Image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Chateau Topol’čianky: Wine, Horses & Grand Old Houses

Soon enough, many of us in the northern hemisphere will get snow. Copious amounts of it perhaps. Still, it might be a stretch of the imagination for most to remember (or even conceive of) what enduring over a month of snow on the ground, layer on layer of it, ice and slush as much as fresh, is like. So allow me to indulge you briefly. A month of struggling down streets more or less constantly under drifts of a half meter or more, a month of not seeing grass, a month of traffic jams and transport failures, the hope once the novelty wears thin of it all melting only for more to pelt down out of the sky, damned annoying in short.

In this context you can understand, perhaps, how Château Topol’čianky – as I saw it for the first time at the end of last winter – seemed everything it was billed to be and more: namely a rather idyllic English-style mansion (and its grounds) plonked in a tucked-away pocket of Western Slovakia farmland. The snow line finished, on the particular drowsy weekend afternoon I first glimpsed the place, just outside Topol’čianky town. This left the Château, in the northern part of the municipality, bathing in late-in-the-day winter sunlight that cast a glorious gold-green everywhere. It would have looked beautiful at any time of year, but on this afternoon (through the eyes of one lately deprived of any other weather but snow, remember) not a lot short of exquisite.

The "English style" grounds ©englishmaninslovakia.com

The “English style” grounds ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The name speaks volumes. Château? It’s so… French… Slovaks normally call a grand, castellated mansion such as this zámok or kaštiel – not château. Perhaps the international reputation of the place has a lot to do with it. Following the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, it was Czechoslovakia which seized the reins, so to speak, on the Hapsburg dynasty’s superb stock of thoroughbred steeds. And so Château Topol’čianky, as an internationally regarded stud farm breeding of Nonius, Lippizan, Arabian, and English Half-blood/Hucul horses, was born (1921).

In reality, the building – dating mainly from the mid-17th century, but with an early 19th-century Classicist wing to boot – was already courting a glam crowd of celebs by then. First President of the new Czechoslovakia, Masaryk, had the château as a holiday home during WW1 – setting a precedent of Czechoslovak Presidents stopping by not just for holidays, but also for work. Before this, it was in any case established as a major beacon of learning in Central-Eastern Europe: with a library (still one of the highlights of a visit to the house itself, which features period furnishings from the 18th- and 19th- centuries and Slovakia’s greatest ceramics collection🙂 ) containing hugely important Slavic writings such as Anton Bernolák’s Grammatica Slavica.

©englishmaninslovakia.com

Nice Holiday Home… ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

English Country Garden…

I am an Englishman, it should be emphasised. And in at least one way, I possess a characteristic the majority of the world associates with Englishmen: I love strolling around charismatic old houses and their grounds (although rather with an espresso in my hands than a cup of tea). I am also an Englishman spending long amounts of time overseas in lands like Slovakia: small wonder, that when, whilst here, I clap eyes on a place which epitomises a sedate, grandiose abode seemingly plucked out of a quintessential English village postcard I am pretty enthused.

RELATED POST: The Arboretum Near Nitra (more English Garden loveliness in this neck of the woods)

No one can claim English architecture from the 19th century sticks out, definitively, as superior to other styles of the age. But English landscaped gardens? They have a certain something, an esotericness in their ornamental lakes or their manicured woodland paths that always lures me in for a stroll. Enter Château Topol’čianky’s “English style” gardens – a fancy 4km stretch of dignified woodland (300 types of trees here) bordered by a river canalised to form several ornamental lakes connected by leats on the one side, and by glorious vineyards on the other. And arranged delicately in-between: terraced lawns, an old wine cellar, an old 17th century mill, an orangery, a grotto. It’s not surprising Masaryk loved to potter around here. Part of the Château also serves as a hotel nowadays, with rooms set attractively around an internal courtyard (not a common design in Slovakia):

The HotelThe Hotel ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

That’s not to be confused, of course, with the other hotel within the park grounds, Hotel Hradna Straz (a pretty alright restaurant, which aims for old English hunting style, encompassed within).

