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 – 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!

Trains: Want Fried Cheese With That View? (A Welcome to Riding the Rails in Slovakia)

Friday afternoon; I have my ticket from the sour-faced woman in Bratislava’s Vinohrady station; I’m waiting on the broken platform with a view of vineyards in spring bloom; there’s a moan and a clank and a sound a bit like what I imagine a minotaur sounds like when it despairs because it got lost in the labyrinth and… yes, in hobbles the train heading east.

I’ve done this journey a dozen or more times in spring sunshine and winter snow alike but the feeling of elation – of getting on a train and heading cross-country, east from Bratislava – never ceases to enrich the senses.

That is partly, of course, because I’m going somewhere; somewhere exciting; where is not important right now. But it is mostly because trains in Slovakia – and in Central Europe generally – are experiences in themselves. They are that essential first stage of the journey – getting there would just not be as fun without them.

I dodge the beggar and the skinheads and the businessmen and the giggling students and the gaggle of babky (old grandmothers) and make for the front carriage. The rest of the train is full (even the aisle outside the compartments decked out in brown and green is chock-a-block). So I head to the restaurant car, brown and green colour scheme persisting; colours that in any other context would look outdated but on this groaning old train, with the Carpathians rising out of the window, seem just natural.

There’s the other usual suspects too. Outside, the middle-of-nowhere stations (the Vrútky’s of this world) where the station masters hurry out of their offices smoothing their uniforms and donning their hats whilst the train passes before returning to their afternoon nap, tea or slivovitz. And within – fake flowers that look almost dead even though they were never alive. Mirrors – why???? – high up on each compartment wall as if passengers really like to stand up on tiptoe and arrange their hair in the 2-inch wide strip of glass. A serious middle-aged waiter with a pencil moustache dishing out cold Czech beer (Kozel seems a favourite). A menu which appears to have a myriad options but which when you break it down does eggs, admittedly in several different forms, wiener schnitzel, goulash , pancakes and fried cheese – all with a “vegetable garnish” of grated carrot and cabbage.

After a studied sampling of all possibilities over the last year or so I now always go for the fried cheese (the risk of an upset stomach afterwards is minimal and, in any case, this battered piece of stodgy goodness is in fact a Slovak staple – you’re eating a proper piece of Slovak culture if you eat this). Rubbery, battered and with well-seasoned potatoes on the side with that cabbage salad. If you’re lucky, you’ll have the option of the battered Hermelin – one step deeper into the Czech-Slovak cultural immersion as the batter is thicker and Hermelin is the Czech Republic’s very own take on camambert. Ah! As Europe rolls passed the window.

Because thats the thing. Your average Slovakian place-to-place train is also often a trans-European train. That pencil-moustached waiter has some words of German and Hungarian up his sleeve, most likely, because the train could be going across three, four, five country borders. There’s something internationally titillating about that. And even a little bit grand.

Sit back, feast, down a froth-topped Kozel and wait for some of Europe’s greatest mountains to rise up before you, without moving a muscle (other than those you need to chew and swallow).

Cue Kraftwerk for the soundtrack. Trans – Europe – Express…

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