Bratislava's best cafe? ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Avra Kehdabra

Wifi: Alright.

Even when I don’t write about Bratislava for a few weeks on here, something wells within me which I can only describe as a pit of hunger. Not hunger for food, per se, or for Slovak food particularly, but for kicking back in one of Bratislava’s charming little cafes or bars, imbibing the atmosphere (and yes, sustenance is likely to play a part sooner or later). Slovakia’s capital city inspires nostalgia in precisely this way: initiating withdrawal symptoms in the punters who have partaken of its cafes mighty quickly after they settle their bills and walk out the door. For Bratislava is about its cafe culture as much as its bar culture and probably more than its restaurant culture. Forget your over-crowded Viennas and Budapests if it is nursing a beverage for hours in chilled surrounds. Bratislava has been watching and learning of recent years how to concoct sublime coffee (and it never forgot how to serve tea in all its fabulous forms; just see our history of coffee and tea culture in Slovakia). And the city has become adept at fashioning attractive nooks to slurp your coffee or tea, too. Case in point (indeed, best case in point): Avra Kehdabra.

Ah yes, those two little words that have incited magic tricks a-plenty in their time denote, on one of Bratislava’s most enticing streets, perhaps the best example of a cafe in the Old Town. Stroll down Grősslingova, a model city thoroughfare lined with leafy trees and independent shops and restaurants and the eyecatching facade of Avra Kehdabra hits you, bright signs propped against pillars intimating of tea, coffee, wine and cake within. This den styles itself as a literary teahouse first and a cafe second, and it is the tea that is most in evidence: stacked on shelves for sale in packets and/or lovingly prepared in front of you by the knowledgeable staff. The tea – fruit, herb, white, black, green, with oolong and pu-erh tea from China – is served with ceremony, and you can prepare your cuppa yourself with the aid of various specialised pouring devices (no, not just teapots, but ornate percolators too). It is not going to be just refreshment you get here, but a veritable lesson in the origins of the tea you taste and its place in society, and the overall impression is that Avra Kehdabra is enthusiastically continuing that age-old association of Bratislava with fine tea-drinking joints. The coffee is sensational too, with the ristretto and lungo particularly impressing.

And what better place for such a crash course in delicious beverages could there be? Not since the days of the lovely, cosy Prešporák has there been a rival in the city for Avra Kehdabra in terms of antiquated elegance, where dark wood tables and stalls are complemented by Asian-style rugs and throws draped everywhere, by shelf upon shelf of books and, in an even more intimate room at the back, massive armchairs to curl up in and drink and read in. It will account for all the time that you are waiting for your drink to take in all the types of tea stashed in old medicine jars behind the counter. At some point as the hours slide happily by and tea number two is coming to its end, you might decide to order one of the light snacks (hummus with vegetable dipsticks) or graduate to a glass of wine.

It’s mostly young folks that will stop by during your reverie or loooong chat with friends or acquaintances: twenty-something couples, students skiving lectures, the odd intrepid visitor. And whilst the place can fill up in the evenings, there is never any rush for you to sip up and leave: relaxation is the raison d’être here. Rather, this Čajovna comes across much like the optimistic person’s drinking glass: it never appears as much as half empty of customers, and almost always feels at least half full.

And here’s a final thought. This place stays open until 10pm. At 8 or 9 in the evening, people are here socialising drinking tea. There is something beautiful in that. Something quite pure. In England, we’d likely already be on the fifth pint by then.

MAP LINK

LOCATION: Grősslingova 49

OPENING: 7:30am-10pm Monday to Friday, 2pm to 10pm Saturday

BEST TIME TO VISIT: Avra Kehdabra gets popular at odd times of the day: sometimes with work-shirking students, sometimes with visitors in wonder, like many of us, at the city’s tucked-away little eateries. But late afternoon to early evening on a weekday should see you grab a table without forgoing the buzz of the place.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Avra Kehdabra it’s 450m northwest to one of the city’s best bistros, Bistro St Germain

Waiting for tea ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Waiting for tea ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

 

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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

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Coffee and Tea Culture in Slovakia: the Kaviaren versus the Čajovna

Before 1989, partaking of a good beverage was significantly more limited than it is today in Slovakia.

