© 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

marianka4

The Best Ways to Experience Christmas in Slovakia

This is the season to be happy, after all.

Dinky, mountain-backed, frequently snow-blanketed and with a propensity for lighting big crackling log fires or old-fashioned tiled stoves to warm the cockles in the cold months, Slovakia is a great place for a cosy festive getaway. Several German towns, as well as Vienna, tend to steal the show in Central Europe with their well-known traditional festiveness, but the Slovaks can hold their own with their bigger rivals when it comes to Christmassy ambience – and Slovak towns and cities have the bonus that they’re not nearly so crowded at this time of year, so there will be only a fraction of the wait for that mulled wine.

If you’re Slovakia-bound over Christmas or New Year, we’ve made experiencing festive delights a little easier with this oh-so experiential post.

Christmas Markets

As in other Central European countries, Christmas markets are the perfect way to get into the festive spirit (unlike some aspects of Slovak culture, they also have the advantage of being very accessible and easy to indulge in) – serving everything from lokše (traditional potato pancakes oozing with fillings like goose fat) and roast pork through to medovina (Slovak mead), a sour but delicious mulled wine and also lots of amazing handicrafts.

The best Slovak Christmas market is Bratislava’s, spilling over between the richly ornamental central squares of Hlavné and Hviezdoslavovo námestie (see more on Bratislava Christmas Market). The market runs every afternoon/evening until December 22nd this year. Not far away, where Námestie SNP meets Klobučnicka, there is the refurbished Stará Trznica (old marketplace) which is also alive with Christmassy stalls but offers more contemporary, higher-end handicrafts and foods and is patronised by a crowd of young, cool hipster Slovaks. Stará Trznica is open year-round, actually, on Saturdays – and soon we’ll get round to finishing the more detailed post we’ve been preparing on it. For now though, the last market before Christmas is Saturday, December 16th! There is set to be 150 stalls, Christmassy workshops and live music. Get in there!

Another fabulous Christmas market is in the ancient city of Nitra, in Western Slovakia. It’s also held on the central námestie – with stalls arranged in a wide circle around the square: going every afternoon/evening until December 23rd. This market is particularly well known for its gorgeous woven baskets. If you are spending any time in Eastern Slovakia over the festive season, then the go-to Christmas market is in Košice – right along its wide central artery, Hlavná. It’s open a day longer than Bratislava’s Christmas market too: every afternoon/evening until December 23rd.

RELATED POST: Top Ten Classic Slovak Foods

Christmas Shopping

Slovakia maintains a lot of its handicrafts making traditions, and whilst some of these are on show at the Christmas, for some you’ll have to go the extra mile to find the best take-home Christmas gifts. On Englishman in Slovakia, we’ve prepared our Top Ten Slovak Gifts to give you some ideas. Bear in mind Modra for ceramics, the Malé Karpaty towns of Modra, Piešťany and Trnava for getting your hands on some Slovak wine purchased straight from the winemakers (and for sampling some in an idyllic wine bar, why not?), and for general festive loveliness with your seasonal shop, Modra and Trenčín in Western Slovakia, Banská Štiavnica in Central/Southern Slovakia and Bardejov and Košice in Eastern Slovakia.

Christmas Escapes

Slovakia has a lot of spectacular wilderness with traditional wooden houses to hole up in with the snow piled high outside. However, many of the best take a fair amount of insider knowledge, planning and time: putting them beyond the practical reach of many. For this reason we have to concur on this site with the Guardian (who put the city as their number one winter break choice in Europe for 2016/2017) and say Poprad in the High Tatras is a great choice to actually get to the snowy, Christmassy wilderness the quickest. Here is how to fly to Poprad and here is an introduction to the city, from the bottom of which article you can access all our other content on Poprad. From Poprad, you can take the Tatras Electric Railway up into the High Tatras mountains themselves where you are guaranteed snow at this time of year, can stay at a middle-of-nowhere mountain house (yes, they’re mostly open in winter too) and try all manner of wintery sports, including husky riding and skioring!

