April Adventures – Part II

Spišská Belá and Mountain Lakes

After an unexpectedly great week in Snina, I decided to head out to meet Chris in Spišská Belá for the weekend before we both headed to Sabinov. Chris had been spoiled all week by two teachers from his school and their hospitality continued on into the weekend. On friday night, after settling into the quaint village for a bit, we went to the Drum Cafe for some drinks and good conversation. The teachers, Dagmara and Katka, spoke English fantastically. We spent most of the night laughing, but made a little bit of time for planning an excursion in the Tatras the next day.

Katka proved to be an expert on all of the nooks and crannies of the mountains. She and Dagmara (Dada, as she is affectionately known) were nice enough to pick us up the next morning and take us to a part of the Tatras we had never seen before.  We arrived in Vysoké Tatry by mid-morning. While Katka is an expert on the mountains themselves, she was a little more shaky on specific directions. But, we still eventually found the first lake she wanted to show us hidden behind the Grand Hotel Kempinski, a place my salary is still several zeroes short of affording. The morning had started out gloomy, but the mountains began to show through the wisps while we stood there, allowing for a great view of the peaks behind the lake.

Hotel Patria and a frozen Štrbské Pleso

Hotel Patria and a frozen Štrbské Pleso.

The beautiful, five-star Grand Hotel Kempinski that I was certainly not staying in.

The beautiful, five-star Grand Hotel Kempinski that I was certainly not staying in.

After seeing the first lake, we crisscrossed around the resort town for a bit in search of a trailhead that would take us between the mountains to another more secluded lake. While it took us a moment to get oriented, when found the trail without too much effort. From there, we started up a casual incline with snow that was luckily still frozen enough to stand on without falling through, mostly. As we hiked, we could see people skiing and celebrating the final days of the season on the other side of the valley, which set a festive mood. As we moved further into the mountains, the scenery became more limited thanks to storm clouds forming overhead. But, even though we were miserably underdressed (it had seemed so nice at the bottom), the light exercise and mild temperature kept us warm enough over the nearly two hours it took us to reach our destination.

The biggest ski jump I've ever seen.

The biggest ski jump I’ve ever seen.

When we first arrived at the second lake, Popradské Pleso, we could clearly see the near side and make out some figures climbing on the mountains above, but I knew we were missing out on the grand experience thanks to the weather. Somewhat disappointed, but eager to be out of the dampness, we hurried into the lakeside hotel and restaurant to lift our spirits with some traditional, cheesy, doughy, Slovak cuisine.

A plate of halušky and a few bites of pirohy did the trick. A half-hour later and seemingly a few pounds heavier, we were ready to make the trip back the way we had came. When we walked out the door, we were excited to find a much more exposed lake with big chunks of blue sky in front of us. Seeing it in its entirety not only made the whole trek more fulfilling, but also added yet another item to my list of things I would like to come back and see again in the summer.

Our destination,  Popradské Pleso

Our destination, Popradské Pleso.

The walk home proved to be even easier than our journey to the lake, and was also more enjoyable with the sun shining down on us. Mountains we hadn’t been aware of on our way in appeared, dramatically white and dark on a suddenly bluebird sky. We made our way back to the village much more quickly than we had come, meaning we fit two mountain lakes, several miles of hiking and loads of sheep cheese all into about four hours.

After a scenic ride home, we took some time to refresh and regroup. We met back up at Dada’s house later in the evening to feast and socialize.  Dada generously fed us some more delicious pirohy and single-handedly inspired my new obsession with bagel chips. She also shared two of her great obsessions with us; ice dancing and Audrey Hepburn. Amazingly, I had spent 23 years in this world without ever seeing “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” which was something Dada could not allow. After the movie, some World Ice Dancing Championship recordings and a few plays off the Les Misérables, Chris and I headed out into the quaint village streets, feeling considerably more cultured than we had before.

The sun came out in full force on our way back.

The sun came out in full force on our way back.

