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The Best Ways to Experience Christmas in Slovakia

This is the season to be happy, after all.

Dinky, mountain-backed, frequently snow-blanketed and with a propensity for lighting big crackling log fires or old-fashioned tiled stoves to warm the cockles in the cold months, Slovakia is a great place for a cosy festive getaway. Several German towns, as well as Vienna, tend to steal the show in Central Europe with their well-known traditional festiveness, but the Slovaks can hold their own with their bigger rivals when it comes to Christmassy ambience – and Slovak towns and cities have the bonus that they’re not nearly so crowded at this time of year, so there will be only a fraction of the wait for that mulled wine.

If you’re Slovakia-bound over Christmas or New Year, we’ve made experiencing festive delights a little easier with this oh-so experiential post.

Christmas Markets

As in other Central European countries, Christmas markets are the perfect way to get into the festive spirit (unlike some aspects of Slovak culture, they also have the advantage of being very accessible and easy to indulge in) – serving everything from lokše (traditional potato pancakes oozing with fillings like goose fat) and roast pork through to medovina (Slovak mead), a sour but delicious mulled wine and also lots of amazing handicrafts.

The best Slovak Christmas market is Bratislava’s, spilling over between the richly ornamental central squares of Hlavné and Hviezdoslavovo námestie (see more on Bratislava Christmas Market). The market runs every afternoon/evening until December 22nd this year. Not far away, where Námestie SNP meets Klobučnicka, there is the refurbished Stará Trznica (old marketplace) which is also alive with Christmassy stalls but offers more contemporary, higher-end handicrafts and foods and is patronised by a crowd of young, cool hipster Slovaks. Stará Trznica is open year-round, actually, on Saturdays – and soon we’ll get round to finishing the more detailed post we’ve been preparing on it. For now though, the last market before Christmas is Saturday, December 16th! There is set to be 150 stalls, Christmassy workshops and live music. Get in there!

Another fabulous Christmas market is in the ancient city of Nitra, in Western Slovakia. It’s also held on the central námestie – with stalls arranged in a wide circle around the square: going every afternoon/evening until December 23rd. This market is particularly well known for its gorgeous woven baskets. If you are spending any time in Eastern Slovakia over the festive season, then the go-to Christmas market is in Košice – right along its wide central artery, Hlavná. It’s open a day longer than Bratislava’s Christmas market too: every afternoon/evening until December 23rd.

RELATED POST: Top Ten Classic Slovak Foods

Christmas Shopping

Slovakia maintains a lot of its handicrafts making traditions, and whilst some of these are on show at the Christmas, for some you’ll have to go the extra mile to find the best take-home Christmas gifts. On Englishman in Slovakia, we’ve prepared our Top Ten Slovak Gifts to give you some ideas. Bear in mind Modra for ceramics, the Malé Karpaty towns of Modra, Piešťany and Trnava for getting your hands on some Slovak wine purchased straight from the winemakers (and for sampling some in an idyllic wine bar, why not?), and for general festive loveliness with your seasonal shop, Modra and Trenčín in Western Slovakia, Banská Štiavnica in Central/Southern Slovakia and Bardejov and Košice in Eastern Slovakia.

Christmas Escapes

Slovakia has a lot of spectacular wilderness with traditional wooden houses to hole up in with the snow piled high outside. However, many of the best take a fair amount of insider knowledge, planning and time: putting them beyond the practical reach of many. For this reason we have to concur on this site with the Guardian (who put the city as their number one winter break choice in Europe for 2016/2017) and say Poprad in the High Tatras is a great choice to actually get to the snowy, Christmassy wilderness the quickest. Here is how to fly to Poprad and here is an introduction to the city, from the bottom of which article you can access all our other content on Poprad. From Poprad, you can take the Tatras Electric Railway up into the High Tatras mountains themselves where you are guaranteed snow at this time of year, can stay at a middle-of-nowhere mountain house (yes, they’re mostly open in winter too) and try all manner of wintery sports, including husky riding and skioring!

Best of the rest: where to snow-escape to get festive in Slovakia:

4: Head up above the pretty town of Modra in Western Slovakia to dine at very Christmassy Furmanská Krčma – a log cabin in the snow-covered woods.

3: Check into a lovely characterful guesthouse like Penzión Resla pri Klopacke in Banská Štiavnica – a great place from which to watch this dazzling medieval mining town unfold below you, whilst up in the hills above lie a number of great wintery hikes.

2: The Low Tatras is very snowy from December through to April, so get a fix of the white stuff whilst gazing out on one of the best views in Slovakia from the top of Chopok at Kamenna Chata – then ski back down again on some of Eastern Europe’s best slopes.

1: Undertake the traditional Three Kings (Traji Krali) Day pilgrimage to Marianka from Bratislava on January 6th – Slovakia’s biggest pilgrimage destination, and benefitting from a couple of traditional watering holes to refresh those poor weary pilgrims!

