Slovakia's High Tatras mountain range sits quietly in the shadow of the Alps yet within a compact 40-by-15-mile range stand two dozen peaks between 7,000 and 8,700 feet.
Don't feel bad if they weren't on your radar. I'd never heard of them either until I escaped Rome's August heat for four days of trekking.
Bravo for planet Earth's little secrets.
I've hiked and climbed in Asia, South America, Europe, Africa and the U.S., yet only the vision of the sun rising over Africa from the top of 19,340-foot Mt. Kilimanjaro surpassed my views while trekking in the High Tatras.
They are towering black granite peaks rising over thick forests next to crystal-clear, cobalt lakes. Even in summer, snow flecks the top of the mountains poking through the clouds. I viewed deep emerald green meadows around every turn.
The High Tatras cross the upper spine of Slovakia and stretch almost to the Polish border. During four days I hiked for 30 miles, only slightly denting the 360 miles of trails that are as well marked as the California freeways.
At the end of every day was a comfy, homey hut, many of which have been around since the early 1900s. Dozens of huts, evenly spaced apart, feature hot meals, cold drinks and warm beds. Even trekking alone, I never felt alone.
Czechoslovakia split into Czech Republic and Slovakia on Jan. 1, 1993. The Czech Republic has always been the ritzier, more romantic cousin; Slovakia is the outdoorsy nature buff.
About 5 million visitors hike the trails in summer and ski the slopes in winter, but it still is well off the beaten path for North Americans. I met only Slovaks, Czechs and Poles. I was the lone American. I heard very little English.
Slovakia is also an environmental giant. I saw very little deforestation as I walked along the trail with wide-ranging views of the valleys below. The only clearings I saw were from a 2004 windstorm that destroyed thousands of acres of forest and killed two people. In the vast forest that is northern Slovakia, the bare spots were like a sheep missing a couple of curls. The trails are spotless, and the huts maintain a green policy.
The trek, even going solo, was easy to organize. A representative from TravelSlovakia met me at my hotel in Poprad, a quaint valley town and the jumping-off point for the Tatras. The relief map she gave me was so detailed I could nearly identify eagle nests.
She laid out an itinerary for each day and directions on how to get to the trailhead at Tatranska Kotlina, where I would begin my trek. She was also available by phone if I was ever lost — which is nearly impossible on the well-marked trails.
What you'll need for the scenic climb: Aside from fitness, not much
Don't be intimidated by the steepness of the High Tatras. Hiking here is not dangerous. There is little exposure. Technical skill or equipment is not needed. Leave the crampons at the outdoor store and just make sure you have good hiking shoes and a comfortable backpack.
You must, however, be reasonably fit. The views will make getting in shape well worth the effort.
I climbed 6,683-foot Velka Svistovka, not the highest mountain in the Tatras but arguably the one with the best view. I started from Zelene pleso chata (pleso means "lake" and chata means "hut" in Slovak), and right after turning the first corner I started switchbacking.
Soon the Zelene pleso next to the hut looked like a water droplet. At one point, wrought-iron chains were in place to propel my 6-foot-3-inch frame over the larger rocks.
In 90 minutes I reached the top. I looked across at some of the highest peaks of the High Tatras, some of which attract the world's top rock climbers. Looking down, I saw clouds floating below the summits above a green landscape of forests that stretched to the horizon.
The next day I climbed Sedlo Pod Ostrvou, at 7,537 feet the highest point of my trip. A little more than a mile below me sat Popradske Pleso, a crystal-clear lake at the foot of towering cliffs and a thick forest.
Another hut, smoke coming out of its chimney, sat nearby, beckoning me with a plate of goulash and a cold beer. The view moved a middle-aged couple in front of me to lock arms in a warm embrace.
Even a rainstorm shepherding us down the mountain couldn't bring us down from a natural high.
The resting spots along the trail are more than just 'huts'
The best part about trekking in Slovakia: You don't need a tent. About every five to nine miles along the trail you'll find large structures — "huts" in name only. The ground floor has large dining areas; the upstairs is devoted to big sleeping porches — or private rooms if you can reserve in advance.
