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New Europe

Day One Hundred and Eight: The Tatra Mountains

High Tatra Mountains 
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Arriving in Slovakia in style. The compact, but breathtaking, High Tatra Mountains. The snow-filled valley leads down to the Slovakian plain.
Michael Palin - New EuropeOnce across the border the High Tatras present a sudden, precipitous and formidable barrier to further progress. It's not a long or deep mountain range but it is steep and one of the peaks, Gerlachovsky, is, at 8,700 feet, the highest point in the whole Carpathian chain. Though distances are short, these craggy passes are dangerous, and the rescue teams are kept busy by those whose mountain walks suddenly becomes tests of survival. At the mountain hut of Téryho Chata I have a snow-lined corrie of dark and jagged rock behind me and ahead a steep descent opening onto a wide panorama of broad grassland in the middle of which, looking desperately conspicuous, are the concrete blocks of Poprad. Beyond them the Lower Tatra range begins. Not as spiky and pinnacled as the mountains around me now, but it's enough to make me curious to get at Slovakia.

The first village we visit proves that mountains and rivers don't always make hard boundaries. Zdiar, on the eastern end of the High Tatras, is a Gorale village, home to the same mountain people we watched getting married in Poland. Both Slav peoples, relations are cordial between Poles and Slovaks. I'm met by Alena, a petite, good-looking Slovak with short chestnut hair whose almost flawless English comes from having spent time in Britain, where she met a Welshman called Rick in Ipswich and married him. They've since come out to Slovakia and bought a house in the village.

Alena learnt dances and folk songs from the age of five - 'something I really missed about the UK' - and this later earned her a special passport to travel outside the country in the days when Slovakia and the Czech Republic were still Czechoslovakia and a satellite state of the USSR.

Since then she has seen the 'Velvet Revolution' of 1989, in which Czechoslovakia peacefully parted from the Soviet bloc, and four years later the 'Velvet Divorce', in which her country parted from its Czech neighbour after seventy-five years of marriage.

Alena felt a bit cheated by the lack of popular consultation over the decision to split. Despite the Czechs and Slovaks having much in common, including a language, the politicians put a fait accompli deal together in 1992. After being cut loose, Slovakia lived very much in the Czech shadow. Its sense of identity can't have been helped by the creation of another new state, Republika Slovenija (Slovenia), not at all to be confused with Slovenská Republika (Slovakia). Recently, though, the Slovak economy has begun to move and opposition to the Velvet Divorce is dwindling.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day One Hundred and Eight: The Tatra Mountains
  • Country/sea: Slovakia
  • Place: Ždiar
  • Book page no: 253

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