Into the Vast Wilderness of Slovakia
The rising landscape of the countryside
You can find the first part of the journey here.
We left our hostel early morning and went to find our bus operated by a company called “Student Agency“. The journey from Brno to the town of Banská Bystrica, almost the centre of Slovakia, was supposed to take around 5-6 hours, which is nothing after my 24-hour minibus trips in south-East Asia. Even so, we were lucky to get one of those big buses with a video screen, good service and comfy seats. It didn’t feel like a long trip and we had some time to re-watch a few episodes of “Friends”.
As soon as we left the city and were in the countryside again, we began to notice the difference. The ground started escalating. The forests became thicker, the ponds turned to rivers and the hills grew to mountains. We were in Slovakia. Even though it was winter, the forests were green. I could not turn my eyes from the beauty of the countryside.
I think everyone has his own beauty standards when it comes to nature. Some love the blue ocean more, some admire the view of the hot and dry desert sands, others enjoy trekking through colourful and exotic jungles. I love green forests, rivers and mountains. I love the nature of my country, Lithuania, but I was always jealous of countries who have mountains or, at least, hills. So Slovakia was something that made me really excited.
A real jawbreaker for me was when I saw ruins of an old castle popping out from a thick forest on the edge of a mountain. I was astonished by it. I could not wait to explore the wilderness. I was trying to find which castle it was, but Slovakia has so many, I can’t figure it out. Well, I am a bit too lazy actually.
Arriving at the two-faced Banská Bystrica
We arrived at Banská Bystrica in the afternoon. And I must say, the first impression of the city was a bit disappointing. When we were driving into the city, all we could see was factories, industrial sites, building sites and so on. It was a lot different from what we have seen in The Czech Republic. But then again, Slovakia is quite an industrial country. Everywhere we went, later on, we saw a lot of big factories, sawmills, building sites.
We did not have anywhere to stay at that point, so we rushed into one of the first places that had wi-fi and some food. We were searching for some cheap accommodation for quite a while and I was really confused after seeing that the prices are quite high, thinking that we chose a town that is definitely not one of the tourist attraction centres as everyone goes to Poprad and explores the countryside from there. But we wanted to try and find some places that are less explored but worth the while.
In the end, we had to raise our budget for the accommodation and got a big spacious room in a hotel and conference centre Ubytovňa Stavoprojekt. The room was really old, though, you could kind of feel the old soviet times being in there. The beds, doors, shower, very old and fishy looking heaters hanging on the bathroom door. But it was the cheapest thing we were able to find and it cost us 27 Eur for a night for 2 people. It was that place where we first noticed the strange things in the country: our big bed was actually 2 beds pushed together, we had 2 separate duvets for each other, the toilet doors never had a lock and the toilet paper was the kind that we call “the sandpaper” in our country. And it was everywhere like this! But it was fun for us, we don’t mind anything as long as we have a roof over our heads for the night.
When we were finally settled in, we went outside to explore the town. That was when we finally found the hidden beauty of Banská Bystrica.
We felt silly when we stumbled upon the old town by accident. It actually is a very nice looking city, we just arrived from one end of it where there was nothing to see. And thinking about it, all the cities have these places – the industrial and unattractive regions of a town that hide its true colours behind a few grey buildings.
We were always on a lookout for good local food deals. But the prices were a bit high for us, so most of the times we just went for the cheapest stuff rather than traditional food. In Banská Bystrica, we went to Arcade Restaurant for a bite. And it was quite a bad experience. We ordered pizza, which tasted like a pastry covered in salt. The atmosphere was quite tense and the staff were horrible, they ignored everyone for the most of their time, and when they actually had to do something for the customers, they made sure you kind of felt that it’s your fault that they have to work.
I am not fussed about service, but after working in hospitality in the UK, I must admit, service in Central and Eastern Europe has a lot of space for improvement. Now I do understand that countries like Lithuania and Slovakia have really low minimum salary levels, I guess there is no motivation to try harder. I just thought that Slovakia being a very popular destination amongst tourists, their service was on a higher level. We did get good service in pubs, but service in the cafes and restaurants that provide food was quite unpleasant.
Of course, there are always good examples too! A place I would highly recommend going to and trying their pizzas – Pizzeria Alba. The service was good, the pizzas were great, the atmosphere was chilled and relaxed. What we have also enjoyed a lot was their garlic soup. Slovakians are quite known for the variety of soups they do. We love hot meals so garlic soup on a winter day is always a good and healthy choice. But that place just makes amazing garlic soup!
Another place we have really enjoyed was a rock pub called Helldorado. Sounds quite harsh, but actually it is a very nice, tavern-looking pub with posters of greatest rock bands on the walls. We tried getting some local food in there but every time we went there, the kitchen was already closed. We really enjoyed the atmosphere, even though people can still smoke inside, that did not cause problems to us. I enjoyed Saris Tmave (dark Saris) beer from a bottle. The prices were affordable. The people in the pub were older lads, looking more like rock fans or bikers. And the music, for people who enjoy the good old rock, was really good. We really recommend this place.
