Stary Smokovec and Vysoké Tatry

June 27.  All my life I have dreamt of hiking in the Vysoké Tatry (the High Tatras), which are the highest mountain range in Slovakia and Poland with an area of ​​341 km² (260 km² in Slovakia and 81 km² in Poland).  My desire is due to my father, who spent the happiest days of his childhood hiking in the Tatry near Zakopane.  He grew up nearby in Krakow and was born in Bielsko-Biała, formed from the merging of two towns on either side of the Biała River, Silesia’s Bielsko and Lesser Poland’s Biała. I remember looking at photos of him in the Tatras, sprawled on his back in meadows surrounded by mountain peaks, as at home as any on ancestral land.  I was glad to finally have some time to spend there.  I spent the morning organizing my things, and finally left around 11am.  I headed back to Spišské Podhradie where I had been with Monika’s family for the folk festival.  I parked and walked through the entire town, something I like to do to get a feel for the place.  I bought some traditional bryndza cheese, a sharp, salty, spreadable sheep cheese. There is no equivalent in taste and texture among sheep, cow, or goat cheeses. I fell in love with it when Monika suggested that I order a traditional Slovak dish of bryndza cheese, potato dumplings, and bacon fat.

I entered every church, snapping a few photos when permissible.  Then I headed to Levoča for a walk around the town.  Walking in a different direction than previously, I discovered the remnants of a crumbling building in the town wall, and off in the distance small church on a hill.  An aside about my interest in churches.  I disdain most of the forms that Christianity has taken, and look at churches for artistic and architectural purposes. While most other historic buildings fall into destruction, churches are often carefully preserved by the townsfolk. In addition, the church was often the only patron of the arts wealthy enough to employ the talented craftsmen and artists of the day.  Thus I look at churches.

From Levoča I headed toward the Vysoké Tatry and my final resting place, Stará Lesná.  I first drove to Stary Smokovec,  a lovely alpine village dotted with older hostels and hotels, and parked near the highest point for a sunset walk.  I’d taken to walking in my flip flops because my running shoes were hurting my feet, but it wasn’t easy hiking mountains in sandals. Stary Smokovec in its current form had been established by a doctor who started a sanatorium there especially for tuberculosis patients.  With an abundance of clean air and a mineral spring bubbling up in the town, it was the perfect location for such a place of healing.  I took big lung fulls of air as I climbed up the trail that ran beside the ski lift.  I hiked in T-shirt, shorts, and flip flops and must have looked like an alien to the people decked out in mountaineering gear, hiking poles, and climbing rope.  Some of these people were probably descending from a technical climb, while I was just going for a stroll in the park.

The air felt fine, and I descended dreaming of a latte. I drove down the mountain to Stará Lesná, only 5 miles away, and finally found Villa Jezercak, the Privat or home where I would be staying.  I was very lucky to get a room for 12 Euros per night. Anita, the woman who owned the home, greeted me warmly and introduced me to the accommodations.  I could cook, keep food in the fridge, relax on the couch in the living room (needless to say, relaxing was low on my list), and I had a private room with a large comfy bed and a balcony with a view.  What more could I want?  Anita had recommended an aqua park in Vbrov.  Aqua parks are very popular in Slovakia and Hungary.  This one featured a warm medicinal pool, a cooler jacuzzi, and several swimming pools.  I ended up using it after hiking 3000 vertical feet the next day (from Tatranska Lomnica to Skalnate Pleso).  Exhausted, I dragged myself to the aqua park and soaked for an hour.  I would have stayed longer but they closed early.  The only other inhabitants was a father and son from Czechoslovakia.  The son understood a little English but couldn’t speak any, so our contact was limited to hello and goodbye.  Exhausted, I collapsed into bed around 11:15pm.

June 28.  I decided to sleep in.  But the church bells and roosters had other plans, and I was roused bright and early.  I stayed in bed and didn’t get up till 9:30 or so, made a complex stew of all the veggies I’d bought the previous day, and then set out for my adventures.  I first walked around Stará Lesná to orient myself and get to know the people and culture.  Then I headed to Tatranska Lomnica, where Ludo had suggested that I hike.  I drove to the Grand Hotel Praha at the highest part of the town, and took the opportunity to walk through the hotel and admired the well done copies of famous paintings by Picasso, Renoir, Manet, Gaugin, as well as some Hungarian painters.  Then I set out on the trail toward Skalnate Pleso, a small lake at the terminus of the cable car lift just below the highest peak, Lomnicky štit. My only regret was not being able to capture the beautiful flowers I saw on film.  My phone died on the way up.  I had particularly hoped to take footage of the flowers dotting the alpine lake Skalnate Pleso. Flowers start and stop blooming within weeks, so even were I to head back there with a camera, I might not see the same ones.

