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Around Bratislava – the West: Devínska Nová Ves & Devínska Kobyla (the Slovak Sahara)

We’ve talked a bit in posts about the countryside around Bratislava: the rearing Carpathian forests of the Mestské Lesy to the north and the wooded trails stretching southeast along the River Danube. But there is also some phenomenal countryside to the west. On a map, of course, Bratislava looks like it’s already so far west within Slovakia that going any further in that direction would mean you’d be in Austria. That’s not quite true. There’s a good ten kilometres of interesting sights sandwiched between the capital and the Austrian border and because this is Slovakia there’s a caveat: most of them are hidden.

The one everyone knows about is Devín Castle, or Hrad Devín: that’s the ruined castle perched spectacularly on a rocky bluff overlooking the confluence of the Morava and Danube rivers. (Here’s a link to the best and most comprehensive web entry I could find on the castle itself). Devín Castle, in the small homonymous town, is the day trip to do from Bratislava: but neither castle nor town should be confused with Devínska Nová Ves, a largely unappealing suburb with some of the least inspiring paneláky (high-rise communist-built apartments) around and exactly the place I want to focus on in this post. Now, the question you may ask is: why focus on a largely unappealing suburb with  some of the least inspiring paneláky around? Well…

Devínska Nová Ves, in common with several of Bratislava’s suburbs and indeed Communist-built suburbs the world over, may not look picturesque at first glance. But because a lot of these suburbs in Bratislava were built right on the city’s edge, they have a proximity to some stunning natural landscapes. And the high-rise tower blocks and the big Volkswagen Slovakia plant (the country’s largest company, as a matter of interest) bely the fact that Devínska Nová Ves was a pretty village before they arrived on the scene and indeed, in parts, on its steeply-sloping hills, still is.

The Main Reasons to Come Out Here…

  • The best views possible of Devín Castle & the confluence of the Morava and Danube rivers
  • A fascinating insight into Slovakia’s geological past in and around Sandberg.
  • The closest you’ll get to the Sahara in Slovakia (Sandberg).
  • The imposing, little-known castle of Schlosshof
  • Slovakia’s best cycle path
  • The most exciting back route/hike to Devín Castle itself, through the lovely Devínska Kobyla

The Abrázna Jasykňa (Abrasion Cave)

The main entrance from Bratislava brings you under the railway and onto Eisnerova street. Follow this road to the end (through the high-rises) and then bear left on the road that goes alongside the Morava river. On the left, after you pass Rolando restaurant, you’ll find the best place to park in Devínska Nová Ves, right below the Abrázna Jasykňa. This is a cool sight in itself: a former quarry wall which, through the rock that has been exposed, showcases the area’s intriguing geology. 13-14 million years ago, Slovakia was not the coast-less country you see today, but was actually largely submerged under a Tertiary sea, and the resultant strata of rock deposits are strikingly clear here. On the left-hand side higher up on the cliff face is the cave itself, but it’s difficult to get up to go into the mouth.

Sandberg
Sandberg ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Sandberg – Where Bratislava Meets the Sahara!

From the car park, head back up towards the centre to the first road junction (Primoravská), turn right and then take the Slovinec street up from Pension Helios up to the weird and wonderful sight that is Sandberg (pictured above).

This is another (far more spectacular) remnant of the Tertiary Sea that once spread out across this part of Central Europe (Záhorie to the north of Bratislava along the western edge of Slovakia is another impressive example). Some 300 kinds of fossils and animal skeletons have been found at Sandberg, including shark’s teeth and whale vertebrae – as well as the distinctly non-marine wooly rhinoceros.

Sandberg is the northern end of the massif of Devínska Kobyla, a long forested ridge that forms the westernmost extent of Slovakia’s Carpathian Mountains and runs south from here to the afore-mentioned Devín Castle. It’s a palaeontologist’s dream come true but it’s a dramatic sight too: a series of part-fossilised dunes that rear up out of the side of Devínska Kobyla like some ancient natural fortress.

It should be noted at this point that climbing on the sand formations is not encouraged – a fence is supposed to deter entry but people often ignore this and risk endangering what is a precious and extremely fragile environment.

The Sandberg Loop: The Most Dramatic Approach to Devín Castle

Most visitors get the bus or drive to Devín Castle from Bratislava but for a more rewarding way to get there, make the journey out to Sandberg (drive or take bus 28 every 30 minutes from Most SNP to Devínska Nová Ves).  From here, a beautiful path cuts along just below the Devínska Kobyla ridge through forests above the Morava River valley as it flows towards its confluence with the Danube. It’s a 50 min to 1 hour brisk walk along and finally down to Devín Cintorín (Devín Cemetery) which marks the edge of Devín town, and 10 minutes’ further walk to the castle. You can return the same  way or make the walk into a loop which will bring you back above Sandberg.

