Ten steps in, my legs were burning and my lungs were going double time. It was rather steep, and we were only just beginning our hike. I’ve been exercising more regularly, but there is nothing like a steep hill to bring the ego back to reality.
My husband and I had a weekend away and he had planned where to go – Chata pod Borišovom. Chata means cottage, cabin, or even chalet; basically a house that isn’t lived in full time but visited. He had read that Chata pod Borišovom was where Pavol Barabáš, a documentary film director, takes international visitors. If it is a favourite of his, we had better check it out.
From the start, I’ll tell you one of my favourite things about this hike – it was practically empty. In two or three hours of hiking we met one pair of runners doing some ultra-marathon training. While the Tatra mountains of Slovakia are beautiful, they are crawling with people this time of year. The trails were well marked and and on the way up even had educational signs, but nary a hiker was to be seen.
We started following the yellow trail from Liptovské Revúce, a long series of three small towns away from the main roads (map of trails below in the post). The beginning was steep, but we quickly got above the trees and followed meadows filled with thyme and sheep dung, which afforded views early on. While this trail may be less used than the trail from the other side in Necpaly, it is also less in the trees, which affords more views.
Part way up, we came to a shepherd’s hut where the shepherd was watching over yearling sheep. He came out of his wagon hut and spoke with us for a few minutes, about everything from the path to follow to what the price of bread was 30 odd years ago when the price of wool fell.
Dotted across the Velka Fatra (the mountain range we were in) are small rustic huts where people can find shelter and spend the night. They aren’t locked, but there isn’t much inside other than shelter. Two such huts were just above the shepherd. One was simple but made of solid wood. The other didn’t have a chimney but a ‘chimney hole’ made of plywood and a blackened brick area below.
We continued following the rough double track up the mountain meadows. Soon, tall bare sticks stuck into the ground marched beside the path, there to show the way for skiers in the winter. As we hiked, we picked sprigs of wild thyme and crushed it between our fingers for the strong and refreshing smell. We passed a few trickling streams, and drank our fill of the sweet clear water. Oh mountain water, how I miss you.
In the lee of the ridge was a small shelter to picnic in, with hail from the morning still surrounding it. When we came over the hill we realized why the picnic shelter was on the south side of the ridge – a strong chilly wind was coming down from the north. The ridge turned into more meadows, with so many flowers waving in the wind, leading up to Ploská (1532m), a peak so named because of its smooth round appearance.
We accidentally took the path that skirted around the north side of the hill, and I’m glad we did. How often do you get to view a rainbow from above?
At the rainbow, we realized our mistake and cut up the hill to the top of Ploská. The grass was knee deep, and as we struggled uphill I imagined that this was the lush fertility of the prairies in North America before it was settled. Only flat instead of uphill.
At the top of Ploská is a memorial to a soldier who fell there during WWII. Having read an account of a secret American troop that struggled through these Slovak hills during the war in the book Maria Gulovich, I knew a little of the harsh winter conditions, starvation, and tensions between allies. Like at Chata Štefánika, I still find it hard to believe that war finds it way even to out of the way places like these uninhabited mountains. Hills that are now so tranquil, where the only sounds are of the wind and a bird’s call.
As we headed down from Ploská we got our first view of the chata. See its red roof?
The path down from Ploská to the hut is quite steep, and soon we were at our destination. It looks huge from the outside, but isn’t all that big inside. The shared dining room is full of all kinds of antiques, and lots of them. Some were given by friends cleaning out old houses, others were left by a sheep farm on the mountain that closed when the shepherd got too old. They all have meaning, a staff member told me, even though it looks overdone to visitors.
It’s one of the few chatas in Slovakia, and indeed in all of Europe, that still has all their supplies brought up by nosiče, porters who carry everything on their back (photo in the photos section). Not only are food and cleaning supplies carried up, but also all the wood they burn through the winter, all the furniture in the chata, and the materials used to build in the first place. And lots of beer kegs.
The staff are often in the kitchen, which is accessed through a little low window. Reservation for two, breakfast in the morning. Hot kapustnica and klobasa, please. And beer. My husband claimed that the klobasa was the best he had had in a long time. One indicator of quality is that no water leaks out when you cut into it.
There was a group of young men that had hiked from Donovaly, a six or seven hour ridge hike. While we ate, we could hear them getting boisterous as they played cards. “It’s only four o’clock,” my husband murmured. “Getting started rather early, boys.”
After some sustenance, I went exploring. I love exploring – discovering the area where I am, from gorgeous vistas to hidden streams, a gnarled tree or new path.
