Budget ski holidays in wild Slovakia
By: Rick Shackleton
Laca Kulanga, a Slovakian sherpa and holder of the 157kg record for uphill load-carrying, came towards us with two plates of bright red goulash in his slab-like hands. Ten weeks earlier in the same wooden hut 6,000ft up in the Tatra mountains, he had locked himself in the bedroom as a mother bear and her cub smashed their way into the kitchen, foraging for food. Laca was saved, not by brawn, but by a brainwave: he turned on the vacuum cleaner and the unearthly vroom drove the bears away. Strange to think we were less than three hours away from Burger King in Luton airport.
In their snow caves, the bears were hibernating. Snowflakes were floating past the window and ranks of snow-laden spruce stretched far below. Apart from a walker and his bowl of onion soup, we were the only guests. Half an hour later, we were careering down near-empty slopes and perfect snow in the knowledge that somewhere in the vast forests to the left and right were 18 wolves living uneasily alongside chamois, lynx, marmots and wild boar. If wild is the new luxury, with books on wild swimming, wild camping and wild cooking doing a roaring trade, it is only a matter of time before someone writes a book about wild skiing.
To author Jack London a century ago, The Call Of The Wild meant 1,000-mile sled journeys through the Yukon at minus 50. In our more pampered age, wild (and, crucially, cheap) skiing is precisely what Slovakia has to offer. The Tatra mountains are 450 square miles of forest, lakes and jagged peaks rising to 8,700ft, on the border of Poland and Slovakia at the southern end of the Carpathians. They are largely as nature intended them to be. There is no sprawling lattice of pylons; no Michelin star restaurants serving foie gras ravioli; no Tommy Hilfiger-clad ladies sipping gluhwein.
Rather, there is a no-frills mountain culture in which the basics – accommodation, ski rental, lift systems and piste grooming – are taken care of to a high standard while everything else has its roots in a rural economy of hunting, farming and mountain guiding. What’s more, the good news is that like other wild holidays, skiing in the Tatras is 40 per cent less expensive than other resorts. Remote and difficult to get to? Not at all. We fixed a last-minute weekend trip through the Tatra specialist, Mountain Paradise. Cut-price airline Danube Wings flies several times a day from London, Manchester and Dublin to Poprad, the highest international airport in Europe, which is no more than 15 minutes from the slopes.
Throughout our stay, we were dazzled by examples of Slovakian hardiness – many of which served to inspire us to greater feats than we would otherwise have dreamed possible. Even the one area where Poprad tips its hat to sybaritic pleasures, the geo-thermal baths and saunas of Aqua City, has its fashionable modern version of torture, cryotherapy, where you are frozen at minus 120c in your swimming trunks. We were not surprised to discover that the owner of our hotel, the Penzion Plesnivec, made the best breakfast in Slovakia, but rather more surprised that he spends hours scraping the local lake clear of snow in order to have a quick knock-up with the local ice-hockey team.
Our excellent British host Matt, who founded Mountain Paradise seven years ago, is used to finding huge carp swimming around in the bathtub at home. His Slovakian partner likes to gut them just before they are cooked. On our first day, we skied in the High Tatra resort of Tatranska Lomnica which, though small, made up for it by its emptiness and lack of lift queues. For the second day, we headed half an hour down the road to one of the biggest resorts in Central Europe, Jasna, in what is the Low Tatras, though they are the same height as the High Tatras.
It felt like an Alpine resort in scale and you could happily spend a week exploring the skiing possibilities on both sides of Chopok, the huge, domed mountain on which the resort is built. But the wildness and hardiness were never far away. High winds had closed one of the ski lifts. ‘No problem, we walk,’ announced our guide, looking disdainfully up at 1,000ft or so of glistening vertical ice-sheet. An hour later, having humped our skis over the mountain and slithered legs a-wobble down the other side, we were feasting on a £3 menu of dumplings, melted goat’s cheese and half a litre of Slovakian beer. We decided the call of the wild had been satisfied.