The verdant ridges around Chleb, by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The Vrátna Valley – & Two Short Walks Around Chleb and Veľký Kriváň

If anyone were to ask me where they should go to grab the most accessible and authentic slice of mountain life in Slovakia, factoring in the obligatory stupendous viewpoint and a hike to a classic wilderness hut dishing out hearty Slovak meals, I would without hesitation say: “come here.”

Taking the cable car up from the head of the picture-postcard valley of Vrátna, to the saddle of Snilovske Sedlo just below the peak of Chleb, in the heart of Malá Fatra National Park, was in danger of being too common an activity for it to feature on this site. We debated for some time whether to include such information until we realised that actually, there was precious little good in-English info on it AND that whilst Slovaks and Czechs do indeed arrive in their droves, to other foreign tourists the delights of the Vrátna-Chleb area are still likely to be utterly unknown.

Embarking from Žilina at around 8am in time for when the cable car opens at 9am, you can do EVERYTHING mentioned here from “The Vrátna Cable Car Base & Up” paragraph down in an easy day trip – a half day if you’re quick about it – which makes what follows a superb introduction to Slovakia’s loveliest swathe of mountain scenery for those pressed for time. On the way up to the cable car base, you’ll pass through the main settlement in the area, Terchová, and up the ensuing (and gorgeous) valley – which we’ve included info on here too (and will doubtless feature more posts on at a later date, as there is enough to do in the valley alone for several days’ holiday).

Terchová – The Entrance to the Valley

The sheer shimmering verdant loveliness of the Vrátna valley begins at Terchová – the resort village that clusters at the valley’s entrance about 25km east of Žilina. Some call   Terchová overly touristy and a tad crass – I disagree. Compared to the rampant commercialism that has ruined countless other villages and towns in the world, Terchová’s development has been tasteful. It retains most of its attractive mountain-style houses with steep-pitched roofs, the accommodation and eating options are appealing, and whilst it makes a lot out of being the erstwhile holing-up spot of that prince of Slovak outlaws and folklore, Juraj Jánošík, the fanfare is mainly confined to the outlaw’s far-larger-than-life likeness on the hill outside town and a small, understated and very informative museum by the Terchova Tourist Information Centre. There is also an up-and-coming brewery in town, Vršky, which is part of the homonymous restaurant/penzion, giving you that added incentive to stop by for a beer: especially as it’s Slovakia’s first small-scale mountain brewery (as signs here proudly claim).

You can get off the bus here (and, obviously, then catch a later one), stock up on supplies here and even stay here (we recommend the afore-mentioned Vršky in town or, in a more idyllic spot right besides a great hiking back route up the valley to the Vrátna cable car base, Hotel Diery.)

Up Into The Valley: A Brief Guide

The 15-odd minute drive up the Vrátna valley from Terchová is sensational today – sheering pea-green slopes, overhanging crags and a road that somehow twists in-between them and ever upward – but it also makes the Jánošík tales assume an added dimension. This would have been perfect ambush terrain, you are soon thinking.

About half-way up, as this MAP shows, a separate road branches off left to Hotel Boboty (vast, vaguely monstrous, but quite decent rooms) and the idyllic hamlet of Štefanová, where you can also bed down at a couple of penzions therein.

A little further on is a ski area, known as the Vrátna Free Time Zone. You can see this section of the valley on this MAP. Another access road to the top of this ski resort winds up from Štefanová, via the highest mountain cottage hereabouts, remote Chata Na Gruni. At the bottom of the ski area on the Vrátna Valley road you’ll also find a very fetching rugged, traditional koliba, Koliba Stary Dvor – essentially a Slovak mountain-style restaurant. Enjoy – it’s the best place to eat in the lower reaches of the valley! Off to the right of the Koliba, a network of lanes ascends to another accommodation area – including the very good Hotel Rozsutec which has a wellness centre.

You’ll wend through all these valley attractions on the bus up to the Vrátna cable car base.

Terchová and this valley, followed by the cable car ride up to Snilovske sedlo as the final delight is all a very lovely and gentle initiation into the delights of the Malá Fatra National Park – sedate, let’s say, with easily accessible scenic spots – but up at the top of the cable car terminus the geography gets a lot more intense, wild and thrilling.

