A deer in a dish...

The Far East: Your Very Own Elegy in Oak

“The other day, I was about to toss a chunk of wood onto the stove. But the light caught on the grain, at a certain angle, and I knew this piece of wood could be something. I stopped concentrating on getting the stove going – even though it’s pretty freezing right now in Eastern Slovakia – went up to my workshop, and a few hours later I’d created my latest design. That’s how it works, in this business. Pieces of wood, even the ones you’ve intended for your fire, have the potential to become beautiful gifts.”

Slovakia is a country of trees. It is one of Europe’s most forested nations – much of it beech or conifer, but a fair amount in oak, too. In the east of Slovakia, they even make their churches out of wood (so beautifully that the 50 or so wooden religious buildings peppering the countryside hereabouts are Unesco-listed). And it is in this region that Freddie Venables, an Englishman that has been living here for the last twenty years, has decided to set up shop to showcase the beauty of Slovakian wood to the world: in oak, naturally, as it remains the bottom line in quality as far as carpentry is concerned.

Freddie has an illustrious connection with oak going back decades. He ran a successful oak flooring business out in the east for some time, and designed the oak-paneled cigar room of flashy High Tatras hotel Hotel Horizont. But these days, he’s retreated to the hills of the far northeast of the country to concentrate on what he loves best: whittling away in his workshop what can truly lay claim to being some of Slovakia’s most esoteric wood-made handicrafts.

A candle holder

A candle holder

The main thing with Freddie, besides the quality, is the versatility. Whatever it is that you are seeking to have immortalised in wood, he’ll work with you to have it produced. Smaller wooden gifts are his raison d’être – candle-holders, house plaques, chopping boards, plant boxes, commemorative ornaments (Our seasonal favourites are his wooden bowls embossed with deer motifs). But he’ll happily take on larger commissions such as furniture too. His experience, together with his passion for promoting Slovakian woodwork and handicrafts, combine to render his creations some of the most original take-home souvenirs from Slovakia you could ask for.

The inspiration for his craft is in the wild landscapes around the village of Vyšný Mirošov, where he lives and works, and there is a little bit of Slovakia’s most tradition-steeped region in each of his creations. His wood-made gifts can be purchased through his online shop.

Mini elegies in oak, indeed.

See our Top Ten Slovak Gift Ideas

The craftsman with one of his recent creations

The craftsman with one of his recent creations

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The Best Ways to Experience Christmas in Slovakia

This is the season to be happy, after all.

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

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

Christmas Markets

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

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

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

RELATED POST: Top Ten Classic Slovak Foods

Christmas Shopping

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

Christmas Escapes

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remember Silvester!

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

Home is Where the Heart is

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

Great antiques - image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Bratislava: The Best of the City’s Antiques (Souvenirs)

One can rush through Bratislava – see only its ugly outskirts – and come away thinking there is nothing there. Even should one find one’s way to the maze of cobbled Old Town alleys, one can come away not glimpsing a fraction of the quirks they contain. I’ve said so on this site before – and lamented it publicly to others on multiple occasions: the city’s charms are not the most obvious. As with any true quest, you have to hunt them down…

Such is the case even with those charms that are, so to speak, smack bang under your nose: Bratislava’s best antique shop, for example…

Cafe l’Aura and its attached antiques shop marry inside one lemon-and-cream facade a great deal of the things central Bratislava does best: a wonderful (and reasonably priced) little cafe, a fabulous antique shop and bundles of epoch-old atmosphere.

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©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The first striking thing about it is its location: right by imposing St Martin’s Cathedral; indeed abutting one end of the cathedral buildings. The second striking thing is that, once you dip inside the low doorway and get accustomed to the gloom, you find a shop-cum-cafe not only oozing with understated unpretentious appeal but also one that is often utterly devoid of customers.

The equivalent in another city could not be conceived of. A shop near St Pauls Cathedral or Notre Dame or Vienna’s Ringstrasse like this would be rammed to the gills with milling tourists – and most probably rammed to the gills with insipid tack, too.

Whilst the enterprise masquerades under the name of Cafe l’Aura (advertising itself only by a humble engraved wooden sign) I think of it primarily as an old curiosity shop and second as a cafe.

