during the Premier League match between XXX and XXX at Old Trafford on May 21, 2017 in Manchester, England.

How AquaCity moves mountains for Manchester United hopefuls

Heroes of British soccer have revealed one of the best-kept secrets of Slovakia  … for the last eight years Manchester United has been sending its young hopefuls there to a specialist mountainside training camp.

Every October Manchester United’s Youth Team spends time in the city of Poprad training at one of the world’s most exciting stadiums, playing ‘friendlies’ against locals and recuperating in the world’s greenest hotel.

Poprad is an extraordinary place, tacked to the foot of the High Tatras mountains and near to the Polish border.

Thirty years ago though it had daunting metaphorical mountains to climb having been abandoned to the remnants of the Velvet Revolution politics.

But people of vision were already making things happen and now Poprad is one of the most important cities in Slovakia. It has become the administrative, economic, cultural and tourism centre for the whole Tatras region.

And at its heart stands AquaCity, once voted the world’s greenest hotel … and this is where Manchester United hopefuls stay while they undergo training regimes against one of the most powerful natural backdrops in Europe.

Former Manchester United assistant manager Ryan Giggs said this: “It is vital in a young players development that they get to gain as many different types of football experience as possible. Because of the training in Poprad they can relate to playing against different opposition, experience new cultures and food, travelling and adapting to new surroundings. The training camp in Poprad allows all this to happen.”

And last week it all paid off in a big way – youth team  players who trained in Poprad were chosen to play against Crystal Palace  when Jose Mourinho   rotated his squad ahead of the Europa League final.. Manchester United won the game 2-0, with Josh Harrop and Paul Pogba scoring the goals.

The story really begins with former car worker  Dr Jan Telensky, his geo-thermal lake 2,000 metres inside the earth – and his belief in cryogenics.  Three little minutes   that can change your life.

He said:  “When I first came to Poprad, I saw a pipe coming up out of the ground. It had breath hot enough to melt your soul. So, I looked into the history of it and pretty soon I realised there was a natural miracle two miles below the earth. An eternal source of power, warmth and health. It’s been there for millions of years and it’ll be there for millions more.

“I decided to harness it, that’s all. The government and the town of Poprad worked with me on it.”

Next door to AquaCity  is a magnificent new football stadium, designated as a Slovak National Training Centre (NTC). It is the only ground in the world to be heated by an underground lake and have an all-weather pitch.

The NTC is where you can watch the Manchester United football’s stars of tomorrow train and play some of Slovakia’s Premier League and other overseas teams for a fraction of the price it would cost at Old Trafford.   There is a Hall of Fame board inside AquaCity with a list of the stars who have played there.

 David Moyes, a former manager at MU who was involved in the training experiment: “This the ideal place for a sports training camp, the fourteen swimming pools and the leisure facililities are enormously popular with our young players.”

And AquaCity  offers all sorts of fitness and enjoyment, not only for professional sportsmen but for families too with pools, massage jets, children’s pools  and water slides,  laser lights to change the color of the water, outdoor thermal pools, blue Sapphire pools, blue diamond pools, and a 50 metre swimming pool.

In the wellness and spa suites there is Vital World, the K-Vital Beauty Centre, the Massage Centre, and the Thai Massage Centre with edible massage treatments such as chocolate, honey and green apples.

Then there is the controversial cryogenics chamber which has been helping sports people and visitors with injuries and ailments.

It is the Big Chill, an oversized deep-freeze which makes you feel wonderful. It works  wonders for the skin and muscles, can boost your immune response, ease chronic pain, heal nerve damage, and improve sporting performance.

And Poprad too  really is a beautiful place to be, sitting as it does on a vast plain leading to the foothills of the perpetually snow-capped Tatras Mountains.

It came into being in the 13th century, when the king of Hungary persuaded German colonists to move to what was nothing more than isolated arable land. Way back then Poprad was just one of more than 20 farming communities dotted across the plains.  It soon garnered importance however, as a main stopping-off point on the trade route between Poland and Hungary.

Another ‘revolution’ took place in 1938 when a military airfield with grass for a runway was built  west of Velko village as World War II loomed. The first real runway wasn’t actually built until 1970.

Poprad Tatry Airport finally came into its own in the early 21st century when it was classed as of International standards.

The 13th century Early Gothic church of St. Egidius in the town square still retains pieces of  wall paintings  dating from the Middle Ages. And then of course there is the Renaissance bell tower built in 1592 with its three original bells. 

aquacitypop

Back to the future in enigmatic Slovakia

Going on holiday in Slovakia really is like going back to the future.

On the one hand time stands still, sometimes deliberately and sometimes because there  simply has been no reason to change it.  On the other  Slovakia  has the proud Tatra Tiger, the nickname of its burgeoning economy. And of course it also has its incredibly successful hi-tech motor and aviation industries.

But there is no doubt that Slovakia remains the beating heart of European history with its ancient cities and towns, its boiling underground lakes and its snow-capped mountains where great bears and wolves still roam like antediluvian shivering armies

It is a small enigmatic country, bordered by Poland, Ukraine and Hungary, and is so ancient that you can taste history in the air … the smell of  Kapustnica soup cooking on a stove in a witch’s hat of a hillside  Koliba or the sulphur of the great Poprad River flowing from the Carpathians.

         And then of course there is the world’s greenest  and technologically astounding hotel, AquaCity,  Poprad, Central Slovakia, a town which now in so many ways brags the best in the ancient and modern.  The hotel was built by reknowned British and Central Europe visionary Dr Jan Telensky.

History has made Slovakia what it is today …  look at the stone tools dating back to the Ice Age and the Venus of Moravany, a female figure  carved out of  mammoth tusk  dating to 22,800 BC. The ivory figure was dug up by a farmer in 1930 in  Podkovica,  less than two hours from Poprad.

Sometimes in Eastern Slovakia you will come across the remains of hill forts standing against the skyline. Some date back to the First Century and are stark monuments to the Celtic invasion at the first documented turn of the pages of history.  Name some eastern forts

Yes, the history of the glorious little country just goes on and on. It is rife with tales of invasion and revolution. The Romans, the Huns, the Mongols, the Bohemians, Hungary, Poland and Germany have all wanted to steal a piece of it.

And then of course  in November 1989 there was  the Velvet Revolution which led to the downfall of Communism in Czechoslovakia and finally showed the way to the independence Slovakia had battled so hard to win.

The final revolution of course was in 2004 when it   joined the EU and was placed firmly on the international tourism map.

So, here we are in the first quarter of the 21st Century with politics and the economy, hopes and aspirations taking on an  entirely different complexion.

Eastern Slovakia is a wonderful and evocative place to be, with its hills and mountains  and,   its lowlands with its sublime vineyards. Tokaj is probably the most famous wine fermented there.

Poprad is likely to be your first experience of the mountainous country of the East, it is the closest city to the High Tatras Mountains and boasts the region’s major transport links, trains, buses and planes.  There is Poprad airport which was renovated and updated a few years ago and a there is a plethora of taxis waiting there to take you to the ancient city centre or indeed AquaCity, quite simply the place to stay and be seen.

Poprad is alive with quaint and charming bars and restaurants and is the gateway to the Tatra Mountains. But it has its own ‘hidden gem’, Spišská Sobota, a village less than ten minutes walk away which is a conservation site boasting Baroque burghers houses, merchants and artisans houses and a beautiful market square with a 15th century church and Renaissance bell-tower.

The real draw in the region though has to be AquaCity with its saunas, Olympic swimming pool, outdoor pools, centres of well-being, laser light shows, bars, restaurant, cafes, sumptuous rooms and its cryochamber. Amazingly the  hotel is powered by a  geothermal lake and the sun itself.

It’s the place to be to take part in all the things the mountains – described as the teeth of Slovakia – offer from dog sledding, skating on the mirrored lakes, snowboarding, horse riding, climbing and even golf.

Traditional Slovak Music: Being Showcased Across the Country ©Wipo: photo Emmanuel Berrod

Summer 2017 In Slovakia: A Guide to the Best Events

The weather might have been intimating the fact for a while now, but there’s no denying that midsummer has officially arrived and in Slovakia, this means a season of spectacular festivals. We don’t say this lightly: for a country of just five million people Slovakia’s cultural events pack a whopping great punch. Bratislava and, these days, Košice, are already making their festive clout felt well beyond the borders of Slovakia, but here at Englishman in Slovakia we feel that there are a fair few other celebrations between now and the end of summer you have to know about – and know about in English!

In case you’re new to Slovakia, its unique reach where annual celebrations are concerned is its melding of the best in modern and ancient. Take music for example. I’ve said many times on here that Slovakia’s music scene is formidable – it gets the best of all the big bands performing on tour and for far cheaper prices than almost anywhere else in Europe – but it has also preserved a rich folk culture many other countries have long since dismissed.

Below, then, find the only guide that rounds up Slovakia’s summer extravaganzas from now until autumn (21st September) by region (yes, Bratislava, Western Slovakia, Central/Southern SlovakiaMalá Fatra/Vel’ka Fatra/Orava Valley, High Tatras, Low Tatras, Slovak Paradise and Košice/Eastern Slovakia). Where possible, we’ll also point you in the right direction for getting tickets too…

JUNE

BRATISLAVA…

KONVERGENCIE, JUNE 24TH-SEPTEMBER 24TH

Classical and chamber music performed at various venues around the city – but with a youthful, innovative vibe.

Get Tickets: The festival has a great website with tickets available at Ticketportal through this link. First scroll through the website’s program to find out the title of the event you fancy.

You may also want to read: Our section on entertainment venues in Bratislava.

MALÁ FATRA/VEL’KA FATRA…

FEST ANČA, ŽILINA, JUNE 29TH-JULY 2ND

Europe’s leading animated film fest, held in the cool arts venue of Stanica in hip Žilina.

Get Tickets: Go to the festival website to get tickets or contact them about buying them on the day.

You may also want to read: Žilina: Artsy Gateway to Malá Fatra

HIGH TATRAS…

VYCHODNÁ FOLK FESTIVAL, VYCHODNÁ, JUNE 29TH-JULY 2ND

The little village of Vychodná hosts Slovakia’s most famous folk festival – a great introduction to the fabulous folk music that has been produced in this mountainous region for centuries.

Get Tickets: The festival website now has an English version but tickets cannot be bought online: you can contact the festival organisers or you can just turn up on the day.

You may also want to read: Seeing as one of Slovakia’s best long-distance hikes begins or ends in nearby Pribylina, try Hiking the Tatranská Magistrala, Stage 4: Horský Hotel Popradské Pleso to Pribylina (includes links also to all other stages)

JULY

BRATISLAVA…

SUMMER SHAKESPEARE FESTIVAL, JULY 5th-AUGUST 1ST

Now here is a claim to fame: the oldest, largest outdoor festival in the world to focus on performances of the works of William Shakespeare! It offers a good opportunity to get outside in Bratislava in some of the city’s gorgeous alfresco settings. Performances, held in the wonderfully atmospheric setting of Bratislava Castle, are in Slovak and English.

Get Tickets: Very necessary – this is a popular series of events. The problem is that the website is in Slovak only. However, Shakespeare’s play titles are quite easily recognisable. Hamlet, for example, is ‘Hamlet’ in Slovak too.

You may also want to read: Where to Get High in Bratislava

BEEFREE FESTIVAL, JULY 28TH-JULY 29TH

Edition number 19 of the classic dance music festival across two stages: the city’s ‘beach’ alongside the Danube and at exhibition centre Incheba. House, drum & bass – take your pick.

Get Tickets: It’s free – just turn up. There is an FB page.

You may also want to read: The Forgotten Banks of the Danube OR Getting Out to the Danubiana Arts Museum

WESTERN SLOVAKIA…

POHODA, TRENČIN, JULY 6TH-JULY 8TH

It’s testament to Pohoda’s success that there’s almost no need to introduce what is firmly established as one of Eastern Europe’s main summer music festivals. Everyone who’s anyone in the music world, from Slovakia and elsewhere, and perhaps more importantly, a lot of acts who aren’t so famous yet, have performed here over the years. This time round, acts include Solange (2016’s album of the year) and Jesus and Mary Chain.

Get Tickets: From the festival website.

You may also want to read: Last year was the 20th edition of Pohoda: read Thoughts and Pictures from the 20th Edition of the Festival.

BECKOV CASTLE EVENTS, BECKOV, JULY & AUGUST

A fair few castles act as dramatic backdrops to festivals in Slovakia but our favourite this summer is the castle of Beckov near Trenčin. For medieval-themed frolics there is no better venue – weaponry demonstrations, games and even film screenings.

Get Tickets: Find out all about the events on the castle website, although this year’s events are in Slovak only. July 7th/8th hosts a weekend of medieval fun and demonstrations of 12th-century weaponry. Then there is the Cinema on the Wall event at weekends during July ad August, where films are projected on to the castle – contact the castle for more.

You may also want to read: Our article on Beckov Castle

CENTRAL & SOUTHERN SLOVAKIA…

DETVA FOLK FESTIVAL, DETVA, JULY 6TH-JULY 8TH

A folk fest with themed around the fujara (that is Slovakia’s incredibly distinctive national musical instrument, by the way), as befits the region which gave birth to the fujara. The festival is held in the Detva Ampitheatre, Detva being a little town near Banská Bystrica – right at the very heart of the nation, things DO NOT come much more traditional. Lots of events celebrating Slovakia’s shepherding heritage are also part of proceedings: shepherd demonstrations etc.

Get Tickets: Just turn up. There is a list of events scheduled on the municipality website but booking might be tough as English is not spoken much this far out in the sticks. Pass through here on the days in question, however, and you’ll get to experience one of the most authentic of Slovak folk festivals – even the folk extravaganza at Vychodná will seem mainstream by comparison!

You may also want to read: 39km northwest of Detva is Banská Bystrica, with some fabulous quirky Communist sights.

LIVE CHESS FESTIVAL, BANSKÁ ŠTIAVNICA, JULY 8TH-JULY 16TH

Chess was never more fun! The highlight of this festival is a live chess tournament on a giant board with costumed characters making the moves. And there was never a better setting for it than ancient Banská Štiavnica, where traditional food, drink and dance accompany the chess side of things, in typical old-fashioned venues around town.

Get Tickets: Best to contact the town’s tourist information office for more information – they are helpful and speak alright English.

You may also want to read: Where to begin? We’ve got tons of content on the lovely old town of Banská Štiavnica

HIGH TATRAS…

EL’RO (EUROPEAN FOLK CRAFT FESTIVAL), KEŽMAROK, JULY 7TH-JULY 9TH

This is Slovakia’s (and one of Europe’s) most important folk craft festivals. Held under the lofty High Tatras mountains in beautiful Kežmarok, just a short drive from Poprad, this extravaganza features everything from demonstrations of Slovakia’s Unesco-listed musical instrument the fujara to artisans making the quintessential national craft, the cornhusk figures known as Šúpolienky. Oh, and there is huge quantities of traditional food and booze… and music… and general revelry…

Get Tickets: There is more about the festival on the website – for tickets follow the instructions given on this page too (they’re available at the town’s Tourist Information Centre at Hlavné námestie 64.)

You may also want to read: More on typical Slovak crafts (including Šúpolienky of course).

AUGUST

BRATISLAVA…

SUP MARATHON

The highlight of August in the city of festivals that is Bratislava is surely this open-to-all paddle adventure from Karloveske Rameno on the western side of Bratislava down to the Danubiana Art Museum to the south-east of the city.

Join In: It’s best to contact the guys at Divoká Voda if you want to participate: watching it is free, almost as much fun… (and drier)

You may also want to read: Our piece on canoeing down the Danube!

WESTERN SLOVAKIA…

TRNAVA JAZZ FEST, TRNAVA, AUGUST 4TH-AUGUST 5TH

Bratislava’s jazz festival is possibly better known, but Trnava sports a great Slovak jazz festival too – and this one’s in summer. It’s held in the singular venue of the town ampitheatre. Funk, soul and ethno music are represented as well as jazz.

Get Tickets: The festival website does not have much information; it’s best to purchase tickets from Trnava Tourist Information Office at Trojičné Námestie 1 .

You may also want to read: A Touch of 1920’s Paris at Cafe Thalmeiner

MALÁ FATRA/VEL’KA FATRA…

JÁNOŠIKOVE DNI (JÁNOŠIK’S DAYS), TERCHOVA, AUGUST 3RD-AUGUST 6TH

One of Slovakia’s better-known festivals, this – although still not really that well-known. Terchová is the main town actually within the Malá Fatra National Park and Juraj Jánošik, who hails from the area, is Slovakia’s folk hero (the country’s very own Robin Hood, and one that actually did exist). This festival is in the outlaw’s name and is a celebration of folklore, theatre and folk and world music.

Get Tickets: Get tickets at this link or (if you read Slovak) here is more about the festival on its website.

You may also want to read: Two Short Walks in the Vrátna Valley by Terchova

EASTERN SLOVAKIA…

BARDEJOVSKÝ JARMOK (BARDEJOV FAIR), AUGUST 24TH-AUGUST 27TH

A ‘Jarmok’ roughly translated is a fair – and there are few better chances this summer to experience a classic Eastern Slovak-style fair than this one which sets Bardejov ablaze come the end of August with traditional food stalls and performances. It’s got a drop-dead gorgeous setting (the old town square).

Get Tickets: None needed; just show up in Barejov during these dates!

You may also want to read: Bardejov: Walking the Walls

SEPTEMBER

BRATISLAVA…

CRAFTSMEN DAYS, SEPTEMBER 1ST-SEPTEMBER 3RD

Over 100 different craftsmen showcasing traditional handicrafts from Slovakia, run by the wonderful folk craft centre of Úl’uv.

Get Tickets: When you’re in Bratislava, it’s probably best to pop into the centre itself for information (at least one member of staff speaks English and they’re very friendly, see link right below). The website is notoriously unreliable. You can also just turn up! A good one for families, or for those who can’t make it out to the bigger El’ro (in July in the High Tatras, above) with many free ‘interactive’ events.

You may also want to read: About Bratislava’s centre of folk craft production, Úl’uv

EASTERN SLOVAKIA…

INDIAN SUMMER FESTIVAL, LEVOČA, 8TH SEPTEMBER-12TH SEPTEMBER

Wo! The summer is not over yet, as this high-quality festival of classical music in venues around ornate Levoča show.

Get Tickets: The festival has a good in-English website with contact details for further information on getting tickets for performances

You may also want to read: Our feature on the Indian Summer Festival

Room at Hotel Mountain View - image courtesy of AquaCity

Poprad: the Mountain View

Perhaps it was the engaging smile of the girl on reception that did it (a welcome that appeared every bit as warm for me as for the clearly far-wealthier businessmen that had checked in beforehand). Perhaps it was that the walk to the room revealed glimpses of  what I knew lay in store for me the following morning, namely Slovakia’s premier water park, AquaCity. It could also have been the location. After all, I was bang on the doorstep of my favourite part of Poprad, the medieval neighbourhood of Spišská Sobota. Whatever the reason, I was in a jolly mood as I arrived at Hotel Mountain View, one of the High Tatras’ best hotels – and nothing occurred during my stay there to do anything other than bolster it.

Overall, it is the sense of fun that permeates what at first glance might seem more of a business hotel that wins the newcomer over. Yes, individuals in suits do sit nodding gravely at meetings in the vast reception area and indeed, the hotel is well-known for its conference facilities. But families also wander through in dressing gowns on the way to the aqua park which awaits directly below. The hotel might have four stars, and many of the airs and graces of five, but it takes itself only a little bit seriously. It’s hard to be too serious, possibly, when there are fully-fledged adults squealing with glee on the nearby slides (some are reclining sedately in spa treatments or in the umpteen sauna rooms but, honestly, more are squealing).

The reception area, as intimated above, has a certain sumptuousness to accompany the friendly initiation. Contemporary it is (if not strikingly so). A long bar graces one side, and a terrace on the other side lends views of the Spišská Sobota rooftops, with the world’s only geothermally-heated football pitch in the foreground. From here, the reception-to-room walk is looong – if not quite long enough to see off dinner, then certainly enough distance to appreciate the ‘city’ part of AquaCity, and leave you feeling very glad to arrive and kick back a-while…

The cafe terrace - image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The cafe terrace – image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The standard rooms are already on the large side: over 30 sq metres each, with the suites garnering up to twice that space. The hotel is a modern steel-and-glass structure and the modernity translates to the rooms: with bands of butterscotch yellow brightening the spick-and-span greys of the bathroom tiling and the bedroom curtains and bedspreads. Small balconies gaze out towards the High Tatras although not all clock those homonymous ‘mountain views’ – this hotel is not about mountain proximity (there are many other places to stay closer to the alluring peaks themselves) because you’ll spend the majority of your time here looking in rather than out. In fact, traditional mountain life seems distant at Hotel Mountain View, with crisp decoration, rather healthy food and city sophistication much more the order of the day (there is hardly any beech or oak wood in sight). As you partake from the generously-stocked minibar, flick channels on the LCD TV’s or wander along to the hotel bar, cafe or restaurant, you’re much more likely to be contemplating what your room rate includes: and it’s this that sets the hotel apart.

This is because free access to the majority of the AquaCity facilities is included in the accommodation price: to all the indoor and outdoor pools and the 8 wellness saunas and steam rooms (nowhere else in the country can boast such a variety of water-based fun). Free access to AquaCity’s fitness centre is also on offer, and a huge buffet breakfast is included in the rate too (although you’ll have an appetite worked up by the time you arrive, because it’s a fair hike along and up to reception then down again to the breakfast room).

Yet you can relish the facilities quite guilt-free: compared to every other place to stay in Slovakia, and indeed in Eastern Europe, Hotel Mountain View’s carbon footprint is low indeed: with the vast majority of the hotel’s (and the water park’s) energy issuing forth from the geothermal waters bubbling away under the ground.

Even if you arrive in a state of despondency, actually, at this place it’s pretty hard to escape the pampering, or keep that smile off your face.

MAP LINK: (the hotel is located at Športova 1397, Spišská Sobota, Poprad – within the AquaCity complex and with the same main entrance)

PRICES: Standard double from 151.40 Euros, suite from 281.40 Euros (2017 prices)

BOOK HOTEL MOUNTAIN VIEW: (Standard) (Suite)

Approaching the hotel... image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Approaching the hotel… image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

A Quick Guide to the Other Content We Have on Poprad

Places to Go: Poprad’s funky contemporary art gallery in an old power station

Places to Go: Poprad’s lavish Aqua Park

Places to Go: Nine reasons to linger in Poprad

Places to Go/Getting Around: Taking the Mountain Railway into the High Tatras from Poprad

Places to Stay: A cool travel-friendly B&B in Spišská Sobota, Poprad

Places to Stay: A sophisticated 4-star resort right by Poprad’s Aqua Park

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s trendy burger joint

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s dignified Café La Fée

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s Coolest Wine Bar

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s gourmet chocolatier

Going Out: Poprad & the Manchester United Connection

Arts & Culture: Dedicated traditional Czech & Slovak music radio station now based in Poprad

Getting Around: London to Poprad Flights

Getting Around: The Poprad to Ždiar to Zakopane (Poland) bus

Top Ten Medieval Towns in Slovakia

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 Englishman in Slovakia walks the walls of Bardejov ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Bardejov: Walking the Walls

There’s always an urge when you arrive in a new city to “make your mark” – to go out into the middle of it and make sense of it, somehow. The newly-arrived do this in many different ways, of course. They might climb that city’s tallest building, or ascend to the top of whatever that city’s main viewpoint is: to visualise the place in its entirety, stretching away from smart central blocks to decrepit suburbs. They might go a-wandering down that city’s streets to the main square, or perhaps to its darkest back alley, to have a drink in a notorious bar or cafe and people-watch, and become acquainted with the destination that way.

In Bardejov’s case, the best way to do it is to “walk the walk” of its recently restored town walls.

There are not many towns or cities in Slovakia with their original ancient walls in tact and this, already, propels Bardejov onto the elite list of places to visit. But Bardejov’s walls go a step further even than those of nearby and likewise Unesco-listed Levoča: you can walk them, all the way around the old town, and in so doing patrol the periphery of the country’s most impeccably preserved medieval centre, just as if you were a guard defending against the myriad invaders that once plagued the region.

Bardejov, by way of introduction, squeezes on to most people’s grand tours of Slovakia (if they do a grand tour, that is) despite its out-of-the-way location in the far north-east of the nation (Bratislava-Trenčin-Malá Fatra-High Tatras-Levoča-Spiš Castle-Košice-Bardejov is the classic travel route) and its main allure is its spectacularly maintained 14th- and 15th-century architecture, wrapped around by the afore-mentioned walls. The result is, in our opinion, Slovakia’s prettiest town. Still, though: venture here and you will nevertheless feel like an adventurer, for tourists do not come in the big flocks they do in Western Europe. On my last two visits to Bardejov, I’ve been one of only a handful of foreign visitors – and that in the high season. For such a beautiful town, and to experience it so tourist-free, you would have to travel a very long way on this continent: and what is heartening about Bardejov’s wall walk is the confirmation that the Unesco money is being spent on continuing to conserve the town’s very special heritage.

Bardejov features on our Top Ten Medieval Towns in Slovakia – click the link to find out at which position!

The way to start walking the walls ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The way to start walking the walls ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

It’ll take you around 30 minutes, at a leisurely pace, to walk around the circumference of the walls, best done in a clockwise direction from the main city entry point on the street of Dlhý Rad on the north side, right opposite where the banks are. Ascend the grassy banks via the steps and then turn left to head along a particularly rejuvenated and elevated section (as per the feature image), overlooking the northernmost of the town centre’s burgher’s houses – many of which date to over 500 years of age.

Think of the walls encircling Bardejov as a clock face, with your entry point as 12 o’clock. After the elevated section you’ll drop down to continue on a small cobbled lane passing a couple of bastions, which brings you round to the southern (upper) end of Bardejov’s vast, spectacular central square or námestie, Radničné námestie at about 6 o’clock. Following the wall on around clockwise, you’ll walk via the old monastery, Klaštor Frantiskánov and the adjoining church of Svätého Jána Krstitel’a, before bearing round to the north and the superb Hotel pod Bránou, nestled within the walls three blocks west of the square. It’s here, almost at the end of the circuit of old Bardejov, that you might want to indulge in some refreshments: either in the courtyard dining area of the hotel OR just beyond on the sunken garden area immediately to the northeast around Miškovského, with a cracking good ice cream stand: perfect for sitting and appreciating the refurbishment of the city’s northern bastions, splashed by a lovely fountain (history, THEN food – see what we did there?).

Walls patrolled? It’s time to head the three blocks east from Hotel pod Branou to the set piece of the town, the central square/Radničné námestie: crowned at its northern end by its beautiful cathedral, Bazilika Svätého Egidia.

A Little Historic Overview

Whilst the cathedral on the main square has its origins in the 13th century, the fortification of Bardejov were improved radically in the 14th century (and it is this work which provided the basis for the modern town walls). Most of the houses in the old town were originally erected in the 14th and 15th centuries and by the 16th century, Bardejov had already passed its zenith, with pandemics and a clutch of wars bringing it down to its knees.

Golden age number two could well be right now.

MAP LINK:

GETTING THERE: Getting to Bardejov isn’t as easy as it should be, because it’s on a spur train line. Coming from Bratislava by train (3 trains daily), you’ll have to change at first Kysak and then Prešov, with total journey time 7 hours 30 minutes and total cost 20.30 Euros. Coming from Košice by train (trains every two hours), you’ll have to change at Prešov with total journey time 1 hour 55 minutes and total cost 4.15 Euros. Buses are as frequent and as quick from either city to Bardejov.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Bardejov it’s 35km east to Svidník and one of the world’s most fascinating war museums.

