Small-town Slovakia – Trnava and Kosice

If you think Bratislava is small and perfectly formed, just wait till you see Trnava, just half an hour away by fast train (once or twice an hour). I’ve added it to the ‘Beyond the City’ chapter of the Bradt City Guide to Bratislava which I’m updating at the moment, as it’s just too nice to miss. Just a short description, but I can go into a bit more detail here. A medieval market town (which owed much of its prosperity to the German settlers who moved here from the early thirteenth century), it was the seat of the Archbishop of Esztergom from 1541, when Hungary south of the Danube was occupied by the Ottoman Turks, until 1820, and of a Jesuit university, which played an influential rôle in the Counter-Reformation, from 1635 to 1777. Most of the city walls survive, as well as churches, synagogues and museums, and the town centre has recently been pedestrianised (the Slovaks do this very well) and is generally spick and span. Although the archbishop returned in 1977 and a new university opened in 1992, it’s nowadays a quiet, largely pedestrianised town (although a PSA Peugeot Citroën car factory opened here in 2006 and FC Spartak Trnava did win the Slovak football championship in 2018).

The central crossroads is marked by the 16th-century town tower (containing the tourist office) and Slovakia’s oldest theatre, opened in 1831; the basilica of St Nicholas (the original cathedral, dating from 1380-1421) is a few hundred metres to the east, with a heavy exterior and a dark interior due to having murals rather than windows on the north side of the choir. A block to the north, the University Church of St John the Baptist (consecrated in 1637, and now the cathedral) is a stunner, though, with a gorgeous Rococo interior of pale apricot, white and gold. The ceiling is spectacular ceiling, and the wooden altar (1640) is just huge, at 20.3m in height. Just south of the cathedral, the town’s Orthodox synagogue now houses an attractive café (open 10.00-22.00 at least, every day); the grander Status Quo synagogue (1887) is now an art gallery.

There are lots of other churches (St Anna, St Jacob, St Joseph, the Assumption, Holy Trinity…), either built in the Baroque style or subsequently modernised into that style when the town was at its ecclesiastical peak, when it was known as ‘Little Rome’ or ‘the Slovak Rome’. I amused to see that the cultural centre calls itself Little Berlin in hommage to Europe’s cultural powerhouse. The church of St Helen, on the way towards the station, is an attractive little place that retains more Gothic features than most of the others. Monasteries and seminaries are also now used for cultural purposes, with the West Slovakian Museum in the Clarist convent (in use by 1239 and rebuilt in Baroque style in the seventeenth century) and its subsidiary branch, the Museum of Book Culture, in the Oláh Seminary (1561). There’s also the Dom Hudby (House of Music, dedicated to the local composer Mikuláš Schneider-Trnavský), in a Baroque town-house.

I can’t say much about accommodation (it’s within very easy reach of Bratislava, so there’s no need to stay), but I did notice the Dream and Phoenix hotels which seem pleasant and affordable and are well located on Kapitulská, a largely traffic-free street between the basilica and the museum. There’s certainly a great café and patisserie and a cocktail bar next to the Town Tower; for beer, you could try the Lokal Pub cellar bar at Hlavná 29 in the centre, but you could also head a little way north from the old town to the Sessler brewery.


At the other (eastern) end of the country, Košice is actually Slovakia’s second-largest city, but it still feels like a small town, with almost everything of tourist interest clustered along one long street-cum-square. The cathedral and state theatre stand in the

centre of Hlavná námestie, which continues north for about 800 metres to the massive twin buildings of the East Slovak Museum, and its whole length is lined with Renaissance, Baroque and Secession townhouses and some fine churches – it’s a spectacular sight.

In fact, very little of the two huge museum buildings are in use, and unless they have expansion plans I’d say they should move everything into the western one, which already houses the Košice Treasure, a hoard of coins probably buried in 1682 (when the city was seized by rebels) – they’re mostly Hungarian (naturally) and Dutch, but there’s also a Thracian stater of Lysimachos (323-281 BC, from Tomi, now Constanța in Romania) and a unique Edward IV coin from London. It may sound dull but is very well displayed, with interactive screens, and well worth the visit.

The East Slovak Gallery is also split between two buildings, and again it might make sense to for them to be brought together, although there’s less sense of echoing empty halls. Founded in 1951, in 1979 it was moved to a Baroque townhouse at Alžbetina 22, but in 1985 a terrible fire destroyed 1,030 works of art. There’s still a fine collection of over 700 paintings from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, housed since 1992 in the former County Hall (dating from 1779) at Hlavná námestie 27. Local artists were actually heavily involved in the plein-air landscape painting movement at the end of the nineteenth century, which grew out of the Nagybánya School in what is now Baia Mare, which I’m familiar with from writing the Rough Guide to Romania. Mainly influenced by Jules Bastien-Lepage, they combined impressionism and naturalism to create a luminist style (a term usually associated with the Hudson River School, who developed a similarly detailed and serene style of landscape painting). Art Nouveau (or Secessionism) was also important, and then in the 1920s Košice was a major centre of avantgarde art. The building at Alžbetina 22 now houses temporary shows, and is next door to the Löffler Museum, dedicated to the sculptor Vojtech Löffler (1906-90), as well as a collection of self-portraits by local artist and contemporary art shows.

