IT IS BY NO MEANS the first time I have raved about, nor the last time I will write about, Bratislava’s Mestské Lesy: the wonderful forest that rises up above the city on its northern side. If people ask me what’s so great about living in Bratislava, this is one of the first things I say. A wild tract of hilly forest that begins right on the edge of the city (only a few km from the Old Town) and continues – well – pretty much all the way across Slovakia, actually.
The most popular part of the forest is around the Kamzik, or TV Mast, that sticks up like a sore thumb out of the greenery that frames Bratislava’s northern edge. But venture beyond this, or indeed approach the forest from another entrance, and you’ll have it much more to yourself. What’s exciting, in a nutshell, about the gorgeous deciduous and conifer woods here is that they continue, unfettered, beyond the limits of the city forest into the Malé Karpaty (Small Carpathians) which feed into the Carpathians themselves. Embark on a walk here and you know that nature stretches before you, should you be game, right the way into Romania, and with literally a handful of roads to cross during that time.
As blog followers know, I lived for three years+ in Rača, a large neighbourhood in Bratislava’s northeast, so my main entry point into the forest was always via Pekná Cesta. From the tram stop (on the No.3 or No.5 line out to Rača you walk straight up the “nice road” (as Pekná Cesta translates into English) passing two supermarkets and then following straight uphill out of the city. After 30 minutes’ walk or a few minutes’ drive you reach a car park with some barbecue grills, a small, invariably closed booth selling warm soft drinks, the nexus of several mapped-out running routes and, most importantly, the start of an intriguing forest-themed hiking adventure.
I was lucky enough to live on the fringes of this forest and go for runs in the lower echelons (and the vineyards below them) all the time but on my first serious hiking exploration – as it happened, on the 6th of January, Monday, Traja Králi or Three Kings’ Day as it is known in Slovakia – myself and my girlfriend were for several days prior in the frame of mind for a longer adventure… a much longer adventure. The day we chose was beautiful, with temperatures reaching 12 degrees C (when we started out I didn’t even need to wear a coat) and Bratislava folk were out for a spot of post-Christmas fresh air. It was an amazing advert for the city, with the smoke of venison wafting over from the barbecues, young families merrily embarking on the myriad trails and Bratislava’s large contingent of hardcore cyclists toiling up on the steep climbs out of the car park into the forest…
…In this part of the forest there are no refreshments (in fact there’s probably scope for some enterprising young individual to open a cafe/ restaurant like the abundance there are around Kamzik) but that’s hardly the point: you are getting straight out into a forest wilderness here where (seriously) there are wild pigs and bears abroad after night fall (either of which could easily kill people, meaning the wildlife here is nothing to be taken lightly. The Czechs (probably because they come more often to Slovakia than any other nation but also because they’re Czechs) have a reputation here for coming to Slovakia’s wildernesses, setting off into the blue yonder and getting into difficulties because they underestimate just how wild it is here.
It all adds an extra sense of adventure to any hike you do (provided you come prepared and aren’t out after dark). And isolated as it becomes in these forests, you are always accompanied by great signage, good noticeboards indicating where on the forest map you are and as already inferred, shelters/fire pits for typical Slovak opekačka (cooking meat on an outdoor fire in the woods, basically). It’s not for nothing hiking is one of Englishmaninslovakia’s top things about living in Slovakia.
This time out, we didn’t come prepared. Or rather, we didn’t realise how long the circuit we did would take. There we were, enjoying the sun slowly sinking over the treetops and then we were suddenly thinking: “ah, yes, when that goes down fully it will be dark – and isn’t that the hour when those wild pigs emerge?” I tried planning one of my legendary shortcuts back to the starting point. It would have been an amazing moment for a shortcut of mine to pay off. But it didn’t. We had to backtrack. By now it was getting seriously dusky. We couldn’t read our map (the green 1: 25000 Malé Karpaty Juh – available in all good bookstores; see our post on buying hiking apps & maps for more if you want a good map on either local hiking or hiking in Slovakia generally). The mythical stories of those wild pigs and bears seemed much closer.
