bikers

Why these bikers are real ‘Angels’ of Slovakia

When health company boss Miroslav Hruška realised just how much of his ‘old’ stock he was having to throw away, it gave him an idea which turned out to be really ‘good for Slovakia’.

Miroslav, aged 33, who lives in Presov, East Slovakia, got on his motorcycle and set off delivering the products that would normally be dumped to deserving causes across the region.

Very quickly he enlisted the help of his biker mates and volunteers and set up the World Charity Road team to collect and deliver everything from food and clothing to people in need across Slovakia.

Miroslav, who runs Dobré zo Slovenska (Good for Slovakia), said: “Basically, we were looking for a deeper meaning to riding motorcycles than just the  freedom of the road.  World charity road responds to a need to help  people families and organisastions that really need support. They might need food, clothing and toys, things that people should have a right to.”

Now, every Sunday about 50 bikers set off through the dramatic landscape of Slovakia delivering a bit of happiness to the needy.

Eric Wiltsher, programme director at the independent international radio station RTI.fm, has shared his exclusive interview with Miroslav with the consumerwatchfoundation.com.

during the Premier League match between XXX and XXX at Old Trafford on May 21, 2017 in Manchester, England.

How AquaCity moves mountains for Manchester United hopefuls

Heroes of British soccer have revealed one of the best-kept secrets of Slovakia  … for the last eight years Manchester United has been sending its young hopefuls there to a specialist mountainside training camp.

Every October Manchester United’s Youth Team spends time in the city of Poprad training at one of the world’s most exciting stadiums, playing ‘friendlies’ against locals and recuperating in the world’s greenest hotel.

Poprad is an extraordinary place, tacked to the foot of the High Tatras mountains and near to the Polish border.

Thirty years ago though it had daunting metaphorical mountains to climb having been abandoned to the remnants of the Velvet Revolution politics.

But people of vision were already making things happen and now Poprad is one of the most important cities in Slovakia. It has become the administrative, economic, cultural and tourism centre for the whole Tatras region.

And at its heart stands AquaCity, once voted the world’s greenest hotel … and this is where Manchester United hopefuls stay while they undergo training regimes against one of the most powerful natural backdrops in Europe.

Former Manchester United assistant manager Ryan Giggs said this: “It is vital in a young players development that they get to gain as many different types of football experience as possible. Because of the training in Poprad they can relate to playing against different opposition, experience new cultures and food, travelling and adapting to new surroundings. The training camp in Poprad allows all this to happen.”

And last week it all paid off in a big way – youth team  players who trained in Poprad were chosen to play against Crystal Palace  when Jose Mourinho   rotated his squad ahead of the Europa League final.. Manchester United won the game 2-0, with Josh Harrop and Paul Pogba scoring the goals.

The story really begins with former car worker  Dr Jan Telensky, his geo-thermal lake 2,000 metres inside the earth – and his belief in cryogenics.  Three little minutes   that can change your life.

He said:  “When I first came to Poprad, I saw a pipe coming up out of the ground. It had breath hot enough to melt your soul. So, I looked into the history of it and pretty soon I realised there was a natural miracle two miles below the earth. An eternal source of power, warmth and health. It’s been there for millions of years and it’ll be there for millions more.

“I decided to harness it, that’s all. The government and the town of Poprad worked with me on it.”

Next door to AquaCity  is a magnificent new football stadium, designated as a Slovak National Training Centre (NTC). It is the only ground in the world to be heated by an underground lake and have an all-weather pitch.

The NTC is where you can watch the Manchester United football’s stars of tomorrow train and play some of Slovakia’s Premier League and other overseas teams for a fraction of the price it would cost at Old Trafford.   There is a Hall of Fame board inside AquaCity with a list of the stars who have played there.

 David Moyes, a former manager at MU who was involved in the training experiment: “This the ideal place for a sports training camp, the fourteen swimming pools and the leisure facililities are enormously popular with our young players.”

And AquaCity  offers all sorts of fitness and enjoyment, not only for professional sportsmen but for families too with pools, massage jets, children’s pools  and water slides,  laser lights to change the color of the water, outdoor thermal pools, blue Sapphire pools, blue diamond pools, and a 50 metre swimming pool.

In the wellness and spa suites there is Vital World, the K-Vital Beauty Centre, the Massage Centre, and the Thai Massage Centre with edible massage treatments such as chocolate, honey and green apples.

Then there is the controversial cryogenics chamber which has been helping sports people and visitors with injuries and ailments.

It is the Big Chill, an oversized deep-freeze which makes you feel wonderful. It works  wonders for the skin and muscles, can boost your immune response, ease chronic pain, heal nerve damage, and improve sporting performance.

And Poprad too  really is a beautiful place to be, sitting as it does on a vast plain leading to the foothills of the perpetually snow-capped Tatras Mountains.

It came into being in the 13th century, when the king of Hungary persuaded German colonists to move to what was nothing more than isolated arable land. Way back then Poprad was just one of more than 20 farming communities dotted across the plains.  It soon garnered importance however, as a main stopping-off point on the trade route between Poland and Hungary.

Another ‘revolution’ took place in 1938 when a military airfield with grass for a runway was built  west of Velko village as World War II loomed. The first real runway wasn’t actually built until 1970.

Poprad Tatry Airport finally came into its own in the early 21st century when it was classed as of International standards.

The 13th century Early Gothic church of St. Egidius in the town square still retains pieces of  wall paintings  dating from the Middle Ages. And then of course there is the Renaissance bell tower built in 1592 with its three original bells. 

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Back to the future in enigmatic Slovakia

Going on holiday in Slovakia really is like going back to the future.

On the one hand time stands still, sometimes deliberately and sometimes because there  simply has been no reason to change it.  On the other  Slovakia  has the proud Tatra Tiger, the nickname of its burgeoning economy. And of course it also has its incredibly successful hi-tech motor and aviation industries.

But there is no doubt that Slovakia remains the beating heart of European history with its ancient cities and towns, its boiling underground lakes and its snow-capped mountains where great bears and wolves still roam like antediluvian shivering armies

It is a small enigmatic country, bordered by Poland, Ukraine and Hungary, and is so ancient that you can taste history in the air … the smell of  Kapustnica soup cooking on a stove in a witch’s hat of a hillside  Koliba or the sulphur of the great Poprad River flowing from the Carpathians.

         And then of course there is the world’s greenest  and technologically astounding hotel, AquaCity,  Poprad, Central Slovakia, a town which now in so many ways brags the best in the ancient and modern.  The hotel was built by reknowned British and Central Europe visionary Dr Jan Telensky.

History has made Slovakia what it is today …  look at the stone tools dating back to the Ice Age and the Venus of Moravany, a female figure  carved out of  mammoth tusk  dating to 22,800 BC. The ivory figure was dug up by a farmer in 1930 in  Podkovica,  less than two hours from Poprad.

Sometimes in Eastern Slovakia you will come across the remains of hill forts standing against the skyline. Some date back to the First Century and are stark monuments to the Celtic invasion at the first documented turn of the pages of history.  Name some eastern forts

Yes, the history of the glorious little country just goes on and on. It is rife with tales of invasion and revolution. The Romans, the Huns, the Mongols, the Bohemians, Hungary, Poland and Germany have all wanted to steal a piece of it.

And then of course  in November 1989 there was  the Velvet Revolution which led to the downfall of Communism in Czechoslovakia and finally showed the way to the independence Slovakia had battled so hard to win.

The final revolution of course was in 2004 when it   joined the EU and was placed firmly on the international tourism map.

So, here we are in the first quarter of the 21st Century with politics and the economy, hopes and aspirations taking on an  entirely different complexion.

Eastern Slovakia is a wonderful and evocative place to be, with its hills and mountains  and,   its lowlands with its sublime vineyards. Tokaj is probably the most famous wine fermented there.

Poprad is likely to be your first experience of the mountainous country of the East, it is the closest city to the High Tatras Mountains and boasts the region’s major transport links, trains, buses and planes.  There is Poprad airport which was renovated and updated a few years ago and a there is a plethora of taxis waiting there to take you to the ancient city centre or indeed AquaCity, quite simply the place to stay and be seen.

Poprad is alive with quaint and charming bars and restaurants and is the gateway to the Tatra Mountains. But it has its own ‘hidden gem’, Spišská Sobota, a village less than ten minutes walk away which is a conservation site boasting Baroque burghers houses, merchants and artisans houses and a beautiful market square with a 15th century church and Renaissance bell-tower.

The real draw in the region though has to be AquaCity with its saunas, Olympic swimming pool, outdoor pools, centres of well-being, laser light shows, bars, restaurant, cafes, sumptuous rooms and its cryochamber. Amazingly the  hotel is powered by a  geothermal lake and the sun itself.

It’s the place to be to take part in all the things the mountains – described as the teeth of Slovakia – offer from dog sledding, skating on the mirrored lakes, snowboarding, horse riding, climbing and even golf.

poprad-river

Poprad, a postcard across time is voted winter’s real wonderland

The beautiful city of Poprad had daunting metaphorical mountains to climb less than 30 years ago.

Foders Travel Guide to Eastern Europe said in 1993 that Poprad was a place you ‘don’t want to linger’.

And certainly when I first set down there more than a decade later it was a place that appeared to have been in a state of suspended animation for decades. The political dark ages of Communism were still throwing a zombied shadow across its streets.

Old tenement buildings and 1950s new-age housing projects were decaying symbiotically and  community gardens and parks were choked with weeds and litter.

But people of vision were already making things happen and a decade further on Poprad is one of the most important cities in eastern Slovakia. It has become the administrative, economic, cultural and tourism centre for the whole Tatras region.

Poprad really is a beautiful place to be, sitting as it does on a vast plain leading to the foothills of the perpetually snow-capped Tatras Mountains.

It came into being in the 13th century, when the king of Hungary persuaded German colonists to move to what was nothing more than isolated arable land. Way back then Poprad was just one of more than 20 farming communities dotted across the plains.  It soon garnered importance however, as a main stopping-off point on the trade route between Poland and Hungary.

The next major spurt of growth came almost six centuries later when the Industrial Revolution brought the rail-road clattering across the mountains.

Another ‘revolution’ took place in 1938 when a military airfield with grass for a runway was built  west of Velko village as World War II loomed. The first real runway wasn’t actually built until 1970. 

Poprad Tatry Airport finally came into its own in the early 21st century when it was classed as of  International standards.

Despite Foder’s proclamation Poprad is definitely a place to linger with its historical buildings  reflecting German and Polish influences.

The 13th century Early Gothic church of St. Egidius in the town square still retains pieces of  wall paintings  dating from the Middle Ages. And then of course there is the Renaissance bell tower built in 1592 with its three original bells.

If history fascinates you then it’s worth visiting  the  Podtatranské Muzeum where there is a permanent exhibition of artefacts found in the Poprad over the centuries, some of which came to light recently when a work began on a new industrial park. And of course there is the Tatranská Galeria – the Tatras art gallery. More avant gard art can be found at the Power Plant building on  Hviezdoslavová 12.

Also ‘linger’ in the main square with its pastel facades of buildings which excellent cafes, rstaurants and bars … you have to taste the hearty peasant cooking that dominates Slovak cuisine. The traditional dish of bryndzové halus, gnocchi-style dumplings with tangy sheep’s cheese and bacon cubes, is best appreciated after a long hike in the mountains.

Take time too to visit the wooden huts which are actually market stalls selling everything from local honey and shots of Demänovka, a herbal liqueur.

In so many ways Poprad is the perfect place to ‘linger’. 

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Plum madness of Slivovica

One of my favourite libations is Slivovica (pronounced slee-woh-weetza). Absinthe may have a mythological, illegally glamorous reputation all over Europe – but Slivovica is rightfully seen as Slovakia’s plum madness.

The best is aged for years in oak barrels; it smells like molten gold and has a fire that incinerates your taste buds. The very best is distilled from Adriatic plums from the oldest trees along the coast.

Good brandies such as Amice or Karnataka come from Pelion, a town at the heart of Western Slovak’s wine region.

The worst is the un-aged variety sold in the darkest kalians and in back street supermarkets. It’s harsh but does its job.

So, let’s imbibe in a glass or two…

Slovak Craft Beer: Grabbing International Attention

Getting thirsty as the hotter weather comes? We don’t blame you.

Traditionally, Slovakia has been better known for its wine. But Slovakia’s craft beer is pretty amazing these days: not only in Bratislava, where there are four or five microbreweries that really stand out, but also in towns across the country from Banská Štiavnica to Poprad to Košice.

A brand new book by the leading travel publisher, Lonely Planet, Global Beer Tour, has now given Slovakia’s brewpubs the recognition they deserve. It has selected the country’s beer scene as one of the 30 around the world most worth talking about. To find out which of Slovakia’s microbreweries made the cut, you’ll have to go to the relevant chapter in the book, written by none other than Englishman in Slovakia’s Luke Waterson! The book is a bible for those of you that love beer and like travelling (most of us, surely?)

A hearty cheers, anyway. It’s always so nice to see Slovakia making a name for itself overseas. And for once, those Czechs have not stolen all of the hop headlines…

Room at Hotel Mountain View - image courtesy of AquaCity

Poprad: the Mountain View

Perhaps it was the engaging smile of the girl on reception that did it (a welcome that appeared every bit as warm for me as for the clearly far-wealthier businessmen that had checked in beforehand). Perhaps it was that the walk to the room revealed glimpses of  what I knew lay in store for me the following morning, namely Slovakia’s premier water park, AquaCity. It could also have been the location. After all, I was bang on the doorstep of my favourite part of Poprad, the medieval neighbourhood of Spišská Sobota. Whatever the reason, I was in a jolly mood as I arrived at Hotel Mountain View, one of the High Tatras’ best hotels – and nothing occurred during my stay there to do anything other than bolster it.

Overall, it is the sense of fun that permeates what at first glance might seem more of a business hotel that wins the newcomer over. Yes, individuals in suits do sit nodding gravely at meetings in the vast reception area and indeed, the hotel is well-known for its conference facilities. But families also wander through in dressing gowns on the way to the aqua park which awaits directly below. The hotel might have four stars, and many of the airs and graces of five, but it takes itself only a little bit seriously. It’s hard to be too serious, possibly, when there are fully-fledged adults squealing with glee on the nearby slides (some are reclining sedately in spa treatments or in the umpteen sauna rooms but, honestly, more are squealing).

The reception area, as intimated above, has a certain sumptuousness to accompany the friendly initiation. Contemporary it is (if not strikingly so). A long bar graces one side, and a terrace on the other side lends views of the Spišská Sobota rooftops, with the world’s only geothermally-heated football pitch in the foreground. From here, the reception-to-room walk is looong – if not quite long enough to see off dinner, then certainly enough distance to appreciate the ‘city’ part of AquaCity, and leave you feeling very glad to arrive and kick back a-while…

The cafe terrace - image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The cafe terrace – image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

The standard rooms are already on the large side: over 30 sq metres each, with the suites garnering up to twice that space. The hotel is a modern steel-and-glass structure and the modernity translates to the rooms: with bands of butterscotch yellow brightening the spick-and-span greys of the bathroom tiling and the bedroom curtains and bedspreads. Small balconies gaze out towards the High Tatras although not all clock those homonymous ‘mountain views’ – this hotel is not about mountain proximity (there are many other places to stay closer to the alluring peaks themselves) because you’ll spend the majority of your time here looking in rather than out. In fact, traditional mountain life seems distant at Hotel Mountain View, with crisp decoration, rather healthy food and city sophistication much more the order of the day (there is hardly any beech or oak wood in sight). As you partake from the generously-stocked minibar, flick channels on the LCD TV’s or wander along to the hotel bar, cafe or restaurant, you’re much more likely to be contemplating what your room rate includes: and it’s this that sets the hotel apart.

This is because free access to the majority of the AquaCity facilities is included in the accommodation price: to all the indoor and outdoor pools and the 8 wellness saunas and steam rooms (nowhere else in the country can boast such a variety of water-based fun). Free access to AquaCity’s fitness centre is also on offer, and a huge buffet breakfast is included in the rate too (although you’ll have an appetite worked up by the time you arrive, because it’s a fair hike along and up to reception then down again to the breakfast room).

Yet you can relish the facilities quite guilt-free: compared to every other place to stay in Slovakia, and indeed in Eastern Europe, Hotel Mountain View’s carbon footprint is low indeed: with the vast majority of the hotel’s (and the water park’s) energy issuing forth from the geothermal waters bubbling away under the ground.

Even if you arrive in a state of despondency, actually, at this place it’s pretty hard to escape the pampering, or keep that smile off your face.

MAP LINK: (the hotel is located at Športova 1397, Spišská Sobota, Poprad – within the AquaCity complex and with the same main entrance)

PRICES: Standard double from 151.40 Euros, suite from 281.40 Euros (2017 prices)

BOOK HOTEL MOUNTAIN VIEW: (Standard) (Suite)

Approaching the hotel... image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Approaching the hotel… image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

A Quick Guide to the Other Content We Have on Poprad

Places to Go: Poprad’s funky contemporary art gallery in an old power station

Places to Go: Poprad’s lavish Aqua Park

Places to Go: Nine reasons to linger in Poprad

Places to Go/Getting Around: Taking the Mountain Railway into the High Tatras from Poprad

Places to Stay: A cool travel-friendly B&B in Spišská Sobota, Poprad

Places to Stay: A sophisticated 4-star resort right by Poprad’s Aqua Park

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s trendy burger joint

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s dignified Café La Fée

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s Coolest Wine Bar

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s gourmet chocolatier

Going Out: Poprad & the Manchester United Connection

Arts & Culture: Dedicated traditional Czech & Slovak music radio station now based in Poprad

Getting Around: London to Poprad Flights

Getting Around: The Poprad to Ždiar to Zakopane (Poland) bus

Top Ten Medieval Towns in Slovakia

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The Best Ways to Experience Christmas in Slovakia

This is the season to be happy, after all.

Dinky, mountain-backed, frequently snow-blanketed and with a propensity for lighting big crackling log fires or old-fashioned tiled stoves to warm the cockles in the cold months, Slovakia is a great place for a cosy festive getaway. Several German towns, as well as Vienna, tend to steal the show in Central Europe with their well-known traditional festiveness, but the Slovaks can hold their own with their bigger rivals when it comes to Christmassy ambience – and Slovak towns and cities have the bonus that they’re not nearly so crowded at this time of year, so there will be only a fraction of the wait for that mulled wine.

If you’re Slovakia-bound over Christmas or New Year, we’ve made experiencing festive delights a little easier with this oh-so experiential post.

Christmas Markets

As in other Central European countries, Christmas markets are the perfect way to get into the festive spirit (unlike some aspects of Slovak culture, they also have the advantage of being very accessible and easy to indulge in) – serving everything from lokše (traditional potato pancakes oozing with fillings like goose fat) and roast pork through to medovina (Slovak mead), a sour but delicious mulled wine and also lots of amazing handicrafts.

