In like a lion, out like a lamb. Although normally March’s motto, this expression applied more to April’s antics in this part of the world. The rough winter weather lagged into first days of April with no sign of stopping soon. But when spring finally peeked out from behind the snow clouds a week later, it was all at once, allowing for perhaps the most action-packed month in Slovakia thus far. Since I haven’t mentioned most of the minor adventures and excursions, aside from the castle visits, I figured I’d put together a little list of highlights. The problem was, once I looked through my pictures and made the list, it turned out to be not-so-little. So, I’ve divided it into two parts. Part I is mostly lion, so stay tuned for Part II for the green and sunny stuff.
After spending a nippy, jam-packed weekend of food, history and culture in Krakow, Chris and I headed south to Zakopane, a mountain town that sits right above the Slovakian border. We had been here once before, desperately seeking Polish Zloty to avoid being stranded in the Polish wilderness (A Quest for the Elusive Polish Lakes can tell you all about it if you want to know more) and had decided it was definitely worth a second full-length visit.
Since we arrived on Easter Sunday, there were no cabs parked in their usual waiting spot and no buses were running. It was almost snowy, but mostly raining, so we were not picky about how we got to our hostel 5km away, as long as we got there quickly. After 10 minutes of wandering around in search of transport and older man approached me claiming he had a taxi. We followed him to a car in the train station lot that was certainly not a taxi. Although I know it’s a traveling no-no to take an unmarked taxi in many places, but sometimes you just trust your gut, and this man’s grandfatherly ways told mine we’d be fine. We mostly were since the price was fair and he was very talkative for the few words of English he know. The only minor danger was the swerving that occurred as he wiped his windshield with a sponge every 15 seconds so he could at least see a blurry version of the road through the damp flakes falling. Even without a defroster, we made it to the hostel safe and sound and spent a sleepy afternoon in heated Uno battles with other hostel guests.
The next morning we headed across the street to the national park for a lengthy hike to a mountain lodge deep in the woods. We were ecstatic to find that our feet didn’t sink through the layer of icy crust on top of the path of footprints from previous hikers, allowing us to float over the multiple feet of the white stuff as we walked. The hike itself was enjoyable enough, winding through snow-dusted pines and past rustic cabins. However, after a certain elevation, just like the last time we hiked in Poland, the fog and mist made it impossible for us to see more than several feet in some places, particularly at the mountain’s summit. While the thick fog did create a pretty cool other-planet-like effect on the top, when you haul your butt up that much mountain, you just want to see some views.
Luckily we found our rewards elsewhere. Not too far past our low-visibility peak we came across the mountain lodge, and therefore restaurant, that we sought. A Polish woman very graciously took the time to translate the entire menu for us, which turned out to be somewhat unnecessary since they had English menus. It was not a complete waste though. Her favorable description steered us towards a new dish of pancakes with cream and powdered sugar and a special Easter soup that no one could describe except for being delicious and having an egg inside. Both choices made for a perfect hikers’ lunch, and of course we accented them an obligatory plate of pierogies.
Completely stuffed and somewhat reenergized, we headed back out into the foggy abyss. Since we had already been disappointed by the lack of vistas by the blue trail we had taken up, I suggested that we take a winding yellow trail that would meet back up with it on the way back. Chris was skeptical as this was certainly the road less traveled if the footprints were any indication, and his skepticism proved to be founded. The path was not nearly as wide or spacious as the other, resulting in more than a few full-snow immersions when either of us stepped off the narrow line of packed snow.
Despite the initial struggle, in the end, the yellow pick didn’t end up being a complete failure. The fog lifted a bit and we could see the huge pine walls and rocky cliffs that surrounded us. The trail led us through a completely different valley, making the return journey more of a new discovery than a trudge back.
Although the hike officially left us 0-for-2 for actually seeing the Polish Tatras that we have spent over 14 collective hours hiking through, we still returned to our hostel having covered more than 12 km with rosy cheeks, sore legs and a familiar post-hike good mood. Maybe the third time will be the charm for the visibility.
We departed Zakopane the day after our big hike with the original intention of heading back to Košice to handle some administrative things. However, it turned out we had a couple more days than we thought so we stopped off and our favorite hostel, The Ginger Monkey, just over the Slovak border.
