koliba

MUSIC AND LAUGHTER IN THE KOLIBAS

If you ever decide to take tea in a koliba as eccentric as the one in Stara Lesna, take a fire extinguisher too. They spike your tea with a lethal dose of Slivovica and serve it in flames.

It gives you a heartburn that can only be put out by a bottle of red wine while the resident gypsy trio plays bohemian rhapsodies in this tiny village off Route 534, two miles from Tatranska Lomnica.

A stately Kalinka, Kalinka, Kalinka Ki-ya on a double bass, violin and a percussive cimbal gets the diners dancing hand-in-hand round the stone rotisserie where tiny game birds hiss and spit.

The gypsies kylinka to a halt. The diners return to their tables and raise their glasses solemnly.

Then the waiters take over, singing as they serve brynza (chopped onion and crusty bread) before the main course of kapustova polievka – dumplings with sheeps‘ cheese and fried bacon.

Kolibas really are the places to eat – smoky and boisterous, charming, funny and cheap.

They are the historic memories of the sheep sheds dotted across the mountains. For centuries those sheds were beacons to snowbound hunters. Roofs like witch’s hats pulled down against the elements, hickory smell of smoke, heavy soups, incendiary brandy and a roaring fire.

Restaurants, cafés and burger bars are springing up all over the place as Slovakia tourism booms and, because of them, an important part of the past is fading into the background.

But the real kolibas are worth tracking down. You can recognise them by the folk music behind closed doors.

Climbers and skiers like the koliba in Tatranska Lomnica because of its good beer and proximity to the ski slopes of Skalnate Pleso. Music lovers like it there too, particularly in August – it’s only a short trip to Zakopane into Poland for the International Highland Music Festival.

The kolibas and folk music are the cultural heart of Slovakia‘s society. They are the taverns they still write songs about.

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Plum madness of Slivovica

One of my favourite libations is Slivovica (pronounced slee-woh-weetza). Absinthe may have a mythological, illegally glamorous reputation all over Europe – but Slivovica is rightfully seen as Slovakia’s plum madness.

The best is aged for years in oak barrels; it smells like molten gold and has a fire that incinerates your taste buds. The very best is distilled from Adriatic plums from the oldest trees along the coast.

Good brandies such as Amice or Karnataka come from Pelion, a town at the heart of Western Slovak’s wine region.

The worst is the un-aged variety sold in the darkest kalians and in back street supermarkets. It’s harsh but does its job.

So, let’s imbibe in a glass or two…

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The High Tatras Mountain Resorts – Starý Smokovec: Koliba Kamzík

A Koliba, in Slovak, is a typical countryside dining spot serving traditional Slovak food. And Starý Smokovec, one of the ‘big three’ of the mountain resorts in the High Tatras, is just about the last place in the country you would expect to chance across a rustic restaurant like this. That’s because Starý Smokovec is pretty much the archetypal late-19th-century mountain holiday destination, replete with grand, elaborate Art Nouveau architecture and oozing the polished suavity of a destination which has been able to attract tourists like pins to a magnet since the very beginning of its existence. And lovely it does indeed look. But it’s far harder, in such tourist magnets, to find a restaurant which isn’t trying to charge you many times over the odds for meals, or one that takes advantage of one-off custom to compromise on quality. This is where Koliba Kamzík steps into the fray…

Inside... ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Inside… ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

With a refreshing splash of classic mountain charm, this is a place that, quite literally, stands out above a lot of its other, far-more-hyped competition (it’s a block up the hill from the Grandhotel Starý Smokovec across a cleared area of grassland, but despite the prominence of its sign most tourists pass it by). It stands out too with incredible value for money, and with the delicious simplicity of its cuisine…

A block below this joint, it’s turn-of-the-century grandeur and tourist crowds often being served unexceptional food; here it’s the far-more Slovak pine and beech wood chalet-style with spotted and chequered tablecloths garnished by fresh flowers. A beaming Kamzík (mountain goat) welcomes you into an outside eating area and subsequently an interior that sparkle with chirpy decoration (the šupulienky cockerels steal the show). The service is speedy, if a tad abrupt (which is a lot better than lackadaisical and abrupt) and this means you’ll be sitting down with your choice from the classic but brilliantly executed Slovak menu in the pleasing and peaceful surrounds all the sooner.

