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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.

Image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

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

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

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

The "English style" grounds ©englishmaninslovakia.com

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

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

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

©englishmaninslovakia.com

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

English Country Garden…

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

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

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

The HotelThe Hotel ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

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

Wine

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

©englishmaninslovakia.com

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

MAP LINK:

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

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

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

OUR OTHER SLOVAK WINE CONTENT:

Svätý Jur, Small Carpathians Wine Region

Limbach, Small Carpathians Wine Region

A typical Small Carpathians Wine Tasting in Trnava

Adventures in the Tokaj Wine Region

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Modra: Majolika (Handicrafts)

For anyone wanting to bring home a memento of their time in Slovakia, this renowned ceramics shop in the beguiling little town of Modra 28km northeast of Bratislava is a sure-fired bet (excuse the pun).

Whilst many outlets, once they become moderately successful, gravitate to capital city high streets and shopping centres, Majolika has remained refreshingly low-key. Its signature store is still the unassuming little shop and workshop in the middle of Modra (right opposite the central church) –  even though its pottery is now sought after across Slovakia.

Going strong since 1883, it’s Majolika’s old-fashioned blue-and-white, and green/yellow/blue/white colour schemes with their intricate images floral motifs that have become what every self-respecting Slovak wants to line their dressers with. Particularly interesting, too (given that Modra is also a key stop on the Malé Karpaty wine route) are the cups with the vineyard scenes on.

RELATED POSTS: For more on the Malé Karpaty wine route see our Svätý Júr and Limbach posts.

Cups, plates, vases, slivovica flagons, butter dishes, painted eggs, piggy banks, plant pots, urns and figurines of traditional Slovak professions are amongst the wide array of the florally-decorated ceramics. They then also have a range of great (one-tone) baking dishes and jugs for hot sauces – including the special casserole dish used for baking duck, with a handle and a spout for draining off the juices!

Prices are incredibly cheap, too, considering the quality of the workmanship: ranging from a few Euros for a cup or small jug to only 30 Euros for larger items.

Majolika understandably features on our Top Ten Slovak gift ideas, too! Whilst it’s one of those shops that warrants a visit to the town it sits within by itself, Modra has the afore-mentioned viticulture industry, the legacy of Slovak national hero (well, the man did almost single-handedly found the Slovak language) L’udovit  Štúr) to explore and a dozen or more sensational hikes to try out in the nearby Malé Karpaty (Small Carpathians) surrounding the lovely Furmanská Krčma. Perhaps because of this, Modra’s also imminently going to be the subject of its own separate post on this blog, detailing all its lovely (mainly Štúr-themed) activities.

 

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

Places to Go: L’udovit Štúr’s Modra

Places to Go: Hiking up in the hills above Modra all the way to Bratislava (the Štefánikova magistrála, stage three)

Places to Stay: Modra’s ceramic-themed hotel

Places to Eat & Drink: A beautiful traditional restaurant in the hills above Modra

 

MAP LINK Google maps doesn’t mark the Modra town centre location: it’s just above the Slovenská Sporitelňa bank on this map.

LOCATION: Štúrová at junction with Dukelská. The larger workshop location on Dolna can be found at this map link but it’s more inconvenient for visitors. Get there by bus from Bratislava bus station running every 20-40 minutes throughout the day.

OPENING: 9:30am-6pm Monday to Friday, 9:30am-midday Saturday.

 ANOTHER RELATED POST: Cruise up a few km above Modra to sample the delights of Furmanská Krčma

A cellar of Small Carpathians wine... image by Smuconlaw

Limbach: the Stop on the Wine Route No One Knows About

An autumnal article here and a heads-up, if you’re thinking of visiting Western Slovakia, that autumn might indeed be THE time to do it! Without more ado, here is an introduction to the very first place you’ll come to of interest as you drive northeast from Bratislava…

A misty October weekend afternoon; the itch to get out into the hills and away from Bratislava overwhelms. The woods are on the turn. It’s been over a month since I’ve been hiking in them. Part yellow, part orange, part cloud-cloaked green, the tree-backed vineyards of the Small Carpathians await – seeming as mysterious as ever they did.

We don’t fancy going far. The shorter days mean there’s only four hours of daylight left. But we want a walk and we want a change of scene and we don’t want to solely be walking in thick woodland because the sun looks as though it could break through.

We get out the map and decide on Limbach. It’s a village between Svätý Jur and Pezinok, poised between the vineyards and the woods and bang in the middle of the Malé Karpaty/Small Carpathians Wine Route (perhaps Slovakia’s prime wine route, which runs from the northeastern edge of Bratislava at Stara Rača through Svätý Jur and Pezinok and on to Modra) – but one that gets precious little publicity in that regard or, indeed, any regard whatsoever. Quite evidently, this is a key reason why Englishman in Slovakia was intrigued to stop by.

