Traditional Slovak Music: Being Showcased Across the Country ©Wipo: photo Emmanuel Berrod

Summer 2017 In Slovakia: A Guide to the Best Events

The weather might have been intimating the fact for a while now, but there’s no denying that midsummer has officially arrived and in Slovakia, this means a season of spectacular festivals. We don’t say this lightly: for a country of just five million people Slovakia’s cultural events pack a whopping great punch. Bratislava and, these days, Košice, are already making their festive clout felt well beyond the borders of Slovakia, but here at Englishman in Slovakia we feel that there are a fair few other celebrations between now and the end of summer you have to know about – and know about in English!

In case you’re new to Slovakia, its unique reach where annual celebrations are concerned is its melding of the best in modern and ancient. Take music for example. I’ve said many times on here that Slovakia’s music scene is formidable – it gets the best of all the big bands performing on tour and for far cheaper prices than almost anywhere else in Europe – but it has also preserved a rich folk culture many other countries have long since dismissed.

Below, then, find the only guide that rounds up Slovakia’s summer extravaganzas from now until autumn (21st September) by region (yes, Bratislava, Western Slovakia, Central/Southern SlovakiaMalá Fatra/Vel’ka Fatra/Orava Valley, High Tatras, Low Tatras, Slovak Paradise and Košice/Eastern Slovakia). Where possible, we’ll also point you in the right direction for getting tickets too…

JUNE

BRATISLAVA…

KONVERGENCIE, JUNE 24TH-SEPTEMBER 24TH

Classical and chamber music performed at various venues around the city – but with a youthful, innovative vibe.

Get Tickets: The festival has a great website with tickets available at Ticketportal through this link. First scroll through the website’s program to find out the title of the event you fancy.

You may also want to read: Our section on entertainment venues in Bratislava.

MALÁ FATRA/VEL’KA FATRA…

FEST ANČA, ŽILINA, JUNE 29TH-JULY 2ND

Europe’s leading animated film fest, held in the cool arts venue of Stanica in hip Žilina.

Get Tickets: Go to the festival website to get tickets or contact them about buying them on the day.

You may also want to read: Žilina: Artsy Gateway to Malá Fatra

HIGH TATRAS…

VYCHODNÁ FOLK FESTIVAL, VYCHODNÁ, JUNE 29TH-JULY 2ND

The little village of Vychodná hosts Slovakia’s most famous folk festival – a great introduction to the fabulous folk music that has been produced in this mountainous region for centuries.

Get Tickets: The festival website now has an English version but tickets cannot be bought online: you can contact the festival organisers or you can just turn up on the day.

You may also want to read: Seeing as one of Slovakia’s best long-distance hikes begins or ends in nearby Pribylina, try Hiking the Tatranská Magistrala, Stage 4: Horský Hotel Popradské Pleso to Pribylina (includes links also to all other stages)

JULY

BRATISLAVA…

SUMMER SHAKESPEARE FESTIVAL, JULY 5th-AUGUST 1ST

Now here is a claim to fame: the oldest, largest outdoor festival in the world to focus on performances of the works of William Shakespeare! It offers a good opportunity to get outside in Bratislava in some of the city’s gorgeous alfresco settings. Performances, held in the wonderfully atmospheric setting of Bratislava Castle, are in Slovak and English.

Get Tickets: Very necessary – this is a popular series of events. The problem is that the website is in Slovak only. However, Shakespeare’s play titles are quite easily recognisable. Hamlet, for example, is ‘Hamlet’ in Slovak too.

You may also want to read: Where to Get High in Bratislava

BEEFREE FESTIVAL, JULY 28TH-JULY 29TH

Edition number 19 of the classic dance music festival across two stages: the city’s ‘beach’ alongside the Danube and at exhibition centre Incheba. House, drum & bass – take your pick.

Get Tickets: It’s free – just turn up. There is an FB page.

You may also want to read: The Forgotten Banks of the Danube OR Getting Out to the Danubiana Arts Museum

WESTERN SLOVAKIA…

POHODA, TRENČIN, JULY 6TH-JULY 8TH

It’s testament to Pohoda’s success that there’s almost no need to introduce what is firmly established as one of Eastern Europe’s main summer music festivals. Everyone who’s anyone in the music world, from Slovakia and elsewhere, and perhaps more importantly, a lot of acts who aren’t so famous yet, have performed here over the years. This time round, acts include Solange (2016’s album of the year) and Jesus and Mary Chain.

Get Tickets: From the festival website.

You may also want to read: Last year was the 20th edition of Pohoda: read Thoughts and Pictures from the 20th Edition of the Festival.

BECKOV CASTLE EVENTS, BECKOV, JULY & AUGUST

A fair few castles act as dramatic backdrops to festivals in Slovakia but our favourite this summer is the castle of Beckov near Trenčin. For medieval-themed frolics there is no better venue – weaponry demonstrations, games and even film screenings.

Get Tickets: Find out all about the events on the castle website, although this year’s events are in Slovak only. July 7th/8th hosts a weekend of medieval fun and demonstrations of 12th-century weaponry. Then there is the Cinema on the Wall event at weekends during July ad August, where films are projected on to the castle – contact the castle for more.

You may also want to read: Our article on Beckov Castle

CENTRAL & SOUTHERN SLOVAKIA…

DETVA FOLK FESTIVAL, DETVA, JULY 6TH-JULY 8TH

A folk fest with themed around the fujara (that is Slovakia’s incredibly distinctive national musical instrument, by the way), as befits the region which gave birth to the fujara. The festival is held in the Detva Ampitheatre, Detva being a little town near Banská Bystrica – right at the very heart of the nation, things DO NOT come much more traditional. Lots of events celebrating Slovakia’s shepherding heritage are also part of proceedings: shepherd demonstrations etc.

