Tuesday, June 7, 2016

The Top 12 Beautiful Towns and Villages in Slovakia

Slovakia is renowned for its mountain scenery, national parks and abundance of castles, yet there a number of attractive historic towns which deserve just as much attention from visitors. Banská Štiavnica, Bardejov and Levoča have all received UNESCO world heritage status for their unique and well-preserved buildings and town squares, while the mountain folk village of Vlkolínec has also been given UNESCO status. Most of these towns and villages are far away from the capital Bratislava and require multi-day excursions to visit them, but an overnight stay in any of these towns will greatly enhance the experience of a visit to this country. Even small villages such as Čičmany offer comfortable accommodation and restaurants for tourists. All of these places can be visited by public transport, with most requiring a combination of trains and buses to reach them. As this list focuses on small towns and villages it only includes towns with less than 20,000 population, so cities with historic old town centres such as Banská Bystrica and Trenčín aren't mentioned. The picture above shows the old town cobbled square in Bardejov. Have fun exploring!

1. Banská Štiavnica - A medieval mining town in a forested valley which has managed to retain almost all of its architectural beauty and unique character. Pastel-coloured buildings line the hillsides, with two castles in their midst and a bright red hilltop pilgrimage church within view. Getting there from Bratislava is easiest by bus, there are several direct buses per day taking 3 hours 25 minutes while some connections involve changing buses in Zvolen or Žiar nad Hronom. Trains take longer and require a change of trains in Hronská Dúbrava.

2. Levoča - An extremely atmospheric small town enclosed by a perfect set of medieval walls, gate towers and fortifications. Winding cobbled laneways surround a large central square with 17th-century facades, while a path leads to a nearby hilltop pilgrimage church. The world's largest wooden altar can be seen in the town's church of St. James. From Bratislava, take the train to Poprad and then change to a bus in the bus terminal which is right next to the train station. The total journey takes between 4 hours 35 minutes and 5 hours 30 minutes depending on the connection.

3. Bardejov - A perfectly preserved Saxon town centre, with a cathedral and town hall as the centrepieces on a cobbled square of burgher houses with sgraffito facades. The town's set of medieval walls, towers and fortifications is nearly complete, providing a stunning view from the nearby hills. Bardejov is at the opposite end of the country from Bratislava but certainly worth the trip, the far east offers a completely different atmosphere to experience. Getting there from Bratislava takes between 6 and 9 hours depending on the connection, taking the train to Poprad and then catching a bus to Bardejov is usually the fastest way.

4. Čičmany - A small mountain village of wooden cottages with a very unique feature - most of the dark log homes are covered from top to bottom in white painted folk designs based on the local patterns used on lacework and traditional costumes. Two of the cottages have been converted into a museum, and walking trails in the surrounding hills offer great views of the village. Getting there from Bratislava takes about 4 hours 30 minutes, take a train to Žilina and then catch a bus to the village.

5. Vlkolínec - A UNESCO heritage-listed mountain village of rustic wooden cottages that has remained untouched by modern development. One cottage functions as a museum, and displays of folk art and wood carving can usually be seen in the summer months. Spending a night in one of the traditional cottages here is a highly memorable experience. Getting there from Bratislava takes about 4 hours 15 minutes, first by train to Ružomberok and then a local bus to the village of Biely Potok, where a short trail heads up into the hills to reach Vlkolínec. It's also possible to walk to the village along a network of hiking trails from Ružomberok.

6. Kremnica - This small town lies on the slopes of a wooded valley, dominated by the fortified church and tower at its centre. The national mint is found on the leafy square that sits below the church, while the old stone walls and gate towers that encircle the town centre are an impressive sight when viewed from the nearby hills. The fastest way to travel there from Bratislava is by bus with a change of buses in Žiar nad Hronom, with the total journey taking around 3 hours and 15 minutes. Connections by train are slower, taking about 4 hours 30 minutes with a change of trains in Vrútky.

7. Špania Dolina - A traditional medieval mining village just north of Banská Bystrica. A long covered stairway leads up the hill to the large fortified church, while 17th century miners cottages have been well restored. The surrounding forested hills and mountains offer great opportunities for hiking and mountain biking. The fastest way to get there from Bratislava is by bus with a change of buses in Banská Bystrica, taking around 4 hours.

