Cycling in Bratislava: Slovakia offers a scenic backdrop for two-wheeled adventures

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.

Travel essentials

Cycling there

* 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.

Getting there

* Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) flies to Bratislava from Birmingham, Edinburgh, Liverpool, Luton and Stansted.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
A still from a scene cut from The Interview showing North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's death.
tech
Voices
'That's the legal bit done. Now on to the ceremony!'
voicesThe fight for marriage equality isn't over yet, says Siobhan Fenton
Life and Style
Approaching sale shopping in a smart way means that you’ll get the most out of your money
life + styleSales shopping tips and tricks from the experts
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Arts and Entertainment
Bianca Miller and Katie Bulmer-Cooke are scrutinised by Lord Sugar's aide Nick Hewer on The Apprentice final
tvBut Bianca Miller has taken on board his comments over pricing
News
in picturesWounded and mangy husky puppy rescued from dump
News
newsAstonishing moment a kangaroo takes down a drone
Life and Style
Duchess of Cambridge standswith officials outside of the former wartime spy centre in Bletchley Park
tech
News
people
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Investigo: Finance Analyst

    £240 - £275 per day: Investigo: Support the global business through in-depth a...

    Ashdown Group: Data Manager - £Market Rate

    Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Data Manager - MySQL, Shell Scripts, Java, VB Scrip...

    Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - Bedfordshire/Cambs border - £32k

    £27000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - near S...

    Recruitment Genius: Class 1 HGV Driver

    £23000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This successful group of compan...

    Day In a Page

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'