Setting

The road to Limbach cuts up from the main Rte 502 just after the turn-off to Slovenský Grob (a village famous for its fine roasted duck dishes in various pop-up style restaurants but that is another story and another post). Perhaps the reason for its inconspicuousity is right here. Unlike Svätý Jur, Pezinok and Modra, which are all on the main road, Limbach is set much further back in the vineyards. It is, in fact, properly surrounded by vineyards – whereas the other locales on the wine route are only backed by them. This lends Limbach a special feel, as of course does the addition of the woods which are much closer here than they are in the other wine route stop-offs: veritably brushing the church, in fact.

History

The upper part of town beyond the roundabout is the prettiest part. Here, the first of the town’s two churches, which originally dates back to 1530, presents itself. It’s a beguiling white tower inscribed with what translates as “in castles, the strength of our Lord” above a motif of a palm leaf, a bible and a glass of wine. The reference is a telling insight into Limbach’s history. After Mongols ransacked the region in the 13th century, the Hungarians (who were in charge at the time) invited German settlers in to compensate for the previous inhabitants that had been killed. It was Germans, therefore, that built this village up, along with its churches, its charming houses with facades screened by vines and – certainly most critically for the economy – its wine industry.

More recently wealthy Bratislava residents have built lavish second homes deeper up into the woods and their presence probably gives the village a fair bit of an economic boost too.

Hotel/Restaurant

Up above the ruddy-coloured, immaculate tiers of houses, interspersed with the odd vinoteka (wine shop, invariably with degustation) wine cellar, or vinaren (wine bar) in the main part of Limbach, is one of the village’s main draws: the delightful Hotel Limbach. (and actually, Bratislava explorers, at only 15 minutes from the edge of the city, a great alternative Bratislava accommodation option – especially if you have your own car).

This mottled century-old yellow hotel, draped in curtains of ivy and flanked by pretty gardens, cements the idea already forming in your mind that Limbach is about as close as you get to a quaint old English village in this part of Slovakia. It’s something of a focal point for village life, with a restaurant that once again, resembles one of those rural British hotels where quirky bygone signs and curios line the walls along with a lot of hunting memorabilia. Fortunately the stag’s heads are confined to one grand dining area at the end. But the food – particularly the game – is good and reasonably priced  (about 9-12 Euros for mains) and there is the added advantage that a huge selection of local wines are showcased in the hotel: available to drink there, or buy and take home.

Wine

Of these, the best is probably the Rulandské modré (red – and one of Slovakia’s best reds) or the Irsai Olivér (white) – the latter one of the southeast-facing Small Carpathians’ few fruity whites (climatic conditions mean most wines here are dry). It’s good wine, and for only 5 or so Euros.

It can be great fun to tour Limbach’s tucked-away little wineries first to get your palate acquainted with a few of the wines so you know which bottles you’re likely to want. Or, if you want a more sedate wine-tasting experience, you can also relax in Villa Vinica – a wine bar just across from the hotel (they have rooms too for those who have over-imbibed).

But Limbach is enjoyable too just to wander. Paths lead off the quiet lanes of the centre both into the vineyards and – via a well-marked blue trail – up onto the higher hills to Tri Kamené Kopce (almost 600m up, and on the Štefánikova magistrála long-distance hike between Bratislava and Brezová pod Bradlom).

And wherever you are, the senses are always refreshed at this time of year by the smell of wine being pressed, fermented, bottled… almost to the intensity with which malt wafts around Scotland’s main whisky towns.

So there is no better time than Autumn to pay a visit.

MAP LINK:

Hotel Limbach is open 10am-10pm for food, drink and general merriment…

GETTING THERE: Through the day, direct buses run about hourly to Limbach from Mlynské Nivy bus station in Bratislava. In the evenings, you’ll first have to change in Pezinok (at the Tesco’s stop). Ticket prices? Around 2.20 Euros one-way.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From central Limbach, it’s a 7km drive (or a hike through the Malé Karpaty) southwest to Svätý Júr or 11km northeast to Modra, the hub of an interesting ceramics industry and the birthplace of national hero L’udovit Štúr.

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.

Banská Štiavnica: The ‘Weird Woman’

Just as a ship is a woman, so a cafe or bar can be – and a decidedly strange one at that. Weird and wonderful Divná Pani (English translation = “strange lady”) on the main street of Banská Štiavnica’s historic Old Town is an ambassador for a side to this beautiful mountain settlement that many people overlook: its well-established tradition of cool counterculture cafe-bars.

Many people know these days about the Unesco status, the wonderfully preserved medieval Old Town and the local mining legacy (not so many people that the town has lost its charm, but it’s not quite as undiscovered these days: more and more to Slovakia what Český Krumlov is to Czech Republic). But a lot of people use Banská Štiavnica as a weekend escape from the big cities because it combines rural bliss with city sophistication (or at least a relative degree of it). Easter weekend here saw an Icelandic folk-indie band, jazz performances, poetry readings and the like and such a lineup is not exceptional. Venues like here, Archanjel and Artcafe put on tons of great cultural events throughout the year.

But it cannot be denied that of all these, Divná Pani looks wackiest.

