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FOREIGN AFFAIRS

Slovak hotels: Expect the unexpected

Travelling for this year's Spectacular Slovakia travel magazine, I have stayed in dozens of hotels around the country. And while I have had my share of bizarre experiences - I once stayed in a hotel in Žilina that shared a building with a brothel - I have been overall quite pleased.
Foreigners and Slovaks alike often talk about Slovakia as if it were a backwoods destination where the services are sorely lacking. This may be true in some cases. But Slovak hotels and pensions are typically clean and comfortable, if not austere, with employees that are almost always nothing short of charming.
Concerning employees, many hotels have receptionists who speak English, at least enough to arrange the logistics of a foreigner's stay. But some don't. So here are some key phrases:

Travelling for this year's Spectacular Slovakia travel magazine, I have stayed in dozens of hotels around the country. And while I have had my share of bizarre experiences - I once stayed in a hotel in Žilina that shared a building with a brothel - I have been overall quite pleased.

Foreigners and Slovaks alike often talk about Slovakia as if it were a backwoods destination where the services are sorely lacking. This may be true in some cases. But Slovak hotels and pensions are typically clean and comfortable, if not austere, with employees that are almost always nothing short of charming.

Concerning employees, many hotels have receptionists who speak English, at least enough to arrange the logistics of a foreigner's stay. But some don't. So here are some key phrases:

Máte voľné izby? (Do you have any vacancies?). Prosím si jednoposteľovú izbu/dvojposteľovú izbu (I would like a single room/double room). Koľko stojí jedna noc? (How much does it cost for one night?) Je v izbe kúpeľňa alebo sprcha? (Is there a bath or shower in the room?) Kedy sa musím odubytovať? (When is check-out time?) Sú raňajky v cene? (Is breakfast included?)

Be forewarned, however, that prices often vary for different clientele. Many hotels charge more for foreigners, often twice as much as the Slovak price. But if you have a green card, or if you speak Slovak, you can usually coax the receptionist into granting the lower sum.

One complication: some hotels haven't yet figured out their own pricing schemes. Take the confused Penzión Svorad in Trenčín. On three successive days I called to make a reservation, and each time they told me to call back the next day. "I am not competent to give reservations," the man on the phone rather honestly explained. He said he was, however, competent enough to tell me how much a room cost: Sk350. But the next day when I finally booked a room for two nights, the woman on the phone said, "That will be Sk770 a night." I changed my reservation to one night.

They still hadn't got it right. When I checked in, an elderly man working the front desk charged me Sk540. "In that case," I said, "I'll stay for two nights."

"Well, first I'll have to see if the room is free," he responded. "Wait a minute, you already have it reserved!"

The folks at the Klopačka hotel in Špania Dolina proved equally incompetent in terms of understanding their own pricing policy. Over the phone I was given a choice between a Sk900 room and a Sk200 room. I took the cheaper option. Late the next day, though, when I arrived amidst a snowstorm - with no way to leave town and no other hotels to stay at - they stuck me with a bill for Sk900.

"But I requested the Sk200 room," I stuttered helplessly.

"Well, that room has been given away," the receptionist said with a smug 'and just what are you going to do about it?' look.

Bear in mind that I have been travelling on the Spectator's budget, which is roughly equivalent to that of a backpacker. Nine hundred crowns is for me a hysterical sum to part with. But for most foreign travellers, the prices will amaze: with 20 dollars (Sk1,000) to spend, you are virtually assured of finding a clean, comfortable room in any Slovak city or town.

Still, expect the unexpected. Like the Villa Romaine in Šahy, which I still cannot figure out. Šahy is a depressed little town of 8,500 people on the Hungarian border. It has a drab city centre highlighted by a bus stop. Yet the Villa Romaine is an exceedingly elegant hotel, and a double room costs only Sk500. There is really no reason for a tourist to visit Šahy, but if they do they'll have a fantastic place to stay.

Of course, the higher the price one pays, the less chance there is of any unpleasant surprises. The Hotel Perugia in Bratislava, the Grand Hotel Praha in Tatranská Lomnica, the Hotel Tatra in Trenčín - these are all a vision from the outside, and world-class on the inside.

Personally, I prefer something a bit simpler, something off the beaten path. Like Penzión Katka in Čičmany. A family-run inn, Katka gives visitors the chance to sleep in one of the painted wooden houses the village has become famous for.

My vote for the best place to spend a night is Chata Rysy, the highest inn in Slovakia at 2,250 metres above sea level in the High Tatras. The high elevation trails in the national park just re-opened (on June 15), so it is again open for business.

Chata Rysy is where hikers bed down on simple cots in the shadows of the highest Tatra peaks. While the chata (cottage) is a gruelling five-hour hike above mountain lake Štrbské Pleso, it is well worth the effort (and at Sk120 a night - or $2.30 - a bargain). After all, the luxury of a Hotel Carlton is one thing, but the magical experience of a High Tatra chata is another.

Foreign Affairs is a bi-weekly column devoted to helping expats and foreigners navigate the spills and thrills of living in Slovakia.
The next Foreign Affairs will appear on stands July 1, Vol. 8, No. 25.

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