I forgot to write about the butterfly walk we did from the campsite at Podlesok.
It wasn’t called that, it was through the Pilska Dolina (Pilska Valley), but as we progressed we quickly became aware of the thousands of the delicate little flutterers.
The valley is billed as the most quiet in the area, and sure enough we didn’t see any other walkers. I guess that’s because it’s flat and people come for the hills. That suited us just fine. Our legs were tired from a hard walk the previous day so we ambled along, absorbing the beautiful sunlight filtered through the heavy green canopy, and the crystal clear waters of the Pilska.
At one point we saw thirty or more of these orangey flappers. They were super shy and I couldn’t get at all close to photograph them.
Later, driving through the woods of the Carpathians, the roads were thick with them. So sad as they don’t get out of the way.
A few people have reminded me to include more of the oddities of van life. Most of the questions we’re asked are on the sweet topic of the toilet.
It’s certainly different to that of a house, and here’s a story to bring that home.
For the uninitiated here’s a quick overview of how a van toilet works:
The loo looks much like any other loo, except it has a lever that opens and closes the bottom where the water would be at home.
That bottom opens to a hole that drops into a cassette.
The cassette is a simple but well designed box that holds all that’s put into it, and that’s easy to remove and empty when necessary.
Generally you prep the cassette with some evil chemicals (organic versions are available and we use them) that reduce odour and break down solids and toilet paper.
There’s even a special loo roll that breaks down much more easily.
Right. You’re ready for what follows.
Gabriel and the stinking pot of piss.
During the winter we stopped using toilet chemicals so that we could empty the pee pot anywhere. It was generally cold so it didn’t matter so long as we remembered to do it every morning.
Here in Slovakia toilet dump points are almost as rare as they are in Greece and we need to get back into a rhythm that works for us, and nature.
The heat increases the challenge.
Yesterday the temperatures in the van were above 30 degrees for a most of the day, and while we’d have faded in that heat a few weeks back we’re all three better at dealing with it now.
All was well until later in the evening when one of us opened the loo for a pee.
And was greeted by a stench strong enough to make your eyes water!
We were in a crowded car park and so pouring the contents into the undergrowth was simply not acceptable. We know it’s only wee, but we’re unusual in that self imposed restriction.
Instead I set my inner alarm for dawn, and at 5am I woke and walked the cassette down to the portaloo in the car park (they’re often called Dixie loos).
I could look around.
There were already hikers setting off for the hills. At 5am.
Oh, and Gabriel?
We spent most of last year with a simple battery powered light in the van toilet, it was dim, but it did the job. Then was the LED light fixed in April. My god it’s bright.
Opening the toilet door now when the light is on brings the halo of an archangel to the van. And a cry of “Gabriel” from us both.
Our empty car park was transformed by 9.00am on Saturday morning.
We were surrounded by activity as the third day of a four day orienteering event got underway.
Hundreds of entrants strut around in their strange attire of shorts with gaiters (to protect them from the brambles and beasties in the undergrowth). They’re of all ages, but almost are willow thin. There’s even a guy parked near us who strapped his baby to his back before setting off.
In the evening the Slovak band Plostin Punk played a two hour gig for free to a few hundred people in a little amphitheatre at the foot of the ski slopes. The band has been going for 25 years and clearly have a strong fan base, most people knew the words to every song. The seven piece was tight, and the lead had people in stitches chatting away between songs.
The atmosphere was great, and I noticed that the gender split was fairly even. We have become used to going out being a man’s thing, but here in Slovakia that doesn’t seem the case.
When I passed the concert area this morning it was as if it had never happened. No litter. Nothing broken. Just nature returning to its happy state.
The same goes for the fact that there were a thousand or so runners here over the weekend, and yet the place was left perfectly clean.
We need to remind ourselves to absorb and enjoy the cleanliness of Slovakia. We’re off to Hungary next week and the change will be significant.
Behind the van in our parking spot at Podbanske there’s a memorial to the Slovak National Uprising, a resistance movement that saw some success in 1944, before being quashed by the Nazis. The reprisals were brutal.
At the moment I’m reading about the Romans’ reprisal tactics as they tackled the Gauls.
It has left me wandering whether human respect for each other has advanced at all in 2000 years (and we haven’t even driven through the Balkans yet).
How is it that simply being told someone is your enemy is enough to make utterly unthinkable behaviour towards them acceptable?
Loosely connect to the theme, I was delighted this morning when the bear of a Russian who has slept a couple of nights in his little car near us came and said goodbye. Likewise, we were chuffed to get a blog comment from the Czechs who camped nearby in their VW Sharan.
The Café Dog and Rabbit.
St Just is blessed with three cafes, in fact there were four when I was last at home, but the newest didn’t seem to be thriving.
Our favourite is the Dog and Rabbit on North Row. They certainly serve the best coffee, and their winter evening events are good too.
The café is run by our friends Ben Vavrecka and Rosie Davies. This little digression is all about Ben, or at least his ancestors.
On Monday we travelled into the north west of Slovakia bound for the town of Vavrecka, with no other purpose than taking a photo of its name plate and sending it to Ben.
No journey is wasted though and we ended up staying nearby on a sweet campsite called Camping Jami on the banks of the country’s biggest lake. We didn’t move far from the site, but gazing out across the lake (and a hot shower) was a real treat. At any time of the day you didn’t have to look at the water for long before a shoal of young fish would break the surface, or occasionally a huge trout would momentarily take to the air, before landing with a splash.