People come in just to take pictures then leave again. There are busts of various figures (ancient Greek to Slovak), shelf upon shelf of ancient Austro-Hungarian Empire books, larger-than-life Latin inscriptions, bird-less birdcages and yet garden birds adorning the walls, strings of garlic besides abstract paintings, ship’s portholes displaying champagne and Slovak wine alike, a central rock garden of curios, plants and statues. There is the “literary” end (where you come just to curl up on sofas and bury yourself in the myriad books), a room lined with sofas (see picture) where friends gather amidst Latin inscriptions and more books, the bar (with windows onto the garden) where Banská Štiavnica’s bright young things come, sit and look casually aloof on their laptops, a really nice little kids area and the outside courtyard for the good weather and the dog owners.

The garden

The garden, image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

In a small mountain town Divná Pani does something that isn’t easy: it seems effortlessly cosmopolitan. The clientele is generally a mix of the Slovaks from the bigger cities in the know and on holiday or some discerning group of locals, with whom the to-die for hot chocolate is another big draw. Foreign tourists don’t necessarily find it because it’s not the most obvious of the cafe-bars on this main stretch of Andreja Kmet’a, the continuation of Kammerhofská (the part with the raised pavement on the right as you head uphill to the námestie (central square) just beyond. It’s set back in a recess with its very own chocolate shop outside. The approach is kind of like you are entering some slightly intimidating arcade of tarot card reading stalls, but Divná Pani is not intimidating at all. It’s a place where you can linger for hours and not feel bad about it (Englishmaninslovakia’s kind of place).

And you would want to linger. Regardless of the time of day. Because this place is open for breakfast, lunch, dinner and most of the evening. Whether it’s a breakfast coffee or a late-night glass of wine or three, Divná Pani is your woman (OK, lady). There is food here. Paninis, or maybe some Icelandic caviar… But the stand-out on the menu is the hot chocolate, followed not far behind by the tea. A chilli-infused Colombian hot chocolate, thick with just the right balance of bitterness with sweetness, goes down a treat after a brisk hike in the mountains. As does a pitcher of tea with crushed oranges, lemon, lime and mint. Or if it’s hot, a fruit/veg smoothie of carrot, apple, celery or plum (seriously, it works). The service is courteous. The evening vibe is as animated as the daytime one. If you came here for the fresh mountain air, you’ll probably end up relishing Divná Pani’s drinks – and strangeness – just as much.

 

A Quick Guide to the Other Content we Have on Banská Štiavnica:

Places to Go: Banska Štiavnica’s Kalvaria

Places to Go: Banska Štiavnica’s Mining Museums

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

Places to Stay: Banska Štiavnica’s Nicest Guesthouse

Places to Eat & Drink: Banska Štiavnica Streetfood

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

Top Ten Medieval Towns in Slovakia

 

MAP LINK

LOCATION: Andreja Kmet’a 120/8

OPENING: 7:15am-10pm Mon-Thu, 7:15am-midnight Fri, 8am-midnight Sat, 9am-10pm Sun

BEST TIME TO VISIT: Late morning for hot chocolate, mid- to late-evening for wine, caviar and maybe jazz!

THE ONLY DOWNSIDE: Fake flowers, guys! So much attention to detail and yet fake flowers. Lose them, and you’re perfect.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: A 250m walk downhill from the cafe and you reach the coolest street food joint in the whole region, BS Streetfood.

tokaj1

The Tokaj Wine Cellars of the Far East: Drinking Like a King

Mmm. Culinary adventures. What better way to explore than one which has as its motive the discovery of a food or drink? I don’t just say this for my own palate’s sake. In a country I care about, it is also a beautiful thing to see a product flourishing which is a distillation of the land – of its peculiar soil, of its history. Scotland has whisky. France has cognac. Portugal has porto. Slovakia has its Tokaj wine.

Before we get started, it’s Tokaj. Not Tokaji like the Hungarians spell the region. Not Tokay, as the word usually gets Anglicised. No: Tokaj is the Slovak wine region. And I’m going to be honest: I’m writing this not purely because I heartily recommend a trip to this little-known viticultural region of Slovakia, but also to redress the unfair balance of online content that praises Hungarian Tokaji and dismisses or ignores Slovak Tokaj.

Slovak Tokaj vs Hungarian Tokaj

Cluster of Fermint grapes ready for making Tokaj ©andrs.kovacs

Cluster of Fermint grapes ready for making Tokaj ©andrs.kovacs

Just because this rather unique wine first shot to prominence whilst Slovakia was part of the Hungarian Kingdom, don’t be fooled into thinking Hungary’s Tokaji wine is the superior product and Slovak Tokaj just a humble cousin.  Far from it. The historic Tokaji-Tokaj wine region here encompasses territory in Hungary AND Slovakia. True, the Hungarians are better at promoting the wine on their side of the border to an international market (and at promoting Hungarian Tokaj as superior on online articles), but that’s also because the Slovaks are quite happy keeping their Tokaj to themselves – much like the Cubans don’t export much of their very best tobacco.

