonderful ambience, the impeccable service and the high quality of food  served up at Krasňanská Kúria, in the Krasňany neighbourhood from which the restaurant takes its name, the place has few equals in the city.

You have to be in a certain mindset to fully appreciate Krasňanská Kúria, of course. You have to be in the mood for typical Slovak food, which hopefully a visitor will be. You have to be in the mood for a traditional environment, and in a less obviously photogenic part of the city : it’s locals that eat here, and in a restaurant redolent of the country’s typical rustic type of eatery, the salaš. First two boxes ticked? Then there’s nothing to hold you back from making the 20-minute tram ride from the city centre to eat here.

The atmosphere inside this low-level building on a quiet residential street corner is carefully constructed to transport you into a world of quintessential Slovak cosiness: a combination of wood and exposed stone with tables occupying a number of nooks enlivened by ornaments worthy of a visit in their own right: old wood-whittled figures and animals, a vast collection of old coffee grinders, paintings evoking mountain and forest scenes, screens resembling old castle gates to divide up the different areas, plants everywhere. In spring and summer a courtyard with an real fire also opens up. Everything gets treated stylishly here: the children’s high chair is an old wooden one; the only play apparatus for kids is an old rocking horse. The whole place is candlelit in evenings, too.

The menu boasts all the Slovak classics, but no dish is casually thrown together and each is Krasňanská Kúria’s own tasty take on tradition. The cabbage soup is so thick on cabbage and replete with seasoning; the sauerkraut salad conjures up tastes of China and Germany simultaneously with its intelligent flavourings, and this is one of the few restaurants to have the pickled encian cheese – a camembert-like affair laced in onions and gherkins: delicious!

Dessert! ©englishmaninslovakia.com

Dessert! ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Of the many meaty mains, the shining star is the potato and meat platter, a feisty sausage, chicken and vegetable concoction. Beef stroganoff and Slovak trout (pstruh) also come highly recommended. For desert, the obvious choice would be the šulance in plum and sugar sauce – but then again the ice cream in raspberry compote is pretty damned good also. They do a particularly good Viennese coffee to finish with.

We all know Bratislava is no Paris when it comes to service, either, so in an off-centre district it’s worth mentioning that the treatment of guests here is exemplary, and you will feel as well-looked after as you would at the finest restaurants of a much bigger city. Waiters go out of their way to prepare food according to your own dietary requirements: almost any dish on the menu can be made gluten-free, for example, and you’ll always get free tasters of drinks you’re not convinced you’ll like – just to give your tastebuds a try.

There are several restaurants in the centre which offer high-quality Slovak food – Traja Mušketieri for example. But Krasňanská Kúria is a fraction of the price (you’ll pay five to ten Euros for a starter and a main course here, so at least half as expensive), and the atmosphere is every bit as enjoyable.

It would be premature to suggest Bratislava has any more than just the one central restaurant district. This restaurant, however, is making a very good case for getting out of the Old Town for dinner once in a while.

MAP LINK:

GETTING THERE: Tram numbers 3 (from the big Tesco’s on Špitálska) or 5 (from outside Martinus on Obchodná) run from the city centre (end destination Rača) to Pekná Cesta. Get off and head left up Pekná Cesta, then take the second right, which brings you to the restaurant in 200m. Krasňany, the name of the neighbourhood, is really part of the bigger area of Rača which forms Bratislava’s most northeastern district.

OPENING: 11am to 11pm Monday to Saturday; 11am to 10pm Sundays. In practice, they tend to close a little earlier if there’s only a few people eating in the evening.

RESERVATIONS: If you have a big party, it does get quite busy at lunchtimes and on some evenings, so you can book a table (although communication in English may be difficult).

BEST TIME TO VISIT: 8pm on a cold weekday evening when the cosy conviviality of the joint will warm your soul towards Slovak cuisine.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Krasňanská Kúria it’s a 200m walk to Pekná Cesta and the start of some of our top Bratislava walks, including the Pilgrimage to Marianka

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.

©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

 

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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)

©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

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

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

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

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

©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.

img_2914

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.

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Slovensko 2:0: Slovakia Through the Eyes of its Film Directors

To celebrate 20 years of their nation’s independent existence in 2013, ten Slovak film makers were asked to explore this question: “How to explain the notion of Slovakia to visitors from another planet?” And Slovensko 2:0 is the result: ten short films capturing the essence of Slovakia today.

These shorts make for often tragicomic or even bleak viewing at times as the frustration of ten directors who are impatient with how slowly Slovakia is adapting to being a country people can have faith in soon comes through.

They are accompanied by a booklet of ten interviews with the directors themselves, where the negative outlook on Slovakia’s post-Communist transformation is emphasised. But within that negativity, the films themselves are profound. Gone are the happy trappings of Slovakia’s mountains, medieval villages and forests as the foreign visitor normally beholds the country. Instead, these films are a harrowing look into political corruption, the attitudes and mentalities of Slovaks in different walks of life – from an aspiring club owner to a just-made redundant factory worker – and (the overall message, perhaps) some of the things Slovakia could in fact do to help change itself for the better. But they sure as Hell dispense with the cliches and get straight to the nitty-gritty.

The picture above is from my favourite of the ten – an animated account of Slovakia’s history, through Communism, the Velvet Revolution and the transition to democracy. Rules of the Game, the film’s title, is one worker’s view of the political bandwagon (which stays the same throughout, only with changing faces in the upper echelons) moving through the pivotal years of 1989 to 1993 and beyond into a democratic republic still riddled with corruption. There are hilarious moments when you see the sycophantic robotniky (workers) and later when you see the figures at the top of the machine wearing gorilla masks (a reference to the scandal that rocked Slovak politics during the 2000s when Slovak politicians, multinational representatives and representatives of Penta group allegedly met in a house on Vazovova Street in Bratislava to discuss financial incentives in return for land procurement, see the Economist’s report on the Gorilla Scandal for more).

But despite being one of the subtler films in this collection it urges most effectively the debate on what needs to alter at the top levels of Slovak politics for the bandwagon to change its current course.

For anyone who wants a fresh, healthy look at Slovakia stripped of its official state outlook, this series of films is essential viewing. “The genetic makeup of Slovakia”, as the blurb on the back of the DVD says.

BUY IT: At Art Forum in Bratislava.

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The Old Town: the Corridor of Books

Think a myriad bound copies of Cassanova, stretching into a void which also contains, upon closer examination, an infinite number of most of the other classics, likewise piling up and plummeting down before you on shelves that shear away as far as the eye can see.

Now think Indiana Jones & the Last Crusade and the third of Indy’s three tests to get to the chamber with the Holy Grail(s) in which he has to have faith in the existence of the path in order for the path to be there at all.

OK. Now imagine that same path, seemingly suspended in mid-air, across the middle of the book-lined void.

I have not lost my mind. I’m talking about Bratislava city centre’s most ingenious tourist attraction.

It would seem to be wrong – akin to revealing the final dramatic twists of a novel to a reader who has only scanned the back-cover blurb – to say too much more about this sight on the second floor of the Bratislava City Gallery (Galéria Mesta Bratislavy) before you arrive there to see it yourself. So I won’t.

But the gallery has far more to see besides this fantasy library. No sooner do you step out  than you are ushered into a surreal recreation of a French bordello, a red-lit antechamber  with velvet drapes and various early 20th century beauties leaping out at you (figuratively, gentlemen) from the walls. You can descend to see evidence of Celtic mining and coin minting in Bratislava (from a time long before the idea of Slovakia, or of any of the other Central European nations around it, ever existed). You can ascend to see some fascinating examples of Central European art/sculpture over the last three centuries, including a romp through the history of Slovak art (19th to 21st centuries inclusive):)

These kind of art museums can go very wrong. They often seem stuffy, or just lacklustre, and a plethora of such examples spill across Europe’s big cities, masquerading as important diversions for visitors. The Bratislava City Gallery does not do that. Its Palffy Palace address which contains everything mentioned in these paragraphs is tucked away so inconspicuously on Pánska, one of the Old Town’s main dining streets with its cobbles festooned by restaurant tables in summer, that you would easily walk by the place. Unassuming it is. But once you are through the doors, you’ll find it a treasure trove of surprises. Good surprises.

