Snow-vakia: Wrap up warm and explore
By: Alun Palmer
Although I didn’t visit during the school holidays, it seems here is one corner of the snow-covered world where you can ski at your own pace without worrying too much about the rest of the downhill traffic getting in your way or cutting you up. Based in Poprad, I spent a few days at Strbske Pleso before moving on to Tatranska Lomnica, and was impressed by the friendly atmosphere, pristine pistes and lack of queues at the chairlifts.
Both cater more for beginners and intermediates than experienced skiers. At Strbske, you are fairly stuck for choice on the four red runs adding up to 7.2 kiiometres. There’s more variety at Tatranska Lomnica, where you can navigate your own runs between the main pistes and even nervous skiers can work their way up to the tough red and black runs that snake from a 2,196 metres mountaintop and stretch 6km down.
One of the biggest draws is, of course, the price. In some of the more fashionable resorts in the Alps, the costs for accommodation, ski passes and hire has meant the sport has become a preserve of the elite. A week for a family of four to a French or Swiss resort can cost almost the same as a new car, yet a half-board trip to the lesser known pistes on the High Tatras is only slightly more expensive than your average summer break to the Balearics. And best of all, you won’t grimace every time you stop for a cuppa on the slopes because, despite being in the euro, the prices are very reasonable.
In the resorts, we tucked into hearty stroganoff with dumplings or freshly made pizza for about six euros each while a warming bowl of the traditional garlic soup was only a couple of euros. Booze is similarly cheap, and if you choose to spend your après-ski in town rather than at the foot of the pistes, then you could drink those aches and pains away at just 1.50 euros a pint.
If anything can add to the feeling of satisfaction when sipping that first beer after a hard day on the snow, it is the knowledge that someone in those French or Swiss resorts is forking out up to 14 euros a pint. On the subject of alcohol, there is no doubt the Slovaks like a tipple.
Our guide on the pistes at our first ski resort at Strbske Pleso, the lovely Jana, filled us in on some of the local customs and they pretty much all involved booze, whether that was before, during or after skiing. She introduced us to the potent Tatratea, which comes at strengths of 42%, 52% and a coma-inducing 72%. These sweet shots, similar to cough medicine but more pleasant, provide an instant glow spreading to the tips of your toes.
To truly appreciate this magic formula, it pays to hike up to a mountain hut. There’s one by the top of the red runs at Strbske Pleso but it’s the more remote ones that provide the real experience, plunging you into a bygone era when the owners of these shacks provided essential respite for travellers. So we swapped our ski boots for hiking boots and trudged up the mountain at Stary Smokovec, battling against the temperatures, thin air and dodging the occasional sledger. Jana had advised us to seek out the Reinerova Chata, a hut no bigger than an average lounge where rickety old hiking equipment hangs on the walls and a wood-fired stove warms drums of (non alcoholic) spiced tea.
Don’t bother asking for the recipe, each chata owner has their own closely guarded one and competitions are held each year. Away from the mountains we stayed in the delightful Penzion Fortuna in the heart of Poprad’s old town. Run by Peter Cerven, who worked at London’s Dorchester Hotel, it offers local fare that is perfect for regaining energy.
But once a week he offers guests, and the many locals who flock to the Penzion, a seven-course taster menu. And it’s worth getting a taste of the Tatras too…