These articles were published in the Spectacular Slovakia travel guide, published annually by The Slovak Spectator since 1996. The latest editions can be obtained from our online shop.



A ride along the Morava: Bratislava to Břeclav

By James Thomson

    Praying for a tailwind: cycling on the Austrian side of the Morava valley.
 Praying for a tailwind: cycling on the Austrian side of the Morava valley.
 Photos by James Thomson

Riverside cycling trails are a favourite (and easy) way of reaching or leaving the capital by bike. As well as the most well-known, along the Danube, another departs Bratislava along the Morava River from the nearby town of Devín.

Devín is where the Morava, which flows south from the Czech Republic, meets the Danube. Unsurprisingly, given such a strategic location, it is also the site of a picturesque castle. Once a Roman fort and part of the empire's line of defences along the Danube, some archaeologists claim to have found evidence of a three-apse church dating from the period of the Great Moravian Empire, a Dark Ages-forerunner of Slovakia. What is rather more certain is that it became an important castle under Hungarian rule, ending up in the hands of the ubiquitous Pálffy family.

The castle is now a ruin, though large chunks of its upper, middle and lower sections remain and are open to visitors.

The cycle path starts from beneath the castle, next to a large concrete monument, pock-marked by bullets holes, to the dozens killed by communist-era border guards as they tried to flee across the river to Austria during the Cold War. Access to the whole area was heavily restricted during communism: as if to remind you, occasional red-and-white signs still warn that you are near a state border, despite the fact that even the official border crossings are now unmanned.

    Part of the castle ruins at Devín.
 Part of the castle ruins at Devín.
 Photos by James Thomson

Another reminder of the Cold War period is a remnant of the Iron Curtain, which appears alongside the path a few kilometres north, near the town of Devínska Nová Ves. Behind the barbed wire is a concrete pill-box, though this of an earlier vintage, built by the inter-war Czechoslovak state as part of its national defensive network. The defences were never used, owing mainly to British and French capitulation to Hitler's demands at Munich in October 1938, and the disintegration of the First Czechoslovak Republic that ensued.

Shortly afterwards, acknowledging the potential strength of the defences, the Third Reich (of which Austria was then a part) annexed this section of the east bank of the Morava, along with the nearby north bank of the Danube towards Bratislava, and the whole of present-day Slovak territory south of the Danube. The areas remained technically German territory until early 1945.

    Old gun emplacements and barbed wire mark the border near Devínska Nová Ves.
 Old gun emplacements and barbed wire mark the border near Devínska Nová Ves.
 Photos by James Thomson

Devínska Nová Ves is notable mainly for its large Volkswagen factory and for being the last Slovak stop on the main train line to Vienna. However, it does have some hidden gems worth exploring. Among other things, it is home to the largest Croatian community in Slovakia, and has a museum to prove it.

The Croatians moved here in the sixteenth century in the wake of the Ottoman conquest of the other parts of what was then Hungary (some also settled in Burgenland, in eastern Austria). They came from across Croatia, but mostly from Slavonia.

Croatian is still spoken here, as well as in Čunovo and Jarovce, villages on the south bank of the Danube. The wider presence of Croatian settlers is recalled by local place names such as Chorvátsky Grob, north-east of Bratislava (Chorvátsko is the Slovak name for Croatia).

    Part of the verdant Morava valley in Slovakia.
 Part of the verdant Morava valley in Slovakia.
 Photos by James Thomson

The museum displays a variety of Croatian folk costumes, books, and handicrafts which are labelled in English. Among them are nineteenth-century prayer books which were published in the Croatian language, read in Slovakia, but which used Hungarian orthography – suggesting the curious blend of languages and cultures which existed in this part of the Hungarian kingdom.

The helpful museum guides, who also speak English, point out that this has always been a border town and that, as in Bratislava, people once routinely spoke German and Hungarian as well as their mother tongue, be it Croatian or Slovak. And this didn't just go for the commoners: when Austrian Empress Maria Theresa crossed the wooden bridge which used to span the Morava here, imperial constitutional niceties required that she stop being an empress mid-stream, in order to become queen of Hungary (though no-one can say if she actually swapped crowns en route).

A room adjoining the museum features a small but interesting exhibition of local archaeological finds, labelled in English, including one comically priapic Roman-era figurine.

    
 
 Photos by James Thomson

North of Devínska Nová Ves the next place of any note is Vysoká pri Morave, where there seems to be some effort to cater for cyclists and their needs (i.e. some bars and lodging). Further on, it's more rudimentary, though the locals seem friendly and the pubs in the frequent but nondescript villages through which you pass can normally rustle up a sandwich or 'cigánska' (basically, some grilled meat and mustard in a bread roll), if pushed.

The path itself is fairly well marked, though it's definitely worth having a map as it's easy to miss the signs in places. Tree cover and open sections alternate, providing some cover from the wind and sun.

The route runs only sporadically next to the Morava River itself. On the other, Austrian, side, fishing huts can be seen lining the riverbank, with huge nets occasionally visible hanging above the stream. The Morava is well-known for carp and catfish, the latter sometimes weighing in at an astonishing 120 kilograms.

    The hunting lodge at Pohansko, in the Czech Republic.
 The hunting lodge at Pohansko, in the Czech Republic.
 Photos by James Thomson

Information boards, partly in English, make a good excuse to stop along the way, and provide some interesting facts about the region.

There is a parallel path on the Austrian side of the river, though only two places to cross: a ferry at Záhorská Ves and a small bridge at Moravský Svätý Ján. The latter leads to the small Austrian town of Hohenau an der March, about 80km from Bratislava.

Based on the evidence of one Saturday night spent in Hohenau, and despite some stiff competition for the title, this might be the dullest town in Austria. It has some pension accommodation, a couple of pizza joints and a rather gloomy pub.

From Hohenau, it's a short, relatively flat ride on to the Czech Republic. Its generally excellent network of cycle routes starts right from the border.

    The Danube, just below its confluence with the Morava at Devín.
 The Danube, just below its confluence with the Morava at Devín.
 James Thomson

This part of the Czech Republic is stuffed full of stately homes. Perhaps the most well-known is Lednice, once an estate of the royal family of Liechtenstein (they have tried to reclaim it, so far without success). Its gardens alone are worth a visit.

Just south of Břeclav, the nearest town, is an old hunting lodge, Pohansko. Here at weekends in summer is a café and grill where cyclists congregate to eat and drink in aristocratic splendour, surrounded by the forest.

When it comes to getting back to Bratislava, international trains all stop at Břeclav; alternatively (a cheaper option), cycle back to Slovakia where regular trains leave for the capital from Kúty.

Or, cheapest of all, keep pedalling...


These articles and related information were published in Spectacular Slovakia 2009, which you can obtain from our online shop.

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