Its exhibits are hardly world class. But as anyone who has trundled through Uffizi’s and Louvre’s will know, world class does not always equal sensational where art is concerned. Art is best appreciated alone, or when you do not feel jaded from the jostling of thousands of others. Bratislava City Gallery? You’ll appreciate it alone, more or less. Few come here.

And if you did walk by, oblivious, you would never know what it was to step out across a void of books.

MAP LINK

LOCATION: Pánska 19 (Palffy Palace branch). The Mirbach Palace branch of the museum is on Františkánske námestie and will form a different post, some time in the future once we have visited – and if it has anything as attention-worthy – which it quite possibly will not.

ADMISSION: 4 Euros per person for the full gallery experience, you can ask to just see the corridor of books and they’ll probably let you in for 2 Euros.

OPENING: Tuesday to Sunday, 11am to 6pm. Closed on Mondays like almost everything seems to be in Bratislava and indeed Slovakia.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: 22km southeast is Danubiana Meulensteen Art Museum

Image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The New Bistro St Germain

Wifi: slow.

My memories of the old St Germain are fond, I must say (even although the old location is now ancient, and the new one no longer quite so new). Previously tucked into a cosy little courtyard off bustling Obchodná, this dinky but dignified spot with its elegantly old-fashioned Frech decor, from the black-and white figures on the wallpaper to the ornate iron-and-stained-glass bar and tiled floor, was Bratislava’s first true bistro – and a match for a lot of what Paris could muster in quality.

RELATED POST: See which coffee shop is now locating into Bistro St Germain’s old premises

The problem with the old location was space. They were always full – especially so at lunch time – and customers were being turned away a lot of the time. With the new location there is no such issue. On the same pedestrian street as the cool art house cinema, Kino Lumière, the new location is spacious.

And for first-timers to Bistro St Germain, the effect is impressive.

The decor is the same, and provides a welcome oasis of originality in the somewhat bland environs of Špitàlska behind the monstrous Tesco’s – a bland area but a necessary one to visit if you want to do some supermarket shopping, or catch a movie. The service has actually improved. Staff are friendly as ever and perhaps a little more attentive.

The food is still great. St Germain remains one of a handful of Bratislava cafes where lunch is a real pleasure and salads are good. The burgers (7 Euros) – tanked full of avocado – are equally as delicious as in the old venue, you can’t get better ciabatta (5 Euros) or quesadilla (4.50 Euros) in the centre of town. And the cake selection (really good cheesecake) is phenomenal – in a multi-tier attention-grabbing glass counter by the bar. Besides really good coffee, their homemade lemonade is also notoriously popular for a reason. A lot of Slovak red and white wines are on offer, too: Frankovka modrá on the reds front and Château Topoľčianky on the whites (tip – the nation makes OK red wine but really delicious white). Despite the above, there’s a lightly-seasoned French feel to the menu to add to the timelessly Parisian ambience.

Indeed, for a quality-price-ambience trade-off you couldn’t do much better in the area (the only other place to rival it would be near-by Obývačka). In fact, whilst St Germain still treads a tightrope between “cafe” and “restaurant” (and is arguably both at different times of the day), in its new location it is leaning increasingly close to being more a restaurant, just like Obývačka.

And yet… the cosiness isn’t there any more. Bistro St Germain have done the best job they could in replicating the atmosphere of the old spot in a larger premises. And hey – pop in for lunch or drinks before catching a movie across the street (they are open until late). But it’s not the same. Just as many of the best Parisian bistros are in secluded serendipitous locations that you would have difficulty finding if you tried, so the St Germain of yore retained a hidden-from-the-masses magic. Now it announces itself to the masses. Why, oh why, could they not have at least retained the old locale as a second branch? Because without it, the magic has marginally diminished…

MAP LINK: Tip – The address is Rajska 7 but actually the entrance is a block back, across from the Kino Lumière cinema.

OPENING: 10am until 11pm (Monday to Friday), midday to 11pm at weekends.

BEST TIME TO VISIT: Late morning or early afternoon, say eleven thirty to twelve thirty, when idling a while with one of their great coffees, a cupcake and – should you wish – an early lunch, is perfectly acceptable and a totally guilt-free activity.

BEST DISH: The burgers. But you should definitely have a cake too.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: Round off refreshing yourself at Bistro St Germain with a walk 900m west to the Bratislava City Gallery

A cellar of Small Carpathians wine... image by Smuconlaw

Limbach: the Stop on the Wine Route No One Knows About

An autumnal article here and a heads-up, if you’re thinking of visiting Western Slovakia, that autumn might indeed be THE time to do it! Without more ado, here is an introduction to the very first place you’ll come to of interest as you drive northeast from Bratislava…

A misty October weekend afternoon; the itch to get out into the hills and away from Bratislava overwhelms. The woods are on the turn. It’s been over a month since I’ve been hiking in them. Part yellow, part orange, part cloud-cloaked green, the tree-backed vineyards of the Small Carpathians await – seeming as mysterious as ever they did.

We don’t fancy going far. The shorter days mean there’s only four hours of daylight left. But we want a walk and we want a change of scene and we don’t want to solely be walking in thick woodland because the sun looks as though it could break through.

We get out the map and decide on Limbach. It’s a village between Svätý Jur and Pezinok, poised between the vineyards and the woods and bang in the middle of the Malé Karpaty/Small Carpathians Wine Route (perhaps Slovakia’s prime wine route, which runs from the northeastern edge of Bratislava at Stara Rača through Svätý Jur and Pezinok and on to Modra) – but one that gets precious little publicity in that regard or, indeed, any regard whatsoever. Quite evidently, this is a key reason why Englishman in Slovakia was intrigued to stop by.

Setting

The road to Limbach cuts up from the main Rte 502 just after the turn-off to Slovenský Grob (a village famous for its fine roasted duck dishes in various pop-up style restaurants but that is another story and another post). Perhaps the reason for its inconspicuousity is right here. Unlike Svätý Jur, Pezinok and Modra, which are all on the main road, Limbach is set much further back in the vineyards. It is, in fact, properly surrounded by vineyards – whereas the other locales on the wine route are only backed by them. This lends Limbach a special feel, as of course does the addition of the woods which are much closer here than they are in the other wine route stop-offs: veritably brushing the church, in fact.

History

The upper part of town beyond the roundabout is the prettiest part. Here, the first of the town’s two churches, which originally dates back to 1530, presents itself. It’s a beguiling white tower inscribed with what translates as “in castles, the strength of our Lord” above a motif of a palm leaf, a bible and a glass of wine. The reference is a telling insight into Limbach’s history. After Mongols ransacked the region in the 13th century, the Hungarians (who were in charge at the time) invited German settlers in to compensate for the previous inhabitants that had been killed. It was Germans, therefore, that built this village up, along with its churches, its charming houses with facades screened by vines and – certainly most critically for the economy – its wine industry.

More recently wealthy Bratislava residents have built lavish second homes deeper up into the woods and their presence probably gives the village a fair bit of an economic boost too.

Hotel/Restaurant

Up above the ruddy-coloured, immaculate tiers of houses, interspersed with the odd vinoteka (wine shop, invariably with degustation) wine cellar, or vinaren (wine bar) in the main part of Limbach, is one of the village’s main draws: the delightful Hotel Limbach. (and actually, Bratislava explorers, at only 15 minutes from the edge of the city, a great alternative Bratislava accommodation option – especially if you have your own car).

