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.

How to Read Slovak Trail Marks

At first glance, Slovak trail marks might look a bit like a series of scenic Rorschach tests.

Say you encounter a tree in the woods painted with a horizontal red stripe between two white ones. Does this mean that a hospital lies ahead? Say, a little later on, you come upon a little white square with a red stripe slicing through diagonally. Does that mean, "Abandon all hope, all ye who enter here"?

No, on both counts. The ability to decipher these rustic hieroglyphics is essential to enjoying Slovakia's vast and beautiful trail system. Here is a guide.

The first thing to do before setting out on a hike is to find a trail map for the area. They can typically be found in tourist centres and bookstores in towns of any size. Unfortunately, their informational prose is almost exclusively in Slovak; yet they remain useful, and their colour coding matches the colours on the trail marks. With a trail map and a working knowledge of what the different colours and symbols mean, you can plan a hike that corresponds to your difficulty level.

Slovak trails are marked with four colours: red, blue, green, and yellow. The marks are almost always painted on to trees.

A red mark denotes as challenging trail, one that moves steeply up and down hills. These trails reward hikers with wonderful views, but also demand intense exertion. The nation's most famous red-marked trail, called Cesta Hrdinov SNP, passes through many steep mountain ranges on its 762 kilometres way from Bratislava all the way to the Dukla Pass in northeast Slovakia. The anti-fascist partisans used it as a supply route in the Slovak National Uprising.

A blue mark means a long, not-too-challenging trail that connects two major tourist attractions - say, a castle ruin and a man-made lake. A green-marked trail connects two other, larger trails, typically to facilitate movement between tourist attractions. Finally, yellow-marked trails tend to be short connecting trails, used merely to provide a path between two larger trails, not to point to tourist destinations.

Once you've chosen your route on the map and found the desired trail, it's time to start looking for marks as you forge on. The most basic trail mark - a horizontal coloured stripe between two white ones - simply denotes a particular trail. If you want to remain on the same trail, keep looking for marks of the same colour as you proceed.

If you're on a green trail and see, say, a white square with a green diagonal passing through it, don't panic. It only means that a sign containing information about the area's flora and fauna is coming up. If later you come upon a split in the trail, with one path marked by the standard horizontal green stripe and the other with a green square missing its top-right quarter, then the latter path leads to a some tourist attraction - say, a cave, a cottage, or a castle - about a ten minute walk from the main trail.

There are two trail symbols which are self-explanatory: the coloured arrow, which points to a trail's proper direction at a fork; and the small coloured square within a larger white square, which simply means the trail's end has been reached.

You should expect to see one marker or another every 300 metres or so. If you don't, retrace your steps to the last marker and make sure you went the proper direction.

- Tom Philpott

These articles and related information were published in Spectacular Slovakia 2003.

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