Where: Slovakia. Our visit was particularly focused on Zdiar and the High Tatras Mountains and Bratislava, the capital.
Slovakia is an Eastern European nation. Poland is to the north, the Czech Republic and Austria to the west, the Ukraine to the east and Hungary to the south. The High Tatras mountains are in the north middle of the country, bordering Poland, and Bratislava is at the far west of the country, on the Danube River, by the Austrian border.
When: February 2011
Why: Jeff and I decided to do a mini-tour of Eastern Europe for my birthday, so we traveled from Krakow to Zakopane in Poland, then went over the High Tatras to Zdiar and Bratislava in Slovakia and then we ended the trip in Budapest, Hungary. We also popped to Austria for a pint, although we couldn’t find one (see the ‘What we did’ section for more info).
Slovakia (not Slovenia) is one of those countries which seems to get forgotten about by the world but which has quietly been getting on, doing its thing and being all pretty and great – without anyone really noticing.
Slovakia is not a dramatic country. It has gorgeous mountains in the High Tatras, but this mountain range is only 50km long and 18km wide and the mountains aren’t ‘that’ high. The capital Bratislava is a nice, pleasant city with a compact, historical centre and a great castle – but it’s not a showy city, it’s quite quiet and just nice.
Slovakia seemed like an unassuming place to me. It didn’t have the razzamatazz of it’s sister countries, Austria and the Czech Republic. While Prague and Vienna are extremely rich and slightly gaudy, Slovakia keeps it’s charms close to its chest.
In some ways, Slovakia reminded me of Wales: it’s about the same size, it’s mostly hilly, they both have some great historical sights and some nice towns and they’re both kind of overshadowed by their larger neighbours.
However, I really liked Slovakia. I found it easy to navigate, cheap, friendly, and a lovely place to be and I’d love to go back to explore further.
Getting there and getting around
Zakopane to Zdiar
We caught the bus to Slovakia. We travelled from Zakopane in Poland, over the High Tatras to the village of Zdiar.
The bus from Zakopane to Poprad (via Zdiar and the High Tatras villages) is run by a private company called Firma Strama. You can get bus times on their website. Please note, not all of the buses run all of the time – and so you should check the dates section at the bottom. We got caught out by this as we waited for two and a half hours for the 15.00 bus, only to discover it wasn’t running on the date we were there and so we had to wait another hour for the 16.00 bus. It didn’t really matter, we just went for food and bought some street cheese, it was just a bit of a pain is all.
In Zakopane all of the buses leave from the bus station, which has toilets, a cafe, a cash machine, a supermarket etc.
The drive over the High Tatras was really pretty. There was snow on the mountains when we were there.
Our journey to Zdiar took about an hour and ten minutes. We were worried that we wouldn’t know when the bus was in Zdiar, but we wouldn’t have missed it. The bus stop is the first stop after the border and it is opposite the petrol station on the edge of Zdiar. Our driver knew this was where we were going and so made sure he stopped for us.
After Zdiar, the bus goes on to Poprad, which is a major(ish) city and transport interchange.
The High Tatras area
Zdiar has a very limited bus service but it does have a few local buses each way per day, in addition to the Firma Strama buses which run from Zakopane to Poprad.
The buses run from Zdiar to Poprad via the High Tatras villages of Tatranska Lomnica (or Tarantula Lemons, as I called it) and Stary Smokovec (Starry Smokey-bitch). A lot of local buses serve Tatranska Lomnica, as this is a major ski resort.
Tatranska Lomnica and Stary Smokovec have stations on the High Tatras Railway, which also connects to Poprad. This is a really useful network of trains which run around the villages of the High Tatras mountain side. These trains are tram like and very comfortable to travel about on. They have huge windows so you can appreciate the gorgeous vistas. There is a cog railway between Poprad and the resort of Tatranska Lomnica. There is more information about the railways in the ‘What we Did’ section below.
You can find out more about the High Tatras Mountain Railways, including timetables and fares, at The Slovakia Rail website.
Poprad to Bratislava
To travel from Poprad to Bratislava we caught the intercity train. We bought our tickets at the station, just before we travelled, and they cost us €13 each. The train was great: we had one of those trains with individual compartments, and Jeff and I had a compartment to ourselves for most of the way. On the train there was a lovely, friendly tea lady who sold drinks and snacks.
The journey was amazing as the scenery was just stunning. For the first half of our journey, we travelled alongside the High Tatras, past high, snow-capped mountains, through tunnels, alongside great rivers and lake shores, past castles perched on rocks. It was just gorgeous.
The scenery around Bratislava is less dramatic, as Bratislava is located on the Danube Plains, but it was still interesting.
