After the joys of 7 weeks in Poland, we entered Slovakia with curiosity – our second country this year that we knew so little about. We were looking forward to the secrets we would uncover about this off-our-radar country. And after Poland, would it live up to our profound experiences there? We have come to learn though that we never judge one country against another, as this is such a futile exercise. Each place has its own treasures, character and identity and as responsible travellers, it is important that we honour their uniqueness and not compare them, as somehow in that comparison we loose the real joys of the place we are discovering. “Seek and you shall receive”, I think is how the quote goes.
So with intrigue as our driver we looked forward to what Slovakia would teach us, share with us and how it would enrich us. We knew that three weeks was too little time to do it justice, although not every country can be a road-trip like Poland has been. So what greater surprise than to have day upon day of beautiful gifts from this very special little country.
Divorced formed from the former Czechoslovakia on 1 January 1993, Slovakia enters the book for one of the youngest countries in the world. Unlike some other countries we have visited, who seem to make it a primary goal to create a unique identity and demand a place on the world’s stage, Slovakia seems very different. There is a very gentle energy about this place that seems to float on by regardless of what they ‘should’ or ‘should not’ do. Speaking to the locals, there are political frustrations just like anywhere else, although as a visitor we glided over these issues and succumbed to its natural charms.
One village after another drew us in – to their churches, their old town icons and their castles. I never seen so many castles, churches and chapel as we have here. Every sight on Slovakia’s horizon seems to be shaped by a spire, partnered in harmony by the romance of gently rolling hills, mountains and secret gateways that reveal something significant about the country’s legacy. Here we share some of our finds, that undoubtedly will have us returning to this fabulous land for many more adventures. We hope we can whet your appetite to the secrets that Slovakia holds close to her chest.
Check out our Interactive route map below.
Secret 1 – Slovakia’s High Tatras – cycling and hiking paradise
Forming the highest point of the Carpathian Mountains that stretch from Czech Republic to Romania, Slovakia’s High Tatras (Vysoké Tatry) are magnificent creatures. Creating a natural border between Slovakia and neighbouring Poland, these impressive peaks reach a whopping 2,655m at Gerlach Peak and have been part of the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve since 1993. One of Slovakia’s iconic symbols is Mount Kriváň which, due to its angular shape, has been voted the favourite by nature lovers and is said to be a mountain that every Slovak should climb at least once in his life.
If you love the outdoors, then the High Tatra National Park will sink firmly into your affections; with its crystal mountain lakes, abundant hiking and cycle routes, rare flora and fauna, waterfalls and general majestic beauty. Whether you choose to put on your walking boots or take a cable car to the Lomincky štít at a mere 2,534m, you will gasp at this beautiful landscape which must have been designed by one hell of an artist given its texture, colours, shapes and subtle mountain melodies. We found two very special places; one was a bit more touristy although the second we had pretty much all to ourselves.
Lomicky štít Cable Car
Parking at Tatranská Lomnica where there is a massive free car park (suitable for overnight parking if you have a camper) you can get access to the three stations that take you up to Lomnica Peak. Now there are a couple of options; either ascend energetically with one of the most challenging hikes we have undertaken, or enjoy the view and give your lungs a good rest by riding in the somewhat expensive cable car.
We chose to hike up to the first level – Lomnicky Štart and then took a one-way cable car to Skalnaté Pleso which reaches 1751m, with an eye watering €12pp price tag (there is also a €2pp deposit on your GoPass card, which is refunded on its return to the ticket desk.) This is a stunning spot just to grab a coffee or beer, hike around for a bit or take the next cable car up to the Lomincky peak itself. This has the reputation of being the steepest cable car in Europe and rewards you with stunning views. Sadly it was too windy the day we visited and if we’re truly honest, Myles’ vertigo put paid to this adventure.
Crazy fools that we are, we decided to walk down the 1300m descent over three miles!!!! NEVER again. My toe nails are still bruised. It was a really tough descent even with decent walking boots, so needless to say we took the cable cable car back along the final section to the finish line. Albeit another €24 worse off our feet were eternally grateful. This area is a fabulous place to explore with some terrific hiking and even better skiing if you love winter sports. Here’s a useful link to help you make the most of your trip here.
Podbanksé – Heaven in Slovakia
Just a mere 40 minutes drive away as we flirted with the Tatra’s skirt tails, we reached Podbankse, which after the tourist crowds of the other resorts we passed along the way, is a fine treat. The only visitors here are those who are keen on serious hiking and cycling. The car park is another great spot for overnighting – we had two nights here and filled up with water from the mountain stream. It is an outdoor pursuits Mecca with peace and tranquility as your only companions. We would love to have reported sights of bears or chamois although alas not on this trip.
