Bratislava's best cafe? ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Avra Kehdabra

Wifi: Alright.

Even when I don’t write about Bratislava for a few weeks on here, something wells within me which I can only describe as a pit of hunger. Not hunger for food, per se, or for Slovak food particularly, but for kicking back in one of Bratislava’s charming little cafes or bars, imbibing the atmosphere (and yes, sustenance is likely to play a part sooner or later). Slovakia’s capital city inspires nostalgia in precisely this way: initiating withdrawal symptoms in the punters who have partaken of its cafes mighty quickly after they settle their bills and walk out the door. For Bratislava is about its cafe culture as much as its bar culture and probably more than its restaurant culture. Forget your over-crowded Viennas and Budapests if it is nursing a beverage for hours in chilled surrounds. Bratislava has been watching and learning of recent years how to concoct sublime coffee (and it never forgot how to serve tea in all its fabulous forms; just see our history of coffee and tea culture in Slovakia). And the city has become adept at fashioning attractive nooks to slurp your coffee or tea, too. Case in point (indeed, best case in point): Avra Kehdabra.

Ah yes, those two little words that have incited magic tricks a-plenty in their time denote, on one of Bratislava’s most enticing streets, perhaps the best example of a cafe in the Old Town. Stroll down Grősslingova, a model city thoroughfare lined with leafy trees and independent shops and restaurants and the eyecatching facade of Avra Kehdabra hits you, bright signs propped against pillars intimating of tea, coffee, wine and cake within. This den styles itself as a literary teahouse first and a cafe second, and it is the tea that is most in evidence: stacked on shelves for sale in packets and/or lovingly prepared in front of you by the knowledgeable staff. The tea – fruit, herb, white, black, green, with oolong and pu-erh tea from China – is served with ceremony, and you can prepare your cuppa yourself with the aid of various specialised pouring devices (no, not just teapots, but ornate percolators too). It is not going to be just refreshment you get here, but a veritable lesson in the origins of the tea you taste and its place in society, and the overall impression is that Avra Kehdabra is enthusiastically continuing that age-old association of Bratislava with fine tea-drinking joints. The coffee is sensational too, with the ristretto and lungo particularly impressing.

And what better place for such a crash course in delicious beverages could there be? Not since the days of the lovely, cosy Prešporák has there been a rival in the city for Avra Kehdabra in terms of antiquated elegance, where dark wood tables and stalls are complemented by Asian-style rugs and throws draped everywhere, by shelf upon shelf of books and, in an even more intimate room at the back, massive armchairs to curl up in and drink and read in. It will account for all the time that you are waiting for your drink to take in all the types of tea stashed in old medicine jars behind the counter. At some point as the hours slide happily by and tea number two is coming to its end, you might decide to order one of the light snacks (hummus with vegetable dipsticks) or graduate to a glass of wine.

It’s mostly young folks that will stop by during your reverie or loooong chat with friends or acquaintances: twenty-something couples, students skiving lectures, the odd intrepid visitor. And whilst the place can fill up in the evenings, there is never any rush for you to sip up and leave: relaxation is the raison d’être here. Rather, this Čajovna comes across much like the optimistic person’s drinking glass: it never appears as much as half empty of customers, and almost always feels at least half full.

And here’s a final thought. This place stays open until 10pm. At 8 or 9 in the evening, people are here socialising drinking tea. There is something beautiful in that. Something quite pure. In England, we’d likely already be on the fifth pint by then.

MAP LINK

LOCATION: Grősslingova 49

OPENING: 7:30am-10pm Monday to Friday, 2pm to 10pm Saturday

BEST TIME TO VISIT: Avra Kehdabra gets popular at odd times of the day: sometimes with work-shirking students, sometimes with visitors in wonder, like many of us, at the city’s tucked-away little eateries. But late afternoon to early evening on a weekday should see you grab a table without forgoing the buzz of the place.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Avra Kehdabra it’s 450m northwest to one of the city’s best bistros, Bistro St Germain

Waiting for tea ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Waiting for tea ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

 

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Levice: Where Fodor’s Guidebooks Were Born

Ah Levice! The stunning medieval town square; the church with the sublime craftsmanship of the architect Master Pavel; the famous pilgrimage site of Mariánska Hora; stunning national parks nearby… No. That’s Levoča, one of the pearls of Eastern Slovakia and a million spiritual miles away. Sorry to disappoint. This piece is about Levice, a rather less-celebrated town that might well be relying on the similarities with the names to get any tourists at all.

But Levice does have one very interesting sight, which is worth the stop-off if you’re on the way through from west to east. And that’s the castle complex.

It does not jump out at you as sensational (it’s not on a hill, which somewhat hampers the dramatics). You approach it via a park off Hwy 51 which comes out of the blue, surrounded by a plethora of out-of-town housing and retail parks. The park has as one of its perimeters the outer wall of the old castle buildings but, despite having some clearly had some air of grandeur once, has long lost it. It’s overgrown, walls are graffiti’d, once ornate benches lie in various states of collapse.

