Summer is long gone, and my travels in eastern Europe seem like a distant memory by now, but before catching up with a few of the remarkable places in Taiwan we’ve been exploring the last couple of months, I had to make a brief blog about two amazing European day-hike spots, one each in Slovakia and the Czech Republic.
The beautiful Slovak Paradise lies in the shadow of Slovakia’s greatest hiking destination – the awesome Tatra Mountains, and if the weather in the high mountains is behaving, then all hikers should make a beeline for that spectacular landscape – they really are stunning. Unfortunately the weather there is also pretty unpredictable, and especially in summer it tends to rain a great deal up there. Over a three-day stay in the area (at the marvelous Ginger Monkey Hostel in Zdiar – surely the best choice for budget travelers in the area), we had no luck with the Tatras. Apparently it had been raining non-stop for about a week when we arrived, and the only sunny day of the three was the Sunday, when the lifts and trails in the High Tatras area would have all been packed out.
Although only about 30 minutes’ drive south of Zdiar, the Slovensky Raj has far better weather, and while the stunning pinnacles of the High Tatras were hidden behind an impenetrable wall of cloud for much of our stay in the area, the weather at the nearby (and much lower altitude) Slovensky Raj was fine.
The area known as the Slovensky Raj was the first area to be afforded protection within present-day Slovakia, and has been a national park since 1988. It comprises an isolated sandstone massif, featuring a series of deep and very scenic ravines cut into its north, west and southwest sides by the elements. Long admired by local hikers, but long inaccessible to most because of tall waterfalls and other obstacles that block the way, about 8 of the ravines with their waterfalls are now accessible to hikers thanks to a series of raised walkways, wooden bridges, ramps, chains and ladders that negotiate the harder parts. All this hardware takes a tiny bit away from the natural beauty, but it’s undeniably exciting, and occasionally mildly challenging – those who suffer from a fear of heights will have lots of problems here!
With around eight gorges and lots of waterfalls (the highest being over 70 meters high) to explore, there’s a temptation to get out the map and combine 3 or 4 gorges into a full day’s hike. Unfortunately a pesky rule states that hikers can only walk UP the technically assisted gorge sections (ie all the best bits) which means a lot of walking along forest tracks to get back down again before you can start up another gorge. There’s a big temptation to stuff the rules and head back down one of the less popular ravines (it’s pretty safe going against the flow, as long as you don’t meet someone halfway up a ladder), although there’s a hefty fine if you get caught by anyone in authority going the wrong way. You might want to bring your river tracing footwear here – the only ‘paths’ through the gorge parts of the trails are the technically assisted bits on ladders, bridges, ramps etc. The rest of the way you’re simply walking on the sandy floor of the stream, and it can get very wet after rain!
By far the most famous hike is the intermittently marvelous Sucha Bela Gorge, on the north side of the national park, near Podlesok village, one of the best places to be based while exploring the national park. It’s a popular hike throughout the summer (and is apparently open year-round too), so make sure you go with the flow and go UP this one or you’ll definitely come to grief. The first part of the hike is very pretty, but it’s the middle section of the gorge, with its series of waterfalls, that has earned it it’s fame. There are three or 4 sets of falls, each climbed by ladders. The most exciting is actually the first encountered, a double leap scaled by three or four long and airy ladders – a much-photographed scene that has become the most familiar view of the Slovensky Raj. Further up there are plenty of fascinating bits – narrow, slot-like ravines, more waterfalls, deep pools etc. it’s disappointing when the stream finally runs out (the trail goes right past the source of the stream) and joins a rather blah woodland track for the long descent back to the road. Mountain bikes are available for a (slightly) faster descent, but the track is very rough in places and it’s a slow ride.
For a much wilder (and arguably more spectacular) walk, try Piecky, which flows down the western face of the massif. Much less visited than Sucha Bela, the gorge is similarly beautiful but much quieter. About 30 minutes in comes one of the most impressive waterfalls in the National Park, scaled by a very exposed ladder. This one is far scarier than anything on the Sucha Bela as it leaves you dangling in mid air, far from the cliff and feeling very vulnerable. I got about 20 meters up (near the top) before my legs turned to jelly and I could go no further. The main gorge bits above (which look great in photos) and another waterfall look fantastic though.
After Sucha Bela Gorge, the most popular walk is along the Hornad River Gorge, which skims the northern edge of the national park. There’s a fine view from the rocky promontory known as Tomasovsky Vyhl’ad, but unless you’re afraid of heights or have lots of time, your time is probably better spent exploring the other, wilder gorges. Top of my to-do list next time is the Polana Gorge, deep in the center of the national park, which has the highest waterfall in the Slovensky Raj- 70 meter-high Závojovy Vodopad – climbed by a series of long, vertigo-inducing ladders, of course, and the Sokol Gorge, the longest and (it’s said) most strenuous gorge walk of the lot. I’ll be back!
By the way, no visit to Slovensky Raj is anywhere near complete without a visit to nearby, UNESCO-listed, Dobsinka Ice Cave. It’s astonishing!
Car hire is cheap as chips in Bratislava, Slovakia’s capital city (we payed about 120 euros for 8 days hire in peak summer season!), and since Slovakia is one of the most beautiful corners of eastern Europe it’s worth spending a bit of time driving across the country if you’re intent on hiking the Tatras or Slovensky Raj. Roads are great, and fast too.
The northern side of Slovensky Raj is easily accessible by bus from Poprad, Slovakia’s third city, just below the High Tatras, but some of the best gorges, such as Dolina, Piecky and Sokol are best reached by your own transport.
Head to Youtube and type in ‘Slovensky Raj’ for a taste of the trails. This place is really easy to get to and easy to hike, yet looks awesome in photos and video, so there’s no shortage of footage of the areas many ladders and suspended walkways.