It’s a shame that many foreigners only visit Slovakia to see the capital city of Bratislava (on a city-break or (messy) stag do!) and, until recently, we were also guilty of this. As we discovered, and much to our surprise, there is really quite a lot more to this country. Although a popular destination in Eastern Europe, the Slovakian High Tatras are still little-known in the West, but we believe that this will change soon…and here is why!
Um, I’m not really sure! Where is Slovakia?!
First of all, some geography; whilst we are all generally comfortable with the layout of Western Europe, as soon as you go east of Germany, things start to get confusing (at least it does for us!). Slovakia is a relatively small landlocked country of 5 million people, encircled by 5 other nations (clockwise: Poland, Ukraine, Hungary, Austria, and The Czech Republic). As such, it does share a lot of history, customs and cuisine with these countries; however it certainly does also possess a distinct culture and language.
Why should I visit?
We visited the north-eastern area of the country, specifically to see the High Tatras National Park. The High Tatras are part of an alpine mountain range, and the peaks are some of the highest in Europe. If you like natural beauty, outdoor adventure, hiking, trekking, climbing, skiing, history and culture, then you will definitely be busy in this area!
It seems like most of the tourism is from the local area; being surrounded by 5 other nations, it’s relatively easy for people to drive across borders. We didn’t see much Western European tourism, and this area is probably not the best geared up for English language or information. That said, the people are very friendly and helpful and you can certainly get by. The added bonus is that this area of Europe is significantly cheaper (think EUR1.50 for a pint of beer!).
How can I get there?
You can fly to Poprad (as we did) or Kosice using budget airlines, and you can also catch a train from Bratislava which takes a few hours. Upon arrival it’s advisable to rent a car so that you are more flexible and mobile.
Where should I stay & why?
Whilst you can stay in the villages on the mountain roads of the High Tatras, or in the ski resorts, we stayed in the Spiš region in the valley beneath the mountain range in a town called Kežmarok. We were staying here because we went with a friend who has property there, and we had also rented a car. Kežmarok is a very atmospheric medieval town, strategically placed for all sorts of activities, and we didn’t drive for more than an hour to see anything. We found the town to be less touristy, incredibly quiet and ridiculously cheap.
What is there to see?
This is quite an outdoorsy area, but even when the weather is bad, you can still find entertainment and welcoming and (more importantly) warm places to rest up and eat hearty food.
- Historical Towns: As well as staying in the traditional medieval town of Kežmarok, we also visited its historical rival in the area named Levoča. Both towns are very pleasant to wander around and have churches with unique features that are important to the region. Each town in the region is incredibly cute, often with a pointy fairytale style church spire or tower.
- High Tatras: When the weather is clear, the views of the snowy Tatras mountains from the surrounding countryside are phenomenal.
There are many scenic villages and ski resorts up in the mountains. On a pretty damn cold day we visited Štrbské Pleso, a lake surrounded by the mountain peaks. Unfortunately it was a bit grey so we had a limited view!
We also wanted to get up into the mountains so we took the cable car from the town of Tatranská Lomnica up to the 2nd stop at 1,700m where there is an observatory.
If you are skiing or snowboarding then you can continue up to the slopes but we wanted to hike back down the mountains, so took in a scenic route through snow, then barren scrub land, down to the forested area. Sadly several years ago the forest of the High Tatras was all but destroyed by a combination of disease and bad weather which made the trees buckle and fall. The forest is growing back slowly but it is nowhere near as lush and thick as it should be. That did however mean that our views of the looming Tatras were much clearer. Our walk took us 2.5 hours and was about 12km long. We ended in Starý Smokovec and took the train back to where we had parked our car in Tatranská Lomnica.
- Caves: Where there are mountains there are often caves that lurk underneath. In the west of the ranges, there is the Belianske Tatry National Park, where we visited the Belianska Cave which was discovered in 1881. The tour takes you 1,370m into the mountain and there is a handout in different languages telling you all the silly names of the formations, depending on what they resemble!
