Stretch out in Slovakia
A new yoga holiday in the High Tatra mountains is a chance to achieve tranquillity in a dramatic setting, says Cathy Winston
Wednesday 06 July 2011
In Slovakia's High Tatra mountains, even the scenery merits five stars. The range may barely register compared with the grandeur of the Alps and Pyrenees. But while they're only 65km long, with the highest peak reaching 2,500m, they make up in looks for anything they miss out on in size.
Snow-capped even during the summer months, the mountains rise out of thick pine forests, their white-and-green slopes contrasting against the cloudless blue sky in such an effortlessly beautiful way that it's hard to believe people don't flock here just to sigh at the views.
All in all, then, not a bad panorama to contemplate during a sun salutation – which is exactly what I found myself doing on Tatra Yoga Holidays' new three-day luxury yoga break. I was based at the Grand Hotel Kempinski, on the banks of Strbske Pleso lake – and from the moment I arrived, it was clear this couldn't be much further from a boot camp.
Tucked away among the trees, the hotel started life in the 19th century as a hunting lodge, was converted into a sanatorium during the Communist era and then fell into disuse before Kempinski renovated and reopened it in 2009. Although the candy-coloured turrets are new (including the one housing the rooftop hot tub for the honeymoon suite) there are plenty of retro touches – and enough old-world glamour to remind you of the building's origins, from the sweeping staircase in reception to the immensely high ceilings of the dining room.
Aware that I needed all the help I could get if I was going to balance on one leg later that day, I virtuously decided to forgo the wine offered at check-in, but indulgence is clearly just as important as activity here – from the huge marshmallowy pillows in the suites to the rain-head shower in my en suite bathroom.
Having said that, there's certainly no stinting on exercise either. Each day packed in two 75-minute yoga classes, one before breakfast and the second after the daily four-hour group walk in the mountains – perfect for stretching out my aching muscles. Post-activity recovery involved having time to explore the Kempinski's spa before refuelling with gourmet dishes courtesy of the hotel restaurant, or traditional mountain food at Koliba Patria, one of the lakeside cafés nearby. A few glasses of unexpectedly good Slovakian white wine finished the relaxation process off nicely.
The classes are all tailored to the ability of the individuals taking part (my group included one complete beginner and most levels in between), but if you're expecting a drill sergeant shouting instructions as you're transformed from a novice to ultra-bendy yogi, you won't find it here. Instead, I found myself enjoying the perfect refresher course. After practising yoga on and off for 10 years, the emphasis had firmly been on "off" over recent months. As I gazed from my mat towards the vast Strbske Pleso lake, its sapphire blue surface reflecting the clear sky and forested mountains, my instructor, Deirdra, explained that the focus here is on enjoyment. Yes, you'll be stretched and exercised all day long, but the idea is to come away feeling de-stressed and energised rather than newly able to put your leg behind your ear.
Based on hatha yoga – the most commonly practised type of yoga in the UK, with classes mixing physical exercises and deep breathing – the sessions won't alarm a beginner. We focused on some of the most common yoga moves, from sun salutation to standing postures such as trikonasana and warrior. There is also a class on fitting yoga into your everyday life and breathing exercises to help to meditate.
With our guide, Terezka, leading us, there was no need for any special skills to explore the mountains either, despite a few menacingly named peaks – including the forbidding "Satan".
The routes are coded by colour – blue for moderate, red for more challenging, as well as green and yellow for linking trails – so there's no excuse to take the easy way out and hop on to the funicular and chairlifts.
While we spotted more determined explorers wandering past, with complicated climbing gear dangling from their rucksacks and lethal-looking metal grips attached to their shoes, we needed nothing more hi-tech than some waterproof walking boots and warm layers.
From Strbske Pleso, our first walk took us through the forests, winding past sections flattened by a recent hurricane, until we reached Popradske Pleso, around 150m further up on the edge of another lake. Across the water is the mountain's most moving stopping point, the Symbolic Cemetery, with more than 160 memorials and 50 wooden crosses for people who have died while hiking more rugged stretches of these mountains.
On the other side of the lake from the cemetery is one of the mountain refuges dotted through the High Tatras – some are only basic huts for shelter, others, such as this one, the Popradske Pleso chalet, have hostel-style rooms and a café serving hearty Slovakian sauerkraut or lentil soup and Kofola, a fizzy herbal drink like cola crossed with dandelion and burdock.
Our second hike started in Stary Smokovec, around 15 minutes' drive from Strbske Pleso. From the town's square with its traditional painted church, it's a steep climb to the first chalet at Hrebienok before following the winding forest path to the "Giant Waterfall", which cascades from 20m into the river, the first of the string of beautiful falls along this route.
Stopping for a brief rest, we headed to the oldest of the Tatra mountain refuges, Reinerova Chata, which dates back to 1863 and is still in use today. The scent of mulling wine hits you as you wander through the door into the shadowy interior. It's much smaller than the modern refuges, the small window-less stone building lit by hanging lamps, while antique animal skulls hang from the ceiling. Further along the riverside path, we reached the Studenovodske waterfalls, where we scrambled across the slippery rocks to stand in front of the spray.
Before anything got too energetic, though, it was time to head back to the hotel, and treat my muscles to a massage in the spa – in my case, the most vigorous hot-stone treatment I've ever had in my life (though there are also massages themed on the different seasons, depending on whether you want to be "energised" or "relaxed").
After alternately baking and cooling in the spa's thermal suite – with sauna, steam room, caldarium, plunge pool, rain shower and pebble-filled pools to heat and chill your feet – I sank into one of the huge bed-sized recliners in the relaxation room. Looking out on to the lake, it would have been impossible not to have a feeling approaching Zen calmness.
It may not be any easier to find enlightenment in the lap of luxury, but it's definitely a lot more fun.
The writer travelled with Tatra Yoga Holidays (0161 408 8988; www.tatrayogaholidays.com), which offers the three-night "Five-star Yoga Indulgence" holiday for £875 per person. The trip departs 8-11 August and 26-29 January 2012, and includes return flights from Gatwick to Krakow, transfers, accommodation with breakfast at the Grand Hotel Kempinski High Tatras, six yoga and meditation sessions, full use of the hotel spa with one massage treatment and two guided walks in the Tatra mountains. A three-night "Tatra Yoga Break", running from 11-14 August, is available for £699, on the same basis but with accommodation in a fully catered chalet in Velka Lomnica.
The closest airport is in Krakow, Poland, which is served by easyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyJet.com) from Gatwick, Belfast, Bristol, Edinburgh, Liverpool; and Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com) from Stansted, Newcastle, East Midlands and Leeds/Bradford.
Slovakia Tourism: 00 421 48 413 61 46; www.slovakia.travel
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