Fifty-five thousand people live in Poprad-Tatry in Slovakia. We may have seen 100, if that. In the High Tatras for the weekend, Poprad-Tatry was our first port of call. Of course, the previous weeks being what they were, I’d done sod all research and had no idea what to expect. All I knew was that we were heading for the mountains.
When we got off the train, the view was surreal. To the left, tall apartment blocks competed for skyline with the Tatras as a backdrop. To the right, colourful roofed houses against the same backdrop had me thinking of Alaska. I’d only been there 30 minutes and already I wanted to come back in the snow.
We’d booked in to a penzión in Spišská Sobota, one of the four towns that joined up in the mid-twentieth century to form the city. It’s about a 30-minute walk from the train station, as the crow flies. And fly we did, through a tunnel (with its own photo exhibition), across waste ground, over fields, and even over a bridge. The locals like their shortcuts.
Penzión Fortuna is a family run three-star affair that has one of the best restaurants in town. The food was excellent. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a Waldorf salad on a menu and I’m adding their carrot and garlic spread to my list of starters. Friendly, helpful, and very obliging, they definitely set the tone for the weekend. To top all that off, we weren’t staying in the main house but in one across the square, one set in a row of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Burgher houses. And we had a massive attic room with a mountain view complete with living area. What more could a body ask for? These Burghers (middle class businessmen of the day) had it good.
Sobotské námestie, with its artistic signs and postboxes is quite stunning. Although lined on both sides with penzións, it seemed to be waiting for people to arrive. The season hadn’t yet started. Most people come to the Tatras to ski. The last of the summer’s Nordic walkers had gone closer to the mountains. It was quite surreal. Beautifully kept, all ready for business, but no one had as yet arrived. Other than those we saw in the restaurant and the staff at the penzión, there was no one else around.
Poprad apparently has one of Europe’s highest international airports, higher even than Innsbruck in Austria. We missed it. Didn’t even see a sign. The city itself dates back to the thirteenth century when the king of Hungary invited German colonists to settle in the rural farming region. In the mid-fifteenth century, Hungary pawned it to Poland who held it till the 1770s. The Russians came in 1945 and the tourists have been coming ever since.
Considered by some to be the gateway to the High Tatras, for others it’s the start of a regional Gothic tour, and for more still it’s the home of a locally famous business success story. Back in 1845, a small business started making nails and horseshoes. Today it has morphed into Tatramat, the washing-machine factory spoken of with reverence. NHL fans might know it as the home-place of Peter Bondra, the 37th player in league history to score 500 NHL goals and twice score 50 goals in one season. Lots of frozen lakes to practice on in the neighbourhood.
And speaking of cold, the town is also home to Aquacity, a massive waterpark with a cryotherapy centre where temperatures go as far below as -120 degrees Celsius.
Upon arrival, guests are given moisture resistant clothing that includes a T-shirt, shorts, headbands, gloves, socks, clogs and a mask to cover the nose and mouth. Certain parts of the skin must remain exposed, in order to induce the above mentioned stimulation of receptors. Pre-treatment begins by entering the ‘pre-chamber’, with its temperature of -60 °C and lasts for approximately 30 seconds. Following this is entry through the internal passage doors into the main Cryochamber, where the temperature reaches -120 °C and where clients are in motion all the time, avoiding any skin contact. Exit is again via the pre-chamber, allowing the body to adapt to the change of temperature. After leaving the Cryochamber, the clients then perform 20 minutes of intense exercise.
They had me up until the last.
An overnight stay isn’t enough to do the city justice but then, it’s not going anywhere and I can always go back.