Perhaps it was the engaging smile of the girl on reception that did it (a welcome that appeared every bit as warm for me as for the clearly far-wealthier businessmen that had checked in beforehand). Perhaps it was that the walk to the room revealed glimpses of what I knew lay in store for me the following morning, namely Slovakia’s premier water park, AquaCity. It could also have been the location. After all, I was bang on the doorstep of my favourite part of Poprad, the medieval neighbourhood of Spišská Sobota. Whatever the reason, I was in a jolly mood as I arrived at Hotel Mountain View, one of the High Tatras’ best hotels – and nothing occurred during my stay there to do anything other than bolster it.
Overall, it is the sense of fun that permeates what at first glance might seem more of a business hotel that wins the newcomer over. Yes, individuals in suits do sit nodding gravely at meetings in the vast reception area and indeed, the hotel is well-known for its conference facilities. But families also wander through in dressing gowns on the way to the aqua park which awaits directly below. The hotel might have four stars, and many of the airs and graces of five, but it takes itself only a little bit seriously. It’s hard to be too serious, possibly, when there are fully-fledged adults squealing with glee on the nearby slides (some are reclining sedately in spa treatments or in the umpteen sauna rooms but, honestly, more are squealing).
The reception area, as intimated above, has a certain sumptuousness to accompany the friendly initiation. Contemporary it is (if not strikingly so). A long bar graces one side, and a terrace on the other side lends views of the Spišská Sobota rooftops, with the world’s only geothermally-heated football pitch in the foreground. From here, the reception-to-room walk is looong – if not quite long enough to see off dinner, then certainly enough distance to appreciate the ‘city’ part of AquaCity, and leave you feeling very glad to arrive and kick back a-while…
The standard rooms are already on the large side: over 30 sq metres each, with the suites garnering up to twice that space. The hotel is a modern steel-and-glass structure and the modernity translates to the rooms: with bands of butterscotch yellow brightening the spick-and-span greys of the bathroom tiling and the bedroom curtains and bedspreads. Small balconies gaze out towards the High Tatras although not all clock those homonymous ‘mountain views’ – this hotel is not about mountain proximity (there are many other places to stay closer to the alluring peaks themselves) because you’ll spend the majority of your time here looking in rather than out. In fact, traditional mountain life seems distant at Hotel Mountain View, with crisp decoration, rather healthy food and city sophistication much more the order of the day (there is hardly any beech or oak wood in sight). As you partake from the generously-stocked minibar, flick channels on the LCD TV’s or wander along to the hotel bar, cafe or restaurant, you’re much more likely to be contemplating what your room rate includes: and it’s this that sets the hotel apart.
This is because free access to the majority of the AquaCity facilities is included in the accommodation price: to all the indoor and outdoor pools and the 8 wellness saunas and steam rooms (nowhere else in the country can boast such a variety of water-based fun). Free access to AquaCity’s fitness centre is also on offer, and a huge buffet breakfast is included in the rate too (although you’ll have an appetite worked up by the time you arrive, because it’s a fair hike along and up to reception then down again to the breakfast room).
Yet you can relish the facilities quite guilt-free: compared to every other place to stay in Slovakia, and indeed in Eastern Europe, Hotel Mountain View’s carbon footprint is low indeed: with the vast majority of the hotel’s (and the water park’s) energy issuing forth from the geothermal waters bubbling away under the ground.
Even if you arrive in a state of despondency, actually, at this place it’s pretty hard to escape the pampering, or keep that smile off your face.
MAP LINK: (the hotel is located at Športova 1397, Spišská Sobota, Poprad – within the AquaCity complex and with the same main entrance)
PRICES: Standard double from 151.40 Euros, suite from 281.40 Euros (2017 prices)
A Quick Guide to the Other Content We Have on Poprad
The impression dawns, some small time after you arrive in the AquaCity reception area (by which time you can already discern the excitable babble of squeals filtering in from outside) that what you are about to embark on is a rollicking good time. You’re going to experience some world-class treatments, sure – but above all, you’re going to enjoy yourself.
AquaCity, on the outskirts of the High Tatras city of Poprad, enjoys a cracking view out to the rearing mountain peaks of Northern Slovakia in one direction, and a birds-eye panorama out over one of Slovakia’s most beguiling medieval centres, Spišská Sobota, in the other. But what it offers itself is a big diversion from the stunning scenery and century-old architecture the country is so famous for. It offers Slovakia’s greatest array of water-based fun – and in a nation well known for spas, too. The spa or kúpele concept at Piešt’any, Rajecké Teplice or Bardejovské Kúpele attracts thousands of foreign visitors annually for the fantastic thermal waters bubbling under Slovakia’s soil. But they all take themselves quite seriously. Straight faces and respectful silences are not the norm at AquaCity: it’s no more possible to keep them than it is to keep yourself from licking your lips when you’re eating a jam doughnut.
