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.



The High Tatras: Hitting the highs

By James Thomson

    Hikers in the High Tatras ponder their route.
 Hikers in the High Tatras ponder their route.
 TASR

High Tatras (Vysoké Tatry) is the name of both Slovakia's highest mountain range, which it shares with Poland, and the collection of resort villages which are strung along its south-eastern slopes. Though it is a compact range by alpine standards, it spreads across two Slovak regions (Prešov.

and Žilina

). The nearest major town in Slovakia is Poprad (for a description of its Polish counterpart Zakopane, see the article in the section on Žilina Region).

The range's compactness has advantages. It makes it easily accessible for walkers and for admirers: on a clear day, almost the whole lot is visible - in a single, dramatic panorama - from mainline trains running through Poprad. Poprad also has a light rail link to the High Tatras settlement.

    The Grand Hotel in Starý Smokovec, with the High Tatra Mountains in the background.
 The Grand Hotel in Starý Smokovec, with the High Tatra Mountains in the background.
 Photos by James Thomson

The villages are filled with pensions, restaurants and hotels - this is basically a resort town - some of them grand affairs dating from the first Czechoslovak Republic. Such is the area's popularity with Czechs, Poles and Hungarians as well as Slovaks, that prices can be a little on the high side. The restaurant at the Hotel Smokovec (in Starý Smokovec) has a nice view of the mountains, the aptly-named Grand Hotel opposite, and a canteen-style diner which won't break the bank.

Heading further east around the mountains (the light railway links all the villages which make up High Tatras) is Tatranská Lomnica. Above it looms the second-highest peak in the range, Lomnický štít, at 2,632 metres. The energetic may wish to climb up - though this is not a trivial undertaking, so only go of you're prepared for anything: the weather can change several times a day, and each year the mountains claim several unlucky or unprepared hikers.

    There is snow in the mountains , even in July.
 There is snow in the mountains , even in July.
 Martin Janoško

However, those of a more relaxed persuasion will be pleasantly surprised to discover that someone has thoughtfully built a cable car right to the top. It starts as a large ski lift (there is a ski slope half way up), then continues via a smaller cable car all the way to the very top.

The views on the way are, as you'd expect, terrific. Once you get there, a set of carpeted stairs (which somehow feels wrong, at the top of a mountain) lead to an observatory and a ritzy café (though there are no views from the café itself). You can go outside (there is a small, rocky nature reserve at the summit) but you may need a pullover - even in summer it can be bitterly cold.

If you want to go up, especially in summer, you are well-advised to book as only a limited number of cable cars make the journey each day. Your time at the summit will also be limited to about 40 minutes. The one drawback of booking is the weather: if there is low cloud you will see little but the inside of the cable car.

    The observatory at the summit of Lomnický štít.
 The observatory at the summit of Lomnický štít.
 Photos by James Thomson

If you travel around this part of the Tatras (including on the lift and cable cars) you will see several large open spaces. These are the result of a devastating windstorm which swept through the region on November 19,2004 and toppled a large portion of the forests which until then had covered the lower slopes. It's not too much to say that this caused something of a national trauma at the time (Slovaks are very attached to their mountains - Kriváň, another High Tatras peak, was one of the three images they chose to adorn their euro coins which went into circulation in January 2009).

There was - and still is - a debate over what to do with the fallen trees: some wanted to harvest them (the timber was reckoned to be worth a fortune), others argued that since the storm was a natural event the most environmentally responsible thing to do would be to leave them where they fell and let nature do the rest. This view has largely prevailed, though there is now a consequent argument over whether the mass of rotting wood has encouraged the spread of a parasite which is reckoned to have killed another million trees.

    The only way is down: the lookout atop Lomniký štít.
 The only way is down: the lookout atop Lomniký štít.
 Photos by James Thomson

Parasite infested or not, the storm-affected areas are now looking less bare: undergrowth already carpets most of them and in summer the formerly wooded areas are blanketed with wild flowers.

Another debate rages over the wider development of the region. The High Tatras (range and town) is technically part of a national park, but in 2008 the international organisation which sets the rules for recognition of such areas warned that the building of new ski resorts and other facilities is incompatible with its present status. Whether this, or the ongoing economic crisis, will have a serious effect on visitor numbers remains to be seen.

Events in High Tatras

April: Veselá Veľká noc vo Vysokých Tatrách (Merry Easter in the High Tatras) Folk music ensembles, decorative eggs painting, whip making and other raditional Easter time customs demonstrations. www.vt.sk

June: Kultúrne leto v Poprade (Summer of Culture in Poprad) Street concerts in the town. www.poprad.sk

July: Country Tatry (Festival of Country Music) Riding areal in Tatranská Lomnica.www.tatry.sk

August: Medvedie dni in Hrebienok (Bears’ days in Hrebienok) Festival full of lectures on bears, a bear show, theatre, competitions for children, www.tatry.sk

October: Medzinárodný festival horských filmov Poprad (International Festival of Mountain Films Poprad) The main goal of the festival is to support mountain-related film production and distribution. Nábrežie Jána Pavla II.

December: Tatranské Vianoce (Christmas in the High Tatras) Street concerts in the city, carols, theatre, mountain films. www.vysoke-tatry.sk


These articles and related information were published in Spectacular Slovakia 2009, which you can obtain from our online shop.

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