Slovak Craft Beer: Grabbing International Attention

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

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

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

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

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Top Ten Best Things About Life in Slovakia

We turn away from travel, for a minute, on this site, to focus on LIFE. Life in Slovakia is a topic even less generally known about than tourism here – at least to the foreign/English-speaking world – so this is an insight into some of the best things about life here. Pretty girls and Europe’s cheapest beer are not listed… although we all know that they’re here too…

10: Sheer Potential…

Slovakia is a young country. It has a lot going for it, but also a long way still to go. Many construe this as a bad thing but I think of this as a big positive. In most countries, the order of things is well-established. In Slovakia, many aspects of life are still in the infancy of their development. There’s a sense that living in Slovakia, one is at the beginning of a journey, not the end of one. I like that (but I don’t expect Slovaks to agree with me on this necessarily!)

9: Proximity of some of Europe’s Coolest Cities

I’m not a big fan of selling a country based on the fact others are nearby, or based on assumed superior knowledge of other nearby countries. I’m a firm believer that Slovakia has its own merits, and a culture sufficient to justify being described on its own terms. But when you’re living in a country, it’s just generally quite cool to think that (from its capital) the celebrated spas of Budapest, the celebrated beer halls of Prague or the celebrated coffee houses of Vienna are all only a matter of hours away (two, four and one respectively).

8: Diversity of Drinks

Wine - and plenty of it ©englishmaninslovakia.com

Wine – and plenty of it ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

For a fair chunk of my life now, I’ve been a travel writer. And it’s the worst-concealed fact in the profession that travel writers like the odd tipple. Now I’m not talking a bottle of wine per night or anything but yeah, I am talking the odd glass of something… and the odd glass of something is something Slovakia is very adept at providing. If you want wine,  then there’s two main wine-producing regions with plenty of possibilities, the Small Carpathians wineries and the Tokaj wineries. Then of course there’s a myriad different fruit brandies, of which slivovica is only the tip of the iceberg: you name the fruit – or in some areas the herb – and there’s an alcoholic beverage to correspond (see a little more on this in our feature on Slovakia’s most quintessential foods and drinks). And the microbrewery industry has improved significantly in recent years: check our Bratislava Bars & Pubs section for proof! For the non-alcoholically inclined, Slovakia’s tea culture is also incredibly rich (English – rejoice!) and those interested in this should watch this space for more on the many fantastic teahouses – or the čajovne – of Slovakia. It’s not that you can’t get many of these drinks elsewhere, of course. But it’s not so common to find such a small country which can specialise in such an array of them.

7: Cheaper Costs of Living

We all know about Eastern Europe’s perennial popularity with those (quite often, the stag parties) who love how cheap it is for a weekend break. That’s true. Certain aspects of life are cheap here. The public transport and the cultural events, as detailed elsewhere on this article. And the beer (often cheaper than water for the same volume, and for the last couple of years Bratislava has come up as the number one of Europe’s cities for the cheapest beer). And the restaurant food (delicious meals at many of the better restaurants for 10 Euros or under).  And the average rent (even in Central Bratislava you could find apartments from as little as 300 Euros). Even taking into account that salaries are lower, a quick tally-round of the relative prices soon show life in Slovakia = more for less.

6: Music

Considering its size (not much bigger than Bristol and significantly smaller than Manchester) Bratislava gets literally all the big bands that stop round on their European tours – Košice and the smaller cities get a fair few too. It’s the same with music festivals – Bratislava’s programme of events is diverse, and covers everything from world music to classical and electric. Košice – European City of Culture 2013 don’t forget – now also has a wide programme of music events throughout the year. And as the two cities are only four hours apart, you’re never going to be more than two hours or so from cracking live music! Traditional Slovak music, it should be emphasised, is really worth checking out too: Slovakia has one of the most eclectic folk music legacies in Europe.

5: Meal tickets!

