One of the most distinctive features of Slovakia's landscape, at least to Bratislava residents, is the Malé Karpaty, or Little Carpathians. This range of hills is not particularly high (Záruby, its highest peak, is 767 metres above sea level) but it is visible across the Danubian plain from many kilometres away and when its familiar low ridge looms into view - from trains heading west - it's a sign that home is not far away. When the TV transmitter at Kamzík, above the city, is visible its time to reach for your bag...
Aside from the fine forest walks in the hills close to the capital, which can be reached simply by boarding a trolley-bus in the city centre, the whole of the range, and the towns and villages along its eastern flanks, make for a great day, or days, out.
The south-eastern flanks of these hills have been a wine-growing area for hundreds of years: Bratislava itself was originally a wine town, and vineyards can still be found within a short walk of the main railway station, though they are rapidly disappearing as a rash of luxury housing sprouts on the slopes above the city. Smaller wine-making centres, like Rača, have been absorbed into the city's northern suburbs but they retain their own character and vineyards can still be found among the houses.
Further out, towns such as Svätý Jur, Pezinok and Modra nestle at the bottom of the wooded hills, each nurturing their own unique food, drink and folk culture. They are linked by a local tourism initiative, the Small Carpathians Wine Route.
St George’s Church in Svätý Jur.
Photos by James Thomson
Many of the towns of this region have - or at least had - their own ethnic identities. Croatian is still spoken in Devínska Nová Ves, on the other side of the Little Carpathians; Hungarian is the most commonly-heard tongue in the Danube towns south of Bratislava; and Svätý Jur was, until 1945, a predominantly German-speaking town. You are unlikely to hear any German spoken here now, but the legacy of its residents can still be observed.
Svätý Jur's main square - actually a wide boulevard - has been attractively renovated in recent years. It leads from the main road up towards the hills; on the right, as the road starts to rise steeply, is St George's, one of the most valuable Gothic churches in western Slovakia.
Photos by James Thomson
Dating in part from as early as the thirteenth century, the church contains an intricately carved sandstone altar depicting St George slaying the dragon, which was created in 1517 by the same master responsible for St Anne's in Vienna.
The first mention of wine-making here dates from 1270. But neighbouring Pezinok is now a much larger viticulture centre.
The National Wine Salon in Pezinok.
Photos by James Thomson
Several visitor attractions in this small, leafy town play to this strength; in addition there are numerous bars and restaurants serving the local vintages.
The Little Carpathians Museum (Malokarpatské Múzeum), which is in a typical wine merchant's house in the centre of the town, was undergoing a major renovation in 2008 and promises to be one of the best small museums in Slovakia.
It has the biggest collection of wine presses in central Europe, some of them gigantic wooden affairs dating from the early seventeenth century; the atmospheric old cellars of the building are partly given over to an exhibition of them.
But Martin Hrubala, the deputy director of the museum, is keen to make the museum not just about the old but also the new: the entrance fee includes a wine-tasting, accompanied by a sommelier. And the museum promises interactivity at a level unusual for Slovak museums. Visitors, for instance, as well as tasting wine will also get the opportunity to make their own.
Pezinok seems to have been investing heavily in public facilities lately: the city museum, in a building opposite the Little Carpathians Museum, opened in 2003. It features a range of attractively presented local archaeological finds and a selection of stonework salvaged from nearby churches; labelling, however, is in Slovak only.
And at the northern end of the city centre, next to a park which once formed its landscaped grounds, is Pezinok Castle. Originally a moated fortress which was later turned into a chateau for the aristocratic Pálffy family, the cellars of the castle are now home to the National Wine Salon.
This was established in 2006, with EU assistance, to support and promote all six of Slovakia's wine-making regions. The cellars have long been used for wine storage: in the Pálffys' time they could hold more than a million litres, and still contain 46 (empty) wooden barrels, each with a capacity of over 2,000 litres. The largest are used as small rooms to serve wine and food to visitors.
A wooden wine press in Pezinok’s Little Carpathians Museum.
Photos by James Thomson
The salon stocks around 100 of what are reckoned by experts to be the best of each year's Slovak labels (the selection is renewed each September). Visitors can choose to sample three whites and three reds or, for a higher fee, anything from the entire stock. For wine buffs, or anyone wanting to get a taste for all Slovakia's viticultural variety in historic surroundings, the salon is definitely worth a taste.