This mottled century-old yellow hotel, draped in curtains of ivy and flanked by pretty gardens, cements the idea already forming in your mind that Limbach is about as close as you get to a quaint old English village in this part of Slovakia. It’s something of a focal point for village life, with a restaurant that once again, resembles one of those rural British hotels where quirky bygone signs and curios line the walls along with a lot of hunting memorabilia. Fortunately the stag’s heads are confined to one grand dining area at the end. But the food – particularly the game – is good and reasonably priced  (about 9-12 Euros for mains) and there is the added advantage that a huge selection of local wines are showcased in the hotel: available to drink there, or buy and take home.

Wine

Of these, the best is probably the Rulandské modré (red – and one of Slovakia’s best reds) or the Irsai Olivér (white) – the latter one of the southeast-facing Small Carpathians’ few fruity whites (climatic conditions mean most wines here are dry). It’s good wine, and for only 5 or so Euros.

It can be great fun to tour Limbach’s tucked-away little wineries first to get your palate acquainted with a few of the wines so you know which bottles you’re likely to want. Or, if you want a more sedate wine-tasting experience, you can also relax in Villa Vinica – a wine bar just across from the hotel (they have rooms too for those who have over-imbibed).

But Limbach is enjoyable too just to wander. Paths lead off the quiet lanes of the centre both into the vineyards and – via a well-marked blue trail – up onto the higher hills to Tri Kamené Kopce (almost 600m up, and on the Štefánikova magistrála long-distance hike between Bratislava and Brezová pod Bradlom).

And wherever you are, the senses are always refreshed at this time of year by the smell of wine being pressed, fermented, bottled… almost to the intensity with which malt wafts around Scotland’s main whisky towns.

So there is no better time than Autumn to pay a visit.

MAP LINK:

Hotel Limbach is open 10am-10pm for food, drink and general merriment…

GETTING THERE: Through the day, direct buses run about hourly to Limbach from Mlynské Nivy bus station in Bratislava. In the evenings, you’ll first have to change in Pezinok (at the Tesco’s stop). Ticket prices? Around 2.20 Euros one-way.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From central Limbach, it’s a 7km drive (or a hike through the Malé Karpaty) southwest to Svätý Júr or 11km northeast to Modra, the hub of an interesting ceramics industry and the birthplace of national hero L’udovit Štúr.

Getting Around Bratislava: Petržalka’s New Tram Link

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

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

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

Danube sunset from Most SNP

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

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

New Possibilities

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

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

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

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

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

Anyway, for now it’s RIP Starý Most.

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

Bratislava by night...

Getting Around Bratislava: How to Get to the Main Hotels

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

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

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

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

More info on good hotels:

Our article on Skaritz

 – My review of Hotel Marrol’s for the Telegraph

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

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

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

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

Grand Hotel River Park

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

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

Sheraton Bratislava

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

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

Hotel West (former Best Western )

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

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

Holiday Inn

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

Bratislava’s Airport Hotels

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

A Footnote

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

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

RELATED POST: The Cognac Express Taxi to the Airport!

Image ©Yusuke Kawasaki

Getting Around Bratislava: the Definitive Guide to its Transport Hubs

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

1 – Air:

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

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

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

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

RELATED POST: Where to stay close to the airport

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

2 – Train:

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

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

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

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

3 – Bus:

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

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

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

4 – Boat:

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

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

RELATED POST: Getting to Bratislava by Boat

5 – Public Transport Around Bratislava:

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

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

6 – Public Transport Across Slovakia:

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

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Kava.Bar

Wifi: Good.

I ducked in out of the afternoon murk of Obchodná, one of Bratislava’s main shopping streets, the other day, into the convivial warmth of the Martinus Bookstore.  As I slurped a coffee in their street front cafe, watching the trams creak by and perusing my Slovak for Beginners book, I noticed that the menu claimed the establishment I was drinking in was striving to recreate the atmosphere of those Parisian cafes of the 1920s – a platform for animated discussion and creative thought, etcetera. Interesting. But there’s a lot of cafes making claims these days. One stop up on the number 5 tram in the direction of Dubravka, Kava.Bar is perhaps most refreshing because it makes no claims whatsoever. It just quietly goes about serving some of the city’s best coffee, in an unpretentious street corner location on the way up to the castle.

The view out ©englishmaninslovakia.com

View out ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

So effortlessly serving coffee that is concocted with skill rather than a “close your eyes, press the button of the expensive Italian machine and hope” approach is not as straightforward as you might imagine. Many times over the last few months, in cities that purport to have a coffeehouse culture far greater than Bratislava’s (Budapest, Vienna) I have been served, with the sombre theatrics of airs-and-graces bow-tied waiters in ornate chandelier-hung surrounds which prepare you for food and drink far better, coffee that is barely acceptable, and that – were it not for the fact that I was in those coffeehouses where you need to behave – is 100% returnable. Kava.Bar brews espressos thick with crema, and macchiatos where the milk enhances the flavour of the coffee rather than concealing the fact it has not been made well enough.

Bratislava’s cafe scene reached a peak probably some time during 2014. The closure of Prešporák that winter brought it down again a few notches. It’s somewhere like Kava.Bar that seems set to get in back to that pinnacle.

Blackboard art… ©englishmaninslovakia.com

Blackboard art… ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Black-and-white Art Deco-esque tiled floor, big blackboards, displaying intricate sketches and fun messages, championing daily specials, just a cluster of small iron tables but plenty of higher-up window seat perches: Kava.Bar is definitely not about main meals and much more about people watching with a cake, quiche or beverage (they also make really nice tea, plus the joint lends itself well to a glass of good wine in the evening).

It’s not quite designed for lingering like the city’s best cafe of recent years, Prešporák, was. They would certainly never claim their coffee was the equal of Hangout Cafe’s and there’s none of the cafe-for-the-masses feel of Panta Rhei’s Café Dias or the amenable mini coffee chain atmosphere of Stur. Kava.Bar is a proudly independent joint that merely tries to be itself, and does well at it. Its location, on the main route up to Bratislava Castle, will always win it visits (although currently it doesn’t appear to be receiving as many as it deserves). But it has the added merit of having more extensive opening hours than a lot of the other cafes around. I don’t know how they manage to get up so early on Sunday mornings, actually. But I’m very glad they do.

I’m just not sure about the name… it sounds a little too modern. When inside, in fact, kava.bar is much more akin to those Parisian cafes of old that other places wax lyrical about emulating.

MAP LINK:

LOCATION: Right on the corner of Zamocká and Skalná, just over the dual carriageway from the old town centre.

OPENING: 8am-10pm daily

BEST TIME TO VISIT: A wintry Sunday morning when almost every other good place for coffee is shut.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Kava.bar it’s a 600m walk southwest to Bratislava Castle, one of the city’s best viewpoints

Shrine - photo by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Around Bratislava – the North: Pilgrimage to Marianka

Perhaps I would make a good pilgrim. There is no other real reason (excepting madness) to explain why, on an icy Saturday when the snow out in the countryside was still almost knee-deep and most roads – let alone the hiking trails – required a Herculean effort to negotiate, I should decide this was the time for doing a hike I’d long talked about: the route to Marianka, a village on the other side of the first wave of the Malé Karpaty hills that rise behind Bratislava, which happens to be Slovakia’s (and one of Central Europe’s) biggest and oldest pilgrimage destinations. Pilgrims like arriving the hard way, right? Crawling; in bare feet; backwards… snow as thick as what I ended up traipsing through certainly required plenty of determination – and perhaps a touch of devotion.