I guess it’s one of those things that dates back to Communism. For the vast majority of workers in Slovakia, the employer will cough up at least 50% of the money for meal tickets (generally in 4-Euro blocks) which can be redeemed not only at most restaurants but also supermarkets. If you bear in mind that a set-menu lunch even in Bratislava can cost 3 Euros, you’ve got your lunch taken care of and some money towards your supermarket shopping. Many readers from Europe and the US on here will laugh at the very idea of a company so generously contributing towards employee’s lunch and evening grocery shop: but in Slovakia, it’s a rather lovely reality!

4: Accessibility of Culture

Culture… accessible in Slovakia ©englishmaninslovakia.com

Culture… accessible in Slovakia ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Even considering the cheaper costs of living, the prices of tickets to the theatre or cinema are exceptionally reasonable. 25 Euros maximum can buy you premium seats at Bratislava’s Slovak Philharmony or Slovak National Theatre.

The accessibility isn’t just about price though – often, the very best events are organised by a young and bohemian crowd who go out of their way to make you feel welcome. There’s no pretension with most Slovak cultural events (not to deny that other aspects of life here have incredible pretentiousness) but this doesn’t mean that the standard is low. Slovakia actually has an incredibly important role within the development of Central European classical music and this role translates today into very highly-regarded performances that many people will come especially to see even from Vienna.

The events on offer are numerous, too. In Bratislava, there’s rarely a fortnight that passes without something of cultural significance (and clout) going on..

3: Public Transport

Going some place like Slovakia

Going some place like Slovakia – image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Slovaks will laugh loud when they read some of the things that I find particularly good about life here, and perhaps this point most of all. But whilst it’s generally a bit more battered than in some countries, it’s a brilliant system. For starters, a great website coordinating all bus and train transport helps you plan your journey across the country precisely (something sorely lacking in the UK).

Then there’s the trains themselves. Old, but very sophisticated, and with very affordable (15 Euros for a cross-country ride) travel in style (proper dining cars serving quite decent food) – see my enthusiastic post on this, Want Fried Cheese With That view, for more!

And within the cities, the tram and trolleybus system is just brilliant (especially Bratislava trams). The lines are almost never closed for repairs, and they always run on time, up to thirty minutes either side of the  centre, for a maximum of 90 Euro cents. They’re rarely crowded, either. Learn from this, public transport in nearly every other European city!

2: Lack of Crowds

Crowdlessness

Crowdlessness ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

I’ve lost count of the number of times I have walked into a cool place – invariably a cafe, bar or pub – in London, Paris or other big cities and soon formed the impression that it wasn’t so cool based solely on the crowdedness. For me, if I’m waiting to elbow through five rows of punters just to get to a bar to be served, or queue too long for a table in a cafe, then however good the joint it’s unlikely to form a positive impression on me. Such levels of crowds do not, contrary to popular opinion, signify the place is good. They just signify over-populatedness. Right now, even Bratislava never has that problem in Slovakia. You can sit down in your favourite place, or hike your favourite footpath – and breathe, and relax, because there’s never half a dozen people jostling behind you, spilling your drink or spoiling your moment of quiet contemplation.

 

1: Hiking

In reality, nature (which is Slovakia’s biggest draw to visit, or to live in) should probably fill several sections of this particular top ten. But this is nature made accessible by easily the best system of hiking trails I have ever encountered – anywhere. From right in Bratislava, these red-, blue-, yellow- or green-marked signs kick off, with detailed destinations on down the trail and how many minutes’ walk they are away. Sometimes the signs have timings down to the nearest minute! But they always prove to be uncannily accurate and – even if you are a fast walker – very hard to “beat”, although it’s fun trying! Some real TLC goes into making and maintaining these trails and the resulting signage.

This is coupled, even in remoter parts, by the endearing addition of rather elaborately-constructed barbecue spots.  The culture of the opekačka, or barbecue-bonfire in the wilds, is a very important part of Slovak life, especially at weekends. And to this end, it seems hiking trails go out of their way to wind up at great barbecue places. Mostly these are made from wood, and are found in small clearings within the woods, but sometimes they’re made from the old stones of ruined castles (my secret suspicion about why so many hiking trails here link up with ruined castles).

