Spišská Belá and Mountain Lakes
After an unexpectedly great week in Snina, I decided to head out to meet Chris in Spišská Belá for the weekend before we both headed to Sabinov. Chris had been spoiled all week by two teachers from his school and their hospitality continued on into the weekend. On friday night, after settling into the quaint village for a bit, we went to the Drum Cafe for some drinks and good conversation. The teachers, Dagmara and Katka, spoke English fantastically. We spent most of the night laughing, but made a little bit of time for planning an excursion in the Tatras the next day.
Katka proved to be an expert on all of the nooks and crannies of the mountains. She and Dagmara (Dada, as she is affectionately known) were nice enough to pick us up the next morning and take us to a part of the Tatras we had never seen before. We arrived in Vysoké Tatry by mid-morning. While Katka is an expert on the mountains themselves, she was a little more shaky on specific directions. But, we still eventually found the first lake she wanted to show us hidden behind the Grand Hotel Kempinski, a place my salary is still several zeroes short of affording. The morning had started out gloomy, but the mountains began to show through the wisps while we stood there, allowing for a great view of the peaks behind the lake.
After seeing the first lake, we crisscrossed around the resort town for a bit in search of a trailhead that would take us between the mountains to another more secluded lake. While it took us a moment to get oriented, when found the trail without too much effort. From there, we started up a casual incline with snow that was luckily still frozen enough to stand on without falling through, mostly. As we hiked, we could see people skiing and celebrating the final days of the season on the other side of the valley, which set a festive mood. As we moved further into the mountains, the scenery became more limited thanks to storm clouds forming overhead. But, even though we were miserably underdressed (it had seemed so nice at the bottom), the light exercise and mild temperature kept us warm enough over the nearly two hours it took us to reach our destination.
When we first arrived at the second lake, Popradské Pleso, we could clearly see the near side and make out some figures climbing on the mountains above, but I knew we were missing out on the grand experience thanks to the weather. Somewhat disappointed, but eager to be out of the dampness, we hurried into the lakeside hotel and restaurant to lift our spirits with some traditional, cheesy, doughy, Slovak cuisine.
A plate of halušky and a few bites of pirohy did the trick. A half-hour later and seemingly a few pounds heavier, we were ready to make the trip back the way we had came. When we walked out the door, we were excited to find a much more exposed lake with big chunks of blue sky in front of us. Seeing it in its entirety not only made the whole trek more fulfilling, but also added yet another item to my list of things I would like to come back and see again in the summer.
The walk home proved to be even easier than our journey to the lake, and was also more enjoyable with the sun shining down on us. Mountains we hadn’t been aware of on our way in appeared, dramatically white and dark on a suddenly bluebird sky. We made our way back to the village much more quickly than we had come, meaning we fit two mountain lakes, several miles of hiking and loads of sheep cheese all into about four hours.
After a scenic ride home, we took some time to refresh and regroup. We met back up at Dada’s house later in the evening to feast and socialize. Dada generously fed us some more delicious pirohy and single-handedly inspired my new obsession with bagel chips. She also shared two of her great obsessions with us; ice dancing and Audrey Hepburn. Amazingly, I had spent 23 years in this world without ever seeing “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” which was something Dada could not allow. After the movie, some World Ice Dancing Championship recordings and a few plays off the Les Misérables, Chris and I headed out into the quaint village streets, feeling considerably more cultured than we had before.
Liptovský Mikuláš and The Melting Snow
After Spišská Belá came Sabinov, where a couple of lengthy walks and a castle visit were made possible by picture-perfect weather. With a completely manageable hike in the High Tatras the weekend before and the ideal spring conditions all week long, Chris and I decided on a weekend stopover in Liptovský Mikuláš for some hiking in the Low Tatras. We couldn’t really be faulted for our optimism there, right?
The guide book I’ve been using throughout our time in Slovakia is pretty good for finding hikes in popular outdoor regions. Unfortunately, for the Low Tatras, all of the extremely appealing hikes that were listed were only open in late June. However, all of the sources I could get my hands on assured me that by mid-spring, many of the lower hills would be primed and ready for hikers. Based on some vague maps and logic, Chris and I decided to take a bus up the main road through the mountains and get off near any trail markers that seemed promising. Hesitantly, we hopped off a few hundred meters past some green trail markers. When we walked back to the trailhead, I was ecstatic. The mountain beyond the sign didn’t even seem to have the smallest patch of snow on it, a minor miracle since only a few kilometers beyond people were still hitting the slopes. We decided to follow the green trail to the right to the first peak, which claimed to be just a few hours away.
