Rushing passed Devin on a punctured canoe ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Canoeing Down the Morava and Danube into Bratislava

Approach is everything.

With Bratislava, you have several means at your disposal. By road from Vienna isn’t bad: after all, out of the flat eastern Austrian farmland rears the forested hills of Devínska Kobyla and the otherworldly Communist-era tower blocks of Devínska Nová Ves, scored in-between by the Morava river that people died trying to cross to get to the west up until 1989 and still represents a pretty poignant entrance to what we think of today as Eastern Europe.

From the north, over the top by hiking trail from Marianka is intriguing too: you’ll come down through the Small Carpathians and see Bratislava spreadeagled below you on the wide plain of the Danube.

By public boat from Vienna is a favourite too.

But canoeing in your own (or rented) vessel down first the Morava and then the Danube into the city is – especially in this scalding weather – the most fun way to arrive, and it’s all the more thrilling because whether it’s officially permitted at all or not is highly questionable…

First of all, pick your spot on the Morava river (you’ll want to start here because there are far more launching sites and the water is more gently flowing, allowing you time to adjust to the whole thing). We chose the stretch of river near the station of Devínske Jazero, because we were restricted to coming by public transport: many other places on the banks along this stretch of the Morava, though. From our elected start point, it’s two to three hours of paddling downriver to Bratislava, making it a nice half-day’s activity. Another access point for public transport users would be the slightly-further-north Vysoká pri Morave, with trains from Bratislava too – a little bit of a longer float though!

Just as with hiking or cycling, one of the delights of doing this is, due to the sedate speed, all the little things you notice on the way.

We tramped across a couple of fields, through a patch of mosquito-rich, nettle-clogged wood, skittled down a muddy bank and we were away.

For starters, the Morava river is as mentioned before the border – the old border between east and west Europe – as sleepy today as it was divisive then, but as a result very much a paddle through the history books.

On the Austrian side, secluded fishing platforms, already manned at the early hour we passed by old-timers, on the Slovak side wild tangles of woods. You head under the cross-border cycling bridge between Schloshoff (a castle on the Austrian side) and Devínska Nová Ves, then just before Devín castle sides switch and it’s the Austrian part that morphs into a quiet national park (Nationalpark Donau Auen) which runs all the way to Hainburg and beyond whilst the Slovak bank of the Morava becomes a gentle woodland walking path for castle visitors and locals.

The turn (left, downriver fortunately!) onto the Danube at the castle is a bit bumpy until you’re properly onto the new waterway, but it’s thrillingly faster too, and it will only take you 40 minutes or so from here to reach Bratislava. It’s this part where you need to watch out for the Vienna-Bratislava speed boats and the Danube’s working barges: keep eyes peeled! We did this run in an inflatable canoe and my job at this point was to keep our puncture from getting any bigger!

Bratislava, true to form, retains relative wilderness even on its very perimeter. Just before the first of the big city bridges comes up, on the left a rapid flume of water hurls you (if you choose, obviously, but it is a highlight of this trip so you’d be a fool to miss out!) into Karloveské Rameno, a woodsy arm of the Danube which has been set up as a kayaking slalom course. It’s magical to swim here, too.

Now, at the point you enter Bratislava after this (you have to properly enter the city just to appreciate the full transition of your journey, lonely farming land to riverside restaurants and residential districts) you do have one issue. You’re hurtling along now quite fast because of the current, and, unless you want to continue towards Budapest, you need to stop – when the banks are now mostly concrete and devoid of piers or mooring platforms. Here’s what you do. Pick your finish point (again make sure there’s no approaching boats) and aim to sidle into the edge JUST BEYOND, turning at the last minute to paddle back upriver, which will slow you down to a safe speed.

We picked the Eurovea shopping centre, on the east side of the city centre, as a finish point. Sure, we attracted plenty of incredulous stares from the smartly-dressed riverbank restaurant-goers and we emerged, bedraggled but beaming. Because no one else does this, it seems. No one.

Next stop: floating on to Budapest?

NECESSARY EQUIPMENT: One canoe. Paddles for that same canoe. Shorts. Flip flops. Water. Sun cream. Sorted.

The entrance to the Old Town of Hainburg - image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Around Bratislava – the West: Going Over the Border to Get Good Stuff

As you drive across the border between Slovakia and Austria at Berg you get a poignant sense of how it must have seemed, pre-1989. There’s Austria’s flat, open farmland, broken by gentle wooded hills, suddenly erupting up on the other side of the dramatic Danube-Morava river confluence into the steep forested karst of Devínsky Kobyla with starkly Communist-era Bratislava suburbs like Devinska Nova Ves rising out of the trees.

Czechoslovakians and others from the once sectioned-off Iron Curtain countries often died trying to cross to the west from here. Now many Slovaks would die if they didn’t make the regular crossing into Austria (excuse the terrible pun but talking to a lot of Slovaks, it really does seem as if they depend whole-heartedly on proximity to Austria a lot of the time).

The queue to get across the border might not be quite what it was after November 1989 but coming into the first major town on the Austrian side, Hainburg an der Donau (or Hainburg on the Danube) still entails enduring some lengthy jams – and the traffic’s nearly all Slovak.

Indeed, this small Austrian settlement might justifiably be called Slovakia’s very own foreign territory. The town’s population is significantly Slovak, and you can’t walk two paces without hearing Slovak spoken on the main street. Menus are often translated into Slovak and quite frequently the hotel receptionist or cafe waitress is, indeed, a Slovak.

