Route: London – Vienna – Bratislava – Trencianske Teplica – Stary Smokovec
10.04.2019 - 24.04.2019 18 °C
Now well on the road to a full recovery, our travels resumed once again. This time we had decided to explore the small eastern European country of Slovakia. However, our most convenient route there required us to travel via Vienna in Austria. This also provided us with an ideal opportunity to check out Austria’s capital city.
Therefore, it was on a wet and cold evening in early April that we arrived in Vienna. Efficient airport administration sped us through arrivals to a taxi that seemed to be waiting for us. In no time we were at our apartment just outside the city centre. Its warmth and comfort were very welcome, which couldn’t be said for the cost of the airport taxi, €55.00.
We had four nights and three days in Vienna, which gave us a reasonable amount of time to see what the city had to offer. Our leisurely first day was spent food shopping and organising our city and onwards travel arrangements, but also allowed us to orientate ourselves with the city.
On day two and three we became real tourists and got out to see the sights. The forecast rain never arrived on either day and we even had a bit of sun at times, but it was still cold. Our transport around the city was either by tram, underground train or on foot, each allowing us to get a different prospective of its people and structures. We find using public transport in a city adds to the enjoyment and affords you a different experience. The heated wooden seat in an old tram was a good example. Anne’s seat was so hot she had to move to a cooler one before the journey was complete. We concentrated our exploration to the old city centre and its immediate surroundings. This area is full of grand buildings, gardens and parks, and we managed to see most of the iconic ones. It is also the liveliest part of the city, which allowed us to observe the people and events all around us.
The following day a one hour train journey, across flat farm land and past a sea of wind turbines, took us across the border and into a new country, that of Slovakia. For the first few nights we based ourselves in its capital, Bratislava. Our apartment was right on the edge of the old town, which allowed us to do most of our exploring on foot.
We had now lost the clouds and the cold, and our first full day in Bratislava was met with bright sunshine and much warmer temperatures. The activity for our first day was to investigate the old town. Compact and attractive, we spent several hours wandering around its narrow streets, cobbled alleyways and spacious plazas.
Day two was a visit to Bratislava Castle. Perched forbiddingly on a large rocky hill above the Danube and to the west of the old town, it provides a great view of the city and neighbouring countries. From here, on a clear day, you can see Austria (only 2km away) and Hungary (only 10km away). Unfortunately our day was a bit hazy, so the city was clear enough as was Austria, but we can’t guarantee we saw Hungary. After exploring the grounds and taking in the views, we decided not to go in side and save ourselves €20.00 instead. From there we made our way back to the apartment, pausing momentarily to have a look at Grassalkovich Palace as we passed by.
[Photo’s – Views from the castle (Castle shots below)]
However, the day did provide an unexpected spectacle. Just outside the castle entrance is the building of the National Council of the Slovak Republic (otherwise known as Slovakia’s Parliament), and as luck would have it a session had just ended when we arrived. The action was frantic, diplomats and military personal being quickly ushered into waiting cars while bodyguards scanned the immediate environment for any threats and the media photographed, filmed and broadcasted the whole event. Within seconds the cars were full and the cavalcade sped off with lights flashing and sirens sounding.
So that was Bratislava and it was now time to explore the rest of Slovakia. First stop was the airport to pick up our hire car and then northeast to our next location, the village of Trencianske Teplica. However, our route was not direct as we took a short detour on the way to visit Cachtice Castle, an interesting place and a bit of a pilgrimage for me (Malc) [see below].
Trencianske Teplica would be our base for the next three nights and two full days. On our first day, we took a drive up into the local mountains and to the village of Cicmany. Nestled in an alpine valley with green slopes giving way to thick forest all around, it was a particularly attractive setting. However, the setting wasn’t what made it special that was the buildings. Most of the buildings were made of wood; some constructed without the use of nails, and for 200 years have been decorated with white geometric patterns painted with lime. This was fascinating to behold and quite unique.
