Waiting

I’m waiting in the concrete starkness of the Most SNP Bus Station; eyes dimly fixed on the rather fetching new digital departure screen; realisation slowly dawning that I have indeed missed the hourly bus to Devín. As it’s early, and I’ve got up punishingly prematurely to make this bus I have now missed, I decide to go and console myself with a coffee in the cafe across the road. When a voice in a distinctly Aussie accent calls out to me if I know what’s going on with the buses. Of all the people there someone asks me if I know what’s going on? Or maybe it’s more that, of all the people there, I’m the only one that looks like they speak English…

Enter Tyson, on the road for two years, having shied away from the dull grind of mortgages and meaningless unfulfilling jobs etc for a life of international adventure. And he’s rocked up in Bratislava. Well, I decide to help give him a positive impression of the place (after all, if I was backpacking round Europe I’d want to meet someone like me; the encounter would make a mildly interesting end-of-the-day anecdote in a hostel when it comes to trading-anecdotes-with-other-backpackers time).

Problem being that Tyson’s not really giving himself much of a chance with Slovakia’s fair capital city. Uh-uh. He’s fresh off a night train from Krakow, he’s checked into Hostel Blues (view of Tesco’s and the Number 5 tram route) and, sleep-deprived, given himself the day (ahem, it’s Monday morning) to see Bratislava, before heading off tomorrow to Budapest.

Well, I entertain him with a few stories for a while and show him the secret delights of the bus station’s metropolitan area ticket machines (he’s headed to Devin too, which happily falls inside this transport zone) but there’s no getting away from the fact that he’s looking for recommendations on things to do – no doubt partly because, being sleep deprived and having glimpsed only Hostel Blues reception area and the bus station thus far in Slovakia,  he’s wondering if everything he heard about Slovakia was maybe a tad overhyped…

He’s not wondering that. Not really. Of course he’s not. What would he have heard about Slovakia? The Slovak Tourist Board don’t know how to promote Slovakia and most Slovaks you meet will look at you like you are crazy if you start enthusing about their country, you know, the “why would you CHOOSE to live here” attitude.

The fact he’s heard almost nothing about Slovakia is part of the reason he’s allowed himself only a day to see it – a day on almost no sleep. So he’s essentially treating Bratislava as a glorified place to crash whilst he recovers from Krakow and psyches himself up for Budapest.

To be fair to Tyson, he’s trying to make it a worthwhile experience, he’s fighting against the urge to sleep, listening to me wax lyrical about Kamzik, about my favourite cafes, about a couple of decent clubs that won’t be open on Monday morning or indeed Monday night, he’s waiting to go to Devin to check that out. Trying, but…

That’s the thing. For most tourists, Slovakia is a great unknown. Slovaks rarely care about recommending it – either because they genuinely believe it to be shit compared to most other parts of Europe or because they’re more than mildly xenophobic and the last thing they want are outsiders coming here and – for example – hiking in their mountains. Well, maybe they are not quite xenophobic ALL the time but they’ll still hold it’s a mighty odd tourist who would want to spend significant amounts of time here. So information on travel to Slovakia is left in the hands of the Slovak Tourist Board (and would you want to be driven by a blind driver?) or remains just in Slovak, for Slovaks (well, and Czechs of course).

Thus it is not really Tyson’s fault he’s only given himself a day here. In fact, I can understand why the guy will be glad to make it to Budapest where they know how to promote their city and make it seem attractive to tourists.

So hey, Tyson, this post is for you.

Posted in BRATISLAVA & AROUND, Slovakia (General) | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

The Dead Bats’ Cave

Down a crevice in the Dead Bats' Cave ©englishmaninslovakia.com

Down a crevice in the Dead Bats’ Cave ©englishmaninslovakia.com

High in the broccoli-hued forest foothills of the Nizke Tatry (Low Tatras) – Slovakia’s great unsung mountain range – hidden between the lofty pine trees of the lower slopes and the element-stunted trees of the kosodrevina above, there is a small mountain cottage. The residence of some recluse, the unknowing passerby might think, some remote holiday house. But traipse up on the one-hour hike from the nearest road and, as you will see, the cottage marks the entrance to Slovakia’s highest, most extensive cave system – and a definite candidate for one of the strangest.

The nearest access point by road is the parking lot above the ailing Hotel Trangoška, alongside a newer, shinier penzión clearly trying to outdo its older rival, on the long twisting road up from the village of Bystrá. Opposite the car park a wide track (which narrows to a path after passing a couple of mountain cabins) ascends through the woods for 45 minutes before arriving at the signed path to the cave – which now lies a steep 15-minute clamber above you.

Approaching the cave entrance ©englishmaninslovakia.com

Approaching the cave entrance ©englishmaninslovakia.com

Sweltering from the ascent on a sticky August day when even temperatures up here at over 1300m are well into the twenties, we fantasised about the possibility of a cafe being incorporated into this remote spot but never really expected the cold beer or piping hot mountain herb tea that the cave guides – who live in the dinky cottage built around the cave entrance for days at a time – offered us on arrival. Descending into a tricky-to-negotiate cave system after a cold Pilsner or two doesn’t seem on paper like the best idea but in the moment it felt right. And chatting to the friendly team of cave guides over a drink is part of the experience: trapped up here with just each other’s company for lengthy periods, they have some colourful stories at the ready which whet your curiosity prior to going underground.

The typical cave tour (8 Euros per person) lasts about an hour. This is not a showcave, with wide paths and neat steps and guide rails. The guides at the Dead Bats’ Cave decided widening the tunnels sufficiently to meet showcave requirements would involve hacking away too much at the rock formations, so they prefer to offer a more adventurous tour, with a couple more heart-in-mouth ledges and slippery ladders thrown in – and simply ask you to sign a form saying that whatever happens to you in “the descent” is entirely at your own risk. Fair enough. Game on.

The tour commences with a descent down to around 20 metres below the surface, and a series of memorial plaques to famous cavers who discovered and charted the passageways here. In common with other high altitude cave systems, formations in this 22km network of tunnels are relatively few, but a striking series of chasms over which you walk, either on creaking bridges or strapped on to iron bars in the tunnel wall, keep you awed. The tour isn’t fleshed out with a lot of over-exaggerated nonsense about likenesses of rocks to various animals, either: this is an hour spent exploring – and “explorer” you really do feel as the tunnel you follow makes a sharp kink down and into a narrow section of bubbled rock passageways with the walls and roof of the cave pressing closely on all sides (Indiana Jones eat your heart out).

It’s around this point that the guide explains the master plan of the Dead Bats Cave – connecting the current system of tunnels up with another still-greater series of canyons – one of which is the size of a football stadium. The connection has almost been made – but the final few metres are proving difficult. Due to the presence of water, digging has to be restricted to when the water is frozen and won’t bust out to flood the cavers: something that happens for perhaps a month each year and even then, only for a few hours daily because it becomes too difficult to breathe. Watch this cold, dark space, therefore, for when the attractions of the Dead Bats’ Cave to visitors multiply after these caverns start featuring in the tour!

