On the trail ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Low Tatras Mountains: the Hrebenovka Ridge Hike, Stage One (Chata Pod Čertovicou to Chata M.R. Štefanika)

To walk along a mountain ridge, for days, scarcely bumping into a single building in the process, would be a rarity anywhere in the world. To do so in Europe is a privilege indeed. Many chains of mountains boast hikes that clamber up to their highest echelons, but ridge hikes that allow you to stay at such continually high elevations for so long, and with views dropping away to both sides of the mountain range, are a special breed. Therein lies the appeal of the Hrebenovka, the signature hike of the little-known Low Tatras. The trail is, to the mountains it crests, what the Haute Route is to the Alps.

Surprise, Surprise…

Having hiked the official long-distance trail through the High Tatras, the Tatranská Magistrála, I believed myself well prepared for whatever the Hrebenovka could throw at me. But I was in for a few surprises. Whilst not encompassing mountains of quite such stature as those in the High Tatras, the Hrebenovka runs right along the top of those it does encompass and is therefore, overall, a higher and wilder hike, with greater distances between its pit stops of so-called ‘civilisation’ (by which, to be clear, we mean the manmade structures, ie the mountain huts or cable car terminals en route). It’s a less-traipsed trail, too (certainly by foreigners) and whilst the accommodation provision for hikers is still incredible given the remoteness of the surroundings, it is nevertheless a fair bit more basic than on the Tatranská Magistrála.

RELATED POST: See why our version of the Hrebenovka starts at Chata Pod Čertovicou

The Start…

The little hamlet of Čertovica lies on the steeply twisting route 72 about halfway between Podbrezova, just west of Brezno (southern gateway to the Low Tatras), and Liptovský Hrádok, just south of Liptovsky Mikulaš (one of the northern gateways to the Low Tatras). There is not much there apart from the Motorest, a snack bar-cum-hostelry with cracking views where the bus drops you, and a few other accommodation options. Most places to stay are on or around the main road, and whilst no option here is terrible, we recommend the scenic and peaceful Chata pod Čertovicou if you want to stay overnight here before starting the hike. The chata is a well signposted 0.9km down into the woods from the Motorest.

It is, admittedly, a bit of a climb to get back to Čertovica and route 72, but worth it. As you come back onto the main road (route 72) a red-and-white pole on the left-hand side of the wide entrance indicates a hidden little path climbing up to Hotel Totem (dramatic name, less stunning accommodation) through the undergrowth. When you get to the Hotel Totem grounds just a little above the road, the main moment of confusion on the entire stage occurs. What is in actual fact a ski run during the winter season seems to be the red Hrebenovka trail soaring away up the hill. The official path sticks at road level a-while before curling back up through the band of forest to the right of here. Do not despair, however, because as long as the skiers are away, it’s possible to ascend on this steep path and you’ll join the Hrebenovka path after an uphill slog for about 30 minutes. This path curves up to the edge of the forest, then bears left (northwest) into it at about 45 minutes from Hotel Totem

Cute Kosodrevina…

What follows, for the following 45 minutes up to the first summit of the day, Rovienky, is a gorgeous section of this first stage of the hike. There is in Slovakia a phenomenon known as kosodrevina – when the low-level mountain forests slowly give way to open mountain land – best represented by the bands of fuzzy dwarf firs interspersed with patches of moorland. The Low Tatras has probably the best examples of kosodrevina in the country. (the Kosodrevina is also a hotel and the midway cable car station in our article Up Chopok the Back Way but, generally, it is a topographical zone). The ascent from Čertovica to Rovienky at 1604m is only 300 metres or so, but it is as punishingly steep over a fairly short distance as it is spectacular, and is a tough initiation to the Hrebenovka. After you reach the top of Rovienky (where there is a nice clearing within the dwarf pines for a bite to eat/ first swig of the slivovica) you will feel the rest of the hike is achievable!

Near Rovienky

Near Rovienky – image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Onto the Ridge…

The path now slopes down slightly through more dwarf pines with the serious mountains now rearing ahead (see feature image). It’s an easy-going 30 minutes to the intersection with the green trail at Kumštové sedlo from here. The path then kinks to the west (left) in a long, intense ascent onto the ridge top proper: allow two hours for this section via Králička (the worst of the climb is over by this point) to the end of stage one and your overnight stop at Chata M.R. Štefanika at 1740m. You leave the trees behind and dramatic valleys open up to the left and right whilst soon, poised at a seemingly ridiculous angle on the lip of the horseshoe-shaped ridge up ahead, is the place you will be spending the night. The last section, down from Králička to Chata M.R. Štefanika , was as is often the case extremely misty on my approach, emphasising the remoteness of the location. Just as well there is a full-service restaurant as well as bunk rooms on hand at the finish…

This – fortuitously – was what was happening as I arrived: a beer delivery!

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Allow at least four hours’ walking time for this stage – but you’ll want to rest and stop off on the way, because it is quite hard going, so five hours is a more realistic estimate for the fairly fit.

Now: congratulations. You have almost certainly earned a beer for completing the Hrebenovka’s first, challenging section.

WHAT NEXT?

Hiking the Hrebenovka: an Introduction

Hiking the Hrebenovka, Stage Two: Chata M.R. Štefanika to Chopok (Next Stage)

Hiking the Hrebenovka, Stage Three: Chopok to Chata Útulña pod Chabencom (aka Chata Ďurkova)

Staying on the Trail

Chata pod Čertovicou (before you start)

Chata M.R. Štefanika (end of Stage One)

Hotel Srdiečko (end of Stage Two)

Chata Magurka (end of Stage Three)

Near Vel'ka Javorina and the Slovak-Czech border - image by Jonno Tranter

Hiking the Cesta Hrdinov SNP, Stage Two: Vel’ka Javorina to Drietoma (near Trenčín)

The Cesta hrdinov SNP, aka the trail of the Heroes of the Slovak National Uprising, begins officially at Bradlo, the monument to the ultimate Slovak hero, General MR Štefánik: it’s a continuation of the Štefánikova magistrála trail that runs here all the way from Bratislava. In short, this is the next big chunk of the mega-hike that traverses the entire length of Slovakia, now and for the remainder of its route to Dukla Pass in far-eastern Slovakia under the new guise of “Cestra hrdinov SNP”, a 500km+ adrenaline rush of a hike on some of Eastern Europe’s most jaw-dropping mountain and forest scenery. 

We aim, over time, to have the entirety of this spectacular path featured on the site with stage descriptions for each (just as we have for Slovakia’s other long-distance trails, the Tatranská Magistrála in the High Tatras, the Hrebenovka in the Low Tatras and the afore-mentioned Štefánikova magistrála in Western Slovakia. For Stage Two, we give the floor to the intrepid Jonno Tranter. who hiked it in summer 2016…

From our campsite location near Nova Hora, situated on the green trail stretching from the high-point of the Biele Karpaty range, Veľká Javorina (at 970m) to Mikulčin Vrch, the route dips back down to straddle the border for a while.

It’s then uphill towards Velký Lopeník, at 911m, the last climb of the Biele Karpaty. The route is well indicated but still relatively hard, especially if you’ve been walking for a few days. At the top you’ll find a few benches to rest, and a large, tall, wooden tower, the Rozhledna Lopeník. The sign on the door translates as “enter at your own risk”. We decided it was worth a shot, and climbed the stairs to one of Western Slovakia’s best viewing platforms (many are situated in the upland forests to give hikers a view beyond the treetops). There’s some really nice panoramic views here as the green mountains spread out below you.

When you head back downhill towards the scattered hamlet of Lopenické, you’ll see a few taverns and places to eat. We stopped off at Horská chata Jana, which served our favourite deep fried cheese speciality, and enjoyed some Czech beer. There’s some great views over the area from the terrace and it wasn’t too busy. A note about language issues: It was relatively difficult to find English speakers in restaurants and bars like these during our stay in the area, but someone usually turned up to save us when no English menu was available. Often, it’s a good idea to ask the younger member of staff, as they are more likely to speak English. It will also help to learn a few words of Slovakian before your trip as the locals really do appreciate it, even though you’ll usually receive laughter for your strange accent. You can also download an app for your phone with a Slovak dictionary and translator.

At Mikulčin Vrch (try pronouncing that!) you can join the Cesta Hrinov SNP trail again, and we were excited to see the first signs for Trenčín. You’ll be walking along a road for a while, and once you hit Kykula, you’re back along the border (look out for the red and white stumpy posts demarcating the border). This quickly this leads to fields and as you enter Slovakia again, it’s all wide expanses with not a soul in sight. Thankfully, there are trees dotted around with marks so following the trail is pretty straightforward. There are some tracks along here and as long as you stick to those, you should be alright.

The road to Trenčín is not an easy stretch. When you get to Machnáč, you’re back in the woods, and there are some relatively steep downhill parts. These can be hard on your knees, and sometimes seem tougher than the uphills, but you should still be able to cover quite a bit of ground. The trail is indicated throughout but marks are sometimes sparse, so make you sure you keep an
eye out to check that your are on the right path.

As we were leaving the Biele Karpaty, We kept expecting to see Trenčín and Pohoda festival spread out in front of us, the Mecca of our seven day pilgrimage. In actual fact, the city is hidden behind the mountains and you’ll never get a clear view of it from here, though there are some lovely views of the hills around.

Eventually the trail leads to a path, and as it flattens off you are very much in agricultural countryside, where you may see the occasional farmer working. There’s a great spot to camp here on the right, about a kilometre before you get to Drietoma, with a nice place to make a fire, and even a table and benches.

Rather than missioning it all the way to Trenčín, we decided to camp outside of Drietoma, just north of where the festival takes place. Drietoma, like most towns in the area, is pretty and peaceful, with little in the way of tourism, but nice for a stroll. There’s an OK restaurant called Motorest Eden with great pizza and even English menus, so we went down for some food in the evening. They also serve a delicious breakfast and we returned the next morning. It’s right beside the Co-op, a good place to stock up again on supplies, though you’re not far from Trenčín which has many more shopping options.

That night we fell asleep easily, with the fatigue of seven days of walking and camping behind us, and the knowledge that a three day extravaganza of music and mayhem called Pohoda awaited us just below the hills.

The final camp - image by Jonno Tranter

The final camp – image by Jonno Tranter

What Next?

Our Coverage of the Cesta Hrdinov SNP from its official beginning (at Bradlo, and on as far as Myjava): Hiking the Stefanikova Magistrala, Stage Five: Dobrá Voda to Bradlo (and Beyond)

Hiking the Cesta Hrdinov SNP, Stage One: Myjava to Vel’ka Javorina (previous stage)

The 'Stone House' at the top of Chopok ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Low Tatras Mountains: Kamenná Chata

Before you take to the snow on your ski spree in Chopok (Slovakia’s and indeed one of Eastern Europe’s main ski resort areas), it’s worth bearing in mind where the best piste stops for refreshments are. And of course, they’re not always in the big hotels in the Demänovská Dolina resort area. Far from it (or, perhaps, far above it). Swoop up in the cable car from the resort village (from Záhradky at 1028m to Priehyba at 1342m and then from Priehyba up the dizzying heights of Chopok at 2024m), passing most of the 100-odd sq km of ski slopes en route, and you’ll arrive at one of the highest points on the Low Tatras mountains: the bare, stark and spectacular Chopok ridge. This thin scree-strewn crest of the mountain range, shaped like an up-ended old-fashioned iron, exudes a feeling a little akin to tightrope-walking on top of the world, so narrow does it taper at certain points and so dramatic are the vistas. And it’s here that you’ll find one of the most singular dining experiences anywhere in the Low Tatras region: Kamenná Chata…

The 'Stone House' at the top of Chopok ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The ‘Stone House’ at the top of Chopok ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Translating as ‘stone house’, Kamenná Chata lies a stone’s throw down from the Chopok cable car terminus: one of a few places in the country where you can eat out at 2000m+ altitude (2010m, to be exact – and Teryho Chata, Chata pod Rysmi and the restaurant at the summit of Lomnický štít in the High Tatras are the other lofty eateries). There is a pricey restaurant inside the cable car terminus too, of course, but Kamenná Chata ticks to a far more animated beat and distinctly more reasonable prices. The food focuses on typical Slovak mountain delicacies: a substantial bryndzové halušky (sheep’s cheese dumplings), for example;  piping hot goulash or oh-so sweet pirohy (mini dumplings filled with plums) but it’s the quality of the view rather than the food that is the real draw.

The outside terrace leans over the tumbling slopes of the south side of Chopok, where almost lunar-like views dominated by the rocks and boulders which provide the locale’s appropriately stony backdrop crash away into the inky green valleys below. The cable car toiling up from Srdiečko adds further eye candy and shows mankind’s partial taming of this wild spot, but the taming is only a recent thing. It was only in the mid-1990s, whilst the Chopok cable cars were being constructed, that Kamenná Chata came into existence at all (as accommodation for workmen): before this these mountaintops were far less visited than they are today, and the panoramas from this mountain house still make for an awe-inspiring place to break off from your ski session (winter) or hike (summer).

Because it is old-school, Kamenná Chata: a textbook mountain house inside despite the grey-stone exterior, sporting a convivial wood-panelled space cluttered with tables and memorabilia and a big old ceramic mountain stove besides the bar area (only a rather crass menu board spoils the scene). Accommodation is offered here, too, for a bargain 23 Euros per person with breakfast included.

The ski scene can often be dominated by somewhat thoughtless and rushed-through modern development: but here, in a house originally intended for construction workers, is something far wealthier tourist accommodation can lack: a little bit of soul and value for money to go with the unbeatable views from the restaurant terrace.

 

MAP LINK:

OPENING: 7:30am-10pm year-round (the first and last parts of these opening hours may be a struggle to get food at unless you’re staying here)

RESERVATIONS: You can contact them (tel 00421-48-617-0039, kamienka@kamennachata.sk) but at busy periods they don’t normally take reservations, due to the fact that they pull in the crowds regardless. Plus, it’s not really worth reserving for the restaurant – there will always be some kind of space inside and out and you can ensure you get there a little outside of lunch hours to guarantee a table. For the attached accommodation, however, booking is essential

BEST TIME TO VISIT: Ski season is a cracking time to come here when there will likely be snow as far as the eye can see, but the light in summer from the terrace is sublime. Compromise: March – marginally warmer weather for sitting outside, and the first signs of spring, but still snow on the ground.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: Kamenná Chata features near the end of stage two or near the start of stage three on the Hrebenovka ridge hike across the Low Tatras: under three hours’ hike southeast via the Low Tatras high point of Ďumbier is Chata M. R. Štefánika mountain house whilst three to four hours west are Chata Útulná and then Chata Magurka mountain houses.

The Slovakia-Ukraine border ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

A Meditation on Borders

For the 200th post on this site I thought I would reflect on one of the factors that defines Slovakia more than almost anything else: its borders.

Any study of Slovakia alights, sooner or later, upon the issue of borders.

It is an issue ever embedded in the psyche, too, of such a new nation with its geographical position in the very heart of Europe.

Slovakia shares a frontier with five nations: Ukraine, Hungary, Austria, Czech Republic and Poland. That’s not many compared, say, to Germany (which borders nine other countries) but it’s enough for a small, fledgling country to contend with. Particularly when it’s still trying to establish itself on grounds its bigger, more powerful neighbours long believed was theirs.

Some of Slovakia’s borders are natural ones. The Danube chisels a frontier along a portion of the southern frontier with Hungary. The Morava river performs a similar role in Slovakia’s west – along the boundary with Austria and the Czech Republic. And in sections of Slovakia’s northern border with Poland, the High Tatras mountains create a rather formidable frontier. Then there is that most talked-about border of all – the border which even if it is not at all geographically obvious forms part of the edge of the European Union, the border with Ukraine, the border that has had millions and millions of Euros spent on fortifying it with fancy security, the border which still leaks a large number of refugees and helps to line the pockets of a fair number of traffickers through its porousness.

And if you make the trip out to some of these frontier-hugging places – Kohutka, say, in the Biele Karpaty on the border with Czech Republic, or Nová Sedlica in the far east on the border with Ukraine, first by car and then on foot because very little of the border is actually road, that porousness is emphasised a hundred-fold. Borders are so much, in Slovakia (they are representative of the centuries for which Slovaks strove to have any place on this planet to call their own at all). But borders are so little at the same time. They are lines in the lonely pine forest. On one side: unbroken kilometres of pines. On the other: unbroken kilometres of pines. And in the middle, a line little wider than a firebreak with a footpath running through it, and perhaps the odd drunkenly leaning sign proclaiming pozor: Štátna hranica, warning: state border.

They might have had meaning in the Communist era, these little lines in the pines. Now they are mostly incredible places to go hiking – with the guarantees the hike will pass directly through the middle of nowhere, yet have the added allure of crossing national boundaries many times. (The Cesta Hrdinov SNP, featured on this site, follows much of Slovakia’s border and is, indeed, Slovakia’s ultimate hike).

Borders do signify other things in the Slovakia of today. On the frontier with Austria, they are both fabulous adventure playgrounds (Devínska Kobyla) and testaments to bygone wars (the bunker museum in Petržalka), on the frontier with Hungary they are both fabulous art museums and vineyards in the  Tokaj wine region, hotly-contested between both countries to this day.

But mostly, in Slovakia, borders are lines in the pines. I suppose, coming from Britain, an island that has such definitive borders, and ones which never presented an obstacle to the British colonising a large percentage of the world, these lines in the pines seem so innocuous a frontier: even though for half a century they essentially kept foreigners out, and were therefore far more dramatic than any of the UK’s lofty cliffs.

I like to think of Slovakia’s borders as reminders of the foreign influences that make up its hotchpotch history, too. They add an extra, indefinable aurora to the land on which they lie.

Once, they signified the oppression of Slovaks by other bigger powers, once, you could be shot for trying to cross one of them.

What better way to counteract that sombre past today than by the act of strolling along them to find a spot for a picnic, without a care in the world?

 

The Englishman in Slovakia walks the walls of Bardejov ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Bardejov: Walking the Walls

There’s always an urge when you arrive in a new city to “make your mark” – to go out into the middle of it and make sense of it, somehow. The newly-arrived do this in many different ways, of course. They might climb that city’s tallest building, or ascend to the top of whatever that city’s main viewpoint is: to visualise the place in its entirety, stretching away from smart central blocks to decrepit suburbs. They might go a-wandering down that city’s streets to the main square, or perhaps to its darkest back alley, to have a drink in a notorious bar or cafe and people-watch, and become acquainted with the destination that way.

In Bardejov’s case, the best way to do it is to “walk the walk” of its recently restored town walls.

There are not many towns or cities in Slovakia with their original ancient walls in tact and this, already, propels Bardejov onto the elite list of places to visit. But Bardejov’s walls go a step further even than those of nearby and likewise Unesco-listed Levoča: you can walk them, all the way around the old town, and in so doing patrol the periphery of the country’s most impeccably preserved medieval centre, just as if you were a guard defending against the myriad invaders that once plagued the region.

Bardejov, by way of introduction, squeezes on to most people’s grand tours of Slovakia (if they do a grand tour, that is) despite its out-of-the-way location in the far north-east of the nation (Bratislava-Trenčin-Malá Fatra-High Tatras-Levoča-Spiš Castle-Košice-Bardejov is the classic travel route) and its main allure is its spectacularly maintained 14th- and 15th-century architecture, wrapped around by the afore-mentioned walls. The result is, in our opinion, Slovakia’s prettiest town. Still, though: venture here and you will nevertheless feel like an adventurer, for tourists do not come in the big flocks they do in Western Europe. On my last two visits to Bardejov, I’ve been one of only a handful of foreign visitors – and that in the high season. For such a beautiful town, and to experience it so tourist-free, you would have to travel a very long way on this continent: and what is heartening about Bardejov’s wall walk is the confirmation that the Unesco money is being spent on continuing to conserve the town’s very special heritage.

Bardejov features on our Top Ten Medieval Towns in Slovakia – click the link to find out at which position!

The way to start walking the walls ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The way to start walking the walls ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

It’ll take you around 30 minutes, at a leisurely pace, to walk around the circumference of the walls, best done in a clockwise direction from the main city entry point on the street of Dlhý Rad on the north side, right opposite where the banks are. Ascend the grassy banks via the steps and then turn left to head along a particularly rejuvenated and elevated section (as per the feature image), overlooking the northernmost of the town centre’s burgher’s houses – many of which date to over 500 years of age.

Think of the walls encircling Bardejov as a clock face, with your entry point as 12 o’clock. After the elevated section you’ll drop down to continue on a small cobbled lane passing a couple of bastions, which brings you round to the southern (upper) end of Bardejov’s vast, spectacular central square or námestie, Radničné námestie at about 6 o’clock. Following the wall on around clockwise, you’ll walk via the old monastery, Klaštor Frantiskánov and the adjoining church of Svätého Jána Krstitel’a, before bearing round to the north and the superb Hotel pod Bránou, nestled within the walls three blocks west of the square. It’s here, almost at the end of the circuit of old Bardejov, that you might want to indulge in some refreshments: either in the courtyard dining area of the hotel OR just beyond on the sunken garden area immediately to the northeast around Miškovského, with a cracking good ice cream stand: perfect for sitting and appreciating the refurbishment of the city’s northern bastions, splashed by a lovely fountain (history, THEN food – see what we did there?).

Walls patrolled? It’s time to head the three blocks east from Hotel pod Branou to the set piece of the town, the central square/Radničné námestie: crowned at its northern end by its beautiful cathedral, Bazilika Svätého Egidia.

A Little Historic Overview

Whilst the cathedral on the main square has its origins in the 13th century, the fortification of Bardejov were improved radically in the 14th century (and it is this work which provided the basis for the modern town walls). Most of the houses in the old town were originally erected in the 14th and 15th centuries and by the 16th century, Bardejov had already passed its zenith, with pandemics and a clutch of wars bringing it down to its knees.

Golden age number two could well be right now.

MAP LINK:

GETTING THERE: Getting to Bardejov isn’t as easy as it should be, because it’s on a spur train line. Coming from Bratislava by train (3 trains daily), you’ll have to change at first Kysak and then Prešov, with total journey time 7 hours 30 minutes and total cost 20.30 Euros. Coming from Košice by train (trains every two hours), you’ll have to change at Prešov with total journey time 1 hour 55 minutes and total cost 4.15 Euros. Buses are as frequent and as quick from either city to Bardejov.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Bardejov it’s 35km east to Svidník and one of the world’s most fascinating war museums.

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

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Top Ten Best Things About Life in Slovakia

We turn away from travel, for a minute, on this site, to focus on LIFE. Life in Slovakia is a topic even less generally known about than tourism here – at least to the foreign/English-speaking world – so this is an insight into some of the best things about life here. Pretty girls and Europe’s cheapest beer are not listed… although we all know that they’re here too…

10: Sheer Potential…

Slovakia is a young country. It has a lot going for it, but also a long way still to go. Many construe this as a bad thing but I think of this as a big positive. In most countries, the order of things is well-established. In Slovakia, many aspects of life are still in the infancy of their development. There’s a sense that living in Slovakia, one is at the beginning of a journey, not the end of one. I like that (but I don’t expect Slovaks to agree with me on this necessarily!)

9: Proximity of some of Europe’s Coolest Cities

I’m not a big fan of selling a country based on the fact others are nearby, or based on assumed superior knowledge of other nearby countries. I’m a firm believer that Slovakia has its own merits, and a culture sufficient to justify being described on its own terms. But when you’re living in a country, it’s just generally quite cool to think that (from its capital) the celebrated spas of Budapest, the celebrated beer halls of Prague or the celebrated coffee houses of Vienna are all only a matter of hours away (two, four and one respectively).

8: Diversity of Drinks

Wine - and plenty of it ©englishmaninslovakia.com

Wine – and plenty of it ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

For a fair chunk of my life now, I’ve been a travel writer. And it’s the worst-concealed fact in the profession that travel writers like the odd tipple. Now I’m not talking a bottle of wine per night or anything but yeah, I am talking the odd glass of something… and the odd glass of something is something Slovakia is very adept at providing. If you want wine,  then there’s two main wine-producing regions with plenty of possibilities, the Small Carpathians wineries and the Tokaj wineries. Then of course there’s a myriad different fruit brandies, of which slivovica is only the tip of the iceberg: you name the fruit – or in some areas the herb – and there’s an alcoholic beverage to correspond (see a little more on this in our feature on Slovakia’s most quintessential foods and drinks). And the microbrewery industry has improved significantly in recent years: check our Bratislava Bars & Pubs section for proof! For the non-alcoholically inclined, Slovakia’s tea culture is also incredibly rich (English – rejoice!) and those interested in this should watch this space for more on the many fantastic teahouses – or the čajovne – of Slovakia. It’s not that you can’t get many of these drinks elsewhere, of course. But it’s not so common to find such a small country which can specialise in such an array of them.

7: Cheaper Costs of Living

We all know about Eastern Europe’s perennial popularity with those (quite often, the stag parties) who love how cheap it is for a weekend break. That’s true. Certain aspects of life are cheap here. The public transport and the cultural events, as detailed elsewhere on this article. And the beer (often cheaper than water for the same volume, and for the last couple of years Bratislava has come up as the number one of Europe’s cities for the cheapest beer). And the restaurant food (delicious meals at many of the better restaurants for 10 Euros or under).  And the average rent (even in Central Bratislava you could find apartments from as little as 300 Euros). Even taking into account that salaries are lower, a quick tally-round of the relative prices soon show life in Slovakia = more for less.

6: Music

Considering its size (not much bigger than Bristol and significantly smaller than Manchester) Bratislava gets literally all the big bands that stop round on their European tours – Košice and the smaller cities get a fair few too. It’s the same with music festivals – Bratislava’s programme of events is diverse, and covers everything from world music to classical and electric. Košice – European City of Culture 2013 don’t forget – now also has a wide programme of music events throughout the year. And as the two cities are only four hours apart, you’re never going to be more than two hours or so from cracking live music! Traditional Slovak music, it should be emphasised, is really worth checking out too: Slovakia has one of the most eclectic folk music legacies in Europe.

5: Meal tickets!

I guess it’s one of those things that dates back to Communism. For the vast majority of workers in Slovakia, the employer will cough up at least 50% of the money for meal tickets (generally in 4-Euro blocks) which can be redeemed not only at most restaurants but also supermarkets. If you bear in mind that a set-menu lunch even in Bratislava can cost 3 Euros, you’ve got your lunch taken care of and some money towards your supermarket shopping. Many readers from Europe and the US on here will laugh at the very idea of a company so generously contributing towards employee’s lunch and evening grocery shop: but in Slovakia, it’s a rather lovely reality!

4: Accessibility of Culture

Culture… accessible in Slovakia ©englishmaninslovakia.com

Culture… accessible in Slovakia ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Even considering the cheaper costs of living, the prices of tickets to the theatre or cinema are exceptionally reasonable. 25 Euros maximum can buy you premium seats at Bratislava’s Slovak Philharmony or Slovak National Theatre.

The accessibility isn’t just about price though – often, the very best events are organised by a young and bohemian crowd who go out of their way to make you feel welcome. There’s no pretension with most Slovak cultural events (not to deny that other aspects of life here have incredible pretentiousness) but this doesn’t mean that the standard is low. Slovakia actually has an incredibly important role within the development of Central European classical music and this role translates today into very highly-regarded performances that many people will come especially to see even from Vienna.

The events on offer are numerous, too. In Bratislava, there’s rarely a fortnight that passes without something of cultural significance (and clout) going on..

3: Public Transport

Going some place like Slovakia

Going some place like Slovakia – image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Slovaks will laugh loud when they read some of the things that I find particularly good about life here, and perhaps this point most of all. But whilst it’s generally a bit more battered than in some countries, it’s a brilliant system. For starters, a great website coordinating all bus and train transport helps you plan your journey across the country precisely (something sorely lacking in the UK).

Then there’s the trains themselves. Old, but very sophisticated, and with very affordable (15 Euros for a cross-country ride) travel in style (proper dining cars serving quite decent food) – see my enthusiastic post on this, Want Fried Cheese With That view, for more!

And within the cities, the tram and trolleybus system is just brilliant (especially Bratislava trams). The lines are almost never closed for repairs, and they always run on time, up to thirty minutes either side of the  centre, for a maximum of 90 Euro cents. They’re rarely crowded, either. Learn from this, public transport in nearly every other European city!

2: Lack of Crowds

Crowdlessness

Crowdlessness ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

I’ve lost count of the number of times I have walked into a cool place – invariably a cafe, bar or pub – in London, Paris or other big cities and soon formed the impression that it wasn’t so cool based solely on the crowdedness. For me, if I’m waiting to elbow through five rows of punters just to get to a bar to be served, or queue too long for a table in a cafe, then however good the joint it’s unlikely to form a positive impression on me. Such levels of crowds do not, contrary to popular opinion, signify the place is good. They just signify over-populatedness. Right now, even Bratislava never has that problem in Slovakia. You can sit down in your favourite place, or hike your favourite footpath – and breathe, and relax, because there’s never half a dozen people jostling behind you, spilling your drink or spoiling your moment of quiet contemplation.

 

1: Hiking

In reality, nature (which is Slovakia’s biggest draw to visit, or to live in) should probably fill several sections of this particular top ten. But this is nature made accessible by easily the best system of hiking trails I have ever encountered – anywhere. From right in Bratislava, these red-, blue-, yellow- or green-marked signs kick off, with detailed destinations on down the trail and how many minutes’ walk they are away. Sometimes the signs have timings down to the nearest minute! But they always prove to be uncannily accurate and – even if you are a fast walker – very hard to “beat”, although it’s fun trying! Some real TLC goes into making and maintaining these trails and the resulting signage.

This is coupled, even in remoter parts, by the endearing addition of rather elaborately-constructed barbecue spots.  The culture of the opekačka, or barbecue-bonfire in the wilds, is a very important part of Slovak life, especially at weekends. And to this end, it seems hiking trails go out of their way to wind up at great barbecue places. Mostly these are made from wood, and are found in small clearings within the woods, but sometimes they’re made from the old stones of ruined castles (my secret suspicion about why so many hiking trails here link up with ruined castles).

Slovaks also are pretty picky about where they hike: it has to be beautiful. So whilst hikes abound in the woods and mountains (i.e. the majority of the country), the very idea of them walking across farmland like us English is laughable. Then again, Slovak farmland does look rather ugly (the hedges have generally been gutted creating wide, intensively farmed, bleak-looking fields) so I do understand their preference!

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Tatras trail with Ždiar below ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The High Tatras Mountain Resorts − Starý Smokovec: the Funicular to Hrebienok

Mountain resorts are an occasionally unerring type of destination. They represent the most straightforward ways, on paper, of accessing the prime mountain country of any given destination. But the flip side of that is that they can appear austere and inauthentic tourist centres, full of people milling around but not actually knowing how to inject life into their trip (or people content in just milling around: fine if you fit into that category but then this probably isn’t the article for you!).

