bikers

Why these bikers are real ‘Angels’ of Slovakia

When health company boss Miroslav Hruška realised just how much of his ‘old’ stock he was having to throw away, it gave him an idea which turned out to be really ‘good for Slovakia’.

Miroslav, aged 33, who lives in Presov, East Slovakia, got on his motorcycle and set off delivering the products that would normally be dumped to deserving causes across the region.

Very quickly he enlisted the help of his biker mates and volunteers and set up the World Charity Road team to collect and deliver everything from food and clothing to people in need across Slovakia.

Miroslav, who runs Dobré zo Slovenska (Good for Slovakia), said: “Basically, we were looking for a deeper meaning to riding motorcycles than just the  freedom of the road.  World charity road responds to a need to help  people families and organisastions that really need support. They might need food, clothing and toys, things that people should have a right to.”

Now, every Sunday about 50 bikers set off through the dramatic landscape of Slovakia delivering a bit of happiness to the needy.

Eric Wiltsher, programme director at the independent international radio station RTI.fm, has shared his exclusive interview with Miroslav with the consumerwatchfoundation.com.

Festival

A country where folk is the lore of culture

Slovakia has fought long and hard to keep its traditions and customs alive and today folk song and dance are  treated as family heirlooms, passed down from generation to generation.  

Historically all districts and regions had their own  music, dialects, customs and costumes.  Today these are kept alive, not only within families, but are also taught at local schools.

Slovaks sing about love and happiness at the drop of a traditionally knitted hat but they also sing with pride about the beauty of their homeland.

Folk festivals abound. The annual folk festival  at the foot of  the Poľana Mountains,  a small  range in central Slovakia  has been held  in the second week of July in the amphitheatre in the town of Detva for more than 50 years. Very often there can be 1500 performers taking part.

The open air Museum of the Slovak Village  is definitely worth a visit too. It is  a celebration of the harvest home and the ancient ways of collecting the  harvested.

It stands  on the outskirts of the northern city of Martin in the North of the country and came into being in the 1960s to commemorate Slovak buildings, farm methods and day-to-day living in the 19th  century. The  15 hectares  site consists of more than 100 buildings, farms, croft lofts, a pub, a village store, a garden house, a firehouse, a wooden Renaissance bell-house and an elementary school.

And then of course there is the  handicraft fair in Nitra,  at the foot of Zobor Mountain, in the   Nitra River  valley. Nitra is the oldest Slovak town.

Slovaks have a long tradition of handicrafts, woodcutters, ceramists, potters, tinkers, weavers, blacksmiths and makers of fujary,  a  musical instrument used by Slovak shepherds – a wooden  pipe as tall as a man.

There also makers of cat-o´-nine-tails, bobbin and point laces, embroideries and jewellery.

Almost every ruined castle in Slovakia has its legend. Sometimes these legends are blood-curdling. One such legend is the story of Csejte. In this tale, a ruthless countess murders three young girls and bathes in their blood, thinking it will renew her youthfulness.

Belief in witches, ghosts, and other supernatural beings persist in some areas. Morena, a goddess of death, is the object of a springtime custom. In it, young girls ritually “drown” a straw doll in waters that flow from the first thaw.

In rural areas, some Slovaks still believe that illnesses can be caused by witches or by the “evil eye.” They seek the services of traditional healers who use folk remedies and rituals.

The vast lake, Western Slovakia's biggest, stretches away to the horizon. ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Around Trnava: Král’ová – a Beautiful Journey Breaker on the Road East

I’m going to write possibly the first in-English post on the rather random – but rather cool, I think – body of water Vodna Nádrž Král’ová (Western Slovakia’s largest body of water, and one of Slovakia’s largest after the likes of the Liptovská Mara near Liptovský Mikulaš). If you happen to be travelling on the R1 highway (the main road east from Bratislava towards Banska Bystrica) and want a journey-breaker, this is infinitely better than the service stations.

You’ll see it about half-way between Trnava and Nitra as you cruise through Western Slovakia: the dammed river Váh morphs into a huge lake at this point. Take the turning off right to Šoporňa just after the main road crosses the water and head down into the village. Šoporňa is an otherwise unremarkable settlement but as you go through it, at the end you’ll see a couple of lanes heading right back down towards the water. Take one of these (to stay on the right track follow the signs to Hotel/Sanatorium Relax Inn West) and keep heading down to the water.

