Slovakia's towns and cities take on a different character in the winter, with snow often banked high on the roadsides, boots as standard footwear, and - around Christmas - mulled wine and other goodies on sale at town-centre market stalls. Slovaks are well used to the cold conditions and even in severe weather roads normally stay open and public transport runs to time.
Which is just as well because every weekend, thousands of people get out into the hills and onto the mountainsides. As Roman Millan, The Slovak Spectator's correspondent on the slopes, reports below, there are few things that Slovaks like more than to ski.
Hitting the slopes, Slovak style
A snowboarder enjoys the Slovak slopes
Photos by Roman Millan
Recently, a journalist from a daily newspaper asked me whether Slovakia was a country of skiers. My answer was simple: "Of course it is." I come from Liptov, where more than half of my town's inhabitants ski, and even now, when I live in Bratislava, it still seems as though everyone around me goes skiing. Moreover, Slovakia is not just a country full of skiers, it is also a country that produces world-class athletes and Olympic medal winners. Radoslav Židek, a Slovak snowboarder won silver at the Olympic Games in Turin in 2006, and Veronika Zuzulová holds several medals in World Cup slalom racing. Ski resorts in Slovakia might not have the extreme altitudes of Chamonix or Davos, for example, and they do not have the kind of glaciers found in some Austrian or Swiss resorts. But often their smaller size and great beauty makes them more interesting.
Basic features of the ski slopes
Most Slovak ski slopes lie below 1,500 metres, where the mountains are also covered in forests. Only three resorts in Slovakia rise above this height: Lomnické sedlo, Chopok, and Štrbské pleso-Solisko. Marked runs usually cover an altitude difference of about 200 to 400 metres and their length varies from 1,000 to 2,000 metres. The season begins in late November and typically ends towards the end of March. In the High and Low Tatras, however, you can often enjoy spring skiing until May. The altitude of the highest slopes in Slovakia – at Lomnické sedlo (1,800-2,200 m) – often means glacier-like conditions, especially in March and April. You can, for example, experience a drop of as much as 1,000 metres at Chopok, and the steepest bluff in Malá Lučivná Magura offers the chance to experience an altitude difference of 500 metres on a 1,300-metre run.
The slopes to themselves.
Photos by Roman Millan
Ski services have improved greatly in recent years, with the larger resorts offering a high level of comfort and facilities. If you ski with your family, for example, you can find children's parks where specialist instructors will teach junior skiers the basics while you enjoy faster skiing on more demanding slopes. Off-piste activities are also improving, and many resorts offer wellness centres and massage. The resorts also cooperate with the major aquaparks in the north of Slovakia, with shuttle buses provided to and from the slopes. Essentially, there are three major groups of skiers, each with their own set of priorities. The first group, comprising accomplished skiers under the age of 25, is interested primarily in the quality of the slopes and their accessibility, and is not too concerned with the level of off-piste services as most of its members cannot afford them. There is then a larger group of so-called consumer-visitors, who do not merely ask "How can I ski in this resort?" but also "What's the food like?" and "Are the hotels comfortable?" This group is interested not only in the specifics of the slopes, but also the services, accommodation and apr?s-ski activities. Unfortunately, ski-resort food is often unremarkable: hastily prepared food dominates, and so far no resort has particularly distinguished itself.
The range of accomodation is increasing each year, especially in the form of apartments resembling urban accommodation. The most demanding visitors can now enjoy 5-star winter comfort at the new Kempinski Hotel in Štrbské pleso.
The final, smallest, group of skiers is made up of highly skilled specialist 'riders', who are not so much interested in the resort itself. Typically, they might ride the chairlift twice in a day but are more likely to 'free-ride' outside the marked tracks or spend the whole day in a snowpark, skiing or snowboarding freestyle.
Looking forward to a long run.
Photos by Roman Millan
Complete equipment rental is typically between €10 and €15; and an all-day ski pass at a top resort should cost €20-€25. Because of the financial recession prices at ski resorts have not increased; on the contrary, visitors can look forward to discounts of around 15%. According to Donovaly Infocenter, some bargain prices will be on offer, for example a ski pass + accommodation for one night costing only €29.
Lunch in a restaurant on the slope (including a drink) costs €3-€5.60. All-day childcare in a funpark for one day is €25 to €32 (which includes ski pass, tuition, ski rental and competitions).
Kids can enjoy the slopes too - and not just on skis.
