After our slight miss when choosing a mountain town to explore in Poland (top tip, don't go to Zakopane!) I was super happy when Nick and I reached our Slovakian campsite at the base of the high tatras. It was pretty! And secluded! And there weren't stalls lining the streets selling all manner of tacky things: no pope paintings, no mass produced stuffed toys, nobody trying to sell me a five minute go on a bouncy castle.
This felt like a true escape from the real world which is, I imagine, what everyone's looking for when they think about heading into the mountains and getting "off grid" for a few days.
The other great thing about our chosen campsite, Rijo Camping, was that it was only a 15 minute walk from Stará Lesna, a small train station where you can catch the electric train to places like Štrbské Pleso, Stary Smocovec, Vyšné Hágy, Nová Polianka, Tatranská Polianka and Tatranská Lomnica to explore the Slovakian towns and mountains.
Like good hikers we consulted the free Vyoské Tatry summer hiking map displayed at entrance to the campsite and took pictures of the areas we wanted to check out (sorry, I can't spend €7 on a map I'll use two or three times!) and headed off on what was marked as an easy hike. About 7 or 8 minutes into the hike I came to the realisation that Lonely Planet weren't kidding when they said to wear proper hiking boots. This was the moment that I realised that hiking isn't really just a big walk! There are steep inclines and when it rains, which of course it did as soon as we started out, those inclines will get slippery and your running shoes and strawberry print umbrella really aren't gonna cut it as outdoor wear! Still, like the idiots we are, we pushed on. We had decided to hike and hike was what we were going to do. After 50 minutes (the amount of time the map said the whole hike would take) we realised that we were roughly halfway. We also realised that the more it rained the more slippery it was and that maybe, jut maybe, my optimism and confidence in our abilities might be both adorable and incredibly stupid so, we turned back!
We got to see this totes adorable slug on the way down though, it's teal! How cute is that?! After many laughs about our attempt at hiking we decided that scoping out the vegan snack sitch' might be more our speed so we popped to the closest shop to scoop up whatever vegan treats we could find. We hit the jackpot (or so we thought!) at the only supermarket in Stary Smokovec where we grabbed this fine selection of vegan eats.
I'll start with the positives. The bake rolls have become a firm favourite of ours, both the garlic and sea salt flavours are vegan, although we were sad to discover a pizza flavour that of course contained milk products. Sadly the chocolate soya dessert and the garlic sausage were not, shall we say, to our tastes. The sausage was almost flavourless but was a colour I associate with my pastel hued hair or a whipped buttercream icing and definitely not with savoury food and Nick described the dessert as grainy. Neither of us think that pudding should be grainy. Still, if you're vegan you won't starve in the mountains and that's definitely a positive.
The next day, after much map consulting and photographing we decided to take a funicular from Stary Smovovec up to Hrebienok and hike around up there for the afternoon. It was a bit of a gloomy day but I was quite happy with that, as you'll see later I'm not cut out for hiking in the heat!
The hikes really weren't super challenging even for noob's like us, there were definitely some spots where you really had to concentrate as you climbed from rock to rock and, of course, a lot of it was uphill (these are mountains after all!) but it wasn't especially difficult. As always I was in charge of snacks and I packed a Clif bar and a tub of mixed nuts.
I make our nut mixes myself with whatever nuts we can afford at the local grocery store and I usually go for roasted and unsalted as I prefer them that way. The base mix is almonds, cashews and pistachios and if we're feeling fancy we'll pick up some macadamias or hazelnuts to throw into the mix. The scenery up in Hrebienok was stunning and just what I'd hoped for from the High Tatras. I loved seeing the fir trees, lakes and waterfalls and getting right out there into nature.
After our hike we still had enough energy left to take the train to Štrbské Pleso to wander around a lake we'd seen marked on the map.