Get Tickets: Just turn up. There is a list of events scheduled on the municipality website but booking might be tough as English is not spoken much this far out in the sticks. Pass through here on the days in question, however, and you’ll get to experience one of the most authentic of Slovak folk festivals – even the folk extravaganza at Vychodná will seem mainstream by comparison!

You may also want to read: 39km northwest of Detva is Banská Bystrica, with some fabulous quirky Communist sights.

LIVE CHESS FESTIVAL, BANSKÁ ŠTIAVNICA, JULY 8TH-JULY 16TH

Chess was never more fun! The highlight of this festival is a live chess tournament on a giant board with costumed characters making the moves. And there was never a better setting for it than ancient Banská Štiavnica, where traditional food, drink and dance accompany the chess side of things, in typical old-fashioned venues around town.

Get Tickets: Best to contact the town’s tourist information office for more information – they are helpful and speak alright English.

You may also want to read: Where to begin? We’ve got tons of content on the lovely old town of Banská Štiavnica

HIGH TATRAS…

EL’RO (EUROPEAN FOLK CRAFT FESTIVAL), KEŽMAROK, JULY 7TH-JULY 9TH

This is Slovakia’s (and one of Europe’s) most important folk craft festivals. Held under the lofty High Tatras mountains in beautiful Kežmarok, just a short drive from Poprad, this extravaganza features everything from demonstrations of Slovakia’s Unesco-listed musical instrument the fujara to artisans making the quintessential national craft, the cornhusk figures known as Šúpolienky. Oh, and there is huge quantities of traditional food and booze… and music… and general revelry…

Get Tickets: There is more about the festival on the website – for tickets follow the instructions given on this page too (they’re available at the town’s Tourist Information Centre at Hlavné námestie 64.)

You may also want to read: More on typical Slovak crafts (including Šúpolienky of course).

AUGUST

BRATISLAVA…

SUP MARATHON

The highlight of August in the city of festivals that is Bratislava is surely this open-to-all paddle adventure from Karloveske Rameno on the western side of Bratislava down to the Danubiana Art Museum to the south-east of the city.

Join In: It’s best to contact the guys at Divoká Voda if you want to participate: watching it is free, almost as much fun… (and drier)

You may also want to read: Our piece on canoeing down the Danube!

WESTERN SLOVAKIA…

TRNAVA JAZZ FEST, TRNAVA, AUGUST 4TH-AUGUST 5TH

Bratislava’s jazz festival is possibly better known, but Trnava sports a great Slovak jazz festival too – and this one’s in summer. It’s held in the singular venue of the town ampitheatre. Funk, soul and ethno music are represented as well as jazz.

Get Tickets: The festival website does not have much information; it’s best to purchase tickets from Trnava Tourist Information Office at Trojičné Námestie 1 .

You may also want to read: A Touch of 1920’s Paris at Cafe Thalmeiner

MALÁ FATRA/VEL’KA FATRA…

JÁNOŠIKOVE DNI (JÁNOŠIK’S DAYS), TERCHOVA, AUGUST 3RD-AUGUST 6TH

One of Slovakia’s better-known festivals, this – although still not really that well-known. Terchová is the main town actually within the Malá Fatra National Park and Juraj Jánošik, who hails from the area, is Slovakia’s folk hero (the country’s very own Robin Hood, and one that actually did exist). This festival is in the outlaw’s name and is a celebration of folklore, theatre and folk and world music.

Get Tickets: Get tickets at this link or (if you read Slovak) here is more about the festival on its website.

You may also want to read: Two Short Walks in the Vrátna Valley by Terchova

EASTERN SLOVAKIA…

BARDEJOVSKÝ JARMOK (BARDEJOV FAIR), AUGUST 24TH-AUGUST 27TH

A ‘Jarmok’ roughly translated is a fair – and there are few better chances this summer to experience a classic Eastern Slovak-style fair than this one which sets Bardejov ablaze come the end of August with traditional food stalls and performances. It’s got a drop-dead gorgeous setting (the old town square).

Get Tickets: None needed; just show up in Barejov during these dates!

You may also want to read: Bardejov: Walking the Walls

SEPTEMBER

BRATISLAVA…

CRAFTSMEN DAYS, SEPTEMBER 1ST-SEPTEMBER 3RD

Over 100 different craftsmen showcasing traditional handicrafts from Slovakia, run by the wonderful folk craft centre of Úl’uv.

Get Tickets: When you’re in Bratislava, it’s probably best to pop into the centre itself for information (at least one member of staff speaks English and they’re very friendly, see link right below). The website is notoriously unreliable. You can also just turn up! A good one for families, or for those who can’t make it out to the bigger El’ro (in July in the High Tatras, above) with many free ‘interactive’ events.

You may also want to read: About Bratislava’s centre of folk craft production, Úl’uv

EASTERN SLOVAKIA…

INDIAN SUMMER FESTIVAL, LEVOČA, 8TH SEPTEMBER-12TH SEPTEMBER

Wo! The summer is not over yet, as this high-quality festival of classical music in venues around ornate Levoča show.