I ended up climbing (and descending) 3000 vertical feet within a few hours. I hadn’t planned on doing so much, and certainly hadn’t done anything in the way of training.  My legs let me know for several days afterwards.  Luckily I had brought hiking poles, which saved my knees and feet several times.  I walked through a forest of dwarf pine, and marveled at the vegetation.  It was a wonderful site, and I vowed to go back with a camera at the ready.  At the top I thought about taking the ski lift down, but they were charging almost as much to go down as for a round trip, which didn’t seem fair. When something seems unjust to me, I can have an irrational reaction.  This was one of those times. No way would I take the lift down.  Come hell or high water, I would walk.  And walk I did.  I met a lovely Hungarian couple, Kati and Attila, on the way down.  They live in Florida now, but come back to Hungary and surrounding countries every summer to enjoy nature and escape Florida’s humidity and heat.  We became Facebook friends and they shared a wonderful dentist in Budapest who adjusts dental occlusion.  I might look him up.  I made my way down and hobbled to the car.  And decided it was a good time to head to the aqua park and soak.  I paid a hefty 9 Euros for only one hour of soaking, but it was worth it.  Before starting my hike I had walked down to the town of Tatranska Lomnica and admired the park and lovely grand hotels.  Hotel Lomnica was recently restored by a joint Slovak/German venture, and was stunning.  I vowed to have coffee there the following day.

June 29. It was my last day in the mountains.  It was a rainy day, so I focused on indoor activities.  I wanted to see the Exposition of Tatra Nature, a botanical garden in Tatranska Lomnica featuring about 270 plants endemic or native to this part of the Tatry, planted in 6 different biotopes. The garden was started in the 1950s by a group of dedicated biologists and lovers of these mountains.  It also has a memorial dedicated to the founders of Tatra National Park. I then made my way to The Museum of the Tatra National Park which featured presentations on geology, fauna and flora, history and ethnography.  The museum was open to the public in 1959 in the former summer residence of counts Szécheny in Tatranská Lomnica. Thematically it was focused on nature of the national park and people under the Tatras. I liked the presentation, particularly the information about the Gorals (highlanders), an ethnographic (or ethnic) group primarily found in their traditional area of southern Poland, northern Slovakia, and in the region of Cieszyn Silesia in the Czech Republic (Silesian Gorals).  My father used to talk of the Górale, as they are referred to in Polish.  He had a wooden carved flute which he gave me when I was young.  I have treasured it since, even while misplacing year books and other important records of my childhood.

The ethnographic collection included beautiful handwork of embroidery and weaving.  Then I visited the ski museum in town, presenting the origin and development of winter sports in the High Tatras from the very beginning until 1945. I was delighted that there was an English translation of information on the beginning of skiing, ice skating, curling, climbing, sledging and bobsleighing in the High Tatras.  The collection includes 3.07 metre-long skis from 1885 and a collection of old bobsleds used on a complex of tracks in the area.  There was an interesting video of competitive winter sports in the area from the 1930s and 1940s, as well as a ski maker’s workshop.  I went to the tourist information in town, and the woman was extremely helpful.  She gave me a map of the High Tatras and suggested that I visit the town of Ždiar, a traditional Goral village.  I bought a stamp book to collect stamps (both stick on and seals) commemorating visits to important sites in Slovakia. My friend Cyro, with whom I hiked on a portion of the Pacific Crest Trail in Washington state, had told me about tramping in Slovakia and related getting stamps in his book when he had hiked certain trails.  The idea had appealed to me, and I was excited to have my own book.  Armed with information on where to visit, I left the visitor’s information office and headed northeast and then northwest to Ždiar.  The drive was lovely, and although I was dodging raindrops, the scenery breathtaking whenever the clouds temporarily parted.

I drove up a small road at the outskirts of the village, up into high valleys where shepherds probably lived with their flock in the summertime.  There I saw some very beautiful painted old log homes.  I walked for a time, taking photos and getting as close as I dared to the houses in question.  I didn’t want to trespass or invade anyone’s privacy, but was preternaturally curious about these picturesque abodes.  On my drive down, I disturbed an older gentleman who had parked his car blocking the entire road.  A car had already asked him to move, and I had to do the same.  It was raining, and I felt nostalgic looking at the lovely alpine hills covered with wildflowers all the way to the timberline.  Such a lovely place.  I drove through the rest of the town on the road which wound through the mountains.  I was curious about what lay ahead, so I decided to keep driving until I hit the Polish border.  I got out of the car and looked down the narrow valley past Ždiar, watching the approaching dark clouds and wondering what they might bring.  I found out in a few minutes.  On the other side of the pass, a deluge broke loose and I had to pull over as I couldn’t see the road let alone my windshield.