But particularly where coffee was concerned. Almost everyone drank the same brand, heralding from Poprad – an underwhelming and grainy affair by most accounts (and that is only to mention the best of them). No one thought to question its origin beyond that. It was there, and that was what counted. Better beans were available on a prestigious foreign market that you could buy with bonds – if you happened to have foreign currency to pay for them, which you could only really obtain if you had relatives living “in the west”.

A quality array of teas was more widespread. After all, tea could be made with the herbs and fruits that grew in the woods and hills looming large across Czechoslovakia (foraging is still a popular alternative to relying on what is offered in the supermarkets today). This is much more likely to explain why discerning tea culture continued to develop whilst coffee culture took a tumble (ironic, with Vienna so near and yet so far) than, for example, the age-old influence of the Turkish on the region.

Come the 1990s and tea in Slovakia was often a fine-tuned and sophisticated thing, enjoyed in a range of čajovny (teahouses) which were as often as not the hangouts of the Bohemian sect. Coffee – at least the half-decent varieties of coffee enjoyed in kaviarne, or cafes, continued to be at best what Slovaks know as presso, low-grade espresso made in a simple presso machine.

But Slovaks, since then, and in spite of the fact they are ultimately a home-loving people, began spending time away in other parts of Europe, North America and Australia. When they did, they often ended up working in catering. They got exotic ideas and brought them back to Slovakia.

Slovaks jump to adopt and embrace foreign trends if those trends seem like winners. Pizza and pasta caught on quickly. Craft beer is the latest craze. Good coffee came somewhere between the pasta and the craft beer. It seems to have been a learning curve, slow, but steadier and steadier and only really developing into a “scene” worth talking about in the last five or six years. And a scene it is. The likes of Bratislava’s Štúr (2010) and Bistro St Germain, plus perhaps Košice’s Caffe Trieste spearheaded it: good coffee in atmospheric surroundings, in these cases with cheap, healthy lunches on offer too.

A ton more places have followed suit. This new brand of cafes have several traits. They seem, like the čajovny have been for a while now, to be real “worlds” – autonomous provinces free from the regulations, realities and disappointments of external goings-on, or at least refuges from them. They are also uncrowded worlds, which renders them all the more inviting. They are generally owned/operated by young people who have a passion for stamping their own unique take on how things should be. In Bratislava and Košice, many inhabit Old Town buildings looking out on streets where aimless wandering is often a visitor’s main concern – and at a slow pace, because of the cobbles:) – it would not take too beguiling a pavement cafe table to waylay anyone here. And there is not just one or two – there are many. They veritably assail you from within 18th-century buildings (buildings which, it must be admitted, suit standing in as cafes very well). They invariably capitalise on one major Achilles heel of the average Slovak – an inability to think about going through the day without a hearty lunch – and do well from it. All told, it is no surprise why Slovakia, in 2013, were the world’s sixth-biggest per capita coffee drinkers.

If anything, in Slovakia it’s the quality čajovna that now seems underground (underground meaning the scene generally but sometimes, yes, literally underground) compared to the kaviareň / cafe. That said, more places serve up top-notch tea than they do top-notch espresso, so it seems to me. With the coffee, it’s a work in progress. But already a very good work.

Beckov Castle ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Around Trenčin: Beckov Castle

I remember, sure, the first time I left the beloved Southwest England of my childhood for a long while, but oddly enough, what I remember more vividly is returning to it again after that first lengthy absence. The Berry’s Coach out of Hammersmith bus station in the afternoon winter murk, the London suburbs falling away, the neat commuter belt semi-detached houses and slowly, the fields and woods rearing up into what I call true countryside, right around Stonehenge. Passing Stonehenge for me was always a sign of coming home, but it was also representative of the beginning of wild England after being cooped up in the city. There are a myriad Stonehenge’s, in this sense,  around the world: points that mark where wilderness wins the tussle with city sprawl and out-of-town business parks; points that make me, personally, feel truly human. Hrad Beckov, or Beckov Castle, is for me that point in Slovakia. And it is one of the nation’s best and most poignant fortresses.

