Towards the end of the 19th century, Davos doctor Alexander Spengler “discovered” that mountain air could cure tuberculosis. As a result, sanatoriums began to proliferate across not just the Alps but the High Tatras, the compact jagged range that runs between Poland and Slovakia, 24 of whose peaks rise above 2,500m. Their popularity lasted broadly until the discovery of antibiotics, which were rather more effective, and many fell into disrepair. Drive, as we did, from the border crossing at Lysá Pol’ana, a couple of hours south of Kraków, and you pass a succession of splendid balconied palaces of wellness in varying states of decrepitude. Villa Tatra, for example, in Tatranské Matliare, is where Franz Kafka spent eight months in 1921 in hope of a cure for the TB that later killed him.
Some, however, found a future as winter-sports resorts. Hence the towering ski jump, built for the 1970 FIS Nordic World Ski Championships, that we could see from our room at the Grand Hotel High Tatras, Kempinski Hotels’ impressive reinvention of a former hunting-lodge-turned-spa-turned-hotel in Strbské Pleso. It opened last year, the first five-star hotel in Slovakia outside its capital, Bratislava.
Architecturally, it’s an eccentric fusion of half-timbered rustic, turreted gothic, Jugendstil and granite-clad modern. But for all the stylistic quirks, it has a grandeur that chimes with the sublime setting on the edge of a glacial lake that is frozen at least 150 days a year. (In winter the cross-country ski route traverses it; in milder seasons it’s a perfect place to mess about in boats.) Beyond the lakes rise a dozen jagged peaks that in early September were already snow-capped, their lower slopes densely wooded and still green. For the forest here is almost as arresting as the mountains: misty, mossy, full of spotted scarlet mushrooms, not to mention wolves, bears and lynxes in its remoter reaches; the sort of fairy-tale terrain evoked by the Brothers Grimm.
The Grand has much to commend it. Our handsome room, a basic-category deluxe (from €183 including a lavish breakfast), was spacious enough for not just a substantial bed but a sofa, armchair, coffee table and desk. Floors are oak, as is much of the agreeably solid furniture. The walls are hung with large photographs of the local landscape in the style of Ansel Adams. And an abundance of textured textiles – devoré velvet upholstery, a suede bedcover – give it warmth.
In keeping with its heritage, however, the Grand’s great glory is its huge opulent spa, tiled in iridescent Bisazza mosaic and panels of psychedelically patterned polished stone, happily devoid of anything cod-Asian or any sense of self-denial. (As well as tisanes of fragrant mountain herbs and antioxidant-boosting smoothies, its café offers coffee and alcohol!) In a conceit that falls just short of glitzy, above the swimming pool hang crystal chandeliers, and around it stand plump upholstered chaise longues strewn with cushions and blankets, which face the mountains through floor-to-ceiling glass. What with the caldarium, steam room, massage jets and whirlpool, we almost hoped for bad weather in order to luxuriate longer.
There was no faulting the largely local staff, who were unfailingly friendly, obliging and polyglot. (With the exception of some elegant Russians, all the other guests were Slovaks or Czechs. Outside the hotel, those without Slovakian or Czech need a phrase book, or at least some German.)
Indeed the only shortcoming is its drab, formal, over-lit restaurant – which despite serving perfectly fine food – was usually deserted, potential diners deterred, I suspect, by the relentless piped soundtrack of has-been pop. (Would anyone actually choose to listen to the Spice Girls with dinner?)
We preferred to eat in the bar, where the music, strangely, was less intrusive and the menu simpler. Or better yet, at always-packed Koliba Patria, 10 minutes’ walk along the lakeside, an unpretentious rustic inn serving carb-heavy plates of strapacky (like German Spätzle), pirohi (a sort of coarse ravioli) or halusky (little gnocchi made of potato and sheep’s cheese), trout, pike or chunks of grilled meat, washed down with unexpectedly good local wine, Riesling and Veltlinské Zelené (Slovakian Grüner Veltliner) especially. Just what’s called for after a strenuous day’s walking or skiing. (As a resort Strbské Pleso may be a bit rundown and lacking in facilities, but it has nine downhill runs, 7.36km of piste and a new chairlift.)
There was music here, too, at least on Friday night: an accomplished trio of violinist, bass and accordion, playing first folk tunes, some familiar from pieces by Dvorak, and as the evening warmed up, quite eclectic requests, most surreally an inspired version of “Je t’aime”. Sometimes a table of diners would sing, hands held to their hearts. And at one point the patrician host of a big family party, who’d spent much of the evening e-mailing, put down his iPhone, borrowed the double bass and joined in. It was an evening of real down-to-earth, unstuffy fun. We may have been foreigners, able to communicate only falteringly, but the sense we felt of welcome, of inclusion, was exhilarating. Geographically it may not have been so far from our urban lives in London. Culturally, though, it felt a world away.
Grand Hotel High Tatras, www.kempinski.com; doubles from €183. The nearest international airport is Kraków (easyJet flies from London Luton and Gatwick), from which it’s 175km, just over three hours by car.
Koliba Patria, tel: +421 52 449 25 91 (booking advised).
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