Where is Slovakia? No one really knows – yet this relatively mysterious half of the former Czechoslovakia promises mountain landscapes, elegant steeples and warming soups, and was therefore worthy of an explore.
Bratislava sits modestly on the banks of the River Danube, only 4 kilometres from the Austrian border, and 12 to Hungary. Its light traffic and cheery apartments make for a welcoming entrance from the nearby airport, a noticeable step up from depressing suburbs of European capitals further east. First impressions only improve as you wander from square to square, historic yet fresh and well maintained. It was surprisingly warm too, comfortably high-twenties and ideal for tanning up the last throes of summer. Ice cream shops, coffee shops and grandma’s dumpling shops bask in the city’s tourism peak – a healthy bustle of cultured visitors and appreciative backpackers, all enjoying Bratislava’s unexpected beauty, yet to be plundered by stag dos and marauding hordes of top-ten tickers.
The Danube offers an elegant gateway to the city, with luxurious European river cruisers mooring up outside the old town for a day’s sightseeing. The Bridge of the Slovak National Uprising a.k.a. UFO Bridge (little imagination required) keeps watch over this European intersection, with equally splendid views from the elevated castle grounds. Back by the water, the riverbank itself offers a more modern escape, with trendy bars and restaurants footing new apartment complexes.
Some eight or so years since our last holiday together, my lovely mum was my travelling companion for this trip. Hotels aren’t cheap-cheap here, so we stayed in the basic Hotel Elisabeth for our first night, redeemed by its location and strong selection of cold meats for breakfast. ‘Lemonade’ is the refreshing drink of choice here, served by the jug and in truth comes in a variety of non-lemon fruity-fresh infusions. For the drunks, there’s an abundance of Slovak and Czech beers, plus the local juniper infused Borovička.
Tatras & Slovenský Raj
Bratislava would make for a fulfilling sojourn in anyone’s book, but keen to explore further afield we hired a car and drove the four or so hours north-east to the Tatra Mountains. We went retro, shunning wifi, 4G and GPS in favour of our trusty origami road map. We’d rented a basic woodland cottage for a few nights, nestled in the valley between the High and Low Tatras. A modest ski resort in winter, the grassy village pistes lay fairly dormant in the summer months. In the evening, only the twinkling of a few upmarket chalets broke the pure darkness of night, and guttural growls emanate from the surrounding treeline – there are thought to be around 900 brown bears in this region of Slovakia, with wolves roaming freely throughout the Tatras too.
From the valley plains, the High Tatras rise up like a city in the desert, some 300 metallic peaks stretching 40 miles along the Slovak-Polish border. Cheating wholeheartedly, we took a couple of cable cars up into the drifting clouds, then hiked from the barren escarpment down into lush spruce, which blanket the lower realms of the range and provide a year-round festive flourish. Having lived in the Alps, I wouldn’t say the Tatras quite compare to the Alps’ majesty, nonetheless you could happily spend days hiking between the network of mountain huts, elevated lakes and plentiful peaks.
That evening, we ventured into the regional hub of Poprad. Most towns share a similar approach: industry clustered thickly on the outskirts; then Lidl and utilitarian apartments; giving way to charming town centres (with the exception of Kežmarok, which was godawful throughout). A healthy hubbub of evening strollers, diners and young romantics frequent the tree-lined avenues, with plenty of al fresco bars and restaurants to choose from. Around £20 for dinner and drinks for two – soups served in hollowed bread, and hearty meat-filled dumplings provide weighty sustenance after a day on the hills.
Having reached mountain heights the day before, our final jaunt took us south through the winding passes of the Slovenský Raj (Slovak Paradise) National Park. It’s an enchanting landscape of forested gorges, waterfalls and ice caves, making it pure bliss for hiking of the adventurous persuasion. A network of ladders and footplates bear into the rock, allowing you to ascend through trickling gullies, waterfalls and sheer rockfaces. We saw only a handful of fellow hikers all day, and whilst lying in the sunshine atop an arching grassy ski run, with blue skies and cows dawdling in the valley below, did I think that perhaps, like the great national parks of the Lake District or the Grand Canyon, they got the name here spot on.
In the HJ league table of European city breaks, Bratislava sits deservingly alongside my recent favourites. In part, unknown expectations set it up for success, but everything about the capital is simply rather pleasant. Those with more time and comfortable walking shoes will be rewarded for venturing deeper into the Slovak countryside – the leaden Tatras silhouetted against pink evening skies is as good a view as Europe can offer.
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