An extended stay in Slovakia.
The dog’s need for treatment will keep us in Slovakia a week longer than we had planned, but when we’re not worried about her we’re making a thoroughly good time of it.
Rain is forecast frequently here, but it doesn’t always fall. Saturday morning’s expected downfall turned out to be a few showers during which I nipped back for another soak in the thermal pool.
The warm pool is a melting pot. It’s a meeting of ages. This morning there were four delighted young Spanish travellers who were distinctly nervous about venturing in – the locals don’t seem to encourage, so I waved them in.
Last night an elderly Polish couple arrived just before us and set up long term camp in a truly ancient caravan. They wander up to the pool in dressing gowns – an incongruous sight in the middle of the countryside*.
Others arrive in big Mercedes, and still somehow look rich even after they’ve stripped off and are wallowing in the pond.
There seems an unwritten rule that implores bathers to take out any sharp stones and pile them on the bank, the bank gradually builds and the pool gets deeper.
Levoca – where is everyone?
Our next stop is east of Poprad, in the UNESCO certified medieval walled town of Levoca, listed as one of the top ten sights in the country. Its architecture is interesting and varied. It still sits largely within its original medieval walls, and you’ll find a huge Gothic church, large decorated Renaissance burgher mansions, and a fantastic town square.
We parked ArchieVan in the (now dry) moat and wander the sights.
But where is everyone?
It’s a Saturday afternoon, it’s dry, and OK it’s cooler, but it’s certainly not cold.
Yet there’s hardly a soul to be seen.
The bars and many hotels are open. But empty.
A sad looking tour group passes us doubling the number of people we’d seen, but still not getting the total number to 30.
Odd and slightly eerie.
To The Basilica.
I trekked (dogless) the 2km very steep climb to the beautiful Marianska Hora, a fine church on the hill overlooking the town.
I needed oxygen more than prayer by the time I got there, but the view of the town, and the deep peace within the church at dusk made the climb worthwhile. I’ve since read that it’s the main Catholic pilgrimage site of the country. I can picture the old faithful struggling up the hill in July “We’ll make it on foot for one more year”, their children worried about their own ability to get to the top let alone that of their parents’.
Maybe some don’t make it, hence all the little chapels on the way.
Within a couple of miles from Levoca, travelling east on the D1, the (once) magnificent Spis Castle comes into view with all of the impact of seeing St Michael’s Mount for the first time. It’s no surprise that it’s the country’s most photographed landmark.
If the climb from the car park up to castle leaves you out of breath then you’d best consider whether this is a visit for you. There are some serious steps inside, but the rewards are views far and wide across the surrounding countryside including the Low Tatras.
The medieval castle burnt down in 1780, and fell into disrepair from then, although it remained in the Csáky family’s ownership until 1945. I can understand why the family would have found it a hard place to live back in the 18thcentury – but oh, the views!
Into the wild. Podlesok and Slovensky Raj.
From Spis we headed south west a little (always my favourite direction) to the Slovensky Raj national park, and the camp site at Podlesok.
Podlesok is at the foot of the national park and we trekked into the wilderness directly from where we’d left ArchieVan.
Our path towards Sucha Bela starts innocently, but we’re soon in interesting terrain. We walk through a deep ravine, a cliff face soaring up on one side, and a steep, unclimbable slope on the other.
The landscape is only managed to the degree that the path can stay open, fallen trees are left where they fall unless they specifically block the way. It has a distinctly prehistoric air.
Rough slippery ladders of tree trunks take us up and up, occasionally steel mesh takes you over higher drops. This is exciting stuff.
And all the time the river rushes beneath us.
It feels like a high ropes course without the ropes.
We stop at the steel ladder that climbs up the side of a waterfall as the light was failing, but what a place!
We are here at the end of a dry summer – I imagine that in spring, with a torrent of melt water gushing beneath you, this would be an exciting, nerve shredding trek.
Tomorrow we hope to take another path to explore more.
It’s sad to leave Polly in the van, but she’s definitely returning to form today, she wants to walk rather than merely have a pee and then hobble back to Archie. Dogs are such resilient creatures. Rather than show any signs of pain she’ll walk gently on all four legs, but when she wants to pick up the pace she lifts the knackered leg and motors on with three wheel drive.
After a cold night with a mad, deafening thunder storm right over head, we wake to a clear morning.