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The High Tatras Mountain Resorts − Starý Smokovec: the Funicular to Hrebienok

Mountain resorts are an occasionally unerring type of destination. They represent the most straightforward ways, on paper, of accessing the prime mountain country of any given destination. But the flip side of that is that they can appear austere and inauthentic tourist centres, full of people milling around but not actually knowing how to inject life into their trip (or people content in just milling around: fine if you fit into that category but then this probably isn’t the article for you!).

Starý Smokovec can be like that. Its age-old charm (it was, after all, the original mountain resort here, dating back to the late 19th century) ensures it is the suavest place to stay in these parts. There are some very decent restaurants around too. Yet it as neither as obviously in the mountains as Štrbské Pleso (where it’s more apparent how to at least get up to the namesake lake for a flavour of the surrounding Alpine scenery), and has less to do than Tatranská Lomnica (where a good museum and the cable car ride of the country, up to Slovakia’s second-highest peak, Lomnický štít, await). The bottom line is that if you are just-arrived in Starý Smokovec and want to get up towards the tops of those peaks looming above your guesthouse or hotel window, 19th century architecture and nice places to eat will not divert your attention too long. 

From the Tatras Mountain Railway station (with direct connections from Poprad’s mainline railway station every hour), it’s a couple of blocks’ walk up to the funicular railway station to Hrebienok, via this route. Taking the funicular up to Hrebienok is the sure-fire way to get up and into cracking mountain scenery quickly. It’s one of the few funicular railways in the Slovak mountains (most transport up into the peaks is by cable car or chair lift). The regularity of the Starý Smokovec-Hrebienok connections also means this is a plausible half-day trip (time for a bite to eat in the Hrebienok funicular station restaurant and a stroll around).

For the 8-minute trip up to Hrebienok, you’ll part with 8 Euros one-way or 9 Euros return trip, with daily trains leaving on average half-hourly between 8:30am and 4:30pm (in the summer season between June 1st and October 1st, 7:30am to 7pm). (In February trains only run at weekends and in March just Monday through Friday).

Hrebienok, honoured with a visit from Queen Elizabeth a few years back, is little more than a glorified funicular station, although the restaurant inside serves good food. Here, however, you are at an elevation of 1,285m, and surrounded by gorgeous high-altitude pine forest, with the serious climbs to the peaks at your fingertips. You are ideally poised for any number of hikes, including on Stage Three of the Tatranská Magistrala multi-day hike across the High Tatras (north on an easyish hike to Zamkovského Chata and west on a tougher trek to Popradské Pleso and Štrbské Pleso… an exciting place for hikers to be…

 

Slavin War Memorial, Bratislava (far from actually falling down!) ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

In Pictures: A Ludicrous Little Tour Through the Communist Legacy in Slovakia

Is Slovakia one of the easternmost outposts of Western Europe or one of the westernmost of Eastern Europe? During Socialism in Slovakia the answer was certainly the latter. And as a result, Socialist Slovakia became, architecturally, and particularly in Bratislava, something of a showcase for the Brutalist architecture that defined the Eastern Bloc: a “look-what-we-can-do” brag to the West. The results? Some of the strangest Brutalist buildings you ever will see…

More on Slavín and Most SNP: Where to Get High in Bratislava

More on Petržalka: Petržalka‘s New Tram Link, Getting to Danubiana the Cool Way, The Forgotten Banks of the Danube

More on the Slovak Radio Building: Inside Bratislava’s Upside-Down Pyramid

More on Banská Bystrica: Free-running Around Banská Bystrica, Uncovering the Beauty of Brutalism in Banská Bystrica

More on Štrbské Pleso: The High Tatras Mountain Resorts: Štrbské Pleso, Mountain Lakeshore Dining at Štrbské Pleso

Slavin War Memorial, Bratislava (far from actually falling down!) ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Slavin War Memorial, Bratislava (far from actually falling down!) ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Petržalka, Bratislava: one of Eastern Europe's largest Communist housing complexes ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Petržalka, Bratislava: one of Eastern Europe’s largest Communist housing complexes ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Most SNP, Bratislava: with a UFO on top ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Most SNP, Bratislava: with a UFO on top ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Slovak Radio Building, Bratislava ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Slovak Radio Building, Bratislava ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Museum of the SNP, Banská Bystrica ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Museum of the SNP, Banská Bystrica ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The Panorama Resort at Štrbské Pleso in the High Tatras ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The Panorama Resort at Štrbské Pleso in the High Tatras ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Image by Jonno Tranter

Hiking the Cesta Hrdinov SNP, Stage One: Myjava to Vel’ka Javorina

The Cesta hrdinov SNP, aka the trail of the Heroes of the Slovak National Uprising, begins officially at Bradlo, the monument to the ultimate Slovak hero, General MR Štefánik: it’s a continuation of the Štefánikova magistrála trail that runs here all the way from Bratislava. In short, this is the next big chunk of the mega-hike that traverses the entire length of Slovakia, now and for the remainder of its route to Dukla Pass in far-eastern Slovakia under the new guise of “Cestra hrdinov SNP”, a 500km+ adrenaline rush of a hike on some of Eastern Europe’s most jaw-dropping mountain and forest scenery. 

SCROLL TO OUR COVERAGE OF THE CESTA HRDINOV SNP PATH FROM ITS VERY BEGINNING (AT BRADLO – AND ON AS FAR AS MYJAVA) WITH OUR ARTICLE ON HIKING THE ŠTEFANIKOVA MAGISTRÁLA, STAGE FIVE: DOBRÁ VODA TO BRADLO (AND BEYOND)

We aim, over time, to have the entirety of this spectacular path featured on the site with stage descriptions for each (just as we have for Slovakia’s other long-distance trails, the Tatranská Magistrála in the High Tatras and the afore-mentioned Štefánikova magistrála in Western Slovakia. For Stage One, we give the floor to the intrepid Jonno Tranter. who hiked it this summer…

We were hiking the Cesta Hrdinov SNP as a continuation of our walking the entire Štefánikova magistrála trail from the Slovak capital of Bratislava. We’d walked from Dobrá Voda over Bradlo to Myjava the previous day, and after the wild terrain we’d been experiencing, the fact that the trail now followed the high street of Myjava, a fairly sizeable town by the standards of the hamlets we’d so far passed through, represented a big contrast.

If you plan on travelling like us, in summer, make sure to look up when the bank holidays are, as Myjava was like a ghost town when we walked through on what turned out to be a bank holiday morning. Apparently, there is a bookshop here where you can buy maps, but we were sadly to go without (closed for the day). However, we got by during the rest of our trek by taking pictures of the local maps fortuitously posted along the trail to guide us. Once you’re past Billa (a large supermarket, a good place to stock up), the town peters off and you’re quickly back into the fields above.

Slightly disheartened, we continued on the trail, which rises to the highest peak (970m) of our particular Slovakian adventure. Fortunately, the ascent is very spread out and gradual, and it doesn’t feel as tough to hike up as earlier rises on the Štefánikova magistrála like Vápenná in the Malé Karpaty.

The trail here is easy to follow and you’ll even spot a few other hikers in the area, something we hadn’t experienced earlier on our march across the hills from Bratislava. A little after entering the forest, about thirty minutes from Myjava, there’s a well on the right of the path, so make sure you have a drink before the ascent. You’re now in the Biele Karpaty proper, and once you hit Dibrovov pomník, the trail actually follows the Czech/ Slovak border. When the forest thins out, you’ll be in open grassland rising towards the top of the 970m-high Veľká Javorina, where there are some great views. Veľká Javorina is the high point of the Biele Karpaty range (and thus considerably higher than the highest elevations of the Malé Karpaty). The peak has long been symbolic of the healthy relationship between the Czech and Slovak republics, too, with a stone inscribed with words that translate as “here the brothers will meet always”.

Walk about 20 minutes further along the trail, past the communications tower, and you’ll get to Holubyho chata, which serves delicious food and has a nice terrace for summer days. With a wooden interior, the building looks like a chalet and doubles up as a hotel. There’s a road that leads here for tourists so it’s quite busy, though we had no problem getting served. The area is full of ski slopes and seems to also merit a winter visit.

At this point, we decided that to make it to the Pohoda festival (our end destination) in time, we would need to find a shorter way through than the red SNP trail. We decided to go for a green route which bypasses the “U” shape of the red trail and will save you about 15km.

The green trail is quite narrow and slightly more rough than what we were used to. However, it’s on this part of the trail that we saw the most people, and it was refreshing to meet other hikers and enjoy the mountains together. The path starts by following the Slovak-Czech border but then dives across into the Czech Republic. It then cuts through Květná, a small town with a few bars on the high street where you’ll be able to enjoy a meal, though no shops were open when we visited in the early afternoon. Although you are in the Czech Republic, all the restaurants and bars in this part of the country seemed to accept euros.

Continue through on the green trail past Nová hora and you’ll get to a little bridge above the Březová stream, a small river that’s just big enough to bathe in. There’s a few fields and farmhouses around, but right by the river is a small expanse, a perfect place to camp. That night we made friends with a few other campers and enjoyed some Czech pear liquor around a warm fire…

Setting up camp near Vel'ka Javorina - image by Jonno Tranter

Setting up camp near Vel’ka Javorina – image by Jonno Tranter

STAGE OVERVIEW MAP LINK:

WHAT NEXT?

Hiking the Štefánikova Magistrála (the prequel to the Cesta Hrdinov SNP – an introduction (featured in our Places to Go/Bratislava & Around and Places to Go/Western Slovakia sub-sections)

Hiking the Štefánikova Magistrála – Some Useful Tips (featured in our Places to Go/Bratislava & Around and Places to Go/Western Slovakia sub-sections)

Hiking the Štefánikova Magistrála, Stage One: Hrad Devín to Kamzík (featured in our Places to Go/Bratislava & Around sub-section)

Hiking the Štefánikova Magistrála – Stage Two: Kamzík to Pezinská Baba (featured in our Places to Go/Bratislava & Around and Places to Go/Western Slovakia sub-sections)

Hiking the Štefánikova Magistrála, Stage Three: Pezinská Baba to Vápenná (featured in our Places to Go/Western Slovakia sub-section)

Hiking the Štefánikova Magistrála, Stage Four: Vápenná to Dobra Voda (featured in our Places to Go/Western Slovakia sub-section)

Hiking the Štefánikova Magistrála, Stage Five: Dobrá Voda to Bradlo (and Beyond) (Previous Stage)

Plus: More on the Cesta Hrdinov SNP Trail…

Hiking the Cesta Hrdinov SNP, Stage Two: Vel’ka Javorina to Drietoma (Next Stage)

 

A moving encounter between long-lost relatives bought together through the Slovakia genealogy tours. ©adventoura

Tours: Ancestry Trips Through Slovakia

Slovakia’s turbulent history – with stints under the control of several different empires – means tracing your roots can be tough. Nevertheless, many of those with Slovak ancestry do want to take up the challenge, and it’s here that one of the country’s newest tour operators comes in handy.

Based in the High Tatras, Ancestry and Genealogy Tours Slovakia have many years’ previous experience as an adventure tour operator, Adventoura, but have recently added this separate arm to their enterprise: partly because of the owner’s interest in uncovering more information about his own heritage (he’s connected to the Rusyn people of Eastern Slovakia, and to a small village in Slovakia’s whiskey-producing region of Stará L’ubovña. The premise is simple: if you want to discover more about your roots, either Slovak or (as investigations sometimes pan out) any roots that originate in the countries surrounding Slovakia such as Poland or Ukraine, then get in touch with them beforehand, allow them a few weeks to do the wider research into your family history in the region and then, when the necessary information has been gleaned, and family members in Slovakia and vicinity contacted, book your flight to Slovakia to commence the experience.

Packages with such specifics being researched and incorporated into the tour are all unique and tailor-made to the individual requirements of the customers. The key theme of the trip will be the reunion with long-lost relatives – if Ancestry and Genealogy tours Slovakia have managed to locate them, and if the customers so desire. Trips can last up to 14 days in some cases, with every aspect from food to accommodation possible to arrange with the agency.

Often, partly because migration was historically higher from Eastern Slovakia, and because the agency is based in the eastern half of the country, tours take in sights in this part of Slovakia of historic interest. There is the personal level, too: generally, those intrigued by their family’s past are also fascinated to see what the places their family were surrounded by in their daily lives are like. Thus Eastern Slovakia’s wooden churches and the gorgeous Unesco-listed town of Bardejov and Levoča (where the historic archives for the area are located, and which can be visited as part of the tour) are popular stop-offs on the itinerary.

“Every trip involves a totally different story or set of anecdotes” smiles Erik Ševčík, who set up the company. “Quite funny is when, because of the family’s excitement and getting back in touch, the customers and the relatives they have been reunited with forget they can’t speak the same language (because older people in Slovakia rarely speak English, and many of those retracing roots have English as their mother tongue, not Slovak any longer). So they are chatting to each other and neither can understand the words the other is saying, yet on some deeper level they really are getting on with each other like old family members already after just one meeting!

I have been doing this a while now, but the circumstances of meetings are so touching that leaving with customers to continue on the journey never gets any easier – it’s always tough and emotional.”

FULL DETAILS OF HOW TO START ARRANGING YOUR TRIP WITH ANCESTRY AND GENEALOGY TOURS SLOVAKIA ARE AVAILABLE ON THEIR WEBSITE

 

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Poprad: the Chocolatier

Never did the adage “short but sweet” more aptly apply to the subject of my writing than with Bon Bon, Poprad’s world-class chocolatier.

We’ve mentioned before on the site how the Dominika Tatarku boulevard between Poprad’s railway station and the city centre has been refined and improved no end over the last few years (the funky Elektáreň art gallery on the same street exemplifies this revamp) but this little chocolate shop has been here since the word go, making a name for itself all by itself with the sheer delectability of its chocs.

The choice of dark, milk and white chocolates awaiting you behind the counter is intimidating. My personal favourite is the dark chocolate chilli praline, although the quality is as high as the choice is diverse. But this is not even to mention the highlight – which is their hot chocolate. Now, my previous best hot chocolate experience was on a Moscow side street in January, but then it was also the evading the cold outside, admittedly, which played a part in my enjoyment. Bon Bon’s hot chocolate, I concede, out-trumps Moscow’s. It’s so thick you can tilt your beverage up and it won’t spill but simply amble, in an agreeable gooey chocolate glacier, towards the lip of the cup. It hits the perfect note between sweet and bitter and feels exactly like the chocolatiers here have melted a big slab of their chocolate into a cup (which sure enough they have). It’s rich enough, too, that you’ll need to take your refreshment slowly, with a glass of water and a table, perhaps, on the dinky terrace.

For those just leaving Poprad by train: allow an extra 45 minutes to get waylaid at this place on the way to the station. For those just arrived by train: what with this place and the Elektáreň across the way, you’ll need a good couple of hours for that ten minute walk into the centre.

Short, you see, but sweet and, with the days closing in and the temperatures dropping, an utterly essential sweet fix to counteract the mountain chill…

Bon Bon - image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Bon Bon – image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

 

A Quick Guide to the Other Content We Have on Poprad

Places to Go: Poprad’s funky contemporary art gallery in an old power station

Places to Go: Poprad’s lavish Aqua Park

Places to Go: Nine reasons to linger in Poprad

Places to Go/Getting Around: Taking the Mountain Railway into the High Tatras from Poprad

Places to Stay: A cool travel-friendly B&B in Spišská Sobota, Poprad

Places to Stay: A sophisticated 4-star resort right by Poprad’s Aqua Park

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s trendy burger joint

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s dignified Café La Fée

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s Coolest Wine Bar

Going Out: Poprad & the Manchester United Connection

Arts & Culture: Dedicated traditional Czech & Slovak music radio station now based in Poprad

Getting Around: London to Poprad Flights

Getting Around: The Poprad to Ždiar to Zakopane (Poland) bus

Top Ten Medieval Towns in Slovakia

 

MAP LINK:

LOCATION: Dominika Tatarku 14

OPENING: 10am-8pm daily

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The High Tatras Mountain Resorts – Starý Smokovec: Koliba Kamzík

A Koliba, in Slovak, is a typical countryside dining spot serving traditional Slovak food. And Starý Smokovec, one of the ‘big three’ of the mountain resorts in the High Tatras, is just about the last place in the country you would expect to chance across a rustic restaurant like this. That’s because Starý Smokovec is pretty much the archetypal late-19th-century mountain holiday destination, replete with grand, elaborate Art Nouveau architecture and oozing the polished suavity of a destination which has been able to attract tourists like pins to a magnet since the very beginning of its existence. And lovely it does indeed look. But it’s far harder, in such tourist magnets, to find a restaurant which isn’t trying to charge you many times over the odds for meals, or one that takes advantage of one-off custom to compromise on quality. This is where Koliba Kamzík steps into the fray…

Inside... ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Inside… ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

With a refreshing splash of classic mountain charm, this is a place that, quite literally, stands out above a lot of its other, far-more-hyped competition (it’s a block up the hill from the Grandhotel Starý Smokovec across a cleared area of grassland, but despite the prominence of its sign most tourists pass it by). It stands out too with incredible value for money, and with the delicious simplicity of its cuisine…

A block below this joint, it’s turn-of-the-century grandeur and tourist crowds often being served unexceptional food; here it’s the far-more Slovak pine and beech wood chalet-style with spotted and chequered tablecloths garnished by fresh flowers. A beaming Kamzík (mountain goat) welcomes you into an outside eating area and subsequently an interior that sparkle with chirpy decoration (the šupulienky cockerels steal the show). The service is speedy, if a tad abrupt (which is a lot better than lackadaisical and abrupt) and this means you’ll be sitting down with your choice from the classic but brilliantly executed Slovak menu in the pleasing and peaceful surrounds all the sooner.

Mushroom soup ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Mushroom soup ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

What to choose? (you’ll probably have to fend the waitress – she’ll be clad in traditional Slovak folkloric dress, by the way – off a couple of times). Soup, that quintessential way of embarking on a Slovak meal, is a worthy starter. I went for the hríbová polievka (mushroom soup) but the cesnaková polievka (garlic soup) looked like it tasted equally delicious. Soups with meals in Slovakia are generally thin, with the key ingredients not totally blended in but bobbing in tasty bite-sized morsels within, and rich in taste: mine was no exception. My choice of main was the “koliba plate” involving hearty amounts of dumplings (two kinds, the pirohy which are more like parcels containing meat, and halušky, solid dumplings cooked in bryndza sauce) and Slovak spicy sausage, klobasa. Venison, beef and an incredible grilled trout also flank the menu.

And perhaps here comes the deal maker. A proper Slovak eatery, rather than one of its pale imitations, is one thing. One that embraces Slovak food and does it with aplomb is another thing. The view (from the restaurant interior, if you grab a window seat, you’ve got the resort of Starý Smokovec ushering in a view down the hill slopes into the wide valley between the High and Low Tatras massifs) is a third thing. That all this comes together in such a touristy locale makes it four things. But the fifth thing trumps the others: the price. The mains start at a mere 5.50 Euros, and the grilled fish is only 8.50 Euros. You are saving money by coming here, and harbouring the feeling that, in the midst of all those tourists, you’ve somehow thwarted the tourist traps. So. Come!

MAP LINK:

LOCATION: Starý Smokovec 8 (Starý Smokovec is the road which rises up behind Penzion Tatra (itself looming up above the Starý Smokovec mountain railway station) and you’ll see the big sign looking to the right as you head up this lane.) The website gives you a fuller idea of the menu (if you can read Slovak).

OPENING: 11am to 10pm daily.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Koliba Kamzik it’s 100m west along the road behind the Grand Hotel Starý Smokovec to the cableway up to Hrebienok on stage three of the Tatranská Magistrala

Slovak Vodka Corners the UK Market!

Stará Ľubovňa has a fair amount to answer for when it comes to Slovakia spirits. Just beyond town, the highly successful Nestville Park distillery in Hniezdne produces Slovakia’s only whiskey. But in Stará Ľubovňa itself, the Gas Familia distillery produces a number of alcoholic drinks and one of these, the singular Goral Vodka, has recently become Slovakia’s first vodka to break into the UK market. In fact, it’s one of Slovakia’s very first alcoholic drinks to really make it in Britain – other distinctive Slovak drinks such as Eastern Slovakia’s Tokaj wine or the famous Tatranský čaj from the High Tatras have never yet secured their position on UK supermarket shelves.

The “Goral” in the vodka’s title comes from the Goral people who inhabited the Slovak High Tatras around the community of Ždiar, and whose culture remains prevalent there today. Folks from this neck of the woods are said to be have physical strength and a purity of spirit and this is what Goral vodka strives for as it makes inroads on your palate. An initial creaminess as well as lighter notes of spice and citrus are the other hits your taste buds can expect.

The vodka is produced using durum wheat which then undergoes seven-column distillation through natural materials like charcoal before the cool, clean water flowing off the High Tatras peaks gets added.

Goral vodka has been available since 2010 in Slovakia but in the UK it’s now available at a growing number of outlets, including the boutique hotel Hampton Manor and online at www.masterofmalt.com or www.lokiwine.co.uk

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The Cork Wine Bars… First Bratislava, Now Poprad!

Wine Bars in the High Tatras? You’d Better Believe it – Poprad’s Going Posh!

Saturday night, party night? (not for me, I’m sitting here writing this, but for you, dear reader…) In Bratislava, Cork Wine Bar was and still is, after one acclimatised to the serendipitous vibrant-but-relaxed, understated-but-suave cafe and bar culture permeating the city, exactly what you might hope to find strolling the Old Town streets to get that party started in. A veritable oasis from the bustle of Panská, that most lively of central Old Town streets, it was and is, with its burnished wood and bare brick interior, firstly a quiet respite and sloooooowly, as glass after glass of that spectacularly agreeable wine trickles through you, a place to segue, in sophisticated style, into the party-yet-to-be.

Now Michal, and his business partner Miro, have just opened the Cork Wine bar, take two: in Poprad. Yep, in the High Tatras – where you might hold out hopes of finding an outdoor shop or a koliba (rustic Slovak eatery) but would never have imagined until recently that you would run into an elegant wine bar.

©Eric Wiltsher

©Eric Wiltsher

The opening hours in the new Poprad bar (opening at 8am every morning, as opposed to the Bratislava bar’s far later 5pm start) intimate that this is going to be an even more chilled affair than the branch in the capital and indeed, so it seems: a place where the emphasis on the phenomenal cheeses, Italian meats and the snacking of other daytime treats as well as the wine and where the vibe is far more intimate. It’s rather like walking into your own home-from-home, actually – oozing warmth and positive energy.  A few more words about that cheese. It’s some of the most heavenly Englishman in Slovakia has ever tasted from a Slovak producer (Slovaks make great mild sheep cheeses but have never really made progress producing strong cheeses that could be described as “packing a punch”). Try the cheese at Cork Poprad, and you will consider your taste buds well and truly punched. Seriously, it puts many of the world’s copy-cat cheddars to shame. We’ll ratchet up the rave one notch: this range of cheese is very simply world class. Delve beyond it deeper into their deli selection and you will just everything you could want to compliment quality wines.

To chat too much about the wine would be to steal the limelight from the enthusiastic owners and staff. Michal is keen to share that Cork (initially Bratislava and now Poprad) was an extension of his passion/hobby for wine. He left the rat race of finance to pursue that passion because good wine meant more to him than money, and that passion shows. The wines on offer scan rather like the Who’s Who of wine but, the way Michal talks about them, like the much-loved members of a family, too. What’s more the team at Cork Poprad have ALL been to wine school prior to the venue opening here – yes, they have studied wine.

Cork Poprad's Owners ©Eric Wiltsher

Cork Poprad’s Owners ©Eric Wiltsher

The Cork Wine Bars were originally set up to supply quality wines from around the world to hotels and restaurants, and the Poprad bar is a natural progression for the owners. You can tell you are in the right place when you walk in. The welcome is fantastic, with staff all able to converse in English and eager to find the perfect wine to match your palate’s particular preference (such a level of service is still worth commenting on anywhere in Europe) . Cork Poprad seems reminiscent of the excellent initial wine bars in the UK, opened by those passionate about great wines and quality foods, but offering an inviting and inclusive overall experience that has you champing at the bit to return.

 

A Quick Guide to the Other Content We Have on Poprad

 

Places to Go: Poprad’s funky contemporary art gallery in an old power station

Places to Go: Poprad’s lavish Aqua Park

Places to Go: Nine reasons to linger in Poprad

Places to Go/Getting Around: Taking the Mountain Railway into the High Tatras from Poprad

Places to Stay: A cool travel-friendly B&B in Spišská Sobota, Poprad

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s trendy burger joint

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s dignified Café La Fée

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s gourmet chocolatier

Going Out: Poprad & the Manchester United Connection

Arts & Culture: Dedicated traditional Czech & Slovak music radio station now based in Poprad

Getting Around: London to Poprad Flights

Getting Around: The Poprad to Ždiar to Zakopane (Poland) bus

Top Ten Medieval Towns in Slovakia

 

MAP LINK: (Poprad) MAP LINK: (Bratislava)

LOCATION: Levočská 15 (Poprad) Panská 4 (Bratislava)

OPENING: 8am to midnight Monday to Thursday, 8am to 2am Friday, 5pm to 2am Saturday and 5pm to midnight Sunday (Poprad, which does indeed have much longer hours than the original Bratislava branch) AND 5pm to midnight Monday to Thursday, 5pm to 2am Friday/Saturday and 5pm to midnight Sunday (Bratislava)

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Cork Wine Bar in Poprad it’s 400m west to the lovely Café La Fée (although coffee THEN wine might be the more logical way round of doing it)

 

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Image ©Eric Wiltsher

 

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Poprad: AquaCity – The Most Fun You Can Have in the High Tatras With Your Clothes Off

The impression dawns, some small time after you arrive in the AquaCity reception area (by which time you can already discern the excitable babble of squeals filtering in from outside) that what you are about to embark on is a rollicking good time. You’re going to experience some world-class treatments, sure – but above all, you’re going to enjoy yourself.

AquaCity, on the outskirts of the High Tatras city of Poprad, enjoys a cracking view out to the rearing mountain peaks of Northern Slovakia in one direction, and a birds-eye panorama out over one of Slovakia’s most beguiling medieval centresSpišská Sobota, in the other. But what it offers itself is a big diversion from the stunning scenery and century-old architecture the country is so famous for. It offers Slovakia’s greatest array of water-based fun – and in a nation well known for spas, too. The spa or kúpele concept at Piešt’any, Rajecké Teplice or Bardejovské Kúpele attracts thousands of foreign visitors annually for the fantastic thermal waters bubbling under Slovakia’s soil. But they all take themselves quite seriously. Straight faces and respectful silences are not the norm at AquaCity: it’s no more possible to keep them than it is to keep yourself from licking your lips when you’re eating a jam doughnut.

There is nothing ancient about the strikingly modern (and, more strikingly, massive) AquaCity complex – except perhaps the thermal waters on which the entire thing rests. At a time when it was unknown that Poprad possessed thermal springs under its bedrock, the story goes that AquaCity’s owner, Jan Telensky, stumbled upon a rusty old pipe with the naturally heated 49-degree water gushing out of it whilst taking a walk on some nearby waste ground – and that thus was the idea of AquaCity born. Nowadays, after the High Tatras mountains themselves, this wondrous wellness experience is the city’s top attraction. As often as not, people come to Poprad to luxuriate in the (quite literally) piping hot waters and don’t give the mountains any more than an admiring glance.  The “scrap to riches” success story is all the more impressive once it becomes clear that AquaCity is so vast it is difficult even to begin to know how to describe it – let alone how to explore it.

