Cycling in Bratislava: Slovakia offers a scenic backdrop for two-wheeled adventures
Saturday 19 March 2011
There are not many places left in Europe where you can draw a crowd for entering a shop splattered with mud. But in parts of Slovakia, a foreigner on a bicycle is still treated like a minor celebrity.
I hadn't embarked on a holiday on two wheels before, so observations that strike me as novel would probably be seen as par for the course by veterans. My wife and I had arranged our holiday through cycling and walking specialist Freedom Treks, which books your accommodation along a pre-planned route, transports your bags and provides the bicycles – a perfect arrangement for a week's break.
From Bratislava we took a fast train to Zilina, Slovakia's fourth-largest city. Dinner in a café that evening gave us a perfect view of a cinema screen installed in the packed central square. (It's not every evening you watch an incomprehensible art-house film outdoors in which a woman is applying whipped cream to her breasts.)
Then, after a meet-and-greet with Freedom Treks' rep the following morning, we embarked on a leisurely first stretch, which ended at Strecno Castle, a 14th-century Gothic construct set on a high cliff that must surely have provided the backdrop for many a horror movie. Inside, we were treated to a strange comedy show with two drama school students acting out torture scenes to a mystified audience (they provided an abbreviated translation just for us).
Close to Strecno are ruins called the Old Castle. After scrambling up a slippery slope, past a group of German scouts building a camp fire, we had an extraordinary view of the River Vah from the ramparts.
The next leg provided stunning mountain vistas as we combined road and off-road cycling in the Mala Fatra National Park, with its expanse of beech, fir and spruce. The small town of Terchova provides a pleasant base for winter sports, and walking and kayaking the rest of the year. Our hotel was a chalet, the first of several similar low-key but comfortable overnight stops. The large room we were given overlooked a meadow strewn with wild flowers. All we needed was available: beer, home cooking, a hot shower, and an outside hose for the ritual half-hour spent spraying the mud from our bikes.
Just a few miles away is the ski resort of Vratna. By the time we'd arrived the chairlift had closed for the evening, so instead of a walk down the mountain we sat in a delightful café at the bottom. On the other side of the valley, hidden in the trees, was the settlement of Janosikovic. This marks the birthplace of Juraj Janosik, Slovakia's very own Robin Hood, who would descend onto the highway to rob the wealthy and share the loot with impoverished villagers.
When he was caught, aged 25, legend has it he was offered a choice: a painful death on a hook or, if he turned in his companions, a more gentle hanging. He refused and jumped on the hook himself.
Whenever we left the road, adventure was rarely far away. So muddy was one farmer's track that my wife took a flyer, landing head-first in a rain pool. That was before a one-hour storm in which we hid in a village bus shelter. We laughed off each little misadventure as we sped along near empty roads, the wind in our hair, fields with wild flowers on one side and a rushing stream on the other.
Less than five miles away from the unprepossessing town of Ruzomberok, up a series of steep hills, is a unique village now protected by Unesco. Vlkolinec translates as "wolf's place". The 45 gabled dwellings rely on a well for fresh water and have no other access to modern utilities. We reached the village after an arduous climb and walked around in the drizzle, spellbound by this little pocket of history.
From there we free-wheeled down to the friendliest of the small hotels and bed and breakfasts that we stayed in – appropriately named "the bed and breakfast under Vlkolinec". As ever we collapsed into bed far too early, our exhausted bodies only temporarily relieved by the usual nightly serving of home cooking and surprisingly good local white wine.
We developed a penchant for the potato dumplings – which were a bit like gnocchi – with sheep's milk cheese and bacon. This was accompanied by cabbage soup with smoked meat, and delicious home-grown tomatoes and cucumbers. As local families played board games, we sat outside tending to our aching limbs and staring into silence.
The closer you get to the Tatra mountains, the more spectacular the countryside becomes. We began to bump into more foreigners – Dutch people in their caravans, Italians on motorbikes and an engaging lone Scottish professor on his bike. We passed by the Liptovska Mara reservoir, with its small Gothic chapel and its jetties for small boats, stopping along the water to watch the world go by. No noise broke the tranquillity of the scene.
Our final destination, the western Tatras, provided some of the toughest cycling, along a specially prepared track, the Tatranska Magistrala. Except it wasn't really a track. Opened in 1937 and stretching 40km, it is designed much more for walkers than cyclists. Sometimes we had to navigate wooden planks across streams. Sometimes we cycled through the water. Other times we had to carry our bikes up stony hills. The meadows on the top of the forest afforded stunning views of the High and Low Tatras, the mountains reflected in the tarns that spring up suddenly from openings in the forest.
Six days of cycling later, our muscles sore, we decided to stop on the way back in Piestany, an ornate and old-fashioned spa town. I lay in a hot mud bath accompanied by two rotund Russian traders. We were each then wrapped up in blankets like mummies.
Our last stop was a return to Bratislava, one of Europe's most under-rated capitals. Even in peak season, it never feels inundated with tourists. Its old-fashioned cafés and cobbled streets allow you to imagine the town in its Habsburg heyday. Yet not everything is chocolate-box quaintness. We indulged ourselves in a new boutique hotel, Mama's, which although slightly out of the centre, is exquisite, with a Jacuzzi on its roof terrace.
Our final act was to climb the saucer-shaped tower on the New Bridge, an eyesore built under the Soviets and now transformed as a hip bar-restaurant called UFO. From here Slovaks used to look out onto the other side of the Iron Curtain, only a few miles away. Now they can enjoy the view, with no barriers, no guards, and with a mojito in their hand.
* Freedom Treks (0845 612 6106; freedomtreks.co.uk) offers a seven-night self-guided "Slovakian Secrets" itinerary (adapted slightly for 2011 to begin from Terchova in the Mala Fatra national park, rather than Zilina). The price of £425 per person, based on two sharing, includes accommodation in two- and three-star hotels on a bed and breakfast basis, bike hire and maps, as well as luggage transfers. Flights, cycling helmets and train/bus transfers from Bratislava are not included.
* Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) flies to Bratislava from Birmingham, Edinburgh, Liverpool, Luton and Stansted.
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