Starý Smokovec can be like that. Its age-old charm (it was, after all, the original mountain resort here, dating back to the late 19th century) ensures it is the suavest place to stay in these parts. There are some very decent restaurants around too. Yet it as neither as obviously in the mountains as Štrbské Pleso (where it’s more apparent how to at least get up to the namesake lake for a flavour of the surrounding Alpine scenery), and has less to do than Tatranská Lomnica (where a good museum and the cable car ride of the country, up to Slovakia’s second-highest peak, Lomnický štít, await). The bottom line is that if you are just-arrived in Starý Smokovec and want to get up towards the tops of those peaks looming above your guesthouse or hotel window, 19th century architecture and nice places to eat will not divert your attention too long. 

From the Tatras Mountain Railway station (with direct connections from Poprad’s mainline railway station every hour), it’s a couple of blocks’ walk up to the funicular railway station to Hrebienok, via this route. Taking the funicular up to Hrebienok is the sure-fire way to get up and into cracking mountain scenery quickly. It’s one of the few funicular railways in the Slovak mountains (most transport up into the peaks is by cable car or chair lift). The regularity of the Starý Smokovec-Hrebienok connections also means this is a plausible half-day trip (time for a bite to eat in the Hrebienok funicular station restaurant and a stroll around).

For the 8-minute trip up to Hrebienok, you’ll part with 8 Euros one-way or 9 Euros return trip, with daily trains leaving on average half-hourly between 8:30am and 4:30pm (in the summer season between June 1st and October 1st, 7:30am to 7pm). (In February trains only run at weekends and in March just Monday through Friday).

Hrebienok, honoured with a visit from Queen Elizabeth a few years back, is little more than a glorified funicular station, although the restaurant inside serves good food. Here, however, you are at an elevation of 1,285m, and surrounded by gorgeous high-altitude pine forest, with the serious climbs to the peaks at your fingertips. You are ideally poised for any number of hikes, including on Stage Three of the Tatranská Magistrala multi-day hike across the High Tatras (north on an easyish hike to Zamkovského Chata and west on a tougher trek to Popradské Pleso and Štrbské Pleso… an exciting place for hikers to be…

 

Image by Jonno Tranter

Hiking the Cesta Hrdinov SNP, Stage One: Myjava to Vel’ka Javorina

The Cesta hrdinov SNP, aka the trail of the Heroes of the Slovak National Uprising, begins officially at Bradlo, the monument to the ultimate Slovak hero, General MR Štefánik: it’s a continuation of the Štefánikova magistrála trail that runs here all the way from Bratislava. In short, this is the next big chunk of the mega-hike that traverses the entire length of Slovakia, now and for the remainder of its route to Dukla Pass in far-eastern Slovakia under the new guise of “Cestra hrdinov SNP”, a 500km+ adrenaline rush of a hike on some of Eastern Europe’s most jaw-dropping mountain and forest scenery. 

SCROLL TO OUR COVERAGE OF THE CESTA HRDINOV SNP PATH FROM ITS VERY BEGINNING (AT BRADLO – AND ON AS FAR AS MYJAVA) WITH OUR ARTICLE ON HIKING THE ŠTEFANIKOVA MAGISTRÁLA, STAGE FIVE: DOBRÁ VODA TO BRADLO (AND BEYOND)

We aim, over time, to have the entirety of this spectacular path featured on the site with stage descriptions for each (just as we have for Slovakia’s other long-distance trails, the Tatranská Magistrála in the High Tatras and the afore-mentioned Štefánikova magistrála in Western Slovakia. For Stage One, we give the floor to the intrepid Jonno Tranter. who hiked it this summer…

We were hiking the Cesta Hrdinov SNP as a continuation of our walking the entire Štefánikova magistrála trail from the Slovak capital of Bratislava. We’d walked from Dobrá Voda over Bradlo to Myjava the previous day, and after the wild terrain we’d been experiencing, the fact that the trail now followed the high street of Myjava, a fairly sizeable town by the standards of the hamlets we’d so far passed through, represented a big contrast.

If you plan on travelling like us, in summer, make sure to look up when the bank holidays are, as Myjava was like a ghost town when we walked through on what turned out to be a bank holiday morning. Apparently, there is a bookshop here where you can buy maps, but we were sadly to go without (closed for the day). However, we got by during the rest of our trek by taking pictures of the local maps fortuitously posted along the trail to guide us. Once you’re past Billa (a large supermarket, a good place to stock up), the town peters off and you’re quickly back into the fields above.

Slightly disheartened, we continued on the trail, which rises to the highest peak (970m) of our particular Slovakian adventure. Fortunately, the ascent is very spread out and gradual, and it doesn’t feel as tough to hike up as earlier rises on the Štefánikova magistrála like Vápenná in the Malé Karpaty.

The trail here is easy to follow and you’ll even spot a few other hikers in the area, something we hadn’t experienced earlier on our march across the hills from Bratislava. A little after entering the forest, about thirty minutes from Myjava, there’s a well on the right of the path, so make sure you have a drink before the ascent. You’re now in the Biele Karpaty proper, and once you hit Dibrovov pomník, the trail actually follows the Czech/ Slovak border. When the forest thins out, you’ll be in open grassland rising towards the top of the 970m-high Veľká Javorina, where there are some great views. Veľká Javorina is the high point of the Biele Karpaty range (and thus considerably higher than the highest elevations of the Malé Karpaty). The peak has long been symbolic of the healthy relationship between the Czech and Slovak republics, too, with a stone inscribed with words that translate as “here the brothers will meet always”.

Walk about 20 minutes further along the trail, past the communications tower, and you’ll get to Holubyho chata, which serves delicious food and has a nice terrace for summer days. With a wooden interior, the building looks like a chalet and doubles up as a hotel. There’s a road that leads here for tourists so it’s quite busy, though we had no problem getting served. The area is full of ski slopes and seems to also merit a winter visit.

At this point, we decided that to make it to the Pohoda festival (our end destination) in time, we would need to find a shorter way through than the red SNP trail. We decided to go for a green route which bypasses the “U” shape of the red trail and will save you about 15km.

The green trail is quite narrow and slightly more rough than what we were used to. However, it’s on this part of the trail that we saw the most people, and it was refreshing to meet other hikers and enjoy the mountains together. The path starts by following the Slovak-Czech border but then dives across into the Czech Republic. It then cuts through Květná, a small town with a few bars on the high street where you’ll be able to enjoy a meal, though no shops were open when we visited in the early afternoon. Although you are in the Czech Republic, all the restaurants and bars in this part of the country seemed to accept euros.

Continue through on the green trail past Nová hora and you’ll get to a little bridge above the Březová stream, a small river that’s just big enough to bathe in. There’s a few fields and farmhouses around, but right by the river is a small expanse, a perfect place to camp. That night we made friends with a few other campers and enjoyed some Czech pear liquor around a warm fire…

Setting up camp near Vel'ka Javorina - image by Jonno Tranter

Setting up camp near Vel’ka Javorina – image by Jonno Tranter

STAGE OVERVIEW MAP LINK:

WHAT NEXT?

Hiking the Štefánikova Magistrála (the prequel to the Cesta Hrdinov SNP – an introduction (featured in our Places to Go/Bratislava & Around and Places to Go/Western Slovakia sub-sections)

Hiking the Štefánikova Magistrála – Some Useful Tips (featured in our Places to Go/Bratislava & Around and Places to Go/Western Slovakia sub-sections)

Hiking the Štefánikova Magistrála, Stage One: Hrad Devín to Kamzík (featured in our Places to Go/Bratislava & Around sub-section)

Hiking the Štefánikova Magistrála – Stage Two: Kamzík to Pezinská Baba (featured in our Places to Go/Bratislava & Around and Places to Go/Western Slovakia sub-sections)

Hiking the Štefánikova Magistrála, Stage Three: Pezinská Baba to Vápenná (featured in our Places to Go/Western Slovakia sub-section)

Hiking the Štefánikova Magistrála, Stage Four: Vápenná to Dobra Voda (featured in our Places to Go/Western Slovakia sub-section)

Hiking the Štefánikova Magistrála, Stage Five: Dobrá Voda to Bradlo (and Beyond) (Previous Stage)

Plus: More on the Cesta Hrdinov SNP Trail…

Hiking the Cesta Hrdinov SNP, Stage Two: Vel’ka Javorina to Drietoma (Next Stage)

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Go on. Relaaaaaaaaaaaaax!

MAP LINK

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

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

©Chata Magurka

Low Tatras Mountain House: Chata Magurka

©Chata Magurka

©Chata Magurka

The light was failing, and we were despairing of ever finding our destination: perhaps someone had erected the gutterally-leaning wooden signpost on a barren rise off to to the side of the Hrebenovka, the ridge hike along the Low Tatras mountains that we’d been traipsing for the previous few days, for a joke. For the third night on the trail from Čertovica in the east to Donovaly in the west, we’d elected to descend from the ridge into the forests for our night’s accommodation. Whilst there was a mountain house, Chata Útulná, atop the ridge that would have provided shelter at a similar point on the trail, it only had a huge dormitory with mattresses spread out more or less end-to-end, and we fancied bedding down in a private room to enjoy a tad more comfort. About 1.5 hours further down the trail from Chata Útulná, from amidst the isolated ridge top nature reserve of Latiborská Hol’a, we’d scrambled down a steep path into dense woodland for about 45 minutes, then followed a winding forest trail that seemed to be leading nowhere except to lumberjacks’ log piles. Then, a scattering of chalets appeared like a mirage: we had reached the very end of the road, and what followed certainly felt like a surreal dream.

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The view outside ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

One minute, forest like this. The next? A minute, hidden hamlet with one of its several traditional chalets devoted to provide accommodation for weary hikers.

The owner and a few of his friends, amicable old timers the lot of them, were celebrating the arrival of the new vegetable juicer. “I tried it for several weeks in England once” slurred the owner, already a few glasses of slivovica to the good (or bad).  “The amount of weight I lost!” He did look quite trim for a middle-aged mountain man, and swears it’s down to embracing a diet of vegetable juice… and, er, presumably his strong homemade alcohol. He commanded us to sit down whilst he blended us one of the juices he’d tried out for the first time that very day. We waited quite a while, desiring nothing more than to check into our room. The wait was due to the fact the owner had, in the process of fetching us drinks, temporarily fallen asleep, but now we smiled: here he was, stumbling back with the promised refreshments. “Get some of this down you” he booms in exuberant but actually not bad English. It tasted like pondwater. “My favourite” he says excitedly. “Nothing in this but grass” (he did not specify exactly what he meant by grass, or indeed where his grass came from). And so saying, off he went to continue the juicer’s welcome party. I had to drink both of the foul-tasting glasses: my hiking companion steadfastly (and in retrospect wisely) refused. Grass? It was pond weed flavour, more like. Still, in true British fashion I managed to stay grinning and enthuse about how nice it all was (the drinks were, at least, on the house) and it seemed to be what was expected before we could commence with checking-in facilities.

But we did, at least, have a room – and actually it was a decent one. Nothing fancy: four- to six- bed pine finished bunk rooms, but the staff were quite prepared to arrange things so that we had one of these to ourselves. They were clean, with wash basins and piles of blankets, and – at this dead end of the road to civilisation – very quiet. Bathrooms with piping hot showers were across the hallway. Did we appreciate more after walking all day through the mountains? Undoubtedly. But by the standards of the scant accommodation options actually up in or near the mountaintop, pretty good – and not lacking in atmosphere.

Ah yes: atmosphere. The bar-restaurant area, open from 9am to 8pm for hearty Slovak food daily, is hung with low wooden rafters, and replete with long, sturdy wooden tables – plus various hunting talismans (deer’s antlers, bear skins): in short, pleasantly cosy Slovak-rustic. As with a lot of the hotels in the Scottish Highlands and other areas which have a similar “hunters’ trophy” decoration, animal-lovers might want to reconcile themselves with the fact that if they want a roof over their heads, a furry bear spread-egaled across a section of it will have to be tolerated. Outside, there is a grill area to use, and a hot tub that can be rented out at 40 Euros for two hours: pricier than the accommodation, but perhaps worth it after a tough tramp to get here!

Next morning, after a tasty breakfast of “hemendex” (ham and eggs) and very nice coffee, served in a cheerful courtyard attracting plenty of sunlight despite being fringed by thick forest, one of the owner’s drinking partners from the previous night offered us a ride into the village with the nearest bus stop.

“Let’s go quickly” he urged. “I’ve got to be back here ready to start drinking by ten.”

Perhaps the toasting of the vegetable juicer’s arrival in tiny, out-of-the-way Magurka was a multi-day affair.

In any case, the majority of places to stay do not inspire even articles, let alone feature-length Twin Peaks-style TV series. Chata Magurka, thanks to the eccentric bunch of characters gathering at this place on a daily (and nightly) basis, has enough material in-between its four walls to manage both.

GETTING THERE: Some customers, of course, will arrive at Chata Magurka by road. Classified as a holiday hamlet, and with a round-the-year population of under twenty, Magurka is not served by public transport. Buses come as close as the larger village of Liptovská Lužna – served by connections from Ružomberok (at 6:20am and then about hourly between 10am and 10pm, running from Ružomberok station on the main line to Bratislava and Košice and taking 32 minutes). From Liptovská Lužna, it’s 10km east to Magurka, up an un-signed road by a logging area just before the village of Želežne…

MAP LINK:

PRICES: From 20 Euros per room (without private bathroom) (2017 prices)

BOOK CHATA MAGURKA (Bookable via Booking.com, emailing magurka@magurka.eu or by telephoning 00421-905-649-230/ 00421-905-866-654)

  • You can be up on stage three of the Hrebenovka (Low Tatras multi-day ridge hike) from the doors of Chata Magurka in two hours of walking on some tough-but-beautiful paths through the forest (blue signposts)

 

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Low Tatras Mountains: Up Chopok the Back Way

It’s not long until ski season. It never is, in the Low Tatras mountains around Jasná. Jasná is Slovakia’s (and one of Eastern Europe’s) biggest ski area and has deservedly had numerous articles written about it: as a new frontier for skiing (Guardian), as an affordable, fun family ski break (Telegraph) and generally as an off-the-beaten-track but nevertheless first-class resort. There are several resort complexes here sporting well over 100km of piste, which renders the Low Tatras, served by the mountain base town of Liptovský Mikuláš, an insanely popular winter destination.

Why? Well, skiing here is way cheaper than over the border in Austria, and the surroundings are incredibly beautiful. The USP is that because of the extended dramatic 80+km ridge that the peaks here surge together to form (one which you can essentially access the very top of with ease, and have dramatic views tumbling away on either side), whether you’re skiing or hiking you will feel like you’re on top of the world.

The ski slopes blanket the sides of the 2024m-high mountain of Chopok, but concentrate mostly on the northern side of the peak: fanning out around the spread-out village of Demänovská Dolina from where you can access all the Jasná slopes and resorts, and ascend via the popular chairlift to the saddle a few metres shy of the Chopok summit. Almost everyone that comes up to Chopok arrives this way, and the experience can seem shockingly over-populated by holidaymakers for Slovakia’s standards (although still nothing like the numbers at the tops of most cable car-accessed summits in the Alps).

Why Come Up?

There are plenty of reasons to come all the way up to Chopok: there is the main Chopok summit cable car terminus building, in which you’ll find a souvenir shop, restaurant and a couple of high-end (quite literally) rooms. And there is the far-sweeter nearby building of Kamenná Chata, an understated cafe-restaurant-mountain house with arguably the best views in the entire Low Tatras. Then, of course, there is that previously mentioned ridge (which you can hike the whole of), stretching away in either direction and fairly untrammeled away from the Chopok saddle development.

But there is also is a much less obvious way to get up here: from Chopok’s southern side.

Up Chopok the Unusual Way(s)

1:Starting from Brezno, the southern gateway to the Low Tatras mountains, it’s a 30-minute drive via Bystrá to the end of road 584 at Hotel Srdiečko, a great and, for the area, non-touristy place to base yourself. Because this is Slovakia, and public transport is great, there are still two daily buses connecting Brezno’s railways station with the Srdiečko turning lot (7:50am and 2:35pm, taking 50 minutes and costing 1.85 Euros).

2:From the hotel, an old-fashioned chairlift where you have to already be in position, ready to sit as the next row of seats swing passed the embarkation point, wobbles just above the tops of the spruce forests to halfway up the mountain at the Hotel Kosodrevina: a hotel that’s only seemingly open in peak ski season. (Kosodrevina, in Slovak, is the word for the forest edge on a mountain slope, when the conifer trees are already reduced to stunted shrubs and the wide open slopes of the mountains are rearing ahead). Here there is a restaurant/bar and a short walk to the embarkation point for the next cable car, a fancy modern affair, up to the Chopok summit. A full journey up from Srdiečko to Chopok and back costs 19 Euros per adult.

Of course, there is also the option of taking the chair lift to Kosdrevina and then walking back on a gorgeous cut-through path to the intriguing Dead Bat’s Cave and then along the green hiking trail back to the road at Trangoška (then heading uphill back to Srdiečko, total walking time from Kosodrevina approximately 1.5 to 2 hours).

And there is the option of hiking all the way up from Srdiečko for the very fit: you’ll need the best part of three hours for this, and probably a beer half-way at Kosodrevina.

MAP LINK:

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Chopok you can pick up our featured Hrebenovka ridge hike, running along the best of the Low Tatras mountains. At Chopok, you’re at the end of the second stage of the hike as described on Englishman in Slovakia.

The path into the Kosodrevina ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The path into the Kosodrevina ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Looking down through the vineyards to Bratislava - image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Mapping My Run in the Small Carpathians

A weekday night in a typical Andean hostel; salsa filtering in from a bar across the way; the smell of engine oil and fried guinea pig and crisp wintry mountains wafting in. Incredibly this room has a desk and I’m feeling inspired to write (until my frustration with Windows 8 prompts me to slam this computer against the walls) or, at least, I’m not able to sleep just yet.

What do I write about, in terms of this site, when I’m half the world away from Slovakia? Well, what I miss. What I get nostalgic about. Going out for a run in the vineyard-clad foothills and forests of the Small Carpathians behind Bratislava.

Out round the back of the Rača garages, doors all prettily painted in pastille hues, contrasted with the rather starker red of the local gang’s favoured slogan “Mio Bača”, over the stagnant stream meandering through its concrete channel, where the setting sun nevertheless cuts a glorious figure as it illuminates the water and the floundering ducks with a lazy summer peach melba orange, the vineyards open up (crowned thickly, impenetrably by distant forest). The high rises have faded away, the shudder of the distant trams echoes yet but is slowly, blissfully removed, soon enough to hear the cicadas, as loud a chorus of them as I ever heard, plus the rustle of the dozy trackside snakes a-sun-basking.

Nature encroaches little by little; the evening suburban strollers are slowly replaced by the serious hikers and bikers because from here of course begin hardcore wilderness adventures; pick your direction right and you can stay off-road on vineyard tracks, then meadow paths and finally forest trails for 100, 200km. It’s this promise of unadulterated countryside beckoning that drives you on.

You climb higher (the disadvantage, or perhaps, advantage of the run is that you have to climb because all paths lead UP into the woods from Bratislava). You bypass typical Slovak mountain houses, positioned just so on the cusp between cultivated land and wild land, their front doors in the vineyards, their back doors in the forest; it’s as if they want to lose themselves in the trees but something – just – is holding them in civilisation. The fields get more overgrown, more screened by foliage and then you’re in the woods, deer scuttle before you, there’s often wild pigs scuffling in the undergrowth nearby.

A little further on you cross a road – a forestry track known as Pekná Cesta (nice road) but that’s the last incursion of mankind you need see for some time (for tens and tens of kilometres, no less) except for the well-marked trail signs, trails that wind away into the hills, to Pezinok, to Modra, beyond. That and the occasional barbecue spots and the odd hunting tower and the sporadic mountain cottage offering sustenance (beer, dumplings) and the smattering of ruined castles that hide here. Other than that, a refreshing absence of human influence (unless you count your own ragged breaths – you will have ascended several hundred metres and Bratislava, below you, gleams at its most enticing in the last of the day’s light, smoking factories, shimmering offices, flat great green Danubian floodplain fields).

And behind you – in those woods – it’s getting very dark, thrillingly dark, the dark that could hide not just wild pigs but, possibly, bears. All things weighed up, it’s possibly time to return home. But this run is one of the quickest, most poignant big city-to-remote countryside transitions you can do in Europe. A run like this gives you hope (especially if you are a city dweller). It reminds you that nature still wins – sometimes.

This post also serves as a taster to further explore our huge  variety of content on the Small Carpathians – click the link for more. (Let’s face it, it’s the hugest bank of travel content on the Small Carpathians on the web in English or any other language)

Fancy staying up in the lovely vineyards around Bratislava? See our posts  on Penzion Zlatá Noha and the Kamzík area for more!

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Around Bratislava – the North: Marianka (Pilgrim’s Rest)

Marianka is the end of the road. I certainly felt that when I traipsed into this pretty village nestled into the forested uplands of the Malé Karpaty recently – having just completed the path through the hills from Bratislava by which the pilgrims typically arrive to this, Slovakia’s main pilgrimage destination.

It hardly seems possible that Marianka, with its isolated feel, is in essence a district of Bratislava connected to the city transport network and a mere 90 Euro cent ride from the city centre’s Most SNP bus station. But perhaps the sense of isolation originates not just from the fact that the narrow road up from Záhorská Bystrica finally dies out here, to be smothered by the rows of pine trees sheering away above the village, nor the fact that on my first visit, the metre-deep snow everywhere emphasised the otherworldliness of Marianka’s surrounds. Perhaps Marianka does have that special, unique feel of a place that has grown up independently of anywhere else and anything else except, well, faith.

History of the Healing Powers of Marianka

Not only is this Slovakia’s biggest pilgrimage destination, it is also the oldest. It ranks up there with Central Europe’s most important pilgrimage sites, in fact.

The spiritual history of the place dates back almost a millennium. Historical records of Marianka being a pilgrimage site can be traced to 1377. In this year, one Louis of Anjou, attracted here by rumours of healing waters and of a wooden likeness of the Virgin Mary with special curative powers, decided after he had clapped eyes on Marianka, to build a chapel in which to house the wooden Virgin. But the rumours that enticed Louis of Anjou go back several hundred years further: to a hermit who resided in the valley here in the early 11th century and carved the Virgin out of pear wood. This Holy man subsequently had to leave the area in a hurry because of riots in the Kingdom of Hungary (there were many at the time) and hid his handiwork in a hollow in a tree. For decades the Virgin remained lost. After some time, so goes the most colourful version of the story, a local crook, despairing of his severely handicapped children, vowed to change his ways if he received some sign from the Lord that his fortunes would change. He was told of the whereabouts of the Virgin whittled from pear wood, and found her resting right on top of a spring of water which when applied to his children miraculously cured them. The outlaw did change his ways, and devoted the remainder of his life to God.

Welcome to Marianka… ©englishmaninslovakia.com

Welcome to Marianka… ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

When you arrive in Marianka, just after this sign appears on a wall to the left, the village’s main pilgrimage site rears into view below the road: the vast former monastery, now a lodging house for weary pilgrims, and behind it the Gothic-Baroque Church of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary, built originally in the 1370s.

Most Ornate Church in Slovakia?

Inside the pastille yellow building, the first reaction is one of surprise: the weary pilgrim is ushered into a far-from miraculous antechamber with a guestbook on a bench and little more. Then you round the corner and enter one of the most stunningly decorated churches in Slovakia – for me one that easily eclipses even the mighty dome of St Martin’s Cathedral in Bratislava (although not the wooden churches of the far east). It is the ceiling decoration that transfixes you: richly-painted depictions of scenes from the lives of the Saints – Sts Paul and Anthony feature prominently – in a striking arcing montage of gilt-edged panels. Shrines flank the sides of the church and on the altar at  the far end is – so they say – the wooden Virgin as fashioned by that hermit all those centuries ago. It’s a place to sit in, for some minutes, gawping up at the view.

Elaborate roof panels ©englishmaninslovakia.com

Elaborate roof panels ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Outside in the churchyard the Chapel of Santa Anna (1691) sets the tone for the six smaller Temples to the Virgin – ushering the visitor up a tree-lined lane to the round Chapel of the Holy Well which is allegedly built on the site of the spring of water with the rejuvenating powers. On the other side of the processional route to the Chapel of the Holy Well, some five other shrines, more haphazard and less refined in design, but with the flickerings of a myriad candles rendering them equally poignant places of worship. Most moving of these is the calvary, on the right as you approach the Chapel of the Holy Well (pictured above).

Hidden away in the steep bank behind the temples to the Virgin, what you initially mistake for another shrine transpires to be a 17th-century mine shaft – the only remaining example of black shale mining in Slovakia. The shale was discovered during construction of the temples, and extraction continued until the First World War – Marianka shale became a highly-prized material.

Demolition Dodge!

It is incredible to think that a place that not only provided one of Central Europe’s most important pilgrimage sites – a place visited by Hungarian emperors from Leopold I to Maria Theresa to Charles III – but also some rather crucial roofing material for the valley, should have been slated for demolition under Communism. Equally incredibly, Communists never got round to executing the plan, so the very fact of Marianka’s survival is something of a miracle.

The Chapel of the Holy Well ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Pilgrim Food

Pilgrims get hungry on the long march, and there are a couple of good places to feast in town. Right by the bus turning circle is Pútnický Mlyn (pilgrim’s mill), the fanciest restaurant with a modern decor and an outside terrace with a mill wheel (they also offer accommodation) and a few paces up from the turning circle on the red trail is a decent bistro. But far and away the best eatery is Hostinec U Zeleného stromu (the Green Tree Hostelry) which has a history of accommodating tired pilgrims going back centuries.  It’s the most atmospheric option, too: somehow, a pilgrim’s watering hole should be old, with worn walls, dim lighting and a grave old bar lady that has been working there so many decades she appears part of the creaking furniture – no? There are two parts (both extremely popular): a restaurant and below a bar, all done in the style of an old wine cellar that could have stood in as the set for the Prancing Pony in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy if required. It’s open for ridiculously reasonable food and drink (one Euro for a good frothy Bernard beer) from 11am to 10pm daily, and has rooms too.

Onward from Marianka?

From the entrance road to the monastery, church and shrines, a signed trail (red) heads up on a narrow lane into forest, going via Borinka to Pajštún Castle in about 1.5 hours. Up above town, red intersects with yellow at a woodsy spot called Klčovanice. It’s worth the deviation here (almost two hours longer to reach Pajštún Castle) to forge on the blue path through along to Svätý Vrch (Saint’s Mountain) – then steeply down and as steeply up again to Dračí Hrádok. This is another significantly more ruined castle (only a few mossy stones of the outer walls remain) but it’s nevertheless a moving place, sequestered away in trees that have reclaimed the fortress for themselves. From Dračí Hrádok a yellow trail corkscrews steeply up to Pajštún. Starting early, there’s time to get the bus from Bratislava’s Most SNP, see the Marianka pilgrimage sites, lunch in Marianka, hike up to Pajštún and return from the castle to Stupava, from where there are also buses back to Bratislava.

MAP LINK: We’ve kept the map panned out so you can see the road heading north from Bratislava via Záhorská Bystrica (and eventually on through the Záhorie region to the Czech Republic).

GETTING THERE: Bus 37 runs every two hours from Most SNP to Marianka.

WHEN TO MAKE THE PILGRIMAGE? Well, possibly not in the snow like I did. The main days to visit are on January 6th (Three Kings’ Day or Traja Krali) and also on St Mary’s birthday, September 8th. When we say the main days, we mean “days when it will be really crowded with the devout” so of course these could equally be days to give a wide berth… churches and shrines always look better for me in solitude…

MARIANKA VILLAGE WEBSITE In Slovak, but could prove useful.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: In addition to the pilgrimage route from Bratislava, we recommend two great hikes from Marianka: the route north up to Pajštún Castle (1.5 hours) or the route east to Svätý Júr via Biely Kameň (4 hours).

Under the bridge... image y www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Around Bratislava – Petržalka & the South: The Forgotten Banks of the Danube

I’d been shopping, as I remember (not at one of the big malls because I detest them) and fancied a stroll near the city centre. I found myself heading out across Most SNP under the baleful gaze of the UFO and then, where most people would turn left if they wanted a walk/cycle with some greenery along the Danube in the direction of Danubiana Art Gallery, I turned right, passed the few buildings the southern bank of the river has on this side (the outskirts of Petržalka neighbourhood), and then dipped into the river-hugging woods, which continue – in a surprisingly extensive wilderness – all the way into Austria.

First off, ensure you don’t take the path which heads to the left at the end of the paved footpath up a bank to join the main cycle route hereabouts – yours is the muddy little path twisting ahead through the middle of the trees. Initially this is an obvious track – with circles of ashes and charred stumps marking points where groups come to have opekačka (outdoor fires) in summer. The path appears to end at a WW2 bunker, only it doesn’t… it skitters up onto the top of the bunker and continues along a high bank now directly above the water.

RELATED POST: Try Canoeing down the Morava/Danube into Bratislava!

Up until the next bridge upriver 2km away, this is a route, it should be emphasised, to glorify in the little things. A commemorative plaque from the early 20th century etched in German, at a time when Bratislava was most firmly “Pressburg” and German was the default language spoken. Ancient and now abandoned mooring posts for vessels, which for a while I believed were there to demarcate the Slovakia-Austria border because of similar border markers I had seen in the Biele Karpaty on trails marking the boundary with the Czech Republic. Woodsy paths used by no one save the odd mushroom forager, because of the snazzier new international cycleway on the other side of the trees. Neglected miniature sandy beaches (you come to understand just how sandy some stretches of the Danube’s banks can be). It is also one of Bratislava’s cruising spots, and indeed I did pass a couple of male couples as the only other “walkers”, although received no proposition I hasten to add!

And, when you do glimpse civilisation in the form of the E65 main road (you have to head back across the river at this point; there’s no over river crossing now until after Hainburg 20km upriver, although this extension is a fabulous idea if you have a bike, and a picnic, and a couple of hours spare) the vast towers of advertising boards whose feet sit in a jungle of vines in the below-the-road countryside but whose face is destined to spectate on traffic forever.

All in all, it is a walk of the gentle and neglected riverside ilk, where the buzz of the city just a few hundred metres of water away contrasts with the completeness of the silence  – and the tangled root systems and grassy picnicking places.

One of Bratislava's infamous billboards - from below ©englishmaninslovakia.com

One of Bratislava’s infamous billboards – from below ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Head across the afore-mentioned road bridge, Bratislava’s in-favour bungee-jumping spot (there is a pedestrian walkway) to where you meet the edge of Bratislava Botanical Garden (Botanicka záhrada) back under the city side of the bridge (we can’t bring ourselves to dedicate a separate post to the Botanical Garden but it is pleasant enough for a stroll if you find yourself here and is well worth doing at the end of this hike), as indeed is paying a visit to Bratislava Water Museum, aka the Vodárenské Muzeum, right nearby). To get to the nearest public transport from here, follow the road where the big under-bridge car park is up and to the right around the edge of some football pitches to reach the Lafranconi tram stop on the useful number 5 route (please see our Bratislava tram and trolleybus routes post for more).

