If you venture east of Bratislava or south of the Tatras, Slovakian cities are pretty hit or miss from a tourism standpoint. While the country’s natural landscape is always stunning, the small urban centers spattered throughout its center are as likely to be industrial and harshly practical as historic and picturesque. However, these days most of Slovak living happens in these very places, and to skip over the heart of modern-day Slovakia would be doing yourself a disservice. Fortunately, Trenčín, a western Slovakian city with about 57,000 inhabitants, can provide both your touristic appeal and a taste of typical Slovak life as it exists today.
Having recently spent five days in Trenčín, I feel like the city is a tiny slice of so many of the best things Slovakia has to offer. Trenčin lies in a valley surrounded by gorgeous almost-mountain hills which serve as the perfect backdrop for a straight-out-of-a-storybook castle perched upon a rocky craig. The pedestrian old town streets below are frequented by families and university students along with tourists and are dotted with cafes and restaurants. These streets curl around the rim of an extensive forest area where you can find Slovaks getting their typical weekend dose of nature along the wooded trails. And although Trenčin still has the typical communist-era block apartments and industrial areas, they sit quietly on the edges of town, rather than looming over it like concrete giants as they do in so many places throughout Slovakia.
During my months in Slovakia, I’ve passed by Trenčín’s majestic castle on a cliff several times. Thanks to its location and impressive lighting, it will always strike you long before you enter the city limits. It may only be the third largest in Slovakia (behind Spiš Castle, which lies much further east, and Bratislava Castle, which to be frank, isn’t really a castle in the way you want it to be), but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t vie for a spot as the greatest, at least in the traditional sense. Its light stone exterior, tall towers and high walls give it the classic castle aesthetic. Trenčín Castle proves to be historically impressive too with the first mention of the structure dating back nearly a millennium. The remains of a Slavic rotunda can be dated back to the ninth century. It’s hay day seems to have been in the 13th century when owner Máté Csák used it to control the majority of Slovakia. Most of the remaining structures are from the 15th century and a fire in 1790 made extensive restoration necessary, but the history of the location still long precedes and overshadows many of Slovakia’s hundreds of remaining castles.
The views of the town from above are more than reward enough for the fairly steep climb up to the castle and there are plenty of places to stop and take them in. Once you get to the gate, it is necessary to purchase a tour if you want to enter the castle grounds. The prices are very reasonable (less than 3 € for a student ticket and a camera pass) for a half-hour mini-tour of the Mathias Tower, which is all you really need unless you really want to see the castle galleries, which takes an hour longer. For us, there were no English guides available, so the tour consisted of a friendly Slovak woman leading us from room to room with a packet of translated information, which was actually quite interesting and more informative than some other castle tours I’ve been on. Climbing the historic tower with its labyrinth of tiny doors and staircases for tiny medieval people was entertaining. When we reached the lookout deck at the top and saw the expanse of the surrounding valley below us, I suddenly understood why this castle and its vantage point were so important many centuries ago.
After we finished with our castle tour, my friends and I warmed up at a teahouse called Čajovňa Jaipur, which we frequented several times during our stay for some warm-up beverages and WiFi use. We then grabbed some food at one of the old town’s many adequate restaurants before heading out to our main Saturday night activity – a soccer game, or, excuse me, football match. We’d spotted the stadium’s bug-zapper-like lights from most places in town and its entirety could easily be seen from the castle. A few minutes walk to the stadium and three Euros get you into a game, which in my experience was a trip-maker. Even if you have no interest in football at all, to watch a game with a glowing castle over one side of the field and an orange and purple sunset over the hills on the other side is pretty fantastic. The game itself had a very similar feeling (and amount of spectators) as a high school football game in America. A rousing, but small, vocal fan section led by a pudgy adolescent on a drum kept everyone’s excitement level high even though Trenčín trailed its opponent 1-0 most of the game. I really must have become invested at some point as I withstood ninety-plus minutes in numbing cold even though my inadequately dressed feet lost feeling after the first half (my boots broke just as a cold front swept the country -awesome). Our persistent fan-hood paid off. A just-in-time goal by Trenčín for the draw made for a fairly happy ending and saved the night from an utter disaster for the die-hard fans.
After the game we hopped around to a couple of pubs brimming with university students and football fans, except for one with four older gentleman sitting alone intently watching the movie Salt – go figure. This isolated incident aside, the night life in Trenčín, even on this frigid March evening, far exceeded my expectations compared to other Slovak cities of equal size that I’ve been too. The people we met were friendly, interesting and eager to practice their English, which always works out nicely for us. At the end of the night, we were pleased to find the Bagetta restaurant in the square was still open and making absolutely delicious sandwiches for under three euros – what more can you ask for?
The next day we spent some time exploring the Brezina Woods, which to me, might be the greatest feature of Trenčín, aside from the castle. The park is the perfect prototype of a Slovak forest covering an extensive area behind the castle grounds. Trails wind every direction and even on a very non-springlike day in March we passed joggers, families strolling with children, church-goers taking a shortcut home, dog-walkers and even what appeared to be very serious tree climbers. Throughout the park there were exercise trails complete with those obstacles that I can’t believe people don’t seriously injure themselves on, playgrounds and picnicking spots. On one edge you can even climb around some of the castle ruins which truly seem to resemble a dungeon and moat. (That could just be my overactive imagination at work, but either way, it’s very cool.) Unfortunately, it being March, the weather did not cooperate with us long enough to fully explore what the park has to offer, but it appears you could follow some of the trails to the distant hills for some real hiking later in the year.
Our only real issue while in Trenčín was accommodation. My Lonely Planet guide gave some penzion and hotel suggestions and Hostel World has a few listings, but none within my extremely frugal backpacker budget. We spent the first few days staying at an obscure ubytovňa used mainly for student housing. While it was very cheap the lack of hot water and cold weather were not a good mix. Luckily, we came upon a better situation for our final two days through word of mouth. Our new accommodation, Ubytovňa Kika is one of the best situations I have ever experienced for 12 Euros. Although it is a ten minute walk in the opposite direction of the old town from the train station, new, spotlessly clean rooms with good smelling sheets, comfortable beds, flat screen TVs, and most importantly WiFi make up for that in every way. From what I can tell you are given a private room if available. The room includes access to a kitchen with fridge, microwave and kettle, and huge clean showers with hot water, which really made my day after the past few days. The staff was very friendly considering I speak basically no Slovak and they had to put up with three separate phone conversations to confirm that they had a room for me. For this reason I would recommend booking through their website and using my best friend Google translate to write that you speak English so it would be best if they emailed you confirmation in the message box.
Now that I know what lies beneath the castle I have past so often, I am sure this will not be my last visit to Trenčín. While it was a fantastic few days, most of what the city has to offer will definitely be better accentuated by warmer weather and maybe one of its summer festivals. While it may not be the most dramatic or exciting place in all of Slovakia, if anyone wishes to delve into what typical, modern-day Slovakia is all about, Trenčín is a great place to start.