At the top of an icy hill directly above me, the Grand Hotel, a half- timbered monstrosity, hovered in the night. At that hour, and in my mood, it resembled the Addams Family residence. But once inside the lobby my outlook improved. A pre-Communist relic, the hotel wasn't nearly as forbidding as its initial appearance suggested. Children cavorted on brocade couches while grown-ups shot pool or sat in a reading alcove amply stocked with books. The guests all appeared to be real people, not a collection of manicured starvelings such as you normally see at ski resorts. In such places everybody is decked out in Lycra. In the High Tatras, the preferred costume of the apres-ski crowd is a sweatshirt, baggy tracksuit bottoms and imitation Nikes. Best of all, a double room costs about pounds 35 a night - about what you'd pay for breakfast at a luxury hotel in Switzerland.
And speaking of breakfast, the Slovaks are hearty souls who like to stoke up for a day on the slopes. The buffet at the Grand Hotel was a cardiologist's nightmare, complete with bacon, four kinds of sausage, hard-boiled or scrambled eggs and a half-dozen different cheeses. Whatever this did to my arteries, it fortified me for a hike through the village of Stary Smokovec - an unspoilt place with harmonious, low-rise architecture, not the kind of towering condos that have transmogrified many Alpine hamlets. Some 300 square miles of the Tatras have been either preserved as a national park or protected, with restrictions on new construction.
Certain areas of the mountains are entirely off-limits and remain untouched habitats for some of Europe's last populations of bear, wolves and lynxes. Still, despite the emphasis on environmental protection, the Tatras have world-class ski runs, ice-skating rinks, sled runs, cross-country trails, ski jumps and hockey rinks. Prices are risibly low. A lift ticket costs about pounds 6 a day, and ski and boot rentals run from around pounds 4 to pounds 8.
I had thrown my back out and was unable to ski so I could indulged in my real passion: walking. The High Tatras have miles of trails that are kept clear of snow, and an electric train connects Stary Smokovec to nearby towns. I bought a ticket and settled into a seat in a rear car. As the little train trundled past snowy forests of fir and pine, and copses of birch and aspen whose bark peeled off like curling paper, I saw myself as a character in Doctor Zhivago, fleeing urban chaos, searching for a quite spot in which to recollect lost loves.
A short trip brought me to Strbske Pleso, the highest habitation in the Tatras. At an altitude of 4,445 feet, the village is strewn across snowy mountains and backed against a granite wall 2,000 feet higher. Yet the sound of Bob Marley and the Wailers singing "I shot the sheriff" insinuated itself into every stone cranny of the neighbourhood. In Slovakia, one has the sense, even in isolated areas, of being imprisoned in a video of somebody else's devising.
Strbske Pleso offers excellent ski runs and also serves as a staging area for climbing, cross-country skiing along the Cesta Slobody (Path of Freedom), or, in my case, for strolling around the second largest tarn on the Slovak side of the Tatras. Although I shared the well-defined footpath with several other hikers, I had a splendid sense of discovery and solitary enjoyment. Beyond the reach of municipal loudspeakers, the woods along the shore of the frozen lake were so quiet I could hear the crunch of my feet in the snow. Sunlight streamed through the trees, glittering on ice-encrusted branches and paving the path in colours like the aisle of a cathedral.
Lest the High Tatras sound like a paradise, however, I should add that they are unlikely to suit travellers who insist on haut cuisine. "Don't eat anything," one half-hysterical German woman warned me as I entered a restaurant in Tatranska Lomnica. "It's all sickening."
I took most of my meals at the Grand Hotel, and although the food tended to be bland, it was satisfactory. The lack of culinary sophistication was compensated for by the sweet patience of the waiters and by the melodramatic performance of the maitre d'hotel. Whenever anybody ordered a flambe dish, he dimmed the lights and prepared it with great ceremony, managing never to singe a single guest.
One night after dinner, he sauntered back to my table carrying two immense crystal goblets. Lightly clinking them together, he set the crystal ringing and held it close to my ear as he asked if I'd care for a liqueur. While waiting for an answer, he placed the goblets on a serving table and spun them like tops. They wobbled dangerously, but he wasn't worried. He had perfected this act over decades and was pleased to hear his guests gasp while he stood serenely smiling, certain the crystal wouldn't crash to the floor, and convinced his audience would express its appreciation in applause and hard currency.
How to get there
There are no direct flights from the UK to Slovakia. To reach Prague, tickets are available on British Midland's new service from Heathrow for pounds 161 return including tax through discount agents such as Major Travel (0171-485 7017). As an alternative to the long train journey, there are connecting flights on the Czech airline CSA from Prague to Kosice in Slovakia.
Where to stay
Stary Smokovec's Grand Hotel, Wolkrova 2, is opposite the railway station (00 42 969 2501); alternatives in Poprad are the Club Hotel (00 42 92 23725) and the Europa (00 42 92 32744).Reuse content