Our Zilina couchsurfing host Michal had said that he would meet us at the train station and we had no problem spotting each other. He asked what our plans were and we really didn't have any, so he suggested that he show us around a little bit. Okay! So we got acquainted with Michal while wandering around. He works for a large industrial company, but he's on the road a lot and works mostly from a home office. Zilina is a fairly industrial town and there is a Kia car manufacturing plant here that employs 3,000 local people. Michal has a wife, Ivona, and a two year old son Daniel. But Michal has also taken courses to become a certified tour guide for the area, and he was practicing on us. We think he's going to be very successful! We decided to visit another castle about 15 kms away called Strecno Castle. We parked the car and it was going to be an uphill 20 minute walk to get to this fascinating castle! We spent the evening talking about travel and what to do in the area. There are some gorgeous hikes within 35 kms of here and Michal showed us some pics of the area so we'll know what to expect
Well, we think it's one of the best hikes we've ever done anyhow! It was only 8.5 kms (5.3 miles) but it took us six hours from start to finish. Quite a few people on the trail considering it was the middle of the week, but it's because it's such an interesting trail. Terchova is a town about 30 kms (18 miles) from Zilina where we are staying. It's popular in both summer and winter because it's a big snowboarding and skiing area. And the scenery is gorgeous. In fact, after having done this hike, we think we're going to Terchova and staying for the next four or five days! Michal had to go near Terchova to visit clients, so he dropped us off at the trail head. There are many obstacles on this trail. The first one was the root and mud section! And then it gets really interesting! There are some very steep sections that you need chains and railings to help you out! What an exhilarating day! It was 5:00pm when we caught the bus back to Zilina, and then we had to take the local bus back to Michal and Ivona's flat.
Yesterday morning, Michal, our couchsurfing host in Zilina made some phone calls for us to try and find us somewhere to stay in Terchova. Because Terchova is a popular outdoor destination area, there are a lot of pensions (guest houses) and private accommodation available. They said they could accommodate us for 4 nights, through until Monday, for 10 euros per person per night. Works out to about $25 per night total. Said goodbye to Ivona and son Daniel, and then Michal drove us to the bus station. We had such a good time with this young family, and once again our experiences with couchsurfing are extremely positive. We might see them again this weekend if they decide to come to this area for a hike! Thanks for everything Michal and Ivona! We got ourselves settled and walked just down the street to get some groceries. Came back and made some lunch, and then went for a walk around town. And a large statue of Slovakian folk hero Juraj Janosik. He was the Slovakian version of Robin Hood, and was apparently born in Terchova.
Today was a travel day, however we were only going about 30 kms (18 miles) to the town of Dolny Kubin. There are not many couch surfers available in this area, but one girl replied that she would like to show us around even though she can't host right now. So Jana said she would meet us when we get off the bus this afternoon, and help us to find a place to stay. We put our bags in the back of her car and went for a walk around town. Dolny Kubin is a larger town than I expected, with a population of around 20,000. It has a really pretty central plaza. So after showing us the basic sights, we figured we needed to find somewhere to stay. I had found a technical high school about 5 kms (3 miles) outside of town that has dorm rooms available for tourists during the summer. The advertised price was only €4.50 ($5.75) per person, per night. Jana knew where it was, and in fact it's only a km from where she lives.
We walked into the nearby village of Istebne. They have one of the oldest churches in Slovakia in this village, one of only four remaining wooden churches. It's a little different because this church has no steeple. The bell tower was actually built after the fact, and is actually a separate structure. Unfortunately, no interior pictures allowed. The church was built in 1686, and although it's been restored several times, much of the interior is original. It's really quite something to see. It was all closed up when we got there, but there was a woman doing some gardening and she went and got another lady who had a key. It cost €1.00 ($1.25) each to get in, but we also got a free postcard each with that!
Orava Castle was built in the 1200's on the top of a rock formation 112 meters (367 feet) high. It's an imposing structure overlooking the river below. It was the scene for the filming of the 1922 dracula movie "Nosferatu".
It was about 4 kms each way, mostly along a paved path, but it was a gradual uphill climb to get to Sutovsky Waterfall. The stream beside the path didn't really have a lot of water in it, so we weren't expecting the waterfall to be very good. But the waterfall is 38 meters (125 feet) high! And the way the water comes down it looks really pretty. We walked back to the car, and then it was only a short drive to a popular swimming area. Of course Slovakia is a land locked country, so when there's a good place to swim, it's busy, especially on a hot sunny day!
Zuberec is a bit of a tourist town, but only because it is located close to several major ski areas and so there are many guest houses and private accommodation available. We are only about 20 kms (12 miles) from the border of Poland! And more importantly, we are only a few minutes from the western edge of Tatra National Park! We walked to the tourist office and explained that we were looking for inexpensive accommodation. Many of these places are advertised at between €8.00 to €12.00 ($10.00 to $15.00) per person, per night. The lady made a few phone calls and the first couple came back as "full", so we were getting a little worried. But then she found one for us, and only a 5 minute walk away!
We walked up to the side door, and there were a couple of teen girls, one of whom spoke some English. She went to get her grandmother who owns the building, and soon we were being shown the small apartment. Best room we've had yet, and only €8.50 ($10.63) per person, per night. So, for $21.25 per night, we are staying for four nights!