The best Slovak Christmas market is Bratislava’s, spilling over between the richly ornamental central squares of Hlavné and Hviezdoslavovo námestie (see more on Bratislava Christmas Market). The market runs every afternoon/evening until December 22nd this year. Not far away, where Námestie SNP meets Klobučnicka, there is the refurbished Stará Trznica (old marketplace) which is also alive with Christmassy stalls but offers more contemporary, higher-end handicrafts and foods and is patronised by a crowd of young, cool hipster Slovaks. Stará Trznica is open year-round, actually, on Saturdays – and soon we’ll get round to finishing the more detailed post we’ve been preparing on it. For now though, the last market before Christmas is Saturday, December 16th! There is set to be 150 stalls, Christmassy workshops and live music. Get in there!

Another fabulous Christmas market is in the ancient city of Nitra, in Western Slovakia. It’s also held on the central námestie – with stalls arranged in a wide circle around the square: going every afternoon/evening until December 23rd. This market is particularly well known for its gorgeous woven baskets. If you are spending any time in Eastern Slovakia over the festive season, then the go-to Christmas market is in Košice – right along its wide central artery, Hlavná. It’s open a day longer than Bratislava’s Christmas market too: every afternoon/evening until December 23rd.

RELATED POST: Top Ten Classic Slovak Foods

Christmas Shopping

Slovakia maintains a lot of its handicrafts making traditions, and whilst some of these are on show at the Christmas, for some you’ll have to go the extra mile to find the best take-home Christmas gifts. On Englishman in Slovakia, we’ve prepared our Top Ten Slovak Gifts to give you some ideas. Bear in mind Modra for ceramics, the Malé Karpaty towns of Modra, Piešťany and Trnava for getting your hands on some Slovak wine purchased straight from the winemakers (and for sampling some in an idyllic wine bar, why not?), and for general festive loveliness with your seasonal shop, Modra and Trenčín in Western Slovakia, Banská Štiavnica in Central/Southern Slovakia and Bardejov and Košice in Eastern Slovakia.

Christmas Escapes

Slovakia has a lot of spectacular wilderness with traditional wooden houses to hole up in with the snow piled high outside. However, many of the best take a fair amount of insider knowledge, planning and time: putting them beyond the practical reach of many. For this reason we have to concur on this site with the Guardian (who put the city as their number one winter break choice in Europe for 2016/2017) and say Poprad in the High Tatras is a great choice to actually get to the snowy, Christmassy wilderness the quickest. Here is how to fly to Poprad and here is an introduction to the city, from the bottom of which article you can access all our other content on Poprad. From Poprad, you can take the Tatras Electric Railway up into the High Tatras mountains themselves where you are guaranteed snow at this time of year, can stay at a middle-of-nowhere mountain house (yes, they’re mostly open in winter too) and try all manner of wintery sports, including husky riding and skioring!

Best of the rest: where to snow-escape to get festive in Slovakia:

4: Head up above the pretty town of Modra in Western Slovakia to dine at very Christmassy Furmanská Krčma – a log cabin in the snow-covered woods.

3: Check into a lovely characterful guesthouse like Penzión Resla pri Klopacke in Banská Štiavnica – a great place from which to watch this dazzling medieval mining town unfold below you, whilst up in the hills above lie a number of great wintery hikes.

2: The Low Tatras is very snowy from December through to April, so get a fix of the white stuff whilst gazing out on one of the best views in Slovakia from the top of Chopok at Kamenna Chata – then ski back down again on some of Eastern Europe’s best slopes.

1: Undertake the traditional Three Kings (Traji Krali) Day pilgrimage to Marianka from Bratislava on January 6th – Slovakia’s biggest pilgrimage destination, and benefitting from a couple of traditional watering holes to refresh those poor weary pilgrims!

Remember Silvester!

Silvester (New Year’s Eve) is cool (indeed, veritably freezing) in Slovakia too. Celebrations kick off everywhere, but perhaps most tourist-friendly are those in Bratislava – where an ice skating rink is set up in Hviezdoslavovo namestie and fireworks are let off from the banks of the Danube.

Home is Where the Heart is

Christmas or New Year at a Slovak household, of course – should you have the chance to experience it – is by far the best way, if you can wangle it, of indulging in Christmas festivities. The main reason to partake is quite possibly the food: traditional Slovak delicacies way better than the kind on offer in the restaurants become available: all manner of gingerbread sweets in the Christmas run-up along with the most typically festive vianoce (rich fruit cake) and piping hot spiced wine, fish served on Christmas Day itself (celebrations, remember, are on December 24th as in many Catholic countries) and Kapustnica (a divine thick sauerkraut and tomato soup, and the most complex Slovak dish of all) served on Silvester/New Year’s Eve.

Levoča's Indian Summer Festival ©David Conway

Levoča: In Full Swing During the Indian Summer Festival

As you journey east from the High Tatras, the next stop on the classic traveller’s route (before Bardejov and then Košice) is Levoča, one of Slovakia’s most striking medieval towns, with its historic centre a Unesco World Heritage Site. For this article, the founder of what is now one of the town’s foremost annual events, David Conway, explains exactly what inspired him to set up the Indian Summer Festival

It was in 1973 that I first laid eyes on Levoča, where my father-in-law Laci had taken me. My wife Nadia, at the time classified by the Czechs as a criminal illegal emigrant (having remained in London after the 1968 Russian invasion), was unable to be with us. What I experienced was an incredible sleeping beauty; an exquisite late-Gothic renaissance town almost perfectly preserved, seemingly untouched for centuries under a magic spell which had left it in shadow, despite its showcase architecture and setting within an exquisite Slovak landscape.

RELATED POST: Top Ten Medieval Towns in Slovakia

When I next visited Levoča (now with Nadia) in the 1990s, it was already picking itself up after Communism and beginning to restore and celebrate its unique heritage. The idea of taking part somehow took root and in 2003 we purchased and began to restore one of the town’s many merchant’s houses, with vast cellars dating to the 12th century, a vaulted hallway and staircase of the 16th century, and numerous wonderful features of carving and woodwork.

With our house renovated, Nadia began thinking about how we could attract others to this forgotten pearl of Central Europe. And the idea of a music festival arose. With the cooperation of the town, which has enabled us to utilise the magnificent 18th-century theatre and congress hall amongst other venues, we contacted our musician friends, or just barefacedly invited musicians we admired, buttonholing them after their concerts in London, Prague and elsewhere.

Amazingly, these brazen tactics worked, and thus ‘Indian Summer in Levoča’ (in Slovak ‘Levočské babie leto’) was born. Run on a not-for-profit basis through an NGO set up with our local friends, and with support from grants, patrons and visiting audiences to maintain standards and reputation, over the years we have had wonderful performances from artists including the Stamic and Zemlinsky quartets, the Vienna Piano Trio, the European Union Baroque Orchestra, Julian Lloyd Webber and many others. Amongst our ‘regulars’ – who have become local heroes to the townsfolk – are the charismatic Slovak cellist Jozef Lupták and the virtuoso British pianist, Jonathan Powell.

©David Conway

There have been some phenomenal renditions at the festival ©David Conway

At first I think the local people thought we were mad. But gradually they have come – first out of curiosity, and now out of devotion – to hear incredible music. A key aspect is that there is no prejudice on the part of the local audience; they respond according to the commitment of the performer, whether he or she is playing Schubert, Shostakovich, Brahms or Beethoven. And gradually we have attracted visitors from all over Europe and even America and Australia. The Gramophone magazine has called our festival ‘Europe’s best-kept secret’ – but now the word has begun to spread.

One of our chief delights has been programming the concerts – so as to ensure that we can introduce music we think people ought to hear, as well as the established concert classics. So you won’t just hear the great classics, but also, for example, in our 2016 festival, Xenakis, Sterndale Bennett, Dohnanyi, Busoni and other exciting-but-neglected music.

Of course we have not been without our crises – but here perhaps is not the place to discourse on the grand piano which was dropped by the removers, the pianist who had her passport lost in the Hungarian embassy in Washington three days before her concert with us, or the heroic efforts of the Levoča dustmen in getting yet another piano up several flights of stairs when the deliverers had forgotten their equipment…..

In 2016, our ninth year, we welcomed the Kodaly Quartet of Budapest, the young Israeli violist Avishai Chaimedes playing Mozart string quintets, Mark Viner, performing works by the astonishing virtuoso Charles-Valentin Alkan and Alkan’s friend Franz Liszt, and Jonathan Powell playing Mussorgsky’s original piano version of the monumental ‘Pictures from an Exhibition’. Danish tenor Jakob Vad and pianist Eisabeth Nielsen brought us music form England and Denmark, and we heard medieval Slovak choral music and works from Mendelssohn, Mozart and Boccherini to Bartók, Arensky and Prokofiev. The Festival closed with a performance of Schubert’s great B flat Piano Trio.

The Levoča Indian Summer Festival is informal, it’s fun, and it provides a great opportunity to visit one of Slovakia’s finest old towns after the summer tourist crowds have left but whilst the weather remains warm. You will hear great music and meet wonderful musicians, due to the festival’s intimate nature. That’s a key difference here: with other larger festivals, you can be so far away from the performers it almost feels like you’re watching them on a screen. Not here! So so come and join us for our festival on September 8-September 12 2017, which will be extra special because it will be a landmark tenth anniversary for us: and will hopefully attract many more unmissable performers to this relatively unknown pocket of Eastern Slovakia.

MAP LINK: (showing the main town theatre venue)

FESTIVAL WEBSITE: (line-ups for 2017’s festival now available)

COST OF TICKETS:

GETTING THERE: The east of Slovakia benefits quite well from international flight connections these days: Poprad, 20 minutes to the west of Levoča via route E50, has 4 weekly flights to London Luton.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Levoča, it’s 63km north to Stará Ľubovňa, home of Slovakia’s only whiskey distillery

 

A moving encounter between long-lost relatives bought together through the Slovakia genealogy tours. ©adventoura

Tours: Ancestry Trips Through Slovakia

Slovakia’s turbulent history – with stints under the control of several different empires – means tracing your roots can be tough. Nevertheless, many of those with Slovak ancestry do want to take up the challenge, and it’s here that one of the country’s newest tour operators comes in handy.

Based in the High Tatras, Ancestry and Genealogy Tours Slovakia have many years’ previous experience as an adventure tour operator, Adventoura, but have recently added this separate arm to their enterprise: partly because of the owner’s interest in uncovering more information about his own heritage (he’s connected to the Rusyn people of Eastern Slovakia, and to a small village in Slovakia’s whiskey-producing region of Stará L’ubovña. The premise is simple: if you want to discover more about your roots, either Slovak or (as investigations sometimes pan out) any roots that originate in the countries surrounding Slovakia such as Poland or Ukraine, then get in touch with them beforehand, allow them a few weeks to do the wider research into your family history in the region and then, when the necessary information has been gleaned, and family members in Slovakia and vicinity contacted, book your flight to Slovakia to commence the experience.

Packages with such specifics being researched and incorporated into the tour are all unique and tailor-made to the individual requirements of the customers. The key theme of the trip will be the reunion with long-lost relatives – if Ancestry and Genealogy tours Slovakia have managed to locate them, and if the customers so desire. Trips can last up to 14 days in some cases, with every aspect from food to accommodation possible to arrange with the agency.

Often, partly because migration was historically higher from Eastern Slovakia, and because the agency is based in the eastern half of the country, tours take in sights in this part of Slovakia of historic interest. There is the personal level, too: generally, those intrigued by their family’s past are also fascinated to see what the places their family were surrounded by in their daily lives are like. Thus Eastern Slovakia’s wooden churches and the gorgeous Unesco-listed town of Bardejov and Levoča (where the historic archives for the area are located, and which can be visited as part of the tour) are popular stop-offs on the itinerary.

“Every trip involves a totally different story or set of anecdotes” smiles Erik Ševčík, who set up the company. “Quite funny is when, because of the family’s excitement and getting back in touch, the customers and the relatives they have been reunited with forget they can’t speak the same language (because older people in Slovakia rarely speak English, and many of those retracing roots have English as their mother tongue, not Slovak any longer). So they are chatting to each other and neither can understand the words the other is saying, yet on some deeper level they really are getting on with each other like old family members already after just one meeting!

I have been doing this a while now, but the circumstances of meetings are so touching that leaving with customers to continue on the journey never gets any easier – it’s always tough and emotional.”

FULL DETAILS OF HOW TO START ARRANGING YOUR TRIP WITH ANCESTRY AND GENEALOGY TOURS SLOVAKIA ARE AVAILABLE ON THEIR WEBSITE

 

Communism... Based on image by zscout370

On 25 Years Since the End of Communism

A quarter of a century since the fall of Communism was marked in Slovakia perhaps as it should be: in a quiet and analytical way, with a lot of discussions in the media on the progress the country had made during this time.

We have mentioned on Englishman in Slovakia some of the tributes paid to the tumbling of the regime which still, 25 years later, has such a profound effect on so much of this part of Europe (those with a Slovak theme anyway): that compilation of various docufilm directors’ impressions on the country two decades after gaining independence, Slovensko 2.0, is a good starting point.

But the main question on everyone’s lips: has Slovakia developed in a good way, in the way people imagined or hoped that it would? And of course a lot of voices answered: no, not nearly as “good” as expected.  To paraphrase from one of the discussion programmes I got a chance to listen to: Slovakia, whilst technically the easternmost reach of the “west” is more accurately in politics the westernmost outpost of the “east”.

It’s not our place on this site to dwell so much on thorny Slovak state issues. There are plenty of them, which are perhaps best summarised in the word “corruption”. Slovakia’s PM Fico can argue, citing such successes as the Kia and Peugeot automotive plants, that he’s helped the economy (well, at least in the west of SlovaKIA) but culturally? Democratically? In its legal system? Ahem. Polls by CVVM (Czech) and IVO (Slovak) showed only 51% of Slovaks viewed what took place in that autumn of 1989, up to and including November’s Velvet Revolution, with positivity, and that’s no doubt based on disillusionment with those facets of life where there’s a country mile of room for improvement today.

But on the subject of travel, I can say that I’m happy to be here right at the beginning. And I really do mean the absolute nascence – because for years the Slovak tourism industry was dormant and for years more it developed in the wrong way (ski package deals, stag weekends). The beginning of the opening of Slovakia to tourism is now. As new flight connections to Poprad and Košice illustrate, the “set piece” – the east of the country – is more accessible than ever. Enterprising Slovak adventure agencies are getting international recognition. Cool places to eat that aren’t afraid to champion the Slovak character of their menus are introducing foreigners to the nation’s traditional food. Slovakia is now catering to a more discerning type of traveler: the kind that really wants to discover. And the potential is as great as the mountains and forests are vast.

Raise a glass of your finest Demänovka (herbal liqueur) to the next 25 years. Actually, Slovaks are generally more partial to Becherovka, which is a Czech version of the same drink…

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Poprad: the Chocolatier

Never did the adage “short but sweet” more aptly apply to the subject of my writing than with Bon Bon, Poprad’s world-class chocolatier.

We’ve mentioned before on the site how the Dominika Tatarku boulevard between Poprad’s railway station and the city centre has been refined and improved no end over the last few years (the funky Elektáreň art gallery on the same street exemplifies this revamp) but this little chocolate shop has been here since the word go, making a name for itself all by itself with the sheer delectability of its chocs.

The choice of dark, milk and white chocolates awaiting you behind the counter is intimidating. My personal favourite is the dark chocolate chilli praline, although the quality is as high as the choice is diverse. But this is not even to mention the highlight – which is their hot chocolate. Now, my previous best hot chocolate experience was on a Moscow side street in January, but then it was also the evading the cold outside, admittedly, which played a part in my enjoyment. Bon Bon’s hot chocolate, I concede, out-trumps Moscow’s. It’s so thick you can tilt your beverage up and it won’t spill but simply amble, in an agreeable gooey chocolate glacier, towards the lip of the cup. It hits the perfect note between sweet and bitter and feels exactly like the chocolatiers here have melted a big slab of their chocolate into a cup (which sure enough they have). It’s rich enough, too, that you’ll need to take your refreshment slowly, with a glass of water and a table, perhaps, on the dinky terrace.

For those just leaving Poprad by train: allow an extra 45 minutes to get waylaid at this place on the way to the station. For those just arrived by train: what with this place and the Elektáreň across the way, you’ll need a good couple of hours for that ten minute walk into the centre.

Short, you see, but sweet and, with the days closing in and the temperatures dropping, an utterly essential sweet fix to counteract the mountain chill…

Bon Bon - image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Bon Bon – image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

 

A Quick Guide to the Other Content We Have on Poprad

Places to Go: Poprad’s funky contemporary art gallery in an old power station

Places to Go: Poprad’s lavish Aqua Park

Places to Go: Nine reasons to linger in Poprad

Places to Go/Getting Around: Taking the Mountain Railway into the High Tatras from Poprad

Places to Stay: A cool travel-friendly B&B in Spišská Sobota, Poprad

Places to Stay: A sophisticated 4-star resort right by Poprad’s Aqua Park

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s trendy burger joint

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s dignified Café La Fée

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s Coolest Wine Bar

Going Out: Poprad & the Manchester United Connection

Arts & Culture: Dedicated traditional Czech & Slovak music radio station now based in Poprad

Getting Around: London to Poprad Flights

Getting Around: The Poprad to Ždiar to Zakopane (Poland) bus

Top Ten Medieval Towns in Slovakia

 

MAP LINK:

LOCATION: Dominika Tatarku 14

OPENING: 10am-8pm daily

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The Cork Wine Bars… First Bratislava, Now Poprad!

Wine Bars in the High Tatras? You’d Better Believe it – Poprad’s Going Posh!

Saturday night, party night? (not for me, I’m sitting here writing this, but for you, dear reader…) In Bratislava, Cork Wine Bar was and still is, after one acclimatised to the serendipitous vibrant-but-relaxed, understated-but-suave cafe and bar culture permeating the city, exactly what you might hope to find strolling the Old Town streets to get that party started in. A veritable oasis from the bustle of Panská, that most lively of central Old Town streets, it was and is, with its burnished wood and bare brick interior, firstly a quiet respite and sloooooowly, as glass after glass of that spectacularly agreeable wine trickles through you, a place to segue, in sophisticated style, into the party-yet-to-be.

Now Michal, and his business partner Miro, have just opened the Cork Wine bar, take two: in Poprad. Yep, in the High Tatras – where you might hold out hopes of finding an outdoor shop or a koliba (rustic Slovak eatery) but would never have imagined until recently that you would run into an elegant wine bar.

