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Just popping next door

Growing up in Ireland, living on the continent had an allure that would eventually prove irresistible. Hearing something described as ‘continental’, be it a look, a style, a food, seemed so exotic. While the islanders of Ireland and the UK spoke English, the Continentals spoke it with an accent that made them seem other-worldly. I was enthralled. It was only a matter of time before I ended up in mainland Europe.

I like having freedom to roam, being able to get on a train or into a car and go. And with Hungary being smack bang in the centre of Europe, I’m living in my version of travel heaven.

Last week, we popped next door, into Slovakia. Although a long-time fan of Bratislava, I’ve only recently discovered the delights of Košice (Kassa). This was our second visit and this time, we were simply passing through on our way to the High Tatras.

img_7183_easy-resize-comOne of the many lovely birthday presents I received this year was a four-day train pass to the mountains. It covered the return trip from Budapest to Štrba and then the use of the local Tatranská elektrická železnica (TEŽ), the electric railway, and the Ozubnicová železnica (OŽ), the cogwheel railway. With six different routes to choose from, you can get on or off at any one of the many villages and towns en route. Both run like clockwork. To the minute. And neither goes exceptionally fast.

img_7143_easy-resize-comWe spent the first night in the lovely town of Poprad-Tatry, a haven of penzións and hotels, seventeenth-century burgher houses, and the stunning altars of the Church of St George. It’s close to Tatranská Lomnica, home to a series of cable cars, chairlifts, and a funicular by which you can ascend the highest peak, Lomnický štít, if you don’t fancy climbing it on foot.

img_7075_easy-resize-comThe second night we stayed between the two villages of Sibír and Nový Smokovec, the latter of which is home to the massive Royal Palace, built in 1925 as a sanatorium and sadly now looking remarkably empty. It still features on hotel booking sites so perhaps it simply hasn’t yet opened for the season. Both villages are quite typical of the region – lots of accommodation, a few restaurants, and a couple of churches take a back seat to the myriad hiking trails, walking paths, and cycle routes, all of which are helpfully signposted with the length of time it should take to get from A to B.

Photo by Steve Jacobs

Photo by Steve Jacobs

My favourite spot was Štrbské Pleso. Its mountain lake is frozen for 155 days of the year. Just over one-kilometre-long and about 600 metres wide, it’s nearly 1400 metres above sea level. It’s a major spot on the competitive winter sports circuit (I’d like to see a snow polo game as I’m having a hard time imagining horses on ice) and attracts thousands to its slopes.

In summer and autumn, the area is a haven for Nordic walkers. Young and old alike are kitted out in the brightest and the best of gear. The popular trails are easily identified by the legion of cars parked along roads in what seems like the middle of nowhere. The place oozes good health. Bars and cafés with their outdoor seating, chairs lined with sheepskin rugs, provide a nice reprieve.

We spent the last night in Košice, as options for trains back to Budapest are few and we had an early start. There are only two direct trains – one leaves at 6am, a second at 6pm. All others go via Bratislava and take more than 10 hours so be careful.

We’re already planning another trip next door for the Tatry Ice Master in Hrebienok in January, when the High Tatras will be at their best. If you want to escape the city madness, get yourself a pass and head to the mountains.

First published in the Budapest Times 7 October 2016

Winter wonderland without the snow

It doesn’t take much to imagine the neighbourhood deep in snow. But it does take a lot for me to imagine snow polo – horses on ice. Now that I know it exists, it’s bumped its way up on my list of things to see before I die.

For our second night in the Tatras, we’d booked into an apartment hotel between the villages of Sibír and Nový Smokovec. Just a kilometre apart, both have train stations. Our hotel was a family-run hotel, one of many in the region. It came with a kitchen, living area, bedroom, and a massive balcony. I was amused at the price list and the charges for changing bed linen, cleaning the room, swapping out the towels, all hints of long-term stays. The background noise of deers rutting during the night came free of charge.

If you’re not into hiking or walking or cycling (or skiing when there’s snow), it would seem that there’s not a lot else on offer by way of entertainment. But there’s ample quiet to read, to write, to be. It’s the healthiest place I’ve been to in years. Everyone looks so fit. It nearly put the longing on me and had I come prepared, I might just have taken to the slopes.

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Evangelical church

img_7182_easy-resize-comIn Nový Smokovec, two churches sit side by side – one the evangelical that I mentioned before and the other a Roman Catholic. Its theatre-style seating arrangement was a little strange and somewhat reminiscent of the Frank Lloyd Wright creation I visited in Madison earlier this year. It’s a little shabbier on the outside, so shabby that the inside is quite a treat. Lots of mosaic tiles, lots of colour, lots of glitter. And lots of people.

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Photo by SG Jacobs

The Royal Palace was quite deserted. The date above the door says 1917 but what little I could find on the Net says it was built in 1925 as a sanatorium and in its day, it was the place to be.  It looked deserted, but a search of hotel booking sites shows it still listed so perhaps it’s yet to open for the season.

We amused ourselves by riding the Tatranská elektrická železnica (TEŽ), the electric railway, and the Ozubnicová železnica (OŽ), the cogwheel railway, getting on and off whenever took our fancy.  Štrbské Pleso (note the capital P) has a mountain lake, Štrbské pleso (note the lowercase p) that’s frozen for 155 days of the year. Nearly 1400 metres above sea level, the walk around it is about 2.5 km. It’s on my list of ‘go back to’ places as I really want to see a game of snow polo.

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Photo by SG Jacobs

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You can just about see the ski jump to the left of the hotel

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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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Where did all the people go?

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.

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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.

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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.

img_7068_easy-resize-comimg_7133_easy-resize-com 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 img_7141_easy-resize-comsurreal. 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.

CRYOTHERAPY PROCEDURE

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.