Get Tickets: The festival has a good in-English website with contact details for further information on getting tickets for performances

You may also want to read: Our feature on the Indian Summer Festival

The Englishman in Slovakia walks the walls of Bardejov ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Bardejov: Walking the Walls

There’s always an urge when you arrive in a new city to “make your mark” – to go out into the middle of it and make sense of it, somehow. The newly-arrived do this in many different ways, of course. They might climb that city’s tallest building, or ascend to the top of whatever that city’s main viewpoint is: to visualise the place in its entirety, stretching away from smart central blocks to decrepit suburbs. They might go a-wandering down that city’s streets to the main square, or perhaps to its darkest back alley, to have a drink in a notorious bar or cafe and people-watch, and become acquainted with the destination that way.

In Bardejov’s case, the best way to do it is to “walk the walk” of its recently restored town walls.

There are not many towns or cities in Slovakia with their original ancient walls in tact and this, already, propels Bardejov onto the elite list of places to visit. But Bardejov’s walls go a step further even than those of nearby and likewise Unesco-listed Levoča: you can walk them, all the way around the old town, and in so doing patrol the periphery of the country’s most impeccably preserved medieval centre, just as if you were a guard defending against the myriad invaders that once plagued the region.

Bardejov, by way of introduction, squeezes on to most people’s grand tours of Slovakia (if they do a grand tour, that is) despite its out-of-the-way location in the far north-east of the nation (Bratislava-Trenčin-Malá Fatra-High Tatras-Levoča-Spiš Castle-Košice-Bardejov is the classic travel route) and its main allure is its spectacularly maintained 14th- and 15th-century architecture, wrapped around by the afore-mentioned walls. The result is, in our opinion, Slovakia’s prettiest town. Still, though: venture here and you will nevertheless feel like an adventurer, for tourists do not come in the big flocks they do in Western Europe. On my last two visits to Bardejov, I’ve been one of only a handful of foreign visitors – and that in the high season. For such a beautiful town, and to experience it so tourist-free, you would have to travel a very long way on this continent: and what is heartening about Bardejov’s wall walk is the confirmation that the Unesco money is being spent on continuing to conserve the town’s very special heritage.

Bardejov features on our Top Ten Medieval Towns in Slovakia – click the link to find out at which position!

The way to start walking the walls ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The way to start walking the walls ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

It’ll take you around 30 minutes, at a leisurely pace, to walk around the circumference of the walls, best done in a clockwise direction from the main city entry point on the street of Dlhý Rad on the north side, right opposite where the banks are. Ascend the grassy banks via the steps and then turn left to head along a particularly rejuvenated and elevated section (as per the feature image), overlooking the northernmost of the town centre’s burgher’s houses – many of which date to over 500 years of age.

Think of the walls encircling Bardejov as a clock face, with your entry point as 12 o’clock. After the elevated section you’ll drop down to continue on a small cobbled lane passing a couple of bastions, which brings you round to the southern (upper) end of Bardejov’s vast, spectacular central square or námestie, Radničné námestie at about 6 o’clock. Following the wall on around clockwise, you’ll walk via the old monastery, Klaštor Frantiskánov and the adjoining church of Svätého Jána Krstitel’a, before bearing round to the north and the superb Hotel pod Bránou, nestled within the walls three blocks west of the square. It’s here, almost at the end of the circuit of old Bardejov, that you might want to indulge in some refreshments: either in the courtyard dining area of the hotel OR just beyond on the sunken garden area immediately to the northeast around Miškovského, with a cracking good ice cream stand: perfect for sitting and appreciating the refurbishment of the city’s northern bastions, splashed by a lovely fountain (history, THEN food – see what we did there?).

Walls patrolled? It’s time to head the three blocks east from Hotel pod Branou to the set piece of the town, the central square/Radničné námestie: crowned at its northern end by its beautiful cathedral, Bazilika Svätého Egidia.

A Little Historic Overview

Whilst the cathedral on the main square has its origins in the 13th century, the fortification of Bardejov were improved radically in the 14th century (and it is this work which provided the basis for the modern town walls). Most of the houses in the old town were originally erected in the 14th and 15th centuries and by the 16th century, Bardejov had already passed its zenith, with pandemics and a clutch of wars bringing it down to its knees.

Golden age number two could well be right now.

MAP LINK:

GETTING THERE: Getting to Bardejov isn’t as easy as it should be, because it’s on a spur train line. Coming from Bratislava by train (3 trains daily), you’ll have to change at first Kysak and then Prešov, with total journey time 7 hours 30 minutes and total cost 20.30 Euros. Coming from Košice by train (trains every two hours), you’ll have to change at Prešov with total journey time 1 hour 55 minutes and total cost 4.15 Euros. Buses are as frequent and as quick from either city to Bardejov.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Bardejov it’s 35km east to Svidník and one of the world’s most fascinating war museums.

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Levoča's Indian Summer Festival ©David Conway

Levoča: In Full Swing During the Indian Summer Festival

As you journey east from the High Tatras, the next stop on the classic traveller’s route (before Bardejov and then Košice) is Levoča, one of Slovakia’s most striking medieval towns, with its historic centre a Unesco World Heritage Site. For this article, the founder of what is now one of the town’s foremost annual events, David Conway, explains exactly what inspired him to set up the Indian Summer Festival

It was in 1973 that I first laid eyes on Levoča, where my father-in-law Laci had taken me. My wife Nadia, at the time classified by the Czechs as a criminal illegal emigrant (having remained in London after the 1968 Russian invasion), was unable to be with us. What I experienced was an incredible sleeping beauty; an exquisite late-Gothic renaissance town almost perfectly preserved, seemingly untouched for centuries under a magic spell which had left it in shadow, despite its showcase architecture and setting within an exquisite Slovak landscape.