From Sandberg, the first part of the walk stays in the open, with great views looking south of the Morava, looking ahead to Devín Castle. To the west, you’ll see the outline of Schloshof castle, over the other side of the river on the flat farmland of Austria (see below for more details on Schloshof). Right below you, along the Morava itself, you’ll see Slovakia’s best dedicated cycling trail, which runs from the suburb of Dúbravka (connected by tram number 5 to the city centre) through the edge of Devínska Nová Ves and on to Devín.) Then you’ll pass some old quarries (with a good grassy picnicking area below) and on your right the old remnants of the Iron Curtain’s border defence towers. Whilst the vista today looks peaceful, many people died trying to cross the Morava River from East to West before 1989. This was the Iron Curtain: right here.

Tree Tunnels on the path to Devín Castle
Tree Tunnels on the path to Devín Castle ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The route at this point goes through some wonderful tunnels of trees, then rises through woods to reach a wildlife information board and the confluence of the path coming down from the top of the Sandberg ridge. Here is a great view across to Devín Castle. The path comes out into the open again here and descends to the cemetery, but just as it starts to descend, the exciting return route sheers off up to the left.

You climb steeply up on a minor path to come out on the bare southernmost edge of the Devínska Kobyla ridge (where the best views possible of Devín Castle await). It was around here we got a bit lost and some whimsical old guy wearing inexplicably just slippers on his feet sung us some old Slovak songs without us really inviting it… Wend your way through the scrub and thinning woods just passed here to come out on a signed red trail which starts to curve back into the woods in the direction of Sandberg, almost on top of the ridge this time. You follow first a cycle path and then a wide, clearly-marked green trail, and finally a yellow trail to take you down onto the ridge right above Sandberg, then around the edge and back to the start point.

Devín Castle from the Sandberg-Devín Path
Devín Castle from the Sandberg-Devín Path – ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Bike/Hike Out to Schlosshof

Just north of where you turn off on Primoravská to get to Sandberg, you’ll find the unlikely tourist information office of Devínska Nová Ves, and the beginnings of the Cyclomost Slobody (Libery Cycleway) – a great cycle path that crosses the Morava into Austria and ushers you forth to the lavish and stately Schlosshof castle, which in terms of the castle’s lavish interiors and serenely beautiful formal gardens looks quite like Austria’s Versailles. This last weekend it was unfortunately closed (the castle is open from March 25th through to the beginning of November) although you can still of course use the cycle bridge at any time: I’ll head back there soon and will have a more detailed post on the castle then. For now, here’s the link to the Schlosshof official website.

A Final Thought on Practicalities…

What with the Sandberg-Devín Castle walk AND a stop-off at Devín Castle it will be extremely difficult to fit Schlosshof castle into the same day’s trip. You could combine the Sandberg walk with Devín Castle or the Sandberg site itself with the cycle out to Schlosshof in a day, however.

MAP LINK:

GETTING THERE:

As mentioned above, drive or (best of the public transport ops) take bus 28 every 30 minutes from Most SNP to Devínska Nová Ves.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Devínska Nová Ves it’s a 25km journey round to the southwest across the border to Hainburg in Austria.

RELATED POST: Pajštún Castle Hike (an alternative castle to see around Bratislava – lying a few km north of Devínska Nová Ves)

RELATED POST: Ružinov, Cemeteries & Communist Cafeterias (another random neighbourhood of Bratislava no tourists visit)

RELATED POST: Buying Hiking Maps & Apps

RELATED POST: The Small Carpathians: An Intro

Shrine - photo by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Around Bratislava – the North: Pilgrimage to Marianka

Perhaps I would make a good pilgrim. There is no other real reason (excepting madness) to explain why, on an icy Saturday when the snow out in the countryside was still almost knee-deep and most roads – let alone the hiking trails – required a Herculean effort to negotiate, I should decide this was the time for doing a hike I’d long talked about: the route to Marianka, a village on the other side of the first wave of the Malé Karpaty hills that rise behind Bratislava, which happens to be Slovakia’s (and one of Central Europe’s) biggest and oldest pilgrimage destinations. Pilgrims like arriving the hard way, right? Crawling; in bare feet; backwards… snow as thick as what I ended up traipsing through certainly required plenty of determination – and perhaps a touch of devotion.

