Amid the peaks of the Tatras Mountains, lies one of Europe’s most secluded valleys where rafters can be found paddling for their lives…
I should have been concentrating on paddling through the white torrents. But my mind was elsewhere, fixed on the image of Cyprián the flying monk soaring across mountains in his 18th-century flying machine from – as legend has it – Poland to the High Tatras in northern Slovakia.
To reach this distant Slovakian river, I’d also had to fly (albeit it in 21st-century style) – to Poprad, the gateway to the Carpathians’ mighty Tatras range and some exhilarating white water.
Poprad spreads out on a lush green plain beneath the Tatras’ 2,000m-high snaggle-toothed peaks. The locals are crazy about nature and at every opportunity head for the hills to hike around the tarns, collect mushrooms or slurp rib-sticking bean soups in the kolibas (rustic restaurants).
I thought I’d join them.
Poprad’s outskirts were industrial grey, in contrast to the frosted mountain backdrop. However, the main square was pretty and the pastel facades concealed some great cafés; good places to try the hearty peasant cooking that dominates Slovak cuisine. The traditional dish of bryndzové halus, gnocchi-style dumplings with tangy sheep’s cheese and bacon cubes, is best appreciated after a long hike uphill.
I wasn’t very hungry but couldn’t help lingering among the stalls on the square selling local honey and shots of Demänovka, a brain-tingling herbal liqueur.
“An excellent cold cure,” insisted the stallholder. It certainly smelled like cough mixture.
Ten minutes’ walk north of Poprad and modern industry transformed into medieval calm in the perfectly preserved ‘suburb’ of Spisska Sobota. The strangely deserted main square revealed a typical local church with a chunky bell tower. We stayed in one of the restored houses, recreated as a kind of medieval nobleman’s pad.
Next morning we took the bus north, heading for the Polish border. Village homesteads dotting the route announced their wares with dinky pictorial signs: painted cabbages and wine bottles. The pointed tower of Stará L’ubovn ˇa’s castle came into view, but we continued on to the Pieniny National Park, straddling the Slovak-Polish border.
At Cerven´ y Klás ˇtor (Red Monastery), we visited the excellent museum displaying details of flying monk Cyprián’s life and work. The herbarium showed his medieval pharmacy in all its gory details.
However, rather than ancient flying machines, we boarded a dinghy, ready to shoot the rapids along a 9km stretch of the Dunajec River to Lesnica. Either side, sheer limestone walls rose up in an intimidating stone corridor. Eagles circled overhead, possibly waiting to pick off any stragglers.
We paddled hard – the narrowness of the gorge in some places caused sudden torrents, white water foaming all around us. Above the river loomed the Polish peak Three Crowns, Cyprián’s take-off point, with chunky white-chocolate triangles jutting abruptly skywards.
Those who prefer a more regal ride can sail on plt’ –(wooden rafts) and listen to boatman dressed in traditional Goral costume describing the local traditions, flora and fauna.
As we spun in foaming white circles, digging paddles into the spray like crazed gardeners, I kept one eye out for the native creatures living undisturbed in one of Europe’s most secluded valleys. Salmon trout arched in the waterways and I thought I spotted otters playing near the bank. In places, the canyon flattened out into alpine meadows, the dinghy providing a peaceful water-level viewpoint from which to discover wildflowers and butterflies.
When we reached Lesnica we hired mountain bikes at a local restaurant to cycle back along the river for a different view of the gorge. We checked out unusual plants that we’d spotted from the dinghy and took detours to explore the small but pretty national park. The route follows the river and is birdwatchers’ paradise with gems such as the spotted nutcracker and eagle owl flitting through the trees.
Having immersed ourselves in Slovakia’s natural world, the next day was devoted to the country’s historic side as we headed to Stará L’ubovn ˇa. The castle holds many treasures but next door, the skanzen (open-air museum) is even better, with 25 village houses and a wooden church hiding 17th century icons.
All this culture, not to mention the previous day’s outdoor activities, had given us an appetite. So, back in Poprad, we chose a feast fit for a medieval Central European monarch at the Koliba U Stefana restaurant: loksa (potato pancake) with menacingly sizzling klobásy (sausages) and venison gulás (goulash) with dumplings like sliced tennis balls, washed down with local wine. Fully stuffed, we strolled back along the Poprad River to Spisska Sobota’s Sabato Hotel – try saying that after a few Demänovkas…
Next morning I woke for my flight home, but as I gazed across at the Tatras, I thought I spotted the spirit of Cyprián sailing across the blue, trying to complete the return flight of his cloud-busting journey.