On the trail ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

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

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

Surprise, Surprise…

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

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

The Start…

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

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

Cute Kosodrevina…

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

Near Rovienky

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

Onto the Ridge…

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

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

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

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

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

WHAT NEXT?

Hiking the Hrebenovka: an Introduction

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

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

Staying on the Trail

Chata pod Čertovicou (before you start)

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

Hotel Srdiečko (end of Stage Two)

Chata Magurka (end of Stage Three)

© Clive Tully

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

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

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

“Wolf scat!”

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

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

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

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

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

© Clive Tully

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further information:

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

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

MAP LINK:

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

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

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

 

© Clive Tully

© Clive Tully

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

Low Tatras Mountains: Horský Hotel Srdiečko

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MAP LINK:

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

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

BOOK HORSKÝ HOTEL SRDIEČKO

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

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

©Chata Magurka

Low Tatras Mountain House: Chata Magurka

©Chata Magurka

©Chata Magurka

The light was failing, and we were despairing of ever finding our destination: perhaps someone had erected the gutterally-leaning wooden signpost on a barren rise off to to the side of the Hrebenovka, the ridge hike along the Low Tatras mountains that we’d been traipsing for the previous few days, for a joke. For the third night on the trail from Čertovica in the east to Donovaly in the west, we’d elected to descend from the ridge into the forests for our night’s accommodation. Whilst there was a mountain house, Chata Útulná, atop the ridge that would have provided shelter at a similar point on the trail, it only had a huge dormitory with mattresses spread out more or less end-to-end, and we fancied bedding down in a private room to enjoy a tad more comfort. About 1.5 hours further down the trail from Chata Útulná, from amidst the isolated ridge top nature reserve of Latiborská Hol’a, we’d scrambled down a steep path into dense woodland for about 45 minutes, then followed a winding forest trail that seemed to be leading nowhere except to lumberjacks’ log piles. Then, a scattering of chalets appeared like a mirage: we had reached the very end of the road, and what followed certainly felt like a surreal dream.

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The view outside ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

One minute, forest like this. The next? A minute, hidden hamlet with one of its several traditional chalets devoted to provide accommodation for weary hikers.

The owner and a few of his friends, amicable old timers the lot of them, were celebrating the arrival of the new vegetable juicer. “I tried it for several weeks in England once” slurred the owner, already a few glasses of slivovica to the good (or bad).  “The amount of weight I lost!” He did look quite trim for a middle-aged mountain man, and swears it’s down to embracing a diet of vegetable juice… and, er, presumably his strong homemade alcohol. He commanded us to sit down whilst he blended us one of the juices he’d tried out for the first time that very day. We waited quite a while, desiring nothing more than to check into our room. The wait was due to the fact the owner had, in the process of fetching us drinks, temporarily fallen asleep, but now we smiled: here he was, stumbling back with the promised refreshments. “Get some of this down you” he booms in exuberant but actually not bad English. It tasted like pondwater. “My favourite” he says excitedly. “Nothing in this but grass” (he did not specify exactly what he meant by grass, or indeed where his grass came from). And so saying, off he went to continue the juicer’s welcome party. I had to drink both of the foul-tasting glasses: my hiking companion steadfastly (and in retrospect wisely) refused. Grass? It was pond weed flavour, more like. Still, in true British fashion I managed to stay grinning and enthuse about how nice it all was (the drinks were, at least, on the house) and it seemed to be what was expected before we could commence with checking-in facilities.

But we did, at least, have a room – and actually it was a decent one. Nothing fancy: four- to six- bed pine finished bunk rooms, but the staff were quite prepared to arrange things so that we had one of these to ourselves. They were clean, with wash basins and piles of blankets, and – at this dead end of the road to civilisation – very quiet. Bathrooms with piping hot showers were across the hallway. Did we appreciate more after walking all day through the mountains? Undoubtedly. But by the standards of the scant accommodation options actually up in or near the mountaintop, pretty good – and not lacking in atmosphere.

Ah yes: atmosphere. The bar-restaurant area, open from 9am to 8pm for hearty Slovak food daily, is hung with low wooden rafters, and replete with long, sturdy wooden tables – plus various hunting talismans (deer’s antlers, bear skins): in short, pleasantly cosy Slovak-rustic. As with a lot of the hotels in the Scottish Highlands and other areas which have a similar “hunters’ trophy” decoration, animal-lovers might want to reconcile themselves with the fact that if they want a roof over their heads, a furry bear spread-egaled across a section of it will have to be tolerated. Outside, there is a grill area to use, and a hot tub that can be rented out at 40 Euros for two hours: pricier than the accommodation, but perhaps worth it after a tough tramp to get here!

Next morning, after a tasty breakfast of “hemendex” (ham and eggs) and very nice coffee, served in a cheerful courtyard attracting plenty of sunlight despite being fringed by thick forest, one of the owner’s drinking partners from the previous night offered us a ride into the village with the nearest bus stop.

“Let’s go quickly” he urged. “I’ve got to be back here ready to start drinking by ten.”

Perhaps the toasting of the vegetable juicer’s arrival in tiny, out-of-the-way Magurka was a multi-day affair.

