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)

©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 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

img_2244_999x1777

Low Tatras Mountains: The Dead Bat’s Cave

High in the broccoli-hued forest foothills of the Nizke Tatry (Low Tatras) – Slovakia’s great unsung mountain range – hidden between the lofty pine trees of the lower slopes and the element-stunted trees of the kosodrevina above, there is a small mountain cottage. The residence of some recluse, the unknowing passerby might think, some remote holiday house. But traipse up on the one-hour hike from the nearest road and, as you will see, the cottage marks the entrance to Slovakia’s highest, most extensive cave system – and a definite candidate for one of the strangest.

The nearest access point by road is the parking lot above the ailing Hotel Trangoška, alongside a newer, shinier penzión clearly trying to outdo its older rival, on the long twisting road up from the village of Bystrá. Opposite the car park a wide track (which narrows to a path after passing a couple of mountain cabins) ascends through the woods for 45 minutes before arriving at the signed path to the cave – which now lies a steep 15-minute clamber above you.

Approaching the cave entrance ©englishmaninslovakia.com

Approaching the cave entrance ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Sweltering from the ascent on a sticky August day when even temperatures up here at over 1300m are well into the twenties, we fantasised about the possibility of a cafe being incorporated into this remote spot but never really expected the cold beer or piping hot mountain herb tea that the cave guides – who live in the dinky cottage built around the cave entrance for days at a time – offered us on arrival. Descending into a tricky-to-negotiate cave system after a cold Pilsner or two doesn’t seem on paper like the best idea but in the moment it felt right. And chatting to the friendly team of cave guides over a drink is part of the experience: trapped up here with just each other’s company for lengthy periods, they have some colourful stories at the ready which whet your curiosity prior to going underground.

The typical cave tour (8 Euros per person) lasts about an hour. This is not a showcave, with wide paths and neat steps and guide rails. The guides at the Dead Bats’ Cave decided widening the tunnels sufficiently to meet showcave requirements would involve hacking away too much at the rock formations, so they prefer to offer a more adventurous tour, with a couple more heart-in-mouth ledges and slippery ladders thrown in – and simply ask you to sign a form saying that whatever happens to you in “the descent” is entirely at your own risk. Fair enough. Game on.

The tour commences with a descent down to around 20 metres below the surface, and a series of memorial plaques to famous cavers who discovered and charted the passageways here. In common with other high altitude cave systems, formations in this 22km network of tunnels are relatively few, but a striking series of chasms over which you walk, either on creaking bridges or strapped on to iron bars in the tunnel wall, keep you awed. The tour isn’t fleshed out with a lot of over-exaggerated nonsense about likenesses of rocks to various animals, either: this is an hour spent exploring – and “explorer” you really do feel as the tunnel you follow makes a sharp kink down and into a narrow section of bubbled rock passageways with the walls and roof of the cave pressing closely on all sides (Indiana Jones eat your heart out).

It’s around this point that the guide explains the master plan of the Dead Bats Cave – connecting the current system of tunnels up with another still-greater series of canyons – one of which is the size of a football stadium. The connection has almost been made – but the final few metres are proving difficult. Due to the presence of water, digging has to be restricted to when the water is frozen and won’t bust out to flood the cavers: something that happens for perhaps a month each year and even then, only for a few hours daily because it becomes too difficult to breathe. Watch this cold, dark space, therefore, for when the attractions of the Dead Bats’ Cave to visitors multiply after these caverns start featuring in the tour!

And finally, on a rock shelf at the side of the tunnel leading back to the surface, the origins of the cave’s moniker become apparent. Yes, indeed, the minuscule pencil-like bones of an abnormally high quantity of dead bats (some of which have lain here thousands of years). Many more, it appears, than the average for subterranean systems. Why? Well one theory put forward is that the bats – the poor blind things – find their way into the caves come late autumn and then, because their access holes become frozen over, can’t find a way out again. The second theory is just that bats – much of the area’s bat population, no less – has decided on mass that these underground labyrinths are a fitting place to die.

The Dead Bats’ Cave holds many more delights. The standard tour touches upon only one of three levels of caves open to wannabe troglodytes – and more hardcore adrenalin-pulsing squeezes and scrambles await with the more in-depth tours that explore all three (costing around 24 Euros).