There is nothing ancient about the strikingly modern (and, more strikingly, massive) AquaCity complex – except perhaps the thermal waters on which the entire thing rests. At a time when it was unknown that Poprad possessed thermal springs under its bedrock, the story goes that AquaCity’s owner, Jan Telensky, stumbled upon a rusty old pipe with the naturally heated 49-degree water gushing out of it whilst taking a walk on some nearby waste ground – and that thus was the idea of AquaCity born. Nowadays, after the High Tatras mountains themselves, this wondrous wellness experience is the city’s top attraction. As often as not, people come to Poprad to luxuriate in the (quite literally) piping hot waters and don’t give the mountains any more than an admiring glance. The “scrap to riches” success story is all the more impressive once it becomes clear that AquaCity is so vast it is difficult even to begin to know how to describe it – let alone how to explore it.
I’m soon laughing with the rest of the day’s thousand-odd visitors when I check in for my pampering session (I should perhaps be referring to it as a pampering adventure, because quite quickly the experience takes you forth into uncharted waters). From excitement, yes, but first of all when the manager in all seriousness suggests I’ll need an absolute minimum of a day to appreciate everything the complex has in store.
I am not a spa writer and the idea of spending a day doing, well, nothing really besides a little lounging in various pools and saunas, doesn’t immediately appeal: not besides getting out in the mountains hiking, or biking, or climbing, or caving. But I am won round fairly quickly (I attribute it to the friendliness of the staff showing me the ropes and the sheer innovation evidently behind AquaCity). As a writer you require something to really write about regardless of the subject matter: I would rather gush over a quirky hostel with nothing but dorm beds than I would over a lacklustre top-of-the-range hotel. Similarly, with AquaCity, I found the many USPs revealed on my cursory tour caused me to prick up my ears even though I have been known to doze off whilst listening to the intro spiel for some of the world’s better-known spa resorts.
Let’s deal with one issue, straight off. AquaCity is not a spa. It’s a resort without much precedent anywhere in Europe, sporting three hotels and great conference facilities (business travellers), too many eating and drinking options to count (food lovers), world-class leisure facilities from football to tennis to minigolf (sports lovers), some seriously ground-breaking health and beauty treatments (treatment seekers) – and then of course that immense collection of pools, Jacuzzis and saunas (pleasure lovers and fun-seekers!). Geothermal water-themed leisure and pleasure complex will suffice as a general description for now…
I am advised to commence with the serious stuff (because AquaCity does have a serious side, like all wellness centres). There is good sense behind the advice: in absolute contrast with the geothermal waters for which the complex is most renowned, I am about to get cold – very cold (and it’s much better to wind up at the end of the day with a warm feeling lingering).
The cryotherapy unit, in its own special wing at AquaCity, is a European leader (cryotherapy was first developed here in Eastern Europe): the body is frozen at a temperature of first -60 degrees and then -120 degrees for a total of two and a half minutes in two different chambers. Whilst it is available in bigger cities like London, AquaCity offers the experience at a fraction of the price. Said to treat all manner of sporting injuries, the treatment involves first donning a warm hat, special thick-soled shoes and mittens, getting a medical examination (in this case by a jovial and somewhat flamboyant doctor) to check the temperature shock won’t kill you, then being ushered into first an ante-chamber (at a mere -60 degrees) and then, in 30 seconds time, being summoned into the main chamber at -120 degrees, where you have to walk around for two minutes (four minutes would induce death but two is fine) whilst the merry doctor communicates with you on a tannoy to check that you’re not in agony. And incredibly, you are not – because the iciness has very little moisture content. You walk out feeling invigorated and then engage in half an hours’ warm-up in the cryotherapy section’s gym. By which time you are more than ready for those warm waters…
Getting Warmed Up
Back up a level, across AquaCity’s four-star Mountain View hotel, down again and along a twisting series of corridors (by which point, after almost a kilometre of walking, you will certainly be understanding the appropriateness of the ‘city’ part of the name of the complex), one enters the area known as Vital World – which is perfect for those that just imagined moments before they would be frozen to death.