Normally, I scan the heavily-laden shelves for some of the reasonably priced wares, and only afterwards retreat to turn them lovingly over in my hands over a coffee or two.

And what wares! Ancient coffee grinders, some stunning oil paintings, piles of old travellers’ trunks,  ceramics and clocks from the city’s 18th- and 19th-century heyday.

Any antique shop must necessarily be a reflection of the past of the city in which it sits, but the past that comes alive in a shop like Bratislava is a particularly fascinating one: because it is the German and Hungarian influences on the city that become evident when you peruse the curios here. Because half a century ago or more, Slovakia existed only as an idea…

Which brings up another thing. One which, admittedly, it is far easier for an outsider to see than someone born here. Slovakia has come a long way. In under a quarter of a century, it has become a place with its own identity (bashful at times admittedly) which can casually display its often subjugated history on some sagging old shelves and – in so doing – make it a reason to visit Slovakia today. Because antique shops are becoming a real reason to visit – not just in Bratislava, either.

There is little of the “Portobello Road” syndrome just yet (though perhaps it will come): i.e. inflated prices for what is ultimately not very much. Even Bratislava is, in this respect, very much a bargain-hunters playground where antiques are concerned.

And in the case of humble yet ambience-rich little Cafe l’Aura, it would be one of my first choices in the city centre to look for that authentic souvenir for the folks back home…

MAP LINK:

LOCATION: Rudnayovo Námestie 4

OPENING: 10am-6pm

The entrance to the Old Town of Hainburg - image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Around Bratislava – the West: Going Over the Border to Get Good Stuff

As you drive across the border between Slovakia and Austria at Berg you get a poignant sense of how it must have seemed, pre-1989. There’s Austria’s flat, open farmland, broken by gentle wooded hills, suddenly erupting up on the other side of the dramatic Danube-Morava river confluence into the steep forested karst of Devínsky Kobyla with starkly Communist-era Bratislava suburbs like Devinska Nova Ves rising out of the trees.

Czechoslovakians and others from the once sectioned-off Iron Curtain countries often died trying to cross to the west from here. Now many Slovaks would die if they didn’t make the regular crossing into Austria (excuse the terrible pun but talking to a lot of Slovaks, it really does seem as if they depend whole-heartedly on proximity to Austria a lot of the time).

The queue to get across the border might not be quite what it was after November 1989 but coming into the first major town on the Austrian side, Hainburg an der Donau (or Hainburg on the Danube) still entails enduring some lengthy jams – and the traffic’s nearly all Slovak.

Indeed, this small Austrian settlement might justifiably be called Slovakia’s very own foreign territory. The town’s population is significantly Slovak, and you can’t walk two paces without hearing Slovak spoken on the main street. Menus are often translated into Slovak and quite frequently the hotel receptionist or cafe waitress is, indeed, a Slovak.

It’s a curious cultural phenomenon but Slovaks, much like the English, can be incredibly disparaging about their own country. The English, however, do not usually move out of their country because of any feelings of dissatisfaction while the Slovaks often go out of their way to do it (well, in fairness having several countries nearby makes this a whole lot easier). If Western Slovakians don’t live just across the border, send their kids to school just across the border or use the healthcare just across the border then you can bet your bottom dollar they will at least do their shopping just across the border. The mentality is akin to a “if they won’t make it better in our country then we’ll go to where it’s better” and, to the loss of Slovakian services, Hainburg is the town that benefits. Even the salt, I have heard it claimed quite seriously, tastes superior in Austria!

It’s a veritable  Slovak colony, this amiable castle town, but what’s strange is that Slovaks often don’t embrace Austria fully. They come across, make use of the good stuff (higher quality supermarket produce) and return. Even if they live here, the chances are that this will only be for registering with Austrian doctors/schools. They’ll still most likely work or hang out in Bratislava. It’s a curious “one foot in, one foot out” policy from Slovakians in this regard; a deep love, perhaps, of innate Slovakia-ness coupled with a reality check that Austria (i.e. Hainburg) has, well, good stuff.

