The High Tatra Mountains
1 December 1999

In the morning, instead of taking the tram to the train station, we decided to walk -- it only took about 25 minutes and it was a really nice walk. We had decided to head to a city called Poprad Tatry at the edge of the High Tatra mountains (which form the border with Poland) and from there figure out our next step. We liked Slovokia and were seriously considering staying a while.

And to think we almost skipped the country entirely!

There were two Aussies (actually they lived on a tiny island between NZ and Australia) in our train compartment (as well as 3 Slovoks) and we chatted the whole way. The heater was working hard, and the seats next to the heater (and the windw) were unbarable hot, so the four of us kept swapping places during the trip.

Poprad is right between two mountain ranges, the High Tatras and the Low Tatras -- so we went through the Low Tatras on the way. Again, it was a striking train ride. Beautiful scenery, nice little towns and as we got closer, there was a decent blanket of snow on the ground -- perhaps 15 or 20 centimeters. We were pretty excited about that -- but one of the Aussies (and he was in his late 40s i would estimate) had never seen snow before!

When we got of the train we found ourselves in a place truly not set up for tourists... or so it seemed. We spent a little while in the station -- which was a very nice 1970s building with lots of interesting detailing. The woman at the small tourist info center in the station did not speak English, and did not have a map of the town -- the first time we had had either of those things happen. Also, although there were signs, i could not find the Bankomat. We hung around the station for a few minutes figuring out what to do, and then, with a glance at a rough map sign outside of the station, headed into what we thought was the town.

We walked past the shady station hotel and casino, which was the only place the guidebooks suggested as possible to stay in this town that they referred to as a place to get out of as fast as possible. It was only about 6 blocks into the downton area, however the 10 cm of snow had been melted and was now slush. It made walking, especially with full packs, rather difficult. The Salomon 'approach' style shoes that i have on this trip have proved amazingly versitle, through city streets, boggy islands, mud, sand and puddles. But they met their match with slush -- it filled the tread with slush and i skated down the street barely staying off of my butt!

Anyway, we made it to the town center where we quickly found a large and very friendly information center. The english speaking young woman there was extremely helpful and spent a long time with us. We got a good town map, and a excellent topo map of the mountains. But probably the most important thing she told us was that there was a travellers hostel fairly close to the train station. We went back and checked into the Ubytovn'a WM. I don't really know if this is the word for hostel or just the name of the place. In any case when we looked at the receipt we discovered that the WM stood for Wagon Market. I CERTAINLY cannot explain that!!!!

We had a very comfortable double room with a private bathroom. Very comfortable and exceptionally luxurious for $4 each. It got dark very very early -- partially because of the time of year and partially because of the screwy time zones! We thought the USA was bad for spread out, unrealistic time zones (South Dakota in Central..) But Slovkia, along with Hungary and Poland and even Lituania have switched from Eastern European time, to Central European time in an effort to seem more 'western'. This means that one single time zone streches from Spain to Lituania! It's crazy! So it gets dark VERY VERY early in eastern part of this huge time zone!

We wandered into back the few blocks into the center, walking through the park and pedestrian street instead of walking with the traffic. The center of town was a bullivard with shops on either side and churches and fountains and parks in the center. Really quite nice. We wandered around the very dark University (and found an Internet place) and wound up hungry in the main square. Most of the resturants seemed a bit above our budget (and desire) -- this is a bit of a mountain resort town -- but we finally settled, albeit with some aprehensions, on a place called Ludova (which is the name of the region).

The place seemed VERY new, we even wondered if it had opened in the past few days. There was a very loud group in the back room, laughing and having a good time. It was still early, barely 6pm and we guessed from the diverse makeup of the group that it was an office party. They were the only other people in the place... excpet for the musicians! There was a violin player and accordian player roving around playing traditional songs. It was really facinating, but a bit intimidating as they would stand over our table waiting for us to... we didn't know what. But the group in the other room was so rowdy they eventually went to their table and the drunk people sang songs for a long time. It was fun. We were releived that there was no problem getting vegitarian main dishes and it was quite good!! It was also quite cheap. After dinner we went back up the square to a place we had seen to get zmrzlina. It was cheap enough that we could get a lot and it was good. We were happy!!! It was the best ice cream we had had in Europe i think... only Szentendre Hungary came close!