MAP LINK:  

HIKE LENGTH: 4km one-way Bratislava Old Town-Lafranconi tram stop

WALK HIGHLIGHTS: Most SNP Bridge, the Danube, German plaque, Cycleway to Austria, Bungee-jumping, Bratislava Botanical Garden, Bratislava Water Museum

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: 9km west along the riverbank from Lafranconi tram stop is Devin Castle – a phenomenal fortress and a starting point for our Štefánikova magistrála hiking trail across the whole of Western Slovakia.

MORE FORGOTTEN DANUBE AROUND BRATISLAVA: In the district of Podunajské Biskupice in south-eastern Bratislava south of Ružinov, it might at first seem that there is very little of note apart from the gargantuan oil refinery of Slovnaft. But if you turn right off road 63 as you head from Podunajské Biskupice to Dunajská Lužná (just after passing Slovnaft) at approximately this point on the map you wind up skirting the refinery that entering a world as pretty as Slovnaft is grim. This is mainly gorgeous woodland replete with snowdrops in early spring that contains a web of hiking (and, even better, cycling) trails along the edge of the Danube on what at this point is the north-eastern bank, on the opposite side of the river from the Danubiana Art Museum.

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Around Bratislava – the North: The Pajštún Castle Hike

The sultry weather in Bratislava continues, and the yearning for countryside escapes grows in proportion. So yet again we found ourselves heading out to explore one of the many outdoor adventures in close proximity to the city. This time we were bound for Stupava, 15 km north of the centre, for the hike up to the romantic ruin of Pajštún Castle.

The castle is one of Bratislava region’s best-kept secrets – at least in terms of fortresses. Bratislava’s own castle, or if not Devín Castle, grab all the foreign visitors and leave Pajštún alone and lovely high up in the forests of the Malé Karpaty (Small Carpathians).

There are several ways to get to Pajštún: it’s a hearty five- to six-hour hike from Bratislava through the Mestské Lesy (quickest on the blue trail from Pekna Cesta in Rača, but accessible too via the Marianka pilgrimage route utilising either the yellow trail from Pekna Cesta or the red trail from central Bratislava) or by good paths from both Marianka and the village of Borinka just to the north-east (just a couple of hours’ hiking from these last two).

But we began in Stupava, a town just off the E65 road heading north to Brno. It fancies itself as a separate town but is in reality little more than a commuter satellite of Bratislava. As ever, Englishmaninslovakia went with high hopes, as I’d heard of Stupava’s beautiful town park and wanted to check it out.

In fact, first impressions were good. The town had a church and, yes indeed, a striking chateau, all with a new lick of paint on an attractive cobbled central námestie. But the church was closed (only one old lady hobbling up to inspect the new notices about the just-deceased by the gates), and the chateau is a senior citizen’s home. However, they were very lucky old people, because their copious, lavish, exclusively-for-old-people castle-like abode looked our, from the rear, upon the most beautiful urban park within the Bratislava region. Zámocký Park is by far the superior of Bratislava’s Medicka Záhrada or Horský Park.

Zamocký Park in Stupava... nice view for the old folks

Zamocký Park in Stupava… nice view for the old folks – image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The castle-backed lake is flanked by a few examples of Slovakia’s protected trees (nb – I’ll post the name here when I remember it) and a path leads away through manicured grounds in a manner reminiscent of an English country estate to connect up with the trails into the mountains after about 30 minutes’ walk. We took a bit of a shortcut and headed along by car (the next turning right after the park from the main road) to the cross which marks where the Zámocký Park path comes out.

There is parking just before the cross, and it’s a one and a quarter hour walk from here up through woodlands to Pajštún ruins, which you see from below leaning gutturally out of the wooded hills above you. If signs are to be believed, this is a forest where you can bump into the mouflon (big-horned wild sheep). We didn’t see any, but on the quiet paths near the castle we did cross paths with the biggest herd of wild deer I’ve ever seen in my life – at least 15, bounding through the trees just above us. On the way up, there is one point where the yellow-waymarked path veers almost without warning up off what looks like the main track, and the path is steep in places, but generally, head up and you shouldn’t miss the castle.

Pajstun Castle appears through the trees

Pajstun Castle appears through the trees

It does appear, at times, as if the castle does not want to be found. It’s so secreted by trees that it only becomes visible right at the last moment. The castle was built in the late 13th century (1287) during a wave of Tartar-Hungarian conflict in the region. Powerful regional families, who invariably had as much power as the official monarch in these war-torn times, didn’t shirk to battle the Crown itself, and the Kösegiovcov family were one such audacious group. As a reward for helping them in battle, Rugerius of Tallesbrau received the very lands on which  Pajštún was then built.

I did a fair amount of oohing and aahing at just what a defensive masterpiece this castle is. Despite being struck by lightening in the 18th century and then blown up by Napoleon in 1809 (what a nasty fellow to blow up an already ruined castle eh?) the castle is still incredibly in tact. It’s so surrounded by trees it’s hard to get an overall perspective picture, but from the shot below you can see just how vast the walls are: mighty enough to have become the Bratislava region’s best (natural) climbing spot!

Climbing Pajstun's southern ramparts

Climbing Pajstun’s southern ramparts – image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Anyway, this is a great castle to explore, even if you don’t fancy the rather giddying climb up the cliffs of the ramparts to get there. Kids will love the ruins too. There’s great picnicking spots and fabulous views of Stupava, Borinka and, in the distance, Kamzik. In fact, the castle continued to dominate even after its decline, and Borinka was actually known as Predtym Pajštún (the translation of which is something like village under Pajštún) until 1948.

The paths continues on the other side of the castle (if there were few walkers before, on this side of the castle there’s almost none) and loops round on red and blue trails for a further two hours or so back down to the cross and the walk back through the park to Stupava.

Pajštún Myth…

The info board below the castle entrance also displays one of those cool Slovak myths – featuring the castle and going something like this: the lady of the castle meets a beggar woman with two children who asks for some food. The lady refuses because she has a fit of jealousy about the beggar-woman’s fertility. The beggar-woman gets irate and puts a curse on her. She will give birth to not one but eight children and endure 16 years of misery to boot. The prophesy comes true. The lady of the castle gives birth to eight children, keeps one and tells some other dignitary/attendant to take the other seven into the woods and kill them. The dignitary/attendant has a change of heart and decides he’ll raise the seven kids himself (they’re all sons by the way). Years pass. All the time the lady of the castle is ruing her decision (well, it was quite harsh).  The time comes when the seven sons are due to celebrate their passage into manhood (by now they’re 16 years old). The dignitary/attendant has kept their survival a secret from the lady of the castle, who is of course invited to the festivities, sees the seven beautiful young men she asked to have killed and repents. They forgive her; everyone lives happily ever after.

NB: Admission to the castle is free and year-round.

MAP LINK

GETTING THERESlovak Lines run hourly buses to Stupava from Bratislava’s Mlynské Nivy bus station (which is just the other side of Medicka Záhrada in the Nové Mesto/Ružinov area). Marianka, another start-point for the hike to Pajštún, is within the Bratislava public transport zone, and is therefore accessed by city bus 37 from the Most SNP bus station (a bit more convenient to get to). It’s 0.90 Euros to Marianka or 1.50 to Stupava.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Pajštún it’s 44km northeast to Plavecky Hrad, a feature on our Western Slovakia Castle Tour

 

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Low Tatras Mountain House: Chata M.R. Štefánika

Shortly before I arrived at Chata M.R. Štefánika, the heavens opened. What had been a sun-kissed start to my hike along the Hrebenovka, the three-day ridge trail across the Low Tatras mountains, became a downpour. I could barely discern the path in front of me. Then, looming through the rain clouds at precisely the right moment, the place I’d reserved a bed at for the night surreally, mystically came into view, perched on a curving apple-green ridge of its own at 1740m.

This mountain house is still the classic within the Low Tatras range, as evidenced by its name (Štefánik, a Slovak freedom fighter, does not get his name given to just any old spot). The USP of the mountain house, found in lots of Slovakia’s mountains, as well of course as in the Alps and the Pyrenees, is that these are accommodation options actually up in the peaks (no need to hike down to the valley to kip at the end of the day). But even by such high standards Chata M.R. Štefánika, going strong since 1924, commands a sensational view, as well as a key place at the intersection of a couple of major hiking routes. The red trail, the Hrebenovka, climbs up from here to Ďumbier, the high point of these mountains at 2046m (the full title of the chata in English would be the house of Štefánik under Ďumbier), and then on again towards Chopok, the peak above Slovakia’s major ski resort. Meanwhile, a green trail cuts down in well under an hour to the Dead Bat’s Cave and then on to the nearest road access by Chata Trangoška and Hotel Srdiečko. Blue and yellow trails branch off from here too.

Not that I was in any mood for further hiking as I hastened, dripping, into the snug wood-pannelled confines of the Chata’s legendary restaurant. Yes, other mountain houses have wood interiors too but Chata M.R. Štefánika’s is finished with a lot more love and panache (perhaps because it is the granddaddy of all those others, and also because of the current manager, Igor Fabricius, who is so enthused about this mountain house he’s been at the helm here over 25 years) and it’s bursting with activity more or less constantly, too. This makes it a great place to make friends and chat about hikes completed or yet to be embarked upon, and I ordered a piping hot Ďumbier fruit tea and a bowl of soup and settled down to thaw. As well as a comprehensive array of all the classic Slovak mountain food available in the restaurant (dumplings, schnitzel, beer) there is also a small souvenir shop selling really cool merchandise emblazoned with the Chata’s logo, and a map room by the entrance with bundles of information on the surrounding area. Upstairs, the accommodation is in four- to eight-bed dorms with sinks and shared bathrooms. It’s all kept remarkably spick and span despite the muddy overnighting hikers, because there is a no footwear rule observed inside.

ridge-walk-certovica-stefanika

But with such a setting, it’s difficult to stay seated inside for too long. Especially not when the clouds start to retreat again and the chance to take a peek at the surrounding peaks arises. The chata, with a wood pile endearingly stacked all the way up one wall, has a decking area where some superb views down towards Brezno open up. But a couple of short walks (and don’t worry, they really are just leg stretches to counter the seizing-up of muscles that sets in after a long tramp) also await. 100m back down on the path to Čertovica (the start point of the Hrebenovka) is a monument to those who fought for the liberation of Czechoslovakia during the First World War.

Monument near the mountain house ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Monument near the mountain house ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Suddenly, the setting sun streamed out enticingly from under the storm clouds, though, and I wanted a better glimpse of the mountains ahead. Up a grassy rise immediately behind the wood store at the end of the chata, I clambered to the perfect viewpoint. The curved nature of the ridge I was hiking meant the next ten kilometres of mountains on tomorrow’s route were visible, now tinted in a glorious fiery evening light. I took a few necks of the hip flask every good Slovak hiker carries with them, and felt privileged to be here.

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

MAP LINK:

PRICES: 21 Euros per adult and 5 Euros for breakfast (2017 prices)

BOOK CHATA M.R ŠTEFÁNIKA

Hiking up to Kremenec ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Poloniny National Park: Kremenec and the Ukraine Border Hike – A Journey Along the Edge of the European Union

6am. We set off as the sun begins to break through the mist cloaking the steep slopes of the beech tree-clad hills and climb up into the Poloniny National Park, a wild 300 sq km tangle of upland forest in the far east of Slovakia abutting the frontier with Ukraine. The valley slowly narrows. Once or twice we pass a lone border control guard, leaned against his vehicle and starting with surprise as our engine breaks the early morning silence. A fat-bellied white stork almost hits us, too, as does a horse and cart carrying a family of Roma, but for the most part, the road is quiet.

After the border village of Ulič, fields flanked by sheep (a rarity to spot in Slovakia, despite the nation’s shepherding traditions), and hay bails quaintly twisted around a stick by hand rather than by machine, as well as a fair few more horse-and-cart drivers are signs that this part of the country ticks to a slower and more traditional beat. Brutalist architecture made few inroads into the time-trapped villages hereabouts and the landscape feels softer, greener, more beguiling. Even the forests are far less managed. In fact, the beech forests of the Carpathians (of which Poloniny National Park comprises a significant part) are so renowned for their virgin nature (meaning no forestry is practiced and the ecosystems are among the world’s most intact) that Unesco has added them to their worldwide list of protected sites. In Nova Sedlica, the start point for our hike, the brightly-painted houses with their wooden outbuildings have smoke curling into the sky from back-garden bonfires, and a stream babbling through their midst. We stop off for a presso (strong, sludgy Communist-era coffee) alongside a party of gloomy Czech hikers, then head up the lane which ascends the valley to the final ridge of hills before the EU gives up the ghost for good. At a bus stop proudly proclaiming it is “the last” the lane kinks left, passes an occasionally-open ranger’s hut selling hiking maps and then that’s it: no more dwellings before Ukraine looms up. What follows is one of Europe’s most superb and fascinating forest hikes.

About a kilometer above Nova Sedlica, we branch off the metalled track on a red-arrowed sign pointing steeply up to the right: a gruelling initiation to this 22km circular hike. Red is top dog as far as categories of trail in Slovakia go and the route remains on red-marked and well-marked trails all the way up to Kremenec on the tri-border with Ukraine and Poland (at approximately the half-way point). The path rises up to a basic lumber yard at 525m of elevation (presumably just outside of the national park boundaries) then sheers up through forest that certainly feels just as primeval as the sporadic information boards claim it to be.

The main point of note is at the ridge of Temný Vršor at 838m where two further boards urge you to rediscover the balance with nature that humans often lose in everyday life: but in all honesty little urging is required. I am already lost, and already contemplating the fact that brown bear, wolf, lynx and bison regularly roam this area. In few other locations in Europe can quite so many of the continent’s “big” mammals be found in such close proximity or in such numbers. It’s a thought that gladdens, rather than frightens me. It’s not just the sea of forests swooping away in all directions underlining the extent of this wilderness: it’s the wildlife too. It’s also, unfortunately, a less savoury side of human life: people traffickers are also known to take advantage of this isolated region to smuggle clients into the perceived sanctuary of the European Union.

Virgin forest ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Virgin forest ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

It’s as the path shimmies down to a potok (mountain stream) that makes for a good picnicking point that we understand the consequences of Poloniny being Unesco-protected: when trees fall here, they are left fallen to rot, and whilst the trunks regularly obstruct the route, they are all contributing to the richness of the flora and fauna here (nigh-on 6,000 recorded species all told). We are heartened to find the route, as it zigzags through the trees on the final climb to Slovakia’s eastern border, marked by small posts depicting brown bears: had they not been there, a straying off the beaten track into zones where actual bears hung out would have been a distinct possibility!

“It’s hard to find trees this thick any more” my hiking companion, Freddie, who has called this part of the world home for the last twenty years, tells me. His trade is in oak flooring, and he travels far and wide to find trees of the girth that Poloniny has, because commercial forestry sees them felled decades before they have opportunity to grow up as splendidly as these forests.

A steep scramble, and we are there: the Štatna Hranica, or state border, with a small (old, Communist-era) sign warning that it could be dangerous. In common with Slovakia’s other borders that lie within the depths of its dense forests, there is a few metres of cleared trees, so that the view opens up invitingly to reveal the mist-swathed mountains of western Ukraine, and otherwise? Otherwise there is no change between Slovak forest and Ukraine forest. There is not even a fence, or the remains of one. Nothing to prevent people from walking out, or in (although I am assured that concealed in the nearby tree branches is plenty of the multi-million Euro sophisticated monitoring equipment we read that Slovakia’s eastern EU border has been fortified with, the only man-made thing I can see is a bunch of intertwined sticks presumably left by a creative hiker as a small tribute to the no-man’s land on which we now stand).

Our route turned sharply left at this point, and after a moment of contemplation upon what this land once signified or signifies, we embarked on the final thigh-busting climb along the Ukraine border up to the obelisk of Kremenec, at 1220m, and a tough three-hour tramp from Nova Sedlica. Three gaudily decorated posts in the colours of Slovakia, Poland and Ukraine rise out of the forest clearing and Polish and Slovak hikers sit around picnicking: a somewhat sedate period, one thinks, for a territory which has conventionally marked Europe’s outer edge, and endured traumatic times a-plenty as a result. We take a seat next to one of them, a long-haired man who attracted our attention as he overtook us on the climb up for doing this fairly demanding hike in bare feet, and with only an apple for sustenance. He’s just getting up as we collapse gasping next to him, but has these words for us before he leaves.

“Corporations are destroying the world” he laments. “And we can’t trust any of them.”

Profound words. And ones Freddie opens his mouth to debate. But before he can, the man, point made, has continued calmly on his way.

“Upstaged by a man in bare feet” Freddie sighs.

The obelisk of Kremenec - this is the Ukrainian side, as the language "Kremenec" is written in reveals ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The obelisk of Kremenec – this is the Ukrainian side, as the language “Kremenec” is written in reveals ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Our route heads west (left) from Kremenec, no longer following the Ukraine border, but the Polish one, and initially on the red trail still via some open ground replete with fabulous bunches of blueberries. From a tor here, a vista of the hills on the Polish side rears up before the path plunges to Čiertač and the relentlessly steep yellow connector trail to Nova Sedlica. As the forest plunged back into the meadows surrounding the village, we pass a party of locals, a little the worse for wear after an extremely boozy picnic.

One ox of a man, clad in a pair of rather soiled dungarees and very little else, appears particularly wasted.

“A few hours” he moans as he staggers along. “A few hours rest in my house and I’ll be good to go again.”

Often, there are dramatic contrasts evident at borders. But on the border between the EU and Ukraine, there is mainly just nature. Some slivovica-tanked villagers, some intrepid hikers, and one man who did not think much to Capitalism, sure. But primarily the beech trees, undulating off in hues of green and, further away, grey. Which makes you think in a slightly different way about this continent we have chiselled out for ourselves.

MAP LINK:

ADMISSION: There is no admission charge for entry to the Poloniny National Park

GETTING THERE: There are trains every two hours between 10.40am and 6.40pm from Humenné, on the direct line from Košice, and Stakčin. Taking the train usually gives you an hour and a half’s wait in Stakčin during which time you can grab a bite to eat at the very pleasant Hotel Armales (the hotel is a 7-minute walk northeast of the train station and the bus stop, confusingly called Železničná Stanica, actually a 4-minute walk south-west.) From Stakčin buses take one hour and 15 minutes to wind up the valley to Nova Sedlica.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Nova Sedlica, on the eastern edge of the EU, it’s either on in to Ukraine or back 65km west to one of Eastern Slovakia’s best craft brewpubs, Pivovar Medved in Humenné.

Looking out from Bradlo towards the Biele Karpaty at the end of the Štefánikova Magistrála ©Jonno Tranter

Hiking the Štefánikova Magistrála, Stage Five: Dobrá Voda to Bradlo (and Beyond)

By Jonno Tranter.

From Dobrá Voda, you can join the red-marked  trail just behind the church, and you’re very quickly alone in the wilderness again. The absence of other people hiking in this area in this area is a real pleasure if you are looking for some peace of mind, but it’s also a novelty: such a gorgeous hike in the UK would have you passing at least a few other walkers en route. Look out along this stretch for wild cherry trees, a welcome treat when you need a sugar kick and some vitamins! There are also plenty of raspberries, apples and pears along the way, although those were out of season for us.

Towards Bradlo! ©Jonno Tranter

Towards Bradlo! ©Jonno Tranter

You’re now back in the forest for a few hours. This is a very pleasant part of the walk, and relatively flat, so you’ll be able to cover ground quite quickly. Being so expansive, however, it’s quite easy to lose the trail and you might find yourself doubling back, or cutting across to it as you spot a mark in the distance. After a couple hours you’ll eventually find yourself walking down a road, a sure sign that civilisation lies near. Make sure you follow the trail here through the residential streets into the town of Brezová pod Bradlom. We arrived desperate for some lunch. Though there seems to be a couple bars in the area, the only place that served any food was a small ice cream parlour and a bakery. Fortunately, the locals came to our rescue and pointed out the only restaurant open, right next to the local Tesco! Here we manage to feast on a delicious two course meal for €3.50, a bargain!

This was day four of our Slovakian adventure. Our feet were swollen with blisters, our shoulders were aching from the weight of our backpacks and tent, and the 30-degree+ heat was crushing us. We were beginning to have doubts that we would actually reach our goal of getting to the Pohoda festival entirely by foot from Bratislava. Though the mountains are relatively small (all in the Malé Karpaty range are under 1000m) the trail can be very tiring, as it rises and falls very often, and rarely stays at the summit. We were limited by time (7 days to get to Trenčín, Pohoda’s location) and so each day (i.e. each of the stages 2, 3 and 4 previously described) had been filled with about 7-8 hours of walking. For those who are disheartened or simply want to end their trip here, there is a bus station here with trips back to Bratislava (although even the disheartened should at least make it to the top of Bradlo, above the town, for incredible views from the historic monument there). In any case, we were not to give in so easily! We downed a coffee, gathered up some willpower, and headed back into the hills.

Once you reach the monument to General Štefánik, at the top of Bradlo (Bradlo is often how the whole area gets referred to as), about an hour from Brezová pod Bradlom, you’ll find a herd of tourists who have driven up to the landmark. You’ll be able to take in the amazing views just like that of the lead image in this article, not to mention the cool breeze: admiring the mountains that lie behind you and the route you’ve walked up to that point (the whole trail from Hrad Devin at the beginning of stage one to here is thus far some 120km). If you choose to continue along the red trail here, you’ll be leaving the Male Karpaty (Little Carpathians), and heading through some flat farmland to the Biele Karpaty (White Carpathians). From this point onward, the Štefánikova Magistrála ends and the trail is just known as the Cesta hrdinov SNP: continuing all the way to the Dukla Pass in Eastern Slovakia.

After Bradlo, perhaps the only point of frustration comes a few hundred metres past Jandova doling when you’ll enter a huge open expanse with absolutely no indication of where the trail continues. Some trial and error may be needed: and trying any option involves walking to the nearest tree, a good 10 minutes walk away on every side of you. After a lot of trial and error, we finally found the path leading up, a sharp right from where it suddenly ended.

This next swathe of the trek is flatter and you’ll be walking through the village of Polianka, amongst others. This is more open country, here, and the scenery is truly spectacular. As we had found in most towns in these parts, the houses are very pretty and people seem to live comfortably. Wherever we went, we were met with looks of surprise, but also with smiles and greetings.

The trail continues, obviously marked, in this manner: through pleasant but otherwise unremarkable agricultural land. At this point you’ll be slowly walking towards Myjava, the biggest town on the trail between Bratislava and Trenčín. We arrived exhausted and desperately in need of food and sleep. We found the huge Tesco which overlooks the town, stocked up on dinner and breakfast, and couldn’t muster much energy to camp far from the town. We found a quiet spot in the hills behind Tesco, sat down to heal our blisters and sores, and crashed off to sleep…

Jonno Tranter is a freelance graphic designer and illustrator who lives in Bristol, UK. In his spare time he likes to write, have adventures, and attend music festivals. This year, he decided to combine all three into an epic trip across Slovakia! Read more about him on his online portfolio (and on stages two to five of our series of features on the Štefánikova Magistrála trail – for Jonno, part of a gruelling adventure which saw him hiking from Bratislava all the way to Trenčin: discover it through the links below).

STAGE OVERVIEW MAP LINK:

WHAT NEXT?

Hiking the Štefánikova Magistrála – an introduction (featured in our Places to Go/Bratislava & Around and Places to Go/Western Slovakia sub-sections)

Hiking the Štefánikova Magistrála – Some Useful Tips (featured in our Places to Go/Bratislava & Around and Places to Go/Western Slovakia sub-sections)

Hiking the Štefánikova Magistrála, Stage One: Hrad Devín to Kamzík (featured in our Places to Go/Bratislava & Around sub-section)

Hiking the Štefánikova Magistrála – Stage Two: Kamzík to Pezinská Baba (featured in our Places to Go/Bratislava & Around and Places to Go/Western Slovakia sub-sections)

Hiking the Štefánikova Magistrála, Stage Three: Pezinská Baba to Vápenná (featured in our Places to Go/Western Slovakia sub-section)

Hiking the Štefánikova Magistrála, Stage Four: Vápenná to Dobra Voda (featured in our Places to Go/Western Slovakia sub-section) (Previous Stage)

Plus: More on the Cesta Hrdinov SNP Trail from Bradlo on towards Dukla – coming soon!

AND: If you’ve had enough of hiking by this point, try heading 35km southeast from Bradlo to the spa island (kupel’ny ostrov) in Piešt’any

On the trail ©Jonno Tranter

On the trail ©Jonno Tranter

Image by Jonno Tranter

Hiking the Štefánikova Magistrála, Stage Four: Vapenna to Dobrá Voda

By Jonno Tranter.

After spending the night camping out at a spring just beyond Vápenná, we headed back along the trail. This curls downwards slowly towards Buková and you soon step back into the forest that you’ll have become accustomed to seeing at regular intervals throughout the walk by now. This part of the trail is well indicated, and you shouldn’t run into any problems heading down.

After three days in the intense heat and no shower, we were desperate for a wash, and decided to make a slight detour from the Štefánikova Magistrála trail to bathe in Buková lake. This is just under an hour’s walk from the trail, but well worth the stop. There’s a yellow connecter trail that leads north from the Štefánikova Magistrála to the the lake that’s indicated and hard to miss: it’s just before the Štefánikova Magistrála zigzags up to the ruined castle of Ostrý Kameň and then Záruby, the highest point in the entire Malé Karpaty range at 768 metres (the peak can also be accessed from the southern side, via the scenic village of Smolenice.)

The lake is surrounded by a ring of trees and farmland, and looks like an oasis to a weary walker. Even though it had rained all night, the lake wasn’t too cold, and we had it to ourselves. For those needing a proper break at this point, there’s a campsite by the lake and a fast food eatery which serves your standard Slovakian deep fried cheese and chips. With a cold beer, it’s a real treat after a long walk. We made friends with a fellow hiker and headed back on the road!

From the lake, you can join the green trail at Breziny, and follow it along the road through the town of Buková. Once you’ve reached the end of town, however, make sure to follow the main road (not the most scenic part of the walk) until Vítkov Mlyn, where the red-marked Štefánikova Magistrála trail picks up again (it’s easy to see why the trail designers took the trail over the top via Záruby). When you’re back on route and past Nespalovci, you’ll hit a nice residential area, where it’s easy to lose the trail. Look out for a sharp bend towards the right as you enter the neighborhood. After that you’ve got a long straight stretch ahead of you with few red signs to help you out, so keep an eye on the map and make sure you take a sharp left at Dolná Raková.

©Jonno Tranter

©Jonno Tranter

From there, it’s back to the forest, and a very pleasant part of the walk which is relatively flat, so you’ll be able to cover quite a bit of ground. Being so expansive, however, it’s quite easy to lose the trail and you might find yourself doubling back, or cutting across to it as you spot a mark in the distance. It’s about four hours from here to a sleepy, pretty village called Dobrá Voda. The houses and farm are really a beautiful sight as you head down through the fields. Upon entering, we were greeted with the cacophonous barking of every dog in town, a recurrent event during our venture through the Malé Karpaty’s inhabited parts.

Excited to have arrived and eager for a drink, we found the only bar in town: typically next door to the church! The kitchen had closed at six, but the staff still managed to cook up some snacks for us. The locals were very surprised to see some foreign backpackers and a singalong in broken English soon followed. The bar closed at ten, and that night we found a field and slept under the stars, which truly illuminate the sky in this isolated part of the country.

Dobrá Voda has a spectacular ruined castle just above the village – which itself has a shop, about 200m downhill from the bar, and you’ll be able to find enough for a decent breakfast. There’s also a spring here and it’s a good place to refill your bottles, and perhaps have a cheeky wash before another long day of hiking ahead.

Jonno Tranter is a freelance graphic designer and illustrator who lives in Bristol, UK. In his spare time he likes to write, have adventures, and attend music festivals. This year, he decided to combine all three into an epic trip across Slovakia! Read more about him on his online portfolio (and on stages two to five of our series of features on the Štefánikova Magistrála trail – for Jonno, part of a gruelling adventure which saw him hiking from Bratislava all the way to Trenčin: discover it through the links below).

STAGE OVERVIEW MAP LINK:

WHAT NEXT?

Hiking the Štefánikova Magistrála – an introduction (featured in our Places to Go/Bratislava & Around and Places to Go/Western Slovakia sub-sections)

Hiking the Štefánikova Magistrála – Some Useful Tips (featured in our Places to Go/Bratislava & Around and Places to Go/Western Slovakia sub-sections)

Hiking the Štefánikova Magistrála, Stage One: Hrad Devín to Kamzík (featured in our Places to Go/Bratislava & Around sub-section)

Hiking the Štefánikova Magistrála, Stage Two: Kamzík to Pezinská Baba (featued in our Places to Go/Bratislava & Around and Places to Go/Western Slovakia sub-sections)

Hiking the Štefánikova Magistrála, Stage Three: Pezinská Baba to Vápenná (featured in our Places to Go/Western Slovakia sub-section) (Previous Stage)

Hiking the Štefánikova Magistrála, Stage Five: Dobra Voda to Bradlo (featured in our Places to Go/Western Slovakia sub-section) (Next Stage)

Plus: More on the Cesta Hrdinov SNP Trail from Bradlo on towards Dukla – coming soon!

img_20160702_183632898-1-A

Hiking the Štefánikova Magistrála, Stage Three: Pezinská Baba to Vapenna

By Jonno Tranter

From Pezinská Baba, it’s easy to miss the SNP trail as you head uphill, so keep your eyes peeled for a narrow path that picks up on the right from the wider route circling the mountain. From here you’ll be rising steeply into mountains, and cross several viewpoints. To make things tougher, the trail doesn’t just go steadily uphill, but rises and dips in similar measure, so make sure you aren’t completely unfit if you want to tackle this trip in a day. There’s a spring and a resting place at Čermák if you need a break, and a route connects here so you’ll see a few people camping and enjoying the sunshine. From Čermák, it’s also a short walk to Piesok, where there’s the delightful traditional Slovak eatery of Furmanská krčma, a big hotel called Zochava Chata and a small collection of cottages, in a similar peaceful top-of-the-mountains setting like Pezinská Baba. From Furmanská krčma, there is also a nice hike down (three hours) into the pretty wine-and-ceramics town of Modra.

