Slovakia is one of those little bits of Europe that has formed after the tides of imperialism, royalism, fascism and communism ebbed. Its most recent shaping happened after the sub-division of the former Czechoslovakia, following the collapse of the communist government 20 years ago and its amicable, non-violent separation from the Czech Republic, known fondly as the `Velvet Divorce’.
Slovakia’s mountainous north-east region is the country’s main tourism destination and includes the ranges and plains of The Tatry Mountains, made up of the High Tatras and the Low Tatras. The region was a favourite holiday haunt for Europe’s nobility and the seemingly untouchable Austro-Hungarian Hapsburg family during the 19th and early 20th centuries; the grand, gothic hotels from that era are today still adorned with chandeliers, silver and gilt.
Lomnicky Stit is the highest point of one of the High Tatras’s highest peaks, one of eleven in the range that exceed 2,500 metres. Here, bizarrely, I was served Jamaican Blue Mountain Coffee, freshly ground and brewed from the world’s most expensive and sought after beans.
The peak at Lomnicky Stit in the High Tatras is home to a surprisingly bijoux restaurant, a weather station, an Alpine flower garden and one cosy apartment for four. It is only accessible by the very fittest, who hike up its flanks, or by an extremely scary single gondola lift, dangling on a wire that sags like a heavily laden washing line. The coffee comes all the way from Jamaica, only to be hauled up like everyone else in the bubble in the sky. The washing line gondola lift is the third longest span between two points in the world and undoubtedly among the highest, all of which was apparent as we moved, imperceptibly slowly, at heights of up to 1000 feet above the ground.
The High Tatras, a natural border between Slovakia and Poland, became a national park in 1949, and is one of three national parks in the region. It is heavily protected by an environmentally aware management who severely regulate development of its tree lined slopes with the protective instincts of a lioness.
In this land of extremes and surprises, I arrived on the mountain to the whoops of joy from the owners of the ski resort at Tatranska Lomnica who, that very day, had received news that, after 4 years of lobbying, their proposed 33 million euro development of the ski slopes and lifts could go ahead in time for the 2008-9 ski season. Good news for skiers looking for skiable snow and lift pass prices that are around 30% lower than most Austrian and Swiss resorts.
The surprises became more surprising as the day unfolded. A woodland walk beside a fast flowing river after a funicular rail trip up from the Alpine town of Stary Smokovec found me alternately sipping piping hot herb tea and mountain cold schnapps in `Rainer’s Cottage’, a small stone structure housing a rustic café that struck me as ideally suited for habitation by trolls.
Here on a rough hewn table, surrounded by walls fashioned from boulders, our troll-like host unravelled tales of delivery men strapping Socialist-style range cookers to their backs and delivering them to remote mountain cottages, the earliest form of white van man. In an area keen to hold onto its heritage, there are mountain back-packing and carrying competitions held to this day in the High Tatras. Slovakia would be a strong contender for Olympic gold stove-hauling.
Slovakia’s second natural border with southern Poland is the charming and fast flowing river of Dunajec. Walnut skinned men wearing blue felt, embroidered waistcoats and hats decorated with cowrie shells punted us downstream past Poles on the left, Slovaks on the right, occasionally pointing, grunting and nodding at passing scenes of possible interest to us. We followed their nods and passed the shadowy image of an Eagle that magically appeared in a sheer rock formation, the triple granite peaks of a monster, and the guest house where Hitler spent a couple of nights in the late 1930s.
Today the Hapsburgs may turn their graves to learn of the most recent fate of Europe, now divided and subdivided into 48 countries, including the new Slovakia. An early grave sprung to mind and my skin flushed alternately hot and cold as I eased myself into a self-powered go-kart to hurtle the 3km run back down the mountain. One of the last surprises during a stay in one of New Europe’s surprisingly unspoilt, emerging destinations.
Slovakia fact file:
How to get there: Flights to Slovakia can be booked with Sky Europe from London Luton to Poprad and Manchester or Dublin to Kosice. www.skyeurope.com