Hainburg really does have good stuff. At least, the supermarkets have fresher produce, more lactose-free products and prices that are no higher than supermarket prices in Slovakia. But Hainburg, in contrast to most border-hugging towns, exudes far more goodness. It’s got great castles, spectacularly-preserved town walls and gates, and a wonderful national park right by the town, Nationalpark Donau-Auen, which pretty much stretches up to the Slovak border. It’s actually got so much good stuff, that Englishmaninslovakia may very well be writing more about what there is to do in Slovakia’s very own foreign territory. But it’s also worth coming here, to far-eastern Austria, to glean a little further insight into Slovakia and the way it works.

MAP LINK:

GETTING THERE:

To Hainburg from Bratislava…

Driving – Route 61, signposted off the D1 highway immediately west (right) after you cross Most SNP bridge from the Old Town towards Petržalka. This becomes Route 9 on the Austrian side.

Bus – Hourly bus 901 (1.50 Euros) from Most SNP

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: Well, we only concern ourselves with journeys in Slovakia on this blog, so pursue your route west elsewhere! Rearing up on the other side of that confluence of the Morava and Danube rivers is the first sign you’re in Slovakia, the massif of Devinska Kobyla, accessed from Devínska Nová Ves 27km northeast of Hainburg.

Bratislava: The White Mouse (Whisky)

Whenever I’m feeling down and out in Bratislava, whenever the winter cold gets a little too much, not too many days elapse before I’m making a pilgrimage down to my favourite whisky shop in the city to procure a bottle of the Good Stuff. Such is the manner of the shop that the pilgrimage becomes almost an event in itself: a ritual, if you like.

Why do I like the White Mouse over the city’s other whisky outlets, apart from the overwhelming impression veritably exuding from its pores that it’s by far the nicest?

Most importantly of all, it’s whisky presented with panache. The owner is incredibly knowledgable (I’ve vetted him) and knows what he’s talking about when he recommends you a bottle. His son studied over in Scotland and it was during such visits to see him that the man became obsessed with Scottish whisky (absolutely fair enough). So his selection is comprehensive where all the Scotch whiskies are concerned (particularly intriguing bottlings of the Islays, including several from new-kid-on-the-block Islay distillery Kilchoman), and he has Japanese whiskey and North American bourbons too (so yes, it’s a whiskEy as well as a whisky store). He’s even started carrying the little-known Slovak whiskey Nestville Park which certainly flies the flag for quality Slovak uisge beatha.

English is spoken in the White Mouse: it’s a tourist-friendly place, and in a pretty Old Town cobbled side street. People, as the picture above evidences, enjoy hanging out here: visitors and locals alike. And there are regular tastings put on too: just turn up at the shop to enquire.

That’s it. Import costs do make many of their whiskies 5-15 Euros more expensive than their equivalents in the UK. But when you’re on the other side of Europe and you fancy a take-home single malt, it’s worth it. And that Slovak whiskey? Here’s a trailer: soft, sweet, bourbon-esque. As I end up saying a lot in Slovakia: Na zdravie.

MAP LINK

LOCATION: Klariska 6

OPENING: 10am to 10pm Monday to Saturday

Painted eggs… a typical Slovak handicraft – pic by Picture by Doko Ing. Mgr. Jozef Kotulič

Top Ten Slovak Gift Ideas

Whether it’s bringing home a present for the folks from your summer hols or getting that classic traditional festive treat at one of Slovakia’s legendary Christmastime markets, knowing your quality souvenirs from your tourist tack is important in Slovakia – and actually makes choosing a gift to take home enjoyable rather than tedious.

To that end, we’ve produced our top ten of the must-buy traditional Slovak souvenirs. We’re focussing here on things that really aren’t the same if you buy them outside Slovakia, that have a touch of the “only in Slovakia” about them. For more ideas, take a look at our ever-expanding shopping section! Of course, all of the below ideas are not just for Christmas…

10: A Book on Slovak History: In-English translations of Slovak writers are regrettably limited. The big exception is in the area go historical reference where several great reference books await. As readers of this blog will have intimated, Slovakia’s history is varied and rich. Slovakia’s castles and wooden churches are particularly rich veins worth tapping into, with the topics producing several books available in good bookstores like ArtForum (who also have a great section of Slovak movies) or Oxford Bookstore (soon to be the subject of a post on this blog; link currently to the Facebook page, address on Laurinska 9).