Photos by Roman Millan
What if you do not ski? Well, you won't be lost during a stay in the mountains, especially in the larger mountain ranges like the Veľká (Greater) Fatra, Malá (Lesser) Fatra and the High and Low Tatras. Why not try a hike on the snow, using snow shoes? Walking with snowshoes is 25 percent more effective than without, and is very good cardiovascular exercise. You can find ideal conditions for it in a number of resorts, including Donovaly, where I recommend the crossing between Donovaly and Liptovské Revúce, or in Vrátna, where you can take the lift to a spot beneath the ridge of the Malá Fatra, which you can then partially climb on a 10km trek. Mountain hiking is also possible during the winter months on marked paths and tracks in the High Tatras, which end by sub-alpine cottages at an altitude of 2,000m. A splendid winter trip is from Starý Smokovec (1,000m) through Hrebienok to Skalnaté pleso (a glacial mountain lake, at 1750m), from where you can take a cable car all the way to Lomnický štít (2,632m), the country's second highest peak.
And that is not all. If you are lucky enough, you can book a studio at the peak for up to four people, and spend not only the whole day, but also the night. The price is about €312, including the cablecar, accommodation, and half-board for four.
You can also get the adrenalin pumping at the snow funpark at Hrebienok, in the High Tatras. Apart from the 2.6km-long light sledge track, you can try snow bikes, the 'ski fox', a cross between skiing and sledging, snow-tubing or a 'snowscooter' (somewhere between a BMX bike and a snowboard).
Going up, coming down
Photos by Roman Millan
Each resort also organises its own entertainment programme, especially at weekends and holidays. In addition to discos and parties organised by various drinks companies, there are also very popular family snow-based competitions and ski contests for visitors, with official time-keeping. Almost every big resort has a snowpark, which hosts freestyle events, accompanied by music. The most famous and popular include SKOČSY in Vrátna, where top Slovak bands play as the best jumpers leap off the largest snow jump in Slovakia until late at night. The 'SNOWSHOW' series of aerial disciplines has recently grown in popularity, touring various resorts including Vrátna, Jasná and Donovaly.
Some Slovak resorts also host international snow-based competitions. Donovaly, for instance, has traditionally hosted the dogsled championships, which usually takes place at the end of January or beginning of February.
Skiing takes place on the northern and southern slopes of Chopok, the second highest peak in the Low Tatras, where two resorts are connected via a lift. Ski slopes exceed 4 kilometres in length and have an altitude difference of more than 600 metres. Some of the top mountain hotels, like the Grand Hotel, and Hotel Tri Studničky (Three Wells), are located in the resort; Slovakia's biggest aquapark, Tatralandia, is 15 kilometres away, and Demänovská Jaskyňa Slobody is also nearby. A good blanket of snow normally remains until April.
2. Tatranská Lomnica - Lomnické sedlo ****
(850 – 2,632m)
The highest resort in Slovakia. The cablecar from Tatranská Lomnica will take you to a completely different world: Skalnaté pleso. Here, the two-chair-lift will bring you to almost 2,200m above sea level, where a steep black, but broad, slope begins. It is 1,200m long, with an altitude difference of about 400 metres. Snow conditions here often surpass conditions elsewhere. This is the only place in the country where skiers can enjoy a 3-metre thick blanket of snow as late as May.
Cablecars – 3; ski-lifts – 2; ski-slopes – 8.6 kilometres; night skiing; cable car to Lomnický štít; 5-kilometre descent in good conditions.
3. PARK SNOW Donovaly *****
910 – 1,402m
The broad and gently sloping plains at Záhradište are an ideal place to try skiing for the first time. Children can be introduced to riding on a belt or ski lift in the funpark, as well as a chairlift. In the meantime, you can take a leisurely ski along the 2km-long slope at Nová Hoľa, with a 430m altitude difference. There is a small supermarket in the village and a wide variety of accommodation, from cottages and houses, through apartments, to luxury hotels.
This ski resort, comprised of 3 connected valleys, offers various downhill tracks. Every valley is different – Dedovka valley is suitable for families, Marguška valley offers brilliant ski slopes and Laliky valley is popular for its ski slopes longer than 2 kilometres. Veľká Rača is well-known for its hard winters since it is situated in the Kysuce area of northern Slovakia.
This 'two-storey resort' offers broad slopes with a slight incline in the lower part, where you can find a children’s school, snowpark, and a chairlift. The 'upper storey' is meant for serious skiers, where a ski slope more than 4 kilometres long leads skiers from the peak to the bottom. However, the resort has limited accommodation. I recommend staying in the town of Dolný Kubín, 6 kilometres away.
This resort is ideal for those who can already ski, but who also want to try some difficult slopes. The cablecar to the ridge of the Malá Fatra is also a splendid start for mountain hiking. The Chleb locality is famous as the second Mecca for free-riders after Chopok. There is accomodation in the resort and in the nearby village of Terchová.
Cablecars – 2; ski lifts – 15; ski slopes – 14 kilometres; snow rockets; cross country skiing; free-riding; night skiing.
For additional contact details about ski resorts, please visit www.goski.sk.
Useful pages and contacts:
You can find pictures of all the resorts on www.holidayinfo.sk. Mountain rescue service:Tel: 16-300; or international rescue service 112