©Eric Wiltsher

©Eric Wiltsher

The opening hours in the new Poprad bar (opening at 8am every morning, as opposed to the Bratislava bar’s far later 5pm start) intimate that this is going to be an even more chilled affair than the branch in the capital and indeed, so it seems: a place where the emphasis on the phenomenal cheeses, Italian meats and the snacking of other daytime treats as well as the wine and where the vibe is far more intimate. It’s rather like walking into your own home-from-home, actually – oozing warmth and positive energy.  A few more words about that cheese. It’s some of the most heavenly Englishman in Slovakia has ever tasted from a Slovak producer (Slovaks make great mild sheep cheeses but have never really made progress producing strong cheeses that could be described as “packing a punch”). Try the cheese at Cork Poprad, and you will consider your taste buds well and truly punched. Seriously, it puts many of the world’s copy-cat cheddars to shame. We’ll ratchet up the rave one notch: this range of cheese is very simply world class. Delve beyond it deeper into their deli selection and you will just everything you could want to compliment quality wines.

To chat too much about the wine would be to steal the limelight from the enthusiastic owners and staff. Michal is keen to share that Cork (initially Bratislava and now Poprad) was an extension of his passion/hobby for wine. He left the rat race of finance to pursue that passion because good wine meant more to him than money, and that passion shows. The wines on offer scan rather like the Who’s Who of wine but, the way Michal talks about them, like the much-loved members of a family, too. What’s more the team at Cork Poprad have ALL been to wine school prior to the venue opening here – yes, they have studied wine.

Cork Poprad's Owners ©Eric Wiltsher

Cork Poprad’s Owners ©Eric Wiltsher

The Cork Wine Bars were originally set up to supply quality wines from around the world to hotels and restaurants, and the Poprad bar is a natural progression for the owners. You can tell you are in the right place when you walk in. The welcome is fantastic, with staff all able to converse in English and eager to find the perfect wine to match your palate’s particular preference (such a level of service is still worth commenting on anywhere in Europe) . Cork Poprad seems reminiscent of the excellent initial wine bars in the UK, opened by those passionate about great wines and quality foods, but offering an inviting and inclusive overall experience that has you champing at the bit to return.

 

A Quick Guide to the Other Content We Have on Poprad

 

Places to Go: Poprad’s funky contemporary art gallery in an old power station

Places to Go: Poprad’s lavish Aqua Park

Places to Go: Nine reasons to linger in Poprad

Places to Go/Getting Around: Taking the Mountain Railway into the High Tatras from Poprad

Places to Stay: A cool travel-friendly B&B in Spišská Sobota, Poprad

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s trendy burger joint

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s dignified Café La Fée

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s gourmet chocolatier

Going Out: Poprad & the Manchester United Connection

Arts & Culture: Dedicated traditional Czech & Slovak music radio station now based in Poprad

Getting Around: London to Poprad Flights

Getting Around: The Poprad to Ždiar to Zakopane (Poland) bus

Top Ten Medieval Towns in Slovakia

 

MAP LINK: (Poprad) MAP LINK: (Bratislava)

LOCATION: Levočská 15 (Poprad) Panská 4 (Bratislava)

OPENING: 8am to midnight Monday to Thursday, 8am to 2am Friday, 5pm to 2am Saturday and 5pm to midnight Sunday (Poprad, which does indeed have much longer hours than the original Bratislava branch) AND 5pm to midnight Monday to Thursday, 5pm to 2am Friday/Saturday and 5pm to midnight Sunday (Bratislava)

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Cork Wine Bar in Poprad it’s 400m west to the lovely Café La Fée (although coffee THEN wine might be the more logical way round of doing it)

 

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Image ©Eric Wiltsher

 

Outside the Gallery ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Poprad: the Elektráreň

In stark contrast to a lot of Slovak cities, Poprad has rejuvenated the area around its main station. Heading into town from here, out of the station which in itself is something of a multi-floored Modernist marvel, you’ll walk down the verdant double-boulevard of Alžbetina or across the park four blocks south to the main drag of Štefanikova, and from there most likely a block further into the city centre. But there are some interesting diversions even before you’ve gone that far. On the other side of the imaginatively named Park pri železničej Stanici (railway station park!) an old power station has been converted into one of Slovakia’s best provincial art galleries: the Elektráreň.

Standing screened by trees, the building, lovingly restored in cream and red brick and huge green windows, focuses on thought-provoking modern Slovak art. It would be a breath of fresh air in the culture scene of a far larger city than this, but here in the capital of the High Tatras, where outdoor lovers would flock regardless, the presence of this branch of the Tatranská Galéria (Tatras Gallery, there is another branch south of Štefanikova) is particularly impressive, and talismanic of new, culturally resurgent Poprad.

Even so, it’s an elderly Slovak babka (grandmother), as in so many artistic institutions in the country, that welcomes you in to the Elektráreň and transports the experience into the realms of the surreal right from the off as she gives you an incredulous stare as probably one of her first visitors of the day (yes, it is likely you will have this gallery absolutely to yourself during your visit).

The downstairs space is reserved for changing exhibitions, and ones of a high international pedigree too (running right now is an exhibition of Edgar Degas works, and preceding this has been a whole host of other big names in Eastern European art, including already in 2016 a retrospective of one of Slovakia’s greatest ever 20th century artists, Albín Brunovský). It’s an impressive, multi-faceted space and the soaring ceilings of the old power station lends dramatic spaciousness and acoustics.

The upper levels are graced with a permanent collection of the Slovak wood carvings and sculptures particular to this part of Slovakia and, perhaps most fascinatingly, some surrealist works by contemporary Slovak artists. Most striking is the photography of Ľubomír Purdeš – his otvorena horá shows one of the High Tatras peaks with a huge circular chunk cut away, then suspended ethereally above, like a separate planet.

The best thing about the Elektráreň – over, say. bigger contemporary art galleries and museums in Slovakia such as Bratislava’s Danubiana – is certainly its prismatic focus on Slovak art and artists. These always get priority here, and the fabulous space is a true championing of the far-reaching nature of art in the country, in all its forms, in the 21st century.

A Quick Guide to the Other Content We Have on Poprad

Places to Go: Poprad’s lavish Aqua Park

Places to Go: Nine reasons to linger in Poprad

Places to Go/Getting Around: Taking the Mountain Railway into the High Tatras from Poprad

Places to Stay: A cool travel-friendly B&B in Spišská Sobota, Poprad

Places to Stay: A sophisticated 4-star resort right by Poprad’s Aqua Park

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s trendy burger joint

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s dignified Café La Fée

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s Coolest Wine Bar

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s gourmet chocolatier

Going Out: Poprad & the Manchester United Connection

Arts & Culture: Dedicated traditional Czech & Slovak music radio station now based in Poprad

Getting Around: London to Poprad Flights

Getting Around: The Poprad to Ždiar to Zakopane (Poland) bus

Top Ten Medieval Towns in Slovakia

 

MAP LINK

LOCATION: Hviezdoslavova 12 (the building is right on the corner, and there is also an entrance on Halatova.

ADMISSION: 3 Euros

OPENING: Monday 10am to 8pm, Tuesday to Friday 9am to 5pm, Sundays 1pm to 5pm

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: 1.2km east of the Elektráreň, and a pleasant walk along the Poprad River, is the immensely fun mega water park of AquaCity

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Coffee and Tea Culture in Slovakia: the Kaviaren versus the Čajovna

Before 1989, partaking of a good beverage was significantly more limited than it is today in Slovakia.

But particularly where coffee was concerned. Almost everyone drank the same brand, heralding from Poprad – an underwhelming and grainy affair by most accounts (and that is only to mention the best of them). No one thought to question its origin beyond that. It was there, and that was what counted. Better beans were available on a prestigious foreign market that you could buy with bonds – if you happened to have foreign currency to pay for them, which you could only really obtain if you had relatives living “in the west”.

A quality array of teas was more widespread. After all, tea could be made with the herbs and fruits that grew in the woods and hills looming large across Czechoslovakia (foraging is still a popular alternative to relying on what is offered in the supermarkets today). This is much more likely to explain why discerning tea culture continued to develop whilst coffee culture took a tumble (ironic, with Vienna so near and yet so far) than, for example, the age-old influence of the Turkish on the region.

Come the 1990s and tea in Slovakia was often a fine-tuned and sophisticated thing, enjoyed in a range of čajovny (teahouses) which were as often as not the hangouts of the Bohemian sect. Coffee – at least the half-decent varieties of coffee enjoyed in kaviarne, or cafes, continued to be at best what Slovaks know as presso, low-grade espresso made in a simple presso machine.

But Slovaks, since then, and in spite of the fact they are ultimately a home-loving people, began spending time away in other parts of Europe, North America and Australia. When they did, they often ended up working in catering. They got exotic ideas and brought them back to Slovakia.

Slovaks jump to adopt and embrace foreign trends if those trends seem like winners. Pizza and pasta caught on quickly. Craft beer is the latest craze. Good coffee came somewhere between the pasta and the craft beer. It seems to have been a learning curve, slow, but steadier and steadier and only really developing into a “scene” worth talking about in the last five or six years. And a scene it is. The likes of Bratislava’s Štúr (2010) and Bistro St Germain, plus perhaps Košice’s Caffe Trieste spearheaded it: good coffee in atmospheric surroundings, in these cases with cheap, healthy lunches on offer too.

A ton more places have followed suit. This new brand of cafes have several traits. They seem, like the čajovny have been for a while now, to be real “worlds” – autonomous provinces free from the regulations, realities and disappointments of external goings-on, or at least refuges from them. They are also uncrowded worlds, which renders them all the more inviting. They are generally owned/operated by young people who have a passion for stamping their own unique take on how things should be. In Bratislava and Košice, many inhabit Old Town buildings looking out on streets where aimless wandering is often a visitor’s main concern – and at a slow pace, because of the cobbles:) – it would not take too beguiling a pavement cafe table to waylay anyone here. And there is not just one or two – there are many. They veritably assail you from within 18th-century buildings (buildings which, it must be admitted, suit standing in as cafes very well). They invariably capitalise on one major Achilles heel of the average Slovak – an inability to think about going through the day without a hearty lunch – and do well from it. All told, it is no surprise why Slovakia, in 2013, were the world’s sixth-biggest per capita coffee drinkers.

If anything, in Slovakia it’s the quality čajovna that now seems underground (underground meaning the scene generally but sometimes, yes, literally underground) compared to the kaviareň / cafe. That said, more places serve up top-notch tea than they do top-notch espresso, so it seems to me. With the coffee, it’s a work in progress. But already a very good work.

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Poprad: AquaCity – The Most Fun You Can Have in the High Tatras With Your Clothes Off

The impression dawns, some small time after you arrive in the AquaCity reception area (by which time you can already discern the excitable babble of squeals filtering in from outside) that what you are about to embark on is a rollicking good time. You’re going to experience some world-class treatments, sure – but above all, you’re going to enjoy yourself.

AquaCity, on the outskirts of the High Tatras city of Poprad, enjoys a cracking view out to the rearing mountain peaks of Northern Slovakia in one direction, and a birds-eye panorama out over one of Slovakia’s most beguiling medieval centresSpišská Sobota, in the other. But what it offers itself is a big diversion from the stunning scenery and century-old architecture the country is so famous for. It offers Slovakia’s greatest array of water-based fun – and in a nation well known for spas, too. The spa or kúpele concept at Piešt’any, Rajecké Teplice or Bardejovské Kúpele attracts thousands of foreign visitors annually for the fantastic thermal waters bubbling under Slovakia’s soil. But they all take themselves quite seriously. Straight faces and respectful silences are not the norm at AquaCity: it’s no more possible to keep them than it is to keep yourself from licking your lips when you’re eating a jam doughnut.

There is nothing ancient about the strikingly modern (and, more strikingly, massive) AquaCity complex – except perhaps the thermal waters on which the entire thing rests. At a time when it was unknown that Poprad possessed thermal springs under its bedrock, the story goes that AquaCity’s owner, Jan Telensky, stumbled upon a rusty old pipe with the naturally heated 49-degree water gushing out of it whilst taking a walk on some nearby waste ground – and that thus was the idea of AquaCity born. Nowadays, after the High Tatras mountains themselves, this wondrous wellness experience is the city’s top attraction. As often as not, people come to Poprad to luxuriate in the (quite literally) piping hot waters and don’t give the mountains any more than an admiring glance.  The “scrap to riches” success story is all the more impressive once it becomes clear that AquaCity is so vast it is difficult even to begin to know how to describe it – let alone how to explore it.

I’m soon laughing with the rest of the day’s thousand-odd visitors when I check in for my pampering session (I should perhaps be referring to it as a pampering adventure, because quite quickly the experience takes you forth into uncharted waters). From excitement, yes, but first of all when the manager in all seriousness suggests I’ll need an absolute minimum of a day to appreciate everything the complex has in store.

I am not a spa writer and the idea of spending a day doing, well, nothing really besides a little lounging in various pools and saunas, doesn’t immediately appeal: not besides getting out in the mountains hiking, or biking, or climbing, or caving. But I am won round fairly quickly (I attribute it to the friendliness of the staff showing me the ropes and the sheer innovation evidently behind AquaCity). As a writer you require something to really write about regardless of the subject matter: I would rather gush over a quirky hostel with nothing but dorm beds than I would over a lacklustre top-of-the-range hotel. Similarly, with AquaCity, I found the many USPs revealed on my cursory tour caused me to prick up my ears even though I have been known to doze off whilst listening to the intro spiel for some of the world’s better-known spa resorts.

Let’s deal with one issue, straight off. AquaCity is not a spa. It’s a resort without much precedent anywhere in Europe, sporting three hotels and great conference facilities (business travellers), too many eating and drinking options to count (food lovers), world-class leisure facilities from football to tennis to minigolf (sports lovers), some seriously ground-breaking health and beauty treatments (treatment seekers) – and then of course that immense collection of pools, Jacuzzis and saunas (pleasure lovers and fun-seekers!). Geothermal water-themed leisure and pleasure complex will suffice as a general description for now…

image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Cryotherapy…

I am advised to commence with the serious stuff (because AquaCity does have a serious side, like all wellness centres). There is good sense behind the advice: in absolute contrast with the geothermal waters for which the complex is most renowned, I am about to get cold – very cold (and it’s much better to wind up at the end of the day with a warm feeling lingering).

The cryotherapy unit, in its own special wing at AquaCity, is a European leader (cryotherapy was first developed here in Eastern Europe): the body is frozen at a temperature of first -60 degrees and then -120 degrees for a total of two and a half minutes in two different chambers. Whilst it is available in bigger cities like London, AquaCity offers the experience at a fraction of the price. Said to treat all manner of sporting injuries, the treatment involves first donning a warm hat, special thick-soled shoes and mittens, getting a medical examination (in this case by a jovial and somewhat flamboyant doctor) to check the temperature shock won’t kill you, then being ushered into first an ante-chamber (at a mere -60 degrees) and then, in 30 seconds time, being summoned into the main chamber at -120 degrees, where you have to walk around for two minutes (four minutes would induce death but two is fine) whilst the merry doctor communicates with you on a tannoy to check that you’re not in agony. And incredibly, you are not – because the iciness has very little moisture content. You walk out feeling invigorated and then engage in half an hours’ warm-up in the cryotherapy section’s gym. By which time you are more than ready for those warm waters…

One of the many pools ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

One of the many pools ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Getting Warmed Up

Back up a level, across AquaCity’s four-star Mountain View hotel, down again and along a twisting series of corridors (by which point, after almost a kilometre of walking, you will certainly be understanding the appropriateness of the ‘city’ part of the name of the complex), one enters the area known as Vital World – which is perfect for those that just imagined moments before they would be frozen to death.

Changing into nowt but a towel (the towel is optional, but you cannot proceed wearing swimming costumes – welcome to Central European-style spas!) you can embark on a veritable round trip of extravagant relaxation, circling through a steam sauna, a flower sauna, a salt sauna, a Finnish sauna and a beautiful snow cave (yep, High Tatras snow and ice in a cute little enclave that will have you thinking you’re in Santa’s grotto rather than a mega-resort). To truly luxuriate you’ll need a couple of hours here at least (I luxuriate quite rapidly as a rule and it still took me nearly that long) – particularly if you throw in the hot tub, the official relaxation area (after all that hard work in the saunas, some time on sunbeds with classical music is not amiss) and Slovakia’s premier Thai massage centre. Thai massage options include the Rit Tee (a hot, herbal massage) and the popular Tok Sen, which uses small sharp sticks to poke through your skin at the tissue and bones and thus, somehow, improve your circulation…

Poolside Fun

Vital World is wonderful, but there’s no denying that the part of AquaCity where you really let the inner child within you out is the extensive range of pools, indoor and outdoor, and water slides: a 50-metre Olympic-sized swimming pool, plus (between the inside and outside areas) 13 more pools with temperatures ranging between 27 and 40 degrees. Kids love AquaCity’s newest water-based fun, the Treasure Island pool – themed around a huge pirate ship. Even an a cool day the outside pools are packed (although the water slides open only in the height of summer). Fountains, more Jacuzzis, a swim-up bar and a healthy restaurant sandwiched midway through your between-pool wanderings embellish the experience. Best of all, each evening, a spectacular laser light show is projected around one of the larger pools (the Blue Sapphire): a fitting way to cap a day of being good to yourself…

AquaCity’s Eco-Friendliness

It would be tempting to think there was something wasteful in all this lavish use of hot water. But the opposite is the case.

The bore hole on which the complex sits gushes out 49-degree water that would otherwise not get used for very much at all. Instead, AquaCity’s modern steel-and-glass design allows for the water to travel around the buildings, heat up the centre from the pools to the rooms (in conjunction with solar energy), and still have sufficient quantities to power the world’s only geothermally heated football stadium, right next-door. Other deft green touches will have you feeling a whole lot better about your spa-going, too. Lights, for example, switch on and off automatically when you enter or exit a room. Pools were constructed with steel rather than concrete, which meant far less impact on the environment. The centre was even the first in Central Europe to attain the highly-coveted Green Globe award, the highest mark of internationally recognised environmentally friendly excellence. AquaCity brands itself as an immersion in ecological luxury and that, it seems, it most definitely is.

For sure, there is a fair amount to write home about – even for those for whom spas normally leave feeling luke-warm – and no need to feel guilty, due to those glowing green credentials, about indulging in AquaCity’s rather unique blend of fun… there are few places in Slovakia that cater quite so well simultaneously to poker-faced business conferences, to romancing couples – and to young families shrieking in unrestrained joy.

