Friday, August 31, 2012

Zdiar, Slovakia – The High Tatra Mountains

Sometimes, we get advice from people on where to go. It’s not something we can heed all the time, but every once in awhile a recommendation comes along that makes us want to go. The Ginger Monkey was one of these.

We met David in our first hostel in Krakow. He had told us about the Ginger Monkey, which was the top rated hostel in Slovakia, in the High Tatra mountains. On top of that, it had been too long since we had seen mountains, so off we went to the High Tatras.
It was actually too far to get from Wroclaw to the small Slovakian town of Zdiar (projounced like “jar” with an “s” on the front), so we ended up staying on the Polish side of the border in the mountain town of Zakopane.
We woke up at 7:00 in the morning in order to hop on the early morning train, which took us from Wroclaw, through Krakow and to Zakopane by four o’clock. We thought there were no more trains going to Zdiar, so stayed in a hostel for the night.
Zakopane was very touristy, but an excellent little ski-town. There were a plethora of restaurants, shops and whatnot in the middle of a fun little carless street. We picked a place in the middle to get some dinner and had one of the most bacon-laden dishes I’ve ever experienced.
Believe it or not, Leslie ordered it and despite the fact that the menu was in Polish, German, English and Russian, the word “bacon” did not occur. In actuality, it was just part of the sauce. She had ordered pierogi stuffed with a local type of cheese and potato and was not prepared for the bacon-ness that graced our presence.
Leslie was excited at first, as she thought the dish had come covered in walnuts. In fact, it was bacon fat that had been cubed into pieces about 1/2 the size of playing dice and fried. Crispy on the outside and bacon-y goodness on the inside. It tasted wonderful and I ate over half of it before Leslie convinced me that it probably wasn’t good to eat pure fried bacon grease.
Later that evening, we met an Englishman named Jacob who was sleeping in the same dorm room as us, who also so happened to be on his way to the Ginger Monkey. I immediately became a bit nervous that everyone in Zakopane was going to be heading to Zdiar.
The next day we slept in and did a bit of shopping in the morning. Breakfast was at the same place, as we enjoyed it, but the Polish Highlander breakfast I ordered “eggs, ham, cheese and tomatoes”, was atually ham, cheese, ham, cheese, egg, ham, cheese, tomato, ham and cheese. It was great at the time. I purchased a pair of shoes as the sneakers I’d been wearing for four months had a four inch whole in the side.
We caught the 3 o’clock bus out of Zakopane and before long had crossed the border into Slovakia, a country that really hadn’t been on our “must see” list.
An hour later, Leslie, Jacob and I got off the bus in the middle of the smallest town we’ve been in on this entire trip. There may have been 2000 inhabitants. The downtown area consisted of a very small grocery store, a restaurant and a gas station.
A short walk later we found ourselves inside the Ginger Monkey, which was everything that David in Krakow had said it was going to be.
We got a very enthusiastic greeting from Wally, the hostel dog and were immediately made to feel at home by Rosa and Frank, some university age students from Holland and England who were staying for free in exchange for work. The hostel was a good sized ski house that slept about 20. There was a friendly communal kitchen, a living room with a plethora of movies and a dorm room for 4. A double-level porch out front had a hammock, a swingset and a view of the High Tatras. Finally, we had left the city.
Our first day saw us do “The River Walk”, which was a fairly easy hike along a nearby river.
The second saw us head to a nearby cave that was quite amazing. Unfortunately, pictures were not allowed without a rather exorbitant fee. Fortunately, the mandatory tour was in two languages. Unfortunately, they were Slovak and Polish. This was also the time that all the bacon, ham and cheese I’d been eating chose to catch up with me.
I’m not sure if it was something I ate on the third day, or just Bacon’s Revenge, but for the second time on the trip, I was down for the count. The next day saw me sleep in, move to the living room and watch Game of Thrones for most of the day. Leslie was a great sport. Thankfully, I felt much better that evening and even made it out with the gang to Renata’s, which was the local hangout for the staff.
I have to give a mention to Slovakian Garlic Soup. So many places around the world use garlic in their soup, but it’s always in a supporting role. The Slovaks make the garlic the star and Renata’s does it best. It’s a thin, brown soup, which looks a little like french onion. At the bottom is a local sheep cheese that had been shredded along with garlic and cooked in the broth. The whole thing is topped with floating, crunchy, rye croutons. We had other ones that used regular croutons, but it was much better with rye like Renata used. This soup was wonderful and had to be one of the more pleasant surprises of the culinary variety we’ve run into. Who knew that the Slovaks made excellent soup?
Our final day in Zdiar saw us head to AquaLand, a waterpark that was about an hour away on the bus. There wasn’t the emphasis on slides like the USA, but there were a ton of pools with fun water features, a pool bar and the largest hot-tub we’ve ever seen.
There was a stage where a young woman ran competitions amongst the crowd to provide entertainment and we saw one of the reasons people from this area are good at strength competitions in the Olympics. There was two competitions amongst men. The first competition saw four guys put a full beer in each hand and hold them out straight. Whoever lasted the longest won. The second was similar, except this time all they had to do was lift a pony keg. Whoever lasted the longest won.
The highlight of the day had to be the spa, which was the most decadent spa I’ve ever seen. Then again, I think this might have been the first one I’ve ever been to. It had a bunch different steam rooms, two herbal spas, a menthol spa, a regular steam room, a cedar spa, a salt spa and a flower spa. Another was built to resemble a meadow with sun-lights for tanning and another was just a nice, normal room to hang out it if you wanted normal temperatures for a bit. The one we actually went in the most was the “Arctic Pool”, which was incredibly cold, but refreshing after a hot steam room. It was next to an artificial snow room. The entire thing was built off a central room containing a hot tub that was about 12 feet in diameter. I’d call it big, but it was nothing compared to the one outside that fit 200 people or so.
Unfortunately, we barely missed the 7:20 bus and ended up waiting to catch the 9:30, which put us back in Zdiar to late to hang out much at the hostel. Fortunately, we went to a pizza place that gave me the opportunity to try Kofola, which is a Slovak cola. Slovakia is one of the few places in the world with a legitimate challenger to Coke and Pepsi. Kofola is a bit sweeter and has some spices in it that give it a bit of a bite. I liked it. Leslie didn’t at first but it seemed to grow on her.
At the end of day 5 we realized that most of the volunteers were leaving at the start of next month and had a serious discussion about volunteering on staff at the Ginger Monkey for a month. On the other hand, there was more parts of the world to see. In the end, we decided to move on. Even though the Ginger Monkey was great, there is plenty of other places we would be giving up on if we stayed, and who knows what’s around the next corner?
Well, I guess the Hungarians do…
Next stop, Budapest.

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