These articles were published in the Spectacular Slovakia travel guide, published annually by The Slovak Spectator since 1996. The latest editions can be obtained from our online shop.

Malá Fatra

A rustic option

By Matthew J. Reynolds

 photo: Chris Togneri

Of Slovakia's four premier mountain ranges, the obscure Malá Fatra is probably the least appreciated. Even its name - malá means 'small' - seems designed to encourage tourists to give it a miss.

This is a pity, for while its mountains are less dramatic than the High Tatras or the Veľká Fatra, with an area of over 22,000 hectares and peaks of over 1,700 metres, the Malá Fatra are hardly small. And because of their relative obscurity, they tend to be quieter, cheaper, less crowded and serviced by a more homespun tourist industry.

I started my trip to the Malá Fatra in the quirky and beautiful town of Terchová, which was the birthplace of Slovak national hero Jánošík (often referred to as the Slovak Robin Hood), to whom the town pays homage with a statue and museum. In the winter, Terchová teems with international visitors drawn to the Vrátna Dolina ski centre (one of Slovakia's largest ski centres, capable of dragging 9,050 people up the mountain every hour), which lies five kilometres south of the town.

As tourist-savvy as its 4,000 locals are, Terchová retains the charming peculiarities of a small town. When I got off the bus, the first thing I saw was a man frantically chasing a sheep through his front yard. Another man was cruising the main street in a small station wagon while bellowing through a bullhorn, offering for sale a wooden cabinet jammed in the back.

 photo: Chris Togneri

I asked an old woman for directions to a hotel. She apologised profusely for not being able to offer me a room herself (her daughter had recently had a baby). Many people in Terchová offer rooms to strangers, and many others work in the town's penzions and hotels, which are literally around every corner. Although it's a good idea to make reservations, spur-of-the-moment travellers can usually find a bed somewhere. To bargain with the locals, look for the signs that say 'Privat'.

Buses to Terchová stop in front of the town church, and from there different buses (marked Vrátna) run regularly to the ski centres. By foot or by car, take the first or second right after the church and follow the tallest visible peak in the distance. This road leading out of town and into the mountains is known for its beautiful and jagged rock formations. One of them supposedly looks like a kneeling monk, but I couldn't find it. To me the rocks were psychological ink blot tests. Tired from walking all day, I kept seeing bath tubs and plates of halušky.

Along this road, there are four skiing areas known for long and spacious runs within three or four kilometres. The best bet during the winter months is to buy a pass that covers all of them and then wander where you please.

Coming back into town, I was persuaded by the staff at a local hotel to allow them to put me into a room with a large bath tub and to arrange a massage from the local masseuse. The next morning I felt fit for anything, although all I had lined up was a visit to a town at the south-eastern edge of the Malá Fatra - Martin.

Martin is grey and cheerless, full of paneláky and industry that appears to be on its last legs, although it is surrounded by beautiful mountains. But the town does have enough history to occupy a tourist for weeks. For starters, the Slovak language was first codified in 1848 based on the Martin dialect. Locals love to tell you they speak the purest Slovak in the country.

Martin was also the centre of the Slovak national movement that officially began in 1861 with the signing of a declaration demanding rights from the Hungarian authorities, an event commemorated by a relief on The Square of the Declaration of the Slovak Nation near the town's pedestrian zone in the centre. To find this and other local monuments, stop by the Stahlreisen travel agency near the Jánošík statue on the main square and ask for a brochure (available in English) with a town map.

A five minute walk from the centre leads to the Slovak National Literary Museum, which exhibits the first writings of Slavs in what is now Slovakia, dating back to 800 AD, and short biographies of the most influential writers in Slovak history.

Museums, most of which cost just ten crowns to enter, are everywhere in Martin, and I had most of them (and their talkative curators) all to myself. A branch of the Slovak National Museum sits on the edge of town and includes a colourful display of traditional Slovak dress and a photographic exhibit of famous Slovak Milan Rastislav Štefánik, an army general and one of the founders of the first Czechoslovak state in 1918.

A footpath out front leads to the Slovak national cemetery, where many of the most important figures in Slovak history are buried. A skanzen, an open air museum with nearly 100 authentic wooden structures, is a short drive or bus ride to the south-eastern part of town. (From October to May the museum is open by appointment only. Tel. 043/4133096).

There is a sad contrast between the town's history and its present; Martin has never recovered economically since a major factory that produced tanks closed shortly after the Velvet Revolution (locals also love to curse Václav Havel, the current Czech president who made that decision). Walking its empty streets from museum to museum, it seems that more happened in Martin's history books than in its present-day community.

But on my last night in Martin, I ended up in a pub eating halušky and talking politics with locals who were determined to intoxicate me. Outside, the night air was crisp, and with the museums closed, the centre lined with old-fashioned street lamps and the moon hanging over the mountains, the town was at last making a romantic impression.

These articles and related information were published in Spectacular Slovakia 2001.

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