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!

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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

35-degree waters - image y www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Piešt’any: the Pick of its Thermal Pools

Whether in summer, for a well-earned languishing and luxuriating session, or in the colder weather for a quick warming dip, Slovakia’s spas – and one in particular – are an absolute must-visit.

The best bathing spots in the country, of course, are much easier to narrow down if that country doesn’t have a coastline. In landlocked Slovakia, bathing is all about spas: there is a stunning variety of therapeutic thermal waters flowing under the earth here, and a clutch of great spa towns for those with a desire to take the waters.

But it’s Piešt’any that is Slovakia’s number one spa town. The quality of services is higher and, located on the serene “spa island” alongside the pleasant town of Piešt’any, the spa buildings with their ornate neoclassical design help create the dignified spa atmosphere of bygone centuries more atmospherically than other spa towns around.

Over the bridge on spa island itself, the most lavish building is the five-star Thermia Palace Hotel (now part of the Danubius group). Adjoining this is the Irma Spa – and what many people don’t know is that the treatments are available to non-guests, and not at so very high a price. There is no need to stay here if your wallet doesn’t stretch. BUT hotel guests do understandably get first priority and therefore there is no way to book in advance the delightful outdoor thermal pool which probably qualifies as Slovakia’s best. You have to turn up and hope that it’s not full (this puts many people off from so doing). But full it almost never is.

Thermia Palace & Irma Spa from the Outside

Outside Thermia Palace & Irma Spa – image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Turn right along the corridor inside the entranceway with its stained glass scene of rural Slovak life at one end and its mural depicting the thermal currents flowing under Piešt’any on the other side. Check at reception for the number of spaces at the outside thermal pool that you would like (12 Euros per person, but for as long as you wish). Then you’ll be guided along to the entrance to the pool. You can go out and put your things by the pool first, then change after (there’s a poolside custodian).

The changing rooms themselves are few but spacious, with high wooden park benches to put clothes on (not quite up there with my favourite Slovak spa changing rooms, the prize for which goes to the glamorous 19th-century hammam at the Trenčianske Teplice spa just outside Trenčin, but still very nice).

And here’s the shocker. This beautiful pool, with a temperature of 35 degrees in summer and 38 in winter, surrounded by the ornate environs of one of Slovakia’s loveliest spa hotels, and abutted by an old English garden replete with statues, is almost always virtually empty – even at weekends. The only people in the know seem to be a steady stream of visitors from the Middle East – but even they are only sporadically in evidence at the pool itself. For 12 Euros you can stay as long as you like here, bring a picnic to munch on the beds around the edge in if you want or wander along the path to the equally refined cafe-restaurant in the Thermia Palace Hotel – with outside tables overlooking the English garden.

If you’re used to Europe’s better-known spas, like Széchenyi in Budapest, you’ll be amazed by the quietude of Piešt’any. The surrounds are not quite as glamorous as Széchenyi but it’s a fair trade-off for having the water almost to yourself. The best thermal pool in Slovakia? Quite probably, yes.

Other Treatments…

That is of course in addition to having the luxury of 60+ treatments involving the famous Piešt’any sulphurous mud, including the indoor mud pool with its lofty domed roof, right nearby. For an insight into the treatments available, check the Thermia Palace website’s list of treatments. And a tip: the hot water churns into the pool right on the left-hand side below the steps in and is the cosiest place to hang out.

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

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

Places to Go: A Great Castle near Piešt’any

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

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

 

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GETTING THERE: Trains run from Bratislava’s Hlavná Stanica Station to Piešt’any every one to two hours. Costs for a ticket are 4.30 Euros.

ADMISSION: 12 Euros

OPENING: 10am-7pm

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Piešt’any’s spa island, it’s 26km north to Beckov Castle and 20km south to Hlohovec

A cellar of Small Carpathians wine... image by Smuconlaw

Limbach: the Stop on the Wine Route No One Knows About

An autumnal article here and a heads-up, if you’re thinking of visiting Western Slovakia, that autumn might indeed be THE time to do it! Without more ado, here is an introduction to the very first place you’ll come to of interest as you drive northeast from Bratislava…

A misty October weekend afternoon; the itch to get out into the hills and away from Bratislava overwhelms. The woods are on the turn. It’s been over a month since I’ve been hiking in them. Part yellow, part orange, part cloud-cloaked green, the tree-backed vineyards of the Small Carpathians await – seeming as mysterious as ever they did.

