We first saw the high Tatras mountains early on our route to China and were impressed by what we saw and remembered. As with so many places on that trip, we swore we’d return to explore here more, but little did we know it would be as a family of three and with a heavy trailer to lug up those big mountains. It’s called the HIGH Tatras for good reason, but as it turned out Slovakia was to be a great choice with 18 month old Orrin.
We flew into Krakow in Southern poland in late September, the plan was to have a day to explore the city before getting a train south to the mountain town of Zakopane and start cycling a loop of this mountain range. Poland is on our dwindling list of European counties we’ve not ridden in so we were excited to set up and explore what we’d find. We normally ride with a bike and kit totalling about 20kg, but here Ed’s setup weighed in at; a 10kg bike, 14kg trailer, 12kg baby and about 10kg of kit = 46kg! Fast and light might not be our motto these days, but strong legs certainly remain as important!
Krakow is a pretty remarkable city to visit and wandering the old town palaces and city walls is a pleasant way to spend a day exploring the cultural attractions on every corner. However it also hides the terrible history and treatment of the large Jewish population here during the second world war which is represented across the city and then outwith the city at nearby Auschwitz.
Getting there wasn’t as easy as we thought, not only laden with what now seems a such a carefree memory of just 2 heavy bike boxes – we now had a baby, trailer and things like nappies to worrry about! Then to add to the stress, just before flying out we learnt that all the trains were cancelled heading south because of major engineering works. The rail replacement bus didn’t take bikes, nor babies without a car seat therefore we were effectively stuck in the city centre without much of a trailer safe route out! Eventually after much google translating we found a bargain local one way car rental – not what we hoped but it worked. We stayed at Krakow’s Station Aparthotel which was right next to the train station and they stored our bike boxes for us.
We drove to Zakopane via huge roadworks; who thought reconstructing the road and train network together was a good idea! When we arrived Zakopane was a traffic jam in the cloud so we didn’t really get a feel for where we had arrived!
We eventually found a very pleasant campsite on a hillock next to some goats. The views of the Tatras had started to emerge from the low cloud. We arrived at the campsite to drop our kit and bikes off before returning the rental car, we were greeted by an old chap who looked up from cutting firewood and didn’t speak any English, instead gesturing we could camp anywhere we wanted before contining his work. There was a small set of swings that we leant the bikes against and set Orrin to play as we unpacked and sorted out our kit. We hadn’t had time to test if it all fitted in the bags and panniers before now!
That night the sky cleared up and the pleasant daytime temperature plummeted, the Alpkit Ordos 3 tent we have is a good size for the 2.5 of us but suffers from cold drafts due a thin mesh inner tent. It is however crazy light and small for a 3 man tent so we can’t complain too much, we just need to carry the weight we saved in extra clothes!
After a comfortable first night in the tent we loaded the bikes (and baby) and set off cycling east from Zakopane. This section of road was constantly up and down but also quite busy with buses of all sizes and lots of cars heading to the popular sites of Morskie Oko lakes and the surrounding mountains.
The ride was fine but it was a bit more of a head down and cover the distance ride as Orrin slept. As expected we reached the Slovakian border quite quickly, with a nice long descent to end our time in Poland. There was a huge car park just before we crossed the border and this proved to be where all the traffic stopped. As we entered Slovakia there was a digger for Orrin to see, but to our relief the road immediately became empty – just us and the trees swaying in the wind. Around us the dense forest leaves were still mostly green with just a tint of autumn starting to creep in. We rode to the first Slovak village of Tatranska Javorina. The sun was out and Orrin was either napping or just loving the view and the ever changing world go by. This baby bikepacking is all rather jolly and straight forward we thought!
After a nice steady climb we stopped at a ski resort called Strednica for a coffee. As you might expect, the ski resort was on the top of a pass, and the weight of a small person in a trailer took its toll, with each pedal stroke individually jerking me forward one by one. The resort cafe was still open but pretty much deserted, only the steady mountain wind blowing dust and loudly flapping the plastic outdoor awning. The mountains here were part forested – cleared for the pistes, little if anything in the resort looked steeper than a red ski run in winter, behind these pistes were the rocky outlines of the highest Tatras peaks.
We enjoyed the downhill afterwards to a really nice little village of chalets and old wooden houses called Belianske Tatry. Again it was pretty quiet but we found the one place to be – a restaruant next to the small folk museum which was absolutely rammed. We ordered food and Marion’s favourite – Kofola the famous local cola. I remembered I was indifferent to this herbal menthol type concoction…..but it was only 30p.
The food was good and there was a hand carved wooden rocking horse to entertain Orrin and some really nice illustrated Slovakian kids books . We ate well before a short playground stop and back on bikes.