About three to four hours into your walk, you’ll come to a resting place along the dusty path where it’s possible to connect to other trails, and one leads to a town called Sološnica. With so little food options along the route, this is a good place to take a detour for lunch. Sološnica is a quiet town that’s pretty but mostly residential and not really worth a long stop-over. You’ll need to walk about 45 minutes in the gruelling heat through residential areas until you reach the centre of town, near the church. Here you’ll find two pubs, both of which serve food, and a shop, which had closed by the time we got there in the early afternoon. Make sure to stock up on snacks (there’s a small selection at the bar) as you won’t find any villages along the trail for a while.

From Sološnica you’ll need to take a green trail from the centre of town to Pod Malou Vápennou, where you can join the red Štefánikova magistrála trail again, and head back into the hills. Your next port of call will be Vápenná, one of the highest peaks of the area (752m). This is quite a steep rise up the forested mountain, but the effort is well worth it when you got to the top. An incredible view of the area awaits, with the forested mountains stretching out into the distance. It’s a truly rewarding and humbling experience and there’s a lookout tower at the top to climb, and a book to sign.

Gorgeous views from above the forested peaks ©Jonno Tranter

Gorgeous views from above the forested peaks ©Jonno Tranter

After that, you’ll be following the top of the mountain for a while, and it can be a bit rough. Though the trail is well indicated throughout this whole stretch, the route does not seem very walked, and is sometimes impossible to pass by without getting stung by nettles, so this would be a good time to wear hiking trousers. It also gets uneven at times and you may find yourself scrambling around. Again, the fact that this route is so little traveled only enhances its appeal.

We arrived at our next stop covered in cuts and stings, but relieved, we had found some water! Springs and wells are well indicated on the maps of the area (as something along the lines of studňa), so make sure you look out for them, they will be a godsend as there are not many villages in the mountains to buy food and drink. We had no issue at any point drinking the mountain water, and only used purification tablets when collecting water from streams. This particular spring, just after Mesačná lúka, spouted very little water, however, so don’t expect to be able to bathe! There’s a shelter here too and it’s a good place to set up camp.

We pitched the tent out in a little clearing just passed the spring and that night, a very heavy thunderstorm broke out. We huddled inside the tent and got ready for the rain. It’s the only time it rained during our eleven days in the area, so we definitely count ourselves lucky but it’s a good idea to pack with potential rainfall in mind.

Jonno Tranter is a freelance graphic designer and illustrator who lives in Bristol, UK. In his spare time he likes to write, have adventures, and attend music festivals. This year, he decided to combine all three into an epic trip across Slovakia! Read more about him on his online portfolio (and on stages two to five of our series of features on the Štefánikova Magistrála trail – for Jonno, part of a gruelling adventure which saw him hiking from Bratislava all the way to Trenčin: discover it through the links below).

STAGE OVERVIEW MAP LINK:

WHAT NEXT?

Hiking the Štefánikova Magistrála – an introduction (featured in our Places to Go/Bratislava & Around and Places to Go/Western Slovakia sub-sections)

Hiking the Štefánikova Magistrála – Some Useful Tips (featured in our Places to Go/Bratislava & Around and Places to Go/Western Slovakia sub-sections)

Hiking the Štefánikova Magistrála, Stage One: Hrad Devín to Kamzík (featured in our Places to Go/Bratislava & Around sub-section)

Hiking the Štefánikova Magistrála, Stage Two: Kamzík to Pezinská Baba (featued in our Places to Go/Bratislava & Around and Places to Go/Western Slovakia sub-sections) (Previous Stage)

Hiking the Štefánikova Magistrála, Stage Four: Vápenná to Dobrá Voda (featured in our Places to Go/Western Slovakia sub-section) (Next Stage)

Hiking the Štefánikova Magistrála, Stage Five: Dobra Voda to Bradlo (featured in our Places to Go/Western Slovakia sub-section)

Plus: More on the Cesta Hrdinov SNP Trail from Bradlo on towards Dukla – coming soon!

The writer relaxes for a map check... ©Jonno Tranter

The writer relaxes for a map check… ©Jonno Tranter

©Jonno Tranter

Hiking the Štefánikova Magistrála, Stage Two: Kamzik to Pezinska Baba

By Jonno Tranter.

©Jonno Tranter

©Jonno Tranter

From Kamzík, it’s easy to find the signs for the Cesta Hrdinov SNP Trail (Trail of the Heroes of the Slovak National Uprising), which encompasses (between Hrad Devín and Bradlo) the Štefánikova Magistrála. Look out for the white and red flag which you’ll grow to love – and hate – along the hike. The trail at first follows closely the cycle paths, but relatively quickly carves out a route of its own. A word of warning: the trail is not always well indicated. Very often you’ll arrive at a junction with no trail mark anywhere to be found. In this case you’ll just have to try both options, and perhaps backtrack. Having the Malé Karpaty region maps handy, however, will make your life a lot easier – see Hiking the Štefánikova Magistrála: Some Useful Tips for more information on the maps you’ll need, as well as for a host of other things it’s a good idea to know about walking this path before you start!

The heat in July is very intense, up to 30+ degrees, so make sure to wear light clothing if you’ll be hiking in the summer. A redeeming factor is that most of the time, you’re walking amongst very tall conifer trees which will block the majority of the sun’s rays. In the shade therefore, walking conditions can actually be very pleasant. For those uphill walks though, you’ll be sweating buckets, with little breeze to cool you off. Fortunately, there’s a few springs along the way after Kamzík, and the water is cool and clean. There are also a number of places for opekačka (the Slovak tradition of having open-air barbecues) with especially constructed wooden shelters and kindling provided.

©Jonno Tranter

The forests around Bratislava near the start of the trail ©Jonno Tranter

The trail from the forests immediately around Bratislava in which Kamzík stands (known as the Mestské Lesy) up into the Malé Karpaty is mostly forested; interspersed with the odd plain or clearing, but boasting few viewpoints, though this still makes for a very enjoyable walk. Your first stop along the Štefánikova Magistrála is Biely kríž, which comes after about three or four hours of walking through the woodlands. It’s a resting place where you’ll find a small shop selling drinks, energy bars and pastries. You’ll need the sustenance as from there it’s about four more hours to Pezinská Baba, where the trail opens up to some stunning scenery. Along this section, you’ll pass Tri Kamenne Kopce, from where you can intersect with a blue trail to walk down to the pretty wine-making village of Limbach (plenty of wine cellars offer tastings!). There’s a relatively steep downhill run before reaching the small settlement of Baba, so take care and make sure you’ve the got the proper shoes. You’ll know you’re close to civilisation when you see a few derelict mansions beginning to appear.

At Baba, high up on the road through the Malé Karpaty between Pezinok and Pernek, on the edge of the starkly contrasting and startling pancake-flat Záhorie region, the trail intersects a road, and you’ll find a couple places to eat and the quirky Motel Na Vrchu Baba, should you need a bed for the night. Baba, incidentally, is also the start point of the annual Baba-Kamzik run (although we were quite relieved to have conquered this distance by walking it!) We ate at the restaurant along the road, which serves very nice Slovak cuisine and some great desserts. Full and sleepy, we continued on the trail for a short while, set up the tent, lit a fire and watched as the sun set behind the mountains, and Mars, Saturn, and Jupiter appeared in the night sky.

The hills really do come alive when you do not have any other distractions, and at night you can hear the dear, rabbits, and other wildlife scurrying about. Though wild camping is not really encouraged in Slovakia, it’s very easy in this area as the trail is not policed at all, and you won’t encounter many other walkers. In fact, from Kamzík all the way to Bradlo, we only passed by a dozen or so other hikers, meaning you really get the area to yourself.

For us, the first full day of walking was over, but the trip had only just begun!

Jonno Tranter is a freelance graphic designer and illustrator who lives in Bristol, UK. In his spare time he likes to write, have adventures, and attend music festivals. This year, he decided to combine all three into an epic trip across Slovakia! Read more about him on his online portfolio (and on stages two to five of our series of features on the Štefánikova Magistrála trail – for Jonno, part of a gruelling adventure which saw him hiking from Bratislava all the way to Trenčin: discover it through the links below).

STAGE OVERVIEW MAP LINK:

WHAT NEXT?

Hiking the Štefánikova Magistrála – an introduction (featured in our Places to Go/Bratislava & Around and Places to Go/Western Slovakia sub-sections)

Hiking the Štefánikova Magistrála – Some Useful Tips (featured in our Places to Go/Bratislava & Around and Places to Go/Western Slovakia sub-sections)

Hiking the Štefánikova Magistrála, Stage One: Hrad Devín to Kamzík (featured in our Places to Go/Bratislava & Around sub-section) (Previous Stage)

Hiking the Štefánikova Magistrála, Stage Three: Pezinská Baba to Vápenná (featured in our Places to Go/Western Slovakia sub-section) (Next Stage)

Hiking the Štefánikova Magistrála, Stage Four: Vápenná to Dobra Voda (featured in our Places to Go/Western Slovakia sub-section)

Hiking the Štefánikova Magistrála, Stage Five: Dobra Voda to Bradlo (featured in our Places to Go/Western Slovakia sub-section)

Plus: More on the Cesta Hrdinov SNP Trail from Bradlo on towards Dukla…

Hiking the Cesta Hrdinov SNP, Stage One: Myjava to Vel’ka Javorina (featured in our Places to Go/Western Slovakia sub-section)

Hiking the Cesta Hrdinov SNP, Stage Two: Vel’ka Javorina to Drietoma (featured in our Places to Go/Western Slovakia sub-section)

Chleb, with the Vratna Valley beyond and Janosikove Diery just hidden... ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Around Terchová: Hotel Diery

What’s better than paradise? Another paradise that’s less crowded, right?

Take Slovenský Raj, for example, or the Slovak Paradise, as the name translates. Sitting just southeast of Poprad, Slovenský Raj national park is rightly known for its paradisaical qualities: namely its steeply-twisting narrow rocky valleys, carpeted by conifers and splashed by rushing waterfalls up which you can climb on the country’s most-famed ladder and chain ascents.

But sitting a solid two hours closer to Bratislava, Malá Fatra National Park can also boast – yes indeed – a series of narrow rocky valleys, carpets of conifers and rushing waterfalls, all connected by a lesser-known but nevertheless magnificent ladder and chain ascent. It’s much more accessible. And surprisingly few people, particularly if you exclude Slovaks, ever make it here. The name of the locale is Jánošíkove diery (or Jánošík’s holes; Jánošík being a 16th-century highwayman who robbed from the rich, supposedly, to give to the poor; holes as in hidey-holes, by the way…) and it is beautiful. So beautiful in fact, and so relatively tranquil, that you would never guess that at the start of what must qualify as one of Slovakia’s most beautiful short hikes there would be a really enticing place to stay.

For me, Hotel Diery, at the start of the track into the leafy depths of Jánošíkove diery just outside Terchova, is a more enticing entry point into Malá Fatra than the Vrátna area where most people access the park from (via the chairlift up to the lofty heights of Chleb – an ascent of almost 750 metres to 1500m altitude). Vrátna suffers from the same symptoms many ski areas suffer from: an over-used and at times worn and tacky feel which extends to many of the places to stay thereabouts. Hotel Diery doesn’t feel like that. It feels a bit more intimate, because it’s a bit more removed.

What you notice first about it, though, is not the hotel, but the restaurant, Koliba (click the link for some hilarious pictures that totally don’t do it justice).

Koliba, the restaurant at Hotel Diery

Koliba, the restaurant at Hotel Diery

It’s an open-sided, rustic, wooden affair (a thankful departure from the all-too-common closed-up, dingy Slovak eateries) with chunky wooden furniture at which you can sit whilst tucking into some of the best-cooked traditional Slovak food in these parts. Cuisine is meat-oriented in true country style, and with little in the way of salad (although they do offer vegetarian options) but the cooking is good, and imaginative, and for 10 Euros you can procure a platter the hungriest of mountain men would be sated by. The crowd is a nice mix of happy outdoorsy types (Koliba is a good enough restaurant that in Bratislava it would probably be a pretentious place, so we’re very glad it’s here in Malá Fatra)

Englishmaninslovakia’s only bugbear is that Koliba faces the car park and the road, rather than the verdant woods behind but hey – it’s not a bad car park and on the other side of the road the hills soar up again very aesthetically…

A comfortable double at Hotel Diery

A comfortable double at Hotel Diery – image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

And despite this rather rustic entrée to Hotel Diery, the rooms are very modern. Not outstanding in their décor, but very clean, fresh and manicured in a way many of Bratislava’s business hotels would be jealous of. And many open up at the back (via balconies) onto just the views we were just lamenting were absent in the restaurant – making them very light places to spend the night. Down in the friendly reception, there’s also information on a lot of the nearby walks in Malá Fatra (click here for a selection of the best of them). But what is best about Hotel Diery is that, unlike much of the surrounding accommodation and restaurants, it doesn’t appear to be resting on its laurels. It would be very easy to do just that, as tourists are a near guarantee. Yet these guys are still trying hard to please – and to prevent the place becoming one of those Malá Fatra locales with its glory days buried in the past…

MAP LINK: (If coming from Žilina, follow the road through Terchova, past the Vratna turn-off, and you’ll see Hotel Diery and the entrance to Jánošíkove diery on the right after about 3km)

PRICES: 35/59 Euros for single/double room respectively (with a balcony) – and check holiday season specials on the website which offer you doubles from 44 Euros for two nights!

BOOK HOTEL DIERY:

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Hiking the Štefánikova Magistrála, Stage One: Hrad Devín to Kamzík

This first stage of the five-stage hike across Western Slovakia between Hrad Devín (Devín Castle) and Bradlo is an easy initiation into the walk. We’ve allowed more time for this because of the points of interest en route and because the part of the walk that negotiates Bratislava is a little complicated (hence the reason for the loooong write-up, which is deceptive as the stage itself isn’t so long!).

For stages two and up, we are most fortunate to have had them given a thoroughly up-to-date hike by fellow Small Carpathians enthusiast Jonno Tranter – so see his articles on walking the trail from Kamzík right through Western Slovakia to Bradlo – and beyond on the Cesta Hrdinov SNP (which eventually leads to Dukla Pass in Eastern Slovakia) as far as Trenčin.

A Little Tip

Of course, for those worried about whether Štefánik actually spent much time traipsing through Bratislava’s western suburbs, and that they will be missing out on an essential cultural chunk of the man and his life by not walking this part, the answer is almost certainly NO. In fact, it’s advised to start walking on stage two of the walk, at Kamzík, if you don’t dig walking through cities OR get public transport between the end of the Devínska Kobyla part of the walk and Kamzík (we’ll advise you how to do this at the appropriate point). There is the added caveat that if (as is likely) you set out from Bratislava to Devín to begin this hike, you will necessarily end up walking back through Bratislava halfway through this stage – time you could otherwise have spent getting out into the really cool woods. STILL a hiking trail is a hiking trail and, city section notwithstanding, there are some great things to see on this stage of the trail, and I have also always been a big fan of how cities and their surrounding countryside merge and mingle, which this stage also exemplifies rather poignantly.

Devín & the Beginning of the Hike

Devin Castle, accessed by Bus 28 from Most SNP at least hourly, is your starting point for the hike. The castle, dating from the 9th century, is a spectacular ruin, and is undoubtedly point of interest number one – along with its surrounds which include the confluence of Morava and Danube rivers and, above, the massif of Devínska Kobyla, the furthest extent of the Small Carpathians. There are other sites that detail more information on the castle, but we have prepared this general (and, we like to think, fairly detailed) post on the castle and Devínska Kobyla right here). From the castle, the Štefánikova Magistrála takes you through Devín and up out onto Devínska Kobyla, brings you down into Bratislava, then up out of the modern part of the city up to Slavin monument and through one of the most pleasant city parks en route to Kamzík.

Bus 28 drops you, at the end of the route, in the castle forecourt. From here my first thought was to walk across in front of the hotel here to touch the castle walls. I doubt Štefánik ever did this but when hiking a peculiar sense of thoroughness kicks in for me that actually gets me into all kinds of scrapes. Anyway, I touched the castle walls, so there. Then turning round and keeping the hotel on your right (and following the edge of the property along to its end) you reach a couple of noticeboards, a sign pointing to Cafe Eden, and a little lane leading to the right, ascending slightly past a restaurant on the left (the beginning of the hike).

Cafe Eden, one of the nicest cafes in Bratislava area. ©englishmaninslovakia.com

Cafe Eden, one of the nicest cafes in Bratislava area. ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

This lane ushers you up passing some houses to skirt what becomes the edge of the castle grounds – after a short while it turns sharp left. You now head straight on another lane taking you passed the delightful Cafe Eden – one of the Bratislava area’s top cafes and certainly worthy of its own separate forthcoming post on this very site.  Afterwards, bear immediately right on Hutnicka and then left on Rytierska to reach Devín’s church after a small pedestrianised section. At the corner of the church grounds is the first actual Štefánikova Magistrála sign: reading “Uzky Les (narrow wood!)” 35 minutes and “Slavin (as in the monument in central Bratislava) 3 hours 55 minutes.” Here you want to go straight over the main road and up to the left of the church on a narrow lane. The houses soon give up the ghost, and at a rather-too-subtle red trail sign on a tree an even narrower lane along the bottom of a tree-lined gully climbs steeply left. Take it: soon the views begin to open out. This lane turns into a track just after one rather idyllic secluded house, and vistas of Devín with the pancake-flat fields of Austria become visible.

The Devínska Kobyla Section

Now on a path through thick foliage, you climb onto Devínska Kobyla, the afore-mentioned last (or first, if you’re coming from this direction) bastion of the Small Carpathian hills that it’s no secret I have an affection for.

It’s a massif worth spending some time in (diversion number two on today’s stage) because of the phenomenon of Sandberg, a spectacular sandy outcrop left over from the time when all this part of Slovakia was submerged by the sea, and because of the views along the Morava river and Austrian border, near where many Cold War-era bunkers and military paraphernalia remain.

Views of flat Austria to the west ©englishmaninslovakia.com

Views of flat Austria to the west ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Your path kinks to the right of an escarpment area (lush views again, but don’t be tempted to head left down into the escarpment) continuing gently up alongside a few open clearings before dipping into the woods again to arrive at Uzky Les. Here you have a choice. A yellow trail continues (fairly levelly) 30 minutes from here to arrive at Dúbravská Hlavica, the next significant point on the trail. The official red-marked Štefánikova Magistrála winds up into the woods and back to the same point, but in one hour 30 minutes. Englishmaninslovakia took the shortcut, but following red 40 minutes and then green for an hour brings you to Sandberg, at the other end of Devínska Kobyla. All in all, this full diversion adds on an extra three hours to you arriving at Dúbravská Hlavica and makes today’s walk 7.5 hours rather than 4.5 – but it’s worth doing if it’s your first time in these parts, and here (again) is our post with a few pictures on what you can see along this stretch.

At Dúbravská Hlavica (accessed on yellow from Uzky Les by continuing on the gorgeous yellow trail up through woods and then bearing right on a much-larger track) you are still in Devínska Kobyla. You are, once you come through a red-and-white forestry gate, on a metalled road, too. Keep straight on, passing a turning to an old hotel on the left, following the road over the top of a small hill passed a TV mast and a house. A little down from here, on the right, look for an information board demarcating a yellow cycle trail. You can’t see the red way marks from the road, but enter into the woods  to stand alongside the information board and sure enough, there is your red trail, zigzagging off through a dark but nevertheless fetching stretch of wood.

At a bunch of Slovakia’s speciality – weekend mountain houses, some of which look fairly bizarre here – the woodland path once more turns into a track, metalled in places, which you turn right on and continue along with the weird weekend mountain houses on the right. The weirdness is accentuated by the fact that now, accompanying the red way marks, are red eight-point stars, like the symbol of some cult, emblazoned on the trees. After a while this main road-track bends right and the Štefánikova Magistrála (marked red and blue at this point) carries on straight, at what will be around the one- to 1.5-hour mark on today’s stage, or the four to 4.5-hour mark if you’ve taken the extended Sandberg diversion).

At a small clearing a little along this wide woodland path, keep on the main route (bearing straight on, not right) and soon, staying on the level, you reach the first real sign of modern Bratislava at a gaggle of clearly expensive but not particularly pretty houses. The path goes down to the left of these, plunging through the woods with the modern city districts of Zaluhy, Kútiky and Karlova Ves soon poking through the trees, and providing a stark but eye-catching rural-urban contrast:)

The path descends to a minor road, crossing straight over into a residential district down on another path to the rude awakening of a junction with a major road. Look ahead of you and you’ll see red signs on lamp posts which guide you forward to a bridge over the major Karlova Ves-Dúbravka road, with tram tracks. Pay attention – because if you don’t like city walking, then TAKE PUBLIC TRANSPORT AT THIS POINT TO REACH KAMZÍK (Take Tram 5 towards Rača; get off at Martinus bookshop; cross to Hodžovo Námestie and take trolleybus 203 to the end of the line, from where it’s a 25-minute walk up to Kamzík.

The City Stretch

Once you cross the bridge above the tram stop of Karlova Ves, the way marking of the Štefánikova Magistrála dies a death for a while, so this guide may be your only salvation.

Turn left across the bridge at the crossroads and follow Pupavova street around to the left. This curves clockwise until you are level, on the other side of the houses, with the bridge you’ve just crossed. On the lefthand side, at the first break in the block of flats you see head down left on a small path that almost immediately bears left again and cuts diagonally down between houses before opening into a park.

The path becomes a flight of concrete steps and does, in fact, sport a couple of red way marks. Follow the concrete path until it emerges down at the bottom of the dip on a road. The official path climbs almost immediately up passed houses into the woods you can see ahead of you, but remains frustratingly elusive. Englishmaninslovakia’s solution was to turn right on the road, passing a red-and-white park gate into the valley-bottom park (picnicking, barbecue and play areas for a few metres either side of a wide metalled road) which is part of Mlynská Dolina (valley of the mill). Trees rise steeply up on both sides at this point. Just before the high-rise buildings of Karlova Ves come into view again, a distinct track on the left cuts up through the trees, just after one of several play areas. Take it – at which point you are around the two-hour mark, or the five-hour mark with the Sandberg diversion. It’s a fairly short stretch of wood that you climb through. At the top, bear to the right of the hues you see ahead to emerge on a driveway that you follow to the right, and to the only unpleasant kilometre of the walk.

The driveway becomes a proper road; follow and take the first right downhill on the only through-route for cars to meet, at a warehouse, the winding and rather dull road of Staré Grunty (it sounds as bad as it looks). Frustratingly, whilst there are two parks within virtual touching distance, for the moment this road should be followed left in a wide loop via housing developments, on first the 39 bus route (one or two red way marks appear) and then, hanging left around the edge of a shopping centre, the 139 bus route. Now things are more straightforward and you follow this busy road straight to a bridge over the out-of-town motorway to the Czech Republic. Over the bridge, and the route immediately becomes much more enjoyable.

The road narrows into a lane, rising between houses on the left and old woodland on the right (nb: little terraced restaurant here which although nothing special might come as a welcome break). After the houses, about 750 metres up, there is a split in the lane. A tiny lane (but one nevertheless passable by cars, sheers up steeply (at least 1:4 or more) passed some houses clearly designed by the city’s fancied architects to join a larger road. Turn right. This is Drotárska Cesta, and you follow this road round left and down to join the main road of Budkova. Another example of how the trail does something a bit strange here: rather than cutting into the lovely Horský Park the quickest way, which would be left, the route takes you diagonally across Budkova and then turns left after the bus stop on Stará vinárska, before bearing sharp left back on itself up the pleasant lane of Francúzských partizánov to reach the park this way. This is probably because, at the junction of Stará vinárska and Francúzských partizánov, you have the option of continuing straight on to check out the very impressive Bratislava viewpoint of Slavín (it’s significant worthwhile diversion number three).

Horsky Park ©englishmaninslovakia.com

Horsky Park ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Horský Park through to Kamzík

Missing the nature by this point? As you arrive at the three-hour/six-hour mark of today’s stage by Horský Park – one of the nicest Bratislava parks – countryside-lovers will be pleased to know that a further 30 minutes of hiking from here gets them into nature – unadulterated nature – that doesn’t let up for the next 100-odd kilometres of this path. The city part of this route – whilst it may to some seem unworthwhile – for me provided that beautiful sense of contrast which some long-distance paths have: busy Bratislava district, with people going about their daily business which has nothing to do with hiking, one minute, the next endless woods.

When you hit the woods on the edge of Horský Park, bear right at the information board and follow the stone steps right down through the park to the cafe of Libresso Horáren; yay – a refreshment stop again, and quite a nice one) at the bottom. Turn left on the leafy path along the bottom of the park, which after ten minutes of walking or so comes to the park entrance. Cross straight over onto Bohúňova, continue several blocks to Jaseňová, head up to the end where the road bends left into Brnianska, and emerge to cross over the busy main road directly under a railway bridge on a small concrete path. On the other side of the bridge the path leads left passing garages up to Limbová. Turn left on this fairly busy road, following it down under a bridge to – phew – then bear right after a bus stop up steps on a small path into – ahem – those endless woods we just mentioned.

An ambience delightfully reminiscent of old English woodland kicks in quite quickly. Ducking under (duck quite low) the old railway bridge, the path leads left, initially near a railway track and then right at a junction, then almost immediately left, already rising on the contours of the ascent to Kamzík. Quite soon there is another three-way junction of tracks and this time you want the right-most (uppermost) of the three. This will take you up through woodland, across a clearing, and right up to the very door of the Kamzík TV mast itself.  Kamzík is, as we have mentioned a few times on this site, more than just a landmark: it’s undoubtedly diversion number four on this stretch, and you’ll have time, because this is virtually the end of today’s stage. Check our Kamzík article for more, but first let us guide you to your accommodation for the end of the day which yes, is right up amidst these lovely woods.

It’s fairly simple, this last bit. Go down the steps at the entrance of the TV tower. Turn left on the little approach road. After the road curves round sharp right by a parking area you’ll see a minor path cutting down through the woods. Take it and in about three minutes you emerge on the approach road to Hotel West – your accommodation tonight. (it was formerly a Best Western but hey, we’re doing our best here to find you accommodation EN ROUTE – and this is a pretty nice former Best Western, as they go…) And as the post on Kamzík details, there’s a fair few things to do around here.

STAGE OVERVIEW MAP LINK

WHAT NEXT?

Hiking the Štefánikova Magistrála – an introduction (featured in our Places to Go/Bratislava & Around and Places to Go/Western Slovakia sub-sections)

Hiking the Štefánikova Magistrála – Some Useful Tips (featured in our Places to Go/Bratislava & Around and Places to Go/Western Slovakia sub-sections)

Hiking the Štefánikova Magistrála – Stage Two: Kamzík to Pezinská Baba (featured in our Places to Go/Bratislava & Around and Places to Go/Western Slovakia sub-sections)

Hiking the Štefánikova Magistrála – Stage Three: Pezinská Baba to Vápenná (featured in our Places to Go/Western Slovakia sub-section)

Hiking the Štefánikova Magistrála, Stage Four: Vápenná to Dobra Voda (featured in our Places to Go/Western Slovakia sub-section)

Hiking the Štefánikova Magistrála, Stage Five: Dobra Voda to Bradlo (featured in our Places to Go/Western Slovakia sub-section)

Plus: More on the Cesta Hrdinov SNP Trail from Bradlo on towards Dukla…

Hiking the Cesta Hrdinov SNP, Stage One: Myjava to Vel’ka Javorina (featured in our Places to Go/Western Slovakia sub-section)

Hiking the Cesta Hrdinov SNP, Stage Two: Vel’ka Javorina to Drietoma (featured in our Places to Go/Western Slovakia sub-section)

©englishmaninslovakia.com

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Around Piešt’any: Reštaurácia Furman

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

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

Dog or Deer?

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

Vitame Vas… Welcome! ©englishmaninslovakia.com

Vitame Vas… Welcome! ©wwwenglishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The Menu

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

Unabashed Tradition

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

The pheasant…. ©englishmaninslovakia.com

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

 

Room With A View

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

Little Bit of History Repeating

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

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

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

Places to Go: A Great Castle near Piešt’any

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

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

RELATED POST: Furmanská Krčma, near Modra

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

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

OPENING: 10am-10pm daily

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

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

©englishmaninslovakia.com

©englishmaninslovakia.com

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

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

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Piešt’any: In the Footsteps of Beethoven

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Places to Go: A Great Castle near Piešt’any

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

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

 

MAP LINK

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

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

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

image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Around Piešt’any: the Mysterious Ruins of Tematín

Just a short distance north of Piešt’any, where the world and his wife come to take the waters, and a short distance south of Trenčin, another town of renown because of its medieval centre and annual music festival, Pohoda, there is a densely forested portion of the Malé Karpaty (Small Carpathians) which seems to have slipped off the radar of more or less anyone for the last few centuries. Of all the castles in this region of Western Slovakia (and there are several secreted up in the hills here) Tematín feels most remote.

A large-enough sign actually advertises the ruins as you’re approaching on the Rte 507 from Piešt’any: near the small village of Luka. And the castle is even visible, soaring surreally high above the tree-coated hills, from here. But we continued on through this village to start our hike up from the next village along, appropriately named Hrádok (approximate translation: castle town). Here again there is an information board but it’s far more hidden from the road and already by this point you are thinking that maybe that glimpse of Tematín was a hallucination – because the ruins themselves have disappeared from view and the signs are old, so ancient in fact it would be entirely plausible that since they were erected the final stones of Tematín had crumbled into dust.

And the feeling of uncertainty about whether Tematín does exist or not persists. You park your car at an old barn – having driven up the main entrance to Hrádok from Rte 507, passed the long street to the right where the football pitch is, continued over the bridge and headed uphill and around a sharp bend to the right passed two or three houses. Sound obscure? It’s about to get more so (although it’s also about to get more beautiful too). You’ll find yourself at a V junction of tracks. The right-hand (lower) of the two is the one you want. From here it’s a 1.5 to 2 hour hike up to Tematín.

Whilst there is a sign fairly early on detailing how it’s only 5km to the ruins, this is overly optimistic. As quick hikers it took us a good hour and a half – I would say from the parking to the ruins is probably between 8 and 9km. The track, a good forestry track, winds through gorgeous woodland that has hardly any other hikers passing through (perhaps because it’s off the official way marked trails). There is one point quite early on where there is a significant dividing of the ways at another V junction (this time be sure to keep left) but otherwise the route is quite obvious. The route traverses the grounds of a few holiday houses and climbs, joining a yellow trail but remaining on the same main forest track. A little later it doubles back on itself, climbing more steeply to rise up above the side of the forest valley you’ve been walking in and just after a narrower, steeper path cuts up to the right. Take this and you’ll climb to a path junction from which Tematín itself can be glimpsed.