We don’t fancy going far. The shorter days mean there’s only four hours of daylight left. But we want a walk and we want a change of scene and we don’t want to solely be walking in thick woodland because the sun looks as though it could break through.

We get out the map and decide on Limbach. It’s a village between Svätý Jur and Pezinok, poised between the vineyards and the woods and bang in the middle of the Malé Karpaty/Small Carpathians Wine Route (perhaps Slovakia’s prime wine route, which runs from the northeastern edge of Bratislava at Stara Rača through Svätý Jur and Pezinok and on to Modra) – but one that gets precious little publicity in that regard or, indeed, any regard whatsoever. Quite evidently, this is a key reason why Englishman in Slovakia was intrigued to stop by.

Setting

The road to Limbach cuts up from the main Rte 502 just after the turn-off to Slovenský Grob (a village famous for its fine roasted duck dishes in various pop-up style restaurants but that is another story and another post). Perhaps the reason for its inconspicuousity is right here. Unlike Svätý Jur, Pezinok and Modra, which are all on the main road, Limbach is set much further back in the vineyards. It is, in fact, properly surrounded by vineyards – whereas the other locales on the wine route are only backed by them. This lends Limbach a special feel, as of course does the addition of the woods which are much closer here than they are in the other wine route stop-offs: veritably brushing the church, in fact.

History

The upper part of town beyond the roundabout is the prettiest part. Here, the first of the town’s two churches, which originally dates back to 1530, presents itself. It’s a beguiling white tower inscribed with what translates as “in castles, the strength of our Lord” above a motif of a palm leaf, a bible and a glass of wine. The reference is a telling insight into Limbach’s history. After Mongols ransacked the region in the 13th century, the Hungarians (who were in charge at the time) invited German settlers in to compensate for the previous inhabitants that had been killed. It was Germans, therefore, that built this village up, along with its churches, its charming houses with facades screened by vines and – certainly most critically for the economy – its wine industry.

More recently wealthy Bratislava residents have built lavish second homes deeper up into the woods and their presence probably gives the village a fair bit of an economic boost too.

Hotel/Restaurant

Up above the ruddy-coloured, immaculate tiers of houses, interspersed with the odd vinoteka (wine shop, invariably with degustation) wine cellar, or vinaren (wine bar) in the main part of Limbach, is one of the village’s main draws: the delightful Hotel Limbach. (and actually, Bratislava explorers, at only 15 minutes from the edge of the city, a great alternative Bratislava accommodation option – especially if you have your own car).

This mottled century-old yellow hotel, draped in curtains of ivy and flanked by pretty gardens, cements the idea already forming in your mind that Limbach is about as close as you get to a quaint old English village in this part of Slovakia. It’s something of a focal point for village life, with a restaurant that once again, resembles one of those rural British hotels where quirky bygone signs and curios line the walls along with a lot of hunting memorabilia. Fortunately the stag’s heads are confined to one grand dining area at the end. But the food – particularly the game – is good and reasonably priced  (about 9-12 Euros for mains) and there is the added advantage that a huge selection of local wines are showcased in the hotel: available to drink there, or buy and take home.

Wine

Of these, the best is probably the Rulandské modré (red – and one of Slovakia’s best reds) or the Irsai Olivér (white) – the latter one of the southeast-facing Small Carpathians’ few fruity whites (climatic conditions mean most wines here are dry). It’s good wine, and for only 5 or so Euros.

It can be great fun to tour Limbach’s tucked-away little wineries first to get your palate acquainted with a few of the wines so you know which bottles you’re likely to want. Or, if you want a more sedate wine-tasting experience, you can also relax in Villa Vinica – a wine bar just across from the hotel (they have rooms too for those who have over-imbibed).

But Limbach is enjoyable too just to wander. Paths lead off the quiet lanes of the centre both into the vineyards and – via a well-marked blue trail – up onto the higher hills to Tri Kamené Kopce (almost 600m up, and on the Štefánikova magistrála long-distance hike between Bratislava and Brezová pod Bradlom).

And wherever you are, the senses are always refreshed at this time of year by the smell of wine being pressed, fermented, bottled… almost to the intensity with which malt wafts around Scotland’s main whisky towns.

So there is no better time than Autumn to pay a visit.

