A Journey into the Slovak Paradise

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Here is another entry from Alex’ and my exploring of Slovakia with a backpack on our shoulders. We started off by through-hiking the Low Tatras, and then headed to the High Tatras for few day hikes. Make sure to check those out if you haven’t done so yet.

August 25th, 2011

We left Banská Bystrica on the 10am train towards Dobšiná, a village near the world-heritage Dobšinská Ice Cave, and also the entry to the southern end of the Slovak Paradise National Park (Slovenský Raj Národný Park). We were originally planning on heading to the park few days earlier – after finishing the Low Tatras hike and before heading to the High Tatras. But our plans changed when we couldn’t find a place to sleep in Telgárt, and ended up in Poprad with the rest of our hiking buddies. Turns out, this was actually a stroke of good luck.

Remember the ice storm that hit the High Tatras as we were sipping beers and munching on halušky in Tatranská Lomnica? Turns out, this same storm headed next to Slovak Paradise and caused a significant amount of damage, especially in the village of Stratená, where we would find ourselves tonight. In this village, many roofs lost their shingles due to the heavy hail. But more disconcerting to us was hearing on the news that the storm also claimed the life of a hiker in the Slovak Paradise Park. The hiker got killed when a large number of trees fell “all of a sudden” on top of him. We were quite glad to be learning this in the warmth of my dad’s living room instead of experiencing it first hand in the park.

By the time we set off to the park, the storm had passed, and we were treated to a mostly wonderful weather over the next few days.

train to dobsina village of Stratená, Slovakia.
The train to Dobšinská Ice Cave and the village of Stratená (meaning Lost). The trail into the Slovak Paradise park follows the valley.

From the train stop for the ice cave it is about an hour walking to get to the cave entrance. This includes climbing a fairly significant hill. The cave is absolutely spectacular. Not sure why, but I decided no to pay the extra few euros for a photo pass and thus don’t have any pictures from the inside. But you can get the idea by searching on Google. It looks sort of like the Superman’s Cove. It’s cold on the inside (obviously), about -2oC. The cave has only a single opening on top, which allows the warm air to escape. The cold air gets in during the winter and keeps the cave cold. The ice features continuously melt and refreeze so the cave never looks the same twice.

From the cave we started heading on the blue trail towards the village of Stratená, which made the news the day before due to the storm damage. This was also the best place to spend the night before heading into the national park. Unfortunately we started heading the wrong way, and realized this only once we were most of the way down the steep hill. Crap! Then as we passed the cave and finally started moving towards Stratená, a thunderstorm rolled in. At least it seemed like it will, as we kept hearing troubling rumbling in the near distance. So again, we headed down the hill, towards the road and a restaurant, we figured we’ll ride the storm out there. But the storm never came, and we decided to continue walking to Stratená on the road. The road to Stratená is also the way the red route of Heroes of Slovak National Uprising takes as it crosses the entire country. This hike was quite rough on my feet – my feet were still sore from having to walk back to my dad’s house the day before in sandals from the swimming pool, and this long walk on pavement did not help.

room for rent in Stratena land lady Anna with a kitten
Sign advertising a room for rent in the village. This is where we stayed. The land lady was really nice and just 3 days ago became an owner of a new kitten.

We didn’t have any ideas as to where to stay, but luckily, finding accommodation in the village was not hard at all. Several houses advertised Ubytovanie (lodging) and “Zimmer Frei” (room available, in German). We stayed with Anna H. The grandpa was in the front yard as we passed by, and went in to call the lady when we asked about the rate (I noticed that in Slovakia it’s often the women who control the purse). She offered us a room for 10 Euro per person per night. Right after we came in, a Polish couple also came in and took a room in the attic. The funny thing about Slovak grandmas is that they are so similar. Talking with this lady was just like spending time with my grandma Terka. She started telling us how we are lucky to travel when we are young, and how important it is do travel while you can, since you never know what will happen. Then the conversation shifted to the various ailments and ills of the world. Later on, the Polish guy came talking to me. From my limited understanding of Polish, I realized he was saying one of the lights in their room doesn’t work and he wanted me to fix it. After I explained to him I am also a guest and don’t live in the house, he felt bit embarrassed. I guess he thought I was the lady’s grandson. We had a great dinner that night at Penzion Šafran on the other end of the village. I had a greasy but absolutely delicious kapustnica and strapačky (saurkraut halušky) along with a baked pork shoulder. Alex had a pea soup and a stuffed chicken breast. Then on the way back we stopped at the Hostinec u Starej Krčmy (Inn at the Old Pub) for some beers. The TV was showing “Superkombat!”. It was some Romanian guy against an American. The Romanian was throwing many punches and totally dominated the first 2 rounds. Then he took a single hit, went down, and was done. I am sure he became a national disgrace.