Slovaks also are pretty picky about where they hike: it has to be beautiful. So whilst hikes abound in the woods and mountains (i.e. the majority of the country), the very idea of them walking across farmland like us English is laughable. Then again, Slovak farmland does look rather ugly (the hedges have generally been gutted creating wide, intensively farmed, bleak-looking fields) so I do understand their preference!

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Tatras trail with Ždiar below ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The verdant ridges around Chleb, by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The Vrátna Valley – & Two Short Walks Around Chleb and Veľký Kriváň

If anyone were to ask me where they should go to grab the most accessible and authentic slice of mountain life in Slovakia, factoring in the obligatory stupendous viewpoint and a hike to a classic wilderness hut dishing out hearty Slovak meals, I would without hesitation say: “come here.”

Taking the cable car up from the head of the picture-postcard valley of Vrátna, to the saddle of Snilovske Sedlo just below the peak of Chleb, in the heart of Malá Fatra National Park, was in danger of being too common an activity for it to feature on this site. We debated for some time whether to include such information until we realised that actually, there was precious little good in-English info on it AND that whilst Slovaks and Czechs do indeed arrive in their droves, to other foreign tourists the delights of the Vrátna-Chleb area are still likely to be utterly unknown.

Embarking from Žilina at around 8am in time for when the cable car opens at 9am, you can do EVERYTHING mentioned here from “The Vrátna Cable Car Base & Up” paragraph down in an easy day trip – a half day if you’re quick about it – which makes what follows a superb introduction to Slovakia’s loveliest swathe of mountain scenery for those pressed for time. On the way up to the cable car base, you’ll pass through the main settlement in the area, Terchová, and up the ensuing (and gorgeous) valley – which we’ve included info on here too (and will doubtless feature more posts on at a later date, as there is enough to do in the valley alone for several days’ holiday).

Terchová – The Entrance to the Valley

The sheer shimmering verdant loveliness of the Vrátna valley begins at Terchová – the resort village that clusters at the valley’s entrance about 25km east of Žilina. Some call   Terchová overly touristy and a tad crass – I disagree. Compared to the rampant commercialism that has ruined countless other villages and towns in the world, Terchová’s development has been tasteful. It retains most of its attractive mountain-style houses with steep-pitched roofs, the accommodation and eating options are appealing, and whilst it makes a lot out of being the erstwhile holing-up spot of that prince of Slovak outlaws and folklore, Juraj Jánošík, the fanfare is mainly confined to the outlaw’s far-larger-than-life likeness on the hill outside town and a small, understated and very informative museum by the Terchova Tourist Information Centre. There is also an up-and-coming brewery in town, Vršky, which is part of the homonymous restaurant/penzion, giving you that added incentive to stop by for a beer: especially as it’s Slovakia’s first small-scale mountain brewery (as signs here proudly claim).

You can get off the bus here (and, obviously, then catch a later one), stock up on supplies here and even stay here (we recommend the afore-mentioned Vršky in town or, in a more idyllic spot right besides a great hiking back route up the valley to the Vrátna cable car base, Hotel Diery.)

Up Into The Valley: A Brief Guide

The 15-odd minute drive up the Vrátna valley from Terchová is sensational today – sheering pea-green slopes, overhanging crags and a road that somehow twists in-between them and ever upward – but it also makes the Jánošík tales assume an added dimension. This would have been perfect ambush terrain, you are soon thinking.

About half-way up, as this MAP shows, a separate road branches off left to Hotel Boboty (vast, vaguely monstrous, but quite decent rooms) and the idyllic hamlet of Štefanová, where you can also bed down at a couple of penzions therein.