Changing into nowt but a towel (the towel is optional, but you cannot proceed wearing swimming costumes – welcome to Central European-style spas!) you can embark on a veritable round trip of extravagant relaxation, circling through a steam sauna, a flower sauna, a salt sauna, a Finnish sauna and a beautiful snow cave (yep, High Tatras snow and ice in a cute little enclave that will have you thinking you’re in Santa’s grotto rather than a mega-resort). To truly luxuriate you’ll need a couple of hours here at least (I luxuriate quite rapidly as a rule and it still took me nearly that long) – particularly if you throw in the hot tub, the official relaxation area (after all that hard work in the saunas, some time on sunbeds with classical music is not amiss) and Slovakia’s premier Thai massage centre. Thai massage options include the Rit Tee (a hot, herbal massage) and the popular Tok Sen, which uses small sharp sticks to poke through your skin at the tissue and bones and thus, somehow, improve your circulation…
Vital World is wonderful, but there’s no denying that the part of AquaCity where you really let the inner child within you out is the extensive range of pools, indoor and outdoor, and water slides: a 50-metre Olympic-sized swimming pool, plus (between the inside and outside areas) 13 more pools with temperatures ranging between 27 and 40 degrees. Kids love AquaCity’s newest water-based fun, the Treasure Island pool – themed around a huge pirate ship. Even an a cool day the outside pools are packed (although the water slides open only in the height of summer). Fountains, more Jacuzzis, a swim-up bar and a healthy restaurant sandwiched midway through your between-pool wanderings embellish the experience. Best of all, each evening, a spectacular laser light show is projected around one of the larger pools (the Blue Sapphire): a fitting way to cap a day of being good to yourself…
It would be tempting to think there was something wasteful in all this lavish use of hot water. But the opposite is the case.
The bore hole on which the complex sits gushes out 49-degree water that would otherwise not get used for very much at all. Instead, AquaCity’s modern steel-and-glass design allows for the water to travel around the buildings, heat up the centre from the pools to the rooms (in conjunction with solar energy), and still have sufficient quantities to power the world’s only geothermally heated football stadium, right next-door. Other deft green touches will have you feeling a whole lot better about your spa-going, too. Lights, for example, switch on and off automatically when you enter or exit a room. Pools were constructed with steel rather than concrete, which meant far less impact on the environment. The centre was even the first in Central Europe to attain the highly-coveted Green Globe award, the highest mark of internationally recognised environmentally friendly excellence. AquaCity brands itself as an immersion in ecological luxury and that, it seems, it most definitely is.
For sure, there is a fair amount to write home about – even for those for whom spas normally leave feeling luke-warm – and no need to feel guilty, due to those glowing green credentials, about indulging in AquaCity’s rather unique blend of fun… there are few places in Slovakia that cater quite so well simultaneously to poker-faced business conferences, to romancing couples – and to young families shrieking in unrestrained joy.
A Quick Guide to the Other Content We Have on Poprad
LOCATION: Sportova 1397/1: from Poprad Tatry train station head east (left) on the main road, Štefanikova.
ADMISSION: 22 Euros (Aquapark only day ticket) or 34 Euros (Vital World and Aquapark day ticket)
OPENING: 9am to 10pm daily (Aquapark), 9am to 10pm Monday, Tuesday, Friday and Saturday (Vital World), 4pm to 7pm Tuesday to Saturday (Cryotherapy)
NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: 42km northeast of AquaCity is Slovakia’s only whisky distillery at Hniezdne.
Whether in summer, for a well-earned languishing and luxuriating session, or in the colder weather for a quick warming dip, Slovakia’s spas – and one in particular – are an absolute must-visit.
The best bathing spots in the country, of course, are much easier to narrow down if that country doesn’t have a coastline. In landlocked Slovakia, bathing is all about spas: there is a stunning variety of therapeutic thermal waters flowing under the earth here, and a clutch of great spa towns for those with a desire to take the waters.
But it’s Piešt’any that is Slovakia’s number one spa town. The quality of services is higher and, located on the serene “spa island” alongside the pleasant town of Piešt’any, the spa buildings with their ornate neoclassical design help create the dignified spa atmosphere of bygone centuries more atmospherically than other spa towns around.
Over the bridge on spa island itself, the most lavish building is the five-star Thermia Palace Hotel (now part of the Danubius group). Adjoining this is the Irma Spa – and what many people don’t know is that the treatments are available to non-guests, and not at so very high a price. There is no need to stay here if your wallet doesn’t stretch. BUT hotel guests do understandably get first priority and therefore there is no way to book in advance the delightful outdoor thermal pool which probably qualifies as Slovakia’s best. You have to turn up and hope that it’s not full (this puts many people off from so doing). But full it almost never is.