August 26th, 2011

room in a house in Slovakia green trail to Slovak paradise
This was our room in the guest house. The green trail was in a pretty bad shape.

wooden bridge in slovak paradise metal steps on the way to klastorisko
Scenery on our way to Kláštorisko, including steps along the final steep section.

The next morning after breakfast we said our goodbyes and headed up the green trail to the park. This first section was in a rough shape, I guess it doesn’t get much foot traffic. We arrived at Občasný prameň (Occasional Spring) just as some hippie chick appeared out of nowhere with her dog. They probably live in the woods. The rivers here were crystal clear. From there we continued on the green, red, and green trail again to Kláštorisko. This main crossroad in the park is named after an old kláštor (monastery) that used to stand here. The final approach on the yellow trail is very steep, which is also why the monks chose this place. It was very difficult to get to the plateau on which the monastery stood and hence it was not attacked easily. Kláštorisko is one of the few places where you can spend a night in the park. As we found out earlier, on the hike through the Low Tatras, in Slovakia you can’t just camp anywhere the way it works in the US. Instead, you must stay at designated locations, which often means staying in a hut.

The lady running this place didn’t want to rent us one of the 8 or so huts, despite most being empty. She was making up some excuse about the shower not having hot water. I think she just didn’t want to deal with guests (attitudes like this are a remnant from the socialist times and are still quite common with the older generation). Only after pleading with her for about 30 minutes and explaining we walked for 7 hours to get here, she finally relented. The hot water worked fine, by the way.

We dropped off our packs in the hut and then headed back to the restaurant for beers and Kofola. Alex also ordered buchty na pare and fried cheese. It was really weird seeing Alex eat so much on this trip. He told me later that it was a really strange feeling for him too, he was constantly eating but also constantly hungry. Maybe he just really liked the Slovak food 🙂

eating buchty na pare beer and kofola
Alex having one of his many dinners, and me double fisting beer and a Kofola.

klastorisko restaurant view from our hut
This is a picture of the Kláštorisko restaurant and the view from our hut.

levels filtering on image image threshold filtering
These two pictures are just for fun. I generally make small fixes to images before posting them by adjusting “levels” in Gimp (free Photoshop alternative). This improves the contrast which is especially needed for photos from my point-and-shoot Cannon (the pictures from this trip came from the Nikon DSLR purchased in part thanks to your donations.) The above picture was bit beyond repair so I just started playing with some of the options. Here are just two examples of some image manipulations: drastic change in levels, and thresholding. I particularly like how thresholding can identify feature in the image that may get lost otherwise. I’ve actually used this in the past for work-related image analysis, trying to find data in images that was not visible with the naked eye.

Prielom Hornádu (Breach of the Hornád River)

Slovak Paradise National Park is home of some amazing flora and fauna, just see below. But that’s not what makes this park famous. Instead, it is its various rugged via ferrata routes. The next morning we took off to conquer probably the most famous one, Prielom Hornádu.

thistle spiderweb
Some amazing flora and fauna we saw along the way.

giant fly dry flower
This giant fly landed on Alex’s leg and wouldn’t come off.

some thistle like dry flower butterfly
A few more nature shots

We started our adventure by heading down the yellow trail towards the blue river route. The blue route follows the Hornád River as it makes its way through the deep canyon. The route in many parts consists of flat metal planks attached to the side of the rock. These are not particularly difficult, but in some places are quite high above the surface of the water. This route also goes both ways (some more difficult trails are one-way only) so occasionally you have to squeeze two people on a plank that looks to be barely wide enough for one. And there were a lot of people here! We Slovaks love the outdoors and it shows, even though many of the people here were Poles (and Czechs in the Tatras).

