The Ginger Monkey hostel in Ždiar is a fun and sociable base for exploring Slovakia’s High Tatras mountains
Sometimes you read about a place that sounds so amazing that the cynical voice in your head questions if it can live up to the hype. One guidebook likened the Ginger Monkey hostel to a Slovakian version of Alex Garland’s novel, The Beach. I set out to discover if it really is this good.
A long and adventurous journey is usually a pre-requisite to going somewhere special. I took a train to Poprad-Tatry (about 4 to 4.5 hours from Bratislava) where I sat in the dining car with a Šariš beer. Outside is a landscape of tree covered hills, lakes and ruined castles. Inside the waiter swaggered about with his big tummy, gold chain and chest hair.
Next, there is a 25-minute narrow gauge electric train to Stary Smokevec. I wish this was my final destination because I love the name! The final leg is a 40-minute bus journey to Ždiar where I made the mistake of getting off too early and had to walk an extra 3km. It was actually a joy because of pine scented air, snow sprinkled mountains on my left, wooden houses on my right.
If you were asked to imagine what a Slovakian wooden cabin might look like you would more than likely come up with something similar to the Ginger Monkey hostel- porch with hammock, communal kitchen table and wooden floors and walls. The dorm rooms are what you would expect from a hostel- you get a bed and not much else- but there is a cosy feel to the place.
There were no other guests around when I arrived so I looked at the hiking trails promoted on the walls around the reception area and settled on the River Walk. The path had a layer of crispy leaves and there were little wooden bridges crossing the river. I fell for a farmhouse painted blue with stacks of logs outside and picture windows facing the peaks and crags of the High Tatras.
Dinner in the village
When I returned to the hostel I found everyone in the kitchen halfway through a meal. Rather than interrupt I asked one of the hostel staff if there was a restaurant nearby. “Zdiarsky dom. Try the fallow deer goulash, it’s delicious,” she said. It was indeed good, melt-in-the-mouth, with a thick sauce and cost less than five Euros. However, I was very well aware that I was eating on my own and the Ginger Monkey is supposed to be a sociable hostel.
I need not have worried. When I returned I found myself dealt into a game of poker even though I had never played in my life. We used plastic chips and it was great fun even if I did come last!
The small size of the hostel lends itself very well to socialising. There is nowhere to escape the company of others, so if you prefer your own space this is perhaps not the best option for you. If, however, you enjoy meeting other travellers this place is ideal. The owners do much to encourage interactions with a host of events. On the second night the hostel crew cooked up a chicken pie and we all sat around the table in the kitchen to eat together. This was followed by a quiz night in the lounge with a top prize of a Ginger Monkey t-shirt. I made up for my abysmal poker performance and won!
There is even an honesty bar. Each time you take a bottle of Slovakian beer you put a mark against your name on the note pinned to the fridge door. When you check-out you have to total up the number of marks against your name and this is added to your bill.
The free breakfast consists of tea, coffee and bread with jams, honey and chocolate spread. I sat with Jake, an Australian and Paul, a Canadian and planned a trip to Spiš Castle. You can reach this by bus (2 hours), but as Paul was in possession of a car we embarked on a mini road trip. We got lost in thick fog and ended up on a rough track that was impassable. We stopped to ask several locals for directions, including three construction workers who looked miserable and two women with no teeth who blew us a kiss!
The castle was almost completely shrouded in mist which made it even easier to imagine the year 1241 when the Tatars attacked it. I pictured the defenders lined up on the walls with their weapons at the ready staring into the fog and hearing, but not yet seeing, the approaching hoards. Spiš is one of the biggest castle complexes in Europe so it took a couple of hours to explore the courtyards, battlements and towers.
The big climb
You can’t come here without doing a big hike, so the next day the three of us set out for Jahňací štít (2,229.6m), the easternmost peak of the High Tatras. This was a 7-hour walk that was both stunning and precarious. Some sections of the path were covered in snow and we treaded carefully to avoid a fatal slip. Higher up there are iron chains which you use to haul yourself up. At first I didn’t think I could do this, but seeing Jake and Paul manage I was able to copy them.
On the approach to the peak there was ice and narrow ledges. The only way I felt comfortable getting to the top was to do it on my hands and knees. A mountain goat with her kid watched us and skipped with ease, making my efforts look pathetic. The view was all the more impressive for the effort it took to get there.
On our return there was an impromptu outing to the abandoned hotel with torches to try to find an old wooden sledge that had become a Ginger Monkey legend. It was a spooky place and we played tricks on each other by hiding and jumping out. I managed to find the sledge in the basement and the hostel staff reckoned they could fix it up in time for the snow arriving.
Back at the hostel two women who worked on fishing boats in Kodiak Bay began singing Russian sea shanties in the lounge. Another guest and one of the hostel crew provided musical backing with guitar and bongo drums.
I was told by hostel staff that this was simply another day in the life of the Ginger Monkey. A combination of impulsiveness, sociability and mountains makes this an ideal destination for travellers seeking a unique adventure.