Slovakia’s stunning faraway snowfields

Slovakia’s stunning faraway snowfields

Rather than just stay at home watching the Winter Olympics, strap on some skis or a board and get amongst some of Europe’s lesser known and most pristine pistes.

There is high adventure to be had in Slovakia which 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 two-thirds the size of Tasmania.

With the Winter Olympics currently filling our TV screens, the lure must be the winter-sports that typically 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.

Demanovska Dolina,JB - chairlift 3

They are the Smaller Fatras that reach 1,709m at the summit of Velky Krivan, whereas the peak of Ostredok in the Larger Fatra massif is 82 metres 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 25 kilometres  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 2,634m summit of Lomnica is reached by a series of cable-cars. Slovakia’s highest run extends almost eight kilometers with a vertical drop of 1,300m, besides which there are 24 kilometres of track across country.

Slovakia’s highest mountain is Gerlach, rising 2,654m, 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 1,355m on the sun-kissed slopes of Solsko. It offers more than eight kilometres 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 2,672m  some 24 kilometres 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 2,024m 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 12 kilometres 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 42 kilometres 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 64 kilometres 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 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 79p a pint (you read that right), washing down a meal of goulash and dumplings would show barely £6 on your debit card, while £4.36 would buy a pound of Slovakia’s rare cheese.



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