I was also, quite possibly, spurred on through the white because I love hikes with themes: aimless forest or mountain rambles are fine, but when they can be done to follow in historic footsteps, it adds an interesting dimension. For these reasons (interest, great scenery) this is a walk worth considering for any visitor to Bratislava who feels like a rewarding leg-stretch during their stay. And you will not find more radiantly beautiful countryside so close to the city.

©englishmaninslovakia.com

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The way to Marianka has in fact been tramped by the devout for almost a millennium and weaves in a colourful history involving some famous names (Holy Roman Emperors Leopold I and Joseph II – son and successor of Maria Theresa).  Over such a lengthy period, it’s little surprise that an official pilgrimage route became defined. This begins at Bratislava’s rather nondescript Kalvaria and continues past a small cave, Lurdská Jaskyňa (Lourdes Cave; a slight exaggeration on the part of the namer) before ascending into the hills via Źelezná Studnička and Kačín to get to the pilgrimage site. Having had, since I first mastered the art of walking, a loathing of “official routes” I have to confess to absolutely out-trumping (and out-tramping!) the pilgrims here with a far prettier route (although it totally circumnavigates the Kalvaria and Lurdská Jaskyňa) that starts at the tram stop of Pekná Cesta (served by trams 3 and 5 from the centre). Sometimes these pilgrims can’t see the best woods for the trees.

The Start…

The vineyards above Pekna Cesta ©englishmaninslovakia.com

The vineyards above Pekna Cesta ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

From Pekná Cesta it’s a straight walk up passed the supermarkets to the mini roundabout at the top, then on again along the narrow lane which eventually ascends to the main Pekná Cesta entrance to Bratislava’s Mestké Lesy. 200m up here, a stony track cuts up from the lane plunging you immediately into forest. This is the yellow path which you will be following (in my rather sodden footsteps) for the next two hours of hiking. It ushers you along the rear of some new-builds, skirts around to the right of a picnic area and then, where the better forest track swings round to the right, branches steep left up through the forest on a far smaller path.

It was a route, on my snow-encumbered pilgrimage, much frequented by families trying out rather fetching sledges, not to mention a few snowshoers and nordic skiers – but also a surprising number of very determined single older men going it alone with just walking poles and their own two feet. Age required I give way to them, and given there was only a thin strip of semi-beaten path between the knee-deep banks of snow either side, giving way meant getting wet (talk about penance).

This stretch of the yellow trail skitters up through the woods like a back-to-front slalom course, then more or less follows contours about three quarters of the way up the hill on a pleasant little path for almost an hour before reaching the crossroads with the red trail, at which point you are a 25-minute walk from Kamzík.*** On the next leg, straight over the red trail and down to the Kamzík cable car base above Źelezná Studnička, there was only one intrepid set of steps in the snow before mine, and going was very tough, although again hauntingly beautiful, with the snow-laden pines emphasising the silence, broken only when the weight of snow on branch became too great, and the trees shed their load in a snow shower to the forest floor.

 

Down on the forest road near the cable car base there was more activity. I turned right and followed the road gently up through woods which are normally classic picnicking spots to the end of the drive-able stretch (and terminus of the seasonal bus 43) by the old sanatorium, which with its long-drained swimming pool and closed-up buildings creates a slightly eerie feeling in otherwise unspoilt and increasingly lonely woods. At some point up this valley, the reins of civilisation that gentrify some lower slopes of Bratislava Mestké Lesy are dropped, the picnicking spots thin and the other people you pass become increasingly hardier hikers, rather than families or afternoon strollers. You pass two disused quarries, but before the main forest road reaches a third quarry, and after about 45 minutes’ walk on what is normally a metalled track but now was little more than a mound of ice and snow, a notice board and deserted cottage mark a division of paths.

Up into Prime Pilgrim Territory

Walking in a winter wonderland ©englishmaninslovakia.com

Walking in a winter wonderland ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Here, the yellow route nips up through a break between trees for a further 45 minutes to join the red trail and bona fide pilgrimage path from Kačín (the latter another major picnicking spot at the north-western limit of Bratislava Mestké Lesy). For me, the last part of this route along the top was in virgin snow – stunningly winter wonderland-esque, but further soaking by already damp shoes and trousers. It was time to bring that time-honoured weapon of devout pilgrims into play: a hip flask of strong liquor, in this case becherovka. A generous swig, and I beheld a vision: a sign post which told me I was only one hour from my goal.

As it turned out, it was slightly less. The route from hereon was either level or downhill and again, through snow-bowed tunnel after snow-bowed tunnel of trees, in gorgeous forest scenery. Now on the official pilgrim trail, there were also a couple of shrines – the most impressive at Sekyl, the point where red and yellow routes separates, with yellow descending to Záhorská Bystrica and red – our route, zigzagging down through the trees. On this chilly but bright afternoon, it would have made a great cross-country ski but was a struggle to walk, although the views that soon open out – of the flat western tip of Slovakia stretching away through farmland into Austria – are ample compensation.

Marianka - and the view to Austria beyond ©englishmaninslovakia.com

Marianka – and the view to Austria beyond ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

And soon, at about three hours-worth of snow-walking (or slightly less in normal conditions) the path skitters down to pass the uppermost of the mountain cottages (chaty) signalling the beginnings of Marianka. The path turns into a track, and the track a lane (Šturová). Follow this lane, ignoring any side turnings, which will bring you down, with many kinks (as this is a very spread-out place) via the first of the town’s many shrines, to Marianka’s lekáreň (pharmacy) – then abruptly ascends to meet the main road from Záhorská Bystrica. Turn right at this crossroads, and you are gently ushered into the venerable old centre of Slovakia’s number one pilgrimage site.

Weary pilgrim, fear not. Your endeavours will not have been in vain. Marianka’s reputation does not rest on thin air. Accordingly, our post on Marianka itself will be here soon!

NB: The bus stop which becomes immediately obvious in the historic centre of Marianka has connections (on bus 37) back to Bratislava every two hours – useful return times to be aware of are 3:04pm and 5:24pm.

MAP LINK: Start Point Next Part The Part After That  Final stretch to Marianka

GETTING THERE: Start from Pekná Cesta (take tram 3/5 from the centre) or, more conventionally, from Kamzik (take trolleybus 203 from Hodvovo Namestie to the end of the line then walk up. From Kamzik, take the paved lane on down towards the cable car base on the other side of the hill from Bratislava (not a public road, but nevertheless shown on maps one and two). At the cable car base, you’re on our route (a point underlined for your benefit above).

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: At Marianka, you’re only a one-hour hike from Pajstún Castle

*** Denotes where, in the separate linked post, you have to scroll down to find the same point described.

Around Bratislava – The North: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Kamzík

Like the Tower of London, like the Eiffel Tower, the thing that puts you off wanting to go to Kamzík, the big TV tower/mast standing sentinel over the hills above Bratislava is that it is, perhaps, too obvious.  There is admittedly not much subtle about it: nigh-on 200m of steel and glass jutting out of an already prominent forested ridge that itself sticks up another 300m above the city, and visible from pretty much everywhere in Greater Bratislava – oh, and Eastern Austria too. And, sharing its name with a type of High Tatras sheep-goat… that’s just weird.

But engaging in the obvious never seemed to be a problem for the majority of people – and certainly not for the majority of tourists – before. And voila, the crowds do converge on mass to the Tower of London AND the Eiffel Tower, yet even on a clement weekend afternoon, Kamzík can hardly be described as a crowd-puller. No, not even by Bratislava’s standards (the castle grabs ten times the numbers of visitors and the viewing platforms there are about 300m lower).

