First of all, I have this nasty habit of booking trips six months in advance with absolutely no clue what my schedule or financial situation will be when the departure date comes around, because when the deals are good, I pounce. So of course, I found myself overlapping with a conference and rapidly running out of cash (typical) but I couldn't feel too bad because 1) I had enough Delta miles to get to the conference on nobody's dime, and 2) it is legitimately cheaper to fly to central Europe and eat really well for a week than it is to just simply exist in Iceland.
So, anyway. I'll have my roast half-duck and eat it too, thanks.
I went to Prague which was wonderful, but I want to talk instead a bit about my little side trip over to Poprad. In order to up my efficiency, I decided to combine two nights of accommodations with travel time and took the night train both ways. I knew that I wanted to use the six hours to sleep, so I splurged and got myself a sleeper cabin.
Even with the splurge, though, this cost me under €40 total: €14 for a cabin I shared with three other young adults on the way into Slovakia, and €25 for a cabin I shared with two women on the way back to Prague. For two nights accommodations and basically a guarantee that I'd be able to sleep through the trip, I wasn't complaining!
When I booked my cabin, I wasn't exactly taking it for granted that the train company was actually legit. Their website has a good user interface, but the booking and payment process was kind of confusing because you can, apparently, book seats on credit and I wasn't sure how to navigate that. But my friends (from Galway) Dana and Francesca were with me at the train station in Prague to see me off, and everything turned out great. In fact, I can't recommend RegioJet enough.
Since Prague was the first stop of the route, I boarded and found my linens ready for me to make my bed. I set an alarm for well before the scheduled time to reach Poprad and followed along with our location on Google Maps, then took a snooze. I woke up with plenty of time to collect myself, but I didn't realize that the train attendants would be there to wake us up with a warm croissant in time for our stop! On the way back out of Poprad, my stop was not the first one since this line was the Prague-Košice line, so I boarded to find that my bed had already been made and I had orange juice, mints, and pastries for the morning. That was rad.
What was slightly less rad was that upon my arrival into Poprad, I couldn't check into my hostel until the afternoon and there were still a couple of hours until sunrise. But I decided that I'd take advantage of the good weather and head up to the mountains as soon as the sun rose, because the mountain trains run every half hour and I had read loads of advice from this guy's blog. So, I stashed my bag in the luggage lockers and decided to go up to Tatranská Lomnica at 7:30, right after sunrise. And oh, what a gorgeous sunrise it was!
It was sunny and chilly by the time I got up to the quaint ski town of Tatranská Lomnica, and the autumn view of Lomnický peak was stunning as I made my way to the ski lift and cable cars. I even met a very friendly dog in the parking lot! Turns out, it is possible to hike to the subalpine directly from town...but the trail through the riparian is really just a boulder-logged wash where they had cleared everything out for skiing and I wasn't wanting to waste any time trudging through that. In my opinion, the cable cars are worth it because the trail gets much nicer up at altitude. I was one of just a few people when I got up to Skalnaté pleso, a glacial lake in the valley of Lomnický peak.
I opted to explore a rim trail that connected Skalnaté pleso with the lower cable car stop, but I only did that for a little while because I realized that I was seeing too much bear scat to feel comfortable by myself. I made my way back and took the small educational trail around the lake, then went up towards the Skalnaté pleso Observatory, which I learned was connected to the Slovak Academy of Sciences.
Continuing onward, I reached one of the main trails through the High Tatras, which I followed for an hour or so. I noticed that the trail side-kicked to the summit of a small peak, so I figured I'd go up there and then go back because I could see some weather coming in. Between alpine glaciation and granite boulders and rolling piedmont, this trail was an absolute dream...and the view from the summit, even more so.
Eventually, I made it back to Poprad where I stayed on the outskirts of downtown at the Aqualand hostel near Aqua City, Slovakia's enormous and extensive waterpark. I opted not to visit the waterpark this time, because it was not cheap even with my discount from the hostel and I'd really rather experience an intense Slovak spa session with a group of friends! Instead, I lounged around Poprad for the evening and the next day before my night train back to Prague.
I took a long walk through the city and discovered that Poprad is quite a bit bigger than I thought it would be! I mistakenly thought I could walk to the foothills of the High Tatras, but it ended up being a little bit too chilly and too far. Instead, I spent some time in the gallery Tatranská Galéria.
For just €3, I was able to see some Russian originals as well as Czech and Slovak pieces, from sculpture to painting to glasswork and even old pieces of Charles Bridge from Prague. As a nice surprise, I discovered for myself an artist I didn't know anything about before: Ivan Ivanovič Šiškin. His command of light and shadows make his landscapes mesmerizing; looking at one of them is kind of like looking at a photo. You can see some of his work in this video:
There are a lot of things I would still like to do in Poprad and the surrounding mountain towns. More hiking, certainly, but also more exploration of the little cafes and local cuisine. Of course, I get self-conscious about speaking English in a non-English-speaking country (and for some reason automatically default to Icelandic, because that makes sense) but am usually privileged to be able to get by in larger cities. In Poprad, though, English is known but uncommon. As a solo traveler, I didn't want to burden the Slovaks in Poprad with my lack of language skills, which oddly came up a lot because people randomly came up to talk to me on several occasions. I don't know what they wanted or were trying to say, but I couldn't respond, either way!
The vibe in Poprad pleased me in a surprising way. I felt comfortable in the dark, post-Communism air, and noticed the relics of Communism only because Dana had pointed out the square-box buildings to me in Prague and that was fresh in my mind. But Poprad is a quirky place; it's colorful and artistic and friendly but has an almost sinister undertone, unsettling at times. It's industrial and dreary and vibrant and beautiful all at the same time. My charming Slovak host at the hostel sugar-coated absolutely nothing except the delicious Polish caramels she gave me with my coffee. She was easy going and gracious but not overtly so; she dictated her life and her schedule and was sad that the gallery wasn't a night club anymore. I liked her a lot.
And, I liked those mountains. There are a lot more footsteps for me to take in those peaks, but I am grateful that I was able to get a taste and slip in before the winter snow. Up there, it was warm and Earth-toned and bright; the air more fresh than I've breathed in a while (i.e. sulphur-free) and the peaks taller than any I've summited in some time. I'll be back.
Until then, Slovakia. 🇸🇰