King of the Mountains, King of the Birds…

In one day we changed countries from the Czech Republic, everything flat and rolling, to the delightful mountain wonderland that is Slovakia. We also moved from our proletarian apartment in Olomouc to a small and rather pleasant castle in the delightful sounding Slovakian town of Poprad. The ride East took us to higher and higher elevations with a wonderful, twisty 900m pass marking the border between to the two recent divorcee nations. It was a ‘Velvet Revolution’ that saw the end of communism in Czechoslovakia in 1989, so called because it happened peacefully and then a ‘Velvet Divorce’ when the two component nations went their separate ways in 1993, again mutually agreed for political reasons. These days both are member states within the EU so there was no real border to cross.

Miles before we arrived in Poprad, the High Tatra mountains hove into view as one of the most impressive backdrops we’ve seen to any city. Like Torres del Paine in Chile, these mountains seem to be a self-contained little blob of beauty just plopped on the face of the landscape and are jaw-droppingly gorgeous. Apartment “Zámoček Staré Časy” would be our home for the next few days, our base to explore the area and we were delighted when we turned up to find a miniature castle. The combined living / sleeping area was superb and included a full size Foosball machine that we tried our best to wear out. We had two prime reasons for selecting Poprad as our base. The first was to hike the Suchá Belá gorge located in the magnificent Slovenský Raj (Slovak Paradise) National Park. The second; to visit Spiš Castle, one of the largest in Central Europe.

Slovenský Raj is an area of outstanding natural beauty in the Western Carpathian Mountains comprising a network of eroded Karst limestone that has created a labyrinth of gorges, canyons and ravines all strewn with a mess of rivers, waterfalls and sinkholes. Suchá Belá is one such ravine and we parked up in the visitor car-park at the wonderfully hobbity sounding village of Podlesok. Heading south, we were confronted by a wall of dense spruce forest and somewhere within lay the start of our trail. The day’s hike was a 13km circuit and it was in the first third of this that most of the excitement lay.

Initially we followed a trickling riverbed of chopped white limestone up into a dark ravine that quickly resembled an Ent-like elephant’s graveyard for huge spruce trees. Their lodge-pole corpses had piled into the ravine giving it an eerie atmosphere as we clambered over and under dead tree-trunks on our way up the little gorge. This part involves an ascent of several hundred metres to gain a 900m high ridge and the fun really starts when we began to ascend a number of waterfalls. The park-rangers have installed a series of wooden catwalks to gain access over the more broken beds of the ravine and these then lead to metal rungs and ladders that climb alongside the falls. All-in-all the two hour ascent of Suchá Belá was a spectacular experience; the catwalks are ultra slippery and broken in places and the ladder ascents were of the ‘bloody-hell; don’t look down!’ variety… This is all compounded by the fact that you are on a one-way trail so you have to keep going; there is no going back. Think you’ve conquered the tallest ladder you’ve ever been on in your life, well guess what’s round the corner?

It all left us feeling like we were Kings of the Mountains. At the top we had a congratulatory big hug and looked forward to our picnic before tackling the rest of the trail, which proved to be a more gradual descent down foresty pathways. We’d stopped to congratulate a Slovak family who had also just conquered the gorge when I noticed something thrashing about on the path near our feet. It proved to be a little bird and he was blissfully having a bath in one of the little rivulets running down the path. Smaller than a Wren, he had a mottled olive/black plumage with a vivid orange Mohican-strip along the crest of his head and was totally oblivious to our presence in his bath. And so we met Regulus ignicapilla; King of the Birds.

In ancient Greece there are tales of a contest amongst birds to see who should be their king. They agreed that, as flight was the main talent of all true birds, their ‘King’ should naturally be the bird who could fly the highest (apparently penguins, ostriches and dodos didn’t get a look-in). On the appointed day all of the birds gathered in a meadow and the contest began.   As expected the little birds; sparrows, starlings and the like, try as they might, quickly dropped away. Next the medium-sized birds, the crows, magpies and falcons also faltered until one huge Bald Eagle pulled away from the flock and soared high above the rest. Already he could see his wingspan representing whole nations on their flags and coins and so on he flew until, utterly exhausted by his massive effort, he now looked back to Earth and spied every other bird below him. At that point he felt something moving in his feathers; it was a little Firecrest, surely one of the tiniest of birds. He’d hitched a ride and when the eagle could go no higher the Firecrest spread his tiny wings to win the contest. Thus he was awarded his golden crown, which he wears to this very day and his Latin name; Regulus ignicapilla. Our ascent had been honoured by his presence.

If Suchá Belá was a magnificent trail then Spiš Castle was surely one of the most magnificent castles we’ve ever beheld, festooned with turrets, battlements and more ‘castly’ things you could ever want. Sat on another of these rocky Karst outcrops it was built in the 12th century as a bulwark against Mongol invaders from the East. The castle is located in a plain ringed with mountains and has a fantastic aspect; on approach from any direction it is superbly imposing but sadly it is in ruins after being destroyed by a fire in the 1700’s.

It is with a heavy heart that we had to leave Slovakia. It has been a real treasure and one of our favourite European destinations from all of our travels over the years. Given that it is only a few days ride from the UK we will be sure to be back but for now we must ride south and into Romania.

For related photo-gallery please view ‘Spectacular Slovakia

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