Posts

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.

img_7152_easy-resize-com

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.

dsc_0061_easy-resize-com

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.

dsc_0066_easy-resize-com

Photo by SG Jacobs

img_7166_easy-resize-com

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

img_7156_easy-resize-com img_7177_easy-resize-com

 

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.

img_7049_easy-resize-comimg_7053_easy-resize-com

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.

img_7052_easy-resize-comimg_7054_easy-resize-comimg_7055_easy-resize-com

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.

 

Back to Bratislava…again

IMG_1998It’s hard to say what it is that keeps taking me back to Bratislava… apart from second-time visitors to Budapest wanting to broaden their horizons. For some very strange reason, I’m in love with the city. I don’t think I could live there though… yet there’s something strangely cathartic about getting off the train after 2.5 hours of journeying through the Hungarian and Slovakian countryside and stepping into the world of John le Carré. It’s like being back in the Cold War…or at least what I imagine being in the Cold War would have been like.  It’s not the best side of the city by any means. Generally hustling with all sorts – backpackers, touristy tourists, local commuters, shoppers, and the usual hang-abouters that come with every train station – it’s far from picturesque. Concrete just doesn’t cut it when it comes to atmosphere. Still, though, there is something in the air. Slovakia joined the eurozone in January this year and I missed that bit of excitement this time around. There’s something rather magical about getting used to new money; the temporary suspension of reality when you just spend and hope for the best, having tried in vain to come up with an easy denominator to make the calculations easy.

The No. 13 tram takes you down into the old town – the historic centre – and close enough to my hotel of choice, the Kyjev. The lift takes minutes to get to the top floor and when you step inside, you step back in time about thirty years. My imagination runs riot and again, I can see spies around every corner. I love it. Nothing has been touched in years. This is in sharp contrast to the old town, where modern sculptures have been plonked in random places.

IMG_1956

I’ve been to Bratislava four times now, and each time have made a valiant effort to light a candle in the Cathedral. Only it’s never been open to the public. I’ve been on varying days – Monday, Thursday, Friday, Sunday and each time it’s been closed. Right next door to this rather splendid tribute to Catholicsm, is a far more intriguing building that is overshadowed by its neighbour. Personally, I think it has more character; better reflects the mood of the people; and for me, symbolises the arty side of old age. If it were a poem, it would be Jenny Joseph’s When I am an old woman, I shall wear purple. You have to hand it to the Bratislavans – they take any and every opportunity available to art it. The day I was there, we came across a bunch of lads who had just taken part in choral competition. While waiting outside on the street to be summoned for their photo call, they started singing. Beautiful a cappella. The jury is out on who enjoyed it more: the singers or those fortunate enough to happen past at that moment. That is Bratislava. You never quite know what’s around the next corner. It’s not somewhere to spend a week – a day and a night is plenty – yet no two days or two nights are quite the same.