But of course, I hear you shout, you can’t compare the Tower of London or the Eiffel Tower with Kamzík! Well watch me. I have. And it is genuinely perplexing to me that more visitors to Bratislava (or locals) don’t make it up here, because if you weight the attractions up in minutes of time you need to fully appreciate them,  Kamzík comes out on top out of the three. And even for those visitors that would not go quite so far in their commendation, heading up here is well and truly cemented in the top ten best things to do in the Slovak capital – quite possibly the top five.

I am a very recent Kamzík convert. For a full year of living under its steely gaze, I had known, pretty much, what there was to see and do there. I had jogged around it. I had embarked on some great hikes from it. But at best I had viewed it as, well, the way most people tolerate TV masts in beautiful forests, with reluctant tolerance and a faint wish that it had either not been constructed or at least been constructed in a nobler architectural style.

What’s the big deal then? Well, to be clear the area known as Kamzík is not just a TV mast. It’s one of Bratislava’s premier outdoor playgrounds: marking, most significantly, the start of the Bratislava Mestské Lesy, a 30 square kilometre expanse of forested leading directly onto the Malé Karpaty or Small Carpathians, beyond  (hundreds more kilometres of forested hills await). And – as outdoor playgrounds are often blessed with – so the Kamzík area has great places to eat, great places to picnic, great places to hike and bike, great viewpoints AND, whilst it’s conveniently close to the city centre, it’s also far enough away to feel that you have truly left the city behind, and are in fact embarking on an adrenalin rush of an outdoor adventure.

The Mast Itself – and its Views!

The TV mast stands on the highest natural point around: a tree-coated 439m-high hill which would not – were it not for the 196m-high tower on top of it – afford any views whatsoever. But 439m + 194m = 633m, meaning this mast’s crest is significantly higher than anything else around. And even the brasserie here – poised 100m up the tower – is at 539m without contest the best viewing point for a very, very long way.

You enter the Kamzík tower at a lobby bar, quite modern looking but nothing special, at ground level. A pretty waitress tries to tempt you to stay and have a drink here, but there is no real reason to succumb. You want to go to the lift (straight ahead). Press C to go to the Altitude Restaurant (which revolves, Goodamnit, brilliant!) or – one level further up again – D to go to the Brasserie, which is as high as the public can get in the Bratislava region without stepping onto a Ryanair Flight. That’s why we’re recommending it. Not because its food or drink are significantly better than at the Altitude Restaurant or the lobby bar. Once at the Brasserie, it is etiquette to order something, rather than just snap a couple of pictures and leave. But a hot chocolate or tea is only a couple of Euros (main meals are 14-19 Euros and a limited selection includes foie gras with bacon dumplings and wild boar). And this is a spectacular place to drink in the view…

The Brasserie gives views on three sides (although the glass could use a clean). East of here, the Bratislava Mestské Lesy/Malé Karpaty stretch into the distance enticingly. South, the entire sweep of Bratislava is visible across the woods and vineyards, from Rača in the northeast round to the city centre (look for the castle for orientation). Looking west, the view is dramatic too: western suburbs like Dubravka give way to the flat lands beyond the hills, and Austria. You can trace the silver ribbon of Danube from the southeast near the Danubiana Art Museum right across to Devínska Kobyla in the west and beyond to Hainburg in Austria. Even the Austrian Alps are visible in the distance.

Below the Brasserie, the Altitude Restaurant yields similar views: with the neat difference that – let’s emphasise again – it rotates a full 360 degrees every 45 minutes. There are, these days, not so many fully rotating restaurants in Europe – and certainly not many with this vista out of the window(s).

It’s a great location for a business appointment – but not just because rotating restaurants invariably tend to attract the well-heeled. No: it’s a smart venue and knows it and to an extent tailors itself to attracting just that sort of crowd. It’s also right in the middle of Bratislava’s trump cards: its surrounding nature and its views. And there are conference rooms beneath.

Peruse your menu in either eating establishment and you can get the scoop on the Kamzík’s history. It was started, for example, in 1967; finished in 1975. Most hilariously, it details that the original design was intended to depict a wine bottle in homage to the Small Carpathians famous viticulture – with a disclaimer afterwards saying that it does not represent a wine bottle very faithfully and yet retains the nature of a wine bottle shape! In a word: cheers!

 Picnicking in the Meadow

Being able to drive up to Kamzík (and its proximity to Bratislava city centre) is certainly what makes it one of the very most popular places in the entire Malé Karpaty range of hills. And because you can drive up, it’s also a very frequented picnicking place. But all picnickers like a view, and the wide grassy meadow, or luka, at the top (where the road up through Koliba from the city branches into the TV Tower access road and the cable car access track) offers one of the rare opportunities within the hills to see the woods outside of the trees, as it were: with views the trees normally hide. It’s a sun trap when the sun is shining and has a few snack stalls at the top end: nothing special but hey, sausages with a view!! (or bring your own better food with you).

Kamzík’s Eats and Sleeps

In addition to the eating places mentioned thus far, there is also, at the topmost cable car station, the rather appealing Koliba Expo restaurant – a great, typically rustic slovak-style place to round off a spot of weekend hiking (so good it warrants its own post, but for now, open 11am-11pm daily). Want to bed down up in the hills here? Well it makes a fairly attractive proposition in some ways. You are properly immersed in the nature here, but at the same time within a 20-minute walk of the trolleybus terminus (trolleybus 203). So welcome to Kamzík’s own hotel: Hotel West. The setting is Hansel and Gretel-esque but the rooms and restaurant are a little short on atmosphere (something they have in common with almost every other Best Western). Still, you’re staying in the woods!  And yes, there is indeed a cable car up to Kamzík – that was not a mistake – which you can read more about in the How to Get There section below!

The Proper Outdoorsy Stuff

Views viewed, picnics picnicked and eateries eaten in, chances are you’ll want to get on with some of the great hiking, mountain biking and (in the winter) cross-country skiing hereabouts – numerous relatively deserted trails meander off through the forests seemingly tailored to these purposes.

The main hiking trail to know about from here is the red route, the Štefánikova magistrála***(trail of  Štefánik) that runs from Devínsky Hrad (Devín Castle) through Devínska Kobyla and Kamzík on northeast over 100km up the length of the Male Karpaty to the very end of the range at Bradlo, where Štefánik’s memorial sits (the whole walk will soon be featured on Englishmaninslovakia and Kamzík sits neatly at the finish of Stage One and the beginning of Stage Two of the walk).

OR follow the access road along the top of meadow we just told you was great for picnicking (hikers/bikers only, no cars) as it twists down to the cable car base, where you can pick up the Pilgrimage Route to Marianka***(turn right, following the yellow trail – and see here what Marianka actually is). A yellow trail also heads west from Hotel West at Kamzík to the Železná studnička (scroll on down below under the ‘How to Get There’ paragraph for what Železná studnička actually is) road and directly over to join the official pilgrimage trail to Marianka (yes, we admit it, our pilgrimage trail is not the official one for all of the route, but we’ll guarantee you it’ll take you through the best scenery).

Reasonably seasoned mountain bikers could manage any of the afore-mentioned trails on two wheels, but to link up with the prettiest of the nearby dedicated biking trails, take the red Štefánikova magistrála trail northeast for 25 minutes where you’ll hit a yellow trail. The route from here, both east (through to Bratislava’s northeasterly suburb of Rača) and west (down to the cable car base just beyond Železná studnička and then on towards Marianka) is a beautiful biking trail and it’s also our recommended Pilgrimage to Marianka route. When the snow falls up to 1.5 metres thick here in the winter this same trail is a great cross-country snow-shoeing or skiing route. Oh – and there are a whole network of special running routes around Kamzík too – on a mix of paved and stony paths/tracks.

The bottom line is that from Kamzík, the whole of the Small Carpathians are at your fingertips.

How to Get Here (Perhaps the Most Fun of All!)

We’ll list the ways to get up to Kamzík in order, from least interesting to most.