RELATED POST: Top Ten Medieval Towns in Slovakia

When I next visited Levoča (now with Nadia) in the 1990s, it was already picking itself up after Communism and beginning to restore and celebrate its unique heritage. The idea of taking part somehow took root and in 2003 we purchased and began to restore one of the town’s many merchant’s houses, with vast cellars dating to the 12th century, a vaulted hallway and staircase of the 16th century, and numerous wonderful features of carving and woodwork.

With our house renovated, Nadia began thinking about how we could attract others to this forgotten pearl of Central Europe. And the idea of a music festival arose. With the cooperation of the town, which has enabled us to utilise the magnificent 18th-century theatre and congress hall amongst other venues, we contacted our musician friends, or just barefacedly invited musicians we admired, buttonholing them after their concerts in London, Prague and elsewhere.

Amazingly, these brazen tactics worked, and thus ‘Indian Summer in Levoča’ (in Slovak ‘Levočské babie leto’) was born. Run on a not-for-profit basis through an NGO set up with our local friends, and with support from grants, patrons and visiting audiences to maintain standards and reputation, over the years we have had wonderful performances from artists including the Stamic and Zemlinsky quartets, the Vienna Piano Trio, the European Union Baroque Orchestra, Julian Lloyd Webber and many others. Amongst our ‘regulars’ – who have become local heroes to the townsfolk – are the charismatic Slovak cellist Jozef Lupták and the virtuoso British pianist, Jonathan Powell.

©David Conway

There have been some phenomenal renditions at the festival ©David Conway

At first I think the local people thought we were mad. But gradually they have come – first out of curiosity, and now out of devotion – to hear incredible music. A key aspect is that there is no prejudice on the part of the local audience; they respond according to the commitment of the performer, whether he or she is playing Schubert, Shostakovich, Brahms or Beethoven. And gradually we have attracted visitors from all over Europe and even America and Australia. The Gramophone magazine has called our festival ‘Europe’s best-kept secret’ – but now the word has begun to spread.

One of our chief delights has been programming the concerts – so as to ensure that we can introduce music we think people ought to hear, as well as the established concert classics. So you won’t just hear the great classics, but also, for example, in our 2016 festival, Xenakis, Sterndale Bennett, Dohnanyi, Busoni and other exciting-but-neglected music.

Of course we have not been without our crises – but here perhaps is not the place to discourse on the grand piano which was dropped by the removers, the pianist who had her passport lost in the Hungarian embassy in Washington three days before her concert with us, or the heroic efforts of the Levoča dustmen in getting yet another piano up several flights of stairs when the deliverers had forgotten their equipment…..

In 2016, our ninth year, we welcomed the Kodaly Quartet of Budapest, the young Israeli violist Avishai Chaimedes playing Mozart string quintets, Mark Viner, performing works by the astonishing virtuoso Charles-Valentin Alkan and Alkan’s friend Franz Liszt, and Jonathan Powell playing Mussorgsky’s original piano version of the monumental ‘Pictures from an Exhibition’. Danish tenor Jakob Vad and pianist Eisabeth Nielsen brought us music form England and Denmark, and we heard medieval Slovak choral music and works from Mendelssohn, Mozart and Boccherini to Bartók, Arensky and Prokofiev. The Festival closed with a performance of Schubert’s great B flat Piano Trio.

The Levoča Indian Summer Festival is informal, it’s fun, and it provides a great opportunity to visit one of Slovakia’s finest old towns after the summer tourist crowds have left but whilst the weather remains warm. You will hear great music and meet wonderful musicians, due to the festival’s intimate nature. That’s a key difference here: with other larger festivals, you can be so far away from the performers it almost feels like you’re watching them on a screen. Not here! So so come and join us for our festival on September 8-September 12 2017, which will be extra special because it will be a landmark tenth anniversary for us: and will hopefully attract many more unmissable performers to this relatively unknown pocket of Eastern Slovakia.

MAP LINK: (showing the main town theatre venue)

FESTIVAL WEBSITE: (line-ups for 2017’s festival now available)

COST OF TICKETS:

GETTING THERE: The east of Slovakia benefits quite well from international flight connections these days: Poprad, 20 minutes to the west of Levoča via route E50, has 4 weekly flights to London Luton.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Levoča, it’s 63km north to Stará Ľubovňa, home of Slovakia’s only whiskey distillery

 

A moving encounter between long-lost relatives bought together through the Slovakia genealogy tours. ©adventoura

Tours: Ancestry Trips Through Slovakia

Slovakia’s turbulent history – with stints under the control of several different empires – means tracing your roots can be tough. Nevertheless, many of those with Slovak ancestry do want to take up the challenge, and it’s here that one of the country’s newest tour operators comes in handy.

Based in the High Tatras, Ancestry and Genealogy Tours Slovakia have many years’ previous experience as an adventure tour operator, Adventoura, but have recently added this separate arm to their enterprise: partly because of the owner’s interest in uncovering more information about his own heritage (he’s connected to the Rusyn people of Eastern Slovakia, and to a small village in Slovakia’s whiskey-producing region of Stará L’ubovña. The premise is simple: if you want to discover more about your roots, either Slovak or (as investigations sometimes pan out) any roots that originate in the countries surrounding Slovakia such as Poland or Ukraine, then get in touch with them beforehand, allow them a few weeks to do the wider research into your family history in the region and then, when the necessary information has been gleaned, and family members in Slovakia and vicinity contacted, book your flight to Slovakia to commence the experience.