Go in spring/summer and you’ll never see Slovakia looking so green and be amazed that, just a couple of KM from such a big road, could be such a peaceful and relatively unvisited spot (we were last there on a gorgeous spring day and had the place to ourselves).

You park just below the dam itself, then walk up.

What is there to do? Watersports are available on the lake. A small booth rents out rowing boats and there’s a small island (as in the pic) to make your way out to. It’s a great picnicking spot too. A wide track runs along the side of the water, with woods and meadows off left. You can follow the track all the way along the water to a ricketty gravel-dredging factory (actually quite surreally photogenic and possible to explore to observe the gravel being sorted then wobbling along on a conveyer belt). Beyond the path continues right down the lakeshore to a small peninsular at the end where you can cross to the other side.

Back up near where you parked, there’s also the afore-mentioned Hotel/Sanatorium Relax Inn West (terribly named but actually a wonderful little place). You can access it from the road you drove down to the lakeshore on or from a little path into the woods over a bridge a few hundred metres down the track to the factory. It’s totally secluded in woodland, this little place (we can’t mention it in an individual accommodation review because we haven’t spent the night there) but it’s got a wellness centre and several walks through the serene woodsy grounds.

Go on. Relaaaaaaaaaaaaax!

MAP LINK

GETTING THERE: Kral’ova is a place you pass through, usually, but public transport serves it (or, at least, Šoporňa, from where you’d need to find your own way to the Relax Inn and the reservoir, then a further 1-2km walk away). Buses run direct from Nitra (45 minutes, 1.30 Euros) about hourly during the day – in early mornings and evenings there is direct access by bus from Sered’ and Hlohovec.

 NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Kral’ova it’s 25km northwest to Trnava and 26km east-northeast to Nitra

Approach to the arboretum ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Around Nitra: The Arborétum

Nitra, I was reading the other day in my steadily-accumulating library of Slovak literature, was the original cradle of Slovak learning. The very first Slovak bishop ruled the roost from ecclesiastical buildings here. And the main attractions of the modern city can still be found in its very oldest part on the castle hill. We will write about them, of course, in due course. But if you’re lingering in the area (and you would be wise to, if time permits) then the journey out to Slovakia’s most stunning arboretum, Arborétum Mlyňany, is another must.

To get there, you need to travel to the very edge of Western Slovakia (the Western Slovakia as defined by this site, at least). By public transport the route is rather complicated (involving a change at Vráble or Nova Ves and Žitavou). But by car it is a short 15km drive from Nitra along the R1 highway to the otherwise lacklustre village of Tesárske Mlýňany – from where, heading south on the road after passing through the village – the arboretum slides into view: a gently rising wooded knoll, with the genteel buildings of a manor house peeping through.

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The house and grounds were established by one Dr. Štefan Ambrózy-Migazzi in the 1890s. As a lot of aristocrats of his time did, he had a lot of money, big ideas and the means to execute them – and his plans came into fruition in the shape of Slovakia’s (and one of Central Europe’s) largest and most important collections of exotic plant species.

So many species, in fact, that the Arboretum here has become much like a botanical stroll through continents. There is a Japanese section, an American section, an English section – and many plant representatives from Africa and continental Asia besides. Blossoming with the pinks of rhododendrons, the purples of hydrangeas and hundreds more species of flowers and trees beyond my capability to describe here, the landscaped grounds incorporate woods, ornamental lakes backed by temples and manicured avenue pathways. There’s enough to wander around here for a good couple of hours. Highlights for me were the sequoias and, in the southeast of the arboretum, the Asian walk which ushers you on a path studded with magnolias (so impressive they constitute the main reason to come here during March and April).

It’s the sort of place you come on that first proper spring day when your desire to see some colour in the landscape after the grey of winter overwhelms you. Great for the families and old folks alike. And great for Englishmen in Slovakia, too, except for the fact that, after some considerable time sauntering through the gardens, I was in need of a nice cafe and none was forthcoming. A beautiful old mansion house, lying virtually unused, in the middle of botanical gardens where visitors would be falling over themselves for a tea or coffee – and yet no refreshments available save a vending machine. A market – I feel – has been missed.