Turn right along the corridor inside the entranceway with its stained glass scene of rural Slovak life at one end and its mural depicting the thermal currents flowing under Piešt’any on the other side. Check at reception for the number of spaces at the outside thermal pool that you would like (12 Euros per person, but for as long as you wish). Then you’ll be guided along to the entrance to the pool. You can go out and put your things by the pool first, then change after (there’s a poolside custodian).
The changing rooms themselves are few but spacious, with high wooden park benches to put clothes on (not quite up there with my favourite Slovak spa changing rooms, the prize for which goes to the glamorous 19th-century hammam at the Trenčianske Teplice spa just outside Trenčin, but still very nice).
And here’s the shocker. This beautiful pool, with a temperature of 35 degrees in summer and 38 in winter, surrounded by the ornate environs of one of Slovakia’s loveliest spa hotels, and abutted by an old English garden replete with statues, is almost always virtually empty – even at weekends. The only people in the know seem to be a steady stream of visitors from the Middle East – but even they are only sporadically in evidence at the pool itself. For 12 Euros you can stay as long as you like here, bring a picnic to munch on the beds around the edge in if you want or wander along the path to the equally refined cafe-restaurant in the Thermia Palace Hotel – with outside tables overlooking the English garden.
If you’re used to Europe’s better-known spas, like Széchenyi in Budapest, you’ll be amazed by the quietude of Piešt’any. The surrounds are not quite as glamorous as Széchenyi but it’s a fair trade-off for having the water almost to yourself. The best thermal pool in Slovakia? Quite probably, yes.
That is of course in addition to having the luxury of 60+ treatments involving the famous Piešt’any sulphurous mud, including the indoor mud pool with its lofty domed roof, right nearby. For an insight into the treatments available, check the Thermia Palace website’s list of treatments. And a tip: the hot water churns into the pool right on the left-hand side below the steps in and is the cosiest place to hang out.
A Quick Guide to the Other Content We Have on the Piešt’any Area:
GETTING THERE: Trains run from Bratislava’s Hlavná Stanica Station to Piešt’any every one to two hours. Costs for a ticket are 4.30 Euros.
ADMISSION: 12 Euros
The High Tatras Mountain Resorts – Stará Lesna: Hotel Horizont Hits the High-End Accommodation Scene
To many manic drum rolls, not to mention a spectacular light show, a traditional Eastern Slovak Orthodox blessing and the release of several doves into the High Tatras night, Hotel Horizont, Slovakia’s latest luxury hotel, officially opened last Thursday evening – and under precisely the mountainous backdrop depicted!
It was a noteworthy occasion for several reasons.
Hotel Horizont’s location, in Stará Lesna just below the traditional “big three” mountain resorts in the High Tatras (the Smokovec resorts, Tatranská Lomnica and Štrbské Pleso for your information), deservedly catapults Stará Lesna up to the status of mountain resort too. The pretty village of pastille-hued houses straddling a single street sits a couple of kilometres below Tatranská Lomnica, the nearest stop on the Tatras Electric Railway (and as well as being connected by road is also linked by a very pleasant woodland walk). It’s a far more undisturbed community than the sometimes hectic touristy villages of Starý Smokovec and Štrbské Pleso) but is positioned at the very beginning of the foothill forests of the mountains, meaning that the landscape to the north, just as with the “big three”, has protected status.
Four-star hotels do not open in the High Tatras (or in Slovakia, for that matter) every day, either. The “big three” each sport one top-end resort – most notably Grandhotel Kempinski on the lakeshore above Štrbské Pleso – and each of these is a veritable grand dame. But the Horizont, despite its significantly more modern appearance, is comparable for quality and unlike the others, it’s an utter individual: and not a part in any way of an international chain.