Mushroom soup ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Mushroom soup ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

What to choose? (you’ll probably have to fend the waitress – she’ll be clad in traditional Slovak folkloric dress, by the way – off a couple of times). Soup, that quintessential way of embarking on a Slovak meal, is a worthy starter. I went for the hríbová polievka (mushroom soup) but the cesnaková polievka (garlic soup) looked like it tasted equally delicious. Soups with meals in Slovakia are generally thin, with the key ingredients not totally blended in but bobbing in tasty bite-sized morsels within, and rich in taste: mine was no exception. My choice of main was the “koliba plate” involving hearty amounts of dumplings (two kinds, the pirohy which are more like parcels containing meat, and halušky, solid dumplings cooked in bryndza sauce) and Slovak spicy sausage, klobasa. Venison, beef and an incredible grilled trout also flank the menu.

And perhaps here comes the deal maker. A proper Slovak eatery, rather than one of its pale imitations, is one thing. One that embraces Slovak food and does it with aplomb is another thing. The view (from the restaurant interior, if you grab a window seat, you’ve got the resort of Starý Smokovec ushering in a view down the hill slopes into the wide valley between the High and Low Tatras massifs) is a third thing. That all this comes together in such a touristy locale makes it four things. But the fifth thing trumps the others: the price. The mains start at a mere 5.50 Euros, and the grilled fish is only 8.50 Euros. You are saving money by coming here, and harbouring the feeling that, in the midst of all those tourists, you’ve somehow thwarted the tourist traps. So. Come!

MAP LINK:

LOCATION: Starý Smokovec 8 (Starý Smokovec is the road which rises up behind Penzion Tatra (itself looming up above the Starý Smokovec mountain railway station) and you’ll see the big sign looking to the right as you head up this lane.) The website gives you a fuller idea of the menu (if you can read Slovak).

OPENING: 11am to 10pm daily.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Koliba Kamzik it’s 100m west along the road behind the Grand Hotel Starý Smokovec to the cableway up to Hrebienok on stage three of the Tatranská Magistrala

Chleb, with the Vratna Valley beyond and Janosikove Diery just hidden... ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Around Terchová: Hotel Diery

What’s better than paradise? Another paradise that’s less crowded, right?

Take Slovenský Raj, for example, or the Slovak Paradise, as the name translates. Sitting just southeast of Poprad, Slovenský Raj national park is rightly known for its paradisaical qualities: namely its steeply-twisting narrow rocky valleys, carpeted by conifers and splashed by rushing waterfalls up which you can climb on the country’s most-famed ladder and chain ascents.

But sitting a solid two hours closer to Bratislava, Malá Fatra National Park can also boast – yes indeed – a series of narrow rocky valleys, carpets of conifers and rushing waterfalls, all connected by a lesser-known but nevertheless magnificent ladder and chain ascent. It’s much more accessible. And surprisingly few people, particularly if you exclude Slovaks, ever make it here. The name of the locale is Jánošíkove diery (or Jánošík’s holes; Jánošík being a 16th-century highwayman who robbed from the rich, supposedly, to give to the poor; holes as in hidey-holes, by the way…) and it is beautiful. So beautiful in fact, and so relatively tranquil, that you would never guess that at the start of what must qualify as one of Slovakia’s most beautiful short hikes there would be a really enticing place to stay.

For me, Hotel Diery, at the start of the track into the leafy depths of Jánošíkove diery just outside Terchova, is a more enticing entry point into Malá Fatra than the Vrátna area where most people access the park from (via the chairlift up to the lofty heights of Chleb – an ascent of almost 750 metres to 1500m altitude). Vrátna suffers from the same symptoms many ski areas suffer from: an over-used and at times worn and tacky feel which extends to many of the places to stay thereabouts. Hotel Diery doesn’t feel like that. It feels a bit more intimate, because it’s a bit more removed.

What you notice first about it, though, is not the hotel, but the restaurant, Koliba (click the link for some hilarious pictures that totally don’t do it justice).