Best of the rest: where to snow-escape to get festive in Slovakia:

4: Head up above the pretty town of Modra in Western Slovakia to dine at very Christmassy Furmanská Krčma – a log cabin in the snow-covered woods.

3: Check into a lovely characterful guesthouse like Penzión Resla pri Klopacke in Banská Štiavnica – a great place from which to watch this dazzling medieval mining town unfold below you, whilst up in the hills above lie a number of great wintery hikes.

2: The Low Tatras is very snowy from December through to April, so get a fix of the white stuff whilst gazing out on one of the best views in Slovakia from the top of Chopok at Kamenna Chata – then ski back down again on some of Eastern Europe’s best slopes.

1: Undertake the traditional Three Kings (Traji Krali) Day pilgrimage to Marianka from Bratislava on January 6th – Slovakia’s biggest pilgrimage destination, and benefitting from a couple of traditional watering holes to refresh those poor weary pilgrims!

Remember Silvester!

Silvester (New Year’s Eve) is cool (indeed, veritably freezing) in Slovakia too. Celebrations kick off everywhere, but perhaps most tourist-friendly are those in Bratislava – where an ice skating rink is set up in Hviezdoslavovo namestie and fireworks are let off from the banks of the Danube.

Home is Where the Heart is

Christmas or New Year at a Slovak household, of course – should you have the chance to experience it – is by far the best way, if you can wangle it, of indulging in Christmas festivities. The main reason to partake is quite possibly the food: traditional Slovak delicacies way better than the kind on offer in the restaurants become available: all manner of gingerbread sweets in the Christmas run-up along with the most typically festive vianoce (rich fruit cake) and piping hot spiced wine, fish served on Christmas Day itself (celebrations, remember, are on December 24th as in many Catholic countries) and Kapustnica (a divine thick sauerkraut and tomato soup, and the most complex Slovak dish of all) served on Silvester/New Year’s Eve.

The approach to the hotel - image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Low Tatras Mountains: Horský Hotel Srdiečko

The first time I clapped eyes on the Horský Hotel Srdiečko, it was from above, along the spectacular Low Tatras mountain range ridge hike, the Hrebenovka. The hotel was nestled in an ink-green spread of forest just at the foot of the seriously sheer slopes ascending to Chopok, Slovakia’s main ski area.

And because of the great cable car system in operation in this section of the Low Tatras, this meant arrival itself was a novelty: rocking up (or, more accurately, rocking down) at the hotel reception by the combination of cable car and chair lift, which connect the top of Chopok with Hotel Srdiečko, the southern foot of the mountain and the end of the road to Brezno – via the mid-mountain cable car station at Kosodrevina. I’d only experienced a handful of cable cars in ski resort areas before, and I’d only taken this one old-fashioned, somewhat ricketty but very thrilling chair lift (that’s me leaning out quite precariously in the feature image to take that!), where your feet are dangling in mid-air as you descend or ascend through pine trees to/from a corridor ushering you in a matter of paces to the hotel’s front door. So suffice to say that I was in a good mood already as I set foot inside for the first time.

What strikes you instantly at this hotel is that they are trying to do things a bit differently to your standard Slovak mountain location. For all the cockle-warming tradition and charm of Slovakia’s mountain houses, they are, by the very nature of their lofty mountain-top locations, generally quite rustic (they are designed for hikers, after all, and don’t stand on much ceremony). Hotel Srdiečko does stand on ceremony. A fair amount of it, in fact. Its obvious draw is that it enjoys the right-on-the-doorstep fantastic scenery of many of the remoter mountain houses, yet a level of comfort that relatively few mountain hotels obtain. And all this, inexplicably, without any of the crowds you get on the busier north side of the mountain…

The hotel from above ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The hotel from above ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