I was in Tatranska Javorina, the last Slovak town before the Polish border. I pulled into a parking lot next to a lovely wooden church.  What luck!  The church was open as a service was underway.  It was 5:55 pm, and most Slovak churches celebrated mass at 5pm daily.  As the rain slackened, I rushed out of the car to the church porch just as the mass goers emptied out.  It was a beautiful sight, the 300-plus year old wooden church, richly ornamented by devout (most probably Goral) wood carvers, set in a backdrop of the Slovak Tatry mountains with a rainbow surmounting the scene.  It is for moments like this that I travel.  I walked to the bell tower and tried to take a few respectful photos of the church interior without being too obvious.  I don’t like offending the devout by snapping photos of their church, even after mass is over.  I drove on to the Polish border, only a mile down the road, then turned around and decided to explore.

Back in Tatranska Javorina, I turned onto an unmarked road that quickly devolved into dirt. Unbeknownst to me, I was entering TANAP (Tatransky Národny Park aka Tatra National Park).  I drove to the end of the road and parked.  I passed a very wet family who had been caught in the downpour with nowhere to hide.  I was in a narrow valley dominated by a powerful rushing river with high mountains on either side.  The rain having abated and clouds cleared, I could see the impressive vistas.  I began to walk, listening to the raindrops sinking into the peat bog all around.  The high country in Slovakia and Poland are covered in peat.  It turns out that peat is tremendously important in slowing global warming.  I remember being in New Brunswick, Canada one summer and meeting someone whose job was to vacuum up peat for sale to garden stores.  What a tragedy.  We humans are so unaware of the consequences of our impact on the only home we have. May we wake up in time!  I walked for half an hour or so, then made my way back to the car.  Everything was sparkling.  I could practically feel the trees breath a sigh from the recent inundation.  I headed back to Ždiar in pursuit of trout.  It had to be good here, as I was in trout country.  I found a bistro and ordered trout and halushki, a very rich traditional Slovak (and Polish) dish of potato dumplings covered in sour cream and bacon fat.  A calorie bomb.  The fish was great.  I ended up having better a few days later in Zuberec, but no matter.  It was good, and I headed back to my room, content and tired.  Another full day.

June 30.  At the aqua park two nights before, my Orthaheel flip flops had broken again.  These sandals are deceptively well constructed, and keep my Morton’s neuromas and plantar fasciitis at bay. My running shoes have been hurting my feet, so I’ve been living in these sandals.  I decided it was important enough that I needed to find a shoe repair place in Poprad.  I spent 20 minutes looking for the repair shop recommended by tourist information and had to find a translator to explain what I wanted.  The woman shook her head firmly and refused to fix them.  She told me that I could replace them for 5 Euros.  Talk about adding insult to injury.  I finally talked her into doing it, but she said it would take a week.  A week to put a dab of glue on a shoe!  I should have asked to borrow the glue and do it myself.  This would happen again 2 weeks later in Budapest when the other sandal gave up the ghost.

I decided to take the opportunity to walk around Poprad, which is a decidedly ugly city.  However, in the old town, I discovered a beautiful old church whose interior is covered with Renaissance-era frescoes. Yet another reason I like to travel.  Where in the US would I see such a site?  A kindly elderly woman indicated (in sign language) that I should look at the organ and frescoes near the altar.  When I headed out of the church and onto the main square, it was sunny and everyone was eating ice cream.  I wondered whether the love of ice cream in Central and Eastern Europe is a leftover from the Soviet-styled milk of a bygone era.  Perhaps.

From Poprad I headed to Spišská Sobota, a tiny village 1 mile northeast which is considered part of the city.  It hosts a huge square (more like rectangle) lined with Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque buildings.  Featuring prominently is the Church of St. Juraj, originally built in a Romanesque style in 1273.  It was rebuilt in 1464 in Gothic style.  In 1516 the famous woodworker Master of Paul of Levoča created the side and main altar, masterpieces in wood.  Other significant monuments in the village include the Chapel of St. Anne from the beginning of the 16th century, a Renaissance bell tower from 1598, and the Evangelical Classical church built in 1777.

