Vel'ky Rozsutec seen from the top of Chleb - image courtesy of Mike Clapham/Milan Šaradin

Capturing Malá Fatra: How A Photographer Transformed the Perception of a Slovak National Park

Sometimes, on rare, rare occasions, you come across someone in the annals of history who utterly transformed the place in which they lived. In the Malá Fatra National Park in Northern Slovakia, that person was Milan Šaradin. The rediscovery of thousands of Šaradin’s photographs by his granddaughter Maria Clapham and her husband, Mike, prompted them to shine the spotlight on this influential individual once more. Over the last few years the couple have been creating a fabulous online resource on Šaradin and his images, which stunningly document life and traditions in rural Slovakia over a seminal period in the country’s development between the 1940s and 1980s. Here, Mike Clapham tells the fascinating story…

Two young children enjoying the Blueberry which grows in abundance in the mountains of Slovakia - image courtesy of Mike Clapham/Milan Šaradin

Two young children enjoying the Blueberry which grows in abundance in the mountains of Slovakia – image courtesy of Mike Clapham/Milan Šaradin

Words by Mike Clapham

It is best if I begin by telling you a bit about myself, and my wife, and how the discovery of thousands of the famous Slovak photographer Milan Šaradin’s long-lost images, many in reels of film stashed away in storage chests, took place…

Roots

I was born in Sussex in the UK, in a small village called Framfield and never left that area, apart from occasional trips for work. But I have always had a very keen interest in photography, with a particular leaning towards blank-and-white images, and spent much of my early life in a darkroom. This fascination has remained with me to this day, along with the transition into digital photography and all that it entails. My other great interest has been computing, and I have been building my own systems for the last two decades. Both passions would prove very useful when it came to what my wife and I would unearth years later in a small town in the heart of one of Slovakia’s most beautiful national parks.

My wife Maria is Slovak, born in the mountain-rimmed Vrátna valley in Malá Fatra national park. Her childhood, as one might expect in such a stunning part of the world, was, she assures me, idyllic. She lived in a chalet next to the Chleb chairlift, learning to ski from a very early age and passing a great deal of time in the surrounding mountains cultivating a knowledge of the area that would likewise prove to huge value to the discovery.

In 1998 she left Slovakia for England to work, and this was how we met. Whilst we remained living in the UK, we regularly returned to Slovakia to see her family and it was during one of these visits that I began to learn about her family and in particular her grandfather Milan Šaradin (See Milan Šaradin: Life at a Glance, below).

Everything about the man was interesting but the thing that caught my imagination most of all was that he had been a famous and prolific photographer in Slovakia, with an emphasis on this area from the mid 1930s till he died in 1984.

The discovery that I made was that literally hundreds of his photographs were still around with, most importantly of all, boxes of negatives which had never been seen by anyone – not even by Šaradin himself – because they were still in rolls in the cans, developed but not printed. For a lot of people, this would have been an astounding find, but for a photographer like myself, nothing short of amazing.

Now we fast-forward to 2007, when Maria and I began to build a chalet to live here in Terchová (see Modern-Day Malá Fatra Snaps, below) and a couple of years later we left England and moved here permanently to discover all about this incredible country and its people.

Tiesnavy Pass, the only route into Vratna - image courtesy of Mike Clapham/Milan Šaradin

Tiesnavy Pass, the only route into Vratna – image courtesy of Mike Clapham/Milan Šaradin

Taking on the Past

By 2012, we had our life over here sorted out. And then came a different sort of sort-out: we approached Maria’s grandmother to ask if we could take all the negatives and photos that belonged to her husband so that I could scan them in to my computer with a view to making a website, putting them there for everyone to see. This she was happy for us to do, so we gathered up all the boxes and took them to our chalet to begin the work…… oh, if only we had known what we were taking on!

Just imagine how it was for me to open the boxes and find inside hundreds of envelopes and reels of film. This amounted to thousand upon thousand of negatives, in singles and strips, with barely any explanatory information. You have to realise that these negatives had been sitting in a cellar since 1984: people had been allowed to come and look for the odd picture once in a while, so they had basically been disrupted from any order that might have existed. Because of their many years in the cellar many were damaged by damp, which rendered them unusable.

So I decided to just start salvaging what I could, first scanning them and opting to sort them out by adding information as to the locations and people in the pictures afterwards. It soon became apparent that there were many more than I first thought. We have never counted them but by a rough estimate we think there are approximately 8000.

