On the trail ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Low Tatras Mountains: the Hrebenovka Ridge Hike, Stage One (Chata Pod Čertovicou to Chata M.R. Štefanika)

To walk along a mountain ridge, for days, scarcely bumping into a single building in the process, would be a rarity anywhere in the world. To do so in Europe is a privilege indeed. Many chains of mountains boast hikes that clamber up to their highest echelons, but ridge hikes that allow you to stay at such continually high elevations for so long, and with views dropping away to both sides of the mountain range, are a special breed. Therein lies the appeal of the Hrebenovka, the signature hike of the little-known Low Tatras. The trail is, to the mountains it crests, what the Haute Route is to the Alps.

Surprise, Surprise…

Having hiked the official long-distance trail through the High Tatras, the Tatranská Magistrála, I believed myself well prepared for whatever the Hrebenovka could throw at me. But I was in for a few surprises. Whilst not encompassing mountains of quite such stature as those in the High Tatras, the Hrebenovka runs right along the top of those it does encompass and is therefore, overall, a higher and wilder hike, with greater distances between its pit stops of so-called ‘civilisation’ (by which, to be clear, we mean the manmade structures, ie the mountain huts or cable car terminals en route). It’s a less-traipsed trail, too (certainly by foreigners) and whilst the accommodation provision for hikers is still incredible given the remoteness of the surroundings, it is nevertheless a fair bit more basic than on the Tatranská Magistrála.

RELATED POST: See why our version of the Hrebenovka starts at Chata Pod Čertovicou

The Start…

The little hamlet of Čertovica lies on the steeply twisting route 72 about halfway between Podbrezova, just west of Brezno (southern gateway to the Low Tatras), and Liptovský Hrádok, just south of Liptovsky Mikulaš (one of the northern gateways to the Low Tatras). There is not much there apart from the Motorest, a snack bar-cum-hostelry with cracking views where the bus drops you, and a few other accommodation options. Most places to stay are on or around the main road, and whilst no option here is terrible, we recommend the scenic and peaceful Chata pod Čertovicou if you want to stay overnight here before starting the hike. The chata is a well signposted 0.9km down into the woods from the Motorest.

It is, admittedly, a bit of a climb to get back to Čertovica and route 72, but worth it. As you come back onto the main road (route 72) a red-and-white pole on the left-hand side of the wide entrance indicates a hidden little path climbing up to Hotel Totem (dramatic name, less stunning accommodation) through the undergrowth. When you get to the Hotel Totem grounds just a little above the road, the main moment of confusion on the entire stage occurs. What is in actual fact a ski run during the winter season seems to be the red Hrebenovka trail soaring away up the hill. The official path sticks at road level a-while before curling back up through the band of forest to the right of here. Do not despair, however, because as long as the skiers are away, it’s possible to ascend on this steep path and you’ll join the Hrebenovka path after an uphill slog for about 30 minutes. This path curves up to the edge of the forest, then bears left (northwest) into it at about 45 minutes from Hotel Totem

Cute Kosodrevina…

What follows, for the following 45 minutes up to the first summit of the day, Rovienky, is a gorgeous section of this first stage of the hike. There is in Slovakia a phenomenon known as kosodrevina – when the low-level mountain forests slowly give way to open mountain land – best represented by the bands of fuzzy dwarf firs interspersed with patches of moorland. The Low Tatras has probably the best examples of kosodrevina in the country. (the Kosodrevina is also a hotel and the midway cable car station in our article Up Chopok the Back Way but, generally, it is a topographical zone). The ascent from Čertovica to Rovienky at 1604m is only 300 metres or so, but it is as punishingly steep over a fairly short distance as it is spectacular, and is a tough initiation to the Hrebenovka. After you reach the top of Rovienky (where there is a nice clearing within the dwarf pines for a bite to eat/ first swig of the slivovica) you will feel the rest of the hike is achievable!

Near Rovienky

Near Rovienky – image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Onto the Ridge…

The path now slopes down slightly through more dwarf pines with the serious mountains now rearing ahead (see feature image). It’s an easy-going 30 minutes to the intersection with the green trail at Kumštové sedlo from here. The path then kinks to the west (left) in a long, intense ascent onto the ridge top proper: allow two hours for this section via Králička (the worst of the climb is over by this point) to the end of stage one and your overnight stop at Chata M.R. Štefanika at 1740m. You leave the trees behind and dramatic valleys open up to the left and right whilst soon, poised at a seemingly ridiculous angle on the lip of the horseshoe-shaped ridge up ahead, is the place you will be spending the night. The last section, down from Králička to Chata M.R. Štefanika , was as is often the case extremely misty on my approach, emphasising the remoteness of the location. Just as well there is a full-service restaurant as well as bunk rooms on hand at the finish…

This – fortuitously – was what was happening as I arrived: a beer delivery!

