It all started with an Instagram picture of a cabin in the middle of the forest somewhere in Slovakia. I decided wanted to go there, basically bulldozed my husband into going for our vacation, and we went. Well, not that exact cabin, but in the area.
Going on annual family vacations wasn’t something I did growing up. And now as an expat, it seems like vacation is either going to visit family (which is awesome and beautiful) or saving up for it.
But this summer I badly wanted to just get away from it all. Not just from the daily grind of where we live, but from noise and technology and speed of life; I wanted to get away to the woods and just be.
We found a cabin in the hills of the Liptov region and the first day did nothing else but be there – some reading, a hot dog roast, exploring the immediate area. I roamed the hill cleared by a blow-down, picking mullein leaves and flowers. My oldest came along, picking strawberry leaves for winter tea; it was one of her favourite parts of the day. With no electricity we kept our phones on airplane mode, packed water in a bucket from the nearby spring (dear mountain water, how I miss you), and basked in the not-too-hot sun.
Hike up to Veľký Choč
The second day we hiked up Veľký Choč (Big Choč). Choč is a wide mountain, and various bumps on it are named, aptly, Predný Choč, Malý Choč, Stredný Choč a Zadný Choč (Front, Little, Middle, and Back Choč).
To be honest, I wasn’t expecting very much. Rather unprepossessing to look it, the mountains boasts no massive vertical rock faces like the High Tatras or long treeless ridges like the Low Tatras. At 1611 m (5285 feet) it isn’t all that tall.
We set out on the blue trail (map and practical details below), all four kids in tow and a few packages of cookies as
bribes motivation. The trail is mostly in the forest and at times surprisingly steep. But especially after passing the saddle between Zadný and Malý Choč, the air…oh the air! Clean and clear and thin and light. I kept taking breath after deep breath.
Taking kids hiking can be a gamble, and the five year old twins demonstrated the influence of nature compared to nurture, considering they have been brought up in the same household with the same expectations. The girl trotted along fantastically and a little cheerful distraction was all she needed to keep going. “I’m tired.” “You’re doing so great! Look, there’s a buttercup! Isn’t the yellow so cheerful? Can you find another one? This white flower is called yarrow.” “I like flowers!”
The boy, on the other hand, was quite vocal in how tired he was. Until we reached the last half hour, that is, where some chains are located to help some hikers up a few steep parts. Suddenly he was not tired at all, bounded up the chains, and proceeded to climb a rock on the side of the trail, far above my husband’s reach.
All the kids did great though, considering that hiking with my husband is no stroll in the park but a brisk march until treeline. It was a good thing we didn’t stop often, however, because the hike took up most of the day even with a steady pace.
We finally reached the top. Spread out around us, 360° full circle, were views of most of Slovakia’s mountains ranges. A large wide valley stretches east, flanked on the north by the Západné Tatry (West Tatras), with a glimpse of the Vysoké Tatry (High Tatras), and on the south by the Nízke Tatry (Low Tatras). Low rolling hills spread north, criss-crossed with fields. To the west, rise the Veľká Fatra (Big Fatras). And close by to the south run the Malá Fatra (Small Fatras). The Chočské vrchy (Choc mountains) are a small group in the middle of them all, and thus the amazing view. My first thought was that it would be an amazing spot to catch the sunrise.
But I couldn’t really take it all in and enjoy it. You see, while the peak is fairly broad and gently sloped on one side, it drops off on the other. I have never been a fan of heights, and falling 5ish metres (15ish feet) and breaking my pelvis years ago did not improve matters. I personally felt perfectly safe a step back from the edge, but my children would persist in clambering around the edges, making a few other hikers nervous as well (ok, they were older women, but still).
Now, I am not a helicopter parent. I let my kids climb trees and cut with sharp knives and
drag hike with them up very steep hills. I purposely rarely warn them to be careful. But I do not like drop offs, which include cliffs and our third floor apartment windows. My husband, on the other hand, is a climber and walks around precipitous ledges like they are sidewalks. He’s completely comfortable with the kids perched on the edge.
So instead of relaxing, admiring the view, and soaking it all in, I was jumpy and trying to get the twins to hold my hands. After a failed attempt to get the twins to sit in one place, we went down below to a meadow to sit down for lunch. The meadow was a better place for lunch anyway – no people, soft grass to lie on, and still a magnificent view. And as beautiful as rocky mountain peaks are, it’s the high elevation meadows that I love.
“Shhh,” my husband told the children once we filled our bellies.”Listen.” Eyes closed, face tilted to the warmth of the sun. The different sounds of wind: a low whoosh in the trees below, a gentle breath of the breeze around us, and an occasional high whistle of a miniature grass-high twister. Bird song behind, buzz of a fly nearby. Increasing fidgeting noises from kids as time went on.