Then a serendipitous short, portly bearded man (oh, such a classic Slovak, and with that absolutely essential hiking companion – a huge hip flask of the very, very strong stuff) tramped by and asked us if we were lost. It turned out we weren’t so off-the-beaten-path after all and he was able to direct us back to Pekna Cestá. Because despite all this tree-coated wilderness, we were only a few kilometres from the edge of Bratislava.
The man bid us farewell, and when he had guided us to the edge of recognisable territory, he turned off on some darker, far wilder looking path that was going in the opposite direction to civilisation.
“Where are you going now?” we cried, for it was almost pitch black by this point.
“Oh, I’ve got another 1 1/2 hours of walking yet” he replied. “I’m going to Marianka.”
Marianka, famous for being Slovakia’s main pilgrimage site, was a good 10km off. And indeed this man was a pilgrim. He was going to pray to the Panna Mária (Virgin Mary); he did it every year on Traja Králi and, in the true style of pilgrims of old, by foot through these very forests. He took a long swig of strong-smelling alcohol. Whether that was a good idea if he was going to be contending with wild pigs and bears, I am sure he knew best.
NB: to the best of my knowledge, the forests around Bratislava contain no bears (there’s plenty in the High Tatras and Eastern Slovakia) but lots of wild pigs.
THREE TIPS FOR MESTSKÉ LESY HIKES!
On the blue trail from here to the edge of the city forest somewhere near Malinovsky Vrch (the point where it borders the Malé Karpaty proper) a number of exciting hikes are possible…
1: In fact, you could easily embark on what would be one of the classic Mestské Lesy hikes, on blue and red trails, from the Pekná Cesta car park: on all the way to Pajštún Castle (a total of 4.5 to 5 hours’ hiking) via Pánova Lúka and Drači Hrádok (thus encompassing three of our very favourite hiking destinations near Bratislava). Beyond Pajštún, should you so choose, you can continue hiking into the Malé Karpaty in Western Slovakia).
2: For something a little easier (and more or less what we did on the above mentioned day), follow blue to begin with from the car park and then, where the trail heads off on a more minor path, circle back (staying on the metalled lane) to a ruined sanatorium where a beautiful and rarely-used trail then climbs back up through woods, and eventually descends again to join the blue trail at a noticeboard/firepit on Pekná Cesta about a km uphill from the starting point. It’s an excellent round-trip foray into these woods, with loads of smaller tracks branching off to explore.
3: Our third featured possibility for hiking from Pekná Cesta is indeed our top recommended Bratislava Mestské Lesy hike, the Pilgrimage to Marianka.
OUR FAVOURITE RANDOM LITTLE PLACES TO GO IN THE MESTSKÉ LESY:
Pánova Lúka – An idyllic, verdant little meadow a 3-hour hike from Central Bratislava via Kamzik. A great place for Slovak opycačka (barbecue) or a game of frisbee! MAP (although you need a better hiking map to find the place). It’s off the red Štefanokova Magistrala trail (stage two) before Biely Križ…
The Yellow Trail from Pekna Cesta – A beautiful stretch of woodland close to the city, and part of our Pilgrimage Trail to Marianka path.
Drači Hrádok – This is a very ruined castle (only a few stones left) but the ruins themselves are in a forgotten little pocket of woods below Pajštún Castle. MAP It’s at the end of the yellow trail down from Pajštún Castle, just east of Borinka (and still a steep climb uphill from there).
GETTING THERE: For the part of the Mestské Lesy we’re talking about here, hop on Trams No.3 or 5 in the city centre and head out to Pekná Cesta, a 20 minute tram ride three stops beyond Bratislava Vinohrady train station.
NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: Walk any further on the paths described and you’re well and truly in the Small Carpathians. 12km north of Pekná Cesta (and accessible via the Pekná Cesta road through the forest) just passed Marianka is, indeed, Pajštún Castle.