I was also, quite possibly, spurred on through the white because I love hikes with themes: aimless forest or mountain rambles are fine, but when they can be done to follow in historic footsteps, it adds an interesting dimension. For these reasons (interest, great scenery) this is a walk worth considering for any visitor to Bratislava who feels like a rewarding leg-stretch during their stay. And you will not find more radiantly beautiful countryside so close to the city.

©englishmaninslovakia.com

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The way to Marianka has in fact been tramped by the devout for almost a millennium and weaves in a colourful history involving some famous names (Holy Roman Emperors Leopold I and Joseph II – son and successor of Maria Theresa).  Over such a lengthy period, it’s little surprise that an official pilgrimage route became defined. This begins at Bratislava’s rather nondescript Kalvaria and continues past a small cave, Lurdská Jaskyňa (Lourdes Cave; a slight exaggeration on the part of the namer) before ascending into the hills via Źelezná Studnička and Kačín to get to the pilgrimage site. Having had, since I first mastered the art of walking, a loathing of “official routes” I have to confess to absolutely out-trumping (and out-tramping!) the pilgrims here with a far prettier route (although it totally circumnavigates the Kalvaria and Lurdská Jaskyňa) that starts at the tram stop of Pekná Cesta (served by trams 3 and 5 from the centre). Sometimes these pilgrims can’t see the best woods for the trees.

The Start…

The vineyards above Pekna Cesta ©englishmaninslovakia.com

The vineyards above Pekna Cesta ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

From Pekná Cesta it’s a straight walk up passed the supermarkets to the mini roundabout at the top, then on again along the narrow lane which eventually ascends to the main Pekná Cesta entrance to Bratislava’s Mestké Lesy. 200m up here, a stony track cuts up from the lane plunging you immediately into forest. This is the yellow path which you will be following (in my rather sodden footsteps) for the next two hours of hiking. It ushers you along the rear of some new-builds, skirts around to the right of a picnic area and then, where the better forest track swings round to the right, branches steep left up through the forest on a far smaller path.

It was a route, on my snow-encumbered pilgrimage, much frequented by families trying out rather fetching sledges, not to mention a few snowshoers and nordic skiers – but also a surprising number of very determined single older men going it alone with just walking poles and their own two feet. Age required I give way to them, and given there was only a thin strip of semi-beaten path between the knee-deep banks of snow either side, giving way meant getting wet (talk about penance).

This stretch of the yellow trail skitters up through the woods like a back-to-front slalom course, then more or less follows contours about three quarters of the way up the hill on a pleasant little path for almost an hour before reaching the crossroads with the red trail, at which point you are a 25-minute walk from Kamzík.*** On the next leg, straight over the red trail and down to the Kamzík cable car base above Źelezná Studnička, there was only one intrepid set of steps in the snow before mine, and going was very tough, although again hauntingly beautiful, with the snow-laden pines emphasising the silence, broken only when the weight of snow on branch became too great, and the trees shed their load in a snow shower to the forest floor.

 

Down on the forest road near the cable car base there was more activity. I turned right and followed the road gently up through woods which are normally classic picnicking spots to the end of the drive-able stretch (and terminus of the seasonal bus 43) by the old sanatorium, which with its long-drained swimming pool and closed-up buildings creates a slightly eerie feeling in otherwise unspoilt and increasingly lonely woods. At some point up this valley, the reins of civilisation that gentrify some lower slopes of Bratislava Mestké Lesy are dropped, the picnicking spots thin and the other people you pass become increasingly hardier hikers, rather than families or afternoon strollers. You pass two disused quarries, but before the main forest road reaches a third quarry, and after about 45 minutes’ walk on what is normally a metalled track but now was little more than a mound of ice and snow, a notice board and deserted cottage mark a division of paths.

Up into Prime Pilgrim Territory

Walking in a winter wonderland ©englishmaninslovakia.com

Walking in a winter wonderland ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Here, the yellow route nips up through a break between trees for a further 45 minutes to join the red trail and bona fide pilgrimage path from Kačín (the latter another major picnicking spot at the north-western limit of Bratislava Mestké Lesy). For me, the last part of this route along the top was in virgin snow – stunningly winter wonderland-esque, but further soaking by already damp shoes and trousers. It was time to bring that time-honoured weapon of devout pilgrims into play: a hip flask of strong liquor, in this case becherovka. A generous swig, and I beheld a vision: a sign post which told me I was only one hour from my goal.