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April Adventures – Part I

In like a lion, out like a lamb. Although normally March’s motto, this expression applied more to April’s antics in this part of the world. The rough winter weather lagged into first days of April with no sign of stopping soon. But when spring finally peeked out from behind the snow clouds a week later, it was all at once, allowing for perhaps the most action-packed month in Slovakia thus far. Since I haven’t mentioned most of the minor adventures and excursions, aside from the castle visits, I figured I’d put together a little list of highlights. The problem was, once I looked through my pictures and made the list, it turned out to be not-so-little.  So, I’ve divided it into two parts. Part I is mostly lion, so stay tuned for Part II for the green and sunny stuff.

Zakopane

After spending a nippy, jam-packed weekend of food, history and culture in Krakow, Chris and I headed south to Zakopane, a mountain town that sits right above the Slovakian border. We had been here once before, desperately seeking Polish Zloty to avoid being stranded in the Polish wilderness (A Quest for the Elusive Polish Lakes can tell you all about it if you want to know more) and had decided it was definitely worth a second full-length visit.

Typical Zakopane mountain scene

Typical Zakopane mountain scene

Since we arrived on Easter Sunday, there were no cabs parked in their usual waiting spot and no buses were running. It was almost snowy, but mostly raining, so we were not picky about how we got to our hostel 5km away, as long as we got there quickly.  After 10 minutes of wandering around in search of transport and older man approached me claiming he had a taxi.  We followed him to a car in the train station lot that was certainly not a taxi. Although I know it’s a traveling no-no to take an unmarked taxi in many places, but sometimes you just trust your gut, and this man’s grandfatherly ways told mine we’d be fine.  We mostly were since the price was fair and he was very talkative for the few words of English he know. The only minor danger was the swerving that occurred as he wiped his windshield with a sponge every 15 seconds so he could at least see a blurry version of the road through the damp flakes falling. Even without a defroster, we made it to the hostel safe and sound  and spent a sleepy afternoon in  heated Uno battles with other hostel guests.

This sign normally stands above eye level. You do the math.

This sign normally stands above eye level. You do the math.

The next morning we headed across the street to the national park for a lengthy hike to a mountain lodge deep in the woods. We were ecstatic to find that our feet didn’t sink through the layer of icy crust on top of the path of footprints from previous hikers, allowing us to float over the multiple feet of the white stuff as we walked. The hike itself was enjoyable enough, winding through snow-dusted pines and past rustic cabins. However, after a certain elevation, just like the last time we hiked in Poland, the fog and mist made it impossible for us to see more than several feet in some places, particularly at the mountain’s summit. While the thick fog did create a pretty cool other-planet-like effect on the top, when you haul your butt up that much mountain, you just want to see some views.

The nearly invisible snowboarder wasn't so far ahead of us.

The nearly invisible snowboarder wasn’t so far ahead of us.

Luckily we found our rewards elsewhere. Not too far past our low-visibility peak we came across the mountain lodge, and therefore restaurant, that we sought. A Polish woman very graciously took the time to translate the entire menu for us, which turned out to be somewhat unnecessary since they had English menus. It was not a complete waste though. Her favorable description steered us towards a new dish of pancakes with cream and powdered sugar and a special Easter soup that no one could describe except for being delicious and having an egg inside.  Both choices made for a perfect hikers’ lunch, and of course we accented them an obligatory plate of pierogies.

Hearty hiking meals are the best rewards.

Hearty hiking meals are the best rewards.

Completely stuffed and somewhat reenergized, we headed back out into the foggy abyss. Since we had already been disappointed by the lack of vistas by the blue trail we had taken up, I suggested that we take a winding yellow trail that would meet back up with it on the way back. Chris was skeptical as this was certainly the road less traveled if the footprints were any indication, and his skepticism proved to be founded. The path was not nearly as wide or spacious as the other, resulting in more than a few full-snow immersions when either of us stepped off the narrow line of packed snow.

Coming across an igloo is always a bonus.

Coming across an igloo is always a bonus.

Despite the initial struggle, in the end, the yellow pick didn’t end up being a complete failure. The fog lifted a bit and we could see the huge pine walls and rocky cliffs that surrounded us.  The trail led us through a completely different valley, making the return journey more of a new discovery than a trudge back.

There isn't supposed to be this much ice in April.

There isn’t supposed to be this much ice in April.

