Extract from Slovakia


Up and over the hill out of Banska Bystrica. The beautiful Kostol (church) in Hronsce was on my way so I stopped briefly to take a few pictures. My appetite for change and onward motion was momentarily stilled as I stood before the great wooden church. Another kind of longing hovered and then drifted away to be replaced by the more familiar push to enjoy the day’s ride.

I had booked a room in the hill top mining town of Banska Stiavnica (easier to spell but with the fewer z’s. c’s and s’s the Polish Sczcawnica) and my mid point for a lunch stop was Zwolen. Here there was a wide pedestrian square with a wonderful castle, contre jour amongst the trees with their warm glow of now bare branches. I sat and sketched with my picnic.

In most of my cycling trips I have discovered that stopping to paint will revive me in all kinds of circumstances. Once, battling ferocious elements on Skye, I was on the verge, really on the verge of extinction and driven to lie down and succumb. For want of something to do while quietly waiting for death, I idly got out my paint box. Timed to perfection, the fabulous and timid Devil’s Tooth peeked out from behind dense cloud for just long enough and lo and behold I had a little painting to be proud of. I hopped back into the saddle. I made it to the youth hostel and hallucinated to Leonard Cohen over my i-pod for the whole night. . a very intriguing experience.

Today I was neither tired nor desperate which was just as well, because the next half of my route was an 18 mile, increasingly steep upwards sweat out of a beautiful valley. The season switch was now obvious. Skeletal black trees with only occasional bursts of colour from painted farmhouses. The real climbing started at Banska Bela and for the last 4 miles I was huffing and puffing like a steam engine. Anything steeper than 12 percent and I have no option but to dismount, but a sign on the road told me it was 10 percent..…so I just about made it. The reward was a fabulous sweeping view of another fairy tale castle with spinnerets and turrets and all the ingredients of brothers Grimm.

In only yards, the impression was wiped out by the sight of unappealing post-communist high rise blocks of flats in deteriorating pastel pinks, blues and yellows. The only way seemed to be steeply down and back up again into the old part of town.
Optimism “Whoopee its downhill” or “ great, uphill. I will soon be going down/warm up/prove I still have it”
Pessismism. Heavy sigh “ not downhill… I will have to go up again” or “ Oh God, another hill”
I had a slight Eyore moment on account of thinking that my recent efforts should have been at an end for the day, but plod on I did and was soon cheered up by the lovely cobbled streets and architecture in the more beautiful traditional square. My B and B was easy to find too and I was made really welcome. The heating was so powerful that I was nearly overwhelmed. So much so that going outside for a wander round later the sub zero temperature took me by surprise. I scuttled back in to pull my down jacket out of my luggage. It had been a superb swap for my tent and although it is a bit bulky it is supremely light. I really love good kit!

A walk the next day took me up through forest to a little lake. It was deep green. As I emerged into a clearing in the sunshine I realised that the woods would have given me more cover. The deep grasses would have to do and besides there was nobody around. When I rose it was to 3 laughing gypsy faces. Two women and a boy had silently appeared from nowhere. At a little way off was a cart impossibly laden with firewood. Their bruised neglect and reddened, swollen hands, rotting teeth, dishevelled hair and nervous wincing only made their trusting friendliness and curiosity the more endearing. I certainly had nothing to fear. Neither was I surprised when the younger woman, tearful and snivelling, pleaded for money for milk for her son. I guessed his age as 11, with his runny nose, cigarette and smokers cough. To break the tragic mood I clowned about as a way of asking for a photo. More hysterical giggles when I showed them the results, and then an address so that I could send them a copy. On the grimy paper she also wrote a blessing. I made a promise which I kept on my return 8 months later, although I have no idea whether the photo finally found them.
Then in a flash the encounter was shut down and the women evaporated back to the woods. The men had returned and I was forbidden.
There isn’t time or room just now to do more than scratch the surface on the difficult subject of gypsy social integration and the problems that state intervention has delivered. There is resentment from non Roma citizens because government concessions help with rehousing, education, transport etc. The problem is that it is no simple thing to try to mould gypsies into a way of life that is alien to them. The division intensifies and the polarisation becomes more extreme. Robbing, begging, squalor and alcoholism erode a culture that once roamed freely with the seasons and brought skilled craftsmanship or labour into villages which meant a degree of mutual tolerance. Suspicion and prejudice understandably work both ways.

