Route: Stary Smokovec - Kosice - Banska Bystrica – Nitra – Bratislava – Vienna - London
25.04.2019 - 05.05.2019 18 °C
We left the mountains as we had found them, with the sun reflecting off a diminishing snow cover, and headed southeast for our first of two stops, on route to our next destination of Kosice.
That first stop was the town of Levoca and its historical centre. Here 60 historic houses surround a striking main square containing a church and the 16th century Town Hall. Each house has it’s own unique character; as does the Town Hall, add to this the “Cage of Disgrace” (see “Interesting Facts” below for details) and you have an intriguing place to visit.
Next stop was one of Slovakia’s iconic sights, Spis Castle. Sitting high up on a rock outcrop, as they all seem to, this is one of Slovakia’s largest castle complexes. The oldest parts of the castle dates back to the 11th century but was enlarged to it current size in the 15th, although archaeological finds suggest the location was in use as far back as the 4th century BCE. A steep walk up from the car park got us to the main gate, then following the payment of a reasonable entrance fee (Malc is considered a senior in Slovakia, which helps keep the cost down), we were able to explore the whole site. We climbed the tower for the view, wandered around the ruins and looked in on the various reconstructions (15th Century, Bedroom, Kitchen, Bathroom, Armoury and Torture Chamber).
It was then on to our base for the next four nights, an apartment in the centre of Kosice, Slovakia’s second largest city (about the size of Brighton, England).
The following day dawned with a beautiful blue sky and sunshine, so it seemed like a good time to go for a hike. We had previously identified a hike in the Slovensky Kras National Park, so that’s where we went. The hike first followed a stream up through the Zadielska gorge, before turning steeply up into a forest that lead to the top of the gorge rock face. We now had a great view of the gorge beneath us together with surrounding countryside beyond (we could see into Hungary, which was only a few kilometres to the south). We were now on a plateau of woodland and alpine meadows, which we traversed before steeply descending back to our starting point. Now tired and with aching bodies we both agreed that was a very nice walk. It wasn’t just the amazing scenery that made it so good, it was the fact that for the majority of the time we had the trail to ourselves and the only sounds we could hear were the birds and the gushing stream that ran beside us.
From such a beautiful day the weather took a turn for the worse. The approach to the next two days was travel admin in the apartment whilst it rained and the exploration of Kosice during the dry spells. Fortunately we were only a stones throw from historic town centre, which made it easy to visit when it wasn’t raining. Kosice’s historic centre has its oldest buildings in the middle where the two main streets cross, and has some interesting structures to investigate, such as a singing fountain, a 7 ton bell that’s too heavy for the bell tower and a gothic cathedral with the narrowest stairs you could imagine leading up to a viewing platform. Enough to keep us amused when it was dry.
From Kosice our journey took us west, along the border with Hungary before turning north into the Lower Tatras Mountains and the town of Banska Bystrica. Banska Bystrica sits in the Hron River valley and is encircled by the mountains, providing a nice view from our apartment balcony.
We had two full days in Banska Bystrica, one to explore the town and the other the surrounding mountains. With the first day being overcast the exploration of the old town seemed the right choose. A compact and attractive centre, just ten minutes from our apartment, filled the morning. Then retreating back to the apartment as rain arrived in the afternoon.
The weather on day two was much nicer so we headed up into the mountains. Just out of town the road started to climb up through a thick forest, until we emerged into the delightful little village of Spania Dolina. Spania Dolina in the start for several different hikes and cycle routes in the area, that and because today was a public holiday, the village was busy. Our plan was to explore the forest directly above the village, so it was uphill straight from the start, past the wooden roofed 13th century church and into thick tree cover.
As this was prime habitat for the Eurasian Brown Bear we noticed a number of cyclist had bear bells on their bikes, so as to avoid any unwanted encounters. Our route took us up to 920m through an enchanting forest, before we turned and descending back to the village.
Before finishing our day’s activities we decided to drive up to the highest village in the area, Donovaly. In the winter Donovaly would be buzzing with skiing activities, but today it was pretty quite. Most of the snow had melted and the summer hiking season was not yet into full flow.
It was now time to move on again, but Banska Bystrica has so much to offer us, we agreed it would be nice to return some day. For the next few days we were constantly on the move, one night stops in hotels but still enjoying the journey.
First of those stops was the town of Nitra, but not before we had called in at Bojnice Castle on route. Although dating back to the 12th century, the castle has been added to, altered and updated over the years, a now looks like a mix of castle and palace. To visit the inside of the castle, you need to join an organised tour, but unfortunately there were no English tour available on that day. So we joined the next available Slovak tour, armed with a booklet in English. This meant that although we couldn’t understand what was being said, except when Anne got told off in English for progressing too fast, we did get to see the castle innards and did have our booklet for a bit of guidance.
After our overnight stop in Nitra we continue north west back to Bratislava airport to drop off the car and then onwards into the city. We arrived mid-afternoon and boarded our accommodation. Boarded, I hear you say; yes we were staying overnight in a Botel. A Botel is a converted riverboat, now serving as a floating hotel moored in Bratislava on the Danube River. Our room was surprisingly spacious and comfortable; shame the view was the riverbank and no open water though.
That evening we did our usual and went for a traditional meal in a traditional restaurant. This time it was a small place built into the rock face just below the castle. The food was great, duck for me and rabbit for Anne, washed down with a very nice Slovakian Red and all consumed in a pleasant environment.
On the move again, the next destination was Vienna, Austria. We arrived from Vienna into Bratislava by train, so we thought we would have a change and return by boat. So we booked a seat on the Twin City Liner, a catamaran that travels along the Danube between the two capital cities. This gave us a chance to see the Danube River, together with the life on and around it. The weather wasn’t very good, cloudy with light rain, but the view through the big windows allowed us to see all that passed by.
An hour and a half after leaving Bratislava we were in Vienna and only a short walk to our hotel in the heart of the old town. From an enjoyable boat trip, the day got even better as our hotel upgraded us from a standard room to a suite. And that wasn’t the end of it, on our short city tour in the afternoon we discovered “Merkur”. “Merkur” is an upmarket food store, somewhere between M&S and Harrods, and had some fantastic food on offer. So instead of the planned meal out, we bought meats, cheeses, bread, desserts and chocolate, and dined in our suite instead (which had cutlery and crockery in the room).
Then finally, the following day, in the teeming rain, we made our way to Vienna airport for our return flight to the UK and the start of another adventure.
Personal Observations & Interesting Facts
“Cage of Disgrace”
In Levoca’s historic main square there is a 16th century wrought iron contraptions known as the “Cage of Disgrace”. During that time, women who had committed a minor crime were locked in it and put on public display. Anne went in it for a photograph and was fortunate to be allowed out again.
Because the importance of the Danube River to this trip, both capitals visited (Vienna & Bratislava) are on it, we spent a night in a floating hotel on it and our transport between capitals has been on it, we thought a few facts would be useful.
The Danube is Europe’s second longest river (Worlds 30th) after the Volga. Its source is in the German Black Forest town of Donaueschingen. It then travels 2,415km through 10 European countries (Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Moldova and Ukraine) before emptying into the Black Sea. It was also once a long-standing frontier of the Roman Empire.