Slovakia has only been a nation twenty-two years. Before that it was a region within regularly chopping and changing borders: Turkish, Austrian, Hungarian, Czech, German, Russian: all have had a stab at meddling with the frontiers here. And so, through the ages, a huge diversity of famous personages stopped by for one reason or another: people you never would have associated with Slovakia. One of these was Beethoven. We’ve already detailed in our post on Hlohovec how the great composer famously stopped off for one night in the town and performed for them. He was stopping off en route to Piešt’any: and there he stayed some time.
Ludwig was hastening here for the spas of course: Piešt’any is a spa town and the obvious reason to come is to take the waters. But there are other things to do besides luxuriating in the healing mud treatments. There are now, and there was then, and Beethoven has a lot to do with it.
It’s not recorded for precisely how long Beethoven stayed, but most sources reckon it was during the winter of 1801-1802. He resided in Villa Bacchus, a grand still-standing but currently unused building in the hills north of the town, and popularised the culture of winter sleigh rides between the villa and Piešt’any’s spa island (great fun on the way there, as it is all down hill, but tough, quite possibly, ascending again from Piešt’any.) The composer was lucky enough to visit Piešt’any pretty much at its zenith: its glamorous status of the age helped no end by the most eponymous of the Erdödy family, Jozef, who had owned the spa town since 1789 (his family, in fact, since 1720). Jozef Erdödy liked beautiful things (I know this from reading a plaque in the Balnea Esplanade Hotel), had Hlohovec Castle lavishly redecorated with treasures from the corners of the known world, and took his state-of-the-art (then) sleigh (adorned with dragon’s heads to symbolise power) up to see Beethoven at Villa Bacchus whilst the composer was in town.
As we set off on a winter walk the other day from spa island, we didn’t know any of this. We just fancied a leg-stretch and, having already walked the lengths of the River Váh in both directions from the town centre, decided on heading up into the hills directly above the Thermia Palace hotel.
A blue-marked trail twists up into the woods from just left of the road bridge across the Váh. At this point it’s a concreted path, and hung with gas lamps (signs of a lovelier age that we ponded upon on the climb). After perhaps 20 minutes of walking you cross a road at a large castellated ruin, which looks impressive (if slightly malevolent) and a branch-off path to the Koliba Restaurant (where there’s good rustic Slovak cooking and nice views back down over spa island and the town).
But the blue trail, also a yellow cycling route, continues on a gorgeous path through woods and then, unusually for a Slovak trail, cuts across farmland. The scene is surprisingly reminiscent of the English South Downs. A tree-lined path through open fields with gentle patchwork quilt-type landscapes falling away on one side and a vast reservoir rearing into view on the other. Not previously knowing anything about the landscapes on this side of Piešt’any both the Englishness and the reservoir (Nádrž Slňava, where a country music festival takes place in the summer) were a surprise.
The one thing we did know at this stage was that we were following a route to Villa Bacchus which, in the biting January wind, assumed almost mythical proportions for us. There would be a beautiful cosy restaurant there, we fantasised. With a crackling open fire, we guessed. Surrounded by beautiful vineyards, we hoped.
The vineyards appeared first. Then, maybe 1km further on, after a ridge route above the reservoir, the scattering of houses which must surely contain Villa Bacchus reared into view, crouched below the higher hills of the Small Carpathians looming behind. In the distance, you could spy the summit where Tematín Castle sits. On a sunnier day, we would have kept walking. From here, beguiling hill hikes both south to Hlohovec and north to Tematín await, in this arm of the Small Carpathians known as Považský Inovec (running from Hlohovec up to Trenčin). But it was cold, and it seemed we were to be disappointed: Villa Bacchus was no longer operational as a dignified lodging house that hosted the like likes of Ludwig. But then, in the lee of the hill, a striking yellow building appeared, with smoke coming out of the chimney. Every one of our fantasies about a cosy place to retreat from the weather were, bizarrely in this out-of-the-way spot, about to become reality, in the form of Restauracia Furman (just down from the old Villa Bacchus). Which is impressive enough to warrant a post in its own right…
So a 2km hike from Piešt’any can throw up some rather wondrous surprises. The best route back to spa island is by returning the same way and there we discovered the sleigh that could very well have been the one Erdödy rode on to call on Beethoven in along the very hike described here. At least, as the plaque alongside conceded, it must have been one very similar…
GETTING THERE: Piešt’any is on the main train line between Bratislava, Poprad and Kosice; this walk kicks off right from spa island (Kúpeľný ostrov).
NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: Continue 23km north by road from the end of this hike at the Furman Restaurant (and a few km less if you’re hiking through the hills) to reach the dramatic ruins of Tematín Castle
NB: Round off the Beethoven tour with a jaunt to see a memorial dedicated to his stint in Piešt’any, in the town park: it was finished in 1939 by Ladislav Ľ. Pollák, a prominent sculptor.