Remember Silvester!

Silvester (New Year’s Eve) is cool (indeed, veritably freezing) in Slovakia too. Celebrations kick off everywhere, but perhaps most tourist-friendly are those in Bratislava – where an ice skating rink is set up in Hviezdoslavovo namestie and fireworks are let off from the banks of the Danube.

Home is Where the Heart is

Christmas or New Year at a Slovak household, of course – should you have the chance to experience it – is by far the best way, if you can wangle it, of indulging in Christmas festivities. The main reason to partake is quite possibly the food: traditional Slovak delicacies way better than the kind on offer in the restaurants become available: all manner of gingerbread sweets in the Christmas run-up along with the most typically festive vianoce (rich fruit cake) and piping hot spiced wine, fish served on Christmas Day itself (celebrations, remember, are on December 24th as in many Catholic countries) and Kapustnica (a divine thick sauerkraut and tomato soup, and the most complex Slovak dish of all) served on Silvester/New Year’s Eve.

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Around Piešt’any: Reštaurácia Furman

Imagine it: the biting wind of a mid-winter afternoon, the dismalness of night-time already looming although there has barely been any daylight to speak of. Still, you’ve made the best of it and hiked into the hills, only to find the weather has got too much for you. It’s gnawed its way into the marrow of your bones. The only thought that keeps flashing around your brain is not how beautiful the landscape is (although, in its own bleak way, it does have a beauty) but how to get warm, and that quickly. As extensions of that thought are the dual fantasies of hot food and hot drink, ideally in somewhere atmospheric although you’d settle for less, you’d settle for anything with four walls and a roof – and at the same time you’re entertaining this fantasy you know that you’re in the countryside and any kind of shelter is a long shot. This was the context in which we rounded the brow of a bare hill and saw, in the dip below, Reštaurácia Furman for the first time.

Furman is part of that delightful breed of places to eat in Slovakia that rears the meat that winds up on the plate in a wood out back. For fresh jeleň (venison) or bažant (pheasant) there are few better places in the country to come than here, as we soon discovered.

Dog or Deer?

The welcome is an unusual one. Strangely, the first thing you see is an immense yellow dog galloping around in a paddock of its own, as if it were a dangerous creature, but that should not deter you: the dog is deceptively friendly, and not on the menu. The deer in the field behind, however, are. Whilst first-timers to this type of restaurant might find it cruel that these sweet- and sombre-seeming animals should act, on the one hand, as a diversion outside the restaurant (to pet them, to pose for pictures with them, etc) and yet should be served up as the speciality of the day inside, I personally find it refreshing: the animals have an entire wood of their own to roam in, and you can be sure the meat here is fresh, and the animals well-cared for during their lives. A beast-to-meat relationship, vividly there for all to see, is an honest one – one no meat-eater should shy away from.

Vitame Vas… Welcome! ©englishmaninslovakia.com

Vitame Vas… Welcome! ©wwwenglishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The Menu

Once we’d peeled off our layers, got our blood circulating again and settled down at a table in an interior somehow combining traditional Slovak with just a touch of the Wild West, the obvious choice (from the dishes of the day, which I always go for) was either the deer goulash or the pheasant in red wine sauce and it was the latter that I went for. It came deliciously and richly seasoned with herbs, and accompanied with potato croquettes that rank up there with the very best I’ve had in Slovakia – again impeccably seasoned with rosemary and thyme and ladled with cranberries on top. Washing it down was the mulled wine my chilled body craved (served sour, in the typical Slovak way, with honey and sugar provided). My dining companion ordered grilled oštiepok, and they were very accommodating in making it gluten-free. Several other styles of venison (as ragout with dates, or a leg cut with a sauce concocted from forest mushrooms) were also available. Prices were invariably between 5 and 9 Euros for main courses.

Unabashed Tradition

What you are getting with Reštaurácia Furman is a gloriously typical Slovak eatery (the sheepskins are draped over the chunky wooden seats, the stag’s heads gaze haughtily down from their fixtures on the walls, the ceiling is studded with old cart wheels) proud of its tradition – but not once compromising on either quality of food or ambience. This is how a typical rural restaurant would have been (give or take) 60 or 70 years ago. Now their rustic wood hunter-friendly decor and self-reared meat reared is something that should be highly prized, because it is actually increasingly rare. Sorry, vegetarians, or members of anti-hunting sects: this is how a quintessential Slovak restaurant should be. If you don’t like it, there are plenty of other more modern joints in bigger towns and cities. But if you came to Slovakia expecting an eatery exuding raw, rural Slovak-ness (as you would be entitled to do) then voila: this is it.