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Allow at least four hours’ walking time for this stage – but you’ll want to rest and stop off on the way, because it is quite hard going, so five hours is a more realistic estimate for the fairly fit.

Now: congratulations. You have almost certainly earned a beer for completing the Hrebenovka’s first, challenging section.

WHAT NEXT?

Hiking the Hrebenovka: an Introduction

Hiking the Hrebenovka, Stage Two: Chata M.R. Štefanika to Chopok (Next Stage)

Hiking the Hrebenovka, Stage Three: Chopok to Chata Útulña pod Chabencom (aka Chata Ďurkova)

Staying on the Trail

Chata pod Čertovicou (before you start)

Chata M.R. Štefanika (end of Stage One)

Hotel Srdiečko (end of Stage Two)

Chata Magurka (end of Stage Three)

© Clive Tully

Paws For Thought: Extreme Wildlife Watching in the Low Tatras Mountains

Adventure travel writer Clive Tully forges off on the trail of wolves, bears and chamois in remotest Slovakia with award-winning volunteering organisation Biosphere Expeditions.

It’s late in the afternoon, and after several hours bush-whacking through dense forest while traversing steep slopes, suddenly an excited shout comes from the front of the group.

“Wolf scat!”

Scat is not a term I’ve found myself using previously, although its more common alternative, another four-letter word beginning and ending with the same letters, may have passed my lips in extremis on the odd occasion. For the purposes of a family publication, what we’re talking here is poo, or droppings. Indeed, it takes a certain kind of person to get worked up about what most would cross the street to avoid – even if the item in question is evidence of the recent passing of a beautiful wild animal – and it is with a group of just such people that I am in the company of for the next few days.

I’m in the Nizké Tatry (Low Tatras) National Park high up in the mountains of Slovakia, taking part in a scientific project run by Biosphere Expeditions. Indeed, as is pointed out on my first day, what I’ve joined is no holiday. It’s not even a trip. It’s an expedition, and the purpose is to assist local scientist Dr Slavomír Findó – Slavo, for short – to document the movements of wild animals including not only wolves but also bears, lynx and chamois.

And so it is that we photograph said wolf poo with a compass lying next to it to provide scale, log its location on a data sheet using a GPS receiver, and bag it up to take back to base for Slavo to analyse. It joins several other bags of poo, including bear and a possible lynx. Today is something of a warm-up, getting expedition members used to logging both scats and tracks of wild animals, using two-way radios and GPS receivers, not to mention an enlightening return to traditional navigation techniques using map and compass.

Animals such as wolf, bear and lynx typically can typically be found in areas within the forest-covered mountain slopes. But it is the region just above the tree line that holds what we’re all particularly excited about: the chance to observe the endangered chamois, a type of mountain goat.

Once upon a time, the closest you might get to a chamois would be when drying off your car after it’s been washed, but while in other mountain areas of Europe they’re quite plentiful, here their numbers are declining – a result of human pressure on their habitats, and climate change. But predators have an impact on their numbers as well, and that’s the purpose of the study – to establish the relationship between chamois and other animals, as well as humans in the form of hikers on the trails that run along the main east/west ridge which they inhabit.

© Clive Tully

Research has illustrated that enthusiastic volunteers are every bit as good as scientists when it comes to making these kind of observations. If anything, they’re better because they’re rather more motivated – but it does all hinge on their being properly trained. The spread of participants in my expedition is certainly pretty wide, both in age and what made them decide to join. In general, the profile tends to be someone in their 30s and older – people who’ve had a chance to live life a little, and decide there’s more to it than just self-gratification. It was having three months available and a wish to do something of a voluntary nature that led business consultant Pierre from Belgium to sign up. By contrast, Lauren, in her early 20s, is studying for an animal science degree, so what we’re doing ties in rather nicely. Others have come to escape their everyday lives, but still with the motivation to do something which will be of real use. The oldest member of the group is John from Israel, whose past hiking experiences include wandering into a minefield while out walking in the Middle East’s Golan Heights.

The hazards of the Tatras mountains aren’t to be underestimated, either, as we discover when expedition leader Melanie Schröder delivers our risk assessment on the first evening. I’m amazed to hear that statistically, going on an expedition is less dangerous than indulging in a spot of home DIY. And while the greatest risk in Slovakia is coming to a sticky end at the hands of lunatic drivers, the wildlife has been a particular problem of late. Here they have the highest density of bears in the world, and some years have seen several attacks on humans by brown bears (seven were recorded in 2007). And what are we advised to do if we suddenly find ourselves face to face with a bear? Keep still, apparently: then slowly and gradually back off, avoiding the natural instinct to run like hell.

