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QUIET GLENS AND RUGGED HILLS REINVIGORATE THE WEARY SOUL

Escaping the city in Bratislava's Forest Park

Summer living in Bratislava is not without its small trials. Mornings to work on airless trams whose fastened windows are fiercely guarded by old ladies who fear a chill. Days spent cooped up in half-empty offices while the rest of the world is off drinking iced margaritas on the beach. Evenings competing with red-faced revellers for room to drink a blood-warm pint.
But only a short bus ride away, life retains its appeal.
Almost invisible in the deep afternoon shade, a deer pulls contentedly at a shrub until it is startled into sudden flight by a passing hiker. The animal's quivering white tail is quickly beyond sight.


Solitude. Bratislava's quiet forest park offers a haven from the noise and smoke of city life, and supports many animal and plant species.
Mestské Lesy Bratislava

Summer living in Bratislava is not without its small trials. Mornings to work on airless trams whose fastened windows are fiercely guarded by old ladies who fear a chill. Days spent cooped up in half-empty offices while the rest of the world is off drinking iced margaritas on the beach. Evenings competing with red-faced revellers for room to drink a blood-warm pint.

But only a short bus ride away, life retains its appeal.

Almost invisible in the deep afternoon shade, a deer pulls contentedly at a shrub until it is startled into sudden flight by a passing hiker. The animal's quivering white tail is quickly beyond sight.

A small pond, deep emerald in the morning sun, rustles with the stealthy progress of creatures in the reeds. An otter splashes towards the shore.

A forest track soft with humus leads steeply up an incline before giving way onto a meadow. The grass is waist-high, summer-high, and bends gracefully in the wind. In the distance below, valleys fold into each other like interlocked fingers.

Weary urbanites

For people tired of Bratislava and its smelly August streets, the quiet glens of Bratislava Forest Park offer, quite literally, a breath of fresh air within five kilometers of the capital's downtown. And yet, even long-time city residents are apt not to have heard of this sprawling wilderness area within minutes of their doorsteps.

The Kamzík Television Tower (Televízna veža) represents perhaps the easiest way of locating Bratislava's largest municipal park - resembling a bowling pin, the massive structure can be seen from most places in the city and the surrounding countryside. The tower is located about a kilometer inside the park, and is the departure point for a series of trails that lead steeply downward into the quiet woods.

Forest hiking trails are all clearly marked, both by color (yellow, red, blue and green) and by distance to the next look-out or landmark. They lead through a variety of terrain: from steeply shelving hillsides to upland stands of 40-meter hardwoods, from rocky streams to the standing waters of various ponds and pools. Elevation varies from a basic 200 meters to almost 450, and although the hills are never truly dramatic, they do offer hikers some impressive vistas over Bratislava to the south, and the massif of the small Carpathian mountains to the north-east.

City-slickers who don't take pleasure in stumping through the woods will find any number of choice bonfire sites along a road that winds into the park from the Červený most entrance (bus number 33 also serves this route). Playing fields, picnic tables and gazebos line the road, offering a night out far superior to one passed on any bar stool.

Paved roads that wind through the interior of the 3,000 hectare Forest Park offer cyclists a chance to enjoy some long, pristine rides, and allow tourists with cars to penetrate the park's interior and reach jump-off points for hikes beyond the park's borders into the Small Carpathian mountain range.

A century of use

The woods and hills north of Bratislava first became really popular as an afternoon and weekend destination over a century ago, when the city's more active citizens would tramp into the bush to go fishing at one of the four nearby ponds. After the Second World War, the communists, presumably horrified at all the unstructured bourgeois leisure time being enjoyed, staked out the boundaries of a forest park in 1955. At one point, the park sprawled across 17,500 hectares from Bratislava to Pezinok and Záhorská Bystrica, but after 1989, people whose land this mega-park had usurped began to demand their property back. At the moment, a trimmed-down Bratislava Forest Park is bordered by a patchwork of private and semi-private woodland plots known collectively as the Small Carpathian Protected Area (Chránená Oblasť Malé Karpaty).

Pavel Sečkár, the director of the City Woods of Bratislava organization, is responsible for the administration of Forest Park. His father a forester before him, Sečkár is a genteel Grizzly Adams figure in beard, green shirt, knee-length leggings and hiking boots. It is the uniform he wears at work in the park as well as around the city.

"I enjoy the stares I get from people," he said. "There's something about those woods, I just feel like a kid again when I'm there." Sečkár spoke fluently of the forest-management projects he oversees - restricted logging, reforestation, pathway and road maintenance. Few people who visit the forest can be aware of these activities, for the woods still boast several species of deer, roebuck and wild boar, besides smaller furred and feathered beasts.

Loud and aggressive Bratisla-va can prove vexatious to the spirit, especially in the summer, but Forest Park is the perfect antidote to such feelings. Whether they end up on the end of a log in front of a campfire or watching the evening gather on one of the park's remoter trails, visitors to these woods return refreshed and relaxed to their urban purgatory.

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