I whiled away a few minutes posing by the statue of Michurin at the entranceway instead. Ivan Vladimirovich Michurin was a Soviet scientist who made a name for himself in creating and developing plant hybrids for use in wide scale agriculture. Particularly fruit. Deserts during the Communist era would probably have been very different were it not for Michurin…

MAP LINK

ADMISSION: 3.50 Euros for adults, 1.50 Euros for kids

OPENING: 7am-6pm Monday to Friday and 8am-6pm weekends from April-October; 8am-5pm Monday to Friday and 9am-4pm weekends November-March

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Arboréte Mlyňany it’s 30km southeast to  Levice

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Stará Ľubovňa: A Journey to the Roots of Slovak Whiskey at Nestville Park Distillery

A few months back I was doing my usual, intermittent mooch around my favourite Bratislava whisky shop, the White Mouse, when I noticed something tucked away in the corner of the window display gathering dust that I hadn’t glimpsed on previous visits, or indeed anywhere else: a bottle of Nestville Park, and the caveat, in small print: ‘Distilled and Bottled in Slovakia’.

It was their No1 offering – a blend and, as it turned out, the standard bottling for the distillery – and being a purist when in comes to whisky (yes, or whiskey) I would not have normally given it any more attention. Except for that small print. I had not until that moment, having lived in Slovakia over three years, been aware that the country produced whiskey whatsoever.

“What’s it like?” I asked the owner, who is a tad taken aback, as we normally chat about the Islay’s or the Speyside’s.

He considers a moment.

“It’s not bad” he says.

Crucial, that. Slovaks are some of the planet’s most self-deprecating people, particularly where anything intrinsically ‘Slovak’ is concerned, and here was one of its more worldly wise citizens, on record saying Slovakia’s foray into whisky-making was alright.

From that moment, the idea of a trip out to see where Nestville Park was made slowly cemented in my mind.

Part of the reason I love trekking out to whisky distilleries is the sheer randomness of the experience. There is no Earthly reason to trek out to a Campbelltown in Scotland or the outskirts of a Fort Worth in Texas unless you love whisky (Springbank and Firestone & Robinson, respectably). It provides a motivation to get out to those way-off-the-beaten-track places that would otherwise remain in obscurity.

And perhaps Stará Ľubovňa, the town to which you need to head to visit the home of Nestville Park, would have otherwise floundered in obscurity, too, were it not for its whiskey production. It is prettier, in fact, than either a Campbelltown or a Fort Worth: with a castle, a folk museum and a history dating back to the 13th century (although many more easily accessible Slovak towns can claim this). And more than either a Campbelltown or a Fort Worth, it is on a road to nowhere, in a rarely-visited part of a country that already receives comparatively few international visitors. They say that once you reach Stará Ľubovňa, you have truly arrived in Eastern Slovakia, which claims cultural distinctiveness from the west in everything from its people (the Roma and the Rusyn as well as the Polish and Ukrainians have a significant influence here) to its religion (it lies on the crossroads of the Catholic and Orthodox branches of Christianity). But the most obvious reason why the town would be the gateway to Eastern Slovakia is that, as you travel east from the High Tatras hubs of Poprad and Kežmarok, you pass nothing for the preceding 30 minutes but rolling emerald hills bursting with fertile farmland, swooping up from the banks of the nascent Poprad River.

The bus from Kežmarok (full of elderly couples that hunch deep into their coats and sigh as the light drizzle becomes a steadily harder rain as we wind up the valley road) stops a few kilometres short of  Stará Ľubovňa, in Hniezdne, the smallest city in the erstwhile Kingdom of Hungary. The name is appropriate: not only does ‘hniez’ in Slovak mean ‘nest’ (from whence the distillery derives its name) but the small, sleepy town is at the very cradle of national history, being founded as one of the earliest Slovak settlements after Nitra – in the 12th century. Certainly, by  this time, Slavic people would have been working the land hereabouts and the Northern Spiš region soon became well known for its agriculture. Cream of the crops? Wheat, barley and rye – just the grain needed for the production of the water of life – and Slovakia’s first recorded distillery duly got established here by at least the 18th century.

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It’s a stark contrast between the ornate, peeling facades of the central townhouses and the spick, span entranceway to the distillery on the outskirts. I passed under the imposing wooden gateway proclaiming Nestville Park as Slovakia’s first (indeed, only) whiskey. Rain danced on an almost deserted car park: I was the sole visitor, another big difference compared to the Scottish distilleries with which I was familiar.

