By Beth Higham
Late last summer, we were there again. Spending our evenings debating where to go on holiday. Me pining for another trip to America to explore another state in my quest to see all 50; my boyfriend Alex, bemoaning the lack of travel opportunities to locations outside ‘The Land of Stars and Stripes’.
Since relationships are about that wonderful word, COMPROMISE, and after weeks of listening to Alex’s pleas to go somewhere in Europe (or for that matter, anywhere not in America), one night I took matters into my own hands. I booked a trip to a country I knew only a little about but had always been curious to explore – and refusing to tell him where until all was said and done, I booked us six days in Slovakia. Fortunately this resulted in maximum brownie points from the better half!
When trying to navigate the confusing web of hotel descriptions in Slovakian during the booking process late one Tuesday night, little did I know that I had in fact just booked what would prove to be one of the best holidays we’ve ever been on!
Bordered by five European neighbours (the Czech Republic, Poland, Ukraine, Hungary and Austria), Slovakia is an absolutely magical country filled with magnificent castles, colourful churches, historic cities, affordable ski resorts and best of all, the Low and High Tatras Mountains. It is so much more than a cheap weekend getaway to the capital, Bratislava, for a hen or stag do – but this is certainly as good a place as any to start a visit.
You can easily explore Bratislava in 24 or 48 hours depending on how much time you want for relaxation, sightseeing – and/or drinking of the great value local craft beers. Since I’m not a beer drinker, I left Alex to taste test the local brews, while I enjoyed several Disaronno’s, for just €3. Steal.
In this historic city – just a few miles from the Austrian and Hungarian borders – The Loft Hotel is a great place to stay. Stylish, buzzy and affordable – it has its own brewery!
After a few days in Bratislava, we set off in our rented BMW for our road trip around rural Slovakia – tunes blazing! 20 minutes later, the city just visible in the rear view mirror, we stopped to grab a map, drinks and snacks from a local gas station. All was going well until I tried to open a bottle of my beloved Diet Coke and it helpfully exploded in my lap, drenching me from head to foot – cue a trip to the ladies to completely change my outfit. I was less than amused. Alex meanwhile struggled to contain his amusement. *I promise I didn’t shake the bottle, but I can’t be sure about the boy!
Kitted out in fresh clothes, we headed east into the Slovakian wilds in search of Banská Štiavnica, a central Slovakian town that sits in the middle of an immense caldera created by the collapse of an ancient volcano. After several hours of driving on the smoothest motorways I’ve even seen, we found ourselves climbing higher and higher into the Štiavnica Mountains amidst spectacular autumnal foliage (just like in my beloved New England) until we reached the mountain top. And it was here that our adventure really began…
Spotting our destination nestled deep in the valley below, the only route by which to reach it seemed to be along an extremely narrow, pot-hole lined dirt track. Within minutes we were surrounded on all sides by dense tree cover, trying carefully to steer our way along the track, at little more than five miles an hour, while avoiding the sheer drop to one side. Unintentionally we were off-roading in our low-slung beamer. Half a mile in, with the only sign of life an elderly local couple in a beat up old banger (who looked at us as if we’d lost the plot!), we decided that we ought to turn around and find an alternative route before we got a puncture. Easy, right? Not so much! Realising we hadn’t passed any turning spots and in the knowledge that the road was only just wide enough for the car, Alex was forced to reverse the whole way back up the track, mostly uphill. I’ll give him this, after years working in the motor industry, he’s a really good driver!
30 minutes later we finally reached Banská Štiavnica. The oldest mining town in Slovakia, it dates back to the 13th century and is filled with beautiful churches, castles, Renaissance palaces and elegant cobbled squares. It truly is central Europe at its best!
After a look around, it was my turn to take the wheel and drive us the next 150 kilometres to our home for the rest of the trip – the Grand Hotel Kempinski High Tatras – and oh my did I have fun driving that four-litre BMW!
As the High Tatras Mountains rose into view a few hours later, it was as if we’d timed it perfectly. The sun was setting right in front of us, as we once more climbed into the mountains, turning the sky a brilliant hue of reddish-yellow.
In the High Tatras, we found stunning Alpine landscapes dotted with rare flora and fauna and shimmering lakes including Lake Strbske pleso. Having plucked our hotel out of thin air a month earlier, it turned out I’d inadvertently chosen the most luxurious property in the whole region. Although I’m known for enjoying a five-star hotel, I promise this time, I actually picked it simply because it looked a bit more ‘international ready’ as we travel industry folks sometimes say and I didn’t want to be stuck in the middle of nowhere in a rustic locals-only lodge, without a word of Slovakian to my vocabulary. It’s a notoriously difficult language to master!
The next few days were spent exploring the High Tatras’ ski resort towns – albeit in summer –reaching both new highs and lows.
The high was braving three cable cars (which got smaller the higher you got!) to travel 2,634 metres up to the top of Lomnicky Peak (Lomnický štít), the second highest peak in the High Tatras. For the girl that’s afraid of heights, this was quite the achievement, but well worth it, as it afforded us spectacular views over the surrounding Slovakian landscapes and three neighbouring countries.
The low involved falling down a mountain path and landing head/face first after a trip to the breath-taking Bystrianska Cave. How and why? Well that’s a story for another day!
But to draw my tales of Slovakia to a close, here’s five places not to miss if you follow in my footsteps and visit this remarkable country!
1) The High Tatras Mountains – Lomnicky Peak and Lake Strbske pleso
2) Banská Štiavnica and the Štiavnica Mountains
4) Bojnice Castle
5) Bystrianska Cave in the Low Tatras Mountains