Although the hike officially left us 0-for-2 for actually seeing the Polish Tatras that we have spent over 14 collective hours hiking through, we still returned to our hostel having covered more than 12 km with rosy cheeks, sore legs and a familiar post-hike good mood. Maybe the third time will be the charm for the visibility.

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Off-The-Beaten-Path Castles in Slovakia

Panorama from Šariš Castle

Panorama from Šariš Castle

As I’ve been saying in my previous posts, Slovakia is chock full of castles. But just when I thought I’d found myself becoming blasé as I passed them on my cross-country bus rides and train passages, spring sprung and the sport of castling took a whole new twist.

I’ve seen plenty of the castles located in major towns or cities with paved paths leading right to the iron gates and with eager tour guides waiting inside.  However, now that the hills are thawing and the sun is shining, off-the-beaten path fortresses tucked into the ripples of Slovakia’s landscape become accessible. Castles that can only be reached on foot have turned trips into less of a visit and more of a quest.

Šariš Castle

Newly blooming flowers along the path to Šariš Castle

Newly blooming flowers along the path to Šariš Castle

You can see Šariš Castle sitting atop an almost volcanic looking flat-topped mountain from miles away. From a distance, the silhouette of the castle perched above Veľký Šariš was none too impressive. However, after hiking an hour or so from the village center, up a path winding around the mountain, it became clear I had underestimated. The castle consists of a mid-restoration wall surrounding, undulating, lush, green grounds dotted with benches, brambly trees, and of course, the occasional tower or other remains from the 13th century icon.

This castle contains more greenery than most others in Slovakia, and appears to be just as much public park as historical site as people we’re barbecuing within the walls with no apparent reprimands. The 360 degree views make the meandering walk up to the building worth the 60 minutes of work, and it is even possible to see the High Tatras poking over the surrounding hills.

This wooden sculpture stands guard as the walls come into view.

This wooden sculpture stands guard as the walls come into view.

The lush grounds inside the castle

The lush grounds inside the castle

Checking out the valleys below

Checking out the valleys below

Chris relaxing on the castle wall.

Chris relaxing on the castle wall.

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Coming Soon: Castles, Castles and More Castles

Despite a lethargic start, spring is now going in full force here in Slovakia, and, oh my, is it beautiful. These over-70-degree, sunshine-soaked days have been perfect for exploring the finally-thawed hills, and in particular, the castles that are tucked within them. Unfortunately, the longer days and gorgeous weather have been keeping me outside so much that I’ve been remiss about posting, but a full update is soon to come. For now, these photos can serve as a sneak preview.

The majestic Strečno Castle

The majestic Strečno Castle

Scaling some castle walls.

Scaling some castle walls.

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A Visit to Spišský Hrad

Spiš Castle - Looking pretty good for pushing 1,000 years.

Spiš Castle – Looking pretty good for pushing 1,000 years.

If it is castles you seek, look no further than Slovakia. With over 300 hrady throughout the country, ranging from ruins to meticulously kept near-palaces, everyone can find one to their liking. Bojnice’s fairy tale castle is sure to please anyone in quest of their Disney princess experience. You could easily imagine any medieval knight riding off into the sunset towards Trencin’s fortress. The white and red modern marvel looming over Bratislava may come across as more palace than castle, but the capital’s fierce defender, Devin, guards the Danube from its rocky crag. But, despite all of the competition, it’s Spišsky Hrad that earns the premier spot on all of the Slovak tourism literature and guide books.

Approaching the castle from the pedestrian path

Approaching the castle from the pedestrian path

Although it will require traveling further east than any of the previously mentioned castles, you won’t regret the trip when you see the looming 12th century ruins come into view. The rocky remains rise up from an already rocky limestone base over the village Spišské Podhradie, which literally means, village under Spiš Castle. From the village, it is easy to walk (just follow the yellow trail signs), or drive to the castle. In light of the scenery, it really seems most appropriate to gallop up to the castle gate on horseback, but as far as I know the only four-legged creatures in the vicinity is a herd of deer that reside in the castle woods. In reality, it only takes about 15 minutes to walk to the entrance from the village. From this path, no tourist entrances, parking lots, or even modern buildings are visible to taint your view as you walk back in time.