In any case, the majority of places to stay do not inspire even articles, let alone feature-length Twin Peaks-style TV series. Chata Magurka, thanks to the eccentric bunch of characters gathering at this place on a daily (and nightly) basis, has enough material in-between its four walls to manage both.

GETTING THERE: Some customers, of course, will arrive at Chata Magurka by road. Classified as a holiday hamlet, and with a round-the-year population of under twenty, Magurka is not served by public transport. Buses come as close as the larger village of Liptovská Lužna – served by connections from Ružomberok (at 6:20am and then about hourly between 10am and 10pm, running from Ružomberok station on the main line to Bratislava and Košice and taking 32 minutes). From Liptovská Lužna, it’s 10km east to Magurka, up an un-signed road by a logging area just before the village of Želežne…

MAP LINK:

PRICES: From 20 Euros per room (without private bathroom) (2017 prices)

BOOK CHATA MAGURKA (Bookable via Booking.com, emailing magurka@magurka.eu or by telephoning 00421-905-649-230/ 00421-905-866-654)

  • You can be up on stage three of the Hrebenovka (Low Tatras multi-day ridge hike) from the doors of Chata Magurka in two hours of walking on some tough-but-beautiful paths through the forest (blue signposts)

 

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Low Tatras Mountains: Up Chopok the Back Way

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

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

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

Why Come Up?

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

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

Up Chopok the Unusual Way(s)

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

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

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

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

MAP LINK:

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

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

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

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Low Tatras Mountain House: Chata M.R. Štefánika

Shortly before I arrived at Chata M.R. Štefánika, the heavens opened. What had been a sun-kissed start to my hike along the Hrebenovka, the three-day ridge trail across the Low Tatras mountains, became a downpour. I could barely discern the path in front of me. Then, looming through the rain clouds at precisely the right moment, the place I’d reserved a bed at for the night surreally, mystically came into view, perched on a curving apple-green ridge of its own at 1740m.

This mountain house is still the classic within the Low Tatras range, as evidenced by its name (Štefánik, a Slovak freedom fighter, does not get his name given to just any old spot). The USP of the mountain house, found in lots of Slovakia’s mountains, as well of course as in the Alps and the Pyrenees, is that these are accommodation options actually up in the peaks (no need to hike down to the valley to kip at the end of the day). But even by such high standards Chata M.R. Štefánika, going strong since 1924, commands a sensational view, as well as a key place at the intersection of a couple of major hiking routes. The red trail, the Hrebenovka, climbs up from here to Ďumbier, the high point of these mountains at 2046m (the full title of the chata in English would be the house of Štefánik under Ďumbier), and then on again towards Chopok, the peak above Slovakia’s major ski resort. Meanwhile, a green trail cuts down in well under an hour to the Dead Bat’s Cave and then on to the nearest road access by Chata Trangoška and Hotel Srdiečko. Blue and yellow trails branch off from here too.

Not that I was in any mood for further hiking as I hastened, dripping, into the snug wood-pannelled confines of the Chata’s legendary restaurant. Yes, other mountain houses have wood interiors too but Chata M.R. Štefánika’s is finished with a lot more love and panache (perhaps because it is the granddaddy of all those others, and also because of the current manager, Igor Fabricius, who is so enthused about this mountain house he’s been at the helm here over 25 years) and it’s bursting with activity more or less constantly, too. This makes it a great place to make friends and chat about hikes completed or yet to be embarked upon, and I ordered a piping hot Ďumbier fruit tea and a bowl of soup and settled down to thaw. As well as a comprehensive array of all the classic Slovak mountain food available in the restaurant (dumplings, schnitzel, beer) there is also a small souvenir shop selling really cool merchandise emblazoned with the Chata’s logo, and a map room by the entrance with bundles of information on the surrounding area. Upstairs, the accommodation is in four- to eight-bed dorms with sinks and shared bathrooms. It’s all kept remarkably spick and span despite the muddy overnighting hikers, because there is a no footwear rule observed inside.

ridge-walk-certovica-stefanika

But with such a setting, it’s difficult to stay seated inside for too long. Especially not when the clouds start to retreat again and the chance to take a peek at the surrounding peaks arises. The chata, with a wood pile endearingly stacked all the way up one wall, has a decking area where some superb views down towards Brezno open up. But a couple of short walks (and don’t worry, they really are just leg stretches to counter the seizing-up of muscles that sets in after a long tramp) also await. 100m back down on the path to Čertovica (the start point of the Hrebenovka) is a monument to those who fought for the liberation of Czechoslovakia during the First World War.

Monument near the mountain house ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Monument near the mountain house ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Suddenly, the setting sun streamed out enticingly from under the storm clouds, though, and I wanted a better glimpse of the mountains ahead. Up a grassy rise immediately behind the wood store at the end of the chata, I clambered to the perfect viewpoint. The curved nature of the ridge I was hiking meant the next ten kilometres of mountains on tomorrow’s route were visible, now tinted in a glorious fiery evening light. I took a few necks of the hip flask every good Slovak hiker carries with them, and felt privileged to be here.

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

MAP LINK:

PRICES: 21 Euros per adult and 5 Euros for breakfast (2017 prices)

BOOK CHATA M.R ŠTEFÁNIKA

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