Beckov vs Stonehenge!

Beckov shares with Stonehenge that gobsmacking, surely multiple accident-causing location off-side of the main west-east road from Bratislava to those really exciting parts of Slovakia’s nature (Malá Fatra, the High Tatras, Slovenský Raj and the far eastern Slovakia). In fact, in honesty, it’s many times more impressive than Stonehenge. Were this dramatic ruined castle placed anywhere in England, it would be swarming with crowds, and tour buses. Not so with Beckov. The lack of crowds is one of the great joys of life in Slovakia, as I have said several times on this site. But even by the standards of what constitutes crowdedness here (this is a nation, remember, where more than twenty cars moving at reduced speed on a main road is considered a tailback), Beckov is not overrun with visitors. On a summer Saturday midday we were among perhaps 15 other people roaming the ruins. Ruins, I should add, that you can get right up to and touch, unlike Stonehenge.

The Arrival

After that stunning first glimpse of the castle straddling a sharp crag a few kilometres shy of Trenčin, looking like some besieged prop from the Lord of the Rings, you take the Nové Mesto nad Váhom exit (before the castle) and arrive in the diminutive village of Beckov via routes 515/507. At the main village “triangle” there’s a small cafe doing rather alright ice cream and offering a little terrace to partake of it on. But save the urge for something sweet until you’re up at the castle – the approach road to which is just south (right) from here. On the way you pass a Jewish cemetery in a wild state of abandon, before climbing up to the left to the custodian office (in-English historical leaflets available), where you’ll part with the entrance fee of 3.50/1.70 Euros per adult/child.

From the broken parapets here you already get some great views of Western Slovakia rising up into the Biele Karpaty, the fore-runners of the bigger mountains further east:

Beckov view… ©englishmaninslovakia.com

Beckov view… ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

 

The route initially leads to a wide grassy forecourt below the base of the craggy upper part of the castle, where there’s a souvenir shop (knight’s armour, anyone?) and an amphitheatre of sorts where maidens in medieval garb explain the castle history for those that want it and offer tours of the ruins in a rather fun way. There are also demonstrations of Slovakia’s blacksmith craft.

A Brief History of Beckov

For those that don’t want to wait for the explanations of the medieval maidens, and who aren’t interested in Wikipedia’s cumbersome but quite informative article on the castle’s legends, the gist of Beckov’s past is that to understand it is to understand the rather infamous local character of Mathias Čak. The area’s all-time top persona non grata, Čak made waves in the medieval Hungarian Empire by proclaiming his own empire, pretty much, in what today is Western Slovakia and Northern Hungary. He was a powerful and power-hungry warlord that, whilst looking out exclusively for his own interests, gave this region an absolute, if short-lived autonomy from about the year 1296 through to his death in 1321. Fair play to the man: during these two decades even the King of Hungary, despite a couple of attempts, could not oust Čak from his lofty perch. Many of the Western Slovakian castles, including Červený Kameň, were under his command during this time (although the guys over at Gýmeš Castle were his enemies), and Beckov, at the time a relatively new fortress, was his too. After Čak’s death, the castle was passed between various lords and, just before fire destroyed it in the 1720s, served as a prison.

Disliking tours at the best of times, we opted against the maiden-guided explanations and instead headed across the forecourt to where there is some serious castle-destroying equipment, namely a huge catapult. Passing here, a path bends down steeply to a wishing well, worth descending to to get the view back up the sheer sides of the bluff on which the castle is built:

©englishmaninslovakia.com

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The upper levels, accessed by returning to the forecourt, are a must to explore – great for the kids, with several nook-and-cranny rooms. One of these contains a dragon – I joke not, one yields superb views of Beckov village and the Biele Karpaty, one is the remains of what at one time was considered Central Europe’s most beautiful chapel, and one contains one of Slovakia’s coolest teahouses – a little place where you can also grab a cold beer and a slab of strudel, for insanely cheap prices.