It’s hard to understand why is Nestville Park is an exceptionally well-laid-out tourist attraction. It is not only a whiskey distillery, it is also an exhibition on the history of whiskey making in this neck of the woods.

The two girls in the reception area glanced at me a tad incredulously when I walked in; the more so when I spoke to them in Slovak. Foreign tourists, it appeared, were none too common here. I was given the ‘English’ tour which consists of a guide (one of the afore-mentioned young ladies) who couldn’t speak a word of English pressing stop/start on an obtrusively loud American-accented recording, quite unnecessarily as it turned out because the displays in the ‘historical section’ of the distillery were in English. Nevertheless, thus we proceeded, me reading the in-English noticeboards, then having the same words replayed to me with a mechanical Deep-South twang.

The tour, though, was an enlightening romp through recreations of an 18th century cooperage and smithy, plus insights into how agriculture was practiced here in the 12th to 17th centuries. You get to have a ring of a huge bell in the belfry, too – once used to summon the workers!

Then the visit to the modern distillery commences.

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Sniffing that grain! ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Single malt aficionados should known straight off that Nestville Park is more akin to American bourbon – the maturation process ranging from three to seven years on average.

The malting process is done by hand. After 2-3 days soaked in water and malt is laid out in the malthouse for around a week to germinate. Then it gets switched to a kiln for further drying (2-3 days). The malt then has the water added to it – in Nestville Park’s case, water from a spring that has been flowing underground from the Bela Tatras part of the High Tatras mountains, and with a high iron, calcium and magnesium content, filtering through Paleogen-era bedrock en route. The fermentation room, considering Nestville Park’s products are mostly sold to a Slovak-only demographic, is huge: some 20 tanks each able to have 75,000 litres of alcohol bubbling away inside them.

The distillery overall has a modern feel – despite the historic record of a distillery around this site dating back to at least the 19th century – and the buildings are mostly very 21st century. Its pièce de résistance however, the tasting room, veritably oozes with history. Here, in an ornate hall hung on one side by what is Europe’s largest wood-carved picture, you get to partake of that well-earned sample dram – or, should I say, sizeable glass of the good stuff. The ambience is much more traditional rustic Slovak – albeit realised in an attractive way. And whilst slurping their complementary ‘green’ whisky – a grassy, earthy three year-old, you can also drink in how the whiskey production kicked off hereabouts historically: a reinterpretation of the medieval peasants that laboured to produce whiskey in Spiš region for centuries – and their life and culture.

A Nestville Park Whiskey Tasting

My favourite Nestville Park product was undoubtedly the single-barrel seven year-old. Think butterscotch and rum and raisin ice cream with a powerful shortbready afterkick. Just try it. At least the equal of most American bourbons – and coming with a good century more of history, too.

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

MAP LINK:

MORE INFO: Nestville Park website

ADMISSION: 5 Euros (standard tour with one tasting), 7 Euros (tour and three tastings)

OPENING: Daily 9am to 5pm (between May and September), Tuesday to Sunday 10am to 4pm (from October to April)

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Nestville Park in Hniezdne it’s only 58km east to Bardejov, one of the top ten most beautiful medieval towns in Slovakia and start point for visiting some of Eastern Slovakia’s famous wooden churches.

image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Around Nitra: Hiking Near Gýmeš Castle – The Ultimate Turkish Defence

The prequel is innocuous enough. A sharp turning in the dozy village of Jelenec, just north-east of Nitra on the E65 (an already forgotten village on a largely forgotten road). The landscape is pretty but not dramatic (dusty farms, low but gradually rising wooded hills. Then the road, already bad, terminates near the lake of Jazero Jelenec. In itself, the water is a pleasant spot for picnicking, particularly on the grassy banks on the far side. There’s a small waterside bar. Fishermen hunch over their lines whilst cracking open bottles of Šariš. There’s even a campsite, the appropriately named Autocamping Jelenec. But the only dusty tourist sign indicating “Hrad” (castle) has not been followed up by another. You would not think that hidden up in those woods was one of this region’s most interesting and remote hikes – nor indeed one of its mightiest castles: Gýmeš.

