Castle ruins, tiny traditional villages, and beer that’s nearly free – A short description of what this past weekend looked like for me as I embarked on yet another short weekend adventure here in Europe. Working the whole Monday through Friday gig leaves me having to do frequent short trips that usually last 2-4 days depending if there is a Federal holiday or if I have any leave saved up. As much as I wish I could travel slower and stay longer, I find that weekend trips can fulfill my wanderlust as well. Also, traveling is not free, at least for me it’s not! So I’ll need to keep up with my work schedule if I want to continue traveling around Europe and beyond.
My travel partner also known as my husband, Mike, couldn’t make it with me this weekend (there’s usually at least one weekend a month that he can’t make trips with me due to his work schedule). That’s ok, I tend to enjoy these short trips a bit better because then I don’t have to rush him or wake him up too early. Once I found out he would be working this last weekend, I knew I had to book a short trip somewhere he hadn’t mentioned about going to so Slovakia would be it!
Planning the Trip
Lonely Planet is one of my go-to tools when planning my travels on the cheap. I was gifted a Europe on a Shoestring book by my mother-in-law from Lonely Planet and I love all of the inexpensive sights to see and restaurants to check out! This book also makes a point for each country to summarize the cities and towns with some history, short and extended itineraries, and even a survival guide consisting of important information such as currency exchanges, public holidays, visas, public transportation, and much more.
Another useful tool that I recently discovered a few months ago is Atlas Obscura which is super helpful when wanting to find the unique or obscure things to do and see in most cities around the world. Here on this site is where I found the iconic UNESCO village called Cicmany which I will mention later in this post. It was well worth the extra drive East as it forced me to see other parts of Slovakia that I wouldn't have seen if I just planned my trip to Vienna and Bratislava as most people would.
Since I travel solo every so often, I usually will try to join a free city walking tour and absolutely love them! If you haven't been on a free walking tour before, I'll have you know, it's not totally free (remember I said traveling isn't free for me)! The tour is essentially tip-based as the company gains a certain percentage for marketing and administrative purposes and the rest is handed over to the tour guide. At the end of each tour, tourists decide how much the tour deserved by tipping the tour guide. So, if you believe a tour sucked, you actually will get a free tour after all! Reading up on the free walking tour helped me gain further ideas of what I wanted to plan for my trip.
After gathering all of my ideas for the perfect weekend itinerary, preparing a solid budget (that I later broke- oops), and learning where to find some local Pivo (beer), it was time to search for accommodation which in this case I went with Airbnb. Since I did plan this trip last minute, I was limited on finding a place to stay and didn't have much of a criteria other than needing a free parking space and the place being easily accessible to the city center of Bratislava. I decided to stay across the Danube river in an older neighborhood of Bratislava called Petrzalka. This side of town is somewhat of a contrast from the city center but nonetheless, I felt safe and was able to walk to the supermarket at night to get some food during my stay. The apartment starts at $44 a night and you can view the listing here.
I went back and forth on whether I wanted to take a train and bus for my trip or simply head out and drive there on my own schedule. I learned that if I wanted to go into the smaller villages and towns in such a short timeframe, it would be best to have a car as some busses don't run as frequent in the more rural areas. It also seemed cheaper to drive if I filled up a gas can on post rather than to fill up on the road with economy prices which aren't the best at the moment. I was being lazy and decided I would just pay the economy prices. Although it seemed like a not so bad idea, I ended up spending far more than I wanted to. Just one fill up on the motorway was $70 and that wasn't even a full tank of gas, it was about 3/4 of a tank! I needed about a full tank and half to successfully make it back home without running out of gas. I found that the gas stations that were off the motorway were cheaper but I wasn't too sure if they accepted credit cards or if I could use mine so I didn't want to chance it.
If you plan to take the route I drove from the Grafenwoehr area to Slovakia via Czechia (formerly known as Czech Republic, although most people still call it that, even myself), please keep in mind that the motorways in Czechia and Slovakia require vignettes which is the toll system they use on their motorways. Instead of paying at a toll booth, you'll have to stop into a gas station or the border rest stop and purchase a sticker that is placed in a designated location (described on the sticker) on your windshield. If you take the route through Austria, you will also still need to purchase a vignette at the Austrian border so there's no getting out of paying for the vignette either route if you drive.
Of course, with more planning, the train ride and bus route could have very well been feasible and probably cheaper but I clearly didn't do that, nor had the time to do so. I really enjoy the flexibility driving has, but it certainly came with a price in this case.
Things to do
In Bratislava, two point of interests that physically stand out in the city are the Bratislava Castle and the "UFO" observation deck. Little to see inside, I decided to view the castle from below but I heard that there are some great views from the short walk up to the castle. To get a more grand view of the city, the UFO observation deck might be more worth your time if you had to choose. What was once called Most SNP (Most Slovenského národného povstania in Slovak and in English translates to the Bridge of the Slovak National Uprising) is now recognized as the "UFO" which also includes a fancy restaurant that seems a bit too fancy for my taste. Maybe for a special occasion or anniversary would it be a nice spot to dine at.
Something that I tend to see around Europe, to include Slovakia, are the quirky statues around the city centers. The most popular one in Bratislava would probably be the "Man at Work" statue, otherwise known as the Watcher (Čumil), as pictured below. You'll also see (or may not see if you're not paying attention) the Napoleon Soldier leaning on a bench in the Main Square, and the only silver statue in the city of Ignac Lamar on Sedlárska Street.
One spot that I was eager to check out but didn't realize it was closed on Sunday's would be the Farmer's market or in Slovak, Farmarska Trznica, where you'll find local, urban, and international foods in Bratislava. If you end up making it to the market, let me know how it was!
