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The High Tatras Mountain Resorts − Starý Smokovec: the Funicular to Hrebienok

Mountain resorts are an occasionally unerring type of destination. They represent the most straightforward ways, on paper, of accessing the prime mountain country of any given destination. But the flip side of that is that they can appear austere and inauthentic tourist centres, full of people milling around but not actually knowing how to inject life into their trip (or people content in just milling around: fine if you fit into that category but then this probably isn’t the article for you!).

Starý Smokovec can be like that. Its age-old charm (it was, after all, the original mountain resort here, dating back to the late 19th century) ensures it is the suavest place to stay in these parts. There are some very decent restaurants around too. Yet it as neither as obviously in the mountains as Štrbské Pleso (where it’s more apparent how to at least get up to the namesake lake for a flavour of the surrounding Alpine scenery), and has less to do than Tatranská Lomnica (where a good museum and the cable car ride of the country, up to Slovakia’s second-highest peak, Lomnický štít, await). The bottom line is that if you are just-arrived in Starý Smokovec and want to get up towards the tops of those peaks looming above your guesthouse or hotel window, 19th century architecture and nice places to eat will not divert your attention too long. 

From the Tatras Mountain Railway station (with direct connections from Poprad’s mainline railway station every hour), it’s a couple of blocks’ walk up to the funicular railway station to Hrebienok, via this route. Taking the funicular up to Hrebienok is the sure-fire way to get up and into cracking mountain scenery quickly. It’s one of the few funicular railways in the Slovak mountains (most transport up into the peaks is by cable car or chair lift). The regularity of the Starý Smokovec-Hrebienok connections also means this is a plausible half-day trip (time for a bite to eat in the Hrebienok funicular station restaurant and a stroll around).

For the 8-minute trip up to Hrebienok, you’ll part with 8 Euros one-way or 9 Euros return trip, with daily trains leaving on average half-hourly between 8:30am and 4:30pm (in the summer season between June 1st and October 1st, 7:30am to 7pm). (In February trains only run at weekends and in March just Monday through Friday).

Hrebienok, honoured with a visit from Queen Elizabeth a few years back, is little more than a glorified funicular station, although the restaurant inside serves good food. Here, however, you are at an elevation of 1,285m, and surrounded by gorgeous high-altitude pine forest, with the serious climbs to the peaks at your fingertips. You are ideally poised for any number of hikes, including on Stage Three of the Tatranská Magistrala multi-day hike across the High Tatras (north on an easyish hike to Zamkovského Chata and west on a tougher trek to Popradské Pleso and Štrbské Pleso… an exciting place for hikers to be…

 

The Bratislava skyline from the Štefánikova magistrála

Hiking Western Slovakia on the Trail of Slovakia’s Heroes: the Štefánikova Magistrála

When I heard there was a path themed around one of Slovakia’s greatest all-time heroes, Milan Rastislav Štefánik, running from the Austrian border at Hrad Devín through the entirety of the Small Carpathians to Bradlo, where the man is buried, my interest was, I’ll admit it, piqued.

120km Showcase of Slovakia’s Best-Of

The Štefánikova Magistrála is a 120+km path in total and encompasses the very best of Western Slovakia along the way – unforgettable forest, several of the most magnificent castles in the country, and – of course – that poignant finish at Bradlo, Štefánik’s tomb. At this point, the path does not end (the name alone changes) and you can continue on the trail of the Cesta Hrdinov SNP (path of the Heroes of the Slovak National Uprising) all the way across Slovakia through yet more-untouched, more-unknown countryside to the far east of Slovakia at Dukla Pass on the Polish border.

It transplants you to the pretty, river-hugging village of Devín, invites you on the clamber up to the sandy escarpments of Devínska Kobyla (which, once upon a time not so long ago, protected East from West in Europe), shows you the modern face of Bratislava’s western suburbs, and then, slowly but steadily, those woods and hills – rising only up to 700m (about 2300 feet) but quickly metamorphosing into a little-traipsed wilderness replete with wild pigs and deer. A narrative thread, in other words, linking the majority of the West’s best tourist attractions.

And part of it runs only about 1.5km away from my home of three years, Rača!

Fellow Small Carpathians lover Jonno  Tranter hiked the entirety of the Štefánikova Magistrála to get to the 2016 edition of the famous Pohoda festival at Trenčin and we are featuring his most updated version of trekking the trail, broken down into day-long hiking stages, for stages two to five of the hike on this site (scroll down for more on this, and for his further two days of hiking on the Cesta Hrdinov SNP).

The Tatranská Magistrála it Ain’t…

Unlike the Tatranská Magistrála, with all its provision for tourists, including many convenient mountain houses to bed down in, the Štefánikova Magistrála is a different proposition. It is far less walked, and not always as well maintained. Its signage – even at its best – is worse, and often dies out completely. There are no designated accommodation options en route, either – you have to make the best of what happens to be nearby! Perhaps therein lies its appeal: on the Tatranská Magistrála, you will always meet other hikers – here not. Much of this route lies on forgotten paths, only used by local dog walkers or cyclists. True, it lacks the mountainous intensity of Eastern Slovakia – but it is greener and, for leading you astray into increasing isolation, perhaps more beguiling in its own way.

Every Last Bit of the Path (Almost)

On a sweltering July day when I needed to get away from my desk I finally got round to starting this walk. Now, from Rača, Bratislava’s north-eastern edge, where I was living for three years, I could have cut up behind my house and skipped all of stage one, which does encompass getting through Bratislava – a surefire way to get to the most beautiful parts of the hike sooner. I didn’t do that. I wanted to walk the Štefánikova Magistrála from beginning to end. With such a resolution, I had to therefore go to Devín Hrad (Devin Castle).