Arrival

Continue on the road passed the campsite (two adults with a caravan will set you back 8.50 Euros for the night). The road looks like it just leads to houses but it kinks round to the left and there, a couple of hundred metres later, a drunken hand-written sign (now confirming you are, after all that, in the right place) points you to a lay-by in which you can park and, indeed, start walking. The nearest public transport to the start point (scant, in any case) terminates in Jelenec which is still a fair walk (and an uninspiring one; 3km) for day-trippers, but, go-it-alone hikers, do not despair and stay tuned for an adventurous alternative approach…

The Case of the Hidden Castle

Studeny Hrad nr Gymes

Studeny Hrad near Gymes

The path winds up not steeply but nevertheless persistently from the parking spot up through woodland – a popular spot for mushroom-picking (post on Slovakia’s best mushroom-picking spots in the making). We even saw two off-duty soldiers filling a basket together. Finally the trees thin after a couple of kilometres and a path ascends a steep slope to a castle – but not the one you were expecting to find (that would be Gýmeš, remember?). No, this is Studeny Hrad – or cold castle – a broken series of rocks which form tiered ridges, leering out over the surrounding forest. It’s a superb viewpoint and – far further above, poking out of a tree-coated hill – is the actual Gýmeš – a disappointment for those who saw the “Hrad” sign and thought they’d arrived at the summit but, for adventurers, a thrilling taste of what is still to come.

Firepit within Gymes ruins

Firepit within Gymes ruins

Gýmeš Fortress

The first glimpse – of the ruins peeping out of the tree canopy – hardly prepares you for how vast Gýmeš Castle is. The path skitters through more trees and then joins a wider path which you follow to the left up the wooded rise to the castle entrance. Gýmeš is one of those ruins that grows on you, quite literally. At first only the broken entranceway reveals itself but through that, you climb up to one of the still intact towers, then continue into the keep and the interior rooms. A fortified area far larger than almost all other ruins in Slovakia reveals itself: larger yet than landmark Beckov Castle near Trenčin, and yours alone for the exploring (the route up puts most off); yours, too, for free (Beckov will charge you a 3 Euro entry).

Also great about Gýmeš is how inviting it is for picnicking. It’s not just the view, nor the feeling that descends of having discovered somewhere hidden, but one of those serendipitous barbecue spots often featuring in ruined castles on Slovak hill walks – and even a small shelter in which to camp out, if you so desired. Moral of the story: come with meat to cook.

The castle from the other side, rising out of the trees...

The castle from the other side, rising out of the trees…

Gýmeš has an interesting history – and one in which those first impressions of a fortress a cut above the norm start to make contextual sense. It was, indeed, a big cut above the norm – even by the high standards of Slovak castles. It was part of a mighty defence system, along with six other castles in the surrounding area, which came to create a chain of bulwarks against invading Turks. The other two castles nearby in the same chain were Oponicky Hrad and the fortifications at Nitra: castles with the girth and strength to outlast the most vicious of onslaughts. In the case of Gýmeš, its builders outdid themselves. Only in the 19th century did it finally fall (although the Turks did manage to invade it in the end, after which some rebuilding was necessary in the 18th century). But in total the fortress lasted almost 600 years following its original mid-13th century construction. In the latter days, occupants found a different way to deter visitors. Newcomers were welcomed with what became known as the shovel dance: basically, being whacked with a shovel upon arrival.

Hiking On From Gýmeš…

The path on to Oponicky Hrad

The path on to Oponicky Hrad

The easiest way back to the parking place is to return the way you came. But another, more overgrown route descends steeply from the ruins (to the left of where you first entered). Recent storms have knocked a few tress down on this route, and the path has not been well maintained, but with long trousers and hiking boots it’s not too challenging a route back down to the red trail (a wide forest track, some 2km down from the castle) where turning left takes you back passed a fishing lake to the start point.

But Gýmeš, it turns out, is a stop-off on a far longer route – a trail which leads all the way to connect the other castles involved in the defence of the land against the Turks. The next leg continues (hiking time from Gýmeš = three hours and 45 minutes) to Oponicky Hrad.

Or you could continue still further. Beyond Nitra Castle, this same path extends to Hrušov (not too far away north of Topol’cianky Castle in Slovakia), Visegrad, Esztergom (both on the Danube in Hungary) and Tata (in northern Hungary west of Budapest) castles.