The pheasant…. ©englishmaninslovakia.com

The pheasant…. ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

 

Room With A View

It is the sort of spot that, on any walking holiday, you would dream of chancing upon. After all, it has an enviable location – a few kilometres’ walk above Piešt’any and right on the cusp of the woodsy hills that form an arm of the Small Carpathians, Povazsky Inovec, through which you can stroll through stunning upland countryside to Tematín Castle. Part of the panorama from the restaurant and the bar next door is across the summer terrace down over rolling farmland to the rather dramatic grey-white spread of Nádrž Slňavaone of the country’s biggest reservoirs. And just down the track too are the ruins of Villa Bacchus, where Beethoven once stayed whilst composing his Moonlight Sonata. But from the look of the clientele, it’s also a place well-heeled Piešt’any folks and those from further a-field would willingly venture up into them hills to sample.

Little Bit of History Repeating

And a furman? It’ss an antiquated profession that would translate most closely in English to “Coachman”. But there is no real equivalent. A furman would have been a man who lived on a smallholding in the countryside, with a carriage that he would hire out for different purposes (taking goods to market, or ferrying paying passengers around from A to B.) In Slovakia it is the ultimate epitome of a return to rural roots. And therefore a return to traditional, fresh Slovak food.

A Quick Guide to the Other Content We Have on the Piešt’any Area:

Places to Go: Piešt’any’s Best Thermal Pools

Places to Go: A Great Castle near Piešt’any

Places to Go: in the Footsteps of Beethoven Above Piešt’any

Places to Eat & Drink: Piešt’any’s Best Cakes

RELATED POST: Furmanská Krčma, near Modra

One thing. Whilst I wasn’t really expecting (just hoping, somehow) for the Deliverance soundtrack that might have been most appropriate on the stereo, the tame R&B playing for most of our visit did slightly undermine the atmosphere. Music is important. If the guys in charge of Reštaurácia Furman realised that, this place would be truly exceptional.

MAP LINK: Top of the screen is Piešt’any, with spa island in the middle of the river there; mid-right to the right of the reservoir is the restaurant. Getting to the restaurant by road, it’s just a couple of km from the other side of the River Váh from the town centre.

OPENING: 10am-10pm daily

BEST TIME TO VISIT: A winter lunchtime after a walk.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: 2km northwest you can relax with treatments in the best of Piešt’any’s spas whilst a 20km drive or walk (through the hills) north brings you to Tematín Castle.

©englishmaninslovakia.com

©englishmaninslovakia.com

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Poprad: AquaCity – The Most Fun You Can Have in the High Tatras With Your Clothes Off

The impression dawns, some small time after you arrive in the AquaCity reception area (by which time you can already discern the excitable babble of squeals filtering in from outside) that what you are about to embark on is a rollicking good time. You’re going to experience some world-class treatments, sure – but above all, you’re going to enjoy yourself.

AquaCity, on the outskirts of the High Tatras city of Poprad, enjoys a cracking view out to the rearing mountain peaks of Northern Slovakia in one direction, and a birds-eye panorama out over one of Slovakia’s most beguiling medieval centresSpišská Sobota, in the other. But what it offers itself is a big diversion from the stunning scenery and century-old architecture the country is so famous for. It offers Slovakia’s greatest array of water-based fun – and in a nation well known for spas, too. The spa or kúpele concept at Piešt’any, Rajecké Teplice or Bardejovské Kúpele attracts thousands of foreign visitors annually for the fantastic thermal waters bubbling under Slovakia’s soil. But they all take themselves quite seriously. Straight faces and respectful silences are not the norm at AquaCity: it’s no more possible to keep them than it is to keep yourself from licking your lips when you’re eating a jam doughnut.

There is nothing ancient about the strikingly modern (and, more strikingly, massive) AquaCity complex – except perhaps the thermal waters on which the entire thing rests. At a time when it was unknown that Poprad possessed thermal springs under its bedrock, the story goes that AquaCity’s owner, Jan Telensky, stumbled upon a rusty old pipe with the naturally heated 49-degree water gushing out of it whilst taking a walk on some nearby waste ground – and that thus was the idea of AquaCity born. Nowadays, after the High Tatras mountains themselves, this wondrous wellness experience is the city’s top attraction. As often as not, people come to Poprad to luxuriate in the (quite literally) piping hot waters and don’t give the mountains any more than an admiring glance.  The “scrap to riches” success story is all the more impressive once it becomes clear that AquaCity is so vast it is difficult even to begin to know how to describe it – let alone how to explore it.

I’m soon laughing with the rest of the day’s thousand-odd visitors when I check in for my pampering session (I should perhaps be referring to it as a pampering adventure, because quite quickly the experience takes you forth into uncharted waters). From excitement, yes, but first of all when the manager in all seriousness suggests I’ll need an absolute minimum of a day to appreciate everything the complex has in store.

