Great heights: Eastern Europe's mountains set the heart racing
The High Tatras run for just 25km along the border between Poland and Slovakia but are some of the most beautiful mountains in Europe. Mark Piesing hiked into the peaks
Saturday 15 November 2008
Just for a moment – at the point where my heart seemed finally to be about to explode – I closed my eyes and wished I'd decided to spend my holiday lounging around a beach. But then we reached the end of our three-hour ascent and caught up with the 360-degree view from the White Tarn in the High Tatras mountains.
On three sides were wild flowers, streams and mountains peaks, still with some snow in their crevices. The snow that had melted in an unseasonable February heatwave, had come again in April, and a little lingered on still. Then on the fourth side, almost lost in a beautiful purple haze, were the more rolling slopes of the Low Tatras mountains. Most of all, though, there was the silence.
Although our efforts would hardly have impressed Edmund Hillary, the wink from our guide Martin was applause enough for us: we had beaten the time he thought it would take us to climb up to this off-the-beaten-track mountain lake. At 1,600m we were higher than Ben Nevis – and we certainly weren't hard-core walkers, more the softer sort.
Some three hours north of Bratislava, the High Tatras run for 25km along the border between Slovakia and Poland, dimensions that make this one of the smallest mountain ranges in Europe. It is also one of the most beautiful. The Tatras National Park on the Slovakian side boasts around 100 lakes and the eight highest peaks rising up to 2,655m; there's certainly no shortage of mountain scenery.
The High Tatras have a reputation for being home to some hardcore walking-cum-mountaineering routes. However, this idea is being challenged by Mountain Paradise, a company that encourages walkers of all abilities to visit. Martin Hoclar, who co-owns the company with Mathew Jevons, has long been in love with the area. As a teenager he helped build some of the paths we were walking over.
We'd landed at Poprad airport in bright summer sun. It's one of the highest airports in Europe: the trail heads for the national park just 20 minutes from arrivals and the mountains loom over the landing strip. A scattering of Cold War-era bunkers around the field was a reminder of darker days. Here we were met by Martin and Mathew, who took us to our pension in Poprad.
Poprad is a place in the middle of a facelift following the injection of a large amount of cash from Jan Telensky, an ex-Sheffield steel worker who spotted the potential of the thermal springs under the city and built the AquaCity resort on top of them. If anything represents Poprad's past and future it is the now freshly restored 13th-century suburb of Spišská Sobota. The Germans who built it have long gone and it is now the centre for Poprad's up-market restaurants and pensions, such as our own place of rest: the Pension Fortune.
Martin and Mathew discussed our plans with us. Their job, they explained, was to judge how fit we were, select which of the 100 or so paths were appropriate and match this to the ever-changing weather on the mountains. The weather does introduce a degree of uncertainty: an unseasonable 30C heatwave blew in the next day, ruling out walking for the entire weekend. Our guides explained that, as there are no glaciers nearby to act as natural air-conditioners, the mountains can get as hot as the plains around it.
As we couldn't walk, we took the chance to visit the largest medieval ruined castle in central Europe, which lies just outside the national park. Perched high on a limestone outcrop above Spisske Podhradie, Spis Castle dates back to 1120. In its shadow lies Spisske Kapitula, which has been the seat of the Spis bishop since the 13th century. Its single medieval street provided cool shade in the heat. In fact, we had just about forgotten that we were in the High Tatras to do some walking when a storm broke. The next morning the rain had cleared: it was time to start hiking.
Even if we hadn't had Martin and Mathew to guide us, the marked system of footpaths we were due to follow would quickly have dispelled any concerns as to our route. Distances were marked in hours on the signs, in an attempt to prevent walkers being caught out by the many steep ascents.
Mathew said he preferred to reach the Popradske pleso, or tarn, to catch the sun rising as the still waters of the lake reflected the mountains all around it. Apparently the lake, which is often still frozen in May, is often deserted at that time of day. But by the time we reached it the wind had got up and we weren't alone. The lake's crystal clear waters are cupped in the palm of the 1,959m Sedlo pod Ostrvou peak that rise above it; waters that are so shallow and clear that we could see fish swimming.
Perversely, the views were even better from the site of a symbolic cemetery for those killed on the mountain, which is set on the hillside above. The wooden crosses and bronze plaques remember each death in this cemetery without graves. A battered propeller from a crashed plane nearby was a poignant memorial of the lives lost. Later on, the mountains reminded us again of their reputation, as we were chased by the weather down from the treeline to the forest.
At Strebske Pleso after a day on the mountainside, we tore into the roasted pork knee at the traditional Restaurant Koliba Patria on the lake side – and were given the green light by our guides to tackle our toughest walk. Which was why we found ourselves up by the White Tarn, with signposts that seemed to urge us to go in every direction but back down.
"You British know more about Mongolia than Slovakia," Martin laughed as we reached the end of our journey. That might well be the case – but just then, we felt that the High Tatras belonged to us.
The writer travelled with Mountain Paradise (mountainparadise.co.uk; 0845 602 5874). Prices for the 2009 hiking season, which begins in April/May, start at £350 for seven days' guided hiking, including accommodation and flights. More information: High Tatras National Park (tanap.sk)
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