For those who are interested in the technical side of the scanning I will list the equipment and software used at the end of the article. (see Tech Spec: How Šaradin’s Images Were Preserved, below).

End in Site: Towards Making the Preserved Images A Reality

So I embarked on what turned out to be a long, long job: nearly four years to be exact! Nevertheless it was a magical time. Every time I put new negatives in the scanner I would find something that was too good to keep to myself and would call Maria to have a look. I think when I reached 2000 images I decided to start sorting through them more intensely and publish them on a website – at first it was my own site, and then I purchased the existing site in Milans name. And this, at long last, is the result: www.milansaradin.com.

Anyone who has ever done anything like this will know how many tasks are involved. First we had to identify each image, who or what it was and when it was taken. Very few of the images came with any accompanying detail: no locations, no names and worst of all no dates of when they were taken.

I believe this part of the process took the longest to do. It was necessary to ask family, friends and indeed anyone who could give us any information. For me this was a great learning curve. I learnt the names of mountains, valleys, villages, towns, people and events that I would never have known had it not been for this discovery. Some people even hinted that I probably knew more about the area than those who lived here. I don’t know about that but I gained a lot of knowledge about this place I live in thanks to Milan.

Eventually, anyway, we gained a database of pictures. We put most of them online and continued to scan the rest. To date I have around 4500 black and white plus 500 colour images on my computer and I estimate this to be roughly 60% of the total number of negatives – the best quality ones to be precise. On the website at the moment I have nearly 3500 pictures but I am in the process of redesigning – with the end intention of having 5000 there for all to see.

Šaradin’s Significance Today

Our thinking has always been that these photographs are of such historical value to the area that they need to be seen by everyone from the people who lived during the period the images cover down to the younger generation who never saw what it was like then. But the body of work as a whole is of immense value to a wider demographic. It spans a huge chunk of Slovakia’s recent past from the 1940s through to the 1980s, and shows unusual glimpses into how people lived, worked and played: an important insight not only into the times but also, in a country as seldom documented or championed as Slovakia is, an insight into the foundations of Slovak culture during almost the entirety of its time under Communism. All this feels, in short, like a glimpse into something which would otherwise forever have remained hidden.

Construction of the Cable Car- image courtesy of Mike Clapham/Milan Šaradin

The end of the ski season at Chleb – image courtesy of Mike Clapham/Milan Šaradin

Milan Šaradin (1910-1984): Life at a Glance

During his life Šaradin was a keen photographer, but also a campaigner for the conservation of the environment, civic developer, sports personality and publicist.

1930 – 1937 He worked as a Typographer in Zilina for a print company called Krano.

1939 – 1944 He was manager of a Malá Fatra mountain hotel in Štefanová, during which time the hotel was burned down, amongst many others in the area, by the Germans.

1944-1947 After the war he organised the rebuilding of Malá Fatra’s most popular mountain house, Chata pod Chlebom (Chalet under Chleb).

1947-1962 From 1947 he organised the building of the main chair lift in Vrátna and also played a role in the construction of other lifts in the Vrátna area. Then for a time he was the man in charge of the area’s chairlifts. He co-founded the Mountain Rescue Service in Vrátna, which became the Malá Fatra region’s key Mountain Rescue base. Mainly due to his dedication and love of the local area, he founded the first tourism centre for Terchová and its surroundings.

1962-1967 He was so successful in promoting the area that Vrátna was added, in 1962, to the international category for tourism and five years later (1967) he helped Vrátna to become an Area of Outstanding National Beauty and ultimately the National Park (národný park) of Malá Fatra that exists today.

Besides his many publications, in 1996 during Janošíkové dni (an annual festival in honour of the region’s fabled outlaw, Juraj Jánošík), Šaradin’s work was included as part of the Vrátna – Malá Fatra exhibition. A book was also produced, “Veď je tá Terchová” which contains many of Milan’s photographs. He was also an active member of a climbing club, IAMES, and he received many awards for his work with the mountain rescue service, tourism, skiing and climbing.

The majority of his work was dedicated to this beautiful area that he loved.
 “Janošik’s country fulfilled me and gave me the best days of my life” he is quoted as saying. “It gave me something to admire every day.”

Modern-Day Malá Fatra Snaps

If people are interested they can see photos of the construction of our chalet on my website. We also detail a lot of what we do over here in Malá Fatra on our blogs, Mikez Blog covering general information and Marias Blog on which she talks about beekeeping and crocheting in Slovakia.

The Tech Spec: How Šaradin’s Old Films Were Preserved

People always seem to ask how things are done so this is the techy side of the discovery.

