When Igor and Vlasta ask us to go to the Tatras Mountains, we pack. What better way to see the central region of Slovakia than thru the eyes, and with the support, of two locals. I had read an editorial from a Dutch man criticizing tourism in Slovakia for having neither basic information translated nor English trained staff. I expected travel in the Tatras, an area he specifically cited, to be difficult without our Slovak safety net. We were glad to be with our friends and not to have the stress of traveling in a country where English is spotty. But most necessary information was translated into multiple languages. Spoken English was a different story, and dealing with our hotel staff was difficult. Still, I would not shy away from this area of the world for fear of the language barrier.
The Tatras are a 35 kilometer long range of jagged peaks which cut an east to west swath north of the city of Poprad. Given their small footprint, stuffed with a variety of tourist attractions, it feels a bit like an alpine Disney World – a little magic kingdom rising from the plains around Poprad. From Poprad a sleek and modern electric train whisks you up and to the most posh of the base villages, Stary Smokovec. The Grand Hotel appears a perfect and convenient, albeit more expensive, choice wedged between the mountain base and the train stop. It is easy to switch trains east to the small village of Tatranska Lomnica, where we maintained our weekend base, or to stay on-board to the western town of Štrbské Pleso, a classic alpine fun land. The highest peak is a low 8710 feet elevation (2650 meters) which makes this area an easy acclimation before hiking.
Our hotel, the Hotel Sorea, is a 1970s communist resort style hotel, perhaps a bit past its prime but more than serviceable given the attractions of this region will keep you outside. For 70 Euro per night we received a double room, two electric train passes, and a half board (breakfast and dinner) for us both.
Throw in the mountain views, and you can ‘t beat this deal. Lunch is best in the many choices in the towns which dot the mountain base.
Tatranska Lomnica is the start point for several high alpine hikes so a convenient overnight for hikers. We planned to ride two gondolas above the village to start our hike. However, high winds closed the second gondola making the planned hike not feasible. Igor and Vlasta had a backup plan which involved hopping the electric train to Stary Smokovec and taking the funicular up to the trail head. By mid morning, we were underway. Hiking in the high Tatras, due to the relatively low altitude, is a warm pursuit during a sunny summer day. I planned for the nearly always cool days of the high altitude Rockies before realizing I was a bit overdressed to the temperatures. Both regions share beautiful mountain scenery; jagged mountain peaks,
remote valleys, and crystal clear lakes. We followed the well-marked trails a few hours to a hut on an alpine lake high above the valley. This well-traveled hut served a typical Slovak menu of sauerkraut soup, goulash and beer – all schlepped up the boulder strewn trail piled high on the backs of young men. Watching them, I reminisced about the sorry jobs most of us had in our youth – although this seemed, perhaps, the sorriest of all. We all made it up and down, and then basked in our accomplishment over a cake and coffee in Stary Smokovec.
Day two we strolled in the village of Štrbské Pleso. We could have been in Keystone or Vail or any of the planned Colorado ski resorts – bungee jumping, live music, and goulash cook offs played out beneath the grass-covered ski runs. Vlasta excitedly told me they had announced a song I would know – a “country song”. You can’t live in Colorado without recognizing the opening guitar riff of John Denver’s “Country Road”. For the first time in a long time, I felt a lump in my throat. Had it been “Rocky Mountain High”, I would have wept. It was a lovely, perfect weekend. But nothing can replace the spot Colorado holds in my heart.
In the evening, we dashed down to Poprad to walk the main square and the cobbled village of Spisska Sobota. The town was quiet during this summer Friday evening. The 500-year-old villages will always hold an allure to an American used to our much more modern cities. Igor explained the shape of the square along with the positioning of the church all pointed to its German origins. Poprad was a surprising pleasure.
Our last day, we drove to the walled city of Levoca to peek in the church and laze around the small square. We put a tick mark next to this locally famous city inaccessible by train. Halfway home, we stopped in the UNESCO world heritage designated village of Vlkolinec, perched on a hilltop – colorful small wooden houses overlooking the green rolling hills of the lower Tatras range.
There is so much to see and do across Europe, I doubt I would include this area in a “top 10” list of places to visit. I would also not recommend it as a destination for a novice or less confident traveler. But for those adventurous travelers ready and willing to explore off the beaten path, it is an interesting and charming part of the world. We are lucky to live in an area which allows us these lesser known treats. Cobbled together these sites made for a perfect weekend across this relatively unexplored part of Central Europe.
Categories: Central/Eastern Europe