As for the taste, I’ve tried Tokaj in Hungary and in Slovakia. I’ve visited Tokaj wineries in both countries. And what becomes clear is that saying one country’s Tokaj is better and one is worse evidently boils down to territorial rivalry. Hungarians are angry Slovakia “took” part of “their” Tokaj region following the Treaty of Trianon after WW1 (their anger is intensified because Malá Trňa and Vel’ka Trňa, the villages on the Slovak side, are often able to produce better cibéba, the botrytised grapes that as you will see below are crucial to the Tokaj process). Slovaks are angry with the Hungarians for having subjugated them for the best part of 1000 years, and for having set foot on what was Slavic soil in the first place. When it comes to Tokaj – in fact when it comes down to it full stop – the arguments can run both ways with equal validity and are to an extent pointless. The fact is that Hungary and Slovakia now share the historic Tokaj wine region, and Tokaj wines in both countries have geographically protected designation of origin status.

It’s also true that certain Slovak Tokaj’s can out-trump the more numerous Hungarian Tokaji wines. In Hungary, the Tokaji wine region is much bigger. The wineries themselves are usually larger, and more commercially-focussed or business-minded, and also concentrate on producing more dry white wines (it is the amber-coloured Tokaj which, as you will see in the next section, is such a distinguished product in world terms, but this is also sells less than white wines). In Slovakia, Tokaj is still a niche product. It’s produced in far smaller quantities: sometimes just for family, friends and the odd passer by. Most of the little cellars therefore can concentrate on producing Tokaj Vyber (the afore-mentioned amber nectar-wine) because they’re not so concerned with getting their wines on restaurant tables.

There are two more major differences between Slovak Vyber Tokaj and Hungarian Tokaj Aszu (its cross-border equivalent):

1: Foreign investment: Hungarian Tokaj has seen a lot of French firms taking control of wineries. This has had positive consequences (more money to spend on latest technology methods, for example, and making the wineries more tourist-friendly) but it’s also meant a modernising of the brand. Slovak Tokaj (much less foreign investment) has remained more concerned with traditional methods of production that date back centuries (although Hungarians will claim this is Slovak Tokaj not adhering to certain standards).

2: Cibeby: It’s a little-known fact but cibeby (those sweet rotted grapes) just often seem to flourish more on the Slovak side. This (along with the older cellars that have acquired far more of the black mould on their walls that is essential for a rounded Tokaj taste) means Slovak Tokaj has a nuanced pungent aroma.

At the end of the day, of course it would be best to visit wineries on both the Slovak and Hungarian sides and make up your own mind! Just don’t listen to one side telling you the other side isn’t worth bothering with!

What’s So Special About Tokaj?

Before you make the somewhat epic (at least by Slovak standards) trek out here you should know how special – indeed elusive – is the object of your quest.

In truth, whether it hails from Hungary or Slovakia, Tokaj is a pretty singular drink – already distinguished from most other wines by its distinct amber colour. It’s a desert wine – and quite sweet, but also with a richness desert wines often lack. But it’s how it acquires that taste which sets it out from the overwhelming majority of other wines.

Tokaj grapes get picked only when the vines have been attacked by mould (which the famously moist climate and volcanic soil hereabouts encourages) and have begun to rot.  It’s a bacteria which visits the Tokaj vineyards only sporadically. And when it does, the viticulturists are on hand to convert it into one of Slovakia’s most specialty products – with Protected Designation of Origin status. The mould-attacked grapes called cibéba are fashioned into varying concentrations of sugarry paste (distinguished on a scale of “putňa” between 1 and 6, with 6 being sweetest and strongest) and determine the  sweet, pungent taste of Tokaj.

To reiterate, bigger vineyards – such as the Tokaji wineries in Hungary possess – can navigate the problem of sporadic production periods by the extent of the vines they’re harvesting. Most of Slovakia’s Tokaj wineries are small-scale: which means no fixed quantities can be produced and therefore international buyers are rarely interested: this all serves to underscore the eclectic nature of their product.

Tokaj...

Tokaj…  ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

 

A Sweet History Lesson

Tokaj wine production goes back several centuries, and involves famous names a-plenty. Charles III of Hungary safeguarded the area as a protected wine-growing region in the 18th century – although wine had been produced here long before that. King Louis XV of France served them to his mistress. Beethoven and Goethe refer to Tokaj in their works.  Perhaps the uniquest thing about the wine, in fact, is that the cellars where it matures were originally 16th- and 17th-century (some still earlier) defences against invading Turks: underground labyrinths these days thick with the aroma of fermenting grapes.

Visiting Slovakia’s Tokaj Cellars

This post was in fact prompted by the fact that there was almost no practical information on how to visit the Tokaj wine cellars of far-eastern Slovakia. Slovaks, despite being incredibly self-depracating at times, have a more or less universal quiet pride for their Tokaj, but there’s very much an “it’s there, and we’re happy if only we know about it” attitude that prevails when it comes to visiting the places where their product is made.

Even in the tourist information in Košice, from where a trip to Tokaj terrain commences, they’re hardly forthcoming with details. They’d sooner divert you to one of  the city’s wine bars – and whilst Košice does have several of these, this is not the matter in hand.

