Bratislava

Tuesday 27 November

Dave has me awake to do a bloody walking tour.  Here we go again.  I’m dying of sleep deprivation and dehydration as we stumble around Bratislava’s old town.  This takes two hours.  It’s nice enough with the Christmas markets and all, but it really has nothing compared to the likes of Prague, Budapest and Vienna.  Not that I’d been to Vienna.  Yet.  Oh OK so I’m writing nearly two weeks behind, and I’ve been procrastinating in Austrian bars and winning so many games of pool I’m considering going semi-pro.  I’ve met some crazy people and generally been walking around with a big question mark over my head.  More on this anon, but for now and for your viewing pleasure, have a gander at these snaps of the Slovak capital.  After that you won’t need to go.

 

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Across the country

Monday 26 November

We make very good time thanks to my fellow Brit and his right hand drive car.  It feels really odd to get into the left hand side passenger seat, although this is what I’ve been doing at home for 30 odd years.  I slip down to have a snooze at some point, and catch the shocked look of another motorist who thinks nobody is driving.  Win.

We’re cutting across the backbone of the country, and with the exception of a regular line of crumbling, cliff-top fortresses, Slovakia clearly has been shat on by the Communist daub.  It’s not known for its towns and cities, with the tourist pull being more its countryside and great outdoors.  It appears someone (ask the Russians) has chucked a load of grey concrete down in ‘efficient’ housing blocks.  It looks worse than a ghetto.  There’s plenty of industry too, smokey chimneys finger the sky in a concrete holocaust, and the drab morning does nothing to improve the image.  It’s a shame I wasn’t here in better weather to explore the Slovak countryside, but it’s just too damn cold and miserable.  We stop briefly in Trencin for some human fuel.

Spine of fortresses

One thing of note I’ve…errr…noticed, and not just in Slovakia, is the churchyards.  They are immaculate, and every headstone and tomb is covered with striking flowers and bouquets.  It’s the only colour against the sullen sky and breeze block housing.  It seems a strange contrast that living seems dull and the dead have the life.  Nonetheless, even the eldest tombs in the cemetery are decked in fresh blooms.  Not one cut is drooping, and on-site skips or waste bins contain the remnants of decayed foliage.  Headstones have fresh, gilded lettering and are polished to within mirror shine.  It must cost an immense amount of money, but it certainly looks beautiful.

 

Churchyard flora

Into capital city sometime later then, and in spite of having been up with the lark this morning I find myself nursing a pint with Dave.  Dave and me get on.  Then it turns messy and we’re out in the town until stupid o’clock in the morning.  Some guy is shouting in my face trying to teach me something worthless.  I’m staring at a juke box attempting to convince a random girl I know all about music.  It’s all a little hazy.  Just snippets come back here and there.  Oh…here’s a good one.  Dave meets a girl who has exactly the same tattoo on her neck as he does.  A very unique letter ‘K’, it must be one in a billion chance that someone would have exactly the same design, and even less of a chance that you’d meet them.  Anyway, that was the highlight of the evening.  I think.

 

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Zdiar

Sunday 25 November

I’m in a small village in the Tetris mountains, Slovakia.  No wait, that’s a game.  Hang on.  Google maps.  OK Tatra mountains.  Apparently a very famous and popular region, there isn’t a sinner here.  The weather is terrible and I can’t even see a hill, and the only eatery open in the village just does Pizza.  I watch Iron Man.  I thow a ball around for the hostel dog.  I order a meat feast Italian crust.  Apparently there is some mammoth 50cm pizza challenge, but I’m in no mood to be included on a wall of fame and make myself ill as a result.  I’m also slightly concerned as to how I’m going to get out of this place, when a fellow hosteler mentions he’s driving to Bratislava tomorrow.  Too good an opportunity to miss, I’m woken up at 6am by the deafening church clock bell, and I get the fuck out of Dodge.

