The first time I went to Bratislava, I didn’t have high expectations. After four days spent in this city - I had to admit - I was so pleasantly surprised that I couldn’t believe it! Bratislava is a gorgeous city, small and quiet but, at the same time, colorful and full of surprises. It has a very nice Old Town and a lot of historical places to visit, but also everything you need for your social activities. Well, you will see with your own eyes! :) Anyway, during your first visit to Bratislava there are 5 things to do that, in my opinion, will let your stay be more interesting.A visit to the Blue Church This teeny-tiny church is one of the most impressive things you will see in Bratislava. Officially named St. Elizabeth Church, like from a fairy tale it is completely blue: the facade, the mosaics, the majolicas, the interior, even the roof is tiled with blue-glazed ceramics. The church is an art nouveau building, built in the early 20th century, and it’s situated in a very nice area, in the eastern part of the Old Town of Bratislava. You absolutely have to visit the Blue Church, and don’t forget your camera: you will need it! :)
Tucked away in the valley of River Hornad, Košice is Slovakia’s second-largest city and served as the European Capital of Culture in 2013. The city is close to the Hungarian, Ukrainian and Polish borders and is easily accessible by a good network of roads and rail. It is also an artistic hotbed with several theatres holding performances all through the year.
Our Zilina couchsurfing host Michal had said that he would meet us at the train station and we had no problem spotting each other. He asked what our plans were and we really didn't have any, so he suggested that he show us around a little bit. Okay! So we got acquainted with Michal while wandering around. He works for a large industrial company, but he's on the road a lot and works mostly from a home office. Zilina is a fairly industrial town and there is a Kia car manufacturing plant here that employs 3,000 local people. Michal has a wife, Ivona, and a two year old son Daniel. But Michal has also taken courses to become a certified tour guide for the area, and he was practicing on us. We think he's going to be very successful! We decided to visit another castle about 15 kms away called Strecno Castle. We parked the car and it was going to be an uphill 20 minute walk to get to this fascinating castle! We spent the evening talking about travel and what to do in the area. There are some gorgeous hikes within 35 kms of here and Michal showed us some pics of the area so we'll know what to expect
Very calm city close to the mountains. Direct bus to Ziarska dolina, the starting point of many hiking routes, for only 1€.
Yesterday morning, Michal, our couchsurfing host in Zilina made some phone calls for us to try and find us somewhere to stay in Terchova. Because Terchova is a popular outdoor destination area, there are a lot of pensions (guest houses) and private accommodation available. They said they could accommodate us for 4 nights, through until Monday, for 10 euros per person per night. Works out to about $25 per night total. Said goodbye to Ivona and son Daniel, and then Michal drove us to the bus station. We had such a good time with this young family, and once again our experiences with couchsurfing are extremely positive. We might see them again this weekend if they decide to come to this area for a hike! Thanks for everything Michal and Ivona! We got ourselves settled and walked just down the street to get some groceries. Came back and made some lunch, and then went for a walk around town. And a large statue of Slovakian folk hero Juraj Janosik. He was the Slovakian version of Robin Hood, and was apparently born in Terchova.
Finally, I reached the walled town of Levoča in Slovakia with its Renaissance houses and 14th Century Roman Catholic Church of St. Jakub in the large Namestie Majstra Pavla Square. The church is a virtual museum of medieval religious art, its prized treasure a carved and painted 18.6 meter tall wooden late-Gothic altar, the tallest in Europe, carved by Master Pavol of Levoča in 1507-1517 – it is splendid, both for the artist, as well as the spiritual, in one. Three weeks of medieval squares, and the charm did not wear off. That is the appeal of fairy tales in the wake of modern urban living. They somehow manage to keep their innocence and simplicity intact, through time, and despite time :)
Today was a travel day, however we were only going about 30 kms (18 miles) to the town of Dolny Kubin. There are not many couch surfers available in this area, but one girl replied that she would like to show us around even though she can't host right now. So Jana said she would meet us when we get off the bus this afternoon, and help us to find a place to stay. We put our bags in the back of her car and went for a walk around town. Dolny Kubin is a larger town than I expected, with a population of around 20,000. It has a really pretty central plaza. So after showing us the basic sights, we figured we needed to find somewhere to stay. I had found a technical high school about 5 kms (3 miles) outside of town that has dorm rooms available for tourists during the summer. The advertised price was only €4.50 ($5.75) per person, per night. Jana knew where it was, and in fact it's only a km from where she lives.
