Slo­vakian Get­away

Slo­vakia may be small in size but it of­fers a huge se­lec­tion of ex­cit­ing des­ti­na­tions and unique sights. An­to­nius Martono hopped on his bi­cy­cle for an up close and per­sonal look at the ‘Coun­try at the Heart of Europe.’

Maxx-M - - WHERE TO GO - Pho­tos cour­tesy of Slo­vakian Tourism Board

When I was in el­e­men­tary school, I dreamt about bik­ing around the world. I made cal­cu­la­tions, I re­searched dif­fer­ent kinds of bikes and I made lists of what I would need to bring with me. Child­hood dreams, of course, are just that: dreams. I have been for­tu­nate enough to see much of the world; it’s just that I have done it in a bit more com­fort than on a bi­cy­cle.My last Euro­pean adventure was great. I started in the north of the con­ti­nent and con­tin­ued south. But the high­light was a cy­cling trip I had planned through The Carpathian Moun­tains. I was fi­nally go­ing to live out that child­hood dream. Since the ac­ces­sion of sev­eral Slavic coun­tries into the Euro­pean Union, it is much eas­ier to travel in the eastern part of the con­ti­nent. And the Balkan coun­tries of­fer tastes of nat­u­ral beauty that for much of re­cent his­tory were kept hid­den away from the out­side world. The temp­ta­tion to ex­plore the un­known was too great, and I set my sights on Slo­vakia, a de­ci­sion I would not re­gret.The rea­son I chose Slo­vakia is be­cause the geog­ra­phy of the coun­try makes it per­fect for a bik­ing hol­i­day. The coun­try is noted for its moun­tain­ous land­scape, with the ma­jes­tic peaks of the Carpathi­ans ex­tend­ing across much of the north­ern half of Slo­vakia, ac­com­pa­nied by fer­tile val­leys and large rivers. The nat­u­ral beauty of the coun­try is punc­tu­ated by the re­minders of its his­tory sprin­kled around the coun­try­side.

Bratislava: A City of Contrasts

Bratislava was my start­ing point. For­get about grey, gloomy, com­mu­nist towns with sus­pi­cious in­hab­i­tants watch­ing your ev­ery move. Bratislava is a beau­ti­ful Euro­pean city, with grand his­tor­i­cal build­ings and cour­te­ous and help­ful res­i­dents. At least that was my ex­pe­ri­ence, as I asked where I could en­joy a good cof­fee and they pro­posed I sam­ple some of the great Slo­vak beers. That is help­ful. Bratislava, a city of half a mil­lion in­hab­i­tants, of­ten called the Beauty on the Danube, is bor­dered to the north by the con­flu­ence of the Mo­rava and Danube rivers, and to the south by the fer­tile val­leys of Rye Is­land (Zitný ostrov). Bratislava is uniquely po­si­tioned near the bor­ders of two neigh­bour­ing coun­tries – Hun­gary and Aus­tria. The stark con­trast of the pic­turesque ar­chi­tec­ture and nar­row streets of the Old Town and the drab con­crete hous­ing schemes of­fer a vis­ual his­tory of the rise and fall of Bratislava dur­ing its long his­tory. Many beau­ti­ful his­tor­i­cal mon­u­ments of the past have been lov­ingly pre­served, in­clud­ing the dom­i­nant land­mark in the city – Bratislava Cas­tle and, be­neath it, St. Martin’s Dome, where nine­teen Hungarian rulers donned St. Stephen’s crown. Although Bratislava is some­what more re­laxed than its glam­orous neigh­bours Vi­enna and Prague, there are still plenty of fun han­gouts to ex­plore, and ev­ery year the city hosts a va­ri­ety of fes­ti­vals. Fol­low­ing the Vel­vet Revo­lu­tion the tempo of life in Bratislava has vis­i­bly ac­cel­er­ated.

Land of the Fairy Story

Out of Bratislava, I ride to one of Slo­vakia’s main tourist at­trac­tions, the Ta­tra Moun­tains, the high­est peaks in the Carpathi­ans. The Ta­tras present an op por­tu­nity for high-moun­tain hik­ing and climb­ing, and also for pleas­ant walks and bi­cy­cle tours.