The Štefánikova Magistrála According to the Englishman

It’s a somewhat contradictory concept, these paths in the footsteps of famous people. You want to believe, mid-tramp, that yes, it’s OK, Štefánik (in this example) really was sweating it out on these very paths. But of course there is that growing suspicion in the back of your mind that the route planners just want to take you via as many showcase sights as humanly possible. This suspicion grows within you mighty quickly on the Štefánikova Magistrála. Circuitous would be describing this path mildly. Therefore, what follows in the stage descriptions is the Štefánikova Magistrála according to Englishmaninslovakia, with shortcuts inserted where following the path would be an illogical detour.

A Final Few Things About Štefánikova Magistrála on this Site

This route also takes you from the castle walls of Devín (which, in a symbolic gesture, I felt I had to touch before I could get on with the walking thing). If you want to cut straight to the seriously wild, woodsy part of this hike, you might want to skip Stage One and pick up from the start of Stage Two at Kamzik.

(Kamzik is a start point for several other great hikes up in the forests too, including the pilgrimage trail to Marianka.)

We’ve tried to divide each stage of the Štefánikova Magistrála into five to eight hour walking days, with accommodation/camping possibilities at the end of each. Especially with the first stage, there are a fair few sights to see that should (quite rightly) detain you, and there is a lot of steep ups and downs, plus the highest chance of getting lost (for reasons that will become apparent) – so we’ve given you an easy first days’ hiking!

And about that accommodation… the end of Stage One (Hotel West) and the end of Stage Two (the motel at Pezinská Baba) have hotels but the end of Stage Three (Vápenná) and Stage Four (Dobrá Voda) have none – meaning your best bet really is to camp (technically, unofficially) in the vicinity – our stage directions do cover good places to camp! On Stage Five, there is one of our Top Ten Places to Stay in Slovakia just above Brezová pod Bradlom in Košiarska (on a cunning side trail up to Bradlo, too!) and beyond Bradlo, in Myjava, the well-regarded Hotel Štefánik. Nevertheless, as two stages minimum will entail camping, you’ll need to bring all the necessary camping gear (as well as food, as food stops along the trail are scant).

Finally – getting there. The easiest way by public transport to Devín is to go to the Most SNP bus station (under the bridge) and take the hourly 29 bus which goes straight to the castle forecourt.

Map Check

You WILL need maps for this hike (green-coloured 1: 25,000 and 1: 50,000 VKÚ Harmanec maps; see our post on where to buy hiking maps). It is not enough to rely on the signage. Grab copies of Malé Karpaty Juh (south Small Carpathians), Malé Karpaty Stred (central Small Carpathians) and Malé Karpaty Sever (North Small Carpathians). On each of the stages we’ll provide an overview MAP LINK but there are no online maps that show the hiking trail in sufficient detail…

WHAT NEXT?

Hiking the Štefánikova Magistrála – Some Useful Tips (featured in our Places to Go/Bratislava & Around and Places to Go/Western Slovakia sub-sections)

Hiking the Štefánikova Magistrála, Stage One: Hrad Devín to Kamzík (featured in our Places to Go/Bratislava & Around sub-section)

Hiking the Štefánikova Magistrála, Stage Two: Kamzík to Pezinská Baba (featured in our Places to Go/Bratislava & Around and Places to Go/Western Slovakia sub-sections)

Hiking the Štefánikova Magistrála, Stage Three: Pezinská Baba to Vápenná (featured in our Places to Go/Western Slovakia sub-section)

Hiking the Štefánikova Magistrála, Stage Four: Vápenná to Dobra Voda (featured in our Places to Go/Western Slovakia sub-section)

Hiking the Štefánikova Magistrála, Stage Five: Dobra Voda to Bradlo (featured in our Places to Go/Western Slovakia sub-section)

More on the Cesta Hrdinov SNP Trail from Bradlo on towards Dukla…

Hiking the Cesta Hrdinov SNP, Stage One: Myjava to Vel’ka Javorina (featured in our Places to Go/Western Slovakia sub-section)

Hiking the Cesta Hrdinov SNP, Stage Two: Vel’ka Javorina to Drietoma (near Trenčin) (featured in our Places to Go/Western Slovakia sub-section)

High Tatras Mountains: Tatranská Magistrala – the Kit List

There is a running joke in Slovakia about the Czechs. Lots of Czechs come to the Tatras mountains each year. Of all visiting nations, the Czechs are apparently the most Gung-ho when it comes to forging off alone in the peaks without a guide (perhaps with the mentality that, if they speak 99% of the same language, Slovakia can’t possibly hurt them). Other nations are much more likely to plan a trip with a certain degree of caution. And of those who do get into difficulty in the mountains and need assistance from mountain rescue, the Czechs form the highest percentage. The Tatras claim several hundred lives from the tourists that visit them every year, in fact. Exposure, avalanches, falls down precipices and the like.

To be honest, I think by nature I’m quite like those daredevil Czechs too. The Slovak mountains are so much higher and more dramatic then anything I’m used to in the UK. Thus the temptation is to run off into them, squealing with delight like a small child, and not think properly about the very real danger these mountains can pose to those who, like me, love trekking into the great outdoors. Hiking the Tatranská Magistrala taught me a few things about what you need to bring with you when you embark on an adventure in such mountains and so, Czechs and indeed adventurers from any land who might under-estimate the power of the mighty Tatras, this is for you: an essential kit list!

CLOTHING

1: Warm, waterproof jacket OR better still, a waterproof jacket with a detachable fleece. That way, you can keep wearing the fleece in the mountain houses you’ll be staying at in the evening, which can still be quite cold inside.

2: Warm, woollen hat: temperatures even in June can get down to minus 5.

3: Gloves, but ideally not woollen ones. Ones with grip are better for hauling yourself up or down on those chains.

4: Hiking boots, well broken in. Do not attempt this hike without them.

5: Waterproof trousers. Pack these, and you can get away with just packing one pair of light trousers to wear underneath. You’re likely to get wet, at some point, and there’s often no cover in the Tatras.

6: Shorts are often better for summer hiking as it frees up your movement, but remember the definition of “summer” can be literally only July to September, so don’t come without a pair of long trousers too.

7: Sunglasses: great to cut out the glare.

8: A dry change of clothes for the evening: you’ll appreciate them no end.

9: If you suffer from any kind of problem in your legs, a knee support: some of the downhill sections are jarring on the bones.

GEAR

1: Rucksack with waterproof covering. Self-explanatory, right?

2: Walking poles: not essential, but you are going to feel the benefit on the often punishing ups and downs.

3: Torch: a head torch would be perfect as it keeps your hands free, or a maglite that’s light but powerful and can help if you’re caught on the trail after dark or can’t find the light switch in the night.

4: Whistle and, ideally, a flare. This sounds over the top but it isn’t: you could easily get into difficulty and phone reception could be non-existent. This could be your only way of getting help.

5: Mobile phone and charger: for similar reasons to the above. Make sure you at least have a phone that will function if the reception comes.

6: A good map: Again, it sounds obvious but you’d be surprised. See our guide here to buying hiking maps in Slovakia.

7: A compass: Pretty important, especially on some of the less well-signed trails.

8: Book/ pack of cards: for evening entertainment.

9: Cash. Don’t bank on being able to pay by card.

10: Camera: you’re going to get some great pics.

11: Sharp knife. It’s going to come in useful.

12: Lighter. Probably good. At the mountain houses it’s possible to have a camp fire.

FOOD

1: A good supply of water. At least a 1.5 litre bottle (this should be enough to get you between one mountain house and the next, where you can fill up).

2: Sugar fixes: for morale boosts and energy. Whatever you like.

3: A hip flask filled with something strong. That’s the way the Slovaks do it!

Where to Go After Reading this Post

Got the general idea? Now it’s time to go to 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.

Hiking in the Tatras can be tough, with intense quickly-changing weather

Hiking in the Tatras can be tough, with intense quickly-changing weather…

High Tatras Mountains: the Tatranská Magistrala Stage 4 (Horský Hotel Popradské Pleso to Pribylina)

The final day of the Tatranská Magistrala trail begins on the shores of Popradské Pleso, surrounded somewhat ampitheatrically by sheering 2500m + peaks. The route by which you came down on stage 3 of the trail lies across from you on the eastern shore. Read Englishmaninslovakia’s separate piece on Popradské Pleso here.

Today, under normal conditions, it’s only a 4 to 4.5 hour hike to the official end of the trail at Podbanské from Popradské Pleso, with the additional 1.25 hour road walk to Pribylina (from where there is year-round public transport access, as opposed to Podbanské where buses only run between late June and the end of August).

HOWEVER, and it’s a big however (which is why we wrote it in bold and in capitals) spring 2014’s storm damage, that nasty trickster the Tatranska Bora, was still severely impeding the trail between Štrbské Pleso and Podbanské in late 2015, although as of 2016 clearance is completed. To all but the fit, determined or obstinate (and we ranked somewhere in this category) there was a large section of this path so covered with fallen trees that it had become impassable. So for those fit, determined, obstinate hikers out there: allow an extra 1 to 1.5 hours to negotiate the fallen trees. In these sadly all-too frequent times of path blockages due to fallen trees the choices for proceeding beyond Štrbské Pleso are:

a) Public transport via the mountain railway back to Poprad and/or alternative transport arrangements home.

b) Continuing by road from Štrbské Pleso to Tri Studničky, then Podbanské, then Pribylina. The road is not too busy and still very beautiful.

c) Forging on the path through the trees from Štrbské Pleso to Tri Studnicky, then continuing by road as before (because the trail is impossible to find through the woods just after Tri Studničky during times of excess fallen trees).

The first part of the path from Horský Hotel Popradské Pleso is in good nick. Follow the access road up to the crest of the first hill (about 250m) to where the red trail leaves the road and cuts through forest (replete with information boards, because this section is one of the most popular to walk) down to the most touristy place you will encounter on the whole trail: Štrbské Pleso. The trail emerges into the tourist developments just south-east of the access road to Hotel Patria (see top pic), which iconically stands on the north shore of Štrbské Pleso, Slovakia’s  most famous lake. The path then takes you clockwise around the lake shore, conveniently passing its most celebrated restaurant and its well-known south shore hotels, including the Grand Hotel Kempinski High Tatras with its snazzy ground-level wellness centre. There’s a lot to do around the lake here – and despite the previous lines the lake is still a very pretty place to wander; it’s only the village below the lake around the mountain railway terminus that has sadly fallen prey to some ugly development – so do read here all about Štrbské Pleso, which is one of the key tourist destinations within the High Tatras.

Soon after you leave the lake’s shores (the red signs lead off on a steady track from the back of Grand Hotel Kempinski High Tatras and Hotel Solisko) you see the signs of devastation from the spring storms (one thinks of the Lord of the Rings lines “these trees were my friends”)

Just after this point, from where it would normally be just under 2 hours of hiking to Tri Studnicky (where the trail next touches the road) this happened during 2014:

You’ll see the felled red trail marks: and it gets worse and worse. At times, during 2014 and 2015, along what would normally be a beautiful trail through wild woods to gorgeous Jamské Pleso and on again to Tri Studničky, storms had felled trees so thickly there seemed no way through. The section to Jamské Pleso was tough but just after this lake it became nigh on impossible. You’ll have to wriggle, climb and squeeze through the fallen trees and often you lose sight of the path totally. Still, it’s pretty good fun and eventually you come out into lower-lying forest where the falled trees fall back, descend to a muddy path junction where you join a green trail, then descend sharp right to the road at Tri Studničky.

As for Tri Studničky, it’s nothing special: a couple of former forestry rangers houses and the pleasant chata of Tri Studničky. Note that this should NOT be confused with Hotel Tri Studnicky which lies southwest of Lucenec in southern Slovakia. Well, we confused it, anyway; getting excited about the possibility of a spa (as the hotel near Lucenec does have) and finding, um, basic dormitory accommodation and of course, as mentioned above, the total impossibility of finding the path again beyond the forestry ranger’s buildings.

Doing the hike in the other direction from Podbanské it is easier to find the path during post-storm periods of felled trees but it becomes terribly tricky when the storms destroy the trail here. After an hour of trying we gave up and opted to continue along the road to Podbanské.

Tri Studnicky

Tri Studnicky

The road is not such a bad option. It’s a 1-hour walk (6km) through forest along the road to the small lane branching right down into Podbanské. You rejoin the path you should normally have been able to take at the first lane junction (Podbanské is the first major set of houses you see on the right from the main road). Good signposts (before the storms these paths were really lovingly tended, as you now see) usher you down across the river to the car park at Podbanské. From here you can ascend again 100 metres up to the village green which is Podbanské’s endearing little centre and looks quite like a quaint English village. The far side of the green has a very decent restaurant. If you are here in high season (late June to late August) you will be able to stay here, which is the preferable option to Pribylina.

But places in Podbanské do have a long closing season so if you’re outside of peak season you’ll have to continue the hike to Pribylina, back along the main road, which is another 1.5 hours (8km). You pass lots of summer houses hidden away in the woods and eventually, after emerging into meadows, arrive at Pribylina itself. It’s a large village with ample ubytovanie (rooms/guesthouses) available and, of course, buses on to Liptovský Mikulaš where there are mainline trains to Bratislava and beyond. It’s surely time to have one final round of dumplings and beer.

What Next?

Read more about staying at Horský Hotel Popradské Pleso (beginning of stage). Or, read on to the following:

Stage OneŽdiar to Chata pri Zelenom Plese

Stage Two:  Chata Pri Zelenom Plese to Zamkovského Chata

Stage Three (previous stage): Zamkovského Chata to Horský Hotel Popradské Pleso

Introduction to the Tatranská Magistrala

Tatranská Magistrala Hiking Kit List

Buying Hiking Maps & Apps

OR

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: This is the final stage of the Tatranská Magistrala hike. But from Pribylina it’s just 31km southwest to Demänovska Dolina, start point for the main access to the Low Tatras peak of Chopok.

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 2 (Chata Pri Zelenom Plese to Zamkovského Chata)

Time: Via Red Route to Zamkovského Chata: 4 Hours; Via Yellow/Green/Blue Route to Zamkovského Chata: 3.5 Hours; Teryho Chata Out-and-Back From Zamkovského Chata: 4 Hours with 30-minute Break for Refreshments at Teryho Chata

Wakey wakey. This is the toughest day of hiking, and not because of the distance. Oh no. This is tough because of the gradient and the vertiginous nature of the path (if you choose to follow the route strictly). It all starts so idyllically. Chata Pri Zelenom Plese is in my opinion the jewel of the High Tatras Mountain Houses for its location if nothing else: the water of Zelené Pleso (meaning green lake) is for me for a rich turquoise when you see it in certain lights and as you climb steeply away from it through the surrounding ampitheatre of mountains the first thought is that you wish you weren’t leaving at all.

Anyway, the red trail bends down with the yellow trail around the side of the lake-front terrace of Chata Pri Zelenom Plese, crosses a bridge and then divides, with red going right and yellow left. Now, read this carefully. Both trails can ultimately get you where you want to go on the Tatranská Magistrala. The red trail to the right (the official trail route) is extremely difficult (that’s what we referred to in our introduction to the Tatranská Magistrala as “for the experienced only” during its precarious ascent to Sedlo Pod Svištovkou.) The yellow trail to the left then links up with green and blue trails to get you to exactly the same point as the red, i.e Skalnaté Pleso, a lake at 1751 metres with cable car stations both down to Štart (and then the mountain resort of Tatranská Lomnica) and up to the peak of Lomnicky Štit (2633.8 metres and the second-highest summit in the High Tatras after Gerlachovský Štit).

The Red Route and Official Tatranská Magistrala Trail Option

The path starts off well enough, ascending around Zelene Pleso then doubling back high above the forest and the line of the Chata Pri Zelenom Plese access track to reach the small tarn of Čierne Pleso. You’re already way above the snow line here and because you’re in a rift directly below the high peaks the snow here stays thickest and longest, way into June and even July. As it’s melting, it’s especially dangerous because with each step you can plunge down a couple of feet. The path goes across several small snow fields before you even arrive at the most dangerous part, where two gullies both ascend steeply in what looks like the direction of the summit.

The Red Trail: tough

The Red Trail: tough

The left option, which we took first of all, is not the official path and gets pretty hairy pretty quick (only a smidgeon below proper climbing, which with rucksacks and no ropes we were not prepared for). The right option (the actual path) isn’t any easier, ironically. A huge snowfield about four feet deep went right the way up the gully (this was in June, remember) and covered the chains that you really rely upon for support pulling yourself up the slippery rocks. Even if there was no snow, this would be an arduous route, with a difficult descent (invariably in the mist) once you get to Sedlo Pod Svištovkou down to Skalnaté Pleso (we checked this from the other end). Paths are crumbly scree in many places and over waterfalls in others, where a misplaced step could result in a nasty fall. In the end, after three hours plugging away, we had to turn back and take the lower route as snow was covering the trail signs and at the summit the path is not always obvious.

 The Yellow/Green/Blue Trail Lower Option

The yellow trail, beginning as a wide metalled track above a fast-flowing mountain stream (Zeleny Potok), is, despite its lower elevation, a much more beautiful route, winding down through forests. It’s also a mountain bike trail. We soon realised why we’d met no one going up over Sedlo Pod Svištovkou: everyone was taking this sensible lower route and it’s a much more popular path than the Tatranská Magistrala Stage 1: Ždiar to Chata Pri Zelenom Plese. The first couple of kilometres are prettiest: then there’s a loop through some of the forest which suffered in the May storms and then the thick forest returns and, an hour from Chata Pri Zelenom Plese, you reach a green trail sign by a small forest shelter.

Now it’s time to stop descending (you’ve come down in height about 275 metres since Chata Pri Zelenom Plese) and ascend again. A 15-minute climb up through woodland plonks you on the blue trail which now, with little possibility to go wrong, ushers you up to Skalnaté Pleso. Still, you climb a good 450 metres on this path and whilst the way is never in doubt as it snakes up through the forest, it’s tough on the knees because it’s built of huge stones like some Inca highway. From the time you join this blue trail, it’s a 1.5 hour climb to Skalnaté Pleso. Just over half-way through, the path kinks as you come onto open moor at a rather idyllic grassy picnic spot. From here you can already see the path cutting up all the way to the observatory at Skalnaté Pleso. The boulders which form the path here require some regular looking at (as opposed to the beautiful views across to the Low Tatras) to pick your way, until you rejoin the Tatranská Magistrala at the lake of Skalnaté Pleso: an observatory, a really interesting educational trail around the lake and the afore-mentioned cable car station. The cable car is closed in May and when we were there (beginning of June) it had not reopened and the whole place had a slightly eerie feel. As you rejoin the Tatranská Magistrala (if you’ve taken the yellow/green/blue route) look up towards the observatory and see the red trail sheering up beyond: you won’t be sorry you took the easier option!

Anyway, Skalnaté Pleso is an intriguing place to spend some time and you can read more about it in this post.

Back on the Red Trail to Zamkovského Chata

From the trail sign on the southern side of the lake, go across the bridge (below which the lake empties into a waterfall in what seems like, viewed from a distance, the edge of the High Tatras’ very own infinity pool. An educational trail curves around the lake shore but the red trail goes up the weather-blasted steps to the wall of the somewhat monstrous cable car station building itself, then follows the building around anti-clockwise. Don’t take any paths veering off up to the right here but continue antic-clockwise down the other wide of the building to another trail sign almost under the towering legs of the Cable Car pillars. The path drops down a few metres to Skalnatá Chata, where refreshments are on offer between 10am and 5pm, and where you can also stay. It’s very popular when the chairlift is open but not one that Englishmaninslovakia recommends.

Car station at Skalnate Pleso

Car station at Skalnate Pleso

The rocky path (red and green until this point since the cable car station) then splits: green descends to Tatranská Lomnica; red rises up a little then slowly descends gently down the contour line on another hard-on-the-legs rocky path down into thick forest. A sharp kink right in the path at Lomnická Vyhliadka suddenly yields great views over to Slavkovský Štit. It’s a 50-minute descent from the cable car to a fork in the path, ensconced in the forest once more, where the Tatranská Magistrala forges on left and Zamkovského Chata is a one minute walk on the green trail to the right.

SO. You’ve arrived at the best night’s accommodation around (see Englishmaninslovakia’s separate post on Zamkovského Chata. It’s probably time for a round of beer and dumplings.

The Out-and-Back Path to Teryho Chata

For those of you that don’t feel sufficiently exercised yet, the best walk to do around here, once you’ve deposited your backpacks, is up on the green trail to the remote Teryho Chata: the highest mountain house in the Tatras (save for the pricey rooms at the top of Gerlachovsky Štit . From the top there are the great views of Lomnicky Štit (you’ll crest the 2000 metre mark by Teryhó Chata and feel properly on top of the world – or, at least, Eastern Europe. (Random fact time: the only higher points in Eastern Europe than Gerlachovský Štit are Bulgaria’s Musala, and a trio of peaks including Triglav in Slovenia). Have around of beer and dumplings in Teryhó Chata and descend.

What Next?

Read more about staying in Chata Pri Zelenom Plese (beginning of stage) or Zamkovskeho Chata or Teryho Chata (end of stage) (links bolded until written)

Stage One (previous stage)Ždiar to Chata pri Zelenom Plese

Stage Three (next stage)Zamkovského Chata to Horský Hotel Popradské Pleso

Stage Four: Horský Hotel Popradské Pleso to Pribylina

Introduction to the Tatranská Magistrala

Tatranská Magistrala Hiking Kit List

Buying Hiking Maps & Apps

High Tatras Mountains: 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: Zamkovského Chata

It was summer, but we were still rubbing our hands together to keep the circulation going whenever we had to remove our gloves to study the map. A cold wind was blowing belated flurries of snow down from 2500m peaks over the long, exposed, boulder-strewn stretch of the Tatranská Magistrala between the lurid mountain lakes of Zelené Pleso and Skalnaté Pleso, shaking the timbers of each man-made structure, hut to signpost, that it could find. Re-entering the pine forests after a long descent from these wild climes was for us a relief: a respite, if you like. It’s a particularly majestic stretch of forest: one that has survived the strong winds (a phenomenon known as the Tatranská bóra) that have plagued the high-altitude forests of the High Tatras for decades; one which feels as old as, or older than, the glam days of Tatras tourism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. And it is here that we eagerly sought refuge in one of the most interesting accommodation options of the many dotted across these high mountains.

Zamkovského Chata is one of the oldest High Tatras mountain houses: an expansive two-floor log cabin that resonates with history. Štefan Zamkovský, a renowned mountain guide and ranger, and one of the key figures behind the development of the High Tatras as a tourist destination, built the house between 1942 and 1943, lived there with his family, and let part of it out as a refuge from the weather for weary walkers. Despite his efforts for the local tourism industry, Zamkovský had his property confiscated in 1948 under the Communist regime (the house subsequently became named after one captain Nalepka) and it was only after 1989 that the lodge was returned to the Zamkovský family,  and reassumed the name Zamkovského Chata.

The story of Štefan Zamkovský is touchingly retold in the log cabin restaurant of Zamkovského Chata – which has become a museum of sorts to the development of tourism in the High Tatras (and a museum where you can slurp Slovak mulled wine and wolf down pirohy – great by us!). A one-hour walk up from the cable car station at Hrebienok (connecting tourists to the resort village of Starý Smokovec below) and a one hour walk down from Skalnaté Pleso (where another cable car connects tourists with the more easterly resort village of  Tatranská Lomnica below), it is accessible enough for families and afternoon strollers to trek here for lunch, and close enough to the serious mountain hiking/climbing to act as a magnet for the outdoor adventure-obsessed. Its location is sedate and sheltered, in contrast to the other more exposed mountain houses out on the slopes, but at the same time, breaking through the gaps in the trees, are signs of the sheer rock faces close by. As if by way of reminder, the tough green trail spirals away from outside the chata, climbing from 1475m on the edge of the lodge grounds to Téryho Chata,  the remotest mountain house at 2000m, in one hour and 45 minutes.