Driving…

From just east of Bratislava Hlavna Stanica mainline railway station (MAP) a road (named Karpatska) goes up under the rail tracks through the neighbourhood of Koliba to the afore-mentioned picnicking meadow and a couple of car parks.

Public Transport…

Trolleybus 203 heads up to the Koliba terminus. From here, keep heading uphill on the road and join a path on the right of the road which leads up through woods in 20 minutes or so to reach Kamzík.

Hiking…

A number of possibilities from the city centre: the red Štefánikova magistrála trail runs up from the western neighbourhood of Patronka (at Vojenská Nemocnica, on the Bus 212 route); a green trail leads up from Bratislava Hlavna Stanica mainline railway station (on several of the city’s major public bus and tram routes); a blue trail leads up from Mladá Garda in Nove Mesto (on the Tram 3 and Tram 5 routes); a yellow trail leads up from Krasňany in northeastern Bratislava (near Rača, on the Tram 3 and Tram 5 routes). None take more than an hour to get to Kamzík.

Cable Car!

It should be noted, before visitors get too excited, that the cable car is more akin to a chair lift but, even so, it is Bratislava’s very own, and not commonly known about. That’s because the route it takes is far from the most direct way up from where most foreign visitors. You get there from Bratislava Železná studnička mainline railway station (trains towards Kúty from Bratislava Hlavna Stanica stop here every couple of hours; otherwise hop on bus 212 from Hodžovo Námestie and get off at the last stop, the hospital Vojenská Nemocnica). Now EITHER

a) walk up say from the main road on Cesta Mládeže, which quickly rises into the Bratislava Mestské Lesy and the start of the series of lakes known as Železná studnička. 2km up this road and you’ll reach the cable car base (behind a wide meadow with a small playground in)

b) Change directly at Vojenská Nemocnica to bus 43 (1-2 buses hourly) and stay on until the Lanovka stop, where you’ll see the cable car base just above you.

The Cable Car, also known as Lanovky, costs 4 Euros/3 Euros adult/child one way. It runs Thursday through Sunday between 10am and 6pm, with the last departures being at 5:45pm. The journey whooshes you up, quite thrillingly, through the forest to Kamzík – right by the Koliba Expo restaurant we were mentioning.

And finally, why is Kamzík so called, after the quirky breed of sheep that inhabit the Slovakian High Tatras? We don’t know. Answers on a postcard, please!

MAP LINK: Also see Kamzík on our specially annotated GREATER BRATISLAVA MAP

GETTING THERE: Detailed right above!

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Kamzík, it’s a one-hour walk down to Krasňany and one of the best typical Slovak restaurants in Bratislava, Krasňanska Kúria – and a two-hour walk north to Marianka, Slovakia’s main pilgrimage destination.

*** = Denotes where, on our separate hiking posts incorporating Kamzík, you have to scroll down to to in the linked post to pick up the hike

Obývačka

It’s a fairly simple, but mind-blowingly effective recipe. Take breakfast (three-cheese omelette, eggy bread or pancakes, perhaps, alongside one of Bratislava’s best possibilities for a good macchiato). Take lunch (maybe the Obývačka special, a tasting platter of aubergine dip, feta, olives, grilled courgette, shrimps and a dash of chilli). Take dinner (the chicken and mozerella salad or the grilled river fish cooked in saffron and white wine sauce are simplistic and divine, but just a standard salad is crisp and complemented by at least three types of leaf when Slovakia’s standard is precisely no leaves whatsoever). Mix well into one effortlessly fluid, incredibly informal blend that begins with the early morning commuters and culminates with the afterwork partiers and the romantic dinner seekers.

Obývačka, which translates into English as “living room” or “living space” is, above all, relaxed. The ethos is clearly the “cosy” Slovak eatery of old mixed with a liberal smattering of youthful, trendy Bohemia. Typical Slovak cuisine, in other words, made somewhat cooler by good coffee, healthy salads, gluten-free options, decent wine and all those bright young twenty-somethings gabbing either downstairs or up top. It’s a rarity for an eatery to follow through from breakfast to lunch to dinner and come up trumps in all departments and the laid-back attitude (the staff are young, multi-lingual and eager to help or recommend the ever-changing specials) is key to this.

Let us contextualise, as we ever need to do in Slovakia. It’s not every cafe-bar-restaurant that opens for breakfast, let alone decent breakfasts with good espresso. It’s not every trendy lunch stop that offers such good-value lunches. Creative salads and good wine are far from being ubiquitous, even in Bratislava. Friendly, courteous service at dinner is not a guarantee. And the Obývačka-like interior – a bar hung with beads, retro wallpaper covered with flowers (in the design of the typical rural krčmy, or pubs, only more hip), an upstairs decorated in opened books, their pages rustling in the breeze – is conducive to lingering. One could go so far as to say it comes closest to providing anything approaching Slovak fusion cuisine in Bratislava. And it’s brightening up the ever-more lively Dunajska street in an area of town the average visitor wouldn’t stroll into unless, well, unless Englishmaninslovakia had recommended it, really…

Nothing in Obývačka is stand-out. There are better restaurants around. But for the price-quality trade-off (meals here are all between 4 and 9 Euros, about mid-range for Bratislava) – and particularly for their decent range of gluten-free options, the Old Town has few better places. And of course everything is very, very cosily convivial. Much like your living room, really.

MAP LINK

LOCATION: Dunajská 54: that’s the street leading west from the big city-centre Tesco’s. Head three blocks west on Dunajska and you’ll see it. The website is Slovak-only but staff speak good English.

OPENING: 8am until 11pm (Monday to Thursday), 8am-1am (Friday), 11am-1am (Saturday) and 11am-11pm (Sunday)

BEST TIME TO VISIT: Mid- to late evening, say around 8:30pm, for a glass of wine, then dinner and more drinks.

BEST DISH: The zubáč (a freshwater fish) in our humble opinion – pictured above in a saffron and pine nut garnish.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: 600m southwest of Obývačka is Tulip House Boutique Hotel

The gorgeous garden...

The Greatest Boutique Hotel in Bratislava

Location: Old Town.

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

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

View of Bratislava from a bedroom window...

View of Bratislava from a bedroom window…

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

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

MAP LINK:

ADDRESS: Partizánska 16A

PRICE: Doubles are 70 Euros

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

The Bratislava skyline from the Štefánikova magistrála

Hiking Western Slovakia on the Trail of Slovakia’s Heroes: the Štefánikova Magistrála

When I heard there was a path themed around one of Slovakia’s greatest all-time heroes, Milan Rastislav Štefánik, running from the Austrian border at Hrad Devín through the entirety of the Small Carpathians to Bradlo, where the man is buried, my interest was, I’ll admit it, piqued.

120km Showcase of Slovakia’s Best-Of

The Štefánikova Magistrála is a 120+km path in total and encompasses the very best of Western Slovakia along the way – unforgettable forest, several of the most magnificent castles in the country, and – of course – that poignant finish at Bradlo, Štefánik’s tomb. At this point, the path does not end (the name alone changes) and you can continue on the trail of the Cesta Hrdinov SNP (path of the Heroes of the Slovak National Uprising) all the way across Slovakia through yet more-untouched, more-unknown countryside to the far east of Slovakia at Dukla Pass on the Polish border.

It transplants you to the pretty, river-hugging village of Devín, invites you on the clamber up to the sandy escarpments of Devínska Kobyla (which, once upon a time not so long ago, protected East from West in Europe), shows you the modern face of Bratislava’s western suburbs, and then, slowly but steadily, those woods and hills – rising only up to 700m (about 2300 feet) but quickly metamorphosing into a little-traipsed wilderness replete with wild pigs and deer. A narrative thread, in other words, linking the majority of the West’s best tourist attractions.