Find out more about travelling by train in Slovakia at The Man at Seat 61 website and buy tickets, find fares and view timetables (in English) at the Slovakrail website.
In Bratislava, we travelled from the station to our hostel by tram. We bought our tickets from the machine at the tram stop and then stamped them when we got on the tram. A 15 minute ticket cost 70 cents and a one day tourist ticket cost €4.50, though Bratislava is so compact you probably won’t use the trams that much.
For more information, prices and route maps visit the MHD website.
To find out how we got to Marchegg in Austria for our international pub crawl, please see the ‘What we did’ section.
Bratislava to Budapest
To find out how we got from Bratislava to Budapest, visit the Budapest page.
What we did on our holiday
Pootled around the High Tatras on the High Tatras Railway
The High Tatras Railway is a network of trains that run between the city of Poprad and the villages of the High Tatras. The trains wind their way along the side of the mountains, through woods and over streams, from the ski resort of Tatranská Lomnica (or Tarantula Lemons as we called it) to another ski resort called Štrbské Pleso. It travels via the village of Stary Smokovec (or Starry Smoky Bitch).
We caught a bus from Zdiar to Stary Smokovec. This is a lovely little Alpine-style resort with huge hotels, an information centre, some shops and the station. There’s not a lot to do here but we did go for early morning coffees and got lots of leaflets about the area (I love a good tourist information centre).
From Starry Smoky Bitch we caught the High Tatras train to the ski resort of Štrbské Pleso. The train journey was wonderful. The High Tatras Railway runs modern, low level tram like trains and a cog railway. Our train had huge windows and travelled very slowly. It followed the contours of the land, along the edge of the mountains, overlooking stupendous views and getting close to nature. Sometimes it almost felt like we were on a footpath in the woods, we were so close to the trees. The gorgeous journey took about an hour.
You can find out more about the High Tatras Mountain Railways, including timetables and fares, at The Slovakia Rail website.
At Štrbské Pleso we walked up to have a look at the ski runs and we wandered around the lake. We saw some amazing views over the valley, Poprad below, and Jeff nearly slipped off a cliff. Mostly we just pottered about in the snow though and then went for a gorgeous, heart warming lunch.
After lunch we caught the train back to Tarantula Lemons and we walked up to have a look at the ski runs here. We wanted to catch the cable car to the top of Lomnický štít mountain, which is the second highest mountain in Slovakia. There is an amazing lodge at the top of the mountain and a pizzeria half way up – but sadly, due to strong winds, the cable car had stopped running – so we just had fun watching the skiers instead, and then went for a wander around the supermarket before catching the bus back to Zdiar.
You can find out more about the cable car and the mountain top lodge, find opening times, prices and book tickets (in English) at the Vyoské Tatre website. They also have lots of information about the local area, specifically skiing in this area of the High Tatras mountains.
So we didn’t really do a huge amount, but we had a lovely relaxing day pottering around the mountains. This mountainous region was just gorgeous. We were there on a crisp, clear, sunny winters day; the light sparkled, we were young and in love and having a giggly time – it was just magical.
Bratislava is a nice, unassuming capital city. It doesn’t really feel like a capital city – it’s not big and busy enough, but it is a pleasant place to be and is in a good strategic location if you are touring around the major cities of Europe. There’s not really a lot to see, apart perhaps from the castle and the old town, but it is a nice place to stop off if you are travelling through.
Whilst in Bratislava we did the following:
Tried to go on an international pub crawl
The first thing we decided to do when we got to Bratislava – was to get out of Bratislava. To be fair to Bratislava though, it wasn’t because it was rubbish – but because we are such country whores we wanted to add another country to Jeff’s list by popping into Austria – which is about two miles from the city centre. And to make it more interesting we decided to do an international pub crawl at the same time.
The lady at the hostel seemed really bemused that we wanted to go to the neighbouring country – just because we could – and she didn’t think there were any buses which crossed the border; so we ventured back to the train station and caught the train to Marchegg – which is just over the Austrian border.
We had drink number one in Bratislava station bar (we had huge nommy glasses of €1 wine and €1 beer) and then we caught the train to Marchegg. Marchegg station is strange as it didn’t have any platforms. Marchegg is strange as it doesn’t have any pubs, or people apparently. It was a complete ghost town and quite spooky. It’s quite a sizeable town – but all the houses seemed to be shuttered, with barky dogs outside and there were no people! Or cars! Or pubs (Dan-ube!).
At first, we followed the signs for the Schloss Hof (you schloss hof. No you schloss hof), thinking that the castle would be in the centre of town – but the signs directed us in to the middle of nowhere and then disappeared. So we headed back the way we came and walked past the station in the opposite direction, and there were a lot more houses here – but still no pubs. We did find a supermarket though and so we bought beers to drink on the station without platforms (we’re so classy).