Stalagmites - little stumpy ones! ©englishmaninslovakia.com

Stalagmites – little stumpy ones! ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Walk On! Beyond the cave, and returning back down to the signed entrance on the main green trail from Trangoška, you can carry on 45 minutes up through the forest onto the ridge at the mountain house of Chata MR Štefanika (at which point you join our recommended three-day Low Tatras ridge hike) and from where it is a further 1.5 hour hike to the summit of the highest peak in the Low Tatras, Ďumbier. Doing even a portion of this ridge hike – a truly glorious one – is an astounding “add-on” to a cave visit.

But – and few people, it seems, know this – the hike to the Dead Bats’ Cave does not have to be the out-and-back route it appears from Trangoška. As you come back down on the green trail (that’s turning left on the main path if coming from the cave) you’ll pass piles of wood left for transporting up to Chata MR Štefanika, with a rather touching request to hikers to take a log and receive a free Ďumbier herb tea (a special sweet herb tea just found in these hills!) for their pains if they carry it all the way! And just below a narrow, rarely-used yellow trail which runs up to the Hotel Kosodrevina/cable car – a point half-way up to the ridge between Hotel Srdiečko (another hotel at the end of the road on which Trangoška lies) and Chopok (the second-highest summit in the Low Tatras). This trail initially seems overgrown but it’s not – and rises through wild forest up onto moorland rich in blueberries and raspberries (boy did we have a feast). After about an hour the path – narrow and yet distinct curves up to join the wider blue trail which runs between Chata MR Štefanika and Hotel Kosodrevina. From here you can take the chair lift down to Hotel Srdiečko and walk down the road to where you parked your car – or carry on up to the top of the ridge via cable car to Chopok (where you can take another cable car down the other side into Slovakia’s famous ski area, Jasná, and into other articles soon to feature on this site…)

MAP LINK:

ADMISSION: 8 Euros per adult for the standard tour.

OPENING: Tours available at 10am, 12midday, 2pm and 4pm – daily July/August, March-June and September-December weekends only. Closed January and February (when work on connecting the adjoining cave system gets underway!!)

CAVE WEBSITE: (Slovak only)

WARNING: Temperatures down in the caves are an average of 3 degrees – bring a warm top even if it’s boiling outside!

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From the Dead Bats’ Cave it’s 90km southwest to Stred Europy (the geographical Centre of Europe!) in Central/South Slovakia.

Low Tatras Mountain House: Chata Pod Certovicou

8:30am. The only other guest was chuckling to himself. He simply couldn’t believe it. The manager had just given him a bottle of wine (Château Topoľčianky, not bad), well, just because, too often these days there is a reason for everything and what is nice about Chata Pod Čertovicou is that everything about it confounds reason. Being a rather early hour even for a Slovak to polish off a bottle of wine, however, he requests our help and we stand on the terrace of this serendipitous little place in the middle of the forests of the Low Tatras and contemplate our good fortune.

He was hiking the ridge path, he told us, just as we were about to set off on it (great start getting tipsy on white wine right?), and his hiking companions had spied, from high above, this cottage and being aesthetes, had sworn never to stay there on account of its rather gaudy roof (not blending in with the surrounding environment, or somesuch). He’d made no comment but, a little later on that same hike, lost his glasses, and come back alone to hunt for them. And something, he said, drew him to this place as a base from which to kickstart the spectacles search.

The Mountain House in the Valley

It’s an anomaly, right? A mountain house down in the valley. But the first cool accommodation possibility we’re featuring in our new Low Tatras section on the site only seems so ensconced in the valley because the surrounding peaks are so high. With all those trees around, it’s a nicely-sheltered change from those blustery ridges nearby…

Where?

Chata pod Čertovicou (cottage below Čertovica) sits at around 1100 metres, a 15-minute hike down from the minuscule hamlet/hiking trailhead of Čertovica. Čertovica is itself an important way station on the 600km-long Cesta Hrdinov SNP (Way of the Heroes of the Slovak National Uprising) which trailblazes all the way across Slovakia – initially in the guise of the Štefánikova magistrála in the west and all through the Biely Karpaty, the national park of Malá Fatra, the Low Tatras and eventually through to Dukla Pass in the east of Slovakia.