Wine

All those vineyards do mean something: some of the country’s best-regarded (and certainly most dominant in terms of market share) white wines, in fact – including a delicious late winter harvest wine. Grapes cultivated here are mostly Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc, Grüner Veltliner and WelschReisling. The wine is so famous at Château Topol’čianky that it is, in many ways, the defining characteristic of Château Topol’čianky – and a very good wine outlet at Cintorínska 31 in Topol’čianky town (see this little MAP) sells the stuff. Check the winery website (they’re not afraid to brag) for more.

©englishmaninslovakia.com

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

MAP LINK:

THE CHATEAU – WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW: Whilst it serves primarily as a wedding venue, the house does open for guided tours between May and September (Entry Tuesday to Friday from 9 until 2.30pm by hourly guided tour, Saturday/Sunday midday until 4pm by hourly guided tour). Adults/children 3.80/2.50 Euros.

GETTING THERE: From Bratislava, the quickest way is actually by bus (i.e., from Bratislava Bus Station) changing in Zlaté Moravce, the underwhelming big town nearby. Buses run more or less hourly, cost 6.60 Euros one way and take about two hours 40 minutes.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Château Topol’čianky it’s 52km north to Prievidza

OUR OTHER SLOVAK WINE CONTENT:

Svätý Jur, Small Carpathians Wine Region

Limbach, Small Carpathians Wine Region

A typical Small Carpathians Wine Tasting in Trnava

Adventures in the Tokaj Wine Region

Brezová pod Bradlom: Štefánik’s Stomping Ground

On a surreally misty grey morning the other weekend we drove up into the northeast portion of the Small Carpathians (Malé Karpaty) not far from Trenčin to find out a little more about the most famous Slovak personality of the last 115 years, Milan Rastislav Štefánik.

Štefánik, one of the most influential figures in the founding of the Czechoslovak state after World War One, was born up here in the pretty village of Košiarska, cradled in a pea-green swathe of grazing land between two forested ridges. A whitewashed gaggle of cottages in the village, including the house he grew up in, is to this day a museum dedicated to the man’s life.

RELATED POST: One of our Top Ten Places to Stay in Slovakia is also in Košiarska – coming soon!

Štefánik’s Life At A Glance

Štefánik was born in 1880 when Slovakia was still very much a rural extension of the Austro-Hungary. And Košiarska was strongly influenced by the Hungarian part of the Empire, where Štefánik’s intensely pro-independent Slovakia views didn’t go down too well. So whilst his childhood was here and in the surrounding hills, his formative years were in Prague (where he studied, and met during lectures the future first President of the new Czechoslovak state, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, who gave Štefánik the idea of Czech-Slovak cooperation in a struggle for independence). Subsequently Štefánik was in Paris, where he rose to prominence at the Observatoire de Paris: here he honed his talents for astronomy and was soon being sent on astronomical/diplomatic missions by France around the world.  The diplomatic skills, particularly, would serve him well. In 1916, with Masaryk, he formed the Czechoslovak National Council, the official resistance of the Czechs and Slovaks during World War One to Austria-Hungary – a body which won the respect and support of the Allies, and was recognised, after the Allied victory, as the platform for the new government of Czechoslovakia. Štefánik’s combination of military bravery and diplomacy were integral to getting Czechoslovakia recognised internationally as an independent nation.

Štefánik’s Death

As is so often the case with bright young things (the man was only 39 at the time of his most untimely death) Štefánik’s end is more remembered than his beginning. Along with the three other passengers of the plane that was carrying him from Italy, where he was engaged on business, to Bratislava, he crashed, fatally, just outside the city on May 4th 1919. He had been returning home because he wanted to see his family. And he barely lived to see the Czechoslovak state he had fought so hard to create come into fruition.

Of course, there is a chance that had Štefánik lived he would have become an embittered old politician prone to corruption, just as there is a chance James Dean would have developed gout and flatulence and rapidly made people forget what a heart-throb he had been. Unsurprisingly, this is not a school of thought Slovaks subscribe to. On the contrary, Štefánik is perceived as a great, a fighter and a diplomat, a man that commanded respect, who was plucked from this world far too prematurely. And that air crash in 1919 had aftershocks throughout Slovak culture that resonated far further. First: a wariness that the Czechs, in any potential dual state, sought only to further their own interests and not consider Slovak ones – Czech involvement in Štefánik’s death is the source of much debate. Second: a Slovak apathy towards almost all politicians that would claim to represent them during the following century – Štefánik left behind him a void unfilled to this day).