And finally, on a rock shelf at the side of the tunnel leading back to the surface, the origins of the cave’s moniker become apparent. Yes, indeed, the minuscule pencil-like bones of an abnormally high quantity of dead bats (some of which have lain here thousands of years). Many more, it appears, than the average for subterranean systems. Why? Well one theory put forward is that the bats – the poor blind things – find their way into the caves come late autumn and then, because their access holes become frozen over, can’t find a way out again. The second theory is just that bats – much of the area’s bat population, no less – has decided on mass that these underground labyrinths are a fitting place to die.

The Dead Bats’ Cave holds many more delights. The standard tour touches upon only one of three levels of caves open to wannabe troglodytes – and more hardcore adrenalin-pulsing squeezes and scrambles await with the more in-depth tours that explore all three (costing around 24 Euros).

Stalagmites - little stumpy ones! ©englishmaninslovakia.com

Stalagmites – little stumpy ones! ©englishmaninslovakia.com

Walk On! Beyond the cave, and returning back down to the signed entrance on the main green trail from Trangoška, you can carry on 45 minutes up through the forest onto the ridge at the mountain house of Chata MR Štefanika (at which point you join our recommended Low Tatras three-day ridge hike) and from where it is a further 1.5 hour hike to the summit of the highest peak in the Low Tatras, Ďumbier. Doing even a portion of this ridge hike – a truly glorious one – is an astounding “add-on” to a cave visit.

But – and few people, it seems, know this – the hike to the Dead Bats’ Cave does not have to be the out-and-back route it appears from Trangoška. As you come back down on the green trail (that’s turning left on the main path if coming from the cave) you’ll pass piles of wood left for transporting up to Chata MR Štefanika, with a rather touching request to hikers to take a log and receive a free Ďumbier herb tea (a special sweet herb tea just found in these hills!) for their pains if they carry it all the way! And just below a narrow, rarely-used yellow trail which runs up to the Hotel Kosodrevina/cable car – a point half-way up to the ridge between Srdiečko (another hotel at the end of the road on which Trangoška lies) and Chopok (the second-highest summit in the Low Tatras). This trail initially seems overgrown but it’s not – and rises through wild forest up onto moorland rich in blueberries and raspberries (boy did we have a feast). After about an hour the path – narrow and yet distinct curves up to join the wider blue trail which runs between Chata MR Štefanika and Hotel Kosodrevina. From here you can take the chair lift down to Hotel Srdiečko and walk down the road to where you parked your car – or carry on up to the top of the ridge via cable car to Chopok (where you can take another cable car down the other side into Slovakia’s famous ski area, Jasná, and into another article on this site…)

MAP LINK:

ADMISSION: 8 Euros per adult for the standard tour.

OPENING: Tours available at 10am, 12midday, 2pm and 4pm – daily July/August, March-June and September-December weekends only. Closed January and February (when work on connecting the adjoining cave system gets underway!!)

CAVE WEBSITE: (Slovak only)

WARNING: Temperatures down in the caves are an average of 3 degrees – bring a warm top even if it’s boiling outside!

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From the Dead Bats’ Cave it’s 90km southwest to Stred Europy (the geographical Centre of Europe!) in Central/South Slovakia.

Posted in Cool buildings/castles, Hikes, LOW TATRAS, Other Outdoorsy Stuff (Skiing etc), Wildlife | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Štefánikova Magistrála Stage One: Devín to Kamzík

The beginning of the walk at Devin Castle ©englishmaninslovakia.com

The beginning of the walk at Devin Castle ©englishmaninslovakia.com

This first stage of the four-stage hike across Western Slovakia between Hrad Devín (Devín Castle) and Bradlo is an easy initiation into the walk. We’ve allowed more time for this because of the points of interest en route and because the part of the walk that negotiates Bratislava is a little complicated.

A Little Tip

Of course, for those worried about whether Štefánik actually spent much time traipsing through Bratislava’s western suburbs, and that they will be missing out on an essential cultural chunk of the man and his life by not walking this part, the answer is almost certainly NO. In fact, it’s advised to start walking on stage two of the walk, at Kamzík, if you don’t dig walking through cities OR get public transport between the end of the Devínska Kobyla part of the walk and Kamzík (we’ll advise you how to do this at the appropriate point). There is the added caveat that if (as is likely) you set out from Bratislava to Devín to begin this hike, you will necessarily end up walking back through Bratislava halfway through this stage – time you could otherwise have spent getting out into the really cool woods. STILL a hiking trail is a hiking trail and, city section notwithstanding, there are some great things to see on this stage of the trail, and I have also always been a big fan of how cities and their surrounding countryside merge and mingle, which this stage also exemplifies rather poignantly.

Devín & the Beginning of the Hike

Devin Castle, accessed by Bus 28 from Most SNP at least hourly, is your starting point for the hike. The castle, dating from the 9th century, is a spectacular ruin, and is undoubtedly point of interest number one – along with its surrounds which include the confluence of Morava and Danube rivers and, above, the massif of Devínska Kobyla, the furthest extent of the Small Carpathians. There are other sites that detail more information on the castle, but we have prepared this general (and, we like to think, fairly detailed) post on the castle and Devínska Kobyla right here). From the castle, the Štefánikova Magistrála takes you through Devín and up out onto Devínska Kobyla, brings you down into Bratislava, then up out of the modern part of the city up to Slavin monument and through one of the most pleasant city parks en route to Kamzík.

Bus 28 drops you, at the end of the route, in the castle forecourt. From here my first thought was to walk across in front of the hotel here to touch the castle walls. I doubt Štefánik ever did this but when hiking a peculiar sense of thoroughness kicks in for me that actually gets me into all kinds of scrapes. Anyway, I touched the castle walls, so there. Then turning round and keeping the hotel on your right (and following the edge of the property along to its end) you reach a couple of noticeboards, a sign pointing to Cafe Eden, and a little lane leading to the right, ascending slightly past a restaurant on the left (the beginning of the hike).

Cafe Eden, one of the nicest cafes in Bratislava area. ©englishmaninslovakia.com

Cafe Eden, one of the nicest cafes in Bratislava area. ©englishmaninslovakia.com

This lane ushers you up passing some houses to skirt what becomes the edge of the castle grounds – after a short while it turns sharp left. You now head straight on another lane taking you passed the delightful Cafe Eden – one of the Bratislava area’s top cafes and certainly worthy of its own separate forthcoming post on this very site.  Afterwards, bear immediately right on Hutnicka and then left on Rytierska to reach Devín’s church after a small pedestrianised section. At the corner of the church grounds is the first actual Štefánikova Magistrála sign: reading “Uzky Les (narrow wood!)” 35 minutes and “Slavin (as in the monument in central Bratislava) 3 hours 55 minutes.” Here you want to go straight over the main road and up to the left of the church on a narrow lane. The houses soon give up the ghost, and at a rather-too-subtle red trail sign on a tree an even narrower lane along the bottom of a treelined gully climbs steeply left. Take it: soon the views begin to open out. This lane turns into a track just after one rather idyllic secluded house, and vistas of Devín with the pancake-flat fields of Austria become visible.