The train tickets cost us about £5 each. We could have gone all the way to Vienna for not much more.
Explored Bratislava at night
Bratislava has a castle and a nice old town, with towers and gates and squares and stuff. When we were there in February there was an ice rink in the main square. Bratislava old town is very compact – and would probably only occupy you for a few hours. We only ventured in as we were looking for dinner – but it was very pretty and we had a nice evening here.
There’s also a modern centre which has a large mall with a huge Tescos in it.
What we didn’t do in Slovakia, but would have liked to
Slovakia is an amazing country with many sights to see. It has lots of castles, wonderful Bavarian style wooden villages, beautiful mountains, hot springs, adventure sports, great, cheap wine etc etc. It would be a great place to visit for a longer stay and fingers crossed, one day we’ll be back.
However, I just want to mention one major sight which I really regret not visiting, but we just didn’t have enough time. Slovakia has the largest castle in the world. This is Spišský Hrad and it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s not a long distance from Poprad, where we were based, but it is a little bit complicated to get to.
Oh well, we’ll have to go back.
If you would like to visit Spišský Hrad, visit www.spisskyhrad.sk.
Where we stayed
Ginger Monkey, Zdiar
We didn’t actually stay at the Ginger Monkey as they had overbooked themselves and so we were accommodated in the house next door, which was nice – but not what we’d booked.
On paper, the Ginger Monkey had sounded amazing. It’s a little hostel for snowboarders, in the small village of Zdiar, which had cool common rooms, great views etc. It sounded like it had a really nice ethos and that a nice, friendly crowd hung out here. However, we were accommodated in a private house with rooms next door and what we actually found was that the hostel was quite cliquey. For all intents and purposes the staff were friendly and helpful, but they seemed to be more interested in their own fun rather than running the hostel. Most of the boarders were there for the long term – they stayed for months rather than just a few nights like we were – and so they had their own closed relationships and groups. Also, they all seemed to be very ‘cool’ people – which Jeff and I are totally not.
Anyway, I don’t know if it was just because of the bad beginning, but I didn’t warm to the Ginger Monkey. Maybe it was because we had to slip and slide our way up to the hostel over the snow (no one had cleared a path), in the dark. Maybe it was because we were actually put up in someone’s home – which I didn’t want. On that first night I was really upset and I really wanted to just move on. Jeff had to tell me to man up.
I’m glad we didn’t move on though – not because of the accommodation but because over the next few days I fell a little bit in love with Zdiar.
Walking outside the next morning, we were surrounded by snow fields and mountains, lit by the freshest, spakliest, crystal clear light.
I loved this wooden village, nestled in the quiet valley, and the hidden shops and bars. At first, we thought that there was nothing in the village – just a garage, but we soon discovered that it had all the facilities you could need – including lots of places to eat and drink, a cash machine, general store and post office – they were just hidden away in buildings that looked like houses.
Jeff and I particularly liked the Gorala Pub, which had a huge bar/restaurant, with a roaring log fire, long wooden tables, great glasses of cheap beer and wine and yummy heart-warming food. We also liked Pizzeria Rustika, where I had a pizza with slices of orange on it.
So I’d return to Zdiar, but not to the Ginger Monkey. Our private double cost us €32/night (about £25), and we booked it through Hostel Bookers. www.gingermonkey.eu.
For more information on Zdiar, visit www.zdiar.eu.
Downtown Backpacker’s Hostel, Bratislava
Very central hostel in downtown Bratislava. Above a bar, but this was a bonus, rather than a problem for us. We were given a free ‘local’ drink when we checked in. Jeff drank mine (thanks honey).
I really liked this place. They had good facilities in the kitchen (including a washing machine and dryer), we got a free breakfast, there was free internet, the rooms were nice and the décor was cool. Although they had the bar downstairs, they also had a nice living room/TV room where we could chill and hang out – and we made a few friends whilst we were here.
We stayed in a mixed dorm which was bright, airy and comfortable.
The staff were really friendly and helpful (they gave us a city map as soon as we checked in, which was nice).
The hostel had a great location. The tram stop was pretty much right by the hostel and it was really easy to find. We were about ten minutes from the main station, and a short walk from the old town.
I’d definitely stay here again and I’d recommend it for other travellers.
Our dorm beds cost us £7.50 each.
Please note, some, if not much of this information may not be correct or may be out of date. All these articles show is how we found these places when we visited and what we personally thought of each place. Where possible I will include links to site which will contain more up-to-date info. All of this is my own work and any opinion expressed is that of the author only.
If you think I’ve missed something important or have got something wrong, please let me know in the comments section below.
All photos copyright of J Clemo-Halpenny. If you would like to copy or reproduce any of these images, please email me to ask permission.