It was here we discovered the awesome cycle network which would take us off the roads for pretty much the rest of the trip. A gravel track ran parallel to the road and was in really smooth, good shape, we waited for it to end but it didn’t, it kept going. How far will it go?
We got our answer shortly later when a friendly road worker came over to chat, it turned out he was the cycle path marking and maintenance person. He was so excited to see us and the baby trailer he ran away to get a map to give us. The map contained all the cycle paths in the region and he recommended us a route so we would be away from cars with pretty much nothing but forests, views and bear poo.
We followed these cycle paths so remote it seemed only bears were joining us for company. We heard disconcerting noises but saw very little alive.
The next campsite we stayed at was a bit surreal, a run down kind of place but with a certain eastern European charm. It was a shame the charm didn’t extend to the receptionist, but I’d be disappointed here if we didn’t get that classic Eastern European look and mannerism of indifference while actually being realitively helpful! The old camping chalets were rusty on the roofs and the timber frontages long since faded. The newest installation was a Slovakia’s ‘Route 66’ 2012 archway. We had no idea what the Slovakia route 66 was but the roads here are pretty scenic. There was just our green tent, a tiny blue decathalon tent with no apprent owners and a german plated caravan, but nothing else seemed inhabited. Surely Wes Anderson was lurking somewhere in a directors chair. Tatranska Lomnica was the nearest town to the campsite, but little more than some hotels and a few small shops.
As we unloaded our bags a baby Adder snake unwound itself and slunk away into the grass out of Marion’s pannier. While keeping Orrin out the way I flicked it as far as I could from the tent. I’d never seen a baby adder before and it was kind of cute in a ‘can it still bite me?’ way as it raised its head like a tiny cobra and hissed, but still smaller than the length of a little finger.
That night an all enveloping mist decended upon us, but deep in the dank, dark night an eerie roar started up, with the earlier bear poo I concluded it was surely two bears fighting? It was pretty close, but we reflected the tent makes things sound closer. It gave flash backs to the roar of a Grizzly that gave chase to me in Canada (have I told you my bear chase story??) . It then clicked, this was rutting season and the roar was two stags fighting. We relaxed. I then had the realisation that two rutting deer are proably no less dangerous than a roaring bear.
We were cycling uphill to Strbske Pleso for lunch on what would be the dampest day of the trip. I think when we were considering touring with a baby we had dreaded wet days more than anything. However the Chariot trailer is not bad in the wet and Orrin was sleeping snugly as we battled the elements heading one direction – up.
This was also when we started swerving inbetween more hikers on the cycle path, it was a bit bizaare that a tarmac path next to the road was such a popular hike in the mountains, it was all the gear but clearly no intention of getting muddy.
Strbske Pleso was as we had remembered it; the small scenic train line curving up to this premier Slovakian ski resort. The glacially formed lake that gives it is name (pleso) was still surrounded by the oddest selection of hotel architcture, so bad and bizarre that I thought it maybe added to the charm, Marion disagreed, either way the mountain view was missing today. We stopped at a minature wooden chalet for kids and then reflected on the atmospheric mist from a cafe seat.
The next section was going to be a huge downhill into the drizzle and cold, so we booked a last minute chalet on our phone for about £38 it was called; Penzion Sileo and looked like a nice place to warm up!
We rode past a spot in the woods we recognised where we had wild camped back in 2014, before arriving at a nice little town called Pribylina. Just up the road was a small folk museum with an old preserved wooden village, there is also now a forest logging steam train which runs some of the time, but we couldn’t work out in September if it was open. Pribylina has a small Roma settlement by the river, which like much of Eastern Slovakia offers a pretty stark contrast with the pristine large houses in the main villages. We stocked up in the local coop for dinner, (most bigger villages had a coop but with varyingly limited choice and a stern glare).
As we left the road a sign about the Pribylina Rackova Dolina area showcased the chalet B&Bs and hiking routes with two wooden sculptures. We rode up for a couple of kilometres before a giant wooden sculpture of an angel lady welcomed us.
The chalet – Penzion Sileo was deep into the forest and a rather amazing find! The host poured a strong welcome with two rather large shots of a local spirit, at 60% it left us struggling a little but trying to be polite. A tropical fish tank was keeping Orrin amused. A large bedroom let us dry camping gear and generally reset. We headed out again and cooked dinner in the forest sitting by the river and wathcing the stars break out, we reflected that Orrin had never really seen stars this bright and clear before which was cool. The grounds of the chalet had a wood fired hot tub, outdoor cinema screen, kids slide and sand pit, volley ball, and I’m sure some more things we missed! The breakfast was good and we ate while surrrounded by mushrooms of all kinds picked from the surrounding forest and now dehydrating for winter.
From here we were going back uphill and well and truly off the beaten track, following a path network that skirted the lower slopes of the High Tatras. You’ll have to click on part two as this is getting a bit too long!