I am not a spa writer and the idea of spending a day doing, well, nothing really besides a little lounging in various pools and saunas, doesn’t immediately appeal: not besides getting out in the mountains hiking, or biking, or climbing, or caving. But I am won round fairly quickly (I attribute it to the friendliness of the staff showing me the ropes and the sheer innovation evidently behind AquaCity). As a writer you require something to really write about regardless of the subject matter: I would rather gush over a quirky hostel with nothing but dorm beds than I would over a lacklustre top-of-the-range hotel. Similarly, with AquaCity, I found the many USPs revealed on my cursory tour caused me to prick up my ears even though I have been known to doze off whilst listening to the intro spiel for some of the world’s better-known spa resorts.

Let’s deal with one issue, straight off. AquaCity is not a spa. It’s a resort without much precedent anywhere in Europe, sporting three hotels and great conference facilities (business travellers), too many eating and drinking options to count (food lovers), world-class leisure facilities from football to tennis to minigolf (sports lovers), some seriously ground-breaking health and beauty treatments (treatment seekers) – and then of course that immense collection of pools, Jacuzzis and saunas (pleasure lovers and fun-seekers!). Geothermal water-themed leisure and pleasure complex will suffice as a general description for now…

image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Cryotherapy…

I am advised to commence with the serious stuff (because AquaCity does have a serious side, like all wellness centres). There is good sense behind the advice: in absolute contrast with the geothermal waters for which the complex is most renowned, I am about to get cold – very cold (and it’s much better to wind up at the end of the day with a warm feeling lingering).

The cryotherapy unit, in its own special wing at AquaCity, is a European leader (cryotherapy was first developed here in Eastern Europe): the body is frozen at a temperature of first -60 degrees and then -120 degrees for a total of two and a half minutes in two different chambers. Whilst it is available in bigger cities like London, AquaCity offers the experience at a fraction of the price. Said to treat all manner of sporting injuries, the treatment involves first donning a warm hat, special thick-soled shoes and mittens, getting a medical examination (in this case by a jovial and somewhat flamboyant doctor) to check the temperature shock won’t kill you, then being ushered into first an ante-chamber (at a mere -60 degrees) and then, in 30 seconds time, being summoned into the main chamber at -120 degrees, where you have to walk around for two minutes (four minutes would induce death but two is fine) whilst the merry doctor communicates with you on a tannoy to check that you’re not in agony. And incredibly, you are not – because the iciness has very little moisture content. You walk out feeling invigorated and then engage in half an hours’ warm-up in the cryotherapy section’s gym. By which time you are more than ready for those warm waters…

One of the many pools ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

One of the many pools ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Getting Warmed Up

Back up a level, across AquaCity’s four-star Mountain View hotel, down again and along a twisting series of corridors (by which point, after almost a kilometre of walking, you will certainly be understanding the appropriateness of the ‘city’ part of the name of the complex), one enters the area known as Vital World – which is perfect for those that just imagined moments before they would be frozen to death.

Changing into nowt but a towel (the towel is optional, but you cannot proceed wearing swimming costumes – welcome to Central European-style spas!) you can embark on a veritable round trip of extravagant relaxation, circling through a steam sauna, a flower sauna, a salt sauna, a Finnish sauna and a beautiful snow cave (yep, High Tatras snow and ice in a cute little enclave that will have you thinking you’re in Santa’s grotto rather than a mega-resort). To truly luxuriate you’ll need a couple of hours here at least (I luxuriate quite rapidly as a rule and it still took me nearly that long) – particularly if you throw in the hot tub, the official relaxation area (after all that hard work in the saunas, some time on sunbeds with classical music is not amiss) and Slovakia’s premier Thai massage centre. Thai massage options include the Rit Tee (a hot, herbal massage) and the popular Tok Sen, which uses small sharp sticks to poke through your skin at the tissue and bones and thus, somehow, improve your circulation…

Poolside Fun

Vital World is wonderful, but there’s no denying that the part of AquaCity where you really let the inner child within you out is the extensive range of pools, indoor and outdoor, and water slides: a 50-metre Olympic-sized swimming pool, plus (between the inside and outside areas) 13 more pools with temperatures ranging between 27 and 40 degrees. Kids love AquaCity’s newest water-based fun, the Treasure Island pool – themed around a huge pirate ship. Even an a cool day the outside pools are packed (although the water slides open only in the height of summer). Fountains, more Jacuzzis, a swim-up bar and a healthy restaurant sandwiched midway through your between-pool wanderings embellish the experience. Best of all, each evening, a spectacular laser light show is projected around one of the larger pools (the Blue Sapphire): a fitting way to cap a day of being good to yourself…

AquaCity’s Eco-Friendliness

It would be tempting to think there was something wasteful in all this lavish use of hot water. But the opposite is the case.