A Quick Guide to the Other Content We Have on Poprad

Places to Go: Poprad’s funky contemporary art gallery in an old power station

Places to Go: Nine reasons to linger in Poprad

Places to Go/Getting Around: Taking the Mountain Railway into the High Tatras from Poprad

Places to Stay: A cool travel-friendly B&B in Spišská Sobota, Poprad

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s gourmet chocolatier

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s trendy burger joint

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s dignified Café La Fée

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s Coolest Wine Bar

Going Out: Poprad & the Manchester United Connection

Arts & Culture: Dedicated traditional Czech & Slovak music radio station now based in Poprad

Getting Around: London to Poprad Flights

Getting Around: The Poprad to Ždiar to Zakopane (Poland) bus

Top Ten Medieval Towns in Slovakia

MAP LINK

LOCATION: Sportova 1397/1: from Poprad Tatry train station head east (left) on the main road, Štefanikova.

ADMISSION: 22 Euros (Aquapark only day ticket) or 34 Euros (Vital World and Aquapark day ticket)

OPENING: 9am to 10pm daily (Aquapark), 9am to 10pm Monday, Tuesday, Friday and Saturday (Vital World), 4pm to 7pm Tuesday to Saturday (Cryotherapy)

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: 42km northeast of AquaCity is Slovakia’s only whisky distillery at Hniezdne.

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

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Stará Ľubovňa: A Journey to the Roots of Slovak Whiskey at Nestville Park Distillery

A few months back I was doing my usual, intermittent mooch around my favourite Bratislava whisky shop, the White Mouse, when I noticed something tucked away in the corner of the window display gathering dust that I hadn’t glimpsed on previous visits, or indeed anywhere else: a bottle of Nestville Park, and the caveat, in small print: ‘Distilled and Bottled in Slovakia’.

It was their No1 offering – a blend and, as it turned out, the standard bottling for the distillery – and being a purist when in comes to whisky (yes, or whiskey) I would not have normally given it any more attention. Except for that small print. I had not until that moment, having lived in Slovakia over three years, been aware that the country produced whiskey whatsoever.

“What’s it like?” I asked the owner, who is a tad taken aback, as we normally chat about the Islay’s or the Speyside’s.

He considers a moment.

“It’s not bad” he says.

Crucial, that. Slovaks are some of the planet’s most self-deprecating people, particularly where anything intrinsically ‘Slovak’ is concerned, and here was one of its more worldly wise citizens, on record saying Slovakia’s foray into whisky-making was alright.

From that moment, the idea of a trip out to see where Nestville Park was made slowly cemented in my mind.

Part of the reason I love trekking out to whisky distilleries is the sheer randomness of the experience. There is no Earthly reason to trek out to a Campbelltown in Scotland or the outskirts of a Fort Worth in Texas unless you love whisky (Springbank and Firestone & Robinson, respectably). It provides a motivation to get out to those way-off-the-beaten-track places that would otherwise remain in obscurity.

And perhaps Stará Ľubovňa, the town to which you need to head to visit the home of Nestville Park, would have otherwise floundered in obscurity, too, were it not for its whiskey production. It is prettier, in fact, than either a Campbelltown or a Fort Worth: with a castle, a folk museum and a history dating back to the 13th century (although many more easily accessible Slovak towns can claim this). And more than either a Campbelltown or a Fort Worth, it is on a road to nowhere, in a rarely-visited part of a country that already receives comparatively few international visitors. They say that once you reach Stará Ľubovňa, you have truly arrived in Eastern Slovakia, which claims cultural distinctiveness from the west in everything from its people (the Roma and the Rusyn as well as the Polish and Ukrainians have a significant influence here) to its religion (it lies on the crossroads of the Catholic and Orthodox branches of Christianity). But the most obvious reason why the town would be the gateway to Eastern Slovakia is that, as you travel east from the High Tatras hubs of Poprad and Kežmarok, you pass nothing for the preceding 30 minutes but rolling emerald hills bursting with fertile farmland, swooping up from the banks of the nascent Poprad River.

The bus from Kežmarok (full of elderly couples that hunch deep into their coats and sigh as the light drizzle becomes a steadily harder rain as we wind up the valley road) stops a few kilometres short of  Stará Ľubovňa, in Hniezdne, the smallest city in the erstwhile Kingdom of Hungary. The name is appropriate: not only does ‘hniez’ in Slovak mean ‘nest’ (from whence the distillery derives its name) but the small, sleepy town is at the very cradle of national history, being founded as one of the earliest Slovak settlements after Nitra – in the 12th century. Certainly, by  this time, Slavic people would have been working the land hereabouts and the Northern Spiš region soon became well known for its agriculture. Cream of the crops? Wheat, barley and rye – just the grain needed for the production of the water of life – and Slovakia’s first recorded distillery duly got established here by at least the 18th century.

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It’s a stark contrast between the ornate, peeling facades of the central townhouses and the spick, span entranceway to the distillery on the outskirts. I passed under the imposing wooden gateway proclaiming Nestville Park as Slovakia’s first (indeed, only) whiskey. Rain danced on an almost deserted car park: I was the sole visitor, another big difference compared to the Scottish distilleries with which I was familiar.

It’s hard to understand why is Nestville Park is an exceptionally well-laid-out tourist attraction. It is not only a whiskey distillery, it is also an exhibition on the history of whiskey making in this neck of the woods.

The two girls in the reception area glanced at me a tad incredulously when I walked in; the more so when I spoke to them in Slovak. Foreign tourists, it appeared, were none too common here. I was given the ‘English’ tour which consists of a guide (one of the afore-mentioned young ladies) who couldn’t speak a word of English pressing stop/start on an obtrusively loud American-accented recording, quite unnecessarily as it turned out because the displays in the ‘historical section’ of the distillery were in English. Nevertheless, thus we proceeded, me reading the in-English noticeboards, then having the same words replayed to me with a mechanical Deep-South twang.

The tour, though, was an enlightening romp through recreations of an 18th century cooperage and smithy, plus insights into how agriculture was practiced here in the 12th to 17th centuries. You get to have a ring of a huge bell in the belfry, too – once used to summon the workers!

Then the visit to the modern distillery commences.

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Sniffing that grain! ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Single malt aficionados should known straight off that Nestville Park is more akin to American bourbon – the maturation process ranging from three to seven years on average.

The malting process is done by hand. After 2-3 days soaked in water and malt is laid out in the malthouse for around a week to germinate. Then it gets switched to a kiln for further drying (2-3 days). The malt then has the water added to it – in Nestville Park’s case, water from a spring that has been flowing underground from the Bela Tatras part of the High Tatras mountains, and with a high iron, calcium and magnesium content, filtering through Paleogen-era bedrock en route. The fermentation room, considering Nestville Park’s products are mostly sold to a Slovak-only demographic, is huge: some 20 tanks each able to have 75,000 litres of alcohol bubbling away inside them.

The distillery overall has a modern feel – despite the historic record of a distillery around this site dating back to at least the 19th century – and the buildings are mostly very 21st century. Its pièce de résistance however, the tasting room, veritably oozes with history. Here, in an ornate hall hung on one side by what is Europe’s largest wood-carved picture, you get to partake of that well-earned sample dram – or, should I say, sizeable glass of the good stuff. The ambience is much more traditional rustic Slovak – albeit realised in an attractive way. And whilst slurping their complementary ‘green’ whisky – a grassy, earthy three year-old, you can also drink in how the whiskey production kicked off hereabouts historically: a reinterpretation of the medieval peasants that laboured to produce whiskey in Spiš region for centuries – and their life and culture.

A Nestville Park Whiskey Tasting

My favourite Nestville Park product was undoubtedly the single-barrel seven year-old. Think butterscotch and rum and raisin ice cream with a powerful shortbready afterkick. Just try it. At least the equal of most American bourbons – and coming with a good century more of history, too.

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

MAP LINK:

MORE INFO: Nestville Park website

ADMISSION: 5 Euros (standard tour with one tasting), 7 Euros (tour and three tastings)

OPENING: Daily 9am to 5pm (between May and September), Tuesday to Sunday 10am to 4pm (from October to April)

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Nestville Park in Hniezdne it’s only 58km east to Bardejov, one of the top ten most beautiful medieval towns in Slovakia and start point for visiting some of Eastern Slovakia’s famous wooden churches.

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Poprad: Café La Fée

On a summer’s afternoon on a tree-shaded pavement cafe, groups of businessmen and suave young urbanites sit and slurp cafe au lait. The sunlight dapples their faces and slants into the interior, rendering the premises light, spacious, modern, inviting. The dapper old waiter deftly manages the clientele and pauses (at a sufficient distance not to cause offense, of course) for a cigarette. On the wall opposite the counter, the names of great French writers – Verne to Baudelaire – are scrawled in italics. Paris? Not a bit of it. La Fée lies at the heart of the High Tatras Mountains hub of Poprad. But it could have been plucked from a Montparnasse side street, it’s so French.

The menu is French, from its Quiche Lorraine to its mineral water. The service is French: it’s elegant, it’s respectful, it’s knowledgeable. The wine served is French. The cafe is still very new (it only opened in late 2012) so in this respect it is perhaps a little less French, but the place has been done tastefully to avoid the unfortunate ‘furniture showroom’ look a lot of totally refurbished restaurants have. It is not French in its prices, either (its coffees are under 2 Euros, its cakes are under 3 Euros, even a quiche will set you back less than 4 Euros). But in every other respect, Frenchness exudes throughout.

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Image ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

When I kick back with a coffee in a cafe, I like to do so with the intent of lingering a long while. I linger for the atmosphere, I linger for courteous service and I linger because I like to be allowed to linger. On all three counts, La Fée scores highly. Outside the pavement-fronting terrace is most popular but inside the conservatory-style outer room catches the best of the day’s light and would be perfect for when the weather is less clement than it was on my visit there. Here and around the counter (decorated with those legendary writerly names) is where the loners coveting caffeine fixes and the families on a proper a few hours of “cafe downtime” frequent: there are some sofas to encourage them in this. Getting the oldest of the waiters (pictured above) to serve you would secure you the dream Poprad cafe experience but being attended to by any of the friendly waitresses is no bad thing: they’ll explain the cake menu, for example, which changes daily as each of the fabulous cakes here is fresh, and takes several minutes due to the sheer variety. When I stopped by the last time it was a tough tussle between the Crème brûlée and the lemon and raspberry cheesecakes. But service complete, you’ll be allowed to linger as long as you want – and people do. 

©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Image ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

La Fée (translating from French as the fairy, and indeed perhaps bestowing a certain magic on Poprad’s prime shopping street) is an anomaly in a sense, of course. Despite defiantly stamping on Poprad an air of timeless sophistication, perhaps what it illustrates more than anything is how Poprad is no longer the sleeping giant relying on its proximity to some sublime mountain scenery to pull in the punters – how it is very much a destination in itself, and how the wining and dining to be done around town (framed by those photogenic peaks) is a big part of the appeal.

 

A Quick Guide to the Other Content We Have on Poprad

Places to Go: Poprad’s funky contemporary art gallery in an old power station

Places to Go: Poprad’s lavish Aqua Park

Places to Go: Nine reasons to linger in Poprad

Places to Go/Getting Around: Taking the Mountain Railway into the High Tatras from Poprad

Places to Stay: A cool travel-friendly B&B in Spišská Sobota, Poprad

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s trendy burger joint

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s dignified Café La Fée

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s Coolest Wine Bar

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s gourmet chocolatier

Going Out: Poprad & the Manchester United Connection

Arts & Culture: Dedicated traditional Czech & Slovak music radio station now based in Poprad

Getting Around: London to Poprad Flights

Getting Around: The Poprad to Ždiar to Zakopane (Poland) bus

Top Ten Medieval Towns in Slovakia

 

MAP LINK:

LOCATION: Right on Námestie Svätého Egidia (number 114) next to the new Forum shopping centre (ooh, it’s all so glitzy and new).

FACEBOOK:

OPENING: 10am-10pm daily

BEST TIME TO VISIT: Come in the sun, any time, when you’ve got a spot of time to linger: after a long mountain leg-stretch, perhaps

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From La Fée it’s 2.3km northwest to Restart, one of the best new places for evening eating and drinking in Poprad

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Bardejov ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Top Ten Medieval Towns in Slovakia

It’s not just the nature that’s spellbinding in Slovakia: some of the smaller towns – whether as a result of castle strongholds against marauding Turks, or being major Medieval mining centres or having healing spas – grew up in magnificence centuries ago and have not lost any of their glory since.

Note that we’re talking towns (or large villages with decent facilities) here: not either Slovakia’s big cities (which will get tons of other mentions anyway) or the country’s myriad small folksy villages – which will be the focus of later articles!

10: Rožňava

Rožňava is yet another of those former mining centres – and along with Skalica by far the least known about destination on this list. That’s partly to do with its location, in the east of Slovakia. The town centre is meticulously preserved: studded with more of those incredible burgher’s houses (17th and 18th centuries). The cathedral is particularly interesting – artwork inside includes depictions of mining activity in times gone by – with more about the mining legacy in the nearby museum.

Get There: Direct bus from Bratislava or train to Košice and then bus (6-7 hours).

More Info: We don’t have any more info on Rožňava ourselves – yet! (although this will change very soon). There is precious little English information anywhere, in fact: but for now perhaps the best is on Visit Slovakia.

9: Spišská Sobota, Poprad

We’re not including the whole of Poprad here. Poprad’s got enough, right, what with the wonderful adventures awaiting in the High Tatras just above town?:) And the majority of tourists will come to Poprad and never see this gorgeous Medieval neighbourhood, because they’ll be busy getting up into the mountains asap. Mistake: Spišská Sobota is a tranquil locale of Renaissance buildings about 1.5km northeast of central Poprad, just past Aquacity Poprad. It boasts architecture by the enigmatic Master Pavol, who was of course the man behind the amazing altar in Levoča.

A Quick Guide to the Other Content We Have on Poprad

Places to Go: Poprad’s funky contemporary art gallery in an old power station

Places to Go: Poprad’s lavish Aqua Park

Places to Go: Nine reasons to linger in Poprad

Places to Go/Getting Around: Taking the Mountain Railway into the High Tatras from Poprad

Places to Stay: A cool travel-friendly B&B in Spišská Sobota, Poprad

Places to Stay: A sophisticated 4-star resort right by Poprad’s Aqua Park

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s trendy burger joint

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s dignified Café La Fée

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s Coolest Wine Bar

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s gourmet chocolatier

Going Out: Poprad & the Manchester United Connection

Arts & Culture: Dedicated traditional Czech & Slovak music radio station now based in Poprad

Getting Around: London to Poprad Flights

Getting Around: The Poprad to Ždiar to Zakopane (Poland) bus

Get There: Train to Poprad (4 hours).

8: Ždiar 

OK, it’s debatable whether to include Ždiar in the town or village category, but its Tatras location makes it enough of a popular stop with tourists that it’s got half-decent facilities – and the sheer length of it, stretching up the foothills of the High Tatras as it does, mean it’s a town for the purposes of this list. With Ždiar, it’s not any one building that stands out but all of them (at least in the centre) because this place is dotted with great examples of Goral-style painted wooden houses. Goral culture is an important and distinctive element of the culture in this part of Slovakia. For Englishmaninslovakia’s post about Ždiar, follow this link.

Get There: Train from Bratislava to Poprad, then bus, which continues to Zakopane, Poland in the summer (5.5-6 hours)

Typical Ždiar building
Typical Ždiar building ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

7: Skalica

Skalica receives little attention outside of Slovakia: except perhaps from the good people of the Czech Republic, as the town sits right on the border. But Skalica is cool. And very, very pretty. The postcard pictures are of the Baroque-domed rotunda, originally dating from the 1100’s – but the town also has several intriguing churches and an early 20th-century Kultury Dom (culture house) inspired by Czecho-Slovak folk culture.

Get There: Train from Bratislava, changing at Kúty (1.75 hours).

More info: We don’t have any more info on Skalica ourselves – yet! (but we do have this lovely article on the Skalica region, Zahorie). There is precious little English information anywhere, in fact, on Skalica: but for now perhaps the best is on Skalica.sk (where the English translations are dubious at best but can be made sense of)

6: Kežmarok

Kežmarok often gets overlooked in favour of Levoča or Bardejov in Eastern Slovakia and whilst it’s not quite as spectacular as either, this town in the shadow of the High Tatras has a better castle than both and has a very smartly done-up Renaissance town centre, including its two famously contrasting places of worship: the stunning wooden church and the rather more stark pink Lutheran cathedral.

Get There: Train from Bratislava, changing at Poprad (4.5 hours).

More info: We don’t have any more information on Kežmarok ourselves – yet! But for the moment the town tourist information website has the best in-English info available on the net.

5: Trenčin

The easiest of Slovakia’s great Medieval towns to visit is Trenčin. As you’re heading along the main route east in Slovakia its vast castle, rearing out at you above the Vah river valley, would be reason enough to visit. Clamber up for great surrounding views of the Small Carpathian mountains through one of Eastern Europe’s curious covered staircases from the Staré Mesto (Old Town) but don’t forgo a stroll around the centre – with the central square of Mierové Námestie a trapped-in-time treasure trove of largely 18th-century buildings. There are a load of great castles in the Trenčin area, too: the city’s castle itself is sublime, and just outside there are more fortresses such as Beckov Castle.

A Quick Guide to the Other Content We Have on Trenčin:

Places to Go: A tucked-away forest park behind the castle in Trenčin

Places to Go: Slovakia’s best music festival in Trenčin

Places to Go: Hiking up in the hills above Trenčin all the way to Bratislava (the Cesta Hrdinov SNP, Stage Two)

Places to Go: A stunning castle near Trenčin

Places to Eat & Drink: One of Slovakia’s Finest Restaurants in central Trenčin

Arts & Culture: Celebrating 20 Years of the Pohoda Music Festival

Get There: Direct train from Bratislava (2 hours).

Trenčin as seen from the castle
Trenčin as seen from the castle ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

4: Levoča

Just east of Poprad and therefore easily factored into any trip heading east in Slovakia, Levoča is justifiably one of Slovakia’s most celebrating medieval beauties (as far as towns go at least). The big draw here (standing out above a host of alluring buildings stationed around the central square) is the Gothic church of Chram Svätého Jakuba, which has the world’s highest wooden altar – replete with elaborate decoration. The work is the great legacy of Master Pavol of Levoča: responsible for much of Slovakia’s best Medieval architecture. There’s also a great hike that you can do from the centre up to Mariánska Hora, a famous pilgrimage destination.

Get There: Train from Bratislava to Poprad, then bus (5 hours)

More info: See our article on Levoča’s wonderful autumn music festival. Otherwise, try the English section of the town’s tourist information website.

3: Banska Štiavnica

A few more people have heard of this other ancient mining town (also Unesco-listed) southwest of Banska Bystrica and south of Kremnica. Banska Štiavnica was once the Hungarian Empire’s second-most important city. It rose to prominence at a similar time to Kremnica (actually slightly earlier) but on the back of silver ore deposits in the local mines, this time. Steeply-pitching cobbled streets, a brace of castles and a dramatically-situated Kalvaria number amongst its many architectural jewels.