In the morning the slushy streets had frozen solid so everything was a sheet of ice... also hard to walk on. Poprad is in a pretty amazing location. It is on a plateau, but only a few kilometers away the moutains shoot up -- and these are not wimpy mountains, but very high, steep, rocky snow topped moutains. The High Tatras. Exceptionally beautiful. In fact, it looked very much like the Cascade mountains at the top of Washington Pass north of Seattle, except that they went straight up out of the city! Of course there was quite significant snow on the mountains and in the morning sunshine with only a few broken clouds it was stunning. Stunning. We got to the train station early (a 3 minute walk from our hostel) and caught an electric tram up into the mountains proper to Stary Smoltovoc. It seems that the Tatry region, with Poprad at it's center, is bidding for the 2006 winter Olympics -- so there is advertising EVERYWHERE about the bid... it seemed strange to advertise in the place you were selling... but whatever. I guess they have hosted European ski championships several times (and cyclocross championships too!) so it is not completly out of the blue! Still, we worried about how the Olympics might damage this wonderful little town.

The train ride was gorgeous. First we went over the snow covered plains, and the electric tram just went along the plain, with the snow, it made it look lke we were riding through the snowy fields in a sleigh!! We arrived in this little skiing village (there was actually very little snow) -- beautiful village and several historical buildings (only about 300 years old... rather new for the area in fact)! It was a bit weird, because there was almost no one around in this little village!! We had amazing views, not only of the city of Poprad below, but also up into some beautiful hanging valleys above!

After exploring a bit (and the requisite visit to the grocery store) we went to the funneculer railway and bought an extremely cute ticket with an elf on it.

The ride up was short, but nice, through the forest and we found ourselves in an even smaller ski village! And there was NO one around... except the 2 tourists, 1 snowboarder and 3 people with sleds who had ridden up with us. We kind of wished we had rented sleds to go down! Instead we we took a short hike up one of the snowy trails, just reveling in being in the forest again. It felt like home. It felt very good -- and again, the views between the trees were fantastic. We could've walked all day, but our shoes and clothing were not appropriate for a winter hike and some weather seemed to be coming in, so we returned to the little village -- happy. We sat down and had a hot chocolate as the weather came in. It started to snow and we decided it was time to take the Funeculer back down to Stary Smoltovoc.

Up high it was light snow, but here it was rain. We had some travel planning to do in Poprad, and since there was a train back to Poprad soon, we went to catch it... there was a HUGE crowd on the train... i napped on the short ride back into the city. One of the frustrating things about travelling -- especially when spending only a day or two in each place -- is that we find we often spend most of our time, doing PLANNING for what we will do next, instead of exploring. It can get ridiculous sometimes!

So we arrived in Poprad, where the rain had not arrived yet, but it was VERY VERY windy! We fought the tremndous wind as we returned to the very helpful Information center. In addition to getting the bus information we were looking for, we found dozens of things we wanted to do in the Poprad area! (Including an outdoor, year round hot springs!!) But we had decided we were, in fact, going to do Poland and we needed to go now. Our plan was to take the bus into the mountains and walk across the border! We decided we had to return to Slovkia soon, it was one of our favorite places! Also there are lots of neolithic and prehistoric archological sites in the area around Bratislava and Brno (Czeska) -- including the site where some of the most famous goddess figures were found.

So we need to visit that area sometime! Before we left the information center, the wind, which was so strong a single person could not open the door alone, knocked out the power to the building!