8. Kežmarok - A Saxon town in the Spiš region with an impressive castle and historic centre, including the most beautiful Evangelical wooden church in the country. The best way to get there from Bratislava is by train to Poprad and then either by train or bus depending on the connection, with the total journey time taking about 5 hours and 15 minutes.

9. Podbiel - A small village in Orava region that has a wonderful collection of traditional wooden folk cottages. Many of the cottages are available for visitors to rent, and an ethnography museum displays local folklore artifacts and costumes. The most convenient way to get there from Bratislava is by train with a change of trains in Kraľovany, the total journey takes about 4 hours and 50 minutes.

10. Spišská Sobota - Nowadays an outer suburb of Poprad, this historic town square is one of the finest in the Spiš region, with many well-restored 17th century merchant houses. Several of the houses offer tourist accommodation, while others have been turned into restaurants. Trains from Bratislava to Poprad take between 4 hours and 4 hours 40 minutes depending on the type of train. Spišská Sobota is in the north-eastern district of Poprad, a 15 to 20 minute walk from the main train station.

11. Skalica - A town near the Czech border with a historic old town and central square. Remnants of the old town walls and gate towers still remain, and the town's highlight is a perfectly preserved Romanesque rotunda from the 12th century. The art nouveau-style house of culture from 1905 is another unique part of the architectural ensemble. Skalica is the only town on this list that can reasonably be considered a day trip from Bratislava; trains take 1 hour and 50 minutes with a change of trains required in Kúty.

12. Stratená - A small village set in stunning mountain scenery at the edge of the Slovak Paradise national park. Trails into the park begin just steps from the village and the Dobšiná ice cave is nearby, so the village makes a good base to explore the southern part of the national park for a few days. The easiest way to get there from Bratislava is by train to Poprad and then by bus (around 5 hours 45 minutes), though there are also connections by train via Banská Bystrica.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

The Top 10 Day Trips from Vilnius, Lithuania

The city of Vilnius is the biggest draw in Lithuania for most foreign tourist visitors, and the many charms of its old town centre will keep travellers occupied for at least a few days. However, on a visit to Vilnius be sure to get beyond the capital to see what daily life in rural Lithuania is all about. All of these destinations (except Dieveniškės Appendix) can be reached in less than two hours of travel from Vilnius using public transport (trains and buses).

1. Trakai Castle - An easy day trip from the capital by bus or train, Trakai is a small town with an extremely picturesque Gothic castle on an island in the middle of a lake. Inside the castle you can see the Trakai Historical Museum with displays on the long history of the town and its two castles (the second castle is a ruin). Buses from Vilnius run at least every half an hour and the journey takes between 30 and 45 minutes depending on the bus route. Trains from Vilnius run about every two hours through the day, with the journey taking 35 minutes.

2. Kaunas - Lithuania's second city has many 16th-century buildings in the narrow laneways surrounding its spacious central square, while the numerous museums are also worth a peek. For those who like unusual attractions there's the quirky Devil museum, with thousands of different devil statues from around the world, and the Museum for the Blind, where visitors walk through in pitch darkness guiding their way by touch, sound and smell. Buses from Vilnius run very frequently, about every 15 minutes, and the journey to Kaunas takes approximately 1 hour and 30 minutes. Trains also run regularly from Vilnius taking about 1 hour and 15 minutes.

3. Grūto Parkas Soviet Sculpture Park - This outdoor museum near Druskininkai, sometimes informally called Stalin World, boasts a collection of Soviet-era statues and monuments of Lenin, Stalin and other Communist leaders which once stood in public squares throughout the country. Buses from Vilnius run approximately every hour through the day to Druskininkai, with the journey taking 2 hours. The park is actually in the village of Grūta, north-east of Druskininkai on the road to Vilnius, so ask the driver to let you out in Grūta, 1 hour and 55 minutes from Vilnius.