A Quick Guide to the Other Content We Have on the Banska Štiavnica Area:

Places to Go: Banska Štiavnica’s Mining Museums

Places to Go: Banska Štiavnica’s Kalvaria

Places to Stay: Great Value Banska Štiavnica Accommodation at the Aura

Places to Stay: Banska Štiavnica’s Nicest Guesthouse

Places to Eat & Drink: Banska Štiavnica Streetfood

Places to Eat & Drink: the Coolest Cafe in Banska Štiavnica

Traditions: Partaking of the Most Sexually Charged Easter Tradition Ever in Banska Štiavnica

Get There: Bus/train from Bratislava to Zvolen or Žiar nad Hronom, then bus (3.5-4 hours)

2: Kremnica

The most beautiful of Slovakia’s ancient mining towns is the least-visited. It owes its splendour to the presence of lucrative goldmines in the area – which have been used since the first centuries AD and, since the 13th century, actually made this one of the world’s foremost mining centres. West of Banska Bystrica, it’s still the site of the world’s oldest-working mint, which once produced coinage for locales as far-distant as the Middle East.

Get There: Train from Bratislava, changing at Zvolen or bus/train from Bratislava to Žiar nad Hronom, then bus (3-4 hours).

RELATED POST:  The geographical centre of Europe is just outside Kremnica – our more detailed post on the town itself is coming soon.

1: Bardejov

In the north-east of Slovakia, Bardejov’s Unesco-listed námestie (central square; see the pic above) is one of the largest, most in-tact and visually stunning in the country: flanked by 17-18th century burgher’s houses and with a Town Hall placed unusually in the middle of the square, dating from 1505 in Gothic/Renaissance style. Around the edge of the Staré Mesto (Old Town) you can walk much of the old city walls.

Get There: Train from Bratislava to Poprad, then bus (7 hours).

More info: Bardejov is a great base for visiting Eastern Slovakia’s fabled wooden churches. and soon on the site we are making Bardejov into one of our Top Slovak Stop-offs (as well as Modra, Piešt’any, Trenčin, Banská Štiavnica, Poprad and Košice)!

Poprad: Restart

I returned to Poprad for the first time in almost a year the other day, but this article is nothing about turning over a new leaf, wiping the slate clean or any sort of spiritual journey: it’s about burgers. More specifically, it’s about the hottest new burger joint in town. Restart is emblematic of a new breed of eateries in the capital of the High Tatras – establishments that catapult the place dangerously close to being a culinary beacon in the east of Slovakia. And Poprad on a sunny late spring day did indeed seem pleasant (simmering if not over-boiling with animated cafes and packed restaurants). Of which Restart was one.

Whilst as a post title Restart conjures a certain mystique the name puts one off. Me at least. I’m not a fan of the trend in Slovakia to give English names to restaurants and bars just because it’s cool. Slovak is a language with few enough to champion its cause: nothing wrong with a Slovak name (Ludevít Štúr would be turning in his grave). But even the codifier of the Slovak language would be impressed by what goes on behind the pink-beige 19th century facade of this gourmet burger stop in the attractive Vel’ka district.

The idea? A Slovak interpretation of posh American fast food. And name aside, the feel is very modern-Slovak. There is a nod to the cosy “obývačka” or living room vibe – you know, battered armchairs, old standard lamps, framed paintings, antique furniture. But the staff? Modern Slovak. Young, true, but really caring about the menu and the dining experience. Some even speak English. The other diners? Modern Slovak. Youthful again, contributing to a bubbly but sophisticated ambience. One of the most striking things about Restart, indeed, is how full it always is. If you want to hang here with the bright young things of Poprad over your burger and fries, you’ll need to book, particularly in the evenings.

And the food? Just really very high quality burgers (all between 4 and 6 Euros). High quality, and high on the plate. Veritably teetering towers of bread-capped meat. Each of the signature burgers is dosed full of a homemade sauce which themes the filling. The Swiss, which uses a mushroom salsa to complement the smoked ham and Swiss cheese. The Teriyaki, which hooked me, and used a Restart version of the Japanese soy sauce dressing to sit with the gouda, crisped bacon and avocado (it works). There’s a Tennessee triple cheese burger with a Jack Daniels-based sauce that I’ve already eyed up for the next visit. I would have liked to see a better range of beers (although the standard Zlaty Bažant was available) – with maybe a few of the Slovak start-up breweries featured – perhaps one area to work on. Anyway. You’re not coming here to experience traditional Slovak cuisine, you’re coming here to see how a city like Poprad is evolving and exuding a quiet self-confidence, and how young entrepreneurs have turned the once-staid Slovak eating scene on its head.

Maybe Štúr would quit rolling over in his grave and just go order a Teriyaki burger with a side of fat hand-cut fries. Typically Slovak, that. Curious for the new, yet finding the tried-and-tested comforting.

A Quick Guide to the Other Content We Have on Poprad

Places to Go: Poprad’s funky contemporary art gallery in an old power station

Places to Go: Poprad’s lavish Aqua Park

Places to Go: Nine reasons to linger in Poprad

Places to Go/Getting Around: Taking the Mountain Railway into the High Tatras from Poprad

Places to Stay: A cool travel-friendly B&B in Spišská Sobota, Poprad

Places to Stay: A sophisticated 4-star resort right by Poprad’s Aqua Park

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s dignified Café La Fée

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s Coolest Wine Bar

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s Gourmet Chocolatier

Going Out: Poprad & the Manchester United Connection

Arts & Culture: Dedicated traditional Czech & Slovak music radio station now based in Poprad

Getting Around: London to Poprad Flights

Getting Around: The Poprad to Ždiar to Zakopane (Poland) bus

Top Ten Medieval Towns in Slovakia

 

MAP LINK

LOCATION: in Poprad’s Vel’ka district north of Poprad Tatry railway station. In the evenings, especially at weekends, it’s good to reserve: call (00421) 918 305 001

OPENING: 12 midday-10pm Sunday to Thursday, 12 midday-12 midnight Friday/Saturday

BEST TIME TO VISIT: Check it out on a Friday or Saturday evening, booking a table for perhaps 8-ish, to see the place buzzing.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: Heading 2.4km southeast you reach Poprad’s AquaCity, one of Eastern Europe’s coolest (and yet hottest, as it is geothermally heated) waterparks

On the attack… the Manchester United of tomorrow?

Spectator Sports in Slovakia: Poprad & the Manchester United Connection

Slovakia is better known for its ice hockey than football when it comes to spectator sports. Whilst the national ice hockey side have, for many years, vied with the world’s best, the football achievements are less well known. The Slovak national football team is one of the youngest national football teams in the world, having split from the Czechoslovakia national football team after the dissolution of the unified state in 1993. Slovakia now maintains its own national side that has completed in all major professional tournaments since dissolution. Slovakia has now qualified for two major international tournaments, the 2010 FIFA World Cup and UEFA Euro 2016.

Every October half term for the last six years, Manchester United’s Youth Team (MUYT) has travelled to the High Tatras city of Poprad to train and play against local opposition. And it’s very easy to see why.

Besides the AquaCity resort complex is a magnificent new football stadium, designated as a Slovak National Training Centre (NTC) and undoubtedly one of the best places to play football in Europe.

The development is a continual process and within the next 12 months an additional grass and an artificially surfaced, all weather training pitch will be added. The NTC is where you can watch the Manchester United football’s stars of tomorrow train and play some of Slovakia’s Premier League and other overseas teams for a fraction of the price it would cost at Old Trafford. Since they first visited Poprad in 2010, 19 MUYT players have progressed to the first team and many more, despite not making it with Manchester United, have played for other English premier league teams. Players like Marcus Rashford, now one of soccer’s most talked-about young strikers (especially since his selection for this summer’s Uefa Euro 2016, have been former participants in the AquaCity training programme (there is a Hall of Fame board inside AquaCity with a list of the stars who have played here).

So there’s no longer any denying Slovakia’s link with high-profile football, nor that catching it up here in the Slovak mountains must be one of the sport’s best bargains: Standard tickets cost €1 whilst VIP seats set you back a mere €3 ! (the jagged mountain backdrop is a darned sight more spectacular than the Manchester skyline too!).

The stadium...

The stadium…

But it’s not just the players. The stadium, too, beautifully styled on Chelsea FC’s Stamford Bridge, is the only one of its kind in the world, as the pitch is geothermally heated – and in a really neat way. The waters that heat AquaCity originate in a huge subterranean lake where the natural water temperature is 50 degrees centigrade. However, before the stadium’s construction, the spa complex had a problem: to cool the waters sufficiently for returning into the earth at the correct temperature so as not to damage ecosystems. Running the water around the stadium (by now it’s cooled to an average 15 degrees) reduces the temperature to exactly the right amount to return it to Mother Nature whilst ensuring one of the planet’s lushest playing surfaces. At least, that was Manchester United’s opinion…

AquaCity, as well as offering annually some of football’s best “been there and seen it first” moments, also – it should be noted – has one of Slovakia’s very best spas, and this in a country very well known for them! More on this HERE

A Quick Guide to the Other Content We Have on Poprad

Places to Go: Poprad’s funky contemporary art gallery in an old power station

Places to Go: Poprad’s lavish Aqua Park

Places to Go: Nine reasons to linger in Poprad

Places to Go/Getting Around: Taking the Mountain Railway into the High Tatras from Poprad

Places to Stay: A cool travel-friendly B&B in Spišská Sobota, Poprad

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s trendy burger joint

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s dignified Café La Fée

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s Coolest Wine Bar

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s gourmet chocolatier

Arts & Culture: Dedicated traditional Czech & Slovak music radio station now based in Poprad

Getting Around: London to Poprad Flights

Getting Around: The Poprad to Ždiar to Zakopane (Poland) bus

Top Ten Medieval Towns in Slovakia

 

Poprad has undeniably one of the best backdrops of any city in Eastern Europe.

Poprad has undeniably one of the best backdrops of any city in Eastern Europe.

Hrabušice: Relax Farma Marianka

At Poprad I got off the mainline train and whilst the other travellers hurried off on their way home or transferred to the mountain railway to the High Tatras, I waited in the gathering gloom of a temperamental spring day and the rapidly dispersing crowds for the slow train to Hrabušice. An hour or so later when me and the only other disembarking passengers, a group of Roma schoolchildren, alighted at the small concrete house framed by mountains that constituted Hrabušice station, the following things occurred to me: it was almost dark, I was in the Slovak Paradise, one of Slovakia’s remoter national parks, I had no knowledge of where I was going other than the name of the guesthouse scribbled on a page of my travel diary, no map, no obvious signposts (or indeed anything) in the vicinity and precious little grasp of Slovak to ask anyone to help me. It was one of those slightly concerning, but also thrilling, moments which are all too rare in Europe these days: being totally off the grid of technology. One of those you, the luggage and the land moments.

I followed the lane into the Hrabušice village: a supply centre and accommodation base for tourists on the northern edge of the Slovak Paradise, or Slovenský Raj as it’s known in Slovak. Beyond that, the only direction I could get (that I understood) to where I was staying was a jab of a finger at the hills looming beyond. I had just walked out of Hrabušice far enough into the countryside to wonder whether in fact I had come the correct way when Majo, the owner of Relax Farma Marianka, came pedalling on his bicycle to find me.

So I was saved from the encroaching night – and in a memorable way. The “relax farm”, run by amenable Majo and his wife, has an undeniably peaceful feel. That is largely due to the owners: easily the two most contented people I have ever met in Slovakia, who have embraced rural living with a passion (they enthuse over local hiking and climbing routes – and boy, there are plenty in Slovenský Raj, they concoct delicious healthy vegetarian meals with produce from their own garden, Majo’s wife Janka unwinds by making ceramics and might even give you one of her works to take away if you are lucky).

The back patio ©relax farma marianka

The back patio ©relax farma marinaka

There are eight large, farmhouse pinewood-style rooms here (four with private bathrooms) – nothing complicated, but all recently refurbished (you can practically still smell the polish). Four of these have balconies looking out on the lonely foothills of Slovenský Raj, too.

One of the rooms… ©relax farma marianka

One of the rooms… ©relax farma marianka

Public areas sport more of the same smart, modern-yet-traditional pine finish, decorated with intriguing contemporary art. Downstairs, the true “relaxing” commences: a massage room, ceramics lessons and a function room that gets used for everything from traditional dancing (Slovak style of course) to Reiki. Outside, the long, thin garden yields a sun terrace, hammocks (not so common in this part of Europe) and a hot tub. Beyond, it fades into fields that rise up into the hills.

And the hills of course are the main draw. They are, after all, why you are here. Relax Farm Marianka is so called for a reason: it is where you come to crash after a hard days’ hiking.

And anyone who has experienced that plethora of samey mountain guesthouses in the High Tatras resorts or – worse – the popular tourist areas of the Alps will know exactly what we mean when we say that Relax Farm Marianka is a clean break with those often clinical, cold, soulless breed of typical hiker’s digs: yes, the kind whose stunning location is detracted from by the bored gaze of the tourist-inundated proprietor, where the rooms can only be described as roofs over your head (and nothing more complimentary), where the entire purpose of the joint seems to be to get you in, bedded, fed and out as quickly and blandly as possible.

Jumping for joy in Hrabusice ©englishmaninslovakia.com

Jumping for joy in Hrabušice

Yes, Relax Farm Marianka is different, alright. Majo and Janka’s philosophy is simple: they live on the edge of Slovenský Raj and love it; they want you to love it too. They could get away with a lot less. The hiking trail that leads from the corner of their road up to Pondlesok (a hamlet with the final few accommodation options before the Slovak Paradise thrusts upwards in a classic green expanse of hiking trails, including the famous ladder-and-chain ascents through the gorges that the park is famous for, i.e. Suchá Bela, just 2km away) soon reveals quite a few of the kind of guesthouses that DO get away with a lot less. But Majo and Janka try hard – and succeed. And their place has soul.

Make a list of all the things you might want after being out on the hills all day. Just do it. Hot, home cooked, healthy meal? Tick. Informative locals who will welcome you back and advise you on your next days’ trekking? Tick. Soak in the hot tub? Tick. Massage? Tick. Clean, comfortable, quiet room in which to collapse at the end of all of this? Once again, tick.

MAP LINK:

GETTING THERE: By public transport? Train to Poprad, then train to Hrabušice, then walk!

PRICES: 13 to 14 Euros per person per night; breakfast 4 Euros extra (2016 prices)

BOOK RELAX FARMA MARIANKA

Wizz Air Take-off!

Flights: Poprad to London Route Now Established Air Link to Slovakia

A few years ago, the now-defunct SkyEurope airline offered the incredibly useful connection between London and the High Tatras of Slovakia which are one of the country’s main tourist attractions. Now, thanks to Wizz Air, that flight is not only back – but booming. Which is particularly great news in a world of flight routes that come and go in the blink of an eye.

Since October 28 2014, flights have been running like clockwork from London Luton to the tiny but terribly useful Poprad Tatry airport on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays at 08:35 (and returning from Poprad Tatry on the same days at 12:35) according to the schedule on the Wizz Air website. Planes will be 180-seater Airbus A320’s. And flight prices start at £29.99 (one way). Flight time? About 2 hours 35 minutes.

It’s a very important connection for Slovakia, whose main airline is currently Ryanair (those guys have the monopoly on international flights). And with Poprad/the Tatras (hub of Slovakia’s winter sports and many of its outdoor adventures) being four hours train ride from Bratislava (where most international flights including the UK arrive at present) and over one hour from Košice (where the only other international flights arrive – check here for info on London to Košice flights) by train – the London-Poprad connection saves holiday-makers considerable time.

So everything seems set for your break to Slovakia – straight, as we say, to the good stuff! And we already have on the site a huge amount of info to help plan your High Tatras visit, with tons more on the way. So without further ado:

A Quick Guide to the Other Content We Have on Poprad

Places to Go: Poprad’s funky contemporary art gallery in an old power station

Places to Go: Poprad’s lavish Aqua Park

Places to Go: Nine reasons to linger in Poprad

Places to Go/Getting Around: Taking the Mountain Railway into the High Tatras from Poprad

Places to Stay: A cool travel-friendly B&B in Spišská Sobota, Poprad

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s trendy burger joint

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s dignified Café La Fée

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s Coolest Wine Bar

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s gourmet chocolatier

Going Out: Poprad & the Manchester United Connection

Arts & Culture: Dedicated traditional Czech & Slovak music radio station now based in Poprad

Getting Around: The Poprad to Ždiar to Zakopane (Poland) bus

Top Ten Medieval Towns in Slovakia

And… an overview of what awaits in the High Tatras just outside Poprad… see our comprehensive guide to hiking across the mountains, experience other adventures in the Tatras from climbing to kayaking with the No.1 adventure company in the Tatras and see our recommended High Tatras accommodation options – from hotels to remote mountain houses.

And lastly but not leastly, bon voyage. Dobrý letu!

Trains: Regiojet – Too Good to be True?

Until recently, ZSSK, the state-owned Slovak train company, ran all train routes in Slovakia. This was not a wholly bad thing, because as monopolies go, this was a pretty fair one, with reasonable prices for train travel nationwide, and several notable efforts of recent years to step up quality (the introduction of smart new two-tier trains to run many routes, the introduction of wifi on the IC train routes between Bratislava and Košice). BUT.

But competition is always healthy, and competition has finally been provided by the expansion of Czech-owned Regiojet into Slovakia. Actually, RegioJet have been operating on Slovak turf since 2011 (when they began running the Bratislava to Komarno route). But it was their additional routes added in 2014 which captured people’s attention, because that was when they began operating some trains on the main railway route in Slovakia – from Bratislava through Poprad to Košice.

We recently caught up with one of Slovakia’s leading tour operators, Erik Ševčík of Adventoura, who lives in Poprad in the High Tatras and welcomes the new service.

“I have done the journey between Bratislava and Poprad Tatry several times now” says Erik. “It takes three and a half hours, which is the same as the IC Trains. Why do we welcome the RegioJet service? Well, the first big thing is the ticket price: as little as 9 Euros one-way for a 350km journey. This is for the most basic category, standard class (in 6-person compartments usually), but this is still very comfortable – and there is also relax class and business class for those who want something more. Second, even in standard class, you get mineral water or coffee for free, plus a complementary newspaper. Third, everyone likes free Wifi and RegioJet has that too. It’s just a pleasure to travel with them, and the state-run trains for the same journey cost around 13 Euros and don’t have these kind of services.”

The seats also deserve a mention: leather, reclining and with comfy arm rests, as well as small tables and plenty of leg room. They actually beat those on a great deal of airlines. Relax Class and Business Class get even more comfort (mainly the space per person, the comfort of the seats and the table space improve).

“In Slovakia we think they are doing a great job” says Erik “not just for Slovaks, but also for travellers.”

Your next trip east in Slovakia, it seems, could certainly be in more style… and for a cheaper price.