The cutting-edge contemporary art scene is more in evidence at the Kasárne and Tabačka Kulturfabrik cultural complexes, both created for Košice’s year as European Capital of Culture in 2013. There’s also the Kunsthalle, a striking exhibition hall in a former swimming pool (opened in 1962) which was closed in 1992 (they drained the adjacent river to put a road there instead, and then the ground dried out and cracked the base of the pool) and reopened in July 2013 as an art centre. It reminded me of La Cité Miroir in Liège, built as a swimming pool in 1939 and reopened as an art centre in 2014.

For those of us with more traditional tastes, perhaps the prime cultural attraction might actually be the cathedral of St Elizabeth, the largest in Slovakia (it’s routinely described as the most easterly Gothic cathedral in Europe, but that could only be true if Romania and Ukraine were not in Europe – there are fine Gothic cathedrals in Cluj, Sibiu, Alba-Iulia and Lviv, not to mention the Black Church in Brașov). It’s a bit assymetrical outside, but is spectacular inside, with a nave and double aisles plus a transept of the same height and width as the nave, creating a huge central space. Immediately to the south is the slightly older church of St Michael, which served as a cemetery chapel, and to the north is the Urban Tower, rebuilt after the great fire of 1556 in Renaissance style, with a ground-level arcade around it. There are other fine churches along Hlavná (the Franciscan church has a fine Baroque façade), and also several synagogues, of which the large domed Neolog synagogue on Moyzesova, built in 1927, is now home to the city’s orchestra.

One cultural treasure that the people of Košice are largely unaware of is the novelist Sándor Márai (1900-89), who was born here, studied in Germany then settled in Budapest, before fleeing communism to the United States; he translated stories by Franz Kafka for Košice’s Hungarian-language newspapers as early as 1921. He wrote 46 books in Hungarian but was not translated into English until the 1990s, since when Embers (1942) in particular has become recognised as a fine nostalgic portrait of the multi-ethnic, multi-cultural late Habsburg Empire. It would be great if he could be properly commemorated in his native town.

As for eating and drinking, the Hostinec Pivovar is perhaps the oldest restaurant in Europe, opened in 1542; it is also now a brewpub, with a wide range of unpasteurised and unfiltered beers, including IPA and stout as well as Czech-style lagers. There’s a fairly meaty menu, as well as pasta and gnocchi. You could also try the Žil Verne (Jules Verne) pub or the Schalkház café. There’s also a Georgian restaurant, Gruzinák, which was closed on a Sunday evening when I went looking for khachapuri. All of these are on Hlavná námestie.

I also visited Pezinok and Modra, small wine-making towns just outside Bratislava – they’re lovely places and already covered in the Bradt guide, but I’m adding a museum in each town.

Bratislava – small but perfectly formed

It was a joy to spend the best part of two weeks in Bratislava, updating the Bradt City Guide – I was first here in 1986, and I vaguely remember that the old town was small but perfectly formed and I loved it. Then in the ‘90s I stopped occasionally when I was travelling to Romania by train – back in the days when publishers could afford to humour me rather than just making me buy the cheapest flight (this was before the days of really cheap airlines, of course). Anyway, the last time I’d been here was in 2003, since when it has seen some changes, but it’s still wonderful. For one thing, it’s exactly the right size – you can walk across the old town in ten minutes, but it’s packed with historic buildings, museums and galleries, not to mention fine cafés, pubs and restaurants.

I’m sure that I had to speak German (and a few Slovak words) when I was here before, but now it’s so easy, everyone under say 30, including almost all bar and restaurant staff, speaks English. In fact I can understand a lot of the signs and notices here, as so many words are common to other Slav languages (above all ‘pivo’ or beer).

Traditionally this end of Slovakia was known for wine-making, and they also drank fairly standard Czech-style Pilsner beers (when I was in the Tatra mountains in the ‘90s we drank Zlaty Bazant or Golden Pheasant – perfectly refreshing, and it was nice to have one now just for old times’ sake) – but now they’ve really branched out, with microbreweries producing wheatbeers, porters, stouts and IPAs. Thankfully, because they already had some knowledge of beer, they didn’t rush into the very heavily hopped American IPAs but make very pleasant balanced pints. I also went out of the city to the wine-making villages of Pezinok and Modra where they mainly grow standard German grape varieties (although new Slovak strains have also been developed) – the Riesling is drier than the German equivalent, I think, but they seem to prefer their reds semi-sweet, in the Russian style – this was what everyone had to drink in Georgia until they revolutionised their wine industry. I dare say I’ll take a bottle or two home.