The bore hole on which the complex sits gushes out 49-degree water that would otherwise not get used for very much at all. Instead, AquaCity’s modern steel-and-glass design allows for the water to travel around the buildings, heat up the centre from the pools to the rooms (in conjunction with solar energy), and still have sufficient quantities to power the world’s only geothermally heated football stadium, right next-door. Other deft green touches will have you feeling a whole lot better about your spa-going, too. Lights, for example, switch on and off automatically when you enter or exit a room. Pools were constructed with steel rather than concrete, which meant far less impact on the environment. The centre was even the first in Central Europe to attain the highly-coveted Green Globe award, the highest mark of internationally recognised environmentally friendly excellence. AquaCity brands itself as an immersion in ecological luxury and that, it seems, it most definitely is.

For sure, there is a fair amount to write home about – even for those for whom spas normally leave feeling luke-warm – and no need to feel guilty, due to those glowing green credentials, about indulging in AquaCity’s rather unique blend of fun… there are few places in Slovakia that cater quite so well simultaneously to poker-faced business conferences, to romancing couples – and to young families shrieking in unrestrained joy.

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: 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 Eat & Drink: Poprad’s gourmet chocolatier

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

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

Top Ten Medieval Towns in Slovakia

MAP LINK

LOCATION: Sportova 1397/1: from Poprad Tatry train station head east (left) on the main road, Štefanikova.

ADMISSION: 22 Euros (Aquapark only day ticket) or 34 Euros (Vital World and Aquapark day ticket)

OPENING: 9am to 10pm daily (Aquapark), 9am to 10pm Monday, Tuesday, Friday and Saturday (Vital World), 4pm to 7pm Tuesday to Saturday (Cryotherapy)

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: 42km northeast of AquaCity is Slovakia’s only whisky distillery at Hniezdne.

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Piešt’any: In the Footsteps of Beethoven

Slovakia has only been a nation twenty-three years. Before that it was a region within regularly chopping and changing borders: Turkish, Austrian, Hungarian, Czech, German, Russian: all have had a stab at meddling with the frontiers here. And so, through the ages, a huge diversity of famous personages stopped by for one reason or another: people you never would have associated with Slovakia. One of these was Beethoven. We’ve already detailed in our post on Hlohovec how the great composer famously stopped off for one night in the town and performed for them. He was stopping off en route to Piešt’any: and there he stayed some time.

Ludwig was hastening here for the spas of course: Piešt’any is a spa town and the obvious reason to come is to take the waters. But there are other things to do besides luxuriating in the healing mud treatments. There are now, and there was then, and Beethoven has a lot to do with it.

It’s not recorded for precisely how long Beethoven stayed, but most sources reckon it was during the winter of 1801-1802. He resided in Villa Bacchus, a grand still-standing but currently unused building in the hills north of the town, and popularised the culture of winter sleigh rides between the villa and Piešt’any’s spa island (great fun on the way there, as it is all down hill, but tough, quite possibly, ascending again from Piešt’any.) The composer was lucky enough to visit Piešt’any pretty much at its zenith: its glamorous status of the age helped no end by the most eponymous of the Erdödy family, Jozef, who had owned the spa town since 1789 (his family, in fact, since 1720).  Jozef Erdödy liked beautiful things (I know this from reading a plaque in the Balnea Esplanade Hotel), had Hlohovec Castle lavishly redecorated with treasures from the corners of the known world, and took his state-of-the-art (then) sleigh (adorned with dragon’s heads to symbolise power) up to see Beethoven at Villa Bacchus whilst the composer was in town.

As we set off on a chilly spring walk from spa island, we didn’t know any of this. We just fancied a leg-stretch and, having already walked the lengths of the River Váh in both directions from the town centre, decided on heading up into the hills directly above the Thermia Palace hotel (into the lower reaches of the Považský Inovec uplands).

A blue-marked trail twists up into the woods from just left of the road bridge across the Váh. At this point it’s a concreted path, and hung with gas lamps (signs of a lovelier age that we pondered upon on the climb). After perhaps 20 minutes of walking you cross a road at a large castellated ruin, which looks impressive (if slightly malevolent) and a branch-off path to the Koliba Restaurant (where there’s good rustic Slovak cooking and nice views back down over spa island and the town).

But the blue trail, also a yellow cycling route, continues on a gorgeous path through woods and then, unusually for a Slovak trail, cuts across farmland. The scene is surprisingly reminiscent of the English South Downs. A tree-lined path through open fields with gentle patchwork quilt-type landscapes falling away on one side and a vast reservoir rearing into view on the other. Not previously knowing anything about the landscapes on this side of Piešt’any both the Englishness and the reservoir (Nádrž Slňava, where a country music festival takes place in the summer) were a surprise.

The one thing we did know at this stage was that we were following a route to Villa Bacchus which, in the biting January wind, assumed almost mythical proportions for us. There would be a beautiful cosy restaurant there, we fantasised. With a crackling open fire, we guessed. Surrounded by beautiful vineyards, we hoped.