The Devínska Kobyla Section

Now on a path through thick foliage, you climb onto Devínska Kobyla, the afore-mentioned last (or first, if you’re coming from this direction) bastion of the Small Carpathian hills that it’s no secret I have an affection for.

It’s a massif worth spending some time in (diversion number two on today’s stage) because of the phenomenon of Sandberg, a spectacular sandy outcrop left over from the time when all this part of Slovakia was submerged by the sea, and because of the views along the Morava river and Austrian border, near where many Cold War-era bunkers and military paraphernalia remain.

Views of flat Austria to the west ©englishmaninslovakia.com

Views of flat Austria to the west ©englishmaninslovakia.com

Your path kinks to the right of an escarpment area (lush views again, but don’t be tempted to head left down into the escarpment) continuing gently up alongside a few open clearings before dipping into the woods again to arrive at Uzky Les. Here you have a choice. A yellow trail continues (fairly levelly) 30 minutes from here to arrive at Dúbravská Hlavica, the next significant point on the trail. The official red-marked Štefánikova Magistrála winds up into the woods and back to the same point, but in one hour 30 minutes. Englishmaninslovakia took the shortcut, but following red 40 minutes and then green for an hour brings you to Sandberg, at the other end of Devínska Kobyla. All in all, this full diversion adds on an extra three hours to you arriving at Dúbravská Hlavica and makes today’s walk 7.5 hours rather than 4.5 – but it’s worth doing if it’s your first time in these parts, and here (again) is our post with a few pictures on what you can see along this stretch.

At Dúbravská Hlavica (accessed on yellow from Uzky Les by continuing on the gorgeous yellow trail up through woods and then bearing right on a much-larger track) you are still in Devínska Kobyla. You are, once you come through a red-and-white forestry gate, on a metalled road, too. Keep straight on, passing a turning to an old hotel on the left, following the road over the top of a small hill passed a TV mast and a house. A little down from here, on the right, look for an information board demarcating a yellow cycle trail. You can’t see the red way marks from the road, but enter into the woods  to stand alongside the information board and sure enough, there is your red trail, zigzagging off through a dark but nevertheless fetching stretch of wood.

At a bunch of Slovakia’s speciality – weekend mountain houses, some of which look fairly bizarre here – the woodland path once more turns into a track, metalled in places, which you turn right on and continue along with the weird weekend mountain houses on the right. The weirdness is accentuated by the fact that now, accompanying the red way marks, are red eight-point stars, like the symbol of some cult, emblazoned on the trees. After a while this main road-track bends right and the Štefánikova Magistrála (marked red and blue at this point) carries on straight, at what will be around the one- to 1.5-hour mark on today’s stage, or the four to 4.5-hour mark if you’ve taken the extended Sandberg diversion).

At a small clearing a little along this wide woodland path, keep on the main route (bearing straight on, not right) and soon, staying on the level, you reach the first real sign of modern Bratislava at a gaggle of clearly expensive but not particularly pretty houses. The path goes down to the left of these, plunging through the woods with the modern city districts of Zaluhy, Kútiky and Karlova Ves soon poking through the trees, and providing a stark but eye-catching rural-urban contrast 🙂

The path descends to a minor road, crossing straight over into a residential district down on another path to the rude awakening of a junction with a major road. Look ahead of you and you’ll see red signs on lamp posts which guide you forward to a bridge over the major Karlova Ves-Dúbravka road, with tram tracks. Pay attention – because if you don’t like city walking, then TAKE PUBLIC TRANSPORT AT THIS POINT TO REACH KAMZÍK (Take Tram 5 towards Rača; get off at Martinus bookshop; cross to Hodžovo Námestie and take trolleybus 203 to the end of the line, from where it’s a 25-minute walk up to Kamzík.

The City Stretch

Once you cross the bridge above the tram stop of Karlova Ves, the way marking of the Štefánikova Magistrála dies a death for a while, so this guide may be your only salvation.

Turn left across the bridge at the crossroads and follow Pupavova street around to the left. This curves clockwise until you are level, on the other side of the houses, with the bridge you’ve just crossed. On the lefthand side, at the first break in the block of flats you see head down left on a small path that almost immediately bears left again and cuts diagonally down between houses before opening into a park.

The path becomes a flight of concrete steps and does, in fact, sport a couple of red way marks. Follow the concrete path until it emerges down at the bottom of the dip on a road. The official path climbs almost immediately up passed houses into the woods you can see ahead of you, but remains frustratingly elusive. Englishmaninslovakia’s solution was to turn right on the road, passing a red-and-white park gate into the valley-bottom park (picnicking, barbecue and play areas for a few metres either side of a wide metalled road) which is part of Mlynská Dolina (valley of the mill). Trees rise steeply up on both sides at this point. Just before the high-rise buildings of Karlova Ves come into view again, a distinct track on the left cuts up through the trees, just after one of several play areas. Take it – at which point you are around the two-hour mark, or the five-hour mark with the Sandberg diversion. It’s a fairly short stretch of wood that you climb through. At the top, bear to the right of the hues you see ahead to emerge on a driveway that you follow to the right, and to the only unpleasant kilometre of the walk.

The driveway becomes a proper road; follow and take the first right downhill on the only through-route for cars to meet, at a warehouse, the winding and rather dull road of Staré Grunty (it sounds as bad as it looks). Frustratingly, whilst there are two parks within virtual touching distance, for the moment this road should be followed left in a wide loop via housing developments, on first the 39 bus route (one or two red way marks appear) and then, hanging left around the edge of a shopping centre, the 139 bus route. Now things are more straightforward and you follow this busy road straight to a bridge over the out-of-town motorway to the Czech Republic. Over the bridge, and the route immediately becomes much more enjoyable.

The road narrows into a lane, rising between houses on the left and old woodland on the right (nb: little terraced restaurant here which although nothing special might come as a welcome break). After the houses, about 750 metres up, there is a split in the lane. A tiny lane (but one nevertheless passable by cars, sheers up steeply (at least 1:4 or more) passed some houses clearly designed by the city’s fancied architects to join a larger road. Turn right. This is Drotárska Cesta, and you follow this road round left and down to join the main road of Budkova. Another example of how the trail does something a bit strange here: rather than cutting into the lovely Horský Park the quickest way, which would be left, the route takes you diagonally across Budkova and then turns left after the bus stop on Stará vinárska, before bearing sharp left back on itself up the pleasant lane of Francúzských partizánov to reach the park this way. This is probably because, at the junction of Stará vinárska and Francúzských partizánov, you have the option of continuing straight on to check out the very impressive Bratislava viewpoint of Slavín (it’s significant worthwhile diversion number three).

Horsky Park ©englishmaninslovakia.com

Horsky Park ©englishmaninslovakia.com

Horský Park through to Kamzík

Missing the nature by this point? As you arrive at the three-hour/six-hour mark of today’s stage by Horský Park – one of the nicest Bratislava parks – countryside-lovers will be pleased to know that a further 30 minutes of hiking from here gets them into nature – unadulterated nature – that doesn’t let up for the next 100-odd kilometres of this path. The city part of this route – whilst it may to some seem unworthwhile – for me provided that beautiful sense of contrast which some long-distance paths have: busy Bratislava district, with people going about their daily business which has nothing to do with hiking, one minute, the next endless woods.