If instead you would prefer to try the wine at source, there are a number of vineyards open to the public. One of them, the family-owned Karpatská Perla label, erected a swish new winery and visitor centre in 2008 just outside the town of Šenkvice. The winemakers are often on hand to talk about their creations.
Alternatively, there are two 'Days of Open Cellars', one in May and the other in November, during which almost all the Little Carpathian winemakers allow visitors to turn up and sample their wines. Tickets for these days are very popular, so book ahead.
Modra’s Upper Gate, which houses a display of historical ceramics.
Photos by James Thomson
Modra, another wine-making town, is perhaps best-known for its distinctive yellow-and-blue pottery, known as Modra majolika. Despite being an old local tradition - the designs borrow heavily from those of the Habans (see 'A little bit different', in this section) – modern-day production takes place in a utilitarian, socialist-era factory on the edge of town. But the skills have been preserved: visitors can see each item being hand-thrown and painted.
The centre of Modra is slightly marred by its constant traffic, roaring past a statue of Ľudovít Štúr, perhaps the most influential Slovak of the nineteenth century (see attached article). Modra was where Štúr spent his last years, and his house is now a museum devoted to his life. The museum is also the place to ask about access to the Upper Gate (the only one of Modra's mediaeval defences still standing), which now houses an exhibition of local ceramics and folk art.
Just north of the town, in the hills near the small village of Píla, is a well-preserved sixteenth-century castle, Červený Kameň, once owned by the ubiquitous Pálffy family and now housing an exhibition of antique furniture.
Finally, if you have so far resisted the temptation to gorge yourself during your tour of the region, then now is the moment to let rip. The small village of Slovenský Grob, south of Pezinok, is renowned for just one thing: the goose feast.
Traditionally served in late summer and autumn, but now available year-round, this enormous meal's name is self-explanatory. You'll need to warn one of the restaurants - the main street is lined with them - that you're coming as it takes several hours to prepare. Some of the eateries, in keeping with the regional tradition, have extensive wine cellars.
Events in the Malé Karpaty
February: Etnofestival (Ethnofestival)
Festival focused on ethno culture, discussions with travellers, various concerts (Pezinok)
February: Fašiangy v Modre
(Carneval in Modra)
Carneval of folk traditions and customs, typical carneval specialties
March: Voľba kráľovnej vína
(Wine Queen Contest)
Wine queen then represents Little Carpathian region on various regional contests connected with wine degustation (Pezinok)
April: Vínne trhy (Wine Market)
International contest and wine degustation. (Pezinok)
June: Keramické trhy (Pottery Market)
Presentation of unique pottery styles from different regions around Slovakia (Pezinok)
August: Pezinský Permoník
(Pezinok Mine Dwarf)
Little Carpathian exhibition of minerals, fossils and precious stones
September: Malokarpatský strapec
(Little Carpathian Tassel)
International competition in show jumping (Pezinok)
September: Malokarpatské vinobranie
(Little Carpathian grape harvest in Modra)
October: Pezinský strapec
Dance Competition with international attendance
November: Deň otvorených pivníc
(Open cellars day)
Wine degustation in cellars in Malé Karpaty
November: Tekvicová slávnosť
(Pumpkin celebrations in Modra)
December: Vianočné trhy (Christmas market)
Typical Christmas market in Pezinok and Modra with wide variety of products such as wooden toys, gingerbread, hot toddy, embroideries
Tel: +421 (0)33 640-5174
Mob: +421 (0)918 664-992
Open Tue-Sun 11:00-18:00
For wine degustation bookings necessary
Múzeum Ľudovíta Štúra
(Museum of Ludovit Stur)
Štúrova ul. 84
Tel: +421 (0)33 647- 2765
Open Tue-Fri 08:00-16:00
Apr-Oct open also on Sat 09:00-15:00
Castles, galleries and museums in the Malé Karpaty
Hrad Pajštún (Pajštún Castle)
Ruins of castle built in Gothic style in 13th century located near Borinka village
Population in Borinka: 557
Nearest urban centre: Pezinok (23km)
Hrad Červený Kameň
(Červený kameň Castle)
Tel: +421 (0)33 690-5805
www.hradcervenykamen.sk Open:May-Sep: daily 09:00-17:00;
Oct-Apr: Tue-Sun 9:30-15:30;
English guided tour possible:
Jul-Sep: daily 11:30, 15:30
May-Jun: Sat-Sun 11:30, 15:30
From Častá, you can either walk or drive right up to the castle,
where there is a large guarded car-park. Nearest urban centre: Pezinok (17 km)