Tatra Mountains, Poland/Slovakia

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Europe » Slovakia
September 29th 2014
Published: October 4th 2014
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Tuesday 23 Sep – Zakopane

We regrettably checked out of our palace and given it was still raining, made tracks to the Wieliczka Salt Mine, about 30mins out of Krakow. It has been a working mine since the early 1200’s and only stopped production in 1997. It is only open for tourism now, and they sure do capitalise on it with a horrendous entry fee (more than any other attraction we’ve been to). There are 9 floors within the mine ranging from 62m – 327m below ground, 300km of corridors and about 3000 chambers.

All individual tourists are forced into a guided group, aka Auschwitz style. Unfortunately our guide was an older lady with a bored expression and a quiet, monotone voice with such terrible English that we could barely understand her. Whenever someone asked her a question she was very unhelpful. We heard other guides and they were quite good so we were just the unlucky group. The salt mine itself was amazing. There were stuffed horses at pulley racks and wax dummies set up to demonstrate what it looked like throughout the centuries. However, the real wow factor was in the carved out chambers – one in particular called St Kinga’s Chapel, which was the size of a majestic ballroom with salt chandeliers, a salt staircase leading down to the main floor, several wall carvings, an alter and an entire floor of salt that’s been carved out of a single block of salt to look like ceramic floor tiles. It was over 54m long, 18m wide and 12m high and is so beautiful that they even have weddings there. Other highlights are the underground brine lakes that give a perfect reflection, assuming you can get the light right and just simply the incredible engineering involved with creating the intricate wooden log supports that hold up many of the chambers. So while the tour itself was naff, the mine was definitely worth doing.

We then found a zapakankie for Mum and Dad, who shared one for 6.50PLN ($2.35) and they were most impressed. Of course, we finished off with a delectable dessert from the nearby bakery including a wonderful vanilla slice for 3.60PLN ($1.25)…

…at which time we scoffed at the Sygic GPS app which forecast it would take us 2hrs to go 100km. It took us 3hrs thanks to an accident, road works, speed limits and a frustrating number of detours.

The scenery changed within almost immediately after leaving Krakow, and for the rest of the trip we were surrounded by rolling hills, with forests everywhere and views of distant peaks. It was a stunning trip except for the traffic, and we rolled into Zakopane where we are hanging for 2 nights.

Wednesday 24 Sep – Zakopane

Zakopane is the Whistler of Poland. A major ski town right in the High Tatras and like Whistler, it is buzzing with hikers before the winter activities arrive. Luckily for us the main tourists are all locals so we’ve finally ditched the bus tours that plague the city landscapes.

It got to 1C overnight so we woke to a fresh dusting of snow on the mountains that politely sit outside our balcony. It was a perfect postcard sight with the rain gone and nothing but sunshine. We decided to visit a popular emerald green lake about 30mins from Zakopane, called Morskie Oko (Eye of the Sea). We had discussed the option of paying for one of the horse-drawn wagons up the 9km road but Mum was possessed by a moment of lunacy and said she was fine to walk. So we unbelievably set out for the 9km hike, along with thousands of others. It wasn’t steep but the climb was steady and Mum had returned to her senses at the 5km mark and was wishing we’d taken the wagon. However, the scenery was spectacular at every turn with jagged, snow-covered mountains rising above us, interspersed with waterfalls and bubbling brooks meandering through mossy forest on either side. There was even the occasional dusting of snow at the road side, hiding in the shadows of the trees. The air had a chill to it in the shade but was wonderfully warm in the sunshine. It was warm enough that I got burnt (again). The whole walk reminded me of Canada though there was a distinct lack of squirrels that I did not appreciate at all.

After 2.5hrs we finally reached the lake and besides being packed with people like a horde of chipmunks it was a beautiful sight, especially to a worn out mother! True to the description, it is emerald green set like a gemstone in the middle of a crater of mountain peaks. It is remarkably similar to Emerald Lake or a smaller Lake Louise in Canada. We found some spare rocks and made up our tasty rolls and baguettes. After relaxing for an hour we walked 2km back to the end of the road, where we promptly paid 30PLN ea ($10.50) for a horse wagon for the remaining 7km down the road to the car park. We rolled past thousands of people walking the descent and as we clip-clopped by, I wanted to shout “We’re not lazy – we did walk up”, as I felt the need to justify myself. But they would not have understood me in any case. Despite all the walking which I’m not a fan of, it was one of my favourite days simply because I was in the mountains.

I have to say that most of the houses in Zakopane are amazingly detailed and beautiful. Each house is several stories of wooden chalet, but with ornate carvings on the overhangs, doors and balconies. One of the houses even looked like it had been fashioned by Gaudi (a Spanish architect). They are very fancy indeed.

Thursday 25 Sep – Tatranska Lomnica, Slovakia

We spent the morning wandering around Zakopane, trying to rid ourselves of our Zloty before we left Poland. Mum did the best out of all us, buying some new walking shoes for $30 and a waterproof, seam sealed rain jacket for $70. Dad bought a beanie and then I had to shout them zapiekanki and a vanilla slice because they’d spent all their money! In the end we ended up with 0.09 zloty between us – pretty good for trying to guess what we’d need 10 days ago!

We left Zakopane, drove the beautiful scenic pass through to the border and entered Slovakia. The Slovak Tatras are supposed to be even more stunning than the Polish side and while there was cloud around the peaks, we did get a sense of what they look like and can’t wait to see what tomorrow brings. We also had to brake for two deer that ran out onto the road.