It’s a curious cultural phenomenon but Slovaks, much like the English, can be incredibly disparaging about their own country. The English, however, do not usually move out of their country because of any feelings of dissatisfaction while the Slovaks often go out of their way to do it (well, in fairness having several countries nearby makes this a whole lot easier). If Western Slovakians don’t live just across the border, send their kids to school just across the border or use the healthcare just across the border then you can bet your bottom dollar they will at least do their shopping just across the border. The mentality is akin to a “if they won’t make it better in our country then we’ll go to where it’s better” and, to the loss of Slovakian services, Hainburg is the town that benefits. Even the salt, I have heard it claimed quite seriously, tastes superior in Austria!

It’s a veritable  Slovak colony, this amiable castle town, but what’s strange is that Slovaks often don’t embrace Austria fully. They come across, make use of the good stuff (higher quality supermarket produce) and return. Even if they live here, the chances are that this will only be for registering with Austrian doctors/schools. They’ll still most likely work or hang out in Bratislava. It’s a curious “one foot in, one foot out” policy from Slovakians in this regard; a deep love, perhaps, of innate Slovakia-ness coupled with a reality check that Austria (i.e. Hainburg) has, well, good stuff.

Hainburg really does have good stuff. At least, the supermarkets have fresher produce, more lactose-free products and prices that are no higher than supermarket prices in Slovakia. But Hainburg, in contrast to most border-hugging towns, exudes far more goodness. It’s got great castles, spectacularly-preserved town walls and gates, and a wonderful national park right by the town, Nationalpark Donau-Auen, which pretty much stretches up to the Slovak border. It’s actually got so much good stuff, that Englishmaninslovakia may very well be writing more about what there is to do in Slovakia’s very own foreign territory. But it’s also worth coming here, to far-eastern Austria, to glean a little further insight into Slovakia and the way it works.

MAP LINK:

GETTING THERE:

To Hainburg from Bratislava…

Driving – Route 61, signposted off the D1 highway immediately west (right) after you cross Most SNP bridge from the Old Town towards Petržalka. This becomes Route 9 on the Austrian side.

Bus – Hourly bus 901 (1.50 Euros) from Most SNP

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: Well, we only concern ourselves with journeys in Slovakia on this blog, so pursue your route west elsewhere! Rearing up on the other side of that confluence of the Morava and Danube rivers is the first sign you’re in Slovakia, the massif of Devinska Kobyla, accessed from Devínska Nová Ves 27km northeast of Hainburg.

Boat: Getting to Bratislava by River

Everyone knows about those grand old Central European trains, right? Kicking back in the dining car with a frothy beer and a plate of fried cheese (well fried cheese is unquestionably the dish all Central European trains do best) as you cruise between nations is undeniably one of the continent’s very best experiences. And of course, being a through-stop between west and east, Bratislava’s Hlavná Stanica train station is one of the great the jump-on points for such a journey. For Bratislava train connection info, let’s give the floor to the Man in Seat 61. But Bratislava is blessed with an arguably still grander possibility of approach (or indeed departure): on, oh yes, the Blue Danube itself – from Vienna (or, if you just want to glimpse Bratislava from the water but not stop, Budapest).

OK, the Danube (Dunaj) is not always as blue as Strauss insinuates in his music:) Nevertheless, large swathes of the journey between Vienna and Bratislava are very pretty (through Nationalpark Donau Auen) and the water really does seem cobalt at points when contrasted with the green of the forests on either side. The prettiest part of the journey is around the town of Hainburg near the Austrian border and, just beyond, by the confluence of the Morava at Devín Castle.

Vienna to Bratislava Boats (and back)

1: Lod.sk Vienna-Bratislava Hydrofoil: Hydrofoil boats leave from late April to late October. They run Wednesday to Sunday from late April to late June, daily in July/August and Friday to Sunday from September until the end of the season in late October. Departure from Vienna is 17:30, departure from Bratislava is 9:00 (the boats, Slovak-run, give you the day in Vienna or the night in Bratislava). Journey duration is 90 minutes downriver to Bratislava and 105 minutes upriver to Vienna. Prices are 20/29 Euros single/return. Of course with your ticket you don’t have to travel back next morning; it’s valid for when you want to travel back. The Lod.sk website is now in Slovak (of course), German and English.

2: Twin City Liner Boats: The Austrian-run Twin City Liner runs regular (almost) year-round connections from Vienna to Bratislava. Departure from Vienna is at 8:3012:30 and 16:30 with departure from Bratislava at 10:3014:30 and 18:30. From March to October there are usually one or two additional services as well each way. Boats are a bit quicker than the Lod.sk Hydrofoil boats as a rule (75 minutes downriver to Bratislava, 90 minutes upriver back again). Prices however seem a tad steep, at an average 30 Euros for a single trip – meaning that overall Englishmaninslovakia recommends Lod.sk when possible during the tourist season. The Twin City Liner website is in German, but has a basic English version.

Departure in Vienna: Schiffstation Reichsbrücke, Handelskai 265. All Bratislava boats depart from here, unless you’re on a cruise ship, in which case you’ll likely be told everything and won’t require this blog to help. Nearest subway: Vorgartenstraße (on U1 line).

Departure in Bratislava: International port, Fajnorovo nábrežie 2, just down on the river from the Old Town east of Most SNP. Here’s a list of facilities available in the terminal building.

Between the beginning of June and the end of August, a Budapest to Vienna Hydrofoil passes through Bratislava but ridiculously does not stop off (it used to; they scrapped it). Departure times are 9:00 from Budapest (Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday) and 9:00 from Vienna (Wednesday, Friday, Sunday). You’ll pass through Bratislava at approximately 13:45/10:30 respectively depending on which way you’re going. Total journey time is between 5.5 and 6.5 hours.

GETTING TO BRATISLAVA BUT NOT BY BOAT: See our list of air connections to Slovakia.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: On the way from Bratislava to Vienna by boat, the most diverting spot, just over the Austrian border, is Hainburg, 16km west.