And part of it runs only about 1.5km away from my home of three years, Rača!

Fellow Small Carpathians lover Jonno  Tranter hiked the entirety of the Štefánikova Magistrála to get to the 2016 edition of the famous Pohoda festival at Trenčin and we are featuring his most updated version of trekking the trail, broken down into day-long hiking stages, for stages two to five of the hike on this site (scroll down for more on this, and for his further two days of hiking on the Cesta Hrdinov SNP).

The Tatranská Magistrála it Ain’t…

Unlike the Tatranská Magistrála, with all its provision for tourists, including many convenient mountain houses to bed down in, the Štefánikova Magistrála is a different proposition. It is far less walked, and not always as well maintained. Its signage – even at its best – is worse, and often dies out completely. There are no designated accommodation options en route, either – you have to make the best of what happens to be nearby! Perhaps therein lies its appeal: on the Tatranská Magistrála, you will always meet other hikers – here not. Much of this route lies on forgotten paths, only used by local dog walkers or cyclists. True, it lacks the mountainous intensity of Eastern Slovakia – but it is greener and, for leading you astray into increasing isolation, perhaps more beguiling in its own way.

Every Last Bit of the Path (Almost)

On a sweltering July day when I needed to get away from my desk I finally got round to starting this walk. Now, from Rača, Bratislava’s north-eastern edge, where I was living for three years, I could have cut up behind my house and skipped all of stage one, which does encompass getting through Bratislava – a surefire way to get to the most beautiful parts of the hike sooner. I didn’t do that. I wanted to walk the Štefánikova Magistrála from beginning to end. With such a resolution, I had to therefore go to Devín Hrad (Devin Castle).

The Štefánikova Magistrála According to the Englishman

It’s a somewhat contradictory concept, these paths in the footsteps of famous people. You want to believe, mid-tramp, that yes, it’s OK, Štefánik (in this example) really was sweating it out on these very paths. But of course there is that growing suspicion in the back of your mind that the route planners just want to take you via as many showcase sights as humanly possible. This suspicion grows within you mighty quickly on the Štefánikova Magistrála. Circuitous would be describing this path mildly. Therefore, what follows in the stage descriptions is the Štefánikova Magistrála according to Englishmaninslovakia, with shortcuts inserted where following the path would be an illogical detour.

A Final Few Things About Štefánikova Magistrála on this Site

This route also takes you from the castle walls of Devín (which, in a symbolic gesture, I felt I had to touch before I could get on with the walking thing). If you want to cut straight to the seriously wild, woodsy part of this hike, you might want to skip Stage One and pick up from the start of Stage Two at Kamzik.

(Kamzik is a start point for several other great hikes up in the forests too, including the pilgrimage trail to Marianka.)

We’ve tried to divide each stage of the Štefánikova Magistrála into five to eight hour walking days, with accommodation/camping possibilities at the end of each. Especially with the first stage, there are a fair few sights to see that should (quite rightly) detain you, and there is a lot of steep ups and downs, plus the highest chance of getting lost (for reasons that will become apparent) – so we’ve given you an easy first days’ hiking!

And about that accommodation… the end of Stage One (Hotel West) and the end of Stage Two (the motel at Pezinská Baba) have hotels but the end of Stage Three (Vápenná) and Stage Four (Dobrá Voda) have none – meaning your best bet really is to camp (technically, unofficially) in the vicinity – our stage directions do cover good places to camp! On Stage Five, there is one of our Top Ten Places to Stay in Slovakia just above Brezová pod Bradlom in Košiarska (on a cunning side trail up to Bradlo, too!) and beyond Bradlo, in Myjava, the well-regarded Hotel Štefánik. Nevertheless, as two stages minimum will entail camping, you’ll need to bring all the necessary camping gear (as well as food, as food stops along the trail are scant).

Finally – getting there. The easiest way by public transport to Devín is to go to the Most SNP bus station (under the bridge) and take the hourly 29 bus which goes straight to the castle forecourt.

Map Check

You WILL need maps for this hike (green-coloured 1: 25,000 and 1: 50,000 VKÚ Harmanec maps; see our post on where to buy hiking maps). It is not enough to rely on the signage. Grab copies of Malé Karpaty Juh (south Small Carpathians), Malé Karpaty Stred (central Small Carpathians) and Malé Karpaty Sever (North Small Carpathians). On each of the stages we’ll provide an overview MAP LINK but there are no online maps that show the hiking trail in sufficient detail…

WHAT NEXT?

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)

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

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 (near Trenčin) (featured in our Places to Go/Western Slovakia sub-section)

Slnko v svieti (The Sun in a Net)

“Sometimes you have to take a dark path” muses the main character in The Sun In A Net at one of the film’s most profoundly prophetic moments when he and two colleagues are seen silhouetted against a forest in the setting sun, stealing wood to fix broken farm machinery. And indeed, this movie takes you to some dark moments in Slovak history.

Czechoslovakia in the 1960s a few years before the Prague Spring: angry youth, resigned and embittered old-timers, love and its anything-but-smooth path, and a mysterious fisherman on a decrepit boat on the Danube.

Change is in the air, but in The Sun In A Net, that change never really comes.

The movie is thus a melancholic one – and with its out-of-the-blue scene changes and almost eerie background sound repetitions of the clank of trams or the experimental tinkering on a flute by someone with little talent for the instrument, a consciously disjointed one. But its cast of characters are so poetical, so philosophical, so whimsical that one cannot help falling in love with it. In these two respects – the occasionally unnerving disjointedness and the lovable protagonists which have to ‘make do’ with operating in such a world – The Sun In A Net combines two hallmarks of Slovak film-making. Yet in the revolutionary way it goes about this, the movie is in a class of its own.

At the beginning the rebellious undertones of the film are sown when we see Fayolo, the teenage main character, standing alone on a Bratislava housing estate rooftop cluttered with aerials, scoffing at the propaganda issuing from the radio. Fayolo is a typically ‘angry young man’, a talented photographer with a passion for unusual shots, an individual in an era when individuality was not highly prized. Bela, his love interest, enters next, enthusiastically talking about the impending eclipse, but Fayolo is wary of the good things in life, Bela included. The film develops a device for dealing with his most contemplative moments (and there are plenty) by freezing the subject of his thoughts whilst his own internal voice continues on, invariably negatively.

The eclipse viewing is an anti-climax. It’s cloudy. On the rooftop, Fayolo and Bela argue (Fayolo’s moroseness is the cause). In Bela’s family’s apartment, her blind mother asks Bela’s younger brother to describe to her the colours in the sky.

The sadness is so profound (Bela’s mother’s suffering, Bela’s brother’s frustration at feeling neglected by the almost-always absent father, the fact that even by the standards of black-and-white movies this one is shot in a particularly murky manner and colour of any description seems very far away at this point). In fact, things are awful. “It’s so awful that things are like this” Bela’s father proclaims grimly in one of his few appearances. “This is awful” Bela complains to Fayolo as they eclipse-watch. Fayolo mocks the crowds gathered on the streets below to see the spectacle of the ‘black sun show’: “wait another twenty years: it might not be so cloudy then.”

Soon after Fayolo and Bela fall out despite their clear admiration of the other, Fayolo’s father, a ‘party’ man tells Fayolo he needs to go away to work for the summer, a decision Fayolo feels has been made so that his father looks good (and if there is one thing Fayolo loathes it is keeping up appearances). But go away Fayolo does – to help with the harvest in rural Melanany (a fictitious place). And in their frustration at not being able to communicate with each other, not even when they are together and certainly not now they are being forced apart, Fayolo (with buxom harvest worker Jana) and Bela (with shallow philanderer Peto) are tempted in different directions. Fayolo nevertheless writes Bela a love letter during his month on the harvesting ‘holiday’ which Bela mockingly reads to Peto. Fayolo, for his part, starts thinking about Jana a fair bit more and Bela a fair bit less. The question is whether either Fayolo or Bela will realise they have made a mistake in time…

But besides Bratislava, portrayed as a cityscape of darkness and confusion, and the light, sunny, simplistic setting of Melanany, The Sun In A Net focuses on a third world – one that initially seems so removed from the other two it is almost as if its scenes have been spliced on from another film entirely. What soon becomes apparent, however, is that this world is a touchstone for the main characters that none appreciate until it is too late.

