A Weekend in Paradise: Getting Acquainted with the High Tatras

I was first acquainted with the wider region of the High Tatras through a university classmate of mine. He happens to not just hail from that particular area on the Slovak side of the border, but also to be one of its most enthusiastic ambassadors abroad. From the pictures I had seen, I knew the area was worth visiting at least once in one’s lifetime; for that exact reason ever since I moved to Slovakia it had been a top priority for me to see this place as soon as the first chance would arise.

With the great opportunity of family members visiting Slovakia and yours truly in July, I finally realized that trip. Although the area is quite large and the activities offered are many and for all tastes, I am mostly targeting this post to visitors who, just like me, want to spend good quality time in the High Tatras area throughout their weekend.

Geography

The Tatras are the westernmost, as well as highest part of the Carpathians, one of Europe’s most prominent mountain ranges. They are shared by and function as the natural border between Slovakia and Poland. Between 75-80% of their land mass lies in Slovak territory. Geologists consider the Tatras to be relatively young mountains, sharing a lot of structural characteristics with the Alps. Gerlachovský štít on Slovak territory is the highest peak of the Carpathians at 2,654 metres above the sea level. The highest fifteen or more peaks of the mountain range all lie within modern Slovakia.

The Tatras National Park is home to over 100 alpine lakes / Photographer: I. Antonakis

Due to their diverse fauna and flora, as well as their unique natural beauty, the mountains have been proclaimed a National Park by both Slovakia and Poland. Because of this classification, several restrictions apply in the territory regarding automobile accessibility, wildfires and camping. As of 1993, the wider park area was included in UNESCO’s Biosphere Reserve list.

Many small villages are built on the foot of the High Tatras, some of which function today as tourist resorts.

Poprad – The Gateway

Our trip started from the quaint city of Poprad, which lies a few kilometres away from the foot of the high Tatras. It was a hot, summer day and humidity was at its peak when the train from Bratislava left us at the central station. The first impression from the town was very positive; although I am used to most stations being surrounded by shady areas, Poprad’s is adjascent to a very well-kept and seemingly newly-renovated park. Statues, small paths, clean benches and stands made this a short but pleasant walk into the heart of the city.

Poprad also features one of the cleanest and most colorful main squares in Slovakia, named after St. Aegidius (fellow Athenian, whoop whoop!). After encountering a couple of run-down central squares and shopping streets elsewhere in Slovakia, deserted after the first malls opened in the country, it was refreshing to see a central location that actually looks taken care of.

Accommodation and Food

I had picked Pension Aqualand as our accommodation, mostly due to its strategic location next to Aquacity Poprad and its 15-minute walk from the main square. The girl that checked us in was one of the most polite and professional people I’ve met in a front desk position here in Slovakia (my opinion about Slovak waiters and receptionists should definitely be the topic of a future blog post). We were offered free breakfast the following day, as the exact room we had booked was not available and we had to be given another one of similar value and properties. What a great start of the trip! The pension’s interior design with a lot of abstract art and oriental influences, as well as the general tidyness proved the owner’s committment to providing a pleasant and affordable experience to their guests.

After a 4-hour trip from Bratislava we were famished. We were recommended Haliganda for some affordable local bites and headed there directly. Our food was scrumptious; stuffed turkey with veggies, vegetarian rissotto, pork filet in rich sauce and a few appetizers for the tasting. That along with beer costed us no more than 8€ per person! I had started to lose my faith with Bratislava prices but the real Slovak value for money can still be found in the countryside!

AquaCity Poprad

Being fully aware that doctors don’t recommend going into the water after a hearty meal, we found our way right by the entrance of AquaCity Poprad. Most hotels have agreements with the waterpark, so ask your reception if you are eligible for any discount before taking off. Afternoon passes are cheaper and our 20% discount on top made entrance quite affordable, at about 15€ per person. Access to the sauna area is an optional extra 8€, although a basic steam sauna is available for all entrants.

The entrance to the fancy AquaCity Poprad pool bar

The park consists of a good number of well-kept indoor and outdoor pools. The latter almost all connect to the interior zone through little water corridors, making access easy for the cold-prone. There are some super fun waterslides, which I think I enjoyed more than all the kids queuing ahead of me. Towards the end of our 4-hour stay we enjoyed a drink sitting on submerged stools around a well-equipped pool bar. You can charge your drinks on the plastic watch you use to enter the place, so don’t bother carrying cash unless you have the exact change; the barterners are not very keen on looking around for coins. If you get hungry, there is a restaurant in the main building serving food buffet-style until around 9PM.