On our final day in the mountains we decided that we wanted to get as high up as possible which meant braving the cable cars. I'm going to be honest with you here, I'm not a natural adventurer. It may seem like I must be because, y'know, I'm a traveller, aren't we all adventurous? But nope. Not always. Not in every single scenario - travel involves pushing myself out of my comfort zone regularly. I have a very real awareness of my own mortality which, combined with a very vivid imagination, sometimes conspire to make things like cable cars, roller coasters and boats panic attack inducing experiences. Basically though I try super hard not to let these anxieties stop me doing anything I want to do. I'm not always successful but I try and this time it payed off and I hopped onto the cable car between Tatranská Lomnica and Štart and, after a brief pause to get my mind to shush and stop telling me I was about to plunge down a mountain to my death, I switched to the second cable car, hopped off at Skalnaté pleso, and was up at 5659 feet within minutes.
It wasn't easy by any stretch of the imagination but wow, I was so glad I did it when I got to the top, breathed in my first lungful of crisp mountain air and gazed out at the view. Gorgeous. As you can see in this pic there's actually a third tiny cable car that goes up even higher. We decided not to take that one because it was already chilly at the altitude we were at and the cars were both tiny and incredibly cramped. It was fun to watch them disappearing up into the clouds though.
We were sad to be leaving the mountains the next morning but we were ready to cruise south and we had a leisurely day of driving with a few sightseeing stops in mind. Levoča was our first planned stop because who could cruse by aUNESCO World Heritage sight without stopping to explore?
Lecoča has a beautiful old town and we walked along the well preserved city walls, zig zagged through the streets, scoped out the medieval church and ate a picnic on a bench in the town square.
I think this photo Nick took accurately sums up what's so great about our little romahome, we were able to swing through the streets of Levoča and pop it into a regular parking spot no worries. I'd like to see most of the camper vans I've seen on this trip try to do that!
Our next road trip destination was the ruined, and partially rebuilt, Spiš Castle. The hill up to Spiš Castle from the back car park, yes, it turned out that there is in fact a closer car park, is a lot bigger, steeper and longer than it looks from the bottom. I was thinking that it would be a nice stroll but nope it was, forgive the hyperbole, horrific. I am not cut out for climbing giant hills in the midday heat, I like to think that I am but the reality does not match up with what my inner monologue is telling me I can accomplish. At one point I lay down in a bush and told Nick to just leave me there to die. I can get quite dramatic when I'm too hot.
We made it though and after lying in a heap by the entrance for 20 minutes getting our breath back and discussing how ridiculous I am we enjoyed exploring and checking out the views. If you're driving from Levoča I would highly recommend continuing round the bend in the road to the official car park if you don't want to arrive sweaty and exhausted!
After our sojourn in the moutons and our day of exploring we needed to stock up the van with vegan yums for our journey into Hungary so I had a quick look at the Happy Cow app to see if any of the cities we'd be driving past had health food stores. I hit the jackpot in Košice which has a BioPark store that Happy Cow helpfully informed me was located within the Aupark mall. The mall also has a Billa so we stopped there first to see if we could grab any cheap staples. I picked up two kinds of tofu as well as cherries which were so cheap that I'm still regretting not filling up bags and bags full, grapes, a green juice, bread, soya milk, cereal and pasta. My zine came in super handy when picking a suitable cereal as I was able to avoid all of the ones with milk, honey and dubious D vitamins.
After stocking up on the basics at Billa we delved into BioPark and found that it was stuffed full of vegan eats.
We grabbed some Wheaty salami and sausages which were on the expensive side compared to everything else but in my mind they were totally worth the splurge, I've been a big fan of Wheaty products for as long as I can remember and their spacebars are one of my go-to travel snacks. We also picked up some super firm smoked tofu, some basil and tomato spread that sadly wasn't the greatest, spelt burgers that we're yet to try and a bar of Vivani dark chocolate with orange. I love vegan friendly health food stores and this was a definite winner - these purchases kept us going during our time in Hungary and I was super glad to have found them.