But the lack of a cable car terminal means Zamkovského Chata still retains a blissful isolation; a Germanic “lost house in the woods” feel. Six 2-, 4- and 5-bed rooms above the restaurant offer beds for 23 people: if it’s full there is also an attic with several mattresses for bedding down if you have your own sleeping bag. It’s one of the High Tatras mountain houses that’s open year-round, too – and therefore the facilities (available information on nearby hikes, options of food in the restaurant – are better than at many other mountain accommodations. You’ll be charmed by it whatever the circumstances of your arrival. Hiking here from Zelené pleso in bitter weather on , it will seem nothing short of a cosy woodsy paradise.

This mountain house is our recommended stopover between stage 2 and stage 3 of the Tatranská Magistrala, Slovakia’s most famous long-distance hiking trail that runs right across the High Tatras from Ždiar to Podbanské/Pribylina.

MAP LINK: The remoteness of Zamkovského Chata means it’s not possible to get sufficient detail and useful nearby landmarks on one map. This map is zoomed to the level that shows where it is in relation to the Hrebienok cable car terminus; zoom in one level and the paths between the two and on up to Skalnaté pleso become visible.

PRICES: High-season (summer) prices are 19 Euros per person per night; these reduce to 16 Euros per person per night in the low (winter) season. Not included in the above are Breakfast (costs 5 Euros) and dinner (costs 8 Euros). (2016 prices)

BOOK ZAMKOVSKÉHO CHATA: This is an extremely remote mountain house, without a regular internet connection,so booking is generally done by phone (or, if sufficiently in advance, email.) There may be a problem getting someone to speak English if you do telephone – although it is policy to usually have one English-speaking member of staff on duty at all times. Telephone 00421-(0)-905-554-471 (mobile). Email zamka@zamka.sk.

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

The High Tatras Mountain Resorts: Štrbské Pleso

Štrbské Pleso, probably Slovakia’s most famous lake and certainly the number one tourist destination in the High Tatras, may not seem the most likely choice for Englishmaninslovakia.com to write about – except that, somewhat surprisingly, it’s not actually been covered in English in much detail anywhere else on the web. When we realised this, dear readers, we thought we’d create a comprehensive post on it for your reference.

There’s a number of ways you can approach writing on what, in Slovakia at least, is such a well-known attraction. Rant about it as one of Slovakia’s must-sees, as much Slovak tourist promotion seems to (nah, we’re not going to do that). Write about the less-obvious things to do in the vicinity, as a gentle but stubborn resistance to the disproportionate info on the better-known sights (namely Hotel Patria, flanking all the most famed pics of the lake, just like in the shot above, or Grandhotel Kempinski which is the Slovakian countryside’s most glamorous accommodation) that only constitute a small percentage of the points of interest. Or, a third approach: subvert the subverters and just write about the good and the bad of this popular tourist hangout (the approach we’ve decided on here). Popular, let it be emphasised, but still nevertheless with a very real appeal: and plenty of the magnetism old turn-of-the century resorts such as this one exude.

The name, which is rather a bother to type on a UK computer keypad with all those accents, means the lake (pleso) of Štrba – Štrba being a small settlement beneath Štrbské Pleso. The Tatras Electric Railway actually runs from Štrba up to Štrbské Pleso (see the link for further information and, indeed, for the other main way to get to Štrbské Pleso by public transport – from Poprad. There are also, of course, several ways to get there by road.)

What There is to Do: In a Nutshell

Hiking: At 1355 metres up (Štrba and the other communities along the foot of the High Tatras are around 800 metres altitude) the geography around Štrbské Pleso is pretty thrilling: within a few kilometres of here you can be hiking up on paths a further 1000m+ higher, such as the peak of Krivan (2494m, to the northwest) or Vysoká (2560m, to the northeast). Pine forests cloak the lake’s shores to the east, west and, particularly, north (the crazy Communist-built structure of Hotel Patria on the northern shore is framed by them). Beyond that, it’s bare rocky crags that look incredibly dramatic on a moody day and photogenic on a decent one – often reflected in the lake water.

Skiing: Štrbské Pleso has taken advantage of its geology to build one of the better skiing centres in Slovakia – and certainly the best in the High Tatras.

Ostentatious Architecture: Ornate turn-of-the-century or Communist: the choice is yours, architecturally, at Štrbské Pleso and a tour to take in the different styles is a must. See our Ludicrous Little Tour of Communist Architecture!

Learning Trail: This skirts the lake perimeter and tells you about the area’s history.

Rowing Boats: You can go rowing on the lake: very nice and old-fashioned.

Eating: A couple of very good restaurants can be found around the lake.

Staying: Likewise, and as already mentioned, there are some rather striking accommodation options too.

More detail on these activities below…

But First: The Arrival

First impressions when you get off the Tatras Electric Railway at this end-of-the-line station of Štrbské Pleso aren’t great, actually. The “village” such as it is around the railway terminus has fallen prey to some pretty crass 1960’s and 70’s development and in places actually looks like a construction site. There are several hotels in this part of the village – none amazing, although this one won prizes for its architecture back in the day:

strbske pleso

 

About the best thing you can do here is to go for a bite to eat in the very good cafe/restaurant, Reštauracia Furkotka. It’s got outside seating and does all the typical Slovak dishes very nicely. Walk up passed the souvenir stands towards the ski centre to find the access road to the actual lake part of Štrbské Pleso cutting up to the left (which, of course, is the part deserving of your time).

