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So I head to the restaurant car, brown and green colour scheme persisting; colours that in any other context would look outdated but on this groaning old train, with the Carpathians rising out of the window, seem just natural.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…

From Bratislava to Wild Western Slovakia: an Intro to the Small Carpathians (Male Karpaty)

Before I wax lyrical about one of my favourite ranges of hills and forests (the Small Carpathians, or Malé Karpaty) too much more on this blog it’s probably necessary to give you some context. So here we go.

In terms of mountains in Slovakia, it’s the Carpathians that rule the roost. They’re the peaks that start in the Czech Republic, run through the north of Slovakia (and therefore encompassing the Mala Fatra/Vel’ka Fatra, Orava ValleysHigh Tatras and Low Tatras chapters under the “Places to Go” section of this site) and the south of Poland, cut the corner of Hungary, charge south through the west of Ukraine and wind up cutting across the central massif of Romania. All-told, they’re longer than the Alps – and Europe’s second-longest mountain range.

The Carpathians are well-known, and, in Slovakia at least, much visited. But there’s several less-visited extensions of these mountains: “arms” if you like, that bisect Slovakia. And of these, the Small Carpathians are the most significant. These forested hills run from the edge of Bratislava northeast to their join with the Carpathians proper somewhere outside Trenčin: and they dominate the landscape of all Western Slovakia. Almost entirely tree-clad and never rising above 770 metres, they are a far gentler prospect than the Carpathians – but can nevertheless be dramatic, and full of little-discovered treasures.

Englishmaninslovakia loves the Small Carpathians and, by way of an introduction, here’s why. As a result we have by far by largest selection of information about this beautiful range of hills anywhere on the web!

Below, we’ve set it out for you nice and easy. You can find links to ALL our posts on the Small Carpathians both under the What’s There? heading (which takes you through our available content by theme) and then our Access heading (which takes you through our available content in geographical order from south-west to north-east).

The places to watch out for which help make up our Small Carpathians content here start off with the forests north of Bratislava and then continue in a north-easterly direction with Svätý Jur, Limbach, Pezinok, Modra, Smolenice, Piešt’anyNové Mesto and Váhom and (a little further to the east) Nitra: and of course everything in the forests above these destinations. Of course, it almost goes without saying that a foray into the Small Carpathians has to be included at some point in the article for it to feature in our catch-all Small Carpathian article compilation. Thus a post exclusively on Piešt’any’s spas, Modra’s ceramics or Nitra’s coffee scene does not feature here (it will, however, feature in our more general Places to Go/Western Slovakia sub-section, which encompasses the Small Carpathians). Clear? We hope so…

1) What’s There?

It would be wrong to cite anywhere in the Small Carpathians as a key sight: because they’re all relatively low-key. BUT…

– CASTLES Some of Slovakia’s greatest castles are located here, ranging from stupendous stately affairs like Červený Kameň to a myriad hidden ruined castles like Tematin, Gýmeš or Beckov.

– HIKING Then there’s the hiking: through forests which, now trees in the Tatras have been hit by storms, are the densest and perhaps most untrammelled in Slovakia. Signed trails often lead to some of these castles, and also include the likes of viewing platforms (mammoth multi-tier wooden platforms that give you a birds-eye view above the treetops) and open up into flower-dotted meadows. On all trails you will find the lovingly built fire pits where Slovaks come in summer with their barbecued picnic lunches. There are also some formidable biking trails (marked with a C). Try combining a hike with a pilgrimage (to Marianka), a castle (at Pajštún) or with a formidable restaurant (and just a touch of romantic history) above Piešťany. Better yet, hike the hike that runs across the entire Small Carpathians range: the Štefánikova magistrála! (broken down into five guided stages on this site – follow the link for more)

Vineyards, with Bratislava in the distance

Vineyards, with Bratislava in the distance

– WINE And for something more relaxed after all that energy, the hills are home to the homonymous wine route (the erratic nature, lack of updates and lack of in-English info on the official site mean we’re only linking to our updated posts on this now).

The Bratislava suburb of RačaSvätý JurLimbach, PezinokModra and Trnava are the hotbeds of this  wine route, and home to many of the wine cellars open for tours and tastings: the happy end product from the surrounding vineyards, which carpet the lower reaches of the Small Carpathians. Read our post on attending one of the many locally-organised wine tastings (in Trnava) here.