Bradlo…

What does live on is his memory – enshrined in what is doubtless Slovakia’s finest monument.

The location alone lends it a certain poignant grandeur. From Košiarska the road (one of only four, incidentally, to transect this wild hill range in over 100km) bends down into otherwise unremarkable Brezová pod Bradlom, the main settlement hereabouts, from where another lane corkscrews up onto the forested ridge that looms above the town at 543 metres. But the trees on the crest of the ridge have been cleared, and so the Mohyla Generála M.R Štefánik (tomb to General Štefánik) is visible from afar.

It is a bizarre structure, as monuments in Slovakia go. It was designed and constructed during the years following Štefánik’s death – completed in 1928. This three-level stone pyramid flanked by obelisks at each corner harks of the Mayan temples of Mexico and Guatemala and is a striking sight indeed in the north Slovak countryside. The architect was Dušan Jurkovič (generally considered the greatest Slovak architect ever, and also responsible for the cable car up to Lomnický štít in the High Tatras). The top of the monument (up which you can climb) yields tremendous views both back over the Small Carpathians and forward to the Biele Karpaty/White Carpathians.

Continuing in Štefánik’s Footsteps…

At the north-eastern end of the Small Carpathians that roll all the way southwest to Bratislava, Bradlo sits at something of a terminus of hiking trails – or a starting point for hiking trails, depending on your perspective.

Forging southwest from here is the Štefánikova magistrála- a long-distance hike that traverses the hills southwest (broken, as already mentioned, by a mere four roads) to Bratislava and then across Devinska Kobyla, the last hurrah of the Carpathians, to Devin Castle. On this site we now feature the entire Štefánikova magistrála trail in five stages and with pictures, starting at the Devin Castle end (thus on this site Bradlo features on Stage Five of the hike)

So the red-marked Štefánikova magistrála heads southwest from Bradlo, while the red trail continues northeast from here too, in the new guise of the Cesta Hrdinov SNP (trail of the heroes of the Slovak National Uprising – a trail which continues all the way across Slovakia to Dukla Pass in the far north-east (total hiking time Devin Castle-Dukla Pass 28 days).

Meanwhile, a green trail runs due east from Bradlo and connects after 25 minutes of walking with a little connecter trail down to Košiarska, for those that are interested in seeing Štefánik’s birthplace/museum via a more interesting route.

Three to four days of hiking from Bradlo on the Štefánikova magistrála gets you to Devin Castle, just the other (western) side of Bratislava. But there is one final place you should visit to truly honour one of Slovakia’s most revered all-time heroes. And that is somewhere almost every visitor to the country inadvertently does visit: Bratislava’s airport (!). The airport is in fact called the MR Štefánik airport, but the title goes beyond mere words. It was near Bratislava, after all, that Štefánik died in that plane crash in 1919. And just before security on the upper floor of the airport – just before you depart Slovakia into international airport space – there it is, suspended above you: a faithful replica of the Caproni Ca.3 in which Štefánik had his fatal accident.

MAP LINK:

MORE ON CZECHOSLOVAK MILITARY HISTORY: There are two very informative military history museums in Slovakia which elaborate further on this subject – in Piešt’any (Western Slovakia) and in Svidník (Eastern Slovakia – and very soon due a post.

MORE ON DUŠAN JURKOVIČ:  The only museum to be dedicated to the architect lies down in Brezová pod Bradlom – ask for details at the Town Hall (MAP)

OPENING HOURS: The monument at Bradlo is always open. These days, at least. There was a time when this was not so. For reasons which have yet to be fully explained to me (I am guessing due to a Soviet fear that allowing access would create strong feelings of nationalist sentiment), during Communist times – until 1968 – Bradlo was closed to the public (although it had been finished for some 40 years). In 1968 this changed when hundreds and hundreds of people descended on Bradlo (my ex-girlfriend’s father included) to voice their opinion that people should be allowed to visit the monument freely to find out about Štefánik and properly honour his memory.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Bradlo it’s a 35km drive southeast to Piestany’s best spa on the Kúpeľný ostrov (Spa Island).