MAP LINK:

The castle is free to enter with no restrictions on admission…

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Gýmeš its just 21km southeast to Slovakia’s most famous Arboretum, Arborétum Mlyňany.

RELATED POST: Western Slovakia’s Best Castles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1) What’s There?

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

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

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

Vineyards, with Bratislava in the distance

Vineyards, with Bratislava in the distance

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

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

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

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

 – SPIRITUAL SPOTS

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

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

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

2) Access

Bratislava Mestské Lesy

Bratislava Mestské Lesy

 

a) From Bratislava’s Mestské Lesy

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

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

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

RELATED POST: Bratislava Mestske Lesy (Local City Forest)

b) From Devínska Nová Ves, Bratislava. 

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

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

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

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

d) From Svätý Júr, just outside Bratislava

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

e) From Western Slovakia.

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

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

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

RELATED POST: Feasting in the woods above Modra

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Saint's Trail from Marianka to Svätý Jur

The Saint’s Trail from Marianka to Svätý Jur

3) The Small Carpathians on Englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

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

a) Bratislava & Around

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

– Heading North from Bratislava centre:

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

– Heading East/Northeast from Bratislava centre:

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

b) Western Slovakia

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

 4) Top Six Things To Do in the Small Carpathians

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

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

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

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

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

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

MAP LINK:

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

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

Nitra: The Antikvariat

It happened like this. We were wandering around Nitra, on a snowy evening in December,  checking out log baskets on the Christmas market (a present for my father). They had a great deal of choice. The selection process took some time. We were cold and exhausted in the way that only shopping for presents can exhaust you. Our car, for some reason, was parked far away. We struggled off, basket-burdened, down Kupecká, one of the pedestrianised streets that fans out from Nitra’s circular Námestie.

And there was the Antikvariat (aka antiquarian bookstore) – pretty much the only welcoming light on an otherwise dark wintry street. In we went, based on afore-mentioned tiredness primarily but also because wherever I am in whichever city, I’m always happy to give secondhand bookstores a browse. And based also, perhaps, on the fact that the welcoming signs on the glass (come read on our terrace, come speak a little English at our speaking table – speaking table is not quite as fairytale like as it sounds, but the phrase Slovaks give to weekly foreign-language practicing sessions) gave the feel of the place a certain something that whetted our curiousity.

The Antikvariat, or to give it its official name, Pod Vrškom, is far more than any old secondhand bookstore. Temporarily, in fact, as you come through the door you temporarily forget about the books because you find yourself in a rather elegant (and I mean the word in the hipster sense, “hipster” being the term by which most cool, alternative places run in a kinda counter-culture way by young people are known) cafe. Cafe Libresso. Yeah. Ancient standard lamps lean gutterally to provide subtle lighting over the kind of creaking old coffee tables you’d expect at your grandmother’s house. Books and magazines pile against one wall hung with photographs of trees. The ceiling when you look up is a huge abstract mural. The counter when you look down again is full of temptations (three types of cheesecake, several types of homemade biscuit, genuinely alluring baguettes – and anyone who has spent long in Slovakia will know that as a rule baguettes sold in kiosks and cafes are the very opposite of enticing) that made me think of Kerouac gushing about the sweet treats on offer in a diner when he walks into one, cold and hungry, in the dead of night at the beginning of Visions of Cody.

Cosy...

Cosy…

The speciality coffee came thick and rich and strong (they bring it with water to dilute but have it without and it’s Slovakia’s best coffee experience). Or you could have your brew Pod Vrškom style, that is, with banana and whipped cream. The chocolate cheesecake, if it’s on, is pretty much essential – er – eating. And the ambience – the cafe part of Pod Vrškom only opened in 2013 – is just what you want for a respite from a chilly winter’s evening.

The secondhand bookshop out the back is another delight – a veritable Aladdin’s cave of books with one of Western Slovakia’s best record selections (they’re expensive, mind but the selection is good-quality). All told, it’s couple of hours you could while away here.