– RUSTIC RESTAURANTS For something still more relaxing, the trees sometimes give way to reveal a number of great places to eat and drink. Some of these places are proper, rustic, typically Slovak eateries, too – traditional yet refined wooden cottages with huge stoves and bundles of charm – and easily accessible: try our post on Furmanska Krčma above Modra or Reštaurácia Furman above Piešt’any for starters.

– BIZARRE BUILDINGS Try our post on Kamzik (a TV mast shaped like a wine bottle in honour of the Male Karpaty wine region) or the poignant tomb-monument of Bradlo, dedicated to Slovakia’s greatest 20th-century hero, Štefánik.

 – SPIRITUAL SPOTS

Slovakia’s main pilgrimage site, Marianka, is hidden in the hills here.

– But above all, what the Small Carpathians are best for is providing a lot of quintessential Slovak experiences (so yes, those undiscovered hikes, those hauntingly ruined castles, that delicious wine, that typical Slovak food – and all in mysterious forested low mountains) and having precious few other visitors outside Slovakia – despite being on Bratislava’s doorstep.

SCROLL DOWN to the bottom of the post for our Top Six Things To Do in the Small Carpathians

2) Access

Bratislava Mestské Lesy

Bratislava Mestské Lesy

 

a) From Bratislava’s Mestské Lesy

The part of the Small Carpathians closest to Bratislava is known as the Mestské Lesy (local city forest). It has its own defined boundaries but there’s no visible distinction between the Mestské Lesy and the Small Carpathians. From Bratislava, the two main entry points to the Mestské Lesy (and thus the Small Carpathians too) are:

– Kamzik, the large TV mast you will not fail to spot wherever you are in the city (whilst it’s a TV mast, it’s also a really beautiful section of forest, and a popular outing at weekends for Bratislava folk). It’s possible to drive up here (through the suburb of Koliba north of the main railway station), take a cable car up here (you have to take a train from the main railway station to Bratislava Zeležna Studienka railway Station, then follow Cesta Mládeže up the couple of km to Železná Studnička, a lake from above which the cable car runs) or, easiest, take trolleybus 203 up here from the central Hodžovo Námestie to the end of the line in Koliba and then walk up about 20 minutes on obvious trails. So much is there to do in and around Kamzik, in fact that we have a whole (rather extensive) separate section on the place – read our post about it here…

– Pekná Cesta, a car park, barbecue area and forestry ranger post above the district of Rača in northeastern Bratislava. It’s possible to drive up here (or walk the 2km) straight up the road of Pekná Cesta from the tram stop of the same name (trams 3 and 5 run here from the centre of Bratislava). This is the preferred start point for our Pilgrimage to Marianka hike: see c) From Marianka below.

RELATED POST: Bratislava Mestske Lesy (Local City Forest)

b) From Devínska Nová Ves, Bratislava. 

The Small Carpathians falls away into Bratislava only to rear up again for one last, brief hurrah on the city’s western edge, accessed from the suburb of Devínska Nová Ves. There is backdoor access to Devín Castle from here, as well as superb views across to Austria from the top of Devínska Kobyla. Read our destination post about it here.

c) From Marianka (on the northern edge of Bratislava).

Marianka is Western Slovakia’s key pilgrimage site: a nice village in the foothills with good places to eat – and connected directly to the Bratislava public transport grid. Take bus 37 (hourly) from the bus station under Most SNP to the end of the line. Several hiking trails lead off from Marianka, including the trail to Borinka and on up to Pajštún Castle. Read our post about hiking to Marianka here, our destination post on Marianka here and our destination post on Pajštún here.

FOR MORE ON GETTING TO KAMZIK, PEKA CESTA, DEVINSKA NOVA VES OR MARIANKA, SEE OUR POST ON BRATISLAVA’S MAIN TRAM, BUS AND TROLLEYBUS ROUTES TOO!

d) From Svätý Júr, just outside Bratislava

On this blog, we don’t really count Svätý Júr as outside Bratislava, but more as a commuter suburb. Perhaps this is unfair, but there you go. Yet already, the Small Carpathian landscapes are starting to have their undulating rusticating effect on Svätý Júr  and as it’s connected via good and regular bus connections from Bratislava’s Mlynske Nivy bus station, and the hills are only a short walk up through town from the bus stop, it makes a viable access point. Read our destination post on Svätý Júr here.

e) From Western Slovakia.