Packages with such specifics being researched and incorporated into the tour are all unique and tailor-made to the individual requirements of the customers. The key theme of the trip will be the reunion with long-lost relatives – if Ancestry and Genealogy tours Slovakia have managed to locate them, and if the customers so desire. Trips can last up to 14 days in some cases, with every aspect from food to accommodation possible to arrange with the agency.

Often, partly because migration was historically higher from Eastern Slovakia, and because the agency is based in the eastern half of the country, tours take in sights in this part of Slovakia of historic interest. There is the personal level, too: generally, those intrigued by their family’s past are also fascinated to see what the places their family were surrounded by in their daily lives are like. Thus Eastern Slovakia’s wooden churches and the gorgeous Unesco-listed town of Bardejov and Levoča (where the historic archives for the area are located, and which can be visited as part of the tour) are popular stop-offs on the itinerary.

“Every trip involves a totally different story or set of anecdotes” smiles Erik Ševčík, who set up the company. “Quite funny is when, because of the family’s excitement and getting back in touch, the customers and the relatives they have been reunited with forget they can’t speak the same language (because older people in Slovakia rarely speak English, and many of those retracing roots have English as their mother tongue, not Slovak any longer). So they are chatting to each other and neither can understand the words the other is saying, yet on some deeper level they really are getting on with each other like old family members already after just one meeting!

I have been doing this a while now, but the circumstances of meetings are so touching that leaving with customers to continue on the journey never gets any easier – it’s always tough and emotional.”

FULL DETAILS OF HOW TO START ARRANGING YOUR TRIP WITH ANCESTRY AND GENEALOGY TOURS SLOVAKIA ARE AVAILABLE ON THEIR WEBSITE

 

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Levice: Where Fodor’s Guidebooks Were Born

Ah Levice! The stunning medieval town square; the church with the sublime craftsmanship of the architect Master Pavel; the famous pilgrimage site of Mariánska Hora; stunning national parks nearby… No. That’s Levoča, one of the pearls of Eastern Slovakia and a million spiritual miles away. Sorry to disappoint. This piece is about Levice, a rather less-celebrated town that might well be relying on the similarities with the names to get any tourists at all.

But Levice does have one very interesting sight, which is worth the stop-off if you’re on the way through from west to east. And that’s the castle complex.

It does not jump out at you as sensational (it’s not on a hill, which somewhat hampers the dramatics). You approach it via a park off Hwy 51 which comes out of the blue, surrounded by a plethora of out-of-town housing and retail parks. The park has as one of its perimeters the outer wall of the old castle buildings but, despite having some clearly had some air of grandeur once, has long lost it. It’s overgrown, walls are graffiti’d, once ornate benches lie in various states of collapse.

Then you round a corner, duck through a gate and suddenly you are in a little bubble of medieval Europe. Well, medieval and renaissance, to be precise. The old ruined castle on the small ridge dates from the 13th century whilst the newer (and nicely whitewashed, you’ll notice) part of the castle which encircles this is 16th century, and the work of Turkish resistance hero István (Stephan) Dobo. It is these 16th century buildings which contain the rather impressive, and nicely refurbished Trekovské Muzeum, a museum with some fascinating exhibits in the area’s history and role in defending the area from those marauding Turks.

The 16th century castle & museum

The 16th century castle & museum

As we wandered across the peaceful grassy forecourt and into the museum buildings to begin looking around I was really thinking: “wow, why is no one ever talking about this castle as a big attraction of Central Slovakia? (there was even, in a very endearingly English way, a little teahouse perched in one of the castle bastions – as if a piece of York had suddenly alighted in Levice.)

But perhaps here’s why. Despite the outer door’s notice posting a closing time of 4pm, and our entry into the buildings at approximately 3:15pm, an aggreessive woman emerged from the bowels of the museum to inform us looking around was not allowed as the castle was closing. We pointed out to her the posted closing time of 4 but she wasn’t interested, and even threatened to lock us in if we did not leave. Not a great way to treat what were probably your only visitors of the day…

Is Levice really so bad? It really didn’t have to be. The castle complex has real potential for a delightful tourist diversion. But because of the attitude of the castle staff, it was. They ruined the one jewel of the town for me. But let’s hope that, if you’re passing this way, you’ll risk the unfriendly castle employees for the clear reward of the fascinating castle buildings around. And arrive at a time they deem it suitable to let you in.

It should be noted, though, that however friendly or unfriendly Levice seems to tourists its role in travel writing and the travel industry cannot be underestimated. It was the birthplace of Eugene Fodor, founder of Fodor’s travel guidebook series.

MAP LINK: (This’ll give you a better idea of location than a street address)

GETTING THERE: Trains run from Bratislava direct every two hours for a mere 4.90 Euros.

CASTLE OPENING: 9am-4pm daily Oct-Apr, 9am-5:30pm May-Sep (if you go by the notices outside) 9am-3:15pm daily Oct-Apr (if you go by the staff’s closing-up times)

CASTLE ADMISSION: 2 Euros (adults) 1 Euro (children, senior citizens)

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Levice Castle it’s 40km northeast to medieval Banská Štiavnica and its superb mining museums.

NB: we changed the title of this post after the original posting of “Is Levice Really So Bad?” – this one sounded like it might do more for the tourism industry:)

NB2: Please don’t think we’re giving up on Levice! Far from it. We aim to bring you, in the future, posts on some of the rather (surprisingly) fascinating things to do around Levice, including one of the Trekovské Muzeums: some ancient rock dwellings! But more on that later (we have to find a reason for you to return to this site, you know)

Bardejov ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Top Ten Medieval Towns in Slovakia

It’s not just the nature that’s spellbinding in Slovakia: some of the smaller towns – whether as a result of castle strongholds against marauding Turks, or being major Medieval mining centres or having healing spas – grew up in magnificence centuries ago and have not lost any of their glory since.