I scanned the negatives using an Epson Perfection V700: this is a flatbed scanner with film holders and produces very good results. The scanning software is Lasersoft Silverfast Studio Ai Version 8.5.

The negatives get scanned into my Homebuilt PC. The software I use to process and archive the images was originally Adobe Lightroom but now I use Capture One Pro.

I have not retouched the images in any great amount, because they varied in condition and colour. One thing I did to them all was de-saturate the colour: thus leaving them in pure black and white and crop if needed. However I have kept the original scans before any adjustment was made (much like keeping the negatives or RAW images of today).

I am in the process of rebuilding the website with the intention of putting all or most of the images online using the Genesis framework which should allow faster access.

Chleb, with the Vratna Valley beyond and Janosikove Diery just hidden... ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Around Terchová: Hotel Diery

What’s better than paradise? Another paradise that’s less crowded, right?

Take Slovenský Raj, for example, or the Slovak Paradise, as the name translates. Sitting just southeast of Poprad, Slovenský Raj national park is rightly known for its paradisaical qualities: namely its steeply-twisting narrow rocky valleys, carpeted by conifers and splashed by rushing waterfalls up which you can climb on the country’s most-famed ladder and chain ascents.

But sitting a solid two hours closer to Bratislava, Malá Fatra National Park can also boast – yes indeed – a series of narrow rocky valleys, carpets of conifers and rushing waterfalls, all connected by a lesser-known but nevertheless magnificent ladder and chain ascent. It’s much more accessible. And surprisingly few people, particularly if you exclude Slovaks, ever make it here. The name of the locale is Jánošíkove diery (or Jánošík’s holes; Jánošík being a 16th-century highwayman who robbed from the rich, supposedly, to give to the poor; holes as in hidey-holes, by the way…) and it is beautiful. So beautiful in fact, and so relatively tranquil, that you would never guess that at the start of what must qualify as one of Slovakia’s most beautiful short hikes there would be a really enticing place to stay.

For me, Hotel Diery, at the start of the track into the leafy depths of Jánošíkove diery just outside Terchova, is a more enticing entry point into Malá Fatra than the Vrátna area where most people access the park from (via the chairlift up to the lofty heights of Chleb – an ascent of almost 750 metres to 1500m altitude). Vrátna suffers from the same symptoms many ski areas suffer from: an over-used and at times worn and tacky feel which extends to many of the places to stay thereabouts. Hotel Diery doesn’t feel like that. It feels a bit more intimate, because it’s a bit more removed.

What you notice first about it, though, is not the hotel, but the restaurant, Koliba (click the link for some hilarious pictures that totally don’t do it justice).

Koliba, the restaurant at Hotel Diery

Koliba, the restaurant at Hotel Diery

It’s an open-sided, rustic, wooden affair (a thankful departure from the all-too-common closed-up, dingy Slovak eateries) with chunky wooden furniture at which you can sit whilst tucking into some of the best-cooked traditional Slovak food in these parts. Cuisine is meat-oriented in true country style, and with little in the way of salad (although they do offer vegetarian options) but the cooking is good, and imaginative, and for 10 Euros you can procure a platter the hungriest of mountain men would be sated by. The crowd is a nice mix of happy outdoorsy types (Koliba is a good enough restaurant that in Bratislava it would probably be a pretentious place, so we’re very glad it’s here in Malá Fatra)

Englishmaninslovakia’s only bugbear is that Koliba faces the car park and the road, rather than the verdant woods behind but hey – it’s not a bad car park and on the other side of the road the hills soar up again very aesthetically…

A comfortable double at Hotel Diery

A comfortable double at Hotel Diery – image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

And despite this rather rustic entrée to Hotel Diery, the rooms are very modern. Not outstanding in their décor, but very clean, fresh and manicured in a way many of Bratislava’s business hotels would be jealous of. And many open up at the back (via balconies) onto just the views we were just lamenting were absent in the restaurant – making them very light places to spend the night. Down in the friendly reception, there’s also information on a lot of the nearby walks in Malá Fatra (click here for a selection of the best of them). But what is best about Hotel Diery is that, unlike much of the surrounding accommodation and restaurants, it doesn’t appear to be resting on its laurels. It would be very easy to do just that, as tourists are a near guarantee. Yet these guys are still trying hard to please – and to prevent the place becoming one of those Malá Fatra locales with its glory days buried in the past…

MAP LINK: (If coming from Žilina, follow the road through Terchova, past the Vratna turn-off, and you’ll see Hotel Diery and the entrance to Jánošíkove diery on the right after about 3km)

PRICES: 35/59 Euros for single/double room respectively (with a balcony) – and check holiday season specials on the website which offer you doubles from 44 Euros for two nights!