A little further on is a ski area, known as the Vrátna Free Time Zone. You can see this section of the valley on this MAP. Another access road to the top of this ski resort winds up from Štefanová, via the highest mountain cottage hereabouts, remote Chata Na Gruni. At the bottom of the ski area on the Vrátna Valley road you’ll also find a very fetching rugged, traditional koliba, Koliba Stary Dvor – essentially a Slovak mountain-style restaurant. Enjoy – it’s the best place to eat in the lower reaches of the valley! Off to the right of the Koliba, a network of lanes ascends to another accommodation area – including the very good Hotel Rozsutec which has a wellness centre.

You’ll wend through all these valley attractions on the bus up to the Vrátna cable car base.

Terchová and this valley, followed by the cable car ride up to Snilovske sedlo as the final delight is all a very lovely and gentle initiation into the delights of the Malá Fatra National Park – sedate, let’s say, with easily accessible scenic spots – but up at the top of the cable car terminus the geography gets a lot more intense, wild and thrilling.

The Vrátna Cable Car Base & Up

The bus drops you at the cable car base, aka Vrátna Výťah. A couple of snack stands, souvenir stands and kiosks are scattered around, somewhat hopefully, but armed with the knowledge of what awaits up top, dearest blog follower, there is no need to linger.

Bearing in mind the opening hours and costs of the cable car as outlined at the bottom of this article, purchase your pass (and DO NOT LOSE your return one) and hop on the next of the passing cabins for the dramatic ascent to Snilovske sedlo, which at almost 1500m up will yield some absolutely superb vistas of the surrounding mountains. You’ll see some intrepid types making the steep ascent on the path up the cleared area of forest below, but if you’re going to pick a way to do this particular path, pick down:)

At the top cable car station there is a restaurant (cracking views, less impressive food, although you may decide risking the latter may be worth it to fully enjoy the former) that is a popular refuge when the bad weather cuts in and the cable car stops running. Actually, for many people, the restaurant represents the turning-back point of their foray into Vrátna – and this is a shame. Snilovske sedlo, a wide broccoli green saddle between two peaks, is a superb starting point for any number of first-class hikes – and particularly as the cable car has spared you the tough legwork by doing the majority of the climbing for you, the area fairly begs you to explore it a little. The two short hikes that follow give you a chance to investigate the very best of what the mountain tops near here offer.

Hike One: Veľký Kriváň

Behind the restaurant/viewpoint at Snilovske sedlo and with your back to the cable car, off up left is the nearest of the two peaks, Chleb (not to be confused with the Slovak word chlieb, which means bread), clocking in at a decent 1646m. Off right, increasingly visible as you climb the 50-odd metres up to the meeting point of trails hereabouts, is the summit you’re aiming for in this hike, Veľký Kriváň. At 1709m this mountain, approached by a fairly gentle path in a 45-minute hike from the junction of paths, is the highest in the Mala Fatra National Park but gives off a roof-of-the-world feeling with its moody panoramic views, down from the peaks into valleys often bathed a mysterious gold in the sun’s rays and containing two of this region’s most important towns, Žilina to the west and Martin to the south.

At the top of the cable car station ©englishmaninslovakia.com

At the top of the cable car station ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Hike Two: To Chata Pod Chlebom

45 minutes up, around half an hour drinking in the views at the summit, 45 minutes down. Just over two hours after setting off from the top cable car station and you’re probably feeling peckish. Back at that junction of paths, now follow the route to the right (if you’re descending from Veľký Kriváň) or straight on (coming from the cable car) down between the peaks with Veľký Kriváň away on your right. A straightforward path which leaves the exposed open ground (with stunning moorland views) to dip into woods emerges at the serendipitous chata (i.e. mountain hut doubling as a basic accommodation op and a hearty Slovak-style restaurant) of Chata Pod Chlebom (again about 45 minutes one-way from the path junction). Rustically charming as the hut is, the interior is nothing special so if the weather is half-decent, grab a pew outside in the lovely picnic area and then go to place your order of frothy beer, strudel or giant-sized sausages with bread to eat al-fresco. The food is good and the wild mountain locale is great – with this dark-wood, old-fashioned mountain cottage enhancing it further. Allow 45 minutes to order and eat without rushing, meaning around four to 4.5 hours overall to enjoy both of these out-and-back walks and get back to the topmost cable car station.  Still got some energy? Then try hiking back down to the Vrátna cable car base (around one hour more).

