Posts Tagged With: slovakia

Paradise Revisited

Last November I paid an unexpected visit to Slovak Paradise, or Slovenský Raj, if you will, with a pretty cool collection of people from The Ginger Monkey Hostel. The hike, which took us past one of the most spectacular lookout points in Slovakia, alongside and occasionally right over the edge of the Hornad River and up a waterfall-filled gorge, is definitely a contender for the top spot on my Slovak highlight list.

However, ever since I took that hike, I’d been a little bummed out that Chris, who I’ve been traveling with the majority of my time in Slovakia, hadn’t been there. As a fellow hiking enthusiast and one of the biggest waterfall lovers I know, I felt he completely missed out on one of the best experiences an outdoor lover can have in Slovakia. And so, when we were passing by Spišská Nová Ves, just a stone’s throw from the park, I was ecstatic to be able to give the loop another go with Chris and our friend Jack.

A cliff near Tomášovský výhľad in November.

A cliff near Tomášovský Výhľad in November.

Chris and Jack looking out near

Chris and Jack looking out from the same spot in May.

Slightly senior portrait-esque, but the setting redeems it.

Slightly senior portrait-esque, but the setting redeems it.

Close to the edge at  Tomášovský výhľad.

Close to the edge at Tomášovský Výhľad.

And from the same cliff in November.

And from the same cliff in November.

My maiden journey through Slovensky Raj had been guided by someone familiar with the park, so I was basically on autopilot, gaping at scenery the whole time. Since I would be the veteran this time, I took it upon myself to find the route we took before, worried that any other path might not live up to the hype I’d been creating.

Information about the trail wasn’t hard to find. Although we barely saw another soul during our mid-November hike, it is allegedly the most popular trail in the park and is packed beyond belief in the high season of July and August. (We were lucky enough to bypass the only other large group early on this time around.)

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Categories: environment, fitness, hiking, nature, science, TEFL | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Terchová, Malý Rozsutec and Jan the Philospher

A shepherd's hut at the start of the hike.

A shepherd’s hut near Štefanová in Malá Fatra National Forest.

After some time in the Czech Republic, a 10-hour train journey took me back to familiar territory near Žilina, Slovakia. I had been to Žilina a few weeks before and had explored some of the expansive Malá Fatra Fatra National Park, but this time I wanted to take on some of the bigger mountains on the opposite side.

The village of Terchová is close to the mountains and has enough lodging to keep up with the peak hiking and skiing seasons, making it the ideal jumping-off point. A page on the town’s website lists all of the available accommodation. Since it all looked pretty comparable and affordable, we picked one called Laurenčík at random and booked it for the weekend. Luck must have been on our side, because when I arrived, I found a lovely apartment with comfortable rooms and a kitchen complete with any appliance or tool I could ever need. As if that wasn’t enough, the owner, Jan, was easily one of the nicest, most genuine, and most interesting people I have ever met. Despite only knowing a few handfuls of English words (although he speaks Slovak, Russian and German, so shame on my for my mostly monolingualism), the older gentleman, who as it turned out to be a published philosopher, was able to converse with us in a Slovak/English combination about nearly anything with surprisingly little confusion.

After an early night on Friday (I don’t know which wore me out more, seven hours of lessons with 13-year-olds or 10 hours of solo train and bus travel), we rose early to take on the mountains on Saturday morning. After gathering some supplies at the grocery store, Jan graciously gave us a driving tour of the highlights of Malá Fatra National Park and dropped us off at our trailhead in  Štefanová. We had found a basic route from here to Velký Rozsutec, the tallest mountain in the area, online. Our only real concern was the fog coming in,which can make the higher peaks unsafe in the spring, but we decided to head up with the hopes of an afternoon clearing.

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After an easy walk out of Štefanová on the yellow trail, we were pleasantly surprised to find the first leg of the hike to be even more entertaining than expected. Instead of an anticipated slow incline up the blue trail to the saddle between Velký (big) and Malý (small) Rozsutec, we found a path through a gorge filled with fun technical aids such as ladders, chains and bridges. Of course, the scenery was pretty sweet when climbing above rushing waterfalls and using chains to scramble up rocky ledges, and the obstacles were so much fun that we didn’t realize how much work it really was until our thighs were burning at the end.

Crossing the gorge by ladder.

Crossing the gorge by ladder.

Even this adventurous dog is a little hesitant about this.

Even this adventurous dog is a little hesitant about this.

But he got some assistance.

But he got some assistance.

Scaling waterfalls.

Scaling waterfalls.

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Soon To Come – Ledges, Ladders, Chains and Waterfalls

It’s been hard to find the time to sit down and write with the pressure to squeeze as much into my last few weeks in Eastern Europe as possible.  May has been a pretty amazing month from a hiking perspective with a big trek in Malá Fatra National Park and a return trip to Slovenský Raj, or Slovak Paradise, which had a completely different character than when I last visited it in November.  Both hikes were heavy on adrenaline with dramatic drop-offs, rickety ladders and rusty chains and proved to be some of the most interesting I’ve done to date. More pictures and details soon to come.

Close to the edge at Tomášovský výhľad in Slovak Paradise

Close to the edge at Tomášovský výhľad in Slovak Paradise.

Ideal climbing scenery in Slovenský Raj.

Ideal climbing scenery in Slovenský Raj.