Breakfast is almost always an egg and toast, and every time it’s great. Two cups of tea for Minty, a tea, then later a strong coffee for me. Eggs can be boiled, chilli eggs (fried with garlic and chilli flakes), flat eggs (almost an omelette with a difference that’s too subtle for me to understand), scrambled (my favourite), and occasionally poached. Extra special breakfasts include spinach, avocado, and once haggis, although strangely you don’t see a lot of haggis around Slovakia.
Fired up by last evening’s adventure we set out on another walk today.
This time we wanted to follow the gorge cut by the Hornad river, ending up at Prielom Hornádu.
As with yesterday’s route, the path starts innocuously, cutting through a campsite with sweet little cabins, then over a charming bridge to begin following the Hornad.
On that early section we pass a young couple, each with a small child in some kind of backpack. He looked strained, and her face was like thunder. We were to soon find out why.
The path follows the river and doesn’t cut inland just because there’s a cliff in the way. Instead it’ll go around the outside on crazy steel steps attached (but not always securely) to the rock face. The drop is straight to the river below. While it’s probably no more than 50 feet, when you’re looking down through a wire mesh to your death below you do sometimes question the sanity of this gentle stroll in the woods.
There is usually a chain to hold onto, but on the worst of these passages the chain was below knee height for me. I felt like Gandalf leading the Hobbits to safety and completely understood the mum who was somewhat frazzled after taking her children over the path.
The scenery was close in, but still beautiful, in particular the light, dappled through the turning leaves, and sparkling off the river. The occasional open views were all the better as a consequence of being unexpected.
We walked and walked further.
Our initial high pace slowed. Energy was running low.
The raw sound of stags rutting nearby (or was it a bear?) unnerve.
Huge trees crash down into the ravine, loosened by last night’s storm, finally falling to earth, with the splintering of many others in their wake.
After two hours, dog tired, we knew there was a significant junction coming up. We must be nearly there. A junction from where a (hopefully) more gentle route would take us back to ArchieVan.
At the junction that had assumed such importance in our worn out minds we tried to find common ground between clear direction signs and maps that bore none of the names on those signs.
Eventually we had to admit that our planned route was beyond us, unprepared as we were. The track we wanted to take would have climbed and climbed before the drop that we sought.
If we had plenty of food and water we’d have lapped it up. But we didn’t.
Turning back, the feeling of dread, fuelled by fatigue and the unknown journey ahead, lifted quickly.
As we passed familiar landmarks (usually scary paths out beyond where man should ever tread) our spirits lifted again.
By the time we got back to the campsite we were tired, but happy, knowing we’d had an adventure and that we’d earned our shower and dinner.
The last of my sister’s magic ginger cake did wonders for our calorie deficiency.
A few cups of tea, and a good slug of water topped up our fluids.
And then a snooze was in order.
Followed by our first cold night and the need for heating. We woke to 3 degrees outside, 7 inside. Brrrr!
Lidl. The same, but different.
I’m a long-term reader and fan of the Our Bumble blog.
Joanne and Craig have been touring in their van on and off for years and write some great posts. However I have to admit that I used to scoff at their obsession with finding Lidl stores. Especially when my halo was still in tact and I’d delight in searching out great little local shops for authentic foods.
I now have to confess.
I have crossed over to the dark side.
Often local shopping is too damn difficult.
There’s the joy of language (but actually I do enjoy that challenge).
Having to use real money.
Should I haggle or not?
And simply planning your meals when you have no idea what you’ll find to buy.
Now, we too look for the yellow and blue sign that guarantees a good supply of odd but dependable foods at sometimes stupidly low prices.
Having spent years managing bits of the Co-op Minty is a bit of a supermarket geek. She loves a store visit.
And I enjoy them too.
For me the fascination is the little differences.
At home we always have the bright and righteous fruit and veg up front.
In the Scandi countries the booze section was simply a few cans of light beer.
As we travel east that has morphed into biscuits and booze first, and oh what a booze section! Perhaps a dozen bottles of wine vie for space alongside hundreds of different bottles of vodka. Then there are the scores of other unidentified spirits.
Even the bakery section changes.
In Norway you couldn’t get near an item with your hand, you use a device to scoop it out and it falls down a shute to you. Where we are now there aren’t even any tongs, you just reach in, take a nibble, then put it back.