The Inside Perspective
Colour-wise, the interior is flecked geometric greys, reflecting the grains of the crystalline Slovak stone which themes the decoration in the public areas and the rooms. The reception ushers you through spaciously to a bar with a terrace overlooking the lofty peaks. Off to the right is arguably the hotel highlight: a gorgeous English-style cigar snug bar designed by renowned Humenné wood specialists and constructed entirely with glossy oak. Behind that, the restaurant is already gaining a reputation for its scrumptious hriba polievka (mushroom soup). As reception is on the second floor, it’s easy to miss upon first arrival the beautiful ground floor pool, poolside bar and fitness centre…
The rooms (six floors of them all told) are a tad above average size for a four-star joint: the tasteful modern decoration extends here too. None of the rooms have baths, which is perhaps the sole disadvantage but they do have balconies, which even rooms at the “big three’s” biggest hotels often lack. However, with the pool below and – another candidate for Horizont’s pièce de resistance – with the seventh floor rooftop sauna and Jacuzzi with their birds-eye view out towards the soaring summits of Gerlachovský štit and Lomnicky štit, pampering at this place is never more than a stone’s throw distant.
Why to Stay in a Nutshell
Perhaps, to synopsise why a stay here should be a part of your High Tatras holiday, Hotel Horizont must best be described as tranquil, modern, affordable mountain resort luxury: these six words put it in a category all of its own. Grandhotel Kempinki puts a hefty price tag on its sumptuousness; neither the best digs that the Smokovec resorts or Tatranská Lomnica can offer come close for modernity.
And at the same time, the mountaintops (the highest accessible point in Slovakia for non-professional climbers, no less) are a 25-minute walk and an unforgettable cable car trip away.
The Hike to the to Lomnicky štit Cable Car
To hike to Tatranská Lomnica and the cable car station up to Lomnicky štit, turn left out of the hotel’s main entrance and walk along the dead-end lane passing one other hotel (to your left) and skirt on a trackway to the left of a second hotel. A gravelled path then continues in the same direction of through woodland. Follow the gravelled path to cross the Tatras Electric Railway and after more woodland turn left on the road into Tatranská Lomnica.
Along this road, a pavement-path follows the right-hand edge. The main road eventually turns to the left but proceed on the path through a small park to come out on the left-hand side of Reštauracia Stará Mama. Turn right on the pedestrian precinct to reach Tatranská Lomnica’s Tatras Electric Railway station (where you can take the train to Starý Smokovec or Štrbské Pleso). Cross the railway line to ascend to the main road at the left-hand edge of the village’s gorgeously maintained main park (where, turning left, you will pass a historic ski museum (good fun!), the tourist office and the sky-blue Penzión Encian (on the right). Just after this point, by which you will see the cable car complex above you, turn right on the road up to the cable car – where a new adventure to the second-highest point in Slovakia, Lomnicky štit, begins…
PRICE: from 110/140 Euros single/double
The latest luxury wellness hotel in the High Tatras: almost good to go! Here we sneaked up close to get some images of the finishing touches being laid – and not as you might think! Of course, we returned for the official opening – see our full juicy review!
Poprad is the gateway to the High Tatras. Whether you’re coming here by road or rail you’ll have to pass through this sizeable city to those tempting and frankly quite bizarre looking mountains just beyond. And of course the question is: why stop? Why indeed, when there’s the beginnings of a mountain wilderness with scintillating hiking, and climbing – and some pretty exceptional skiing just a half hour’s drive or mountain rail ride away? The question seems more poignant yet when you see Poprad’s centre which, somewhat marred by tasteless ’60’s and ’70’s development, is no Levoča – not, in other words, with a great deal of old-fashioned charm (although in fairness it has been spruced up no end of late and now sports leafy boulevards, revamped museums and a burgeoning pavement cafe culture). But after a concentrated couple of days in Poprad recently, Englishmaninslovakia has come up with a list of Poprad’s plus points – and the list is longer than many might think.
1: Get the Info
Before you rush off into the mountains, it’s worth pausing to find out exactly what you can (and, sometimes, can’t) do there – and Poprad is the fount of all Tatras outdoor activities knowledge. There are several key bases you might want to head to – Ždiar for culture, Tatranská Lomnica for the highest mountains, Starý Smokovec area for some of the main chairlifts up into the mountains proper (and the most abundant accommodation) or Štrbské Pleso for the biggest ski resort, great hiking and that cherry on the cake of Tatras Hotels, Grand Hotel Kempinski. Do you, for example, want to go husky sledding? Would you like to stay in fancy accommodation or huddle in a mountain house? Do you like hanging from a chain off a precipice or not?
The answers to all these and more will influence where you want to end up, and Poprad’s perfect for providing answers. You can check out the pleasant little tourist information office or scout out the veritable mine of Tatras information that is Adventoura tours (actually Poprad’s coolest tour agency and offering loads of different activities).
Yeah – so get all the info you need, which will take an hour or two, and then go off and do something like – well – one of the things right below!