Our trail started out through a completely flat field that looked about as non-threatening as hiking terrain can be. Unfortunately, this was not the case. The lack of trees had allowed snow to pile up deeply here. Now that it was beginning to melt, stepping on the wrong patch resulted in falling through nearly a foot.( In fact, it was here I sustained my first blood-drawing injury in Slovakia, with my ankle being cut by the ice.) By the time we crunched our way through the field, we were already a little frustrated. That frustration continued when we had trouble finding the green marker when the forest began, something that rarely happens on Slovakia’s well-kept trails.
Our spirits lifted a bit when, after some wandering, we finally did find a green marker leading us to a wide, established, snow-free path. We followed this for about 20 minutes, but were confused when the forest started to dwindle rather than grow thicker. It soon became obvious that this area was being heavily logged and the path we were trodding was a still-quite-active logging trail. While I understand logging is a necessary evil, I was quite surprised to find it taking place in a national forest where people go specifically to see undisturbed nature. We trudged through slop and past piles of timber, searching for trail markers which were non-typically few and far between.
The scene improved when the path veered away from the tree graveyard and back into the woods. Although still snowy, the path initially had solid footprints to make the going much easier than the field before. Or at least, at first. After a few hundred meters, small branches of a rushing creek started to disturb the snowy trail. The streams of water never appeared impassable, but water was now flowing beneath the snow as well, making it much less solid than before. Chris found this out the hard way when he suddenly sunk waist-deep into the snow with cold water rushing over his feet from the creek below.
This was the final straw. For the first time, we abandoned a hike before reaching our destination. With so many successful hikes in Slovakia, we were willing to write this one off before it caused anymore frustration or one of us twisted an ankle. As we headed back the way we came, the bare mountain in the distance mocking us for our poor trail choices. Both of our moods improved on the way back, knowing neither of us had to pretend to enjoy our icy ankles and sore thighs any longer.
I still wouldn’t mark this excursion a failure. It was our first taste of the Low Tatras and I can now say, given the opportunity, I will definitely be giving them another try, next time later or earlier in the season. Also, because of our early return to the trailhead, we decided to make our first official attempt at hitchhiking. I’ve hitched rides several times throughout my stay in Slovakia since a request for a point in the right direction often turns into a chauffeured ride to my destination. Butt this was my first side-of-the-road, thumb-out attempt. After being bypassed by several BMWs and Mercedes (this was a road to a ski resort after all) a small red minivan-like car pulled over and a middle-aged woman bumping to Emininem’s “Stan,” pushed a booster seat out of the way to make room for us. Our conversation was stunted, but we eventually found out that she worked for a hotel up the road and had one son who was seven years old. She took us to the town center where we easily found our way back to the penzion.
Upon our return, Chris was accosted by the owners sons and “forced” to play street hockey and jump on the trampoline that he’d been eyeing since we arrived. We finished off the day taking advantage of the full-fledged kitchen, a rare treat, and watching “The Dark Knight Rises,” yet another first for me.
Malá Fatra and The Friendly Hikers
From Liptovský Mikuláš it was just a short train ride to Žilina, and from there an even shorter bus ride to Rosina, where I would be teaching the next week. Rosina is a lovely little suburban village surrounded by rolling hills that eventually grow into Malá Fatra National Park. The week in Rosina was packed with exploration, including a visit to two nearby castles on Monday, two lengthy walks to neighboring villages and one trip to check out the city of Žilina itself. On one our afternoon strolls, Chris, our friend Jack and I spotted a map indicating hiking trails that branched out of the village itself and into the national park. Since it was too long to take on in an afternoon we decided to hang around Žilina for the weekend and give it a try on Saturday.
Rain threatened on Saturday morning, but was kind enough to hold off as we headed out of the city to the hills of Višňové. The hike began on the winding village streets and quickly moved into the fields and orchards behind the town. On our way to the forest we took the time to befriend some delightful goats and take in the truly unique shapes of the Slovak hills.