The Vrátna Cable Car Base & Up

The bus drops you at the cable car base, aka Vrátna Výťah. A couple of snack stands, souvenir stands and kiosks are scattered around, somewhat hopefully, but armed with the knowledge of what awaits up top, dearest blog follower, there is no need to linger.

Bearing in mind the opening hours and costs of the cable car as outlined at the bottom of this article, purchase your pass (and DO NOT LOSE your return one) and hop on the next of the passing cabins for the dramatic ascent to Snilovske sedlo, which at almost 1500m up will yield some absolutely superb vistas of the surrounding mountains. You’ll see some intrepid types making the steep ascent on the path up the cleared area of forest below, but if you’re going to pick a way to do this particular path, pick down:)

At the top cable car station there is a restaurant (cracking views, less impressive food, although you may decide risking the latter may be worth it to fully enjoy the former) that is a popular refuge when the bad weather cuts in and the cable car stops running. Actually, for many people, the restaurant represents the turning-back point of their foray into Vrátna – and this is a shame. Snilovske sedlo, a wide broccoli green saddle between two peaks, is a superb starting point for any number of first-class hikes – and particularly as the cable car has spared you the tough legwork by doing the majority of the climbing for you, the area fairly begs you to explore it a little. The two short hikes that follow give you a chance to investigate the very best of what the mountain tops near here offer.

Hike One: Veľký Kriváň

Behind the restaurant/viewpoint at Snilovske sedlo and with your back to the cable car, off up left is the nearest of the two peaks, Chleb (not to be confused with the Slovak word chlieb, which means bread), clocking in at a decent 1646m. Off right, increasingly visible as you climb the 50-odd metres up to the meeting point of trails hereabouts, is the summit you’re aiming for in this hike, Veľký Kriváň. At 1709m this mountain, approached by a fairly gentle path in a 45-minute hike from the junction of paths, is the highest in the Mala Fatra National Park but gives off a roof-of-the-world feeling with its moody panoramic views, down from the peaks into valleys often bathed a mysterious gold in the sun’s rays and containing two of this region’s most important towns, Žilina to the west and Martin to the south.

At the top of the cable car station ©englishmaninslovakia.com

At the top of the cable car station ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Hike Two: To Chata Pod Chlebom

45 minutes up, around half an hour drinking in the views at the summit, 45 minutes down. Just over two hours after setting off from the top cable car station and you’re probably feeling peckish. Back at that junction of paths, now follow the route to the right (if you’re descending from Veľký Kriváň) or straight on (coming from the cable car) down between the peaks with Veľký Kriváň away on your right. A straightforward path which leaves the exposed open ground (with stunning moorland views) to dip into woods emerges at the serendipitous chata (i.e. mountain hut doubling as a basic accommodation op and a hearty Slovak-style restaurant) of Chata Pod Chlebom (again about 45 minutes one-way from the path junction). Rustically charming as the hut is, the interior is nothing special so if the weather is half-decent, grab a pew outside in the lovely picnic area and then go to place your order of frothy beer, strudel or giant-sized sausages with bread to eat al-fresco. The food is good and the wild mountain locale is great – with this dark-wood, old-fashioned mountain cottage enhancing it further. Allow 45 minutes to order and eat without rushing, meaning around four to 4.5 hours overall to enjoy both of these out-and-back walks and get back to the topmost cable car station.  Still got some energy? Then try hiking back down to the Vrátna cable car base (around one hour more).

MAP LINK:

GETTING THERE: Surprisingly regular (more or less hourly) buses run from the bus station in Žilina through Terchová to the Vrátna cable car base from 6:15am to 6:30pm. The journey takes 55 minutes and costs 2.15 Euros.

OPENING HOURS: The cable car (which you don’t need to access the above hikes but will sure as Hell come in useful to beat the murderously steep clamber up to the saddle (sedlo) below Chleb) runs more or less daily throughout the year from 9am until 4pm – staying open late until 5pm or even 6pm during June and July. The caveat here is that the opening hours are rather complicated (even if you do speak Slovak) so whilst we are providing this link to the official schedule we still advise you to check before setting out into the blue yonder when the final cable car back is. Don’t car about the cable car? Then come here whenever you wish…

PRICES: Vrátna-Chleb Cable Car one way/return 8.50/10 Euros

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Terchová, below Vrátna, it’s 95km south and then east to Podbanské, the end point/ start point of our Tatranská Magistrala trail guide for the most popular path across the High Tatras.

