I’ve often found that to feel, see and hear the real beauty of a country, you need to leave its capital city. In Slovakia that’s especially true given its incredible mountains, national parks and caves. So with the pull of Košice – Slovakia’s second city in the east – I set off on the 5 hour train journey to see what adventures lay ahead.
Košice – European Cultural Capital of 2013
With the splendour of its Neo-Baroque State Theatre, the cozy coffee shops lining the high street, its towering cathedral and the dancing fountains at night, in many ways Košice is picture perfect. It’s also a very convenient base for day trips within Eastern Slovakia. Dig a little deeper, and life isn’t all that rosy. Košice is home to a large Roma community (the country’s second largest ethnic minority) many of whom live in abject poverty – I sadly saw two women digging through a rubbish skip searching for things they could use. While there are always two sides to the story, the Roma have long complained of discrimination that traps them in a vicious cycle of sickness and illiteracy. With families of 10 or more living in a one-bed flat (or worse, make-shift slums), access to basic necessities like clean water or heating can be sporadic. Despite hearing of things slowly improving in parts of Košice, it’s still a stark reminder that anything which looks idyllic, rarely is beneath the surface.
Left: Košice’s State Theatre – over 120 years old| Top Right: From Canada to Canberra, and Paris to Venice, lovers have come at various points to seal their love with padlocks on bridges – Košice has also joined the love bridge bandwagon| Bottom Right: Scenes from Kosice’s centre
Hiking through the Slovenský Raj
Translated in English as Slovak Paradise National Park, this natural treasure in Eastern Slovakia has hundreds of kilometres of scenic hiking trails, meadows, waterfalls, lakes and canyons with breathtaking vistas. While the hiking isn’t particularly exhausting, navigating waterfalls (yes, sometimes you may need to physically hike through them), crossing ravines and the steep ascents/descents will definitely keep you on your toes.
“You’re going to hike through Slovak Paradise National Park and you have no protection against kliešte (ticks)?” the ladies in the Tourist Office asked me, mildly horrified I was preparing to just waltz into the National Park (ticks are apparently very much present). A guardian angel clearly decided to take pity on me because I randomly walked into Košice’s Tourist Office the evening before I was due to set off. I had naively planned my route by looking at maps online and ambitiously thought of crossing the entire National Park in a day. Any confidence in my plan was soon shattered. After introducing me to the world of ticks, the ladies there bluntly told me that not only did my route involve hiking down a boring asphalt road, but it would also take more than 14 hours – risking me getting caught in the forest after dark with unfriendly and dangerous bears.
I smile thinking back at that encounter and the panicked run shortly thereafter to buy tick repellant from the pharmacy. I still got lost numerous times and ended up taking much longer than I expected, but the panoramas you see incite a feeling I can’t describe in words. Especially when you seem to be the only person around.
The well-trodden paths of the National Park are in the north-east, with its famed gorges and ravines. But I highly recommend the south – just be ready for an adventure.
Lessons I learnt
- Ticks (kliešte) are real and they’re here. They spread tick-borne encephalitis. Use a reputed repellant (e.g. Predator) to spray all over yourself.
- Waterfalls – sometimes you need to literally hike through them. Solid footwear with firm grip (ideally water proof) could spare you future angst.
- Light – it’s quite dark in the forest. Aim to be out at least an hour before sunset to avoid getting lost and a rendezvous with a bear. Help could take a while…
- Yoga or a hiking stick can come in handy especially when you have to ‘glide’ under trees or have steep descents down mountains.
- The views are unexpected and breathtaking – they make it all worth it.
- Print out your hiking map – there’s nothing worse than losing all directions when your phone battery ominously blinks 1%.
- You (I) may (will) get lost – to avoid unnecessary stress, it’s helpful to accept upfront that this may happen. Don’t forget to take deep breaths – the forest doesn’t care if you’re panicking.
- Guardian angels – when you do get lost, these coloured trail markers painted on trees mostly (but not always) appear to save the day and guide you. I was very lucky – I met two loggers who saw me and redirected me back to the trail when I ventured far off-piste.
