When in Slovakia, take it slow

Archana Singh | Updated on October 26, 2019

Active alert: The High Tatras mountain range acts as a natural barrier between Poland and Slovakia   -  ARCHANA SINGH

From mountain peaks to trails, lakes and shy bears, Tatra has them all

At dawn, the mountains are bathed in golden light, and the air has a nip. Despite it being summertime, the cool breeze in Slovakia makes you feel like you are in the middle of winter. Fleeces are zipped, bootlaces tightened, backpack stocked, walking poles extended, and off we set to explore the Tatra National Park — the largest and the most visually striking national park of Slovakia.

“A chance of sighting bears in Slovakia is as high as rain in London,” says Erik Sevcik, my trek guide, pointing at fresh paw marks and excreta of a bear from the previous night. “But don’t worry; they are shy animals and usually stay away from crowded places during day light,” Sevcik reassures me.

After several years of dreaming, I am finally in Poprad to hike the High Tatras that act as a natural border between Poland and Slovakia. Soaring mountain peaks above 2,000m, emerald-green lakes, rugged hiking trails and cable cars all come together to form an adventure playground that can rival the Alps. I am told winter at Tatras is as exciting as the summer, if not more. Instead of cosying around the fireplace, everyone from a toddler to a senior citizen comes out to enjoy husky dog sledging, horse sleigh ride, snowshoeing, skijoring (on skis, and being pulled by a horse) and of course skiing.

I am tempted to make a winter travel plan right away. But first things first — concentrate on the present — hike the High Tatras. I take a short funicular cable ride from a small resort town called Starý Smokovec to reach the kick-off point at Hrebienok. Despite being early morning, hikers of all kinds — families, couples, solo travellers and groups — have assembled to climb the mighty Tatras. Each one picks a trail based on the interest and difficulty level.

Sevcik and I opt for a day hike to Zamkovského Chata, a tranquil Swiss-style chalet built in 1942. The well-paved and clearly marked trail is wide and gentle to begin with, before snaking steeply up into the tall spruce and Scots pine trees. Pacing on an easy dusty trail, overlooking the sweeping valley and the peaks above, all draped in torn curtains of fluffy cloud, we reach an icy cold Studený Potok (creek) flanked by granite peaks on one side and snow-capped mountains on the other. We then tramp ahead on the wooden path to reach Obrovský vodopád (The Giant Waterfall). The frothy water tumbles down between two rocks into a 20-m deep gorge. From here we climb a narrow and stony path that leads us to the chalet.

Our trek might have been relatively easy, apt even for kids, but the corresponding rewards are significant. Just below the treeline, Zamkovského Chata welcomes us with the warmth of a grandma’s kitchen. Like other mountain huts in the park, supplies here are ferried on foot by “sherpas”. Some of these Slovak porters are professionals; others are volunteers who seek to keep the tradition and lifestyle of the sherpas alive. Contrary to popular perception, they are distinctly different from the Himalayan sherpas — they only carry supplies, not luggage of the trekkers. We refuel with some hearty Slovak fare — lentil soup and dumplings with sheep cheese, all washed down with Tatratea, a tea-based liqueur from the region.

As we are about to yomp down, a gorgeous husky marches in. I leave everything aside to play with the dog, and the owner, a female sherpa, happily allows her pet to play with us.

On our way back, down the mountain, a stunning orange-and-white Slovakian wild fox appears from nowhere. She stops just a few feet away, turns her face towards me, looks straight into my eyes, neither filled with fear nor aggression, just curiosity — before running away in the forest. That momentary eye-to-eye contact makes my heart skip a few beats and makes me realise how lucky I am to explore a country where nature and human beings still coexist in harmony.

And, it’s not just the alpine adventure that makes the High Tatras a must-visit. This compact, rugged country of central Europe is gifted with a bounty of mineral springs, which are used for both therapeutic and relaxing purposes. Affordable pricing has made Slovakia a hub for health and wellness-seeking tourists. The prolonged soak in the hot geothermal pools and the mineral-infused saunas of the Aquacity wellness resort provide a perfect reward for a day’s hike.

  • Travel log:
  • Getting there
  • Fly to any of the major European cities, and then take a flight/bus/train or car to Poprad.
  • Hiking tip
  • While self-guided trails are easily accessible, it’s better to use a local agency (Adventoura, for example) to overcome the language barrier.
  • Tip
  • There are loads of options for both the outdoorsy and the not-so-outdoorsy:
  • - Tichá Dolina valley for bear watching.
  • - River Dunajec for white water rafting.
  • - Drevenik for rock climbing.
  • - Ždiar for a slice of the Slovak countryside.
  • - Spiš Castle for its medieval charm.

Archana Singh is a freelance writer based in Delhi

Published on October 25, 2019

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