The pang of leaving Poland and the especially lovely staff in Hotel Willa Marta, Sczcawnica, was soothed by a breathtakingly lovely ride on a path beside the river Dunajec. Towering copper beeches and limestone cliffs concealed and then partially revealed by thick mist in the chill mountain air. It was so magical that I didn’t twig for several miles that I had crossed into Slovakia. The following 20 or so miles were along open road, with the sun trying to break through. Shafts of light, and crests of hills mysteriously haloed, while the invisible jongle of alpine cattle bells added to the atmosphere. When I got to the top I sheltered in a bus stop for a hot drink and snack. The thermos I brought from home has turned out to be a very good piece of winter kit. Then time for a few more layers to maintain the heat gained. I felt a bit like superman with my vest outside my shirt and a padded gillet, all ready for a long chilly ride down!
My last ride in Poland had included a fierce 2 mile uphill stretch, bringing dark mutterings and for most of it, a walk of sometimes only 20 paces at a time. This sent me beetling to the post office before leaving Sczcawnica to send home my tent and sleeping bag among other things. A real act of faith as it turns out.
I had decided on the nearer of two towns for my first stop, and was treated to a distant hill-top view of a beautiful castle, white in the now bright late afternoon sun. Stara Lubovna had a great little hotel and while I toiled up 3 flights of stairs, Stanislav thoughtfully whisked Sir G. out of sight. In an uncharacteristic burst of energy, I sprinted up the stairs 2 at a time in a complete panic! Only the first time I have had such a horrid moment!
On the next day, I found a very friendly bar for a break in a pretty town called Spisska Bela. Russ insisted on bringing the bike safely inside (gypsies) and it turned out that he had worked in a pub I knew well from my student days in Cambridge. He sent his cycling friend over to look over routes and likely places to stay, so I felt very well set up. An elderly German gentleman sitting opposite over the shared tureen of soup coached me in my first Slovakian courtesy “bollo vermi dobra yacujem”. “a very nice meal, thank you”. A very important piece of social kit!
Vrbov, a small village resort with it’s natural thermal spa was the obvious place of choice and I arrived in hot sunshine with plenty of time to mooch around and select one of the many pensions. No answer or “nievem” to my knocking on doors, which rather dented my optimism. Finally as the light was fading, a shy man reluctantly unlocked the house next door to his, which was obviously not being used for now. It was warm, clean and adequate and I was very grateful. Hooray! Off to play in my brand new swimsuit. I walked uphill to the spa to discover the big motel and restaurant!!! Then it was into dark murky-green, lobster-hot water. Temperature regulation, more or less shoulder out into freezing breeze!
Rose sky, purple mountains, moon, stars, peace. Wonderful.
It has gradually dawned on me that a combination of recession, out of season timing and the cost effectiveness of receiving a single one night visitor is not to my advantage. There is, sadly, much closure too and this was the stark reality in my next stop. From a top-of-the-hill view down into the pretty resort of Dedinky, roadside boards advertising hotels, pension, sauna etc made the exhilarating hairpin swoop down into the village bristle with enthusiastic anticipation! Same story though. The big Hotel was broken down and shut and local shoulders shrugged in answer to my enquiries. Time to take a well worn leaf out of Annie Mustoe’s book. (Annie Mustoe’s was an indomitable headmistress who retired early to cycle round the world aged 54. She was a little overweight and had never mended a puncture in her life!) I sat in the bar feeling secretly rather foolish and chatted to everyone in sight. There were more shaking heads, but hope kindled when I asked the sweet woman behind the bar if, should I not find anywhere, I could sleep on the chairs in the bar. She said she would take me home with her. She handled the bottles and bottle openers deftly between her right hand and the below elbow stump of her left arm, as well as the several very amiable drunk young men on the other side of the bar, all of whom were noisily engaged in the problem of where to stay! Finally I was directed to Ladislov’s Penzion. Here I gladly relaxed for 2 nights, sweltering in the very effective log-fueled heating at night, and having a gorgeous walk around the steep valley above the reservoir and improbable railway line, that snaked it’s way around the hillside.
Away from the continual Muzak indoors, there is a quality to the silence in this most picturesque landscape that I have never before encountered.
As I made to leave my lovely accommodation I realised I had made another woeful error of judgement. I had avoided carrying too much cash, (gypsies?) assuming that there would be card facilities at the bigger establishments. This meant I was very red-faced and €10 short. It was an awkward moment. Ladislav generously refused when I offered to send on the balance and I left feeling very uncomfortable.
In fact I have not had any problem with gypsies so far, although there are clearly differences. At the edges of some villages, there are what I can only describe as hovels, with very little protection from the elements. Much washing on clothes lines, perhaps a very small child being carried by another, not much older; children that sing raucously to themselves in the street, or groups of older children in bus stops or queues in the little shops. They call out “dobry dobry” as I pass. I wonder how the two such different cultures manage to co-exist side by side. It feels uneasy.
Lastly in this post, I have revised my route in favour of bigger towns so as to be more confident of overnight accommodation. This meant a monster ride yesterday of 80 or so km.. a gamble that following a river and a railway would give a fairly level run. It was! I sped along with a big grin, starting off in crunching frost in the valley and warmed by the sun later on. Again I was assured of a hotel in Brezno, so was unconcerned about the setting sun as I came into the town. A lot of European funding has obviously gone into paving and restoration of the very lovely town square. When I hauled my bike into the dim ground floor hall of the broken down hotel, I was again struck by my rather naive/misplaced optimism! Into the bar. Quick-thinking Lenka made a prompt phone call and within minutes I was being whisked into a partially refurbished Penzion and (unfinished, do you mind?) restaurant …. did I mind? Not one bit! Angels to the rescue again, although I have to admit that I think it was also a reasonable business opportunity as I promptly committed to stay for 2 nights! Nevertheless, I had great fun with 3 cuddly, laughing, smoking women as we tried to converse in 3 pigeon languages!
Just to keep me on my toes, when I returned in the early evening from a friendly bar and very nice meal, I was aghast to find the outer courtyard gate apparently heavily chained. Back to the bar and beg? O good, the chain was just wrapped around, not locked. Could I get my key to turn in the sturdy back door? NO!!! I began to crumple and then laugh… I have cycled nearly 2000 miles and surely I’m not going to let this deter me? At this ridiculous point, the key turned and I came in from the cold…..
Funny that the moment I send home my tent (did I really think I was going to camp in subzero temperatures?) the wobbles start. I have spent some time wondering about the nature of reality (is the universe just a great big reflection of my inner state etc etc) this last week and come to the conclusion that those angels are working very hard on my behalf.
Or perhaps as a beginner, I am getting used to traveling tradition? Either way I continue to be amazed and grateful. Hello from Slovakia and thank you for looking in!