Vis­i­tors make a bee­line for the chalets lo­cated close to the sum­mits of the Ta­tra peaks, and the glacial lakes with their crys­tal-clear wa­ters. The best-known are Strb­ske, Po­pradske, Skalnate and Hin­covo lakes, the last of which is the largest lake in the Ta­tras. The lakes are called tarns. They are the “eyes” of the Ta­tras and each one takes on a spe­cific colour re­sult­ing from its lo­ca­tion and the shade of the sur­round­ing moun­tain back­ground. There is a nice view of the Obrovský vodopád wa­ter­fall from the bridge on the Ta­tra ar­te­rial road. The foam­ing white wa­ter falls in a notch be­tween two rocks to a depth of 20 me­tres. The Tro­jitý vodopád wa­ter­fall has in Hungarian and Ger­man a po­etic name that may be trans­lated as the “wa­ter­fall of artists.” It is hid­den in the for­est and re­ceives few tourists. Ca­ble­ways in the moun­tain­ous ar­eas of the High Ta­tras and the Low Ta­tras help tourists con­quer their peaks with­out much dif­fi­culty. A popular des­ti­na­tion is Hre­bi­enok, which can be reached by fu­nic­u­lar from Stary Smokovec. As some­one who is afraid of heights, I had to chal­lenge my­self to make the trip by an aerial rope­way with­out a sin­gle sup­port­ing col­umn from Lom­nicke sedlo to Lom­nicky stit, at an altitude of 2,632 me­tres. It was an ex­hil­a­rat­ing ex­pe­ri­ence.

The Gothic Route

From the moun­tains, I con­tinue along a path called the Gothic Route. It stretches 267 kilo­me­tres and is an in­te­grated cir­cuit that passes by the most in­ter­est­ing and valu­able trea­sures of the Spis and Ge­mer re­gions – cas­tles loom­ing from the top of hills, well-pre­served his­tor­i­cal town cen­tres, mu­se­ums and cathe­drals, as well as smaller gems like ru­ral churches, burghers’ and crafts­men’s houses and pic­turesque stone bridges.The trip is like a jour­ney back into child­hood mem­o­ries of Broth­ers Grimm fairy tales, filled with beau­ti­ful cas­tles, palaces and small vil­lages. Among the high­lights of the route are Krasna Horka Cas­tle and Manor House in Betliar, with its mag­nif­i­cent park spread out over 70 hectares, boasting ex­otic plants from around the world.

Slo­vak Sea

Ly­ing in the heart of Europe, Slo­vakia is a land­locked coun­try, but tries to com­pen­sate for this lack of di­rect ac­cess to the sea with a large num­ber of dams and reser­voirs. At the point where the Danube River be­comes a Slo­vak river it passes through Devín­ska Brána (Devin Gate). Here the Danube me­an­ders its way to Bratislava, which spreads out across both banks of the grand river. The flow of the Lit­tle Danube, to­gether with the net­work of Danube arms, cre­ates ideal con­di­tions for wa­ter trips and other types of wa­ter tourism. The wa­ter sports area at Cunovo, built in con­nec­tion with the hy­dro­elec­tric Gabcíkovo Dam, of­fers top-qual­ity train­ing con­di­tions for sports­men and women Slo­vakia is also rich in min­eral springs, many of which claim ther­a­peu­tic prop­er­ties. There are ther­mal baths lo­cated close to the Ta­tras, of­fer­ing a wel­come respite af­ter a day of climb­ing through the moun­tains or hurtling down its slopes on skis. Tra­di­tional swim­ming pools are equipped with mod­ern ameni­ties and of­fer well­ness pro­grammes – saunas, var­i­ous types of mas­sage, aro­mather­apy and hot com­presses. It may not have the rep­u­ta­tion, but Slo­vakia cer­tainly has its al­lure for a spa con­nois­seur. The beau­ti­ful nat­u­ral scenery, rich his­tory and grand mon­u­ments make Slo­vakia an un­for­get­table des­ti­na­tion. Trav­el­ling by bi­cy­cle lets you to see the coun­try up close and per­sonal, fall­ing in love over and over again with the sights and sounds of beau­ti­ful Slo­vakia.

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