BOOK HOTEL DIERY:

The verdant ridges around Chleb, by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The Vrátna Valley – & Two Short Walks Around Chleb and Veľký Kriváň

If anyone were to ask me where they should go to grab the most accessible and authentic slice of mountain life in Slovakia, factoring in the obligatory stupendous viewpoint and a hike to a classic wilderness hut dishing out hearty Slovak meals, I would without hesitation say: “come here.”

Taking the cable car up from the head of the picture-postcard valley of Vrátna, to the saddle of Snilovske Sedlo just below the peak of Chleb, in the heart of Malá Fatra National Park, was in danger of being too common an activity for it to feature on this site. We debated for some time whether to include such information until we realised that actually, there was precious little good in-English info on it AND that whilst Slovaks and Czechs do indeed arrive in their droves, to other foreign tourists the delights of the Vrátna-Chleb area are still likely to be utterly unknown.

Embarking from Žilina at around 8am in time for when the cable car opens at 9am, you can do EVERYTHING mentioned here from “The Vrátna Cable Car Base & Up” paragraph down in an easy day trip – a half day if you’re quick about it – which makes what follows a superb introduction to Slovakia’s loveliest swathe of mountain scenery for those pressed for time. On the way up to the cable car base, you’ll pass through the main settlement in the area, Terchová, and up the ensuing (and gorgeous) valley – which we’ve included info on here too (and will doubtless feature more posts on at a later date, as there is enough to do in the valley alone for several days’ holiday).

Terchová – The Entrance to the Valley

The sheer shimmering verdant loveliness of the Vrátna valley begins at Terchová – the resort village that clusters at the valley’s entrance about 25km east of Žilina. Some call   Terchová overly touristy and a tad crass – I disagree. Compared to the rampant commercialism that has ruined countless other villages and towns in the world, Terchová’s development has been tasteful. It retains most of its attractive mountain-style houses with steep-pitched roofs, the accommodation and eating options are appealing, and whilst it makes a lot out of being the erstwhile holing-up spot of that prince of Slovak outlaws and folklore, Juraj Jánošík, the fanfare is mainly confined to the outlaw’s far-larger-than-life likeness on the hill outside town and a small, understated and very informative museum by the Terchova Tourist Information Centre. There is also an up-and-coming brewery in town, Vršky, which is part of the homonymous restaurant/penzion, giving you that added incentive to stop by for a beer: especially as it’s Slovakia’s first small-scale mountain brewery (as signs here proudly claim).

You can get off the bus here (and, obviously, then catch a later one), stock up on supplies here and even stay here (we recommend the afore-mentioned Vršky in town or, in a more idyllic spot right besides a great hiking back route up the valley to the Vrátna cable car base, Hotel Diery.)

Up Into The Valley: A Brief Guide

The 15-odd minute drive up the Vrátna valley from Terchová is sensational today – sheering pea-green slopes, overhanging crags and a road that somehow twists in-between them and ever upward – but it also makes the Jánošík tales assume an added dimension. This would have been perfect ambush terrain, you are soon thinking.

About half-way up, as this MAP shows, a separate road branches off left to Hotel Boboty (vast, vaguely monstrous, but quite decent rooms) and the idyllic hamlet of Štefanová, where you can also bed down at a couple of penzions therein.

A little further on is a ski area, known as the Vrátna Free Time Zone. You can see this section of the valley on this MAP. Another access road to the top of this ski resort winds up from Štefanová, via the highest mountain cottage hereabouts, remote Chata Na Gruni. At the bottom of the ski area on the Vrátna Valley road you’ll also find a very fetching rugged, traditional koliba, Koliba Stary Dvor – essentially a Slovak mountain-style restaurant. Enjoy – it’s the best place to eat in the lower reaches of the valley! Off to the right of the Koliba, a network of lanes ascends to another accommodation area – including the very good Hotel Rozsutec which has a wellness centre.

You’ll wend through all these valley attractions on the bus up to the Vrátna cable car base.

Terchová and this valley, followed by the cable car ride up to Snilovske sedlo as the final delight is all a very lovely and gentle initiation into the delights of the Malá Fatra National Park – sedate, let’s say, with easily accessible scenic spots – but up at the top of the cable car terminus the geography gets a lot more intense, wild and thrilling.