The teahouse… ©englishmaninslovakia.com

The teahouse… ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Gazing down from, or up at, Beckov’s precipitous walls today, its not hard to understand how, in over four centuries, the castle was never breached but succumbed in the end to fire rather than attacking force.

If you’ve the time, back down under the custodian office a track bends left to another interesting sight: a scale model of the castle in a recess in the rock. You can continue from here, along a vaguely-defined path along a ridge, passed an old watch tower to descend to the road where your car is parked on the edge of Beckov village.

The lookout tower ©englishmaninslovakia.com

The lookout tower ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

And so now you are officially in the North-Western part of Western Slovakia. It’s a moody and dramatic entrance to the region, Beckov, and should not be dismissed with a simple glance as you drive east. Devote an hour or two of your time to it. You’ll never encounter another such mythical beast, or eat strudel in such beautiful surrounds, anywhere else in the country…

 

A Quick Guide to the Other Content We Have on Trenčin:

Places to Go: Slovakia’s best music festival in Trenčin

Places to Go: Hiking up in the hills above Trenčin all the way to Bratislava (the Cesta Hrdinov SNP, Stage Two)

Places to Stay: the coolest hotel in Trenčin

Places to Eat & Drink: One of Slovakia’s Finest Restaurants in central Trenčin

Arts & Culture: Celebrating 20 Years of the Pohoda Music Festival

Top Ten Medieval Towns in Slovakia

 

MAP LINK:

ADMISSION: 3.50/1.70 Euros per adult/child.

OPENING: 9am-5pm (April) 9am-5:30pm (May-August) 9am-4:30pm (September and October) 9am-3:30pm (November)

CASTLE WEBSITE: (now with a much-improved English section)

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Beckov Castle it’s 100km northeast to Žilina and 17.8km south to another great castle, Tematín

ALSO READ: Beckov also features in my article for Travel Super Mag on the coolest castle experiences in Slovakia and the Czech Republic, Ruin-Nation

The Tea Tent in Medická Záhrada

Wifi: None.

The first time. It’s important, right? On my first time – with the tea tent in Medická Záhrada, that is – a bare-footed, bearded man engaged me in an interesting discussion about birdwatching in Slovakia: besides recommending then serving me with a very good iced tea…

It’s illustrative of the ease – the slightly Bohemian, but very serene ease – with which “Tvoja Čajovna” (your teahouse) has operated, now, for several years.

In Medická Záhrada, possibly Bratislava’s best-kept city park (Záhrada means garden), this double marquee (the larger of the two tents is for sitting, in far-Eastern style on the floor or cushions, and sipping; the smaller of the two is for the kitchen) announces the start of summer proper when it opens its doors – or perhaps more accurately lifts its flaps – at the beginning of May. And it does so in the gentlest, least assuming way that a place which by now has the deserved status of a city institution possibly could.

It would be easy for Tvoja Čajovna to put on grand airs (being quite simply the city’s nicest eatery to be actually enclosed within a park) or to serve unappealing Slovak stodge for food (it serves healthy platters of hummus, pita bread and salad) or indeed to charge high prices for the privilege of the beautiful location (they don’t).

Instead this veritable encampment (because there’s also two other covered drinking/dining areas separate from the main tent) concentrates on attentive service: particularly where tea is concerned. You can even order a Japanese tea ceremony here!

©englishmaninslovakia.com

©englishmaninslovakia.com

It’s not Bratislava’s finest čajovna, but when you factor in the location, and the beautiful Moroccan-style interior, it’s also not that far off. And when the sun beats down in the 35-degree midday summer heat, it’s the best place to cool off – whilst remaining relatively sophisticated:)

Relevant civic authority: don’t screw up and make it hard for Tvoja Čajovna to return next year, OK?

MAP LINK:

OPENING: 10pm-around 8pm May until October – in fair or good weather only (so don’t come here hoping for shelter in a thunderstorm)

BEST TIME TO VISIT: A sweltering hot June lunchtime

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: 4km east of Medická Záhrada is the neighbourhood of Ružinov