2: Spišská Sobota
Spišská Sobota is one of the best-preserved clutches of medieval architecture anywhere in Slovakia. It doesn’t grab the headlines like nearby Levoča does but it’s almost as splendid. The Gothic Kostol Svätého Juraja (Church of St George) at the western end of the long tapered oval of the námestie dates from the 13th century originally and – get this – the enigmatic but highly regarded Master Pavol was responsible for the altar here. Just across the way is the church architect’s old workshop.
But quality is kept high in the modern day too in Spišská Sobota. Arguably Poprad’s best restaurants flank the square here (such as Vino & Tapas, where the owner cooked for the Queen when she visited Poprad, on the northern side – or Fortuna on the southern side). Then there’s the atmospheric accommodation options in and around the square (again, in our opinion, Poprad’s best (Penzión Sabato, Penzión Fortuna or, a block off the square, Penzión Plesnivec).
Oh, and how do you find Spišská Sobota? You take the main road Štefánikova and follow it (or the river running alongside it) east from the centre for about 1.5km, past Aqua City, then turning left at the sign for Penzión Plesnivec. Or follow the river along passing Aqua City until you hit the bridge by Hotel Sobota, turn left then take the first right up the hill to where you can already see the Spišská Sobota church tower.
3: Aqua City
Poprad’s Aqua City is the perfect way to counteract and sooth any aches and pains from a strenuous few days’ worth of hiking. Nigh-on 20 indoor and outdoor geothermal pools, all with temperatures in the mid- to high thirties (and that’s after being reduced from a natural 49 degrees): Aqua City might look starkly modern but its comforts are guaranteed – it’s one of Eastern Europe’s most well-appointed spa/wellness centres. There’s a hotel and wellness centre, of course, with cryotherapy and Thai massage centres & the like…
Ten minutes’ drive outside Poprad is a forest park which gives you better views of the High Tatras than you get in the High Tatras (if you want an overview of the whole range, that is). There’s a farm here which may be your best chance to see the timid mouflon (large-horned mountain sheep) that have a large enclosure of several acres here. In Kvetnica there’s also a network of hiking and mountain biking trails and a chateau. Kvetnica is also much more verdant than a lot of the Tatras are – it makes for a gentle and enjoyable afternoon’s walk. Ask at the Poprad Tourist Information how to find it – it can be quite tricky.
5: Podtatranské Muzeum
This museum has a fascinating new exhibition on the ancient treasures of a 4th-century Germanic prince dug up recently during construction of an industrial park, as well as permanent exhibits on Poprad since, er, Neolithic times. It’s recently moved to a new location in Spišská Sobota
6: The Tatranská Galeria (Tatras Art Gallery)
This art gallery is well worth a visit – you don’t expect to encounter culture in a mountain resort supply town but here it most definitely is. We’ve recently written this new post about the venue at Hviezdoslavová 12 known as the Elektráreň (Power Plant). It hosts some pretty damned good exhibitions!
7: Cool Cafes (and Caffes) from Belltowers to Bistros!
In one of several buildings that still retains its old-fashioned grace (the bell tower right behind the church in central Poprad), the mean espresso mini-chain Caffe Trieste has opened its doors. I mean “mean” in terms of the cafe’s ability to produce a mean espresso, of course; not that its staff are mean (they’re not!). There’s also a wine bar here (upstairs up the spiral staircase) – making this the city centre’s most atmospheric drinking spot by a country mile.
8: Bon Bon Chocolates
Oh, what is that beautiful correlation between mountain town resorts and chocolatiers? I don’t know, but I’m very happy with it. This is one of the best chocolatiers in Slovakia, and it’s right by the train station. I’d argue it’s even worth missing your train for. Small (and quite inviting) area for actually sitting and sipping – but you can always take that hot chocolate “to go” (yeah, in Slovakia now they actually often use the English “to go” for takeaway food which is rather comical when you listen to an ancient Slovak babka (grandmother) that cannot speak another word of English uttering it). Anyway, Bon Bon is on Dominika Tartarku – heading north from Štefánikova towards Poprad Tatry train station.
9: Pizzeria Utopia – and the rest of the City’s Cool New Eateries
In an old schoolhouse out in the paneláky, Poprad’s coolest and liveliest pizzeria has been going ten years and is still every bit as popular as ever. Inside, it looks cosy too, with three dining areas and a great array of tasty pizzas. I’ve actually never seen a pizzeria even in Bratislava look as inviting as this one. It’s just south of the hospital on the other side of Rte 18 from the centre – and perfectly walkable from there. Pizzeria Utopia might be one of the first of this new breed of cool Poprad restaurants but it’s the tip of the iceberg as far as local dining goes.