These hoofed beasts can cause quite a thunderous ruckus in the field below the castle.  Be sure to notice one at the bottom posing, tongue out and all.

These hoofed beasts can cause quite a thunderous ruckus in the field below the castle. Be sure to notice one at the bottom posing, tongue out and all.

If you look closely, you can see my frantic effort to see the deer before they ran into the woods.

If you look closely, you can see my frantic effort to see the deer before they ran into the woods.

You can take a path around either side of the castle and enter through the main gate. We were fortunate enough to run across a man setting up for paragliding on the hill near the parking lot just as we rounded the corner. Apparently the dreary, blustery, perfect-for-castling weather also made for pretty great paragliding as he soared over the castle the entire time we were inside.

If paragliding wasn't cool enough, paragliding over a castle certainly is.

If paragliding wasn’t cool enough, paragliding over a castle certainly is.

In my opinion, the closest humans really get to flying.

In my opinion, the closest humans really get to flying.

And he doesn't even have to pay admission.

And he doesn’t even have to pay admission.

Unfortunately, we weren’t able to listen to the supposedly intriguing audio tour as April is just a pinch before the peak season when they are offered. Instead, we paid the 5€ entrance fee and gave ourselves a walking tour with an English pamphlet as our guide. For the most part the views from outside of the castle trump the interior, but there is an interesting museum of artifacts from both inside the castle and from excavations of nearby caves. Climbing the narrow, winding staircases of the castle tower, which is thought to date back to the castle’s earliest days, also makes the entrance fee a worthwhile investment. If you can avoid the “flying ants” that a sign claims are an imminent threat (still unsure of what that means) you will be able to overlook the expanse of land that the castle once ruled over.

Cheesin' and freezin'

Cheesin’ and freezin’

To my own surprise, even after feeling a little “castled-out” after several months in Slovakia, the afternoon spent playing in Spiš Castle’s shadow will probably remain one of my most iconic moments in this country.

Castle walls

Castle walls

Ancient walls which once defended the castle now enclose an area where Slovak rock concerts occasionally occur.

Ancient walls which once defended the castle now enclose an area where Slovak rock concerts occasionally occur.

View from a hill beside the castle

View from a hill beside the castle

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Lost Days in Krakow

St. Mary's Church dominates Krakow's main square.

St. Mary’s Church dominates Krakow’s main square.

I’ll admit it, I was bad in Krakow. I got so caught up trying to squeeze as much of this spectacular city into three days as possible that I was remiss with my camera and less than dutiful with my note-taking. We were having so much fun and doing so much that it seemed like we had just got there when we had to leave, which to be fair, was basically true.

Fierce lions keeping watch in the Old Town.

Fierce lions keeping watch in the Old Town.

We did manage to fit in several amazing meals in during that short time.  This included the best burger I’ve seen thus far in Eastern Europe, and rivaling the best ever, at lovekrove (it even had guacamole!), my first ever raw vegan experience at RO RAW, some apparently quintessential Polish pizza-bread things called zapiekanke and, of course, traditional pierogies and sausages at the Easter Market.

Sheep-shaped bread and sausage. About as Polish as it gets.

Sheep-shaped bread and sausage. About as Polish as it gets.

As always, we took full advantage of the fantastic free (read: tip what you can or feel is right) tours which you can find offered in so many European cities and were overwhelmed by Krakow’s amazingly rich history. (Most of its architecture was spared in WWII, which is rare.) Of all of the spots in the city, I gravitated most towards the Jewish District, Kazimierz. It hums with youthful energy, full of totally unique restaurants, pubs and shops in addition to important tourist sights such as synagogues and churches.

IMG_6086

The entrance to the last active synagogue in the old Jewish Quarter

Unfortunately, as upbeat and fun as this district now is, one can’t forget the somber and scarily recent history of persecution, mass deportation and genocide that began here during the Nazi occupation during World War II, which leads me to a much more serious part of our visit.

Down a side road in Kazimierz.

Down a side road in Kazimierz.

