Tuesday, 24 March 2009

The Unicycle Diaries 3: Slovak Mountain High

From my travel diaries written in Slovakia last year, wherein I wander through the mountainous mist and learn about nudity etiquette in spas...

Wed 18 June 2008

- Got up to find the mountains completely vanished, covered in heavy mist that begins just above town. Clearly not a great day to go up major peak in cable car as planned, as no views.

- Plan B: Take train trip along the local mountain railway to Štrbské Pleso, at other end of Tatra mountains; lots of snowsports etc. Also more forest, as it was less damaged by the windstorms a few years ago.

- Starý Smokovec train station is a quaint part-timbered, pocket-sized place, with tourists milling about waiting for the next trains heading in all directions. There’s something both soothing and artificial about a purely holiday town. Staff at station even speak some German, and there’s English used extensively.

- Train is red and sparkling new, winds its way west , twisting along slopes, sometimes below roads and townsites, sometimes above. Very green and misty but you can still see a lot of damage from the storms. Occasionally rocky streams pass below us.

- Štrbské Pleso is bigger than expected, lots of accommodation under construction, and yes lots of trees. I have a hiking map so grab a coffee near station and work it out. These colour-coded paths are good, easy to follow. It’s misty still and a bit cold, threatening rain, so I decide a short walk along the red trail into the forest would be good. It is pleasant, though I’m walking into the clouds and vision is short... creates a magical kind of fairy tale forest look, all those dark greens and the rocky trail.

- After a while I turn back and take a turn around the lake. Starts raining but I encounter timber cafe overlooking water. Opens at 12 noon so an old lady and I sit just undercover on deck, me reading my book, her loudly answering mobile calls. But the lake is fascinating – mist shrouds other side, fading slowly across water, dark green trees fading out in distance. Cool but not freezing.

- In cafe, order grilled sheep’s cheese on a garlic baguette, comes with sour cream and is very good. Have beer with it.

- Eventually wend way through construction to station, then back to my hotel and its wellness centre. Despite the weather – maybe because of it – it’s been a pleasant day. It’s good to get out in nature after all my urban adventures, just take it slow, take a breather.

- At wellness centre, get talking to a Croatian guy staying at the hotel for a railway conference. I’d been wondering about spa etiquette, as men wander around naked or near-naked, even though it’s a unisex space. He says it’s like this all over Europe; chalk the puzzlement up to Anglo-Saxon prudery. I think the basic rule is: if you don’t flaunt it, it’s OK to be naked occasionally and briefly, ie heading into the spa, shower, cold pool. Seems a healthy attitude. There, I've learned something today.