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Hotel Limbach is open 10am-10pm for food, drink and general merriment…

GETTING THERE: Through the day, direct buses run about hourly to Limbach from Mlynské Nivy bus station in Bratislava. In the evenings, you’ll first have to change in Pezinok (at the Tesco’s stop). Ticket prices? Around 2.20 Euros one-way.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From central Limbach, it’s a 7km drive (or a hike through the Malé Karpaty) southwest to Svätý Júr or 11km northeast to Modra, the hub of an interesting ceramics industry and the birthplace of national hero L’udovit Štúr.

Trenčin: Hotel Elizabeth

Hotel Elizabeth ©englishmaninslovakia.com

Hotel Elizabeth ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

I tried thinking of several possible titles for this article: “The hotel with the Roman remains”, “A night below the foundations of Western Slovakia’s mightiest castle”, something along these lines. Either of the above headings would be true, as would any title to the tune of “Trenčin’s Most Glamorous Hotel.” But again, not quite right.

Hotel Elizabeth is one of a select number of that coveted group of hotels known as the Historické Hotely Slovenska (Historic Hotels Slovakia) who set the bar very high with accommodation standards country-wide – character-rich old buildings, a dose of the glamour of yore, resplendent bars and spas, etc – but of this group, it’s one of the more down-to-earth. It certainly doesn’t boast about its best attributes, or put on intimidating airs and graces.

Which is why a title which drew attention to any one (or more) of these attributes just wouldn’t do. That said, and with attention span for reading on the web being limited, I’ll harp on about Hotel Elizabeth’s attributes anyway (in no particular order), because they are rather singular.

Historické Hotely Slovenska is only 15 hotels strong, and with the exceptions of Hotel Marrols in Bratislava and perhaps Hotel Bankov in Košice, there are no other independent hotels in Slovakia that currently warrant inclusion. No others that tick those necessary boxes, historic characterquality refurbishment and top-notch service. And of the 15, Hotel Elizabeth is one of a handful tourists would ever normally visit, being smack bang in the middle of one of the towns well and truly on the tourist trail.

Trenčin makes the cut for Slovakia-bound holidaymakers because of its preserved medieval centre, its straight-off-the-postcard fabulous castle straddling a crag above, and its evidence of early Roman occupation in the region, plastered on the side of the same crag. If you dig any or all of the above, Hotel Elizabeth is very much the hotel for you. Perhaps it’s the only hotel for you, because it stands like a striking sentinel at the entrance to that afore-mentioned medieval centre, and hugs two sides of the crag, directly below the castle and with exclusive access to those Roman remains.

The Hotel ©englishmaninslovakia.com

The Hotel ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The Approach…

The crenellated lemon yellow and white hotel exterior achieves some nigh-on improbable angles as it skirts tightly around the crag on which Trenčin Castle sits – so tightly the cliff overhangs parts of the building and you feel prompted to park on the other side of the car park to avoid the possibility you can’t help but vaguely entertain, i.e. that there will be a landslide that’ll write off your vehicle. Car parks. I’m not just slipping in a mention of car parks as a creative attempt at listing hotel facilities: I want you to visit the car park if you stay here regardless of whether you arrive by car, because of the intriguing carving high up on the rock face above (a haughty noble with a woman prostrate at his feet). The first of many neat historical points of interest the hotel factors in.

As you make your way from car park to reception, I’m not going to deny there are a few wobbly moments. Wobble one: an outlet of the national casino chain Herňa on the premises (in poor taste, I thought). Wobble two: hideous fake flowers by the door (again I sighed but it would be far from the first high-end hotel to make this easily-avoidable mistake). Through the doors though, and you’re in a striking glass-roofed courtyard, which now beautifully joins together what had been two separate buildings: light, lovely and intelligently worked. It’s here where you understand what the hotel is trying to do: play on the history of the building and modernise it. The glass lifts shooting up to the skylights high above; the huge glass ceiling hanging cascading down to the chic lobby bar. Contrasted with the traditional, those lemon yellow old walls again and, right by the reception desk, historical point of interest number two: the ruins of a old bakery (unearthed during the construction of the hotel spa) beneath a window in the floor.

The Rooms…

We got a castle view room. A castle view unlike any other, because you’re looking up at the castle directly up a wooded cliff which has become a nature haven as development of any kind is impossible. So a myriad birds and an eyefull of looming bastions, but nice because of the extra tranquility, even if the natural light on this side is a little lacking.

