135 nights : 4,899 miles travelled : Countries visited: 10
“The moment a little boy is concerned with which is a jay and which is a sparrow, he can no longer see the birds or hear them sing.” Eric Berne
It was as though Poland left the best till last as we drove through gorgeous rural land curtained by the High Tatras in the distance. The border between Poland and Slovakia in these parts is formed by the Dunajec River.
We entered Slovakia near Pieniny National Park which mirrors another in Poland. Pieniny means ‘foam’ in Slovak and for those who want to see the foam up close in the Dunajec Gorge, there are plenty of happy boatmen who will punt you 9km downstream between high cliffs on wooden rafts. Following an unfortunate incident on our honeymoon, I avoid the combination of foamy rivers, boats and Graham. But we did hike along the gorge, enjoying the changing views and marvelling at the temperature changes between shade and sunny spots as we walked. We also confused the telecom companies, as each corner we turned prompted alternate “welcome to Poland” and “welcome to Slovakia” messages on our mobile phone!
Our campsite was nearby, close to forest; among the noisiest places we have stayed. The campsite restaurant hosts ‘folk’ events and the live music coming from inside was the perfect soundtrack to our setting as we arrived. Across the river, men pulled up in horse drawn carts to chop down saplings along the water’s edge. The bizarre roars and grunts of stags in rut in the forest continued 24 hours a day. We loved it…for about an hour. Then the joy wore off!
It was not far to move back into the foothills of the High Tatras (Vysoke Tatry) again, but on the Slovakian side this time. We arrived in Tatranska Lomnica in dense fog so we mooched around the small town and had dinner at the Pension where we were camped. Graham enjoyed smoked roast chicken and pickles while I tried traditional garlic soup followed by spinach dumplings with smoked cheese sauce. I didn’t realise the garlic soup would also have a lump of cheese in it, in all a mountainous task to digest that took most of the night!
Graham woke me next morning with a photographic incentive to get out of bed…the sky had cleared. We decided to ignore my phobia of cable cars and try and get as high as possible. Sometimes matter over mind works and we found ourselves heading up to Skalnate pleso at 1750 m high. Kipper realised that we were defying the laws of gravity and stayed very still and close to Graham.
It was worth it. The view down was blurred by mist but the view around and up was clear and exhilarating. Kipper was not allowed on the chair lift further towards the top (we were so not disappointed) and we happily walked along a ridge to enjoy the views up towards the summit of Lomnicky stit (2634m).
Kipper and I managed to persuade Graham that walking back down was a great idea!
Our third national park in Slovakia was Slovensky Raj further South East. On the way we stopped off at Levoca. The old centre seems to have preserved a traditional version of life within its amazingly well preserved 13th century walls. Although there was a craft market and puppet show in the central square, the place as a whole was refreshingly untouristy and normal life carried on in and around the Renaissance buildings.
Slovensky Raj means Slovakian Paradise and if paradise means soaking rains and cold winds then paradise it is. The main attraction to this park is the narrow gorge walks which are traversed with the assistance of precarious ladders and bridges allowing you to see otherwise inaccessible hidden waterfalls. We knew we would only be able to go so far along the Sucha Bela gorge with Kipper and once again we did not feel cheated (well a little bit) ….we sort of know our limits! Conditions were extra slippery and we returned to the more solid ground of the dense forest to enjoy a walk in the scent of the soaked spruce trees.
Spissky Hrad dominates the town of Spissky Podhradie and the countryside beyond. It is the largest travertine castle in the world (you could tile a LOT of bathrooms with it) and the views from it’s ruins are spectacular.
Slovakia is a beautiful country. Probably the most beautiful we have visited so far on this trip. Although we spent most nights within national park boundaries, we also drove from the north to the south of the country, through breathtaking forested hills and verdant valleys. However, we noticed that most villages had a dishevelled settlement on the outer edge and that the groups of impoverished people walking to and from them were of Roma origin. On our last full day in Slovakia, there seemed to be more pedestrians on the roads than other vehicles. Many were foraging, some were offering funghi for sale at road junctions. The housing was ramshackle and many children were poorly dressed, if at all….there was a lot of laundry hanging on hedges. The poverty was as severe as that we saw in India and Nepal but almost more shocking as it was such a contrast to the comfortable if not rich lives being lived a few dozen metres away. We read afterwards that despite being full members of the EU, this community in Slovakia are still treated as second class citizens, with few opportunities for education and employment. What we saw reminded us of what we had learned in Poland about how Jews and Roma were forced to live in ghettos during the last century and a feeling of heavy sadness accompanied our last day of driving in beautiful Slovakia.
We noticed that many towns, like Spisske Podhradie acknowledge investment and assistance from the European Union and hope that the benefits soon spread to all of Slovakia’s people.
We did not make time to see the attractive old centre of Kosice, Slovakia’s second city. We had an overnight stop on the outskirts, close to evidence of its steel manufacturing heart and the communist block concrete housing lining the hillsides. Our campsite had the air of Psycho’s Bates Motel and the high fencing and night long sirens confirmed that we were on the ugly side of town. We were now close to the border with Hungary but with enough memories of the beauty of Slovakia to make us want to go back.
M & G xx
Treat of the week: Hikers in the High Tatras can enjoy the hospitality of various chaty or mountain chalets. Our highest beer on the trip so far was almost as good as the view.