I’m soon laughing with the rest of the day’s thousand-odd visitors when I check in for my pampering session (I should perhaps be referring to it as a pampering adventure, because quite quickly the experience takes you forth into uncharted waters). From excitement, yes, but first of all when the manager in all seriousness suggests I’ll need an absolute minimum of a day to appreciate everything the complex has in store.

I am not a spa writer and the idea of spending a day doing, well, nothing really besides a little lounging in various pools and saunas, doesn’t immediately appeal: not besides getting out in the mountains hiking, or biking, or climbing, or caving. But I am won round fairly quickly (I attribute it to the friendliness of the staff showing me the ropes and the sheer innovation evidently behind AquaCity). As a writer you require something to really write about regardless of the subject matter: I would rather gush over a quirky hostel with nothing but dorm beds than I would over a lacklustre top-of-the-range hotel. Similarly, with AquaCity, I found the many USPs revealed on my cursory tour caused me to prick up my ears even though I have been known to doze off whilst listening to the intro spiel for some of the world’s better-known spa resorts.

Let’s deal with one issue, straight off. AquaCity is not a spa. It’s a resort without much precedent anywhere in Europe, sporting three hotels and great conference facilities (business travellers), too many eating and drinking options to count (food lovers), world-class leisure facilities from football to tennis to minigolf (sports lovers), some seriously ground-breaking health and beauty treatments (treatment seekers) – and then of course that immense collection of pools, Jacuzzis and saunas (pleasure lovers and fun-seekers!). Geothermal water-themed leisure and pleasure complex will suffice as a general description for now…

image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Cryotherapy…

I am advised to commence with the serious stuff (because AquaCity does have a serious side, like all wellness centres). There is good sense behind the advice: in absolute contrast with the geothermal waters for which the complex is most renowned, I am about to get cold – very cold (and it’s much better to wind up at the end of the day with a warm feeling lingering).

The cryotherapy unit, in its own special wing at AquaCity, is a European leader (cryotherapy was first developed here in Eastern Europe): the body is frozen at a temperature of first -60 degrees and then -120 degrees for a total of two and a half minutes in two different chambers. Whilst it is available in bigger cities like London, AquaCity offers the experience at a fraction of the price. Said to treat all manner of sporting injuries, the treatment involves first donning a warm hat, special thick-soled shoes and mittens, getting a medical examination (in this case by a jovial and somewhat flamboyant doctor) to check the temperature shock won’t kill you, then being ushered into first an ante-chamber (at a mere -60 degrees) and then, in 30 seconds time, being summoned into the main chamber at -120 degrees, where you have to walk around for two minutes (four minutes would induce death but two is fine) whilst the merry doctor communicates with you on a tannoy to check that you’re not in agony. And incredibly, you are not – because the iciness has very little moisture content. You walk out feeling invigorated and then engage in half an hours’ warm-up in the cryotherapy section’s gym. By which time you are more than ready for those warm waters…

One of the many pools ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

One of the many pools ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Getting Warmed Up

Back up a level, across AquaCity’s four-star Mountain View hotel, down again and along a twisting series of corridors (by which point, after almost a kilometre of walking, you will certainly be understanding the appropriateness of the ‘city’ part of the name of the complex), one enters the area known as Vital World – which is perfect for those that just imagined moments before they would be frozen to death.

Changing into nowt but a towel (the towel is optional, but you cannot proceed wearing swimming costumes – welcome to Central European-style spas!) you can embark on a veritable round trip of extravagant relaxation, circling through a steam sauna, a flower sauna, a salt sauna, a Finnish sauna and a beautiful snow cave (yep, High Tatras snow and ice in a cute little enclave that will have you thinking you’re in Santa’s grotto rather than a mega-resort). To truly luxuriate you’ll need a couple of hours here at least (I luxuriate quite rapidly as a rule and it still took me nearly that long) – particularly if you throw in the hot tub, the official relaxation area (after all that hard work in the saunas, some time on sunbeds with classical music is not amiss) and Slovakia’s premier Thai massage centre. Thai massage options include the Rit Tee (a hot, herbal massage) and the popular Tok Sen, which uses small sharp sticks to poke through your skin at the tissue and bones and thus, somehow, improve your circulation…

Poolside Fun

Vital World is wonderful, but there’s no denying that the part of AquaCity where you really let the inner child within you out is the extensive range of pools, indoor and outdoor, and water slides: a 50-metre Olympic-sized swimming pool, plus (between the inside and outside areas) 13 more pools with temperatures ranging between 27 and 40 degrees. Kids love AquaCity’s newest water-based fun, the Treasure Island pool – themed around a huge pirate ship. Even an a cool day the outside pools are packed (although the water slides open only in the height of summer). Fountains, more Jacuzzis, a swim-up bar and a healthy restaurant sandwiched midway through your between-pool wanderings embellish the experience. Best of all, each evening, a spectacular laser light show is projected around one of the larger pools (the Blue Sapphire): a fitting way to cap a day of being good to yourself…

AquaCity’s Eco-Friendliness

It would be tempting to think there was something wasteful in all this lavish use of hot water. But the opposite is the case.

The bore hole on which the complex sits gushes out 49-degree water that would otherwise not get used for very much at all. Instead, AquaCity’s modern steel-and-glass design allows for the water to travel around the buildings, heat up the centre from the pools to the rooms (in conjunction with solar energy), and still have sufficient quantities to power the world’s only geothermally heated football stadium, right next-door. Other deft green touches will have you feeling a whole lot better about your spa-going, too. Lights, for example, switch on and off automatically when you enter or exit a room. Pools were constructed with steel rather than concrete, which meant far less impact on the environment. The centre was even the first in Central Europe to attain the highly-coveted Green Globe award, the highest mark of internationally recognised environmentally friendly excellence. AquaCity brands itself as an immersion in ecological luxury and that, it seems, it most definitely is.

For sure, there is a fair amount to write home about – even for those for whom spas normally leave feeling luke-warm – and no need to feel guilty, due to those glowing green credentials, about indulging in AquaCity’s rather unique blend of fun… there are few places in Slovakia that cater quite so well simultaneously to poker-faced business conferences, to romancing couples – and to young families shrieking in unrestrained joy.

A Quick Guide to the Other Content We Have on Poprad

Places to Go: Poprad’s funky contemporary art gallery in an old power station

Places to Go: Nine reasons to linger in Poprad

Places to Go/Getting Around: Taking the Mountain Railway into the High Tatras from Poprad

Places to Stay: A cool travel-friendly B&B in Spišská Sobota, Poprad

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s gourmet chocolatier

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s trendy burger joint

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s dignified Café La Fée

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s Coolest Wine Bar

Going Out: Poprad & the Manchester United Connection

Arts & Culture: Dedicated traditional Czech & Slovak music radio station now based in Poprad

Getting Around: London to Poprad Flights

Getting Around: The Poprad to Ždiar to Zakopane (Poland) bus

Top Ten Medieval Towns in Slovakia

MAP LINK

LOCATION: Sportova 1397/1: from Poprad Tatry train station head east (left) on the main road, Štefanikova.

ADMISSION: 22 Euros (Aquapark only day ticket) or 34 Euros (Vital World and Aquapark day ticket)

OPENING: 9am to 10pm daily (Aquapark), 9am to 10pm Monday, Tuesday, Friday and Saturday (Vital World), 4pm to 7pm Tuesday to Saturday (Cryotherapy)

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: 42km northeast of AquaCity is Slovakia’s only whisky distillery at Hniezdne.

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

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Stará Ľubovňa: A Journey to the Roots of Slovak Whiskey at Nestville Park Distillery

A few months back I was doing my usual, intermittent mooch around my favourite Bratislava whisky shop, the White Mouse, when I noticed something tucked away in the corner of the window display gathering dust that I hadn’t glimpsed on previous visits, or indeed anywhere else: a bottle of Nestville Park, and the caveat, in small print: ‘Distilled and Bottled in Slovakia’.

It was their No1 offering – a blend and, as it turned out, the standard bottling for the distillery – and being a purist when in comes to whisky (yes, or whiskey) I would not have normally given it any more attention. Except for that small print. I had not until that moment, having lived in Slovakia over three years, been aware that the country produced whiskey whatsoever.

“What’s it like?” I asked the owner, who is a tad taken aback, as we normally chat about the Islay’s or the Speyside’s.

He considers a moment.

“It’s not bad” he says.

Crucial, that. Slovaks are some of the planet’s most self-deprecating people, particularly where anything intrinsically ‘Slovak’ is concerned, and here was one of its more worldly wise citizens, on record saying Slovakia’s foray into whisky-making was alright.

From that moment, the idea of a trip out to see where Nestville Park was made slowly cemented in my mind.

Part of the reason I love trekking out to whisky distilleries is the sheer randomness of the experience. There is no Earthly reason to trek out to a Campbelltown in Scotland or the outskirts of a Fort Worth in Texas unless you love whisky (Springbank and Firestone & Robinson, respectably). It provides a motivation to get out to those way-off-the-beaten-track places that would otherwise remain in obscurity.

And perhaps Stará Ľubovňa, the town to which you need to head to visit the home of Nestville Park, would have otherwise floundered in obscurity, too, were it not for its whiskey production. It is prettier, in fact, than either a Campbelltown or a Fort Worth: with a castle, a folk museum and a history dating back to the 13th century (although many more easily accessible Slovak towns can claim this). And more than either a Campbelltown or a Fort Worth, it is on a road to nowhere, in a rarely-visited part of a country that already receives comparatively few international visitors. They say that once you reach Stará Ľubovňa, you have truly arrived in Eastern Slovakia, which claims cultural distinctiveness from the west in everything from its people (the Roma and the Rusyn as well as the Polish and Ukrainians have a significant influence here) to its religion (it lies on the crossroads of the Catholic and Orthodox branches of Christianity). But the most obvious reason why the town would be the gateway to Eastern Slovakia is that, as you travel east from the High Tatras hubs of Poprad and Kežmarok, you pass nothing for the preceding 30 minutes but rolling emerald hills bursting with fertile farmland, swooping up from the banks of the nascent Poprad River.

The bus from Kežmarok (full of elderly couples that hunch deep into their coats and sigh as the light drizzle becomes a steadily harder rain as we wind up the valley road) stops a few kilometres short of  Stará Ľubovňa, in Hniezdne, the smallest city in the erstwhile Kingdom of Hungary. The name is appropriate: not only does ‘hniez’ in Slovak mean ‘nest’ (from whence the distillery derives its name) but the small, sleepy town is at the very cradle of national history, being founded as one of the earliest Slovak settlements after Nitra – in the 12th century. Certainly, by  this time, Slavic people would have been working the land hereabouts and the Northern Spiš region soon became well known for its agriculture. Cream of the crops? Wheat, barley and rye – just the grain needed for the production of the water of life – and Slovakia’s first recorded distillery duly got established here by at least the 18th century.

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It’s a stark contrast between the ornate, peeling facades of the central townhouses and the spick, span entranceway to the distillery on the outskirts. I passed under the imposing wooden gateway proclaiming Nestville Park as Slovakia’s first (indeed, only) whiskey. Rain danced on an almost deserted car park: I was the sole visitor, another big difference compared to the Scottish distilleries with which I was familiar.

It’s hard to understand why is Nestville Park is an exceptionally well-laid-out tourist attraction. It is not only a whiskey distillery, it is also an exhibition on the history of whiskey making in this neck of the woods.

The two girls in the reception area glanced at me a tad incredulously when I walked in; the more so when I spoke to them in Slovak. Foreign tourists, it appeared, were none too common here. I was given the ‘English’ tour which consists of a guide (one of the afore-mentioned young ladies) who couldn’t speak a word of English pressing stop/start on an obtrusively loud American-accented recording, quite unnecessarily as it turned out because the displays in the ‘historical section’ of the distillery were in English. Nevertheless, thus we proceeded, me reading the in-English noticeboards, then having the same words replayed to me with a mechanical Deep-South twang.

The tour, though, was an enlightening romp through recreations of an 18th century cooperage and smithy, plus insights into how agriculture was practiced here in the 12th to 17th centuries. You get to have a ring of a huge bell in the belfry, too – once used to summon the workers!

Then the visit to the modern distillery commences.

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Sniffing that grain! ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Single malt aficionados should known straight off that Nestville Park is more akin to American bourbon – the maturation process ranging from three to seven years on average.

The malting process is done by hand. After 2-3 days soaked in water and malt is laid out in the malthouse for around a week to germinate. Then it gets switched to a kiln for further drying (2-3 days). The malt then has the water added to it – in Nestville Park’s case, water from a spring that has been flowing underground from the Bela Tatras part of the High Tatras mountains, and with a high iron, calcium and magnesium content, filtering through Paleogen-era bedrock en route. The fermentation room, considering Nestville Park’s products are mostly sold to a Slovak-only demographic, is huge: some 20 tanks each able to have 75,000 litres of alcohol bubbling away inside them.

The distillery overall has a modern feel – despite the historic record of a distillery around this site dating back to at least the 19th century – and the buildings are mostly very 21st century. Its pièce de résistance however, the tasting room, veritably oozes with history. Here, in an ornate hall hung on one side by what is Europe’s largest wood-carved picture, you get to partake of that well-earned sample dram – or, should I say, sizeable glass of the good stuff. The ambience is much more traditional rustic Slovak – albeit realised in an attractive way. And whilst slurping their complementary ‘green’ whisky – a grassy, earthy three year-old, you can also drink in how the whiskey production kicked off hereabouts historically: a reinterpretation of the medieval peasants that laboured to produce whiskey in Spiš region for centuries – and their life and culture.

A Nestville Park Whiskey Tasting

My favourite Nestville Park product was undoubtedly the single-barrel seven year-old. Think butterscotch and rum and raisin ice cream with a powerful shortbready afterkick. Just try it. At least the equal of most American bourbons – and coming with a good century more of history, too.

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

MAP LINK:

MORE INFO: Nestville Park website

ADMISSION: 5 Euros (standard tour with one tasting), 7 Euros (tour and three tastings)

OPENING: Daily 9am to 5pm (between May and September), Tuesday to Sunday 10am to 4pm (from October to April)

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Nestville Park in Hniezdne it’s only 58km east to Bardejov, one of the top ten most beautiful medieval towns in Slovakia and start point for visiting some of Eastern Slovakia’s famous wooden churches.

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Poprad: Café La Fée

On a summer’s afternoon on a tree-shaded pavement cafe, groups of businessmen and suave young urbanites sit and slurp cafe au lait. The sunlight dapples their faces and slants into the interior, rendering the premises light, spacious, modern, inviting. The dapper old waiter deftly manages the clientele and pauses (at a sufficient distance not to cause offense, of course) for a cigarette. On the wall opposite the counter, the names of great French writers – Verne to Baudelaire – are scrawled in italics. Paris? Not a bit of it. La Fée lies at the heart of the High Tatras Mountains hub of Poprad. But it could have been plucked from a Montparnasse side street, it’s so French.

The menu is French, from its Quiche Lorraine to its mineral water. The service is French: it’s elegant, it’s respectful, it’s knowledgeable. The wine served is French. The cafe is still very new (it only opened in late 2012) so in this respect it is perhaps a little less French, but the place has been done tastefully to avoid the unfortunate ‘furniture showroom’ look a lot of totally refurbished restaurants have. It is not French in its prices, either (its coffees are under 2 Euros, its cakes are under 3 Euros, even a quiche will set you back less than 4 Euros). But in every other respect, Frenchness exudes throughout.

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Image ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

When I kick back with a coffee in a cafe, I like to do so with the intent of lingering a long while. I linger for the atmosphere, I linger for courteous service and I linger because I like to be allowed to linger. On all three counts, La Fée scores highly. Outside the pavement-fronting terrace is most popular but inside the conservatory-style outer room catches the best of the day’s light and would be perfect for when the weather is less clement than it was on my visit there. Here and around the counter (decorated with those legendary writerly names) is where the loners coveting caffeine fixes and the families on a proper a few hours of “cafe downtime” frequent: there are some sofas to encourage them in this. Getting the oldest of the waiters (pictured above) to serve you would secure you the dream Poprad cafe experience but being attended to by any of the friendly waitresses is no bad thing: they’ll explain the cake menu, for example, which changes daily as each of the fabulous cakes here is fresh, and takes several minutes due to the sheer variety. When I stopped by the last time it was a tough tussle between the Crème brûlée and the lemon and raspberry cheesecakes. But service complete, you’ll be allowed to linger as long as you want – and people do. 

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Image ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

La Fée (translating from French as the fairy, and indeed perhaps bestowing a certain magic on Poprad’s prime shopping street) is an anomaly in a sense, of course. Despite defiantly stamping on Poprad an air of timeless sophistication, perhaps what it illustrates more than anything is how Poprad is no longer the sleeping giant relying on its proximity to some sublime mountain scenery to pull in the punters – how it is very much a destination in itself, and how the wining and dining to be done around town (framed by those photogenic peaks) is a big part of the appeal.

 

A Quick Guide to the Other Content We Have on Poprad

Places to Go: Poprad’s funky contemporary art gallery in an old power station

Places to Go: Poprad’s lavish Aqua Park

Places to Go: Nine reasons to linger in Poprad

Places to Go/Getting Around: Taking the Mountain Railway into the High Tatras from Poprad

Places to Stay: A cool travel-friendly B&B in Spišská Sobota, Poprad

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s trendy burger joint

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s dignified Café La Fée

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s Coolest Wine Bar

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s gourmet chocolatier

Going Out: Poprad & the Manchester United Connection

Arts & Culture: Dedicated traditional Czech & Slovak music radio station now based in Poprad

Getting Around: London to Poprad Flights

Getting Around: The Poprad to Ždiar to Zakopane (Poland) bus

Top Ten Medieval Towns in Slovakia

 

MAP LINK:

LOCATION: Right on Námestie Svätého Egidia (number 114) next to the new Forum shopping centre (ooh, it’s all so glitzy and new).

FACEBOOK:

OPENING: 10am-10pm daily

BEST TIME TO VISIT: Come in the sun, any time, when you’ve got a spot of time to linger: after a long mountain leg-stretch, perhaps

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From La Fée it’s 2.3km northwest to Restart, one of the best new places for evening eating and drinking in Poprad

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Beckov Castle ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Around Trenčin: Beckov Castle

I remember, sure, the first time I left the beloved Southwest England of my childhood for a long while, but oddly enough, what I remember more vividly is returning to it again after that first lengthy absence. The Berry’s Coach out of Hammersmith bus station in the afternoon winter murk, the London suburbs falling away, the neat commuter belt semi-detached houses and slowly, the fields and woods rearing up into what I call true countryside, right around Stonehenge. Passing Stonehenge for me was always a sign of coming home, but it was also representative of the beginning of wild England after being cooped up in the city. There are a myriad Stonehenge’s, in this sense,  around the world: points that mark where wilderness wins the tussle with city sprawl and out-of-town business parks; points that make me, personally, feel truly human. Hrad Beckov, or Beckov Castle, is for me that point in Slovakia. And it is one of the nation’s best and most poignant fortresses.

Beckov vs Stonehenge!

Beckov shares with Stonehenge that gobsmacking, surely multiple accident-causing location off-side of the main west-east road from Bratislava to those really exciting parts of Slovakia’s nature (Malá Fatra, the High Tatras, Slovenský Raj and the far eastern Slovakia). In fact, in honesty, it’s many times more impressive than Stonehenge. Were this dramatic ruined castle placed anywhere in England, it would be swarming with crowds, and tour buses. Not so with Beckov. The lack of crowds is one of the great joys of life in Slovakia, as I have said several times on this site. But even by the standards of what constitutes crowdedness here (this is a nation, remember, where more than twenty cars moving at reduced speed on a main road is considered a tailback), Beckov is not overrun with visitors. On a summer Saturday midday we were among perhaps 15 other people roaming the ruins. Ruins, I should add, that you can get right up to and touch, unlike Stonehenge.

The Arrival

After that stunning first glimpse of the castle straddling a sharp crag a few kilometres shy of Trenčin, looking like some besieged prop from the Lord of the Rings, you take the Nové Mesto nad Váhom exit (before the castle) and arrive in the diminutive village of Beckov via routes 515/507. At the main village “triangle” there’s a small cafe doing rather alright ice cream and offering a little terrace to partake of it on. But save the urge for something sweet until you’re up at the castle – the approach road to which is just south (right) from here. On the way you pass a Jewish cemetery in a wild state of abandon, before climbing up to the left to the custodian office (in-English historical leaflets available), where you’ll part with the entrance fee of 3.50/1.70 Euros per adult/child.

From the broken parapets here you already get some great views of Western Slovakia rising up into the Biele Karpaty, the fore-runners of the bigger mountains further east:

Beckov view… ©englishmaninslovakia.com

Beckov view… ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

 

The route initially leads to a wide grassy forecourt below the base of the craggy upper part of the castle, where there’s a souvenir shop (knight’s armour, anyone?) and an amphitheatre of sorts where maidens in medieval garb explain the castle history for those that want it and offer tours of the ruins in a rather fun way. There are also demonstrations of Slovakia’s blacksmith craft.

A Brief History of Beckov

For those that don’t want to wait for the explanations of the medieval maidens, and who aren’t interested in Wikipedia’s cumbersome but quite informative article on the castle’s legends, the gist of Beckov’s past is that to understand it is to understand the rather infamous local character of Mathias Čak. The area’s all-time top persona non grata, Čak made waves in the medieval Hungarian Empire by proclaiming his own empire, pretty much, in what today is Western Slovakia and Northern Hungary. He was a powerful and power-hungry warlord that, whilst looking out exclusively for his own interests, gave this region an absolute, if short-lived autonomy from about the year 1296 through to his death in 1321. Fair play to the man: during these two decades even the King of Hungary, despite a couple of attempts, could not oust Čak from his lofty perch. Many of the Western Slovakian castles, including Červený Kameň, were under his command during this time (although the guys over at Gýmeš Castle were his enemies), and Beckov, at the time a relatively new fortress, was his too. After Čak’s death, the castle was passed between various lords and, just before fire destroyed it in the 1720s, served as a prison.

Disliking tours at the best of times, we opted against the maiden-guided explanations and instead headed across the forecourt to where there is some serious castle-destroying equipment, namely a huge catapult. Passing here, a path bends down steeply to a wishing well, worth descending to to get the view back up the sheer sides of the bluff on which the castle is built:

©englishmaninslovakia.com

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The upper levels, accessed by returning to the forecourt, are a must to explore – great for the kids, with several nook-and-cranny rooms. One of these contains a dragon – I joke not, one yields superb views of Beckov village and the Biele Karpaty, one is the remains of what at one time was considered Central Europe’s most beautiful chapel, and one contains one of Slovakia’s coolest teahouses – a little place where you can also grab a cold beer and a slab of strudel, for insanely cheap prices.

The teahouse… ©englishmaninslovakia.com

The teahouse… ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Gazing down from, or up at, Beckov’s precipitous walls today, its not hard to understand how, in over four centuries, the castle was never breached but succumbed in the end to fire rather than attacking force.

If you’ve the time, back down under the custodian office a track bends left to another interesting sight: a scale model of the castle in a recess in the rock. You can continue from here, along a vaguely-defined path along a ridge, passed an old watch tower to descend to the road where your car is parked on the edge of Beckov village.

The lookout tower ©englishmaninslovakia.com

The lookout tower ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

And so now you are officially in the North-Western part of Western Slovakia. It’s a moody and dramatic entrance to the region, Beckov, and should not be dismissed with a simple glance as you drive east. Devote an hour or two of your time to it. You’ll never encounter another such mythical beast, or eat strudel in such beautiful surrounds, anywhere else in the country…

 

A Quick Guide to the Other Content We Have on Trenčin:

Places to Go: A tucked-away forest park behind the castle in Trenčin

Places to Go: Slovakia’s best music festival in Trenčin

Places to Go: Hiking up in the hills above Trenčin all the way to Bratislava (the Cesta Hrdinov SNP, Stage Two)

Places to Stay: the coolest hotel in Trenčin

Places to Eat & Drink: One of Slovakia’s Finest Restaurants in central Trenčin

Arts & Culture: Celebrating 20 Years of the Pohoda Music Festival

Top Ten Medieval Towns in Slovakia

 

MAP LINK:

ADMISSION: 3.50/1.70 Euros per adult/child.

OPENING: 9am-5pm (April) 9am-5:30pm (May-August) 9am-4:30pm (September and October) 9am-3:30pm (November)

CASTLE WEBSITE: (now with a much-improved English section)

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Beckov Castle it’s 100km northeast to Žilina and 17.8km south to another great castle, Tematín

ALSO READ: Beckov also features in my article for Travel Super Mag on the coolest castle experiences in Slovakia and the Czech Republic, Ruin-Nation

Poprad: Restart

I returned to Poprad for the first time in almost a year the other day, but this article is nothing about turning over a new leaf, wiping the slate clean or any sort of spiritual journey: it’s about burgers. More specifically, it’s about the hottest new burger joint in town. Restart is emblematic of a new breed of eateries in the capital of the High Tatras – establishments that catapult the place dangerously close to being a culinary beacon in the east of Slovakia. And Poprad on a sunny late spring day did indeed seem pleasant (simmering if not over-boiling with animated cafes and packed restaurants). Of which Restart was one.

Whilst as a post title Restart conjures a certain mystique the name puts one off. Me at least. I’m not a fan of the trend in Slovakia to give English names to restaurants and bars just because it’s cool. Slovak is a language with few enough to champion its cause: nothing wrong with a Slovak name (Ludevít Štúr would be turning in his grave). But even the codifier of the Slovak language would be impressed by what goes on behind the pink-beige 19th century facade of this gourmet burger stop in the attractive Vel’ka district.

The idea? A Slovak interpretation of posh American fast food. And name aside, the feel is very modern-Slovak. There is a nod to the cosy “obývačka” or living room vibe – you know, battered armchairs, old standard lamps, framed paintings, antique furniture. But the staff? Modern Slovak. Young, true, but really caring about the menu and the dining experience. Some even speak English. The other diners? Modern Slovak. Youthful again, contributing to a bubbly but sophisticated ambience. One of the most striking things about Restart, indeed, is how full it always is. If you want to hang here with the bright young things of Poprad over your burger and fries, you’ll need to book, particularly in the evenings.

And the food? Just really very high quality burgers (all between 4 and 6 Euros). High quality, and high on the plate. Veritably teetering towers of bread-capped meat. Each of the signature burgers is dosed full of a homemade sauce which themes the filling. The Swiss, which uses a mushroom salsa to complement the smoked ham and Swiss cheese. The Teriyaki, which hooked me, and used a Restart version of the Japanese soy sauce dressing to sit with the gouda, crisped bacon and avocado (it works). There’s a Tennessee triple cheese burger with a Jack Daniels-based sauce that I’ve already eyed up for the next visit. I would have liked to see a better range of beers (although the standard Zlaty Bažant was available) – with maybe a few of the Slovak start-up breweries featured – perhaps one area to work on. Anyway. You’re not coming here to experience traditional Slovak cuisine, you’re coming here to see how a city like Poprad is evolving and exuding a quiet self-confidence, and how young entrepreneurs have turned the once-staid Slovak eating scene on its head.