Best access points are (in order from Bratislava) the towns of Limbach, Pezinok, Modra, Smolenice (which lies within the hills and has access to the highest point of the Small Carpathians, Zarúby), Piešt’any, Nové Mesto nad Váhom and Trenčin. Nitra, further east, also has access – although as detailed above, all of these destinations with the exception of Limbach and Smolenice are big (for Slovakia) towns so you won’t find links to our articles on them on our compilation of Small Carpathians content UNLESS they involve getting up into them hills…

RELATED POST: Checking out the wine in the only Small Carpathians wine route town PROPERLY in the Small Carpathians

RELATED POST: Ľudovít Štúr’s Modra (coming soon)

RELATED POST: Feasting in the woods above Modra

RELATED POST: In the Footsteps of Beethoven above Piešt’any

RELATED POST: A great traditional Slovak restaurant in the hills above Piešt’any

RELATED POST: Exploring the remotest of the incredible fortresses in the Small Carpathians, Tematin

RELATED POST: Roaming the ruins of Beckov Castle above Nové Mesto nad Váhom

RELATED POST: Checking out the monument to Czechoslovakia’s founder, Štefánik

RELATED POST: Hiking the whole Small Carpathians hill range on Slovakia’s spectacular long-distance trail, the Štefánikova magistrála – or jump straight in to stages 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5 of the hike

The Saint's Trail from Marianka to Svätý Jur

The Saint’s Trail from Marianka to Svätý Jur

3) The Small Carpathians on Englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The Small Carpathians span two sub-sections on this blog.

a) Bratislava & Around

Falling within the Bratislava & Around section are many posts that focus on places well and truly in the Small Carpathians, but also within the geographical range detailed on the map in our Places to Go/Bratislava & Around sub-section, namely:

– Heading North from Bratislava centre:

Up to Marianka (and the hikes around Borinka, Stupava and Pajštún Castle which lie a fraction beyond the northerly extent).

– Heading East/Northeast from Bratislava centre:

Anything up to and including the small village of Svätý Jur.

b) Western Slovakia

Beyond the limits just specified, the rest of our blog posts on the Small Carpathians fall in this section.

 4) Top Six Things To Do in the Small Carpathians

1: Go wine-tasting in some of the small wine cellars in the countryside around Limbach, Pezinok or Modra

2: Visit the majestic castle of Červený Kameň near Časta. (see our Western Slovakia Castle Tour for more)

3: Climb up to Záruby, the high-point of the Small Carpathians from the small, pretty village of Smolenice – which has a gorgeous castle (where you can climb the tower for more lovely views)

4: Spend a day hiking the trails of the central tract of the Small Carpathians and round it off with a night’s stay at plush Zochova Chata and a dinner of typical Slovak fare at traditional Furmanska Krčma.

5: Hike up to the hidden ruins of Hrad Tematin – and spend the night in the mountain hut there! (see our Around Piešt’any: the Mysterious Ruins of Tematin article for more).

6: Descend into Western Slovakia’s only explorable cave system, Jaskyňa Driny (Driny Cave) near Smolenice.

MAP LINK:

GETTING THERE: As previously detailed, Bratislava, as well as the towns of Svätý Júr, Pezinok, Modra, Piešt’any, Smolenice, Nové Mesto nad Váhom and Trenčin have the best access to the Small Carpathians and, with the exception of Smolenice, have excellent, regular bus connections from Bratislava. Smolenice is more remote, thus has less buses (about every 1.5 hours from Bratislava direct, at a cost of 2.80 Euros, so still not bad). Pezinok, Piešt’any, Nové Mesto nad Váhom and Trenčin are also served by trains every 1.5 hours from Bratislava.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Červený Kameň at the epicentre of this range of hills, it’s  23km east to Trnava and 60km northeast to recuperate at the country’s best-known spa in Piešt’any.