We made a loop out of our trip, and at Radosť we took the yellow trail that follows the cliff above the river. We thought we’ll get some neat views from up here, but this was not the case. Even though on the map it appears the yellow trail may be following near the edge, most of the trail is in a forest with no views. We made our way towards to Letanovský Mlyn (mlyn means a mill). There a group of gypsy kids was running around the bridge and making a lot of ruckus. One of them, a 15 year old girl, kept asking us for money for her baby. We got out of there as quickly as we could. We got back on the blue trail and did the second half towards our starting point. We took the green route back. This section was much more interesting, as it had few ladders along the side of a waterfall – this gave us a taste of what to expect the next day.

camping hammock chains and ladders
Alex slept in the hammock the first night. I now bivy-less had to settle for our moldy cabin.

alex making a face metal planks attached to a cliff
Much of the blue trail is like this, you walk on these metal planks attached to the cliff. At some particularly tight spot you can end up with a traffic jam. In the first picture Alex doesn’t look too happy having to wait for a bottleneck to clear up.

sheep and grass sheep
The left picture is one of my favorite photos from the entire trip. I ended up taking about 20 shots until I got one just right – I wanted to capture the hey in detail over a blurry background of sheep. We ran into this flock on our way up towards the yellow trail.

spisska koliba alex on a tree
The sheep from above, with the village of Spišská Koliba in the background. Later on, on the way back to Kláštorisko, Alex spotted this tree hanging over the river and had to go walk on top of it. Crazy! (click on the image to open the full-sized version)

klastorska kotlina alex pulling up a chain
Here are few photos of the Kláštorská Kotlina (kotlina means ravine) through which the green route goes. It contains several ladder and chain reinforced routes the Slovak Paradise Park is famous for.

ladder steepness water droplets
I tried to capture the steepness of the terrain with the first photo but I don’t know if the photo does it justice. The second picture is just me playing with ultra-fast shutter speeds to capture the actual water droplets in a waterfall.

klastorisko monastery klastorisko
This are the ruins of the monastery. It dates back to 1299. We walked around after getting back and relaxed in the large grass field.

Suchá Belá

The next morning we took off for another day hike, this time up Suchá Belá (Dry “white-one”) which is another famous trail in the park. This trail along with the one from yesterday have an entrance fee of 1.5 Euro per person. I suppose these are similar to the fees collected at American national parks and help with the maintenance. Seeing the heavy traffic, I am sure the fees come in handy. This trail is really nice but don’t expect much solitude here – it was quite crowded! Throw in the ladders and chains and Alex said his first impression was of an amusement park.

wooden bridge across a creek wooden bridge across a waterfall
Shots of wooden bridges used to cross the creek.

ladder in Slovak Paradise sucha bela canyon in sucha bela
Here is one of the first big ladders (click on the image for the full version). This one wasn’t particularly bad since it wasn’t very steep. Also a neat canyon.

chains and metal supports in such bela hole
The trail then continues along metal planks and is supported by chains.

tall steep ladder in sucha bela slovak paradise slovensky raj view from top of waterfall
Some of the later ladders are quite steep and intimidating. Like this one. Alex flew up this ladder, I was much more cautious (despite having climbed most of the US highpoints, I am no fan of heights!). The second picture shows the view from the top of one of smaller ones. There is a ladder between the two sections of planks. My biggest problem was transitioning from the ladder to the planks since once you get to the top there is not much to hold on to.

instant goulash
After we got back, we treated ourselves with delicious instant goulash. I brought few of these packets back with me to the US, and they are really great for hiking.

After we got back we made some soup and headed back to the restaurant for beers, Kofola, and Alex’ daily fried cheese. I was feeling pretty lousy today, didn’t sleep much, plus my feet were really bothering me. I suspect it was due to a combination of walking on pavement in my hometown and on the way to Stratená. We walked on the blue route to Čertova Sihoť, which supposedly was the place where the hiker got killed few days ago in the storm. We found a spot with some sort of a cross on the trail, but no obvious sign of downed trees. I finished all my food today, except for one packet of oatmeal. This was our final camping day so this was fine.

Later on we headed back to the restaurant, we mainly wanted to know what the commotion was all about. It was “after hours”, after the day hikers had left, and the workers were on the porch drinking and talking. We started talking with them and later stopped by the hut in which they were staying. One of them was trying to heat up a large kettle of goulash over the fire. The wood was wet so it wouldn’t light. He poured some alcohol on it, but that didn’t help either. Then all of a sudden, out of nowhere, a car appeared. An old man, maybe in his late 70’s got out right next to us. All he said was “You need to blow into the fire”. Then he got back in the car, and the car drove off. It was completely surreal.

Continue onto the last part of our journey: Spiš Castle and rafting in Pieniny.