We had had some difficulties finding the described campsite in the location pointed out to us. The GPS-coordinates for it turned out to lead to a site some 150km away. Therefore, upon reaching the first town in Slovakia, we only sorted our vignette and bought a road map which showed a lot of campsites on it. We learned that the vignette is only required for the motorway which runs west-east from Bratislava to Kosice. As we wanted to see the countryside and were in no hurry we decided not to buy it (it would have been 10€ for 10 days). Very conveniently, there is a main road pretty much going along the motorway. With the help of the map we located the missing campsite in a place called Osavice. Within 200m of the campsite there’s a thermal bath and an outdoor pool. We went for the former to avoid the incoming thunderstorm. The baths were quite busy since there wasn’t much else to do in the area in the rain and we enjoyed hanging out and swimming in the six pools (incl. two jacuzzis). We stayed for 3 hours (a 3 hour ticket is 15.50€ on a Friday or weekend) and even treated ourselves to a visit to the sauna (1.75€ extra). The campsite cost 2.50€ per person and the facilities were brand new.
On the next day we drove further into Slovakia towards Poprad, which is their gateway to the high tatras. The medium sized town itself is not something to write home about. We only stopped for information but missed the opening hours of the tourist info. After checking the weather forecast we gave the tatras a miss and drove towards Spisska Nova Ves to visit the Slovensky Raj (Slovak Paradise) national park. After reading about it in the Eastern Europe book from Lonely Planet and based on our map we picked Tatra Auto Camping near Cingov for the night before the hiking. When we arrived we found the place to be deserted and the reception building building boarded up. On the edges of the forest were a group of old wooden huts and some new built but half finished houses. We drove to Cingov for information and learned that the campsite had been closed down for quite a while. The next campsite was roughly 30km away in Podlesok and had fewer hiking options. Despite our very slight worries we decided to stay in the carpark of the derelict site since it saved us the drive in the morning as well as some money. It turned out that this was our worst night sleep in a while due to people playing music, (police) cars driving around and animals in and around the car. This was partially offset by the animal watching during breakfast: there were a stork, a black redstart, an unidentifiable type of lark and a ground squirrel.
Cingov is the best place to start your walks from since it has the best choice of paths. It has two cafés, some accommodation, a restaurant and information huts. Parking costs 5€ per day (2.5€ if you arrive after 1pm) and entrance to the national park is 1.50€ per adult. The lady in charge of the parking and park office recommended a 5-6 hour walk following the Hornad river canyon, up the gorge to the monastery ruins on the plateau followed by a steep descent into the other valley with a flat return. It was a good introduction to the various aspects of the park so we went for it. The national park has got lots of walking options in three different levels of difficulty. All paths along gorges or rivers have some technically aided sections in them. Most of them are big steel steps cemented into the rock with a chain to hold on to. The most difficult path (rated C between A easy and F tough) was about 1 hour round trip with a one-way system to a very prominent viewpoint. The National Park office at the entrance rents out climbing harnesses and helmets for this bit.
The scenery is nothing short of stunning with abundant wildlife (we didn’t see anything bigger than a squirrel though). It was a dream walking through seemingly untouched forests and along wild rivers. Path conditions vary greatly between wide and flat and narrow and steep. Erosion seems to be an issue in places where half the path has fallen down the hillside of into the river. Most of the tricky sections have chains to hold on to, but not all of their supports were as sturdy as they looked. The most thrilling sections were certainly where we had to walk down towards the river on the aforementioned steel steps while watching the current about 10m below.
It wasn’t quite as nice when we were stuck in a stretched out group of teenagers who kept stop-starting and overtaking us. Some path sections are quite tricky and narrow so backlogs are inevitable with lots of people. Once we sat down for lunch their head start was big enough that we didn’t see them again until the Klastorisko hut.
The plateau on the mountain had been used as refuge during invasions (notably the tatars during the 13th century) and had been home to a monastery between the 12th and the 16th century.
During the walk up Klastorisko gorge we were lucky that it hadn’t rained a lot recently because we walked up a stream and climbed up long ladders about a meter away from waterfalls. Lots of tree trunks of all sizes are evidence that it rains a lot at times which must make the gorge impassable. During that gorge climb Zoë spotted a black red/ brunette squirrel. To our great surprise it didn’t run away and posed for us for about 5 minutes.
Our return was a very steep descend into the next valley. Thankfully it was facing south and was therefore dry; unlike our climb up in the north. Once at the bottom, we followed a nice and easy path through a lovely forest. It was a lot easier and the bridges were sturdier (no weight limit). Unfortunately we didn’t see any animals but heard lots of birds. It would have been a ornithologist’s dream.
Overall we can definitely recommend a trip to this little gem of a national park. As a nature lover you can spend up to a week in the area and there are some great caves in the area (even an ice cave).