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.

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Sport
Manchester United's kit for the 2014/15 season
football
News
Nadine Gordimer died peacefully at home yesterday
peopleNobel laureate was a powerful anti-Apartheid voice
Extras
indybest
Arts and Entertainment
Neil Young performs on stage at Hyde Park
musicAnd his Hyde Park set has rhyme and reason, writes Nick Hasted
News
Women have been desperate to possess dimples like Cheryl Cole's
people Cole has secretly married French boyfriend Jean-Bernard Fernandez-Versini after just three months.
News
Ian Thorpe has thanked his supporters after the athlete said in an interview that he is gay
people
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
News
The headstone of jazz great Miles Davis at Woodlawn Cemetery in New York
news
News
newsBear sweltering in zoo that reaches temperatures of 40 degrees
Arts and Entertainment
Professor Kathy Willis will showcase plants from the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew
radioPlants: From Roots to Riches has been two years in the making
Extras
indybestThe tastiest creations for children’s parties this summer
Arts and Entertainment
TV The follow-up documentary that has got locals worried
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
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

    Java Swing Developer - Hounslow - £33K to £45K

    £33000 - £45000 per annum + 8% Bonus, pension: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: ...

    Sales Manager (Fashion and Jewellery), Paddington, London

    £45-£55k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

    Volunteer Digital Marketing Trustee needed

    Voluntary, reasonable expenses reimbursed: Reach Volunteering: Are you keen on...

    Java Swing Developer - Hounslow - £33K to £45K

    £33000 - £45000 per annum + 8% Bonus, pension: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: ...

    Day In a Page

    Super Mario crushes the Messi dream as Germany win the 2014 World Cup in Brazil

    Super Mario crushes the Messi dream

    Germany win the 2014 World Cup in Brazil
    Saharan remains may be evidence of the first race war, 13,000 years ago

    The first race war, 13,000 years ago?

    Saharan remains may be evidence of oldest large-scale armed conflict
    Scientists find early warning system for Alzheimer’s

    Scientists find early warning system for Alzheimer’s

    Researchers hope eye tests can spot ‘biomarkers’ of the disease
    Sex, controversy and schoolgirl schtick

    Meet Japan's AKB48

    Pop, sex and schoolgirl schtick make for controversial success
    In pictures: Breathtaking results of this weekend's 'supermoon'

    Weekend's 'supermoon' in pictures

    The moon appeared bigger and brighter at the weekend
    Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

    How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

    A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
    The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

    The evolution of Andy Serkis

    First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

    Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
    Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

    Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

    Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
    Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

    Blackest is the new black

    Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
    Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

    Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

    From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
    Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor