Published: June 1st 2012June 1st 2012
Slovakians call their homecountry: "The land where the one eyed fox is playing guitar". Patrick, our cheery guide to the joys of skiing in Slovakia, got off to a good start when he promised that by the end of the day my two brothers and I would be the "carving gods of the Carpathians".
The three of us are seasoned skiers, but technique is not always our strong point. The prospect of learning how to descend the slopes with Zeus-like panache appealed. We liked Patrick and we liked what he promised.
Our master class in how to get the most out of carving skis came in Jasná, the biggest resort in Slovakia
. With its 35 kilometres of marked pistes, Jasná caters for skiers of all abilities. And its wide blue and red runs are well suited to enthusiasts like us who, having spent years trying to look passably good on narrow, straight skis, were still not entirely at home on the considerably wider carving skis that are now the norm.
"Don't make skiing hard work," Patrick advised. "Make the skis do the hard work."
Over the course of the next couple of hours he illustrated how – showing us when to put weight on the edge of the skis to assist with turning, how and when to lean into the mountain, and how to use the body and shoulders to achieve an elegant and seemingly effortless motion down the slope.
Gradually we got the hang of it and although I'd stop short of claiming that we ended up skiing divinely, we all made progress. After one particularly successful descent down the pine-tree-bordered run to Zahrady, we stopped at the Fis Bar for a Viennese-style coffee laced with something strong and warming. Then we hit the slopes again – there was no stopping the carving gods of the Carpathians now.
Learning how to ski properly on carvers was not the main reason we chose the winter resorts of Slovakia over the tried-and-tested favourites of the Alps. We fancied something different – both in terms of the ski experience and the social one. We wanted to explore a different culture and cuisine, we wanted to see the Tatras (part of the Carpathian range) and we also fancied something cheaper. On all counts, Slovakia scored highly.
In terms of the ski experience, nobody could claim that Slovakia compares with the top resorts of Italy, France, Switzerland or Austria and had we been going for a full week, rather than four days, that would have been a problem.
That said, with its 24 distinct and interlinked runs (and five freeride zones), Jasná is one of the best ski areas in central Europe and there was more than enough variety to give us two full and fun days of skiing. And that was just on the northern side of the mountain: during our visit, the wind was too strong to allow us to get to the highest point of Chopok (2,024m), from which you can ski down a number of additional runs on the southern side.
Plusses included never having to wait more than five minutes for a lift (including the eight-person gondola installed last season) and that food was hearty and cheap – a bowl of gnocchi with sheep's cheese and bacon cost just €4 (£3.40). We also found there was hardly a British voice to be heard: most of the skiers and snowboarders coming from the Czech and Slovak republics, Poland and Hungary. (Over the Christmas/New Year period, Jasná is very popular with Russians.)
When we did run into some fellow Britons – a mother and daughter on a girlie week away, we ended up skiing with them all afternoon.
Later that evening in the bowling alley attached to our modest but perfectly good hotel, the Mikulásˇska Chata, we befriended a group of Poles and engaged in a lively cultural exchange that involved an England v Poland game of table football (no need to go into details of the score) and some joke swapping. Here was one of theirs: "A death notice in the Warsaw Gazette reads: 'With regret we announce the passing away of Stanislav; Skoda for sale'."
On the minus side, the slightly surly service in the hotel restaurant conformed to pre-1989 East European stereotypes. (We found a alternative with a log fire and grilled lamb nearby.) And that wind was pretty fierce at times.
Jasná, the premier ski spot
in Slovakia, is in the Low Tatras. But there are further opportunities to ski in the High Tatras, about 40 kilometres to the east. The experience here is different. Whereas the largely modern and purpose-built resorts of the Low Tatras offer plenty of pistes, but little in the way of characterful architecture, those in the High Tatras boast fewer runs but do have an Austro-Hungarian era grandeur – particularly in the Art Nouveau-rich resorts of Stary Smokovec and Tatranská Lomnica.
We stopped for coffee and cake on the terrace of the aptly named Grandhotel Praha in Tatranská Lomnica and chatted to another British mother and daughter who had enjoyed some quality time in a hotel offering great views of the Tatras, chandeliered extravagance and a modern spa. "Sitting in the lounge here is like entering the world of a central European novel," said Belinda, the mother.
Most of the runs above Tatranská Lomnica are reds and blues – perfect for beginners and young families – though higher up there are some blacks which, combined with the lower runs, make for the longest single descent (seven kilometres) in the Tatras.
We headed on to Sˇtrbské Pleso (passing a sea of tree stumps testifying to the devastating storm of November 2004). For those still not sure about venturing into Eastern Europe, Strbské Pleso has a new Kempinski hotel on the edge of a lake offering deluxe 21st-century comforts, service – and prices.
There are several reasonably challenging red runs in the resort that kept us busy for an afternoon, but would not have for a full day.
But then there were other diversions. The nearby town of Poprad contains the award-winning AquaCity complex, with pools and hot-spring spas. Built in accordance with ecologically progressive principles, AquaCity is where you can – in James Bond-style – sit and order drinks from a poolside bar or, if you're feeling brave, pop into a cryo-chamber to experience temperatures as low as -112F (-80C) (it's meant to ease pain and improve decision making apparently).
The chamber was – alas – closed when we were there, but the poolside bar was open.
Poprad is no beauty spot, but the outlying suburb of Spisˇská Sobota, containing buildings dating back to medieval times, a classically pretty square and a lovely peaceful air, is.
This, to our surprise, also turned out to be a good spot to sample some excellent Slovak wines
(there are many) and gourmet cuisine.
It all came courtesy of Peter Cerven, a man who spent two years working at London's Dorchester Hotel before returning to Slovakia to run the Fortuna, one of several stylish pensions in Spisská Sobota (we stayed in another, the delightfully characterful Sabato, dating back to the 17th century).
After introducing us to a number of wines (we particularly enjoyed the Müller Thurgau white and the Blaufränkisch red), Peter asked the chef to prepare dishes that included a white Valrhona chocolate risotto with Parmesan, grilled halibut and truffles, and a fillet of boar with roasted porcini mushrooms. We were wined and dined in style; the bill for three courses and all drinks coming to about €25 a head (a bargain in our books).
And there was a lovely piece of theatre at the end when Peter brought out his oversized brandy and liqueur glasses, and one by one set them spinning on their bases before pouring with one hand while waving with the other.
No doubt it was a party trick he learnt at the Dorchester. I don't think any of us will ever enjoy an after-dinner digestif as much again.