High Tatras Stories and Tips

Slovakian High Tatra Resorts

Photo of Vysoké Tatry, Slovakia

Apparently the shortest "official" mountain range in Europe, the High Tatras (Vysoke Tatry in Slovak) form the natural border between Poland and Slovakia (historically, between Poland and Hungary), with about two-thirds of the High Tatras, and most of the highest peaks, located in Slovakia (the best lakes are on the Polish side, though). The wider term Tatras usually includes in addition to the High Tatras, the Western Tatras, and White Tatras, but not the separate mountain range of Low Tatras further south in Slovakia.

The people inhabiting the mountain foothills on both sides, however, share a lot of the same culture, and the Polish Gorale (Highlander) dialect is even more similar to the Slovak tongue then standard Polish (which is similar enough for both languages to be mutually intelligible in most simple situations).

Despite its small area, or maybe because of it, the Tatra range has a beguiling charm and is often considered to be a kind of "miniature Alps" (minus the glaciers), though the peaks are nowhere near as high as in the Alps, with the tallest reaching a bit above 2,500 meters. Still, there is plenty of walking, hiking and climbing to do in the Tatras, for all levels of abilities. There is an excellent network of well marked and maintained colour-coded paths and infrastructure for tourists is well developed. The biggest drawback is probably due to the sheer popularity of this small range: in the high or shoulder season you are unlikely to be able to commune with nature on your own as you are likely to meet numerous other hikers on the way. This is especially true where access is easy or facilitated by cable cars, but even some popular summits can get seriously crowded occasionally.

Despite that, the dramatic landscape is well worth seeking and the compact character of the range means that a couple of weeks in good weather will allow a determined walker to explore quite a bit of the area.

Tourism, from spa and sanatoria to hiking and mountaineering, has been developing in the Tatras for at least 150 years.

On the Polish side, the main tourist centre is the town of Zakopane, an old Gorale settlement that developed into a fashionable and somewhat Bohemian resort around the turn of the 20th century. On the Slovak side, however, a string of purpose built resorts of a somewhat artificial character lie along the Cesta Svobody (the Freedom Road) to the south of the main part of the High Tatras. These include Strbskie Pleso, Smokovce, Tatranska Lomnica, Tatranska Kotlina and several smaller settlements. All of these date to the end of the 19th century, when the increasing interest in all forms of naturopathy as well as mountaineering and skiing brought wealthy Austro-Hungarians here.

This artificiality of the Slovak High Tatra resorts was perhaps the biggest surprise for me during the first time I came here as I automatically expected the whole caboodle of traditionally dressed Gorale selling tacky souvenirs and posing for pictures with the giant, white sheepdogs that look a bit like discoloured and more muscular St Bernard's. Tacky souvenirs are very much in evidence but to find Gorale one must go a bit east towards Spiska Magura or west to the Liptov Basin.

This resort character of the Vysoke Tatry settlements gives them a holiday-village air, with hardly a street of normal houses or an apartment block in evidence, and pensions, hotels and holiday homes everywhere. Shopping is thus limited, though there are grocery shops ("potraviny" and small supermarkets) as well as numerous places selling hiking and, to a lesser extent, skiing gear.

Although public transport is cheap and food and accommodation are still relatively good value in Slovakia, even in such a popular area as the High Tatras, the "attractions" are very expensive, substantially more than what we experienced for example in Poland. From the dry sledging runs to rope adventure parks to cable cars, the prices are as high if not higher than in Western Europe. A return trip on one of the Vysoke Tatry cable ways is a great way to cut out some of the most boring and toilsome ascent from many walks, but will set you off between 9 and 12 Euros (this is not counting the one from the Skalnate Pleso to the Lomnica peak which costs 24 Euro) for an adult (children below six years old are free and school children and students pay reduced rates).

Parking is also a bit of a problem, with virtually no public free parking in the resort villages, even in front of the shops (I suppose you could park in a hotel car park if you eat in a hotel restaurant) and the standard charge being 5 Euro per day's parking. Similar prices are charged for parking at the most popular trail-heads which means that for one or two people travelling by public transport is very much a recommended option and might work out cheaper than a car anyway. There is a cheap electric train linking the communities of Vysoke Tatry that runs every hour as well as numerous buses.

The best time to come to the High Tatras is probably in September or even early October (though temperatures will be lower, especially at higher altitudes), where the worst of the summer holiday is over, and so will be the worst of the summer heat, while the weather is still OK. Late spring is also a good time for leisure walking and sight-seeing, though the more serious hikers should go later as the snow is still present higher up and many paths are closed because of the avalanche danger.

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