The final thing to remember is that Poprad is a far more pleasant mountain supply town than Zakopane on the Polish side of the Tatras and is certainly no worse than, say, Aviemore in Scotland or in fact many of those terrible big, soulless French ski resort towns. It’s not as beautiful as what lies just beyond, true. But it does have plenty of hidden charms… and yes, a little soul.
MAP LINK: (Kvetnica is indicated by the pinpoint at the bottom of the map)
GETTING THERE: Trains run every 1.5 to 2 hours from Bratislava’s Hlavná Stanica station to Poprad, take 3.5 to four hours and cost 11 Euros for regional trains or 19 Euros for the flashy IC trains (which have wifi).
NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Poprad, the obvious choice is heading 32km north to Ždiar to hike some of the lovely Tatranská Magistrála, or – for those that don’t like hiking – it’s 72km south to Rožňava, nearby which are some of Slovakia’s best caves
RELATED POST: London to Poprad Flights Alive and Kicking (could that in fact be reason 10 to get out to and hang out in Poprad?)
RELATED POST: How to get between Poprad, Zdiar and Zakopane in Poland by public transport (could this be reason number 11?)
I tried thinking of several possible titles for this article: “The hotel with the Roman remains”, “A night below the foundations of Western Slovakia’s mightiest castle”, something along these lines. Either of the above headings would be true, as would any title to the tune of “Trenčin’s Most Glamorous Hotel.” But again, not quite right.
Hotel Elizabeth is one of a select number of that coveted group of hotels known as the Historické Hotely Slovenska (Historic Hotels Slovakia) who set the bar very high with accommodation standards country-wide – character-rich old buildings, a dose of the glamour of yore, resplendent bars and spas, etc – but of this group, it’s one of the more down-to-earth. It certainly doesn’t boast about its best attributes, or put on intimidating airs and graces.
Which is why a title which drew attention to any one (or more) of these attributes just wouldn’t do. That said, and with attention span for reading on the web being limited, I’ll harp on about Hotel Elizabeth’s attributes anyway (in no particular order), because they are rather singular.
Historické Hotely Slovenska is only 15 hotels strong, and with the exceptions of Hotel Marrols in Bratislava and perhaps Hotel Bankov in Košice, there are no other independent hotels in Slovakia that currently warrant inclusion. No others that tick those necessary boxes, historic character, quality refurbishment and top-notch service. And of the 15, Hotel Elizabeth is one of a handful tourists would ever normally visit, being smack bang in the middle of one of the towns well and truly on the tourist trail.
Trenčin makes the cut for Slovakia-bound holidaymakers because of its preserved medieval centre, its straight-off-the-postcard fabulous castle straddling a crag above, and its evidence of early Roman occupation in the region, plastered on the side of the same crag. If you dig any or all of the above, Hotel Elizabeth is very much the hotel for you. Perhaps it’s the only hotel for you, because it stands like a striking sentinel at the entrance to that afore-mentioned medieval centre, and hugs two sides of the crag, directly below the castle and with exclusive access to those Roman remains.
The crenellated lemon yellow and white hotel exterior achieves some nigh-on improbable angles as it skirts tightly around the crag on which Trenčin Castle sits – so tightly the cliff overhangs parts of the building and you feel prompted to park on the other side of the car park to avoid the possibility you can’t help but vaguely entertain, i.e. that there will be a landslide that’ll write off your vehicle. Car parks. I’m not just slipping in a mention of car parks as a creative attempt at listing hotel facilities: I want you to visit the car park if you stay here regardless of whether you arrive by car, because of the intriguing carving high up on the rock face above (a haughty noble with a woman prostrate at his feet). The first of many neat historical points of interest the hotel factors in.
As you make your way from car park to reception, I’m not going to deny there are a few wobbly moments. Wobble one: an outlet of the national casino chain Herňa on the premises (in poor taste, I thought). Wobble two: hideous fake flowers by the door (again I sighed but it would be far from the first high-end hotel to make this easily-avoidable mistake). Through the doors though, and you’re in a striking glass-roofed courtyard, which now beautifully joins together what had been two separate buildings: light, lovely and intelligently worked. It’s here where you understand what the hotel is trying to do: play on the history of the building and modernise it. The glass lifts shooting up to the skylights high above; the huge glass ceiling hanging cascading down to the chic lobby bar. Contrasted with the traditional, those lemon yellow old walls again and, right by the reception desk, historical point of interest number two: the ruins of a old bakery (unearthed during the construction of the hotel spa) beneath a window in the floor.