Note that we’re talking towns (or large villages with decent facilities) here: not either Slovakia’s big cities (which will get tons of other mentions anyway) or the country’s myriad small folksy villages – which will be the focus of later articles!

10: Rožňava

Rožňava is yet another of those former mining centres – and along with Skalica by far the least known about destination on this list. That’s partly to do with its location, in the east of Slovakia. The town centre is meticulously preserved: studded with more of those incredible burgher’s houses (17th and 18th centuries). The cathedral is particularly interesting – artwork inside includes depictions of mining activity in times gone by – with more about the mining legacy in the nearby museum.

Get There: Direct bus from Bratislava or train to Košice and then bus (6-7 hours).

More Info: We don’t have any more info on Rožňava ourselves – yet! (although this will change very soon). There is precious little English information anywhere, in fact: but for now perhaps the best is on Visit Slovakia.

9: Spišská Sobota, Poprad

We’re not including the whole of Poprad here. Poprad’s got enough, right, what with the wonderful adventures awaiting in the High Tatras just above town?:) And the majority of tourists will come to Poprad and never see this gorgeous Medieval neighbourhood, because they’ll be busy getting up into the mountains asap. Mistake: Spišská Sobota is a tranquil locale of Renaissance buildings about 1.5km northeast of central Poprad, just past Aquacity Poprad. It boasts architecture by the enigmatic Master Pavol, who was of course the man behind the amazing altar in Levoča.

A Quick Guide to the Other Content We Have on Poprad

Places to Go: Poprad’s funky contemporary art gallery in an old power station

Places to Go: Poprad’s lavish Aqua Park

Places to Go: Nine reasons to linger in Poprad

Places to Go/Getting Around: Taking the Mountain Railway into the High Tatras from Poprad

Places to Stay: A cool travel-friendly B&B in Spišská Sobota, Poprad

Places to Stay: A sophisticated 4-star resort right by Poprad’s Aqua Park

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s trendy burger joint

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s dignified Café La Fée

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s Coolest Wine Bar

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s gourmet chocolatier

Going Out: Poprad & the Manchester United Connection

Arts & Culture: Dedicated traditional Czech & Slovak music radio station now based in Poprad

Getting Around: London to Poprad Flights

Getting Around: The Poprad to Ždiar to Zakopane (Poland) bus

Get There: Train to Poprad (4 hours).

8: Ždiar 

OK, it’s debatable whether to include Ždiar in the town or village category, but its Tatras location makes it enough of a popular stop with tourists that it’s got half-decent facilities – and the sheer length of it, stretching up the foothills of the High Tatras as it does, mean it’s a town for the purposes of this list. With Ždiar, it’s not any one building that stands out but all of them (at least in the centre) because this place is dotted with great examples of Goral-style painted wooden houses. Goral culture is an important and distinctive element of the culture in this part of Slovakia. For Englishmaninslovakia’s post about Ždiar, follow this link.

Get There: Train from Bratislava to Poprad, then bus, which continues to Zakopane, Poland in the summer (5.5-6 hours)

Typical Ždiar building
Typical Ždiar building ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

7: Skalica

Skalica receives little attention outside of Slovakia: except perhaps from the good people of the Czech Republic, as the town sits right on the border. But Skalica is cool. And very, very pretty. The postcard pictures are of the Baroque-domed rotunda, originally dating from the 1100’s – but the town also has several intriguing churches and an early 20th-century Kultury Dom (culture house) inspired by Czecho-Slovak folk culture.

Get There: Train from Bratislava, changing at Kúty (1.75 hours).

More info: We don’t have any more info on Skalica ourselves – yet! (but we do have this lovely article on the Skalica region, Zahorie). There is precious little English information anywhere, in fact, on Skalica: but for now perhaps the best is on Skalica.sk (where the English translations are dubious at best but can be made sense of)

6: Kežmarok

Kežmarok often gets overlooked in favour of Levoča or Bardejov in Eastern Slovakia and whilst it’s not quite as spectacular as either, this town in the shadow of the High Tatras has a better castle than both and has a very smartly done-up Renaissance town centre, including its two famously contrasting places of worship: the stunning wooden church and the rather more stark pink Lutheran cathedral.

Get There: Train from Bratislava, changing at Poprad (4.5 hours).

More info: We don’t have any more information on Kežmarok ourselves – yet! But for the moment the town tourist information website has the best in-English info available on the net.

5: Trenčin

The easiest of Slovakia’s great Medieval towns to visit is Trenčin. As you’re heading along the main route east in Slovakia its vast castle, rearing out at you above the Vah river valley, would be reason enough to visit. Clamber up for great surrounding views of the Small Carpathian mountains through one of Eastern Europe’s curious covered staircases from the Staré Mesto (Old Town) but don’t forgo a stroll around the centre – with the central square of Mierové Námestie a trapped-in-time treasure trove of largely 18th-century buildings. There are a load of great castles in the Trenčin area, too: the city’s castle itself is sublime, and just outside there are more fortresses such as Beckov Castle.

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

Places to Go: A tucked-away forest park behind the castle in 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 Go: A stunning castle near Trenčin

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

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

Get There: Direct train from Bratislava (2 hours).