Pivovar or a brewery/microbrewery is all on the scene in Bratislava. Straight from my Europe on Shoestring book, Bratislavsky Mestiansky Pivovar was mentioned as a stylish microbrewery that I just had to check out. The food was the second best feature of this microbrewery next to the beer itself. Another pivovar worth checking out in Bratislava would be Výčap U Ernőho.
A popular activity to do from April to September would be the boat trips on the Danube River as well as sightseeing cruises which can be done through Slovak Shipping & Ports. Although I didn't get to do this activity since I went out of season, I would have totally been down for a boat trip!
Definitely check out the Be Free walking tour I had mentioned earlier in this post in Bratislava, it was suggested by Lonely Planet and the tour was worth the 2.5 hour walk through the freezing cold! The tour guide, Simona, was young but very well versed in the history of her country as she was born and raised in Bratislava. She also had shared some history from her parents and grandparents that lived during the time of communism. The meeting point is at the Hviezdoslav statue in Hviezdoslavovo namestie and the tours run every day at 11am and 3pm.
Cicmany combined with Trencin makes a great day trip from Bratislava. As mentioned earlier, Cicmany is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is the cutest lumberjack village you'll probably ever see! This unique village is surrounded by the mountains of Strážovské vrchy and Malá Fatra which allows for skiing and other winter activities during the season. My drive up to this area was a bit different than the rest of my journey. The roads were not as good as the ones in the city so I just took precaution and kept it slow while the locals continued to pass me on winding roads!
The dark brown homes have white geometrical patterns painted to protect the houses from sun rays. This is what makes the village look so unique as the pattern seem to be somewhat intricate. Some of the houses in the village are still being used as homes but others are used as a penzion (this would be similar to a Gasthaus in Germany). I went over to Penzion Katka to try some local Halusky (potato dumplings with sheep cheese and bacon) and of course, pivo (which was only $0.86)! There is also an exhibition of the village where you can learn more about the history and folklore of this tiny town.
Trencin was the town I stopped at on my way from Cicmany to Bratislava and I am so glad I did. While driving on the motorway, I could see the castle perched atop a hill and I knew I had to make it in time before it closed. It's a steep walk to the entrance but the views of Trencin are perfect from here! The ticket for adults to get in was only 5 Euro and I spent probably around an hour there walking around the grounds and going up the tower. Afterwards, I went to a cafe called Kuki which I would recommend to hang out at if you're a bit tired from your hike up to the castle.
On the way back home, I decided to stop in Devin before my departure of Slovakia. Devin is right on the border of Slovakia and Austria where the Dance River runs through. It's only about a 15 minute drive from Bratislava, which can also be accessible by a bike path if you choose to do in warmer climates. The Devin Hrad (castle) was closed for the season so unfortunately, I didn't get to go inside but the grounds were neat as well. I also noticed signs for local wine tastings which definitely caught my attention but I had work the next morning and wanted to be home at a decent time. If anyone tries the wine, I would love to hear about it!
Wine production is not something that initially pops into your head when you think of Slovakia but there is actually a popular wine festival that occurs in September where some of the top wine growers and wine makers gather for wine tastings. If the previous information I shared about my trip to Slovakia didn't intrigue you, I'm sure it has now! For more listings of other traditional festivals and events going on in Slovakia, this serves as a great starting point.
Before I moved to Europe, I didn't know much about Slovakia. Admittedly, I thought Slovakia was still Czechoslovakia which hasn't been the case for about 25 years now. While in college, I did touch on some Austro-Hungarian history so once I refreshed my memory while reading up on Slovakian history, it all started to come together again. Learning about the history was a good idea as I could actually make connections of the timelines and important events in Slovakia throughout the free walking tour.
Although my stay in Slovakia was short, I could get a good feel about the locals and from my perspective they seem to be happy and proud to be Slovakian. Topics such as whether communism was good or not so good seemed to be controversial depending on which generation you came from. I can see how the generation that lived their lives through half of communism and the other half as an independent country are being affected the most as they had to adjust their lives so abruptly from the changes.
Aside from the political discussions, I learned that there are quite a few traditions preserved in this country. Simona, the tour guide, mentioned an Easter Monday tradition that I thought was pretty wild as it included men lightly "whipping" women with wooden sticks and approaching their homes with a bucket of water to throw at them. Then, the women gift the young boys Easter eggs while the older men receive alcohol, sweets, or even money. I hope I got this tradition right, the guide didn't exactly explain the purpose of this but that it was simply an Easter tradition. She also mentioned that it is not as bad as it sounds and that they have fun with the tradition.
Should You Visit Slovakia?
I wouldn’t want to deter any curious travelers wanting to adventure off into a new country or city but if you do come to Slovakia, come with an open mind and learn about the history first before going. By learning about the country first, you will have a better understanding of the lifestyle in just about any country, not just Slovakia. Also, if you plan to just see Bratislava, don’t let that be your only stop. There is far more to Slovakia than the capital city of its country. As I traveled further East, I noticed the towns were rustic and to some, it's not the most visually appealing view while you're traveling but definitely something worth appreciating. If you were expecting all of the land of Slovakia to be filled with colorful flowers all year round, polished castles, and up to date architecture, Slovakia may not be the place for you to visit.
All in all, I genuinely enjoyed my short trip to Slovakia and hope to return in the warmer time of the year to experience some of the festivals and branch out to other small towns that seem to be untouched if you will. I like to describe Slovakia as being mostly rural, traditional, and functional for its every purpose but also with the ever so often pop up quaint towns with castles and beautiful churches. A perfect weekend getaway, if you ask me!