When you hit the woods on the edge of Horský Park, bear right at the information board and follow the stone steps right down through the park to the cafe of Libresso Horáren; yay – a refreshment stop again, and quite a nice one) at the bottom. Turn left on the leafy path along the bottom of the park, which after ten minutes of walking or so comes to the park entrance. Cross straight over onto Bohúňova, continue several blocks to Jaseňová, head up to the end where the road bends left into Brnianska, and emerge to cross over the busy main road directly under a railway bridge on a small concrete path. On the other side of the bridge the path leads left passing garages up to Limbová. Turn left on this fairly busy road, following it down under a bridge to – phew – then bear right after a bus stop up steps on a small path into – ahem – those endless woods we just mentioned.

An ambience delightfully reminiscent of old English woodland kicks in quite quickly. Ducking under (duck quite low) the old railway bridge, the path leads left, initially near a railway track and then right at a junction, then almost immediately left, already rising on the contours of the ascent to Kamzík. Quite soon there is another three-way junction of tracks and this time you want the right-most (uppermost) of the three. This will take you up through woodland, across a clearing, and right up to the very door of the Kamzík TV mast itself.  Kamzík is, as we have mentioned a few times on this site, more than just a landmark: it’s undoubtedly diversion number four on this stretch, and you’ll have time, because this is virtually the end of today’s stage. Check our Kamzík post for more, but first let us guide you to your accommodation for the end of the day which yes, is right up amidst these lovely woods.

It’s fairly simple, this last bit. Go down the steps at the entrance of the TV tower. Turn left on the little approach road. After the road curves round sharp right by a parking area you’ll see a minor path cutting down through the woods. Take it and in about three minutes you emerge on the approach road to Hotel West – your accommodation tonight. (it’s a Best Western but hey, we’re doing our best here to find you accommodation EN ROUTE – and this is a pretty nice Best Western, as they go…) And as the post on Kamzík details, there’s a fair few things to do around here.

WHAT NEXT?

Štefánikova Magistrála – an introduction

Štefánikova Magistrála – Stage Two

Štefánikova Magistrála – Stage Three

Štefánikova Magistrála – Stage Four

©englishmaninslovakia.com

©englishmaninslovakia.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Accommodation in the Wilderness, BRATISLAVA & AROUND, Cool buildings/castles, Hikes | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

The Štefánikova Magistrála (Štefánik’s Trail)

Bratislava skyline from the Stefanikova Magistrala ©englishmaninslovakia.com

Got to get out of this city… Bratislava skyline from the Štefánikova magistrála ©englishmaninslovakia.com

 

When I heard there was a path themed around one of Slovakia’s greatest all-time heroes, Milan Rastislav Štefánik, running from the Austrian border at Hrad Devín through the entirety of the Small Carpathians to Bradlo, where the man is buried, my interest was, I’ll admit it, piqued.

120km Showcase of Slovakia’s Best-Of

The Štefánikova Magistrála is a 120km path in total and encompasses the very best of Western Slovakia along the way – unforgettable forest, several of the most magnificent castles in the country, and – of course – that poignant finish at Štefánik’s tomb.

It transplants you to the pretty, river-hugging village of Devín, invites you on the clamber up to the sandy escarpments of Devínska Kobyla (which, once upon a time not so long ago, protected East from West in Europe), shows you the modern face of Bratislava’s western suburbs, and then, slowly but steadily, those woods and hills – rising only up to 700m (about 2300 feet) but quickly metamorphosing into a little-traipsed wilderness replete with wild pigs and deer. A narrative thread, in other words, linking some of the West’s best tourist attractions.

And part of it runs only about 1.5km away from where I’m living!

The Tatranská Magistrála it Ain’t…

Unlike the Tatranská Magistrála, with all its provision for tourists, including many convenient mountain houses to bed down in, the Štefánikova Magistrála is a different proposition. It is far less walked, and not always as well maintained. Its signage – even at its best – is worse, and often dies out completely. There are no designated accommodation options en route, either – you have to make the best of what is nearby! Perhaps therein lies its appeal: on the Tatranská Magistrála, you will always meet other hikers – here not. Much of this route lies on forgotten paths, only used by local dog walkers or cyclists. True, it lacks the mountainous intensity of Eastern Slovakia – but it is greener and, for leading you astray into increasing isolation, perhaps more beguiling in its own way.

Every Last Bit of the Path (Almost)

Today – a sweltering July day when I needed to get away from my desk – I finally got round to starting this walk. Now, living where I do (Rača) I could have cut up behind my house and been at a point near where I finished today’s stage in a couple of hours – a surefire way to get to the most beautiful parts of the hike sooner. I didn’t do that. I wanted to walk the Štefánikova Magistrála from beginning to end. With such a resolution, I had to therefore go to Devín Hrad (Devin Castle).

The Štefánikova Magistrála According to the Englishman

It’s a somewhat contradictory concept, these paths in the footsteps of famous people. You want to believe, mid-tramp, that yes, it’s OK, Štefánik (in this example) really was sweating it out on these very paths. But of course there is that growing suspicion in the back of your mind that the route planners just want to take you via as many showcase sights as humanly possible. This suspicion grows within you mighty quickly on the Štefánikova Magistrála. Circuitous would be describing this path mildly. Therefore, what follows in the stage descriptions is the Štefánikova Magistrála according to Englishmaninslovakia, with shortcuts inserted where following the path would be an illogical detour.

A Final Few Things About Štefánikova Magistrála on this Site

This route also takes you from the castle walls of Devín (which, in a symbolic gesture, I felt I had to touch before I could get on with the walking thing). If you want to cut straight to the serious woodsy part of this hike, you might want to skip Stage One (to follow this post) and pick up from the start of Stage Two at Hotel West, by Kamzik.

We’ve tried to divide each stage of the Štefánikova Magistrála into five to seven hour walking days, with accommodation possibilities at the end of each. Especially with the first stage, there are a fair few sights to see that should (quite rightly) detain you, and there is a lot of steep ups and downs, plus the highest chance of getting lost (for reasons that will become apparent) – so we’ve given you an easy first days’ hiking!

Finally – getting there. The easiest way by public transport to Devín is to go to the Most SNP bus station (under the bridge) and take the hourly 29 bus which goes straight to the castle forecourt.

Map Check

You WILL need maps for this hike (green-coloured 1: 25,000 and 1: 50,000 VKÚ Harmanec maps; see our post on where to buy hiking maps). It is not enough to rely on the signage. Grab copies of Malé Karpaty Juh (south Small Carpathians), Malé Karpaty Stred (central Small Carpathians) and Malé Karpaty Sever (North Small Carpathians).

Posted in Accommodation in the Wilderness, BRATISLAVA & AROUND, Cool buildings/castles, Hikes, WESTERN SLOVAKIA | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Unsung Charms of Košice – A Perspective on Slovakia’s Second City

A fountain that sings...