I was in the privileged position of travelling without an agenda and had no axe to grind. Being caught literally with my trousers down was a great leveller. To be offered a moment trust and friendship was a very happy experience. I wish barriers did not rest on such deep assumptions.

One more stop and I would be in Esztergom. For months I had dreamt of crossing the Danube and my excitement was mounting. Somehow the thought of Budapest brought my goal of Turkey within reach even though I could not see how I could possibly keep going across eastern Europe in the depths of winter. Thoughts of holing up in a warm cabin with snow and skis and plenty of warming schnapps came to mind balanced by an anxiety that I was being hopelessly unrealistic.
It was clearly important to keep moving so that I could dwell in the present and not get too swept away by fantasy or worry.

!8 miles of riding downhill from Banska Bystrica was a good test of my warmest clothing. I started off in frost on a day when the sun did not penetrate until late afternoon. I even made a detour to get warm going uphill and was treated to a sight that would have delighted a hobbit. Long rows of little humpy turfed dwellings which I later learnt were wine cellars or storage rooms.

My short lived brush with luxury in Vrbov must have gone a little more than skin deep. I am convinced my travel angels had plotted to surprise me with yet another treat.The vast health complex at Hotel Rubin was just a few minutes ride from my more humbly appointed hotel and was like being drawn into an orbit of not quite fluffy dressing gowns, aromatic corridors and primly dressed paramedical professionals.
It had magenta furnishings and a glass and steel magnificence more apt for the 60’s, but in fact had only been completed in 2007.

I had not realised that this whole area was part of a very famous complex of health spas owing to the mineral water’s rare “balnoelogical” properties and is purported to be the only spa in Europe to boast a combination of carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulphide. I was tittering at some of the graphic descriptions with their typically Slavic flavour.
Gulper’s salt “works regenerationally to the alimentary canal and to the lymfatic system. It is used an an aid of the detoxicative process aimed at the defecation of the lymfatic system. Sulphur content in the water impacts positiv of the skin – especially ladies appreciate this effect – loss on the gathers on cellulitide ….” with expertise and treatments for all kinds of rheumatic and other conditions. I thought of my own cellulose and how it would be to expose it in the sauna.
Throwing bashfulness to the wind I flopped into the blistering wood walled cabin to languish and sweat. It was sheer bliss to boil and then splash into the cold pool and back out again into more heat. I think I overdid it.
When I finally emerged, sopping and baked, I naturally could not help noticing the lavish plum-covered shroud concealing a piano of quite extraordinary length in a foyer that had the capacity of an indoor sports hall. It was a full 9 foot of Petrof concert grand, with demure satin bows on its stout legs.
I beetled over to the office to speak to the entertainment manager. I had visions of playing to the masses in their pyjamas…
That night a Hungarian gypsy duo would be playing, perhaps I could play during their break if they agreed.
I returned that evening in the smartest ensemble I possessed and walked over to the bar where the musicians were setting themselves up.
The gypsy duo were alive with friendly welcome and very eager to have me play while they took a break. From just across the border in Hungary they kindly coached my in my first tussle with Hungarian. Yo napot.(hello) Nem ertem. (I do not understand) Kursunom. (thank you) And, something easy…. siya. (bye)
I barely got any further than this, but it was a start.
A musical combination of little and, well frankly, very large. But when my new violinist friend lifted his tiny violin and nestled it beneath his ample chins he became almost airborne, gliding with feather light steps and floating, like a helium balloon modestly anchored. The inner magic beamed out from the benevolence of his sweet full moon face, whilst from his violin spilt the sweetest imaginable melodic strands, filling that huge space.
He glided nimbly around his seated audience, charming and wooing and bowing as he intoxicated us with rich folklore and his skilful accordionist wove complex ornaments and embellishments around the harmonies.
I had a moment of doubting the appropriateness of injecting something as apparently unrelated as Beethoven on an unknown piano into the mix, but the dye was cast and when the time came I rolled up my merino wool sleeves and gave it my best.
Sometimes exhaustion is the best possible platform for true expression, as I was simply too shattered to worry about high standards, performance or image. It was just like being in the sauna. Nothing to do but relax and bask in the music.
One movement, the first of opus 110 was enough. A stillness, in contrast to the earlier intense frisson settled into the atmosphere and I was aware that many of the people sitting around had come here from all over the world in search of healing. This was what drew my heart out and into the space as I shared it. The descending bass passages a counterpoint to the upward searching right hand. The metaphor for what divides earth and heaven and the humanity that strives to find a rung upon a Jacob’s ladder. The music of the spheres. Within moments of finishing, I was invited to join a small group of elaborate women from ‘across the pond’. Diamante rings on knotty fingers. Dehydrated folds of liver-spotted skin on the backs of hands. Lipstick that crept from the upper lips into little furrows ploughed by age and too much sun. Tightly permed thinning hair and insatiable curiosity mixed with theatrical Hollywood disbelief. “gee my husband would die” (hands clapped to cheeks) or “surely you are not all alone?” (hands clasped to bony breasts) They plied me with drinks and ice cream and we became merry and adorable with each other.
Christina massaged me to heaven the next day. All my tension evaporated and I fell into a deep sleep while she loved her way through the layers of skin and muscle to bone and out to the other side. I sank and dissolved. She genuinely gave me so much more than a massage. I think I had one of those all over body scrub potions with paper pants and rough exfoliating mitts. One of my cartoons depicts her floating above me on wings and in a gesture of embrace. I wonder if she is still there with her healing hands.
In my diary “My face is all beautifully plumped up” and I was totally wiped out. So much so that an inevitable migraine drove in and I went to bed with the vile taste of my rizatryptan wafer accompanying the all too familiar nausea, vertigo and high pitched screaming in my ears.
One of my concerns had been to estimate the quantity of medication I would need to carry with me. Hitting on a combination that made these attacks manageable had taken nearly 10 years of futile trial and error. Before then, unpredictable bouts of vomiting for 3 days, utterly incapacitated in a darkened room and in terrible pain would have made such a trip unthinkable. Now I had a formula that was reliable even if it did seriously impair my ability to communicate and make movement feel like crawling through mud. Drugged-induced mild ‘yuk’ bears no comparison. I felt so grateful for sleep.