The vineyards appeared first. Then, maybe 1km further on, after a ridge route above the reservoir, the scattering of houses which must surely contain Villa Bacchus reared into view, crouched below the higher hills of the Small Carpathians looming behind. In the distance, you could spy the summit where Tematín Castle sits. On a sunnier day, we would have kept walking. From here, beguiling hill hikes both south to Hlohovec and north to Tematín await. But it was cold, and it seemed we were to be disappointed: Villa Bacchus was no longer operational as a dignified lodging house that hosted the like likes of Ludwig. But then, in the lee of the hill, a striking yellow building appeared, with smoke coming out of the chimney. Every one of our fantasies about a cosy place to retreat from the weather were, bizarrely in this out-of-the-way spot, about to become reality, in the form of Restauracia Furman (just down from the old Villa Bacchus).

So a 2km hike from Piešt’any can conjure up some rather wondrous surprises. The best route back to spa island is by returning the same way and there we discovered the sleigh that could very well have been the one Erdödy rode on to call on Beethoven in along the very hike described here. At least, as the plaque alongside conceded, it must have been one very similar…

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A Quick Guide to the Other Content We Have on the Piešt’any Area:

Places to Go: Piešt’any’s Best Thermal Pools

Places to Go: A Great Castle near Piešt’any

Places to Eat & Drink: A Great Restaurant in the Hills Above Piešt’any

Places to Eat & Drink: Piešt’any’s Best Cakes

 

MAP LINK

GETTING THERE: Piešt’any is on the main train line between Bratislava, Poprad and Kosice; this walk kicks off right from spa island (Kúpeľný ostrov).

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: Continue 23km north by road from the end of this hike at the Furman Restaurant (and a few km less if you’re hiking through the hills) to reach the dramatic ruins of Tematín Castle

NB: Round off the Beethoven tour with a jaunt to see a memorial dedicated to his stint in Piešt’any, in the town park: it was finished in 1939 by Ladislav Ľ. Pollák, a prominent sculptor.

35-degree waters - image y www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Piešt’any: the Pick of its Thermal Pools

Whether in summer, for a well-earned languishing and luxuriating session, or in the colder weather for a quick warming dip, Slovakia’s spas – and one in particular – are an absolute must-visit.

The best bathing spots in the country, of course, are much easier to narrow down if that country doesn’t have a coastline. In landlocked Slovakia, bathing is all about spas: there is a stunning variety of therapeutic thermal waters flowing under the earth here, and a clutch of great spa towns for those with a desire to take the waters.

But it’s Piešt’any that is Slovakia’s number one spa town. The quality of services is higher and, located on the serene “spa island” alongside the pleasant town of Piešt’any, the spa buildings with their ornate neoclassical design help create the dignified spa atmosphere of bygone centuries more atmospherically than other spa towns around.

Over the bridge on spa island itself, the most lavish building is the five-star Thermia Palace Hotel (now part of the Danubius group). Adjoining this is the Irma Spa – and what many people don’t know is that the treatments are available to non-guests, and not at so very high a price. There is no need to stay here if your wallet doesn’t stretch. BUT hotel guests do understandably get first priority and therefore there is no way to book in advance the delightful outdoor thermal pool which probably qualifies as Slovakia’s best. You have to turn up and hope that it’s not full (this puts many people off from so doing). But full it almost never is.

Thermia Palace & Irma Spa from the Outside

Outside Thermia Palace & Irma Spa – image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Turn right along the corridor inside the entranceway with its stained glass scene of rural Slovak life at one end and its mural depicting the thermal currents flowing under Piešt’any on the other side. Check at reception for the number of spaces at the outside thermal pool that you would like (12 Euros per person, but for as long as you wish). Then you’ll be guided along to the entrance to the pool. You can go out and put your things by the pool first, then change after (there’s a poolside custodian).

The changing rooms themselves are few but spacious, with high wooden park benches to put clothes on (not quite up there with my favourite Slovak spa changing rooms, the prize for which goes to the glamorous 19th-century hammam at the Trenčianske Teplice spa just outside Trenčin, but still very nice).

And here’s the shocker. This beautiful pool, with a temperature of 35 degrees in summer and 38 in winter, surrounded by the ornate environs of one of Slovakia’s loveliest spa hotels, and abutted by an old English garden replete with statues, is almost always virtually empty – even at weekends. The only people in the know seem to be a steady stream of visitors from the Middle East – but even they are only sporadically in evidence at the pool itself. For 12 Euros you can stay as long as you like here, bring a picnic to munch on the beds around the edge in if you want or wander along the path to the equally refined cafe-restaurant in the Thermia Palace Hotel – with outside tables overlooking the English garden.