We got a castle view room. A castle view unlike any other, because you’re looking up at the castle directly up a wooded cliff which has become a nature haven as development of any kind is impossible. So a myriad birds and an eyefull of looming bastions, but nice because of the extra tranquility, even if the natural light on this side is a little lacking.
The space of the doubles is neither bigger nor smaller than you’d expect; the decor is intriguing, however, because gone are the historic features you might have expected, replaced by an absolutely modern vibe I wasn’t anticipating at all. Safe, upmarket, beige-white. The sharp abstract impressions of the old town above the beds weren’t to my personal liking, but they were cleverly done (some would ridicule my old-fashionedness for not liking them I’m sure). Putting the flat-screen TVs in the middle of otherwise gorgeous ornate mirrors was an interesting move. And the art in the corridors doesn’t always work (glamourously dressed ladies clad to blend in with their respective historic-looking backgrounds – and not always blending in). But comfortable beds, oodles of desk space, original toiletries in the spacious bathrooms. No tea- and coffee-making facilities (except in the suites), but they’re always order-able for free – and the lobby bar makes for a good place to sit while you sip. All-told: 78 rooms – and maybe, overall, this is what modern-traditional means for a hotel. In any case, by virtue of the size and the relative glamour, this is hotel of choice for visiting celebs – Slovak premier Fico is a repeat visitor and most leading music acts in the world have bedded down here at some point due to the nearby Pohoda Festival (one of Central Europe’s best and biggest music festivals, in case you weren’t aware).
I’m a big fan of the old building subverted by adding a touch of the modern, glassy look: for me that is a definite success story of the post-refurbishment Hotel Elizabeth. From several points on the upper corridors there’s great views looking back down at the interior reception courtyard. But the best example of this is the view from the Marcus Aurelius terrace, an outside bar again sporting a modern, dark wicker vibe. Down from here, you glimpse one of the hotel highlights: those already-mentioned Roman remains, and historical point of interest number three. Essentially, this Roman Inscription , a record of the victory of a Roman detachment of soldiers over Qadi and Marcomanni tribes in 180 AD, is a proof (one of the only surviving proofs) of ancient Roman occupation of the Váh river valley area. There’s a second viewing point, from a small room with translations of the inscription in many languages, around from the terrace.
The ancient Rome theme marches on (a little) in the Caracalla spa, a small but prettily colonnaded place with a surprising variety of massage treatments. In keeping with a place that encompasses multiple epochs, the opulent Cafe Sissi on the other side of the lobby is much truer to the hotel’s late-19th century roots. In an elaborate curve (following the cliff, remember) it sweeps around the edge of Trenčin’s old town; high wide windows, exquisite breakfasts, good coffee and cakes, chandeliers, decorated glass panels, sofas standing in as seats. The Restaurant Elizabeth might take over for evening dining, but it’s the cafe that anyone would have to admit was an essential stop-off on a Trenčin best-of tour.
I think back now, as I’m writing this, to the first time I came to Trenčin, in 2012. It was raining, which already had me in a bad mood. When I got to the historic centre having (incredibly) initially walked the wrong way out of the train station into a gloomy industrial area, the hotel (it is the first thing you see as your eyes, in that first sweep over the town, wander down from the castle over the burnished steeply-pitched rooftops) was under reconstruction. Corrugated iron, scaffolding, boards on the windows and the sound of the drizzle hammering into them. The location of the building at the beginnings of Mierové námestie, the thoroughfare through the beguiling medieval heart of Trenčin, means it can’t help but be your first impression of the place. It wasn’t a great impression, back in 2012, and Hotel Elizabeth’s state of disrepair had a lot to do with that. That was then. And we reach the point. Since the dramatic makeover and its reopening (2013) the hotel continues to strongly influence Trenčin’s feel. The message it sends out now? That the town is back to being the proud, lively, history-rich place it used to be – with one truly quality place to stay.
A Quick Guide to the Other Content We Have on Trenčin:
PRICES: Single rooms 99 Euros, Double rooms 115 Euros, Suites from 165 Euros (2016 prices). 150 Euro weekend break for two deals (see the website) include the very good buffet breakfast, unlimited wellness/spa entry, and one evening meal for two.