For our second day in the area we decided to see what the “Little Carpathians” had to offer. Our plan was to take a train to Svätý Jur (“sva-tee-yer”) aka “Saint George” named after the dragon slayer. We wanted to see the White Castle ruins there then take a train to Trnava and adventure around there. There are loads of things to see around these cities, Šúr a national wetland park and Sereď concentration camp. If you go further you could even see the real Bloody Mary‘s castle. We wanted to see everything but only ended up seeing White Castle because we enjoyed it so much (and because the sun sets at 3:30).
We talked in the last post about things being cheap. Nothing prepared us for the train. Sure Svaty Jur is only 14 km/9 miles from Bratislava. But in the past a 10 mile train ride has cost us 3-10 Euros. So we asked the ticket lady for two tickets (in Slovak, of course) and pulled out a 50 euro bill for her to break. She looked at it incredulously. Each ticket was .78 cents. €1.56 total. Neither of us can remember the last time we bought ANYTHING, even a pack of gum, for less than €1.
It didn’t take any time at all to get to Svaty Jur (and even less time to get to the castle ruins). This would happen to us a lot on this trip. We are used to large-scale countries but Slovakia and Slovenia are very small. When there’s a large line drawn across a map it may look small, in Spain, but it is showing a 2 hour walk. Here it was the opposite, turns out a long line across a map only shows a five minute walk, who knew? We would prepare for a large hike or a big day on a train and as soon as we got going -suddenly, “oh, we’re here!”
We should’ve put this in the last blog but only just made it. Here is where we went and the size comparison of the countries. In the lower right-hand side you can see Slovakia, Slovenia and Croatia superimposed over the USA. Slovakia is roughly the size of West Virginia.
You can also see the line we drew from Bratislava to Svaty Jur. You can see the line but that’s only around 14km.
Svaty Jur has a population of only 5,500 people, so it was quite sleepy. We didn’t see anyone besides a couple other hikers. There were handmade wooden signs leading the way up through neighborhoods to “Hrad Biely Kameň” literally “Castle White Stone”. Aptly named as the stone used to construct it is quite white. The houses just ended and we were suddenly in a deep dark forest. Fog or maybe low hanging smoke from local fireplaces coated the floor making the forest very spooky and witch-y. You could see why Germanic fairy tales were designed to keep kids out of the forest. Evil could lurk in a dark, twisty forest obscured by fog. But as bad as this description is we found it very nice. There aren’t bears or boars or anything that can hurt us anymore. Thick moss grew on trees and rocks, cheering up the dark forest with pops of spring green.
So what is so cool about White Stone Castle? It was probably built in the 1200s, so it’s super old. And it survived all the way to the 1600s when it was sacked and destroyed by invading Ottomans. The castle was never rebuilt after that, and has just been sitting there ever since. It was difficult to get one single photo that shows how large this place was, but trust us when we say it was probably one of the larger castle ruins we’ve ever seen. There was clearly a gigantic moat dug around the outside wall, and then there was a secondary wall layered behind that. There were at least 4 tower foundations, with an additional tower outside the walls. The information plaque said that this outside tower would have had a draw bridge leading into the main castle. Inside there were even partly filled in cellars that you could crawl in if you felt like it.
There’s a more famous castle people enjoy taking day trips to from Bratislava but White Stone has a much more private feel. We took around 2 hours exploring it, and never saw another person.
Svaty Jur just built a new overlook of the city they’re very (rightfully) proud of. So we took a hiking trail that went from the castle to the overlook. En route saw the most witchy thing ever. An abandoned house in the middle of the woods. If there was ever a Hansel and Gretel moment this was it. It was so creepy and yet we were drawn to it. We loved exploring abandoned farmhouses in Andalucia, but we were not brave/stupid enough to go into the witch house.
The overlook turned out to be totally gorgeous. We could see the trees of the natural park, Šúr, and when the sun came out from behind trees we could even see Bratislava. We came out of the forest into vineyards. In 2008 Slovakia harvested 51,617 tons of grapes for wine. The country has grown wine for forever “but the country’s 40-year totalitarian regime suppressed small, private winemakers in favour of mass production, bringing a poor reputation to this traditional skill” (according to Wines of Slovakia). When you think of Slovakia (and Slovenia) you don’t think of wine – but you should. The best wine we have ever had was on this trip (not Croatia, though, that was actually the worst wine we’ve ever had in our lives).
