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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.

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.

 

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.

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.

©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

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.

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

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!