JOHN’S JOURNEYS: SKI-ING IN SLOVAKIA
John Burke discovers some faraway snowfields
There is high adventure to be had in Slovakia that stretches from the blue Danube to the snow-covered Tatras. The eastern half of one-time Czechoslovakia is a mixture of Ruritanian and rustic charm in an area somewhat larger than Switzerland.
The current lure must be the winter-sports that end in April, but the summer sees all the uplands given over to hiking and camping as well as hunting and caving. There are also 22 spas, led by Piestany, in this Slavonic land whose diverse attractions also range from valleys to vineyard and from fishing to folklore, not to mention age-old architecture of wood, brick and stone, including 300 castles.
For the present, note the 100 modernised ski resorts with 500 lifts and 56 cables, the
majority being suited to beginners and intermediate skiers. The principal areas are the High and Low Tatras, but there are slopes on other ranges that are misnamed but not misspelt.
They are the Smaller Fatras that reach 5,606 feet (1,709 m) at the summit of Velky Krivan, whereas the peak of Ostredok in the Larger Fatra massif is 270 feet lower.
Both rise to the west of their near namesakes which are more accessible.
The biggest mountains skirt the Polish frontier to form the highest, yet shortest, part of the Carpathian chain that covers a total of seven countries. Only 16 miles separate resorts with the most reliable snowfall.
The easternmost and quietest centre is Tatranska Lomnica, some of whose nine slopes of all grades are served by funicular, while the 7,220 feet (2,634 m) summit of Lomnica is reached by a series of cable-cars. Slovakia’s highest run extends 4½ miles with a vertical drop of 4,265 feet (1,300 m), besides which there are 15 miles of track across country.
Slovakia’s highest mountain is Gerlach, rising 8,709 feet (2,654 m), to separate the Polish resort of Zakopane from southerly Stary Smokovec. This resort serves two areas that have nursery slopes and Nordic ski-runs.
To the west is a lakeside called Strbske Pleso, the highest by far of all resorts at 4,445 feet (1,355 m) on the sun-kissed slopes of Solsko. It offers more than five miles of moderate to difficult ski runs, reached by two ski-lifts and two fast chair-lifts plus a three-seater.
All three resorts share ski-passes (five days cost £91), and even better is that they are linked by a narrow-gauge railway coming up from picturesque Pobrad. Lying at 2,204 feet (672 m) some 15 miles southward, it is the complete gateway to all the Tatras by main line, motorway and modern airport – with flights from Luton. Nearby is historic Levoca, whose Renaissance buildings include Slovakia’s finest town hall where I once photographed a meeting of central European presidents.
To the south-west loom the Low Tatras with the biggest and best of Slovak ski-centres in the Jasna area carved out of a pine-forest. The vertical drop is half the height of Chopok, which reaches 6,640 feet (2,024 m) above sea-level in this landlocked country, and four resorts nestling in the Demonova dale face 39 slopes, a couple of which are illuminated. There is off-piste besides a choice of those graded blue, red and black, and a total of 30 cable-cars, chairlifts and ski-lifts can take up 30,000 skiers per hour.
More winter-sports are available in the Smaller Fatras whose six resorts have a total of 40 ski-lifts. The most popular resort in the land is Martin that offers snowboarding as well as 7¾ miles of ski runs in all three grades. Freeriders, however, prefer Vratna because it has Slovakia’s steepest slope.
By contrast, the broad snowfields above Donavaly, which faces the Larger Fatras,encompass Europe’s second-largest skiing school for children. Lifts total 42 for almost 26 miles of run, mainly easy to moderate. The nearest station is at Banska Bystrica, scene of the Slovak uprising in 1944, while the Smaller Fatras are closer to historic Zilina which is less than two hours by train from the capital, Bratislava, lying only 40 miles east of Vienna along the Danube.
There are Baroque echoes of Prague in Bratislava’s smaller old town, and the classical opera-houses in both cities were designed by the same Viennese architects. A museum occupies the former town hall which is as Gothic as the cathedral where 24 Hungarian kings were crowned.
Located at 1 Uranova is e-travel.sk run by the Stranik family with 26 years’ experience of incoming travel, not least in winter. Strong selling points are: Alpine ski-ing would cost would cost three times as much; there is ample accomodation of all types; and the Slovaks’ cost of living is one-third lower than ours.
Self-catering for nine could cost the same £51 per night as a good single room, while even the Grand Hotel (established 1904) in Stary Smokovec has offers at £87. That was where I tasted Demanovka, one of Slovakia’s herbal liqueurs. Other specialities are plum-brandy and a golden-hued pils called Zlaty Bezant, meaning golden pheasant.
At the equivalent of 79 pence a pint, washing down a meal of goulash and dumplings would show barely £6 on your credit card, while £4.36 would buy a pound of Slovakia’s rare cheese.