Having spent more than 24 hours in the car and crossing five countries in a space of four days we needed some way to reconnect with our own bodies and the basics of the physical world. We thus stopped in the Slovakian High Tatras and decided to take a high-altitude walk along an easy three mile stretch of Tatranska Magistrala ("Tatra Trunk-road"), a 30-mile long walking trail crossing the mountain range from west to east.
We park at Stary Smokovec, an old Tatra spa and resort that boasts a funicular which saves about an hour of the most boring ascent from the resort to the starting point of many walks.
The ride is brief and unexciting, but we emerge closer to the high country and an easy trail (suitable for pushchairs and disabled) leads us (and numerous other visitors) along a path on a wooded hillside. Above, the alpine-like peaks of High Tatras gleam sharply in the sunshine.
Soon, we arrive near the Studenovodskie Vodospady (Cold Waterfalls) a series of lovely rapids and waterfalls to which the trail descends along a stone made-up path. From the large waterfall it's up and up, on the same kind of path: a good way to prevent erosion on such a popular route but hard on feet, particularly little ones shod in trainers.
After a bit of uphill effort along steep switchbacks we reach Zamkovskego Chata (Zamkovsky's Cottage), a mountain hostel and a restaurant sitting in the woods at 1475m. All food and drink has to be carried here from the funicular station – even on the way we see a guy with a beer keg on his back! Prices certainly reflect this, as well as fairly captive audience, but the food is a solid and tasty Tatra fare and we don't begrudge the mark-up.
Thus refuelled, the children clutching their certificates confirming the visit in the Chata, we are ready to go. The sky is getting cloudy, though, and we can hear a distant thunder. This puts us in a quandary as to whether go back to the funicular station or continue on our original route to Skalnate Pleso. We planned to take a cable car from there to Tatranska Lomnica, but yesterday's thunderstorm damaged it and we are not sure if it's working. People walking from Skalnate Pleso direction confirm that the cableway is running and thus reassured we decide to go on.
The path climbs some more and soon emerges from between the trees and follows a hillside, a cutting through a thick Tatra kosodrzewina (dwarf mountain pine). The sky is a show of intermingling grey, white, blue and black, and we are sure to get soaked whichever way we go – especially as, with heads clearly addled by two months of uninterrupted sun in the Med – we left the waterproofs in the car.
With every thunder, the Older Child whimpers dramatically, but being the Bad Parents we are, we go on, while lecturing on lightning conductors and the like. On the way we meet several well kitted out, but still dry, people going the opposite way and a Russian-Irish (or is it Irish-Russian) mother and daughter (in trainers) going the same way. The Older Child is encouraged by a presence of a peer and stops the squealing. The views down the valleys are dramatic: a patchwork of dark rain, grey clouds and golden sunshine illuminating bright green squares of fields.
The Skalnate Pleso station of the cable car comes into view ten minutes before the rain catches up with us and just before it starts really bucketing down we dive into the Skalna Chata (Rocky Cottage) hostel, where a taciturn "chatar" (cottage-keeper) serves us tea, coffee and hot chocolate. A request for milk for tea is met with a stern "You don't have milk in tea" grunt (in Slovak) but a query about photos on the wall which depict the chatar as a champion of stuff-carriers (207kg in one go, up a mountain) makes him a little bit more amicable if not less grunty.
We meet a Polish couple who tell us that the cableway is not working at the moment because of the storm and thus await the end of rain. The rain doesn't end but a short break means that we can run the three minutes to the cableway station in not much more than a drizzle. The station and its restaurant are full of people – including babies in prams and stick-wielding pensioners who clearly rode up in the cable car but cannot ride down.
A window in the rain allows us to admire the severe, almost bare rock of the Lomnica Peak (Lomnicky Stit) that raises above the small tarn of Skalnate Pleso. The suspension tramway to the very top looks precariously tiny and I am not sure I would go in it even if it was going and cost less than the astonishing 24 Euro per person for a return trip (on top of 12 Euro for the gondola cable car to Skalnate Pleso, though that bit can be walked on marked trails).
Under the dark cloud punctuated by lightning and frequently disappearing and appearing again small windows of bright blue, the corries and rock faces of Lomnica look imposingly beautiful, as if to tell us that human hold on those last edges of wilderness is still a little precarious. The storm takes two hours to pass alternating between a drizzle, a violent downpour and hail. We contemplate walking down but our children's lack of walking boots and approaching dusk mean we decide to wait.
Eventually, a rainbow appears below, the cable car gondolas start to move and we can descend. The cableway doesn't work all the way down, but a shuttle bus takes us from mid-station (confusingly named Start) to Tatranska Lomnica. The Other Adult gets a lift from the Polish couple to recover our car from Smokovce and soon we are on the way back to our pension. Once there, we discover the our Most Important Bag was left in the couple's car. Luckily, it contained my phone which, even more luckily, they answer before driving too far off into Poland and thus the bag is recovered and we can eventually retire: the Younger Child asleep in our arms before we even reach the room.