I set out up a random path that It soon led through a groove of beech trees. Even this high, there are beech trees, though of course not as big as the trees at home in the west. It looked the the trail was heading down, so I crashed through the forest to find a viewpoint down a valley with ridges lit by the sun. Later on, when I saw the trail from a different hill, I realized that had I continued a little longer I would have come out of the forest into a meadow with a clear view. Next time.
From the top of Ploská I had seen two small roofs and a fenced in area, so I headed in that direction. After some crashing about and almost stepping on a number of camouflaged birds, I found the huts. The newer one had a sign saying that it belonged to a certain farm, that it was locked, and if one was looking for shelter to go to the koliba below.
I went over to the log hut, but as I was about to open the door I got the worse case of creeps. “Don’t be silly,” I thought. I really was scared to open the door. But I made myself look inside. The hut was divided in two, the visible side rather barn looking. I stepped inside to look into the other room, but the windows were covered and it was too dark to see much. I saw a few wooden posts, that perhaps belonged to bed frames, but I quickly scuttled out before I saw more.
I followed the stream in the draw below back up, and caught the sun at the right time.
My husband came to meet me as I walked towards the chata on the red dirt path. “Do you know what time it is?” Maybe, maybe not.
The card players invited us to play cards with them. Those from the east of Slovakia have different rules to the same game as those from the west of the country, which made for an interesting game. We played with German cards, which I always find confusing.
After one game, they left when news came from upstairs that one of their friends had already thrown up. Most of them seemed to call it a night at that, but one, the one who cleaned it up, came to join us (though we had moved), bringing a few shots that hadn’t yet been downed. “One more game?”
During the game, someone came and lit the kerosene lamps. No electricity at this chata, which is unusual for this part of the world. Our card player then said good night, and as he walked away steadily my husband said, “You see? These are easterners. They can drink and drink and still hold it.” He had been imbibing for at least six hours, if not more, after a day of hiking. The one who had tossed his cookies was also from the east, though, so I guess that’s not a universal rule.
At breakfast the next morning he ordered another pint of beer. “Continuing from yesterday?” asked the girl. “Quenching thirst,” he replied. But I liked him – even when sober he was the friendliest person there.
It was quiet. My husband and I talked, as did another couple. The clock rang the hour. “I wish Slovaks talked with strangers more,” I said. “In Canada when we go into the mountains everybody talks together.” “What for?” my husband replied. Ummm, for the friendly atmosphere?
We could hear the staff still in the kitchen. “I want to go ask them questions,” I said more wistfully than with conviction. As is usual for Slovaks, the staff hadn’t seemed particularly open and friendly, except for one girl. “How it works up here, what it’s like to work here.”
“They’ll think your weird,” said my husband. “Nobody asks those questions.”
“Thanks for the encouragement,” I replied. So when he took an empty glass back to the little window, he said something to the effect of his wife is from Canada, she has a blog, and could she talk to them and take some pictures? The younger nosič/all-round-hand disappeared at the mention of a camera.
I started asking questions as I bent down to the window but they soon invited me in, much to my delight. “So, how did you get started here?” I asked. “That’s a long story,” laughed the chatár, and walked out. The two women were rather more talkative.
A chatár is the one in charge of the chata. He rents it from a hiker’s association, manages staff, and takes care of the place. Chatár Stano has been there for 17 years. It’s his life, said one staff member. She has been there 16 years, yet another young man was in his first year. One girl was a seasonal worker. Helpers are hard to find, they said, they can’t take living up here. One girl couldn’t figure out how to open the stove door, let alone navigate all the hard work and isolation up here. Or live without wifi.
We kept chatting, and eventually the two men returned. When the chatar sat down, the lean muscles from carrying 70 kg (155 lbs) packs up the mountain bulged, probably more than I’ve ever seen.
My husband and he talked mountain climbing and Slovak climbers. They told us about the race they put on. Nosiče, Canada, the environment. The beauty of fall and spring at the chata. “Value that you are sitting in the kitchen,” said the chatár, “I don’t let many people in here.”
“You know when it gets hard psychologically? In the winter, when daylight is gone by 4 pm. Light from the kerosene lamp isn’t enough to read by. Few people come during the week, and yet you have to stay up until 10 pm just in case. That works on your mind,” he said.
Those who built the chata searched for three years to find the right place. Out of the strongest winds, with water and stable ground. Water is the only thing we don’t have to pack in, he laughed. Because the area is in the highest level of environmental protection, trees have to stay where they fall, so even firewood has to be carried up.
Someone in the hikers’ association wants to ‘upgrade’ the chata, bring electricity and wifi and make more room, but the ones living here have fought it. The place would lose its character. People come here to get away from being plugged in.
The association recently doubled their rent, leaving them in a quandry – raise food prices too much and people will bring their own, but nor was it pleasant when people complained about the price of staying the night. It was a good reminder that paying a little extra to eat there was supporting the very existence of such a place.