A fountain that sings… ©Karen McCann

 This week’s post comes courtesy of Karen McCann, author of  Adventures of a Railway Nomad: How Our Journeys Guide Us Home, which within weeks of publication became the number one best-selling travel book on Amazon. Karen recently spent three months on trains, without reservations or a fixed itinerary, traveling 6000 miles through 13 countries in Central and Eastern Europe, and the results – often hilarious, occasionally harrowing, definitely life-changing – form the basis of her new book. Part of her rail odyssey took her through Košice… 

I always prefer the road less traveled, so I was delighted to discover that Košice, eastern Slovakia’s economic and cultural epicenter, remains almost entirely devoid of tourists. Despite strenuous efforts to reinvent itself as a vacation destination, the city is still, as Wikitravel sums it up so neatly, “a place not often visited from elsewhere.” Intrigued, I managed to convince my husband that it should be the next stop on our train journey through the region.

Fount of… Music!

Walking up Hlavná ulica (Main Street), we soon stumbled across one of Košice’s most ambitious civic projects, the Singing Fountain. This is a large, flat network of pipes, from which water alternately trickles, gushes, or shoots thirty feet into the air, in rhythms roughly synchronized with piped-in music ranging from Ave Maria to Feelings. At night, coloured lights pulse in time with the water and music — a sort of Trevi Fountain meets Saturday Night Fever. At first the Singing Fountain struck me as garish, tasteless, and a total waste of public funds; in fact, I laughed outright when I saw it. But I have to admit it grew on me. My husband and I soon joined the locals happily sitting on nearby benches, eating ice cream cones, and watching the water dance.

Local Insights…

Feeling a local viewpoint might help us appreciate the city more fully, we engaged the services of a bright, enthusiastic guide-in-training named Veronica. She introduced us to such points of interest as the late fourteenth-century Tower of St. Urban (honoring the patron saint of wine growers), the Plague Column (commemorating victims of the plague that lasted from 1710 to 1711), and the bronze sculpture of a shield with lilies and half an eagle (celebrating the fact that in 1369 Košice became the first European city to be granted its own coat of arms).

Jakab's Palace KarenMcCann

Jakab’s Palace ©Karen McCann

We strolled together along Main Street, which houses freshly restored Gothic, Renaissance, baroque, and Art Nouveau buildings along with a bare minimum of Soviet-era monstrosities. We saw inviting cafés, a few upscale restaurants, and a rambling, quirky museum of local history, culture, and science. The city had everything you’d want in a tourist destination — except, of course, actual tourists (which can, of course, be a blessing).

An Amazing Saint

One of my favorite buildings was the vast Gothic cathedral, which happened to be dedicated to my own patron saint, St. Elizabeth of Hungary. At fourteen she was wed to Louis IV, Landgrave of Thuringia, and began devoting herself to feeding the poor and tending the sick. This naturally brought her under censure from courtiers who were afraid she’d drain the nation’s treasury to keep its humblest citizens alive. One day, while taking bread to the destitute, Elizabeth was confronted by suspicious nobles, who demanded to see what she was carrying. When she opened the folds of her cloak, a shower of roses fell out.

That’s her most famous miracle, the one depicted on the little plaque that hung on the wall of my bedroom throughout my childhood. But my favorite was the one where she brought a leper to lie in the bed she shared with her husband. At this, the ladies of the court set up such an outcry that the king came running to investigate. When he flung back the bedclothes, King Louis supposedly saw not a leper but Christ himself. And meaning no disrespect, I have to say that any wife who can convince her husband that the strange man lying in their bed is actually Jesus … that is a true miracle.

Gargoyles! ©Karen McCann

Elizabeth’s cathedral was built in high Gothic style and bristled with gargoyles, one of which resembled the wife of the builder, Štefan. While working on this glorious edifice, Štefan went home each night to be harangued mercilessly by his nagging, drunken, foul-mouthed spouse. Goaded beyond endurance, he had a gargoyle carved in her likeness, so she would spend the rest of eternity having her mouth washed out whenever it rained. And wouldn’t you love to know what Mrs. Štefan had to say about that?

According to local legend, the cathedral once housed an actual drop of Christ’s blood. “Some men came and took it away,” Victoria told us. “I don’t know where it is now.” Having seen Raiders of the Lost Ark, I assume it’s in a warehouse next to the Ark of the Covenant. This seems a pity, as a sacred artifact of that magnitude — real or fake — would certainly help with the city’s efforts to attract tourists, especially if the PR department leaked a few rumors about miraculous cures. Another great marketing opportunity lost.

Even without any miraculous blood, Košice was fun to visit. I felt lucky to catch the city at that golden moment after charming civic improvements have been made (for the city’s stint as one of the European Capitals of Culture in 2013) and before the city realizes its dream of being flooded with tourists.

Whatever happens in the future, Košice is well worth a visit now.

Karen lives in Seville, Spain, where she writes the Enjoy Living Abroad travel blog and has published three other books about travel and expat life.

Posted in Cool buildings/castles, Culture, EAST SLOVAKIA, KOŠICE | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Streetfood in Banská Štiavnica!

©englishmaninslovakia.com

©englishmaninslovakia.com

The place we were staying in was so nice, we decided to eat in on our latest visit to Banská Štiavnica. This meant take-away – not something I’m generally in the habit of getting in Slovakia unless I’m at at a festival, because eating in restaurants is so reasonable price-wise.

Already – before the discussion about what we would have began – I was in relatively uncharted territory; certainly as far as takeaway in this smallish mountain town went. Then: the stipulations. My dad’s requirement was something “meaty and hot”, my mum’s “some sort of curry” (she’s also vegetarian), my girlfriend’s “anything gluten and soya free.” With the exception of my dad, it did seem like we might be having problems finding a joint that satisfied all parties.

A couple of questions in town however, and we were pointed to Banská Štiavnica newest culinary offering – so new that we caught it only in the second week of operation.

BS Streetfood – we can only assume the “BS” is a tribute to the town’s initials – exemplifies the latest hipster concept to hit Slovakia. Yes, street food. Streetfood, for me, will always raise a smile when I see it in the western world: the coolest kids in town, the see-and-be-seen sort, hanging out in places that are trying to reproduce the food and atmosphere old grandmothers have been ladling out on the streets of Peru or Thailand for generations. Street food concept restaurants are invariably either vastly over-priced because you’re paying for something that is in right now or ludicrously off the mark in terms of environment (street food in a posh restaurant doesn’t work – it defeats the point, which is good, hearty, informal food-for-the-masses). In London and – more recently – in Bratislava I’ve seen the attempts at offering the street food thing fall far short of what they should. It took a tiny street food outlet in the wilds of Central Slovakia to change my mind about it all.