4. Aukštaitija National Park and Palūšė village - This national park in the north-east of the country has many small villages with well-preserved folk culture traditions. The oldest and most beautiful wooden church in Lithuania is in Palūšė, overlooking Lake Lušiai. Palūšė is also the location of the national park headquarters and information centre. Buses from Vilnius run every hour to Ignalina (1 hour and 50 minutes journey time), the main town in the region, which is 4 kilometres from Palūšė. A few buses per day connect from Ignalina to Palūšė, though it is also possible to walk there around the edge of Lake Gavys. Trains from Vilnius also run to Ignalina several times daily, taking approximately 1 hour 40 minutes.

5. Rumšiškės Outdoor Museum - This open-air ethnographic museum near Kaunas displays an extensive collection of historic cottages, farm buildings, churches and windmills gathered from across Lithuania. Buses from Vilnius travel to the village of Rumšiškės about once an hour through the day, with the journey taking 1 hour and 10 minutes.

6. Kernavė - This UNESCO-listed archeological site north-west of Vilnius includes historic castle mounds and the remains of a medieval town from the time when Kernavė was the capital of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The extensive historical museum displays many of the artifacts uncovered so far. Buses from Vilnius to the village of Kernavė take approximately 1 hour.

7. Paneriai Memorial - This site located in an outer suburb of Vilnius was the location of the Ponary massacre, where up to 100,000 people, mostly Jews, were killed by the Nazis in World War II. There are monuments to the Jewish and Polish victims, as well as a museum. City buses from central Vilnius run frequently to Paneriai, taking about 25 minutes.

8. Dzūkija National Park and Zervynos ethnographic village - This national park in the south of the country is a region of pine forests and marshes, with several historic villages which maintain traditional cultural practices. Zervynos is a protected ethnographic village which is essentially unchanged from its 18th-century appearance and is one of the best places in the country to experience traditional rural ways of life. Trains from Vilnius go directly to Zervynos village several times daily, taking 1 hour and 50 minutes. Buses and trains run to Marcinkonys, the main town in the national park, both taking about 2 hours.

9. Dieveniškės Appendix - This small region south of Vilnius is almost entirely surrounded by Belarus, a frontier which is fenced and carefully guarded as an external border of the European Union. Lithuanians like to jokingly describe why they think the region exists - while deciding where to place the borders between Soviet republics Stalin placed his pipe down on a map; none of his subordinates was brave enough to move it so they carefully drew an improbable border line that went safely around the pipe. For tourists the attraction lies in visiting a region which feels lost in time compared to most other regions in Lithuania, a place where traditional rural life and cultural practices still hold sway. Unfortunately there is no public transport directly to Dieveniškės, the closest place reachable by bus from Vilnius is Šalčininkai, 25 kilometres to the west (approximately 1 hour from Vilnius).

10. Geographic Centre of Europe monument - This large monument north of Vilnius isn't the only Centre of Europe monument (at least seven other European countries claim to have the geographic centre and five have built monuments) but it is one of the largest. Calculating the centre of Europe requires deciding where the external borders of Europe are first, and there is no agreement on exactly which outer islands should be included and just where the line separating Europe from Asia should be drawn, hence the opportunity for multiple countries to claim the title of being the centre. The site includes a "Centre of Europe" outdoor museum including an open-air sculpture park. The nearby village of Purnuškės has capitalized on its geographical significance with a number of local businesses using the "Centre of Europe" name, including a golf course. The monument is 20 kilometres north of Vilnius and the easiest way to get there is to take trolleybus #10 north to the stop called Zalgirio, where you can catch a bus directly to the park (look for a bus displaying "Skirgiškės" as its destination).

Monday, May 30, 2016

The Top 30 Beautiful Towns and Villages in the Czech Republic

For anyone planning to visit the Czech Republic, my first advice is always "see more than just Prague." The lands of Bohemia and Moravia are packed with picturesque and historic small towns and villages, many of which receive just a trickle of foreign visitors. While Český Krumlov, Karlovy Vary and Kutná Hora are now firmly on the beaten tourist path, many other towns of equal attractiveness with beautiful town squares, churches and castles sit waiting for intrepid tourists to come and discover them. Apart from a lack of awareness about these towns, the biggest challenge for travellers is often understanding how to use the network of trains and buses to reach places off the main transport corridors between cities. The Czech Republic has one of the world's most comprehensive systems of public transport, and even the most remote villages can be reached with a little research and planning in advance. This website provides a journey planner search engine which can tell you the best way to travel between two destinations by public transport (change into English in the lower right-hand corner of the page). For those eager to explore, there are many gems to be found and experienced, and these 30 destinations are merely a sampler to get a taste of what the country has to offer (the photo above shows the central square in Slavonice). This list only includes towns with less than 50,000 population, so although cities such as Olomouc, Hradec Králové, Pardubice and České Budějovice are really worth visiting, they aren't included here as the focus is on smaller towns and villages in the countryside. Hop on a train and go and see these places for yourself!