Staying, Eating and Activities

Check In,Eat Out…

From where most visitors reach the  lakeshore (the south-east corner), stretching away along the south shore are Grandhotel Kempinski and Hotel Solisko. Both are beautiful early 20th-century buildings worth checking out. Also on the southern shore at this point is the pretty jetty you can hire rowing boats from. The restaurant of Grandhotel Kempinski is of course very nice, but it’s not the most atmospheric: that honour goes to Koliba Patria which you will find by following the lake path round anti-clockwise, about half-way along the eastern side. It looks palatial enough too in its own way, but favours the Slovak mountain way of building: with wood. Koliba Patria is actually owned by the distinctive building you could see from outside those first two hotels: Hotel Patria. How do describe this somewhat imposing building: an enormous, stark, but inside very lovely mountain chalet?

Architecture…

As intimated above, the contrasts between the turn-of-the-century resports (Grandhotel Kempinski, Hotel Solisko) on one side of the lake and the Communist style of Hotel Patria on the other are worthy of a look-see and some camera shots.

Learning Trail…

The path going around the shore, you’ll notice is a learning path which tells you a lot of information about the history of the area. Jozef Szentivnyi was evidently an important chap: more or less pivotal, actually. He built the original lodges here (where Hotel Solisko now stands), he constructed the first tourist paths, he built the first hunting lodge here. He made, in short, this village into a proper resort.

Hiking…

As far as outdoor activities away from the lakeshore go, number one has to be hiking. You soon lose the other gaggles of tourists once you start to climb away from the lake up through the forest. Another learning path, in fact, has been constructed to connect Štrbské Pleso via a one-hour red trail hike to Popradské Pleso, a higher lake (also with two very nice accommodation options, including the fun Horský Hotel Popradské Pleso) at 1494 metres and still more immersed in stupendous mountain scenery.

As a sample of the hiking ops, this route, heading north from Štrbské Pleso, and also the red trail heading west from Štrbské Pleso forms stage four of the Tatranská Magistrala hike, Slovakia’s most-famous long-distance hiking trail. Our trail description of this hike, which runs across the Tatras, begins from east to west (thus as Štrbské Pleso is towards the western part of the mountain range it features near the end of the route). For a general overview of the hike (which you can of course do both ways), please see our introduction to the Tatranská Magistrala. This aforementioned red trail, anyhow, leads you right up to the points from where you can access the high peaks like Krivan (following the path west from Štrbské Pleso) or Vysoká (following it north).

Skiing…

A close second activity back nearer the lakeshore is skiing. Facilities and snow coverage make Štrbské Pleso Ski Centre facilities quite good. Please see the link to the website which gives a good overview of facilities – but in Englishmaninslovakia’s opinion, and this is also based on discussions with a number of Slovak tour guides, the standards are not “the best”. They are good – and they are available at cheaper prices than in the Alps – but they are not top-notch.

MAP LINK: Poprad Airport is in the bottom right corner of the map; you can see Route 534 heading up from here into the mountains at Starý Smokovec, then continuing west to Štrbské Pleso in the top left-hand corner of the map.

GETTING THERE: The Tatras Electric Railway, from Poprad

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: Right by the lake, you’re on stage 4 of the Tatranská Magistrala long-distance footpath which transects the whole High Tatras range of mountains (or stage 1, if you fancy heading west-east). Go on, give at least a stage a go!

RELATED POST: London to Poprad Flights!

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?)

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The High Tatras Mountain Resorts – Štrbské Pleso: Mountain Lakeshore Dining at Koliba Patria

Štrbské Pleso is a place people end up at. Its beauty is much touted in Slovakia (and it even makes a point of stating, on the banks of this lake ensconced beneath the High Tatras peaks, about how it got on the long list for the Seven Wonders of Nature). To be honest, such a bid was a bit of a long shot. For a start, a Wonder of Nature probably shouldn’t have hotels along two of its shores. It’s a very pretty place, however. And the chances are you’ll come here on your High Tatras sojourn because it’s a great base (those hotels, remember) for some truly amazing hiking (the lake is right on the country’s most-famed hiking trail, the Tatranská Magistrala), skiing and mountain climbing – not to mention being the end of the line of the Tatras Electric Railway (and “end of the line” stations always hold a certain fascination).

We’ve created a separate post on Štrbské Pleso which covers the attractions of this mountain lake and the village below it (which makes the Wikipedia entry look, dare it be said, scant). But for this post we want to focus on Koliba Patria, a fairytale-like chata (i.e., mountain cottage) restaurant on the eastern shore of the lake. It doubles up as being the most beautiful building in the area and serving the best food.

Inside… check out that stove!

Inside… check out that stove! – image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

As you hit the southeast corner of the lakeshore on the main path up from the mountain railway station and the village “centre”, head anti-clockwise on the lakeside path and, half way around to Hotel Patria (who own the joint) you’ll not fail to spot the place. The inside (nice and light with lots of windows and a balcony looking out on the lake) is utterly traditional Slovak: everything done in dark wood with a huge ceramic stove typical of rural Slovakia, ski apparatus and other old farming implements on the walls, along with several pictures of the Tatras back in the days of yore. Seating is in a series of alcoves (separated by screens and making the eating experience quite private) and there’s an upstairs too generally only open for functions. Service is very good here, and they’re used to all kinds of bizarre tourist requests. But it’s certainly not just a spot for foreign tourists: it’s mostly Slovaks on a weekend day out lunching here.

You’ll find it easy to read the menus (options are in German and English besides Slovak) but not quite so easy to choose. But whilst the menu is fairly international, the Slovak classics are the thing to go for here. There’s a good intro to the Slovak sheep’s cheese known as bryndza (a tasting platter of the stuff) – or you can go for a deliciously creamy version of the national dish, bryndzové halušky (sheep’s cheese dumplings with bacon). In fact, sheep’s cheese has rarely been glimpsed in a restaurant in as many combinations – you can even (unusually for Slovakia) order it with just a salad (apples and tomatoes). The Slovak mains also have the advantage of being quite cheap (5 to 8 Euros). On the meat front, the deer with plums and Slovakia’s delicious herb-infused way of preparing roast potatoes goes down very nicely… and, if you dare, you may wish to try Slovakia’s deadliest drink, Tatranský Čai or “Tatras Tea” – a potent locally-brewed spirit with a taste like Jagermeister.