Why you have followed this somewhat obscure, but very lovely path up here immediately becomes obvious. Tematín Castle is huge – and fairly in tact, actually. It was built in the late 13th century and played an important role in the anti-Habsburg insurrection of the early 18th century (the first major attempt to prevent Habsburg Austria from ruling over Hungary). The castles last owner was, indeed, Count Mikulaš Bercésnyi, the General of the insurgent army, and the siege of Tematín in 1710 marked the end of the insurrection and the end of the castle as an important stronghold.

tematin

The lower part where the main entrance is has a small wooden bunkhouse (pic above) where you can stay for free overnight if you have your own sleeping bag. There’s a fire pit here, too – and the isolated location (about a 1.5 hour hike from the nearest village) makes this some of Western Slovakia’s best wilderness accommodation. The reason for this serendipitous find is in fact the non-profit group than often come up here to do repairs and archaeology work on the castle (you’ll see the tools of their trade scattered around the site): they often stay over in the bunkhouse but at other times its all yours. In Slovakia, several old ruins are just being left to nature, so it’s nice to witness this castle benefitting from some TLC.

Ascend to the upper end where the tower is for the pièce de résistance: a stunning panoramic view of a huge section of the Malé Karpaty. And then? Well, get a fire going and indulge in a good old-fashioned sesssion of Slovak opekačka (roasting meat on an open-air fire, basically), crack open a cold (or perhaps by this stage luke-warm) beer and prepare for a night in the wilderness in one of Slovakia’s remotest castles. Otherwise, continue on the hike back down into Luka (1.5 hours) from where there are buses running about hourly back to Hrádok, where you parked your car.

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

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

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

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

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

 

MAP LINK:

GETTING THERE: Hrádok and Luka are both accessible by bus from Nové Mesto and Váhom, notable only for being near Beckov Castle, and for having mainline train connections to Bratislava and Košice.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Tematín Castle it’s only 18km north to Beckov Castle

image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

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

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

Arrival

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

The Case of the Hidden Castle

Studeny Hrad nr Gymes

Studeny Hrad near Gymes

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

Firepit within Gymes ruins

Firepit within Gymes ruins

Gýmeš Fortress

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

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

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

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

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

Hiking On From Gýmeš…

The path on to Oponicky Hrad

The path on to Oponicky Hrad

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

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

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

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

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

RELATED POST: Western Slovakia’s Best Castles

Beckov Castle ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Around Trenčin: Beckov Castle

I remember, sure, the first time I left the beloved Southwest England of my childhood for a long while, but oddly enough, what I remember more vividly is returning to it again after that first lengthy absence. The Berry’s Coach out of Hammersmith bus station in the afternoon winter murk, the London suburbs falling away, the neat commuter belt semi-detached houses and slowly, the fields and woods rearing up into what I call true countryside, right around Stonehenge. Passing Stonehenge for me was always a sign of coming home, but it was also representative of the beginning of wild England after being cooped up in the city. There are a myriad Stonehenge’s, in this sense,  around the world: points that mark where wilderness wins the tussle with city sprawl and out-of-town business parks; points that make me, personally, feel truly human. Hrad Beckov, or Beckov Castle, is for me that point in Slovakia. And it is one of the nation’s best and most poignant fortresses.

Beckov vs Stonehenge!

Beckov shares with Stonehenge that gobsmacking, surely multiple accident-causing location off-side of the main west-east road from Bratislava to those really exciting parts of Slovakia’s nature (Malá Fatra, the High Tatras, Slovenský Raj and the far eastern Slovakia). In fact, in honesty, it’s many times more impressive than Stonehenge. Were this dramatic ruined castle placed anywhere in England, it would be swarming with crowds, and tour buses. Not so with Beckov. The lack of crowds is one of the great joys of life in Slovakia, as I have said several times on this site. But even by the standards of what constitutes crowdedness here (this is a nation, remember, where more than twenty cars moving at reduced speed on a main road is considered a tailback), Beckov is not overrun with visitors. On a summer Saturday midday we were among perhaps 15 other people roaming the ruins. Ruins, I should add, that you can get right up to and touch, unlike Stonehenge.

The Arrival

After that stunning first glimpse of the castle straddling a sharp crag a few kilometres shy of Trenčin, looking like some besieged prop from the Lord of the Rings, you take the Nové Mesto nad Váhom exit (before the castle) and arrive in the diminutive village of Beckov via routes 515/507. At the main village “triangle” there’s a small cafe doing rather alright ice cream and offering a little terrace to partake of it on. But save the urge for something sweet until you’re up at the castle – the approach road to which is just south (right) from here. On the way you pass a Jewish cemetery in a wild state of abandon, before climbing up to the left to the custodian office (in-English historical leaflets available), where you’ll part with the entrance fee of 3.50/1.70 Euros per adult/child.

From the broken parapets here you already get some great views of Western Slovakia rising up into the Biele Karpaty, the fore-runners of the bigger mountains further east:

Beckov view… ©englishmaninslovakia.com

Beckov view… ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

 

The route initially leads to a wide grassy forecourt below the base of the craggy upper part of the castle, where there’s a souvenir shop (knight’s armour, anyone?) and an amphitheatre of sorts where maidens in medieval garb explain the castle history for those that want it and offer tours of the ruins in a rather fun way. There are also demonstrations of Slovakia’s blacksmith craft.

A Brief History of Beckov

For those that don’t want to wait for the explanations of the medieval maidens, and who aren’t interested in Wikipedia’s cumbersome but quite informative article on the castle’s legends, the gist of Beckov’s past is that to understand it is to understand the rather infamous local character of Mathias Čak. The area’s all-time top persona non grata, Čak made waves in the medieval Hungarian Empire by proclaiming his own empire, pretty much, in what today is Western Slovakia and Northern Hungary. He was a powerful and power-hungry warlord that, whilst looking out exclusively for his own interests, gave this region an absolute, if short-lived autonomy from about the year 1296 through to his death in 1321. Fair play to the man: during these two decades even the King of Hungary, despite a couple of attempts, could not oust Čak from his lofty perch. Many of the Western Slovakian castles, including Červený Kameň, were under his command during this time (although the guys over at Gýmeš Castle were his enemies), and Beckov, at the time a relatively new fortress, was his too. After Čak’s death, the castle was passed between various lords and, just before fire destroyed it in the 1720s, served as a prison.

Disliking tours at the best of times, we opted against the maiden-guided explanations and instead headed across the forecourt to where there is some serious castle-destroying equipment, namely a huge catapult. Passing here, a path bends down steeply to a wishing well, worth descending to to get the view back up the sheer sides of the bluff on which the castle is built:

©englishmaninslovakia.com

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The upper levels, accessed by returning to the forecourt, are a must to explore – great for the kids, with several nook-and-cranny rooms. One of these contains a dragon – I joke not, one yields superb views of Beckov village and the Biele Karpaty, one is the remains of what at one time was considered Central Europe’s most beautiful chapel, and one contains one of Slovakia’s coolest teahouses – a little place where you can also grab a cold beer and a slab of strudel, for insanely cheap prices.

The teahouse… ©englishmaninslovakia.com

The teahouse… ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Gazing down from, or up at, Beckov’s precipitous walls today, its not hard to understand how, in over four centuries, the castle was never breached but succumbed in the end to fire rather than attacking force.

If you’ve the time, back down under the custodian office a track bends left to another interesting sight: a scale model of the castle in a recess in the rock. You can continue from here, along a vaguely-defined path along a ridge, passed an old watch tower to descend to the road where your car is parked on the edge of Beckov village.

The lookout tower ©englishmaninslovakia.com

The lookout tower ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

And so now you are officially in the North-Western part of Western Slovakia. It’s a moody and dramatic entrance to the region, Beckov, and should not be dismissed with a simple glance as you drive east. Devote an hour or two of your time to it. You’ll never encounter another such mythical beast, or eat strudel in such beautiful surrounds, anywhere else in the country…

 

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

Places to Go: Slovakia’s best music festival in Trenčin

Places to Go: Hiking up in the hills above Trenčin all the way to Bratislava (the Cesta Hrdinov SNP, Stage Two)

Places to Stay: the coolest hotel in Trenčin

Places to Eat & Drink: One of Slovakia’s Finest Restaurants in central Trenčin

Arts & Culture: Celebrating 20 Years of the Pohoda Music Festival

Top Ten Medieval Towns in Slovakia

 

MAP LINK:

ADMISSION: 3.50/1.70 Euros per adult/child.

OPENING: 9am-5pm (April) 9am-5:30pm (May-August) 9am-4:30pm (September and October) 9am-3:30pm (November)

CASTLE WEBSITE: (now with a much-improved English section)

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Beckov Castle it’s 100km northeast to Žilina and 17.8km south to another great castle, Tematín

ALSO READ: Beckov also features in my article for Travel Super Mag on the coolest castle experiences in Slovakia and the Czech Republic, Ruin-Nation

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.

The verdant ridges around Chleb, by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The Vrátna Valley – & Two Short Walks Around Chleb and Veľký Kriváň

If anyone were to ask me where they should go to grab the most accessible and authentic slice of mountain life in Slovakia, factoring in the obligatory stupendous viewpoint and a hike to a classic wilderness hut dishing out hearty Slovak meals, I would without hesitation say: “come here.”

Taking the cable car up from the head of the picture-postcard valley of Vrátna, to the saddle of Snilovske Sedlo just below the peak of Chleb, in the heart of Malá Fatra National Park, was in danger of being too common an activity for it to feature on this site. We debated for some time whether to include such information until we realised that actually, there was precious little good in-English info on it AND that whilst Slovaks and Czechs do indeed arrive in their droves, to other foreign tourists the delights of the Vrátna-Chleb area are still likely to be utterly unknown.

Embarking from Žilina at around 8am in time for when the cable car opens at 9am, you can do EVERYTHING mentioned here from “The Vrátna Cable Car Base & Up” paragraph down in an easy day trip – a half day if you’re quick about it – which makes what follows a superb introduction to Slovakia’s loveliest swathe of mountain scenery for those pressed for time. On the way up to the cable car base, you’ll pass through the main settlement in the area, Terchová, and up the ensuing (and gorgeous) valley – which we’ve included info on here too (and will doubtless feature more posts on at a later date, as there is enough to do in the valley alone for several days’ holiday).

Terchová – The Entrance to the Valley

The sheer shimmering verdant loveliness of the Vrátna valley begins at Terchová – the resort village that clusters at the valley’s entrance about 25km east of Žilina. Some call   Terchová overly touristy and a tad crass – I disagree. Compared to the rampant commercialism that has ruined countless other villages and towns in the world, Terchová’s development has been tasteful. It retains most of its attractive mountain-style houses with steep-pitched roofs, the accommodation and eating options are appealing, and whilst it makes a lot out of being the erstwhile holing-up spot of that prince of Slovak outlaws and folklore, Juraj Jánošík, the fanfare is mainly confined to the outlaw’s far-larger-than-life likeness on the hill outside town and a small, understated and very informative museum by the Terchova Tourist Information Centre. There is also an up-and-coming brewery in town, Vršky, which is part of the homonymous restaurant/penzion, giving you that added incentive to stop by for a beer: especially as it’s Slovakia’s first small-scale mountain brewery (as signs here proudly claim).

You can get off the bus here (and, obviously, then catch a later one), stock up on supplies here and even stay here (we recommend the afore-mentioned Vršky in town or, in a more idyllic spot right besides a great hiking back route up the valley to the Vrátna cable car base, Hotel Diery.)

Up Into The Valley: A Brief Guide

The 15-odd minute drive up the Vrátna valley from Terchová is sensational today – sheering pea-green slopes, overhanging crags and a road that somehow twists in-between them and ever upward – but it also makes the Jánošík tales assume an added dimension. This would have been perfect ambush terrain, you are soon thinking.

About half-way up, as this MAP shows, a separate road branches off left to Hotel Boboty (vast, vaguely monstrous, but quite decent rooms) and the idyllic hamlet of Štefanová, where you can also bed down at a couple of penzions therein.

A little further on is a ski area, known as the Vrátna Free Time Zone. You can see this section of the valley on this MAP. Another access road to the top of this ski resort winds up from Štefanová, via the highest mountain cottage hereabouts, remote Chata Na Gruni. At the bottom of the ski area on the Vrátna Valley road you’ll also find a very fetching rugged, traditional koliba, Koliba Stary Dvor – essentially a Slovak mountain-style restaurant. Enjoy – it’s the best place to eat in the lower reaches of the valley! Off to the right of the Koliba, a network of lanes ascends to another accommodation area – including the very good Hotel Rozsutec which has a wellness centre.

You’ll wend through all these valley attractions on the bus up to the Vrátna cable car base.

Terchová and this valley, followed by the cable car ride up to Snilovske sedlo as the final delight is all a very lovely and gentle initiation into the delights of the Malá Fatra National Park – sedate, let’s say, with easily accessible scenic spots – but up at the top of the cable car terminus the geography gets a lot more intense, wild and thrilling.

The Vrátna Cable Car Base & Up

The bus drops you at the cable car base, aka Vrátna Výťah. A couple of snack stands, souvenir stands and kiosks are scattered around, somewhat hopefully, but armed with the knowledge of what awaits up top, dearest blog follower, there is no need to linger.

Bearing in mind the opening hours and costs of the cable car as outlined at the bottom of this article, purchase your pass (and DO NOT LOSE your return one) and hop on the next of the passing cabins for the dramatic ascent to Snilovske sedlo, which at almost 1500m up will yield some absolutely superb vistas of the surrounding mountains. You’ll see some intrepid types making the steep ascent on the path up the cleared area of forest below, but if you’re going to pick a way to do this particular path, pick down:)

At the top cable car station there is a restaurant (cracking views, less impressive food, although you may decide risking the latter may be worth it to fully enjoy the former) that is a popular refuge when the bad weather cuts in and the cable car stops running. Actually, for many people, the restaurant represents the turning-back point of their foray into Vrátna – and this is a shame. Snilovske sedlo, a wide broccoli green saddle between two peaks, is a superb starting point for any number of first-class hikes – and particularly as the cable car has spared you the tough legwork by doing the majority of the climbing for you, the area fairly begs you to explore it a little. The two short hikes that follow give you a chance to investigate the very best of what the mountain tops near here offer.

Hike One: Veľký Kriváň

Behind the restaurant/viewpoint at Snilovske sedlo and with your back to the cable car, off up left is the nearest of the two peaks, Chleb (not to be confused with the Slovak word chlieb, which means bread), clocking in at a decent 1646m. Off right, increasingly visible as you climb the 50-odd metres up to the meeting point of trails hereabouts, is the summit you’re aiming for in this hike, Veľký Kriváň. At 1709m this mountain, approached by a fairly gentle path in a 45-minute hike from the junction of paths, is the highest in the Mala Fatra National Park but gives off a roof-of-the-world feeling with its moody panoramic views, down from the peaks into valleys often bathed a mysterious gold in the sun’s rays and containing two of this region’s most important towns, Žilina to the west and Martin to the south.

At the top of the cable car station ©englishmaninslovakia.com

At the top of the cable car station ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Hike Two: To Chata Pod Chlebom

45 minutes up, around half an hour drinking in the views at the summit, 45 minutes down. Just over two hours after setting off from the top cable car station and you’re probably feeling peckish. Back at that junction of paths, now follow the route to the right (if you’re descending from Veľký Kriváň) or straight on (coming from the cable car) down between the peaks with Veľký Kriváň away on your right. A straightforward path which leaves the exposed open ground (with stunning moorland views) to dip into woods emerges at the serendipitous chata (i.e. mountain hut doubling as a basic accommodation op and a hearty Slovak-style restaurant) of Chata Pod Chlebom (again about 45 minutes one-way from the path junction). Rustically charming as the hut is, the interior is nothing special so if the weather is half-decent, grab a pew outside in the lovely picnic area and then go to place your order of frothy beer, strudel or giant-sized sausages with bread to eat al-fresco. The food is good and the wild mountain locale is great – with this dark-wood, old-fashioned mountain cottage enhancing it further. Allow 45 minutes to order and eat without rushing, meaning around four to 4.5 hours overall to enjoy both of these out-and-back walks and get back to the topmost cable car station.  Still got some energy? Then try hiking back down to the Vrátna cable car base (around one hour more).

MAP LINK:

GETTING THERE: Surprisingly regular (more or less hourly) buses run from the bus station in Žilina through Terchová to the Vrátna cable car base from 6:15am to 6:30pm. The journey takes 55 minutes and costs 2.15 Euros.

OPENING HOURS: The cable car (which you don’t need to access the above hikes but will sure as Hell come in useful to beat the murderously steep clamber up to the saddle (sedlo) below Chleb) runs more or less daily throughout the year from 9am until 4pm – staying open late until 5pm or even 6pm during June and July. The caveat here is that the opening hours are rather complicated (even if you do speak Slovak) so whilst we are providing this link to the official schedule we still advise you to check before setting out into the blue yonder when the final cable car back is. Don’t car about the cable car? Then come here whenever you wish…

PRICES: Vrátna-Chleb Cable Car one way/return 8.50/10 Euros

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Terchová, below Vrátna, it’s 95km south and then east to Podbanské, the end point/ start point of our Tatranská Magistrala trail guide for the most popular path across the High Tatras.

Around Bratislava – The North: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Kamzík

Like the Tower of London, like the Eiffel Tower, the thing that puts you off wanting to go to Kamzík, the big TV tower/mast standing sentinel over the hills above Bratislava is that it is, perhaps, too obvious.  There is admittedly not much subtle about it: nigh-on 200m of steel and glass jutting out of an already prominent forested ridge that itself sticks up another 300m above the city, and visible from pretty much everywhere in Greater Bratislava – oh, and Eastern Austria too. And, sharing its name with a type of High Tatras sheep-goat… that’s just weird.

But engaging in the obvious never seemed to be a problem for the majority of people – and certainly not for the majority of tourists – before. And voila, the crowds do converge on mass to the Tower of London AND the Eiffel Tower, yet even on a clement weekend afternoon, Kamzík can hardly be described as a crowd-puller. No, not even by Bratislava’s standards (the castle grabs ten times the numbers of visitors and the viewing platforms there are about 300m lower).

But of course, I hear you shout, you can’t compare the Tower of London or the Eiffel Tower with Kamzík! Well watch me. I have. And it is genuinely perplexing to me that more visitors to Bratislava (or locals) don’t make it up here, because if you weight the attractions up in minutes of time you need to fully appreciate them,  Kamzík comes out on top out of the three. And even for those visitors that would not go quite so far in their commendation, heading up here is well and truly cemented in the top ten best things to do in the Slovak capital – quite possibly the top five.

I am a very recent Kamzík convert. For a full year of living under its steely gaze, I had known, pretty much, what there was to see and do there. I had jogged around it. I had embarked on some great hikes from it. But at best I had viewed it as, well, the way most people tolerate TV masts in beautiful forests, with reluctant tolerance and a faint wish that it had either not been constructed or at least been constructed in a nobler architectural style.

What’s the big deal then? Well, to be clear the area known as Kamzík is not just a TV mast. It’s one of Bratislava’s premier outdoor playgrounds: marking, most significantly, the start of the Bratislava Mestské Lesy, a 30 square kilometre expanse of forested leading directly onto the Malé Karpaty or Small Carpathians, beyond  (hundreds more kilometres of forested hills await). And – as outdoor playgrounds are often blessed with – so the Kamzík area has great places to eat, great places to picnic, great places to hike and bike, great viewpoints AND, whilst it’s conveniently close to the city centre, it’s also far enough away to feel that you have truly left the city behind, and are in fact embarking on an adrenalin rush of an outdoor adventure.

The Mast Itself – and its Views!

The TV mast stands on the highest natural point around: a tree-coated 439m-high hill which would not – were it not for the 196m-high tower on top of it – afford any views whatsoever. But 439m + 194m = 633m, meaning this mast’s crest is significantly higher than anything else around. And even the brasserie here – poised 100m up the tower – is at 539m without contest the best viewing point for a very, very long way.

You enter the Kamzík tower at a lobby bar, quite modern looking but nothing special, at ground level. A pretty waitress tries to tempt you to stay and have a drink here, but there is no real reason to succumb. You want to go to the lift (straight ahead). Press C to go to the Altitude Restaurant (which revolves, Goodamnit, brilliant!) or – one level further up again – D to go to the Brasserie, which is as high as the public can get in the Bratislava region without stepping onto a Ryanair Flight. That’s why we’re recommending it. Not because its food or drink are significantly better than at the Altitude Restaurant or the lobby bar. Once at the Brasserie, it is etiquette to order something, rather than just snap a couple of pictures and leave. But a hot chocolate or tea is only a couple of Euros (main meals are 14-19 Euros and a limited selection includes foie gras with bacon dumplings and wild boar). And this is a spectacular place to drink in the view…

The Brasserie gives views on three sides (although the glass could use a clean). East of here, the Bratislava Mestské Lesy/Malé Karpaty stretch into the distance enticingly. South, the entire sweep of Bratislava is visible across the woods and vineyards, from Rača in the northeast round to the city centre (look for the castle for orientation). Looking west, the view is dramatic too: western suburbs like Dubravka give way to the flat lands beyond the hills, and Austria. You can trace the silver ribbon of Danube from the southeast near the Danubiana Art Museum right across to Devínska Kobyla in the west and beyond to Hainburg in Austria. Even the Austrian Alps are visible in the distance.

Below the Brasserie, the Altitude Restaurant yields similar views: with the neat difference that – let’s emphasise again – it rotates a full 360 degrees every 45 minutes. There are, these days, not so many fully rotating restaurants in Europe – and certainly not many with this vista out of the window(s).

It’s a great location for a business appointment – but not just because rotating restaurants invariably tend to attract the well-heeled. No: it’s a smart venue and knows it and to an extent tailors itself to attracting just that sort of crowd. It’s also right in the middle of Bratislava’s trump cards: its surrounding nature and its views. And there are conference rooms beneath.

Peruse your menu in either eating establishment and you can get the scoop on the Kamzík’s history. It was started, for example, in 1967; finished in 1975. Most hilariously, it details that the original design was intended to depict a wine bottle in homage to the Small Carpathians famous viticulture – with a disclaimer afterwards saying that it does not represent a wine bottle very faithfully and yet retains the nature of a wine bottle shape! In a word: cheers!

 Picnicking in the Meadow

Being able to drive up to Kamzík (and its proximity to Bratislava city centre) is certainly what makes it one of the very most popular places in the entire Malé Karpaty range of hills. And because you can drive up, it’s also a very frequented picnicking place. But all picnickers like a view, and the wide grassy meadow, or luka, at the top (where the road up through Koliba from the city branches into the TV Tower access road and the cable car access track) offers one of the rare opportunities within the hills to see the woods outside of the trees, as it were: with views the trees normally hide. It’s a sun trap when the sun is shining and has a few snack stalls at the top end: nothing special but hey, sausages with a view!! (or bring your own better food with you).

Kamzík’s Eats and Sleeps

In addition to the eating places mentioned thus far, there is also, at the topmost cable car station, the rather appealing Koliba Expo restaurant – a great, typically rustic slovak-style place to round off a spot of weekend hiking (so good it warrants its own post, but for now, open 11am-11pm daily). Want to bed down up in the hills here? Well it makes a fairly attractive proposition in some ways. You are properly immersed in the nature here, but at the same time within a 20-minute walk of the trolleybus terminus (trolleybus 203). So welcome to Kamzík’s own hotel: Hotel West. The setting is Hansel and Gretel-esque but the rooms and restaurant are a little short on atmosphere (something they have in common with almost every other Best Western). Still, you’re staying in the woods!  And yes, there is indeed a cable car up to Kamzík – that was not a mistake – which you can read more about in the How to Get There section below!

The Proper Outdoorsy Stuff

Views viewed, picnics picnicked and eateries eaten in, chances are you’ll want to get on with some of the great hiking, mountain biking and (in the winter) cross-country skiing hereabouts – numerous relatively deserted trails meander off through the forests seemingly tailored to these purposes.

The main hiking trail to know about from here is the red route, the Štefánikova magistrála***(trail of  Štefánik) that runs from Devínsky Hrad (Devín Castle) through Devínska Kobyla and Kamzík on northeast over 100km up the length of the Male Karpaty to the very end of the range at Bradlo, where Štefánik’s memorial sits (the whole walk will soon be featured on Englishmaninslovakia and Kamzík sits neatly at the finish of Stage One and the beginning of Stage Two of the walk).

OR follow the access road along the top of meadow we just told you was great for picnicking (hikers/bikers only, no cars) as it twists down to the cable car base, where you can pick up the Pilgrimage Route to Marianka***(turn right, following the yellow trail – and see here what Marianka actually is). A yellow trail also heads west from Hotel West at Kamzík to the Železná studnička (scroll on down below under the ‘How to Get There’ paragraph for what Železná studnička actually is) road and directly over to join the official pilgrimage trail to Marianka (yes, we admit it, our pilgrimage trail is not the official one for all of the route, but we’ll guarantee you it’ll take you through the best scenery).

Reasonably seasoned mountain bikers could manage any of the afore-mentioned trails on two wheels, but to link up with the prettiest of the nearby dedicated biking trails, take the red Štefánikova magistrála trail northeast for 25 minutes where you’ll hit a yellow trail. The route from here, both east (through to Bratislava’s northeasterly suburb of Rača) and west (down to the cable car base just beyond Železná studnička and then on towards Marianka) is a beautiful biking trail and it’s also our recommended Pilgrimage to Marianka route. When the snow falls up to 1.5 metres thick here in the winter this same trail is a great cross-country snow-shoeing or skiing route. Oh – and there are a whole network of special running routes around Kamzík too – on a mix of paved and stony paths/tracks.

The bottom line is that from Kamzík, the whole of the Small Carpathians are at your fingertips.

How to Get Here (Perhaps the Most Fun of All!)

We’ll list the ways to get up to Kamzík in order, from least interesting to most.

Driving…

From just east of Bratislava Hlavna Stanica mainline railway station (MAP) a road (named Karpatska) goes up under the rail tracks through the neighbourhood of Koliba to the afore-mentioned picnicking meadow and a couple of car parks.

Public Transport…

Trolleybus 203 heads up to the Koliba terminus. From here, keep heading uphill on the road and join a path on the right of the road which leads up through woods in 20 minutes or so to reach Kamzík.

Hiking…

A number of possibilities from the city centre: the red Štefánikova magistrála trail runs up from the western neighbourhood of Patronka (at Vojenská Nemocnica, on the Bus 212 route); a green trail leads up from Bratislava Hlavna Stanica mainline railway station (on several of the city’s major public bus and tram routes); a blue trail leads up from Mladá Garda in Nove Mesto (on the Tram 3 and Tram 5 routes); a yellow trail leads up from Krasňany in northeastern Bratislava (near Rača, on the Tram 3 and Tram 5 routes). None take more than an hour to get to Kamzík.

Cable Car!

It should be noted, before visitors get too excited, that the cable car is more akin to a chair lift but, even so, it is Bratislava’s very own, and not commonly known about. That’s because the route it takes is far from the most direct way up from where most foreign visitors. You get there from Bratislava Železná studnička mainline railway station (trains towards Kúty from Bratislava Hlavna Stanica stop here every couple of hours; otherwise hop on bus 212 from Hodžovo Námestie and get off at the last stop, the hospital Vojenská Nemocnica). Now EITHER

a) walk up say from the main road on Cesta Mládeže, which quickly rises into the Bratislava Mestské Lesy and the start of the series of lakes known as Železná studnička. 2km up this road and you’ll reach the cable car base (behind a wide meadow with a small playground in)

b) Change directly at Vojenská Nemocnica to bus 43 (1-2 buses hourly) and stay on until the Lanovka stop, where you’ll see the cable car base just above you.

The Cable Car, also known as Lanovky, costs 4 Euros/3 Euros adult/child one way. It runs Thursday through Sunday between 10am and 6pm, with the last departures being at 5:45pm. The journey whooshes you up, quite thrillingly, through the forest to Kamzík – right by the Koliba Expo restaurant we were mentioning.

And finally, why is Kamzík so called, after the quirky breed of sheep that inhabit the Slovakian High Tatras? We don’t know. Answers on a postcard, please!

MAP LINK: Also see Kamzík on our specially annotated GREATER BRATISLAVA MAP

GETTING THERE: Detailed right above!

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Kamzík, it’s a one-hour walk down to Krasňany and one of the best typical Slovak restaurants in Bratislava, Krasňanska Kúria – and a two-hour walk north to Marianka, Slovakia’s main pilgrimage destination.

*** = Denotes where, on our separate hiking posts incorporating Kamzík, you have to scroll down to to in the linked post to pick up the hike

The Bratislava skyline from the Štefánikova magistrála

Hiking Western Slovakia on the Trail of Slovakia’s Heroes: the Štefánikova Magistrála

When I heard there was a path themed around one of Slovakia’s greatest all-time heroes, Milan Rastislav Štefánik, running from the Austrian border at Hrad Devín through the entirety of the Small Carpathians to Bradlo, where the man is buried, my interest was, I’ll admit it, piqued.

120km Showcase of Slovakia’s Best-Of

The Štefánikova Magistrála is a 120+km path in total and encompasses the very best of Western Slovakia along the way – unforgettable forest, several of the most magnificent castles in the country, and – of course – that poignant finish at Bradlo, Štefánik’s tomb. At this point, the path does not end (the name alone changes) and you can continue on the trail of the Cesta Hrdinov SNP (path of the Heroes of the Slovak National Uprising) all the way across Slovakia through yet more-untouched, more-unknown countryside to the far east of Slovakia at Dukla Pass on the Polish border.

It transplants you to the pretty, river-hugging village of Devín, invites you on the clamber up to the sandy escarpments of Devínska Kobyla (which, once upon a time not so long ago, protected East from West in Europe), shows you the modern face of Bratislava’s western suburbs, and then, slowly but steadily, those woods and hills – rising only up to 700m (about 2300 feet) but quickly metamorphosing into a little-traipsed wilderness replete with wild pigs and deer. A narrative thread, in other words, linking the majority of the West’s best tourist attractions.

And part of it runs only about 1.5km away from my home of three years, Rača!

Fellow Small Carpathians lover Jonno  Tranter hiked the entirety of the Štefánikova Magistrála to get to the 2016 edition of the famous Pohoda festival at Trenčin and we are featuring his most updated version of trekking the trail, broken down into day-long hiking stages, for stages two to five of the hike on this site (scroll down for more on this, and for his further two days of hiking on the Cesta Hrdinov SNP).

The Tatranská Magistrála it Ain’t…

Unlike the Tatranská Magistrála, with all its provision for tourists, including many convenient mountain houses to bed down in, the Štefánikova Magistrála is a different proposition. It is far less walked, and not always as well maintained. Its signage – even at its best – is worse, and often dies out completely. There are no designated accommodation options en route, either – you have to make the best of what happens to be nearby! Perhaps therein lies its appeal: on the Tatranská Magistrála, you will always meet other hikers – here not. Much of this route lies on forgotten paths, only used by local dog walkers or cyclists. True, it lacks the mountainous intensity of Eastern Slovakia – but it is greener and, for leading you astray into increasing isolation, perhaps more beguiling in its own way.