9: A Log Basket: No one likes collecting logs as much as the Slovaks; they stack them up proudly against their mountain cottages and even adapt the roofs so that the logs stay sheltered. Needless to say the country has one of the best selections of log baskets you ever will see. Buy them from Nitra Christmas Market, in the main Námestie in Nitra. Oh – and in case you want another kind of basket (košik in Slovak) plenty of other varieties for other purposes await…

8: Lacework: Lacework (Paličkovanie) in Slovakia has a fine tradition, with the old mining towns such as Banská Štiavnica and Kremnica having some of the most traditional work. Originally this would have been work for folk costumes at festival time and normal everyday clothes to boot; now it’s just nice to get a piece to appreciate the exquisite workmanship. Úl’uv have a great selection.

7: Some traditional Slovak music: Classic Slovak folk music may not be what the average Slovak listens to in their car but folk music is still big here and closely associated with the hugely traditional folk festivals that occur throughout summer in rural Slovakia. Get a taste at stores like Martinus on Obchodná where you can pick up albums by quintessential folk groups like Lučnica, classic contemporary artists like Jana Kirschner or wacky experimental stuff like that by Marek Brezovský.

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Banská Štiavnica – an ancient mining town with a lot of ore still under the surface… ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

6: Mineral Ore from Banská Štiavnica: This old mining town really does come up with some of the best gifts in the country. The legacy of mining here is showcased in the mining museum here, where the on-site shop is the place to buy nuggets of silver, gold and other ore unearthed in the mineral-rich hills.

5: Smoked meats: The zabíjačka (pig killing) is a Slovak tradition going back centuries and many of the products from one of these rituals make for good Christmas gifts. For starters, try the good butchers on the right side of Stara Tržnica (the old marketplace) in Bratislava. Why smoked meats? They transport better, of course…

4: Painted eggs: These can be seen in many gift shops around Slovakia. Usually ceramic, they are an important part of the Easter tradition of Šibačka (where the women present them to their menfolk – read more about the tradition here). Buy them in most craft shops, including Úl’uv.

Painted eggs… a typical Slovak handicraft – pic by Picture by Doko Ing. Mgr. Jozef Kotulič

Painted eggs… a typical Slovak handicraft – pic by Picture by Doko Ing. Mgr. Jozef Kotulič

3: A bottle of alcohol: Slovakia, unlike the neighbouring Czech Republic, is first and foremost a wine-drinking country. For white and red wines, pay a visit to the wine shops and cellars of Svätý JurLimbach, Pezinok, Modra, and – in the far east of the country – one of the Tokaj wine-making villages like Malá Tŕňa.

Don’t like wine for a gift? Not a problem. Slovakia is also famous for medovina, a honey-like wine available on many of the stalls in christmas markets. Then there is a whole range of fruit brandies, such as slivovica (plum brandy). However far better than getting any of these potent fruit liquors from the supermarket is to get some of the homemade stuff (made by a large number of folks in the countryside) which is generally far superior.

Not to be outdone, there is also whiskey to be found in Slovakia. Slovakia makes a honey-like bourbon from Nestville Park near Stará Ľubovňa in East Slovakia. Buy the whiskey in the White Mouse whiskey shop in Bratislava or better still direct from Nestville Park after a tour there.

2: Šupulienky: These intricate corn husk figures, mostly people carrying out traditional trades such as wood-carving or butter churning, but also occasionally depicting animals, are intimate reminders of Slovakia’s rural past. Buy them from Úl’uv or from a couple of outlets on the Bratislava Christmas Market.

1: Ceramics from Majolika: Slovakia’s best ceramics are produced by this small Modra-based firm, the signature designs being old-fashioned dark blue, yellow and green floral motifs. Our two top recommendations would be their set of slivovica cups and/or hip flask, or their meat-roasting dish, with a jug-shaped spout to let juices drain off. For the best prices, buy them direct from the Majolika shop in Modra.

