Castles, caves and more camping

Our next day trip was to the town of Levoca nestled in the hills of eastern Slovakia. It is a Unesco world heritage sight thanks to its large town square, old buildings and huge basilica. To be honest we were a little disappointed as a walk around the old town and town walls took about 45 minutes. The only sight really worth seeing is the cathedral with the tall wooden altar, all handcrafted by master woodcarvers and then gilded. With its 18m height it is the tallest gothic altar in the world. Thankfully, the lack of things to do in Levoca meant we had plenty of time to visit Spiss castle. Spiss castle is ‘the castle that was never conquered’ and sits on top of a rocky hill overlooking a large valley. It began as a fortress but was slowly transformed into a grand palace complete with chapel and lookout tower, before being burnt down to a ruin. We took advantage of the free audio guide and really enjoyed listening to the legends associated with Spiss and the area whilst walking th yJ rough the castle and admiring the views. We even saw bambi and his mum from the castle walls. 

The basilica minor in Levoca

Ted and Matthias at Spiss castle

From Spiss our route took us back towards the South-West of the paradis national park. We set off quite early to make it to the Dominska ice cave ahead of the rush. Dominska is a special cave, notably one of very few European caves outside of the alps to have a temperature low enough to contain ice all year round. The tour costs €8 for a 30 minute guided walk from the cave mouth and through the ice itself. The walk ways are anchored into the ice and there were lots of lights along the path and on the ice. The best part was an icy tunnel through which we descended to a lower level. Our only niggle was the lighting was often so close to the ice that it was melting it, making us worry about its future a little. The cave was still great to see but 30 minutes looking at ice is certainly enough. We found it quite strange to resurface and be hit by a wall of hot steamy air. 

The underground ice of Dominska

Our second stop on our caving day was the Ochtinska aragonite cave. Aragonite is a form of calcite which forms only in the presence of certain minerals (strontium, manganese and iron) and very slow flowing water, which evaporates rather than dripping. The crystals which form start as glittery dust and over hundreds of thousands of years grow to kidney forms, semi helical spirals or needle like shapes. Ochtinska is a cave formed of blue and white marble with clay and limestone crevases which seems to be perfect for the aragonite to grow. The marble itself is beautiful with washed out holes and swirling patterns. The aragonite formations look like corals growing from the ceiling; from bright white to brown in colour. Everywhere you look there are amazing aragonites, some of which have been named after things such as mice, hearts and ghosts. The 30 minute tour was well worth the €6 and it felt as though the staff were really interested in protecting the aragonites and helping visitors enjoy them too. We really recommend seeing Ochtinska cave as it was much more impressive than the ice cave or indeed the photos we saw of the other caves in the area. The only exception we might make is the Domica cave with its underground river, but it’s currently closed due to a lack of water so we didn’t visit it; hopefully we can go on a different undergound boat ride soon. 

Coral-shaped aragonite structures

Slovakia on the whole appeared a little worse for wear. We kept coming across disused buildings or businesses that appeared to have gone under. After our experience wild camping we decided the next night we should stick to campsites. But when we turned up at our intended campsite we found the gates locked and no one there. Another car stopped by us and told us there were no other campsites, but that there was a lake just up the road about twenty minutes away. We decided to go in that direction knowing that there was at least one campsite beyond the lake. The only road to the lake quickly deteriorated and became a glorified farm track, that had been made into a patchwork of different tarmac. On a flat straight road this might have been ok, but up the 18% gradient and around hairpin bends it was a rough and slow ride. We made it to the lake at Uhorna but sadly there wasn’t much to be said for camping opportunities other than a shady car park. We continued on to the next campsite we had found online which thankfully was open!  We were welcomed by the owner Janna with a lovely cold beer and a wealth of information about the local area. The campsite was actually an orchard at the back of their home and bed and breakfast, complete with barbeque area, games area and a swimming pool. Taking in the beautiful setting we decided to stay for an extra day to make the most of a little rest and the swimming pool, even if it was swimming while watching a thunderstorm roll in. 

Refreshed from our day off we had one last place to visit in Slovakia. The second largest city of Kosice located in the east of the country. We only had a short drive from the campsite to the city but we did notice the slum like buildings along the road and the tower block which appeared to have been taken over by Roma. We definitely wondered how welcome they are in Slovakia as they often seemed to be hanging about towns, obviously unemployed and in varying degrees of poverty. That said there didn’t seem to be any problems between different groups of people. Kosice however, was a little different to the countryside. The buildings were grand and decorated and it felt lively with a good bar/cafe culture. We wandered around the centre and had a look at the largest Slovakian and most eastern gothic cathedral in Europe. It seemed a nice place to go for a weekend of relaxing in a city but there wasn’t really lots to see. That said we spent a couple of hours wandering and shopping with a quick cafe stop, before we set off to Hungary. 

Kosice cathedral

Trip to paradise

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.

Hornad river gorge

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.

Ground spuirrel

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.

Wild and natural river gorge

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.

Zoë braving the via ferrata

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.

Ted climbing up the highest ladders

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 first encounter with a black squirrel

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).