And why? Well, there are a lot of hipsters from the Bratislava area moving to Banská Štiavnica to open alternative businesses (take the Archangel Cafe-Bar, take the antique bookshop on the main square) and BS Streetfood is part of that wave: but unlike a lot of the world’s hipster-run joints, it’s not only hipsters that stop by. It’s everyone. No insular hipsterism here at all. Just an unassuming, no-frills place that offers delicious well-cooked take-out food – that all manner of locals are queuing up to get a piece of.

One key thing BS Streetfood has is quality bio meat – sourced with care. Another thing is that it is incredibly flexible – even when there was nothing on the menu my girlfriend could have, the owner was happy to innovate (in itself a welcome change from the sometimes steadfast beaurocracy of the Slovakian service industry). That night, they did have a curry (Thai, but just sold out when we arrived) so we went for noodles, in beef and vegetable, and egg-vegetable sauces – simple, gingery, cayenne-y and divine, and cooked up with plenty of theatrics by the energetic owner, who contrasted sharply with the sombre, pot-bellied older sous-chef. Desert? Šulance from a local babka (grandmother). We’d only shelled out 4-5 Euros per main dish, and my dad was in raptures, my mum content, my girlfriend quite pleasantly surprised.

Then, you realise, that is just it: BS Streetfood, taken on paper (or on computer screen) is not spectacular. It’s more a wonderful surprise (particularly because it’ll be different food every night). And still more than that, an experience. Let’s hope the owner can keep up his enthusiasm!

NB: B… S: Brilliant Streetfood? Best Streetfood?

MAP LINK Too new to be on Google Maps! (But it’s on the junction just right of the post office which we’ve marked)

LOCATION: Junction of Dolná and Remeselnícka (officially Remeselnícka 17). Dolná is the main road heading down from the historic heart of Banská Štiavnica towards the modern part of town by the bus station.

PHONE THEM: (0) 907-487-174

OPENING: Every afternoon and evening until about 10pm

BEST TIME TO VISIT: Around 7:30pm before they’ve sold out of whatever’s on.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: 50km north of BS Streetfood (following Dolná down then turning left on the main road towards Ždiar nad Hronom) is the Geographical Centre of Europe!

Posted in CENTRAL/SOUTH SLOVAKIA, Food & Drink - Cheap Food | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

How to Butcher A Pig Like A Slovak

You can’t get much more Slovak than butchering a pig, as food blogger and photographer Naomi Hužovičová reveals… 

Getting the Zabijacka started ©Naomi Huzovicova

In the throes of Zabijacka ©Naomi Hužovičová

In the dark of an early winter’s morning, Deduško (Grandpa) shuffles out into the cold. While the rest of the household is still sleeping, he lights a fire at the bottom of each of the barrels, heating water for the day ahead.

Today is zabíjačka, a backyard pig slaughtering. Since spring the family has been raising a pig in a stall in their yard and now it’s time to prepare for the Christmas festivities ahead, full of family needing to be fed.

Unknown

Something’s cooking… ©Naomi Hužovičová

The evening before we prepared for the big day: washing large pots, peeling mounds of garlic and onion, setting up tables and the barrel stoves.  These barrel stoves seem like a symbol of a bygone era to me, even though still in use. A door cut into a metal barrel reveals a grate on which a fire can be built, to heat the 50 litre cauldron of water sitting inside. The set-up can be used for cooking large amounts of goulash or, as in this case, for butchering a pig.

Butchering an animal (and its description) is not for the squeamish. Having grown up on a farm myself, I enjoy the camaraderie of cooperation, of the family coming together to provide food from their own backyard. I’m grateful for the life of the pig and life it contributes to in providing tasty sustenance.

The butcher comes and the boys troop out to the pig sty. An electric shock and cut to the jugular: the pig never knows what hits it. They then collect the blood in a bucket, stirring with an arm as it cools so that it doesn’t coagulate.

Jaternicky! ©Naomi Huzovicova

Klobasy ©Naomi Hužovičová

The water that has been heating up in the cauldrons is steaming and is used to wash the carcass. Wash, scrub, wash, torch, wash, scrub, wash. The butcher likes to talk, entertaining with earthy humour as the men work up a sweat. The pig is hung and the butcher starts to clean it out. Random bits of meat, bones, and organs go into the cauldrons.

Meanwhile, Babička (Grandma) is busy over the wood stove in the basement. The first thing is to caramelize a whole lot of onions. I tag behind her with a notebook and a camera, trying to capture, record, and learn the process. “How many onions do you cook?” I ask. She shrugs. “The right amount.”

In a Slovak butchering, almost every part of the pig is used – nothing is wasted. My husband says that everything but the toenails and gallbladder get used. Technically this is true, although now the casing for the sausages is from another pig, bought as cleaning out fresh intestines is extremely labour intensive.

The dish Babička cooks, then, is Mozgy (brains) –  a dish of ground meat, brain, and spinal cord mixed with egg. Mozgy is lunch, every time, paired with bread and homemade pickles. If you can get past the idea of brains in your food, it’s actually quite delicious.

©Naomi Huzovikova

©Naomi Hužovičová

The butcher cuts up the meat, his knife deftly finding just the right spot to break apart a joint or the separation between muscles. His muscular forearms defy his late 70 years, and he keeps up the conversation with a surety of opinion and a glint of humour in his eye.

I can’t remember the order these are made in, but here are some of the products made during zabíjačka:

Jaterničky, a rice and offal sausage that is so delicious you would never guess it contains organs

Tlačenka, a non-greasy headcheese. Pieces of meat, offal, and herbs are suspended in gelatin hard enough not to jiggle. Sometimes tlačenka is put in the stomach of the pig before the animal is sent off to the smoke-house for smoking.

Zabijačkova Kaša (A kind of black pudding), a barley porridge cooked smooth with the blood in the bucket.

Podbradnik, literally under the chin, is a hunk of fat that has boiled in the cauldrons and then smeared with garlic paste and paprika. Slovaks slice it and eat it on bread, a pure slice of fat (I admit, this is probably my least favourite product of the day).

Bacon, lard, baked meat, and liver pate are also made. Sometimes they make canned meat or klobasa (a kind of sausage).

Then there’s a stock made from the organs and a few bones – it’s used to cook rice and barley, and as a base for the tlačenka. When one cauldron has been emptied and washed, it is used to make lard while the other cauldron is used to make the Zabijačkova Kaša/black pudding.

It’s starting to get dark – it’s been a long day. Babička has washed more dishes than humanly possible. Outside, it’s still going on: brothers take turns stirring the cauldrons of lard and Zabijačkova Kaša – the latter taking about three hours worth of constant stirring. We stand around the fires, keeping warm and keeping conversation in the failing light. I’m starting to get tired and wonder how my elders keep on for so long.

The Zabijačkova Kaša doesn’t keep long or freeze well, so it’s ladled into large bowls and small pots and taken around to neighbours, who are glad for a nostalgic taste as fewer people are keeping pigs.

©Naomi Huzovikova

©Naomi Hužovičová

 

When the last dishes and cauldrons are washed, the day is finally done. Meat rests in the cool basement, to be packaged and frozen tomorrow.

I’m stuffed to the gills, and while there is baked meat slathered with paprika and onions for supper, I’m ready for a salad.