From Cicmany we headed out of the mountains and down into the Vah River valley, our destination was the castle at Beckov. What makes this castle worth a visit was not necessarily it history, but its location. This ruined 12th century castle sits on top of a 70-metre high rock outcrop, with magnificent views across the river valley. It provided quite a spectacle from both below and atop of its rampart.
Our second day was spent exploring the town of Trencianske Teplica and its surrounding area. We started with a lung busting steep climb up into the northern mountain forest, which only seemed worth it when we arrived at a clearing with magnificent views down into the valley below.
Our route continued up through the forest, now not so steep, until we arrived at a 520m plateau. This would be our highest point as our route now started to descend back towards the valley, gentle at first then as steep as the start. Finally we reached the valley floor and it was flat all the way back to Trencianske Teplica, where a refreshing ice cream was waiting for us.
From Trencianske Teplica our journey took us some 250km northeast and up into the High Tatra Mountains, our location and base for five nights was the town of Stary Smokovec. As usual, and to make the most of our time in Slovakia, we stopped on route. This time it was the tiny mountain village of Vlkolinec. At an altitude of just over 700meters and surrounded by alpine meadows, the setting was beautiful. But this isn’t the main attraction of Vlkolinec that is its preservation (see below for more details).
A beautiful blue sky and sunshine greeted us on our first day in the mountains, so it was a good opportunity to venture higher up. From the town of Tatranska Lomnica, just down the road from our apartment, we took a couple of cable cars up into the higher reaches of the mountains, a place called Skalnate Pleso at 1,751m. Up here it was much cooler, but the air was fresh and the views amazing. At this time of the year and even at this altitude there wasn’t much snow left on the ground, so restricting the area to only one operating ski run. From the cable station we managed to find a snow free route and hiked up a further couple of hundred meters to a nice viewpoint. Anne also found another hiking route along a snow ledge, but I didn’t fancy it, so we gave that one a miss.
The following day couldn’t have been more different. Dark clouds turned into rain, then sleet with a bit of snow thrown in for good measure, and it was much colder. That meant it was a day of travel admin for us, at least until mid-afternoon when there was a marked improvement in the weather. As we had lost most of the day we decided to keep our activities local. So we took a short walk from our apartment to the funicular, which in turn transported us up to a hill station, where a number of hiking trail begin. We felt in good company on our funicular ride, as Queen Elizabeth II had ridden that same carriage in 2008.
Once at the top we found that most of the trails had received a light covering of snow from this morning, so we chose the one that looked least slippery. The trail wound around the mountain and took us into a canyon, which had been made even more beautiful by the fresh covering of snow.
Day three dawned with such thick fog; we couldn’t see the mountains above us or the valley below. However, after a leisurely start to the day the fog began to clear and we headed out to explore the far north of the country. Our destination was the Dunajec Gorge, on the Dunajec River, which acts as the border between Slovakia and Poland. A scenic drive through the Pieniny National Park was then followed by a hike along the river and into the gorge. Fortunately the sun was now shining and it was much warmer, making a very pleasant day. At this point the river wasn’t very wide so you were constantly looking over into Poland, which seemed surreal somehow.
For our last day in the mountains we had planned to give our legs a rest and just do some travel admin in the apartment. This turned out to be a good idea, as it rained for most of the day.
Personal Observations & Interesting Facts
Slovakia, officially the Slovak Republic, is a landlocked country in Central Europe. Poland, Ukraine, Hungary, Austria, and the Czech Republic border it. Slovakia's territory spans about 49,000 square kilometres and is mostly mountainous. Its capital is Bratislava and the country has a population of 5.5 million.
