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

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.

Travel essentials



Getting there

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.



More information

Slovakia Tourism: 00 421 48 413 61 46; www.slovakia.travel

Arts and Entertainment
Joe Cocker performing on the Stravinski hall stage during the Montreux Jazz Festival, in Montreux, Switzerland in 2002
musicHe 'turned my song into an anthem', says former Beatle
News
Clarke Carlisle
sport
Sport
footballStoke City vs Chelsea match report
Arts and Entertainment
theatreThe US stars who've taken to UK panto, from Hasselhoff to Hall
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Life and Style
Approaching sale shopping in a smart way means that you’ll get the most out of your money
life + styleSales shopping tips and tricks from the experts
News
newsIt was due to be auctioned off for charity
News
Coca-Cola has become one of the largest companies in the world to push staff towards switching off their voicemails, in a move intended to streamline operations and boost productivity
peopleCoca-Cola staff urged to switch it off to boost productivity
Environment
Sir David Attenborough
environment... as well as a plant and a spider
Voices
'That's the legal bit done. Now on to the ceremony!'
voicesThe fight for marriage equality isn't over yet, says Siobhan Fenton
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Investigo: Finance Analyst

    £240 - £275 per day: Investigo: Support the global business through in-depth a...

    Ashdown Group: Data Manager - £Market Rate

    Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Data Manager - MySQL, Shell Scripts, Java, VB Scrip...

    Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - Bedfordshire/Cambs border - £32k

    £27000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - near S...

    Recruitment Genius: Class 1 HGV Driver

    £23000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This successful group of compan...

    Day In a Page

    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there