Maybe Štúr would quit rolling over in his grave and just go order a Teriyaki burger with a side of fat hand-cut fries. Typically Slovak, that. Curious for the new, yet finding the tried-and-tested comforting.

A Quick Guide to the Other Content We Have on Poprad

Places to Go: Poprad’s funky contemporary art gallery in an old power station

Places to Go: Poprad’s lavish Aqua Park

Places to Go: Nine reasons to linger in Poprad

Places to Go/Getting Around: Taking the Mountain Railway into the High Tatras from Poprad

Places to Stay: A cool travel-friendly B&B in Spišská Sobota, Poprad

Places to Stay: A sophisticated 4-star resort right by Poprad’s Aqua Park

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s dignified Café La Fée

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s Coolest Wine Bar

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s Gourmet Chocolatier

Going Out: Poprad & the Manchester United Connection

Arts & Culture: Dedicated traditional Czech & Slovak music radio station now based in Poprad

Getting Around: London to Poprad Flights

Getting Around: The Poprad to Ždiar to Zakopane (Poland) bus

Top Ten Medieval Towns in Slovakia

 

MAP LINK

LOCATION: in Poprad’s Vel’ka district north of Poprad Tatry railway station. In the evenings, especially at weekends, it’s good to reserve: call (00421) 918 305 001

OPENING: 12 midday-10pm Sunday to Thursday, 12 midday-12 midnight Friday/Saturday

BEST TIME TO VISIT: Check it out on a Friday or Saturday evening, booking a table for perhaps 8-ish, to see the place buzzing.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: Heading 2.4km southeast you reach Poprad’s AquaCity, one of Eastern Europe’s coolest (and yet hottest, as it is geothermally heated) waterparks

On the attack… the Manchester United of tomorrow?

Spectator Sports in Slovakia: Poprad & the Manchester United Connection

Slovakia is better known for its ice hockey than football when it comes to spectator sports. Whilst the national ice hockey side have, for many years, vied with the world’s best, the football achievements are less well known. The Slovak national football team is one of the youngest national football teams in the world, having split from the Czechoslovakia national football team after the dissolution of the unified state in 1993. Slovakia now maintains its own national side that has completed in all major professional tournaments since dissolution. Slovakia has now qualified for two major international tournaments, the 2010 FIFA World Cup and UEFA Euro 2016.

Every October half term for the last six years, Manchester United’s Youth Team (MUYT) has travelled to the High Tatras city of Poprad to train and play against local opposition. And it’s very easy to see why.

Besides the AquaCity resort complex is a magnificent new football stadium, designated as a Slovak National Training Centre (NTC) and undoubtedly one of the best places to play football in Europe.

The development is a continual process and within the next 12 months an additional grass and an artificially surfaced, all weather training pitch will be added. The NTC is where you can watch the Manchester United football’s stars of tomorrow train and play some of Slovakia’s Premier League and other overseas teams for a fraction of the price it would cost at Old Trafford. Since they first visited Poprad in 2010, 19 MUYT players have progressed to the first team and many more, despite not making it with Manchester United, have played for other English premier league teams. Players like Marcus Rashford, now one of soccer’s most talked-about young strikers (especially since his selection for this summer’s Uefa Euro 2016, have been former participants in the AquaCity training programme (there is a Hall of Fame board inside AquaCity with a list of the stars who have played here).

So there’s no longer any denying Slovakia’s link with high-profile football, nor that catching it up here in the Slovak mountains must be one of the sport’s best bargains: Standard tickets cost €1 whilst VIP seats set you back a mere €3 ! (the jagged mountain backdrop is a darned sight more spectacular than the Manchester skyline too!).

The stadium...

The stadium…

But it’s not just the players. The stadium, too, beautifully styled on Chelsea FC’s Stamford Bridge, is the only one of its kind in the world, as the pitch is geothermally heated – and in a really neat way. The waters that heat AquaCity originate in a huge subterranean lake where the natural water temperature is 50 degrees centigrade. However, before the stadium’s construction, the spa complex had a problem: to cool the waters sufficiently for returning into the earth at the correct temperature so as not to damage ecosystems. Running the water around the stadium (by now it’s cooled to an average 15 degrees) reduces the temperature to exactly the right amount to return it to Mother Nature whilst ensuring one of the planet’s lushest playing surfaces. At least, that was Manchester United’s opinion…

AquaCity, as well as offering annually some of football’s best “been there and seen it first” moments, also – it should be noted – has one of Slovakia’s very best spas, and this in a country very well known for them! More on this HERE

A Quick Guide to the Other Content We Have on Poprad

Places to Go: Poprad’s funky contemporary art gallery in an old power station

Places to Go: Poprad’s lavish Aqua Park

Places to Go: Nine reasons to linger in Poprad

Places to Go/Getting Around: Taking the Mountain Railway into the High Tatras from Poprad

Places to Stay: A cool travel-friendly B&B in Spišská Sobota, Poprad

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s trendy burger joint

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s dignified Café La Fée

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s Coolest Wine Bar

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s gourmet chocolatier

Arts & Culture: Dedicated traditional Czech & Slovak music radio station now based in Poprad

Getting Around: London to Poprad Flights

Getting Around: The Poprad to Ždiar to Zakopane (Poland) bus

Top Ten Medieval Towns in Slovakia

 

Poprad has undeniably one of the best backdrops of any city in Eastern Europe.

Poprad has undeniably one of the best backdrops of any city in Eastern Europe.

The High Tatras Mountain Resorts – Stará Lesna: Hotel Horizont Hits the High-End Accommodation Scene

The Grand Opening...

To many manic drum rolls, not to mention a spectacular light show, a traditional Eastern Slovak Orthodox blessing and the release of several doves into the High Tatras night, Hotel Horizont, Slovakia’s latest luxury hotel, officially opened last Thursday evening – and under precisely the mountainous backdrop depicted!

It was a noteworthy occasion for several reasons.

Hotel Horizont’s location, in Stará Lesna just below the traditional “big three” mountain resorts in the High Tatras (the Smokovec resorts, Tatranská Lomnica and Štrbské Pleso for your information), deservedly catapults Stará Lesna up to the status of mountain resort too. The pretty village of pastille-hued houses straddling a single street sits a couple of kilometres below Tatranská Lomnica, the nearest stop on the Tatras Electric Railway (and as well as being connected by road is also linked by a very pleasant woodland walk). It’s a far more undisturbed community than the sometimes hectic touristy villages of Starý Smokovec and Štrbské Pleso) but is positioned at the very beginning of the foothill forests of the mountains, meaning that the landscape to the north, just as with the “big three”, has protected status.

Four-star hotels do not open in the High Tatras (or in Slovakia, for that matter) every day, either. The “big three” each sport one top-end resort – most notably Grandhotel Kempinski on the lakeshore above Štrbské Pleso – and each of these is a veritable grand dame. But the Horizont, despite its significantly more modern appearance, is comparable for quality and unlike the others, it’s an utter individual: and not a part in any way of an international chain.

The Inside Perspective

Colour-wise, the interior is flecked geometric greys, reflecting the grains of the crystalline Slovak stone which themes the decoration in the public areas and the rooms. The reception ushers you through spaciously to a bar with a terrace overlooking the lofty peaks. Off to the right is arguably the hotel highlight: a gorgeous English-style cigar snug bar designed by renowned Humenné wood specialists and constructed entirely with glossy oak. Behind that, the restaurant is already gaining a reputation for its scrumptious hriba polievka (mushroom soup). As reception is on the second floor, it’s easy to miss upon first arrival the beautiful ground floor pool, poolside bar and fitness centre…

A beer with a view…

The rooms (six floors of them all told) are a tad above average size for a four-star joint: the tasteful modern decoration extends here too. None of the rooms have baths, which is perhaps the sole disadvantage but they do have balconies, which even rooms at the “big three’s” biggest hotels often lack. However, with the pool below and – another candidate for Horizont’s pièce de resistance – with the seventh floor rooftop sauna and Jacuzzi with their birds-eye view out towards the soaring summits of Gerlachovský štit and Lomnicky štit, pampering at this place is never more than a stone’s throw distant.

IMG_4304_500x375

The cigar lounge…

Why to Stay in a Nutshell

Perhaps, to synopsise why a stay here should be a part of your High Tatras holiday, Hotel Horizont must best be described as tranquil, modern, affordable mountain resort luxury: these six words put it in a category all of its own. Grandhotel Kempinki puts a hefty price tag on its sumptuousness; neither the best digs that the Smokovec resorts or Tatranská Lomnica can offer come close for modernity.

And at the same time, the mountaintops (the highest accessible point in Slovakia for non-professional climbers, no less) are a 25-minute walk and an unforgettable cable car trip away.

The Hike to the to Lomnicky štit Cable Car

To hike to Tatranská Lomnica and the cable car station up to Lomnicky štit, turn left out of the hotel’s main entrance and walk along the dead-end lane passing one other hotel (to your left) and skirt on a trackway to the left of a second hotel. A gravelled path then continues in the same direction of through woodland. Follow the gravelled path to cross the Tatras Electric Railway and after more woodland turn left on the road into Tatranská Lomnica.

Along this road, a pavement-path follows the right-hand edge. The main road eventually turns to the left but proceed on the path through a small park to come out on the left-hand side of Reštauracia Stará Mama. Turn right on the pedestrian precinct to reach Tatranská Lomnica’s Tatras Electric Railway station (where you can take the train to Starý Smokovec or Štrbské Pleso). Cross the railway line to ascend to the main road at the left-hand edge of the village’s gorgeously maintained main park (where, turning left, you will pass a historic ski museum (good fun!), the tourist office and the sky-blue Penzión Encian (on the right). Just after this point, by which you will see the cable car complex above you, turn right on the road up to the cable car – where a new adventure to the second-highest point in Slovakia, Lomnicky štit, begins…

MAP LINK

PRICE: from 110/140 Euros single/double

BOOK HOTEL HORIZONT

Hrabušice: Relax Farma Marianka

At Poprad I got off the mainline train and whilst the other travellers hurried off on their way home or transferred to the mountain railway to the High Tatras, I waited in the gathering gloom of a temperamental spring day and the rapidly dispersing crowds for the slow train to Hrabušice. An hour or so later when me and the only other disembarking passengers, a group of Roma schoolchildren, alighted at the small concrete house framed by mountains that constituted Hrabušice station, the following things occurred to me: it was almost dark, I was in the Slovak Paradise, one of Slovakia’s remoter national parks, I had no knowledge of where I was going other than the name of the guesthouse scribbled on a page of my travel diary, no map, no obvious signposts (or indeed anything) in the vicinity and precious little grasp of Slovak to ask anyone to help me. It was one of those slightly concerning, but also thrilling, moments which are all too rare in Europe these days: being totally off the grid of technology. One of those you, the luggage and the land moments.

I followed the lane into the Hrabušice village: a supply centre and accommodation base for tourists on the northern edge of the Slovak Paradise, or Slovenský Raj as it’s known in Slovak. Beyond that, the only direction I could get (that I understood) to where I was staying was a jab of a finger at the hills looming beyond. I had just walked out of Hrabušice far enough into the countryside to wonder whether in fact I had come the correct way when Majo, the owner of Relax Farma Marianka, came pedalling on his bicycle to find me.

So I was saved from the encroaching night – and in a memorable way. The “relax farm”, run by amenable Majo and his wife, has an undeniably peaceful feel. That is largely due to the owners: easily the two most contented people I have ever met in Slovakia, who have embraced rural living with a passion (they enthuse over local hiking and climbing routes – and boy, there are plenty in Slovenský Raj, they concoct delicious healthy vegetarian meals with produce from their own garden, Majo’s wife Janka unwinds by making ceramics and might even give you one of her works to take away if you are lucky).

The back patio ©relax farma marianka

The back patio ©relax farma marinaka

There are eight large, farmhouse pinewood-style rooms here (four with private bathrooms) – nothing complicated, but all recently refurbished (you can practically still smell the polish). Four of these have balconies looking out on the lonely foothills of Slovenský Raj, too.

One of the rooms… ©relax farma marianka

One of the rooms… ©relax farma marianka

Public areas sport more of the same smart, modern-yet-traditional pine finish, decorated with intriguing contemporary art. Downstairs, the true “relaxing” commences: a massage room, ceramics lessons and a function room that gets used for everything from traditional dancing (Slovak style of course) to Reiki. Outside, the long, thin garden yields a sun terrace, hammocks (not so common in this part of Europe) and a hot tub. Beyond, it fades into fields that rise up into the hills.

And the hills of course are the main draw. They are, after all, why you are here. Relax Farm Marianka is so called for a reason: it is where you come to crash after a hard days’ hiking.

And anyone who has experienced that plethora of samey mountain guesthouses in the High Tatras resorts or – worse – the popular tourist areas of the Alps will know exactly what we mean when we say that Relax Farm Marianka is a clean break with those often clinical, cold, soulless breed of typical hiker’s digs: yes, the kind whose stunning location is detracted from by the bored gaze of the tourist-inundated proprietor, where the rooms can only be described as roofs over your head (and nothing more complimentary), where the entire purpose of the joint seems to be to get you in, bedded, fed and out as quickly and blandly as possible.

Jumping for joy in Hrabusice ©englishmaninslovakia.com

Jumping for joy in Hrabušice

Yes, Relax Farm Marianka is different, alright. Majo and Janka’s philosophy is simple: they live on the edge of Slovenský Raj and love it; they want you to love it too. They could get away with a lot less. The hiking trail that leads from the corner of their road up to Pondlesok (a hamlet with the final few accommodation options before the Slovak Paradise thrusts upwards in a classic green expanse of hiking trails, including the famous ladder-and-chain ascents through the gorges that the park is famous for, i.e. Suchá Bela, just 2km away) soon reveals quite a few of the kind of guesthouses that DO get away with a lot less. But Majo and Janka try hard – and succeed. And their place has soul.

Make a list of all the things you might want after being out on the hills all day. Just do it. Hot, home cooked, healthy meal? Tick. Informative locals who will welcome you back and advise you on your next days’ trekking? Tick. Soak in the hot tub? Tick. Massage? Tick. Clean, comfortable, quiet room in which to collapse at the end of all of this? Once again, tick.

MAP LINK:

GETTING THERE: By public transport? Train to Poprad, then train to Hrabušice, then walk!

PRICES: 13 to 14 Euros per person per night; breakfast 4 Euros extra (2016 prices)

BOOK RELAX FARMA MARIANKA

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

Wizz Air Take-off!

Flights: Poprad to London Route Now Established Air Link to Slovakia

A few years ago, the now-defunct SkyEurope airline offered the incredibly useful connection between London and the High Tatras of Slovakia which are one of the country’s main tourist attractions. Now, thanks to Wizz Air, that flight is not only back – but booming. Which is particularly great news in a world of flight routes that come and go in the blink of an eye.

Since October 28 2014, flights have been running like clockwork from London Luton to the tiny but terribly useful Poprad Tatry airport on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays at 08:35 (and returning from Poprad Tatry on the same days at 12:35) according to the schedule on the Wizz Air website. Planes will be 180-seater Airbus A320’s. And flight prices start at £29.99 (one way). Flight time? About 2 hours 35 minutes.

It’s a very important connection for Slovakia, whose main airline is currently Ryanair (those guys have the monopoly on international flights). And with Poprad/the Tatras (hub of Slovakia’s winter sports and many of its outdoor adventures) being four hours train ride from Bratislava (where most international flights including the UK arrive at present) and over one hour from Košice (where the only other international flights arrive – check here for info on London to Košice flights) by train – the London-Poprad connection saves holiday-makers considerable time.

So everything seems set for your break to Slovakia – straight, as we say, to the good stuff! And we already have on the site a huge amount of info to help plan your High Tatras visit, with tons more on the way. So without further ado:

A Quick Guide to the Other Content We Have on Poprad

Places to Go: Poprad’s funky contemporary art gallery in an old power station

Places to Go: Poprad’s lavish Aqua Park

Places to Go: Nine reasons to linger in Poprad

Places to Go/Getting Around: Taking the Mountain Railway into the High Tatras from Poprad

Places to Stay: A cool travel-friendly B&B in Spišská Sobota, Poprad

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s trendy burger joint

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s dignified Café La Fée

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s Coolest Wine Bar

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s gourmet chocolatier

Going Out: Poprad & the Manchester United Connection

Arts & Culture: Dedicated traditional Czech & Slovak music radio station now based in Poprad

Getting Around: The Poprad to Ždiar to Zakopane (Poland) bus

Top Ten Medieval Towns in Slovakia

And… an overview of what awaits in the High Tatras just outside Poprad… see our comprehensive guide to hiking across the mountains, experience other adventures in the Tatras from climbing to kayaking with the No.1 adventure company in the Tatras and see our recommended High Tatras accommodation options – from hotels to remote mountain houses.

And lastly but not leastly, bon voyage. Dobrý letu!

Trains: Regiojet – Too Good to be True?

Until recently, ZSSK, the state-owned Slovak train company, ran all train routes in Slovakia. This was not a wholly bad thing, because as monopolies go, this was a pretty fair one, with reasonable prices for train travel nationwide, and several notable efforts of recent years to step up quality (the introduction of smart new two-tier trains to run many routes, the introduction of wifi on the IC train routes between Bratislava and Košice). BUT.

But competition is always healthy, and competition has finally been provided by the expansion of Czech-owned Regiojet into Slovakia. Actually, RegioJet have been operating on Slovak turf since 2011 (when they began running the Bratislava to Komarno route). But it was their additional routes added in 2014 which captured people’s attention, because that was when they began operating some trains on the main railway route in Slovakia – from Bratislava through Poprad to Košice.

We recently caught up with one of Slovakia’s leading tour operators, Erik Ševčík of Adventoura, who lives in Poprad in the High Tatras and welcomes the new service.

“I have done the journey between Bratislava and Poprad Tatry several times now” says Erik. “It takes three and a half hours, which is the same as the IC Trains. Why do we welcome the RegioJet service? Well, the first big thing is the ticket price: as little as 9 Euros one-way for a 350km journey. This is for the most basic category, standard class (in 6-person compartments usually), but this is still very comfortable – and there is also relax class and business class for those who want something more. Second, even in standard class, you get mineral water or coffee for free, plus a complementary newspaper. Third, everyone likes free Wifi and RegioJet has that too. It’s just a pleasure to travel with them, and the state-run trains for the same journey cost around 13 Euros and don’t have these kind of services.”

The seats also deserve a mention: leather, reclining and with comfy arm rests, as well as small tables and plenty of leg room. They actually beat those on a great deal of airlines. Relax Class and Business Class get even more comfort (mainly the space per person, the comfort of the seats and the table space improve).

“In Slovakia we think they are doing a great job” says Erik “not just for Slovaks, but also for travellers.”

Your next trip east in Slovakia, it seems, could certainly be in more style… and for a cheaper price.

From Bratislava to Wild Western Slovakia: an Intro to the Small Carpathians (Male Karpaty)

Before I wax lyrical about one of my favourite ranges of hills and forests (the Small Carpathians, or Malé Karpaty) too much more on this blog it’s probably necessary to give you some context. So here we go.

In terms of mountains in Slovakia, it’s the Carpathians that rule the roost. They’re the peaks that start in the Czech Republic, run through the north of Slovakia (and therefore encompassing the Mala Fatra/Vel’ka Fatra, Orava ValleysHigh Tatras and Low Tatras chapters under the “Places to Go” section of this site) and the south of Poland, cut the corner of Hungary, charge south through the west of Ukraine and wind up cutting across the central massif of Romania. All-told, they’re longer than the Alps – and Europe’s second-longest mountain range.

The Carpathians are well-known, and, in Slovakia at least, much visited. But there’s several less-visited extensions of these mountains: “arms” if you like, that bisect Slovakia. And of these, the Small Carpathians are the most significant. These forested hills run from the edge of Bratislava northeast to their join with the Carpathians proper somewhere outside Trenčin: and they dominate the landscape of all Western Slovakia. Almost entirely tree-clad and never rising above 770 metres, they are a far gentler prospect than the Carpathians – but can nevertheless be dramatic, and full of little-discovered treasures.

Englishmaninslovakia loves the Small Carpathians and, by way of an introduction, here’s why. As a result we have by far by largest selection of information about this beautiful range of hills anywhere on the web!

Below, we’ve set it out for you nice and easy. You can find links to ALL our posts on the Small Carpathians both under the What’s There? heading (which takes you through our available content by theme) and then our Access heading (which takes you through our available content in geographical order from south-west to north-east).

The places to watch out for which help make up our Small Carpathians content here start off with the forests north of Bratislava and then continue in a north-easterly direction with Svätý Jur, Limbach, Pezinok, Modra, Smolenice, Piešt’anyNové Mesto and Váhom and (a little further to the east) Nitra: and of course everything in the forests above these destinations. Of course, it almost goes without saying that a foray into the Small Carpathians has to be included at some point in the article for it to feature in our catch-all Small Carpathian article compilation. Thus a post exclusively on Piešt’any’s spas, Modra’s ceramics or Nitra’s coffee scene does not feature here (it will, however, feature in our more general Places to Go/Western Slovakia sub-section, which encompasses the Small Carpathians). Clear? We hope so…

1) What’s There?

It would be wrong to cite anywhere in the Small Carpathians as a key sight: because they’re all relatively low-key. BUT…

– CASTLES Some of Slovakia’s greatest castles are located here, ranging from stupendous stately affairs like Červený Kameň to a myriad hidden ruined castles like Tematin, Gýmeš or Beckov.

– HIKING Then there’s the hiking: through forests which, now trees in the Tatras have been hit by storms, are the densest and perhaps most untrammelled in Slovakia. Signed trails often lead to some of these castles, and also include the likes of viewing platforms (mammoth multi-tier wooden platforms that give you a birds-eye view above the treetops) and open up into flower-dotted meadows. On all trails you will find the lovingly built fire pits where Slovaks come in summer with their barbecued picnic lunches. There are also some formidable biking trails (marked with a C). Try combining a hike with a pilgrimage (to Marianka), a castle (at Pajštún) or with a formidable restaurant (and just a touch of romantic history) above Piešťany. Better yet, hike the hike that runs across the entire Small Carpathians range: the Štefánikova magistrála! (broken down into five guided stages on this site – follow the link for more)

Vineyards, with Bratislava in the distance

Vineyards, with Bratislava in the distance

– WINE And for something more relaxed after all that energy, the hills are home to the homonymous wine route (the erratic nature, lack of updates and lack of in-English info on the official site mean we’re only linking to our updated posts on this now).

The Bratislava suburb of RačaSvätý JurLimbach, PezinokModra and Trnava are the hotbeds of this  wine route, and home to many of the wine cellars open for tours and tastings: the happy end product from the surrounding vineyards, which carpet the lower reaches of the Small Carpathians. Read our post on attending one of the many locally-organised wine tastings (in Trnava) here.

– RUSTIC RESTAURANTS For something still more relaxing, the trees sometimes give way to reveal a number of great places to eat and drink. Some of these places are proper, rustic, typically Slovak eateries, too – traditional yet refined wooden cottages with huge stoves and bundles of charm – and easily accessible: try our post on Furmanska Krčma above Modra or Reštaurácia Furman above Piešt’any for starters.

– BIZARRE BUILDINGS Try our post on Kamzik (a TV mast shaped like a wine bottle in honour of the Male Karpaty wine region) or the poignant tomb-monument of Bradlo, dedicated to Slovakia’s greatest 20th-century hero, Štefánik.

 – SPIRITUAL SPOTS

Slovakia’s main pilgrimage site, Marianka, is hidden in the hills here.

– But above all, what the Small Carpathians are best for is providing a lot of quintessential Slovak experiences (so yes, those undiscovered hikes, those hauntingly ruined castles, that delicious wine, that typical Slovak food – and all in mysterious forested low mountains) and having precious few other visitors outside Slovakia – despite being on Bratislava’s doorstep.

SCROLL DOWN to the bottom of the post for our Top Six Things To Do in the Small Carpathians

2) Access

Bratislava Mestské Lesy

Bratislava Mestské Lesy

 

a) From Bratislava’s Mestské Lesy

The part of the Small Carpathians closest to Bratislava is known as the Mestské Lesy (local city forest). It has its own defined boundaries but there’s no visible distinction between the Mestské Lesy and the Small Carpathians. From Bratislava, the two main entry points to the Mestské Lesy (and thus the Small Carpathians too) are:

– Kamzik, the large TV mast you will not fail to spot wherever you are in the city (whilst it’s a TV mast, it’s also a really beautiful section of forest, and a popular outing at weekends for Bratislava folk). It’s possible to drive up here (through the suburb of Koliba north of the main railway station), take a cable car up here (you have to take a train from the main railway station to Bratislava Zeležna Studienka railway Station, then follow Cesta Mládeže up the couple of km to Železná Studnička, a lake from above which the cable car runs) or, easiest, take trolleybus 203 up here from the central Hodžovo Námestie to the end of the line in Koliba and then walk up about 20 minutes on obvious trails. So much is there to do in and around Kamzik, in fact that we have a whole (rather extensive) separate section on the place – read our post about it here…

– Pekná Cesta, a car park, barbecue area and forestry ranger post above the district of Rača in northeastern Bratislava. It’s possible to drive up here (or walk the 2km) straight up the road of Pekná Cesta from the tram stop of the same name (trams 3 and 5 run here from the centre of Bratislava). This is the preferred start point for our Pilgrimage to Marianka hike: see c) From Marianka below.

RELATED POST: Bratislava Mestske Lesy (Local City Forest)

b) From Devínska Nová Ves, Bratislava. 

The Small Carpathians falls away into Bratislava only to rear up again for one last, brief hurrah on the city’s western edge, accessed from the suburb of Devínska Nová Ves. There is backdoor access to Devín Castle from here, as well as superb views across to Austria from the top of Devínska Kobyla. Read our destination post about it here.

c) From Marianka (on the northern edge of Bratislava).

Marianka is Western Slovakia’s key pilgrimage site: a nice village in the foothills with good places to eat – and connected directly to the Bratislava public transport grid. Take bus 37 (hourly) from the bus station under Most SNP to the end of the line. Several hiking trails lead off from Marianka, including the trail to Borinka and on up to Pajštún Castle. Read our post about hiking to Marianka here, our destination post on Marianka here and our destination post on Pajštún here.

FOR MORE ON GETTING TO KAMZIK, PEKA CESTA, DEVINSKA NOVA VES OR MARIANKA, SEE OUR POST ON BRATISLAVA’S MAIN TRAM, BUS AND TROLLEYBUS ROUTES TOO!

d) From Svätý Júr, just outside Bratislava

On this blog, we don’t really count Svätý Júr as outside Bratislava, but more as a commuter suburb. Perhaps this is unfair, but there you go. Yet already, the Small Carpathian landscapes are starting to have their undulating rusticating effect on Svätý Júr  and as it’s connected via good and regular bus connections from Bratislava’s Mlynske Nivy bus station, and the hills are only a short walk up through town from the bus stop, it makes a viable access point. Read our destination post on Svätý Júr here.

e) From Western Slovakia.