As it turned out, it was slightly less. The route from hereon was either level or downhill and again, through snow-bowed tunnel after snow-bowed tunnel of trees, in gorgeous forest scenery. Now on the official pilgrim trail, there were also a couple of shrines – the most impressive at Sekyl, the point where red and yellow routes separates, with yellow descending to Záhorská Bystrica and red – our route, zigzagging down through the trees. On this chilly but bright afternoon, it would have made a great cross-country ski but was a struggle to walk, although the views that soon open out – of the flat western tip of Slovakia stretching away through farmland into Austria – are ample compensation.

Marianka - and the view to Austria beyond ©englishmaninslovakia.com

Marianka – and the view to Austria beyond ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

And soon, at about three hours-worth of snow-walking (or slightly less in normal conditions) the path skitters down to pass the uppermost of the mountain cottages (chaty) signalling the beginnings of Marianka. The path turns into a track, and the track a lane (Šturová). Follow this lane, ignoring any side turnings, which will bring you down, with many kinks (as this is a very spread-out place) via the first of the town’s many shrines, to Marianka’s lekáreň (pharmacy) – then abruptly ascends to meet the main road from Záhorská Bystrica. Turn right at this crossroads, and you are gently ushered into the venerable old centre of Slovakia’s number one pilgrimage site.

Weary pilgrim, fear not. Your endeavours will not have been in vain. Marianka’s reputation does not rest on thin air. Accordingly, our post on Marianka itself will be here soon!

NB: The bus stop which becomes immediately obvious in the historic centre of Marianka has connections (on bus 37) back to Bratislava every two hours – useful return times to be aware of are 3:04pm and 5:24pm.

MAP LINK: Start Point Next Part The Part After That  Final stretch to Marianka

GETTING THERE: Start from Pekná Cesta (take tram 3/5 from the centre) or, more conventionally, from Kamzik (take trolleybus 203 from Hodvovo Namestie to the end of the line then walk up. From Kamzik, take the paved lane on down towards the cable car base on the other side of the hill from Bratislava (not a public road, but nevertheless shown on maps one and two). At the cable car base, you’re on our route (a point underlined for your benefit above).

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: At Marianka, you’re only a one-hour hike from Pajstún Castle

*** Denotes where, in the separate linked post, you have to scroll down to find the same point described.

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Low Tatras Mountains: The Dead Bat’s Cave

High in the broccoli-hued forest foothills of the Nizke Tatry (Low Tatras) – Slovakia’s great unsung mountain range – hidden between the lofty pine trees of the lower slopes and the element-stunted trees of the kosodrevina above, there is a small mountain cottage. The residence of some recluse, the unknowing passerby might think, some remote holiday house. But traipse up on the one-hour hike from the nearest road and, as you will see, the cottage marks the entrance to Slovakia’s highest, most extensive cave system – and a definite candidate for one of the strangest.

The nearest access point by road is the parking lot above the ailing Hotel Trangoška, alongside a newer, shinier penzión clearly trying to outdo its older rival, on the long twisting road up from the village of Bystrá. Opposite the car park a wide track (which narrows to a path after passing a couple of mountain cabins) ascends through the woods for 45 minutes before arriving at the signed path to the cave – which now lies a steep 15-minute clamber above you.

Approaching the cave entrance ©englishmaninslovakia.com

Approaching the cave entrance ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Sweltering from the ascent on a sticky August day when even temperatures up here at over 1300m are well into the twenties, we fantasised about the possibility of a cafe being incorporated into this remote spot but never really expected the cold beer or piping hot mountain herb tea that the cave guides – who live in the dinky cottage built around the cave entrance for days at a time – offered us on arrival. Descending into a tricky-to-negotiate cave system after a cold Pilsner or two doesn’t seem on paper like the best idea but in the moment it felt right. And chatting to the friendly team of cave guides over a drink is part of the experience: trapped up here with just each other’s company for lengthy periods, they have some colourful stories at the ready which whet your curiosity prior to going underground.

The typical cave tour (8 Euros per person) lasts about an hour. This is not a showcave, with wide paths and neat steps and guide rails. The guides at the Dead Bats’ Cave decided widening the tunnels sufficiently to meet showcave requirements would involve hacking away too much at the rock formations, so they prefer to offer a more adventurous tour, with a couple more heart-in-mouth ledges and slippery ladders thrown in – and simply ask you to sign a form saying that whatever happens to you in “the descent” is entirely at your own risk. Fair enough. Game on.

