On the slopes in Slovakia

by David.Cawley

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.



I’m a freelance travel journalist and member of the British Guild of Travel Writers specialising in UK destination writing that contribute to guidebooks, newspaper and magazine articles across the globe. Publications include, Thomas Cook, Britain Magazine, Heritage Magazine, Ryanair, Stars & Stripes, Compass Guides, Daily Mail online, MSN, WTG and 10Best.  My face for radio also occasionally  pays dividends – though not cash - when I’m asked into BBC and Independent radio studios to blather on all things travel.

With a degree in History and Archaeology that's actually been put to practical use, I also spend my spare time as a tour guide ‘harrying’ York and Yorkshire with overseas visitors taking them to places not often covered in mainstream travel itineraries.

As a card carrying, banner waving English northerner now living on the North Yorkshire border, I spend long days and nights ambling and poking my Roman nose into York’s ancient streets and hidden alleyways. When it’s time to rest my head I've been lucky enough to hit the city’s most expensive thread dense, chocolate topped hotel pillows as well as it’s more budget bolsters.

My York

Where I grab a beer: Sadly past the age where my drinking needs to be accompanied by pounding backbeats, The Three Legged Mare is one of my favourite places to head for those traditional pub pleasures of ambient noise made up of conversational murmurings accompanied and helped along by an intriguing choice of brews. Head to my York nightlife for some of my other suggestions.

Where I head for a warm drink: If the sun is out then it’s down to the small riverside terrace of La Place Verte for some seriously good D.I.Y Belgian hot chocolate. For coffee or tea infusions the calm and refinement of Grays Court is also hard to beat rain or shine.

My favourite dining spot: Another tough call amongst a vast buffet of good places to eat but the panache, quality and sheer joy of J Baker's Bistro Moderne  is currently hard to resist. A recent return to the elegant D.C.H was also a good reminder of what a fine place this is too.

Best place for people watching: Busy St Helen’s Square corrals local shoppers, tourists, city workers and a collection of street entertainers whose talents or otherwise bring the crowds to a temporary halt.

Most breathtaking view: Loins girded, I make the 275 step ascent to the top of York Minster for some literally breathtaking and blustery views across the city and Vale of York beyond.

My favourite stroll: Has to be around the wonderfully preserved York City Walls that corset the heart of York, where  its vistas offer a wonderful and ever-changing overview of York’s streets and rooftops. It takes me about an hour to do the loop and I find it best done early before the day trippers arrive or late in the day when they start to make their way back to the coach parks or train station. The New Walk along the Ouse is not too shabby either.

The best spot for peace and quiet: I head to the grassy and riverside spaces of Museum Gardens where close by the ruins of St Mary’s Abbey I can sit and watch the river traffic chug by. Like strolling the walls the best time is first or last thing in the day. Rowntree Park, just outside the centre comes a close second.

Secret shopping: The popular Stonegate and Petergate areas have their charm and rewards but for a small collection of retro clothing and foodie rewards away from the crowds I head to the lesser trod Fossgate. More details of these and more can be found on my Shopping in York.

Don’t leave without...a plan to come back. There's way too much to see and do in one visit