FULL MENU

When we arrived the last time, we were in need of cake, however, and coffee: and here Koliba Patria does very well. A light fluffy sponge doused in wild berry sauce and good espresso. It was excusable, of course, on that occasion: we had a long way still to walk…

Good cake...

Good cake…

So there we have it: caught between the at-times pretentious glamour of the Grandhotel Kempinski on one side and the ostentatious bulk of Hotel Patria on the opposing shore,  Koliba Patria is, quite simply, a nice and very welcoming place to stop, eat and get acquainted with Slovak cuisine in a serene surrounding. Gone, thank God, is the village centre bustle and the terrible souvenir shops. The hikes, the hotels and the beckoning ski resort have managed to absorb the crowds and left this spot relatively relaxed.

MAP LINK: Here you can see most of the lakeshore sights, plus Štrbské Pleso and Popradské Pleso stops on the Tatras Electric Railway back to Poprad

LOCATION: Eastern lake shore, Štrbské Pleso

OPENING: 11:30am-10:30pm daily

BEST TIME TO VISIT: Around 12:30pm for an early lunch, when it’s none too crowded and it’s still perfectly acceptable to begin it all with some of the delectables cakes and coffee. As it’s on the lake shore, be sure to come here when it’s still light so you can see something of the view.

LAST UPDATED: April 2017

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: Koliba Patria can be visited on Stage 4 of the Tatranska Magistrala

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.

Ždiar: All Hail the Ginger Monkey

View from the dorm at the Ginger Monkey Hostel, Ždiar

View from the dorm at the Ginger Monkey Hostel, Ždiar – image by www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk

With the advent of December comes peak skiing season in the High Tatras, and no more appropriate time to mention for the first time my favourite place in these mountains, Ždiar, and the best accommodation option within, the Ginger Monkey.

On this eastern edge of the High Tatras, Ždiar (officially in the distinctive Goral-speaking region of Belianske Tatry or the Bela Tatras), with its traditional log chalets, rustic eateries (kolibe) and sharp-ridged mountains straight out of a picture book, at their most beautiful bathed in sharp late spring or autumn light, is unlikely to remain a traveller secret much longer. Some might say the secret is out.  Ždiar, Ginger Monkey et al have got a glowing write-up in the last couple of editions of the Slovakia chapter of Lonely Planet’s Eastern Europe (and having written the last edition I’m something of a guilty party). But Ždiar still feels secret, and so does the Ginger Monkey hostel within its sleepy confines.

The building, a traditionally-painted log cabin (a sight to behold in itself), slides into view on the right immediately after you pass the church in Ždiar village centre, set back on and up a grassy incline. My last visit was in the legendary tenure of Australian Dan but now Dan number two has come and gone and his successor is at the helm and, by all accounts, managing proceedings in an equally cool and offbeat way. First impressions? Well, you do have to pinch yourself. In a country that’s only slowly waking up to how to do really good hostels (well, Bratislava excepted) this is, in many ways, the ideal traveller hostel experience- I mean the one you would imagine if you plucked your twenty favourite images of what a welcoming, laid-back middle-of-nowhere bohemian crash pad should be out of your head and combined them in some best-of montage mega-image.

Chickens cluck outside and Wally the amicable hostel hound gives you an enthusiastic (and occasionally slobbering) welcome once you’re through the door. Immediately on the left is the common room/video room where obscure travel-friendly movies with an unexplained bias towards horror are watched of an evening, while across the way is the kitchen, where free tea and coffee and the complementary breakfast are partaken of, and where most of the serious traveller bonding/ drinking goes on. Beers are merely a euro each (cheap even by Slovakia’s standards of low-cost drinking) and, with the strange yet amenable assortment of travellers congregating come seven or so (sometimes they haven’t left from last night’s escapades), you’ll probably find yourself, even if you have a natural reserve, opening up and exchanging travel stories until the wee hours in a manner reminiscent of the good old days when hostels were there to do just this.

Make your way through a reception adorned in maps and tips on hikes and places to eat (Livia’s, aka the goulash hut is surely the best bet – they do beer, goulash and precisely nothing else) along a creaking corridor to the Internet terminal and then climb the stairs to the dorms. If you can, get the one at the front for sublime views (see picture above).

There are a couple of dorms, one single room and one twin room available, plus abundant information on local hikes which you can undertake with Wally. A good one wends down across the river (head left out of the hostel on the main road back towards Kežmarok to find the fording point) then curves back to come out by the ski centre on the other side of the village. Wally knows the way on this one, having been there many times before, but it’s also possible to hike up into the High Tatras from here via Kopské Saddle (which is by the beginning of the Tatranska Magistrala trail, Slovakia’s most famous hike, which crosses the Slovakian Tatras from east to west, and which Englishmaninslovakia walked all of in 2014 and 2015.

In essence, expect oodles of atmosphere and a fair level of cosy comfort (wandering around aimlessly in pyjamas and slippers is OK here).

And did I mention skiing? Ah yes, you can ski. Here’s the link to Ždiar’s Bachledova ski area. Or if you want to continue your Tatras adventure, click here for more.

And finally: check out the Ginger Monkey’s website for info on the continuation of your journey over the border with Poland to Zakopane. It’s a much-done and delightfully scenic trip. You can also read our more extensive blog post about it here.

MAP LINK: Due to Ždiar’s straggly nature it’s hard to capture the salient mapping info on just one screen but – as an explanation – the right of the map is the village entrance, and the left (where those red lines are?) the start of the Bachledova ski area. For the Ginger Monkey, take the second right-hand turn once in Ždiar village and then make for the church, basically (then you won’t miss it)

PRICES: Dorms are 14 Euros per bed, and twin rooms are 34 Euros (2017 prices). There is also now a cottage available for hire. Contact Ginger Monkey for further details.

LAST UPDATED: April 2017

BOOK THE GINGER MONKEY