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The Best Ways to Experience Christmas in Slovakia

This is the season to be happy, after all.

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

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

Christmas Markets

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

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

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

RELATED POST: Top Ten Classic Slovak Foods

Christmas Shopping

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

Christmas Escapes

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remember Silvester!

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

Home is Where the Heart is

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

The High Tatras Mountain Resorts – Stará Lesna: Hotel Horizont Hits the High-End Accommodation Scene

The Grand Opening...

To many manic drum rolls, not to mention a spectacular light show, a traditional Eastern Slovak Orthodox blessing and the release of several doves into the High Tatras night, Hotel Horizont, Slovakia’s latest luxury hotel, officially opened last Thursday evening – and under precisely the mountainous backdrop depicted!

It was a noteworthy occasion for several reasons.

Hotel Horizont’s location, in Stará Lesna just below the traditional “big three” mountain resorts in the High Tatras (the Smokovec resorts, Tatranská Lomnica and Štrbské Pleso for your information), deservedly catapults Stará Lesna up to the status of mountain resort too. The pretty village of pastille-hued houses straddling a single street sits a couple of kilometres below Tatranská Lomnica, the nearest stop on the Tatras Electric Railway (and as well as being connected by road is also linked by a very pleasant woodland walk). It’s a far more undisturbed community than the sometimes hectic touristy villages of Starý Smokovec and Štrbské Pleso) but is positioned at the very beginning of the foothill forests of the mountains, meaning that the landscape to the north, just as with the “big three”, has protected status.

Four-star hotels do not open in the High Tatras (or in Slovakia, for that matter) every day, either. The “big three” each sport one top-end resort – most notably Grandhotel Kempinski on the lakeshore above Štrbské Pleso – and each of these is a veritable grand dame. But the Horizont, despite its significantly more modern appearance, is comparable for quality and unlike the others, it’s an utter individual: and not a part in any way of an international chain.

The Inside Perspective

Colour-wise, the interior is flecked geometric greys, reflecting the grains of the crystalline Slovak stone which themes the decoration in the public areas and the rooms. The reception ushers you through spaciously to a bar with a terrace overlooking the lofty peaks. Off to the right is arguably the hotel highlight: a gorgeous English-style cigar snug bar designed by renowned Humenné wood specialists and constructed entirely with glossy oak. Behind that, the restaurant is already gaining a reputation for its scrumptious hriba polievka (mushroom soup). As reception is on the second floor, it’s easy to miss upon first arrival the beautiful ground floor pool, poolside bar and fitness centre…

A beer with a view…

The rooms (six floors of them all told) are a tad above average size for a four-star joint: the tasteful modern decoration extends here too. None of the rooms have baths, which is perhaps the sole disadvantage but they do have balconies, which even rooms at the “big three’s” biggest hotels often lack. However, with the pool below and – another candidate for Horizont’s pièce de resistance – with the seventh floor rooftop sauna and Jacuzzi with their birds-eye view out towards the soaring summits of Gerlachovský štit and Lomnicky štit, pampering at this place is never more than a stone’s throw distant.

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The cigar lounge…

Why to Stay in a Nutshell

Perhaps, to synopsise why a stay here should be a part of your High Tatras holiday, Hotel Horizont must best be described as tranquil, modern, affordable mountain resort luxury: these six words put it in a category all of its own. Grandhotel Kempinki puts a hefty price tag on its sumptuousness; neither the best digs that the Smokovec resorts or Tatranská Lomnica can offer come close for modernity.

And at the same time, the mountaintops (the highest accessible point in Slovakia for non-professional climbers, no less) are a 25-minute walk and an unforgettable cable car trip away.

The Hike to the to Lomnicky štit Cable Car

To hike to Tatranská Lomnica and the cable car station up to Lomnicky štit, turn left out of the hotel’s main entrance and walk along the dead-end lane passing one other hotel (to your left) and skirt on a trackway to the left of a second hotel. A gravelled path then continues in the same direction of through woodland. Follow the gravelled path to cross the Tatras Electric Railway and after more woodland turn left on the road into Tatranská Lomnica.

Along this road, a pavement-path follows the right-hand edge. The main road eventually turns to the left but proceed on the path through a small park to come out on the left-hand side of Reštauracia Stará Mama. Turn right on the pedestrian precinct to reach Tatranská Lomnica’s Tatras Electric Railway station (where you can take the train to Starý Smokovec or Štrbské Pleso). Cross the railway line to ascend to the main road at the left-hand edge of the village’s gorgeously maintained main park (where, turning left, you will pass a historic ski museum (good fun!), the tourist office and the sky-blue Penzión Encian (on the right). Just after this point, by which you will see the cable car complex above you, turn right on the road up to the cable car – where a new adventure to the second-highest point in Slovakia, Lomnicky štit, begins…

MAP LINK

PRICE: from 110/140 Euros single/double

BOOK HOTEL HORIZONT

Wizz Air Take-off!

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

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

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

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

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

A Quick Guide to the Other Content We Have on Poprad

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

Places to Go: Poprad’s lavish Aqua Park

Places to Go: Nine reasons to linger in Poprad

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

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

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

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

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

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s gourmet chocolatier

Going Out: Poprad & the Manchester United Connection

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

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

Top Ten Medieval Towns in Slovakia

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

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

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!

How to Get Between Poprad, Ždiar and Zakopane in Poland

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

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

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

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

The Direct Way

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

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

Poprad-Zakopane in the Off-Season

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

Zakopane-Poprad in the Off-Season

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

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

 

A Quick Guide to the Other Content We Have on Poprad

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

Places to Go: Poprad’s lavish Aqua Park

Places to Go: Nine reasons to linger in Poprad

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

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

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

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

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

Places to Eat & Drink: Poprad’s gourmet chocolatier

Going out: Poprad & the Manchester United connection

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

Getting Around: London to Poprad Flights

Top Ten Medieval Towns in Slovakia

 

MAP LINK:

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

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

 

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!

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.