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Saturday, 01 July 2017

Slovakia: Mountains, Lakes & Caves

Written by Prachi Kagzi
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In my pursuit of unexplored destinations, I chanced upon the Tatra Mountains in Slovakia. The Tatra Mountains form a natural border between Slovakia and Poland. They are the highest mountain range in the Carpathians and second in Europe, only outdone by the Alps.
Though fairly unheard of, these majestic mountains have a dramatic black rugged topography to excite any hiker or photographer.

I started my journey from Krakow, Poland with a pleasant 2.5 hour drive cutting across the border into Slovakia. The place I chose to stay was Štrbské Pleso; its large glacial lake is a favorite ski, tourist, and health resort. Because its a stop on the Tatra trolley and rack railway, its a starting point for a host of popular hikes including to Kriváň and Rysy.

As soon as I had entered the Tatra region, I starting passing through many small mountain villages. I decided to make a quick stop in the quaint village of Zdiar. They have an intact folk museum where I could get a depiction of mountain village life and even try on some folk wedding dresses! The museum owner Patrick came out to greet us and talked about the simple village life of sheep herders. Locals here had been engaged in agriculture, pasturage and charcoal production before tourism hit them.

We drove higher and soon the crisp mountain air hit our faces. We passed many other villages, which are famous ski resorts of the area.

Finally, we reached The Grand Kempenski Hotel in Strbeske Pleso, our abode for the next three days. The hotel is perched right on the mountain lake amongst lush green pine trees. The baroque style building almost transported me to the Grand Budapest hotel and I felt I was in the fantasy Republic of Zubrowka! (a fictional Central European state in the movie by the same name.)

The hotel emanates opulence and old warm charm. It offered spectacular views of the highest peaks of the Tatras. I went for an hour of idle boating on the lake to kickstart my holiday. After a nightcap at their bar by the lake, replete with lounge chairs, fur blankets and old style heaters, I headed upstairs to my penthouse room and managed to tuck in early to ensure a fresh start for my hike the next day.

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Unlike most places I have hiked before, the Tatra mountains are an organized hiking holiday. The hiking routes are very well marked, have a lot of foot traffic and are even listed on google maps! I didn't buy the traditional hikers map as I found the route well marked on trees and rocks along with the luxury of the google map lady booming directions into my earpiece. Surprisingly, cellular signals are brilliant in the mountains. Slovakia has made the mountains reception-friendly for the benefit of hikers, and in the event of an accident, rescue is just a call away. The Mountain Rescue Service provides nationwide search and rescue operations in difficult terrain in close cooperation with the Air Rescue Service.


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The 90 minute hike to Popradske Pleso was of low to medium intensity offering pleasant vistas to choose from. This is a rocky trail and you do need to concentrate. If you wish to admire the view you must make stops during the hikes. I chanced upon some blueberries on the way, and soon discovered they were a popular snack for the other hikers, too. Slovaks are hikers at heart and I saw umpteen kids with parents in tow as young as two years olds and even babies on backpack carriers.

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We finished the hike in the stipulated time and Popradske Pleso amazed us with its serene beauty. The mountain lake of glacial origin is situated right on the path of Tatranská magistrála, at an altitude of 4,901 ft (1,494 m). Popradské Pleso is a starting point for many popular hikes including to Rysy and Kôprovský štít.

There is mountain hotel located by the lake which, besides accommodation, offers infrared and Finnish saunas, a Slovak pub, restaurant, lounge and a small cafeteria outside (mostly Slovak dishes so look for a young person to translate the dishes). We saw many hikers taking the zig zag path ahead to Sedlo pod Ostrvou. We didn't plan this hike so we turned back downhill as it looked like a daunting uphill path.

After our hike, we relaxed in the hotel spa which has natural thermal water pools offering unmatched views of the forests and beyond. For dinner, we met a local over Pirogi (sheep cheese dumplings) and Kofola (Czech coca cola) in Koliba Patria restaurant nearby. Over dinner he informed us about the amazing views we could see from the further 90 minute hike to an actual low lying summit today. We missed a beautiful climb and it left us wanting more.

The next day, we drove to Dobinska Ice Cave, which is amongst the most important ice caves in the world. It is located near the mining town of Dobšiná in the Slovak Paradise. Since 2000 it is inscribed on the world heritage list by UNESCO. We parked in the parking lot and made the easy 15 minute trek to make in time for the 11 am tour (check timings before you go). However, due to lack of English speaking tourists the tour was only offered in Slovak or Hungarian that day.

We enjoyed the cool temperatures inside the ice cave and were geared up for it. The ice structures were gigantic. The cave has several magnificent parts – Great and Small Halls, Ruffiny’s Corridor and Collapsed Dome. The visitors descend only several meters underground and find themselves in an ice kingdom of cold where perfect products of mother nature await them.

After being spell bound by the cave visit we left for a quick lunch to Starý Smokovec.
It is a popular resort for skiing and hiking. Amongst the more important buildings here are the sanatorium and the Grand Hotel (established in 1904). Here you can take the funicular to the small ski resort of Hrebienok at 1285 m to do many picturesque hikes.


We moved ahead to Tatranská Lomnica in the late afternoon for a fun luge ride at the Tatra Bob. This exhilarating ride, which is a near bobsled experience, made me feel like a child again.

We strolled under orange berry trees through Lomnický park to the Lanovka cable car. We took it up to Skalnaté pleso (1786,8 m or 5900 feet) for the hike to Lomnické Sedlo (2196 m or 7300 ft).

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You can instead go further to Lomnický štít. It is one of the highest and most visited mountain peaks in the High Tatras connected by cable car. The summit is 2634 meters above sea level, making it the second highest peak after Gerlachovský štít (2654 m). You need to buy the tickets to the summit in advance as tickets are sold out days before.

The short hike to Lomnické Sedlo is one of the most beautiful ones I have done in my life!

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It was here in the heart of the Tatras, where I got a real sense of the humongous mountain range and how underrated they are. I felt truly in the lap of nature and felt the power of the mighty mountains. During this hike we got a glimpse of the torrential alpine weather too, when we were hit by sudden clouds, lightning and rain showers at the summit. Luckily, we had our ponchos in our backpacks. We descended toward the cable car, but to my horror they had shut it down due to bad weather. However, after a 30 minute wait we were relieved, as the weather tamed and they restarted operations. After the descent, instead of the cable car at Skalnaté Pleso we opted for the mountain karts (adult scooter) for fun. A close cousin of the Go kart, this proved to be a unique way to experience a ride down the mountains. After basic safety instructions and with no traffic we zipped down the mountain path (only for bikers and hikers) in the karts which has no accelerator but only a brake.

Finally, the eventful day drew to an end and we retraced our way via the Tatra Electric Railway from Tatranská Lomnica back to Štrbské Pleso. The railway is an electrified (1500 V DC) single track 1,000 mm narrow gauge railway connecting the mountain towns.

The next morning, we enjoyed the scrumptious champagne breakfast at the hotel and packed up to leave the Tatras. We started out for the Ochtinská Aragonite Caves.

There are only three aragonite caves discovered in the world so far. In the so-called Milky Way Hall, the main attraction of the cave, white branches and clusters of aragonite shine like stars in the Milky Way. We were astounded by the beauty and unworldliness of these Flos Ferri formations.

We finished the small cave tour in an hour to end our short yet intense Slovak affair and left for the Hungarian wine region towards Edger. The shady wine region and fiery Budapest had many surprises in store for us. However, that's another story.

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©Prachi Kagzi

Last modified on Friday, 30 June 2017