MAP LINK:

GETTING THERE: Surprisingly regular (more or less hourly) buses run from the bus station in Žilina through Terchová to the Vrátna cable car base from 6:15am to 6:30pm. The journey takes 55 minutes and costs 2.15 Euros.

OPENING HOURS: The cable car (which you don’t need to access the above hikes but will sure as Hell come in useful to beat the murderously steep clamber up to the saddle (sedlo) below Chleb) runs more or less daily throughout the year from 9am until 4pm – staying open late until 5pm or even 6pm during June and July. The caveat here is that the opening hours are rather complicated (even if you do speak Slovak) so whilst we are providing this link to the official schedule we still advise you to check before setting out into the blue yonder when the final cable car back is. Don’t car about the cable car? Then come here whenever you wish…

PRICES: Vrátna-Chleb Cable Car one way/return 8.50/10 Euros

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Terchová, below Vrátna, it’s 95km south and then east to Podbanské, the end point/ start point of our Tatranská Magistrala trail guide for the most popular path across the High Tatras.

Starosloviensky Pivovar: Where the Foam Comes Free

So there I was, all ready to start writing a post about Slovak wine. I even have a glass of wine in my hand, for Goodness sake. But I remember someone saying to me the other day I hadn’t written enough about places to go for a drink in Bratislava yet (which is surprising, because I like drinking a lot) and this place seemed the obvious candidate, namely because I spent an evening there last week getting wasted.

Inside the Pivobar...

Inside the Pivovar…

So there we go. Starosloviensky Pivovar is a place that sticks in your memory – boozily veering between the sophisticated and the raucous, but with a beer selection that most locals say is better than Bratislava’s Meštiansky Pivovar and with food that’s certainly way better than Slovak Pub (to equate it to another nearby boozy Bratislava joint serving food).

Starosloviensky Pivovar, if you still have time for a beer having uttered its name, is on Vysoká, which is the street that loops around the back of Obchodná and comes out again by the Austria Trend Hotel. The location is great. Vysoká is an infinitely nicer street than Obchodná on which to hang and, what with the Film Hotel on the same block has a kind of antiquated Broadway-in-the-1920s feel to it. It’s got an outside area of decking (nice when the temperature gets into the plusses) and big rustic wooden tables inside.

The beer selection? Great – the delicious hoppy Stupavar, brewed just north of Bratislava, and the Pressburg – particularly the weisenbier and the radler – were two very complex beers – a relief from the Zlatý Bažant-dominated beer scene in Slovakia. I can recommend it as a decent after-work (or, if you’re a tourist, even after-breakfast) spot for a drink in this area of town (compared to the other pivovars in Bratislava this one is more laid-back and popular with a younger crowd) but what got me was that, for a place that has its own brewery, they have no idea how to pour beer. When the first glasses came with a leaning tower of pena (foam) we queried it, got the response that the barman did not know how to pour drinks, and promptly got served two more with equally foamy heads. Foam, let me tell you, that represented nearly a quarter of the glass. A way of economising? Bad service? Whatever the reason, be warned that for every four glasses of beer you buy, one will be foam. And despite this I liked the place.

MAP LINK:

LOCATION: Vysoká 15

OPENING HOURS: Until 11pm

LAST UPDATED: April 2017

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From the Staroslovensky Pivovar, it’s a 650m walkk north, over Hodžovo Námestie to the cool Fabrika brewpub-restaurant

An article about Bratislava’s Pivovars

My chapter on the Slovak beer scene for the brand-new Lonely Planet Global Beer Tour