It's a little difficult to plan a route because there are so many marked hiking trails in this park. We decided on a 16.8 km (10.5 mile) hike with an elevation gain of about 700 metres (2,300 feet). This is a route that took us to three small lakes high up in the mountains, to a place called Rohacske Plesa. But first, we had to take the local bus about 9 kms (5.5 miles) from the town of Zuberec to a little village called Zverovka. We left our place at about 9:00am, and paid €0.80 ($1.00) each for the one way bus ride. When we turned onto the blue part of the trail, it became much steeper. This trail was very rocky. It opened up onto a small picnic area, where we came across a strange site! This woman is wearing a different hiking outfit! And she was hiking...up the same trail we were. Never checked to see if she had hiking boots on! This is about the half way point. There are three small lakes up here. There is another trail that leads along the top ridge of the mountain in the background. And then there was a gradual paved yellow trail that led us back to the bus stop. We did 16.8 kms (10.5 miles) in six hours. Didn't stop very often, so it was a good workout.
We got back to the flat, and the landlady came and knocked on our door. Keep in mind that she speaks no English, and we don't speak enough Slovak to be of any use either! Turns out she needed our passports for the invoicing. No problem, she disappeared for a while and then came back with a bottle of something. She grabs a couple of glasses off the shelf and talking away in Slovak, prepares us each a drink.
One thing we noticed on our hike today is that there are a lot of wild blueberries. I tried some and found them not sweet enough for my liking, but Ruth thought they were okay. Well it turns out that they are used to make a popular homemade type of blueberry liqueur, and that's what this lady poured us. And there were still blueberries in it. Enough that you had to eat them with a spoon! And these blueberries tasted like they were full of rocket fuel! Heavy duty stuff! Obviously some kind of Slovak specialty.
We took the 10:00am bus to the village of Zverovska. It's a little higher up in altitude, and also allowed us to hike all the way back to our town in Zuberec. And I mean three hours of uphill, every step of the way. The signposts don't give distances, only estimated time to get there. We found that we must hike at a pretty average speed because we're always pretty close to the estimates on the uphill sections, and we usually beat the estimated times by a fair bit on the downhill sections. The estimated times on the signs include what people would normally take for rest breaks. We knew it was cloudy at higher elevations, but we decided to go for it anyhow. We hoped that we were going to be above the clouds once we were at the top, or that they would dissipate. The worst case scenario was that we would be in the clouds the whole time.
Arrived in Poprad, and first thing to do was find a place to stay. I had done some research ahead of time, so I knew that Poprad is a touristy city of about 55,000 people. Quite a few private places to stay, similar to what we have been in, but definitely with higher prices than we're used to. We walked the twenty minutes or so to the information centre, and made it just in time because yesterday was a bank holiday in Slovakia so most places were closed, and the info centre itself was closing at noon. While we were dragging our bags around, we walked past a penzion (guest house) that I thought would be fairly expensive, but you don't know if you don't ask, right? The lady said they had one room available for three nights and I went and looked at it. Very nice. But it was fairly expensive, at €32 ($40) per night. And there are no kitchen facilities, so we would be spending more on meals. But they do a nice buffet breakfast every morning for an extra €5 ($6.25) per person. The city is divided by the railway tracks. Mostly industrial and business on one side, and mostly residential on the other side. We were on the business side. Poprad exists partly because it is close to these mountains. During our walk around the city, we were looking for somewhere suitable to have dinner later on. Once again, prices are a little higher than we're used to. Usually, if you look at the price of a beer in a restaurant, it is a good indication of the price of the food! For example, there is a cheap pub in the front of our guest house (but it doesn't sell food). Beer there is between €0.70 and €0.90 ($0.87 and & $1.13). So when you see a restaurant advertising beer for €1.40 ($1.75), you can be pretty confident that the food will be more expensive too.
We had to take the Tatra Electric Railway to get from Poprad to the town of Stary Smokevek at the base of the mountains. This is a very popular mountain area with lots of hiking and lots of people! The train was pretty full with outdoor types, although there is also a gondola ride up there, so some people were just going for that. We had two different plans. One involved hiking to the top of a mountain, but it was a one way journey of 7.4 kms (4.6 miles) and it was uphill every step of the way with an elevation gain of almost 1,500 meters (4,900 feet). And, once you were at the top you had to retrace your steps back down. The second plan was to go on the same trail until it meets up with another trail that takes you along the side of the mountain to a hotel and lake that's another 5 kms (3 miles) away. We figured we would decide what to do when we reached that intersection. There was a huge windstorm that devastated this area in November 2004. Winds of 108 mph toppled trees in the mature forest. There were more trees broken and blown down during this storm than the entire Slovak logging industry cuts in an entire year. It's going to take many more years to become what it once was. We got to the intersection, and unfortunately we decided on plan B. We had already climbed about 365 meters (1,200 feet) and the worst would have still been ahead. We headed along the route that would take us to the hotel and lake.
Yesterday morning, we walked to the bus station and waited for the bus to take us to the Unesco listed Dobsinska Ice Caves. Any of our regular readers will know that we like to visit caves, and the ice cave was one of the reasons we wanted to visit this part of Slovakia. It was about an hour bus ride from Poprad, even though it's only 32 kms (19 miles) away. It's on a twisty road getting there, and with the stops it's slow going. Cost was €2.00 ($2.50) per person, each way. You have to hike up a hill to get to the caves, about 1 km from the road. They do tours every hour on the hour at this time of year, and we had to wait about half an hour to get on the 1:00pm tour. Entrance fees are expensive by area standards. Cost is €7.00 ($8.75) per adult for the 30 minute tour. Then, if you want to take pictures, it's another €10.00 ($12.50)!!! So of course there's no way I was paying that kind of money for a few photos. Due to the orientation of the cave and it's entrance, it allows cold air in the winter to fall down and thus cool off the inside rooms. In summer, the warmer air is lighter and cannot get into the cave, thus keeping the average temperature in the summer at around 0C (32F). This cycle has been repeating itself for many centuries and so the build up of ice just grows and grows. It's actually like an underground glacier.