Every Last Bit of the Path (Almost)

On a sweltering July day when I needed to get away from my desk I finally got round to starting this walk. Now, from Rača, Bratislava’s north-eastern edge, where I was living for three years, I could have cut up behind my house and skipped all of stage one, which does encompass getting through Bratislava – a surefire way to get to the most beautiful parts of the hike sooner. I didn’t do that. I wanted to walk the Štefánikova Magistrála from beginning to end. With such a resolution, I had to therefore go to Devín Hrad (Devin Castle).

The Štefánikova Magistrála According to the Englishman

It’s a somewhat contradictory concept, these paths in the footsteps of famous people. You want to believe, mid-tramp, that yes, it’s OK, Štefánik (in this example) really was sweating it out on these very paths. But of course there is that growing suspicion in the back of your mind that the route planners just want to take you via as many showcase sights as humanly possible. This suspicion grows within you mighty quickly on the Štefánikova Magistrála. Circuitous would be describing this path mildly. Therefore, what follows in the stage descriptions is the Štefánikova Magistrála according to Englishmaninslovakia, with shortcuts inserted where following the path would be an illogical detour.

A Final Few Things About Štefánikova Magistrála on this Site

This route also takes you from the castle walls of Devín (which, in a symbolic gesture, I felt I had to touch before I could get on with the walking thing). If you want to cut straight to the seriously wild, woodsy part of this hike, you might want to skip Stage One and pick up from the start of Stage Two at Kamzik.

(Kamzik is a start point for several other great hikes up in the forests too, including the pilgrimage trail to Marianka.)

We’ve tried to divide each stage of the Štefánikova Magistrála into five to eight hour walking days, with accommodation/camping possibilities at the end of each. Especially with the first stage, there are a fair few sights to see that should (quite rightly) detain you, and there is a lot of steep ups and downs, plus the highest chance of getting lost (for reasons that will become apparent) – so we’ve given you an easy first days’ hiking!

And about that accommodation… the end of Stage One (Hotel West) and the end of Stage Two (the motel at Pezinská Baba) have hotels but the end of Stage Three (Vápenná) and Stage Four (Dobrá Voda) have none – meaning your best bet really is to camp (technically, unofficially) in the vicinity – our stage directions do cover good places to camp! On Stage Five, there is one of our Top Ten Places to Stay in Slovakia just above Brezová pod Bradlom in Košiarska (on a cunning side trail up to Bradlo, too!) and beyond Bradlo, in Myjava, the well-regarded Hotel Štefánik. Nevertheless, as two stages minimum will entail camping, you’ll need to bring all the necessary camping gear (as well as food, as food stops along the trail are scant).

Finally – getting there. The easiest way by public transport to Devín is to go to the Most SNP bus station (under the bridge) and take the hourly 29 bus which goes straight to the castle forecourt.

Map Check

You WILL need maps for this hike (green-coloured 1: 25,000 and 1: 50,000 VKÚ Harmanec maps; see our post on where to buy hiking maps). It is not enough to rely on the signage. Grab copies of Malé Karpaty Juh (south Small Carpathians), Malé Karpaty Stred (central Small Carpathians) and Malé Karpaty Sever (North Small Carpathians). On each of the stages we’ll provide an overview MAP LINK but there are no online maps that show the hiking trail in sufficient detail…

WHAT NEXT?

Hiking the Štefánikova Magistrála – Some Useful Tips (featured in our Places to Go/Bratislava & Around and Places to Go/Western Slovakia sub-sections)

Hiking the Štefánikova Magistrála, Stage One: Hrad Devín to Kamzík (featured in our Places to Go/Bratislava & Around sub-section)

Hiking the Štefánikova Magistrála, Stage Two: Kamzík to Pezinská Baba (featured in our Places to Go/Bratislava & Around and Places to Go/Western Slovakia sub-sections)

Hiking the Štefánikova Magistrála, Stage Three: Pezinská Baba to Vápenná (featured in our Places to Go/Western Slovakia sub-section)

Hiking the Štefánikova Magistrála, Stage Four: Vápenná to Dobra Voda (featured in our Places to Go/Western Slovakia sub-section)

Hiking the Štefánikova Magistrála, Stage Five: Dobra Voda to Bradlo (featured in our Places to Go/Western Slovakia sub-section)

More on the Cesta Hrdinov SNP Trail from Bradlo on towards Dukla…

Hiking the Cesta Hrdinov SNP, Stage One: Myjava to Vel’ka Javorina (featured in our Places to Go/Western Slovakia sub-section)

Hiking the Cesta Hrdinov SNP, Stage Two: Vel’ka Javorina to Drietoma (near Trenčin) (featured in our Places to Go/Western Slovakia sub-section)

Hrabušice: Relax Farma Marianka

At Poprad I got off the mainline train and whilst the other travellers hurried off on their way home or transferred to the mountain railway to the High Tatras, I waited in the gathering gloom of a temperamental spring day and the rapidly dispersing crowds for the slow train to Hrabušice. An hour or so later when me and the only other disembarking passengers, a group of Roma schoolchildren, alighted at the small concrete house framed by mountains that constituted Hrabušice station, the following things occurred to me: it was almost dark, I was in the Slovak Paradise, one of Slovakia’s remoter national parks, I had no knowledge of where I was going other than the name of the guesthouse scribbled on a page of my travel diary, no map, no obvious signposts (or indeed anything) in the vicinity and precious little grasp of Slovak to ask anyone to help me. It was one of those slightly concerning, but also thrilling, moments which are all too rare in Europe these days: being totally off the grid of technology. One of those you, the luggage and the land moments.

I followed the lane into the Hrabušice village: a supply centre and accommodation base for tourists on the northern edge of the Slovak Paradise, or Slovenský Raj as it’s known in Slovak. Beyond that, the only direction I could get (that I understood) to where I was staying was a jab of a finger at the hills looming beyond. I had just walked out of Hrabušice far enough into the countryside to wonder whether in fact I had come the correct way when Majo, the owner of Relax Farma Marianka, came pedalling on his bicycle to find me.

So I was saved from the encroaching night – and in a memorable way. The “relax farm”, run by amenable Majo and his wife, has an undeniably peaceful feel. That is largely due to the owners: easily the two most contented people I have ever met in Slovakia, who have embraced rural living with a passion (they enthuse over local hiking and climbing routes – and boy, there are plenty in Slovenský Raj, they concoct delicious healthy vegetarian meals with produce from their own garden, Majo’s wife Janka unwinds by making ceramics and might even give you one of her works to take away if you are lucky).

The back patio ©relax farma marianka

The back patio ©relax farma marinaka

There are eight large, farmhouse pinewood-style rooms here (four with private bathrooms) – nothing complicated, but all recently refurbished (you can practically still smell the polish). Four of these have balconies looking out on the lonely foothills of Slovenský Raj, too.

One of the rooms… ©relax farma marianka

One of the rooms… ©relax farma marianka

Public areas sport more of the same smart, modern-yet-traditional pine finish, decorated with intriguing contemporary art. Downstairs, the true “relaxing” commences: a massage room, ceramics lessons and a function room that gets used for everything from traditional dancing (Slovak style of course) to Reiki. Outside, the long, thin garden yields a sun terrace, hammocks (not so common in this part of Europe) and a hot tub. Beyond, it fades into fields that rise up into the hills.

And the hills of course are the main draw. They are, after all, why you are here. Relax Farm Marianka is so called for a reason: it is where you come to crash after a hard days’ hiking.

And anyone who has experienced that plethora of samey mountain guesthouses in the High Tatras resorts or – worse – the popular tourist areas of the Alps will know exactly what we mean when we say that Relax Farm Marianka is a clean break with those often clinical, cold, soulless breed of typical hiker’s digs: yes, the kind whose stunning location is detracted from by the bored gaze of the tourist-inundated proprietor, where the rooms can only be described as roofs over your head (and nothing more complimentary), where the entire purpose of the joint seems to be to get you in, bedded, fed and out as quickly and blandly as possible.

Jumping for joy in Hrabusice ©englishmaninslovakia.com

Jumping for joy in Hrabušice

Yes, Relax Farm Marianka is different, alright. Majo and Janka’s philosophy is simple: they live on the edge of Slovenský Raj and love it; they want you to love it too. They could get away with a lot less. The hiking trail that leads from the corner of their road up to Pondlesok (a hamlet with the final few accommodation options before the Slovak Paradise thrusts upwards in a classic green expanse of hiking trails, including the famous ladder-and-chain ascents through the gorges that the park is famous for, i.e. Suchá Bela, just 2km away) soon reveals quite a few of the kind of guesthouses that DO get away with a lot less. But Majo and Janka try hard – and succeed. And their place has soul.

Make a list of all the things you might want after being out on the hills all day. Just do it. Hot, home cooked, healthy meal? Tick. Informative locals who will welcome you back and advise you on your next days’ trekking? Tick. Soak in the hot tub? Tick. Massage? Tick. Clean, comfortable, quiet room in which to collapse at the end of all of this? Once again, tick.

MAP LINK:

GETTING THERE: By public transport? Train to Poprad, then train to Hrabušice, then walk!

PRICES: 13 to 14 Euros per person per night; breakfast 4 Euros extra (2016 prices)

BOOK RELAX FARMA MARIANKA

Low Tatras Mountains: the Hrebenovka Ridge Hike (an Intro)

It is a confounding mystery why the Low Tatras are not given more publicity internationally. They can still be accessed with relative ease (from Liptovský Mikuláš, Ružomberok or even Poprad). The mountains here comprise Slovakia’s largest national park, too, not to mention Eastern Europe’s largest ski resort, Jasna but despite these immense draws the majority of this region sees precious little foreign tourism (besides the intrepid Czechs). The scenery runs the gamut from lower-altitude forest, much of it utterly untamed, through spectacular cave systems and waterfalls right up to a number of peaks with stunning views over the nearby valleys.

But we haven’t even mentioned the main attraction yet. The Hrebenovka. Hrebenovka means ridge in Slovak. It’s a crucial word to know if you prize the great outdoors. Slovakia sports a number of drop-dead gorgeous ridge hiking routes where, once you’ve climbed up onto them, you can continue walking along – without descending – for days. And the very best of the country’s ridge-top rambles spans much of the Low Tatras range. There are many Hrebenovky (ridges) in the country, but there is only one Hrebenovka. It is easily to the Low Tatras mountains what the Tatranská Magistrala is to the High Tatras, the Low Tatras’ more famous cousins to the north. Hiking it is a right of passage for many Slovaks.

Being able to get out on the ridges of the mountains does evoke some very different sensations to mountains where the hiking is generally several hundred metres below the peaks with a few out-and-back routes to individual summits (the High Tatras,  included). There is the surging feeling that you are truly on top of the world here – or at least of Eastern Europe. There are many points where even if your feet remain tethered to Mother Earth the sensation is akin to a bird coasting far above the ridge: you often get a rare aerial perspective of the ridge you are on because of the way the ground sheers away. Not having to dip down whatsoever into civilisation allows you to be at one with the peaks, too. Because you are almost always above the treeline, the vistas are constantly superb and often, at points like Chopok or Ďumbier, 360-degree perfect panoramas. Just as you are hiking on the ridge-top, you are also staying on it – a night in a dramatic ridge-cresting mountain house like Chata M R Štefánika is an unforgettable experience with the views from the bedroom windows tumbling away into the valleys below. Lastly the wildlife up on the ridge is different to that in the valleys, with more sightings of animals like the brown bear and kamzik possible. And of course, there are less foreigners (or indeed tourists at all) hiking up here: so doing so taps into an intrinsically and authentically “Slovak” outdoorsy experience.

Reasons a-plenty, therefore, to include hiking the Hrebenovka as part of your Slovak travels. But what “the Hrebenovka” is precisely is liable to interpretation and, indeed, debate. Where is the official start point? Which is the best section to walk? Should one stay up on the mountains or down in the valleys? Is the trail easy to follow?

Start/Finish

The version of the Hrebenovka on this site takes into account where it’s possible to get to/from by public transport, and where the best accommodation en route is – and for this reason we start the hike in Čertovica (in the middle of the national park, on road number 72 between Brezno and Liptovský Hrádok, and accessible by bus several times daily) and finish at Donovaly (in the southwest of the park, on road number 77 between Banská Bystrica and Ružomberok, and likewise accessible by bus several times daily). Hiking from east to west is recommended because of the way the mountains unfold before you (gradually building you up to the most sensational scenery). It’s of course possible to extend your start and finish points almost indefinitely, in Slovak terms, because this path also forms part of the route of the Cesta Hrdinov SNP which runs across the whole of Slovakia from west to northeast.

Why Four Stages?

Most accounts of the Hrebenovka hike allow five days, from Donovaly (in the west) to Telgárt, two days’ walk southeast of  Čertovica and two days of walking above and beyond the version of the hike on this site. The 5-day version can be said to encompass the whole of the Low Tatras but by no means the extent of the massif which continues west from Donovaly into the national park of Vel’ka Fatra and east of Telgárt into the Slovenský Raj. We break the Hrebenovka hike into four stages because our start and end points are easily reachable by public transport and because they showcase the best of what the Low Tatras offer.

To get to Čertovica, take the train to Banská Bystrica, the nearest major city. From here there are a couple of direct buses daily, or take the train to Brezno and then get a bus from here to the start point at Čertovica motorest (direct travel time one hour 5 minutes, price 2 Euros to 3.50 Euros.)

To get from Donovaly, there are direct buses at least hourly to Ružomberok (30 minutes, price 1.85 Euros) from where there are mainline train connections to Bratislava and Košice via Poprad.

Walking It

This makes a quite demanding but totally achievable four-day, three-night hike with a couple of intense ascents (up onto the ridge from Čertovica and the climb to Chopok on day two. Each day entails about four to seven hours of hiking, which on this site we have broken up into:

Stage One: Chata pod Čertovica to Chata M R Štefánika (Recommended stay: Chata M R Štefánika, ridge-top)

Stage Two: Chata M R Štefánika to Chopok (Recommended stay: Hotel Srdiečko, mountain base)

Stage Three: Chopok to Chata Útulña pod Chabencom (aka Chata Ďurkova) (Recommended stay: Chata Magurka, mountain base) (or Chata Útulná pod Chabencom, ridge-top)

Stage Four: Chata Útulña pod Chabencom (aka Chata Ďurkova) to Donovaly (Recommended stay: in Donovaly)

Staying Here

We also profile several of the best accommodation options en route: a mixture between the mountain houses (which are fun, convenient and essential to experience (exuding that spirit of hiking camaraderie) and hotels further down the mountain slopes. Many of the hotels – it should be noted – are despite the lower elevation nevertheless often connected to the peaks by cable car/ chair lift. Taking a cable car or chair lift up onto or down off the ridge is a wonderful experience in itself because of the views.

Chata Pod Čertovicoustay here before beginning stage one to initiate yourself in the wilds of the Low Tatras!

Chata M R Štefánika – stay here overnight between the end of Stage One and the beginning of Stage Two!

Hotel Srdiečko – stay here overnight between the end of Stage Two and the beginning of Stage Three!

Chata Magurka – stay here between the end of Stage Three and the beginning of Stage Four!

Places to Eat En Route

For the middle of nowhere, the Hrebenovka is surprisingly blessed by places to bust your mountain-induced hunger. Food is available at Čertovica (Motorest and Chata Pod Čertovicou; mountain base, beginning of STAGE ONE), Chata M R Štefánika (ridge-top, end of STAGE ONE), Hotels Srdiečko and Kosodrevina (mountain base/ mid-station respectively) and Kamenná Chata and Chopok’s cable car station restaurant (ridge top; end of STAGE TWO), Chata Útulña pod Chabencom and Chata Magurka (ridge-top/mountain base respectively, end of STAGE THREE) and Donovaly (mountain base, various options; end of STAGE FOUR).

Most of these options are first and foremost places to stay and if so they will feature in our Places to Stay/Low Tatras sub-section. If they are first and foremost places to eat, or if the food is an equally important aspect to the establishment, they will feature instead/as well as our Places to Eat & Drink/Low Tatras sub-section. That said, DO NOT attempt this hike without taking plenty of snacks/meals with you (at least cold ones, bringing food to cook is less necessary as the kitchens in the mountain houses and mountain base hotels rustle up some great dishes for next to nothing.) As per below…

Before You Hike

Just check our recommended kit list for hiking in the Tatras, dust off your hiking gear and get going!

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: March straight on to the individual stage descriptions or if you don’t dig hiking continue 60km east along routes 72 and 18 to Poprad

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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.

Around Modra: Goulash Karma at Furmanská Krčma

There are fancy Italian restaurants. There are up-and-coming microbreweries. But when all is said and done, there is one Slovak eating experience that stands out from all the rest, and that’s a trip to one of the rustic krčmy – pubs, basically.

What are they exactly and why do they stand out? Well, pub should be translated in the loosest possible sense (there are precious few specialty beers here). A krčma in its urban form is a traditional drinking den, pure and simple. But out in the sticks, the krčma is invariably transformed – at least in destinations popular with outdoors-lovers – into a cosy wooden wilderness retreat with roaring fires and just the kind of food you want to wolf down at the end of an arduous hike (the beer is still overly frothy and more often than not Zlaty Bažant but no one seems to mind).  It metamorphoses, in short, into what should be the pin-up for Slovak cuisine: a quality stodge stop with a fire, a sweet aroma of woodsmoke and a damned fine view.

There are a few of these celebrated krčma stodge stops across Slovakia – with a charming rustic wood exterior, smouldering log fires inside and an out-of-the-way, often forested location as common features. The out-of-the-way-ness usually prevents foreign tourists from ever finding out about them, which – due to their afore-mentioned place at the summit of the hierarchy of Slovak eating experiences – is a shame. Depending on where you find yourself, there are a ton of such places I could recommend. But for now I want to focus on one of the very best, and that is Furmanská Krčma above the small town of Modra (famous for its connection with the number one national hero Ľudovít Štúr, but that’s another story and another post).

Serendipity…

The best thing about Furmanská Krčma is that you never expect it to be there in the first place. After all, it’s on a something-to-nothing road over the middle of the Malé Karpaty, or the Small Carpathians hills – it’s not in a national park where you would expect such friendly wayside hostelries.

Forge up into the woods about 5km above Modra on what is now quite a good and busy road until you reach the summit of this particular Malé Karpaty ridge and, just where the trees seem thickest, Furmanská Krčma appears, in a cleared area of forest that actually contains a beguiling complex of buildings – all of the steeply-pitched roof log cabin variety.

A Historical Footnote…

This is the small community of Piesok. It has an intriguing history. It was one of those parts of Western Slovakia which, back in the age of the Hungarian empire, was blessed with an inundation of German settlers who came at the request of the Hungarian ruling elite to ignite the farming industry, much like Limbach outside of Bratislava, although it appears this particular community of Germans came much later (19th century). Under Communism Piesok also had an important role. It was one of the youth learning/holiday camps of which there are several across Slovakia and one can’t help but feel a tug of sadness as one strolls through the pine trees to the idyllic Handsel-and-Gretel-esque chaty (cottages) that once thrived with life (kids learned about nature here and there used to be several penzións) and are now often neglected.

On the Bright Side…

This is not to imply, of course, that Piesok is a lifeless place. People come here now with different motivations. The visitors are almost all Slovaks – so “outsiders” that make it here will feel a certain sense of having discovered the undiscovered. As well as Furmanská Krčma, there’s the top-end hotel of Zochava chata on the other side of the road that in fact are owners of the krčma (Zochava – named after Samuel Zoch, first commissioner of Bratislava after the establishment of Czechoslovakia). It’s a very nice hotel – tucked away from the road somewhat and recently refurbished, and I’d love to write more about it. I keep meaning to stay there, so I will then – as for now I have neither the time nor the money. Not having the money is why most folks seem to favour Furmanská Krčma over the hotel as a place to eat, but there’s also something very genuine and down-to-earth about partaking of a beer and hot traditional grub in the atmospheric rusticity of this krčma. Ultimately, if I am going to be eating typical Slovak food, I don’t want to be doing it in a modern hotel. I want to be doing it in place with a toasty old ceramic oven, a smouldering fire, oak beams and old farming implements on the walls. Why? Because it complements the cuisine.

It’s true that there’s been a bit of a refurbishment at old Furmanská Krčma which – depending on your viewpoint – either improved or slightly marred the ambience.  If you check the website (in Slovak only) you’ll see the camera panning around a distinctly more rustic space – with just rough wooden tables. It’s been refurbished (and differently) for a few years now, and makes no secret of catering to an “upmarket” crowd. If it was left to me I’d have taken Furmanská Krčma, as was: but the advantage is that the menu is now a lot more versatile: Slovak food with panache, if you will.

Inside Furmanska Krcma ©englishmaninslovakia.com

The Food

One of the most critical elements of typical Slovak food, of course, is the soup. Take away the soup from most lunch time meal deals and there would probably be a national revolt. Furmanská Krčma obligingly rustles up a couple of classic soups, any of which will set you back 3-4 Euros. Our first recommendation? Their delicious kapustnica (that is the best I’ve tasted in Slovakia apart from that rustled up in the kitchen of my friends’ mother). Secondly? Their feisty herb-infused local game gulaš (goulash) served with nigh-on a loaf of bread (if you thought goulash was solely Hungarian think again – this country made up a significant part of the Hungarian empire and Slovaks know how to make a classic goulash – their ancestors were probably the ones serving it to Hungarian nobility half the time).

The main courses are themed around furmanský platters, or coachmen’s platters. I think this has about the same significance as a ploughman’s salad in the UK. Original coachmen’s platters, back in the day when Piesok would have been an important staging post and horse-changing point on the route through the mountains, would have been far different. The significance now is more”large-sized and with meat” than anything else. Thus furmanský halušky are dumplings that come with a hearty klobasa (sausage) and the proper coachmen’s plate consists of numerous grilled meats and potatoes (16 Euros). The šulance here is also divine. This is hunger-busting food but it is also cooked with aplomb – it’s one of the top five in Slovakia for traditional tasty Slovak food that’s served in the rustic environs it should be served in.

The food is getting to that point where you think “that had better be good if I’m paying this price” because the menu bracket (14-20 Euros) is expensive for rural Slovakia (the deer with cranberries is certainly overpriced, for example). But I’m going to stick my neck out there and say it’s worth forking out for. Because you’re getting a microcosm of Slovak weekend life here. Inside it’s the traditional restaurant. But outside are the hiking/cycling trails to work up your appetite on and everyone, from meandering families to hardcore mountain bikers, is out there doing it, relishing what Slovakia excels in providing above all: a hefty portion of the Great Outdoors.

Because you are bang in the middle of the best of the Malé Karpaty here. Heading west, you can be within the vicinity of Bratislava in just over a half day’s walk (via Stage Three of the Štefanikova Magistrala, which also leads invitingly north-east from here to Bradlo en route (thereafter under the guise of the Cesta Hrdinov SNP, to Trenčin): the access point for the trail in either direction is a short walk up from Piesok at Čermák. You can also hike down to Modra from here, via the intriguing L’udovit Štúr trail, in about 2.5 hours.  Heading east? Aha, that’s going to be the subject of a post very soon: a walk involving old castles and one of the very best views in this whole hill range, by climbing what you see below…

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

Places to Go: L’udovit Štúr’s Modra

Places to Go/Shops: Modra’s fascinating ceramics

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

© englishmaninslovakia.com

© englishmaninslovakia.com

 

MAP LINK: (notice the bottom of the map has the edge of Modra on; it has to be zoomed to this level to show the details of the buildings; Furmanská Krčma is directly opposite Zochava Chata hotel at the bottom end of the large parking area).

OPENING: Thursday-Sunday, late morning-10pm

BEST TIME TO VISIT: A winter’s mid- to late-afternoon, after the first fall of snow, when the small ski slope is working and you’ve finished your walk through the woods and are in need of sustenance.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: Tired after a hike and not refreshed by a hearty Slovak bite? Descend out of the hills and head 63km northeast to sample Piešťany’s best patisserie then sooth yourself in the spas there…

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.

High Tatras Mountains: Tatranská Magistrala – the Kit List

There is a running joke in Slovakia about the Czechs. Lots of Czechs come to the Tatras mountains each year. Of all visiting nations, the Czechs are apparently the most Gung-ho when it comes to forging off alone in the peaks without a guide (perhaps with the mentality that, if they speak 99% of the same language, Slovakia can’t possibly hurt them). Other nations are much more likely to plan a trip with a certain degree of caution. And of those who do get into difficulty in the mountains and need assistance from mountain rescue, the Czechs form the highest percentage. The Tatras claim several hundred lives from the tourists that visit them every year, in fact. Exposure, avalanches, falls down precipices and the like.

To be honest, I think by nature I’m quite like those daredevil Czechs too. The Slovak mountains are so much higher and more dramatic then anything I’m used to in the UK. Thus the temptation is to run off into them, squealing with delight like a small child, and not think properly about the very real danger these mountains can pose to those who, like me, love trekking into the great outdoors. Hiking the Tatranská Magistrala taught me a few things about what you need to bring with you when you embark on an adventure in such mountains and so, Czechs and indeed adventurers from any land who might under-estimate the power of the mighty Tatras, this is for you: an essential kit list!

CLOTHING

1: Warm, waterproof jacket OR better still, a waterproof jacket with a detachable fleece. That way, you can keep wearing the fleece in the mountain houses you’ll be staying at in the evening, which can still be quite cold inside.

2: Warm, woollen hat: temperatures even in June can get down to minus 5.

3: Gloves, but ideally not woollen ones. Ones with grip are better for hauling yourself up or down on those chains.

4: Hiking boots, well broken in. Do not attempt this hike without them.

5: Waterproof trousers. Pack these, and you can get away with just packing one pair of light trousers to wear underneath. You’re likely to get wet, at some point, and there’s often no cover in the Tatras.

6: Shorts are often better for summer hiking as it frees up your movement, but remember the definition of “summer” can be literally only July to September, so don’t come without a pair of long trousers too.

7: Sunglasses: great to cut out the glare.

8: A dry change of clothes for the evening: you’ll appreciate them no end.

9: If you suffer from any kind of problem in your legs, a knee support: some of the downhill sections are jarring on the bones.

GEAR

1: Rucksack with waterproof covering. Self-explanatory, right?

2: Walking poles: not essential, but you are going to feel the benefit on the often punishing ups and downs.

3: Torch: a head torch would be perfect as it keeps your hands free, or a maglite that’s light but powerful and can help if you’re caught on the trail after dark or can’t find the light switch in the night.

4: Whistle and, ideally, a flare. This sounds over the top but it isn’t: you could easily get into difficulty and phone reception could be non-existent. This could be your only way of getting help.

5: Mobile phone and charger: for similar reasons to the above. Make sure you at least have a phone that will function if the reception comes.

6: A good map: Again, it sounds obvious but you’d be surprised. See our guide here to buying hiking maps in Slovakia.

7: A compass: Pretty important, especially on some of the less well-signed trails.

8: Book/ pack of cards: for evening entertainment.

9: Cash. Don’t bank on being able to pay by card.

10: Camera: you’re going to get some great pics.

11: Sharp knife. It’s going to come in useful.

12: Lighter. Probably good. At the mountain houses it’s possible to have a camp fire.

FOOD

1: A good supply of water. At least a 1.5 litre bottle (this should be enough to get you between one mountain house and the next, where you can fill up).

2: Sugar fixes: for morale boosts and energy. Whatever you like.

3: A hip flask filled with something strong. That’s the way the Slovaks do it!

Where to Go After Reading this Post

Got the general idea? Now it’s time to go to our Tatranská Magistrala Stage Descriptions and our recommended High Tatras Mountain Houses (under the Places to Stay/High Tatras sub-section) which of course tie in with the Stage Descriptions.

Hiking in the Tatras can be tough, with intense quickly-changing weather

Hiking in the Tatras can be tough, with intense quickly-changing weather…

High Tatras Mountains: the Tatranská Magistrala Stage 4 (Horský Hotel Popradské Pleso to Pribylina)

The final day of the Tatranská Magistrala trail begins on the shores of Popradské Pleso, surrounded somewhat ampitheatrically by sheering 2500m + peaks. The route by which you came down on stage 3 of the trail lies across from you on the eastern shore. Read Englishmaninslovakia’s separate piece on Popradské Pleso here.

Today, under normal conditions, it’s only a 4 to 4.5 hour hike to the official end of the trail at Podbanské from Popradské Pleso, with the additional 1.25 hour road walk to Pribylina (from where there is year-round public transport access, as opposed to Podbanské where buses only run between late June and the end of August).

HOWEVER, and it’s a big however (which is why we wrote it in bold and in capitals) spring 2014’s storm damage, that nasty trickster the Tatranska Bora, was still severely impeding the trail between Štrbské Pleso and Podbanské in late 2015, although as of 2016 clearance is completed. To all but the fit, determined or obstinate (and we ranked somewhere in this category) there was a large section of this path so covered with fallen trees that it had become impassable. So for those fit, determined, obstinate hikers out there: allow an extra 1 to 1.5 hours to negotiate the fallen trees. In these sadly all-too frequent times of path blockages due to fallen trees the choices for proceeding beyond Štrbské Pleso are:

a) Public transport via the mountain railway back to Poprad and/or alternative transport arrangements home.

b) Continuing by road from Štrbské Pleso to Tri Studničky, then Podbanské, then Pribylina. The road is not too busy and still very beautiful.

c) Forging on the path through the trees from Štrbské Pleso to Tri Studnicky, then continuing by road as before (because the trail is impossible to find through the woods just after Tri Studničky during times of excess fallen trees).

The first part of the path from Horský Hotel Popradské Pleso is in good nick. Follow the access road up to the crest of the first hill (about 250m) to where the red trail leaves the road and cuts through forest (replete with information boards, because this section is one of the most popular to walk) down to the most touristy place you will encounter on the whole trail: Štrbské Pleso. The trail emerges into the tourist developments just south-east of the access road to Hotel Patria (see top pic), which iconically stands on the north shore of Štrbské Pleso, Slovakia’s  most famous lake. The path then takes you clockwise around the lake shore, conveniently passing its most celebrated restaurant and its well-known south shore hotels, including the Grand Hotel Kempinski High Tatras with its snazzy ground-level wellness centre. There’s a lot to do around the lake here – and despite the previous lines the lake is still a very pretty place to wander; it’s only the village below the lake around the mountain railway terminus that has sadly fallen prey to some ugly development – so do read here all about Štrbské Pleso, which is one of the key tourist destinations within the High Tatras.

