Nestled in the side of the hill under Ďumbier, the highest mountain in the Low Tatra (Nizke Tatry) mountains, Chata Štefánika is full of charm, comfort, and convenience.
Last week we celebrated our 10th wedding anniversary by going for the first overnighter since having kids (9 years). I’ve been wanting to hike in the Nizke Tatry for some time, so even though the weather forecast wasn’t promising, we went anyway.
The Low Tatras are the closest mountain range to the west high enough for a tree line, which was handy given that we only managed to drop the kids off by noon. We drove through to Bystrá, a hamlet where the road was very narrow and had no shoulder and often no sidewalk. From Bystrá we turned off the main road and drove up hill towards ski resorts. We parked at Trangoška and started to hike up the green trail (map at bottom of post).
Note the rockiness of the trail for later.
As we had driven North, the fall colours came out. Where we live gets cold too gradually and so the leaves just turn brown. I’m afraid I was somewhat spoiled by a fall in Ontario, Canada, and no fall foliage compares to the display there. But it was nice to see some oranges and yellows in the view.
A side trail goes to the Cave of the Dead Bats, the deepest cave in Slovakia. What a name! Apparently refers to the bat bones found throughout the caves, some dated 6000 years old. Talk about a cave for Halloween. We didn’t adventure in but kept on trekking onwards and upwards.
The view as we climbed up. The long swaths cut out of the green in the back are ski runs of Jasná. The hike up follows the bottom of the narrow valley.
Hiking up the valley, looking at the ridge above, looking forward to hiking it. We had planned on hiking the red trail to Ďumbier and along the ridge to Chopok (above the ski runs), but sometimes even simple plans are waylaid.
Almost at the chalet, the view down the south side of the valley we walked up.
We got to the chalet, Chata M.R. Štefánika, welcomed by a blazing fire and the smell of hikers in a warm room. We were shown to our room and relaxed before dinner, I trying to ignore the pain of a blister on the back of each foot.
Coming from the Rocky Mountains of Canada, where ‘roughing it’ and ‘DIY independence’ are necessary, these chalets of Europe are a bit of a wonder for me. Each chalet has varying degrees of service; Chata Štefánika has a restaurant and rooms for sleeping, electricity and running water (although hot water for showers is only available from 8pm-6am).
The chalet was finished in 1928, built of stone. Inside, there is plenty of wooden-walled space for ski gear before entering the cosy restaurant. Some old photos from building the chalet show woollen clad people shovelling, picnicking, and laying stone; my favourite photo was of two women washing bed linens by hand in a wheelbarrow.
Before supper I headed out to take a few photos, although it was already getting dark. A biting wind was howling through the saddle (I literally had to lean against it), freezing my hands every time I took them out of my pockets.
Besná, to the south-east (front left) of the chalet.
To the north-east (back left) of the chalet. I wish I could have caught the ripple of the grass-sea in the wind.
Spot the chalet…
A monument to soldiers who fell in here during WWII on the Nov. 1 1944. The Slovak soldiers hid in the mountains and fought guerilla style. It seems so bizarre, to imagine guns and grenades and war way up on this peaceful mountain meadow.
There is, in fact, a trail called Cesta Hrdinov SNP, trail of the heroes of the Slovak National Uprising (against German occupation), that leads across Slovakia lengthwise. It takes the better part of a month to hike across and is on my list of Things-I’d-Like-To-Do-Someday.
Getting dark quickly. The clouds were pouring down the mountainside like a waterfall.
Now it’s dark. And my hands are remembering winter. Time to go in for some hot food that I didn’t have to cook or, even better, didn’t have to clean up. No dirty dishes, what bliss!
The restaurant. Considering that all the food (even the beer) is brought up on the back of porters, the prices were pretty decent – 3 euro for a smallish bowl of kapustnica (sauerkraut soup with sausage) and 7 euro for a plate of fried cheese, fries, and fresh vegetables.
They grow herbs at the chata and make tea for the restaurant – Best Tea Ever. So delicious, I drank a litre of it, hands curled around the warm cup.
The kitchen. My favourite photo of the trip. Notice the numerous bottles of hard alcohol. The huge green bottle is full of a tincture of gentian root, which grows in the meadows. Gentian root is a digestive and one of the major ingredients of Swedish Bitters.
Upstairs are rooms with eight bunks each, complete with bedding. The rooms were toasty warm. The chata can hold up to at least 50 people.
When we went to bed it was getting chilly, below freezing and very windy. When we woke up, however, it was quiet…
The view from our bedroom window. The weather forecast had predicted snow, but I had kind of imagined a skiff of snow, rather than a proper whiting. It was completely socked in, we often couldn’t see more than a few metres ahead of us.
The man taking care of the chalet was true to Slovak personality. When we arrived he seemed a bit gruff. No smile or ‘welcome.’ But as the evening progressed, and I had a bunch of questions, he warmed up, smiled, and was quite talkative.
The electricity, it turns out, is connected to the grid via a 5 km long cable, dug into the ground (remember the top picture, how rocky the trail is?). It was dug during Communism; for those going to university, in exchange for free tuition and lodging, they had to spend a few weeks every summer ‘volunteering’ at a job. One man assigned to dig the cable up to the hut realized, after he met his roomates, that the rest were all sons of important officials and hadn’t needed to show up at their assigned jobs.
Other answers to questions I had: the bedding is sent down and washed in the valley, but there is a washing machine for small items. There are usually two people caring for the chata at a time, one week on/off. There is a cleaning system for black water but is often problematic because it is too cold for the bacteria to work properly. A helicopter brings a load of building supplies once or twice a year, and a cat can come up sometimes in the winter, but for the most part everything is brought up on the back of a porter, a nosič.
These porters are amazing. Their packs are basically a ladder with a chair seat at the bottom and stuff is strapped onto it. Stuff like beer kegs. And those packs are not ergonomically formed and padded. Seriously – take a look. One porter for Chata Štefánika, Igor Fabricius, carried 173,291 kgs (382,041 pounds) between 1991-2010!
Another question was how the firewood got up to the chalet. Those pieces of firewood are a good metre/3 feet long, they are huge. Hikers themselves bring up the firewood – down at the bottom are piles of wood and a sign promises a reward (a drink?) for carrying a piece of log up.
After a leisurely morning and breakfast (included in the price of staying the night, 3 big pieces of bread and 4-egg scrambled eggs, no butter though), we started off. Neither us of had been in the Nizke Tatry before and with the snow we missed the turn-off to head up to the ridge. So, instead we kept along the blue trail which hugged the side of the hill. It’s not like the ridge would have offered much in the way of a view anyway.
We came to the ski buildings of Kosodrevina, part of the Jasna ski arena, and headed down. The snow quickly grew less but stayed just as foggy. The trail often seemed like it had a yellow glow, due to the coloured leaves.
Soon we were back at the car, promising ourselves to come back and walk the ridge in the summer, and to bring the kids. Happy 10th anniversary to us!
(some more photos, starting again at the beginning of the trail)
Cute little seat to enjoy the view.
Trails in Europe are colour coded, and little flags are painted along the trail to show the way.
A stream of water shooting from the ground a good 5 m/15 feet, just randomly along the trail.