Best access points are (in order from Bratislava) the towns of Limbach, Pezinok, Modra, Smolenice (which lies within the hills and has access to the highest point of the Small Carpathians, Zarúby), Piešt’any, Nové Mesto nad Váhom and Trenčin. Nitra, further east, also has access – although as detailed above, all of these destinations with the exception of Limbach and Smolenice are big (for Slovakia) towns so you won’t find links to our articles on them on our compilation of Small Carpathians content UNLESS they involve getting up into them hills…

RELATED POST: Checking out the wine in the only Small Carpathians wine route town PROPERLY in the Small Carpathians

RELATED POST: Ľudovít Štúr’s Modra (coming soon)

RELATED POST: Feasting in the woods above Modra

RELATED POST: In the Footsteps of Beethoven above Piešt’any

RELATED POST: A great traditional Slovak restaurant in the hills above Piešt’any

RELATED POST: Exploring the remotest of the incredible fortresses in the Small Carpathians, Tematin

RELATED POST: Roaming the ruins of Beckov Castle above Nové Mesto nad Váhom

RELATED POST: Checking out the monument to Czechoslovakia’s founder, Štefánik

RELATED POST: Hiking the whole Small Carpathians hill range on Slovakia’s spectacular long-distance trail, the Štefánikova magistrála – or jump straight in to stages 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5 of the hike

The Saint's Trail from Marianka to Svätý Jur

The Saint’s Trail from Marianka to Svätý Jur

3) The Small Carpathians on Englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The Small Carpathians span two sub-sections on this blog.

a) Bratislava & Around

Falling within the Bratislava & Around section are many posts that focus on places well and truly in the Small Carpathians, but also within the geographical range detailed on the map in our Places to Go/Bratislava & Around sub-section, namely:

– Heading North from Bratislava centre:

Up to Marianka (and the hikes around Borinka, Stupava and Pajštún Castle which lie a fraction beyond the northerly extent).

– Heading East/Northeast from Bratislava centre:

Anything up to and including the small village of Svätý Jur.

b) Western Slovakia

Beyond the limits just specified, the rest of our blog posts on the Small Carpathians fall in this section.

 4) Top Six Things To Do in the Small Carpathians

1: Go wine-tasting in some of the small wine cellars in the countryside around Limbach, Pezinok or Modra

2: Visit the majestic castle of Červený Kameň near Časta. (see our Western Slovakia Castle Tour for more)

3: Climb up to Záruby, the high-point of the Small Carpathians from the small, pretty village of Smolenice – which has a gorgeous castle (where you can climb the tower for more lovely views)

4: Spend a day hiking the trails of the central tract of the Small Carpathians and round it off with a night’s stay at plush Zochova Chata and a dinner of typical Slovak fare at traditional Furmanska Krčma.

5: Hike up to the hidden ruins of Hrad Tematin – and spend the night in the mountain hut there! (see our Around Piešt’any: the Mysterious Ruins of Tematin article for more).

6: Descend into Western Slovakia’s only explorable cave system, Jaskyňa Driny (Driny Cave) near Smolenice.

MAP LINK:

GETTING THERE: As previously detailed, Bratislava, as well as the towns of Svätý Júr, Pezinok, Modra, Piešt’any, Smolenice, Nové Mesto nad Váhom and Trenčin have the best access to the Small Carpathians and, with the exception of Smolenice, have excellent, regular bus connections from Bratislava. Smolenice is more remote, thus has less buses (about every 1.5 hours from Bratislava direct, at a cost of 2.80 Euros, so still not bad). Pezinok, Piešt’any, Nové Mesto nad Váhom and Trenčin are also served by trains every 1.5 hours from Bratislava.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Červený Kameň at the epicentre of this range of hills, it’s  23km east to Trnava and 60km northeast to recuperate at the country’s best-known spa in Piešt’any.

Buying Hiking Maps and Apps (Outdoors)

There it is: one of the classic billboard shots for Slovakia’s hiking: the strange twisting path through the wooded chasms of Slovenský Raj, or the Slovak Paradise. Chances are that if you come to this country, want to see the best of it and have time to do so then you’re going to be doing some hiking: either in the afore-mentioned National Park or up in the High Tatras, most likely.

And you should not – ever – take to the trails in Slovakia’s national parks without a map. Out in Slovakia’s wilds it’s not a couple of hills with some nice restaurant waiting on the other side: it’s wild, guys – as in Scottish Northwest Highlands wild and then some. And it is very easy to lose your orientation with all those trees everywhere!

So: maps. The green-coloured 1: 25,000 and 1: 50,000 VKÚ Harmanec maps are what I have found best. They are the ideal level of detail and come in plastic cases. I find the most comprehensive selection is in Bratislava’s Martinus bookstore, and there’s a branch with a nice cafe on Obchodná right by Poštová tram stop in the centre. Panta Rhei also have maps. They’ll always have the Malé Karpaty (those hills just outside Bratislava) and the main national parks in stock.

Hiking map for the hills and forests around Bratislava

Hiking map for the hills and forests around Bratislava

And, a discovery I made the other day: there’s now a Slovak Hiking app out (search for Turisticka Mapa in your app store, the creator is Daniel Tekel). It’s basically a close-up map of the country with hiking paths highlighted and other detail faded out slightly. As long as you are going along a marked trail (most good hiking in Slovakia is along marked trails anyway) it’s pretty accurate – although at the admission of the creator, not all close-up terrain detail is shown, so if you do accidentally stray off the marked trail you may have probs. But it is a good back-up resource and with a blue dot to indicate if you are, indeed, where you think you are, you probably won’t go too wrong. The app is free; additional features such as tracking your route cost an extra 69 pence.

High Tatras Mountains: Tatranská Magistrala – the Kit List

There is a running joke in Slovakia about the Czechs. Lots of Czechs come to the Tatras mountains each year. Of all visiting nations, the Czechs are apparently the most Gung-ho when it comes to forging off alone in the peaks without a guide (perhaps with the mentality that, if they speak 99% of the same language, Slovakia can’t possibly hurt them). Other nations are much more likely to plan a trip with a certain degree of caution. And of those who do get into difficulty in the mountains and need assistance from mountain rescue, the Czechs form the highest percentage. The Tatras claim several hundred lives from the tourists that visit them every year, in fact. Exposure, avalanches, falls down precipices and the like.

To be honest, I think by nature I’m quite like those daredevil Czechs too. The Slovak mountains are so much higher and more dramatic then anything I’m used to in the UK. Thus the temptation is to run off into them, squealing with delight like a small child, and not think properly about the very real danger these mountains can pose to those who, like me, love trekking into the great outdoors. Hiking the Tatranská Magistrala taught me a few things about what you need to bring with you when you embark on an adventure in such mountains and so, Czechs and indeed adventurers from any land who might under-estimate the power of the mighty Tatras, this is for you: an essential kit list!

CLOTHING

1: Warm, waterproof jacket OR better still, a waterproof jacket with a detachable fleece. That way, you can keep wearing the fleece in the mountain houses you’ll be staying at in the evening, which can still be quite cold inside.

2: Warm, woollen hat: temperatures even in June can get down to minus 5.

3: Gloves, but ideally not woollen ones. Ones with grip are better for hauling yourself up or down on those chains.

4: Hiking boots, well broken in. Do not attempt this hike without them.

5: Waterproof trousers. Pack these, and you can get away with just packing one pair of light trousers to wear underneath. You’re likely to get wet, at some point, and there’s often no cover in the Tatras.

6: Shorts are often better for summer hiking as it frees up your movement, but remember the definition of “summer” can be literally only July to September, so don’t come without a pair of long trousers too.

7: Sunglasses: great to cut out the glare.

8: A dry change of clothes for the evening: you’ll appreciate them no end.

9: If you suffer from any kind of problem in your legs, a knee support: some of the downhill sections are jarring on the bones.

GEAR

1: Rucksack with waterproof covering. Self-explanatory, right?

2: Walking poles: not essential, but you are going to feel the benefit on the often punishing ups and downs.

3: Torch: a head torch would be perfect as it keeps your hands free, or a maglite that’s light but powerful and can help if you’re caught on the trail after dark or can’t find the light switch in the night.

4: Whistle and, ideally, a flare. This sounds over the top but it isn’t: you could easily get into difficulty and phone reception could be non-existent. This could be your only way of getting help.

5: Mobile phone and charger: for similar reasons to the above. Make sure you at least have a phone that will function if the reception comes.

6: A good map: Again, it sounds obvious but you’d be surprised. See our guide here to buying hiking maps in Slovakia.

7: A compass: Pretty important, especially on some of the less well-signed trails.

8: Book/ pack of cards: for evening entertainment.

9: Cash. Don’t bank on being able to pay by card.

10: Camera: you’re going to get some great pics.

11: Sharp knife. It’s going to come in useful.

12: Lighter. Probably good. At the mountain houses it’s possible to have a camp fire.

FOOD

1: A good supply of water. At least a 1.5 litre bottle (this should be enough to get you between one mountain house and the next, where you can fill up).

2: Sugar fixes: for morale boosts and energy. Whatever you like.

3: A hip flask filled with something strong. That’s the way the Slovaks do it!

Where to Go After Reading this Post

Got the general idea? Now it’s time to go to our Tatranská Magistrala Stage Descriptions and our recommended High Tatras Mountain Houses (under the Places to Stay/High Tatras sub-section) which of course tie in with the Stage Descriptions.

Hiking in the Tatras can be tough, with intense quickly-changing weather

Hiking in the Tatras can be tough, with intense quickly-changing weather…

High Tatras Mountains: the Tatranská Magistrala Stage 4 (Horský Hotel Popradské Pleso to Pribylina)

The final day of the Tatranská Magistrala trail begins on the shores of Popradské Pleso, surrounded somewhat ampitheatrically by sheering 2500m + peaks. The route by which you came down on stage 3 of the trail lies across from you on the eastern shore. Read Englishmaninslovakia’s separate piece on Popradské Pleso here.

Today, under normal conditions, it’s only a 4 to 4.5 hour hike to the official end of the trail at Podbanské from Popradské Pleso, with the additional 1.25 hour road walk to Pribylina (from where there is year-round public transport access, as opposed to Podbanské where buses only run between late June and the end of August).

HOWEVER, and it’s a big however (which is why we wrote it in bold and in capitals) spring 2014’s storm damage, that nasty trickster the Tatranska Bora, was still severely impeding the trail between Štrbské Pleso and Podbanské in late 2015, although as of 2016 clearance is completed. To all but the fit, determined or obstinate (and we ranked somewhere in this category) there was a large section of this path so covered with fallen trees that it had become impassable. So for those fit, determined, obstinate hikers out there: allow an extra 1 to 1.5 hours to negotiate the fallen trees. In these sadly all-too frequent times of path blockages due to fallen trees the choices for proceeding beyond Štrbské Pleso are:

a) Public transport via the mountain railway back to Poprad and/or alternative transport arrangements home.

b) Continuing by road from Štrbské Pleso to Tri Studničky, then Podbanské, then Pribylina. The road is not too busy and still very beautiful.

c) Forging on the path through the trees from Štrbské Pleso to Tri Studnicky, then continuing by road as before (because the trail is impossible to find through the woods just after Tri Studničky during times of excess fallen trees).

The first part of the path from Horský Hotel Popradské Pleso is in good nick. Follow the access road up to the crest of the first hill (about 250m) to where the red trail leaves the road and cuts through forest (replete with information boards, because this section is one of the most popular to walk) down to the most touristy place you will encounter on the whole trail: Štrbské Pleso. The trail emerges into the tourist developments just south-east of the access road to Hotel Patria (see top pic), which iconically stands on the north shore of Štrbské Pleso, Slovakia’s  most famous lake. The path then takes you clockwise around the lake shore, conveniently passing its most celebrated restaurant and its well-known south shore hotels, including the Grand Hotel Kempinski High Tatras with its snazzy ground-level wellness centre. There’s a lot to do around the lake here – and despite the previous lines the lake is still a very pretty place to wander; it’s only the village below the lake around the mountain railway terminus that has sadly fallen prey to some ugly development – so do read here all about Štrbské Pleso, which is one of the key tourist destinations within the High Tatras.

Soon after you leave the lake’s shores (the red signs lead off on a steady track from the back of Grand Hotel Kempinski High Tatras and Hotel Solisko) you see the signs of devastation from the spring storms (one thinks of the Lord of the Rings lines “these trees were my friends”)

Just after this point, from where it would normally be just under 2 hours of hiking to Tri Studnicky (where the trail next touches the road) this happened during 2014:

You’ll see the felled red trail marks: and it gets worse and worse. At times, during 2014 and 2015, along what would normally be a beautiful trail through wild woods to gorgeous Jamské Pleso and on again to Tri Studničky, storms had felled trees so thickly there seemed no way through. The section to Jamské Pleso was tough but just after this lake it became nigh on impossible. You’ll have to wriggle, climb and squeeze through the fallen trees and often you lose sight of the path totally. Still, it’s pretty good fun and eventually you come out into lower-lying forest where the falled trees fall back, descend to a muddy path junction where you join a green trail, then descend sharp right to the road at Tri Studničky.

As for Tri Studničky, it’s nothing special: a couple of former forestry rangers houses and the pleasant chata of Tri Studničky. Note that this should NOT be confused with Hotel Tri Studnicky which lies southwest of Lucenec in southern Slovakia. Well, we confused it, anyway; getting excited about the possibility of a spa (as the hotel near Lucenec does have) and finding, um, basic dormitory accommodation and of course, as mentioned above, the total impossibility of finding the path again beyond the forestry ranger’s buildings.

Doing the hike in the other direction from Podbanské it is easier to find the path during post-storm periods of felled trees but it becomes terribly tricky when the storms destroy the trail here. After an hour of trying we gave up and opted to continue along the road to Podbanské.

Tri Studnicky

Tri Studnicky

The road is not such a bad option. It’s a 1-hour walk (6km) through forest along the road to the small lane branching right down into Podbanské. You rejoin the path you should normally have been able to take at the first lane junction (Podbanské is the first major set of houses you see on the right from the main road). Good signposts (before the storms these paths were really lovingly tended, as you now see) usher you down across the river to the car park at Podbanské. From here you can ascend again 100 metres up to the village green which is Podbanské’s endearing little centre and looks quite like a quaint English village. The far side of the green has a very decent restaurant. If you are here in high season (late June to late August) you will be able to stay here, which is the preferable option to Pribylina.

But places in Podbanské do have a long closing season so if you’re outside of peak season you’ll have to continue the hike to Pribylina, back along the main road, which is another 1.5 hours (8km). You pass lots of summer houses hidden away in the woods and eventually, after emerging into meadows, arrive at Pribylina itself. It’s a large village with ample ubytovanie (rooms/guesthouses) available and, of course, buses on to Liptovský Mikulaš where there are mainline trains to Bratislava and beyond. It’s surely time to have one final round of dumplings and beer.

What Next?

Read more about staying at Horský Hotel Popradské Pleso (beginning of stage). Or, read on to the following:

Stage OneŽdiar to Chata pri Zelenom Plese

Stage Two:  Chata Pri Zelenom Plese to Zamkovského Chata

Stage Three (previous stage): Zamkovského Chata to Horský Hotel Popradské Pleso

Introduction to the Tatranská Magistrala

Tatranská Magistrala Hiking Kit List

Buying Hiking Maps & Apps

OR

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: This is the final stage of the Tatranská Magistrala hike. But from Pribylina it’s just 31km southwest to Demänovska Dolina, start point for the main access to the Low Tatras peak of Chopok.

High Tatras Mountains: the Tatranská Magistrala Stage 3 (Zamkovského Chata to Horský Hotel Popradské Pleso)

Zamkovského Chata is your recommended stopover between stage 2 and 3. This is a long day’s walk: you should allow 6.5 to 7 hours all told.

Head back up through the woods from the chata on the green path to where you turned off from the red route. On the Tatranská Magistrala, in red as ever it was, it’s around 50 minutes on an easy-going path to Hrebienok, where you can take the funicular railway down to Starý Smokovec (the main resort village in the High Tatras; see how Hrebienok and Starý Smokovec link up with the Tatras Mountain Railway here). Easy-going in gradient, that is, and easy-going in terms of the signposting, but damnably rocky, meaning you are watching your footing every single step. First off you head downhill, twisting passed a quite impressive waterfall:

Down and over a river and it’s the forest track heading uphill that you want; this climbs to a noticeboard then heads straight on (it’s even paved in places) heading slightly down overall to get to Hrebienok.

Here the path skitters round the Hrebienok outbuildings (there’s a chata here, Biliková Chata, where you can stay) then cuts uphill through forest which took a beating in the spring storms this year towards Sliezsky Dom. Allow 2 hours to reach Sliezsky Dom from this point.

Many of the red waymarks on this stretch are missing because the trees they were painted on have fallen. The path climbs relentlessly however, twisting up through forest that is soon thick again, and climbs some 400 metres. It comes out into wilder moorland where views down to Starý Smokovec are pretty good, and there, at the end of a long forest road and perched at the edge of Velicke Pleso, is Sliezsky Dom. It’s possible to stay at this vastly overpriced eyesore of a hotel, but for hikers who have experienced the friendliness of mountain houses like Chata Pri Zelenom Plese, Zamkovského Chata or (for those hiking the path in reverse) Horský Hotel Popradské Pleso, this one is a shocker: an arrogantly staffed, dismal communist-built colossus with rooms a-plenty and unsurprisingly few takers for them. It’s dingy and actually not even completed, which makes one wonder how they can charge the prices they do. It is strongly recommended to stay at (ideally) Zamkovského Chata, Biliková Chata or Horský Hotel Popradské Pleso rather than here. Even the bar/restaurant was a Godforsaken place: I was happier to munch my dried fruit down by the lake in the drizzle. Anyway. You have been warned. The view from here, however, is beautiful, with a couple of waterfalls a short hike away:

 

The path from here continues up around the back of the hotel and from here it’s still a tough 3.5 hour hike to Horský Hotel Popradské Pleso. You’re very soon up in wild moorland here, and back up above the snowline for large stretches. In its bleakness, however, this stretch of the path is beautiful and otherworldly: just leave enough time to enjoy it and if you’re running out of light or if the weather is bad DO NOT attempt the final descent down to Horský Hotel Popradské Pleso. There is a bad weather option in addition, as detailed below.

The trail, marching along a specially constructed path of boulders, as it has at various points thus far, meets a yellow trail coming up from the access road to Sliezsky Dom after 30 minutes of hiking. After the junction, the path ascends very steeply into perhaps the most daunting landscape of the entire hike: the icy locale of Batizovské Pleso, where the water gleams an ethereal ice-blue and the boulder-strewn surrounds are like a little snapshot of Siberia, juxtaposed onto the High Tatras. The route coasts up the right side of a vast U-shaped valley, with Batizovské Pleso at the top, hugs the contour as it negotiates the southern lakeshore and then arrives at a junction where, as stated before, you need to make a choice.

From the junction of the red Tatranská Magistrala and the yellow trail (the one that goes down) it’s 2 to 2.5 hours onto Horský Hotel Popradské Pleso on the red route or 1 hour 45 minutes down to the tiny village of Vyšné Hágy on yellow.

Good Weather Option

Of course, in an ideal world you would follow the red Tatranská Magistrala on to your stage 3 destination from here. The path is fine (although it does climb up to nigh on 2000 metres, so another 100 metres up from Batizovské Pleso) BUT then comes the demanding descent a good 600 metres straight down to the lake of Popradské Pleso. The official trail guide makes little of this descent and says it’s doable in 45 minutes. That may be true, but for those not used to the legendary Tatras chain descents (i.e. where you absolutely have to cling to a chain or you will fall in places) this is a formidable and vertigo-inducing path. Do not attempt the red route from this point onto  Popradské Pleso unless you have at the least 2.5 hours of daylight left – and even then not from October to May when snow obscures parts of the descent.

Bad Weather Option

The alternative is in any case quite pleasant: an easy, although again extremely rocky, path down into pine forest (it follows a river for a while which is intense in spring and winter) to Vyšné Hágy which has no accommodation but does boast a sports pub and a stop on the High Tatras mountain railway between Poprad/Starý Smokovec and Popradské Pleso/Štrbské Pleso. Keep to the red trails through the forests, descend to a farm where an inordinate amount of tractors seem to park, then cross the mountain railway line and bear left to ascend again slightly to the station. It’s then one stop on the line to the isolated Popradské Pleso station and the much-easier one hour hike back up to Popradské Pleso and Horský Hotel Popradské Pleso (on a blue trail).

When you get to Popradské Pleso there are actually two accommodation options right next to each other on the western shore where the road ends: Horský Hotel Popradské Pleso and another chata right next to it, which is by all accounts very nice too. It’s time for a plate of dumplings and possibly more than one beer: you’ve arrived.

What Next?

Read more about staying at Zamkovského Chata (beginning of stage) or Horský Hotel Popradské Pleso (end of stage). Or, read on to the following:

Stage OneŽdiar to Chata pri Zelenom Plese

Stage Two (previous stage)  Chata Pri Zelenom Plese to Zamkovského Chata

Stage Four (next stage): Horský Hotel Popradské Pleso to Pribylina

Introduction to the Tatranská Magistrala

Tatranská Magistrala Hiking Kit List

Buying Hiking Maps & Apps

High Tatras Mountains: the Tatranská Magistrala Stage 2 (Chata Pri Zelenom Plese to Zamkovského Chata)

Time: Via Red Route to Zamkovského Chata: 4 Hours; Via Yellow/Green/Blue Route to Zamkovského Chata: 3.5 Hours; Teryho Chata Out-and-Back From Zamkovského Chata: 4 Hours with 30-minute Break for Refreshments at Teryho Chata

Wakey wakey. This is the toughest day of hiking, and not because of the distance. Oh no. This is tough because of the gradient and the vertiginous nature of the path (if you choose to follow the route strictly). It all starts so idyllically. Chata Pri Zelenom Plese is in my opinion the jewel of the High Tatras Mountain Houses for its location if nothing else: the water of Zelené Pleso (meaning green lake) is for me for a rich turquoise when you see it in certain lights and as you climb steeply away from it through the surrounding ampitheatre of mountains the first thought is that you wish you weren’t leaving at all.

Anyway, the red trail bends down with the yellow trail around the side of the lake-front terrace of Chata Pri Zelenom Plese, crosses a bridge and then divides, with red going right and yellow left. Now, read this carefully. Both trails can ultimately get you where you want to go on the Tatranská Magistrala. The red trail to the right (the official trail route) is extremely difficult (that’s what we referred to in our introduction to the Tatranská Magistrala as “for the experienced only” during its precarious ascent to Sedlo Pod Svištovkou.) The yellow trail to the left then links up with green and blue trails to get you to exactly the same point as the red, i.e Skalnaté Pleso, a lake at 1751 metres with cable car stations both down to Štart (and then the mountain resort of Tatranská Lomnica) and up to the peak of Lomnicky Štit (2633.8 metres and the second-highest summit in the High Tatras after Gerlachovský Štit).

The Red Route and Official Tatranská Magistrala Trail Option

The path starts off well enough, ascending around Zelene Pleso then doubling back high above the forest and the line of the Chata Pri Zelenom Plese access track to reach the small tarn of Čierne Pleso. You’re already way above the snow line here and because you’re in a rift directly below the high peaks the snow here stays thickest and longest, way into June and even July. As it’s melting, it’s especially dangerous because with each step you can plunge down a couple of feet. The path goes across several small snow fields before you even arrive at the most dangerous part, where two gullies both ascend steeply in what looks like the direction of the summit.

The Red Trail: tough

The Red Trail: tough

The left option, which we took first of all, is not the official path and gets pretty hairy pretty quick (only a smidgeon below proper climbing, which with rucksacks and no ropes we were not prepared for). The right option (the actual path) isn’t any easier, ironically. A huge snowfield about four feet deep went right the way up the gully (this was in June, remember) and covered the chains that you really rely upon for support pulling yourself up the slippery rocks. Even if there was no snow, this would be an arduous route, with a difficult descent (invariably in the mist) once you get to Sedlo Pod Svištovkou down to Skalnaté Pleso (we checked this from the other end). Paths are crumbly scree in many places and over waterfalls in others, where a misplaced step could result in a nasty fall. In the end, after three hours plugging away, we had to turn back and take the lower route as snow was covering the trail signs and at the summit the path is not always obvious.

 The Yellow/Green/Blue Trail Lower Option

The yellow trail, beginning as a wide metalled track above a fast-flowing mountain stream (Zeleny Potok), is, despite its lower elevation, a much more beautiful route, winding down through forests. It’s also a mountain bike trail. We soon realised why we’d met no one going up over Sedlo Pod Svištovkou: everyone was taking this sensible lower route and it’s a much more popular path than the Tatranská Magistrala Stage 1: Ždiar to Chata Pri Zelenom Plese. The first couple of kilometres are prettiest: then there’s a loop through some of the forest which suffered in the May storms and then the thick forest returns and, an hour from Chata Pri Zelenom Plese, you reach a green trail sign by a small forest shelter.

Now it’s time to stop descending (you’ve come down in height about 275 metres since Chata Pri Zelenom Plese) and ascend again. A 15-minute climb up through woodland plonks you on the blue trail which now, with little possibility to go wrong, ushers you up to Skalnaté Pleso. Still, you climb a good 450 metres on this path and whilst the way is never in doubt as it snakes up through the forest, it’s tough on the knees because it’s built of huge stones like some Inca highway. From the time you join this blue trail, it’s a 1.5 hour climb to Skalnaté Pleso. Just over half-way through, the path kinks as you come onto open moor at a rather idyllic grassy picnic spot. From here you can already see the path cutting up all the way to the observatory at Skalnaté Pleso. The boulders which form the path here require some regular looking at (as opposed to the beautiful views across to the Low Tatras) to pick your way, until you rejoin the Tatranská Magistrala at the lake of Skalnaté Pleso: an observatory, a really interesting educational trail around the lake and the afore-mentioned cable car station. The cable car is closed in May and when we were there (beginning of June) it had not reopened and the whole place had a slightly eerie feel. As you rejoin the Tatranská Magistrala (if you’ve taken the yellow/green/blue route) look up towards the observatory and see the red trail sheering up beyond: you won’t be sorry you took the easier option!

Anyway, Skalnaté Pleso is an intriguing place to spend some time and you can read more about it in this post.

Back on the Red Trail to Zamkovského Chata

From the trail sign on the southern side of the lake, go across the bridge (below which the lake empties into a waterfall in what seems like, viewed from a distance, the edge of the High Tatras’ very own infinity pool. An educational trail curves around the lake shore but the red trail goes up the weather-blasted steps to the wall of the somewhat monstrous cable car station building itself, then follows the building around anti-clockwise. Don’t take any paths veering off up to the right here but continue antic-clockwise down the other wide of the building to another trail sign almost under the towering legs of the Cable Car pillars. The path drops down a few metres to Skalnatá Chata, where refreshments are on offer between 10am and 5pm, and where you can also stay. It’s very popular when the chairlift is open but not one that Englishmaninslovakia recommends.

Car station at Skalnate Pleso

Car station at Skalnate Pleso

The rocky path (red and green until this point since the cable car station) then splits: green descends to Tatranská Lomnica; red rises up a little then slowly descends gently down the contour line on another hard-on-the-legs rocky path down into thick forest. A sharp kink right in the path at Lomnická Vyhliadka suddenly yields great views over to Slavkovský Štit. It’s a 50-minute descent from the cable car to a fork in the path, ensconced in the forest once more, where the Tatranská Magistrala forges on left and Zamkovského Chata is a one minute walk on the green trail to the right.

SO. You’ve arrived at the best night’s accommodation around (see Englishmaninslovakia’s separate post on Zamkovského Chata. It’s probably time for a round of beer and dumplings.

