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Small Carpathians offer a quiet winter escape

The dead of winter in Bratislava can be downright depressing. Mother Nature throws a thick gray blanket over the smog-stained blocks of flats circling the old town. Pedestrians shuffle across icy sidewalks to catch filthy buses full of stale air, and the sun remains a foggy memory. But just a short car or bus ride from downtown, even the darkest days of winter can seem a little brighter.
The 50-kilometer stretch of the Small Carpathian foothills, between Bratislava's Rača district and Smolenice, has been Slovakia's premier wine-growing region since Roman times. As you travel along road 502 from Bratislava, there's no mistaking the focus of towns such as Svätý Júr, Pezinok and Modra. Vineyards are everywhere.

The dead of winter in Bratislava can be downright depressing. Mother Nature throws a thick gray blanket over the smog-stained blocks of flats circling the old town. Pedestrians shuffle across icy sidewalks to catch filthy buses full of stale air, and the sun remains a foggy memory. But just a short car or bus ride from downtown, even the darkest days of winter can seem a little brighter.

The 50-kilometer stretch of the Small Carpathian foothills, between Bratislava's Rača district and Smolenice, has been Slovakia's premier wine-growing region since Roman times. As you travel along road 502 from Bratislava, there's no mistaking the focus of towns such as Svätý Júr, Pezinok and Modra. Vineyards are everywhere.

However, a lesser known feature of the area is its wooded foothills, which offer a great escape from the dreary winter routine. The forest is sprinkled in soft white crystal, thanks to the frigid fog of the past two weeks, making it especially charming for a winter stroll. You can wander through sleeping villages, around majestic castles, and dive into a 'koliba' (wooden cottage for shepherds) for a winter warmer when you catch a chill.

While it's easy enough to make a day trip out of it, a night in a secluded cabin or quiet pension is worth considering, particularly if you're bussing it. Then you'll have time to explore and to enjoy some peace and quiet. The options are many and the prices are quite reasonable.

Modra, "the Pearl of the Small Carpathians," and nearby Pezinok are the dynamic duo of Slovak wine production. As both towns have a similar history and a strong wine focus, they are usually lumped together as Modra-Pezinok. In fact, they celebrate Vinobranie, the September grape harvest festival together, alternating the site each year between the two towns.

The first charming little town along the road is Pezinok. The Small Carpathian Wine Museum (Malokarpatské Múzeum Pezinok, open Tue-Fri, 9:00-12:00, 13:00-17:00; Sat, 8:00-13:00; Sun, 14:00-17:00) on Štefánik Ulica is a hodgepodge of artifacts from various trades, including wine production, carpentry, shoemaking, and torture. You'll find grape presses in one corner and leg presses in another. The huge grape press from 1725 and the 19th century wine-barrel wagon in the courtyard are the highlights.

Spend no more than 15 minutes at the exhibit, then head up the street to the manor house near the park. Built in 1609 on the foundations of a former castle, the interior of Zámocká Vináreň v Pezinku is a mix of elegance and comfort - the perfect place to sink into a plush chair and sample a product of the region.

The next stop along the Carpathian Wine Trail is Modra, the Pearl of the Carpathians. Modra is the home of a School of Viticulture, founded in the late 19th century, which passes on the tricks of the trade from generation to generation. Štúrova Ulica, the main drag through town, is named after Ľudovít Štúr, the codifier of the Slovak language. Originally from Uhrovec, a village in central Slovakia, Štúr spent the last years of his life here before shooting himself in 1855. The Ľudovít Štúr museum tells the story of his life.

Besides Štúr and more wine, the pride of Modra is its colourful hand-painted ceramics. The plates, candle-holders and vases you see in Slovak kitchens and souvenir shops are made here. Several shops around town offer these at more reasonable prices than you find in Bratislava.

Continuing up 502 will take you to Častá, one of those sleepy villages where they play folk music over the public address system at certain times of day. Other than that, nothing much happens there. But just a 20-minute walk up the hill is a wonderfully preserved 16th century castle known as Červený Kameň (Red Stone). Unfortunately, the castle is closed from November until March, but a walk around the perimeter is impressive enough. The massive fortification, punctuated by four corner bastions, seems to float above the village. Carefully placed statues add a touch of refinement to the surrounding park.

The last stop along the main road is Smolenice, a story-book castle surrounded by Macbeth-type forests. Since the castle, owned by the Slovak Writers' Association, is closed to the public year-round, winter is as good a time as any to visit. Writers voluntarily sequester themselves here, drawing inspiration from the castle area.

Just outside Modra, two roads splinter off the 502. The road to the left leads to Zochová Chata, where the main attraction is a one-room koliba restaurant. This is the place to linger over a varené vino (mulled wine). At dinner they slow-cook your meal on a spit over a massive open fireplace. Folk music can often be arranged for groups, but call ahead to make firm plans. The road to the right leads to the tiny village of Budmerice. There a striking chateau sits in a secluded park at the edge of the village. Budmerice is another exclusive writer's retreat owned by the Slovak Writers' Association. To get there, take the last road to the right as you leave town toward Bratislava. Follow the road to the end and then take a left up the hill.

With so much to see in such a small area, a quiet weekend in the Carpathians might be just the cure for the wintertime blues.

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