Bratislava is a neat and compact city, and perfect for a weekend break; however, its strategic location, almost on the border of three countries (Slovakia, Austria and Hungary), makes it an ideal base for exploring the surrounding region. Imposing castles, pretty villages, gorgeous countryside and the mighty River Danube offer a range of day-trip options.
Devín's impressive castle overlooks the confluence of the Danube and Morava rivers © TTstudio, Shutterstock
Devín is a village 10km west of Bratislava along the Danube, considered a vital part of Slovak history. Its castle is an impressive sight when you arrive, probably by bus or boat – you see it rising up on a 212m-tall crag above the confluence of the Danube and Morava rivers. Occupied sine Neolithic times, by both the Celts and Romans, a castle and church were here built in the Great Moravian period, and a palace was added in the 15th century. The old name, Dowina, derives from the Slavic word deva (maiden) and the Maiden's Tower is one of the most popular sights to photograph; there are many legends about lovelorn maidens, imprisoned in the tower, escaping by leaping to their deaths. In 1809, Napoleon's advancing troops blew up the fortress en route to the Battle of Wagram against the Habsburg forces. It later became a key symbol for the Slovak National Revival and L’udovít Štúr organised a series of events here to whip up national fervour.
In summer, you can also take a ferry to Devín. Walking around, you'll discover hiking routes, cycle routes and even a lighthouse. You can also see the Iron Curtain memorial sculpture by Slovak artist Milan Lukáč. Unveiled by Queen Elizabeth II in 2008, it marks where the barbed-wire border fence with Austria used to stand. It is a memorial to the many people who died trying to swimm across the Morava River to Austria.
Small Carpathian Wine Route
The Small Carpathian Wine Route pairs fine wines and lovely landscapes © Maros Markovic, Shutterstock
Covering some 7,300ha, the Small Carpathian Wine Regions (Malokarpatská Vínna Cesta) is the largest in Slovakia. With Gothic churches and belfries, Baroque chateaux, walled towns, the aroma of roast goose and brass band music, it provides a great day out in the Slovak countryside. The Days of Open Cellar Doors takes place in February when dozens of wine cellars along the entire 40km route, stretching from Rača in Bratislava's northern suburbs to Trnava, are accessible to the public. The main wine-producing villages and towns on the wine route are Svätý Jur, Limbach, Pezinok, Slovenský Grob, Vinosady, Modra, Dubová, Častá and Doĺany. A cycle route (Malokarpatská cyklomagistrála) follows the southern part of the Small Carpathian range. Local tour companies organise trips along the route.
Modra has been producing beautiful ceramics since the 16th century © Ventura, Shutterstock
As alluded to above, Modra is famous for its place on the Small Carpathian wine route. Indeed, there are many little cellars that can be visited, especially during the Vintage Festival in September, but they have also made ceramics and fine china here since the 16th century, in a style that is named habánská after the Haban craftsmen who originally made it. The Habans, also known as Anabaptisits or Hutterites, were a religious sect furing the Reformation who rejected papal authority and lived in communes. They fled religious persecution in Switzerland and came to Modra in the early 1600s (although they did have to convert to Catholicism). The motifs on the ceramics use everyday images of flowers and patterns from hunting, dancing and wine pressing in yellow, blue, green and plum colours, and visitors can tour the ceramics factory.
Trnava, 20km beyond Modra and 47km northeast of Bratislava, was the ecclesiastical capital of Hungary for almost three centuries, and today retains most of its medieval walls, along with some fine churches and museums. In addition to being the residence of the Archbishop of Esztergom from 1541 to 1820, it was also the seat of a Jesuit university from 1635 to 1777 which played an influential role in the Counter-Reformation; as a result, the town become known as Little Rome or Slovak Rome. Although the archbishop returned in 1977 and a new university opened in 1992, it's nowadays a quiet, largely pedestrianised town (although FC Spartak Trnava did win the Slovak football championship in 2018).
The Town Tower marks the centre of Trnava © Milan Gonda, Shutterstock
The central crossroads is marked by the 16th-century Town Tower (containing the small, helpful tourist office, which contains tools for basic cycle repairs) 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 owing to having murals rather than windows on the north side of the choir. The 17th-century University Church of St John the Baptist (now the cathedral), a block to the north, is a stunner, though, with a gorgeous Rococo interior of pale apricot, white and gold. Just south of the cathedral, one of the town's synagogues now houses an attractive café.
Take a dip in the sulphurous mud pool at the five-star Thermia Palace, one of Piešťany's best hotels © Danubius Piešťany Hotels
Piešťany, 85km northeast of Bratislava, is one of Slovakia's best-known spa towns, with a clutch of excellent hotels located on an island in the middle of the Váh River (the town is just to the west of this). This region is one of the warmest in Slovakia, with the sun shining for around 2,080 hours a year. First mentioned for its healing waters in 1549, Piešťany spas have long attracted visitors to their hot thermals springs and sulphurous mud. In 1912, local businessman L’udovít Winter built the gorgeous Art Nouveau Thermia Palace hotel and Irma Spa. Since then another five giant hotel-spa complexes have sprung up on the island, turning the idyllic space into a year-round leisure and wellness centre. There's even a nine-hole golf course to the north and a network of cycle paths.
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