We walked up to the marketplace, which was big and active, but because of the wind, everyone was quickly trying to close up. Nevertheles Cheryln found a pair of shoes, cute trendy hiking boot things with heavy duty soles, for cheap. Her Doc Martens were about dead and were hurting her feet.

After the market place, and a quick snack purchased there, we decided to wander over to the commie housing development on the otherside of the University. We were very interested in seeing one of these things first hand, because of all that we had heard about them over the years. This was one of those 'estates' with dozens and dozens of high rise apartment buildings. All the guidebooks and everything we heard in the US, makes them sound awful, but when i was in Eastern Europe in 1990, everyone pointed out to me that because of them, no one was homeless. So we walked in to this place, a bit afraid. It was actually a friendly vibrant communtiy with green space between the buildings. We did not go into any apartments of course, but from what we could see inside of windows, they looked like comfortable, pleasent places.

It was a very powerful experince and we were fighting against our predjuices and the propaganda we had experinced at home. The whole place was rather like the housing complexes in the suburbs in the USA... only with more green space, and more community and interaction. We almost could've been in Bellevue. There were lots of shops and such in the lower floors... we went to a grocery store and stocked up for the next few days. I was really glad we did it and it changed our view of things considerably. Then we went to an Internet place we had passed and did email for an hour or so and kind of copped out and went to a rather touristy resturant -- not bad though.

After another night in the very nice Wagon Market hotel/hostel we got up in the morning and walked half a block to the bus station to catch a bus to Lysa Polana, the border village, actually just the end of the line. It was a clear cold morning and it had snowed the night before in the higher elevations. The mountains were specatacular. I stood staring at them and watching my breath form clouds! It was fantastic! I was overwelmed!

The bus was a little late but not too bad. When it pulled in, it almost had a wreck... not a good sign! The first part of the ride followed almost the same route as the the train the day before, but the we went on around the mountain past small villages, ski areas and mountains and forests. There were more spectacular views of the mountains than i can possilby mention. It was great.

We were dropped off in a slightly plowed parking lot, there was about a meter of snow on the ground. Around the buildings and parking lot was heavy forest. No one was around and only a couple of buildings here and there. There were two kind of outhouses, with the door partialy blocked by the large snow drifts. The only human in sight was the older woman in traditional dress cleaning the outhouses.

It seemed obvious to us that we should walk down the road opposite of where we came from, to get to the border -- but i walked up to the driver and asked, "Polska?" really just for the experince of it. I thought it was a poininent statement. He smiled and pointed up the road.

We walked maybe 200 meters up the road past two abandoned snow covered buildings to a bridge over a small river. We figured that was the border -- but we wanted to eat lunch first, so we walked a couple of hundred meters to our left and plopped down in the snow and ate. On the other side of the river a steep cliff rose up perhaps 500 meters or more, very dramatic. The river was small and i made a snowball, figuring it would be amusing to throw a snowball into another country -- but when i saw the armed guard walking along the forest trail on the other side i figured any projectile violating the border might be misconstrued.

As we walked back to the bridge we saw a Polish and Slovak flag on the other side of the river. We crossed the snowy bridge in the forest hand in hand. It was exciting. There was a small Building with a wall down the middle. The wall ran through the heater, the desk... everything. On one side was the Slovak passport control and on the other side the Polish. We didn't get a Polish stamp, unfortunatly... and the Polish guy examined our passports for a long time... enough to get us nervous.

The we were in Poland. We walked past a sign saying only one gun per person, please -- things ARE different in Eastern Europe from Western Europe. We crossed the parking lot and tried to figure out the bus schedule -- as we were staring at it, a bus arrived and two guys with skis and snowboards got off. I asked the driver, "Zakopane"? (That was where we were going.) and he said "Nie Nie Nie Nie" which is how the Poles say no... i remembered that from 1990. One of the guys who had gotten off the bus spoke to us in very good English and explained where we should wait for the bus and how long it should be. He was very very nice... the first Polish person we met. The bus came in about 5 minutes and the ride was wonderful... many small beautiful villages, like in Romania. And like in Romania there was a very unique style to the houses as well. The bus was a local bus and people got on and off, including schoolkids, without staring at us at all.