Soon after you leave the lake’s shores (the red signs lead off on a steady track from the back of Grand Hotel Kempinski High Tatras and Hotel Solisko) you see the signs of devastation from the spring storms (one thinks of the Lord of the Rings lines “these trees were my friends”)

Just after this point, from where it would normally be just under 2 hours of hiking to Tri Studnicky (where the trail next touches the road) this happened during 2014:

You’ll see the felled red trail marks: and it gets worse and worse. At times, during 2014 and 2015, along what would normally be a beautiful trail through wild woods to gorgeous Jamské Pleso and on again to Tri Studničky, storms had felled trees so thickly there seemed no way through. The section to Jamské Pleso was tough but just after this lake it became nigh on impossible. You’ll have to wriggle, climb and squeeze through the fallen trees and often you lose sight of the path totally. Still, it’s pretty good fun and eventually you come out into lower-lying forest where the falled trees fall back, descend to a muddy path junction where you join a green trail, then descend sharp right to the road at Tri Studničky.

As for Tri Studničky, it’s nothing special: a couple of former forestry rangers houses and the pleasant chata of Tri Studničky. Note that this should NOT be confused with Hotel Tri Studnicky which lies southwest of Lucenec in southern Slovakia. Well, we confused it, anyway; getting excited about the possibility of a spa (as the hotel near Lucenec does have) and finding, um, basic dormitory accommodation and of course, as mentioned above, the total impossibility of finding the path again beyond the forestry ranger’s buildings.

Doing the hike in the other direction from Podbanské it is easier to find the path during post-storm periods of felled trees but it becomes terribly tricky when the storms destroy the trail here. After an hour of trying we gave up and opted to continue along the road to Podbanské.

Tri Studnicky

Tri Studnicky

The road is not such a bad option. It’s a 1-hour walk (6km) through forest along the road to the small lane branching right down into Podbanské. You rejoin the path you should normally have been able to take at the first lane junction (Podbanské is the first major set of houses you see on the right from the main road). Good signposts (before the storms these paths were really lovingly tended, as you now see) usher you down across the river to the car park at Podbanské. From here you can ascend again 100 metres up to the village green which is Podbanské’s endearing little centre and looks quite like a quaint English village. The far side of the green has a very decent restaurant. If you are here in high season (late June to late August) you will be able to stay here, which is the preferable option to Pribylina.

But places in Podbanské do have a long closing season so if you’re outside of peak season you’ll have to continue the hike to Pribylina, back along the main road, which is another 1.5 hours (8km). You pass lots of summer houses hidden away in the woods and eventually, after emerging into meadows, arrive at Pribylina itself. It’s a large village with ample ubytovanie (rooms/guesthouses) available and, of course, buses on to Liptovský Mikulaš where there are mainline trains to Bratislava and beyond. It’s surely time to have one final round of dumplings and beer.

What Next?

Read more about staying at Horský Hotel Popradské Pleso (beginning of stage). Or, read on to the following:

Stage OneŽdiar to Chata pri Zelenom Plese

Stage Two:  Chata Pri Zelenom Plese to Zamkovského Chata

Stage Three (previous stage): Zamkovského Chata to Horský Hotel Popradské Pleso

Introduction to the Tatranská Magistrala

Tatranská Magistrala Hiking Kit List

Buying Hiking Maps & Apps

OR

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: This is the final stage of the Tatranská Magistrala hike. But from Pribylina it’s just 31km southwest to Demänovska Dolina, start point for the main access to the Low Tatras peak of Chopok.

High Tatras Mountains: the Tatranská Magistrala Stage 3 (Zamkovského Chata to Horský Hotel Popradské Pleso)

Zamkovského Chata is your recommended stopover between stage 2 and 3. This is a long day’s walk: you should allow 6.5 to 7 hours all told.

Head back up through the woods from the chata on the green path to where you turned off from the red route. On the Tatranská Magistrala, in red as ever it was, it’s around 50 minutes on an easy-going path to Hrebienok, where you can take the funicular railway down to Starý Smokovec (the main resort village in the High Tatras; see how Hrebienok and Starý Smokovec link up with the Tatras Mountain Railway here). Easy-going in gradient, that is, and easy-going in terms of the signposting, but damnably rocky, meaning you are watching your footing every single step. First off you head downhill, twisting passed a quite impressive waterfall:

Down and over a river and it’s the forest track heading uphill that you want; this climbs to a noticeboard then heads straight on (it’s even paved in places) heading slightly down overall to get to Hrebienok.

Here the path skitters round the Hrebienok outbuildings (there’s a chata here, Biliková Chata, where you can stay) then cuts uphill through forest which took a beating in the spring storms this year towards Sliezsky Dom. Allow 2 hours to reach Sliezsky Dom from this point.

Many of the red waymarks on this stretch are missing because the trees they were painted on have fallen. The path climbs relentlessly however, twisting up through forest that is soon thick again, and climbs some 400 metres. It comes out into wilder moorland where views down to Starý Smokovec are pretty good, and there, at the end of a long forest road and perched at the edge of Velicke Pleso, is Sliezsky Dom. It’s possible to stay at this vastly overpriced eyesore of a hotel, but for hikers who have experienced the friendliness of mountain houses like Chata Pri Zelenom Plese, Zamkovského Chata or (for those hiking the path in reverse) Horský Hotel Popradské Pleso, this one is a shocker: an arrogantly staffed, dismal communist-built colossus with rooms a-plenty and unsurprisingly few takers for them. It’s dingy and actually not even completed, which makes one wonder how they can charge the prices they do. It is strongly recommended to stay at (ideally) Zamkovského Chata, Biliková Chata or Horský Hotel Popradské Pleso rather than here. Even the bar/restaurant was a Godforsaken place: I was happier to munch my dried fruit down by the lake in the drizzle. Anyway. You have been warned. The view from here, however, is beautiful, with a couple of waterfalls a short hike away:

 

The path from here continues up around the back of the hotel and from here it’s still a tough 3.5 hour hike to Horský Hotel Popradské Pleso. You’re very soon up in wild moorland here, and back up above the snowline for large stretches. In its bleakness, however, this stretch of the path is beautiful and otherworldly: just leave enough time to enjoy it and if you’re running out of light or if the weather is bad DO NOT attempt the final descent down to Horský Hotel Popradské Pleso. There is a bad weather option in addition, as detailed below.

The trail, marching along a specially constructed path of boulders, as it has at various points thus far, meets a yellow trail coming up from the access road to Sliezsky Dom after 30 minutes of hiking. After the junction, the path ascends very steeply into perhaps the most daunting landscape of the entire hike: the icy locale of Batizovské Pleso, where the water gleams an ethereal ice-blue and the boulder-strewn surrounds are like a little snapshot of Siberia, juxtaposed onto the High Tatras. The route coasts up the right side of a vast U-shaped valley, with Batizovské Pleso at the top, hugs the contour as it negotiates the southern lakeshore and then arrives at a junction where, as stated before, you need to make a choice.

From the junction of the red Tatranská Magistrala and the yellow trail (the one that goes down) it’s 2 to 2.5 hours onto Horský Hotel Popradské Pleso on the red route or 1 hour 45 minutes down to the tiny village of Vyšné Hágy on yellow.

Good Weather Option

Of course, in an ideal world you would follow the red Tatranská Magistrala on to your stage 3 destination from here. The path is fine (although it does climb up to nigh on 2000 metres, so another 100 metres up from Batizovské Pleso) BUT then comes the demanding descent a good 600 metres straight down to the lake of Popradské Pleso. The official trail guide makes little of this descent and says it’s doable in 45 minutes. That may be true, but for those not used to the legendary Tatras chain descents (i.e. where you absolutely have to cling to a chain or you will fall in places) this is a formidable and vertigo-inducing path. Do not attempt the red route from this point onto  Popradské Pleso unless you have at the least 2.5 hours of daylight left – and even then not from October to May when snow obscures parts of the descent.

Bad Weather Option

The alternative is in any case quite pleasant: an easy, although again extremely rocky, path down into pine forest (it follows a river for a while which is intense in spring and winter) to Vyšné Hágy which has no accommodation but does boast a sports pub and a stop on the High Tatras mountain railway between Poprad/Starý Smokovec and Popradské Pleso/Štrbské Pleso. Keep to the red trails through the forests, descend to a farm where an inordinate amount of tractors seem to park, then cross the mountain railway line and bear left to ascend again slightly to the station. It’s then one stop on the line to the isolated Popradské Pleso station and the much-easier one hour hike back up to Popradské Pleso and Horský Hotel Popradské Pleso (on a blue trail).

When you get to Popradské Pleso there are actually two accommodation options right next to each other on the western shore where the road ends: Horský Hotel Popradské Pleso and another chata right next to it, which is by all accounts very nice too. It’s time for a plate of dumplings and possibly more than one beer: you’ve arrived.

What Next?

Read more about staying at Zamkovského Chata (beginning of stage) or Horský Hotel Popradské Pleso (end of stage). Or, read on to the following:

Stage OneŽdiar to Chata pri Zelenom Plese

Stage Two (previous stage)  Chata Pri Zelenom Plese to Zamkovského Chata

Stage Four (next stage): Horský Hotel Popradské Pleso to Pribylina

Introduction to the Tatranská Magistrala

Tatranská Magistrala Hiking Kit List

Buying Hiking Maps & Apps

High Tatras Mountains: the Tatranská Magistrala Stage 2 (Chata Pri Zelenom Plese to Zamkovského Chata)

Time: Via Red Route to Zamkovského Chata: 4 Hours; Via Yellow/Green/Blue Route to Zamkovského Chata: 3.5 Hours; Teryho Chata Out-and-Back From Zamkovského Chata: 4 Hours with 30-minute Break for Refreshments at Teryho Chata

Wakey wakey. This is the toughest day of hiking, and not because of the distance. Oh no. This is tough because of the gradient and the vertiginous nature of the path (if you choose to follow the route strictly). It all starts so idyllically. Chata Pri Zelenom Plese is in my opinion the jewel of the High Tatras Mountain Houses for its location if nothing else: the water of Zelené Pleso (meaning green lake) is for me for a rich turquoise when you see it in certain lights and as you climb steeply away from it through the surrounding ampitheatre of mountains the first thought is that you wish you weren’t leaving at all.

Anyway, the red trail bends down with the yellow trail around the side of the lake-front terrace of Chata Pri Zelenom Plese, crosses a bridge and then divides, with red going right and yellow left. Now, read this carefully. Both trails can ultimately get you where you want to go on the Tatranská Magistrala. The red trail to the right (the official trail route) is extremely difficult (that’s what we referred to in our introduction to the Tatranská Magistrala as “for the experienced only” during its precarious ascent to Sedlo Pod Svištovkou.) The yellow trail to the left then links up with green and blue trails to get you to exactly the same point as the red, i.e Skalnaté Pleso, a lake at 1751 metres with cable car stations both down to Štart (and then the mountain resort of Tatranská Lomnica) and up to the peak of Lomnicky Štit (2633.8 metres and the second-highest summit in the High Tatras after Gerlachovský Štit).

The Red Route and Official Tatranská Magistrala Trail Option

The path starts off well enough, ascending around Zelene Pleso then doubling back high above the forest and the line of the Chata Pri Zelenom Plese access track to reach the small tarn of Čierne Pleso. You’re already way above the snow line here and because you’re in a rift directly below the high peaks the snow here stays thickest and longest, way into June and even July. As it’s melting, it’s especially dangerous because with each step you can plunge down a couple of feet. The path goes across several small snow fields before you even arrive at the most dangerous part, where two gullies both ascend steeply in what looks like the direction of the summit.

The Red Trail: tough

The Red Trail: tough

The left option, which we took first of all, is not the official path and gets pretty hairy pretty quick (only a smidgeon below proper climbing, which with rucksacks and no ropes we were not prepared for). The right option (the actual path) isn’t any easier, ironically. A huge snowfield about four feet deep went right the way up the gully (this was in June, remember) and covered the chains that you really rely upon for support pulling yourself up the slippery rocks. Even if there was no snow, this would be an arduous route, with a difficult descent (invariably in the mist) once you get to Sedlo Pod Svištovkou down to Skalnaté Pleso (we checked this from the other end). Paths are crumbly scree in many places and over waterfalls in others, where a misplaced step could result in a nasty fall. In the end, after three hours plugging away, we had to turn back and take the lower route as snow was covering the trail signs and at the summit the path is not always obvious.

 The Yellow/Green/Blue Trail Lower Option

The yellow trail, beginning as a wide metalled track above a fast-flowing mountain stream (Zeleny Potok), is, despite its lower elevation, a much more beautiful route, winding down through forests. It’s also a mountain bike trail. We soon realised why we’d met no one going up over Sedlo Pod Svištovkou: everyone was taking this sensible lower route and it’s a much more popular path than the Tatranská Magistrala Stage 1: Ždiar to Chata Pri Zelenom Plese. The first couple of kilometres are prettiest: then there’s a loop through some of the forest which suffered in the May storms and then the thick forest returns and, an hour from Chata Pri Zelenom Plese, you reach a green trail sign by a small forest shelter.

Now it’s time to stop descending (you’ve come down in height about 275 metres since Chata Pri Zelenom Plese) and ascend again. A 15-minute climb up through woodland plonks you on the blue trail which now, with little possibility to go wrong, ushers you up to Skalnaté Pleso. Still, you climb a good 450 metres on this path and whilst the way is never in doubt as it snakes up through the forest, it’s tough on the knees because it’s built of huge stones like some Inca highway. From the time you join this blue trail, it’s a 1.5 hour climb to Skalnaté Pleso. Just over half-way through, the path kinks as you come onto open moor at a rather idyllic grassy picnic spot. From here you can already see the path cutting up all the way to the observatory at Skalnaté Pleso. The boulders which form the path here require some regular looking at (as opposed to the beautiful views across to the Low Tatras) to pick your way, until you rejoin the Tatranská Magistrala at the lake of Skalnaté Pleso: an observatory, a really interesting educational trail around the lake and the afore-mentioned cable car station. The cable car is closed in May and when we were there (beginning of June) it had not reopened and the whole place had a slightly eerie feel. As you rejoin the Tatranská Magistrala (if you’ve taken the yellow/green/blue route) look up towards the observatory and see the red trail sheering up beyond: you won’t be sorry you took the easier option!

Anyway, Skalnaté Pleso is an intriguing place to spend some time and you can read more about it in this post.

Back on the Red Trail to Zamkovského Chata

From the trail sign on the southern side of the lake, go across the bridge (below which the lake empties into a waterfall in what seems like, viewed from a distance, the edge of the High Tatras’ very own infinity pool. An educational trail curves around the lake shore but the red trail goes up the weather-blasted steps to the wall of the somewhat monstrous cable car station building itself, then follows the building around anti-clockwise. Don’t take any paths veering off up to the right here but continue antic-clockwise down the other wide of the building to another trail sign almost under the towering legs of the Cable Car pillars. The path drops down a few metres to Skalnatá Chata, where refreshments are on offer between 10am and 5pm, and where you can also stay. It’s very popular when the chairlift is open but not one that Englishmaninslovakia recommends.

Car station at Skalnate Pleso

Car station at Skalnate Pleso

The rocky path (red and green until this point since the cable car station) then splits: green descends to Tatranská Lomnica; red rises up a little then slowly descends gently down the contour line on another hard-on-the-legs rocky path down into thick forest. A sharp kink right in the path at Lomnická Vyhliadka suddenly yields great views over to Slavkovský Štit. It’s a 50-minute descent from the cable car to a fork in the path, ensconced in the forest once more, where the Tatranská Magistrala forges on left and Zamkovského Chata is a one minute walk on the green trail to the right.

SO. You’ve arrived at the best night’s accommodation around (see Englishmaninslovakia’s separate post on Zamkovského Chata. It’s probably time for a round of beer and dumplings.

The Out-and-Back Path to Teryho Chata

For those of you that don’t feel sufficiently exercised yet, the best walk to do around here, once you’ve deposited your backpacks, is up on the green trail to the remote Teryho Chata: the highest mountain house in the Tatras (save for the pricey rooms at the top of Gerlachovsky Štit . From the top there are the great views of Lomnicky Štit (you’ll crest the 2000 metre mark by Teryhó Chata and feel properly on top of the world – or, at least, Eastern Europe. (Random fact time: the only higher points in Eastern Europe than Gerlachovský Štit are Bulgaria’s Musala, and a trio of peaks including Triglav in Slovenia). Have around of beer and dumplings in Teryhó Chata and descend.

What Next?

Read more about staying in Chata Pri Zelenom Plese (beginning of stage) or Zamkovskeho Chata or Teryho Chata (end of stage) (links bolded until written)

Stage One (previous stage)Ždiar to Chata pri Zelenom Plese

Stage Three (next stage)Zamkovského Chata to Horský Hotel Popradské Pleso

Stage Four: Horský Hotel Popradské Pleso to Pribylina

Introduction to the Tatranská Magistrala

Tatranská Magistrala Hiking Kit List

Buying Hiking Maps & Apps

High Tatras Mountains: the Tatranská Magistrala Stage 1 (Ždiar to Chata pri Zelenom Plese)

Ždiar, as mentioned in Englishmaninslovakia’s introduction to hiking the Tatranská Magistrala, is the best starting point for beginning the walk. It’s a beautiful village, with many examples of the Goral architecture (the Goral people are a Slavic group of traditionally highland-dwelling people living in southern Poland and northern Slovakia): prettily painted blue, red and gold log houses, some of which you can stay in amongst the village’s many accommodation options. It’s also got a shop to stock up on supplies (see Englishmaninslovakia’s Tatranská Magistrala Hiking Kitlist for what you need to take) and a small tourist information centre open during the high season (late June to September).

Because this first part of the path entails a lot of fiddly directions, this stage will seem in description like it’s much longer than it is, but the reality is that it’s 5 HOURS in total. All walking distances in the Tatras, remember, are given in hours and minutes that it takes the average walker to do a particular distance, which in many ways is more helpful than putting distances in km/miles.

Basically, make your way down from the village centre in which you are probably staying to the Slovnaft service station on the main Poprad-Polish border road, Hwy 67 (see a useful article here on how to get from Poprad or Ždiar to Poland.) Head downhill (back towards Poprad) with the village centre on your left. After 100 metres you will see this crazy-looking house on the right-hand side:

Crazy-looking house

Crazy-looking house

Turn right down the little lane here (signposted to the Hotel Magura). After you pass the first bunch of houses on the left you’ll see a wooden bridge across the river on the left. Cross it and take the forestry track to the right. The track you now take is supposed to be an official (red-marked) trail at this stage, but the red waymarks are absent and it’s really just a forestry track. The thing to remember is that it stays more or less parallel to the river and on the other side the access road to Hotel Magura (you can walk along the access road if you want but it’s not as nice). Therefore, do not take any of the forestry tracks leading steeply up to the left and keep along a gradually ascending trail.There is one point where the actual track seems to cross the river, but don’t take that fork. Soon you’ll cross a meadow to a house and at the gateway join a track which then heads back down over the river in front of the rather impressive-looking Hotel Magura rearing up over lawns ahead. Turn left here on the red-signed trail which leads once more over the river and then to the right of a couple of chalets, one of which is a nice-looking penzión. A little while more, and the track reaches a divide at a slightly eerie looking ranger’s hut, with chairs and tables inside but a quickly-abandoned Marie Celeste-type feel. There are a couple of information boards here too, and now the red trail you want branches left and steeply up through forest.

This next section up through the forest to Siroké Sedlo at 1825m is the second-most grueling climb of the entire trail, which – given you haven’t even actually got onto the official trail yet – is quite intense. You ascend almost 1000 metres from Ždiar to the top just beyond Siroké Sedlo. It’s a beautiful path though. Forested outcrops of rock veer off on both sides as you rise through the forest, alongside a mountain stream which you cross a couple of times on nice neatly-made bridges:

Nicely made bridges

Nicely made bridges

Soon you meet a rather dramatic rise where the stream tumbles down from the ridges above in a wide-open valley where the forest falls away. This is where the path kinks right to round this waterfall the easier way, and you start to see lots of the kamziks – the mountain goats which live at these altitudes. On the path rises, steep enough to need chains in a couple of places to aid you, but not precarious at all. You come up to a picnic table, good for a breather and great views back to Ždiar, then start a slightly more gradual climb up over moorland.

View back to Ždiar

View back to Ždiar

Even during the summer months (well this picture is taken in June) you’re now up above the snowline here, but a well-constructed log-lined path ascends to Siroké Sedlo which may not quite be the top but is the first dramatic brush with the High Tatras and White Tatras peaks as you see them soaring up in front of you across a valley. As a barrier kindly indicates, don’t turn right at Siroké Sedlo because that’s just a goat track which will probably lead you to your death. Instead, kink back left on a path that in 15 minutes ushers you to the top of the path (for now) at around 1900 metres above Kopské Sedlo.

Descend from the wind-blasted ridge (the signpost here was still obscured by ice when we were there that the wind had twisted into bizarre shapes) to Kopské Sedlo itself (distinguished by another trail sign which looks like a pair of stag’s antlers). Here you actually join up with a blue trail that’s risen up from Tatranská Javorína. This was a big smuggling route between the kingdoms of Hungary and Poland back in the day – and a significant copper mining area too. From here it’s 30 minutes of descent to Vel’ké Biele Pleso which is, after just over four hours of hiking, the official start of the Tatranská Magistrala.

Surveying the View on the Way Down to Vel'ke Biele Pleso

Surveying the View on the Way Down to Vel’ke Biele Pleso – www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Why they chose such a remote place to actually start/end the official trail is a bit of the mystery. It’s not like you can rock up at this isolated lake in any other way than by a steep hike (either the way just described or from green/ blue trails respectively from the small villages of Tatranská Kotlina/ Tatranské Matliare. There’s a picnic area at the lake, nestled photogenically under Jahňací Štít peak at 2200 metres plus. But the heartening news is that Englishmaninslovakia’s first recommended nights’ stop is now only a straight-forward downhill 30-minute walk away. Red, blue and green trails diverge at the noticeboard and you can hike the first steps of the official red-signed Tatranská Magistrala down through scrub and forest to the beautiful lake of Zelené Pleso where – perched on the shores – you will find Chata Pri Zelenom Plese. Go grab a beer, a ton of dumplings and celebrate.

What next?

Read more about staying at Ždiar (beginning of stage) or Chata Pri Zelenom Plese (end of stage) or read on to the other stage descriptions:

Stage Two (next stage): Chata Pri Zelenom Plese to Zamkovského Chata

Stage ThreeZamkovského Chata to Horský Hotel Popradské Pleso

Stage Four: Horský Hotel Popradské Pleso to Pribylina

 

Other useful links:

Introduction to the Tatranská Magistrala

Tatranská Magistrala Hiking Kit List

Buying Hiking Maps & Apps

 

High Tatras Mountain House: Zamkovského Chata

It was summer, but we were still rubbing our hands together to keep the circulation going whenever we had to remove our gloves to study the map. A cold wind was blowing belated flurries of snow down from 2500m peaks over the long, exposed, boulder-strewn stretch of the Tatranská Magistrala between the lurid mountain lakes of Zelené Pleso and Skalnaté Pleso, shaking the timbers of each man-made structure, hut to signpost, that it could find. Re-entering the pine forests after a long descent from these wild climes was for us a relief: a respite, if you like. It’s a particularly majestic stretch of forest: one that has survived the strong winds (a phenomenon known as the Tatranská bóra) that have plagued the high-altitude forests of the High Tatras for decades; one which feels as old as, or older than, the glam days of Tatras tourism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. And it is here that we eagerly sought refuge in one of the most interesting accommodation options of the many dotted across these high mountains.

Zamkovského Chata is one of the oldest High Tatras mountain houses: an expansive two-floor log cabin that resonates with history. Štefan Zamkovský, a renowned mountain guide and ranger, and one of the key figures behind the development of the High Tatras as a tourist destination, built the house between 1942 and 1943, lived there with his family, and let part of it out as a refuge from the weather for weary walkers. Despite his efforts for the local tourism industry, Zamkovský had his property confiscated in 1948 under the Communist regime (the house subsequently became named after one captain Nalepka) and it was only after 1989 that the lodge was returned to the Zamkovský family,  and reassumed the name Zamkovského Chata.

The story of Štefan Zamkovský is touchingly retold in the log cabin restaurant of Zamkovského Chata – which has become a museum of sorts to the development of tourism in the High Tatras (and a museum where you can slurp Slovak mulled wine and wolf down pirohy – great by us!). A one-hour walk up from the cable car station at Hrebienok (connecting tourists to the resort village of Starý Smokovec below) and a one hour walk down from Skalnaté Pleso (where another cable car connects tourists with the more easterly resort village of  Tatranská Lomnica below), it is accessible enough for families and afternoon strollers to trek here for lunch, and close enough to the serious mountain hiking/climbing to act as a magnet for the outdoor adventure-obsessed. Its location is sedate and sheltered, in contrast to the other more exposed mountain houses out on the slopes, but at the same time, breaking through the gaps in the trees, are signs of the sheer rock faces close by. As if by way of reminder, the tough green trail spirals away from outside the chata, climbing from 1475m on the edge of the lodge grounds to Téryho Chata,  the remotest mountain house at 2000m, in one hour and 45 minutes.

But the lack of a cable car terminal means Zamkovského Chata still retains a blissful isolation; a Germanic “lost house in the woods” feel. Six 2-, 4- and 5-bed rooms above the restaurant offer beds for 23 people: if it’s full there is also an attic with several mattresses for bedding down if you have your own sleeping bag. It’s one of the High Tatras mountain houses that’s open year-round, too – and therefore the facilities (available information on nearby hikes, options of food in the restaurant – are better than at many other mountain accommodations. You’ll be charmed by it whatever the circumstances of your arrival. Hiking here from Zelené pleso in bitter weather on , it will seem nothing short of a cosy woodsy paradise.

This mountain house is our recommended stopover between stage 2 and stage 3 of the Tatranská Magistrala, Slovakia’s most famous long-distance hiking trail that runs right across the High Tatras from Ždiar to Podbanské/Pribylina.

MAP LINK: The remoteness of Zamkovského Chata means it’s not possible to get sufficient detail and useful nearby landmarks on one map. This map is zoomed to the level that shows where it is in relation to the Hrebienok cable car terminus; zoom in one level and the paths between the two and on up to Skalnaté pleso become visible.

PRICES: High-season (summer) prices are 19 Euros per person per night; these reduce to 16 Euros per person per night in the low (winter) season. Not included in the above are Breakfast (costs 5 Euros) and dinner (costs 8 Euros). (2016 prices)

BOOK ZAMKOVSKÉHO CHATA: This is an extremely remote mountain house, without a regular internet connection,so booking is generally done by phone (or, if sufficiently in advance, email.) There may be a problem getting someone to speak English if you do telephone – although it is policy to usually have one English-speaking member of staff on duty at all times. Telephone 00421-(0)-905-554-471 (mobile). Email zamka@zamka.sk.

High Tatras Mountain House: Horský Hotel Popradské Pleso

For a good six months of the year, the snow piles so high against the timber walls of Horský Hotel Popradské Pleso that it rather resembles a giant igloo than a mountain lodge. Abutting the rugged lakeshore of Popradské Pleso, this hotel is surrounded by sheer mountain slopes that soar to over 2000 metres. The difficult ascent/descent from/to the lake on the isolated Tatranská Magistrala trail is a 500 metre wall of scree, boulders and scrub clinging on for dear life. And the weather reflects the wild location. Already at almost 1500 metres altitude, the lake and the hotel receive their microclimate from over 2000 metres: the rain, the ice and the snow stack up here having poured straight off those upper slopes.

Incredibly though, a metalled service road somehow twists from the lake through the pine forests down to the Tatras Electric Railway station of Popradské Pleso and the main Poprad to Štrbské Pleso road. So despite the blissful feeling of isolation it’s still well connected enough. If you want to stay in the mountains but don’t like the resort feel of Štrbské Pleso then Horský Hotel Popradské Pleso is the place to make for: lakefront accommodation, but in a far more romantic, untrammelled wilderness than Štrbské Pleso’s somewhat manicured environs a one-hour walk down the mountain.

Forest hideaway...

Forest hideaway…

The hotel itself, in the style of a giant mountain chalet, manages to be aesthetically pleasing where (for example) Hotel Patria on Štrbské Pleso fails. It’s all finished in dark wood, and the atmosphere is more of the easy-going, hiker-meets-hiker ilk. There are no pretensions such as at the hotels down at Štrbské Pleso. The staff are friendly – they went out of their way to pick us up at Popradské Pleso Electric Railway station, in fact, when we had been traipsing through the rain-drenched night to get there and realised our gross under-estimation of the distance there was still to cover. The food is hearty mountain fare – hot, meat-dominated, seasoned but stodgy Slovak delights that in many cases match or supersede what most Štrbské Pleso lakeshore hotels serve.

As to the rooms, well. There are various price brackets. The most basic accommodation, in hostel-of-yore-type dorms, is 16 Euros per bed. Bathrooms are shared. For 38 Euros you can get a 2-bed private room, small and simple, but still with shared bathrooms. Both are very clean, albeit spartan. But the 56-Euro standard and 60-Euro superior rooms are very good for the price – well furnished (TVs, fridges and the works) and with huge bathrooms (with baths) and scalding-hot towel rails (what you need after a damp hike). For comfort, this is what Englishmaninslovakia recommends. You’re getting scintilating lakeshore views, remember, with any of these options. There are a couple of apartments, too.

The restaurant is popular throughout the day with hikers passing by. The cosy tables in booths by the windows looking out on the lake and the mountains are best. This is where the generous 5-Euro breakfast buffet is served, and where you can feast on all kinds of the afore-mentioned Slovak fare (we recommend the divine gulaš/goulash). Then there’s a games room – perfect for those wet days. Pool and table football are free here! And then there’s the sauna. When the temperature is what it was on our first visit here, you’ll quickly see the appeal…

The hotel is Englishmaninslovakia’s recommended stopover point between stages 3 and 4 of the Tatranská Magistrala hike that traverses the High Tatras. In short, its access to the true wilds of the mountains – alongside its having maintained the creature comforts associated with a larger plusher hotel – make it ideal for Tatras first-timers.

If you don’t get a room here, but want to stay on the lake, there’s another penzión right nearby.

MAP LINK: 

PRICES: From 17 Euros (dorm), from 20 Euros (2-bed room with shared bathroom),  56 Euros (double with private bathroom), 80-110 Euros (2- or 4-bed apartments) – 2016 prices.

BOOK HORSKÝ HOTEL POPRADSKÉ PLESO (There is no facility to book online – book by phone, Skype or email through this link)

The High Tatras Mountain Resorts: Štrbské Pleso

Štrbské Pleso, probably Slovakia’s most famous lake and certainly the number one tourist destination in the High Tatras, may not seem the most likely choice for Englishmaninslovakia.com to write about – except that, somewhat surprisingly, it’s not actually been covered in English in much detail anywhere else on the web. When we realised this, dear readers, we thought we’d create a comprehensive post on it for your reference.