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Biking Through the Old Iron Curtain

Ever since I saw it suggested in a hostel’s guidebook, riding my bike from Bratislava to Austria and back earned a spot on my Eastern European bucket list. I think transporting yourself over international borders with your own two feet is always pretty neat, but it’s even more intriguing when that line is as significant as the one between Slovakia and Austria. While the infamous Iron Curtain may have fallen nearly a quarter of a century ago, the separation of East and West Europe during the communistic era still accounts for an obvious divide today.

 The Carnuntum - Schloss Hof - Bratislava passing through Austrian Fields.

The Carnuntum – Schloss Hof – Bratislava passing through Austrian Fields.

May 1st, or May Day is a national holiday in Slovakia. Since we were teaching near Bratislava, it was the perfect day to execute our international cycling plans. A half-hour train ride took us from Senec to Bratislava’s main station. The day before I had called Bike Rentals Bratislava and reserved two bikes for 12 Euros with a 30 euro deposit a piece, which is pretty reasonable in my opinion. When we arrived at the Tesco near the Old Town, I just called the guy up, and five minutes later we had our bicycles. The man and his partner were extremely friendly and organized. After taking our information and money, they showed us the main features of the bikes and allowed us to be on our way.

The bikes themselves were in great shape and came with saddle bags stocked with a helmet, tire repair kit, pump and first aid kit. After ensuring everything was in working condition, we whizzed around the Old Town a bit to warm up our rusty legs. Before long we we’re zooming over the New Bridge, affectionately known as the UFO Bridge because of its questionable communistic design, and turning onto a path we knew ran along the Danube.

Chris strikes a pose on his snazzy bike.

Chris strikes a pose on his snazzy bike.

Before we had come to Bratislava I tried to look into different bike routes to and from Austria. I had almost no luck besides a blogger who described a very highway heavy route to Heinburg, a small city a few kilometers over the border, and back. I’m not a big fan of highways, or returning the same way I’ve come for that matter, so I did some map research of my own. I decided we could from this starting path, we could definitely veer into some different villages in Austria and cross back into Slovakia in order to return on the opposite side of the Danube.

When we first merged onto the bike trail, two things became very apparent. First, some highway riding was unavoidable if we wanted to stay on the main bike path. Second of all, based on our fellow riders, we were severely underdressed for the occasion.

I’ve come to realize Europeans are all about their active gear. You will never catch any Slovaks in the mountains without trekking poles or coordinating waterproof pants and jackets and the same seems to apply for the cycling world. While I had just barely opted for running shorts and a t-shirt (jeans seemed like a good idea if we were going to hang around the city after), everyone else we passed was decked out in spandex, cycling jerseys, sleek sunglasses and fancy helmets. I expected this from the elite, hardcore Tour de France trainees, but when we were flying past people huffing and puffing through the first two kilometers in their intense gear, I was slightly amused.

We continued along the masses of professionally clad cyclists for 15 minutes or so before we came to the border crossing. It actually didn’t hit me that the bar and abandoned building we passed indicated the Slovakian-Austrian border until we were several minutes past it. It seemed too fast and anti-climactic to have already crossed into another country, let alone another country that was completely off-limits two decades ago. But, no matter how quickly it had happened, we were in Austria now, meaning that, as long as we made it back to Bratislava, we would have accomplished our goal.

At this point, however, we knew we wanted to go much further than just the border. The temperature was perfect for biking, and the path moved into a quaint Austrian Village, Wolfstahl, soon after the border crossing. It was here that we started to see purple signs indicating some bike path called the Carnuntum – Schloss Hof – Bratislava Tour. We figured if there were going to be trail markers  around, we might as well follow them. It turned out to be a great decision, as it led us off the main road and snaked through the village.  I would like to note that, as the first village we encountered after crossing the old “Iron Curtain” line, Wolfstahl was a world away from the suburbs of Bratislava a few kilometers to the east.  The winding streets marked by German signs led to charming houses with large gardens. Most importantly, there was not a block of apartments in sight.  Of course, we are comparing city and village, but Wolfstahl looked distinct from any Slovak village I’d ever seen. The truth is, the technical divide between East and West may have ceased in 1989, but that doesn’t mean you can’t still feel it.

A map we came across documenting different cycling routes in the area.

Our Guiding Light

Since the Purple path served us well at the start, we decided to keep with it as long as it took a fairly logical route. Before long, we ran across a sign that showed what a jackpot we had hit with the purple path markers.  The Carnuntum – Schloss Hof – Bratislava trail actually took us upon almost the exact route I had been trying to research before, with a bonus section that traveled through some extra sections of the Austrian countryside.

It was quickly settled that we would follow this, and we did, through over 20 miles of Austrian towns, villages and countryside. The scenic route even led us past golden yellow fields, underneath a castle, over the Danube and through a national park. At one point we could have easily continued to Vienna, and the only older man on the bike path not decked out in spandex from head-to-toe was eager to direct us. But alas, we had class to teach in the morning and couldn’t guarantee we could return in time.

These fields of yellow surrounded us when we first crossed the border.

These fields of yellow surrounded us when we first crossed the border.

The Danube as it flows past Heinburg.

The Danube as it flows past Heinburg.

Looking like a bit of a dweeb crossing over the Danube.

Looking like a bit of a dweeb crossing over the Danube.

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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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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

Categories: hiking, photography, TEFL, tourism, travel | Tags: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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