1. Český Krumlov - This small town in South Bohemia has been well and truly discovered by the tourist crowds, but don't let that put you off; an evening stroll through the river-encircled old town and castle area is simply stunning, an unmissable experience on a visit to the Czech Republic. The fastest way to get there from Prague is by bus with the company called Student Agency; the bus takes almost three hours and departs from the small bus terminal outside Anděl metro station. Book ahead in summer as the route is very popular. Travelling there by train takes longer (3 hours 30 minutes) and requires a change of trains in the city of České Budějovice.

2. Karlovy Vary - The biggest of the Bohemian spa towns, Karlovy Vary's pastel and cream-coloured buildings line the sides of a deep forested river valley with a series of mineral water springs dotted throughout. The rugged surrounding landscape adds greatly to the ambiance, and a walk along the trails on the hillsides above the town provides memorable views of the town centre. Buses from Prague's central bus terminal (Florenc) take 2 hours and 15 minutes, while direct trains take 3 hours and 15 minutes.

3. Telč - A perfect medieval square of arcaded buildings with brightly painted facades makes this one of the most appealing towns in the country. Its UNESCO heritage site status draws visitors, but thankfully Telč's location far from major cities and railway corridors has prevented it from becoming a mainstream tourism destination. The fastest way to get there from Prague is by bus from Florenc station with a change of buses in the city of Jihlava (almost 3 hours for the total journey).

4. Loket - This small hilltop town surrounding a castle on the summit seems almost too picturesque to be real, and gives Český Krumlov some stiff competition for the title of most beautiful town in Bohemia. The town's proximity to Karlovy Vary ensures a steady flow of tourists, but it still retains a quiet atmosphere for most of the year. The fastest way to get there is by bus from Prague's Florenc station, with a change of buses in Karlovy Vary (about 3 hours for the full journey).

5. Mariánské Lázně - A Bohemian spa town which draws visitors with its healing waters and grandiose 19th-century architecture. Once the playground of European royalty, today the town still retains an air of its former glamour. The most convenient way to travel there from Prague is by direct train, taking 3 hours.

6. Slavonice - This small town on the Austrian border boasts an exceptional collection of sgraffito-covered facades in its two main squares. Visitors to nearby Telč should make the effort to see Slavonice as well, as the architectural style is distinctly different and equally as visually impressive. Buses from Prague's Florenc station take a little over 3 hours to reach Slavonice.

7. Mikulov - This small town next to the Austrian border is spread out along a hillside with a large chateau placed at the top. Nestled among the vineyards of South Moravia, Mikulov is a fine place to experience the local wine industry. Trains from Prague take about 4 hours with a change of trains in Břeclav; since the town is closer to Vienna, Brno and Bratislava it is more easily accessed from those cities.

8. Třeboň - This small town in South Bohemia has luckily retained its medieval walls and fortifications, while the charming central square is among the most architecturally intact in the country. If the town had a river and hilly surrounding landscape like Český Krumlov it would be a major tourist draw, though it does attract many Czech and German visitors. Trains from Prague take 2 hours 50 minutes with a change of trains in the town of Veselí nad Lužnicí.

9. Tábor - This pretty town lies close enough to Prague to be within day trip range, yet it still draws far fewer tourists than its charming streets and squares deserve. Don't miss the Klokoty monastery just outside the town centre, and be sure to climb the tall church tower in the central square for sweeping views of the town and surrounding countryside. Direct trains from Prague take 1 hour 30 minutes.