“Bears can run much faster,” we’re told, “and they can climb trees. If it comes to it, lie face down on the ground, hands over the back of your head and neck, and elbows out to prevent the bear from rolling you over.”

It’s this advice that races through my mind on our first night, spent near the isolated hamlet of Krpáčvo in the southern part of the national park south of the high point of Chopok. I’ve opted to relieve the pressure on bed space in our base house by sleeping in a tent out in the garden. At night, the surrounding forest is replete with strange sounds, occasionally featuring the noise of breaking branches. It matters not one jot that I’ve been reassured no bear has ever come this far down into the valley. Lying in the tent in a semi-stupor, my only thought is to roll over, elbows spread wide as my over-active imagination pictures marauding bears about to slice their claws through my sleeping bag.

And so I survive the night ready for the next day, which involves some basic training. We have our maps and GPS receivers to plot our positions, and we also have compasses – used to provide a bearing for any animal sightings. We have laser rangefinders to give us distance, and radios to communicate with each other. And when things are going less than swimmingly, we have flares to indicate we have a problem, red for life-threatening, and white for non-critical emergencies.

Our first little foray into the forest above Krpáčvo with Slavo reveals a “bear tree”. This is where the bear has ripped the bark off the trunk to get at insects underneath. It could have been damage caused by a passing forestry vehicle, but the evidence of hairs stuck to the oozing sap provides the confirmation.

RELATED POST: A WONDERFUL NEW WILDLIFE DOCUMENTARY SET IN SLOVAKIA’S WILD FAR EAST

Getting to and from the study areas isn’t all about slogging up and down hills on foot, although there’s plenty of that anyway. Biosphere Expeditions is one of the few organisations, along with the Royal Geographical Society, to be sponsored by Land Rover under their Fragile Earth Policy, so we have a couple of smart Land Rover Discoveries to get us about. As a non-profit organisation, Biosphere values any help it gets, and of course the less money it has to spend on equipment means more of the income from expedition team members goes into the scientific research.

During the fortnight, expedition members pay two visits up onto the main mountain ridge, the Hrebenovka, staying overnight in mountain huts. And while the hikers sharing the huts with them are still happily snoring away, they’re up at 4am to ready for heading to their observation sites. And this is where your typical hill walker might see the difference. Instead of keeping up a BRISK pace, you have to be prepared to sit still for hours at a time with binoculars or a telescope on a tripod, so a good range of clothing is essential.

During the day, the chamois tend to keep out of the sun on north-facing slopes, but then at sunset they come up onto the ridge. Get up early enough in the morning, and that’s where you see them. The training also includes identification – male and female chamois have different shaped horns, and the males tend to wander around on their own, while females and kids will stay in groups.

Unfortunately, my flying visit of just a few days means that while I do get to climb up onto the ridge and sample its spectacular views, I don’t get to stay there overnight, but some of my fellow team members strike gold the following day. One group led by expedition leader Melanie spots two red deer heading for a stream to drink, followed by a group of eight chamois resting on cliffs. Then just as they are about to pack up and go, they see a female bear and her cub ambling up to the same stream. A shame then that the other team led by Slavo, who hiked several kilometres further to stay at Chopok and the mountain hut there were foiled by windy conditions which made observations difficult.

But while my wildlife spotting is confined to a small snake, a few piles of poo – sorry, scats – and the odd clump of fur, I’ve come away with the firm view that if you want to do something for conservation, doing something like this is far better than simply writing out a cheque for your chosen charity. This way you can provide scientists with the manpower to enable them to make a difference – in this case, the outcome will be a scientific paper – and have an unforgettable experience at the same time.

Further information:

Biosphere Expeditions (tel 0870-446-0801) promotes sustainable conservation of the planet’s wildlife by involving the public with scientists across the globe on real hands-on wildlife research and conservation expeditions, with several projects operating in Slovakia.

Outdoors and travel writer/photographer Clive Tully is former equipment editor of four walking magazines, and consultant/contributor to many more. His mainly outdoors-related travel features have been published in the majority of UK national newspapers. In 2017, he’s also going to be part of the team striving to beat the world record for circumnavigation of the world in a powerboat.

MAP LINK:

GETTING THERE: It’s possible to get to any of the places mentioned in this article, but for the experience you will need to sign up for a volunteer expedition with Biosphere Expeditions.

PRICES: Volunteers are asked to contribute towards expeditions around £1300 (for Slovakia expeditions).

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From a Low Tatras wildlife sojourn around Krpáčvo it’s only 13km north to Hotel Srdiečko and the route up Chopok (the less-known-about-way).