Previously I’ve used The Monkey as a jumping off point for some amazing hikes, but since the weather hadn’t change much since Zakopane, we decided to try something different. I’ve been hearing all about the caves in Slovakia since I first arrived, but even months later, I still hadn’t visited one. We changed that on Wednesday by paying a visit to the nearby Belianska Cave in Tatranská Lomnica.
In the U.S. if there were a cave of an equivilant size offering tours, there would be billboads for miles proclaiming its must-see qualities and a huge paved parking lot adjacent to the entrance. Fortunately, billboards are few and far between and Slovaks tend to thoroughly enjoy a good walk. This meant we had to ask around to find our way to the path leading to the cave, and once we found it, it was a good 20-minute trek up the snowy mountain to the cave’s entrance, making our arrival that much more rewarding.
We rarely shell out money for tours, but the 6€ ticket was the only way inside the cave and promised a 70-minute tour. That didn’t seem so unreasonable to me, so into the cave we went. At the beginning of the tour we were given the usual one-page English pamphlet to keep us from being completely in the dark on this Slovak language tour, and this one was actually pretty informative.
The tour stopped several times throughout the caverns so the guide could share a more in-depth version of our pamphlet with other guests. While that part wasn’t particularly exciting for us since we spent it peering at our own paper through limited light, what came after was pretty cool. Every time the guide finished speaking he would press a button and light up new crevices and spaces in the cave that we couldn’t see before, highlighting its immensity. (The cave pushes nearly 4,000 meters into the mountain and covers of elevation span of 168 meters, so there’s a lot of immensity to go around.)
I guess for the most part, the cave had your pretty standard stuff. Stalactites. Stalagmites. I am embarrassed to say I still can never remember which is which. But, of course, it is always exciting to be spelunking, no matter how tame the circumstances, and the standard stuff is still pretty amazing in person, especially when one formation resembles the Leaning Tower of Pisa. I also couldn’t help feeling a bit like Smeagol in The Hobbit crawling through the damp rocks. (Yes, I overuse Lord of the Rings comparisons, but if only you know how many I think and don’t say.)
Although the cave did have the standard features, it still had something to set it apart. The last stop in the cave was the Musical Chamber. Here the walls opened up over a pool of water and some additional flat space. Small orchestral groups actually have come down here to perform in the past because of the stunning acoustics the cave provides. In order to demonstrate the effect, this time when the tour guide switched on the lights, he also switched on some music. I literally groaned aloud when Enya’s “Only Time” came pouring out of the speakers, thinking the level of corniness was about to ruin the entire caving experience. However, after a few seconds, my disgust relented. The way her voice echoed off the cavern walls and the drips in the song echoed the water dripping into the cave’s pool made it the perfect choice. I hate to stoop to this explanation, but you had to be there. So, Slovakia, I stand corrected.
After the cave we skidded back down the mountain and sat down for some traditional soup for lunch. We got one bowl of Kapustnica (cabbage soup) and one bowl of soup with Bryndza (sheep cheese). Neither disappointed. We then headed back to the Ginger Monkey and took the hostel dogs for a lengthy walk to end the day right.
Snina and Sninský Kameň
After our time in the Tatras, we headed to Košice for a day and then to Levoča for the weekend to see Spiš Castle. While Chris was headed back towards the mountains to teach in Spišská Belá, I was sentenced to the long ride out to Snina, the easternmost city in Slovakia. Generally, the further east I have gone, especially in smaller cities, the tougher my weeks have been. This knowledge combined with still-blustery weather had my expectations set low as I set off.
When I arrived in Snina my perspective completely changed. The bad weather had truly broken on my busride. The sun was shining bright as we drove through foothills similar the ones at home in western New York. Although the town center was admittedly more communist-influenced in appearance than picturesque, it was clean and bright. The school I worked in there was fantastic with friendly, hospitable teachers and a spirited group of students who were ready to learn, which is all you can really want.