Trenčin as seen from the castle
Trenčin as seen from the castle ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

4: Levoča

Just east of Poprad and therefore easily factored into any trip heading east in Slovakia, Levoča is justifiably one of Slovakia’s most celebrating medieval beauties (as far as towns go at least). The big draw here (standing out above a host of alluring buildings stationed around the central square) is the Gothic church of Chram Svätého Jakuba, which has the world’s highest wooden altar – replete with elaborate decoration. The work is the great legacy of Master Pavol of Levoča: responsible for much of Slovakia’s best Medieval architecture. There’s also a great hike that you can do from the centre up to Mariánska Hora, a famous pilgrimage destination.

Get There: Train from Bratislava to Poprad, then bus (5 hours)

More info: See our article on Levoča’s wonderful autumn music festival. Otherwise, try the English section of the town’s tourist information website.

3: Banska Štiavnica

A few more people have heard of this other ancient mining town (also Unesco-listed) southwest of Banska Bystrica and south of Kremnica. Banska Štiavnica was once the Hungarian Empire’s second-most important city. It rose to prominence at a similar time to Kremnica (actually slightly earlier) but on the back of silver ore deposits in the local mines, this time. Steeply-pitching cobbled streets, a brace of castles and a dramatically-situated Kalvaria number amongst its many architectural jewels.

A Quick Guide to the Other Content We Have on the Banska Štiavnica Area:

Places to Go: Banska Štiavnica’s Mining Museums

Places to Go: Banska Štiavnica’s Kalvaria

Places to Stay: Great Value Banska Štiavnica Accommodation at the Aura

Places to Stay: Banska Štiavnica’s Nicest Guesthouse

Places to Eat & Drink: Banska Štiavnica Streetfood

Places to Eat & Drink: the Coolest Cafe in Banska Štiavnica

Traditions: Partaking of the Most Sexually Charged Easter Tradition Ever in Banska Štiavnica

Get There: Bus/train from Bratislava to Zvolen or Žiar nad Hronom, then bus (3.5-4 hours)

2: Kremnica

The most beautiful of Slovakia’s ancient mining towns is the least-visited. It owes its splendour to the presence of lucrative goldmines in the area – which have been used since the first centuries AD and, since the 13th century, actually made this one of the world’s foremost mining centres. West of Banska Bystrica, it’s still the site of the world’s oldest-working mint, which once produced coinage for locales as far-distant as the Middle East.

Get There: Train from Bratislava, changing at Zvolen or bus/train from Bratislava to Žiar nad Hronom, then bus (3-4 hours).

RELATED POST:  The geographical centre of Europe is just outside Kremnica – our more detailed post on the town itself is coming soon.

1: Bardejov

In the north-east of Slovakia, Bardejov’s Unesco-listed námestie (central square; see the pic above) is one of the largest, most in-tact and visually stunning in the country: flanked by 17-18th century burgher’s houses and with a Town Hall placed unusually in the middle of the square, dating from 1505 in Gothic/Renaissance style. Around the edge of the Staré Mesto (Old Town) you can walk much of the old city walls.

Get There: Train from Bratislava to Poprad, then bus (7 hours).

More info: Bardejov is a great base for visiting Eastern Slovakia’s fabled wooden churches. and soon on the site we are making Bardejov into one of our Top Slovak Stop-offs (as well as Modra, Piešt’any, Trenčin, Banská Štiavnica, Poprad and Košice)!

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Poprad: Nine Reasons to Linger

Poprad is the gateway to the High Tatras. Whether you’re coming here by road or rail you’ll have to pass through this sizeable city to those tempting and frankly quite bizarre looking mountains just beyond. And of course the question is: why stop? Why indeed, when there’s the beginnings of a mountain wilderness with scintillating hiking, and climbing – and some pretty exceptional skiing just a half hour’s drive or mountain rail ride away? The question seems more poignant yet when you see Poprad’s centre which, somewhat marred by tasteless ’60’s and ’70’s development, is no Levoča – not, in other words, with a great deal of old-fashioned charm (although in fairness it has been spruced up no end of late and now sports leafy boulevards, revamped museums and a burgeoning pavement cafe culture). But after a concentrated couple of days in Poprad recently, Englishmaninslovakia has come up with a list of Poprad’s plus points – and the list is longer than many might think.

1: Get the Info

Before you rush off into the mountains, it’s worth pausing to find out exactly what you can (and, sometimes, can’t) do there – and Poprad is the fount of all Tatras outdoor activities knowledge. There are several key bases you might want to head to – Ždiar for culture, Tatranská Lomnica for the highest mountains, Starý Smokovec area for some of the main chairlifts up into the mountains proper (and the most abundant accommodation) or Štrbské Pleso for the biggest ski resort, great hiking and that cherry on the cake of Tatras Hotels, Grand Hotel Kempinski. Do you, for example, want to go husky sledding? Would you like to stay in fancy accommodation or huddle in a mountain house? Do you like hanging from a chain off a precipice or not?

The answers to all these and more will influence where you want to end up, and Poprad’s perfect for providing answers. You can check out the pleasant little tourist information office or scout out the veritable mine of Tatras information that is Adventoura tours (actually Poprad’s coolest tour agency and offering loads of different activities).

Yeah – so get all the info you need, which will take an hour or two, and then go off and do something like – well – one of the things right below!

2: Spišská Sobota

Spišská Sobota is one of the best-preserved clutches of medieval architecture anywhere in Slovakia. It doesn’t grab the headlines like nearby Levoča does but it’s almost as splendid. The Gothic Kostol Svätého Juraja (Church of St George) at the western end of the long tapered oval of the námestie dates from the 13th century originally and – get this – the enigmatic but highly regarded Master Pavol was responsible for the altar here. Just across the way is the church architect’s old workshop.