 

© Clive Tully

© Clive Tully

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Low Tatras Mountains: Up Chopok the Back Way

It’s not long until ski season. It never is, in the Low Tatras mountains around Jasná. Jasná is Slovakia’s (and one of Eastern Europe’s) biggest ski area and has deservedly had numerous articles written about it: as a new frontier for skiing (Guardian), as an affordable, fun family ski break (Telegraph) and generally as an off-the-beaten-track but nevertheless first-class resort. There are several resort complexes here sporting well over 100km of piste, which renders the Low Tatras, served by the mountain base town of Liptovský Mikuláš, an insanely popular winter destination.

Why? Well, skiing here is way cheaper than over the border in Austria, and the surroundings are incredibly beautiful. The USP is that because of the extended dramatic 80+km ridge that the peaks here surge together to form (one which you can essentially access the very top of with ease, and have dramatic views tumbling away on either side), whether you’re skiing or hiking you will feel like you’re on top of the world.

The ski slopes blanket the sides of the 2024m-high mountain of Chopok, but concentrate mostly on the northern side of the peak: fanning out around the spread-out village of Demänovská Dolina from where you can access all the Jasná slopes and resorts, and ascend via the popular chairlift to the saddle a few metres shy of the Chopok summit. Almost everyone that comes up to Chopok arrives this way, and the experience can seem shockingly over-populated by holidaymakers for Slovakia’s standards (although still nothing like the numbers at the tops of most cable car-accessed summits in the Alps).

Why Come Up?

There are plenty of reasons to come all the way up to Chopok: there is the main Chopok summit cable car terminus building, in which you’ll find a souvenir shop, restaurant and a couple of high-end (quite literally) rooms. And there is the far-sweeter nearby building of Kamenná Chata, an understated cafe-restaurant-mountain house with arguably the best views in the entire Low Tatras. Then, of course, there is that previously mentioned ridge (which you can hike the whole of), stretching away in either direction and fairly untrammeled away from the Chopok saddle development.

But there is also is a much less obvious way to get up here: from Chopok’s southern side.

Up Chopok the Unusual Way(s)

1:Starting from Brezno, the southern gateway to the Low Tatras mountains, it’s a 30-minute drive via Bystrá to the end of road 584 at Hotel Srdiečko, a great and, for the area, non-touristy place to base yourself. Because this is Slovakia, and public transport is great, there are still two daily buses connecting Brezno’s railways station with the Srdiečko turning lot (7:50am and 2:35pm, taking 50 minutes and costing 1.85 Euros).

2:From the hotel, an old-fashioned chairlift where you have to already be in position, ready to sit as the next row of seats swing passed the embarkation point, wobbles just above the tops of the spruce forests to halfway up the mountain at the Hotel Kosodrevina: a hotel that’s only seemingly open in peak ski season. (Kosodrevina, in Slovak, is the word for the forest edge on a mountain slope, when the conifer trees are already reduced to stunted shrubs and the wide open slopes of the mountains are rearing ahead). Here there is a restaurant/bar and a short walk to the embarkation point for the next cable car, a fancy modern affair, up to the Chopok summit. A full journey up from Srdiečko to Chopok and back costs 19 Euros per adult.

Of course, there is also the option of taking the chair lift to Kosdrevina and then walking back on a gorgeous cut-through path to the intriguing Dead Bat’s Cave and then along the green hiking trail back to the road at Trangoška (then heading uphill back to Srdiečko, total walking time from Kosodrevina approximately 1.5 to 2 hours).

And there is the option of hiking all the way up from Srdiečko for the very fit: you’ll need the best part of three hours for this, and probably a beer half-way at Kosodrevina.

MAP LINK:

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Chopok you can pick up our featured Hrebenovka ridge hike, running along the best of the Low Tatras mountains. At Chopok, you’re at the end of the second stage of the hike as described on Englishman in Slovakia.

The path into the Kosodrevina ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The path into the Kosodrevina ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Low Tatras Mountains: the Hrebenovka Ridge Hike (an Intro)

It is a confounding mystery why the Low Tatras are not given more publicity internationally. They can still be accessed with relative ease (from Liptovský Mikuláš, Ružomberok or even Poprad). The mountains here comprise Slovakia’s largest national park, too, not to mention Eastern Europe’s largest ski resort, Jasna but despite these immense draws the majority of this region sees precious little foreign tourism (besides the intrepid Czechs). The scenery runs the gamut from lower-altitude forest, much of it utterly untamed, through spectacular cave systems and waterfalls right up to a number of peaks with stunning views over the nearby valleys.

But we haven’t even mentioned the main attraction yet. The Hrebenovka. Hrebenovka means ridge in Slovak. It’s a crucial word to know if you prize the great outdoors. Slovakia sports a number of drop-dead gorgeous ridge hiking routes where, once you’ve climbed up onto them, you can continue walking along – without descending – for days. And the very best of the country’s ridge-top rambles spans much of the Low Tatras range. There are many Hrebenovky (ridges) in the country, but there is only one Hrebenovka. It is easily to the Low Tatras mountains what the Tatranská Magistrala is to the High Tatras, the Low Tatras’ more famous cousins to the north. Hiking it is a right of passage for many Slovaks.

