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New heights

I’ve done my fair share of nose upturning at people walking the city streets using what look a lot like ski poles. Poles in the mountains my head can deal with. Poles on a footpath? Puleeeeeessse.

The whole concept of Nordic Walking has passed me by. But in the High Tatras, no one seems to go anywhere without their poles. They come to fit all ages and sizes from 9-year-olds to nonagenarians. When I’d counted my 137th pair of poles, my curiosity got the better of me.  I had to google Nordic Walking.

Turns out that by using the poles (correctly) you engage 90% of the muscles in your body. For that I could look silly (note to self). Or spend more time in the Tatras where I’d look right at home.

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Stage 1

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Stage 2 – the 15-seaters

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The highest workplace in the country

In our innocence, we’d thought we could simply turf up at Tatranská Lomnica and hitch a ride on a cable car to Lomnický štít (Lomnický peak) at the top. So much for planning. It is possible to get a small cable car a third of the way up and then change to a 15-seater to go as far as the Meteorological Station – famous for being the highest working place in Slovakia and being home to the country’s highest telephone box. But to get to the top, itself, and to be allowed wander around for 50 minutes, you had to book the funicular days in advance and cough up €46 (included in which is a €2 deposit on a GoPass skicard).

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It’s the tiny little red dot in the middle

The funicular operates between the lake Skalnaté pleso and the top of the peak Lomnický štít suspended on a 1,867 metres long rope. Along its route the funicular overcomes the altitude difference of 868 metres. Originally it was only supported by one pillar set in the southern face of the peak. After the general reconstruction it manages even without the one.

There was a free slot on Sunday, around noon. The weather forecast wasn’t great. The choice was simple. Book, pay and pray. Or play it safe. I gave it some thought. I didn’t think I’d see anything that would really impress me. I’d been higher than the 2634 m I’d be standing atop (Mauna Kea, Hawaii) so it wasn’t the height record I was after. When you’ve lived in Alaska, mountains take on a whole new meaning and while the view from the top of Lomnický štít might well be spectacular, I’d seen Spectacular with a capital S on a daily basis for years. Most of all though, I didn’t want to set myself up for disappointment. I knew I’d be gutted the Sunday noon came by and the clouds had descended.

img_7080_easy-resize-comSo we compromised. We went as far as the lake (more like a big pond in the absence of rainwater and melting snow) and wandered around, enjoying the views and the warmth of a late autumn sun (€19). It was back in the late 1700s that the mountain was first climbed by a local shoemaker. But the credit for the first recorded climb goes to Englishman Robert Townson his guide in August 1793. It would be nearly 100 years later before anyone would attempt to get to the top in winter.

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Stage 2 – you can see the peak in the background

The High Tatras are a maze of hiking trails and cycle paths. Some took the cars up and walked down. Others hiked up and airlifted back. I flew both ways. You can climb to the peak but you have to have a mountain guide with you. All so reminiscent of Alaska on a smaller scale.

Down in the village of Tatranská Lomnica, one of 13 that make up the official town of High Tatras, the penzións and hotels rule. I would love to see the place at the height of the season. It must be heaving. Hotels are still going up so it’s not like supply has outstripped demand. Quite something.

And yes, on Sunday, around noon, the peak wasn’t visible. So I wasn’t at all disappointed.

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The oldest city in the world

IMG_8151 (800x599)Billed as the oldest city in the world, Jericho was one of the few places that saw little action during the two intifadas (Palestinian uprisings, 1987-1993 and 2000-2005)  As a result, the Israeli presence is notable by its absence.  Translated by the Canaanites as the Moon, in Syriac the name Jericho meant scent and odour. Today, the city is known as both The City of Palm and The Garden of God. Ruins discovered here date back 10 000 years, depending on whom you listen to.

I’m a little annoyed at myself that I didn’t find the sycamore tree which the tax collector Zacchaeus climbed to get a better look at Jesus when he entered the city. But then, that’s always a reason to go back.

IMG_8193 (800x600)IMG_8180 (800x497)We visited the city to see the Monastery of the Temptation perched on the side of the Mount of Temptation. This particular Greek Orthodox Monastery allows women in … which was a relief.

IMG_8158 (800x600)To conserve time rather than energy, we opted for the 5-minute cable car ride rather than the 30-minute hike up a steep path. The monastery is built over the cave in which Jesus is supposed to have spent his 40 days and 40 nights being tempted by the devil. The cave is tiny – with barely room to stand up inside. The hundreds of thousands of pilgrims who have trooped through it have left their mark. It was mentioned as far back as 326 when Helena of Constantinople identified it as one of the holy sites she visited on her pilgrimage that year and the present monastery was built at the end of the nineteenth century.

IMG_8187 (800x600)IMG_8189 (600x800)Interestingly, it was the first holy place that actually felt any way holy. I touched the actual rock on which Jesus is supposed to have sat during his fast and wondered, not for the first time, why we are so obsessed with tangible things. Why do we need rocks and relics and statues and churches? Why isn’t it simply enough to be in the place that it all supposedly happened, to commune with spirit that’s present, to soak up the memories and take time to reflect onIMG_8196 (592x800) what has been.

I’m as guilty as anyone of taking photos and perhaps not spending more time in silent contemplation, but this monastery, like so many other places I visited, didn’t allow time for rumination. It’s like being on conveyor belt – with priests pulling you in one end and pushing you out the other. And yet perhaps because of its situation, perched as it is on the side of a mountain, this monastery felt just a little closer to heaven, to what I had expected of the Holy Land.

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