Friday 6 December 2013

Europe Summer Series: Tatra Mountains, Slovakia (Part 1)

Over December and January, I'll be running a series of my previously published print articles on Central and Eastern Europe. First up, Slovakia...

“Everywhere there is evil under the sun.”

I have Hercule Poirot’s words on my mind as I stroll through the foyer of the Grand Hotel.

It’s a building that appears to have sprung straight from the pages of an Agatha Christie novel; built in 1904, it’s a high-ceilinged structure decorated with sweeping, elegant art nouveau curves.

It doesn’t take much imagination to imagine the hotel being packed with foreign spies, American shipping magnates and exiled Russian countesses with secret sorrows.

But as I step into the cafe lounge, there is little evil to be seen - only two silver-haired ladies, sipping tea next to a bay window that offers a spectacular view over the slopes below.

The only thing that doesn't quite fit with my glamorous detective fantasy is the name of the lounge: the Castro Cafe.

And that’s because I’m in central Slovakia, and the hotel’s most famous guest ever was Fidel Castro, who visited in the 1970s when this was part of communist Czechoslovakia.

It’s a reminder that not all is as you expect when you venture east of the long-vanished Iron Curtain.

To be fair, other rooms in the hotel have had the same star guest treatment: the Sinatra Bar (Nancy), the Wilson Bar (after the British prime minister) and the Lefevre Restaurant (after the interwar French actor).

There’s even the Sailer Wellness Centre (after Austrian skier Toni Sailer), an impressive modern take on of Central Europe’s long obsession with spa treatments and health-related holidays.

When the Grand Hotel was built, Slovakia was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. A few wars and revolutions have passed by since then, and it’s now at the hub of a thriving tourist zone centred on the Tatra Mountains, the northernmost end of the mighty Carpathians.

The town it’s in, Starý Smokovec, is neatly placed in the foothills, with towering peaks above and a view down the slopes to the regional city of Poprad and the surrounding plain.

As glamorous as the hotel is, I have to get out among those amazing, lofty mountains. So I catch an electric train to the nearby town of Tatranská Lomnica, the starting point of a cable car that heads up to Skalnaté Pleso, 1751m above sea level. From there I can catch a second cable car right up to the peak of Lomnický Štít, one of the highest points of the range.

This first stage of the journey is undertaken in a small four-person cabin, which sways in the breeze as it’s hauled up the cable. Until this point I’ve conveniently forgotten my mild fear of heights, which is reawakened now as we lurch upward out of the base station.

It’s both a terrifying and exhilarating feeling to be dangling high in the air, held only by a moving cable. The scenery is brilliant: beneath us I can see rocky outcrops covered by a strange grey-green moss, interspersed with hardy trees and the odd surviving winter snowdrift sheltered from the sunshine by rocks.

When we reach Skalnaté Pleso I have to wait an hour for my assigned car up to Lomnický Štít, so I wander out of the station onto the rocky slope outside. It’s fairly level at this point, with a fenced-off viewing area that allows visitors to stand beneath the incoming cars.

Around me people are milling, and taking photos of each other and the town far below. Also smoking – which seems an odd affront to the beautifully clear cold mountain air, but each to their own.

As I'm taking in the view, someone points up, and I see a cable car ascending the second stage to Lomnický Štít, another 900m higher.

This car is different, basically a large red box which ascends solo. There are no supports to its cable; it arcs up until it disappears into the cloud cover just above our heads, seemingly on its way to heaven.

So at 10.10am a dozen of us cram into a small red metal box, the operator starts it up, and we swing out into nothingness.

Strangely, it’s less scary than the previous ride. Although the ground is soon far beneath us, and the landscape becoming progressively more craggy and forbidding, the ascent has a surprisingly smooth motion, like riding in a lift.

Then a miracle happens...

[Next: The miracle!]

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