Being able to get out on the ridges of the mountains does evoke some very different sensations to mountains where the hiking is generally several hundred metres below the peaks with a few out-and-back routes to individual summits (the High Tatras,  included). There is the surging feeling that you are truly on top of the world here – or at least of Eastern Europe. There are many points where even if your feet remain tethered to Mother Earth the sensation is akin to a bird coasting far above the ridge: you often get a rare aerial perspective of the ridge you are on because of the way the ground sheers away. Not having to dip down whatsoever into civilisation allows you to be at one with the peaks, too. Because you are almost always above the treeline, the vistas are constantly superb and often, at points like Chopok or Ďumbier, 360-degree perfect panoramas. Just as you are hiking on the ridge-top, you are also staying on it – a night in a dramatic ridge-cresting mountain house like Chata M R Štefánika is an unforgettable experience with the views from the bedroom windows tumbling away into the valleys below. Lastly the wildlife up on the ridge is different to that in the valleys, with more sightings of animals like the brown bear and kamzik possible. And of course, there are less foreigners (or indeed tourists at all) hiking up here: so doing so taps into an intrinsically and authentically “Slovak” outdoorsy experience.

Reasons a-plenty, therefore, to include hiking the Hrebenovka as part of your Slovak travels. But what “the Hrebenovka” is precisely is liable to interpretation and, indeed, debate. Where is the official start point? Which is the best section to walk? Should one stay up on the mountains or down in the valleys? Is the trail easy to follow?

Start/Finish

The version of the Hrebenovka on this site takes into account where it’s possible to get to/from by public transport, and where the best accommodation en route is – and for this reason we start the hike in Čertovica (in the middle of the national park, on road number 72 between Brezno and Liptovský Hrádok, and accessible by bus several times daily) and finish at Donovaly (in the southwest of the park, on road number 77 between Banská Bystrica and Ružomberok, and likewise accessible by bus several times daily). Hiking from east to west is recommended because of the way the mountains unfold before you (gradually building you up to the most sensational scenery). It’s of course possible to extend your start and finish points almost indefinitely, in Slovak terms, because this path also forms part of the route of the Cesta Hrdinov SNP which runs across the whole of Slovakia from west to northeast.

Why Four Stages?

Most accounts of the Hrebenovka hike allow five days, from Donovaly (in the west) to Telgárt, two days’ walk southeast of  Čertovica and two days of walking above and beyond the version of the hike on this site. The 5-day version can be said to encompass the whole of the Low Tatras but by no means the extent of the massif which continues west from Donovaly into the national park of Vel’ka Fatra and east of Telgárt into the Slovenský Raj. We break the Hrebenovka hike into four stages because our start and end points are easily reachable by public transport and because they showcase the best of what the Low Tatras offer.

To get to Čertovica, take the train to Banská Bystrica, the nearest major city. From here there are a couple of direct buses daily, or take the train to Brezno and then get a bus from here to the start point at Čertovica motorest (direct travel time one hour 5 minutes, price 2 Euros to 3.50 Euros.)

To get from Donovaly, there are direct buses at least hourly to Ružomberok (30 minutes, price 1.85 Euros) from where there are mainline train connections to Bratislava and Košice via Poprad.

Walking It

This makes a quite demanding but totally achievable four-day, three-night hike with a couple of intense ascents (up onto the ridge from Čertovica and the climb to Chopok on day two. Each day entails about four to seven hours of hiking, which on this site we have broken up into:

Stage One: Chata pod Čertovica to Chata M R Štefánika (Recommended stay: Chata M R Štefánika, ridge-top)

Stage Two: Chata M R Štefánika to Chopok (Recommended stay: Hotel Srdiečko, mountain base)

Stage Three: Chopok to Chata Útulña pod Chabencom (aka Chata Ďurkova) (Recommended stay: Chata Magurka, mountain base) (or Chata Útulná pod Chabencom, ridge-top)

Stage Four: Chata Útulña pod Chabencom (aka Chata Ďurkova) to Donovaly (Recommended stay: in Donovaly)

Staying Here

We also profile several of the best accommodation options en route: a mixture between the mountain houses (which are fun, convenient and essential to experience (exuding that spirit of hiking camaraderie) and hotels further down the mountain slopes. Many of the hotels – it should be noted – are despite the lower elevation nevertheless often connected to the peaks by cable car/ chair lift. Taking a cable car or chair lift up onto or down off the ridge is a wonderful experience in itself because of the views.

