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.

bratislava_view_from_koliba

Penzión Zlatá Noha – Basement Prices, Beautiful Views

Bratislava from Koliba

Bratislava from Koliba

Location: Koliba.

This is, as near as dammit, the view from a pension (guesthouse) that is long overdue on this blog. That’s right: Zlatá Noha (which translates as golden leg). Golden leg refers to their dog, but I digress. Bratislava has hills: beautiful hills. Beautiful hills = beautiful views. The district of Koliba (haunt of diplomats and made-it-good lawyers and bankers and full of very nice, lavish hillside mansions) is one such vantage point. There are few better city panoramas than from here. And it’s here you’ll find the pension that, for better or for worse, I invariably used when staying as a visitor in the city.

In essence, the reason you’d want to stay at Zlatá Noha is to get an ok room with a pretty fabulous view at a price far cheaper than in the centre. It is, as far as I know, the cheapest half-decent guesthouse in town and double room rates are cheaper than the city centre hostels.

You get there by trolleybus 203 from the cross-section of Šancová (that’s the road that the main train station is off) and Karpatská (it’s about the third stop but just say “Pension Zlatá Noha” to the driver and he’ll get you). From here, actually, a plethora of signs point the way – head uphill from the trolleybus stop and you are sure to see them.

I remember the first time I stayed there. Fish in a large tank flit psychedelically in an otherwise largely dim and silent front reception area and then an old man, amiable enough but with scant English, comes out to unceremoniously thrust you the key to your room and add to the whole Ray Bradbury Scifi feel of the place when you arrive, invariably in the dead of night due to flight connections.

But fear not. You are in for a fairly pleasant surprise with the view, which looks down, as per the picture, across Bratislava’s largely unheralded but rather beautiful vineyards down into the city centre. Even at night, the Bratislava lights and smoking out-of-town factories have the desired effect: a sense, if you have come from Western Europe or the US, of having landed somewhere “other”.

The actual room facilities are pretty simple. There are no frills here. They are clean, but done in cheap wood, but have plenty of blankets and equally clean bathrooms (with very hot water, don’t worry). Then again, the price is only 30/40 Euros single/double if you pay cash rather than on card (small surcharge) with breakfast a pretty reasonable 5 Euros on top. By comparison, guesthouses that are little or no better in the centre charge 60 Euros plus. And Zlatá Noha has the views. Trolleybus 203, in any case, whisks you right down into the city centre at Hodžovo Namestie very quickly (and every ten minutes).

Breakfast is, well, full of those amazing cross-vineyard views, in a very convivial breakfast room (you can also order a beer here at the makeshift bar at night because you are a long way from the next nearest drinking establishment). If the younger guy is on duty he makes great “hamundeggs” aka “ham and eggs” a kind of great, gooey omelette. There’s also a buffet-style spread of cereal, yoghurt, some croissants or other interesting bready snacks and boiled eggs, along with cold meats. All in all, it’s scrumptious and good value.

The downsides are the dog (of golden legs fame) barking at impromptu parts of the night at nothing in particular (maybe the moon, who knows?) so if you get a room to the top of the stairs and THEN RIGHT in the other wing that’s best. But the dog doesn’t always bark so maybe you’ll be alright. Another little-celebrated UPside is that here you are actually within walking distance (if you continue up the road) of the Bratislava Mestské Lesy (Local City Forest) which spreads away around and beyond the Kamzik TV mast in swathes of unadulterated wildness right the way across the Carpathians.

The thing is, with guesthouses like Pension Zlatá Noha: they just don’t make them like this any more. Now they’re a bit fancier, with better wifi connections, and abstract art on the walls, and charge significantly more for such privileges. But really? Honestly? Pension Zlata Noha is one of the good ole fashioned Bratislava guesthouses. Go on. Try your Slovak out. Chow down on hamundeggs. And celebrate staying in a capital city in a private en suite room with a view for 50 Euros or less!

MAP LINK

PRICES: 36.50 Euros (single w/ private bathroom), 46.50 Euros (double w/ private bathroom) – breakfast is included with both prices. (2017 prices)

LAST UPDATED: April 2017

BOOK PENZIÓN ZLATA NOHA

Around Bratislava – the North: The Mestské Lesy (Local City Forest)

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).

MAP LINK 

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.