Essentially, whilst there is in fact a little-touted Tokaj wine route which takes in several of the villages with cellars (namely Slovenské Nové Mesto, Malá Tŕňa, Veľká Tŕňa, Viničky, Čerhov, Černochov and Bara) this is even more challenging to find good information on than the Malé Karpaty (Small Carpathians) wine route. Wine routes are also impractical, remember, if the distances between the stop-offs require a drive. The best idea with the Tokaj wine cellars is to go and stay overnight in the most atmospheric of the wine-producing villages, Malá Tŕňa (or failing that nearby Veľká Tŕňa). These last two are both part of the historic Tokaj region (Slovakia has extended its Tokaj region, and the wines there are still often very good, but Malá Tŕňa and Veľká Tŕňa have that little bit more historic soul.

MAP LINK: (for Malá Tŕňa).

GETTING THERE: An unusually long Getting There section, thanks to the below:

Malá Tŕňa is pretty much 100% devoted to winemaking – and has been for centuries. If you are not travelling around Slovakia with your own car then there is a nice way to get here by public transport.

Hop on one of the ponderous, battered old trains that shunt about every two hours from Košice down to the town of Slovenské Nové Mesto (also a winemaking town but less attractive) on the border with Hungary. Walk back up the long straight road running out of town to the first bend. A little-used lane forks right. Take it, and follow this route cross-country through rolling farmland with vineyard-carpeted slopes sliding into view as you pass the hamlet of Karolov Dvor and wind up on the shady main road (appropriately named Tokajská) of Malá Tŕňa. I personally enjoyed this way of arriving as you get to see more of the “winescape” and work up a thirst in the process. It was a scalding summer day on my last visit here, and I was craving the cellar cool by the time I arrived…

As you enter the village, the proper “wine” street (Medzipivničká) is on the left. You’ll see the Greek-style mural in celebration of viticulture and then the Tolkien-esque pitched, grass-roofed stone huts built into the earth which mark the entrance to the cellars themselves…

WHICH WINERY?:  Within Malá Tŕňa, there are several wineries to choose from. All offer similar degustation experiences for $10-15 Euros. You descend 10 metres underground (it’s cold down here – a more or less constant temperature year-round – you’ll need a jacket) into a network of underground passages and antechambers that would be incredible to explore even if there wasn’t a drop of alcohol stashed within.

As it is, these endearing labyrinthine buildings are packed to the gills with wine. You’ll see the cosily-lit cellars stacked with wine, with the characteristic bubble-like black mould encasing the walls and many of the bottles. You’ll sit down and be taken through the history of Tokaj (far more in depth and fascinating than any blog post could hope to be) and then you’ll get a long and drawn-out tasting session, generally beginning with the weakest and ending in the nectar-like grade 6 vintage.

The only difference between these tours is that some of the more popular ones can have bigger groups, making the experience less personal.

That said, on the day we made enquiries about visits, none of the wineries – even the biggest – had any visitors at all. This worked to our disadvantage, because to a group of just two, most wineries thought it wasn’t worth opening up (they wanted a 4-person minimum to bother). In the end it was the smallest winery of the lot (a family who had just one cellar and who had been winemakers for generations – the details on these guys will follow in the next day or so) who we found most accommodating – and delivered a beautifully personal experience whereby the owner was happy to chat for a good couple of hours about the complexities of the winemaking process.

WHICHEVER winery you opt to visit (and of course you can visit multiple cellars, but remember that at a minimum of six sizeable glasses of Tokaj per degustation, you might not wish to navigate too many sets of steep, slippery steps) you do need to BOOK IN ADVANCE. Ideally a minimum of 24 hours before, and to be safe two or three days before. It also helps if you go in a group – many small wineries may not offer tours just to one person on their own, and require four-person minimum groups.

WINE CELLAR TOURS/TASTINGS:

– Tokaj Macik Winery – they offer 6-, 10- or 15-glass tastings (the latter the supposedly “complete” degustation) – prices range from 10 to 30 Euros per person.

– Ostrozovic Winery – this is based in Vel’ka Tŕňa (the next village)  – 6-, 10- or 15-glass tastings with a “bonus” tasting on each cost 12.30, 19.90 or 32.90 Euros. They also have accommodation. 16 glasses in, you may need it.

So there you go. Enjoy.

STAY OVER: Tokaj Macik winery in the village of Malá Tŕňa came up with the bright idea of letting its wine-sozzled visitors crash at their place. There’s eight good, spacious modern rooms here, plus a bar serving more of that Tokaj and wifi. Prices for a single/double are 48/58 Euros.

GALLERY: (courtesy of Around Guides)

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: 58km northwest of Malá Tŕňa is the fabulous city of Košice centred by Košice Cathedral

WANT TO KNOW MORE ABOUT SLOVAK WINE? SO WHAT NEXT?