Chata Pod Čertovicoustay here before beginning stage one to initiate yourself in the wilds of the Low Tatras!

Chata M R Štefánika – stay here overnight between the end of Stage One and the beginning of Stage Two!

Hotel Srdiečko – stay here overnight between the end of Stage Two and the beginning of Stage Three!

Chata Magurka – stay here between the end of Stage Three and the beginning of Stage Four!

Places to Eat En Route

For the middle of nowhere, the Hrebenovka is surprisingly blessed by places to bust your mountain-induced hunger. Food is available at Čertovica (Motorest and Chata Pod Čertovicou; mountain base, beginning of STAGE ONE), Chata M R Štefánika (ridge-top, end of STAGE ONE), Hotels Srdiečko and Kosodrevina (mountain base/ mid-station respectively) and Kamenná Chata and Chopok’s cable car station restaurant (ridge top; end of STAGE TWO), Chata Útulña pod Chabencom and Chata Magurka (ridge-top/mountain base respectively, end of STAGE THREE) and Donovaly (mountain base, various options; end of STAGE FOUR).

Most of these options are first and foremost places to stay and if so they will feature in our Places to Stay/Low Tatras sub-section. If they are first and foremost places to eat, or if the food is an equally important aspect to the establishment, they will feature instead/as well as our Places to Eat & Drink/Low Tatras sub-section. That said, DO NOT attempt this hike without taking plenty of snacks/meals with you (at least cold ones, bringing food to cook is less necessary as the kitchens in the mountain houses and mountain base hotels rustle up some great dishes for next to nothing.) As per below…

Before You Hike

Just check our recommended kit list for hiking in the Tatras, dust off your hiking gear and get going!

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: March straight on to the individual stage descriptions or if you don’t dig hiking continue 60km east along routes 72 and 18 to Poprad

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Low Tatras Mountains: The Dead Bat’s Cave

High in the broccoli-hued forest foothills of the Nizke Tatry (Low Tatras) – Slovakia’s great unsung mountain range – hidden between the lofty pine trees of the lower slopes and the element-stunted trees of the kosodrevina above, there is a small mountain cottage. The residence of some recluse, the unknowing passerby might think, some remote holiday house. But traipse up on the one-hour hike from the nearest road and, as you will see, the cottage marks the entrance to Slovakia’s highest, most extensive cave system – and a definite candidate for one of the strangest.

The nearest access point by road is the parking lot above the ailing Hotel Trangoška, alongside a newer, shinier penzión clearly trying to outdo its older rival, on the long twisting road up from the village of Bystrá. Opposite the car park a wide track (which narrows to a path after passing a couple of mountain cabins) ascends through the woods for 45 minutes before arriving at the signed path to the cave – which now lies a steep 15-minute clamber above you.

Approaching the cave entrance ©englishmaninslovakia.com

Approaching the cave entrance ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Sweltering from the ascent on a sticky August day when even temperatures up here at over 1300m are well into the twenties, we fantasised about the possibility of a cafe being incorporated into this remote spot but never really expected the cold beer or piping hot mountain herb tea that the cave guides – who live in the dinky cottage built around the cave entrance for days at a time – offered us on arrival. Descending into a tricky-to-negotiate cave system after a cold Pilsner or two doesn’t seem on paper like the best idea but in the moment it felt right. And chatting to the friendly team of cave guides over a drink is part of the experience: trapped up here with just each other’s company for lengthy periods, they have some colourful stories at the ready which whet your curiosity prior to going underground.

The typical cave tour (8 Euros per person) lasts about an hour. This is not a showcave, with wide paths and neat steps and guide rails. The guides at the Dead Bats’ Cave decided widening the tunnels sufficiently to meet showcave requirements would involve hacking away too much at the rock formations, so they prefer to offer a more adventurous tour, with a couple more heart-in-mouth ledges and slippery ladders thrown in – and simply ask you to sign a form saying that whatever happens to you in “the descent” is entirely at your own risk. Fair enough. Game on.

The tour commences with a descent down to around 20 metres below the surface, and a series of memorial plaques to famous cavers who discovered and charted the passageways here. In common with other high altitude cave systems, formations in this 22km network of tunnels are relatively few, but a striking series of chasms over which you walk, either on creaking bridges or strapped on to iron bars in the tunnel wall, keep you awed. The tour isn’t fleshed out with a lot of over-exaggerated nonsense about likenesses of rocks to various animals, either: this is an hour spent exploring – and “explorer” you really do feel as the tunnel you follow makes a sharp kink down and into a narrow section of bubbled rock passageways with the walls and roof of the cave pressing closely on all sides (Indiana Jones eat your heart out).