On Wednesday Polly will have her fourth hyaluronic acid injection meaning we needed to return to Poprad on Tuesday afternoon.
Although we’ve been around the area for a good six weeks in total we hadn’t been to the old town together. We put that right today.
Poprad’s old town is a few kms from the modern centre and has a very different vibe. Grand burghers’ houses with deep overhanging roofs still line the cobbled streets and although not much goes on here, it has a calm feeling that’s quite apart from the city.
The big smiles award.
I’ve been critical of the general demeanour of serving staff in the country and so when we’re treated well we notice it all the more.
A coffee stop at the Espresso Barin old Poprad was a delight.
Fantastic coffee, light and tasty cake, and all served by charming people at the best café we’ve been to in ages. I’m sure the girl undercharged me, so I rounded the bill up to what I expected to pay, and it made her day.
We’ll sleep the night at the ski station of Tatranska Lomnica. It’ll be the fourth time that Polly have slept here and we completely love it. It may be just a car park, but in front of us the mountains climb to over 2500m, and behind the land drops away to the wide valley before rising again 30 miles distant to the Slovensky Raj hills.
In the morning it’s an early trip to the vet, and hopefully we’ll move onwards towards Hungary.
I like not correcting the notes I wrote on previous days. It helps me remember what we were thinking and how that might change.
Instead of heading south after Polly’s fourth injection we took the motorway east. We now have three pots of hyaluronic acid for Polly. We’ll need to visit vets en route to have them shoot her up.
The royal town of Bardejov is the only large settlement in the north east of the country but its finery makes up for the apparent cultural desert around it. It once boasted huge defensive walls and an impressive moat, remains of both are preserved with perhaps too much new brick and concrete, but give an impression of its former glory.
Its square is undisputably grand with its fine town hall taking centre stage, and the church of St Egidius providing a perfect photographic backdrop. Jozef’s funeral was about to take place there yesterday so we didn’t see its opulent interior.
Bardejov was one of five royal towns that established as trading centres in the c14th and c15th, and largely run by German colonists. It owned vineyards in Tokaj (Hungary, we’ll go there soon) and supplied its wines to the rich of Krakow.
These ancient towns have fascinating histories and I could happily spend a week reading up on a place, exploring its tales.
The spa has been a big draw for the town for many years. It’s a few kms from the centre and a truly odd mix of spa town grandeur from different periods, the oddest being the 70s Soviet style mosaic tiled flats and shopping centre.
We went not to take the waters but to visit the small museum of buildings that was initiated on the site by a philanthropist doctor who made his fortune at the spa.
Instead of driving across the countryside trying to find an old listed barn this place brings 20 or so buildings together. Yet again we’re struck by the space that even peasant houses afforded. That carries on today with most houses being pretty damn huge, and on very large plots. The plots generally include big vegetable gardens even today. They’re pretty too with flowers grown amongst the produce.
The north east has two other attractions.
The collection of UNESCO listed wooden churches, and the ancient beech forests that form the border with Ukraine.
On our UNESCO sites map Bodruzal has equal prominence as Levoca, and even Bratislava. Arriving in a village with just 50 inhabitants leaves you wondering if you’ve found the right place.
Its name is written in Roman and Cyrillic characters, the first time we’ve seen that in Slovakia.
This tiny village is visited for its wooden church, a church guarded by a friendly, but rather awesome woman, Lena. For a couple of euros Lena played an English audio guide for us that took us through the history of the building since 1658, including drawing attention to the hole in the roof where a bomb fell through. Luckily it didn’t explode and Lena explained how the parishioners simply carried it out into the fields to detonate it. Lena is one of its congregation of 16 Greek Orthodox believers.
Sharing the same car park is a new 2016 Russian Orthodox church which instead of charging us sent us off with a gift. I’m not religious, but I love religious icons and will treasure this little piece.
For our sleep we crossed into Poland by the Dukla pass and found a delightful free campsite on the edge of the forest.
Eastern war historians are probably more familiar with the Dukla pass than the Normandy landings for it was here that a Soviet force tried to cross into Slovakia to meet with the SNP (see above) to take back the border and advance to Presov. The intended five day campaign took many months with huge loss of life on both sides yet the 100,000 Soviet force failed to crack the 20,000 Germans. The area is littered with tanks and armaments that commemorate the events, as well as memorials in Svidnik and at the border.
We climbed the watch tower at Dukla, and wandered through the war memorial in appropriate feeling drizzle.
On the road to Snina we followed the Polish border through mainly open countryside, with the Ukraine border approaching. This is a very different scene to countryside at home. Where we’re used to occasionally seeing stands of trees among miles of fields, here it’s the opposite. The majority of the landscape is densely forested with occasional fields. The villages are small, grey, with hardly a shop, brightened by dahlias in many gardens. The only town, Snina, looks like a Soviet new town from the days when they were pulling people out of the countryside. In fact it was founded in the 1300s but most property seems to be concrete high rise.
The town campsite, a pretty looking place, only wanted 10 euros for the van and both of us, but then they wanted another 10 euros for Polly! I thought that was daft and told them so. We engaged reverse and I’m now sitting having breakfast in a layby down the road where we slept a peaceful and free night.
Our last night for the week was outside the second city of Kosice where we waited in the morning for a geyser to do its thing.
We’ll share its story next week.
Standout meal of the week.
I’ve just eaten it.
A breakfast of champions.
Garlicky spinach, topped by a fried egg with parmesan garnish, and caraway seed toast.
Wow! Right. We’re ready for anything.