–  Our post on Open Cellar Days when you can go round sampling the wines of the Malé Karpaty (Small Carpathians) Wine Route willy-nilly,

– Our posts on Slovakia’s other big wine region, Malé Karpaty (Small Carpathians) around Bratislava: on visiting Limbach, the prettiest of these wine-producing villages and on the tasting events put on by various Malé Karpaty wineries

– Our post on the fine wines produced around Chateau Topoľčianky

– Our post on Slovakia’s ten most quintessential food and drinks

– A little bit more info on different types of Tokaj… and a little bit more about general Slovak winemaking

A link to Lonely Planet’s Wine Trails where you can read my chapter on the Slovak/Hungarian wine region of Tokaj.

NB: this is one of our pages which is constantly in a state of flux – check back for updates on Tokaj wine cellar tours and particularly good bottlings :)

Bratislava Castle Restaurant

Slovak cuisine tastebud-tickling time. And this, primarily, for those who have been asking me about classic places to eat really good Slovak food in Bratislava Old Town.

On first examination, the question itself appears bizarre – what other kind of food would restaurants in the Slovak capital be serving up? Well, the current trend in the city centre seems to be leaning towards the international=cool approach. But traditional Slovak cuisine? More the domain of the old folks and the tourists (the old folks aren’t so bothered about gourmet, the attitude goes, and the tourists, ha, they can easily be conned into what constitutes good Slovak food), with the result that, outside of a few dingy krčmy (pubs) and a clutch of high-in-price, far-lower-in-quality joints around Hlavné námestie (the main square), really good typical Slovak restaurants are fairly elusive.

RELATED POST: Bratislava Christmas Market – A Great Op for Trying Traditional Slovak Food

©englishmaninslovakia.com

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

So, dearth of top-end Slovak cuisine-oriented restaurants revealed, it was both shocking and heartening to discover that one of the very best in Bratislava is actually situated right next to Bratislava Castle. Shocking because who expects a really good showcase for national cuisine right by one of the most touristy spots in the whole country? Heartening because – well – we know that however much we celebrate off-the-beaten-track places on this site, it’s those big attractions where foreign visitors often gravitate and if they do, we would much rather they had the option of seeking refreshment in a decent restaurant (we know it’s easy to resort to the fast food stand or conveniently-close-to-where-hunger-strikes-but-bland eatery, but don’t). And one that can stand in, with some panache, as a showcase for Slovakia’s culinary offerings.

You will come across Hradná Hviezda in the stately cream-yellow courtyard buildings immediately on the west side of the castle (the side furthest away from the city centre, in other words). With a name translating as the Castle Star, it’s the sister restaurant of Modra Hviezda (Blue Star) a little further down in the Jewish Quarter near the Clock Museum – but it is the more dazzling of the two sisters. The setting exudes refinement, although inside, whilst the interior is pleasant enough with its walnut wood furniture and chandeliers, this is hardly what impresses. Nor is it the service (although, poised somewhere between the luke-warm and the congenial, the service is more than adequate). No, Hradná Hviezda will only have you planning your next visit back when you taste what it can do (cook well).

Deer and plums go so well together… ©englishmaninslovakia.com

Deer and plums go so well together… ©englishmaninslovakia.com

There are seven or eight choices of typical Slovak main courses, and each whets the curiosity (and the palate). The meat, always soft, flavoursome and embellished by rosemary and thyme, is hardest to resist. There is the mangalica (the wild boar that roams in the forests above Bratislava) with a pumpkin sauce and chestnuts – chestnuts being a typical accompaniment to Slovakia’s game-centric meat dishes. There is a rabbit served with paprika sauce and dumplings – rabbit is a common meat for country folks who regularly go out bagging them but in Bratislava it is far rarer, and enhanced here by a combo of traditional Hungarian and Slovak sides, the paprika that sets Hungarian food a-blaze and the dumplings which prop up typical Slovak food. Jeleň (venison) is also offered – with the sauce concocted from Slovakia’s signature fruit, the plum, and a rich, creamy potato puree. But Hradná Hviezda also does a mean strapačky (dumplings with sauerkraut) and one that’s enticingly presented in contrast to the sometimes colourless versions of the dish served up elsewhere.

Presentation (generous portions, yet thoughtfully arranged on the plates) is key with Hradná Hviezda’s food. The chefs clearly know exactly what they are doing. A meal here, consequently, is not cheap (mains are between 13 and 22 Euros, which puts it in a similar price bracket to one of our other favourite city centre Slovak restaurants, Traja Muškietieri).

It would have been nice to wash down the delicious food with a choice of better Slovak beers (only offering Zlaty Bažant and Krušovice, two of the dullest beers in the country, is a definite shortcoming). It’s definitely recommended, therefore, to sample their wine list which in contrast goes overboard to offer a wide variety of Slovak wines. White wines in Slovakia, especially those from the Small Carpathians (Male Karpaty) Wine region, can rival the world’s best, and the dry white from Rulandske, in the Limbach/Pezinok region, is a true delight here.