There’s a number of ways you can approach writing on what, in Slovakia at least, is such a well-known attraction. Rant about it as one of Slovakia’s must-sees, as much Slovak tourist promotion seems to (nah, we’re not going to do that). Write about the less-obvious things to do in the vicinity, as a gentle but stubborn resistance to the disproportionate info on the better-known sights (namely Hotel Patria, flanking all the most famed pics of the lake, just like in the shot above, or Grandhotel Kempinski which is the Slovakian countryside’s most glamorous accommodation) that only constitute a small percentage of the points of interest. Or, a third approach: subvert the subverters and just write about the good and the bad of this popular tourist hangout (the approach we’ve decided on here). Popular, let it be emphasised, but still nevertheless with a very real appeal: and plenty of the magnetism old turn-of-the century resorts such as this one exude.

The name, which is rather a bother to type on a UK computer keypad with all those accents, means the lake (pleso) of Štrba – Štrba being a small settlement beneath Štrbské Pleso. The Tatras Electric Railway actually runs from Štrba up to Štrbské Pleso (see the link for further information and, indeed, for the other main way to get to Štrbské Pleso by public transport – from Poprad. There are also, of course, several ways to get there by road.)

What There is to Do: In a Nutshell

Hiking: At 1355 metres up (Štrba and the other communities along the foot of the High Tatras are around 800 metres altitude) the geography around Štrbské Pleso is pretty thrilling: within a few kilometres of here you can be hiking up on paths a further 1000m+ higher, such as the peak of Krivan (2494m, to the northwest) or Vysoká (2560m, to the northeast). Pine forests cloak the lake’s shores to the east, west and, particularly, north (the crazy Communist-built structure of Hotel Patria on the northern shore is framed by them). Beyond that, it’s bare rocky crags that look incredibly dramatic on a moody day and photogenic on a decent one – often reflected in the lake water.

Skiing: Štrbské Pleso has taken advantage of its geology to build one of the better skiing centres in Slovakia – and certainly the best in the High Tatras.

Ostentatious Architecture: Ornate turn-of-the-century or Communist: the choice is yours, architecturally, at Štrbské Pleso and a tour to take in the different styles is a must. See our Ludicrous Little Tour of Communist Architecture!

Learning Trail: This skirts the lake perimeter and tells you about the area’s history.

Rowing Boats: You can go rowing on the lake: very nice and old-fashioned.

Eating: A couple of very good restaurants can be found around the lake.

Staying: Likewise, and as already mentioned, there are some rather striking accommodation options too.

More detail on these activities below…

But First: The Arrival

First impressions when you get off the Tatras Electric Railway at this end-of-the-line station of Štrbské Pleso aren’t great, actually. The “village” such as it is around the railway terminus has fallen prey to some pretty crass 1960’s and 70’s development and in places actually looks like a construction site. There are several hotels in this part of the village – none amazing, although this one won prizes for its architecture back in the day:

strbske pleso

 

About the best thing you can do here is to go for a bite to eat in the very good cafe/restaurant, Reštauracia Furkotka. It’s got outside seating and does all the typical Slovak dishes very nicely. Walk up passed the souvenir stands towards the ski centre to find the access road to the actual lake part of Štrbské Pleso cutting up to the left (which, of course, is the part deserving of your time).

Staying, Eating and Activities

Check In,Eat Out…

From where most visitors reach the  lakeshore (the south-east corner), stretching away along the south shore are Grandhotel Kempinski and Hotel Solisko. Both are beautiful early 20th-century buildings worth checking out. Also on the southern shore at this point is the pretty jetty you can hire rowing boats from. The restaurant of Grandhotel Kempinski is of course very nice, but it’s not the most atmospheric: that honour goes to Koliba Patria which you will find by following the lake path round anti-clockwise, about half-way along the eastern side. It looks palatial enough too in its own way, but favours the Slovak mountain way of building: with wood. Koliba Patria is actually owned by the distinctive building you could see from outside those first two hotels: Hotel Patria. How do describe this somewhat imposing building: an enormous, stark, but inside very lovely mountain chalet?

Architecture…

As intimated above, the contrasts between the turn-of-the-century resports (Grandhotel Kempinski, Hotel Solisko) on one side of the lake and the Communist style of Hotel Patria on the other are worthy of a look-see and some camera shots.

Learning Trail…

The path going around the shore, you’ll notice is a learning path which tells you a lot of information about the history of the area. Jozef Szentivnyi was evidently an important chap: more or less pivotal, actually. He built the original lodges here (where Hotel Solisko now stands), he constructed the first tourist paths, he built the first hunting lodge here. He made, in short, this village into a proper resort.

Hiking…

As far as outdoor activities away from the lakeshore go, number one has to be hiking. You soon lose the other gaggles of tourists once you start to climb away from the lake up through the forest. Another learning path, in fact, has been constructed to connect Štrbské Pleso via a one-hour red trail hike to Popradské Pleso, a higher lake (also with two very nice accommodation options, including the fun Horský Hotel Popradské Pleso) at 1494 metres and still more immersed in stupendous mountain scenery.

As a sample of the hiking ops, this route, heading north from Štrbské Pleso, and also the red trail heading west from Štrbské Pleso forms stage four of the Tatranská Magistrala hike, Slovakia’s most-famous long-distance hiking trail. Our trail description of this hike, which runs across the Tatras, begins from east to west (thus as Štrbské Pleso is towards the western part of the mountain range it features near the end of the route). For a general overview of the hike (which you can of course do both ways), please see our introduction to the Tatranská Magistrala. This aforementioned red trail, anyhow, leads you right up to the points from where you can access the high peaks like Krivan (following the path west from Štrbské Pleso) or Vysoká (following it north).

Skiing…

A close second activity back nearer the lakeshore is skiing. Facilities and snow coverage make Štrbské Pleso Ski Centre facilities quite good. Please see the link to the website which gives a good overview of facilities – but in Englishmaninslovakia’s opinion, and this is also based on discussions with a number of Slovak tour guides, the standards are not “the best”. They are good – and they are available at cheaper prices than in the Alps – but they are not top-notch.

MAP LINK: Poprad Airport is in the bottom right corner of the map; you can see Route 534 heading up from here into the mountains at Starý Smokovec, then continuing west to Štrbské Pleso in the top left-hand corner of the map.

GETTING THERE: The Tatras Electric Railway, from Poprad

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: Right by the lake, you’re on stage 4 of the Tatranská Magistrala long-distance footpath which transects the whole High Tatras range of mountains (or stage 1, if you fancy heading west-east). Go on, give at least a stage a go!

RELATED POST: London to Poprad Flights!

High Tatras Mountains: An Intro to Slovakia’s Classic Hike, the Tatranská Magistrala

Ever since moving to Slovakia, hiking its most renowned mountain trail, which traverses the entire length of the Tatras mountain range, was something I had been obsessed with doing.

The opportunity presented itself this weekend just gone with a friend (and fellow hiking enthusiast) out from the UK so this introduction to the hike and the posts that follow it on the stages of the walk itself are the most bang-up-to-date in-English info on hiking across the Slovak Tatras: online, or indeed anywhere else. In fact, the paucity of available online info is what has prompted me to write about this path.

What is the Tatranská Magistrala?

Essentially, the Tatranská Magistrala is a tough 42km hiking trail that runs from the White Tatras (the northeast section of the High Tatras) through the High Tatras themselves to the western edge of the Western Tatras. The White Tatras, High Tatras and   Western Tatras mountains are all usually referred to by the umbrella term “High Tatras”.  Seen from a distance, this relatively short but extremely impressive range of mountains in northern Slovakia seems to come out of nowhere: a jagged series of peaks reaching 2654 metres, the tops of which often remain snow-covered even in the summer months, rearing abruptly out of the green plains below. The hike takes in the very best of Slovakia’s mountain scenery – from pine forests to boulder-scattered ridges and ice-blue tarns.

Where to Start/Finish the Tatranská Magistrala

Officially the hike runs west-east, starting at the remote village of Podbanské in the foothills of the Western Tatras and finishing at the far-more remote lake of Vel’ké Biely Pleso on the cusp between the High Tatras and the White Tatras. However, given the remoteness of Vel’ké Biely Pleso (you will need in any case to hike on down to the nearest road from here), a far-better end point is the large, scenic village of Ždiar, below the White Tatras peaks at the eastern end of the mountain range.

In fact, given the decent transport connections (buses to Poprad which is on the main Bratislava railway line and is now at the receiving end of a new flight route from London) accommodation options and loftier elevation (i.e. it’s less of a lung-buster to hike up to the high peaks from here) Ždiar is Englishmaninslovakia’s recommended starting point for the hike, and the route we have described here is from Ždiar.

Meanwhile, Podbanské,  despite being a gorgeous little village, has limited accommodation/transport options – and these are only available from the end of June to the end of October unless you’re a big group booking in advance. Therefore you will often need to make your way the 8km further west to the larger village of Pribylina to conclude the hike (from here there are ample accommodation possibilities and decent bus connections to Liptovský Mikulaš, a large town on the Bratislava main railway line).

Practically, therefore, the Tatranská Magistrala is usually a Ždiar to Pribylina hike (almost 60km rather than the official 42km): and it is this hike which is described here.

What to Expect on the Tatranská Magistrala

Most of the publications available will tell you that this hike is relatively straightforward, and doable by most people of middling fitness. That’s not entirely true. Whilst mostly staying within the 1200 to 1800 metre elevations, the path drops and rises (rapidly) more than 500 metres on several occasions, and at one point crests the 2000 metre mark too. This would already make it reasonably demanding walking. Then you have to factor in the snow and ice, which obstructs the higher parts of the trail even into July. Bear in mind the following before attempting this beautiful but challenging hike:

a) Trail Opening Dates

For this reason the trail has an official opening date of June 13th and closes at the end of October (as for the opening date, this is to a large extent immaterial as the afore-mentioned ice and snow is still on the higher reaches of the trail then, but temperamental weather means it really is dangerous to walk it after the closing date). In practice no one will prevent you from hiking it outside of the official dates, and late May through to the end of October should be fine for hiking it.

b) Sedlo Pod Svištovkou – For the Experienced Only

Weather aside, the high point of the trail at the eastern end, Sedlo Pod Svištovkou (2023 metres high; above Chata pri Zelenom Plese and the lake of Zelené Pleso), is a tough and formidable climb at any time. The steep, slippery and often crumbling (the rock underfoot, that is) ascent will induce vertigo in many and is a serious undertaking: you have to cling to chains whilst pushing up precarious rock faces at a few points and strong gusts of wind from the top hardly improve balance.

c) Storm Damage

The other major factor to consider after high winds this May that brought hundreds more trees down (on top of the already destructive Tatranská Bora storm that devastated the same band of forest in 2004) is that beyond Štrbské Pleso heading west to Tri Studničky and Podbanské there are hundreds of fallen trees blocking the path. The priority for authorities after these storms was to clear roads and get access to the villages cut off. Still, the determined could forge a way through (we did, as far as Tri Studničky) but the path is currently out of sight at points just beyond Jamské Pleso, and fallen trees at Tri Studničky have made finding where the Tatranská Magistrala goes at all after the forestry chalets here extremely difficult (we tried for about an hour to find the path and failed). UPDATE 2016: The trail is now clear!

d) Distances in Times not KMs/Miles!

In Slovakia, all distances for hikes are given not in km but in the time any particular stretch of hike will take the average hiker (i.e. in hours and minutes, rounded normally to the nearest 5 minutes). I would say I’m of reasonable fitness with regards to hiking and I found that when walking with a medium sized pack the times given for High Tatras point-to-point destinations are incredibly accurate. With a push, you can beat the stated times – but only by a matter of minutes. Overall, giving distances in times is, I think, good because you know the on-the-day time you’ll need for the walk, which gives you a more realistic idea of gradients than a distance in km or miles would.

e) Food and Accommodation En Route

The trail skirts high above the main High Tatras resorts like Starý Smokovec and Štrbské Pleso: so it’s just as well you don’t have to descend to get your evening meal or night’s sleep. Instead, there exists a very good network of mountain hotels (horský hotels, rustic hotels with ample rooms and good facilities) and slightly more basic chalets (chaty; usually wooden structures that provide basic rooms and, like the mountain hotels, good evening meals and breakfast). These are all found on the trail itself, so you’ll be well-poised the next morning to get up and walking again.

The best horský hotels/chaty are, from east to west (and shortly to be reviewed in-depth on our Where to Sleep section):

1: Chata pri Zelenom Plese

2: Zamkovského Chata

3: Horský Hotel Popradské Pleso

In addition to these options, there are a few other choices en route (to be mentioned in the stage descriptions, have no fear), with the best choices at Štrbské Pleso (on the path) and at Ždiar (beginning of route) and at Pribylina (end of route).

Tatranská Magistrala: the Stage Descriptions 

The full Ždiar to Podbanské hike makes for two and a half to four days walking, allowing time for breaks and for not really rushing (which of course you would not want to do). Our trail description is therefore divided into:

Stage OneŽdiar to Chata pri Zelenom Plese

Stage Two: Chata pri Zelenom Plese to Zamkovského Chata (with side trip to Teryho Chata)

Stage ThreeZamkovského Chata to Horský Hotel Popradské Pleso

Stage Four: Horský Hotel Popradské Pleso to Pribylina

At a push, you could potentially walk from Ždiar to Zamkovského Chata in a day, on to Popradské Pleso next day and finish in Podbanské/ Pribylina half-way through the next day: doing the hike quicker than this is possible, but it would really be rushing it.

Where to Go After Reading this Post

Got the general idea? Now it’s time to go to our Tatranská Magistrala Hiking Kit List (complete with info on Slovakia hiking maps/apps), followed by our Tatranská Magistrala Stage Descriptions and our recommended High Tatras Mountain Houses (under the Places to Stay/High Tatras sub-section) which of course tie in with the Stage Descriptions.

Poprad to the Mountains: Tatras Electric Railway

The electric trains that run between Poprad and the High Tatras mountain resorts are more than a means of getting about: they are an experience in themselves. I, being quite passionate about public transport, am a huge fan of a transport network that not only gets you from A to B but also does so via beautiful mountain scenery, and runs reliably throughout the day, every day. It’s something not all visitors would necessarily know much about and I have the selfish motivation that detailing the route/logistics also helps link up many of my posts on the mountains and makes them make more sense. So find everything you need to know about the route, known variously as the Tatras Electric Railway, the Tatras Mountain Railway or indeed in Slovak as Tatranská Elektrická Železnica below.

A Map of the Tatras Electric Railway - image by Wizzard

A Map of the Tatras Electric Railway – image by Wizzard

From the mainline station of Poprad Tatry there are essentially three lines running: from Poprad via Starý Smokovec to Štrbské Pleso; from Starý Smokovec to Tatranská Lomnica and from Štrbské Pleso via Tatranský Liesovec to Štrba (at the mainline station of Štrba you change for the regular, frequent trains back to Poprad). This means that you can do a loop from Poprad up into the mountains (changing at Štrbské Pleso and then again at Štrba) and come down again a different way – all on this railway line.

It’s the least complicated way of getting up into the mountain villages which are the base for all those exciting High Tatras activities (hiking, ice climbing, caving, skiing, whatever). Arrive in Poprad Tatry mainline station; walk up to the Tatras Electric Railway departure point, voila. Of course, there are also buses from the bus station quite near the train station, but the schedules take some finding and are not as dependable as the trains. The trains are also just as cheap: although no quicker and often slower in actual speed.

The Price of the Tickets

For the journey from Poprad to Štrbské Pleso which is the maximum distance you can do without changing on the Tatras Mountain Railway tickets are 2 Euros one-way. The journey from Poprad to Starý Smokovec or Tatranská Lomnica (less distance) will be 1.50 Euros one-way. Štrbské Pleso to Štrba is only 1 Euro but if you want to go back to Poprad via Štrba it will be 2 Euros.

Frequency of the Trains

Trains run more or less hourly on all three routes. On the Poprad to Štrbské Pleso route the first train is at 5:04am and the last at 22:40. Going back on this route, the first train leaves Štrbské Pleso at 5:13am and the last leaves at 22:13. The journey takes a shade over one hour. There are other connections you can take going via Štrba but only within these same hours. From Poprad on this same line you’ll reach the station of Starý Smokovec after 40 minutes, where you can change for the Starý Smokovec to Tatranská Lomnica route. On this route the first train is at 5:56am and the last at 22:02. Coming back on this route, the first train 5:14am and the last is at 22:34. The journey is only 15 minutes. On the Štrbské Pleso to Štrba route the first train is at 5:17am and the last at 22:44. Going back from Štrba, the first train back up to Štrbské Pleso is at 5:56 and the last at 20:26. The journey is again just over 15 minutes.

The Logistics

If you’re a first-timer, you can buy your ticket at Poprad Tatry station in the main ticket office. You always have to remember to validate this ticket on board. Most other stations on all three routes also have ticket offices, and ticket machines (which accept Euro coins only). If you imagine a line with Štrba at the western end and Poprad at the eastern end and then – in the mountains above – Starý Smokovec almost parallel with Poprad towards the eastern end of the mountain range (and Tatranská Lomnica, indeed, further east) with Štrbske Pleso parallel with Štrba towards the western end of the mountain range. There: you hopefully have a picture in your head now.

Where to Stop and What to Expect (Main Stops are Bolded and Underlined, Noteworthy Places Just Bolded)

Starý Smokovec is perhaps the main mountain resort village (although Dolný Smokovec just before it also has decent accommodation). Still, it’s Starý that has most tourist facilities. Overall it has the feel of an old Victorian-era resort and a lot of it retains its old-world charm. Guesthouses, hotels and restaurants a-plenty. From Starý Smokovec there is a cable car up to Hrebienok where you can link up with the Tatranská Magistrala (Stage 3) an hour’s walk south of Englishmaninslovakia’s recommended stage 2/stage 3 stopover, Zamkovského Chata.

Tatranská Lomnica (east from Starý as previously described) is another fairly pretty village with plenty of accommodation options. From here you can also take the cable car up to Štart and then onto Skalnaté Pleso at which point you are on the Tatranská Magistrala (Stage 2). At Tatranská Lomnica you can also get fairly regular buses onto the village at the very eastern edge of the High Tatras, Ždiar – which is where you can also start the Tatranská Magistrala hike.

Heading west from Starý Smokovec there’s a few more stops which are of no major interest to the majority of visitors (except as start points for hikes – but there’s too many of those to detail here) before arriving at Vyšné Hágy, where there’s a back route to link up with Tatranská Magistrala (Stage 3, but little else besides a sports pub.

The next stop on is remote Popradské Pleso (read our additional post about Popradské Pleso here*) but, despite the name of this station, it’s still a one-hour hike from here up to the lake and lakeside hotel, Horsky Hotel Popradské Pleso (see a description at the end of Tatranská Magistrala (Stage 3) about this route and yet more about Popradské Pleso and its surrounds on Tatranska Magistrala (Stage 4).

The final stop on the Poprad to Štrbské Pleso line (Štrbske Pleso unsurprisingly) is one stop further beyond Popradské Pleso. It’s the least appealing of the mountain resort villages. The lower parts around the train station have been destroyed a tad by development (although there’s a great cafe-restaurant here, Furkotka – I’ll write about it some day) but up by the lake it’s still a very serene and beautiful place. There are several hotels here and of course the ski developments. In the High Tatras, Štrbské Pleso is probably the best – or at least the most popular – place to ski. Read more about Štrbské Pleso as it features on the final stage of the Tatranska Magistrala (Stage 4). You may well not be in Štrbské Pleso for the hiking and therefore we have additionally prepared this fascinating article on what else there is to do at Štrbské Pleso (a fair amount).

All in all, though, imagine it: this is a commuter train, that ushers you up to some superb mountain getaways. And for a couple of Euros.

A Quick Guide to the Other Content We Have on Poprad

Places to Go: Poprad’s funky contemporary art gallery in an old power station

Places to Go: Poprad’s lavish Aqua Park

Places to Go: Nine reasons to linger in Poprad

Places to Stay: A cool travel-friendly B&B in Spišská Sobota, Poprad

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s trendy burger joint

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s dignified Café La Fée

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s Coolest Wine Bar

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s gourmet chocolatier

Going Out: Poprad & the Manchester United Connection

Arts & Culture: Dedicated traditional Czech & Slovak music radio station now based in Poprad

Getting Around: London to Poprad Flights

Getting Around: The Poprad to Ždiar to Zakopane (Poland) bus

Top Ten Medieval Towns in Slovakia

 

MAP LINK: This map shows the whole network of routes: remember, Poprad, Štrbské Pleso and Tatranská Lomnica are the three extreme points.

GETTING THERE: Well, this post IS about getting there! But you’ll start your ride on the railway, 99% of the time, from Poprad

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: We’ve said it here already and we’ll say it again: the end of the line on the railway is Štrbské Pleso – great access to the high peaks from here!

RELATED POST: London to Poprad Flights Are Flying!

Low Tatras Mountain House: Chata Pod Certovicou

8:30am. The only other guest was chuckling to himself. He simply couldn’t believe it. The manager had just given him a bottle of wine (Château Topoľčianky, not bad), well, just because, too often these days there is a reason for everything and what is nice about Chata Pod Čertovicou is that everything about it confounds reason. Being a rather early hour even for a Slovak to polish off a bottle of wine, however, he requests our help and we stand on the terrace of this serendipitous little place in the middle of the forests of the Low Tatras and contemplate our good fortune.

He was hiking the ridge path, he told us, just as we were about to set off on it (great start getting tipsy on white wine right?), and his hiking companions had spied, from high above, this cottage and being aesthetes, had sworn never to stay there on account of its rather gaudy roof (not blending in with the surrounding environment, or somesuch). He’d made no comment but, a little later on that same hike, lost his glasses, and come back alone to hunt for them. And something, he said, drew him to this place as a base from which to kickstart the spectacles search.

The Mountain House in the Valley

It’s an anomaly, right? A mountain house down in the valley. But the first cool accommodation possibility we’re featuring in our new Low Tatras section on the site only seems so ensconced in the valley because the surrounding peaks are so high. With all those trees around, it’s a nicely-sheltered change from those blustery ridges nearby…

Where?

Chata pod Čertovicou (cottage below Čertovica) sits at around 1100 metres, a 15-minute hike down from the minuscule hamlet/hiking trailhead of Čertovica. Čertovica is itself an important way station on the 600km-long Cesta Hrdinov SNP (Way of the Heroes of the Slovak National Uprising) which trailblazes all the way across Slovakia – initially in the guise of the Štefánikova magistrála in the west and all through the Biely Karpaty, the national park of Malá Fatra, the Low Tatras and eventually through to Dukla Pass in the east of Slovakia.

It’s a path which zigzags very much in order to showcase as much of the best of Slovakia as possible (fair enough) and Čertovica is certainly in the best-of-Slovakia category.

You alight from the twice-daily bus from Brezno at Čertovica Motorest – a pleasant roadside eatery with great view back down through the pines towards Brezno. You’re now on a dramatic dip between two high, green ridges here which form some great skiing in season – and the path up towards Hotel Totem on the other side of the road from the bus stop is indeed the beginning of a fabulous four-stage hike, the Low Tatras Hrebeňovka (Ridge Hike) towards Donovaly, which we’ve just traipsed and are currently in the process of writing up for you, dear site followers.

And Chata pod Čertovicou is our recommended accommodation from which to begin stage 1 of this hike, despite it being the furthest away of the guesthouses from the bus stop. There’s one right opposite the Motorest, actually – not a bad joint, and with a restaurant too, but also on the main road and only mentioned here to orientate you down the little lane plunging steeply behind its grounds, into the woods. A trail sign at the top indicates that it’s about 100m to Chata pod Sedlom (accommodation op number two, but often closed) and 0.9km to Chata pod Čertovicou. The lane heads down through the trees, and then, at a sign, a turning bears sharp right down to where the forest reaches a cleared patch of land at the foot of a ski area. And at this point, above a small blue-green lake, you will see the image at the top of this page: a tucked-away three-floor penzión that, outside of ski season, you’ll have pretty much to yourself.

The Vibe

The feeling that permeates, actually, as you walk up the drive and climb the steps up onto the entrance terrace, is one I’ve only had in hotels in low-land, wetland areas – in the Norfolk Broads, for example, in the Dutch countryside. Analysing this, I can’t really say why – but it’s the polar opposite of a typical Slovak mountain house in its vibe, something to do with all the land around being much higher, with the horizon being filled with woods, with the proximity of water, with the burble of the lakeside pump house, with the quaint backwater ambience you only feel in rural pubs in the middle of a flat nowhere.

Whatever the vibe is for you, one thing I think all first-timers here will agree upon is the friendliness of the staff. With the ultimate laid-backness, they warm you with their generosity (complementary afternoon cookies (well, they have to be eaten), free bottles of mineral water (it’s just water), extra-huge portions of dinner because charmingly the restaurant special of the day is also what the family in charge is eating). The free wine, well, that’s been mentioned already.

Restaurant and Rooms! 

The terrace sidles along the side of the creaking wooden restaurant area, hung with vast wall maps of the area’s hiking trails, where fresh fruit and the cake of the day are also displayed. Both yield views up to the ski area, devoid of other tourists in summer and resembling no more than a rather scenic break in the treeline. A restaurant alcove leads into a bar billiard room, further cementing the Norfolk Broads pub atmosphere for me. I still harboured a thought at this point that the rooms themselves, given the place was so deserted, might be in want of a little TLC. But no. Recently redone, with sparkling new bathrooms (square toilets, you don’t see them very often) and spacious showers – and views out onto giant sagging private balconies. Everything, in short (save a closet) that you would expect in a midrange hotel room, and (and here is an important point) for a budget mountain-house price (just 30 Euros). Unbelievably, for this room, and for the views you’ll see below, and for two evening meals, a couple of beers each and at least two or three teas/coffees, our bill for the night was a mere 50 Euros.

©englishmaninslovakia.com

©englishmaninslovakia.com

©englishmaninslovakia.com

©englishmaninslovakia.com

©englishmaninslovakia.com

Skis – and artistically arranged ones ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

We did (and you should too) realise that Chata pod Čertovicou does not set a trend for how Low Tatras accommodation in the wilderness generally is. Normally it’s basic. Beds in a dorm. This place is the exception. It is an anomaly, in fact, in its very survival: an August weekend was when we showed up, and there was no one staying.

Except our friend on the lookout for his spectacles, of course.

So did you find them, we asked, a couple of Château Topoľčianky’s in.

“The glasses? No. But I don’t mind. They were expensive, but I don’t mind. Look at this view.”

We looked.

MAP LINK:

 PRICES: Double room 32-52 Euros (Higher prices for the most refurbished ones, summer season) OR 35-55 Euros, winter season) and dorms available for a mere 14/16 Euros per person summer/winter season) (2017 prices)

BOOK CHATA POD  ČERTOVICOU

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The High Tatras Mountain Resorts – Štrbské Pleso: Mountain Lakeshore Dining at Koliba Patria

Štrbské Pleso is a place people end up at. Its beauty is much touted in Slovakia (and it even makes a point of stating, on the banks of this lake ensconced beneath the High Tatras peaks, about how it got on the long list for the Seven Wonders of Nature). To be honest, such a bid was a bit of a long shot. For a start, a Wonder of Nature probably shouldn’t have hotels along two of its shores. It’s a very pretty place, however. And the chances are you’ll come here on your High Tatras sojourn because it’s a great base (those hotels, remember) for some truly amazing hiking (the lake is right on the country’s most-famed hiking trail, the Tatranská Magistrala), skiing and mountain climbing – not to mention being the end of the line of the Tatras Electric Railway (and “end of the line” stations always hold a certain fascination).

We’ve created a separate post on Štrbské Pleso which covers the attractions of this mountain lake and the village below it (which makes the Wikipedia entry look, dare it be said, scant). But for this post we want to focus on Koliba Patria, a fairytale-like chata (i.e., mountain cottage) restaurant on the eastern shore of the lake. It doubles up as being the most beautiful building in the area and serving the best food.

Inside… check out that stove!

Inside… check out that stove! – image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

As you hit the southeast corner of the lakeshore on the main path up from the mountain railway station and the village “centre”, head anti-clockwise on the lakeside path and, half way around to Hotel Patria (who own the joint) you’ll not fail to spot the place. The inside (nice and light with lots of windows and a balcony looking out on the lake) is utterly traditional Slovak: everything done in dark wood with a huge ceramic stove typical of rural Slovakia, ski apparatus and other old farming implements on the walls, along with several pictures of the Tatras back in the days of yore. Seating is in a series of alcoves (separated by screens and making the eating experience quite private) and there’s an upstairs too generally only open for functions. Service is very good here, and they’re used to all kinds of bizarre tourist requests. But it’s certainly not just a spot for foreign tourists: it’s mostly Slovaks on a weekend day out lunching here.

You’ll find it easy to read the menus (options are in German and English besides Slovak) but not quite so easy to choose. But whilst the menu is fairly international, the Slovak classics are the thing to go for here. There’s a good intro to the Slovak sheep’s cheese known as bryndza (a tasting platter of the stuff) – or you can go for a deliciously creamy version of the national dish, bryndzové halušky (sheep’s cheese dumplings with bacon). In fact, sheep’s cheese has rarely been glimpsed in a restaurant in as many combinations – you can even (unusually for Slovakia) order it with just a salad (apples and tomatoes). The Slovak mains also have the advantage of being quite cheap (5 to 8 Euros). On the meat front, the deer with plums and Slovakia’s delicious herb-infused way of preparing roast potatoes goes down very nicely… and, if you dare, you may wish to try Slovakia’s deadliest drink, Tatranský Čai or “Tatras Tea” – a potent locally-brewed spirit with a taste like Jagermeister.

FULL MENU

When we arrived the last time, we were in need of cake, however, and coffee: and here Koliba Patria does very well. A light fluffy sponge doused in wild berry sauce and good espresso. It was excusable, of course, on that occasion: we had a long way still to walk…

Good cake...

Good cake…

So there we have it: caught between the at-times pretentious glamour of the Grandhotel Kempinski on one side and the ostentatious bulk of Hotel Patria on the opposing shore,  Koliba Patria is, quite simply, a nice and very welcoming place to stop, eat and get acquainted with Slovak cuisine in a serene surrounding. Gone, thank God, is the village centre bustle and the terrible souvenir shops. The hikes, the hotels and the beckoning ski resort have managed to absorb the crowds and left this spot relatively relaxed.

MAP LINK: Here you can see most of the lakeshore sights, plus Štrbské Pleso and Popradské Pleso stops on the Tatras Electric Railway back to Poprad

LOCATION: Eastern lake shore, Štrbské Pleso

OPENING: 11:30am-10:30pm daily

BEST TIME TO VISIT: Around 12:30pm for an early lunch, when it’s none too crowded and it’s still perfectly acceptable to begin it all with some of the delectables cakes and coffee. As it’s on the lake shore, be sure to come here when it’s still light so you can see something of the view.

LAST UPDATED: April 2017

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: Koliba Patria can be visited on Stage 4 of the Tatranska Magistrala