In the spring of 2013, a friend and I decided to hike the ridge of the Low Tatras, a central Slovakian mountain range. Slovakia is not the end of the world — it lacks the vastness of Siberia or the grandiose vistas of Yosemite. Nor is it a particularly popular tourist destination. What’s worthwhile about Slovakia is not always visible at first sight. Here are some snapshots from a few days in the mountains of Central Europe.
We’re not really off to a great start here. It’s 2am in my town of Brno, Czech Republic, and a train from Berlin that was supposed to be here an hour ago won’t arrive for another two. I’m bemoaning this failure of the famous German punctuality and sitting on the floor of a somewhat grimy waiting room. The other passengers are drinking, sleeping, grumbling.
I while away the time in memory — I think back to the last time I went east by train, ten years ago. We were also going to the Tatras then, but I remember the train ride as much as the mountains — Soviet-era sleeping cars with triple bunkbeds, an abundance of brown, and signs in every global language except English. One of my fondest childhood memories is of lying in the middle bunk at midnight, listening to the clanging of trains decoupling in a trainyard near the border. I’m excited to be heading east again.
A few hours later, the train’s crossing the Slovak-Czech border — not the most dramatic of frontiers. For the duration of Czechoslovakia it didn’t exist, and now the European Union has rendered borders unimportant, so there’s no fanfare as we shift from Czech Republic to Slovakia. There’s not even a sign, and on both sides the landscape’s the same — green rolling hills separated by woods. The way you can mark the transition is by the linguistics of railway station signs.
The Czechoslovak language situation is a unique one — almost every Slovak word is similar to but distinct from almost every Czech word, with some words, like “autumn” or “to kiss,” drastically different. When Czechs and Slovaks meet, Czechs speak Czech and Slovaks speak Slovak — two languages in conversation, familiar and yet different. Understanding is slowly dying out, though — in the days of Czechoslovakia, both languages were on the radio and in common use, but in the 21st century, younger generations sometimes have trouble understanding each other. I think about this as we pass through countless little village train stations.
We’re in Poprad, where most trips to the Tatras start from. The ubiquitous, functionalist panel housing — rows upon rows of cement slabs with regularly spaced windows — stands in sharp contrast to the mountains that rise above it. The train station is dust and peeling paint, and you can sometimes see remnants of a former regime that haven’t been torn down yet — old statues and stars.
The panel housing serves as a visual reminder that Slovakia’s quite poor, statistically speaking — there isn’t enough work, and there isn’t enough money. By some reckoning, more than two and a half million Slovaks live outside of Slovakia, which is a staggering figure when you consider that the total population of Slovakia is 5.4 million. The mountains and the villages above the city tell other sides of the Slovakian story, one that it would take years of living here to fully understand.
A local bus takes us to the last village under the ridge. A local man draws us three lines on a piece of paper — a map to find the way up to the hills. We put on backpacks and walk on a dirt path past the graveyard, past the potato cellars in the side of the hill, past sheep, through rolling meadows. This is the Slovakia I remember. The seven hours pass as though in reverie, and then, just as the sun is setting, we make the ridge, and the little shelter on top of it. You can stay inside for free, with the understanding that you’re respectful of your surroundings.
We sit on the field in the orange light, and I remember a poem from my childhood, about white birds and mountaintops where the bad things of the everyday couldn’t reach. It’s hard to describe moments like that one — on a mountain ridge at sunset — without falling into hopeless cliché, but I’ve got that moment hidden away somewhere.
The morning dawns cold and clear, and we’re happy to be alive in our little mountain hut. Hiking on, we get to the mountain pass just after noon and stop for lunch. Halušky are the national meal of Slovaks: small potato dumplings covered in sheep cheese and bacon, sometimes sauerkraut. It’s the type of meal you eat if your days involve herding sheep over mountain ridges for twelve hours a day — otherwise it’s hopelessly filling. It sticks to your ribs and doesn’t let go. Joanna’s a Canadian vegetarian who’s been living in the Czech Republic for a year, and she’s a bit overwhelmed by everyone’s meat and dairy tendencies in Central Europe. I’m Czech, born and raised in a carnivorous family. I am absolutely unperturbed.
“They eat so unhealthily! They could just be vegetarian!”
I shrug my shoulders and dig into my steaming plate of bacon and sheep cheese. I too am a once-and-future vegetarian, but today holds bacon and cheese, and in this time and in this place, it makes perfect sense.
The weather in the mountains is often like a weathervane spinning out of control. We got to the mountain in blazing sunlight, and we leave to climb back up the ridge in pouring frigid rain. We pass the time by coming up with life rules: “Don’t complain unless it’s funny” is a good one, immediately applicable. “Ask for consent” and “Pay your library fines” come up as well, less available for immediate use.
When we get right below the ridge, a thunderstorm hits, along with hail. We cower in the shrubs, drenched to the bone, as bolts of lightning ricochet off the hills around us.
What feels like hours later but is likely only 15 minutes, the lightning stops, and we make it to a refuge I’d been excited to get to all along — Stefanikova chata, a mountain hut at 1,740 meters with hot water and functioning kitchen. Everything that’s in the house has been carried up from the valley on foot. A placard on the wall in the hall proclaims that Igor Fabricius, the current caretaker of the hut, has carried up 173,291kg of supplies and material over his 20 years on the job.
It’s still raining outside, and we strip off our dirty, soaking clothes, put on dry wool, leave our packs in the dormitory, and head to the communal dining room for borovička (alcohol made from juniper berries) and dumplings. There is a giant fluffy dog in the dining room, a multitude of flannel-clad men, and a staggeringly beautiful cook in the kitchen. Igor makes gruff fun of our appearance and slightly bewildered countenance, as is only fair. Tonight we will fall asleep on beds that Igor likely carried up here on his back.
We order tea and open our tattered map and look at the plan for the next few days. They will involve more kilometers, more huts, more train rides, and likely more rain. But for now, we take refuge up here, in another place of white birds, where the troubles of the day-to-day don’t reach.