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.

News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film Ridley Scott reveals truth behind casting decisions of Exodus
News
people
Sport
footballArsenal 2 Borussia Dortmund 0: And they can still top the group
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
An unseen image of Kurt Cobain at home featured in the film 'Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck'
filmThe singers widow and former bandmates have approved project
News
Andy Murray with his girlfriend of nine years, Kim Sears who he has got engaged to
peopleWimbledon champion announces engagement to girlfriend Kim Sears
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tv
Arts and Entertainment
George Mpanga has been shortlisted for the Critics’ Choice prize
music
News
Albert Camus (left) and Jean-Paul Sartre fell out in 1952 and did not speak again before Camus’s death
people
Arts and Entertainment
Roisin, James and Sanjay in the boardroom
tvReview: This week's failing project manager had to go
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
News
Ed Miliband visiting the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. The Labour leader has spoken more openly of his heritage recently
newsAttacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But are the barbs more sinister?
Arts and Entertainment
'Felfie' (2014) by Alison Jackson
photographyNew exhibition shows how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
News
i100
Life and Style
Fright night: the board game dates back to at least 1890
life
Environment
The vaquita is being killed by fishermen trying to catch the totoaba fish, which is prized in China
environmentJust 97 of the 'world's cutest' sea mammals remain
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 Manager - Global Leisure Business

    £55000 - £65000 per annum: Investigo: My client, a global leader in their fiel...

    Investigo: Senior Finance Analyst - Global Leisure Business

    £45000 - £52000 per annum + bonus+bens : Investigo: My client, a global leader...

    Investigo: Financial reporting Accountant

    £40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits : Investigo: One of the fastest growing g...

    Sphere Digital Recruitment: CRM Executive – Global Travel Brand – Luton – £25k

    25,000: Sphere Digital Recruitment: CRM Executive – Global Travel Brand – Luto...

    Day In a Page

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
    There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

    In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

    The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

    It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit
    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner
    The King's School is way ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology

    Staying connected: The King's School

    The school in Cambridgeshire is ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology. Richard Garner discovers how teachers and pupils stay connected
    Christmas 2014: 23 best women's perfumes

    Festively fragrant: the best women's perfumes

    Give a loved one a luxe fragrance this year or treat yourself to a sensual pick-me-up
    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition

    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund

    The Ox celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition
    Billy Joe Saunders vs Chris Eubank Jnr: When two worlds collide

    When two worlds collide

    Traveller Billy Joe Saunders did not have a pampered public-school upbringing - unlike Saturday’s opponent Chris Eubank Jnr
    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

    Putin’s far-right ambition

    Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?