If you’re used to Europe’s better-known spas, like Széchenyi in Budapest, you’ll be amazed by the quietude of Piešt’any. The surrounds are not quite as glamorous as Széchenyi but it’s a fair trade-off for having the water almost to yourself. The best thermal pool in Slovakia? Quite probably, yes.

Other Treatments…

That is of course in addition to having the luxury of 60+ treatments involving the famous Piešt’any sulphurous mud, including the indoor mud pool with its lofty domed roof, right nearby. For an insight into the treatments available, check the Thermia Palace website’s list of treatments. And a tip: the hot water churns into the pool right on the left-hand side below the steps in and is the cosiest place to hang out.

A Quick Guide to the Other Content We Have on the Piešt’any Area:

Places to Go: Hiking in the Footsteps of Beethoven Around Piešt’any

Places to Go: A Great Castle near Piešt’any

Places to Eat & Drink: Piešt’any’s Best Cakes

Places to Eat & Drink: A Great Restaurant in the Hills Above Piešt’any

 

MAP LINK:

GETTING THERE: Trains run from Bratislava’s Hlavná Stanica Station to Piešt’any every one to two hours. Costs for a ticket are 4.30 Euros.

ADMISSION: 12 Euros

OPENING: 10am-7pm

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Piešt’any’s spa island, it’s 26km north to Beckov Castle and 20km south to Hlohovec

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.

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).

 

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

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Around Trnava: Hlohovec, Beethoven & The Founder of the Slovak Language

The River Vah Flowing Through Hlohovec

The River Vah Flowing Through Hlohovec – image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

As you’ve probably worked out by now, Englishmaninslovakia.co.uk doesn’t focus on well-known Slovakian places so much. We prefer to dig deep to find the truth under the cliches and to this end, on a cold, blustery and crisp day in February, we went to Hlohovec.

I confess we did go there with an attitude of determination to discover something beautiful, if only for the reason that people told us there was nothing beautiful there. Hlohovec is a good example of a medium-sized town in Western Slovakia (on the main route northeast from Bratislava between Trnava and Trenčin) that gets overlooked: because it doesn’t have quite the spectacular location of, say, Poprad, nor the beauty of, say, Bardejov AND because it is near enough to Bratislava and Trnava that its residents simply go to one of these larger cities if they need anything like a night out.

Hlohovec does have some claims to fame. It has a castle, Hlohovsky Zámok, in an expansive park just outside the town. It’s got landscaped gardens and a quite impressive theatre that often has Beethoven concerts in memory of the town’s most famous visitor, who stopped over for a night at the castle en route to the spa at Piešt’any and may have given a recital there, depending on which version of the story you listen to (actually, no joke, Bratislava and Western Slovakia do have a rich heritage of attracting top-notch composers – see a separate post on this very topic). The problem (aha I hear you say) is that whilst the park is great for a walk (you can even carry on walking above the castle into the hills and get to a small observatory with good views of Western Slovakia) it is, ahem, closed. And also in a bad state of repair.

If they invested money in the castle refurbishment, this town really would regain some more of the life it clearly once had back. In fact, a consortium tried to do this about ten years ago but local government officials doubted its potential to succeed and rejected the bid. More recently, some aspiring young inhabitants of the town tried to join the local council with a promise to focus on restoring the castle gardens and the castle.They too were crushed. In fact, it could quite accurately be said that Hlohovec is not a Trenčin (in terms of beauty) mainly because of terrible management by government officials. The castle refurbishment issue remains unresolved because, ignorantly, local officials just don’t seem to see the point.

Because there is a (very poorly publicised) castle tour here. I mean, in this sense, a tour of the many unheralded but spectacular castles in the immediate vicinity of Hlohovec. Starting at Červený Kameň to the southwest you can progress northeast via a spectacular Western Slovakia Castle Tour that will be the very next post on this blog; a castle tour that cuts right through Hlohovec. I have rarely seen a town with so much unfulfilled potential as here. It’s not just the castle: Hlohovec lies in astoundingly beautiful scenery.

Looking Back on Hlohovec as you ascend into the Male Karpaty

Looking Back on Hlohovec as you ascend into the Male Karpaty

You can follow trails, right from where this picture is taken, up west above the banks of the Váh into the wooded hills of the Malé Karpaty, on red and yellow-marked trails through abandoned castles and old quarries almost all the way to Trenčin (there are chaty, or mountain houses, en route, and this particular arm of the hills is known as Považský Inovec). A cycle path also connects it along the river bank itself to Piešt’any.