- Geothermal Hot Springs: The area has several hot springs where you can relax in the naturally hot and mineral rich waters. We went to one near the town of Vrbov which has several different manmade pools of varying temperatures. It was quite difficult running between them in temperatures close to zero but, as they say, when in Rome..!
- Castles: Everywhere you look there seems to be a fairytale spire or castle springing up from the countryside. We chose to visit Spišský Castle which is a medieval royal castle dating from the 13th century. Unfortunately due to fire, the castle is now only a sprawling ruin, but it does have great views, a tower to climb, a small museum and a well equipped torture chamber!
- Close to Poland: On our last day we decided to visit a monastery named Červený Kláštor on the Slovakian side of the river Dunajec River.
- After a pleasant stroll around, we just had to pop over and visit Poland! We had a lunch, looked at the scenery and bought some smoked cheese, what else can you possibly want?
All that sightseeing has made me hungry, where and what do I eat?
Don’t worry, there’s always a conveniently placed restaurant in Slovakia! It will almost exclusively be serving traditional Slovakian food and it will be heavy and hearty, but that’s not bad thing when you’ve been out exploring or hiking in the mountains.
Here are a few classics to look for:
- Every meal normally starts with a small warming soup – we tried borsch, sauerkraut and sausage, noodle broth and garlic soups.
- Pierogi, also found in Poland, are like big ravioli parcels that come with a variety of fillings, the most common being sheep cheese. They are not served with a sauce, but rather some sour cream and a sprinkling of “bacon dust” (an interesting, but fitting translation that we saw on a menu!).
- Halušky are tiny potato dumplings which arrive with a creamy cheesy sauce and some more of that porcine dust!
- Goulash is not just a Hungarian dish – in Slovakia you’ll find it made using deer or ram meat and served with giant fluffy bread dumplings or the small halušky inside.
- Meat is definitely a staple in the Slovakian diet, particularly pork. It will be served with sauerkraut and generally big enough to feed a family of giants!
- Vegetarians had better be prepared to eat a lot of cheese. Fried sheep cheese to be exact. Luckily it’s very tasty, but perhaps not very easy on the hips…
- Slovakian desserts involve a lot of strudel type cakes (cukráreň) and they are also very keen on using poppy seeds. Try the monumental parená buchta which is a massive dumpling filled with jam. All very tasty and filling.
- And what to drink? Slovakians are very hospitable, so don’t be surprised if you are offered a shot as a welcome. We particularly enjoyed a pear schnapps type liquor called Hruška. Slovakians will also often have a shot of rum with their cup of tea (called Um).
- There is of course a brewing tradition and there are several decent lagers to try. The local wine is also of a very good quality.
- For soft drinks try the grape based vinea and kofola – a sort of Frankenstein coffee/coca cola.
What’s the damage to my wallet?
Happily, minimal! Flights from within Europe are pretty cheap and car hire was not outrageous. It’s worth noting that we visited during a cusp season, so these costs may fluctuate. Once you are there though, entrance fees to attractions are very reasonable and food and drink is just ridiculously cheap. You can still buy a large beer for 1.50 Euros and shots for 1 Euro and a typical main meal will be less than 5 Euros. We even devoured a delicious massive pork knee the size of a mini bus for less than 5 Euros!
In conclusion, this is certainly a beautiful and characteristic part of Eastern Europe that is a little off the beaten track for the average western tourist. In all honesty, we are not sure we would ever have thought of visiting if we didn’t have a friend from there. This is mainly because the region probably gets enough tourism from its neighbouring countries and thus doesn’t need to sell itself to Western Europe too much. For ski-lovers this would certainly make a nice and cheaper change to the usual alpine destinations, with the added bonus of discovering a different culture with a wide range of sights to see. We believe that Slovakians won’t be able to hide this gem from the rest of us for too much longer though, as budget airlines have started flying into the area from the rest of Europe and the natural beauty combined with cheap deals will certainly appeal to mountaineers, skiers and culture lovers all over. As for us, we loved it – the area has the perfect balance of activities, culture and cuisine. We hope to be back one day!