It’s around this point that the guide explains the master plan of the Dead Bats Cave – connecting the current system of tunnels up with another still-greater series of canyons – one of which is the size of a football stadium. The connection has almost been made – but the final few metres are proving difficult. Due to the presence of water, digging has to be restricted to when the water is frozen and won’t bust out to flood the cavers: something that happens for perhaps a month each year and even then, only for a few hours daily because it becomes too difficult to breathe. Watch this cold, dark space, therefore, for when the attractions of the Dead Bats’ Cave to visitors multiply after these caverns start featuring in the tour!

And finally, on a rock shelf at the side of the tunnel leading back to the surface, the origins of the cave’s moniker become apparent. Yes, indeed, the minuscule pencil-like bones of an abnormally high quantity of dead bats (some of which have lain here thousands of years). Many more, it appears, than the average for subterranean systems. Why? Well one theory put forward is that the bats – the poor blind things – find their way into the caves come late autumn and then, because their access holes become frozen over, can’t find a way out again. The second theory is just that bats – much of the area’s bat population, no less – has decided on mass that these underground labyrinths are a fitting place to die.

The Dead Bats’ Cave holds many more delights. The standard tour touches upon only one of three levels of caves open to wannabe troglodytes – and more hardcore adrenalin-pulsing squeezes and scrambles await with the more in-depth tours that explore all three (costing around 24 Euros).

Stalagmites - little stumpy ones! ©englishmaninslovakia.com

Stalagmites – little stumpy ones! ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Walk On! Beyond the cave, and returning back down to the signed entrance on the main green trail from Trangoška, you can carry on 45 minutes up through the forest onto the ridge at the mountain house of Chata MR Štefanika (at which point you join our recommended three-day Low Tatras ridge hike) and from where it is a further 1.5 hour hike to the summit of the highest peak in the Low Tatras, Ďumbier. Doing even a portion of this ridge hike – a truly glorious one – is an astounding “add-on” to a cave visit.

But – and few people, it seems, know this – the hike to the Dead Bats’ Cave does not have to be the out-and-back route it appears from Trangoška. As you come back down on the green trail (that’s turning left on the main path if coming from the cave) you’ll pass piles of wood left for transporting up to Chata MR Štefanika, with a rather touching request to hikers to take a log and receive a free Ďumbier herb tea (a special sweet herb tea just found in these hills!) for their pains if they carry it all the way! And just below a narrow, rarely-used yellow trail which runs up to the Hotel Kosodrevina/cable car – a point half-way up to the ridge between Hotel Srdiečko (another hotel at the end of the road on which Trangoška lies) and Chopok (the second-highest summit in the Low Tatras). This trail initially seems overgrown but it’s not – and rises through wild forest up onto moorland rich in blueberries and raspberries (boy did we have a feast). After about an hour the path – narrow and yet distinct curves up to join the wider blue trail which runs between Chata MR Štefanika and Hotel Kosodrevina. From here you can take the chair lift down to Hotel Srdiečko and walk down the road to where you parked your car – or carry on up to the top of the ridge via cable car to Chopok (where you can take another cable car down the other side into Slovakia’s famous ski area, Jasná, and into other articles soon to feature on this site…)

MAP LINK:

ADMISSION: 8 Euros per adult for the standard tour.

OPENING: Tours available at 10am, 12midday, 2pm and 4pm – daily July/August, March-June and September-December weekends only. Closed January and February (when work on connecting the adjoining cave system gets underway!!)

CAVE WEBSITE: (Slovak only)

WARNING: Temperatures down in the caves are an average of 3 degrees – bring a warm top even if it’s boiling outside!

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From the Dead Bats’ Cave it’s 90km southwest to Stred Europy (the geographical Centre of Europe!) in Central/South Slovakia.

Credit: Authentic Slovakia

Tours: Authentic Slovakia, the Country’s Wackiest Tour Agency

Englishman in Slovakia caught up recently with one half of Authentic Slovakia, owned by two brothers, one of Bratislava’s newest and coolest tour agencies, to find out a little bit more about them and the kind of experiences tourists can have with them. Slovakia’s tourism industry has been keen in the past to brush over the Communist history of the country but these guys have done just the opposite. A bold move, some might say, but one that seems to have reaped dividends…

In fact, so many dividends that the company is no longer just Bratislava-based, but has brand new operations in Brezno in the Low Tatras and Košice!!

1 – How did you come up with the idea for Authentic Slovakia?

We felt there was a lack of interesting tourist products in Bratislava and saw the gap in the tourism market. Also, we had some tourism background from our parents – our father is the owner of an incoming travel agency, too. And last but not least, we gained some interesting inspiration during our travels to Western and Northern Europe. I usually do not join organised tours, but we did a hop-on hop-off minivan tour around Scotland which was great, and more of the kind of thing was what we wanted to bring to Slovakia.

2 – Why the name “Authentic Slovakia”? And what is the concept of Authentic Slovakia?