Culinary Cool

But quality is kept high in the modern day too in Spišská Sobota. Arguably Poprad’s best restaurants flank the square here (such as Vino & Tapas, where the owner cooked for the Queen when she visited Poprad, on the northern side – or Fortuna on the southern side). Then there’s the atmospheric accommodation options in and around the square (again, in our opinion, Poprad’s best (Penzión SabatoPenzión Fortuna or, a block off the square, Penzión Plesnivec).

Oh, and how do you find Spišská Sobota? You take the main road Štefánikova and follow it (or the river running alongside it) east from the centre for about 1.5km, past Aqua City, then turning left at the sign for Penzión Plesnivec. Or follow the river along passing Aqua City until you hit the bridge by Hotel Sobota, turn left then take the first right up the hill to where you can already see the Spišská Sobota church tower.

3: Aqua City

Poprad’s Aqua City is the perfect way to counteract and sooth any aches and pains from a strenuous few days’ worth of hiking. Nigh-on 20 indoor and outdoor geothermal pools, all with temperatures in the mid- to high thirties (and that’s after being reduced from a natural 49 degrees): Aqua City might look starkly modern but its comforts are guaranteed – it’s one of Eastern Europe’s most well-appointed spa/wellness centres. There’s a hotel and wellness centre, of course, with cryotherapy and Thai massage centres & the like…

The High Tatras in their morning glory from Kvetnica

The High Tatras in their morning glory from Kvetnica

4: Kvetnica

Ten minutes’ drive outside Poprad is a forest park which gives you better views of the High Tatras than you get in the High Tatras (if you want an overview of the whole range, that is). There’s a farm here which may be your best chance to see the timid mouflon (large-horned mountain sheep) that have a large enclosure of several acres here. In Kvetnica there’s also a network of hiking and mountain biking trails and a chateau. Kvetnica is also much more verdant than a lot of the Tatras are – it makes for a gentle and enjoyable afternoon’s walk. Ask at the Poprad Tourist Information how to find it – it can be quite tricky.

5: Podtatranské Muzeum 

This museum has a fascinating new exhibition on the ancient treasures of a 4th-century Germanic prince dug up recently during construction of an industrial park, as well as permanent exhibits on Poprad since, er, Neolithic times. It’s recently moved to a new location in Spišská Sobota

6: The Tatranská Galeria (Tatras Art Gallery)

This art gallery is well worth a visit – you don’t expect to encounter culture in a mountain resort supply town but here it most definitely is. We’ve recently written this new post about the venue at  Hviezdoslavová 12 known as the Elektráreň (Power Plant). It hosts some pretty damned good exhibitions!

7: Cool Cafes (and Caffes) from Belltowers to Bistros!

In one of several buildings that still retains its old-fashioned grace (the bell tower right behind the church in central Poprad), the mean espresso mini-chain Caffe Trieste has opened its doors. I mean “mean” in terms of the cafe’s ability to produce a mean espresso, of course; not that its staff are mean (they’re not!). There’s also a wine bar here (upstairs up the spiral staircase) – making this the city centre’s most atmospheric drinking spot by a country mile.

See our article on Poprad’s suavest new cafe

 8: Bon Bon Chocolates

Oh, what is that beautiful correlation between mountain town resorts and chocolatiers? I don’t know, but I’m very happy with it. This is one of the best chocolatiers in Slovakia, and it’s right by the train station. I’d argue it’s even worth missing your train for. Small (and quite inviting) area for actually sitting and sipping – but you can always take that hot chocolate “to go” (yeah, in Slovakia now they actually often use the English “to go” for takeaway food which is rather comical when you listen to an ancient Slovak babka (grandmother) that cannot speak another word of English uttering it). Anyway, Bon Bon is on Dominika Tartarku – heading north from Štefánikova towards Poprad Tatry train station.

Our post on Bon Bon

9: Pizzeria Utopia – and the rest of the City’s Cool New Eateries

In an old schoolhouse out in the paneláky, Poprad’s coolest and liveliest pizzeria has been going ten years and is still every bit as popular as ever. Inside, it looks cosy too, with three dining areas and a great array of tasty pizzas. I’ve actually never seen a pizzeria even in Bratislava look as inviting as this one. It’s just south of the hospital on the other side of Rte 18 from the centre – and perfectly walkable from there. Pizzeria Utopia might be one of the first of this new breed of cool Poprad restaurants but it’s the tip of the iceberg as far as local dining goes.

Our post on Poprad’s new gourmet burger joint.

The final thing to remember is that Poprad is a far more pleasant mountain supply town than Zakopane on the Polish side of the Tatras and is certainly no worse than, say, Aviemore in Scotland or in fact many of those terrible big, soulless French ski resort towns. It’s not as beautiful as what lies just beyond, true. But it does have plenty of hidden charms… and yes, a little soul.

MAP LINK: (Kvetnica is indicated by the pinpoint at the bottom of the map)

GETTING THERE: Trains run every 1.5 to 2 hours from Bratislava’s Hlavná Stanica station to Poprad, take 3.5 to four hours and cost 11 Euros for regional trains or 19 Euros for the flashy IC trains (which have wifi).

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Poprad, the obvious choice is heading 32km north to Ždiar to hike some of the lovely Tatranská Magistrála, or – for those that don’t like hiking – it’s 72km south to Rožňava, nearby which are some of Slovakia’s best caves

RELATED POST: London to Poprad Flights Alive and Kicking (could that in fact be reason 10 to get out to and hang out in Poprad?)

RELATED POST: How to get between Poprad, Zdiar and Zakopane in Poland by public transport (could this be reason number 11?)