Zakopane Stories and Tips

Small towns awaiting discovery

The sun sets on Bardejov Photo, Zakopane, Poland

Right at the foot of the High Tatras and only seventy-five miles northwest of East Slovakia’s capital Kosice, Poprad is a metropolitan area of considerable size with an excellent location, set amidst a number of graceful mountain towns that may be small on geographical boundaries but are great on unusual attractions and outlandish charm. Most of these towns are within easy reach of Poprad, the latter being an excellent transport hub characterized by exceptional bus transport that is both frequent and cheap. A good number of surrounding towns are perfect for day trips but others require more than a short-lived or hasty tour.

Day trips are usually earmarked for locations within a ninety-minute transport distance or where the majority of attractions are confined to a central zone of activity. On the other hand, places that require a lengthy transport link or where the sightseeing attractions are scattered across an extensive area are best set aside for overnight stays. Staying overnight has several obvious advantages, the top being the possibility to hunt around at leisure in an attempt to discover for oneself what tourist brochures and travel guides miss out either deliberately or through lack of first-hand information.

Seventy miles more or less east of Poprad is the well-preserved medieval town of Bardejov. Reachable by bus from Poprad with ease in somewhat more than two hours, Bardejov is a graceful place that is best enjoyed through leisurely walking, possibly without map in hand. Since walking at leisure or lingering around uses up time, it is advisable to stay more than one night, possibly two or three. This gives one the additional benefit of including a half-day side trip to the neighbouring admirable spa town of Bardejovske Kupele.

The bus from Poprad to Bardejov follows one of two alternative routes. Passengers wishing to break their journey somewhere along the route to visit an intermediate town with the intention to proceed to Bardejov later should study carefully the details of the timetable posted conveniently at each bus bay in Poprad bus station. Passengers intending to reach Bardejov directly without any intermediate stops can take any Bardejov-bound bus, no matter which route it follows.

One route runs east and cuts across two small wonderful settlements that are both worth a visit. Levoca, fifteen miles east of Poprad is renowned for the intact medieval walls that surround its old quarter. Enclosed within the walls are outstanding buildings, the Gothic Town Hall and the Church of St James standing side by side on the centre of the medieval square being possibly the most remarkable. Spisske Podhradie, ten miles further east does not incorporate a medieval centre and is often left out of tourist brochures but within walking distance of the town’s peripheral zone are two old-world attractions that stand out for their uniqueness and architectural beauty. One is Slovakia’s largest and mightiest castle, a spectacular sight particularly when one considers the ridgy outcrop on which it stands. Although most of the castle is in ruins, what remains is enough to justify a visit. A stone’s throw from the castle are the ridgy valleys of the Drevenik landscape, a fertile area of caves, crags and canyons. The other, known as Spisska Kapitula is a tiny ecclesiastical hamlet that boasts a marvellous Cathedral, two Romanesque towers and a number of Gothic structures, unspoilt and untouched by time.

The first route resumes east towards the residential district of Presov, a town of considerable size only twenty miles north of Kosice. Like Poprad, Presov boasts an excellent bus station that is characterized by first-rate service to all neighbouring towns and villages, including a very frequent Presov-Bardejov connection. At Presov, the bus takes a sharp turn north plying along a winding road that cuts across the picturesque Spissko-Sarisske foothills and leads towards Plavec, a nondescript town located in close proximity to the Slovakian - Polish border. Plavec is uninspiring and featureless but it lies on the railway line that conveniently connects Slovakia with Poland and consequently, it is useful for those who want to cross the threshold into Poland at this point. The Plavec-Muszyna train connection runs at least five times daily. At Plavec, the bus takes a sharp turn east and runs for most of the way close to the Topla tributary before it reaches Bardejov.

The alternative route from Poprad to Bardejov runs north passing through the picturesque mountain towns of Kezmarok, Spisska Bela, Podolinec and Stara Lubovna. Scenic enough to be worth passing through even for those who do not intend to stop at an intermediate town along the way, it embraces mountain views lush with vegetation at eyelevel but bare and rocky as they soar further up. If you have time to stop at one intermediate town, this should unequivocally be Kezmarok. Sitting comfortably at the foot of the High Tatras, this pretty town boasts among several attractions a unique wooden church crammed with intricately carved decorations and wood paintings. Kezmarok Castle is an additional spectacular sight; the permanent exhibition inside is even better affording through numerous labelled exhibits an exceptional insight into the archaeology and history of the region.

If time is on hand, make an additional brief stop at Stara Lubovna. The attractive castle complex set within a lovely grassy estate on the outskirts of the town justifies your stopover. Stara Lubovna is only a short ride away from Plavec from where the bus proceeds eastwards to Bardejov.

The combined bus and train station at Bardejov is set within a green area enclosed by the Sibska Voda Canal, the Topla River and Ul Slovenska, the peripheral highway that leads in and out of the city. Located entirely west of the bus and train station, (that is, one has to cross Ul Slovenska to reach the centre and the spot where the action is) Bardejov is divided neatly into two by Dihy Rad, the city’s main thoroughfare. North of Dihy Rad is Bardejov’s commercial zone, an area crammed with shops, restaurants and financial institutions. Ul Kellerova, one of Dihy Rad’s northbound side streets is a pretty shortcut to the river, an ideal walkway lined on both sides with graceful villas and rustic mansions. South of Dihy Rad set on a raised zone of land lies Bardejov’s medieval town, a small remarkable place considered by many as a gem in Slovakia’s crown.

Surrounded with thick medieval walls, long stretches of which are still intact, the Old Town is indisputably the biggest tourist attraction. The highlight and the place where the majority of historical attractions are located is the old market square, an extensive piazza surrounded with forty-six distinctive and colourful facades that hide behind their elegant stonework the dwellings of the former affluent merchants who resided here five centuries ago when the city was experiencing a golden age of prosperity. Behind the monumental statue of St Florian on the north edge of the square stands Bardejov’s answer to Kosice’s magnificent Cathedral. Although Bardejov’s main place of worship has never received the status of a cathedral, it is nonetheless more impressive, embracing within its walls several original Gothic paintings and sculptures. Eleven chapels enhanced with more magnificent altarpieces and gilded statuary contain enough artworks to fill a religious art museum of considerable size.

Standing alone in the centre of the square is the Old Town Hall, an architectural wonder of Gothic and Renaissance features. Its interior houses a modest Museum of History that contains more religious art and church-related artefacts. If your time in the city is limited, you can skip this museum and concentrate on the excellent Museum of Icons located on the southern edge of the square. This is perhaps Bardejov’s most striking and most interesting display.

Churches and museums apart, Bardejov is not just a world heritage site of old-world attractions and ecclesiastical artworks. To soak in the true fairy-tale atmosphere of cobbled streets and isolated passageways, to feel the magic that enshrouds the medieval quarter, to experience the enchantment that the city transmits through its unpretentious ambience, one has to explore in solitude Bardejov’s back streets and its irregular layout of unexpected corners and quaint hideaways. As sunset approaches, the area in the neighbourhood of Ul Stocklova, Ul Postova and Ul Veterna turns into a sanctuary of dimly-lit houses and candle-burning restaurants, a cloistered spot where the echo of footsteps adds to the eerie ambience.

Before you pack your bags to leave, find time to walk along the picturesque embankment of the Topla River. Secluded, secretive and quiet beyond the least disturbance, it is a grassy place where one can rewind and revitalize before resuming one’s trip. The most scenic section lies west of Ul Kellerova. The three-star red-coated hotel you meet right in front of the river is Hotel Bardejov, an immaculate retreat that is clean, cheap and utterly romantic.

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