Podbanksé is the farthest west settlement of these Tatra treasures and in itself has plenty of history; from 15th century mining to partisan activity during the Slovak Uprising in 1944. Although people com here to enjoy the natural beauty of this area, as the river Balá courses its way down from the mountains offering, in spring rafting opportunities we’re sure. In the height of summer, boulders and water combine to make for a picturesque vision of mountain loveliness. And here you have the wonderful view of Slovakia’s iconic, angular mountain Krivan, which is a symbol of Slovakia freedom. It is said that every Slovak must climb this iconic giant at least once in his life.
Gallery of Tatra images
Click on any one of the images below to see what we captured of these amazing mountains.
Secret 2 – Kezmarok
Driven by a primal need for food supplies and in truth a bit of the red stuff, we googled our nearest supermarket. Kezmarkok jumped up on our search with a Tescos and Lidl and only 15. minutes drive away from Tatranksy Lomnicka. Happy days. It just so happened to have a UNESCO wooden church, so had to be worth a wander.
Shopping done and a coffee calling, we took a walk through this charming town, which with its cobbled streets, ancient Stone Age history and Renaissance merchant houses that create a picturesque alleyway, we were convinced that there were a few tales to tell here. One of which is its flax weaving and linen manufacture which is said to have attracted customers as far south as Greece and Albania. The castle dating back to 1400s is a beautiful sight and rounds off a well-deserved diversion to this charming village as you continue your Slovak travels.
Secret 3 – Spisske Podhradie – castles, chapels and geysers
With a short hop, skip and jump on a deserted motorway, we headed east towards the region of Spiš famed for its 10 acre fortress castle, picturesque town and chapel monuments. We started off with a lunch stop over at a UNESCO church at Žehra and then when the crowds had left the popular Spišsky Castle, we tootled up there for an overnight stay. The castle is known to be the largest compound in Europe and is on the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage list. As we approached this regal, travertine rock, we could see it rise from the earth in some sort of geological phenomenon, offering the viewer so many different faces depending upon the position of the sun. Come the darkness, it provides a completely different view with its night lights shining as a beacon to the local neighbourhood reminding them of its prominent stature.
Dating back to 12th century, Spišsky Castle was originally a fort that was used as defence against a Hungarian feud at the time. After a fire in 1700s nearly destroyed its structure, it has taken serious preservation works since 1970 to conserve its legacy. It stands as a reminder of history, yet today whilst tales of the past play a part in its modern identity, concerts and plays are the greatest centrepiece of these fine ramparts. You can enter the castle €8pp.Spišsky Podhradie
One of the nicest perspectives of the castle is from the town bearing its name ‘Below the castle’. This colourful, tree-lined town creates an atmospheric foreground to the castle and frames this whole scene beautifully, making it, for me, an iconic image of Slovakia.
Just a short drive up through the town there is an almost missable vista. The church walls invited us in to its protective embrace and we found yet another magnificent portal to the castle and town below. The street with its kaleidoscope buildings gave us a real ‘back in time’ feel and it was mesmerising to just stand and contemplate the conversations from generations gone by.
And if you think that this Spišsky treat is complete, then continue driving not more than 10 minutes through the winding roads westbound and you will come across another geological wonder at the Chapel of the Holy Cross. The Siva Brada geyser and the chapel are an unexpected surprise and although the chapel itself is rarely open, seeing the thermal activity on the top of the hill creates a whole new story. As you climb down the hill, there is a mini geyser with its calcium surroundings and travertine rock that tell a tale of natural springs and thermal activity that I never expected to see in Slovakia. In fact since Slovakia joined the Schengen Zone, it has put the country on the SPA map and now there are over 20 resorts around the country that optimise the healing and mineral properties that lurk beneath the surface of this magnificent landscape.
Check out our photo gallery by clicking on the image below and scrolling through.
Secret 4 – Levoča UNESCO village
After the joys of the Spiš region, we stumbled upon the delights of yet another UNESCO site – Levoča. Slovakia is simply teeming with ancient sites worthy of this honourable badge. Parked up outside the castle walls, we found ourselves drawn into the heart of the citadel protecting its residents from the enemy looking to penetrate its fortress. And as we strolled around this charming town, we were treated to what has become a symbol of Slovak culture, colour! Every building a different shade almost as if their communist suppression has driven them to stand firm against the conformity of greyness and shout out from the rooftops about their uniqueness and individuality. It feels like such a trademark of these eastern European countries and we love it.