Day trip to Donovaly – the footprints of hidden wildlife
After a late night, we still had to wake up early as we planned a day trip to Donovaly. We were still using jizdnirady.cz tool to plan our trips as we found out it works perfectly in Slovakia too. It was a short trip to the small town. Sadly, the fog was still following us.
Donovaly is a village in between the mountains and forests. A hiker attraction in warm seasons and a skiing resort in winter. Even knowing this, we still wanted to do at least one good hike. It did not matter how the weather was like. Well, I thought it did not matter. In Donovaly tourist information center we were told that we would be better off walking around the lower grounds as the wind on the mountains was too strong and the fog was covering most of the land.
So we decided to go to a local shop to get some snacks for the day and to try to go into the forest. In this shop I found a 2 kg bag of plain cookies, I thought it would do fine for brief hunger moments in between our meals. Giedre was a bit sceptical about this.. But I bought it.. And I am really glad I did that. I’ll tell you later about this.
So we walked a bit away from the buildings and found a way into the forest. The first thing we saw when entering was a sign that said to be cautious and to respect the wildlife and nature of the forest. On the bottom, it had the list of animals you can find. Amongst them, we found bears and wolfs. We got really excited. Of course, we did not believe to see any of the big predators, but it was just nice to know that the wilderness is right there where we stand. We were hoping to see some deer or smaller mammals, though…
We wandered around the forest quite a bit. We were really silent as well, but we did not spot any animals. Even though we did not get to see them, we knew that they are right there – behind a few hills or trees. We knew that because of the footprints in the snow. It snowed heavily just as we entered the forest, that’s how we knew that the footprints are very fresh. We could literally follow footprints of deer, rabbits, possibly mice. We saw small feet of birds too. The forest was full of creatures, it’s just that they were hiding from us.
The most exciting and a bit frightening moment was when we spotted wolf’s footprints. First, we were laughing that it could be a wolf, thinking it’s actually left by a dog. But then we noticed that it’s much bigger than that of a dog, the claws were longer too. We suddenly realised that it is definitely one of a wolf. I was really excited because I never imagined being so close to a real wolf, I really respect this animal. But when I understood that they are really fresh and that our paths crossed, I felt some chills crawling on my skin. We went to the direction the footprints came from (of course we didn’t follow the wolf!) and saw that it was possibly following a deer as you could clearly see its footprints there too, a bit older ones but still fresh.
Even though we did not see any animals near us, we felt that we really were in the real wilderness. We have seen many deer in the UK, smaller mammals too. But there, the forests are different. You do not feel like being in the real nature. It’s more like a walk in the park. I think that’s why it was exciting for us, the real wilderness was there, just hiding and we could feel it.
Later that day, the sun finally came out. Even for a brief moment, the fog got thinner and we could finally enjoy the beautiful landscape – mountains, forests, snowy tops of the trees, fresh air and vast space. It felt amazing.
We returned to Banská Bystrica later that day, went out to Helldorado for the last evening in the town. Again, all the information directed us to go to Poprad, the tourist and traveller center, but we wanted to explore more, so we chose to go to Telgárt – a small village in between all the major mountain ranges in Slovakia. A place where I was finally going to go hiking.
Hiking in Telgárt – defeated by the mountain
We arrived at Telgárt in the early afternoon and went out to find our hotel. There were no hostels or cheap accommodation around, so we had to go for the cheapest one we found. We did not want to risk it as it was the skiing season, so we booked online, rather than just looking around for a place to stay when we were there.
We found one place that was cheaper than all others, but we got a reply saying that if my girlfriend and I are not married, we are not allowed to stay in the same room. The first time we came across this situation in Europe. I heard that sometimes people do that in the Middle East or even South-East Asia – regions that are strongly influenced by Islam – but never before I have heard of it in Europe. So we had to choose another place – Penzion u Hanky. And even though it was a bit expensive for a budget traveller, we really enjoyed our stay in there.
The guest house was neat, the room was spacious and cosy, very warm. We had a flat screen TV, although we did not watch it as it was mostly Slovak channels. But the best thing about this place was the family who runs it. The owner (I think it’s the owner) spoke English, German and Russian, his wife spoke German, his daughter spoke English. So it was very easy to communicate. They were very nice and very helpful. Offered to dry our shoes after a hike, gave us directions, had a conversation with us and we were feeling really welcome. Best service we had in Slovakia, I would say. They also have a restaurant but on the first day, it was closed.
We went out to have a look at the area, and it was really beautiful – a village in the middle of three ranges of mountains. But the fog was not going anywhere, so we figured to go hiking next day, a bit earlier. After we had a look around the area we thought of going to a shop to buy some cheap products to make some sandwiches, but the shop was only working till 12 AM on a Saturday. We went to another one – same situation. Then we noticed that it does not even open on Sundays. This is the part where the 2 kg bag of cookies was like a life saver to us. Sure, they had one restaurant, but we were on a tight budget. So we were eating cookies for the next 2 days. A very good decision to buy them in Donovaly, I thought.