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 Mountains: the Tatranská Magistrala Stage 1 (Ždiar to Chata pri Zelenom Plese)

Ždiar, as mentioned in Englishmaninslovakia’s introduction to hiking the Tatranská Magistrala, is the best starting point for beginning the walk. It’s a beautiful village, with many examples of the Goral architecture (the Goral people are a Slavic group of traditionally highland-dwelling people living in southern Poland and northern Slovakia): prettily painted blue, red and gold log houses, some of which you can stay in amongst the village’s many accommodation options. It’s also got a shop to stock up on supplies (see Englishmaninslovakia’s Tatranská Magistrala Hiking Kitlist for what you need to take) and a small tourist information centre open during the high season (late June to September).

Because this first part of the path entails a lot of fiddly directions, this stage will seem in description like it’s much longer than it is, but the reality is that it’s 5 HOURS in total. All walking distances in the Tatras, remember, are given in hours and minutes that it takes the average walker to do a particular distance, which in many ways is more helpful than putting distances in km/miles.

Basically, make your way down from the village centre in which you are probably staying to the Slovnaft service station on the main Poprad-Polish border road, Hwy 67 (see a useful article here on how to get from Poprad or Ždiar to Poland.) Head downhill (back towards Poprad) with the village centre on your left. After 100 metres you will see this crazy-looking house on the right-hand side:

Crazy-looking house

Crazy-looking house

Turn right down the little lane here (signposted to the Hotel Magura). After you pass the first bunch of houses on the left you’ll see a wooden bridge across the river on the left. Cross it and take the forestry track to the right. The track you now take is supposed to be an official (red-marked) trail at this stage, but the red waymarks are absent and it’s really just a forestry track. The thing to remember is that it stays more or less parallel to the river and on the other side the access road to Hotel Magura (you can walk along the access road if you want but it’s not as nice). Therefore, do not take any of the forestry tracks leading steeply up to the left and keep along a gradually ascending trail.There is one point where the actual track seems to cross the river, but don’t take that fork. Soon you’ll cross a meadow to a house and at the gateway join a track which then heads back down over the river in front of the rather impressive-looking Hotel Magura rearing up over lawns ahead. Turn left here on the red-signed trail which leads once more over the river and then to the right of a couple of chalets, one of which is a nice-looking penzión. A little while more, and the track reaches a divide at a slightly eerie looking ranger’s hut, with chairs and tables inside but a quickly-abandoned Marie Celeste-type feel. There are a couple of information boards here too, and now the red trail you want branches left and steeply up through forest.

This next section up through the forest to Siroké Sedlo at 1825m is the second-most grueling climb of the entire trail, which – given you haven’t even actually got onto the official trail yet – is quite intense. You ascend almost 1000 metres from Ždiar to the top just beyond Siroké Sedlo. It’s a beautiful path though. Forested outcrops of rock veer off on both sides as you rise through the forest, alongside a mountain stream which you cross a couple of times on nice neatly-made bridges:

Nicely made bridges

Nicely made bridges

Soon you meet a rather dramatic rise where the stream tumbles down from the ridges above in a wide-open valley where the forest falls away. This is where the path kinks right to round this waterfall the easier way, and you start to see lots of the kamziks – the mountain goats which live at these altitudes. On the path rises, steep enough to need chains in a couple of places to aid you, but not precarious at all. You come up to a picnic table, good for a breather and great views back to Ždiar, then start a slightly more gradual climb up over moorland.

View back to Ždiar

View back to Ždiar

Even during the summer months (well this picture is taken in June) you’re now up above the snowline here, but a well-constructed log-lined path ascends to Siroké Sedlo which may not quite be the top but is the first dramatic brush with the High Tatras and White Tatras peaks as you see them soaring up in front of you across a valley. As a barrier kindly indicates, don’t turn right at Siroké Sedlo because that’s just a goat track which will probably lead you to your death. Instead, kink back left on a path that in 15 minutes ushers you to the top of the path (for now) at around 1900 metres above Kopské Sedlo.

Descend from the wind-blasted ridge (the signpost here was still obscured by ice when we were there that the wind had twisted into bizarre shapes) to Kopské Sedlo itself (distinguished by another trail sign which looks like a pair of stag’s antlers). Here you actually join up with a blue trail that’s risen up from Tatranská Javorína. This was a big smuggling route between the kingdoms of Hungary and Poland back in the day – and a significant copper mining area too. From here it’s 30 minutes of descent to Vel’ké Biele Pleso which is, after just over four hours of hiking, the official start of the Tatranská Magistrala.

Surveying the View on the Way Down to Vel'ke Biele Pleso

Surveying the View on the Way Down to Vel’ke Biele Pleso – www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

Why they chose such a remote place to actually start/end the official trail is a bit of the mystery. It’s not like you can rock up at this isolated lake in any other way than by a steep hike (either the way just described or from green/ blue trails respectively from the small villages of Tatranská Kotlina/ Tatranské Matliare. There’s a picnic area at the lake, nestled photogenically under Jahňací Štít peak at 2200 metres plus. But the heartening news is that Englishmaninslovakia’s first recommended nights’ stop is now only a straight-forward downhill 30-minute walk away. Red, blue and green trails diverge at the noticeboard and you can hike the first steps of the official red-signed Tatranská Magistrala down through scrub and forest to the beautiful lake of Zelené Pleso where – perched on the shores – you will find Chata Pri Zelenom Plese. Go grab a beer, a ton of dumplings and celebrate.

What next?

Read more about staying at Ždiar (beginning of stage) or Chata Pri Zelenom Plese (end of stage) or read on to the other stage descriptions:

Stage Two (next stage): Chata Pri Zelenom Plese to Zamkovského Chata

Stage ThreeZamkovského Chata to Horský Hotel Popradské Pleso

Stage Four: Horský Hotel Popradské Pleso to Pribylina

 

Other useful links:

Introduction to the Tatranská Magistrala

Tatranská Magistrala Hiking Kit List

Buying Hiking Maps & Apps

 

High Tatras Mountain House: Horský Hotel Popradské Pleso

For a good six months of the year, the snow piles so high against the timber walls of Horský Hotel Popradské Pleso that it rather resembles a giant igloo than a mountain lodge. Abutting the rugged lakeshore of Popradské Pleso, this hotel is surrounded by sheer mountain slopes that soar to over 2000 metres. The difficult ascent/descent from/to the lake on the isolated Tatranská Magistrala trail is a 500 metre wall of scree, boulders and scrub clinging on for dear life. And the weather reflects the wild location. Already at almost 1500 metres altitude, the lake and the hotel receive their microclimate from over 2000 metres: the rain, the ice and the snow stack up here having poured straight off those upper slopes.

Incredibly though, a metalled service road somehow twists from the lake through the pine forests down to the Tatras Electric Railway station of Popradské Pleso and the main Poprad to Štrbské Pleso road. So despite the blissful feeling of isolation it’s still well connected enough. If you want to stay in the mountains but don’t like the resort feel of Štrbské Pleso then Horský Hotel Popradské Pleso is the place to make for: lakefront accommodation, but in a far more romantic, untrammelled wilderness than Štrbské Pleso’s somewhat manicured environs a one-hour walk down the mountain.

Forest hideaway...

Forest hideaway…

The hotel itself, in the style of a giant mountain chalet, manages to be aesthetically pleasing where (for example) Hotel Patria on Štrbské Pleso fails. It’s all finished in dark wood, and the atmosphere is more of the easy-going, hiker-meets-hiker ilk. There are no pretensions such as at the hotels down at Štrbské Pleso. The staff are friendly – they went out of their way to pick us up at Popradské Pleso Electric Railway station, in fact, when we had been traipsing through the rain-drenched night to get there and realised our gross under-estimation of the distance there was still to cover. The food is hearty mountain fare – hot, meat-dominated, seasoned but stodgy Slovak delights that in many cases match or supersede what most Štrbské Pleso lakeshore hotels serve.

As to the rooms, well. There are various price brackets. The most basic accommodation, in hostel-of-yore-type dorms, is 16 Euros per bed. Bathrooms are shared. For 38 Euros you can get a 2-bed private room, small and simple, but still with shared bathrooms. Both are very clean, albeit spartan. But the 56-Euro standard and 60-Euro superior rooms are very good for the price – well furnished (TVs, fridges and the works) and with huge bathrooms (with baths) and scalding-hot towel rails (what you need after a damp hike). For comfort, this is what Englishmaninslovakia recommends. You’re getting scintilating lakeshore views, remember, with any of these options. There are a couple of apartments, too.

The restaurant is popular throughout the day with hikers passing by. The cosy tables in booths by the windows looking out on the lake and the mountains are best. This is where the generous 5-Euro breakfast buffet is served, and where you can feast on all kinds of the afore-mentioned Slovak fare (we recommend the divine gulaš/goulash). Then there’s a games room – perfect for those wet days. Pool and table football are free here! And then there’s the sauna. When the temperature is what it was on our first visit here, you’ll quickly see the appeal…

The hotel is Englishmaninslovakia’s recommended stopover point between stages 3 and 4 of the Tatranská Magistrala hike that traverses the High Tatras. In short, its access to the true wilds of the mountains – alongside its having maintained the creature comforts associated with a larger plusher hotel – make it ideal for Tatras first-timers.

If you don’t get a room here, but want to stay on the lake, there’s another penzión right nearby.

MAP LINK: 

PRICES: From 17 Euros (dorm), from 20 Euros (2-bed room with shared bathroom),  56 Euros (double with private bathroom), 80-110 Euros (2- or 4-bed apartments) – 2016 prices.

BOOK HORSKÝ HOTEL POPRADSKÉ PLESO (There is no facility to book online – book by phone, Skype or email through this link)

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

How to Get Between Poprad, Ždiar and Zakopane in Poland

It’s a topic that’s thrashed out on travel forums again and again, because the online info is always conspicuously lacking in some of the necessary detail: how to take the beguilingly scenic trip across the east of the High Tatras between Poprad (Slovakia) and Zakopane (Poland), the two big mountain supply towns on either side?

I was the same, back in the day, frantically scrabbling online for decent info on this, but having done the trip a couple of times I thought I’d share my thoughts here. This is more an adventure/experience than it is an essential transport artery so I’ve included it in this High Tatras “things to do” section.

First off: the trip is amazing – a timeless foray ascending into and traversing the most gorgeous High Tatras mountain scenery (this part is known as the Belianske Tatry, studded by beautiful little Goral villages like Ždiar) before, on the Polish side, running into dense forest and eventually descending to Zakopane. For those on round-Europe trips, this one’s a good’un.

Chances are if you know anywhere in Poprad you’ll know the main railway station. Right alongside is the bus station. Whilst you can take the Tatras Electric Railway for part of this trip (as far as Tatranská Lomnica) you’ll have to change to a bus there anyway so it’s probably best to take the bus for this journey from the beginning.

The Direct Way

From (usually stand four) Poprad bus station, a direct bus runs across the border at Lysa Polana to Zakopane BETWEEN JUNE 15th AND OCTOBER 15th. Departure times from Poprad’s bus station are at 8:50am, 11:50am, 4:50pm and 5:50pm (times in the other direction from Zakopane bus station are at 6am, 9am, 11am and 4pm). The journey takes approximately one hour and 45 minutes and costs a bargain 5 Euros. If you’re in a group of over 10 people, you’ll get a discount which will knock the price down to about 3.50 Euros (but you’ll have to book this in advance – this is best done through the Zakopane-based ticket office – email them at biuro@nosal.pl.) In order from Poprad, buses go through Tatranská Lomnica, Ždiar (maybe stop off here for a few days – we recommend the Ginger Monkey Hostel) the Bachledova ski area (10km shy of the border) and Tatranská Javorina 2-3km before the border.

Outside of these dates, travel is a bit more problematic.

Poprad-Zakopane in the Off-Season

Getting from Poprad to the border is easy. Direct buses leave Poprad bus station for Lysa Polona at 5:40, 9:10, 12:45, 14:10 and 18:45 for the one hour twenty minute journey. You’ll be dropped on the Slovak side near a convenience store. Follow the road as it twists across the border passed the old (and no longer used) control point to the bus stop and bus timetable sign on the Polish side. Here, wait. This is a very beautiful but fairly remote spot and buses on the Polish side are more erratic (although Polish schedules from Zakopane ironically suggest there should in fact be more connections from there through to Lysa Polona, every 40 minutes to one hour) . One should turn up within an hour, but they have been known not to run so frequently in winter. (I’ve done this journey in March and in November and, starting with one of the early buses from Poprad which gives you flexibility to make alternative plans if something goes wrong, I’ve always made it to Zakopane waiting no more than an hour at the border). The reason given is usually bad weather conditions. Still, you wanted an adventure, right?

Zakopane-Poprad in the Off-Season

Buses according to this schedule leave Zakopane bus station every 40 minutes to one hour, the first at 7:40am and the last and 6:40pm. They will likely be signed to Morskie Oko (a mountain lake up a long, lonely side road, so communicate to the driver you want the stop nearest to Lysa Polona). Don’t plan this journey finely (i.e., aim to begin the journey around 8 or 9 which gives you scope for coming unstuck). Some of these buses won’t run – largely because there’s often no passengers. Or bad weather. Or something. Once dropped at the border, you’ll have to walk around the curving road to the Slovak side, where you’ll see the bus stop by the convenience store. Buses from this side of the border leave at 7:05am, 10:40am, 2:30pm, 3:30, 5:05 and 8:15pm for Poprad (even on Sundays).

Tatranská Javorina, 3km from the border on the Slovak side, has accommodation. It’s probably best to jot down a Zakopane or Poprad taxi cab number before you go, use in case things go pear-shaped. Stuck in Lysa Polona? There’s some fantastic hiking that goes off from here, up the road towards Morskie Oko lake. Having said that, you probably wouldn’t be in the mood if you were waiting for a bus… maybe you’ll have to make do with the Lysa Polona convenience store coffee machine.

 

A Quick Guide to the Other Content We Have on Poprad

Places to Go: Poprad’s funky contemporary art gallery in an old power station

Places to Go: Poprad’s lavish Aqua Park

Places to Go: Nine reasons to linger in Poprad

Places to Go/Getting Around: Taking the Mountain Railway into the High Tatras from Poprad

Places to Stay: A cool travel-friendly B&B in Spišská Sobota, Poprad

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s trendy burger joint

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s dignified Café La Fée

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s Coolest Wine Bar

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s gourmet chocolatier

Going out: Poprad & the Manchester United connection

Arts & Culture: Dedicated traditional Czech & Slovak music radio station now based in Poprad

Getting Around: London to Poprad Flights

Top Ten Medieval Towns in Slovakia

 

MAP LINK:

GETTING THERE: Well this post is all about getting there, but to Poprad it’s best by train from Bratislava’s Hlavná Stanica: trains run every 1.5 to 2 hours and cost 11/19 Euros depending whether you travel first or second class.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: 32km north of Poprad on the way to the Polish border is Ždiar where you can stop off and, if you want, embark on Slovakia’s renowned long-distance hike, the Tatranská Magistrala

 

High Tatras Mountains: An Intro to Slovakia’s Classic Hike, the Tatranská Magistrala

Ever since moving to Slovakia, hiking its most renowned mountain trail, which traverses the entire length of the Tatras mountain range, was something I had been obsessed with doing.

The opportunity presented itself this weekend just gone with a friend (and fellow hiking enthusiast) out from the UK so this introduction to the hike and the posts that follow it on the stages of the walk itself are the most bang-up-to-date in-English info on hiking across the Slovak Tatras: online, or indeed anywhere else. In fact, the paucity of available online info is what has prompted me to write about this path.

What is the Tatranská Magistrala?

Essentially, the Tatranská Magistrala is a tough 42km hiking trail that runs from the White Tatras (the northeast section of the High Tatras) through the High Tatras themselves to the western edge of the Western Tatras. The White Tatras, High Tatras and   Western Tatras mountains are all usually referred to by the umbrella term “High Tatras”.  Seen from a distance, this relatively short but extremely impressive range of mountains in northern Slovakia seems to come out of nowhere: a jagged series of peaks reaching 2654 metres, the tops of which often remain snow-covered even in the summer months, rearing abruptly out of the green plains below. The hike takes in the very best of Slovakia’s mountain scenery – from pine forests to boulder-scattered ridges and ice-blue tarns.

Where to Start/Finish the Tatranská Magistrala

Officially the hike runs west-east, starting at the remote village of Podbanské in the foothills of the Western Tatras and finishing at the far-more remote lake of Vel’ké Biely Pleso on the cusp between the High Tatras and the White Tatras. However, given the remoteness of Vel’ké Biely Pleso (you will need in any case to hike on down to the nearest road from here), a far-better end point is the large, scenic village of Ždiar, below the White Tatras peaks at the eastern end of the mountain range.

In fact, given the decent transport connections (buses to Poprad which is on the main Bratislava railway line and is now at the receiving end of a new flight route from London) accommodation options and loftier elevation (i.e. it’s less of a lung-buster to hike up to the high peaks from here) Ždiar is Englishmaninslovakia’s recommended starting point for the hike, and the route we have described here is from Ždiar.

Meanwhile, Podbanské,  despite being a gorgeous little village, has limited accommodation/transport options – and these are only available from the end of June to the end of October unless you’re a big group booking in advance. Therefore you will often need to make your way the 8km further west to the larger village of Pribylina to conclude the hike (from here there are ample accommodation possibilities and decent bus connections to Liptovský Mikulaš, a large town on the Bratislava main railway line).

Practically, therefore, the Tatranská Magistrala is usually a Ždiar to Pribylina hike (almost 60km rather than the official 42km): and it is this hike which is described here.

What to Expect on the Tatranská Magistrala

Most of the publications available will tell you that this hike is relatively straightforward, and doable by most people of middling fitness. That’s not entirely true. Whilst mostly staying within the 1200 to 1800 metre elevations, the path drops and rises (rapidly) more than 500 metres on several occasions, and at one point crests the 2000 metre mark too. This would already make it reasonably demanding walking. Then you have to factor in the snow and ice, which obstructs the higher parts of the trail even into July. Bear in mind the following before attempting this beautiful but challenging hike:

a) Trail Opening Dates

For this reason the trail has an official opening date of June 13th and closes at the end of October (as for the opening date, this is to a large extent immaterial as the afore-mentioned ice and snow is still on the higher reaches of the trail then, but temperamental weather means it really is dangerous to walk it after the closing date). In practice no one will prevent you from hiking it outside of the official dates, and late May through to the end of October should be fine for hiking it.

b) Sedlo Pod Svištovkou – For the Experienced Only

Weather aside, the high point of the trail at the eastern end, Sedlo Pod Svištovkou (2023 metres high; above Chata pri Zelenom Plese and the lake of Zelené Pleso), is a tough and formidable climb at any time. The steep, slippery and often crumbling (the rock underfoot, that is) ascent will induce vertigo in many and is a serious undertaking: you have to cling to chains whilst pushing up precarious rock faces at a few points and strong gusts of wind from the top hardly improve balance.

c) Storm Damage

The other major factor to consider after high winds this May that brought hundreds more trees down (on top of the already destructive Tatranská Bora storm that devastated the same band of forest in 2004) is that beyond Štrbské Pleso heading west to Tri Studničky and Podbanské there are hundreds of fallen trees blocking the path. The priority for authorities after these storms was to clear roads and get access to the villages cut off. Still, the determined could forge a way through (we did, as far as Tri Studničky) but the path is currently out of sight at points just beyond Jamské Pleso, and fallen trees at Tri Studničky have made finding where the Tatranská Magistrala goes at all after the forestry chalets here extremely difficult (we tried for about an hour to find the path and failed). UPDATE 2016: The trail is now clear!

d) Distances in Times not KMs/Miles!