All too soon, it was midnight. I had planned to hike to the top of Borišov for the sunrise, but now I wondered if I should. We were also sleeping hostel style, with other occupants in the small room, and I didn’t want to wake them up early in the morning with an alarm.
But how could I not go and miss it? Wound up from the evening, it took some time to fall asleep. I than woke up with a start at 3:30 am, afraid of my alarm going off and waking everybody else. A short doze brought a dream that there was a beautiful ridgy mountain (rather like the Emperor Face of Mt. Robson), the snow contrasting with the grey rock ridges. It was lit up pink with the light of the sunrise, but I missed taking a picture because I hadn’t gotten up in time. Good grief. 4:15. 4:30. 4:40. Just get up already.
The trail behind the cabin up Borišov is only 709 m (775 yards) long but gains 200 m (218 yards) in elevation. In other words, it is steep. Top runners in the chata‘s race can run up in around 5 minutes. I was significantly longer. As my legs burned, I laughed at what I do to get a picture.
It was worth it all.
I should have been on the top a few minutes sooner, which was exasperating considering how long I had lain awake in bed. But it was just too beautiful to be annoyed.
Thick haze on the horizon meant that the sun didn’t break through until it was some distance above the mountains, but for a few precious moments it bathed everything in rose.
From Borišov, you can look down on the Mala Fatra mountain range (above), ombre layers of mountain silhouettes. Behind the peak, the shadow of the mountain lay like a triangle on the landscape.
As I headed back down, the saddle below the chalet was bathed in dusty light. Look towards the bottom of the photos for the red roof.
We headed out after a filling breakfast and took a different route down, around the west side of Ploská on the blue trail to join up with another yellow trail that led back down to Revúce.
When we came over the ridge, we could see sheep grazing and a shepherd’s hut. We went to talk to him and he offered us a cup of žinčica, the thick sour whey left from making the soft sheep cheese bryndza.
The sheep stay in the mountains for four or five months and then go back down. He stays five days up in the mountains, five days down. He milks them once a day – it takes 2.5 hours by himself milking by hand. A milk machine leaves about half a cup still in the udder, and when you only get about a cup of milk each sheep, that’s about half. No young people want to be a shepherd anymore, he says, too much work.
There used to be a wooden building where they processed the milk and sold cheese, but some years ago it burned down and the farm opted not to build another one. Instead, a jeep comes once a day over Ploská to collect the milk and it is processed at the farm in the valley.
When we left, we were quickly in the trees again, and it was a steep hike down to conifer forests that reminded me of where I grew up. We met more people here, probably because the road goes higher and you can drive further up. Despite that, if I were to do it again, I would hike back up Ploská to follow the ridge to the red trail down.
We came down on one side of Liptovské Revúce, but our car was at a friend of a friend’s on the other side of town. I just love these small rural towns. And that was our trip!
I spent much of the trip like this.
It seemed to rain all around us but we only got sprinkled on once.
The first shepherd. “Can I take your picture?” I asked. “Eh, of an old ugly man? What for?”
The first hiking shelters.
The picnic shelter
View from the ridge. Can you see the white patch of sheep on the meadow? Another hiking destination!
Filling up at a spring with a water trough.
Shepherd huts as seen from Ploska.
So many flowers.
Path to the chalet.
The meadows were full of flowers that I couldn’t catch on the camera.
What you looking at? Yearling cows also pasture in the meadow below the chalet.
Materina dúška, mother’s soul, or wild thyme. Great for coughs.
I forgot to ask what this is. Anybody know?
The chatar has a sense of humour.
All carried up on somebody’s back.
By 6:30 am he had already packed up a beer keg and had two more trips to make that day. Note how high the wooden frame is.
There is no running hot water, but you put water in the round thing of the top door and there is a spout when hot water is needed.
Sheep heading to the water hole.
There is a fair amount of nettle and thistles.
Soon below the trees.
Like where I grew up. Except mountain roads aren’t paved there.
“Why are you taking a picture of that?” my husband asked. Clothes on the line, chicken run, garden, small mowed soccer field. The little things.
Though there are some steep parts, the trails are child friendly and I look forward to taking my own kids there.
There is cold running water but no hot running water, therefore no showers either. The only negative thing about the chalet is that the pit toilets are rather stinky. No electricity, phone signal depends on your provider.
Leave a text message to reserve a place and they will respond when they can. It is 13€ to stay if you bring your own sleeping bag, 22€ to use their bedding, and 9€ to put a camping mat on the floor. Breakfast is 4€ and was more than enough for me. For a large bowl of soup and klobasa with bread it was 7€. Half liter of beer 2.50€. Only cash.
Website: Chata pod Borišovom