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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…

 

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.

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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

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: 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