I can’t fully explain the experience of going to Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps. What I can say is that any one who feasibly has the opportunity to see it for themselves should be sure to take it.  It isn’t until you step onto the grounds that you can completely (or at least speaking for myself) understand the horrifically efficient and scarily regimented way such unfathomable crimes of hate were carried out here. To see the expanse of the grounds sprawling all around you and to take stories from history books and place them in a real location is an experience that will stick with you for a lifetime. Hopefully it will serve as a grim reminder that vigilance against such inhumanity is necessary in the future.

IMG_6091

A restored Jewish Cemetery in Kazimierz

Despite the dark parts in its history, Krakow has emerged as a vibrant city of hope. The energy, architecture, food,history, both the bleak and the inspiring, and most importantly, the people, are all part of what makes Krakow a city which proved to be above and beyond the mass amounts of backpacker hype that it receives. Prior to visiting, I thought a week in any city of that size would be excessive. But now, seeing all it has to offer, I know I’ll have to return for at least that long to make up for this three-day blur of a trip.

Luckily – for those interested interested in knowing more about the specifics of Krakow – Chris happened to create a much more witty and detailed record than I. You can check it out in his post on his blog A Wayfarer’s Murmurings.

Entering Wawel (it sounds less silly, as it's properly pronounced Vavel) Castle.

Entering Wawel (it sounds less silly, as it’s properly pronounced Vavel) Castle.

How Rochester made the cut and New York City did not is beyond me, but go Upstate New York!

How Rochester made the cut and New York City did not is beyond me, but go Upstate New York!

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RO Raw: An Adventure in Raw Dining

Adorable Veggie friends brighten up the room

Adorable Veggie friends brighten up the room

The last time I ordered a salad in Slovakia, the roasted mushrooms and tomatoes I had expected arrived on a bed of cheese cubes rather than lettuce.

Even as a self-proclaimed dairy queen and carb-lover, spending a significant length of time on a Eastern European diet of heavy meat, potato and cheese dishes can really leave you craving something green. So, after hearing about RO Raw, a raw vegan restaurant in Krakow from a delightfully non-preachy enthusiast, I was intrigued. A  longing for fresh veggies combined with a curiosity of how anything but a glorified salad could be made with just raw, vegan-friendly food kept the place in the back of my mind until I finally made it to Poland over Easter break.

I must admit, I initially approached the idea with caution. I was really hungry and in the back of my mind wondered if I might need another meal later in the evening to sustain me. But as soon as we walked into the bright, whimsical restaurant in Wolnica Square and took our seats next to a stuffed carrot and broccoli stalk, I had a good feeling about the whole experiment. Once I saw the ingredient combinations on the very conveniently English-friendly menu, I knew we’d picked a winner.  After starting with shakes, one Green Insanity (apple, banana and spinach) and one Brazilian Delight (Brazilian nuts, pineapple nuts, cranberries, banana) we struggled to choose from a menu where everything sounded fresh and fantastic.

Our Green Insanity and Brazilian Delights Shakes match the decor.

Our Green Insanity and Brazilian Delights Shakes match the decor.

The first step was to eliminate the additional normal, but not raw, vegan section. If we were going to try it, we were going to go all of the way.  After that, it became more difficult, mostly because of the high number of unfamiliar items. Vegan sandwiches made on raw bread. How does that work? Raw soups? They can also be served at 41 °C, thank God. Pumpkin Tagliatelle or Carrot Spaghetti? The possibilities, which I thought would be so limited, were endless.

Luckily our waitress was one of the most patient, kind and genuine I have encountered in Eastern Europe, or quite possibly ever.  She answered our probably stupid questions about just about every item on the menu, the restaurant and the vegan scene in Krakow as a whole. Finally, she helped us decide on the Discover Raw which included samples of Raw Pumpkin Cream Soup, A Passion for Fresh Salad, Raw “Pierogis”, the Raw Sandwich, and Zucchini A La Lasagne to seal the deal. Continue reading

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Trenčín – A Slice of Slovakia

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.

Trenčín from halfway up the castle cliff

Trenčín from halfway up the castle cliff

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.

Castle watchtower over the city

Castle watchtower over the city

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.