Arrived in Poprad, and first thing to do was find a place to stay. I had done some research ahead of time, so I knew that Poprad is a touristy city of about 55,000 people. Quite a few private places to stay, similar to what we have been in, but definitely with higher prices than we're used to. We walked the twenty minutes or so to the information centre, and made it just in time because yesterday was a bank holiday in Slovakia so most places were closed, and the info centre itself was closing at noon. While we were dragging our bags around, we walked past a penzion (guest house) that I thought would be fairly expensive, but you don't know if you don't ask, right? The lady said they had one room available for three nights and I went and looked at it. Very nice. But it was fairly expensive, at €32 ($40) per night. And there are no kitchen facilities, so we would be spending more on meals. But they do a nice buffet breakfast every morning for an extra €5 ($6.25) per person. The city is divided by the railway tracks. Mostly industrial and business on one side, and mostly residential on the other side. We were on the business side. Poprad exists partly because it is close to these mountains. During our walk around the city, we were looking for somewhere suitable to have dinner later on. Once again, prices are a little higher than we're used to. Usually, if you look at the price of a beer in a restaurant, it is a good indication of the price of the food! For example, there is a cheap pub in the front of our guest house (but it doesn't sell food). Beer there is between €0.70 and €0.90 ($0.87 and & $1.13). So when you see a restaurant advertising beer for €1.40 ($1.75), you can be pretty confident that the food will be more expensive too.
We had to take the Tatra Electric Railway to get from Poprad to the town of Stary Smokevek at the base of the mountains. This is a very popular mountain area with lots of hiking and lots of people! The train was pretty full with outdoor types, although there is also a gondola ride up there, so some people were just going for that. We had two different plans. One involved hiking to the top of a mountain, but it was a one way journey of 7.4 kms (4.6 miles) and it was uphill every step of the way with an elevation gain of almost 1,500 meters (4,900 feet). And, once you were at the top you had to retrace your steps back down. The second plan was to go on the same trail until it meets up with another trail that takes you along the side of the mountain to a hotel and lake that's another 5 kms (3 miles) away. We figured we would decide what to do when we reached that intersection. There was a huge windstorm that devastated this area in November 2004. Winds of 108 mph toppled trees in the mature forest. There were more trees broken and blown down during this storm than the entire Slovak logging industry cuts in an entire year. It's going to take many more years to become what it once was. We got to the intersection, and unfortunately we decided on plan B. We had already climbed about 365 meters (1,200 feet) and the worst would have still been ahead. We headed along the route that would take us to the hotel and lake.
Zuberec is a bit of a tourist town, but only because it is located close to several major ski areas and so there are many guest houses and private accommodation available. We are only about 20 kms (12 miles) from the border of Poland! And more importantly, we are only a few minutes from the western edge of Tatra National Park! We walked to the tourist office and explained that we were looking for inexpensive accommodation. Many of these places are advertised at between €8.00 to €12.00 ($10.00 to $15.00) per person, per night. The lady made a few phone calls and the first couple came back as "full", so we were getting a little worried. But then she found one for us, and only a 5 minute walk away! We walked up to the side door, and there were a couple of teen girls, one of whom spoke some English. She went to get her grandmother who owns the building, and soon we were being shown the small apartment. Best room we've had yet, and only €8.50 ($10.63) per person, per night. So, for $21.25 per night, we are staying for four nights!
We walked into the nearby village of Istebne. They have one of the oldest churches in Slovakia in this village, one of only four remaining wooden churches. It's a little different because this church has no steeple. The bell tower was actually built after the fact, and is actually a separate structure. Unfortunately, no interior pictures allowed. The church was built in 1686, and although it's been restored several times, much of the interior is original. It's really quite something to see. It was all closed up when we got there, but there was a woman doing some gardening and she went and got another lady who had a key. It cost €1.00 ($1.25) each to get in, but we also got a free postcard each with that!