In Slovakia, all distances for hikes are given not in km but in the time any particular stretch of hike will take the average hiker (i.e. in hours and minutes, rounded normally to the nearest 5 minutes). I would say I’m of reasonable fitness with regards to hiking and I found that when walking with a medium sized pack the times given for High Tatras point-to-point destinations are incredibly accurate. With a push, you can beat the stated times – but only by a matter of minutes. Overall, giving distances in times is, I think, good because you know the on-the-day time you’ll need for the walk, which gives you a more realistic idea of gradients than a distance in km or miles would.

e) Food and Accommodation En Route

The trail skirts high above the main High Tatras resorts like Starý Smokovec and Štrbské Pleso: so it’s just as well you don’t have to descend to get your evening meal or night’s sleep. Instead, there exists a very good network of mountain hotels (horský hotels, rustic hotels with ample rooms and good facilities) and slightly more basic chalets (chaty; usually wooden structures that provide basic rooms and, like the mountain hotels, good evening meals and breakfast). These are all found on the trail itself, so you’ll be well-poised the next morning to get up and walking again.

The best horský hotels/chaty are, from east to west (and shortly to be reviewed in-depth on our Where to Sleep section):

1: Chata pri Zelenom Plese

2: Zamkovského Chata

3: Horský Hotel Popradské Pleso

In addition to these options, there are a few other choices en route (to be mentioned in the stage descriptions, have no fear), with the best choices at Štrbské Pleso (on the path) and at Ždiar (beginning of route) and at Pribylina (end of route).

Tatranská Magistrala: the Stage Descriptions 

The full Ždiar to Podbanské hike makes for two and a half to four days walking, allowing time for breaks and for not really rushing (which of course you would not want to do). Our trail description is therefore divided into:

Stage OneŽdiar to Chata pri Zelenom Plese

Stage Two: Chata pri Zelenom Plese to Zamkovského Chata (with side trip to Teryho Chata)

Stage ThreeZamkovského Chata to Horský Hotel Popradské Pleso

Stage Four: Horský Hotel Popradské Pleso to Pribylina

At a push, you could potentially walk from Ždiar to Zamkovského Chata in a day, on to Popradské Pleso next day and finish in Podbanské/ Pribylina half-way through the next day: doing the hike quicker than this is possible, but it would really be rushing it.

Where to Go After Reading this Post

Got the general idea? Now it’s time to go to our Tatranská Magistrala Hiking Kit List (complete with info on Slovakia hiking maps/apps), followed by our Tatranská Magistrala Stage Descriptions and our recommended High Tatras Mountain Houses (under the Places to Stay/High Tatras sub-section) which of course tie in with the Stage Descriptions.

Poprad to the Mountains: Tatras Electric Railway

The electric trains that run between Poprad and the High Tatras mountain resorts are more than a means of getting about: they are an experience in themselves. I, being quite passionate about public transport, am a huge fan of a transport network that not only gets you from A to B but also does so via beautiful mountain scenery, and runs reliably throughout the day, every day. It’s something not all visitors would necessarily know much about and I have the selfish motivation that detailing the route/logistics also helps link up many of my posts on the mountains and makes them make more sense. So find everything you need to know about the route, known variously as the Tatras Electric Railway, the Tatras Mountain Railway or indeed in Slovak as Tatranská Elektrická Železnica below.

A Map of the Tatras Electric Railway - image by Wizzard

A Map of the Tatras Electric Railway – image by Wizzard

From the mainline station of Poprad Tatry there are essentially three lines running: from Poprad via Starý Smokovec to Štrbské Pleso; from Starý Smokovec to Tatranská Lomnica and from Štrbské Pleso via Tatranský Liesovec to Štrba (at the mainline station of Štrba you change for the regular, frequent trains back to Poprad). This means that you can do a loop from Poprad up into the mountains (changing at Štrbské Pleso and then again at Štrba) and come down again a different way – all on this railway line.

It’s the least complicated way of getting up into the mountain villages which are the base for all those exciting High Tatras activities (hiking, ice climbing, caving, skiing, whatever). Arrive in Poprad Tatry mainline station; walk up to the Tatras Electric Railway departure point, voila. Of course, there are also buses from the bus station quite near the train station, but the schedules take some finding and are not as dependable as the trains. The trains are also just as cheap: although no quicker and often slower in actual speed.

The Price of the Tickets

For the journey from Poprad to Štrbské Pleso which is the maximum distance you can do without changing on the Tatras Mountain Railway tickets are 2 Euros one-way. The journey from Poprad to Starý Smokovec or Tatranská Lomnica (less distance) will be 1.50 Euros one-way. Štrbské Pleso to Štrba is only 1 Euro but if you want to go back to Poprad via Štrba it will be 2 Euros.

Frequency of the Trains

Trains run more or less hourly on all three routes. On the Poprad to Štrbské Pleso route the first train is at 5:04am and the last at 22:40. Going back on this route, the first train leaves Štrbské Pleso at 5:13am and the last leaves at 22:13. The journey takes a shade over one hour. There are other connections you can take going via Štrba but only within these same hours. From Poprad on this same line you’ll reach the station of Starý Smokovec after 40 minutes, where you can change for the Starý Smokovec to Tatranská Lomnica route. On this route the first train is at 5:56am and the last at 22:02. Coming back on this route, the first train 5:14am and the last is at 22:34. The journey is only 15 minutes. On the Štrbské Pleso to Štrba route the first train is at 5:17am and the last at 22:44. Going back from Štrba, the first train back up to Štrbské Pleso is at 5:56 and the last at 20:26. The journey is again just over 15 minutes.

The Logistics

If you’re a first-timer, you can buy your ticket at Poprad Tatry station in the main ticket office. You always have to remember to validate this ticket on board. Most other stations on all three routes also have ticket offices, and ticket machines (which accept Euro coins only). If you imagine a line with Štrba at the western end and Poprad at the eastern end and then – in the mountains above – Starý Smokovec almost parallel with Poprad towards the eastern end of the mountain range (and Tatranská Lomnica, indeed, further east) with Štrbske Pleso parallel with Štrba towards the western end of the mountain range. There: you hopefully have a picture in your head now.

Where to Stop and What to Expect (Main Stops are Bolded and Underlined, Noteworthy Places Just Bolded)

Starý Smokovec is perhaps the main mountain resort village (although Dolný Smokovec just before it also has decent accommodation). Still, it’s Starý that has most tourist facilities. Overall it has the feel of an old Victorian-era resort and a lot of it retains its old-world charm. Guesthouses, hotels and restaurants a-plenty. From Starý Smokovec there is a cable car up to Hrebienok where you can link up with the Tatranská Magistrala (Stage 3) an hour’s walk south of Englishmaninslovakia’s recommended stage 2/stage 3 stopover, Zamkovského Chata.

Tatranská Lomnica (east from Starý as previously described) is another fairly pretty village with plenty of accommodation options. From here you can also take the cable car up to Štart and then onto Skalnaté Pleso at which point you are on the Tatranská Magistrala (Stage 2). At Tatranská Lomnica you can also get fairly regular buses onto the village at the very eastern edge of the High Tatras, Ždiar – which is where you can also start the Tatranská Magistrala hike.

Heading west from Starý Smokovec there’s a few more stops which are of no major interest to the majority of visitors (except as start points for hikes – but there’s too many of those to detail here) before arriving at Vyšné Hágy, where there’s a back route to link up with Tatranská Magistrala (Stage 3, but little else besides a sports pub.

The next stop on is remote Popradské Pleso (read our additional post about Popradské Pleso here*) but, despite the name of this station, it’s still a one-hour hike from here up to the lake and lakeside hotel, Horsky Hotel Popradské Pleso (see a description at the end of Tatranská Magistrala (Stage 3) about this route and yet more about Popradské Pleso and its surrounds on Tatranska Magistrala (Stage 4).

The final stop on the Poprad to Štrbské Pleso line (Štrbske Pleso unsurprisingly) is one stop further beyond Popradské Pleso. It’s the least appealing of the mountain resort villages. The lower parts around the train station have been destroyed a tad by development (although there’s a great cafe-restaurant here, Furkotka – I’ll write about it some day) but up by the lake it’s still a very serene and beautiful place. There are several hotels here and of course the ski developments. In the High Tatras, Štrbské Pleso is probably the best – or at least the most popular – place to ski. Read more about Štrbské Pleso as it features on the final stage of the Tatranska Magistrala (Stage 4). You may well not be in Štrbské Pleso for the hiking and therefore we have additionally prepared this fascinating article on what else there is to do at Štrbské Pleso (a fair amount).

All in all, though, imagine it: this is a commuter train, that ushers you up to some superb mountain getaways. And for a couple of Euros.

A Quick Guide to the Other Content We Have on Poprad

Places to Go: Poprad’s funky contemporary art gallery in an old power station

Places to Go: Poprad’s lavish Aqua Park

Places to Go: Nine reasons to linger in Poprad

Places to Stay: A cool travel-friendly B&B in Spišská Sobota, Poprad

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s trendy burger joint

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s dignified Café La Fée

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s Coolest Wine Bar

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s gourmet chocolatier

Going Out: Poprad & the Manchester United Connection

Arts & Culture: Dedicated traditional Czech & Slovak music radio station now based in Poprad

Getting Around: London to Poprad Flights

Getting Around: The Poprad to Ždiar to Zakopane (Poland) bus

Top Ten Medieval Towns in Slovakia

 

MAP LINK: This map shows the whole network of routes: remember, Poprad, Štrbské Pleso and Tatranská Lomnica are the three extreme points.

GETTING THERE: Well, this post IS about getting there! But you’ll start your ride on the railway, 99% of the time, from Poprad

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: We’ve said it here already and we’ll say it again: the end of the line on the railway is Štrbské Pleso – great access to the high peaks from here!

RELATED POST: London to Poprad Flights Are Flying!

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Poprad: Nine Reasons to Linger

Poprad is the gateway to the High Tatras. Whether you’re coming here by road or rail you’ll have to pass through this sizeable city to those tempting and frankly quite bizarre looking mountains just beyond. And of course the question is: why stop? Why indeed, when there’s the beginnings of a mountain wilderness with scintillating hiking, and climbing – and some pretty exceptional skiing just a half hour’s drive or mountain rail ride away? The question seems more poignant yet when you see Poprad’s centre which, somewhat marred by tasteless ’60’s and ’70’s development, is no Levoča – not, in other words, with a great deal of old-fashioned charm (although in fairness it has been spruced up no end of late and now sports leafy boulevards, revamped museums and a burgeoning pavement cafe culture). But after a concentrated couple of days in Poprad recently, Englishmaninslovakia has come up with a list of Poprad’s plus points – and the list is longer than many might think.

1: Get the Info

Before you rush off into the mountains, it’s worth pausing to find out exactly what you can (and, sometimes, can’t) do there – and Poprad is the fount of all Tatras outdoor activities knowledge. There are several key bases you might want to head to – Ždiar for culture, Tatranská Lomnica for the highest mountains, Starý Smokovec area for some of the main chairlifts up into the mountains proper (and the most abundant accommodation) or Štrbské Pleso for the biggest ski resort, great hiking and that cherry on the cake of Tatras Hotels, Grand Hotel Kempinski. Do you, for example, want to go husky sledding? Would you like to stay in fancy accommodation or huddle in a mountain house? Do you like hanging from a chain off a precipice or not?

The answers to all these and more will influence where you want to end up, and Poprad’s perfect for providing answers. You can check out the pleasant little tourist information office or scout out the veritable mine of Tatras information that is Adventoura tours (actually Poprad’s coolest tour agency and offering loads of different activities).

Yeah – so get all the info you need, which will take an hour or two, and then go off and do something like – well – one of the things right below!

2: Spišská Sobota

Spišská Sobota is one of the best-preserved clutches of medieval architecture anywhere in Slovakia. It doesn’t grab the headlines like nearby Levoča does but it’s almost as splendid. The Gothic Kostol Svätého Juraja (Church of St George) at the western end of the long tapered oval of the námestie dates from the 13th century originally and – get this – the enigmatic but highly regarded Master Pavol was responsible for the altar here. Just across the way is the church architect’s old workshop.

Culinary Cool

But quality is kept high in the modern day too in Spišská Sobota. Arguably Poprad’s best restaurants flank the square here (such as Vino & Tapas, where the owner cooked for the Queen when she visited Poprad, on the northern side – or Fortuna on the southern side). Then there’s the atmospheric accommodation options in and around the square (again, in our opinion, Poprad’s best (Penzión SabatoPenzión Fortuna or, a block off the square, Penzión Plesnivec).

Oh, and how do you find Spišská Sobota? You take the main road Štefánikova and follow it (or the river running alongside it) east from the centre for about 1.5km, past Aqua City, then turning left at the sign for Penzión Plesnivec. Or follow the river along passing Aqua City until you hit the bridge by Hotel Sobota, turn left then take the first right up the hill to where you can already see the Spišská Sobota church tower.

3: Aqua City

Poprad’s Aqua City is the perfect way to counteract and sooth any aches and pains from a strenuous few days’ worth of hiking. Nigh-on 20 indoor and outdoor geothermal pools, all with temperatures in the mid- to high thirties (and that’s after being reduced from a natural 49 degrees): Aqua City might look starkly modern but its comforts are guaranteed – it’s one of Eastern Europe’s most well-appointed spa/wellness centres. There’s a hotel and wellness centre, of course, with cryotherapy and Thai massage centres & the like…

The High Tatras in their morning glory from Kvetnica

The High Tatras in their morning glory from Kvetnica

4: Kvetnica

Ten minutes’ drive outside Poprad is a forest park which gives you better views of the High Tatras than you get in the High Tatras (if you want an overview of the whole range, that is). There’s a farm here which may be your best chance to see the timid mouflon (large-horned mountain sheep) that have a large enclosure of several acres here. In Kvetnica there’s also a network of hiking and mountain biking trails and a chateau. Kvetnica is also much more verdant than a lot of the Tatras are – it makes for a gentle and enjoyable afternoon’s walk. Ask at the Poprad Tourist Information how to find it – it can be quite tricky.

5: Podtatranské Muzeum 

This museum has a fascinating new exhibition on the ancient treasures of a 4th-century Germanic prince dug up recently during construction of an industrial park, as well as permanent exhibits on Poprad since, er, Neolithic times. It’s recently moved to a new location in Spišská Sobota

6: The Tatranská Galeria (Tatras Art Gallery)

This art gallery is well worth a visit – you don’t expect to encounter culture in a mountain resort supply town but here it most definitely is. We’ve recently written this new post about the venue at  Hviezdoslavová 12 known as the Elektráreň (Power Plant). It hosts some pretty damned good exhibitions!

7: Cool Cafes (and Caffes) from Belltowers to Bistros!

In one of several buildings that still retains its old-fashioned grace (the bell tower right behind the church in central Poprad), the mean espresso mini-chain Caffe Trieste has opened its doors. I mean “mean” in terms of the cafe’s ability to produce a mean espresso, of course; not that its staff are mean (they’re not!). There’s also a wine bar here (upstairs up the spiral staircase) – making this the city centre’s most atmospheric drinking spot by a country mile.

See our article on Poprad’s suavest new cafe

 8: Bon Bon Chocolates

Oh, what is that beautiful correlation between mountain town resorts and chocolatiers? I don’t know, but I’m very happy with it. This is one of the best chocolatiers in Slovakia, and it’s right by the train station. I’d argue it’s even worth missing your train for. Small (and quite inviting) area for actually sitting and sipping – but you can always take that hot chocolate “to go” (yeah, in Slovakia now they actually often use the English “to go” for takeaway food which is rather comical when you listen to an ancient Slovak babka (grandmother) that cannot speak another word of English uttering it). Anyway, Bon Bon is on Dominika Tartarku – heading north from Štefánikova towards Poprad Tatry train station.

Our post on Bon Bon

9: Pizzeria Utopia – and the rest of the City’s Cool New Eateries

In an old schoolhouse out in the paneláky, Poprad’s coolest and liveliest pizzeria has been going ten years and is still every bit as popular as ever. Inside, it looks cosy too, with three dining areas and a great array of tasty pizzas. I’ve actually never seen a pizzeria even in Bratislava look as inviting as this one. It’s just south of the hospital on the other side of Rte 18 from the centre – and perfectly walkable from there. Pizzeria Utopia might be one of the first of this new breed of cool Poprad restaurants but it’s the tip of the iceberg as far as local dining goes.

Our post on Poprad’s new gourmet burger joint.

The final thing to remember is that Poprad is a far more pleasant mountain supply town than Zakopane on the Polish side of the Tatras and is certainly no worse than, say, Aviemore in Scotland or in fact many of those terrible big, soulless French ski resort towns. It’s not as beautiful as what lies just beyond, true. But it does have plenty of hidden charms… and yes, a little soul.

MAP LINK: (Kvetnica is indicated by the pinpoint at the bottom of the map)

GETTING THERE: Trains run every 1.5 to 2 hours from Bratislava’s Hlavná Stanica station to Poprad, take 3.5 to four hours and cost 11 Euros for regional trains or 19 Euros for the flashy IC trains (which have wifi).

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Poprad, the obvious choice is heading 32km north to Ždiar to hike some of the lovely Tatranská Magistrála, or – for those that don’t like hiking – it’s 72km south to Rožňava, nearby which are some of Slovakia’s best caves

RELATED POST: London to Poprad Flights Alive and Kicking (could that in fact be reason 10 to get out to and hang out in Poprad?)

RELATED POST: How to get between Poprad, Zdiar and Zakopane in Poland by public transport (could this be reason number 11?)

Poprad: Penzión Plesnivec

Sometimes, you want to get back from your hike, bike or climb in the mountains and crash in a good, sturdy, cosy room with a thunderous hot shower and the promise of a hot meal and traveller camaraderie. You don’t want the fancy trappings of the big hotels (after all this is the mountains). And in steps this mountain chalet-style guesthouse on the edge of Poprad’s Spišská Sobota district to oblige.