Remains of a castle wall

Remains of a castle wall

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. Continue reading

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Return to Slovakia and the Hills of Nitra

Bratislava Castle from under the UFO Bridge

Bratislava Castle from under the UFO Tower of the New Bridge

After some time at home, it feels great to be back in Slovakia with my expectations even higher and my backpack even lighter than before. My flights from Buffalo to Budapest all went off without a hitch (something unheard of for about the last five years of my life). And although I’ve already passed through it before, I finally got my first view of Budapest’s stunning cityscape before moving on.

Art in the bus station under the New Bridge

Art in the bus station under the New Bridge

From Budapest, I headed to Kosice, Slovakia – one of 2013’s Cultural Capitals of Europe, for those who haven’t heard – to check in with HQ, and then onto my beloved Bratislava for the weekend. Since I’d already been to Bratislava a couple times before, I checked out some places outside of my usually old town rounds.  Chris and I took a bus up to Slavín, which is a looming war memorial honoring Soviet troops who died liberating Bratislava from the Germans during WWII.  The memorial itself was worth seeing, but the view of the city below and the residential neighborhoods we passed through on the ride up were even more interesting. Huge and strangely modern private residences are mixed amongst ambassadors homes and embassies. The American ambassador’s home is actually quite close to the memorial and in a moment of need, we briefly thought about asking to use the bathroom. That’s within our rights as American citizens, right?

A child plays beneath the Slavin memorial

A child plays beneath the Slavin memorial

After returning from Slavín, Chris and I, and our new co-worker Ryan, hit up brewpub and restaurant Meštiansky Pivovar as per a local’s suggestion. The place lived up to its hype with a warm atmosphere, good beer, absolutely scrumptious, reasonably priced food, and exceptionally friendly service, which is something that can be hard to find in Slovakia.

Overlooking Bratislava from Slavin

Overlooking Bratislava from Slavin

The next day we headed to Nitra, where we would be teaching for the week.  Although it is the fifth largest city in Slovakia, I didn’t know much about it beyond its emboldened name on the west side of Slovakia’s map.  It turns out Nitra is one the oldest cities in Slovakia.  Sprawling down and around Zobor mountain, Nitra has anything you could possibly want as far as modern conveniences, from malls to cinemas to bowling alleys, in addition to a church older than the United States around just about every corner. This is quite logical seeing as the first Christian church in the Czech and Slovak Republics was founded here in the 9th century.

Nitra and Calvary Hill from Nitra's "Castle"

Nitra and Calvary Hill from Nitra’s “Castle”

While the town proved to be a very pleasant place to spend a week teaching (and this, of course, is largely due to the students and teachers at the school) it might only be worth a day-long stopover for backpackers or tourists. Beyond the churches and the city’s castle which is basically, surprise, surprise, a church, the two biggest attractions are Nitra’s hills: Calvary and Zobor.

My fellow teachers on top of Calvary Hill

My fellow teachers on top of Calvary Hill

Calvary immediately grabs your eye, easing gently upwards through the stations of the cross on one side with a jutting, rocky face on the other.  A small chapel and three crosses sit atop the hill, making for dramatic silhouettes with the right lighting. It takes only a few minutes to walk up after you reach the base, but provides an excellent view of the city.  The best views, however, are taken in from the city’s other hill.  The center of Nitra lies in the shadow of Zobor mountain, or perhaps more accurately, Zobor hill, while some of its nicer residential areas creep up the side.  If you take bus number nine from the center you will be taken about halfway up the hill to where a network of trails begins.  Take the blue and then the green to Zobor, to reach the summit of 588 meters.  From here you will get a close-up look at the mountain’s transmitter, which looks like it could be something more exotic from a further distance.  You’ll also see the whole of the city, the course of the Nitra River, expanses of farmland and a nearby mine.  I’ve been told, on a clear day, it is possible to see 40 km or more, but we were just fortunate enough to get some golden haze through the previously overcast afternoon. The views were fantastic none the less. While you can hike to the summit of Zobor and back to the bus stop in about an hour and a half, a network of trails on the hill could easily keep you busy for an afternoon or longer.  Continue reading

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View from Zobor – Nitra, Slovakia

View from Zobor - Nitra, Slovakia

The weather broke just in time for a view from Nitra’s highest point. It’s good to be back. More to come soon.

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