The Out-and-Back Path to Teryho Chata

For those of you that don’t feel sufficiently exercised yet, the best walk to do around here, once you’ve deposited your backpacks, is up on the green trail to the remote Teryho Chata: the highest mountain house in the Tatras (save for the pricey rooms at the top of Gerlachovsky Štit . From the top there are the great views of Lomnicky Štit (you’ll crest the 2000 metre mark by Teryhó Chata and feel properly on top of the world – or, at least, Eastern Europe. (Random fact time: the only higher points in Eastern Europe than Gerlachovský Štit are Bulgaria’s Musala, and a trio of peaks including Triglav in Slovenia). Have around of beer and dumplings in Teryhó Chata and descend.

What Next?

Read more about staying in Chata Pri Zelenom Plese (beginning of stage) or Zamkovskeho Chata or Teryho Chata (end of stage) (links bolded until written)

Stage One (previous stage)Ždiar to Chata pri Zelenom Plese

Stage Three (next stage)Zamkovského Chata to Horský Hotel Popradské Pleso

Stage Four: Horský Hotel Popradské Pleso to Pribylina

Introduction to the Tatranská Magistrala

Tatranská Magistrala Hiking Kit List

Buying Hiking Maps & Apps

High Tatras Mountains: the Tatranská Magistrala Stage 1 (Ždiar to Chata pri Zelenom Plese)

Ždiar, as mentioned in Englishmaninslovakia’s introduction to hiking the Tatranská Magistrala, is the best starting point for beginning the walk. It’s a beautiful village, with many examples of the Goral architecture (the Goral people are a Slavic group of traditionally highland-dwelling people living in southern Poland and northern Slovakia): prettily painted blue, red and gold log houses, some of which you can stay in amongst the village’s many accommodation options. It’s also got a shop to stock up on supplies (see Englishmaninslovakia’s Tatranská Magistrala Hiking Kitlist for what you need to take) and a small tourist information centre open during the high season (late June to September).

Because this first part of the path entails a lot of fiddly directions, this stage will seem in description like it’s much longer than it is, but the reality is that it’s 5 HOURS in total. All walking distances in the Tatras, remember, are given in hours and minutes that it takes the average walker to do a particular distance, which in many ways is more helpful than putting distances in km/miles.

Basically, make your way down from the village centre in which you are probably staying to the Slovnaft service station on the main Poprad-Polish border road, Hwy 67 (see a useful article here on how to get from Poprad or Ždiar to Poland.) Head downhill (back towards Poprad) with the village centre on your left. After 100 metres you will see this crazy-looking house on the right-hand side:

Crazy-looking house

Crazy-looking house

Turn right down the little lane here (signposted to the Hotel Magura). After you pass the first bunch of houses on the left you’ll see a wooden bridge across the river on the left. Cross it and take the forestry track to the right. The track you now take is supposed to be an official (red-marked) trail at this stage, but the red waymarks are absent and it’s really just a forestry track. The thing to remember is that it stays more or less parallel to the river and on the other side the access road to Hotel Magura (you can walk along the access road if you want but it’s not as nice). Therefore, do not take any of the forestry tracks leading steeply up to the left and keep along a gradually ascending trail.There is one point where the actual track seems to cross the river, but don’t take that fork. Soon you’ll cross a meadow to a house and at the gateway join a track which then heads back down over the river in front of the rather impressive-looking Hotel Magura rearing up over lawns ahead. Turn left here on the red-signed trail which leads once more over the river and then to the right of a couple of chalets, one of which is a nice-looking penzión. A little while more, and the track reaches a divide at a slightly eerie looking ranger’s hut, with chairs and tables inside but a quickly-abandoned Marie Celeste-type feel. There are a couple of information boards here too, and now the red trail you want branches left and steeply up through forest.

This next section up through the forest to Siroké Sedlo at 1825m is the second-most grueling climb of the entire trail, which – given you haven’t even actually got onto the official trail yet – is quite intense. You ascend almost 1000 metres from Ždiar to the top just beyond Siroké Sedlo. It’s a beautiful path though. Forested outcrops of rock veer off on both sides as you rise through the forest, alongside a mountain stream which you cross a couple of times on nice neatly-made bridges:

Nicely made bridges

Nicely made bridges

Soon you meet a rather dramatic rise where the stream tumbles down from the ridges above in a wide-open valley where the forest falls away. This is where the path kinks right to round this waterfall the easier way, and you start to see lots of the kamziks – the mountain goats which live at these altitudes. On the path rises, steep enough to need chains in a couple of places to aid you, but not precarious at all. You come up to a picnic table, good for a breather and great views back to Ždiar, then start a slightly more gradual climb up over moorland.

View back to Ždiar

View back to Ždiar

Even during the summer months (well this picture is taken in June) you’re now up above the snowline here, but a well-constructed log-lined path ascends to Siroké Sedlo which may not quite be the top but is the first dramatic brush with the High Tatras and White Tatras peaks as you see them soaring up in front of you across a valley. As a barrier kindly indicates, don’t turn right at Siroké Sedlo because that’s just a goat track which will probably lead you to your death. Instead, kink back left on a path that in 15 minutes ushers you to the top of the path (for now) at around 1900 metres above Kopské Sedlo.

Descend from the wind-blasted ridge (the signpost here was still obscured by ice when we were there that the wind had twisted into bizarre shapes) to Kopské Sedlo itself (distinguished by another trail sign which looks like a pair of stag’s antlers). Here you actually join up with a blue trail that’s risen up from Tatranská Javorína. This was a big smuggling route between the kingdoms of Hungary and Poland back in the day – and a significant copper mining area too. From here it’s 30 minutes of descent to Vel’ké Biele Pleso which is, after just over four hours of hiking, the official start of the Tatranská Magistrala.

Surveying the View on the Way Down to Vel'ke Biele Pleso

Surveying the View on the Way Down to Vel’ke Biele Pleso – www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Why they chose such a remote place to actually start/end the official trail is a bit of the mystery. It’s not like you can rock up at this isolated lake in any other way than by a steep hike (either the way just described or from green/ blue trails respectively from the small villages of Tatranská Kotlina/ Tatranské Matliare. There’s a picnic area at the lake, nestled photogenically under Jahňací Štít peak at 2200 metres plus. But the heartening news is that Englishmaninslovakia’s first recommended nights’ stop is now only a straight-forward downhill 30-minute walk away. Red, blue and green trails diverge at the noticeboard and you can hike the first steps of the official red-signed Tatranská Magistrala down through scrub and forest to the beautiful lake of Zelené Pleso where – perched on the shores – you will find Chata Pri Zelenom Plese. Go grab a beer, a ton of dumplings and celebrate.

What next?

Read more about staying at Ždiar (beginning of stage) or Chata Pri Zelenom Plese (end of stage) or read on to the other stage descriptions:

Stage Two (next stage): Chata Pri Zelenom Plese to Zamkovského Chata

Stage ThreeZamkovského Chata to Horský Hotel Popradské Pleso

Stage Four: Horský Hotel Popradské Pleso to Pribylina

 

Other useful links:

Introduction to the Tatranská Magistrala

Tatranská Magistrala Hiking Kit List

Buying Hiking Maps & Apps

 

High Tatras Mountain House: Zamkovského Chata

It was summer, but we were still rubbing our hands together to keep the circulation going whenever we had to remove our gloves to study the map. A cold wind was blowing belated flurries of snow down from 2500m peaks over the long, exposed, boulder-strewn stretch of the Tatranská Magistrala between the lurid mountain lakes of Zelené Pleso and Skalnaté Pleso, shaking the timbers of each man-made structure, hut to signpost, that it could find. Re-entering the pine forests after a long descent from these wild climes was for us a relief: a respite, if you like. It’s a particularly majestic stretch of forest: one that has survived the strong winds (a phenomenon known as the Tatranská bóra) that have plagued the high-altitude forests of the High Tatras for decades; one which feels as old as, or older than, the glam days of Tatras tourism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. And it is here that we eagerly sought refuge in one of the most interesting accommodation options of the many dotted across these high mountains.

Zamkovského Chata is one of the oldest High Tatras mountain houses: an expansive two-floor log cabin that resonates with history. Štefan Zamkovský, a renowned mountain guide and ranger, and one of the key figures behind the development of the High Tatras as a tourist destination, built the house between 1942 and 1943, lived there with his family, and let part of it out as a refuge from the weather for weary walkers. Despite his efforts for the local tourism industry, Zamkovský had his property confiscated in 1948 under the Communist regime (the house subsequently became named after one captain Nalepka) and it was only after 1989 that the lodge was returned to the Zamkovský family,  and reassumed the name Zamkovského Chata.

The story of Štefan Zamkovský is touchingly retold in the log cabin restaurant of Zamkovského Chata – which has become a museum of sorts to the development of tourism in the High Tatras (and a museum where you can slurp Slovak mulled wine and wolf down pirohy – great by us!). A one-hour walk up from the cable car station at Hrebienok (connecting tourists to the resort village of Starý Smokovec below) and a one hour walk down from Skalnaté Pleso (where another cable car connects tourists with the more easterly resort village of  Tatranská Lomnica below), it is accessible enough for families and afternoon strollers to trek here for lunch, and close enough to the serious mountain hiking/climbing to act as a magnet for the outdoor adventure-obsessed. Its location is sedate and sheltered, in contrast to the other more exposed mountain houses out on the slopes, but at the same time, breaking through the gaps in the trees, are signs of the sheer rock faces close by. As if by way of reminder, the tough green trail spirals away from outside the chata, climbing from 1475m on the edge of the lodge grounds to Téryho Chata,  the remotest mountain house at 2000m, in one hour and 45 minutes.

But the lack of a cable car terminal means Zamkovského Chata still retains a blissful isolation; a Germanic “lost house in the woods” feel. Six 2-, 4- and 5-bed rooms above the restaurant offer beds for 23 people: if it’s full there is also an attic with several mattresses for bedding down if you have your own sleeping bag. It’s one of the High Tatras mountain houses that’s open year-round, too – and therefore the facilities (available information on nearby hikes, options of food in the restaurant – are better than at many other mountain accommodations. You’ll be charmed by it whatever the circumstances of your arrival. Hiking here from Zelené pleso in bitter weather on , it will seem nothing short of a cosy woodsy paradise.

This mountain house is our recommended stopover between stage 2 and stage 3 of the Tatranská Magistrala, Slovakia’s most famous long-distance hiking trail that runs right across the High Tatras from Ždiar to Podbanské/Pribylina.

MAP LINK: The remoteness of Zamkovského Chata means it’s not possible to get sufficient detail and useful nearby landmarks on one map. This map is zoomed to the level that shows where it is in relation to the Hrebienok cable car terminus; zoom in one level and the paths between the two and on up to Skalnaté pleso become visible.

PRICES: High-season (summer) prices are 19 Euros per person per night; these reduce to 16 Euros per person per night in the low (winter) season. Not included in the above are Breakfast (costs 5 Euros) and dinner (costs 8 Euros). (2016 prices)

BOOK ZAMKOVSKÉHO CHATA: This is an extremely remote mountain house, without a regular internet connection,so booking is generally done by phone (or, if sufficiently in advance, email.) There may be a problem getting someone to speak English if you do telephone – although it is policy to usually have one English-speaking member of staff on duty at all times. Telephone 00421-(0)-905-554-471 (mobile). Email zamka@zamka.sk.

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In Pictures: Finishing Touches to Hotel Horizont, the Latest High Tatras Hotel

The latest luxury wellness hotel in the High Tatras: almost good to go! Here we sneaked up close to get some images of the finishing touches being laid – and not as you might think! Of course, we returned for the official opening – see our full juicy review!

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High Tatras Mountain House: Horský Hotel Popradské Pleso

For a good six months of the year, the snow piles so high against the timber walls of Horský Hotel Popradské Pleso that it rather resembles a giant igloo than a mountain lodge. Abutting the rugged lakeshore of Popradské Pleso, this hotel is surrounded by sheer mountain slopes that soar to over 2000 metres. The difficult ascent/descent from/to the lake on the isolated Tatranská Magistrala trail is a 500 metre wall of scree, boulders and scrub clinging on for dear life. And the weather reflects the wild location. Already at almost 1500 metres altitude, the lake and the hotel receive their microclimate from over 2000 metres: the rain, the ice and the snow stack up here having poured straight off those upper slopes.

Incredibly though, a metalled service road somehow twists from the lake through the pine forests down to the Tatras Electric Railway station of Popradské Pleso and the main Poprad to Štrbské Pleso road. So despite the blissful feeling of isolation it’s still well connected enough. If you want to stay in the mountains but don’t like the resort feel of Štrbské Pleso then Horský Hotel Popradské Pleso is the place to make for: lakefront accommodation, but in a far more romantic, untrammelled wilderness than Štrbské Pleso’s somewhat manicured environs a one-hour walk down the mountain.

Forest hideaway...

Forest hideaway…

The hotel itself, in the style of a giant mountain chalet, manages to be aesthetically pleasing where (for example) Hotel Patria on Štrbské Pleso fails. It’s all finished in dark wood, and the atmosphere is more of the easy-going, hiker-meets-hiker ilk. There are no pretensions such as at the hotels down at Štrbské Pleso. The staff are friendly – they went out of their way to pick us up at Popradské Pleso Electric Railway station, in fact, when we had been traipsing through the rain-drenched night to get there and realised our gross under-estimation of the distance there was still to cover. The food is hearty mountain fare – hot, meat-dominated, seasoned but stodgy Slovak delights that in many cases match or supersede what most Štrbské Pleso lakeshore hotels serve.

As to the rooms, well. There are various price brackets. The most basic accommodation, in hostel-of-yore-type dorms, is 16 Euros per bed. Bathrooms are shared. For 38 Euros you can get a 2-bed private room, small and simple, but still with shared bathrooms. Both are very clean, albeit spartan. But the 56-Euro standard and 60-Euro superior rooms are very good for the price – well furnished (TVs, fridges and the works) and with huge bathrooms (with baths) and scalding-hot towel rails (what you need after a damp hike). For comfort, this is what Englishmaninslovakia recommends. You’re getting scintilating lakeshore views, remember, with any of these options. There are a couple of apartments, too.

The restaurant is popular throughout the day with hikers passing by. The cosy tables in booths by the windows looking out on the lake and the mountains are best. This is where the generous 5-Euro breakfast buffet is served, and where you can feast on all kinds of the afore-mentioned Slovak fare (we recommend the divine gulaš/goulash). Then there’s a games room – perfect for those wet days. Pool and table football are free here! And then there’s the sauna. When the temperature is what it was on our first visit here, you’ll quickly see the appeal…

The hotel is Englishmaninslovakia’s recommended stopover point between stages 3 and 4 of the Tatranská Magistrala hike that traverses the High Tatras. In short, its access to the true wilds of the mountains – alongside its having maintained the creature comforts associated with a larger plusher hotel – make it ideal for Tatras first-timers.

If you don’t get a room here, but want to stay on the lake, there’s another penzión right nearby.

MAP LINK: 

PRICES: From 17 Euros (dorm), from 20 Euros (2-bed room with shared bathroom),  56 Euros (double with private bathroom), 80-110 Euros (2- or 4-bed apartments) – 2016 prices.

BOOK HORSKÝ HOTEL POPRADSKÉ PLESO (There is no facility to book online – book by phone, Skype or email through this link)

High Tatras Mountains: On the Edge at Skalnaté Pleso

It’s a turbulent collision of worlds, Skalnaté Pleso. The cut-off point between the lower slopes of the High Tatras mankind has succeeded in taming to some extent and the wild peaks rearing above that mankind (let’s hope) never will tame. Cowering just below the point where the mountains sheer away in broken walls of rock in a natural frontier, of sorts, between Slovakia and Poland, this windswept mountain lake is a place you should visit for any number of reasons.

1: Getting There!

It’s connected by a gondola cableway (via Štart, a mid-station where you can disembark) down to Tatranská Lomnica one of the three main High Tatras mountain resort villages – from where there’s access via the Tatras Electric Railway to Starý Smokovec (mountain resort village number two) and then along to Štrbské Pleso (mountain resort village number three) or down to Poprad for mainline rail connections west to Bratislava and east to Košice.

The train journey from Bratislava is beautiful, with the last hour or so to Poprad a sensational Central European montage of lakes and Alpine scenery (find out a bit more about why this journey is great). The final part of the route takes you from the valley bottom to the prettiest of the resort villages, Tatranská Lomnica, and then becomes increasingly dramatic as you rise out of civilisation onto the scree-strewn Tatras slopes, with the farmland around Poprad soon just a green gleam below. You’ll pay 1.50 Euros on the Tatras Electric Railway from Poprad to Tatranská Lomnica and 15/18 Euros single/return on the cableway from Tatranská Lomnica to Skalnaté Pleso (which is closed in May, incidentally, for maintenance, and obviously does not run in bad weather).

2: The Ultimate Cable Car Adventure!

Most people arrive at Skalnaté Pleso via the gondola cableway from Tatranská Lomnica, and many want to come here for the more hair-raising cable car journey ahead. Supported only by a steel wire you can ascend from the lake up the precipitous slopes of Lomnicky Štít, Slovakia’s second-highest mountain, to the summit at 2630m high (just 20m shy of the highest mountain in Slovakia, Gerlachovský štít). Lomnicky Štít is Slovakia’s most-visited mountain thanks to this cable car route, a 26 Euro/22 Euro adult/child return journey with a 50-minute stop-off at the summit, where there’s a cafe and, in fact, the possibility of staying over in surely Slovakia’s plushest wilderness accommodation option, a sumptuous suite located within the summit weather station buildings. The meteorological station on the summit is one of Slovakia’s most important, and there’s an observatory here, too (if you’re staying in the suite – 549 Euros per night, mind you – star observation is included – as is dinner at the cafe). The Englishman in Slovakia will test the Lomnicky Štít cable car out soon, and write more about this adventure then.

3: The Hiking

Skalnaté Pleso is an important stop-off on the Tatranská Magistrala long-distance path that runs across the Tatras between Ždiar and Podbanské/Pribylina. On this blog we feature a detailed breakdown of the hike (in four stages) – coming from Ždiar, you’re on stage 2 of the hike at Skalnaté Pleso. The section from the Skalnaté Pleso cable car station southwest to Zamkovského Chata is a good, rocky trail descending into woodland but yielding some wonderful views beforehand. Heading north on the path to Chata pri Zelenom Plese, however, be warned that there are two routes. The lower (and simple enough) path descends down the contours of the mountain on a round-about path to reach Chata pro Zelenom Plese (and Zelené pleso alongside) the easy way. The tough route is still part of the trail, but is strictly a summer-only route, ascending a dizzying pass through the mountains where, despite the chains laid down to  cling on to, parts of the path are vertigo inducing, and very dangerous to attempt in snow.

The Cable Car up from Tatranská Lomnica ©englishmaninslovakia.com

The Cable Car ©englishmaninslovakia.com

4: Chill at the Lake

With the strong winds that whip off the peaks from here, Skalnaté Pleso is very exposed – none of the leafy sedateness of Štrbské Pleso here! – and chill you very well might on most days of the year. But should the weather be clement enough, the lake shore makes a good place for a picnic. A learning trail (naučný chodnik, in Slovak) enlivens the 20-minute stroll: here you can find out about the flora and fauna (a funny section on the bear residents hereabouts) and the Skalnaté Pleso meteorological station, located just above the shore. It’s a station of worldwide significance, with astronomical breakthroughs made here including important discoveries about meteor shower and crucial research for much of the content that appears in star gazetteers.

The meteorological station, like the other buildings here, serves to heighten the remoteness of the location rather than lend the lake any atmosphere of cosiness. The wind buffets the brick and sings along the wires. In the cable car building is a restaurant, however (closed in May, open at other times) whilst just 100m down from here, on the trail to Zamkovského Chata, is the small Skalnatá Chata (open year-round), one of the High Tatras mountain houses, where you may stay over.

There is something undeniably eerie about this lake, granted. The cable car which gives you the best access here also uglifies it somewhat, and it cannot compete in beauty with, say, Zelené pleso to the north. It’s also – inexplicably – shrinking in size: it used to be significantly wider and deeper. But if you want a departure from the magnificent but manicured shores of  Štrbské Pleso into somewhere, well, closer to the wild soul of these mountains, and one where you can base yourself whilst you scale Lomnicky Štít, then it’s a great, and fairly otherworldly destination in the High Tatras.

MAP LINK:

GETTING THERE: As described in our “getting there” section above

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: Take a look at Skalnaté Pleso’s posher but less-wild sister lake, Štrbské Pleso, a 1.5 day walk southwest on the Tatranská Magistrala

The High Tatras Mountain Resorts: Štrbské Pleso

Štrbské Pleso, probably Slovakia’s most famous lake and certainly the number one tourist destination in the High Tatras, may not seem the most likely choice for Englishmaninslovakia.com to write about – except that, somewhat surprisingly, it’s not actually been covered in English in much detail anywhere else on the web. When we realised this, dear readers, we thought we’d create a comprehensive post on it for your reference.

There’s a number of ways you can approach writing on what, in Slovakia at least, is such a well-known attraction. Rant about it as one of Slovakia’s must-sees, as much Slovak tourist promotion seems to (nah, we’re not going to do that). Write about the less-obvious things to do in the vicinity, as a gentle but stubborn resistance to the disproportionate info on the better-known sights (namely Hotel Patria, flanking all the most famed pics of the lake, just like in the shot above, or Grandhotel Kempinski which is the Slovakian countryside’s most glamorous accommodation) that only constitute a small percentage of the points of interest. Or, a third approach: subvert the subverters and just write about the good and the bad of this popular tourist hangout (the approach we’ve decided on here). Popular, let it be emphasised, but still nevertheless with a very real appeal: and plenty of the magnetism old turn-of-the century resorts such as this one exude.

The name, which is rather a bother to type on a UK computer keypad with all those accents, means the lake (pleso) of Štrba – Štrba being a small settlement beneath Štrbské Pleso. The Tatras Electric Railway actually runs from Štrba up to Štrbské Pleso (see the link for further information and, indeed, for the other main way to get to Štrbské Pleso by public transport – from Poprad. There are also, of course, several ways to get there by road.)

What There is to Do: In a Nutshell

Hiking: At 1355 metres up (Štrba and the other communities along the foot of the High Tatras are around 800 metres altitude) the geography around Štrbské Pleso is pretty thrilling: within a few kilometres of here you can be hiking up on paths a further 1000m+ higher, such as the peak of Krivan (2494m, to the northwest) or Vysoká (2560m, to the northeast). Pine forests cloak the lake’s shores to the east, west and, particularly, north (the crazy Communist-built structure of Hotel Patria on the northern shore is framed by them). Beyond that, it’s bare rocky crags that look incredibly dramatic on a moody day and photogenic on a decent one – often reflected in the lake water.

Skiing: Štrbské Pleso has taken advantage of its geology to build one of the better skiing centres in Slovakia – and certainly the best in the High Tatras.

Ostentatious Architecture: Ornate turn-of-the-century or Communist: the choice is yours, architecturally, at Štrbské Pleso and a tour to take in the different styles is a must. See our Ludicrous Little Tour of Communist Architecture!

Learning Trail: This skirts the lake perimeter and tells you about the area’s history.

Rowing Boats: You can go rowing on the lake: very nice and old-fashioned.

Eating: A couple of very good restaurants can be found around the lake.

Staying: Likewise, and as already mentioned, there are some rather striking accommodation options too.

More detail on these activities below…

But First: The Arrival

First impressions when you get off the Tatras Electric Railway at this end-of-the-line station of Štrbské Pleso aren’t great, actually. The “village” such as it is around the railway terminus has fallen prey to some pretty crass 1960’s and 70’s development and in places actually looks like a construction site. There are several hotels in this part of the village – none amazing, although this one won prizes for its architecture back in the day:

strbske pleso

 

About the best thing you can do here is to go for a bite to eat in the very good cafe/restaurant, Reštauracia Furkotka. It’s got outside seating and does all the typical Slovak dishes very nicely. Walk up passed the souvenir stands towards the ski centre to find the access road to the actual lake part of Štrbské Pleso cutting up to the left (which, of course, is the part deserving of your time).

Staying, Eating and Activities

Check In,Eat Out…

From where most visitors reach the  lakeshore (the south-east corner), stretching away along the south shore are Grandhotel Kempinski and Hotel Solisko. Both are beautiful early 20th-century buildings worth checking out. Also on the southern shore at this point is the pretty jetty you can hire rowing boats from. The restaurant of Grandhotel Kempinski is of course very nice, but it’s not the most atmospheric: that honour goes to Koliba Patria which you will find by following the lake path round anti-clockwise, about half-way along the eastern side. It looks palatial enough too in its own way, but favours the Slovak mountain way of building: with wood. Koliba Patria is actually owned by the distinctive building you could see from outside those first two hotels: Hotel Patria. How do describe this somewhat imposing building: an enormous, stark, but inside very lovely mountain chalet?

Architecture…

As intimated above, the contrasts between the turn-of-the-century resports (Grandhotel Kempinski, Hotel Solisko) on one side of the lake and the Communist style of Hotel Patria on the other are worthy of a look-see and some camera shots.

Learning Trail…

The path going around the shore, you’ll notice is a learning path which tells you a lot of information about the history of the area. Jozef Szentivnyi was evidently an important chap: more or less pivotal, actually. He built the original lodges here (where Hotel Solisko now stands), he constructed the first tourist paths, he built the first hunting lodge here. He made, in short, this village into a proper resort.

Hiking…

As far as outdoor activities away from the lakeshore go, number one has to be hiking. You soon lose the other gaggles of tourists once you start to climb away from the lake up through the forest. Another learning path, in fact, has been constructed to connect Štrbské Pleso via a one-hour red trail hike to Popradské Pleso, a higher lake (also with two very nice accommodation options, including the fun Horský Hotel Popradské Pleso) at 1494 metres and still more immersed in stupendous mountain scenery.

As a sample of the hiking ops, this route, heading north from Štrbské Pleso, and also the red trail heading west from Štrbské Pleso forms stage four of the Tatranská Magistrala hike, Slovakia’s most-famous long-distance hiking trail. Our trail description of this hike, which runs across the Tatras, begins from east to west (thus as Štrbské Pleso is towards the western part of the mountain range it features near the end of the route). For a general overview of the hike (which you can of course do both ways), please see our introduction to the Tatranská Magistrala. This aforementioned red trail, anyhow, leads you right up to the points from where you can access the high peaks like Krivan (following the path west from Štrbské Pleso) or Vysoká (following it north).

Skiing…

A close second activity back nearer the lakeshore is skiing. Facilities and snow coverage make Štrbské Pleso Ski Centre facilities quite good. Please see the link to the website which gives a good overview of facilities – but in Englishmaninslovakia’s opinion, and this is also based on discussions with a number of Slovak tour guides, the standards are not “the best”. They are good – and they are available at cheaper prices than in the Alps – but they are not top-notch.

MAP LINK: Poprad Airport is in the bottom right corner of the map; you can see Route 534 heading up from here into the mountains at Starý Smokovec, then continuing west to Štrbské Pleso in the top left-hand corner of the map.

GETTING THERE: The Tatras Electric Railway, from Poprad

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: Right by the lake, you’re on stage 4 of the Tatranská Magistrala long-distance footpath which transects the whole High Tatras range of mountains (or stage 1, if you fancy heading west-east). Go on, give at least a stage a go!

RELATED POST: London to Poprad Flights!

How to Get Between Poprad, Ždiar and Zakopane in Poland

It’s a topic that’s thrashed out on travel forums again and again, because the online info is always conspicuously lacking in some of the necessary detail: how to take the beguilingly scenic trip across the east of the High Tatras between Poprad (Slovakia) and Zakopane (Poland), the two big mountain supply towns on either side?