Perhaps a glass of the latter would have been better paired with their trout… But we have only ever had eyes for Hradná Hviezda’s game. You’ll spend a lot longer than the walk up here takes if you were to keep to the lower reaches of the city centre scouting around to find game that compares to that available in the serendipitously twinkling Castle Star…

MAP LINK:

GETTING THERE: Directions are the same as for the castle, and this is an easy stroll up from the very centre, but for those with walking difficulties there is trolleybus 203, catch-able from Hodžovo námestie (and get out at the stop conveniently called “Hrad”).

OPENING: 10am-10pm. Sometimes it can be a good idea to book –  as the restaurant caters to tour groups (locals too, but also tour groups).

BEST TIME TO VISIT: Oh, a dark wintry lunchtime when huddling by their cozy fireplace seems pretty much the best thing to do. Hradná Hviezda’s best dishes are the heavy, hearty, wintery kind. And a visit in out of the cold means the perfect excuse to sample one of their oh-so-typically Slovak fruit brandies… mahrulovica (with apricots), borovička (with pears). The list goes on.

LAST UPDATED: April 2017

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Hradná Hviezda it’s 2km north to another restaurant on a great viewpoint, Kamzík

Western Slovakia: the Wine Tastings (in Trnava)

NONE  of the events taking place on what is known as the Small Carpathians Wine Route (Malokarpatská vínna cesta) exactly advertise themselves. Yet for the traveler with the canny eye for doing something a bit different there is usually something going on most months that’s wine-related in the hills just north of Bratislava. In fact, spending the evening wine tasting is very much part of tradition in Slovakia (albeit not quite up there with the tradition of downing copious amounts of fruit brandy).

The other week we went to the Trnava wine tasting, in the culture house there. If you ever see the streets of Trnava relatively deserted, maybe that’s because the entire population is out sampling local wines. At least, thus it seemed like on this particular night!

What I liked about the event was that it was a great advert for Slovak culture. In Slovakia, when it comes to drinking, the stereotypical image is of old men in sterile krčmy (pubs) without windows so their wives can’t see them. Yet here were a sophisticated group of people, young and old alike, nosing and sipping wine and giving their opinion on it.

When wine tasting gets serious...

When wine tasting gets serious…

Within the Small Carpathians wine region, there are many such events, with a different wine producer taking it in turn to play hosts. On this night it was the Daniel Sekera wine producer and the wines were mostly from close to Trnava, although there were other vintages to sample too (including a really good white port). At the beginning of the night, a long table (stretching the entire length of one side of the town hall in this case) is set up and a stunning variety of wines (in excess of one hundred) is set up. Visitors first come in to buy a block of tickets which then entitles them to anything between one and five tastings, depending on the quality of the wine they want a glass of. There is then a menu given to them from which they choose their desired wine, nibbles provided as an accompaniment and then… you’re off.

Sure, people do get quietly drunk at these events (they are Slovaks after all). But it’s also about appreciation, and done in very sophisticated fashion, at least until after the first four or five glasses. No one outside Slovakia really goes to these events because you have to be in with the in crowd to know about them. Slovak wine makers have only ever really cared about a domestic market. During Communism a collective farm known as a družtvo would concentrate on the production of low-quality wine that served the former Soviet Union and after 1989 Slovak winemakers found it very hard to start competing with already-established good-quality European wines. That’s all a big shame.

During September and October, Trnava Tourist Office run tours to nearby wineries (which of course include a taste or three!) – see here for more.

Whilst Tokaj wine itself, Slovakia’s most-famed wine, will be the subject of another post on this blog, it needs to be said that the wines from the Orešany region I tried here were delicious. The whites, I would say, are generally superior to the reds. (There’s actually a reason why – Slovakia’s climate is less well suited to the ripening of red grapes where as white varieties grow perfectly)

Anyway, there are some great wine events in Slovakia. Just below, we’ve compiled a neat little list of where you can go for more information on this tasty topic!

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NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: You’ve come to Trnava to wine, now we’re sending you 28km west into the Small Carpathian hills proper for great goulash, at Furmanska Krčma

MORE ON SLOVAK WINE?

Open Cellar Days: A Little More Info

Top Ten Quintessential Slovak Foods & Drinks

Svätý Jur, just outside Bratislava, and its Interesting Food and Wine

The delicious wine (and wine country!) around Limbach in the Small Carpathians

A Bit More on Modra in the Small Carpathians and its Wine Heritage

A voyage to discover more about the Tokaj wine cellars of Eastern Slovakia

Around Bratislava – the North: Svätý Jur for a Day Trip?

Svätý Jur Námestie: a stop on the Small Carpathians Wine Route

Svätý Jur Námestie: a stop on the Small Carpathians Wine Routes – image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

An icy, but brilliantly sunny winter’s day: and where to roam from Bratislava when you wake up, well, reasonably late? You want to get out into the countryside, but you also don’t have so many hours before darkness falls again, and are reliant on public transport. Svätý Jur, just to the northeast of Bratislava, might just be the place for you.