Present day Slovakia had many occupiers and rulers between the 5th and 9th century, but then spent the next 1000 years as part of the Kingdom of Hungary. This remained the case until after WW1 when the Austro-Hungarian empire was dissolved and the Slovak republic joined its Czech neighbours to the northwest to form Czechoslovakia. This lasted until 1948, when a coup incorporated the country into the communist Soviet Union. This situation continued until 1989, when the “Velvet Revolution” removed Czechoslovakia from communist rule. Then on the 1st January 1993, in the ”Velvet Divorce”, a peaceful dissolution of Czechoslovakia created the two independent countries of the Czech Republic and Slovakia (official name being the Slovak Republic). Today, Slovakia is a seasoned member of both the EU and NATO.
Slovakia is a high-income advanced economy high with a very high Human Development Index a high standard of living and performs favourably in measurements of civil liberties, press freedom, Internet freedom, democratic governance and peacefulness. The country maintains a combination of a market economy with a comprehensive social security system. Citizens of Slovakia are provided with universal heath care, free education and one of the longest paid parental leaves in the OECD.
Slovakia is ranked as the 38th richest country in the world and its service sector, car manufacturing and electrical engineering industries mainly generate its GDP.
The official language of Slovakia is Slovak, but fortunately for us English is also spoken in the larger towns and tourist areas, but then still only by the younger generation. Therefore when we were in the smaller towns and rural areas it all got a bit more difficult. The written script was also a bit of a challenge for us, full of consonants and accents, it made it hard for to guess the meaning.
The site of Bratislava Castle first became a stronghold to monitor trade in the 9th century. It was here that the ancient “Amber Trade Route” crossed the Danube. It was fortified in the 11th and 12th centuries, before being rebuilt in a gothic style during the 15th century. The following centuries saw much remodelling before it burnt down in 1811 and only restored in the 1950’s. Today it houses exhibitions of Slovak and Bratislava history and culture.
Cachtice Castle stands 375m high up on a rocky hill, offering a striking view of the surrounding landscape. The Small Carpathian Mountains and the Myjava Plateau can both be seen from here. The castle was constructed in the 13th century as part of a defence system for the western border of the Hungarian Kingdom. Over the following centuries the most famous person associated with Cachtice was the “Blood Countess” Elizabeth Bathory, wife of the district chief and Hungarian army captain, Ferenc Nadasdy. Between 1585 and 1610, Bathory was responsible for the murder of over 600 young girls from the local area. It was said that she lured them to the castle, and other properties in the area, with the promise of work, and then killed them for their blood. She would then bathe in the collected blood to try and maintain her youth. Her punishment for this crime was to be imprisoned in the castle for the rest of her life. By the early 18th century the castle no longer served a purpose and fell into ruin, and was only rescued in the 20th century. So what about this pilgrimage mentioned above, I hear you ask. Well, for those familiar with heavy metal music, and I expect that is most of you, the infamous acts of Elizabeth Bathory are the theme for a Cradle of Filth album “Cruelty and the Beast” (check out the album cover). So as I am a big metal fan and consider Cradle of Filth one of my favourite bands, a visit here was a must.
The village is the best-preserved example of folk architecture in Slovakia. Thanks to its unique original wooden buildings, it was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1993.
Legend says that the name Vlkolínec is taken from the presence of wolves in this area, as the Slovak word ‘vlk’ means wolf. Other sources cite the village being named after the ditches that were discovered here, called ‘vlčia jama.’ These were camouflaged holes dug into the ground with stakes at the bottom and used in the past mostly to catch wild game, or as a form of defense against unwanted visitors. The residents of this exceptionally scenic village lived off the land through agriculture, sheep farming, and woodcutting. They also applied their woodcutting skills in the construction of their homes, many of which have been preserved in their original state to the present day. This small village appears to have resisted the passage of time and change, as more than 40 preserved idyllic wooden homes can be seen. These charming log houses are set on stone foundations with clay- covered walls and shingled roofs. It also has several distinctive monuments, like the two-story wooden belfry built in 1770 on rock foundations, the rare wooden log well from the 1860’s and the small brook running over wooden gutters down through the village center. At present, around twenty people live in this unique village, respecting and reviving the traditions of their ancestors.