It’s a path which zigzags very much in order to showcase as much of the best of Slovakia as possible (fair enough) and Čertovica is certainly in the best-of-Slovakia category.

You alight from the twice-daily bus from Brezno at Čertovica Motorest – a pleasant roadside eatery with great view back down through the pines towards Brezno. You’re now on a dramatic dip between two high, green ridges here which form some great skiing in season – and the path up towards Hotel Totem on the other side of the road from the bus stop is indeed the beginning of a fabulous four-stage hike, the Low Tatras Hrebeňovka (Ridge Hike) towards Donovaly, which we’ve just traipsed and are currently in the process of writing up for you, dear site followers.

And Chata pod Čertovicou is our recommended accommodation from which to begin stage 1 of this hike, despite it being the furthest away of the guesthouses from the bus stop. There’s one right opposite the Motorest, actually – not a bad joint, and with a restaurant too, but also on the main road and only mentioned here to orientate you down the little lane plunging steeply behind its grounds, into the woods. A trail sign at the top indicates that it’s about 100m to Chata pod Sedlom (accommodation op number two, but often closed) and 0.9km to Chata pod Čertovicou. The lane heads down through the trees, and then, at a sign, a turning bears sharp right down to where the forest reaches a cleared patch of land at the foot of a ski area. And at this point, above a small blue-green lake, you will see the image at the top of this page: a tucked-away three-floor penzión that, outside of ski season, you’ll have pretty much to yourself.

The Vibe

The feeling that permeates, actually, as you walk up the drive and climb the steps up onto the entrance terrace, is one I’ve only had in hotels in low-land, wetland areas – in the Norfolk Broads, for example, in the Dutch countryside. Analysing this, I can’t really say why – but it’s the polar opposite of a typical Slovak mountain house in its vibe, something to do with all the land around being much higher, with the horizon being filled with woods, with the proximity of water, with the burble of the lakeside pump house, with the quaint backwater ambience you only feel in rural pubs in the middle of a flat nowhere.

Whatever the vibe is for you, one thing I think all first-timers here will agree upon is the friendliness of the staff. With the ultimate laid-backness, they warm you with their generosity (complementary afternoon cookies (well, they have to be eaten), free bottles of mineral water (it’s just water), extra-huge portions of dinner because charmingly the restaurant special of the day is also what the family in charge is eating). The free wine, well, that’s been mentioned already.

Restaurant and Rooms! 

The terrace sidles along the side of the creaking wooden restaurant area, hung with vast wall maps of the area’s hiking trails, where fresh fruit and the cake of the day are also displayed. Both yield views up to the ski area, devoid of other tourists in summer and resembling no more than a rather scenic break in the treeline. A restaurant alcove leads into a bar billiard room, further cementing the Norfolk Broads pub atmosphere for me. I still harboured a thought at this point that the rooms themselves, given the place was so deserted, might be in want of a little TLC. But no. Recently redone, with sparkling new bathrooms (square toilets, you don’t see them very often) and spacious showers – and views out onto giant sagging private balconies. Everything, in short (save a closet) that you would expect in a midrange hotel room, and (and here is an important point) for a budget mountain-house price (just 30 Euros). Unbelievably, for this room, and for the views you’ll see below, and for two evening meals, a couple of beers each and at least two or three teas/coffees, our bill for the night was a mere 50 Euros.

©englishmaninslovakia.com

©englishmaninslovakia.com

©englishmaninslovakia.com

©englishmaninslovakia.com

©englishmaninslovakia.com

Skis – and artistically arranged ones ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

We did (and you should too) realise that Chata pod Čertovicou does not set a trend for how Low Tatras accommodation in the wilderness generally is. Normally it’s basic. Beds in a dorm. This place is the exception. It is an anomaly, in fact, in its very survival: an August weekend was when we showed up, and there was no one staying.

Except our friend on the lookout for his spectacles, of course.

So did you find them, we asked, a couple of Château Topoľčianky’s in.

“The glasses? No. But I don’t mind. They were expensive, but I don’t mind. Look at this view.”

We looked.

MAP LINK:

 PRICES: Double room 32-52 Euros (Higher prices for the most refurbished ones, summer season) OR 35-55 Euros, winter season) and dorms available for a mere 14/16 Euros per person summer/winter season) (2017 prices)

BOOK CHATA POD  ČERTOVICOU