The suites here are huge, with vast bathrooms that get stand-alone bath tubs ©englishmaninslovakia.com

The suites here are huge: vast bathrooms, stand-alone bath tubs ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The space of the doubles is neither bigger nor smaller than you’d expect; the decor is intriguing, however, because gone are the historic features you might have expected, replaced by an absolutely modern vibe I wasn’t anticipating at all. Safe, upmarket, beige-white. The sharp abstract impressions of the old town above the beds weren’t to my personal liking, but they were cleverly done (some would ridicule my old-fashionedness for not liking them I’m sure). Putting the flat-screen TVs in the middle of otherwise gorgeous ornate mirrors was an interesting move. And the art in the corridors doesn’t always work (glamourously dressed ladies clad to blend in with their respective historic-looking backgrounds – and not always blending in). But comfortable beds, oodles of desk space, original toiletries in the spacious bathrooms. No tea- and coffee-making facilities (except in the suites), but they’re always order-able for free – and the lobby bar makes for a good place to sit while you sip. All-told: 78 rooms – and maybe, overall, this is what modern-traditional means for a hotel. In any case, by virtue of the size and the relative glamour, this is hotel of choice for visiting celebs – Slovak premier Fico is a repeat visitor and most leading music acts in the world have bedded down here at some point due to the nearby Pohoda Festival (one of Central Europe’s best and biggest music festivals, in case you weren’t aware).

Terrace view ©englishmaninslovakia.com

Terrace view ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The Rest…

I’m a big fan of the old building subverted by adding a touch of the modern, glassy look: for me that is a definite success story of the post-refurbishment Hotel Elizabeth. From several points on the upper corridors there’s great views looking back down at the interior reception courtyard. But the best example of this is the view from the Marcus Aurelius terrace, an outside bar again sporting a modern, dark wicker vibe. Down from here, you glimpse one of the hotel highlights: those already-mentioned Roman remains, and historical point of interest number three. Essentially, this Roman Inscription , a record of the victory of a Roman detachment of soldiers over Qadi and Marcomanni tribes in 180 AD, is a proof (one of the only surviving proofs) of ancient Roman occupation of the Váh river valley area. There’s a second viewing point, from a small room with translations of the inscription in many languages, around from the terrace.

The ancient Rome theme marches on (a little) in the Caracalla spa, a small but prettily colonnaded place with a surprising variety of massage treatments. In keeping with a place that encompasses multiple epochs, the opulent Cafe Sissi on the other side of the lobby is much truer to the hotel’s late-19th century roots. In an elaborate curve (following the cliff, remember) it sweeps around the edge of Trenčin’s old town; high wide windows, exquisite breakfasts, good coffee and cakes, chandeliers, decorated glass panels, sofas standing in as seats. The Restaurant Elizabeth might take over for evening dining, but it’s the cafe that anyone would have to admit was an essential stop-off on a Trenčin best-of tour.

I think back now, as I’m writing this, to the first time I came to Trenčin, in 2012. It was raining, which already had me in a bad mood. When I got to the historic centre having (incredibly) initially walked the wrong way out of the train station into a gloomy industrial area, the hotel (it is the first thing you see as your eyes, in that first sweep over the town, wander down from the castle over the burnished steeply-pitched rooftops) was under reconstruction. Corrugated iron, scaffolding, boards on the windows and the sound of the drizzle hammering into them. The location of the building at the beginnings of Mierové námestie, the thoroughfare through the beguiling medieval heart of Trenčin, means it can’t help but be your first impression of the place. It wasn’t a great impression, back in 2012, and Hotel Elizabeth’s state of disrepair had a lot to do with that. That was then. And we reach the point. Since the dramatic makeover and its reopening (2013) the hotel continues to strongly influence Trenčin’s feel. The message it sends out now? That the town is back to being the proud, lively, history-rich place it used to be – with one truly quality place to stay.

 

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 Go: A stunning castle near Trenčin

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

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

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

Top Ten Medieval Towns in Slovakia

 

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PRICES: Single rooms 99 Euros, Double rooms 115 Euros, Suites from 165 Euros (2016 prices). 150 Euro weekend break for two deals (see the website) include the very good buffet breakfast, unlimited wellness/spa entry, and one evening meal for two.

BOOK THE HOTEL ELIZABETH