We arrived in Zakopane, a tourist town in the mountains (now on the flats on the OTHER side of the Tatras!) and were attacked by people trying to rent us rooms for the night. We walked to the tourist info, which wasn't helpful, and on across town (still hard walking on the icy streets!)... Finally Cheryln stayed with the packs while i continued clear to the other end of the small town and searched out the hostel, which wasn't easy to find! But it was interesting and cheap and nice. On our way to checking in we passed a hotel which advertised saunas, and we figured we would have to do that. It would be VERY much appreciated!

We were wondering what was happening in Seattle and bought a Herald Tribune. There were people with gas masks on and police in riot gear. Wow! This was our home town. There were a couple of Polish people who had just finished a grueling 4 day hike in the mountains in our hostel room who we were talking to.

The guy asked us if the newspaper was from the USA and i explained that it was published in France by American companies. Then Cheryln pointed to the photo and said that was our hometown. He turned to his companion, pointed at the photo and said, "Look, WAR!" It was a strange experince. We felt very far from home in a number of ways.

We went out walking, and i, stupidly, neglected to put my motion sickness armbands away in my everything bag. I just left them in the pocket of my coat --- so sometime during the afternoon one of them fell out when i pulled out my hat. I can make it with only one probably, but busses are very difficult without the armbands. Just goes to show why organization is so important.

We wandered the tourist section of town (dreaming about our sauna!) and we kept passing these tables where people were selling... SOMETHING. We couldn't figure out what... it looked like a filled bread, but after some serious examination (which wasn't easy because if you showed interest, they started the hard sell -- in Polish of course) we decided it was very finely scuplted smoked cheese. The detail was amazing. Eventually, after a trip to the base of the EXPENSIVE funecular railway, we went to a booth thinking we might buy. There were two people there and we couldn't really tell if they were together or competing. We looked at the woman's wares and she spoke to us in Polish, but soon the man distracted our attention. Eventually he pointed to the three different styles and said, Cow, Sheep, Goat. That was enough for us and we got the goat cheese. It wasn't half bad!

We wandered looking for something to eat because we were about to collapse and finally went into a greek place, where we got something vaugely vegitarian, but not very tasty and VERY expensive!! (about $10 for two people). The guy was very nice and we had an interesting conversation (he spoke English) because he was from Turkey and didn't understand the way we nod for yes and shake our head for no!

Five minutes after we left we walked past a lovely looking building with an Alpine theme and a sign saying Bar Mleczny. I had heard about Milk Bars (we also heard the translation Cheap Bar) when i was in Poland in 1990, but never went to one. They are supposed to be cheap, yummy, veggieish places to eat. We went in and it felt very nice... but it seemed to be closing. We ordered a Kakao and the woman (who spoke no English) said they had none, but offered warm milk which we accepted. We were very bummed that we didn't eat there instead!!!

So we went to ask about the sauna. The woman there, who spoke only broken English, told us that it would take 40 minutes to warm up and we could reserve it for 2 hours for 12 zl (3 bucks). It turned out it was a PRIVATE two person sauna! We were excited, went to the hostel and collected our things and returned to the hotel, went down into the wonderful looking sauna and the maintence guy told us that it had broken and wasn't going to work today... but we could come tommorow! We were very bummed. They gave us a newer Hearld Trib as a consolation prize. There was another sauna about 3 km away, and we started to walk there, but gave it up after awhile. We walked in the snowy park for a while looking at the stars and the ski lifts, grabbed a (cheaper) bite and went back to the hosetl.

We slept well anyway, excpet for this WEIRD old guy who got up at 3am and turned on the light and packed because he was certain it was 7am. The next morning we walked to the train station, were attacked again by the people who didn't know we were leaving and caught our train to Krakow.

© Copyright Mark Canizaro 2000

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