Initially we planned to focus on tours mostly outside of Bratislava, aimed at backpackers. Over the last years, most of the demand has grown for our Bratislava city tours, but “Slovakia” in our name remained. However, we hope to increase share of our tours to other regions in the near future. “Authentic” relates to our idea to bring an uncensored experience for the traveller. We try to make every tour personal and honest, which is also supported by little size of the groups (usually 2-7 persons). We visit authentic places, not usually included in tourist brochures. We want to show Slovakia as it really is to tourists – and that does still include the legacy left from the days of Communism here, which still influences all our lives to some extent.

3 – What is the most authentic place you have been on your tours?

One of the highlights is an old industrial lift with very dark interior, heavy doors and unique noises in a former textile factory. It’s a really spooky experience, people are usually very happy to come out!:) Also, all the local pubs we visit during our unconventional Village Pub Crawl tour, are very authentic. I really enjoyed my group of 7 young French visitors who got the chance to meet a drunk forester, who invited everybody for a shot of vodka and then was trying to sell them some good Carpathian wood!

Authentic Slovakia visit a nice local krčma (pub)

Authentic Slovakia visit a nice local krčma (pub)

4 – What is the most popular activity on your tours would you say? (what do tourists like most)

Probably riding in our legendary 1970’s vintage Škoda cars, used by masses several decades ago, but really unique pieces of machinery today. These cars provide the wheels for our Post Socialist City tour, focused on a history of the 20th Century in Bratislava – it has a really authentic feel, i think! Although a few times it happened that our clients ended up pushing the car to start the engine! Once we had to finish the tour in a tram due to a flat tyre! Usually, however, Škodas work just great.

5 – What’s the strangest question someone on your tours has asked you? :)

I considered questions like if we have our own language, or if Bratislava is the Slovak capital, or which currency we use, to be quite strange, but maybe that’s my personal point of view :)

6 – Give some tips of advice to tourists coming to Slovakia for the first time on one to expect?

In Bratislava, they can expect a really disgusting train station, a very functionalist retro bus station or a renewed but very empty airport:) Then they can expect socialist-style customer service at many places, a chaotic mixture of architecture and a lot of fried meals. But on the plus side they could also enjoy surprisingly well-preserved historical towns, great outdoors possibilities, a good public transport and road network, friendly people and cheap beer:)

7 – What’s one place you would recommend going in Slovakia to get “off the beaten track”?

One of the best things about Slovakia is that out of Bratislava and the High Tatras, almost everywhere is “off the beaten track”. Even such a historical gem as the UNESCO medieval mining town of Banská Štiavnica remains calm with an amazing mystical atmosphere most days of the year. But a total “off the beaten track” experience (and I mean even for Slovaks) is probably another UNESCO attraction – the primeval beech forest of the Carpathians, located in north-eastern corner of Slovakia near the border with Ukraine. It is a kingdom of wolves, bears and bizons – so far that even Authentic Slovakia does not reach there!

8 – The company has proved to be a big success. We understand you now have some additional “authentic” activities available in Košice?

Košice is amazing but still unexplored destination. Apart from the largest old town in Slovakia it offers great post-communist sites like former VSZ steel factory (U.S. Steel today), an abandoned magnesite factory, the working class neighbourhood Saca, not to mention the controversial Lunik IX neighbourhood (nb: controversial mainly due to the Roma residents who live there in sometimes dire poverty). Furthermore, recent transformations are interesting too – thanks (although not solely) to Košice becoming European Cultural Capital in 2013, great cultural venues popped up from a former Tobacco factory, former military barracks and an abandoned swimming pool. The Košice art scene is at least as interesting as the one in Bratislava, too.
And we have amazing guides there. Slavo and Mirka are really dedicated to this topic, are superfriendly and even add something to the tour from their cultural background. Check our Authentic Košice website for more.
9 – And that’s not all, is it? Can you tell us about what you are now doing in the Low Tatras? :)
Another project, the latest thing for us, is our new retro communist apartment in Brezno, with a nice central location within Slovakia below the Low Tatras mountains. We wish to offer an authentic accommodation in ordinary 1970’s prefab apartment block designed in retro style. This will provide a basecamp for potential visitors to explore the beauties of Horehronie region, located among 4 National parks, of which the Low Tatras are the closest. Brezno has a great location and public transport connections, so it will be an ideal solution for guests with no hired car. We will provide tips for 6 or 7 great day trips to the area. Our local partners will also be ready to provide guided tours upon request.

10 – What’s next for Authentic Slovakia?

Possibly to expand to other regions to diversify our destinations and not to disrupt their authenticity. And hopefully we can expect another year of joyful tours with sustainable growth, whilst keeping the core values of being personal and uncensored!