My hiking route through the National Park [7 hrs]
I used mapy.hiking.sk – a comprehensive route and time planning tool. It gave me a good indication of elevation with a realistic time estimate. Starting from Dobsinska L’adova Jaskynajna, I first went to the Stratensky Kanon, and then took the uphill path to Havrana Skala (red + yellow route) to the lookout point (I literally had to climb through waterfalls – wasn’t prepared for that but after deep breaths and vigorous shouting, I managed). I then proceeded onwards to Obcasny Prm and Velke a Male Zaify (yellow route) and descended to Stratenska Pila (green route) before hiking to Dedinky (red route) along Lake Palcmanska Masa to the station. I reached in time to catch the train back to Kosice via Margecany at sunset.
If you need information before you start hiking, visit the tourist information centre in Čingov (or Košice) or send an email to [email protected]. Martin replied promptly to my queries regarding hiking trails. Highly recommend doing this just to sense-check your plan because you never know what trails in the park could suddenly be closed or have issues.
The Ice Kingdom of Dobšinská Caves
Conveniently close to Slovak Paradise National Park, this was as close as I could get to visiting an ice kingdom. Unlike a regular cave with brownish grey formations and a mild atmosphere, temperatures at Dobšinská hovered close to freezing point and you’re surrounded by a bluish white glow of ice around you – resembling mounds of white marble on the floor, with spears dangling from the ceiling.
Discovered in 1870 by a 24-year-old mining engineer, I wondered how over 100,000 tonnes of ice – sometimes over 25 metres thick – formed in this cave barely 900m above sea level. The answer apparently lies in the sack-like structure of the caves which were created after a big collapse, disconnecting them from the large Stratená Cave system. With heavy cold air flowing in from the entrance at the top and the lower openings mostly closed, the freezing air is trapped inside the cave. This creates ideal conditions for the walls and any incoming precipitation to freeze, forming an ice filling that has been there for hundreds of thousands of years.
The Spa Town of Bardejovské Kúpele
While perusing the map of Eastern Slovakia, I came across a small spa town: Bardejovské Kúpele. It’ll come as no surprise to anyone who knows me well that going to the sauna and steam room is part of my weekly regimen. I discovered the joys of it in Finland after a yoga-related back injury limited my exercise options (it’s a long story). Originally a skeptic, I’m now a convert, and try to experience different saunas as I travel around the world. It’s the perfect antidote to a long day of hiking – my indulgence.
Bardejovské Kúpele’s biggest treasure is its natural mineral spring water. With first records of a spa dating back over 700 years ago, this town went through somewhat of a renaissance in the 19th century when the Russian Tsar (Alexander I) and Austrian Empress Elisabeth came to benefit from the spa’s therapeutic ability to treat ailments of the digestive, circulatory and respiratory systems.
While there are quite a few serious spas in town focused on curing various ailments, I ventured to a fun one in Hotel Ozon (8 minute walk from the bus station). I was intrigued by its description – a “sauna complex” – so went to find out more (https://www.kupele-bj.sk/volny-cas/wellness-spa). It cost €12 for a 2h visit to the sauna complex and pool.
I assumed there was just one type of sauna – a hot room where you sweated it out. How complicated could it get? This little town proved me wrong. In my first introduction to a sauna complex, I saw not one but four different types of saunas. Clearly, I had a lot to learn.
- Finnish Sauna – the classic sauna: intense heat, some humidity, and in keeping with Finnish tradition, people are stark naked. I got told off for accidentally going inside with swimming shorts on. And yes, it’s mixed sex (not sure what rules apply when both men and women are in at the same time).
- Infrared Sauna – similar in design to the Finnish sauna but lower in heat intensity and completely dry. Here the heat from the infrared lamp penetrates tissue/muscles and heats it from inside out, doing wonders at relieving muscle aches and pains.
- Inhalation Sauna – probably the lowest temperature of them all. Supposedly a sauna where you inhale an aroma? Either my sense of smell took a serious nosedive that day or the circulating vapours were absent because I certainly didn’t smell anything.
- Steam Sauna – resembles a classic steam room with aromatherapy oils thrown in for good measure; the temperature here is lower than the Finnish Sauna. The fairy lights in the ceiling created a bizarre Star Wars feel to it.
Previously when I had gone to a sauna, I enjoyed the ritual of alternating the heat with a cold shower. But here, I got to relive a ‘cold dip’ true Scandinavian style through either jumping into a wooden tub with ice-cold water, or pulling on a rope and waiting with nervous anticipation for the pail above my head to invert, a torrent of freezing water descending onto me.