I was the same, back in the day, frantically scrabbling online for decent info on this, but having done the trip a couple of times I thought I’d share my thoughts here. This is more an adventure/experience than it is an essential transport artery so I’ve included it in this High Tatras “things to do” section.

First off: the trip is amazing – a timeless foray ascending into and traversing the most gorgeous High Tatras mountain scenery (this part is known as the Belianske Tatry, studded by beautiful little Goral villages like Ždiar) before, on the Polish side, running into dense forest and eventually descending to Zakopane. For those on round-Europe trips, this one’s a good’un.

Chances are if you know anywhere in Poprad you’ll know the main railway station. Right alongside is the bus station. Whilst you can take the Tatras Electric Railway for part of this trip (as far as Tatranská Lomnica) you’ll have to change to a bus there anyway so it’s probably best to take the bus for this journey from the beginning.

The Direct Way

From (usually stand four) Poprad bus station, a direct bus runs across the border at Lysa Polana to Zakopane BETWEEN JUNE 15th AND OCTOBER 15th. Departure times from Poprad’s bus station are at 8:50am, 11:50am, 4:50pm and 5:50pm (times in the other direction from Zakopane bus station are at 6am, 9am, 11am and 4pm). The journey takes approximately one hour and 45 minutes and costs a bargain 5 Euros. If you’re in a group of over 10 people, you’ll get a discount which will knock the price down to about 3.50 Euros (but you’ll have to book this in advance – this is best done through the Zakopane-based ticket office – email them at biuro@nosal.pl.) In order from Poprad, buses go through Tatranská Lomnica, Ždiar (maybe stop off here for a few days – we recommend the Ginger Monkey Hostel) the Bachledova ski area (10km shy of the border) and Tatranská Javorina 2-3km before the border.

Outside of these dates, travel is a bit more problematic.

Poprad-Zakopane in the Off-Season

Getting from Poprad to the border is easy. Direct buses leave Poprad bus station for Lysa Polona at 5:40, 9:10, 12:45, 14:10 and 18:45 for the one hour twenty minute journey. You’ll be dropped on the Slovak side near a convenience store. Follow the road as it twists across the border passed the old (and no longer used) control point to the bus stop and bus timetable sign on the Polish side. Here, wait. This is a very beautiful but fairly remote spot and buses on the Polish side are more erratic (although Polish schedules from Zakopane ironically suggest there should in fact be more connections from there through to Lysa Polona, every 40 minutes to one hour) . One should turn up within an hour, but they have been known not to run so frequently in winter. (I’ve done this journey in March and in November and, starting with one of the early buses from Poprad which gives you flexibility to make alternative plans if something goes wrong, I’ve always made it to Zakopane waiting no more than an hour at the border). The reason given is usually bad weather conditions. Still, you wanted an adventure, right?

Zakopane-Poprad in the Off-Season

Buses according to this schedule leave Zakopane bus station every 40 minutes to one hour, the first at 7:40am and the last and 6:40pm. They will likely be signed to Morskie Oko (a mountain lake up a long, lonely side road, so communicate to the driver you want the stop nearest to Lysa Polona). Don’t plan this journey finely (i.e., aim to begin the journey around 8 or 9 which gives you scope for coming unstuck). Some of these buses won’t run – largely because there’s often no passengers. Or bad weather. Or something. Once dropped at the border, you’ll have to walk around the curving road to the Slovak side, where you’ll see the bus stop by the convenience store. Buses from this side of the border leave at 7:05am, 10:40am, 2:30pm, 3:30, 5:05 and 8:15pm for Poprad (even on Sundays).

Tatranská Javorina, 3km from the border on the Slovak side, has accommodation. It’s probably best to jot down a Zakopane or Poprad taxi cab number before you go, use in case things go pear-shaped. Stuck in Lysa Polona? There’s some fantastic hiking that goes off from here, up the road towards Morskie Oko lake. Having said that, you probably wouldn’t be in the mood if you were waiting for a bus… maybe you’ll have to make do with the Lysa Polona convenience store coffee machine.

 

A Quick Guide to the Other Content We Have on Poprad

Places to Go: Poprad’s funky contemporary art gallery in an old power station

Places to Go: Poprad’s lavish Aqua Park

Places to Go: Nine reasons to linger in Poprad

Places to Go/Getting Around: Taking the Mountain Railway into the High Tatras from Poprad

Places to Stay: A cool travel-friendly B&B in Spišská Sobota, Poprad

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s trendy burger joint

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s dignified Café La Fée

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s Coolest Wine Bar

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s gourmet chocolatier

Going out: Poprad & the Manchester United connection

Arts & Culture: Dedicated traditional Czech & Slovak music radio station now based in Poprad

Getting Around: London to Poprad Flights

Top Ten Medieval Towns in Slovakia

 

MAP LINK:

GETTING THERE: Well this post is all about getting there, but to Poprad it’s best by train from Bratislava’s Hlavná Stanica: trains run every 1.5 to 2 hours and cost 11/19 Euros depending whether you travel first or second class.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: 32km north of Poprad on the way to the Polish border is Ždiar where you can stop off and, if you want, embark on Slovakia’s renowned long-distance hike, the Tatranská Magistrala

 

High Tatras Mountains: An Intro to Slovakia’s Classic Hike, the Tatranská Magistrala

Ever since moving to Slovakia, hiking its most renowned mountain trail, which traverses the entire length of the Tatras mountain range, was something I had been obsessed with doing.

The opportunity presented itself this weekend just gone with a friend (and fellow hiking enthusiast) out from the UK so this introduction to the hike and the posts that follow it on the stages of the walk itself are the most bang-up-to-date in-English info on hiking across the Slovak Tatras: online, or indeed anywhere else. In fact, the paucity of available online info is what has prompted me to write about this path.

What is the Tatranská Magistrala?

Essentially, the Tatranská Magistrala is a tough 42km hiking trail that runs from the White Tatras (the northeast section of the High Tatras) through the High Tatras themselves to the western edge of the Western Tatras. The White Tatras, High Tatras and   Western Tatras mountains are all usually referred to by the umbrella term “High Tatras”.  Seen from a distance, this relatively short but extremely impressive range of mountains in northern Slovakia seems to come out of nowhere: a jagged series of peaks reaching 2654 metres, the tops of which often remain snow-covered even in the summer months, rearing abruptly out of the green plains below. The hike takes in the very best of Slovakia’s mountain scenery – from pine forests to boulder-scattered ridges and ice-blue tarns.

Where to Start/Finish the Tatranská Magistrala

Officially the hike runs west-east, starting at the remote village of Podbanské in the foothills of the Western Tatras and finishing at the far-more remote lake of Vel’ké Biely Pleso on the cusp between the High Tatras and the White Tatras. However, given the remoteness of Vel’ké Biely Pleso (you will need in any case to hike on down to the nearest road from here), a far-better end point is the large, scenic village of Ždiar, below the White Tatras peaks at the eastern end of the mountain range.

In fact, given the decent transport connections (buses to Poprad which is on the main Bratislava railway line and is now at the receiving end of a new flight route from London) accommodation options and loftier elevation (i.e. it’s less of a lung-buster to hike up to the high peaks from here) Ždiar is Englishmaninslovakia’s recommended starting point for the hike, and the route we have described here is from Ždiar.

Meanwhile, Podbanské,  despite being a gorgeous little village, has limited accommodation/transport options – and these are only available from the end of June to the end of October unless you’re a big group booking in advance. Therefore you will often need to make your way the 8km further west to the larger village of Pribylina to conclude the hike (from here there are ample accommodation possibilities and decent bus connections to Liptovský Mikulaš, a large town on the Bratislava main railway line).

Practically, therefore, the Tatranská Magistrala is usually a Ždiar to Pribylina hike (almost 60km rather than the official 42km): and it is this hike which is described here.

What to Expect on the Tatranská Magistrala

Most of the publications available will tell you that this hike is relatively straightforward, and doable by most people of middling fitness. That’s not entirely true. Whilst mostly staying within the 1200 to 1800 metre elevations, the path drops and rises (rapidly) more than 500 metres on several occasions, and at one point crests the 2000 metre mark too. This would already make it reasonably demanding walking. Then you have to factor in the snow and ice, which obstructs the higher parts of the trail even into July. Bear in mind the following before attempting this beautiful but challenging hike:

a) Trail Opening Dates

For this reason the trail has an official opening date of June 13th and closes at the end of October (as for the opening date, this is to a large extent immaterial as the afore-mentioned ice and snow is still on the higher reaches of the trail then, but temperamental weather means it really is dangerous to walk it after the closing date). In practice no one will prevent you from hiking it outside of the official dates, and late May through to the end of October should be fine for hiking it.

b) Sedlo Pod Svištovkou – For the Experienced Only

Weather aside, the high point of the trail at the eastern end, Sedlo Pod Svištovkou (2023 metres high; above Chata pri Zelenom Plese and the lake of Zelené Pleso), is a tough and formidable climb at any time. The steep, slippery and often crumbling (the rock underfoot, that is) ascent will induce vertigo in many and is a serious undertaking: you have to cling to chains whilst pushing up precarious rock faces at a few points and strong gusts of wind from the top hardly improve balance.

c) Storm Damage

The other major factor to consider after high winds this May that brought hundreds more trees down (on top of the already destructive Tatranská Bora storm that devastated the same band of forest in 2004) is that beyond Štrbské Pleso heading west to Tri Studničky and Podbanské there are hundreds of fallen trees blocking the path. The priority for authorities after these storms was to clear roads and get access to the villages cut off. Still, the determined could forge a way through (we did, as far as Tri Studničky) but the path is currently out of sight at points just beyond Jamské Pleso, and fallen trees at Tri Studničky have made finding where the Tatranská Magistrala goes at all after the forestry chalets here extremely difficult (we tried for about an hour to find the path and failed). UPDATE 2016: The trail is now clear!

d) Distances in Times not KMs/Miles!

In Slovakia, all distances for hikes are given not in km but in the time any particular stretch of hike will take the average hiker (i.e. in hours and minutes, rounded normally to the nearest 5 minutes). I would say I’m of reasonable fitness with regards to hiking and I found that when walking with a medium sized pack the times given for High Tatras point-to-point destinations are incredibly accurate. With a push, you can beat the stated times – but only by a matter of minutes. Overall, giving distances in times is, I think, good because you know the on-the-day time you’ll need for the walk, which gives you a more realistic idea of gradients than a distance in km or miles would.

e) Food and Accommodation En Route

The trail skirts high above the main High Tatras resorts like Starý Smokovec and Štrbské Pleso: so it’s just as well you don’t have to descend to get your evening meal or night’s sleep. Instead, there exists a very good network of mountain hotels (horský hotels, rustic hotels with ample rooms and good facilities) and slightly more basic chalets (chaty; usually wooden structures that provide basic rooms and, like the mountain hotels, good evening meals and breakfast). These are all found on the trail itself, so you’ll be well-poised the next morning to get up and walking again.

The best horský hotels/chaty are, from east to west (and shortly to be reviewed in-depth on our Where to Sleep section):

1: Chata pri Zelenom Plese

2: Zamkovského Chata

3: Horský Hotel Popradské Pleso

In addition to these options, there are a few other choices en route (to be mentioned in the stage descriptions, have no fear), with the best choices at Štrbské Pleso (on the path) and at Ždiar (beginning of route) and at Pribylina (end of route).

Tatranská Magistrala: the Stage Descriptions 

The full Ždiar to Podbanské hike makes for two and a half to four days walking, allowing time for breaks and for not really rushing (which of course you would not want to do). Our trail description is therefore divided into:

Stage OneŽdiar to Chata pri Zelenom Plese

Stage Two: Chata pri Zelenom Plese to Zamkovského Chata (with side trip to Teryho Chata)

Stage ThreeZamkovského Chata to Horský Hotel Popradské Pleso

Stage Four: Horský Hotel Popradské Pleso to Pribylina

At a push, you could potentially walk from Ždiar to Zamkovského Chata in a day, on to Popradské Pleso next day and finish in Podbanské/ Pribylina half-way through the next day: doing the hike quicker than this is possible, but it would really be rushing it.

Where to Go After Reading this Post

Got the general idea? Now it’s time to go to our Tatranská Magistrala Hiking Kit List (complete with info on Slovakia hiking maps/apps), followed by our Tatranská Magistrala Stage Descriptions and our recommended High Tatras Mountain Houses (under the Places to Stay/High Tatras sub-section) which of course tie in with the Stage Descriptions.

Poprad to the Mountains: Tatras Electric Railway

The electric trains that run between Poprad and the High Tatras mountain resorts are more than a means of getting about: they are an experience in themselves. I, being quite passionate about public transport, am a huge fan of a transport network that not only gets you from A to B but also does so via beautiful mountain scenery, and runs reliably throughout the day, every day. It’s something not all visitors would necessarily know much about and I have the selfish motivation that detailing the route/logistics also helps link up many of my posts on the mountains and makes them make more sense. So find everything you need to know about the route, known variously as the Tatras Electric Railway, the Tatras Mountain Railway or indeed in Slovak as Tatranská Elektrická Železnica below.

A Map of the Tatras Electric Railway - image by Wizzard

A Map of the Tatras Electric Railway – image by Wizzard

From the mainline station of Poprad Tatry there are essentially three lines running: from Poprad via Starý Smokovec to Štrbské Pleso; from Starý Smokovec to Tatranská Lomnica and from Štrbské Pleso via Tatranský Liesovec to Štrba (at the mainline station of Štrba you change for the regular, frequent trains back to Poprad). This means that you can do a loop from Poprad up into the mountains (changing at Štrbské Pleso and then again at Štrba) and come down again a different way – all on this railway line.

It’s the least complicated way of getting up into the mountain villages which are the base for all those exciting High Tatras activities (hiking, ice climbing, caving, skiing, whatever). Arrive in Poprad Tatry mainline station; walk up to the Tatras Electric Railway departure point, voila. Of course, there are also buses from the bus station quite near the train station, but the schedules take some finding and are not as dependable as the trains. The trains are also just as cheap: although no quicker and often slower in actual speed.

The Price of the Tickets

For the journey from Poprad to Štrbské Pleso which is the maximum distance you can do without changing on the Tatras Mountain Railway tickets are 2 Euros one-way. The journey from Poprad to Starý Smokovec or Tatranská Lomnica (less distance) will be 1.50 Euros one-way. Štrbské Pleso to Štrba is only 1 Euro but if you want to go back to Poprad via Štrba it will be 2 Euros.

Frequency of the Trains

Trains run more or less hourly on all three routes. On the Poprad to Štrbské Pleso route the first train is at 5:04am and the last at 22:40. Going back on this route, the first train leaves Štrbské Pleso at 5:13am and the last leaves at 22:13. The journey takes a shade over one hour. There are other connections you can take going via Štrba but only within these same hours. From Poprad on this same line you’ll reach the station of Starý Smokovec after 40 minutes, where you can change for the Starý Smokovec to Tatranská Lomnica route. On this route the first train is at 5:56am and the last at 22:02. Coming back on this route, the first train 5:14am and the last is at 22:34. The journey is only 15 minutes. On the Štrbské Pleso to Štrba route the first train is at 5:17am and the last at 22:44. Going back from Štrba, the first train back up to Štrbské Pleso is at 5:56 and the last at 20:26. The journey is again just over 15 minutes.

The Logistics

If you’re a first-timer, you can buy your ticket at Poprad Tatry station in the main ticket office. You always have to remember to validate this ticket on board. Most other stations on all three routes also have ticket offices, and ticket machines (which accept Euro coins only). If you imagine a line with Štrba at the western end and Poprad at the eastern end and then – in the mountains above – Starý Smokovec almost parallel with Poprad towards the eastern end of the mountain range (and Tatranská Lomnica, indeed, further east) with Štrbske Pleso parallel with Štrba towards the western end of the mountain range. There: you hopefully have a picture in your head now.

Where to Stop and What to Expect (Main Stops are Bolded and Underlined, Noteworthy Places Just Bolded)

Starý Smokovec is perhaps the main mountain resort village (although Dolný Smokovec just before it also has decent accommodation). Still, it’s Starý that has most tourist facilities. Overall it has the feel of an old Victorian-era resort and a lot of it retains its old-world charm. Guesthouses, hotels and restaurants a-plenty. From Starý Smokovec there is a cable car up to Hrebienok where you can link up with the Tatranská Magistrala (Stage 3) an hour’s walk south of Englishmaninslovakia’s recommended stage 2/stage 3 stopover, Zamkovského Chata.

Tatranská Lomnica (east from Starý as previously described) is another fairly pretty village with plenty of accommodation options. From here you can also take the cable car up to Štart and then onto Skalnaté Pleso at which point you are on the Tatranská Magistrala (Stage 2). At Tatranská Lomnica you can also get fairly regular buses onto the village at the very eastern edge of the High Tatras, Ždiar – which is where you can also start the Tatranská Magistrala hike.

Heading west from Starý Smokovec there’s a few more stops which are of no major interest to the majority of visitors (except as start points for hikes – but there’s too many of those to detail here) before arriving at Vyšné Hágy, where there’s a back route to link up with Tatranská Magistrala (Stage 3, but little else besides a sports pub.

The next stop on is remote Popradské Pleso (read our additional post about Popradské Pleso here*) but, despite the name of this station, it’s still a one-hour hike from here up to the lake and lakeside hotel, Horsky Hotel Popradské Pleso (see a description at the end of Tatranská Magistrala (Stage 3) about this route and yet more about Popradské Pleso and its surrounds on Tatranska Magistrala (Stage 4).

The final stop on the Poprad to Štrbské Pleso line (Štrbske Pleso unsurprisingly) is one stop further beyond Popradské Pleso. It’s the least appealing of the mountain resort villages. The lower parts around the train station have been destroyed a tad by development (although there’s a great cafe-restaurant here, Furkotka – I’ll write about it some day) but up by the lake it’s still a very serene and beautiful place. There are several hotels here and of course the ski developments. In the High Tatras, Štrbské Pleso is probably the best – or at least the most popular – place to ski. Read more about Štrbské Pleso as it features on the final stage of the Tatranska Magistrala (Stage 4). You may well not be in Štrbské Pleso for the hiking and therefore we have additionally prepared this fascinating article on what else there is to do at Štrbské Pleso (a fair amount).

All in all, though, imagine it: this is a commuter train, that ushers you up to some superb mountain getaways. And for a couple of Euros.

A Quick Guide to the Other Content We Have on Poprad

Places to Go: Poprad’s funky contemporary art gallery in an old power station

Places to Go: Poprad’s lavish Aqua Park

Places to Go: Nine reasons to linger in Poprad

Places to Stay: A cool travel-friendly B&B in Spišská Sobota, Poprad

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s trendy burger joint

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s dignified Café La Fée

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s Coolest Wine Bar

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s gourmet chocolatier

Going Out: Poprad & the Manchester United Connection

Arts & Culture: Dedicated traditional Czech & Slovak music radio station now based in Poprad

Getting Around: London to Poprad Flights

Getting Around: The Poprad to Ždiar to Zakopane (Poland) bus

Top Ten Medieval Towns in Slovakia

 

MAP LINK: This map shows the whole network of routes: remember, Poprad, Štrbské Pleso and Tatranská Lomnica are the three extreme points.

GETTING THERE: Well, this post IS about getting there! But you’ll start your ride on the railway, 99% of the time, from Poprad

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: We’ve said it here already and we’ll say it again: the end of the line on the railway is Štrbské Pleso – great access to the high peaks from here!

RELATED POST: London to Poprad Flights Are Flying!

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Poprad: Nine Reasons to Linger

Poprad is the gateway to the High Tatras. Whether you’re coming here by road or rail you’ll have to pass through this sizeable city to those tempting and frankly quite bizarre looking mountains just beyond. And of course the question is: why stop? Why indeed, when there’s the beginnings of a mountain wilderness with scintillating hiking, and climbing – and some pretty exceptional skiing just a half hour’s drive or mountain rail ride away? The question seems more poignant yet when you see Poprad’s centre which, somewhat marred by tasteless ’60’s and ’70’s development, is no Levoča – not, in other words, with a great deal of old-fashioned charm (although in fairness it has been spruced up no end of late and now sports leafy boulevards, revamped museums and a burgeoning pavement cafe culture). But after a concentrated couple of days in Poprad recently, Englishmaninslovakia has come up with a list of Poprad’s plus points – and the list is longer than many might think.

1: Get the Info

Before you rush off into the mountains, it’s worth pausing to find out exactly what you can (and, sometimes, can’t) do there – and Poprad is the fount of all Tatras outdoor activities knowledge. There are several key bases you might want to head to – Ždiar for culture, Tatranská Lomnica for the highest mountains, Starý Smokovec area for some of the main chairlifts up into the mountains proper (and the most abundant accommodation) or Štrbské Pleso for the biggest ski resort, great hiking and that cherry on the cake of Tatras Hotels, Grand Hotel Kempinski. Do you, for example, want to go husky sledding? Would you like to stay in fancy accommodation or huddle in a mountain house? Do you like hanging from a chain off a precipice or not?

The answers to all these and more will influence where you want to end up, and Poprad’s perfect for providing answers. You can check out the pleasant little tourist information office or scout out the veritable mine of Tatras information that is Adventoura tours (actually Poprad’s coolest tour agency and offering loads of different activities).

Yeah – so get all the info you need, which will take an hour or two, and then go off and do something like – well – one of the things right below!

2: Spišská Sobota

Spišská Sobota is one of the best-preserved clutches of medieval architecture anywhere in Slovakia. It doesn’t grab the headlines like nearby Levoča does but it’s almost as splendid. The Gothic Kostol Svätého Juraja (Church of St George) at the western end of the long tapered oval of the námestie dates from the 13th century originally and – get this – the enigmatic but highly regarded Master Pavol was responsible for the altar here. Just across the way is the church architect’s old workshop.

Culinary Cool

But quality is kept high in the modern day too in Spišská Sobota. Arguably Poprad’s best restaurants flank the square here (such as Vino & Tapas, where the owner cooked for the Queen when she visited Poprad, on the northern side – or Fortuna on the southern side). Then there’s the atmospheric accommodation options in and around the square (again, in our opinion, Poprad’s best (Penzión SabatoPenzión Fortuna or, a block off the square, Penzión Plesnivec).

Oh, and how do you find Spišská Sobota? You take the main road Štefánikova and follow it (or the river running alongside it) east from the centre for about 1.5km, past Aqua City, then turning left at the sign for Penzión Plesnivec. Or follow the river along passing Aqua City until you hit the bridge by Hotel Sobota, turn left then take the first right up the hill to where you can already see the Spišská Sobota church tower.

3: Aqua City

Poprad’s Aqua City is the perfect way to counteract and sooth any aches and pains from a strenuous few days’ worth of hiking. Nigh-on 20 indoor and outdoor geothermal pools, all with temperatures in the mid- to high thirties (and that’s after being reduced from a natural 49 degrees): Aqua City might look starkly modern but its comforts are guaranteed – it’s one of Eastern Europe’s most well-appointed spa/wellness centres. There’s a hotel and wellness centre, of course, with cryotherapy and Thai massage centres & the like…

The High Tatras in their morning glory from Kvetnica

The High Tatras in their morning glory from Kvetnica

4: Kvetnica

Ten minutes’ drive outside Poprad is a forest park which gives you better views of the High Tatras than you get in the High Tatras (if you want an overview of the whole range, that is). There’s a farm here which may be your best chance to see the timid mouflon (large-horned mountain sheep) that have a large enclosure of several acres here. In Kvetnica there’s also a network of hiking and mountain biking trails and a chateau. Kvetnica is also much more verdant than a lot of the Tatras are – it makes for a gentle and enjoyable afternoon’s walk. Ask at the Poprad Tourist Information how to find it – it can be quite tricky.

5: Podtatranské Muzeum 

This museum has a fascinating new exhibition on the ancient treasures of a 4th-century Germanic prince dug up recently during construction of an industrial park, as well as permanent exhibits on Poprad since, er, Neolithic times. It’s recently moved to a new location in Spišská Sobota

6: The Tatranská Galeria (Tatras Art Gallery)

This art gallery is well worth a visit – you don’t expect to encounter culture in a mountain resort supply town but here it most definitely is. We’ve recently written this new post about the venue at  Hviezdoslavová 12 known as the Elektráreň (Power Plant). It hosts some pretty damned good exhibitions!

7: Cool Cafes (and Caffes) from Belltowers to Bistros!

In one of several buildings that still retains its old-fashioned grace (the bell tower right behind the church in central Poprad), the mean espresso mini-chain Caffe Trieste has opened its doors. I mean “mean” in terms of the cafe’s ability to produce a mean espresso, of course; not that its staff are mean (they’re not!). There’s also a wine bar here (upstairs up the spiral staircase) – making this the city centre’s most atmospheric drinking spot by a country mile.

See our article on Poprad’s suavest new cafe

 8: Bon Bon Chocolates

Oh, what is that beautiful correlation between mountain town resorts and chocolatiers? I don’t know, but I’m very happy with it. This is one of the best chocolatiers in Slovakia, and it’s right by the train station. I’d argue it’s even worth missing your train for. Small (and quite inviting) area for actually sitting and sipping – but you can always take that hot chocolate “to go” (yeah, in Slovakia now they actually often use the English “to go” for takeaway food which is rather comical when you listen to an ancient Slovak babka (grandmother) that cannot speak another word of English uttering it). Anyway, Bon Bon is on Dominika Tartarku – heading north from Štefánikova towards Poprad Tatry train station.

Our post on Bon Bon

9: Pizzeria Utopia – and the rest of the City’s Cool New Eateries

In an old schoolhouse out in the paneláky, Poprad’s coolest and liveliest pizzeria has been going ten years and is still every bit as popular as ever. Inside, it looks cosy too, with three dining areas and a great array of tasty pizzas. I’ve actually never seen a pizzeria even in Bratislava look as inviting as this one. It’s just south of the hospital on the other side of Rte 18 from the centre – and perfectly walkable from there. Pizzeria Utopia might be one of the first of this new breed of cool Poprad restaurants but it’s the tip of the iceberg as far as local dining goes.

Our post on Poprad’s new gourmet burger joint.

The final thing to remember is that Poprad is a far more pleasant mountain supply town than Zakopane on the Polish side of the Tatras and is certainly no worse than, say, Aviemore in Scotland or in fact many of those terrible big, soulless French ski resort towns. It’s not as beautiful as what lies just beyond, true. But it does have plenty of hidden charms… and yes, a little soul.

MAP LINK: (Kvetnica is indicated by the pinpoint at the bottom of the map)

GETTING THERE: Trains run every 1.5 to 2 hours from Bratislava’s Hlavná Stanica station to Poprad, take 3.5 to four hours and cost 11 Euros for regional trains or 19 Euros for the flashy IC trains (which have wifi).

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Poprad, the obvious choice is heading 32km north to Ždiar to hike some of the lovely Tatranská Magistrála, or – for those that don’t like hiking – it’s 72km south to Rožňava, nearby which are some of Slovakia’s best caves

RELATED POST: London to Poprad Flights Alive and Kicking (could that in fact be reason 10 to get out to and hang out in Poprad?)

RELATED POST: How to get between Poprad, Zdiar and Zakopane in Poland by public transport (could this be reason number 11?)

Poprad: Penzión Plesnivec

Sometimes, you want to get back from your hike, bike or climb in the mountains and crash in a good, sturdy, cosy room with a thunderous hot shower and the promise of a hot meal and traveller camaraderie. You don’t want the fancy trappings of the big hotels (after all this is the mountains). And in steps this mountain chalet-style guesthouse on the edge of Poprad’s Spišská Sobota district to oblige.

