Yesterday I returned from four days of hiking in the High Tatra mountains, Slovakia. I was fortunate enough to join a group of Hungarians who travelled there. It was four days of natural beauty, physical challenges, camaraderie, and well-deserved hot chocolate with rum (or the local speciality Tatra tea) at the end of the day.
The hiking destination
This was the first time I visited the High Tatras, and for that matter my first time in Slovakia as well. I thought it an excellent hiking destination. On the Slovakian side the mountain range is accessible through transit hub Poprad, with good train connections to Budapest and Bratislava. From Poprad there is a little electric train that runs every hour to all of the major villages (Starý Smokovec, Tatranská Lomnica, and Štrbské Pleso) and hiking trailheads. There are enough trails that are accessible from the railway to fill a couple of days with day-hikes, and if you want to camp overnight you can venture deep into the mountains for a week or two. As most of the park is between 1,000m and 2,500m of altitude, you get a lot of different terrain types (pine forest, subalpine forest, tundra, rocks, and snow) even on relatively short hikes.
The trails are very well-maintained and marked. We never had any trouble finding the way on any of the ‘official’ trails, although things can be a little rougher on the ones that are just marked on the map as ‘footpaths’. (Tip: if you go there, buy the VKU Vysoké Tatry 1:25,000 map.) I would rate the quality of the trails as superior to the GR and PR routes in Western-Europe, and on par with those in the Swiss Alps. While most trails are technically easy or moderate, we did encounter some difficulty above 2,000m. Some of the passes were covered with snow, and we had to climb through it for several hundreds of metres. This is not for the inexperienced or faint of heart, and I would have preferred to have some extra equipment on hand.
Another thing that makes the High Tatras very attractive (for those hailing from rich countries) is the low cost of food, drinks, and accommodation. Double rooms go for as little as $25 per night in the high season; a meal will typically set you back about $10; and a pint of lager costs only $2. This makes spending a couple of days hiking in the High Tatras very affordable (as opposed to, say, the Swiss Alps, where $25 doesn’t even get you a bed in a hostel). The whole trip cost me less than $200, including transportation from Budapest and all meals and drinks. That’s hard to beat in Europe!
It was also my first time in Slovakia, and it was interesting to see some of the cultural differences between that country and its neighbours. The Slovaks seem like a proud people. More so than the Hungarians or the Czechs. They take a lot of pride in their language, their food, and their culture. I found that a random Slovak was more likely able to speak English (or German) than a random Hungarian, but not always willing to do so. They would insist on their own language. Especially towards my Hungarian friends they seemed to have some resentment, which can be explained by the history between the two states. The exception would of course be Slovaks who belonged to the Hungarian speaking minority. As always, an “ahoy”, a friendly smile, and a “prósim” would go a long way in softening them up.
The Slovak food is typical Central/Eastern European, with meat being the main star, pasta or potatoes an indispensable side, and vegetables an afterthought. There are some differences, though. Most Slovakian menus have a good selection of soups (which were great after a day of hiking). The Slovaks also have much better cheeses than the Hungarians, on par with those that can be found in Austria, though not quite as good as in Switzerland. I am not enough of a meat expert–whenever possible I seek out vegetarian food–to judge the differences there, but the one piece of meat that I ate (marinated pork with sauerkraut wrapped in bacon) was delicious.
A curiosity that I encountered was that Slovakian menus always mention the exact amount of food that you get when you order something. E.g. you might find a 150g hamburger, 150g of roast potatoes, 20ml of barbecue sauce and a 500ml beer on a typical pub menu. The only other place where I’ve seen this before was Switzerland. It made me wonder whether the Slovaks share the sense of order and meticulousness for which the Swiss are famous. Things are definitely well-organized: trains run on time, roads and trails are kept clean, and estimates are exact. Certainly not unpleasant.
We ended our trip with half a day of sightseeing in Košice, the second-largest city in Slovakia. Most of the town has a Sovjet-feel, although it sports a charming, well-preserved medieval centre. An excellent place to stroll around for a few hours and have a rezané pivo, a half-and-half mix of light and dark beer.
Altogether I found Slovakia a pleasant country, and the High Tatras in particular a great hiking destination. If you are looking for some easily accessible and well-maintained hiking trails against a decently scenic backdrop, but don’t want to pay through the nose for food and lodging, the High Tatras are for you.