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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…

 

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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

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 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.