 

About the Author…

A Canadian transplanted in Slovakia, Naomi writes about and photographs life in Slovakia at Almost Bananas while cooking strange food and wrangling her children…

Posted in Culture, Food & Drink, Slovakia (General) | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Days of Wine and Horses… Château Topolčianky

Horse breeding centre, Chateau Topolcanky ©englishmaninslovakia.com

Horse breeding centre, Chateau Topolcanky ©englishmaninslovakia.com

First, you have to imagine what a month or more of snow on the ground is like – easy enough for you Central and far-North Europeans but for the rest of us (me included until this January-February), not so easy. So allow me to indulge you briefly. A month of struggling down streets more or less constantly under drifts of a half meter or more, a month of not seeing grass, a month of traffic jams and transport failures, the hope once the novelty wears thin of it all melting only for more to pelt down out of the sky, damned annoying in short.

In this context you can understand, perhaps, how Château Topol’čianky – as I saw it for the first time at the end of winter 2015 – seemed everything it was billed to be and more: namely a rather idyllic English-style mansion (and its grounds) plonked in a tucked-away pocket of Western Slovakia farmland. The snow line finished, on the particular drowsy weekend afternoon I first glimpsed the place, just outside Topol’čianky town. This left the Château, in the northern part of the municipality, bathing in late-in-the-day winter sunlight that cast a glorious gold-green everywhere. It would have looked beautiful at any time of year, but on this afternoon (through the eyes of one lately deprived of any other weather but snow, remember) not a lot short of exquisite.

The "English style" grounds ©englishmaninslovakia.com

The “English style” grounds ©englishmaninslovakia.com

The name speaks volumes. Château? It’s so… French… Slovaks normally call a grand, castellated mansion such as this zámok or kaštiel – not château. Perhaps the international reputation of the place has a lot to do with it. Following the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, it was Czechoslovakia which seized the reins, so to speak, on the Hapsburg dynasty’s superb stock of thoroughbred steeds. And so Château Topol’čianky, as an internationally regarded stud farm breeding of Nonius, Lippizan, Arabian,  and English Half-blood/Hucul horses, was born (1921). In reality, the building – dating mainly from the mid-17th century, but with an early 19th-century Classicist wing to boot – was already courting a glam crowd by then. First President of the new Czechoslovakia, Masaryk, had the château as a holiday home during WW1 – setting a precedent of Czechoslovak Presidents stopping by not just for holidays, but also for work. Before this, it was in any case established as a major centre of learning in Central-Eastern Europe: with a library (still one of the highlights of a visit to the house itself, which features period furnishings from the 18th- and 19th- centuries and Slovakia’s greatest ceramics collection 🙂 ) containing hugely important Slavic writings such as Anton Bernolák’s Grammatica Slavica.

©englishmaninslovakia.com

Nice Holiday Home… ©englishmaninslovakia.com

The Grounds & Around

I am an Englishman, it should be emphasised. And in at least one way, I possess a characteristic the majority of the world associates with Englishmen: I love strolling around charismatic old houses and their grounds (although rather with an espresso in my hand than a cup of tea). I am also an Englishman living overseas: small wonder, then, that when I clap eyes on a place which epitomises a sedate, grandiose abode seemingly plucked out of a quintessential English village postcard in Slovakia I am pretty enthused.

RELATED POST: The Arboretum Near Nitra (more English Garden loveliness in this neck of the woods)

No one can claim English architecture from the 19th century sticks out, definitively, as superior to other styles of the age. But English landscaped gardens? They have a certain something, in their ornamental lakes or their manicured woodland paths, that always lures me in for a stroll. Enter Château Topol’čianky’s “English style” gardens – a fancy 4km stretch of dignified woodland (300 types of trees here) boundaried by a river canalised to form several ornamental lakes connected by leats on the one side, and by glorious vineyards on the other. And arranged delicately in-between: terraced lawns, an old wine cellar, an old 17th century mill, an orangery, a grotto. It’s not surprising Masaryk loved to potter around here. Part of the Château also serves as a hotel nowadays, with rooms set attractively around an internal courtyard (not a common design in Slovakia):

The Hotel

The Hotel

That’s not to be confused, of course, with the other hotel within the park grounds, Hotel Hradna Straz (a pretty alright restaurant, which aims for old English hunting style, encompassed within).

Wine

All those vineyards do mean something: some of the country’s best-regarded (and certainly most dominant in terms of market share) white wines, in fact – including a delicious late winter harvest wine. Grapes cultivated here are mostly Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc, Grüner Veltliner and WelschReisling. The wine is so famous at Château Topol’čianky that it is, in many ways, the defining characteristic of Château Topol’čianky – and a very good wine outlet at Cintorínska 31 in Topol’čianky town (see this little MAP) sells the stuff. Check the winery website (they’re not afraid to brag) for more.

©englishmaninslovakia.com

©englishmaninslovakia.com

MAP LINK:

THE CHATEAU – WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW: Whilst it serves primarily as a wedding venue, the house does open for guided tours between May and September (Entry Tuesday to Friday from 9 until 2.30pm by hourly guided tour, Saturday/Sunday midday until 4pm by hourly guided tour). Adults/children 3.80/2.50 Euros.

GETTING THERE: From Bratislava, the quickest way is actually by bus (i.e., from Bratislava Bus Station) changing in Zlaté Moravce, the underwhelming big town nearby. Buses run more or less hourly, cost 6.60 Euros one way and take about two hours 40 minutes.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Château Topol’čianky it’s 52km north to Prievidza

 

 

 

Posted in Accommodation - Hotels, Cool buildings/castles, Food & Drink, Hikes, WESTERN SLOVAKIA | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

In the Valley of the Upper Nitra: A Little Local Insight into Prievidza & Bojnice

We’re extremely grateful to fellow Czech- and Slovak-ophile, novelist James Silvester for writing this article for us on the delights of the little-visited town of Prievidza and nearby Bojnice, crowned by its majestic chateau.

Bojnice Castle ©englishmaninslovakia.com

Bojnice Castle ©JamesSilvesterAuthor.com

It almost seems unfair to the Central-Western City of Prievidza to make it share an article with its much smaller but more glamorous neighbour, Bojnice and I mean absolutely no disrespect in doing so; it is simply that, for me at least, the two places are so intertwined that I find it hard to think of one without the other and consider them both to be, in effect, my second home.

Prievidza, in reality of course, is by no means the poor neighbour. Indeed, it is the industrial centre of the area with a relatively sizeable population (approx. 50,000 at last count) and an industry that has grown from a base in coal mining and the nearby power plant to include in recent years what seems a heavy investment in retail outlets and modernisation.

On my first visit to Prievidza, the fearsome, imposing letters of TESCO loomed out from between the branches at me, like the sinister Headquarters of a Bond villain. Since then, that particular corporate giant (and the adjacent Kaufland) have been joined by a freshly built shopping complex, housing coffee shops, eateries and all manner of branded retailers as the city aims to provide everything the everyday consumer could want. Heading further into the City centre, the square is complimented by another, more traditional shopping centre with smaller, more bespoke outlets lining the streets, and the attractive St. Bartholomew’s Church serving as a gateway.