Koliba, the restaurant at Hotel Diery

Koliba, the restaurant at Hotel Diery

It’s an open-sided, rustic, wooden affair (a thankful departure from the all-too-common closed-up, dingy Slovak eateries) with chunky wooden furniture at which you can sit whilst tucking into some of the best-cooked traditional Slovak food in these parts. Cuisine is meat-oriented in true country style, and with little in the way of salad (although they do offer vegetarian options) but the cooking is good, and imaginative, and for 10 Euros you can procure a platter the hungriest of mountain men would be sated by. The crowd is a nice mix of happy outdoorsy types (Koliba is a good enough restaurant that in Bratislava it would probably be a pretentious place, so we’re very glad it’s here in Malá Fatra)

Englishmaninslovakia’s only bugbear is that Koliba faces the car park and the road, rather than the verdant woods behind but hey – it’s not a bad car park and on the other side of the road the hills soar up again very aesthetically…

A comfortable double at Hotel Diery

A comfortable double at Hotel Diery – image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

And despite this rather rustic entrée to Hotel Diery, the rooms are very modern. Not outstanding in their décor, but very clean, fresh and manicured in a way many of Bratislava’s business hotels would be jealous of. And many open up at the back (via balconies) onto just the views we were just lamenting were absent in the restaurant – making them very light places to spend the night. Down in the friendly reception, there’s also information on a lot of the nearby walks in Malá Fatra (click here for a selection of the best of them). But what is best about Hotel Diery is that, unlike much of the surrounding accommodation and restaurants, it doesn’t appear to be resting on its laurels. It would be very easy to do just that, as tourists are a near guarantee. Yet these guys are still trying hard to please – and to prevent the place becoming one of those Malá Fatra locales with its glory days buried in the past…

MAP LINK: (If coming from Žilina, follow the road through Terchova, past the Vratna turn-off, and you’ll see Hotel Diery and the entrance to Jánošíkove diery on the right after about 3km)

PRICES: 35/59 Euros for single/double room respectively (with a balcony) – and check holiday season specials on the website which offer you doubles from 44 Euros for two nights!

BOOK HOTEL DIERY:

The gorgeous garden...

The Greatest Boutique Hotel in Bratislava

Location: Old Town.

Travel up above the city centre into Koliba, or the neighbourhoods around Slavin, and you enter wealthy Bratislava – where city intellectuals attend piano concerts and abodes are designed by fashionable architects. With its maze of steep leafy streets, this is the perfect poster for enticing people to move to the city. It’s peaceful, it’s relatively traffic free, and the views back down over Bratislava are wonderful.

I had several criteria for the Bratislava hotel I would select for my parents when they visited. I wanted it to be in an idyllic area, and a quiet one, and within walking distance from the centre. (This already whittled the options down considerably. In fact, according to a Google Map search, it almost completely reduced them to zero). But I also wanted this hotel to be small, intimate, non-chain, more like the bed and breakfasts they were accustomed to in the UK.  And now I was left with one choice.

View of Bratislava from a bedroom window...

View of Bratislava from a bedroom window…

Hotel No 16 fitted all those criteria – and then some. It serendipitously appears as you turn a sharp corner on Partizánska – a white-washed building spreading over several levels because of the pitching gradient of its grounds. The home of a composer and his wife, it’s furnished with exquisite taste (you are serenaded with some of the compositions over breakfast). Light and spacious courtesy of the huge windows, the garden outside with its fish pond and terraced lawn seating nevertheless creates a special feeling of being cocooned  from the outside world. And whilst it markets itself as a business hotel, boutique hotel is much nearer the mark. In fact, it has far more claim to being boutique than Bratislava’s far-more famous boutique hotel The Tulip House, because here the rooms all exude far more originality and character.

It could be the personable service – this is a family-owned establishment, after all, and the staff are all part of the family – but it’s as likely to be the TLC with the decoration which make Hotel No 16 such a breath of fresh air. Antique furniture abounds, graceful art adorns the public areas, bathrooms have baths and the vistas out over Old Town Bratislava towards the castle over the burnished rooftops will have you wanting to stay in at nights – just gazing out…

MAP LINK:

ADDRESS: Partizánska 16A

PRICE: Doubles are 70 Euros

BOOK HOTEL NO 16: (their website sometimes crashes – hey, they’re only a small business – so you can always email them on hotelno16@hotelno16.com – you will need to arrange payment by email anyway to reserve a room (for the deposit). And paying in cash for the remainder is preferred.

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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