The Vrátna Cable Car Base & Up

The bus drops you at the cable car base, aka Vrátna Výťah. A couple of snack stands, souvenir stands and kiosks are scattered around, somewhat hopefully, but armed with the knowledge of what awaits up top, dearest blog follower, there is no need to linger.

Bearing in mind the opening hours and costs of the cable car as outlined at the bottom of this article, purchase your pass (and DO NOT LOSE your return one) and hop on the next of the passing cabins for the dramatic ascent to Snilovske sedlo, which at almost 1500m up will yield some absolutely superb vistas of the surrounding mountains. You’ll see some intrepid types making the steep ascent on the path up the cleared area of forest below, but if you’re going to pick a way to do this particular path, pick down:)

At the top cable car station there is a restaurant (cracking views, less impressive food, although you may decide risking the latter may be worth it to fully enjoy the former) that is a popular refuge when the bad weather cuts in and the cable car stops running. Actually, for many people, the restaurant represents the turning-back point of their foray into Vrátna – and this is a shame. Snilovske sedlo, a wide broccoli green saddle between two peaks, is a superb starting point for any number of first-class hikes – and particularly as the cable car has spared you the tough legwork by doing the majority of the climbing for you, the area fairly begs you to explore it a little. The two short hikes that follow give you a chance to investigate the very best of what the mountain tops near here offer.

Hike One: Veľký Kriváň

Behind the restaurant/viewpoint at Snilovske sedlo and with your back to the cable car, off up left is the nearest of the two peaks, Chleb (not to be confused with the Slovak word chlieb, which means bread), clocking in at a decent 1646m. Off right, increasingly visible as you climb the 50-odd metres up to the meeting point of trails hereabouts, is the summit you’re aiming for in this hike, Veľký Kriváň. At 1709m this mountain, approached by a fairly gentle path in a 45-minute hike from the junction of paths, is the highest in the Mala Fatra National Park but gives off a roof-of-the-world feeling with its moody panoramic views, down from the peaks into valleys often bathed a mysterious gold in the sun’s rays and containing two of this region’s most important towns, Žilina to the west and Martin to the south.

At the top of the cable car station ©englishmaninslovakia.com

At the top of the cable car station ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Hike Two: To Chata Pod Chlebom

45 minutes up, around half an hour drinking in the views at the summit, 45 minutes down. Just over two hours after setting off from the top cable car station and you’re probably feeling peckish. Back at that junction of paths, now follow the route to the right (if you’re descending from Veľký Kriváň) or straight on (coming from the cable car) down between the peaks with Veľký Kriváň away on your right. A straightforward path which leaves the exposed open ground (with stunning moorland views) to dip into woods emerges at the serendipitous chata (i.e. mountain hut doubling as a basic accommodation op and a hearty Slovak-style restaurant) of Chata Pod Chlebom (again about 45 minutes one-way from the path junction). Rustically charming as the hut is, the interior is nothing special so if the weather is half-decent, grab a pew outside in the lovely picnic area and then go to place your order of frothy beer, strudel or giant-sized sausages with bread to eat al-fresco. The food is good and the wild mountain locale is great – with this dark-wood, old-fashioned mountain cottage enhancing it further. Allow 45 minutes to order and eat without rushing, meaning around four to 4.5 hours overall to enjoy both of these out-and-back walks and get back to the topmost cable car station.  Still got some energy? Then try hiking back down to the Vrátna cable car base (around one hour more).

MAP LINK:

GETTING THERE: Surprisingly regular (more or less hourly) buses run from the bus station in Žilina through Terchová to the Vrátna cable car base from 6:15am to 6:30pm. The journey takes 55 minutes and costs 2.15 Euros.

OPENING HOURS: The cable car (which you don’t need to access the above hikes but will sure as Hell come in useful to beat the murderously steep clamber up to the saddle (sedlo) below Chleb) runs more or less daily throughout the year from 9am until 4pm – staying open late until 5pm or even 6pm during June and July. The caveat here is that the opening hours are rather complicated (even if you do speak Slovak) so whilst we are providing this link to the official schedule we still advise you to check before setting out into the blue yonder when the final cable car back is. Don’t car about the cable car? Then come here whenever you wish…

PRICES: Vrátna-Chleb Cable Car one way/return 8.50/10 Euros

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Terchová, below Vrátna, it’s 95km south and then east to Podbanské, the end point/ start point of our Tatranská Magistrala trail guide for the most popular path across the High Tatras.