From there I headed back to Starý Smokovec to see the Švajčiarsky dom (Swiss house), aka the Sherpa Cafe, which I’d admired my first evening in the High Tatras.  I met the owner, a former sherpa who showed me impressive images of men from the ages of 16b to 70 carrying huge loads into the high mountains for hikers too lazy or unable to carry their own.  Some carried loads upwards of 200 pounds.  I marveled at their strength and endurance, noting that many made two trips up and down the mountain in a 24 hour period.  The owner also told me about the men who lost their lives braving the elements.  The owner bought the historical building, built in the early 1900s as an authentic Swiss chalet, to educate the public about the important tradition of Slovak Tatry sherpas, hopefully saving them from extinction.  He showed me a book featuring the likes of Viktor Beranek, a 56 year old Slovak man who has been doing this for 40 years.  He is known as the King of the Mountain and is an icon in the Tatras. “It’s different here — it’s quiet,” Beranek says. “It’s more of a spiritual life and you have to rely on your strength and mind.”

I was on a spiritual high as I left the cafe.  I hadn’t hiked that day and thought it would be nice to try my hand at a little walking.  I headed to Štrbské Pleso (Blind Lake).  It was quite commercial (trashy, per Ludo), so I headed to a small road I’d seen on the way where I parked and headed on foot to Popradské Pleso.  I expected an easy walk and was surprised at how quickly I started gaining elevation.  After 2 miles or so, I reached a path to Memorial Park Tatransky, a TANAP memorial to sherpas and others who had lost their lives in the mountains.  The painted wooden crosses were ornately decorated in traditional Goral style, and I teared up reading tens of plaques to kin who died in their beloved mountains. I followed the path along the east side Popradské Pleso and up the steep boulder-strewn trail toward Batisovské Pleso.  I had seen images of sherpas hiking this part of the trail, and I imagined being one of them.  I could barely manage my footing with no load.  On the way up I met 2 young women, one from Colorado, the other from France.  They had been hiking for several days staying at chatas, sparsely appointed mountain shacks where hikers can stay the night.  They planned on spending the night at Horsky Hotel on the banks of lovely Popradské lake.  The American woman is a mountain guide in the Swiss Alps and was heading there in a few days to start her summer job.  Quite a warm up!

After a nice warm traditional meal in a traditionally-decorated mountain restaurant, I descended toward the car.  I was in a hurry as the light was beginning to fail and I’d promised to meet Monika’s family in Zuberec at 9:30pm.  So I was goaded into taking several shortcuts.  The first worked out fine, and I felt pleased with myself for having saved precious minutes.  The second, however, ended in near disaster.  I descended the steep dirt trail, realizing at the bottom that I would have to ford 2 rivers.  I wasn’t really prepared to do so, but thankfully had poles and managed to cross without getting totally inundated.  However, I realized on the other side that the trail was nowhere to be found.  Reluctantly I recrossed both streams and began heading back up the hill.  I had descended quite a way and didn’t look forward to retracing my steps.  Then I saw (yet another) shortcut and decided to investigate.  It involved crossing yet another stream.  This time I ended up shimmying across a fallen tree on my stomach, as it was too narrow and slippery to take my chances walking across.

I managed to make it across, but not before ripping my favorite backpacking pants.  Sigh.  And found that there was no trail on the other side, rather the remains of a very messy clear cut.  I’ve hiked through such places before, but not such a large area.  This had been caused by the hurricane that had unexpectedly swept the Slovak side of the Tatras in 2007 and caused wreaked incalculable havoc.  The trees had snapped in half like twigs, and the destruction was still very visible.  As I trudged through the wreckage, I realized that I wasn’t sure which direction to go.  I stopped a moment and thought about my hike on the way up.  At what point had the trail crossed the river?  I looked around at the valley, and had difficulty gauging where I was in the grand scheme of things.  I couldn’t see the forest for the trees.  Literally.  I took my best guess and proceeded to stumble on the uneven ground.  I repeatedly fell in peat holes, and was about to give up hope when I spied the cement road.  Thirty minutes after my fatal decision, I was on solid ground again.  Thanking my lucky stars (and ancestors who I believed had guided me safely to this point), I hurried to my car.  I hit the road and headed to Zuberec on the long and winding road over pass near Kvačianska dolina. I imagine how treacherous it would be in a rainstorm.  As it was my car seemed to want to lurch over the cliff.  I arrived at the house where we would stay for a few nights close to the appointed hour.  While waiting for Monika and family, I chatted with Mario, a temporary tattoo artist working at Aquapark Tatralandia Holiday Resort, whose wife owned the Zuberec house where we were staying.  Apparently he can get good money selling tattoos at the park, which is the largest aqua park in Slovakia and one of the biggest in Central Europe. He gave me tips about hiking trails in the nearby mountains where he grew up as a boy on visits to his grandmother. I followed his suggestions the next day.


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