Out on a high: exploring Slovakia’s High Tatras
Slovakia’s most visually striking national park, the High Tatras, turns 70 in 2019, and it's high time you turned your head in the direction of this unique, upland adventure playground. The flurry of peaks and the ease with which you can be up among them – either spying many of the continent’s most phenomenal animals or getting your adrenaline fix on the serrated, snowy slopes – make these mountains stand out.
Slovakia’s highlights are predominantly natural, and few would disagree that the High Tatras deserves the top spot. Not only is it the highest terrain in Slovakia, but the highest in the entire 1500km-long Carpathian range and, indeed, in eastern Europe.
That said, in terms of overall area, it's the smallest mountain chain of this altitude in the world: cue dramatically juxtaposing habitats and an eclectic mix of outdoor action, from hut-to-hut hiking, skijoring and husky sledding up high, to rafting through the river gorges below. And in the forest belt in-between you can sign up for some of the continent’s best brown bear watching.
One of the features that makes this national park so appealing is the sheer abundance of peaks cresting 2500m – 25 in total. The High Tatras is one of the rare pockets of Europe outside the Alps to retain alpine characteristics, and the topographical palette greeting prospective visitors is vivid, falling across five contrasting zones.
There are the lush valleys at around 700-800m; inky forests of Carpathian beech or spruce ascending to the 1500m mark; pale green expanses of kosodreviny or dwarf pine mostly straddling 1500-1700m; high-altitude grasslands known as luky that can rise to 2000m and, from 2000m to the mountaintops, the swathe of tarn-spattered tatry, barren, stony ground from which the word ‘Tatras’ is thought to derive.
Because of the close proximity of these zones, any one panorama here can comprise the greys, whites and blacks of the tatry, the deep blue of the tarns (mountain lakes) and the lusher hues of luky, kosodreviny and forest underneath. A single hike can catapult you through all five ecosystems in a few hours.
The diversity of landscapes that lures humans to explore also entices a bonanza of beasts, including three of Europe’s Big Five. The brown bear, wolf and Eurasian lynx could all spice up a day’s adventure.
Long-term preservation has kept the environment especially pristine, too: authorities on the Slovak and Polish sides of the mountains collaborated to form the world’s first cross-border protected region here in the early 1950s.
Hikes and climbs
Nothing can show off the High Tatras’ unique charms quite like a hike, with a medley of red (challenging, or long-distance), blue (intermediate) or green and yellow (interconnecting) trails fanning around the slopes. Multi-day treks are inviting thanks to the welcome placement of mountain huts at intervals roughly corresponding to a day’s tramp. Traditional meals are served and accommodation can be surprisingly sophisticated considering the huts' middle-of-nowhere locations. Sleeping up in the mountains rather than being compelled to return to base to overnight is a special prospect.
The real rites-of-passage experience is the Tatranská Magistrala, a 45km-long path that takes a full three days to walk and skitters craggily along the whole range below the highest peaks at elevations of between 1200m and 2000m.
For those without time or inclination for the whole hike, try one of its most scenic sections: Štrbské pleso – a lake frequently starring in ‘world’s best beauty spots’ compilations – has a three-hour, woodsy, out-and-back route that emerges from the trees to loop around the even-lovelier Popradské pleso lake. Here, a mountain hut offers cockle-warming refreshments while the raw buttress climb to Sedlo pod ostrvou looms above. Return via the poignant simbolický cintorin, a memorial to those who have met their deaths in these mountains.
This being the Tatras, many of the longer hikes entail hardcore scrambling, but if you want to up the ante and attempt serious climbing, some sublime ascents beckon. For some harder ascents it is obligatory to either go with a guide such as Mountain Pro Guiding or to be registered beforehand with the Slovak Mountaineering Association.
You may be lucky enough to experience a chance encounter with one of Europe’s last great carnivores, who roam wild here, but it is safer – and the likelihood of spotting beasts far higher – if you take a guided adventure.
Adventoura runs bear-watching trips between June and October, as well as a host of other activities including dog-sledding from December to March, where you can mush your own team of huskies, and skijoring, where you're towed on skis by a horse.
Other intriguing creatures in the vicinity are the Tatra chamois, a goat antelope with distinctive curly horns, and alpine marmots, cuddly mountain squirrels whose chatter ricochets around the rocks.
Should you tire of the vertiginous, snow-laden uplands, the region offers lower-level diversions too. Subterranean thrills are delivered in the stalactite-laden shape of Belianska jaskyňa, a show cave near Tatranská Kotlina. Take a 1.5km tour of its formations and underground lakes.
From the eastern edge of the High Tatras, it's a 30km journey to the heart of another national park immediately to the east, Pieniny. Here you can try one of the region’s oddest activities. In a chocolate-box pretty gorge at Červený Kláštor you can take to the waters aboard a traditionally-built wooden raft ferried by characters clad in folkloric dress who navigate the waters using poles in a manner similar to Oxbridge’s punting, only with rapids featuring at regular intervals.
The likes of Franz Kafka might once have sojourned here, but the most interesting residents in the High Tatras today are the Goral people. Gorals stick closely to their traditional pastoral roots, and communities such as those at Ždiar are renowned for their vibrantly-painted wooden houses, musical heritage and richly-embroidered folk costumes.
The accessibility of the High Tatras is a major plus. Poprad, the mountain base town, has international air connections to London and rail connections to Bratislava, 330km southwest. From Poprad, a combination of mountain railway, funicular and cable cars whisk visitors up into the mountains proper in anything from 30 to 90 minutes, depending on how high you want to go.