Minus 7 and a crunch of frost under my wheels the next morning for an epic day of arrival. If I had to count true extremes this day came close to the top of a very short list.
In 4 hours and 35 minutes I rode 39 miles from Dudince to Ezstergom. Colder and colder for the first few miles and then thick white fog which rapidly became dense snowfall. Huge flakes filled the air so that it seemed the sky was fluttering around my shoulders and ankles. The traffic seemed to be a blur of brake lights, headlights and winking indicators yet all was so still even though it was slowly on the move. I felt I had walked into a framed winter picture by one of the masters. This was Sahy. I needed to draw cash from the ATM. In the few minutes it took to fumble with gloves and fish out my bum bag and wallet from within my warm layers I had chilled rapidly and knew it was vital to keep moving.
I also knew that I had to be careful with orientating myself with my map, as I really could do with not getting too lost today.
The enchantment of the riverside shrubs and trees so thickly covered in snow and the mystical effect of an almost total white-out was deeply pleasurable. It felt so good to be out on a bike, creating my own heat, happy and surrounded by such beauty. As I made progress the sky began to clear and then a few miles on, the sun broke through leaving everything glinting and sparkling. I was on a quiet road which rose in delicious tree-lined curves along with my anticipation. I knew that soon I would be gazing on one of the most inspiring landmarks of my journey so far. I could feel it coming and the ache of months of planning and excitement caught in my throat.
How to describe that first sighting as the long awaited icon of architecture emerged in a milky haze from the hill top. Huge and humbling it grew before me and by a phenomenon of light refraction, at first appeared far more vast bringing it impossibly close. As I reached the summit there it was. The domed Basilica of Ezstergom. Elevated regally above the graceful Danube on the throne of its banks, with the castle at its shoulders.
All that lay between us was the bridge and the border of Slovakia with Hungary.
I had ridden just over 2000 miles into a perfect sunset.

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