And the BUT? For me, the Antikvariat is a wintertime place – perhaps because of this first, favourable impression. A summer visit recently did not feel quite the same. Perhaps because, on this occasion, I mis-remembered what type of coffee I’d gone for before. Perhaps because they didn’t have on any of the promising homemade cider. Perhaps because it was a different and less-friendly waitress serving. Perhaps because the bookshop/record shop was closed (it closes daily at 6pm, although the cafe goes on until 9pm). The summertime street front seating area has been done very well – a delightfully disordered mix of leather sofas, garden benches and beat old wooden chairs for the seats, some books to peruse).

But you know how it is. Ever been back to that lovely restaurant you lounged on the terrace of in summer in, I don’t know, Greece? Then gone back on a cold rainy day, necessarily wanted to sit inside and found the ambience somewhat lacking. Some places have an outside ambience but no indoor ambience. And Cafe Libresso is the opposite. It’s indoors where you want to be and that’s not so desirable in summer.

I’ll be back. But I’ll leave it until dusk on a November afternoon when I want a pick-me-up. Before 6pm, of course, so I can buy some vinyl and some old dusty volume too.

MAP LINK: 

LOCATION: Kupecká 7 – that’s not the main pedestrianised shopping street leading off from Svätoplukovo Námestie but the next one round in a clockwise direction.

OPENING: 9am-9pm (cafe); 9am-6pm (bookshop/record shop)

BEST TIME TO VISIT: 4pm-5pm on a winter afternoon

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From the Antikvariat it’s 30km east to Arborétum Mlyňany

Western Slovakia Castle Tour: Nine of the Best

Hrad Červený Kameň on the edge of the Small Carpathians

Hrad Červený Kameň on the edge of the Small Carpathians

We all know about the normal top tens of Slovakia: Spiš Castle, Trenčin, maybe Kežmarok. Spotted the theme yet? Castles. Slovakia does, of course, have very good castles (it is one of the most densely castellated countries in the world – and fights with its neighbour the Czech Republic over the number one spot). But why does it always have to be the same castles that make the best-of list? Spiš Castle has to be on there, I guess, because it’s just about Eastern Europe’s biggest fortress in terms of the area it covers. But with all those tourists? It’s far from the most interesting. Western Slovakia has some really good opportunities to go castle-spotting where you’ll get away from the crowds and see some scintillating ruins – all within a day’s jaunt of Bratislava.

First off: here’s a map which shows all of the below castles – good orientation!

1: Červený Kameň

This castle sets the bar pretty high, but it’s the closest to Bratislava, above the village of  Časta, a 40-minute, 50km drive northeast of the capital, just beyond the small city of Modra. Červený Kameň translates as the Red Stone Castle – but there’s pretty little evidence of red stone here. The red stone refers to the rock the fortress was built on, not the building material (the castle is largely white). My girlfriend’s sister worked here as a guide and I can vouch for the very informative tours in German and English (in case your Slovak is not up to scratch!). Actually, this castle has a very good website in English so having alerted you to it, here we go – we need say no more! Cool things to look out for include the vast cellars and the incredible library – but this is a furnished castle, not a ruin.

You can also read much more about the castle & its surroundings in our post, The Small Carpathians: An Intro (the Small Carpathians being the forested hills running in a chain across Western Slovakia, in which most of these formidable ruins can be found). As if that weren’t enough, also read our post about a great hike between Červený Kameň and the wonderful Zochava Chata above Modra (link to change from bold very soon).

2: Plavecký Hrad

The broken ramparts of this castle rear above the woods over the village of Plavecky Podhradie, a hop/skip/jump across from Červený Kameň on the northern face of the main chain of the Small Carpathians. (North across the valley plain from here, there is another wave of hills that are also technically Small Carpathians, but this area is largely devoted to a military zone).  In terms of castles rearing up above woods, only Gýmeš and Tematín can equal this fortress – which dates from the 14th century. To get here from Časta below Červený Kameň, it’s a 42km one-way drive via Smolenice and Trstín or a 20km walk over the hills. From Plavecky Podhradie itself, it’s a slightly challenging 2km hike up to the ruins. Read our post about the castle here and visit the surprisingly decent quality of English info on the castle here.

3: Nitranský Hrad (Nitra Castle)

From Červený Kameň it’s a 50-minute drive east via Hlhovec or Trnava to Nitra – home to one of Slovakia’s best cafes (that I have yet found). Nitra also has a very impressive castle. It’s an 11th century castle complex crowning the Old Town and approached by some very pretty streets. A big statue in the courtyard commemorates the last papal visit to the city. There’s great crypts in the castle and it could be defined as a mix between ruin and furnished fortress.