The infrared sauna, the pail and tub of freezing cold water to jump into after a hot sauna session, and the alternating hot & cold footbaths
Just when I thought I had seen it all, I came across the Kneipp foot baths. After realising this wasn’t a decorative pond (in my defence the complex was pretty empty, and I didn’t read the small Slovak sign), I discovered the magic of alternating hold and cold foot baths. Dipping your feet into hot water promotes relaxation, while the cold water invigorates. The combined process bolsters circulation, boosts the body’s immune system and relieves stress. To continue the series of firsts, I finished the day with my maiden visit to a tepidarium – an airy, sun-filled room with loungers individually heated to 39°C to slowly warm up and soothe the body. I definitely have found the ritual to follow next time I have insomnia.
Bardejov – a glimpse into medieval times
Enroute to the spa town, I passed Bardejov – apparently one of the best preserved examples of a medieval old town. The main reason for my brief pitstop here was to see the colourful ‘burgher’ houses with gable facades that lined the rectangular Radničné Námestie square. My curiosity was piqued when I read the word ‘burgher’. In the context of growing up in Sri Lanka, burgher normally referred to descendents of the British, Dutch or Portuguese. However in this context, medieval burghers were privileged citizens of towns; middle class merchants, typically property owners – a sort of medieval bourgeoisie.
Top tip: Climb to the top of the Basilica tower – it supposedly has great bird’s eye views across town; I sadly arrived too late.
My two favourite corners to refuel in Košice
Soup Culture – Vegan/Veggie
Soup is certainly a staple in the Slovak diet and at Soup Culture you can try several different types of soup (most are vegan). Most intriguingly, the soup is served in warm edible bread cones – turmeric and wholegrain bread were available when I visited (first time I ever came across turmeric bread!). With a seasonal menu of soups (from lentils to pumpkin and courgette), plentiful toppings of seeds and a small soup costing €3.5, what’s not to love?
Šálka Kávy – Coffee
I’ve always enjoyed finding nooks you can melt away into – whether that was by my bedroom window getting lost in the world of Enid Blyton’s novels while the monsoons poured outside as a kid, or whether it’s enjoying a coffee after a long day of exploring, reading more about the new country I’m in. I was excited when I came across a Danish word that describes this feeling of cozy contentment – hygge (pronounced ‘hoo-gah’). So I felt right at home in Šálka Kávy. With its quiet atmosphere, vintage furniture, old books and carpets, it’s the perfect pitstop to read, research and nurse a velvety hot chocolate.
Left: Me on the intercity express train from Bratislava to Kosice | Right: The regional train to Bardejov
#TransportAdmin: Bratislava to Košice
I checked on bus options (Busbud & Flixbus) and return tickets from Bratislava to Košice were €30-35, whereas train tickets booked online came up to €40. Given bus journeys were 6-9 hrs with the occupational hazard of traffic, while the InterCity express (IC) only took 4h 40min, the train was a clear winner! Bonus: Reservation in second class is free, so bagging a window seat is easy. Slovakia Rail (ZSSK) also has a user-friendly website where all tickets and seat reservations can be made; PDF tickets on your mobile work just fine.
Day Trip from Košice to Slovak Paradise National Park and the Ice Caves
Catch the train from Kosice to Margecany (06:07AM – 06:34AM) and connect on a train from Margecany to Dobsinska L’adova Jaskyna (06:48AM – 08:17AM). Then walk for 45 mins to the caves which are typically open from 09:30AM-02:00PM but in the low season e.g. Sept, it’s more like 09:30AM to 11:00AM. Start the hike straight from the base of the caves (11:00AM – 6:00PM) and then catch the train back from Dedinky station (was a single platform with no other living soul to be seen). The Slovak Railway website is incredibly useful in these deserted stations as it has a feature that gives you the estimated arrival time of trains. It proved accurate!
From Košice to Bardejov
The journey is approximately 2hrs by train and requires one change in Presov. A return ticket is just over €8; with departures roughly every 2hrs. If you wake up early enough in the morning, there is a FlixBus that goes direct and takes less time. From Bardejov train station you can take the 1,2,4,5 bus to Bardejovské Kúpele (€0.50, ticket bought with cash on the bus, roughly 4 buses an hour) – a journey that takes you about 15 minutes.