Biograf, one of the best places to eat in the area ©JamesSilvesterAuthor.com

Biograf, one of the best places to eat in the area ©JamesSilvesterAuthor.com

What to Do?

Staving off a mention of the inevitable (the blockbuster nearby attraction of Bojnice Castle) for a little longer, Prievidza and the wider Horná Nitra region offer an impressive number of pastimes, with quite literally something for everyone.

For the active traveller there are some truly beautiful hiking/biking routes as well as a nearby ski slope and, if being strapped to the wings of a plane and dropped out of the sky is your bag, the chance to skydive from Prievidza’s small, local airport. In town there is a Museum of the Upper Nitra Valley Region (focussing on the fascinating history and geology of the area) and there is a beautiful golf course (and mini golf not too far away). Up in Bojnice village, the Museum of Prehistory (great for the kids) is right by its very own cave, which you can also visit as part of the experience.

Where to Eat and Drink?

Some truly great places to eat are scattered around Prievidza and Bojnice too. A personal favourite venue is Biograf, just off Bojnice high street (and happily a way away from the tourist hoards at the castle). A unique little venue with a mix of Slovak and British meals available (and garnering double points for always having blues playing), Biograf is actually the first ever cinema in the town which has been converted into a restaurant/wine bar of the unpretentious and extremely beguiling kind. Another classic place to head is the Kipi Casa Pub and Beer Garden, a stirling example of the very in záhradná piváreň (garden pub) concept a short distance away in Lazany.

And Now For the Set Piece: Bojnice Castle

From the Prievidza McDonalds (perfect for those who really can’t do without their little Western pleasures, and just why the Menu is so much better than in Britain is a mystery) runs the main road connecting the city with Bojnice. And it’s as you continue up this thoroughfare that it hits you: The Castle. It really does smack you in the face, as the row of trees lining the road give way to a suddenly unspoiled view of this piece of real life fairy tale, nestled with an almost nonchalant arrogance in the bosom of the densely forested mountain. It’s Sexy and It knows it.

The first mention of the castle (and the town) came in 1113 in the Bills of the King and it has often been described as Slovakia’s most visited castle. I could offer you a number of reasons why it deserves this epithet, but it ultimately comes down to one reason: It’s awesome. I mean, truly jaw dropping; it’s like Disneyland without commercialised mice, or Hogwarts without magic sodding adolescents. It’s current appearance owes much to the reconstruction sponsored by the last aristocratic owner in the early 20th century, but parts of the original castle wall still remain. Beneath the castle is a cave system with a well reaching deep down, which visitors to the tour can see for themselves.

All along the Watchtower… Bastion in Bojnice's grounds ©JamesSilvesterAuthor.com

All Along the Watchtower… Bastion in Bojnice’s well-castellated grounds ©JamesSilvesterAuthor.com

Not Just A Pretty Face…

It would be wrong to think Bojnice was all about the castle as there is so much more on offer, even before the investment put in for the Town’s 900th anniversary a couple of years back (yeah, the village harks back to 1113 and has the documents to prove it). Across from the castle is the expansive zoo (the oldest municipal zoo in the country) which is a whole day visit in itself. With plenty of rest points dotted around, the zoo reaches high up into the hills, affording some truly spectacular views of Prievidza and the whole area, not really done justice by a fat guy with an iPhone, but here goes:

©JamesSilvesterAuthor.com

©JamesSilvesterAuthor.com

Behind the castle lies a small, but effective, Dinosaur Park where you can let animatronic beasties frighten your kids, and alongside that (in the Summer season only) is a large and quite wonderful outdoor community swimming park. With a kid’s and full size pool and a couple of slides to choose from and plenty of sunbathing spots and eateries lining it, it rivals the zoo as an easy place to lose a day for just a few euros.

A short walk from there lies one of the main sources of tourism: Bojnice Spa.  Surrounded by the forest, the spa is home to several indoor and outdoor heated pools (there really is nothing like swimming outdoors at night in winter with snow falling around you) and some rather impressive hotels, while a variety of treatments are available from the multi-lingual staff. Well worth a visit, even just for a swim.

What’s On?

The region plays host to several festivals throughout the year, perhaps the most famous being the International Festival of Ghosts and Spirits.

Although missing the festival this year, I was able to take part in a nice little community ‘clean up’ event in which a few volunteers cleared rubbish from the forest paths around the town ahead of it. This was made all the better by the participation of the Town’s Mayor, who resembled Joe Pesci, but tempered somewhat by my six year old son finding his first condom (which he mercifully believed to be an empty sausage). Thank God for gloves…

When to Go?

In truth there is something here all year round. Obviously, high season in the summer is perfect for those with young families as most of the attractions are open every full time and days will be packed, but that isn’t to deter from visiting at other times too (particularly because Bojnice Castle itself gets so crowded at peak times).

The area is a fun, friendly, clean and safe environment that epitomises the best of Slovak hospitality and offers something about as different to the bright lights of Bratislava as it’s possible to get in Western Slovakia. If you are heading into Eastern Europe, make the time to pay a visit and you might just find that Prievidza and Bojnice, just as they have with me, become your home away from home.

About the Writer…

James Silvester has been soaking up Slovakia’s unique atmosphere since 2005, with Prievidza and Bojnice becoming his much loved second home. In that time he has well and truly fallen for the beauty of this region of Central Europe and, more importantly, has realised that charming British befuddlement will in no way protect One from the repeated offer of Slivovice. A former Mod DJ for internet radio, James’s debut novel, set in the Czech & Slovak Republics, is published in June 2015 with Urbane Publications.

 MAP LINK:

GETTING THERE: Four direct trains daily (a shade over three hours) serve Prievidza from Bratislava Hlavna Stanica (otherwise change at Šurany). From Prievidza it’s 2km up to Bojnice and bus is the way: they run hourly from the Prievidza bus station and take 8 minutes.

BOJNICE CASTLE ESSENTIALS: Website Opening Hours Admission by one-hour tour from 9am to 4pm from Easter to September, or from 10am to 3pm October to Easter. Closed on Mondays from October to May. Admission Price 8 Euros per adult.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Prievidza it’s 62km north to Žilina.

 

Posted in Cool buildings/castles, Culture, Food & Drink - Cafes, Food & Drink - Pubs and Bars, Museums/Galleries, Spa/Wellness, WESTERN SLOVAKIA | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Hotel Elizabeth, Trenčin

Hotel Elizabeth ©englishmaninslovakia.com

Hotel Elizabeth ©englishmaninslovakia.com

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 character, quality 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 ©englishmaninslovakia.com

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, with vast bathrooms that get stand-alone bath tubs ©englishmaninslovakia.com

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 ©englishmaninslovakia.com

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.

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PRICES: Single rooms 99 Euros, Double rooms 115 Euros, Suites from 165 Euros. 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

Posted in Accommodation - Hotels, Food & Drink - Cafes, Food & Drink - Restaurants, History, WESTERN SLOVAKIA | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment