Weekend Séjour: Slovak Style

Two starving artists on vacation: Only €200 buys three action-packed days in Trnava, east of Bratislava

On The Town | Gretchen Gatzke, David Reali | April 2012

winemaker Jakubec with a glass of his own (Photo: David Reali)

With our €200 budget we were conscious that our tickets would have cost significantly less if we had bought them in Slovakia. At Wien Südbahnhof (Ost), €14 is the standard price round-trip to Bratislava Hlavná Stanica. There, they would have been €11, but that didn’t matter. We were on our way to Slovakia, where everything is cheaper – €3 wouldn’t break the bank.

We reached the capital in an hour, where we changed trains. Around us, arriving tourists were being hit up for spare change and cigarettes. Combined with the poor condition of the station, this would discourage most first-timers from visiting Bratislava. But we knew better. For €2.55, we bought tickets to our final stop – the Baroque university town of Trnava, in the heart of the Slovak wine region.

Unlike the sterile ÖBB (Austrian National Railroad) train, with its blue upholstered seats and clinical interior, this one had "character". Like Bratislava’s station, this train looked like a relic from a forgotten time. We squeezed into a compartment with three men, who peered disapprovingly and sat in awkward silence on the sweat-stained, maroon upholstery for half an hour until we reached our destination.

Inside its ancient fortifications, the city offers countless cultural and historical sights, numerous churches, and the University of Trnava. Founded in 1635, it is one of the oldest universities in Central Europe. Next door stands the monument to Anton Bernolak, a former student, who first codified the Slovak language in the 18th century. Each site is a testament to the cultural and historical significance of Trnava, but we had to admit, to us, the largest attraction was the ability to indulge affordably.

Day 1: Meet the locals

Our hostess Zuzana greeted us at the station and we drove to her house on the outskirts of the city. After dropping off our things, we took a cab to Pizza Kitty, home of "Trnava’s biggest pizza." We had asked Zuzana to take us to a traditional eatery, but she couldn’t think of one – apparently in Trnava "traditional" is home-cooked.

The interior of Pizza Kitty was colourful, kitschy and strangely decorated with giant canvas prints of African tribes-people. It did not resemble your typical Pizzakeller, but its menu did. The four of us ate and drank for under €35, which left us plenty of cash to keep drinking.

Our next stop was Čajka, where we met Freddy. He is known as a local legend – the Fonzy of Trnava. Greeting everyone on the way in, we pushed through swarms of young adults to the bar. Having just met him, we were pleasantly surprised when Freddy started handing out shots of whiskey and vodka – a great start to the evening. After downing our shots, Freddy took his leave, as did we.

Next we went to Havana – a classic local hangout. On our way we took note of Trnava’s youth. The girls were mostly gorgeous and dolled-up to the extreme, and the boys, well, typically tall with broad shoulders and menacing shaved heads – no hair gel or fake tans in sight. Their inebriated laughter and shrill voices echoed through the streets. Right outside Havana we were startled by a lad leaning out of the passenger window of a moving car, shrieking bloody murder like a tortured Tarzan.

Safely inside, Havana is a small underground bar with seven tables and a jukebox. Between beer and vodka, B52s became our drink-of-choice that evening. After playing too many cheesy rock songs on the jukebox, the other patrons slowly trickled out, leaving us alone with the two bartenders, whom we kept busy preparing more shots. We drank past the point of remembering how many we had consumed, but again were pleasantly surprised when our bill came to less than €20 for the two of us. Bliss!

Through a fog of liquor, we asked our cab driver to take us home.

Total expenses: train tickets = €33.10, dinner = €16.50, drinks = €15.00, grand total = €54.60

Day 2: A fairytale castle in wine country 

Surprisingly sober, we awoke around noon to a home-cooked Slovak lunch of a creamy lentil soup, broiled pork rump, cabbage and knedľa, a giant yeasty steamed dumpling commonly used to soak up any sauces or savoury run-off from the roast. Still rubbing our eyes, we politely declined a selection of beer and wine.

The hearty meal gave us much needed energy for the long day before us. We drove 25 km to Častá, home to the Red Stone Castle built in 1230 as a frontier fortification overlooking the border between Bohemia and the Hungarian Kingdom. For €7, we took an hour-long tour through the Knight’s Hall, the exhibition of 15th–19th century weapons and the gentleman’s study, among others. We decided we liked the castle cellars and fortification system the best. The high ceilings and dry, crisp air were impressive and unlike any other cellar we had ever experienced. The backdrop inspired scenes of Rapunzel and Prince Charming as well as created a prime opportunity to mock sword-fight and joust.

A short drive away we discovered Modra, a quiet little town that Zuzana had chosen specifically for our next venture. With around 9,000 inhabitants, Modra is the viticultural centre of the Little Carpathians region. There, a traditional meal at Hotel Sebastian gave us the sustenance necessary for a Slovak wine tasting that was being held in the cellar of the same building.

We each selected a menu, including a soup, a main dish and a dessert, and a €15 bottle of Varieto André 2009. Everything was exquisite, but especially the creamy green bean and potato soup and the duck legs with lokše (fried potato pancakes). Three courses only cost €8! Unbelievable!

The André 2009 was a great preface to the wine-tasting going on downstairs. To partake, we paid €8 each for a bundle of tickets, one for each wine tasted. We proceeded to the cellar where five different Modra producers had their bottles lined up for evaluation.

We made our rounds at each table, but two of the vineyards really stood out. The first was Vinárstvo Jakubec, which had a selection of six wines. Of these, two were especially enjoyable – the Müller Thurgau and the Irsai Oliver, both 2011. They were crisp and full-bodied with the right amount of residual sugar. We bought a bottle of each for only €3 (!) apiece.

Our other favourite vineyard was Štiglic, who also had six wines available for tasting, only one of which was a red. Ultimately, we preferred the Chardonnay 2011, a semi-sweet wine that exploded with the flavour of an Italian fragolino, a strawberry-like grape, and the 2009 Veltliner ice wine. Again, we bought a bottle of each for a total of €15.

We relinquished our remaining tickets and stumbled back to the car – luckily Zuzana was the designated driver.

Total expenses: Castle tour = €14, Dinner = €22, Wine tasting = €16, Four bottles of wine = €21, Grand total = €73

Day 3: Reminders of yesteryear

On our last day we took a final tour of Trnava. The weather began to turn as we walked the city streets, observing the duality of old and new. Refurbished, freshly painted and majestic martial and religious statuary (37 churches for a population of 70,000) hide parts of the town that can only be described as decrepit and decomposing. Cracked walls, graffiti and missing windows make up a large part of the cityscape. The pristine, onion-domed cathedrals are visible from every street in the city; they mock the tattered scenery with a reminder of a much more ambitious past.

In some places, old wooden doors had been re-appropriated to board up broken windows. All this isn’t visible from the main squares but most alleys and side streets reveal emptied squats and what one imagines a city to look like after a military siege. An eerie silence reinforced this post-war sentiment.

On the way back to Bratislava, we looked out our windows in thoughtful silence as the block-housing estates and barren landscape on the periphery of Trnava passed us by. We stopped at the Eurovea shopping center, an icon of Slovakia’s awakening to consumerism. There we enjoyed familiar services and products for unfamiliar prices. Included in our list of purchases were a €10 haircut and a €26 pair of jeans.

Following this painless splurge, we headed into the capital’s old city for a final traditional Slovak meal. Back in tourist-central, prices rose accordingly. Still, for €7.90, we enjoyed another Slovak classic at Slovenská Pivnica –the bryndzové halušky, a pile of cheesy potato dumplings topped with crumbled bacon bits.

Total expenses: mall purchases = €36, dinner = €30.10, grand total = €66.10

After three days, our bellies were thicker than our wallets, but not by much. We hesitantly boarded the train for Wien Südbahnhof (Ost) with fond memories of the experience and culture we had discovered – we had to admit, it felt like highway robbery.

Total three-day expenses: €193.70.

Living so close to this hedonist’s heaven: Priceless! 

Note: For travellers without a private host, Trnava offers very affordable hotels, like Hotel Prestige**** (€65/night/double, www.hotelprestige.sk) or Hotel Phoenix*** (€55/night/ double, www.hotelphoenix.sk).

Other articles from this issue