In addition to its colour, Levoča is known for its renaissance buildings and in the Gothic church you will find the tallest wooden alter in Europe. With a colourful history to match its building facades, Levoča lays claim to fires, Papal visits and a resurgence in interest in its historical artefacts. Today it is a loved and honoured as part of the UNESCO family and is very worthy of a visit.
Secret 5 – Paradise National Park – Hikes and Adventure
After some research we found a bit of gorgeous greenery on the map and when we delved a bit further it became apparent that this was a hiker’s paradise. Both in name and spirit, the Paradise National Park just south of Poprad was going to offer us a stunning couple of days and the most challenging walk we have ever done.
Entering the Park gates, we felt an air of anticipation fuelled by friends who had confirmed that this was indeed an area of outstanding beautiful and treks through the gorges that would seriously test Myles’ vertigo. Based in Camping Podlesok right in the heart of the Park, we had walks directly from the campsite and looking at the number of vehicles in the car park, we knew the popularity of this place must say something about its splendour. We had been advised to do the Prielom Hornádu walk, which by all accounts was the easiest of the gorge walks. The pictures we saw on the internet showed us images of wooden ladders scaling tall waterfalls and metals steps spiralling around rock faces. The easy route would be much appreciated for us to cut our teeth. After a €2 Park entrance fee, which gave you Emergency numbers and contributed to Rescue Insurance, we were a little perturbed, although never shy of a challenge, we forged ahead.
The walk was nothing less than stunning although it took us to the edge of our comfort zone and in truth, probably a little on the other side of fear. With sheer rock faces that had to be navigated by rickety iron steps and chains we knew that we would be tested both physically and mentally. After four miles of following the gorge we arrived at the cafe bar at the end exhausted and yet exhilarated in some perverse way. And we had another four miles to return home, although at least this was through a meadow that was flat and dry. This was an experience that defied the term walk – it was a trek that from a health and safety point of view, in England would never have been allowed without hard hat, harnesses and ropes. Still it was a thrill and an achievement. Check out this gallery of pictures to get a sense of what we accomplished. I can only imagine what the other walks were like. The one was enough for us, for now!
At the southern end of the Park we found Dedinky, which lives up to its cutesy name. Mountains, lakes and relaxation it was just a delight in the middle of absolutely nowhere. This had our name on it for sure and with a wild spot for two nights, we were very reluctant to leave. We had the chance of visiting the Dobšinksá Ice Cave, which was about 15 minutes away and is one of a number of caves in the area. Although we chose not to visit; we hear that it is a bit of a hike to reach the entrance and you pay 8€ per person to enter the cave and a further €10 if you want to take any photos.
Secret 6 – Thermal Activity
We had already stumbled upon a little geyser to the north east of the country, so it intrigued us to find out whether there were more geological finds – and we were not disappointed. Just a little way into the Low Tatras, we found Liptovsky Jan where we were in hot pursuit of natural thermal springs that were open to the public. Now we have a little experience of some of the best thermals in Tuscany, Italy when we visited the White Whale in San Filippo Bagnoni, so our expectations weren’t huge. Parked up at a very noisy Aquapark we were disappointed that perhaps we had got this completely wrong. Although with a little bit of help from Google Translate, the lady on the desk gave us directions to the natural pool just a five minute walk towards the village. And it was very sweet and indeed not quite Tuscany, although with the backdrop of the village and the Gothic church in the background, we were glad to have seen it.
Secret 7 – Vlkolinec UNESCO village
If you want to jump back in time, then Vokolinec is the place to go. Devoid of tourists, this central Slovakian village has around 50 buildings that date back over 700 years. It is the most in-tact settlement of the region and is typical of this mountain area. The village is still a thriving community and for a mere €2 each we wandered around the cobbled streets marvelling at these liquorice all-sort buildings. With stone bottoms and wood tops, these characterful buildings became protected in 1977 by the Slovak government and then in 1993 they came under the UNESCO umbrella, holding the reserve’s integrity as a folk museum. Today it also preserves the reputation for being one of the 30 most beautiful villages in Europe.
Life continues to buzz in this gorgeous mountain village that is surrounded by forested mountains. The terraced hill-sides are still farmed and with so much wood around, you can understand why this material is such an important part of their legacy. Carvings can be found all around the village from figurines to full sized bears. Their handiwork is incredible. This is a must visit place and shows a very traditional side of Slovakia.
Secret 8 – Špania Dolina for its mineral mines
Secret 9 – Banksa Štiavnica and a collapsed volcano
Secret 10 – Bratislava capital of culture
10 Secrets to Slovakia