Then you round a corner, duck through a gate and suddenly you are in a little bubble of medieval Europe. Well, medieval and renaissance, to be precise. The old ruined castle on the small ridge dates from the 13th century whilst the newer (and nicely whitewashed, you’ll notice) part of the castle which encircles this is 16th century, and the work of Turkish resistance hero István (Stephan) Dobo. It is these 16th century buildings which contain the rather impressive, and nicely refurbished Trekovské Muzeum, a museum with some fascinating exhibits in the area’s history and role in defending the area from those marauding Turks.

The 16th century castle & museum

The 16th century castle & museum

As we wandered across the peaceful grassy forecourt and into the museum buildings to begin looking around I was really thinking: “wow, why is no one ever talking about this castle as a big attraction of Central Slovakia? (there was even, in a very endearingly English way, a little teahouse perched in one of the castle bastions – as if a piece of York had suddenly alighted in Levice.)

But perhaps here’s why. Despite the outer door’s notice posting a closing time of 4pm, and our entry into the buildings at approximately 3:15pm, an aggreessive woman emerged from the bowels of the museum to inform us looking around was not allowed as the castle was closing. We pointed out to her the posted closing time of 4 but she wasn’t interested, and even threatened to lock us in if we did not leave. Not a great way to treat what were probably your only visitors of the day…

Is Levice really so bad? It really didn’t have to be. The castle complex has real potential for a delightful tourist diversion. But because of the attitude of the castle staff, it was. They ruined the one jewel of the town for me. But let’s hope that, if you’re passing this way, you’ll risk the unfriendly castle employees for the clear reward of the fascinating castle buildings around. And arrive at a time they deem it suitable to let you in.

It should be noted, though, that however friendly or unfriendly Levice seems to tourists its role in travel writing and the travel industry cannot be underestimated. It was the birthplace of Eugene Fodor, founder of Fodor’s travel guidebook series.

MAP LINK: (This’ll give you a better idea of location than a street address)

GETTING THERE: Trains run from Bratislava direct every two hours for a mere 4.90 Euros.

CASTLE OPENING: 9am-4pm daily Oct-Apr, 9am-5:30pm May-Sep (if you go by the notices outside) 9am-3:15pm daily Oct-Apr (if you go by the staff’s closing-up times)

CASTLE ADMISSION: 2 Euros (adults) 1 Euro (children, senior citizens)

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Levice Castle it’s 40km northeast to medieval Banská Štiavnica and its superb mining museums.

NB: we changed the title of this post after the original posting of “Is Levice Really So Bad?” – this one sounded like it might do more for the tourism industry:)

NB2: Please don’t think we’re giving up on Levice! Far from it. We aim to bring you, in the future, posts on some of the rather (surprisingly) fascinating things to do around Levice, including one of the Trekovské Muzeums: some ancient rock dwellings! But more on that later (we have to find a reason for you to return to this site, you know)

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: A tucked-away forest park behind the castle in 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

The Tea Tent in Medická Záhrada

Wifi: None.

The first time. It’s important, right? On my first time – with the tea tent in Medická Záhrada, that is – a bare-footed, bearded man engaged me in an interesting discussion about birdwatching in Slovakia: besides recommending then serving me with a very good iced tea…

It’s illustrative of the ease – the slightly Bohemian, but very serene ease – with which “Tvoja Čajovna” (your teahouse) has operated, now, for several years.

In Medická Záhrada, possibly Bratislava’s best-kept city park (Záhrada means garden), this double marquee (the larger of the two tents is for sitting, in far-Eastern style on the floor or cushions, and sipping; the smaller of the two is for the kitchen) announces the start of summer proper when it opens its doors – or perhaps more accurately lifts its flaps – at the beginning of May. And it does so in the gentlest, least assuming way that a place which by now has the deserved status of a city institution possibly could.

It would be easy for Tvoja Čajovna to put on grand airs (being quite simply the city’s nicest eatery to be actually enclosed within a park) or to serve unappealing Slovak stodge for food (it serves healthy platters of hummus, pita bread and salad) or indeed to charge high prices for the privilege of the beautiful location (they don’t).

Instead this veritable encampment (because there’s also two other covered drinking/dining areas separate from the main tent) concentrates on attentive service: particularly where tea is concerned. You can even order a Japanese tea ceremony here!

©englishmaninslovakia.com

©englishmaninslovakia.com

It’s not Bratislava’s finest čajovna, but when you factor in the location, and the beautiful Moroccan-style interior, it’s also not that far off. And when the sun beats down in the 35-degree midday summer heat, it’s the best place to cool off – whilst remaining relatively sophisticated:)

Relevant civic authority: don’t screw up and make it hard for Tvoja Čajovna to return next year, OK?

MAP LINK:

OPENING: 10pm-around 8pm May until October – in fair or good weather only (so don’t come here hoping for shelter in a thunderstorm)

BEST TIME TO VISIT: A sweltering hot June lunchtime

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: 4km east of Medická Záhrada is the neighbourhood of Ružinov