The trail headed up and up, past the pastures and into rows upon rows of eery pine forests. We then continued up, into the park at a rather steep gradient until we came upon some clearings created by ski slopes. From here, peaks and ridges that were previously hidden to us were now visible, showing how expansive the Malá (small) Fatra mountains really were. We worked our way along a pleasant ridge for a bit before the path became harshly steep once again.
The steep sections of the trail were trying of course, but the scenic pine forests and occasional glimpse of our surroundings kept us entertained as we neared our summit. After about two hours of hiking we came out past the mountains main tree line and into fields full of small shrubs and wildflowers.
After nearly three hours we reached reached a giant Slovak cross marking our summit, Mincol, at 1364 meters. I was slightly surprised at the large number of people we found waiting for us here, but then again, the Slovaks do love their wilderness. It wouldn’t have been the first time we’ve run into more people on a mountain than on a city street on a Saturday afternoon.
However, it wasn’t just coincidence that so many people happened to be hanging around the summit at once. We had actually come upon the Vrútky Hiking Club and their mountaintop festivities. We had just started snapping a few pictures when we were approached by their fearless leader, a short, wiry man who looked like he had climbed more than a mountain or two in his day. He looked to be barely fifty, but I have a feeling he was older than his appearance betrayed. When he found we didn’t speak Slovak he grabbed an unsuspecting boy of about 18 and claimed him as his translator.
The boy graciously explained that the man wanted us to sign the hiking club’s register so we could participate in their activities. We did so, giving our name’s, birthdays and hometowns. (The man who had signed before me had been born in 1946, which I found pretty impressive.) The older man was delighted to find that Chris and I were from the States and informed us that we would certainly be winning the prize for those who had come the furthest. Up until this point, we had no idea prizes were involved, but I felt like a bit of a party crasher for just showing up and stealing someone’s chance.
I didn’t feel like a crasher for long though. By command of the leader we were given bags and magnets bearing the club’s name as well as a card with their website and information. A man with a bushy beard, the kind that belongs on top of a mountain, offered us shots of borovička, one of Slovakia’s beloved strong spirits, and I stomached the shot much more for the experience than for the taste. By the time the prizes started being distributed, I was really feeling like part of the group. I took home one of the first, for coming the farthest. (I think the man had thought I was from Ohio and Chris was from New York, but oh well.) The man made a brief statement, none of which I understood, except for New York and Ohio, and then he scurried over and delivered a small item wrapped in a plastic bag and a kiss on my hand. I was a bit skeptical of the plastic bag’s contents, but was pleasantly surprised to find sterling silver Swiss-Army style jackknife inside, something I could really use. The next prize went to the man above me in the register, who turned out to be the oldest in the party. A few more were given out for the youngest hikers and similar honors before they started in on the door prizes. Apparantly, someone had hauled up about 30 or 40 prizes up the mountain to be given away and then carried back down. The items ranged from beers steins to t-shirts to bottle openers, but everyone seemed to enjoy the drawings, and no one more than our new friend, who was giving everything away.
We took in the festivities for a while longer, but the wind whipping on the bare mountain top began to take its toll. We bid our nameless leader goodbye (even his impromptu translator didn’t know who exactly he was) and headed down the other side of the mountain.
I’ve always known that different sides of mountains receive varying amounts of sun, but never have I seen it result in such disparity of conditions than on this hike. While we only had to crunch through one or two patches of icy remains on the way up the mountain, the first hour of our descent was spent falling through multiple feet of slushy stuff. Not only did these conditions make the going much slower, but we also had trouble finding the trail markers without any clear path to follow.
Lucky for us, there were some older men hiking behind us who seemed to have been down this path a time or two before. They also were having trouble getting through the snow and finding the path exactly, but unlike us, they had a general idea of their heading. They took over and led the way, and once they got too far ahead, they kindly left reassuring arrows in the snow with their trekking poles so we could know which direction to continue.
When we finally made it out of the snow for good, the trail headed downhill about as steeply as I could handle without actually rolling the rest of the way. While it wasn’t so easy on our knees, it was much less of a test for our hearts and lungs than the way up.
We approached our final destination, Strečno, within another hour. As we made the final turn out of the forest, Strečno Castle, which we had visited on Monday appeared across the valley before us. It was a pretty cool feeling to have hiked to the same location that had taken us an hour to travel to by bus earlier in the week. We emerged from the wilderness on the very same road we had taken down from the castle on Monday, bringing our exploration Žilina’s surroundings full circle.