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Embers

Somewhere, in an unspecified location in the wild Carpathians, an ageing General and his long-estranged friend Konrad are preparing for one final dinner together. It’s been 41 years since they last met up like this, and – one feels – the remoteness of the venue is far from the whole reason why such a large amount of time has elapsed without them communicating with one another…

This is the premise for Sándor Márai’s Embers (Hungarian title translating as The Candle Burns to the Stump), his last and perhaps his best-known book,  and it’s one that hooks you. Sándor Márai, after all, is perhaps, on an international scale, Slovakia’s most famous writer, and certainly would have known a thing or two about the Carpathians. Such celebrated native sons talking about these mountains in fiction are few and far between.

He is little appreciated as a writer outside of the Hungarian literary world, not even in Slovakia. Whilst Márai’s home city Košice, as part of their 2013 preparations for European City of Culture, established a fascinating “Sándor Márai trail” around the key sights in the city associated with the writer, there can be little denying that the writer preferred Budapest as a place to hang out (those infamous coffeehouses particularly) and wrote exclusively in Hungarian. As Márai’s works were not available to read in English until the 1990’s though, his talents remained unknown for a long time, and all this served to add to the allure of the book when I picked it up in a Budapest bookstore recently. An intriguing mystery wrapped within the greater mystery of the writer’s life.

He was, back in the day when Budapest was a centre of European intellectualism, one of the prominent pre-WW2 voices of realism and it’s clear from the off this book is very much in that style. With Márai, and particularly with Embers, it’s the intricate, methodical mini-sketches of detail (devoting two pages to preparing a dinner set, for example) that conjure, out of the remoteness of the Europe’s far east, a world that seems very tangible. You taste the food the two main protagonists are eating, you live each carefully-assembled detail of their two lives that have led, through the strict course that high society in the Austro-Hungarian Empire set, to this moment.

What permeates through the pages of this novel, though, is the sense of yearning for what once was. Márai was writing this book in the 1940s, when Budapest had already lost the glamourous place at the pinnacle of European sophistication it had until recently held. The main character, the General, has relived the fateful events that forced him and his old friend apart, for 41 years. He has devoted the majority of his adult life to little else and, tellingly, beyond that to dwelling on the glory of those bygone days: how good it all was, how it no longer is. Yet he does so in a house where each of those fond memories have a cruel backlash. For each party he recreates in his head from 41 years ago, he hears the far greater silence of his now-empty abode echoing back at him. For each moment of laughter or love he recalls, he is surrounded by loneliness and coldness.

And like the house, the book is cold: frostily so. As Embers progresses, the idea of the General’s isolated house, little more than a magnificent but soulless museum of memories from the glam times, becomes so unbearable that you end up virtually begging the narrator to dwell once again on the past as an escape.

And the course of events that sour a once-inseparable friendship are compelling, retold through the General’s pedantic yet slightly superior way of expressing himself. There are more twists, too, than a path through the woods of the two main characters’ hunting trips. These trips, like so many aspects of the much revisited old friendship between the General and Konrad, highlights the key difference between them. The General is of moneyed, top military stock; Konrad is poor and rarely has a couple of krona to rub together. The latter is as critical of and embittered towards the status quo as the former is a contented part of it. Perhaps things were always, therefore, destined to go pear-shaped. And when that finally happens, it is little surprise that a woman is at the root of the problem…

But the problem for the reader, in a book like Embers, is a little different. In a tale set up to focus around two old men taking a trip down memory lane to a youth where their own intense friendship dominates over almost everything else, it’s essential to care for one of the characters. The General seems a righteous individual who has dwelt far too long on the past and who never makes a real effort to understand anyone without the ability to enjoy unlimited wealth. At the same time, his generosity towards his friend goes almost entirely unappreciated; Konrad spends the majority of the book sulking or – in the later stages – sullenly silent and unapologetic as the General continues a rant that has presumably been pent up for four decades. This is a beautifully constructed book but it chills you – and its main characters move you to pity or repulsion. Which means you cannot really feel sorry for either of them.

And perhaps an insight into Márai’s own opinion about Slovakia resonates throughout the book too. Whilst Vienna and Paris are described in lively detail, Slovakia is conspicuously absent. You can infer that it is the location of the house in the Carpathians, the melancholy and remote tomb of memories where the present part of the book takes place, but you never once have it made clear to you.

But as a piece of literature, it stands out as a testament of the heyday of Austro-Hungary: Slovakia, other incorporated territories and all. That’s why you should read it.