Within metres of entering Slovakia the architecture changed to simple, unadorned single level houses. No more ornate carvings and the building material has changed from wood in Zakopane to rendered brick and stone houses here. There are more run down houses as well. It instantly felt less populated, more unspoilt and less wealthy than Poland. It is welcomely devoid of tourists and those pesky buses compared to Poland. Out of all the countries we’ve seen on this trip so far, I think Poland is one of my least favourite just because of the sheer number of people everywhere.

The landlady at our pension told us upon arrival that we are not to go out after dark due to the bears. How exciting! We were hoping tomorrow to catch the “do not miss” cable car up to the tallest peak, Lomnica Stit @ 2600m, but she told us that it’s closed for 10 days of maintenance. Figures!!

Friday 26 Sep – Tatranska Lomnica

What did today bring? No hot water for showers and not much better outside either – all rain and fog. We could not even tell we are in the mountains, so there was no sightseeing or hiking today. So far 3 out of our 4 mountains days have had cloud on the peaks. Sigh.

We drove to Slovensky Raj NP to walk a particular gorge but it started to rain just as we got out of the car. We did see a weasel though! Anyway, we went to the only place open in the small lake town of Didenky, where there were five Slovak blokes at a bar and one lady behind the bar missing half an arm (sounds like a bad joke!). We ordered some hot drinks and tried to blend in with the surroundings, although our accents gave us away. Dwayne and Dad particularly enjoyed their hot apple tea, but Mum and I had to suffer through our hot chocolates made with milk powder – eww.

Came home and the owner had fixed the hot water. Yay!

Sabbath 27 Sep – Levoca

Yet another day of fog, so after checking out of our apartment we decided to head to the UNESCO Heritage town of Levoca, 30mins away from the Tatras. We figured that we could spend the day in the old town and if the weather in the mountains clears, we can then make the 30min trip back on Sunday. If not, we cut our losses and head to Hungary.

Levoca was established in the 11th century and despite being devastated by Mongols in 1241, it remained part of the Kingdom of Hungary until 1918, when it became part of Czechoslovakia. The Town Hall was built in 1271 and celebrated its 700yr anniversary in 1971. Its main claim to fame is the historic centre with the well preserved town wall. It has a beautiful view over rolling green hills and mountains in the background. It’s only a small place and after 2 hours of sightseeing we checked in, had lunch and enjoyed a lazy afternoon. We paid extra for a suite instead of a standard room, but it still only cost €54! We ate at the hotel restaurant for dinner because the menu looked good and had 2 yummy courses each, which came to the grand sum of €23 ($36) – for all 4 of us!!

The people in Slovakia are different to people we’ve seen in previous countries. They are much darker and sometimes look Mexican or Roma (gypsy). The men have not improved in looks either. It is slim pickings over here, ladies.

Sunday, 28 Sep – Eger, Hungary

We awoke to a magnificent sunny day with not a cloud in the sky. We promptly checked out, went to a viewpoint over Levoca to take final shots and then sped back to the Tatras. The view – oh my – was just stunning. The Tatras tower over the flat plains and we had uninterrupted views for 30km whilst driving to them. Upon arrival to the Gondola car park, we were almost giddy. We’d waited 3 days for this. The jagged peaks were towering above us as we boarded the first gondola to 1100m, then the second gondola to 1700m. From there we had an unspoilt view of the valley and distant mountains into Hungary. There was a small glacial lake and lots of walking trails leading off in every direction. The cable car, which goes up to Lomnica Stit (2600m) was out of service but there were still people free-climbing up the rocky cliffs to the top. We opted for an additional chairlift which took us from 1700m to Lomnica Sedlo (2190m), just below Stit. Upon arrival we almost lost out breath, but not for the thinning air. There in front of us was the cliff barrier (2 pieces of wood which anyone could climb through) overlooking a 2km deep valley and another set of jagged peaks on the other side. You could not see this range from down below but it was completely mesmerising. They reminded Dwayne and I of the Dolomites in northern Italy. I couldn’t get over how close to the cliff edge we could get. You almost felt like you were part of the mountains – not just an observer.

While we were sitting there, cloud appeared from literally nowhere and enveloped the mountains, us included, so we could not see any of the peaks in front of us nor see down to the gondola station below. It was quite eerie but within minutes it vanished as quickly as it had come. Eventually we had to get going so we could make our accommodation in Hungary, and with sadness we departed. I think it’s fair to say it’s going to be the highlight of the trip.

It was surprising how many people were walking up from the bottom to the 1700m station, as it was basically a steep ski run (think Zali’s at Blue Cow) and they were going straight up. Talk about hard yakka! And then there were twice as many going down. I don’t see the attraction myself of walking down a dry ski run, but that’s just me.

The drive to Hungary was not what I was expecting. I thought it would be mostly flat but it was gentle hills almost the whole way. We saw another deer, 2 foxes and 2 frogs. Slovakia is much more mountainous than I expected and I would happily come back here to sample more of its hidden treasures.

Upon arrival at our hotel in Eger (Hungary) and heading into the town centre to try and find some dinner, we discovered that the place turns into ghost town on a Sunday night. Our hotel is supposed to be in a touristy area but by the time we arrived basically everything had closed. We drove back into town, idled down some pedestrian-only streets, passed a couple of policeman who looked at me strangely as if I wasn’t supposed to be there, with hopes that something might be open at 8pm. All we could find was McDonalds and a café whose kitchen had closed but was still serving coffee and cake on one of the lonely streets, so we grabbed a burger and went for coffee at the café. That was dinner. I’ve never seen a tourist town so empty.


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