Next morning we woke up early, packed light backpacks, zipped our wind and waterproof jackets, took the cookies (of course) and went into the forest, where it was the beginning of a hike to Kralova Hola mountain (1946 m). It’s not the biggest mountain, not even in Slovakia, but for beginner hikers like us, it was a real treat.
But I have to say in advance, we did not make all our way to the top. Like I said – beginner hikers. Not that it was hard or anything, the hike itself was perfect. Just the weather was the worst we could have imagined for a hike. Giedre did not have the proper hiking shoes so her feet began to get wet. It started pouring with rain, so we were really lucky to have our good water and windproof jackets, we managed to stay warm. Visibility was really bad, the day looked miserable. And as much as I wanted to continue, the smart move was to go back, as we were somewhere in the middle of the track and we would have had to go back for the same period of time. The weather was becoming more and more miserable, so we made our decision and went back. This was kind of the downfall of the whole trip as I was looking forward to this moment the whole time. It would have been the tallest mountain so far for me that I have hiked. We were spotting footprints of lynx and signs warning of bear sightings, so it really felt like this was a perfect wild mountain.
Anyhow, that’s when we made a promise to one another to come back to Slovakia in the warm period and to do some proper 7-10 day hiking. Maybe it’s better to experience the whole thing when you can enjoy the view and the weather as mush as you enjoy overcoming the challenge itself. We will come back and we will go even higher.
We descended and went to our hotel to dry our clothes; we were soaking wet. Our mood was a bit down but we had to agree that without the real hiking shoes we will not be able to do any proper hiking in winter in Slovakia. Not when it was that humid and pouring with rain all the time. I think it was then when we have finally decided to stop the exploration and go to Poprad, the town everyone is going to. We were always trying to avoid the places where EVERYONE is going but it seemed that it’s the most comfortable destination to go to and, later, to go from. So we gave in.
Poprad – the headquarters of backpackers and hikers
We were going by bus the next morning, still disappointed because of the failed hiking trip. The vehicle entered a big valley and we finally saw the amazing picture – the High Tatras and the town of Poprad lying right in front of them. The view was amazing and breathtaking: the white pointy tops of the mountains looked enormous; like they were just put down on a plain field. Poprad seemed so small in front of them. I could just envy the people living in this place and being able to get up to this view from the window every day…
We left the bus station and saw that it’s right in between the mountains and the city. Most of the good accommodation spots, like ours, was right next to the train station, the city was a few minutes away on foot. We went straight to a tourist information center to get a map of the place and some tips on what can we do during our short stay (because of having to move on to Budapest for our flight home) there. The staff were very nice and they explained to us that there are lots of day trips going on with the electric train that goes from Poprad every hour. It was right then when we understood that EVERYONE goes to this place for a reason. It’s the perfect headquarters to plan your hikes and backpacking in this area. The High Tatras are within arms reach, the Low Tatras are a short drive away and the Slovak Paradise park is also next to it. Just pick a bus and go there within less than an hour. We really felt like we missed out on a comfortable way to go around that area. But nevertheless, we enjoyed our small getting to nowhere parts.
We went on a short trekking trip right then after leaving most of our stuff in our guest house (nothing special about it this time, really). We took a ride on the electric train from Poprad to Stary Smokovec and walked up the hill to Lyžiarské stredisko Smokovec – Hrebienok. Note for you here: if you are in Poprad, do ask for the day rider or the weekly tickets; so much cheaper and you can go to all day trip destinations without having to buy any new tickets. From there you can just pick a walk – all written on a signpost with approximate times to the destinations. BUT, it’s written in the Slovak language. Still, if you have some information, it’s Latin Alphabet, you can just figure out which one is which.
It was really windy there. You could see the effect the wind has on trees there too. All leafless and spike-less bent and curved from the ongoing power of wind. We went to see a frozen waterfall. It was really awesome even though it was only a day trekking trip. We saw small shacks in the mountains, that offer you hot meals and accommodation if needed. Have to keep in mind that some people go on continuous hikes and need to stay somewhere so houses in the middle of the mountains seem logical.
When walking there you have to be careful of falling trees. Avalanches do occur there too. You can actually see what can happen from all the fallen debris everywhere around that area. You can see marks of fallen rocks that crossed the walking path too. You really respect nature in that place, when walking next to the edge of the mountain.
The walk took us a couple of hours. Later we returned to Poprad and had to plan our trip to Budapest. We were running short on time, as we needed to be in the capital of Hungary within the next 2 days, our plane was leaving from there. That’s why I always hated holidays – you are not free. You have to go back, time is limited. You feel chained. Anyway, we really liked Poprad location, but there was no point for us to stay there longer, this time, we couldn’t go on a proper hike, we had to go to Budapest, we did not have more time… We reminded each other that we will return, this time, right to Poprad, with the right gear and we will do some proper hiking.
So the next morning we took a train (a rather expensive one) to Budapest via Bratislava. When we were about to leave the area I looked through the window – for the first time in days, the sky has finally cleared, just enough for me to glimpse the last time at the beautiful High Tatras mountains. Nature is amazing… Slovakia, we will definitely return!
You can find the third part of the journey here.