I don’t like winters in Ireland, I find them quite difficult.
They’re long, cold, dark, rainy and blustering – with that piercing sound of wind at your window almost every night.
In January, I always find myself clinging to Christmas for as long as I can, for that extra bit of cheer and twinkling lights. I’m always on the lookout for things to help make this part of the year a little brighter and more bearable.
I planned this trip to Slovak Tatra Mountains a year in advance. I liked having it as a target to keep me motivated. My initial inspiration for this whole adventure was a photo I saw on Instagram of a girl that met two wild foxes there while on a hike. I’ve always loved these animals and over the years my fondness for them only grew. To meet them in the wild would be a special kind of blessing.
I looked up the trail where the encounter happened and found that it leads to a beautiful wooden chalet, Zamkovskeho Chata. After a bit of searching, I discovered it’s a little too remote for a weekend getaway. My boyfriend and travel partner, Kenny, was quite new to this mountain experience and after all, so was I. My last winter trip to the High Tatras was when I was five years old. We travelled as light as possible, but still had some bags to carry in icy, unpredictable conditions.
As fate would have it, I found something even better. Bilikova Chata was nestled in the mountain, but only a few minute walk from Hrebienok, where the funicular cable car stops. There was an apartment option with amazing views, TV and WiFi. I know this may sound a little bit like cheating on the whole wilderness idea, but it was the perfect set up. I could still reply to some emails, post photos and after a day of adventuring, retreat back into cosiness and safety and stick on a DVD.
In the mornings, we could have a snack on our balcony and then head downstairs for some authentic Slovak cuisine and décor.
To break up the journey all the way from Galway, we stayed in Poprad the first night, which is the nearest city. The mountains tower over it majestically and it has shops where we got some essentials – sweet treats to keep the energy up, gluten & dairy free stuff for me and *cough* treats for the potential fox meeting. We then had two nights and three days up in the mountains and we loved every minute.
Circling back to holding onto Christmas – it was the first weekend in January and on the 6th, in that part of Europe means the Feast of Three Kings and Orthodox Christmas celebrations. The decorations were still up, kids were off school and the atmosphere was festive. Over the weekend it was super busy, but then on the Monday it died down completely!
On the very first morning, we explored the borough of Spisska Sobota, which is where we were staying for the night. It was so quiet and quaint and I loved all the historic buildings. The guest house we stayed in (Penzion Apropo) put us in a room that looked up to the mountains through an attic window which only added to the excitement of what was ahead.
The Tatra Mountains and its towns and places of interest are linked up by its own railway system (Tatranska Elektricka Zeleznica) that is unique to the terrain. It’s so cheap and efficient and it takes me back to childhood days, when I used to get giddy by the notion that we were taking a train anywhere. An actual fact, I have now spent some time researching the history of the trains, trams, trolleybuses and buses in Slovakia but also here in Ireland. Vehicles, especially the public transport ones, have a unique way of reflecting how the people used to live in that time. Behold my new passion!
Picture source: Slovensko na Historickych Fotografiach (Facebook)
To get to our chalet we took the train from Poprad to Stary Smokovec and from there, a funicular cable car to Hrebienok. Each meter that took us to a higher altitude, revealed a nicer view. It’s very hard for that to happen, but the Chalet and its surroundings were just as I had pictured them in my head. I was as eager to leave the chalet and explore as I was to get back to it!
The first hike we did we were sort of testing the ground – figuratively & literally! At that time of the year, you’re pretty much guaranteed snow, which is great. Even though it didn’t snow while we were there, we still had a generous layer on the ground to enjoy. However, it also meant that the old layer of snow was very slippery! Thankfully, we had our big sturdy boots and the lady at the reception was kind to recommend pulling socks over our shoes for extra grip. It was a life-saver and other hikers passing us by were very impressed and amused by our hack!
We had enough warnings from multiple sources to be mindful of a few things: wrapping up warm and waterproof, taking some sugary snacks, being wary of the weather turning instantly and making sure you don’t stay out after dark. There have been a few instances of people getting lost, hurt or worse in the mountains lately, so we tried to be smart. The sun set at around 4pm so we did about a 2 hour hike that that brought us around some beautiful waterfalls (Dlhy Vodopad).
The next morning I had my heart set on meeting a fox and venturing in the direction of the place that prompted this whole trip! The weather was in our favour and we set off on an hour hike towards Zamkovskeho Chata. In parts, it felt like an arcade game – climbing up slopes, sliding down on my bum on the slippery patches and surmounting implausibly icy bridges. At the same time, it was so enjoyable and relaxing – nothing puts you quite in the moment as much as that scenery, air and physical challenge.
We were very near to the chalet when we came upon a group of three hikers who were slowly making their way up in front of us. It felt like a divine intervention when the next thing I heard was one of them exclaiming ‘There is a fox there!’ And sure enough, there it was, scampering down a rock in its furry orange beauty and playful skittishness. I was beside myself with joy and I quickly took out my sliced apple and a little bit of chicken I had in my bag. What followed was one of the most magical moments of my life.
With a healthy amount of wariness, the fox munched on everything I had given it. I knew from my online research that the foxes there were well used to people, but it just made common sense to me not to feed it out of my hand – they are wild creatures after all. After the feed, the fox did a mini catwalk show for us and proceeded in the direction we were heading – but we were too slow for it! I don’t know whether it was a male or female – supposedly they are a pair living there together. Suffice to say it was the most magnificent creature I ever did see and I can now die happy. (You can watch a video clip of the moment here)
We refuelled at Zamkovskeho Chata which also completely lived up to the expectations. We were able to sit outside with our drinks and watch the seasoned hikers, with their proper gear as they shared some laughs and prepared for their journeys even further up. I couldn’t get over seeing a dog up there, as well as a little baby – not a bother on them! There is a particular shared character and jolliness to the mountaineers and I am very attracted to it. Even though I’m not sure I’d ever be athletic enough to be in their league!
On the last day, we bid farewell to our chalet with a heavy heart, packed all our bits & bobs and headed to Tatranska Lomnica. The weather was foggy but dry, so we thought it would be a good time to go to Tatrabob, a bobsleigh type roller coaster. Much to our disappointment, the place was closed for bad weather. It was a fine soft day by Irish standards!
That was the one thing I feel we missed out on a little bit – sledging or bobsleighing. Neither of us really knows how to ski, but we would have loved some winter sport activity like that. That’s a part of the whole mountain experience too though – you never know what weather you’re going to get! For example, for our stay, the temperature was just above 0°C but the year before would have been -26°C! I still feel like that’s a lot more enjoyable than wind and rain – the snow makes it magical and when you’re wrapped up well you can hardly feel it.
Throughout the trip, both Kenny and I kept making mental notes on what we’d like to do next time we’re back. If you’d like to plan your own Tatra Mountain adventure, please hit me up if you have any questions. It’s worthwhile doing a fair bit of research and planning ahead of your trip. Like with every journey, there’s little hurdles (like certain dingy train stations and grumpy customer service exchanges) but all in all, it’s a very singular experience that I can’t recommend enough!
I don’t really know how to express it, but I feel like I now have the mountains in my heart. People that love the mountains will know what I’m talking about. Whenever I feel stressed out about something now, I just close my eyes, imagine I’m there and I feel a little better. Silly everyday concerns don’t matter in the mountains.