4: Hrad Gýmeš 

By rights Gýmeš should feature at this point in this blog entry – it’s next-closest to Nitra – a very extensive ruin accessed by driving 11km northwest of the city and just north of the village of Jelenec. It links in with Nitransky Hrad and Oponický Hrad too because they are all connected historically, as fortifications raised as defence against the Turkish incursions into old Austria-Hungary – and as such is part of an official hike tying in all three, and a further-reaching tour of similar fortresses which includes a few in Hungary as well. See our post on Gýmeš Castle for more on the fortress itself, its surrounds and the Nitransky Hrad-Hrad Gýmeš-Oponický Hrad hike.

Oponický Hrad

5: Oponický Hrad

Head either north from Nitra (or hike the three hours 45 minutes along the trail from Hrad Gýmeš; see above for more on this hike) to the next hrad up. Hrad means castle – you’ve probably worked this out by now. This is, despite being far more ruined than either Nitra or Červený Kameň, much more of an adventure because not so many people make it out here. Even by the standards of pretty isolated Hrad Gýmeš above, this really is solitude standing – utterly magnificent solitude. It’s just 20km north of central Nitra on route 593, just before the village of Oponice. It’s a broken series of ruins jutting out over a woody hill, dating from the 14th century. After changing hands a few times it fell into the clutches of the Apponyis family who built one of the most prominent surviving buildings, the palace. It was a stronghold against the Turks in the 16th and 17th centuries (actually that’s the reason why Slovakia has so many castles – a line of fortifications the old Austro-Hungarian Empire put up to defend against marauding Turks). Slovakia might be a pretty chilled place today, of course, but once it was part of a raging war zone!

6: Topolčiansky Hrad

There’s no denying it: as castles go in these parts, Topolčiansky looks pretty crazy. In the mountains known as Povazsky Inovec (a southerly arm of the Malé Karpaty) near the village of Podhradie, the tower of this castle (which is actually in tact enough that you can climb part-way up) looks so disproportionally tall and narrow it looks like it will fall over any second. It’s a medieval castle that’s been abandoned since the 18th century. It’s actually really near Hlohovec. If you’re coming from the south you take the Hlohovec exit from Rte 61 and then follow Rte 514 northeast through villages like Velke Ripnany to reach Podhradie. Don’t get it confused with the town of Topolčiansky to the southeast which is actually not all that near the castle. From Oponický Hrad, the last stop on your castle tour, carry on north up Rte593 to Kovarce, then turn left to get back on Rte 64 to Topolcany, from where a road leads via Zavada to Topolčiansky. A clutch of other castle ruins are nearby Topolčiansky… but of course there are – this is Slovakia, there are many ruins and this is but one blog post!

7: Hrad Tematín

North from Piešt’any on the way towards Beckovsky Hrad (below) are the moody ruins of Tematín Castle, where you can even stay(!) and for which Englishmaninslovakia now has a lovely post (far more fun and detailed than the scant Wikipedia entry or any other in-English article about the castle).

8: Čachtice Castle

A poignant hilltop ruin with a still more poignant history: that of the legendary “bloody duchess” Countess Bathory, who is said to be the most prolific murderess of all time, and who once resided here… more on this castle coming soon!

Beckovsky Hrad

Beckovsky Hrad

9: Beckovsky Hrad

These are wild parts – head back on Rte 514 to Hlohovec or Rte 499 to Piešt’any and then head north towards Beckov Castle, off the E75 at Nové Mesto Nad Váhom on Rte 507. Beckov has veered slightly more towards the 21st century than the preceding two castles and actually has a good website with some English info (or better yet, read our post on Beckovsky Hrad). This is a quite extensive castle ruin and sits on a rocky bluff (quite percariously, in the way castle-builders seemed to favour). It’s sign-posted off the main E75 road and is quite visible from there but really does look still more spectacular close up.

You can wind up the tour just north at the better-known ruins of Trenčin Castle which the Slovakia section of the Lonely Planet Guide to Eastern Europe, authored by me, does a far better job of describing. Trenčin, of course, is one of our top Slovak stop-offs, which means any article you read on here about Trenčin has a mini-guide at the end detailing all our available content on the town.

Trenčin Castle