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.’
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.
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.