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.
One 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.
We 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.
The 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.
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