Being green is not easy. But the pressure is on. Even kids get taunted in the playground because their parents took them to Florida, without offsetting the carbon impact by paying to plant a small forest. What choice do you have? Camping in the back garden, savouring the delights of another barbecue summer? If your conscience is heavy, and your pocket light, then the Tatras mountains of Slovakia are the perfect alternative to another ‘staycation’.
The High Tatras, on the northern Slovakian border with Poland, form a gem of a mountain range only 24 kilometres long but containing 25 peaks over 2,500 metres high. Between the jagged pinnacles a series of forested valleys slope down to picturesque villages snuggled up along the foot of the range. The area has been a national park for sixty years, protecting the flora and fauna in what is one of the few remaining pockets of wilderness in Europe. It’s about as green as you can get without living on a diet of lettuce. You can’t wander at will through much of the park without the services of an official guide, and it’s in this untouched area that much of the wildlife takes refuge. Wolves, lynx, mountain goats, and European brown bears shelter here, and you can book a place on a guided expedition to search them out. The best time to spot a bear is during the autumn when they are stuffing themselves with berries to prepare for hibernation. For the unaccompanied rambler the open sectors of the park boast 600 kilometres of marked nature trails and 160 kilometres of cycle tracks. There are hundreds of species of alpine flowers to be found, and everywhere the profusion of mosses and lichens on the trees and rocks testifies to the clarity of the air.
Some of the villages are bases for skiing in the winter, and their ski lifts carry on running outside the ski season, so that you can take a ride up into the mountains and either ramble across the upland into the next valley, or just make your way easily down again to where you started. A railway links the villages so no matter how far you choose to wander there’s always a restful way back to base. My creaky knees picked the walking downwards option, with plenty of breaks to admire the scenery. Do remember that although it may be sweltering at the foot of the mountain temperatures can drop dramatically higher up, even in summer.
They say that the crowned heads of Europe came to holiday here a hundred years ago, and many of the stately hotels through which they toddled in their tiaras have recently been modernised and refurbished. The Grand Hotel in Stary Smokovec is one such venue, with house martins twittering around the ornate wooden eaves, and a dining room fit for a king. The prices on the menu betray the fact that although Slovakia has joined the Eurozone it has not yet suffered from the wallet-numbing inflation inflicted on other countries where the Euro is the currency of choice. You can enjoy a starter of Borscht beetroot soup for €3.20, followed by a main course local speciality of pastry packages stuffed with Bryndza sheep milk cheese, in a cream sauce with bacon, for €4.48. My yardstick of European value, the litre of local beer, is on tap through the night in village bars for around €2.
Take the funicular railway (€4.90 return) up from the Grand Hotel to Hrebienok and follow the paths to Rainer’s chalet for a refreshing cup of tea. There are a dozen or so chalets scattered through the mountains, some offering overnight accommodation, and each with a different blend of Indian tea and herbs.
For something more substantial than tea I caught a cable car from the neighbouring village of Tatranska Lomnica up to the first station, confusingly called ‘Start’. The restaurant here serves generous and genuine pizzas for €6.30, and thus fortified you might venture on up the next two legs of the cable car route. The final leg takes you to the very top of Lomnicky peak and is not for the faint-hearted, or a vertigo sufferer like me. It’s the third longest unsupported cable span in the world. The views from the top are breathtaking, so I’m told, and there’s a tiny garden of alpine plants, but I can’t vouch for this as I had to sit in a corner staring at the carpet until it was time to go down again. For the horticulturalist who prefers to keep their feet on the ground there’s a botanic garden down in the village with examples of nearly three hundred alpine species.
Five kilometres south of the mountains, as the train flies, is the town of Poprad, with a charming old quarter and the startlingly modern complex of AquaCity. A comprehensive collection of pools, flumes, hotels and hot tubs, Aquacity has a string of awards to justify its title as the greenest resort in the world. Steaming hot mineral rich water is pumped, using solar power, from monster geo-thermal reservoirs beneath the Tatras. The water heats the buildings and bubbles into the indoor and outdoor pools in which you can soak and swim even as snow flakes fall around you, or simply steam in a selection of saunas and aromatherapy rooms. I’ve had to strip off, in the line of duty, all over Europe to report on the ‘wellness’ centres without which no hotel feels complete these days, and this is the best I have seen, without all the precious flummery of whale songs and Javanese temple gongs. Hotel guests get access to the water park free of charge, or you can visit for the day with a family ticket for around €40.
So, the choice is yours for next summer. Stay home or go green. Bedraggled or bedazzled. Simple.
NB: All prices quoted are guides only
within this article at the time of publishing.
UK tour operator Inghams offers a selection of 7 and 14 night holidays to Slovakia's High Tatras mountains. You can stay at the 4* Grand Hotel in Stary Smokovec and enjoy their indoor swimming pool, sauna and fitness centre, free packed lunch, free bicycle hire and free one day walkers' lift pass as part of the deal.
Contact Inghams: 020 8780 4454