Little shot glasses of viscous amber liquid are waiting for us as soon as we walk through the door. Peter proudly tells us it is brewed only in Slovakia, with Tatra stream water. Peter is our leader. The drink tastes sweet and potent. It takes effect instantly. We eat. Most of us try the sheep-cheese dumplings, a traditional dish, weighty and rich, topped with bacon. Peter narrates our upcoming week: as he talks of the mountains, I smile to myself. After the long drive across the flat, green-brown countryside, the sight of the Tatras jutting proudly from the earth was a tonic. They had stood in an orderly line in the distance, seeming formed up to greet us beneath a cool sun and wistful clouds.We had then carried on to Smokovec, a sedate town nestled at the mountains’ feet. Abstract wooden sculptures, grandiose gothic hotels and snow-sports equipment shops line the roads. As night falls Peter shows us an instrument he calls a Fujara, a shepherd’s flute, two meters long and adorned with intricate patterns. He carved it himself. He plays it, and the sound is deep and resonant. I am intrigued. Snowshoeing I was picturing tennis racquets. What we get is far from that, sleek and streamlined and modern. Our crunching footsteps echo. The weather is not on our side. Fog hangs over us, giving the forest an eerie, close sense of calm, and obstructing what we are assured are wonderful views. The path has an allure of its own, though, and we listen attentively as Peter tells us how smugglers would travel these routes with food and amenities, in an effort to ease the lives of those in poverty under Slovakia’s now-deposed socialist government. We see huge tracks in the snow. Peter speculates that they belonged to a wolf, a relatively common animal in the Tatras. There is a moment of concern when a dog appears on the path, but it’s only a Labrador. We laugh afterwards, but the wolf is still out there.
Cross-country Skiing The sun is bright and the sky blue as we stand at the edge of an expansive frozen lake. The skis are much narrower than I’m used to, and at first I spend a significant portion of my time on the ground, but I soon get the hang of it. It feels good. The snow glides underfoot, the breeze is cool and gentle, and the exercise is invigorating. I can’t help but smile as we perform the peculiar striding motion with expressions of intense focus on our faces.Dogsledding The dogs’ boundless energy is infectious. They bark and whine and roll in the snow, staring eagerly at us. Each has a distinct personality, but they all share an enthusiasm for running. Only two of us can ride at a time, but Peter constructs a bar from the snow and serves us mulled wine which steams and warms us.I feel slightly nervous as I climb on and brace myself. The dogs are clearly eager to begin, and I can feel their strength as I hold the brake in place with my foot. But once I release it and the ride begins, my nerves are replaced with exhilaration. We’re moving fast. Wind whips my face, and as I lean to direct the sled, I feel myself growing fonder of my new canine friends by the moment.
Downhill Skiing The slopes are thriving, alive with the sweeping crunch of carbon-fiber on snow. We leave the beginners in the capable hands of a charming ski instructor, and head up the mountain in one of a network of clearly new lifts.Skiing is always a joy for me. I love the cool wind against my face, the sigh of the skis running over the soft powder underfoot, the thrill and freedom of flying back and forth and down. We even see the beginners up on the main slopes, winding their way to the bottom. Free Day We spend our free day walking and sightseeing. We pass the imposing Grand Hotel on our way to the funicular railway, which takes us up to the former ski resort of Hrebienok. Here, we see the ice chapel, a display of careful craftsmanship; I am transfixed by the colours and glinting sculptures.We walk a winding path through the mountains, through a wilderness made tranquil by the fresh falling snow, softly crunching footsteps the only sound in the otherwise absolute silence. We stop at a Sherpa hut for mulled wine. Our breath forms clouds as it leaves us. This is peace.
Sledding Our last day begins with riotous fun. Speeding downhill on sleds, we laugh, recapturing the joy of childhood on the slopes.The afternoon is spent in relative calm; a short horse-and-carriage ride and we find ourselves sat around a fire, roasting sausages on spits, drinking yet more mulled wine, and listening to the melodious tones of Peter’s flute. I decide that I simply have to have one – I buy one of his – he tells me that it’s a pleasure to have his instruments enjoyed around the world.Departure We leave early, bleary-eyed and ready to rest. Peter leaves us at the airport, smiling broadly. We head inside, burdened by Slovakian chocolate and alcohol and, in my case, a two-meter flute. Take me there: Tatras Winter Activity Week.