Church in Hlohovec's old monastery complex

Church in Hlohovec’s old monastery complex – image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

So, as for nature, Hlohovec is first-class. The architecture tells a slightly different story (yeah – a bit obliterated by Communism) but nevertheless in the centre there’s an attractive pedestrian street with a few surprisingly good cafes (and, get this, a jazz club!); there’s also the grounds of an old monastery (C. late 15th century) where the father of the Slovak language, Ján Hollý, lived for a while. Don’t shoot me down. I know Ľudovít Štúr gets credited with being the father of Slovak, but Hollý actually wrote in Slovak first (he was the first poet/writer to famously do so) and Štúr came asking for Hollý’s advice when he was establishing Slovak as an official written language. The grounds also contain a museum with lots of old pictures of the town back in the days when it was also one of the most prominent centres of Jewish culture and learning in the old Austro-Hungarian empire.

So should you stop off there when you’re heading northeast for the more famous beauty of the Tatras? Probably. Just to see how a real Slovak town ticks along. And possibly to do some really amazing hiking.

Hlohovec Best-of:

Best Cafe: Coffee Berry, Kapitána Nálepku 4. The cakes come from the Piešt’any cake shop I’ve raved about on another post and with quite a modern vibe, it’s the place where everyone hangs in Hlohovec! It’s right in the centre: here is their map.

Best Restauraunt: Jašter. An out-of-town place on a hill backed by a wood which has nice summer barbecues and a high quality of food. The link here gives good directions.

Best Sights: The castle and the park, the museum, the river and the surrounding hills. Oh, and a special meadow called Poniklecová Lúcka, which is one of the best places in Slovakia to see the rare pasque flower growing.

Best Place to Stay: U Janásov. This is unconfirmed as I’ve not stayed there, but it has the best location (it’s where pic no. 2 is taken), looks by far the most photogenic spot in town and by all accounts is the best deal (it’s sometimes closed in the winter months). Hotel Jeleň is in the centre and is another option.

MAP LINK

GETTING THERE: Leopoldov is the nearest station on the main Bratislava-Košice train line and it’s here you’ll need to change for trains to Hlohovec. (42 minutes past the hour every hour between 6:42 and 20:42, journey time 6 minutes – you can see the station on the map link above)

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From the lovely town of Hlohovec it’s 24km north to one of our most idyllically located Western Slovakia restaurants, Reštauracia Furman

LAST UPDATED: April 2017

Piešťany: the Very Best Cakes

Many people know about Piešťany, Slovakia’s most famous spa. But what to do when you’re done with a dunk in the pools? Well, the answer is of course an exploration of the town and when you’re done with that (it won’t take too long to explore the town itself) you want a cake. Right? No? Then don’t read on. Yes? You’re in the right place.

Monsalvy may not be the fanciest place in Piešťany. But, to follow an adage adopted worldwide, save the lavish-looking but often unremarkable (cuisine-wise) bigger restaurants for the tourists and save the quality coffee and delicious cakes for the locals, which make up the majority of the clientele here. Another testimony to the place’s quality is that lots of the other cafes in Western Slovakia hanker after Monsalvy’s sweet treats to the extent Monsalvy has to supply cakes to many of the region’s other outlets.

A huge counter of cakes awaits when you push back the curtains and enter into this refreshing retreat from the nearby blandness of Aurpark shopping center. But there’s a snug cafe area stretching both back behind the counter and also in front (if you want a street view). It focuses on supplying locals and local businesses with high-quality cakes which are particularly enticing if you are a fan of cakes with fruit on (fresh cherries, kiwis and grapes feature prominently).

Presentation is key at Monsalvy, who are best known as chocolatiers. The chocolates, especially the pralines, are highly recommended and are displayed on top of the counter as you walk in, but there is one offering that combines the best of the chocolate and the fruit together in one divine helping of goodness: the chocolate košik, or basket. A crumbly chocolate base (the basket part) is filled with a chocolate cream filling up to about half-way. Then on top of these are arranged slices of different fruits, just as if they were positioned in a mini fruit bowl. Try a couple of them alongside a coffee better than the spa restaurants offer and a complementary handmade sweet.

There is no finer treat for your (sweet) taste buds than wiling away some time at this cafe, particularly when winter hits Piešťany and it’s cold out. In a serendipitous turn of events, Monsalvy also serves as something of a wine bar, with a good selection of Slovak wine fave tokaj, and does lunches and dinners too (these are not vouched for by this review but look pretty tempting).

A Quick Guide to the Other Content We Have on the Piešt’any Area:

Places to Go: Piešt’any’s Best Thermal Pools

Places to Go: Hiking in the Footsteps of Beethoven Around Piešt’any

Places to Go: A Great Castle near Piešt’any

Places to Eat & Drink: A Great Restaurant in the Hills Above Piešt’any

 

MAP LINK: 

LOCATION: Teplická 10, Piešťany

OPENING: 9am-9:30pm Monday-Thursday, 9am-11:30pm Friday-Saturday, 10am-9:30pm Sunday

BEST TIME TO VISIT: Get the shopping done across the road in Aurpark, then head here for elevensies!

LAST UPDATED: April 2017

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: 800m southeast on spa island, Piešťany’s best thermal pools await