Kiosk 2011

Žilina: Artsy Gateway to Malá Fatra National Park

Here’s the insiders guide to the city most people think of as just a jump-off point for the delights of the Malá Fatra National Park: with some classic tips from artistic community at the now-renowned venue of Stanica. And hey: it’s not just me or the Stanica lot saying Žilina is cool: it was recently listed as one of the 101 Places to Get F*cked up Before You Die.

Stanica

Number one is, we are compelled to admit, the wondrous cultural hub of Stanica, the city’s well-established arts venue, created in revamped station buildings southwest of the city centre at the still-working Žilina-Zariecie station (on the line to the spa town of Rajecke Teplice and Rajec, out of interest). It doubles, or triples, or quadruples up as pretty much everything: cafe, bar, theatre, exhibition space… read more about it in our separate post on the place.

Kiosk Festival in Žilina's Stanica

Kiosk Festival, Žilina – image courtesy of Stanica

Great Counterculture Festivals

There are a couple of stand-out events in the city. Fest Anča is an international animation film festival which is one of the the largest events of the year, taking place in a few venues across Žilina. It attracts a Europe-wide audience. Then there is Kiosk, a festival of contemporary dance and theatre, which is also taking place during summer. There is a park next to Stanica where summer festival visitors can camp in the tents for free.

Insider Tours of Žilina

Stanica is designed as a place where people from different walks of life will meet, feel welcome and exchange ideas and, unlike a lot of places which claim this, it really is (certainly based on the crowd during my visits there anyway). You will, if you’re a first-time visitor wanting an insight into Žilina life, do well to head to Stanica, get talking to some of the clientele and see if they might even show you around town – or at least recommend some places to see. It’s worth noting too, of course, that because Žilina is one of the most famously by-passed destinations in the country, your experience of Slovakia here is likely to be much more authentic.

Synagogues, Churches and Squares

The remnants of Slovakia’s once-significant Jewish culture (Hlohovec in Western Slovakia was once one of the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s centres of Jewish learning and culture) are sadly now few and far between. An exhibition on Bratislava’s Most SNP Bridge recently recorded, in black and white, the destruction of the Capital’s Jewish quarter to make way for the bridge to be built). So it’s heartening to see a synagogue being reconstructed, as with the Neologic Synagogue [in central Žilina] and its transformation into a gallery of contemporary art. This national cultural heritage, built in 1930’s by Peter Behrens, is one of the most significant architecture pieces in Žilina and also in the whole of Slovakia. The five-year reconstruction is now nigh-on complete, and the results are an utterly rejuvenated building, retaining that original iconic design but now also thrumming as an ultra-modern centre of the arts, with new exhibitions running as of autumn 2016. It’s also easy to get a glimpse of what’s going on inside, and the scale of the colossal refurbishment project which has taken place, if desired with a guide and commentary by some of the guys from Stanica, no less. Here’s a link to the best online in-English info on Žilina’s synagogue. Žilina has among the most active Jewish communities in Slovakia.

Then there is the must-see visit to Žilina’s oldest building, Kostol Sv. Štefana krála (Church of St Stephen the King). It’s a Romanesque building dating from the 15th century, with impressive 13th-century medieval wall paintings. (Location: Zavodská Cesta, corner with Škultétyho).

The city’s impressive squares, flanked by restaurants, are also great for a stroll: cosier Mariánske Námestie and grand, ampitheatrical Námestie Andreja Hlinku. And there are actually some really great hotels, which you wouldn’t necessarily expect for a city of this size here: Dubna Skalá for example, or grand 18th century Villa Nečas. More on them in other posts.

Oh, and the bus station is right next to the train station (where you will most likely be arriving – it’s 2.25 to 2.75 hours from Bratislava), so for those of you wanting to ignore this article and head straight for Malá Fatra, well – that’s easy to do. Buses bound for Terchová and Vrátna ski resort (the heart of the national park) leave every one to two hours, 6:30am to 6:30pm:)

MAP LINK

GETTING THERE: 12 trains daily cruise from Bratislava’s Hlavná Stanica station to Žilina. Ticket prices are 9.40 Euros for the regional trains and 15.90 Euros for the high-speed trains.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: 30km east of Žilina’s Stanica you hit the heart of the Malá Fatra National Park at Vrátna from where you can access some great hiking around Chleb just passed Terchova.