At Poprad I got off the mainline train and whilst the other travellers hurried off on their way home or transferred to the mountain railway to the High Tatras, I waited in the gathering gloom of a temperamental spring day and the rapidly dispersing crowds for the slow train to Hrabušice. An hour or so later when me and the only other disembarking passengers, a group of Roma schoolchildren, alighted at the small concrete house framed by mountains that constituted Hrabušice station, the following things occurred to me: it was almost dark, I was in the Slovak Paradise, one of Slovakia’s remoter national parks, I had no knowledge of where I was going other than the name of the guesthouse scribbled on a page of my travel diary, no map, no obvious signposts (or indeed anything) in the vicinity and precious little grasp of Slovak to ask anyone to help me. It was one of those slightly concerning, but also thrilling, moments which are all too rare in Europe these days: being totally off the grid of technology. One of those you, the luggage and the land moments.
I followed the lane into the Hrabušice village: a supply centre and accommodation base for tourists on the northern edge of the Slovak Paradise, or Slovenský Raj as it’s known in Slovak. Beyond that, the only direction I could get (that I understood) to where I was staying was a jab of a finger at the hills looming beyond. I had just walked out of Hrabušice far enough into the countryside to wonder whether in fact I had come the correct way when Majo, the owner of Relax Farma Marianka, came pedalling on his bicycle to find me.
So I was saved from the encroaching night – and in a memorable way. The “relax farm”, run by amenable Majo and his wife, has an undeniably peaceful feel. That is largely due to the owners: easily the two most contented people I have ever met in Slovakia, who have embraced rural living with a passion (they enthuse over local hiking and climbing routes – and boy, there are plenty in Slovenský Raj, they concoct delicious healthy vegetarian meals with produce from their own garden, Majo’s wife Janka unwinds by making ceramics and might even give you one of her works to take away if you are lucky).
There are eight large, farmhouse pinewood-style rooms here (four with private bathrooms) – nothing complicated, but all recently refurbished (you can practically still smell the polish). Four of these have balconies looking out on the lonely foothills of Slovenský Raj, too.
Public areas sport more of the same smart, modern-yet-traditional pine finish, decorated with intriguing contemporary art. Downstairs, the true “relaxing” commences: a massage room, ceramics lessons and a function room that gets used for everything from traditional dancing (Slovak style of course) to Reiki. Outside, the long, thin garden yields a sun terrace, hammocks (not so common in this part of Europe) and a hot tub. Beyond, it fades into fields that rise up into the hills.
And the hills of course are the main draw. They are, after all, why you are here. Relax Farm Marianka is so called for a reason: it is where you come to crash after a hard days’ hiking.
And anyone who has experienced that plethora of samey mountain guesthouses in the High Tatras resorts or – worse – the popular tourist areas of the Alps will know exactly what we mean when we say that Relax Farm Marianka is a clean break with those often clinical, cold, soulless breed of typical hiker’s digs: yes, the kind whose stunning location is detracted from by the bored gaze of the tourist-inundated proprietor, where the rooms can only be described as roofs over your head (and nothing more complimentary), where the entire purpose of the joint seems to be to get you in, bedded, fed and out as quickly and blandly as possible.
Yes, Relax Farm Marianka is different, alright. Majo and Janka’s philosophy is simple: they live on the edge of Slovenský Raj and love it; they want you to love it too. They could get away with a lot less. The hiking trail that leads from the corner of their road up to Pondlesok (a hamlet with the final few accommodation options before the Slovak Paradise thrusts upwards in a classic green expanse of hiking trails, including the famous ladder-and-chain ascents through the gorges that the park is famous for, i.e. Suchá Bela, just 2km away) soon reveals quite a few of the kind of guesthouses that DO get away with a lot less. But Majo and Janka try hard – and succeed. And their place has soul.
Make a list of all the things you might want after being out on the hills all day. Just do it. Hot, home cooked, healthy meal? Tick. Informative locals who will welcome you back and advise you on your next days’ trekking? Tick. Soak in the hot tub? Tick. Massage? Tick. Clean, comfortable, quiet room in which to collapse at the end of all of this? Once again, tick.
GETTING THERE: By public transport? Train to Poprad, then train to Hrabušice, then walk!
PRICES: 13 to 14 Euros per person per night; breakfast 4 Euros extra (2016 prices)