10. Kutná Hora - A medieval silver mining town which had a population equal to London in the 14th century, Kutná Hora boasts several superb monuments in its old town centre. First among them is the gothic church of St. Barbara with its triple-tented roof and interior decorations related to miners and mining. The nearby suburb of Sedlec contains an ossuary which draws hordes of visitors who gawk at the bizarre sculptures and decorations made entirely from human bones. Direct trains from Prague take 50 minutes, some require a connection in the town of Kolín.

11. Štramberk - This is possibly my favourite small town in the Czech Republic, with an impressive collection of wooden cottages in the distinct Wallachian style spread across a hillside under the tall, round castle tower known as Trúba. Trains from Prague take around 3 hours 45 minutes with a change of trains required in the town of Studénka.

12. Nové Město nad Metují - This small town in East Bohemia features a perfectly-preserved town square and castle, while its hilltop position affords great views over the green countryside nearby. The castle gardens are good for a wander, and hiking trails lead outwards to villages where views of the town reveal just how significant its dominant hilltop position must have been defensively when foreign invaders rode into view. Buses from Prague's Florenc station take 2 hours 30 minutes.

13. Prachatice - This walled town in South Bohemia lies close to Český Krumlov, yet sees a fraction of the latter's tourist visitor numbers. Historic gate towers and several impressive sgraffito building facades are its main draw cards. Prachatice can be reached by bus from Prague's Anděl metro station in 2 hours and 45 minutes.

14. Litomyšl - A small town in East Bohemia with a beautiful old town and chateau, as well as the bizarrely-painted Portmoneum. The Czech composer Bedřich Smetana was born in the local brewery and a large statue of him now stands in the main square. The most efficient way to reach Litomyšl from Prague is to take the train to the town of Česká Třebová and then catch a connecting bus from in front of the train station (2 hours 20 minutes).

15. Litoměřice - This town in North Bohemia is easily visited together with the nearby former Nazi concentration camp in the fortress of Terezín. A beautiful central square and an abundance of cathedrals and churches reflects the town's former historical significance. The unusual watchtower on the roof of the town hall (shaped like a chalice) is particularly noteworthy. Buses from outside Prague's Holešovice train station take 1 hour to reach the town.

16. Znojmo - A picturesque South Moravian town perched on the edge of a deep river valley, with impressive Romanesque frescoes in its old town streets. Don't miss walking down to the river and up the opposite bank for views of the hilltop church and cottages lining the steep hillside. Buses from Prague's Florenc station take 3 hours and 10 minutes.

17. Jindřichův Hradec - This small town in South Bohemia is built around a massive castle complex with a series of courtyards. Don't overlook the backstreets of the old town as there are several beautiful building facades tucked away out of sight. Trains from Prague take 3 hours with a change of trains in the town of Veselí nad Lužnicí.

18. Kroměříž - A pretty town in South Moravia with a large chateau and extensive landscaped gardens (keep an eye out for the wandering peacocks). Few foreign tourists make it here which is part of the attraction. Trains from Prague take 3 hours and 20 minutes with a change of trains required in Hulín, and for some connections also in Olomouc.

19. Pustevny - A small settlement of colourfully decorated wooden folk cottages on a mountaintop, with excellent hiking or skiing options in the vicinity. In March 2014 the cottages were heavily damaged by fire and are being gradually rebuilt according to the original designs by early 20th-century Slovak architect Dušan Jurkovič. The village is hard to reach from Prague due to its remote mountain location, but a combination of trains and buses make access possible in about 5 hours. Trains from Prague require a transfer to a second train in Valašské Meziříčí before reaching Rožnov pod Radhoštěm where buses travel up the slopes to Pustevny at the summit.

20. Jičín - A welcoming East Bohemian town with an arcaded central square and a renaissance palace. Jičín is also the closest town to the spectacular hiking trails among the rocky outcrops of Prachovské Skály. Trains from Prague take 2 hours and 15 minutes with a change of trains required in the town of Nymburk.

21. Pelhřimov - This small medieval town east of Tábor has a well-preserved central square and a museum dedicated to Czech attempts to break Guinness Book world records. Be sure to climb the church tower in the central square for views of the gate towers and church steeples. Trains from Prague take 2 hours and 40 minutes with a change of trains required in Tábor.

22. Mělník - This town in North Bohemia is noted for its wine production (especially white wines) as well as its castle tower which is perched high on a hill above the point where the Vltava and Labe rivers meet. Trains from Prague take 50 minutes with a change of trains required in Všetaty.