The first day I spotted a rocky outcropping atop the highest hill surrounding the city. When I questioned the students about things to do around Snina, I pointed to the peak outside the window. They named the peak as Sninský Kameň and the general consensus was that it was still too early to climb it, but since few had actually ever done it, I decided to present my question in the teachers’ lounge. There responses were more mixed, but the most adamant said that it would be too icy for me to make it to the top. However, this same conversation also contained the innocent, yet slightly sexist comment, “It is a good thing you are a woman so you can make use of the kitchen you have this week.” I used this evidence to decide they must be underestimating my hiking prowess based on their ideas of traditional gender roles. I was going to try the hike anyways.
After school, I found out they did not underestimate me. I overestimated how much two days of sun could change the terrain on a shaded mountain. The sun had done some work, of course. It had managed to cause the packed parts of the trail to become sheets of ice and to melt the snow just enough to sink into the deeper snow. The melting snow also formed rushing seasonal streams in the most inconvenient places along the path. Yet, I still felt to content with the sun beating on my face and too stubborn to turn back after announcing my plan to both teachers and students. In order not to sink or slip on the dicey surfaces, I ended up half-running up the mountain. By the time I was half-way up I had completely submerged my sneaker-clad feet in icy creeks several times. Fortunately, it was warm enough outside not to cause to much discomfort, so I carried on. I also took a few wrong turns while trying to avoid the temporary streams popping up in the middle of the trail, but still eventually reached the three-quarter marker, huffing and puffing from the deep snow, but not too far behind schedule.
A half-hour later I was at the top of the hill, underneath the rock formation. From there I couldn’t see anything besides snow and trees, disappointing after my wet struggle to the top. I surveyed the route up the side of the rock face. The sloped surface probably had plenty of foot and hand holds in the warmer parts of the year, but few were showing through the covering sheet of icy snow. I made a few exploratory moves to see how difficult it would be to make my way across the rock to the snowy ladder that led the rest of the way. I was having difficulty getting my running shoes to dig into the ice, and the thought of sliding down the 30 or so feet while I was here alone wasn’t very comforting.
Just as I was about to abandon my mission, a blonde man peeked over the top of the rock and said something that sounded encouraging to me in Slovak. I made a motion towards the place on the rock I was going to try to pull myself to next, seeking reassurance. He replied the amazingly economical Slovak word dobre, which can be used to mean yes, good, ok, I understand, etc., but in this case, I was sure meant,”Stop being a ‘fraidy cat and go.” The dobres continues as I worked my way along the side of the ice wall, grabbing rocky edges and trees for support. When I finally reached the ladder my heart was beating noticeably faster than it had been when I was practically running up the mountain. I scurried up the ladder before I had time to worry about it and at the top I found not one, but two, Slovakian cross-country skiers waiting for me.
I just nodded and smiled at the men at first and took a moment to take in the view that went for miles. It was easily worth every panicky moment on the side of the rock. In the midst of snapping pictures, the men suddenly started speaking to me in some broken, but understandable English. I was a bit taken aback. Where was this when I was slipping of the side of a rock? But it did make me feel a little better when they looked at my running shoes and laughed, explaining, mostly through motions, that they thought I was wearing proper ice climbing boots or whatever they were wearing, and that it was no wonder I was terrified. (Sorry, my ice climbing boots don’t fit in my backpack.) Anyways, they found it pretty funny that some girl from New York was climbing a random hill in East Slovakia by herself, and one insisted it was such a novelty that he wanted to take a picture. I asked his friend to snap one to commemorate the moment of my near-death for myself as well. We spent the rest of our time on the top eating peanut butter and wafer bars called Horalkys while the men showed me which of the mountains I was looking at were in Slovakia, which were in Poland and which were in Ukraine.
Sadly, since spring was young, and dark not so far off, I couldn’t hang around as long as I wanted. I bid farewell to my rock climbing coaches, took a deep breath and descended the ladder. After sort of establishing a route on the way up, I’d like to say I was much more collected climbing back. In reality it was necessity more than bravery that took me quickly to the bottom and skipping, sliding and sloshing all the way back to the bus stop.
The next day I informed the teachers their hiking condition predictions had been pretty spot on, but that I was still really glad I’d made the trip. The rest of my free time in Snina was spent walking and jogging around the city’s surroundings and giving the construction workers in my hostel the silent treatment for eating my cheese out of the fridge. Of course, this changed nothing from our relationship prior to the thievery, but it made me feel better.