One of the few shots showcasing the laser effects

The evening closed in an ideal way, thanks to the renowned AquaCity laser show. Everyone gathered in one of the main indoor pools, where laser images were displayed on a cascade of water. A short but sweet display of human inventiveness that made us leave the waterpark with a smile on our face.

Reaching the High Tatras

After a good night’s sleep, we took off early in the morning the following day to our final destination. The Tatra Electric Railway is the most effective public transport method in the area and should be your preferred option. Trains from Poprad to Štrba are scheduled every half hour in the summer months with single ticket price depending on the distance covered (range: 0.50 – 2€). I personally recommend the day ticket at 4€, as I noticed that in minor stops there are no ticket booths or machines available. There also didn’t seem to be a possible way to buy tickets while on board.

Our train having just arrived at Poprad station / Photographer: K. Antonakis

For those with owned vehicles I noticed that the condition of the roads was good in the summer. Motorcyclist groups trailing up and down the mountain road was a common sight. Most of the cars you will see are Polish, as the area attracts plenty of cross-border tourism. My eye also caught a couple of cyclists, however keep in mind most of the road is uphill. Long-distance cycling would probably require prior training.

Luggage can be left at the Poprad train station for as little as 2€ per day. However, keep in mind that lockers are few and mostly dysfunctional, whereas the RegioJet agency closes at 5PM. These are the only two options, so manage your logistics accordingly. As you will see later this can play a crucial role in your overall experience!

Things to do

Hiking

Obviously. The area offers plenty of well-organized paths for both experienced and amateur hikers, with signs every 15-20 minutes throughout the route to ensure you do not get sidetracked. We took two different routes; one from Popradske Pleso station to the lake itself (about 1 hour) and another from Popradske to Štrbske Pleso (about 50 minutes). The first route was very simple in terms of terrain but quite hilly and not for the faint of heart or chronic smokers, as my companions found out the hard way!

Mountain peaks as seen from the hiking trails / Photographer: K. Antonakis

The other one was more fun, more Lord of the Rings-y and more adventurous, with areas covered in mud as my shoes found out the hard way. Some paths are very popular so expect to come across many people on your way. The good thing is that the whole experience did not feel mass touristy at all. It was also impressive to see locals hiking with kids on their backs or jumping shirtless from one stone to the other like they knew each one’s location by heart.

As each path has a designated time but this might vary depending on your fitness level, plan ahead. In our case we realized halfway through that we had only couple of hours to be back to Poprad before the luggage keeping service would close, so we had to really rush our way through the second path – which unfortunately also happened to be the more gorgeous one!

Cycling

Some of the paths are paved, thus making cycling on them a possibility. We saw a few cyclists around, as well as cycling distance signs showing directions to different parts of the trail. I have friends practicing downhill biking who have told me the area is a paradise for adrenaline-chasers. We did not come across any bike rental shops, however logic says there must be something in the wider area.

Food & Drink

Let’s face it – some of us are simply not born for action! After a long hike, all I need is a hearty meal. Worry not, as you will find plenty of restaurants, fast food and ice cream stands around the area. I am still in awe at a little ice cream stand I saw in the middle of nowhere while hiking! We sat around the lake at Popradske Pleso, but there are also plenty of options in the much more touristy Štrbske Pleso. Try some local dishes, like Segedínsky guláš (pork or veal stew cooked with sour cabbage), Sviečková na smotane (pork in carrot & sour cream sauce served with bread dumplings) or if you are brave enough go for Tatarský biftek (seasoned raw minced beef with several sides). Obviously expect the usual selection of local beers, both alcoholic and non-alcoholic, to wash the food down.

Skiing

Our visit took place in the summer, however it was obvious that the area is even livelier in the winter. There are a few skiing resorts to choose from, including Štrbske Pleso, Tatranská Lomnica and Starý Smokovec. Some of the pensions and hotels are open all-year round and have good access to the slopes.

Folk Art

Below: Faces carved on tree branches / Photographer: I. Antonakis

We saw a few people carving human-like figures on wood and stone. Apart from taking the time to admire their work, it might also be interesting to find out a few things about this traditional craft. Some of the souvenir stands sell different types of local art items, however be careful as some of them might be overpriced replicas.

Other Information

Last visited: July 2017

Local name: Vysoké Tatry

Currency: Euro

Calling Code: +421

Timezone: CET (+1)

Emergency Numbers: 158 – Police, 155 – Medical Emergency, 150 – Fire Brigade

 

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