23. Holašovice - This tiny village of baroque-style folk architecture in South Bohemia has gained UNESCO heritage status due to its well-preserved buildings. Holašovice is reachable from Prague in about 3 hours; take a train to České Budějovice and then a bus from the city's central bus terminal.

24. Rožmberk nad Vltavou - This peaceful village near Český Krumlov features a large castle on a narrow ledge of rock above the Vltava river. Trains from Prague take 3 hours and 40 minutes to reach the village, with a change of trains required in České Budějovice and Rybník. Note that the village train station is 1.5 kilometres south of the village and involves a 20 minute walk to get there.

25. Cheb - This is another much-overlooked town that receives far fewer tourists than it deserves. It lies on the German border in West Bohemia and features a beautiful old town square and side streets as well as an imposing castle complex. Direct trains from Prague take 3 hours and 15 minutes, though be sure to take the trains which travel via Plzeň as those that take the northern route through Karlovy Vary take considerably longer and offer less scenic views during the journey.

26. Domažlice - A quiet town in West Bohemia featuring a long and narrow central square with a unique round church tower. Trains from Prague take 2 hours and 30 minutes (the EuroCity trains heading towards Munich).

27. Náchod - A small East Bohemian town on the Polish border with a beautiful hilltop chateau. The central square below contains an unusual church with large wooden towers. Travelling to Náchod from Prague takes 2 hours and 30 minutes with a series of quick transfers required in Pardubice, Jaroměř and Starkoč.

28. Stražnice - A small town in South Moravia known for its folk culture and annual folk festival. Many buildings and houses are decorated with colourful folk art designs, and a large outdoor museum at the edge of town displays dozens of historic wooden cottages and barns from the region. Trains from Prague take 4 hours and 45 minutes with a change of trains in Břeclav and Hodonín. Given how far the town is from Prague it's much easier to visit from Brno, Vienna or Bratislava.

29. Kadaň - This historic walled town in North Bohemia features a central square full of 18th-century buildings and a strikingly unique town hall tower that suggests the influence of North African architectural styles. Trains from Prague take 2 hours and 40 minutes with a change of trains in the rail junction Kadaň-Prunéřov.

30. Žatec - A picturesque old town in North Bohemia with a museum dedicated to the local hops industry and its important role in Czech beer production. The central square and side streets of the historic centre have been carefully renovated over the past few years and now offer a pleasant place for a stroll and sitting in the outdoor cafes. Trains from Prague's Masaryk station take around 2 hours with a change of trains required in Lužná u Rakovníka.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Wooden Churches of the Carpathian Mountains # 40 - Nehrovets, Ukraine

Nehrovets is a small village in the Zakarpattya region of western Ukraine, close to the larger village of Kolochava and 40 kilometres north of the small city of Khust. The church stands on a low hill above the central part of the village, with tall trees making it hard to see from the road. Views of the peaks and ridges of the Carpathian mountains to the north make an impressive backdrop for the church and separate wooden bell tower.

The church is dedicated to Saint Michael the Archangel and was built during the eighteenth century. It is constructed primarily of spruce wood. The floor plan of the church features three rooms and there are three distinct roof lines above, making it an example of the Boyko architectural style. The height of the tower and the steeple above it dominate the structure, yet the overall design retains well-balanced proportions. An inscription indicates that in 1918 the church was moved to the present location and received a new roof and tower at that time.

The church interior contains a modern iconostasis and icons, though several historical icons from the 18th century have also been preserved. A large two-storey bell tower stands at the top of the steps leading up from the road. The bell tower has a shape which is typical for the 'Verkhovina' highlands of this region, though it is in a much better state of preservation than most others. A modern wooden church stands beside the historical one and serves as the main place of worship for the local villagers.

Nehrovets is difficult to reach by public transport, the best option is to walk the two kilometres along the road from the neighbouring village of Kolochava which has limited bus and marshrutka connections to Khust. In the morning marshrutkas also go from Nehrovets to the nearby town of Mizhhirya. The road through the village is paved but it is not in good condition. The keeper of the church keys lives across the road from the church, though I was unable to locate them during my visit.