From Rača, in Bratislava’s extreme north-east, where I was living for three years, getting there could not be easier. Svätý Jur is, in fact, the next village along on the main road out of town, and the first village to be in what could properly be termed “the countryside”. For us, it was a simple jaunt down to Pekná Cesta tram stop where, on the other side of the road, the Slovak Lines nation-wide buses also stop (they’ve come from the Mlynské Nivy bus station, for those readers starting in the centre of the city!), and a 0.80 Euro/ 10 minute ride to the Krajinská bus stop in Svätý Jur.

This is actually an amazingly pretty village. Amazingly pretty because:

a) it is extremely close to the Bratislava suburbs and could easily have fallen prey to either suburban anonymity or distasteful Communist “development” – but hasn’t.

b) People don’t really talk about it as a beautiful place. I’m not (quite) about to put its central námestie in the same category as that in Levoča or Poprad’s Spišská Sobota. But, with its wide oval expanse of untarnished pastille-coloured houses, grand old town hall with a plaque highlighting key dates in the community’s history, and skyline flanked by churches, and beyond by vineyard terraces and rolling forested hills, you would think you were far further from Bratislava than you actually are.

Why Come Here?

Good question.

a) Wine: The main reason to head to Svätý Jur is one that, in December, we were unable to appreciate: the wine cellars. The astonishing presence of some fifteen wine cellars in and around the village makes it a key stop on the Small Carpathians Wine Route. Get information on the cellars at the Infocentrum just up from the main square (Prostredná 47, tel.: (00) 421 2 4497 0449-53, www.ainova.sk/ic). Many wine cellars are often open for tours and tastings – particularly on Open Cellar Days!

Other than a stroll around the historic village centre (boasting of being given “town” status in the mid-17th century), the best thing to do is to take a walk up Podhradie Ulica (that’s the street that continues north up from the far end of the town square) to the ruins of Biely Kameň (white stone castle).

b) Biely Kameň: Biely Kameň is the lesser-known cousin of Červený Kameň (Red Stone Castle) further north-west and whilst the information boards at the ruin itself make little of its associations with the notorious Palffy family that controlled Červený Kameň the presence of other Palffy memorial plaques on buildings in the village centre suggests a connection. The castle itself is a wonderfully romantic ruin in the woods about 1km up from Svätý Jur. The remains of the late 13th century fortress are none too extensive, but fun to explore, and provide a prequel to the great hiking trails beyond in the Malé Karpaty/Small Carpathians, with views down into the valley carved with terraced vineyards and on up into the wilder forests (go to our HIKES section lower down this post for a suggested route). Our experience was coloured by meeting a local historian who had published articles on some to the castle’s legends,and even dug for treasure here! (links to the legends to follow!!). The route to the castle is straightforward: up through the village on Podhradie Ulica (under-the-castle street), passing both churches, then branching left on a marked footpath which ascends along the back of two houses into the woods and gets to the noticeboard below the ruins in about 30 minutes. The final few metres up to within the castle bastions is a bit of a scramble. It’s a popular opycačka (campfire for roasting meat) spot.

EATING:

The main problem in Svätý Jur was getting something decent to eat. OK, it was Sunday, and the two decent-looking restaurants (including the recommendation we had, Svätojurská Viecha at Bratislavska 2 near Hotel Maxim) were closed, but there did seem a paucity of decent eating options. We took shelter in a typical Communist-looking hard-drinking bar near the bus stop back to Bratislava, but it was hardly a place to rave about (in fact it gave us food poisoning). The best things about Svätý Jur are its wine and its nature. We’ll be returning for more of both in wine season! But if you do need to eat here:

– There’s a decent gelateria at the beginning of Prostredná (on the right as you’re walking up through the beautiful square) and (purportedly) a good cafe by the church (the lower church, that is, near the roundabout at the upper end of the square) – we’ll be checking it out soon, don’t worry.

SHOPS: A great farm shop at the lower end of Prostredná as you are walking up on the left-hand side – the cheese selection is way more tempting than any I’ve ever seen anywhere else in Slovakia – including the big supermarkets! It mostly stocks Dutch cheeses (strong feisty rounds of the stuff) but also Slovak ones. AND it has a great range of Slovak chocolate. There are also several really good wine shops along Prostredná (in and around Bratislava, here are THE best ops for sampling local wine). So many, in fact, that we’re going to be writing “Shopping in Svätý Jur” – a special tailored post elaborating on this very subject.

HIKES: Aside from the short hike up to ruins of Biely Kameň (mentioned above) there is of course all those hikes awaiting in the wider expanse of the Malé Karpaty/Small Carpathians which can be accessed from the castle. One interesting route is that on the yellow trail through to Marianka via Biely Križ (allow three to four hours): especially interesting as there are many shrines and crosses of all different shapes and sizes along the way.

MAP LINK

GETTING THERE: Slovak Lines buses run about every 15 minutes from platforms 41-45 at the main bus station stopping at Pekná Cesta on the way out of the city.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Svätý Jur it’s a 17km walk northwest to Pajštún Castle through the Malé Karpaty. A 7km drive northeast (or a hike through the Malé Karpaty) is Limbach.