After all, when you weigh up the potential of a hotel with a slightly bigger room and an attached restaurant against Penzión Plesnivec’s digs with their abundance of Tatras travel-friendly info, hearty veggie evening meals and the happy vibe of tourists debating strategies for mountain hikes… well, Penzión Plesnivec comes out on top. Because you never feel alone here. You feel like a traveller is supposed to feel: on the brink of a great adventure (which of course you are).

The five rooms here (three twin-bed and two double-bed) are all very large. There’s plenty of space to get a family in to most of them (and families can also use the small play park at the back of the house downstairs, making this, actually, a very good family travel option in Poprad.) Healthy wifi speeds are also available throughout the house and there’s cable TV in each room too.

But the real stand-out draw of this guesthouse is downstairs, in the shape of charismatic owners Dusan and Lubica. Between them they speak English, Spanish and Russian (besides Slovak of course) but most importantly they GET travellers because they are travellers themselves – and have plenty of their own stories to share.

Poprad's best collection of historic skis...

Poprad’s best collection of historic ski memorabilia :)

That is illustrated in their amenable common room downstairs: an Obývačka (living room)-cum-bar decorated, well, in a very original romp through the history of skiing: bizarre old skis mounted on the walls (some of which are true collector’s pieces) and quirky old travel posters for the Tatras and skiing holidays in the days of yore. It’s a place where people come to sit, slurp a beer, partake in the veggie food that’s usually offered nightly and get great tips into what and where to see in the mountains proper. You even get detailed weather reports for the morning of your day’s adventures! It’s your ideal first port of call for Tatras info, in short.

There is a reason why Plesnivec has been going seven years. It’s because it’s get a far warmer, more convivial feel compared to the large hotels.  And it’s also right next to what are easily Poprad’s two main attractions: the Aqua City just back along the main road and, just up the hill, the beautiful medieval district of Spišská Sobota with its myriad fine dining options (one of Slovakia’s top medieval attractions).

Oh, and what’s a plesnivec? It’s that famous Alpine mountain flower, edelweiss…

 

A Quick Guide to the Other Content We Have on Poprad

Places to Go: Poprad’s funky contemporary art gallery in an old power station

Places to Go: Poprad’s lavish Aqua Park

Places to Go: Nine reasons to linger in Poprad

Places to Go/Getting Around: Taking the Mountain Railway into the High Tatras from Poprad

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s trendy burger joint

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s dignified Café La Fée

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s Coolest Wine Bar

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s gourmet chocolatier

Going out: Poprad & the Manchester United connection

Arts & Culture: Dedicated traditional Czech & Slovak music radio station now based in Poprad

Getting Around: London to Poprad Flights

Getting Around: The Poprad to Ždiar to Zakopane (Poland) bus

Top Ten Medieval Towns in Slovakia

 

MAP LINK

PRICES: Single 30 Euros, Double 40 Euros, Treble 50 Euros, breakfast (good coffee, Slovak hemendex or ham and eggs, yoghurt, bread and cheese) 5 Euros  (2016 prices)

BOOK PENZIÓN PLESNIVEC

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The High Tatras Mountain Resorts – Štrbské Pleso: Mountain Lakeshore Dining at Koliba Patria

Štrbské Pleso is a place people end up at. Its beauty is much touted in Slovakia (and it even makes a point of stating, on the banks of this lake ensconced beneath the High Tatras peaks, about how it got on the long list for the Seven Wonders of Nature). To be honest, such a bid was a bit of a long shot. For a start, a Wonder of Nature probably shouldn’t have hotels along two of its shores. It’s a very pretty place, however. And the chances are you’ll come here on your High Tatras sojourn because it’s a great base (those hotels, remember) for some truly amazing hiking (the lake is right on the country’s most-famed hiking trail, the Tatranská Magistrala), skiing and mountain climbing – not to mention being the end of the line of the Tatras Electric Railway (and “end of the line” stations always hold a certain fascination).

We’ve created a separate post on Štrbské Pleso which covers the attractions of this mountain lake and the village below it (which makes the Wikipedia entry look, dare it be said, scant). But for this post we want to focus on Koliba Patria, a fairytale-like chata (i.e., mountain cottage) restaurant on the eastern shore of the lake. It doubles up as being the most beautiful building in the area and serving the best food.

Inside… check out that stove!

Inside… check out that stove! – image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

As you hit the southeast corner of the lakeshore on the main path up from the mountain railway station and the village “centre”, head anti-clockwise on the lakeside path and, half way around to Hotel Patria (who own the joint) you’ll not fail to spot the place. The inside (nice and light with lots of windows and a balcony looking out on the lake) is utterly traditional Slovak: everything done in dark wood with a huge ceramic stove typical of rural Slovakia, ski apparatus and other old farming implements on the walls, along with several pictures of the Tatras back in the days of yore. Seating is in a series of alcoves (separated by screens and making the eating experience quite private) and there’s an upstairs too generally only open for functions. Service is very good here, and they’re used to all kinds of bizarre tourist requests. But it’s certainly not just a spot for foreign tourists: it’s mostly Slovaks on a weekend day out lunching here.

You’ll find it easy to read the menus (options are in German and English besides Slovak) but not quite so easy to choose. But whilst the menu is fairly international, the Slovak classics are the thing to go for here. There’s a good intro to the Slovak sheep’s cheese known as bryndza (a tasting platter of the stuff) – or you can go for a deliciously creamy version of the national dish, bryndzové halušky (sheep’s cheese dumplings with bacon). In fact, sheep’s cheese has rarely been glimpsed in a restaurant in as many combinations – you can even (unusually for Slovakia) order it with just a salad (apples and tomatoes). The Slovak mains also have the advantage of being quite cheap (5 to 8 Euros). On the meat front, the deer with plums and Slovakia’s delicious herb-infused way of preparing roast potatoes goes down very nicely… and, if you dare, you may wish to try Slovakia’s deadliest drink, Tatranský Čai or “Tatras Tea” – a potent locally-brewed spirit with a taste like Jagermeister.

FULL MENU

When we arrived the last time, we were in need of cake, however, and coffee: and here Koliba Patria does very well. A light fluffy sponge doused in wild berry sauce and good espresso. It was excusable, of course, on that occasion: we had a long way still to walk…

Good cake...

Good cake…

So there we have it: caught between the at-times pretentious glamour of the Grandhotel Kempinski on one side and the ostentatious bulk of Hotel Patria on the opposing shore,  Koliba Patria is, quite simply, a nice and very welcoming place to stop, eat and get acquainted with Slovak cuisine in a serene surrounding. Gone, thank God, is the village centre bustle and the terrible souvenir shops. The hikes, the hotels and the beckoning ski resort have managed to absorb the crowds and left this spot relatively relaxed.

MAP LINK: Here you can see most of the lakeshore sights, plus Štrbské Pleso and Popradské Pleso stops on the Tatras Electric Railway back to Poprad

LOCATION: Eastern lake shore, Štrbské Pleso

OPENING: 11:30am-10:30pm daily

BEST TIME TO VISIT: Around 12:30pm for an early lunch, when it’s none too crowded and it’s still perfectly acceptable to begin it all with some of the delectables cakes and coffee. As it’s on the lake shore, be sure to come here when it’s still light so you can see something of the view.

LAST UPDATED: April 2017

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: Koliba Patria can be visited on Stage 4 of the Tatranska Magistrala

High Tatras Mountain House: Chata Pri Zelenom Plese

A picture, you see, is often worth a thousand words – or more. Who wouldn’t want to stay here, on the banks of Zelené Pleso, with this sensational view of jagged mountains rearing up above you, scarred with waterfalls and part-coated in snow? I turned up here not knowing anything about the place, as I was starting off on the Tatranská Magistrala hike which runs from one side of the High Tatras mountains to the other. Chata Pri Zelenom Plese is only a 45-minute hike (heading up to the start point) or 30-minute hike (heading down) shy of the official start point of the walk, Vel’ké Biele Pleso  (see more details on the first stage of the Tatranská Magistrala from Ždiar to Chata Pri Zelenom Plese). This Chata is not by any means the most famous of the High Tatras Mountain houses (that would probably be Zamkovského Chata or Teryho Chata). But it’s my favourite, and I’ve stayed in/visited a few.  

Being unknown, whether you’re a weary hiker, a cross-country skier or climber (no more explanation of these last two activities need be given than the pictures above and below) or just someone who likes staying in formidable wilderness, you’re going to be pleasantly surprised by this place, the English translation of which is “House on the Green Lake.” The only way in is to hike or bike, unless you’ve got a fairly resilient 4 x 4. A long bumpy track of about 8/9km winds up from just south of the hamlet of Kežmarské Žl’aby on the 537 Highway northeast of Tatranská Lomnica, the easternmost of the High Tatras resort villages (see the end of this entry for directions here). There’s an established mountain biking circuit heading up too.

Being way off the most hiked sections of the High Tatras to the west, Chata Pri Zelenom Plese has something of a remote feel, but once you’re ensconced in the restaurant and you’re tucking into the decent range of very well-cooked meals (they cook better than Zamkovského Chata) you’ll feel, with the dizzying view of the high peaks through the restaurant window, very cosy and – given there’s skiers to watch and waterfalls to gawk at, very well entertained.

Room with a view...

Room with a view…

For the accommodation, there are two options: a “hikers room” for a mere 8 Euros per person, with just mattresses, where you’ll need your own sleeping bag, or slightly more expensive digs in private rooms with bunk beds. It’s basic, but in a clean and friendly way.  Showers are down in the basement: a slight disadvantage but hey, you’re an outdoor lover, right? This is warm, simple accommodation and anyway – you’ll be spending most of your evening in the restaurant with beer and that view we mentioned. Slippers to wear (as per Slovak custom) and towels are available for free.

The evening meals (set dinner 8.80 Euros or you can order meals individually) and breakfast (buffet 5.50 Euros) are of high quality. Bryndové pirohy (see our Top Ten Slovak Foods & Drinks for more on this classic national dish) makes for a divine main and follow it up with the not-to-miss poppy seed and cherry strudel.

For when the weather’s not too wild, you can sit on the lakeside terrace and stare out at the ever-changing colour of water (a kind of algae gives the water that surreal green-blue colour). If the snow’s not too deep, you can also follow the path anti-clockwise around the lake and up to the first of the waterfalls, but the ascent beyond here this way is for professionals only. If you’re here for the hiking, there are red and yellow trails to follow from here. Red is the Tatranská Magistrala Stage 2 and heading west is a very tough hike (read that last blog entry for a warning) whilst yellow takes you up to Skalnaté Pleso and on to the centre of the High Tatras via an easier route (see the same blog entry for this route description too).

Getting There

Road access is northeast of Tatranská Lomnica just southwest of the hamlet of Kežmarské Žl’aby (drivers: Google maps reveal all). See our Tatras Electric Railway post on how to get from Poprad (on the main train line to Bratislava) to mountain resort villages Starý Smokovec and Tatranská Lomnica. From Tatranská Lomnica take a bus a few minutes to Stará Lesná from where there are hourly buses throughout the day to Kežmarské Žl’aby; there are some additional buses direct from Starý Smokovec. Ask the driver to be dropped at the beginning of the Chata Pri Zelenom Plese access track.

MAP LINK

PRICES: 10 Euros per person (a mattress in the hikers room, excluding breakfast which is another 6 Euros); 23 Euros for twin room with two bunk beds (inc breakfast, subsequent nights are 21 Euros including breakfast). (2017 prices)

LAST UPDATED: April 2017

BOOK CHATA PRI ZELENOM PLESE Please note that this is an extremely remote mountain house; as per the left-hand menu on the website, booking is best through the email tatry@chataprizelenomplese.sk (where you’ll stand the best chance of a reply in English) or, if you’ve only a little time before your stay, telephone (00421) (0)901 767 420.

Tours: Tatras Adventure Trips with Adventoura

Adventoura runs some of the coolest organised tours of the Slovakian Tatras around. It’s based out of Poprad. Here www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk talks to the founder to give you an idea of what you can see and do with the company… 

Adventoura on tour in the Tatras

Question One: What inspired you to set up Adventoura? And why in Poprad?

At the time Adventoura went on market there was a big gap that needed filling with the inbound travel agencies in Poprad and the Tatras mountains. As I grew up in Poprad I knew what this region needed. I believe that Adventoura with its services will make more options for tourists who visit us here. And I am happy to make clients happy!

Simply put, if a visitor came to the Tatras there never used to be anything for them to do outside of their accommodation and beyond the activities of skiing, snow-boarding or trekking. As I have lived and travelled in New Zealand, South Africa and in California, I have seen the potential wildernesses have for outdoor activities and I had a lot of ideas that I am now bringing to our region.

Question Two: Tell us something about the different tours you offer?

People are just discovering Slovakia. We were closed for many years to new explorers. And as I actually guide my groups and have experience with many international clients, it’s nice to see their respective reactions while travelling through Slovakia. A good example: a client from New Zealand during his stay in Poprad told me “why to travel to New Zealand? You have New Zealand here!!!” I guess it is getting the chance to see just how special other nationalities find Slovakia that motivates me to do tours mainly around Poprad and Tatras.

My summer is busy with tours in the mountains. One of my most popular is called “Hut to Hut”. Basically I spent 5 full days with my clients on the walks through the High Tatras staying in the fabulous mountain houses there.  Another popular summer tour is cycling across the Tatras within a week! We do 270 km in 6 days – of course a service car is also provided

The winter season is also very popular. Almost any skiing package you want is available through my website. Another fun option are two tours called “Summer Active” and “Winter Active.” Again based in Slovakia, they are essentially weeks full of fun. The summer option can involve hiking, beginners down hill biking, rafting, rock climbing etc. The winter one has skiing, snowshoeing, horse sleigh ride, dog sledding, geo caching and the like. All those sports I also do in my free time: like we say in Slovakia: “you are having it from first hand!” :)

Adventoura in action

Question Three: What can tourists do this winter with Adventoura, and where can they do it?

I mentioned many of the winter activities we do above, but also very popular is a day trip we call “Become a musher in a one day.” It is a 2-hours program with huskies, refreshment and barbecue. We will teach you how to put a pulling harness on a dog, how to attach him to the pulling rope and finally how to ride with a Slovakian dog sled! People who are waiting for their turn can be at the fire cooking some sausage :) It’s worth noting that we are likely to be able to do this activity close to your hotel (of course it depends where do you stay). If there is no place for it, we are happy to transfer you to our “base camp” :)

Then there is snowshoeing. Basically, I will take you to the places with untouched snow and you will get to try walking with snowshoes in deep snow.

A more relaxing day trip is a horse sleigh ride: we are providing it in evening hours in a sleigh pulled by two horses. The ride is torch-lit and finished with an barbecue, and traditional Slovak music in the forest.

Question Four: What’s your favourite place in the Tatras? And do you have any tips for how to get away from the crowds in the Tatras?

This sounds a simple question, but it’s not! Tatra is full of steep walls, deep valleys and forests, and really any one would deserve to be called the favourite!

Every valley has something nice. In the western Tatras you could climb the peak of Kriváň, and you will get impressive view from it. In the central area, try visiting some mountain hut and stay overnight: you can have a beer and meet great people from all around the world talking about interesting stories from their travels :) And check out the eastern region too: especially Biele Pleso (White lake). In the valleys here you will be there almost by yourself; there’s nobody around. You might even meet a brown bear or to see our mountain goat, the Chamoix…

Question Five: The actual town of Poprad is often overlooked in favour of the mountains nearby. What’s the best thing to do in the city itself?

Poprad is great place for explorers who love to come to the Tatras by train, bus or even, these days, by aeroplane, with flights several times per week to London. It has a straight train connection from Prague (the journey takes about 8 hours, and the night train is very comfortable and safe) as well as Slovakia’s two main cities, Bratislava and Košice.

What I would say about Poprad itself is that I am happy to live and have my office there.

It has everything you need, right by some of the best mountain scenery in Slovakia – supermarkets, shopping malls, a nice historical medieval main square, lots of concerts and theatre performances – and a great traditional Christmas market in winter.

The most special thing about Poprad is that it lies on hot geothermal springs. One of them is used for second biggest aquapark in Slovakia: Aquacity. Here there are slides and outdoor pools – and it runs all year round, even in the winter.

NB: Adventoura are the winners in the tour operator category in 2017’s Europe-wide Luxury Travel Awards, truly putting the High Tatras on the international stage as a travel destination! Read more about it on their Facebook Page

Slovakia’s Wooden Churches: Four of the Easiest to Visit

Ladomirová Wooden Church ©englishmaninslovakia.com

Ladomirová Wooden Church ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

On this site, we like to believe we dedicate ourselves 100% to the bizarre, the off-the-beaten-track and the profound where Slovakia is concerned: we wouldn’t want you to be reading on here what you can Google elsewhere, after all. But for some reason writing about Slovakia’s most unique attraction of all (which is fairly bizarre, very off-the-beaten-track and profound, in a simple, solemn kind of way) has until now escaped us…

Maybe that is because of this: many readers will already be familiar with Slovakia’s outstanding collection of wooden churches. Their reputation does indeed precede them. Castles and mountains in Slovakia are incredible, but abundant – and many countries can also boast good castles and mountains. But…

Slovakia’s Uniquest Attraction?

But the wooden churches are – at least where Europe is concerned – a far more niche thing. They are consigned to a remote area along the borders of far-northeastern Slovakia, southern Poland and western Ukraine. Slovakia’s wooden churches are Unesco-listed – a testimony to where western Christianity meets more eastern religious persuasions (the 27 churches scattered through the remote countryside here represent Catholic, Protestant and Greek Catholic Faiths). The striking aspect of each is that they are put together without a single piece of metal: not even a nail. The fine interior decoration looks as gold and silver as the real thing – but once again, it is wood. These masterful works of architecture were built in the 17th- to 19th centuries, and each one is singular in its design. We leave this site to go into more detail – which it does better than any other on the web – it is not the purpose of this post, as we have said, to rewrite what is written elsewhere.

But the reality with most of the wooden churches is that they are hard to find (rarely, if ever signposted), in remote rolling countryside far from major public transport connections and only open by appointment (the appointment is generally made through the designated key-keeper, of which there is one per church, usually some old babka who will not speak any language other than Slovak). And so – to those with limited time and no wheels of their own – Slovakia’s uniquest attraction remains frustratingly off limits.

Fortunately, a handful of these churches are accessible without too much difficulty.

Most can be found in or around Bardejov and, further north, Svidník (a centre of the fascinating Rusyn culture). (and on both of these destinations we’ll be publishing a lot more content in late 2016)

1: Hervatov

This is our number one choice of a wooden church to visit: the most accessible one that feels – how shall we say – rustically authentic (being sequestered away in a tiny village). The interior is an absolute must-see: not because of mind-blowing lavishness but for its more poignant simplicity, with touching decoration on the walls and altar. About 9km outside Bardejov, it’s close enough to walk (via Mihal’ov; on the route shown on the map) if other means of transport fail (which they can). The custodian is one of the most reliable (her number is on the church door and church gate if the church is shut) and there is a little penzión where you can bed down for the night called Penzión ČergovMAP

GET HERE – First of all, you need to get to Bardejov. For this, Košice is the nearest big city that foreigners are likely to have on their itineraries: it’s a 4.5 hour train ride (every 1.5 hours)/one-hour direct daily flight from Bratislava or a 2-hour direct daily flight from London Luton. From Košice bus station (next to the train station) buses run every 40 minutes to Bardejov (1 hour 55 minutes). From Bardejov town centre, it’s only a 15-minute drive to Hervatov. But buses only run every two hours, with the first at 6:25am and the last at 8:20pm – and at weekends there are only four direct buses per day. So there is always the recourse of your own two feet…

2: Kežmarok

Surprisingly, you don’t have to go so far east to see a wooden church. The agreeable medieval town of Kežmarok on the south-eastern edge of the High Tatras has one right in its centre! It’s the biggest wooden church you’ll find out of all of them, dating from 1717 and built in baroque style (cool fact – there is a little bit of stone on the premises – in the sacristy, which was originally part of a city pub (!). Click here for detailed info on the church, and for an interesting theory about why this eclectic bunch of churches are indeed wooden! The Kežmarok church is open 9am-midday and 2pm-5pm Monday through Saturday from May to October and Tuesday/Friday 10am-midday and 2pm-4pm from November to April – so this church is great because it’s the only genuine wooden church still standing in its original location and with fixed opening hours. MAP

GET HERE

First of all, you need to get to Poprad, which is served by direct daily train from Bratislava (4 hours) and Košice (1 hour) every 1.5 hours, and by direct flight from London Luton. From Poprad Tatry train station, it’s a short walk to the bus station from which buses depart at least every 30 minutes for the 30-minute journey to Kežmarok.

3: Bardejovské Kupele

Yes, in the spa town a few kilometres outside Bardejov (virtually a suburb, and appropriately called Bardejovské Kúpele) you will find an intriguing addition to the usual spa facilities: a skanzen, or open-air museum portraying typical rustic life (a concept at which Slovakia excels). Actually, this Museum of Folk Architecture (Múzeum ľudovej architektúry) was Slovakia’s very first skanzen, opening in 1965. And in the museum (itself worthy of a separate post for its riveting examples of folk architecture from over the last couple of centuries) you will find no fewer than two relocated but utterly authentic wooden churches from the villages, respectively, of Mikulášová-Niklová and Zboj. The serendipitous nature of this truly amazing museum means these two dinky churches within its midst are pretty impressive.  MAP

GET HERE

As for Hervatov above, first of all, you need to get to Bardejov. For this, Košice is the nearest big city that foreigners are likely to have on their itineraries: it’s a 4.5 hour train ride (every 1.5 hours)/one-hour direct daily flight from Bratislava or there is a 2-hour direct daily flight from London Luton. From Košice bus station (next to the train station) buses run every 40 minutes to Bardejov (1 hour 55 minutes). From Bardejov town centre,  buses head out to Bardejovské Kúpele about every 20-30 minutes. The journey takes just five minutes.

4:Košice

In Košice’s East Slovak museum (link to Visit Košice website info, not the official homepage, as that is just in Slovak), renowned for many things including Slovakia’s only wax museum and the scary visit to the original old town jail, which lies within its walls, there is also a relocated wooden church, this time from the village of Kožuchovce. MAP

GET HERE

Košice is a 4.5-5-hour train ride (every 1.5 hours)/one-hour direct daily flight from Bratislava: there is also a 2-hour direct daily flight from London Luton. On the map just above, as you can see, it’s an easy 10-minute walk from the railway station to the East Slovak Museum.

Feast your eyes on these outstanding examples of religious architecture and – if your appetite is whetted for more – then maybe it’s time to consider the slightly more complicated, but also more adventurous trip out to the remoter wooden churches that lie in the extreme northeast. There are 27, remember: give yourself a few days if you want to see al of them.

MAP LINKS: Individual map links are provided above.

GETTING THERE: Ditto: in the individual sections above.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Bardejov, it’s a 79km ride east to Medzilaborce on the Polish border where you can visit the fascinating Andy Warhol Museum

Ždiar: All Hail the Ginger Monkey

View from the dorm at the Ginger Monkey Hostel, Ždiar

View from the dorm at the Ginger Monkey Hostel, Ždiar – image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

With the advent of December comes peak skiing season in the High Tatras, and no more appropriate time to mention for the first time my favourite place in these mountains, Ždiar, and the best accommodation option within, the Ginger Monkey.

On this eastern edge of the High Tatras, Ždiar (officially in the distinctive Goral-speaking region of Belianske Tatry or the Bela Tatras), with its traditional log chalets, rustic eateries (kolibe) and sharp-ridged mountains straight out of a picture book, at their most beautiful bathed in sharp late spring or autumn light, is unlikely to remain a traveller secret much longer. Some might say the secret is out.  Ždiar, Ginger Monkey et al have got a glowing write-up in the last couple of editions of the Slovakia chapter of Lonely Planet’s Eastern Europe (and having written the last edition I’m something of a guilty party). But Ždiar still feels secret, and so does the Ginger Monkey hostel within its sleepy confines.

The building, a traditionally-painted log cabin (a sight to behold in itself), slides into view on the right immediately after you pass the church in Ždiar village centre, set back on and up a grassy incline. My last visit was in the legendary tenure of Australian Dan but now Dan number two has come and gone and his successor is at the helm and, by all accounts, managing proceedings in an equally cool and offbeat way. First impressions? Well, you do have to pinch yourself. In a country that’s only slowly waking up to how to do really good hostels (well, Bratislava excepted) this is, in many ways, the ideal traveller hostel experience- I mean the one you would imagine if you plucked your twenty favourite images of what a welcoming, laid-back middle-of-nowhere bohemian crash pad should be out of your head and combined them in some best-of montage mega-image.

Chickens cluck outside and Wally the amicable hostel hound gives you an enthusiastic (and occasionally slobbering) welcome once you’re through the door. Immediately on the left is the common room/video room where obscure travel-friendly movies with an unexplained bias towards horror are watched of an evening, while across the way is the kitchen, where free tea and coffee and the complementary breakfast are partaken of, and where most of the serious traveller bonding/ drinking goes on. Beers are merely a euro each (cheap even by Slovakia’s standards of low-cost drinking) and, with the strange yet amenable assortment of travellers congregating come seven or so (sometimes they haven’t left from last night’s escapades), you’ll probably find yourself, even if you have a natural reserve, opening up and exchanging travel stories until the wee hours in a manner reminiscent of the good old days when hostels were there to do just this.

Make your way through a reception adorned in maps and tips on hikes and places to eat (Livia’s, aka the goulash hut is surely the best bet – they do beer, goulash and precisely nothing else) along a creaking corridor to the Internet terminal and then climb the stairs to the dorms. If you can, get the one at the front for sublime views (see picture above).

There are a couple of dorms, one single room and one twin room available, plus abundant information on local hikes which you can undertake with Wally. A good one wends down across the river (head left out of the hostel on the main road back towards Kežmarok to find the fording point) then curves back to come out by the ski centre on the other side of the village. Wally knows the way on this one, having been there many times before, but it’s also possible to hike up into the High Tatras from here via Kopské Saddle (which is by the beginning of the Tatranska Magistrala trail, Slovakia’s most famous hike, which crosses the Slovakian Tatras from east to west, and which Englishmaninslovakia walked all of in 2014 and 2015.

In essence, expect oodles of atmosphere and a fair level of cosy comfort (wandering around aimlessly in pyjamas and slippers is OK here).

And did I mention skiing? Ah yes, you can ski. Here’s the link to Ždiar’s Bachledova ski area. Or if you want to continue your Tatras adventure, click here for more.

And finally: check out the Ginger Monkey’s website for info on the continuation of your journey over the border with Poland to Zakopane. It’s a much-done and delightfully scenic trip. You can also read our more extensive blog post about it here.

MAP LINK: Due to Ždiar’s straggly nature it’s hard to capture the salient mapping info on just one screen but – as an explanation – the right of the map is the village entrance, and the left (where those red lines are?) the start of the Bachledova ski area. For the Ginger Monkey, take the second right-hand turn once in Ždiar village and then make for the church, basically (then you won’t miss it)

PRICES: Dorms are 14 Euros per bed, and twin rooms are 34 Euros (2017 prices). There is also now a cottage available for hire. Contact Ginger Monkey for further details.

LAST UPDATED: April 2017

BOOK THE GINGER MONKEY