We planned on having lunch in the larger city of Trnava (65,515) so we only bought a big bottle of water. Interestingly enough there was a cheese and dairy vending machine in Bratislava we could’ve taken advantage of. It called itself a “Regiomat” and it had local cheese curds, yogurts, and hard cheeses. Besides wine this place has a good dairy industry. We thought the vending machine was cool but not cool enough to get a snack from. Oops. It was lunch time for Europeans (around 2pm) and we were still exploring. We arrived around 12 and didn’t get done hiking until around 3.
We went to a local grocery store and got an old favorite – ajvar. Ajvar is a Serbian/Bulgarian/Croatian/Slovenian condiment. It tastes like if you made ketchup from roasted bell peppers and eggplant. Paired with a baguette and babybel cheese it’s heaven on earth. Rolls of bread were a whopping .08 cents (The grocery store was nice enough to have some standing picnic tables outside so in freezing temperatures with a major windchill we ate our lunch. We nearly missed our train but soon were on the 15 minute trip back to Bratislava.
Bratislava Day 2
We first headed to an old abandoned hospital. It was, unfortunately closed. Parts of the fence and some doors were wide open but we don’t like the risk of being arrested abroad so we ignored the drive to explore. According to the internet there were still wheelchairs and full specimen containers in there. Horrifying but adventurous. Alas, we didn’t. Instead we walked up to the castle. Usually we like seeing the museums inside castles but we weren’t feeling it today. We just enjoyed the view of the Petržalka neighborhood across the river. These are the largest remaining communist style housing blocks left in Europe, and they house something like 100,000 people. They started building these massive apartment blocks back in the 70s, and they used to be totaly grey (to reflect communist ideals or something). Today they are all painted different pastel hues, and they are actually very lovely to walk around in. We had to truck through part of this neighborhood, and honestly it felt like a nice place to live. The ground floors are given over to bars, restaurants, cafes, shops, doctors offices, veterinarians etc. The large open spaces between the buildings contain parks, super markets, and schools. You could probably live here for years without ever needing to leave.
We carried on with some “secret stairs” that led back down to the river. There were more abandoned buildings – one with very communist looking tile art decorating the outside. We really enjoyed this side of Bratislava. There could be a super-modern apartment with crazy angles and big windows across the street from a communist housing block. One block would be shockingly modern, and then down the street there would be an abandoned compound or hospital. The old and new – old as in medieval and old as in communist 70s. Versus “new” as in newly renovated or newly built from the 2010s. We’re not big into architecture but it was hard to miss the mishmash of it all.
We went to Slovak Pub’s (from yesterday) sister restaurant, Flagship. Traditional garlic soup (posting a recipe for the garlic lovers out there) served in a bread bowl, with beef and dill sauce and boiled pork with bread dumplings and sauerkraut. Sounds bland, but it was fantastic.
Turns out while we were eating it began pouring rain. We ran a couple blocks away to the Nedbalka Gallery. This was one of the neatest art museums we’ve ever been in. Each floor was themed like a time period. It explained, historically, what might be influencing the art you’re seeing. For instance a tractor was a main focal point – they had just been invented and were revolutionizing farming. So farmers were painting them. The communist years obviously had some Dadaist “what does any of it mean?” and dark-red abstract pieces. But it wasn’t just the art, 4 euro entry included a free coffee/tea from the cafe and you got to borrow a tablet. You held the tablet up to each piece and it brought up information about that specific piece so you could read the whole history behind it. If you got bored the tablet had puzzles (using the art from the gallery) AND quizzes to test how well you paid attention to each floor.
Bratislava Last Day
We checked out of the hotel and had some time to kill before catching our train. This was the first time we went to the Christmas market in the day time. We saw Schöne Náci (Schoene Naci) aka “Nice Naci”. A real man who said hello to everyone during WWII (perhaps kissing hands and/or handing out roses). Some sources say he did this everyday brightening people’s days. He was a friendly man and was beloved enough to deserve a statue. Which makes me all warm and fuzzy inside.
He died of tuberculosis in 1967, and died in a village called Lehnice. An interesting city name that we believe may have sourced our last name. In 2012 we went to Zell am See to see Zeller lake but sadly did not go to Lehnice to see if Lehnuses are still there. We looked at it on Google, and I’m not sure we missed out on anything, “one horse town” doesn’t even begin to describe it.
We tried a potato pancake, honey wine, sausage, and a cherry strudel at the Christmas market. We then hopped on a train to Vienna and from there had a 2.5 hour train down to Maribor, Slovenia.
If we have a chance in the future to go back and spend more time exploring Slovakia… we would, in a heartbeat. It ranks quite high on our list of dope places.