After all, when you weigh up the potential of a hotel with a slightly bigger room and an attached restaurant against Penzión Plesnivec’s digs with their abundance of Tatras travel-friendly info, hearty veggie evening meals and the happy vibe of tourists debating strategies for mountain hikes… well, Penzión Plesnivec comes out on top. Because you never feel alone here. You feel like a traveller is supposed to feel: on the brink of a great adventure (which of course you are).

The five rooms here (three twin-bed and two double-bed) are all very large. There’s plenty of space to get a family in to most of them (and families can also use the small play park at the back of the house downstairs, making this, actually, a very good family travel option in Poprad.) Healthy wifi speeds are also available throughout the house and there’s cable TV in each room too.

But the real stand-out draw of this guesthouse is downstairs, in the shape of charismatic owners Dusan and Lubica. Between them they speak English, Spanish and Russian (besides Slovak of course) but most importantly they GET travellers because they are travellers themselves – and have plenty of their own stories to share.

Poprad's best collection of historic skis...

Poprad’s best collection of historic ski memorabilia :)

That is illustrated in their amenable common room downstairs: an Obývačka (living room)-cum-bar decorated, well, in a very original romp through the history of skiing: bizarre old skis mounted on the walls (some of which are true collector’s pieces) and quirky old travel posters for the Tatras and skiing holidays in the days of yore. It’s a place where people come to sit, slurp a beer, partake in the veggie food that’s usually offered nightly and get great tips into what and where to see in the mountains proper. You even get detailed weather reports for the morning of your day’s adventures! It’s your ideal first port of call for Tatras info, in short.

There is a reason why Plesnivec has been going seven years. It’s because it’s get a far warmer, more convivial feel compared to the large hotels.  And it’s also right next to what are easily Poprad’s two main attractions: the Aqua City just back along the main road and, just up the hill, the beautiful medieval district of Spišská Sobota with its myriad fine dining options (one of Slovakia’s top medieval attractions).

Oh, and what’s a plesnivec? It’s that famous Alpine mountain flower, edelweiss…

 

A Quick Guide to the Other Content We Have on Poprad

Places to Go: Poprad’s funky contemporary art gallery in an old power station

Places to Go: Poprad’s lavish Aqua Park

Places to Go: Nine reasons to linger in Poprad

Places to Go/Getting Around: Taking the Mountain Railway into the High Tatras from Poprad

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s trendy burger joint

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s dignified Café La Fée

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s Coolest Wine Bar

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s gourmet chocolatier

Going out: Poprad & the Manchester United connection

Arts & Culture: Dedicated traditional Czech & Slovak music radio station now based in Poprad

Getting Around: London to Poprad Flights

Getting Around: The Poprad to Ždiar to Zakopane (Poland) bus

Top Ten Medieval Towns in Slovakia

 

MAP LINK

PRICES: Single 30 Euros, Double 40 Euros, Treble 50 Euros, breakfast (good coffee, Slovak hemendex or ham and eggs, yoghurt, bread and cheese) 5 Euros  (2016 prices)

BOOK PENZIÓN PLESNIVEC

High Tatras Mountain House: Chata Pri Zelenom Plese

A picture, you see, is often worth a thousand words – or more. Who wouldn’t want to stay here, on the banks of Zelené Pleso, with this sensational view of jagged mountains rearing up above you, scarred with waterfalls and part-coated in snow? I turned up here not knowing anything about the place, as I was starting off on the Tatranská Magistrala hike which runs from one side of the High Tatras mountains to the other. Chata Pri Zelenom Plese is only a 45-minute hike (heading up to the start point) or 30-minute hike (heading down) shy of the official start point of the walk, Vel’ké Biele Pleso  (see more details on the first stage of the Tatranská Magistrala from Ždiar to Chata Pri Zelenom Plese). This Chata is not by any means the most famous of the High Tatras Mountain houses (that would probably be Zamkovského Chata or Teryho Chata). But it’s my favourite, and I’ve stayed in/visited a few.  

Being unknown, whether you’re a weary hiker, a cross-country skier or climber (no more explanation of these last two activities need be given than the pictures above and below) or just someone who likes staying in formidable wilderness, you’re going to be pleasantly surprised by this place, the English translation of which is “House on the Green Lake.” The only way in is to hike or bike, unless you’ve got a fairly resilient 4 x 4. A long bumpy track of about 8/9km winds up from just south of the hamlet of Kežmarské Žl’aby on the 537 Highway northeast of Tatranská Lomnica, the easternmost of the High Tatras resort villages (see the end of this entry for directions here). There’s an established mountain biking circuit heading up too.

Being way off the most hiked sections of the High Tatras to the west, Chata Pri Zelenom Plese has something of a remote feel, but once you’re ensconced in the restaurant and you’re tucking into the decent range of very well-cooked meals (they cook better than Zamkovského Chata) you’ll feel, with the dizzying view of the high peaks through the restaurant window, very cosy and – given there’s skiers to watch and waterfalls to gawk at, very well entertained.

Room with a view...

Room with a view…

For the accommodation, there are two options: a “hikers room” for a mere 8 Euros per person, with just mattresses, where you’ll need your own sleeping bag, or slightly more expensive digs in private rooms with bunk beds. It’s basic, but in a clean and friendly way.  Showers are down in the basement: a slight disadvantage but hey, you’re an outdoor lover, right? This is warm, simple accommodation and anyway – you’ll be spending most of your evening in the restaurant with beer and that view we mentioned. Slippers to wear (as per Slovak custom) and towels are available for free.

The evening meals (set dinner 8.80 Euros or you can order meals individually) and breakfast (buffet 5.50 Euros) are of high quality. Bryndové pirohy (see our Top Ten Slovak Foods & Drinks for more on this classic national dish) makes for a divine main and follow it up with the not-to-miss poppy seed and cherry strudel.

For when the weather’s not too wild, you can sit on the lakeside terrace and stare out at the ever-changing colour of water (a kind of algae gives the water that surreal green-blue colour). If the snow’s not too deep, you can also follow the path anti-clockwise around the lake and up to the first of the waterfalls, but the ascent beyond here this way is for professionals only. If you’re here for the hiking, there are red and yellow trails to follow from here. Red is the Tatranská Magistrala Stage 2 and heading west is a very tough hike (read that last blog entry for a warning) whilst yellow takes you up to Skalnaté Pleso and on to the centre of the High Tatras via an easier route (see the same blog entry for this route description too).

Getting There

Road access is northeast of Tatranská Lomnica just southwest of the hamlet of Kežmarské Žl’aby (drivers: Google maps reveal all). See our Tatras Electric Railway post on how to get from Poprad (on the main train line to Bratislava) to mountain resort villages Starý Smokovec and Tatranská Lomnica. From Tatranská Lomnica take a bus a few minutes to Stará Lesná from where there are hourly buses throughout the day to Kežmarské Žl’aby; there are some additional buses direct from Starý Smokovec. Ask the driver to be dropped at the beginning of the Chata Pri Zelenom Plese access track.

MAP LINK

PRICES: 10 Euros per person (a mattress in the hikers room, excluding breakfast which is another 6 Euros); 23 Euros for twin room with two bunk beds (inc breakfast, subsequent nights are 21 Euros including breakfast). (2017 prices)

LAST UPDATED: April 2017

BOOK CHATA PRI ZELENOM PLESE Please note that this is an extremely remote mountain house; as per the left-hand menu on the website, booking is best through the email tatry@chataprizelenomplese.sk (where you’ll stand the best chance of a reply in English) or, if you’ve only a little time before your stay, telephone (00421) (0)901 767 420.

Tours: Tatras Adventure Trips with Adventoura

Adventoura runs some of the coolest organised tours of the Slovakian Tatras around. It’s based out of Poprad. Here www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk talks to the founder to give you an idea of what you can see and do with the company… 

Adventoura on tour in the Tatras

Question One: What inspired you to set up Adventoura? And why in Poprad?

At the time Adventoura went on market there was a big gap that needed filling with the inbound travel agencies in Poprad and the Tatras mountains. As I grew up in Poprad I knew what this region needed. I believe that Adventoura with its services will make more options for tourists who visit us here. And I am happy to make clients happy!

Simply put, if a visitor came to the Tatras there never used to be anything for them to do outside of their accommodation and beyond the activities of skiing, snow-boarding or trekking. As I have lived and travelled in New Zealand, South Africa and in California, I have seen the potential wildernesses have for outdoor activities and I had a lot of ideas that I am now bringing to our region.

Question Two: Tell us something about the different tours you offer?

People are just discovering Slovakia. We were closed for many years to new explorers. And as I actually guide my groups and have experience with many international clients, it’s nice to see their respective reactions while travelling through Slovakia. A good example: a client from New Zealand during his stay in Poprad told me “why to travel to New Zealand? You have New Zealand here!!!” I guess it is getting the chance to see just how special other nationalities find Slovakia that motivates me to do tours mainly around Poprad and Tatras.

My summer is busy with tours in the mountains. One of my most popular is called “Hut to Hut”. Basically I spent 5 full days with my clients on the walks through the High Tatras staying in the fabulous mountain houses there.  Another popular summer tour is cycling across the Tatras within a week! We do 270 km in 6 days – of course a service car is also provided

The winter season is also very popular. Almost any skiing package you want is available through my website. Another fun option are two tours called “Summer Active” and “Winter Active.” Again based in Slovakia, they are essentially weeks full of fun. The summer option can involve hiking, beginners down hill biking, rafting, rock climbing etc. The winter one has skiing, snowshoeing, horse sleigh ride, dog sledding, geo caching and the like. All those sports I also do in my free time: like we say in Slovakia: “you are having it from first hand!” :)

Adventoura in action

Question Three: What can tourists do this winter with Adventoura, and where can they do it?

I mentioned many of the winter activities we do above, but also very popular is a day trip we call “Become a musher in a one day.” It is a 2-hours program with huskies, refreshment and barbecue. We will teach you how to put a pulling harness on a dog, how to attach him to the pulling rope and finally how to ride with a Slovakian dog sled! People who are waiting for their turn can be at the fire cooking some sausage :) It’s worth noting that we are likely to be able to do this activity close to your hotel (of course it depends where do you stay). If there is no place for it, we are happy to transfer you to our “base camp” :)

Then there is snowshoeing. Basically, I will take you to the places with untouched snow and you will get to try walking with snowshoes in deep snow.

A more relaxing day trip is a horse sleigh ride: we are providing it in evening hours in a sleigh pulled by two horses. The ride is torch-lit and finished with an barbecue, and traditional Slovak music in the forest.

Question Four: What’s your favourite place in the Tatras? And do you have any tips for how to get away from the crowds in the Tatras?

This sounds a simple question, but it’s not! Tatra is full of steep walls, deep valleys and forests, and really any one would deserve to be called the favourite!

Every valley has something nice. In the western Tatras you could climb the peak of Kriváň, and you will get impressive view from it. In the central area, try visiting some mountain hut and stay overnight: you can have a beer and meet great people from all around the world talking about interesting stories from their travels :) And check out the eastern region too: especially Biele Pleso (White lake). In the valleys here you will be there almost by yourself; there’s nobody around. You might even meet a brown bear or to see our mountain goat, the Chamoix…

Question Five: The actual town of Poprad is often overlooked in favour of the mountains nearby. What’s the best thing to do in the city itself?

Poprad is great place for explorers who love to come to the Tatras by train, bus or even, these days, by aeroplane, with flights several times per week to London. It has a straight train connection from Prague (the journey takes about 8 hours, and the night train is very comfortable and safe) as well as Slovakia’s two main cities, Bratislava and Košice.

What I would say about Poprad itself is that I am happy to live and have my office there.

It has everything you need, right by some of the best mountain scenery in Slovakia – supermarkets, shopping malls, a nice historical medieval main square, lots of concerts and theatre performances – and a great traditional Christmas market in winter.

The most special thing about Poprad is that it lies on hot geothermal springs. One of them is used for second biggest aquapark in Slovakia: Aquacity. Here there are slides and outdoor pools – and it runs all year round, even in the winter.

NB: Adventoura are the winners in the tour operator category in 2017’s Europe-wide Luxury Travel Awards, truly putting the High Tatras on the international stage as a travel destination! Read more about it on their Facebook Page

Slovakia’s Wooden Churches: Four of the Easiest to Visit

Ladomirová Wooden Church ©englishmaninslovakia.com

Ladomirová Wooden Church ©www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

On this site, we like to believe we dedicate ourselves 100% to the bizarre, the off-the-beaten-track and the profound where Slovakia is concerned: we wouldn’t want you to be reading on here what you can Google elsewhere, after all. But for some reason writing about Slovakia’s most unique attraction of all (which is fairly bizarre, very off-the-beaten-track and profound, in a simple, solemn kind of way) has until now escaped us…

Maybe that is because of this: many readers will already be familiar with Slovakia’s outstanding collection of wooden churches. Their reputation does indeed precede them. Castles and mountains in Slovakia are incredible, but abundant – and many countries can also boast good castles and mountains. But…

Slovakia’s Uniquest Attraction?

But the wooden churches are – at least where Europe is concerned – a far more niche thing. They are consigned to a remote area along the borders of far-northeastern Slovakia, southern Poland and western Ukraine. Slovakia’s wooden churches are Unesco-listed – a testimony to where western Christianity meets more eastern religious persuasions (the 27 churches scattered through the remote countryside here represent Catholic, Protestant and Greek Catholic Faiths). The striking aspect of each is that they are put together without a single piece of metal: not even a nail. The fine interior decoration looks as gold and silver as the real thing – but once again, it is wood. These masterful works of architecture were built in the 17th- to 19th centuries, and each one is singular in its design. We leave this site to go into more detail – which it does better than any other on the web – it is not the purpose of this post, as we have said, to rewrite what is written elsewhere.

But the reality with most of the wooden churches is that they are hard to find (rarely, if ever signposted), in remote rolling countryside far from major public transport connections and only open by appointment (the appointment is generally made through the designated key-keeper, of which there is one per church, usually some old babka who will not speak any language other than Slovak). And so – to those with limited time and no wheels of their own – Slovakia’s uniquest attraction remains frustratingly off limits.

Fortunately, a handful of these churches are accessible without too much difficulty.

Most can be found in or around Bardejov and, further north, Svidník (a centre of the fascinating Rusyn culture). (and on both of these destinations we’ll be publishing a lot more content in late 2016)

1: Hervatov

This is our number one choice of a wooden church to visit: the most accessible one that feels – how shall we say – rustically authentic (being sequestered away in a tiny village). The interior is an absolute must-see: not because of mind-blowing lavishness but for its more poignant simplicity, with touching decoration on the walls and altar. About 9km outside Bardejov, it’s close enough to walk (via Mihal’ov; on the route shown on the map) if other means of transport fail (which they can). The custodian is one of the most reliable (her number is on the church door and church gate if the church is shut) and there is a little penzión where you can bed down for the night called Penzión ČergovMAP

GET HERE – First of all, you need to get to Bardejov. For this, Košice is the nearest big city that foreigners are likely to have on their itineraries: it’s a 4.5 hour train ride (every 1.5 hours)/one-hour direct daily flight from Bratislava or a 2-hour direct daily flight from London Luton. From Košice bus station (next to the train station) buses run every 40 minutes to Bardejov (1 hour 55 minutes). From Bardejov town centre, it’s only a 15-minute drive to Hervatov. But buses only run every two hours, with the first at 6:25am and the last at 8:20pm – and at weekends there are only four direct buses per day. So there is always the recourse of your own two feet…

2: Kežmarok

Surprisingly, you don’t have to go so far east to see a wooden church. The agreeable medieval town of Kežmarok on the south-eastern edge of the High Tatras has one right in its centre! It’s the biggest wooden church you’ll find out of all of them, dating from 1717 and built in baroque style (cool fact – there is a little bit of stone on the premises – in the sacristy, which was originally part of a city pub (!). Click here for detailed info on the church, and for an interesting theory about why this eclectic bunch of churches are indeed wooden! The Kežmarok church is open 9am-midday and 2pm-5pm Monday through Saturday from May to October and Tuesday/Friday 10am-midday and 2pm-4pm from November to April – so this church is great because it’s the only genuine wooden church still standing in its original location and with fixed opening hours. MAP

GET HERE

First of all, you need to get to Poprad, which is served by direct daily train from Bratislava (4 hours) and Košice (1 hour) every 1.5 hours, and by direct flight from London Luton. From Poprad Tatry train station, it’s a short walk to the bus station from which buses depart at least every 30 minutes for the 30-minute journey to Kežmarok.

3: Bardejovské Kupele

Yes, in the spa town a few kilometres outside Bardejov (virtually a suburb, and appropriately called Bardejovské Kúpele) you will find an intriguing addition to the usual spa facilities: a skanzen, or open-air museum portraying typical rustic life (a concept at which Slovakia excels). Actually, this Museum of Folk Architecture (Múzeum ľudovej architektúry) was Slovakia’s very first skanzen, opening in 1965. And in the museum (itself worthy of a separate post for its riveting examples of folk architecture from over the last couple of centuries) you will find no fewer than two relocated but utterly authentic wooden churches from the villages, respectively, of Mikulášová-Niklová and Zboj. The serendipitous nature of this truly amazing museum means these two dinky churches within its midst are pretty impressive.  MAP

GET HERE

As for Hervatov above, first of all, you need to get to Bardejov. For this, Košice is the nearest big city that foreigners are likely to have on their itineraries: it’s a 4.5 hour train ride (every 1.5 hours)/one-hour direct daily flight from Bratislava or there is a 2-hour direct daily flight from London Luton. From Košice bus station (next to the train station) buses run every 40 minutes to Bardejov (1 hour 55 minutes). From Bardejov town centre,  buses head out to Bardejovské Kúpele about every 20-30 minutes. The journey takes just five minutes.

4:Košice

In Košice’s East Slovak museum (link to Visit Košice website info, not the official homepage, as that is just in Slovak), renowned for many things including Slovakia’s only wax museum and the scary visit to the original old town jail, which lies within its walls, there is also a relocated wooden church, this time from the village of Kožuchovce. MAP

GET HERE

Košice is a 4.5-5-hour train ride (every 1.5 hours)/one-hour direct daily flight from Bratislava: there is also a 2-hour direct daily flight from London Luton. On the map just above, as you can see, it’s an easy 10-minute walk from the railway station to the East Slovak Museum.

Feast your eyes on these outstanding examples of religious architecture and – if your appetite is whetted for more – then maybe it’s time to consider the slightly more complicated, but also more adventurous trip out to the remoter wooden churches that lie in the extreme northeast. There are 27, remember: give yourself a few days if you want to see al of them.

MAP LINKS: Individual map links are provided above.

GETTING THERE: Ditto: in the individual sections above.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Bardejov, it’s a 79km ride east to Medzilaborce on the Polish border where you can visit the fascinating Andy Warhol Museum