Also on the drinks front, they’re crazy for coffee, which I am not – horrible bitter stuff. But there are lovely cafés, some in the Kaffee und Küchen tradition and some more modern, including co-working places and art spaces. I noticed oddities such as the selfiecchino and the rooiboos cappuccino – I leave you to decide if they’re worth sampling. But the hot chocolate is amazing – real stand-your-spoon-up stuff.

Of course Slovak food is traditionally heavy on the meat (and dumplings), and there’s no shortage of Original Slovak Restaurants on the couple of streets of the old town where the stag parties congregate – but there’s now also a very strong alternative food culture, pushing a great variety of cuisines and stressing local and seasonal produce. I was thrilled to discover the new Saturday market at the Stará Tržnica or Old Market, with lots of happy people buying all kinds of food products as well as crafty stuff; they also have a Street Food Park there once a month from Tuesday to Friday, where I picked up a falafel wrap for lunch – ok, it was staffed by just about the only Slovaks I saw with hipster beards and tattoos but still, it was great. It’s also a very vegetarian-friendly city now, and it was over a week before I resorted to my first pizza (and that wasn’t because I’d run out of other options). Open sandwiches are a trend at the moment, working very well with lovely Slovak cream cheese (Urban Bistro do a great one), and I also enjoyed Krumpla (on Obchodna, which is a very good street to look for food from around the world, especially Asia), which is reinventing the humble jacket potato – served with a swirl of balsamic by cool staff and costing double what you’d expect for a basic JP.

I don’t know whether it’s a legacy of Habsburg times or of communism, but the food industry is very preoccupied with weights and measures, telling you exactly what weight each dish on the menu is, and also listing all possible allergens; every shop, café and restaurant has to display its opening hours on the front door, it seems, which certainly makes a guidebook writer’s job easier! Another thing to be grateful for if visually impaired is the requirement for markers (a black triangle on a yellow circle) on steps.

At street level it feels like most European cities – there are quite a lot of cars but not a lot of congestion, as plenty of people use public transport (trams, buses and trolley-buses) and a reasonable number now cycle – hardly at Dutch/Danish levels, but it’s catching on. There’s a new bike-sharing system (Slovnaft Bajk) which seems fairly popular even though they haven’t at all got the knack yet of moving bikes around to have them where they’re needed (eg at the station in the morning when the commuters arrive). The Stary Most or Old Bridge, Bratislava’s first fixed bridge across the Danube (as opposed to pontoons; opened in 1891) was more or less derelict until the EU paid for it to be rebuilt, reopening in 2016 – it now carries only trams, cycles and pedestrians, and of course reminded me of the Tilikum Crossing in Portland, Oregon, which opened in 2015 – there was quite a fuss at the time about building a US$135 million bridge that was specifically not for cars or trucks. For some reason the trams only go a couple of stops beyond the river and then stop, not very close to connecting buses.

Once upon a time those trams rattled along all the way from Vienna to Bratislava (about 55km), and bourgeois Frauen used to come here just for Kaffee und Kuchen at places like Cafe Mayer, which is still there on Old Town Square. This reminded me of Patrick Leigh Fermor who of course did the same journey on foot (actually he got a lift to the edge of Vienna, but we won’t begrudge him that), stopping at the Roman ruins of Carnuntum – I thought of getting a bus there from Bratislava and walking back across the border, but alas the site is closed in winter. Likewise the Roman site of Gerulata, just south of Bratislava, although I did get a photo through the fence. I did manage to walk to Austria via the Bridge of Freedom, a new international cycle bridge across the Morava (March) river not far north of the famous castle of Devín.

So all kinds of things have changed for the better – but the odd exhibition on ethnography, and the paintings of Jan Hála and the like, reminded me that I caught the very end of traditional folk culture in the region – above all in Maramureș and other parts of Transylvania, but also in the hillier parts of Slovakia. That’s pretty much gone now, but I do feel incredibly privileged to have seen as much as I did – and to have shared in people’s lives, even if only to a tiny extent. Of course, if you go further east, there are still people living traditional lifestyles, such as the transhumance from Tusheti in Georgia that I mentioned here.

Sandwiched between Hungary and Poland, Slovakia has been infected by the same kind of nasty populist politics, but that comes mainly from the rural areas, whereas as far as I can see Bratislava remains a civilised place. Which is not to say that the Roma are particularly well treated here, but it’s better than in the east of the country.

Most of the travellers I met in the hostels were complaining about the blogs that urged them to rush between Berlin and Budapest via Prague and Vienna, saying that Bratislava was dull, but you won’t find any of that big-cities-only nonsense here (although I admit I have gone into Berlin’s museums and galleries in some depth) – Bratislava is exactly the kind of place people should be stopping in to understand the new Europe. But it’s even better to get to smaller places towards the mountains – I had great views of the High Tatras, thick with snow (serious nostalgia!) from the train from Bratislava and Trnava to Kosice, but I didn’t have time to stop – but I will post soon on those two towns.

Kapitulska street – central but still very quiet
The Primate’s Palace and the Old Town Hall