High Tatras & Slovak Paradise, Slovakia
The contrast between Poland and Slovakia was stark. As soon as we entered Slovakia we drove through several shanty towns inhabited by Roma communities, which was a world away from the stunning architecture we witnessed throughout Poland. It was unlike anything we had seen in Europe so far.
Our plan was to visit the High Tatras mountain range, but with the visibility so poor today we decided to leave it until tomorrow. Instead we headed to Levoča, a tiny town surrounded by an old city wall. It took us about five minutes to see the sights. The highlight was the Cage of Shame, a birdcage-like structure in the middle of town that was used for public condemnation centuries ago. I wonder how it would affect crime rates if it was still used today.
We found the local caravan park, along with a dozen French campervans who were on some sort of European holiday together. They all cooked dinner together, which consisted of meat sizzling away on portable grills/BBQs, and the smell wafting past our van had Danny drooling. We tried to beat them with our Thai green curry, which I thought was amazing, but I knew which one Danny preferred. Danny was happy, however, with his choice Slovak beers, although it seemed to be impossible to find a local beer that contained less than 10% alcohol. He tried to complain about it but I didn't believe him.
We were both woken up by extremely loud rain during the night. When we didn't think it could get any louder, it started to hail. There was also intermittent thunder, just to make sure we didn't fall back to sleep quickly. The mountains weren't looking likely for tomorrow either.
As the rain had thankfully stopped in the morning, we drove to the High Tatras and rode a cable car up to Skalnaté Pleso, a lake situated halfway up the mountain. I was hoping to go to the very top for the panoramic view but it was so misty that it would have been a waste of time. It wasn't the best day to be looking at the sights from above, with the clouds hanging low and obscuring much of the scenery.
Next we drove to Slovenský Raj, known in English as Slovak Paradise. We bought a book of walks in the national park and chose the one the sounded the most interesting. To reach the starting point we drove to the town of Čingov, which consisted of a couple of hostels, one or two eateries and that was about it. From here we undertook a 17 kilometre, 5¼ hour walk through the mountain range. The first hour was fairly dull, along a road through open land, but then it led into the National Park and uphill through dense forest. This terminated at a rock platform that provided incredible views across the mountains, even with the ominous clouds above. As we continued on we came to a vibrant green, fern-filled gorge, where we had to walk uphill for about an hour past waterfalls and along streams. The water was brown, which wasn't exactly appealing, but walking up steep ladders next to the gently-flowing falls was amazing. A lot of the time we were using chains to help us climb up slippery segments, or walking along metal steps bolted into the side of the rock that seemed to hover over nothing. Our faith in Slovakian construction was tested repeatedly.
At about the halfway mark we came to the ruins of an old monastery and, more importantly, a cafe, where we stocked up our energy stores. Our walk back to the car involved views over misty mountains and a sharp climb that had us slipping and sliding all over the place. The weather changed several times throughout the day, from sunny and hot to downpours that caused us to stop and shelter under the trees several times. At the end we were both extremely dirty and tired but so happy at what we had accomplished. It was absolutely the coolest walk we had ever completed.
We were planning to go back to the car to change but decided we were famished, so we stopped straight away at a hostel restaurant. I tried a local white wine, which was unlike anything I had ever tasted before (in a good way), and didn't stop at one. We both chose soup to warm us up: Danny a bean and smoky ham soup, and I a garlic soup (a national favourite apparently), served with veggies and cheese. It was far too garlicky for me and left me with the worst garlic breath all night. Next we tried local sausage with condiments, plus a main of "sheep cheese pie" (it turned out that "pie" meant "ravioli"). For dessert it was plum ravioli, which was deep fried and served with cream and chocolate. All up our five dishes, three glasses of wine and two beers came to €25 – unbelievable value. We also sampled hot caramel vodka, which turned out to be about three shots worth of warm vodka with a tiny amount of burnt butter flavour. It was way too strong for me to enjoy, but Danny happily finished it off for me.
Once again our sleep was interrupted by deafening thunderstorms, leaving us feeling exhausted in the morning. There was no rain when we woke up, but it was still overcast, foggy and humid. We drove to Podlesok, a town in another section of the Slovak Paradise, where we had planned to undertake a seven hour hike. When we arrived we were advised that most of the walks in the area were under water due to the storms and were therefore closed to hikers. To bypass this problem we tried driving to another section of the park, away from the waterfalls and gorges. Along the way we passed many flooded fields, with water coming right up to the road, that we abandoned all hope of embarking on another trek.
After a disappointing morning we drove to Spiš Castle, a huge ruin on top of a hill. It was so eerie and desolate driving up to it that we were both truly mesmerised. At the top we walked around most of the rubble, admiring the great views over the countryside. As we were making our way to the top of a lookout tower it started to rain and for some stupid reason we had forgotten our umbrellas. We sheltered in the castle museum while we waited for a break in the rain then quickly made our way back to the car, through all the flooded sections that had suddenly appeared. Slovakia really has turned on the terrible weather for us.
Our final stop was Košice, again passing by several Roma villages on the way. It seemed that there were more Roma people than Slovaks in the country, even though they only make up 2% of the population. There wasn't much to see in Košice, just one main touristy street lined with lovely old, colourful buildings, plus a grand theatre and church in the middle. It seemed to be devoid of people; I would have admired it more if there had been a bit of a crowd to give it some atmosphere. I wanted to see the Musical Fountain, thinking it would be an engineering marvel, but instead it was a regular fountain with a set of speakers nearby playing radio songs. An occasional bell was thrown in for variety. I can't begin to describe how underwhelming it was. For something to do we visited the underground archaeological excavations, only discovered 15 years ago, which were average at best. The highlight of Košice was the ice cream cone we bought for 30 cents. Much better than the €4 they charge in other countries.