The Záhorie region and its people come in for what can seem like harsh treatment from the rest of the country. The peculiar brand of Slovak spoken here and the area's position beyond the Malé Karpaty range, which forms the natural western barrier of the country, means some Slovaks will even tell you – normally in jest – that this isn't really Slovakia.
Záhoráks naturally dispute this, and would seem to have a point: towns like Skalica, for instance, have played an important role in Slovak history, not to mention its cuisine.
But this is largely beside the point for visitors: more important is that the area, especially its southern portion, is easily accessible from the capital.
On the way out of Bratislava to the west, is picturesque Devín, with its castle ruin at the confluence of the Danube and Morava Rivers, and Devínska Nová Ves. A stiff walk up the hill behind Devín is the Sandberg lookout, with views of both river valleys and across to Austria and the chateau at Schloss Hof.
Photos by James Thomson
The biggest town in southern Záhorie, and generally regarded as the area’s ‘capital’, is Malacky. It is not an obvious tourist destination, but has a few minor sights to attract passers-by.
Those interested in Slovak art should search out the Michal Tillner Museum, which is hidden away above a library on Záhorácka Street. Tillner was an important twentieth-century Slovak artist (he died in 1975), one of the earliest to use Cubism to portray Slovakia’s landscape and folk architecture, as well as a significant collector of national folk art and historical memorabilia. A selection of his artwork and his collection is on display in the museum.
Malacky also has a restored synagogue designed by the major Viennese architect Wilhelm Stiassny. Built in 1886, it is a fine example of the Moorish style for which he was famed, with domed towers, horseshoe windows and a red-and-yellow striped façade. It is now used as an art school and is particularly significant since much of Stiassny's other work, especially in Vienna, was destroyed during World War II. Quite how such a fine example came to be built in Malacky is unknown, though a prominent local Jewish family with strong business connections to Vienna may have played a part.
Further north is an intriguing vestige of another religious minority which made its home in Záhorie.
Part of the Haban compound in Veľké Leváre.
Photos by James Thomson
The Habans were followers of an ultra-nonconformist Christian doctrine which, among other things, held that believers should be baptised as youths, not as infants - followers are also known as Anabaptists. This may not sound like a big deal now but in the religious turmoil of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe it was regarded as heresy and frequently resulted in their severe persecution. Several groups left their original homes in Germany, some heading west to North America (where one group became known as the Amish); others went east, some ending up in the village of Veľké Leváre in Záhorie.
Local landowners were keen for them to settle here: they were well-behaved, reliable taxpayers and prodigiously hard workers. Their main occupation was pottery making. Haban designs are very similar to those still used in Modra pottery; indeed it is very likely that this is where the Modra potters got their techniques. The main difference is that Haban designs never use red, which is associated with blood.
The Habans were not allowed to settle in the centre of Veľké Leváre, instead forming a compound around a square on the edge of the village with a mill, workshops, church, meeting hall and houses (the word 'Haban' refers to their distinctive homes). Theirs was a culture apart: children were brought up communally; marriage to non-Habans was prohibited and, since the community was small, a board approved marriages to prevent in-breeding.
The Haban Museum, in a house in the square, provides some fascinating glimpses of their lifestyle: one description, dated 1660, describes (in Slovak; most of the exhibits are not, at present, labelled in English) how they worked six days a week, with just 15 minutes for lunch, and rarely spoke, especially when working.
The Haban museum in Veľké Leváre
Photos by James Thomson
But tolerance of their beliefs was to be short-lived. Empress Maria Theresa decided in 1761 that they must become Catholics, while allowing them the privilege of a separate church. From then on the noose tightened. By 1763 Habans were reported fleeing to the forests to avoid persecution. By the 1780s most had left or converted and the community disappeared during nineteenth century, though some local people still claim descent from them.
As well as the museum and the surrounding compound, the local pub, U Habánu, also recalls them - though whether the conservative Habans would have approved of this is another matter.
Veľké Leváre is also home to a huge Baroque church, built by the Archbishop of Vienna, Cardinal Sigismund Kollonich. It was consecrated in September 1733, on the anniversary of the Ottoman defeat at the Battle of Vienna fifty years earlier.
Other towns and villages in southern Záhorie
Typical narrow-fronted Slovak houses in Pernek
Photos by James Thomson
In neighbouring Malé Leváre, as well as Veľké Leváre, are the broad-fronted houses with arched, half-column doorways typical of Záhorie. It is interesting to compare these with the classic style of Slovak village house visible in nearby Pernek, Jablonové and Záhorská Bystrica (which all lie at the foot of the Little Carpathian hills), as well as elsewhere in Slovakia. These, by contrast, have just one or two windows facing the street; access to the house, which stretches back to cover a long, narrow plot of land, is normally via a yard shared between two or three houses.
On the way back to Bratislava, Stupava is a formerly German-speaking town with a pleasantly renovated square with a Baroque church, coffee shops and another synagogue, recently saved from collapse by a private benefactor and now undergoing restoration.
The church complex and Calvary at nearby Marianka is the oldest pilgrimage site in Slovakia. In a wooded valley, it's a pleasant, calm place. Nearby is a pension-restaurant, Pútnický Mlyn (The Pilgrim's Mill), with a nice terrace and good food.
The last hillside village before the city, Záhorská Bystrica, is Bratislava's Beverley Hills, from where the predictably gaudy mansions of the Slovak nouveau riche overlook southern Záhorie, the Morava valley - and the large Volkswagen car factory near Devínska Nová Ves.
On the border with Austria and the
Czech Republic. It includes Senica, Malacky and Skalica districts as well as the Bratislava urban area of Záhorská Bystrica.
Nearest urban centre:Pezinok (29km)
(Tourist information office)
Malacky Tel: +421 (0)34 772-2055 Open: Mon-Fri 09:00-16:00
Sat 10:00-14:00 Sun closed
Múzeum Michala Tillnera v Malackách
(Michal Tillner Museum in Malacky)
Záhorácka ulica 1919 (renovated building of former water mill)
Malacky Tel: +421 (0)34 772-2110 Open: Tue-Fri 9:00-12:00, 13:00-17:00
Ticket price: €1
Nearest urban centre:Malacky (8 km)
Habánske múzeum (Habánsky dvor)
Veľké Leváre Tel:+421 (0)34 779-4107 Open:Sun 14:00-16:00 bookings necessary
Nearest urban centre:Bratislava (15km)
Marianka Kalvária (Marianka Calvary)
Oldest pilgramage site in Slovakia, with early 20th-century Calvary.
For buses please see www.ba.imhd.sk