The High Tatras mountain range of northern Slovakia is an outdoor destination for all seasons, and proves that size isn’t everything
Part of the Carpathian Mountains, the small but beautifully formed High Tatras range dominates the northern part of Slovakia and forms a natural frontier with Poland. With 212 square miles on the Slovakian side, this is a year-round destination abundant in all manner of things to do and admire.
During the winter months the fast developing ski resorts offer pistes and cross-country tracks spanning between 3 and 30 miles that come with the added bonus of being a cheaper alternative to many of the more famous and popular areas of western Europe. For example, at Tatranska Lomnica, piste builders have just finished working on their latest creation, an €11 million ski resort that boasts a one-day pass typically priced at €30. To get an overview of this latest addition you can take a cable car, passing the red and blue runs around Skalnate Pleso en route to the summit of Lomnicky Stit and the locality's most famous and second highest peak. At the top, the Café Dedo welcomes you with a cup of herbal tea topped off with a nip of Slivovica, an infused plum-schnapps with which to take in the views that, like the rarefied atmosphere, are breathtaking.
Outside the winter season, the High Tatras has a host of other healthy pursuits such as the dense and varied 190-mile network of marked hiking trails that weave their way through thick spruce, amongst quaint villages and around lakes. Of these well-kept paths, the Tatranská magistrála (Tatras Artery) is without doubt the daddy and certainly the most popular route. South-facing, it runs the entire length of the range and stretches a little over 37 miles, which, while not a great distance to the hardy and well equipped, takes several days to complete. Indeed, this and many other routes are often underestimated by first-time visitors and it’s always worth bearing in mind that the topography here can be extremely challenging even for the most experienced Alpine hikers.
For rock climbers, the highest rocky wall stands at 2,953 feet on the northern side of Mt Malý; while for mountaineers, the Galéria Ganku, Mt Ostrý Roháč and Mt Plačlivé have proven the most popular. Alternatively, those who prefer the caress of tight Lycra and the feel of pedals beneath their feet can choose from 16 marked mountain bike routes that range from easy or medium to four trails suitable for only the fittest and most experienced of bikers.
It was the perceived health values of the local air that first brought visitors to the region during the latter half of the 19th century. International royalty and heads of state headed here from all over Europe to marvel at the dramatic scenery and plunge into or consume some of the bubbling geo-thermal waters before taking to the vast gothic and lavish sanatoriums and grand hotels that opened to welcome them and their entourages.
For the rest of the population, travellers took to small, purpose-built humble cottages to shelter in when bad weather made travelling the mountains impossible. Many of these still survive today, with the most famous and, indeed, oldest - Rainerova Chata - now open as a shrine to Tatras mountain life and welcoming cafe hosted by the charismatic Mr and Mrs Petras, who are happy to serve the tired and weary with fiery goulash and schnapps.
The High Tatras is also the most westerly point in Europe for potential bear spotting and an estimated 80 of the brown variety roam wildly, sharing space with wolves, roe and red deer, marmots and chamois. Nature trails and European safaris are becoming an increasingly popular pastime here.
The foothills are dotted with picturesque timber villages born of the 19th-century Hapsburg tourist influx, with Starý Smokovec being the oldest and best equipped centre for visitors. While nearby Poprad, the principle city and airport in these parts, is pleasant enough, there is little to keep anyone engaged there for too long. However, the AquaCity resort on its outskirts is definitely worthy of some time. Voted the world’s greenest resort in 2007, AquaCity offers all kinds of geo-thermal indoor and outdoor therapeutic fun, indulgences and treatments to soothe the day’s exertions away. Despite its somewhat brutal Soviet-style exterior, this is an extremely popular hotel, spa and therapy destination for weekending couples and families; such is the level of facilities, even professional international hockey and basketball teams regularly spend time here. For the brave, one unique treatment for mind and body is the cryo-chamber. Claimed to be the coldest place on earth, a small room is set to minus 120°c and is entered into for two minutes in little more than underwear, a mask and some rather ill-fitting slippers. Cold, but surprisingly not as cold as you’d think.
The capital Bratislava, some five hours by rail or road away, while not quite yet in the same popularity league as, say, Prague or Budapest, does offer some charm and fine Baroque surroundings along the Danube, and there is certainly enough to keep you occupied for at least one night before moving on to the mountains. Another bonus is that it comes without the wave upon wave of often embarrassing British stag and hen weekenders.
Small in stature it may be, but whatever the time of year, the High Tatras Mountains offer some of the most rewarding scenery in Europe. Well-marked trails, excellent facilities and low costs make it a great and offbeat destination for those with a taste for both adventure and relaxation, all in a perfectly formed natural environment. Though no secret to the many eastern European outdoors enthusiasts who come here, it's slowly starting to catch on with westerners, and it may be worth getting here soon before the prices start to rise in proportion to its increasing popularity.