At the tail end of a long, snaking road down through the forest to civilisation (in the form of the southern Low Tatras town of Brezno), Hotel Srdiečko cannot really be considered a mountain house. But the drama of the nature is so immediate and apparent from all parts of the hotel that, despite the structure itself representing the typical imposing style of wood-built Communist-era mountain hotels, it’s difficult not to walk around with a smile on your face. The hotel is, more than just a place to stay, a veritable life-saver up in these wild parts for all kinds of things: ski slope base, snow sports rental outlet, shop, restaurant… Downstairs it has a games room with a pool table, too. And then of course there is the rather well-endowed wellness centre: steam sauna, Finnish sauna, relaxation room, outdoor terrace with whirlpool jacuzzi and before- and apres-ski specific treatments, with the pine tree massage (yes, a little bit of the vast forests outside your window) perhaps the best of these. In short, there is no shortage of refined “horský” (mountain-themed) ways to while away the time, and your mind is constantly racing to the contemplation of what to do next: so the rooms themselves become, well, almost a secondary consideration. You are not, in essence, going to be spending much time in them.

That is not to say that they are not pleasant enough: they are. They’re finished in the pine wood style of much of the hotel. The furniture is all solid wood from the beds to the wardrobes, there are phones and TVs and perfectly decent en suite bathrooms, with colour schemes brightened by bright carnelian on one wall. The views of some rooms aren’t quite as good as they good be given the location (pokey prospects of corners of buildings) but they’re spacious rock-solid three-star digs. There is a notable mark-up in standard to the suites, which for only 50 Euros per night more than the standard rooms are a great bargain, with ample sitting rooms and bundles more space for those travelling in slightly larger groups.

The restaurant is an altogether more impressive prospect – and many people journey up for the afternoon or evening solely to eat here. The floor-to-ceiling views of the high ridge leading to Chopok already get diners in an amenable mood. Then there’s the size (simply loads of space, with a lot of the tables having low cushioned seating around them in their own small enclaves within the larger dining area). And last but not least: the food. It’s important to place the context: Slovak mountain food, whilst delicious, is quite heavy, so the restaurant is a nice break from that. Bryndza comes on a chive-sprinkled bruschetta here. Fresh vegetables are sprinkled throughout the menu offerings, and the heavenly salmon again offers that chance to enjoy the mountains fuelled by a lighter, healthier diet than the average!

All told, there’s so much to do at Hotel Srdiečko, in fact, that we’ve been obliged to assemble this little guide to our favourite things to indulge in whilst here…

1: Take the combination of chair lift (to Kosodrevina) and then cable car up to Chopok.

2: Hike from here to one of Slovakia’s most interesting cave systems, the Dead Bat’s Cave.

3: Take advantage of the decent wellness centre and have a splash in the idyllic hot tub on the upper terrace.

4: Lounge in the lovely restaurant (floor-to-ceiling views of the mountains conquered or yet to conquer).

In addition to all this, Hotel Srdiečko is our recommended stop-over at the end of the second stage of the Hrebenovka ridge hike

No wonder they don’t accept stays of less than two nights during busy times (December and January, plus the rest of ski season until March, are peak visiting time)… (their stay four nights, pay for three deal, regularly occurring, means a 4-night stay is just about perfect for a first visit)

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 PRICES: Standard room/suite from 68/113 Euros (2016/2017 room prices based on two adults sharing the room)

GETTING THERE: Two daily buses run between Brezno (on the national railway network and with further bus connections to Bratislava and other big cities) and the turning circle in front of the hotel: meaning very much that this is a great base to start a long, in-depth Low Tatras adventure. Departure times from Brezno railway station are 07:50 and 14:35. In the other direction, the departure times to Brezno are 08:50 and 15:30.

BOOK HORSKÝ HOTEL SRDIEČKO

A kamzik - something you'll see on the ridge above the hotel ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

A kamzik – something you’ll see on the ridge above the hotel ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

©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.