The tour commences with a descent down to around 20 metres below the surface, and a series of memorial plaques to famous cavers who discovered and charted the passageways here. In common with other high altitude cave systems, formations in this 22km network of tunnels are relatively few, but a striking series of chasms over which you walk, either on creaking bridges or strapped on to iron bars in the tunnel wall, keep you awed. The tour isn’t fleshed out with a lot of over-exaggerated nonsense about likenesses of rocks to various animals, either: this is an hour spent exploring – and “explorer” you really do feel as the tunnel you follow makes a sharp kink down and into a narrow section of bubbled rock passageways with the walls and roof of the cave pressing closely on all sides (Indiana Jones eat your heart out).

It’s around this point that the guide explains the master plan of the Dead Bats Cave – connecting the current system of tunnels up with another still-greater series of canyons – one of which is the size of a football stadium. The connection has almost been made – but the final few metres are proving difficult. Due to the presence of water, digging has to be restricted to when the water is frozen and won’t bust out to flood the cavers: something that happens for perhaps a month each year and even then, only for a few hours daily because it becomes too difficult to breathe. Watch this cold, dark space, therefore, for when the attractions of the Dead Bats’ Cave to visitors multiply after these caverns start featuring in the tour!

And finally, on a rock shelf at the side of the tunnel leading back to the surface, the origins of the cave’s moniker become apparent. Yes, indeed, the minuscule pencil-like bones of an abnormally high quantity of dead bats (some of which have lain here thousands of years). Many more, it appears, than the average for subterranean systems. Why? Well one theory put forward is that the bats – the poor blind things – find their way into the caves come late autumn and then, because their access holes become frozen over, can’t find a way out again. The second theory is just that bats – much of the area’s bat population, no less – has decided on mass that these underground labyrinths are a fitting place to die.

The Dead Bats’ Cave holds many more delights. The standard tour touches upon only one of three levels of caves open to wannabe troglodytes – and more hardcore adrenalin-pulsing squeezes and scrambles await with the more in-depth tours that explore all three (costing around 24 Euros).

Stalagmites - little stumpy ones! ©englishmaninslovakia.com

Stalagmites – little stumpy ones! ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Walk On! Beyond the cave, and returning back down to the signed entrance on the main green trail from Trangoška, you can carry on 45 minutes up through the forest onto the ridge at the mountain house of Chata MR Štefanika (at which point you join our recommended three-day Low Tatras ridge hike) and from where it is a further 1.5 hour hike to the summit of the highest peak in the Low Tatras, Ďumbier. Doing even a portion of this ridge hike – a truly glorious one – is an astounding “add-on” to a cave visit.

But – and few people, it seems, know this – the hike to the Dead Bats’ Cave does not have to be the out-and-back route it appears from Trangoška. As you come back down on the green trail (that’s turning left on the main path if coming from the cave) you’ll pass piles of wood left for transporting up to Chata MR Štefanika, with a rather touching request to hikers to take a log and receive a free Ďumbier herb tea (a special sweet herb tea just found in these hills!) for their pains if they carry it all the way! And just below a narrow, rarely-used yellow trail which runs up to the Hotel Kosodrevina/cable car – a point half-way up to the ridge between Hotel Srdiečko (another hotel at the end of the road on which Trangoška lies) and Chopok (the second-highest summit in the Low Tatras). This trail initially seems overgrown but it’s not – and rises through wild forest up onto moorland rich in blueberries and raspberries (boy did we have a feast). After about an hour the path – narrow and yet distinct curves up to join the wider blue trail which runs between Chata MR Štefanika and Hotel Kosodrevina. From here you can take the chair lift down to Hotel Srdiečko and walk down the road to where you parked your car – or carry on up to the top of the ridge via cable car to Chopok (where you can take another cable car down the other side into Slovakia’s famous ski area, Jasná, and into other articles soon to feature on this site…)

MAP LINK:

ADMISSION: 8 Euros per adult for the standard tour.

OPENING: Tours available at 10am, 12midday, 2pm and 4pm – daily July/August, March-June and September-December weekends only. Closed January and February (when work on connecting the adjoining cave system gets underway!!)

CAVE WEBSITE: (Slovak only)

WARNING: Temperatures down in the caves are an average of 3 degrees – bring a warm top even if it’s boiling outside!

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From the Dead Bats’ Cave it’s 90km southwest to Stred Europy (the geographical Centre of Europe!) in Central/South Slovakia.