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Slovakia

Saturday 24 November

I’ve not actually been to bed.  One hour turns into another and before I know it the dawn is breaking and I might as well stay up for the early traffic to get across the border.  It’s only now that I can see the beauty of my surroundings, and the morning mist on the snowy mountains creates a promise of a glorious day ahead.  I take a few snaps from the balcony and slip quietly away.

The first car that passes takes me 5km further toward my home base, but as it’s driver is going climbing today he apologies that he cannot take me onwards.  A bus that passes within minutes drops me over the border.  My initial distaste for Polish hitching has been drastically improved over the past 24 hours.  My goal is to reach the next popular town on this road, Zdiar, and to stay at the famous Ginger Monkey hostel.  I should have no problem in this spot.

Except of course I do.  Nobody is coming into Slovakia, everyone is leaving Poland.  Any car that is passing is rammed full of people, and it takes me a while to realise folk are ride sharing to go climbing over the weekend.  There’s no space for little old me.  After what feels like an eternity, albeit in the beautiful morning sun, I decide to set off on foot.  It’s only 12 km away after all.

That’s 12km up a damn mountain.  I’m heaving and whining within a few hundred metres, but still no joy with a vehicle.  I’m still positive, because at least I’m going in the right direction, I’ll get there eventually, and the day could not be clearer.  Stopping to take a picture for posterity, I half heart-idly wave my sign at three cars pulling out of a hotel driveway.  The last one stops and a nods acceptance.

It becomes apparent during the remainder of the journey that in no way could I have walked it.  Well i could, but I would have been found dead by the side of the road in the mountains, buzzards pecking at my frozen eyes.  After wandering the length and breadth of Zdiar to find the hostel, I eventually locate it tucked behind a church and I crash through the doors to be greeted by a wagging tail and a wall of warmth.  Three hours to travel what should have taken 20 minutes.  I love hitchhiking.

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Parting gestures

Friday 23 November

I’m standing by the side of a busy Krakow road with little sleep and getting drizzled on.  Nobody is stopping.  They need to hurry up as well because I want to be out of the country before a certain special lady receives a bunch of thirteen yellow roses with red tips.  Yes I know it’s a stupid thing to do and totally pointless but it’s one last shot across the port bow.  I don’t really know what I was hoping to achieve, but I didn’t want to hang around to tempt myself any further into melancholy.

I was about to throw in the towel having convinced myself I wasn’t in a good spot, when I spy someone leaning out of his car door.  “Where do you want to go?”  he asks in good English.  “Rabka” comes my response, to which he replies he can take me to within a few kilometers before he goes to work.  Big win.

An hour or so later and we’ve driven well past the original dropping point, fallen into spirited conversation and this hero of a man is going well beyond the call of duty.  He’s eventually deposited me at a small town a few miles from the Slovak border, in a great spot to grab a second ride. Sir, I salute you; the world needs more people who share your generosity.

I’m in the charming mountain town of Bukowina Tatrzanska, which I can’t actually see much of as it’s getting dark.  With the fading light brings the chill, but I’m good spirits regardless thanks to probably the most remarkable hitch to date.  I give the roadside an hour or so before deciding to call it a night.  It’s a little too quiet here to have success, but with plenty of accomodation on offer, I opt to bed down in alpine chalet digs.  I’m the only guest, and for around four pounds I’m treated like a king, with a cosy room, a hearty meal, and Polish vodka with the sozzled landlord who doesn’t speak a word of my mother tongue.

“No kompuuterr!” He demands as he closes my laptop lid and thrusts me a drink.

“I wouldn’t understand him even if he spoke English right now!”  I laugh sometime later to the little Polish waitress who can speak a little.  “He say’s he doesn’t even understand himself” she translates back, his aging, pockety face glowing red with the booze, grinning from ear to crumpled ear.  Every time he mumbles a comment I don’t understand, he raises his half empty glass to cheers mine.  Who needs to understand another language?  A filthy hand with signs of work, wear and tear is extended as I bid good evening, with dirt under overlong fingernails.  I shake it warmly.  I was blessed tonight in seeing a side of travel not many are graced with, and thankful that such hospitality and kindness still exists in the world.  People are good.  People are good.

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