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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.

©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).