Bratislava Mestské Lesy on Traja Krali (Three Kings’ Day) (January 6th)
IT IS BY NO MEANS the first time I have raved about, nor the last time I will write about, Bratislava’s Mestské Lesy: the wonderful forest that rises up above the city on its northern side. If people ask me what’s so great about living in Bratislava, this is one of the first things I say. A wild tract of hilly forest that begins right on the edge of the city (only a few km from the Old Town) and continues – well – pretty much all the way across Slovakia, actually.
The most popular part of the forest is around the Kamzik, or TV Mast, that sticks up like a sore thumb out of the greenery that frames Bratislava’s northern edge. But venture beyond this, or indeed approach the forest from another entrance, and you’ll have it much more to yourself. What’s exciting, in a nutshell, about the gorgeous, mainly deciduous woods here is that they continue, unfettered, beyond the limits of the city forest into the Malé Karpaty (Small Carpathians) which feed into the Carpathians themselves. Embark on a walk here and you know that nature stretches before you, should you be game, right the way into Romania, and with literally a handful of roads to cross during that time.
As blog followers know, we live in Rača, a large neighbourhood in Bratislava’s northeast, so our main entry point into the forest is at Pekna Cestá. From the tram stop (on the No.3 or No.5 line out to Rača you walk straight up the “nice road” (as Pekna Cestá translates into English) passing two supermarkets and then following straight uphill out of the city. After 15 minutes’ walk or a few minutes’ drive you reach a car park with some barbecue grills, a small, invariably closed booth selling warm soft drinks, the nexus of several mapped-out running routes and, most importantly, the start of an intriguing hiking adventure.
We’re lucky enough to live on the fringes of this forest and I go for runs in the lower echelons (and the vineyards below them) all the time but on the 6th of January, Monday, Traja Králi or Three Kings’ Day as it is known in Slovakia, we were up for a longer adventure. It was a beautiful day here (with temperatures reaching 12 degrees C (when we started out I didn’t even need to wear a coat) and Bratislava folk were out for a spot of post-Christmas fresh air. It was an amazing advert for the city, with the smoke of venison wafting over from the barbecues, young families merrily embarking on the myriad trails and Bratislava’s large contingent of hardcore cyclists toiling up on the steep climbs out of the car park into the forest.
In a 10km or so loop from here, you can walk up on the blue trail to the edge of the city forest (where it borders the Malé Karpaty proper) then circle back to a ruined sanatorium where a beautiful and rarely-used trail then climbs back up through woods, and eventually descends again to join the blue trail on Pekna Cestá about a km uphill from the starting point.
In this part of the forest there are no refreshments (in fact there’s probably scope for some enterprising young individual to open a cafe/ restaurant like the abundance there are around Kamzik) but that’s hardly the point: you are getting straight out into a forest wilderness here where (seriously) there are wild pigs and bears abroad after night fall (either of which could and have easily killed people, meaning the wildlife here is nothing to be taken lightly. The Czechs (probably because they come more often to Slovakia than any other nation but also because they’re Czechs) have a reputation here for coming to Slovakia’s wildernesses, setting off into the blue yonder and getting into difficulties because they underestimate just how wild it is here. It all adds an extra sense of adventure to any hike you do (provided you come prepared and aren’t out after dark).
We didn’t come prepared. Or rather, we didn’t realise how long the circuit we did would take. There we were, enjoying the sun slowly sinking over the treetops and then we were suddenly thinking: “ah, yes, when that goes down fully it will be dark – and isn’t that the hour when those wild pigs emerge?” I tried planning one of my legendary shortcuts back to the starting point. It would have been an amazing moment for a shortcut of mine to pay off. But it didn’t. We had to backtrack. By now it was getting seriously dusky. We couldn’t read our map (the green 1: 25000 Malé Karpaty Juh – available in all good bookshops in Bratislava such as Martinus on Obchodná for anyone who wants a good local hiking map). The stories of those wild pigs and bears seemed much closer.
Then a serendipitous short, portly bearded man tramped by and asked us if we were lost. It turned out we weren’t so off-the-beaten-path after all and he was able to direct us back to Pekna Cestá. Because despite all this tree-coated wilderness, we were only a few kilometres from the edge of Bratislava.
The man bid us farewell, and when he had guided us to the edge of recognisable territory, he turned off on some darker, far wilder looking path that was going in the opposite direction to civilisation.
“Where are you going now?” we cried, for it was almost pitch black by this point.
“Oh, I’ve got another 1 1/2 hours of walking yet” he replied. “I’m going to Marianka.”
Marianka, famous for being a major site of pilgrimage in Slovakia, was a good 10km off. And indeed this man was a pilgrim. He was going to pray to the Panna Mária (Virgin Mary); he did it every year on Traja Králi and, in the true style of pilgrims of old, by foot through these very forests. He took a long swig of strong-smelling alcohol. Whether that was a good idea if he was going to be contending with wild pigs and bears, I am sure he knew best.