If you're high-maintenance, forget the sleeping porches. When I checked into my first hut in late afternoon, a couple were asleep near where I threw my backpack and sleeping bag. When I climbed up the ladder to sleep later that night, I nearly grabbed a guy's foot instead of a ladder rung.
At Zamkovskeho chata, or hut, however, I had my own room, which consisted of a small table and two bunk beds. I shared it with no one. A shower was just a few feet down the hall. When I arrived, about 200 day trippers sat at picnic tables outside eating garlic soup and goulash with big steins of Slovak beer.
The scenery at Zelenon chata belonged on an airline poster. This two-story wood structure had a stone archway above the front door. Next to it stood the brilliant blue Zelenon pleso, or lake, and above it the towering Velka Svistovka.
The food is like Slovakia: hearty and warm. Lean bratwurst with tangy sauerkraut. Thick goulash. Soothing onion soup. Fat potato dumplings topped with crisp, sizzling-hot bacon bits for a dish called bryndzove halusky.
Breakfasts are heavy on bread, eggs and yogurt. It's a lot of calories, every one of which you'll work off.
Relax and sip slivovitz in Poprad after (or well before) your trek
You'll probably spend time in Poprad before or after your trek. It's worth a day to rest here and look up at the mountains you are about to climb or just did.
Poprad (population 55,000), about 15 miles from the Polish border and 210 miles northeast of the capital of Bratislava, dates to the 13th century, and you can still see some of the traditional wood carvings in the historic Spick Sabot neighborhood about a mile from the city center.
Poprad, like the High Tatras, is very green. Its Aqua City water park uses geothermal and solar sources.
Tourism has been good to Poprad. Its houses, train station and parks wouldn't be out of place in Switzerland. Spend a couple of hours here and you wonder how this could have been a communist country less than a quarter-century ago.
Many trekkers stay at the Pension Atrium, where you can eat and drink in the sun-splashed courtyard or in the cozy, wood-paneled restaurant. After your trek, try a shot of slivovitz, a savage plum brandy that's a lot stronger than it tastes. Do not drink it before trekking for eight hours.
Getting to Poprad, Slovakia
If you go
THE BEST WAY TO POPRAD, SLOVAKIA
From LAX, KLM, Lufthansa, Air France, Aeroflot, British and Swiss offer connecting service (change of plane) to Budapest, about 165 miles from Poprad. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $1,168, including all taxes and fees. You also can fly into Vienna, which is 250 miles southwest. From LAX, KLM, British, Air France, Swiss, Iberia and Austrian offer connecting service; restricted round-trip fares begin at $1,798, including all taxes and fees. Bratislava, Slovakia's capital, is 40 miles from Vienna. Train trips from Bratislava to Poprad take 3 hours and 50 minutes and cost about $60.
To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 421 (the country code for Slovakia), and the local number.
WHERE TO STAY
Penzion Sabato, Sobotske namestie 1730/6, 058 01 Poprad, Slovakia; 527-769-580, http://www.sabato.sk. It can accommodate only 25 people in its eight rooms, but they're big and look as though they have the original decorations from when the building was built in the 17th century.
Penzion Vila Javorinka, Tatranska Kotlina, c.5, 059 54 Vysoke Tatry, Slovakia, 907-646-207, 915-640-097, http://www.vilajavorinka.sk. Near the trailhead, with a restaurant featuring traditional Slovak food. Doubles are $55.
WHERE TO EAT
Vino & Tapas, Sobotske namestie 38, 058 01 Poprad-Spisska Sobota, Slovakia, 918-969-101. Arguably top restaurant in Poprad with a tasting menu of five to seven dishes for $20 to $45, depending on your number of tastes. Dishes include cream carp soup, Wiener schnitzel and tomato stuffed with raspberry. Open Wednesdays-Fridays.
Hodov¿a, ul. 1. Maja, 058 01 Poprad, Slovakia, 918-522-716, http://www.hodovna.sk. Modern, airy establishment near main town square, it serves Central European cuisine ranging from steak to quiche.
Plesnivec Hut, High Tatras. If you start your trek in Tatranska Kotlina, this hut will be a perfect stop for lunch. It serves inexpensive garlic soup and bratwurst — along with tall steins of dark beer — with terrific views of the forests below.
TO LEARN MORE