And that world is the Danube – or more specifically, a ragtag old boat and the fisherman and his wife that live aboard. The boat and its elderly owners soon assume the role of moral barometer in the movie – the set of constants anchored amidst the uncertainty. Here are highlighted goodness (Fayolo befriends the couple and they allow him to take their photos, which he then brings for them to decorate the vessel with), badness (as later when Peto brings Bela there and the couple are far less welcoming, for Peto has disrespected the boat by playing music loudly and trying to seduce Bela upon it) and loss (as when Bela’s mother stands beside the boat once it is beached and forgotten and recollects that for her too, many things are finished for good).

Indeed, in the very last scene, as in the very first (when we briefly see birds’ eggs lying in the shallows, and think, at the time, that this is artistic, but otherwise unconnected to anything else), it is the timeless world of the river that comes to the fore. For Bela and her family, it represents a chance to seize upon the positives, perhaps, when they glimpse the sun framed in a moment of beauty between the now-abandoned nets of the old fisherman. Fayolo, brooding once again amidst the rooftop aerials, realises from afar that the river is the place he should be.

How did Fayolo’s month away change him? How did Bela change in his absence? Do all the answers lie in the river? Does any of it actually really matter? As the old fisherman at one point wisely observes, regardless “the Danube will flow on.”

As for The Sun In A Net, perhaps its main character, proclaimed “a jerk” or “a poet” by others, does ensure the film sparkles with a certain moody poetry. It captures the age of the ‘drustvo’ or Communist farm collective, especially, in seminal style. But the first-time viewer will be surprised most of all by how old this movie is. Štefan Uher made this in 1962. But the film feels much more modern, particularly when you consider the censorship of Czechoslovakia at the time. It is bravely controversial, simmering with sex, pioneering in its techniques. And it is absolutely essential viewing for anyone who wishes to understand Slovak cinema. Because it is one of the country’s most ground-breaking films ever.

Boat: Getting to Bratislava by River

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

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

Vienna to Bratislava Boats (and back)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bratislava – the Best Places to Get High

When I arrive in a new place, my immediate instinct is to want to get up high to see a view of all of it. Bratislava – with its burnished rooftops, the grandiose set pieces of castle and cathedral, the more surreal sights of that upside-down pyramid and that suspended sputnik over a Danube that flanks one side of the Old Town – lends itself very well to being “viewed”. But it’s the hills rising up immediately behind it completing the picture that also offer the best perspectives from which  to see the very best of the city.

1: Bratislava Castle

Yes, ok, whilst it undeniably makes the city skyline look distinctive, the rather box-like whitewashed city castle crowning a hill directly above the Danube is not going to come close to the top amongst the stiff competition for Slovakia’s most photogenic castle. Nor is it particularly worth your while paying to go inside the castle museum. Where the fortress does come up trumps are with the views: the whole of the Old Town, contrasted with the modernist mega-suburb of Petržalka on the other side of the Danube, is visible from the castle courtyard, bastions and park.

The best approach to the castle is from inviting cobbled Mikulašska, the lane running along opposite the old city walls across the dual carriageway. Look out for an old flight of steps just above Le Šenk brewpub. This ushers you up into the grounds of an old church, then up again over the castle’s rear approach road through a small arch which leads you into the castle park. Even once you’ve reached the churchyard, the bumpy skyline of terracotta Old Town rooftops starts opening up below you.

Old Town rooftops ©englishmaninslovakia.com

Old Town rooftops

2: Slavín and Horský Park

Higher than the castle by some way at 270 metres is Slavín, a poignant hilltop memorial to the Soviet soldiers that died defending Bratislava during World War Two. The lines of graves (about 300, but representing an astonishing 6,845 soldiers) lead up to an imposing colonnaded monument, with a huge statue of a soldier topping a 39m plinth. The height of the monument on top of an already lofty hill makes Slavín a noticeable landmark wherever you are in central Bratislava, and it’s also a great lookout. The huge upside-down pyramid of the Slovak Radio Building takes centre stage in front of a sweeping vista over the city centre from the west side, with the Danube less visible than from the Castle but the Malé Karpaty/Small Carpathians backing the city are far more visible.

The best approach is from Hlavná Stanica, the main train station, through the steep, leafy winding streets of the Kalvaria neighbourhood. It’s worth also approaching through Horský Park which, whilst a tad dilapidated, has a good outlook from its top end. Another even better vantage point is just afterwards on a strip of abandoned land on the road between Horský Park and Slavín – a hole in the fence gives access!

The whole walk is a nice 2km round-trip from the centre of the Old Town.

RELATED POST: Sign up for a tour of Bratislava’s Communist sights  – including Slavín – with Authentic Slovakia

RELATED POST: Find your way to either Horský Park/Slavín (above) or Kamzík (below) and you’ll find yourself on the spectacular long-distance hiking trail, the Štefánikova Magistrála (Stage One).

3: Kamzík

Much more than just a mast. Oh yes. Kamzík, a TV/radio tower, which presides over the Old Town of Bratislava from the verdant forests above, has a brasserie/restaurant half-way up (the hill here is 439m high and by ascending to the restaurant you’re going up easily over 500 metres). Needless to say, the views of Bratislava from here are pretty damned special. It’s the only place hereabouts from which all of the city can be seen. You do have to purchase something from the restaurant if you want to get the full city-wide vista, but below the hill on which the mast stands is a parking area with a couple of rustic places to eat and a wide, hilltop meadow (luka) which has a view over a large swathe of the city.

As there is bundles to do in and around Kamzík we have created our very own post which tells you all you will ever need to know about it (including some interesting ways to get there, including cable car!).

4: UFO

No doubt the bridge (Most SNP) linking the Old Town with Petržalka crowned by what can only be described as a spaceship will have piqued your curiosity at some point during ramblings through the centre. For an 8 Euro entrance fee, a lift whooshes you up to an overpriced restaurant (if you eat here you don’t have to pay for the entrance but you’ll wind up paying far more for the food) from where stairs climb to the viewing deck above. Here are the best panoramic views of Bratislava – castle, St Martin’s cathedral and Malé Karpaty/Small Carpathians to the north, striking views of Petržalka (Eastern Europe’s largest modernist housing development) looking south and – perhaps best – the best east-west views of the Danube it’s possible to have in the city centre. At 80m up from the river, it’s often quite windy!

The Danube looking west from the UFO

The Danube looking west from the UFO

5: Bars in the Old Town

It’s not only the UFO where you can eat or drink out with wrap-around views in central Bratislava. Perhaps best of the available options is the 13th-floor Outlook Bar in the Lindner Gallery Hotel. The hotel is just north of Medická záhrada and thus very close to the Old Town, with good birds-eye views of it all. Hipster bar/club Dunaj draws plenty for its vibrant music and cultural events, but plenty more for its terrace perched above the Old Town roof tops. Above the Lemon Tree Thai Restaurant is the stylish 7th-floor Sky Bar, with amazing views of the Danube through big windows, and access to a lookout above.

MAP LINK:

GETTING THERE: Described under each individual viewpoint!

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Kamzik, a 3 hour hike north via Marianka will take you out of our Bratislava & Around section and into the Small Carpathians proper!