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Modra: Majolika (Handicrafts)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Places to Go: L’udovit Štúr’s Modra

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

Places to Stay: Modra’s ceramic-themed hotel

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

 

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

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

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

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

Buying Hiking Maps and Apps (Outdoors)

There it is: one of the classic billboard shots for Slovakia’s hiking: the strange twisting path through the wooded chasms of Slovenský Raj, or the Slovak Paradise. Chances are that if you come to this country, want to see the best of it and have time to do so then you’re going to be doing some hiking: either in the afore-mentioned National Park or up in the High Tatras, most likely.

And you should not – ever – take to the trails in Slovakia’s national parks without a map. Out in Slovakia’s wilds it’s not a couple of hills with some nice restaurant waiting on the other side: it’s wild, guys – as in Scottish Northwest Highlands wild and then some. And it is very easy to lose your orientation with all those trees everywhere!

So: maps. The green-coloured 1: 25,000 and 1: 50,000 VKÚ Harmanec maps are what I have found best. They are the ideal level of detail and come in plastic cases. I find the most comprehensive selection is in Bratislava’s Martinus bookstore, and there’s a branch with a nice cafe on Obchodná right by Poštová tram stop in the centre. Panta Rhei also have maps. They’ll always have the Malé Karpaty (those hills just outside Bratislava) and the main national parks in stock.

Hiking map for the hills and forests around Bratislava

Hiking map for the hills and forests around Bratislava

And, a discovery I made the other day: there’s now a Slovak Hiking app out (search for Turisticka Mapa in your app store, the creator is Daniel Tekel). It’s basically a close-up map of the country with hiking paths highlighted and other detail faded out slightly. As long as you are going along a marked trail (most good hiking in Slovakia is along marked trails anyway) it’s pretty accurate – although at the admission of the creator, not all close-up terrain detail is shown, so if you do accidentally stray off the marked trail you may have probs. But it is a good back-up resource and with a blue dot to indicate if you are, indeed, where you think you are, you probably won’t go too wrong. The app is free; additional features such as tracking your route cost an extra 69 pence.

ArtForum’s Slovak Movies (Film)

Just a shout-out, really, this post: Bratislava is full of these labyrinthine old streets that, in and around the Old Town and Castle area, secrete serendipitous bars, cafes, galleries and shops.

On a cool, crisp night last night we were wandering in the streets just below the castle and chanced upon a place we’d seen before but not ever entered: the ArtForum, a bookshop-cum-cafe which is actually represented in a few of the larger towns across Slovakia.

The main point of the ArtForum is in its great collection of proudly avant-garde Czech and Slovak writing, Slovak music and Slovak film.

Here you’ll find editions of Samo Chalupka poetry or Milan Kundera novels that you just won’t find elsewhere. It also has, of course, a great selection of international authors represented. It’s also one of the few places in Bratislava that sells records (the city is just waking up to the fact that they’re popular again). Plus there’s a little cafe at one end selling good jams and wine as well as coffee and cake.

But it’s the film selection that was actually most interesting for me. Here is perhaps the best array of Slovak and old Czechoslovak movies anywhere in the city centre, for actually purchasing at least. There are all the classics by Slovakia’s most renowned director, Jakubisko, like The Millennium Bee, Báthory and Perinbaba (which although well known in Slovakia are, for most outsiders, an eyeopening introductions to the wonders of Slovak cinema). Then there was one of my personal favourite Slovak movies, Ruzove Sný (Pink Dreams) which is a groundbreaking portrayal of how the Roma are viewed in Slovakia. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg. My girlfriend got very excited about Panna Zázračica (which we bought; it’s an adaptation of a book by Dominic Tatarka who is one of Slovakia’s most important 20th century writers). Oh, and they have copies of The Wolf Mountains, the Slovak wildlife documentary I’ve been raving about recently, as well.

But for anyone trying to understand a little bit more about Slovak cinema, this is the place to begin trying.

MAP

Plus check out ArtForum’s other locations in Žilina and Košice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Come Here?

Good question.

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

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

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

EATING:

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

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

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

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

MAP LINK

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

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