I went back up to the peak alone to get some more pictures, and everybody else headed down. I tried to take a video, but it isn’t very good, so here is somebody else’s video of the same place.
I was surprised how far the rest of the family got before I caught back up to them – downhill is significantly faster than uphill for young kids who don’t get achy knees.
I already mentioned the air, but man, the air. I kept gulping for fresh as we went down. A certain section of the trail in the trees seemed to have particularly clear air and I couldn’t get enough of it. Partway down I picked a large bouquet of mint and hemp agrimony to dry for the winter. We chased a few butterflies, and before we knew it we were back at the cabin. I had kept some ground meat in the stream to keep cold, and simple pasta with tomato sauce never tasted so good.
A side hike with a view
I had intended to wake up early every morning in search of photos, but it was only on our last morning that I actually managed to do so. There was a hill that I wanted to explore, to see if there was a view. But for some reason I doubted myself that morning, and spent time in the valley seeing what I could capture.
When the sun was peeking through the trees on the top of the hill I decided that the trees couldn’t be all that thick, and hiked straight up, passing numerous deer trails. And then kicked myself for not coming up right away. Next time, I’m taking up sleeping bag and spending the night.
My husband didn’t really believe that I could see the High Tatras from my morning viewpoint, so we hiked up again later in the morning. Somebody had made a deep firepit and stacked sizable logs on one side that formed the perfect fort. My husband and I sat and enjoyed the view, while the kids entertained themselves. We would have stayed longer, but rumbly tummies called us down.
West Tatras and a glimpse of High Tatras on the left, Liptovská Mara (lake) in the middle, Low Tatras on the right.
We couldn’t bear the thought of going back home, as the next day was a state holiday, so we we stayed one more night in the village of Lisková, nearby Ružomberok. In the evening we went to the store to get breakfast…and half of the city was there too. Slovakia made a new law in the spring that stores have to be closed for state/bank holidays so that more people get the day off. It doesn’t cut down on consumerism, just intensifies shopping the day before and after.
Into Tesco we went, jostled by the crowd with loudspeaker blaring, cars pulling in and out of the parking lot. What do we need for breakfast? What are we doing for lunch tomorrow…what are we doing at all tomorrow? We wanted to get into the car and drive back up to our hidden place of peace and quiet.
In the morning, the fields behind the town were full of people. Many parts of Slovakia have narrow strips of land that belong to families in town. The strips are grouped together, perpendicular to the road. Some grow vegetables, especially potatoes, others harvest hay or alfalfa.
Workers dotted the fields as we drove, taking advantage of a day off work and the morning cool before the afternoon heat. Many dug potatoes by hand and put them in large white bags, while some tossed loose hay onto small wagons with a pitchfork.
(The freeway being built behind Liskova)
Honestly, I wanted to jump out and join them; I felt like a wimpy tourist taking it easy. As a child, we also worked in the fields, turning hay and changing irrigation pipes, or in the garden. Even though I complained as a kid, I feel like it helped instill work ethic and the ability to work hard. I wanted my kids to start digging potatoes too.
After a dip in a pond with a warm spring, we headed back home. I’m not sure, however, if I was refreshed from our trip or left with more longing for a quiet place in the forest. I’m not the only one; when my daughter saw me editing pictures of our trip, she asked “Can we go back to my cabin?”
Hunter groups maintain meadows in the forest and leave hay for deer for the winter. Most of hay holders look like a manger.
Hotel Choč, a shepherd hut not currently in use.
Our lunch spot.
Why the air is so amazing.
I know pictures don’t show it, but this was really steep.
There are a number of cabins in the area.
First day’s herbs drying.
The city of Ružomberok in the morning sun.
Heading up a second time.
Nízke Tatry (Low Tatras)
This is an active working area too.
Fringe-flowered gentian. Four petals seems so odd.
Multiple times a day, I pick up the bucket, creeeeek of the handle, clang of an empty bucket. The song of water falling from a spring. Cold fresh clear water – mountain juice my aunt called it. I squat by the spring, waiting for the bucket to fill and notice a small frog; mist dissipating in the sun; slurp freshness itself from my hand; listen to the noise-filled silence of the forest. ⠀
Grass and other plants will be heaped onto these ladder forms for to dry.
There are a number of trails up to Veľký Choč. The shortest way there is the blue trail from Valaská Dubova. The trail is fairly steep, with a short section at the top that has chains along the side to help hikers if they need, but nothing dangerous. The trail is frequented but quiet compared to the High Tatras.