From the Baltic states down, every Lidl has had a huge section of sauerkraut. Wonderful. I love the stuff.
What’s the same all over Europe is the long checkout queue to get to a completely inadequate packing area. In Lidl if you buy more than three items it’s a “try to catch it before it falls on the floor area”.
What are the designers thinking of?
Vive La Difference.
Dog Down, but far from out.
Polly’s vets in Poprad were brilliant.
Her surgeon was Pavol Jurčo and attending vet was Zuzana Weber. Three hours after nervously dropping her off on Tuesday afternoon we were back at the surgery being shown her physio routine.
It all seemed straightforward then.
Now, three sleepless nights later it’s a lot harder than we thought. But she is making progress.
It has taken her quite some time to relearn slouching into a sit, then lying down with a very poorly leg.
We’d never thought of it before, but realise now that she always turns anti-clockwise to lie down. That would mean falling on the wound. So she has had to devise her own method of getting to ground.
Despite much trying she can’t get her head around turning the other way.
We’re watching her all the time, ready to lend a hand, but trying to leave her to work things out herself. Minty is a brilliant nurse, attentive, but firm, thank you Pop!
Polly often wakes and panics.
She has just done so again.
Although it’ll take time, her resilience is hard to believe. Occasional panics aside, she just gets on with it.**
We rented a little cottage for two nights up the road from the vets, but unfortunately it was booked after Wednesday so we had to move on.
The plan was to stay in Kosice, Slovakia’s second city, but arriving there it was immediately obvious that it wasn’t the place to be with the poorly one. It looks an interesting place, at once gritty, but attractive too, with a strong cultural scene. I’m sure we’ll be back one day.
Instead we drove another 25 miles to a completely different and beautiful place.
We parked at Zadiel.
Zadiel is at the foot of a deep wooded limestone gorge and has been ideal, but for the fact that we can only go for a walk one at a time. Once Polly has got used to her wound and stopped worrying it we can leave her to rest alone again – but that is likely to be several days yet.
We usually sleep on a huge bed, with Polly underneath, but she can barely walk let alone crawl under into her pit. Fortunately the van configuration allows us to create two narrow single beds instead, and that gives a decent space for the dog in the middle. It works well – so long as it doesn’t get too cold when you need each other’s warmth as well as the duvet!
The next ten miles after leaving Zadiel were the most stunning since Norway. Driving through the foothills of the Low Tatras, the trees gently turning through their myriad of autumn colours. Oh the joy! I’d have slowed down and absorbed it more completely if I knew what the first miles of Hungary would be like.
But that’ll be next week’s tale.
*My mind immediately began to invent their story.
Eryka and Jan.
Eryka was a fighter.
Anarchist, in the true sense, not as we know it in the UK.
Protester. If it wasn’t right, and there was a public demonstration, she’d be there. At the front. Shouting loudest. Arrested frequently.
Born in ’59 she had known the horrors, and fought the system.
She was young until last year. Younger than her years.
But since the end of the summer she has been suffering.
Terrible, griping stomach pains.
Worse than anything she remembers from being “worked on” in the cells.
She is losing weight.
While it hasn’t been enough to stop her going about day to day life.
Her spirit has faded.
The spirit Jan feel in love with many years ago.
They’re not wealthy.
They certainly couldn’t afford private treatment for what has, so far, been a mystery to their local doctor.
“And after all,” he’d say each night as he slammed down his vodka, alone, “What will they do but take our money. And guess?”
“We can guess.”
“And I guess it’s this wretched town that has made my love so ill.”
Eryka had accepted nothing she didn’t agree with through life, yet she seemed resigned to fading before Jan’s eyes.
And so Jan, by far the more laid back of the couple, took responsibility, sharing what should have been private with any who’d listen.
Father Marek, the priest, had his opinion. But of course, Eryka had no time for him.
The strange Buddhist fellow, who stuck out so badly in this Catholic country, suggested meditation. Eryka liked his alternative approach, but laughed at the thought of concentration replacing action.
And lovely old Elwira Mazur, who’d lived across from Eryka when she was a girl, and had always looked after her if given the opportunity, thought that a pilgrimage might be the answer.
Doctor Wojcik, not the family doctor, but someone Jan fished with, was the only one who had an idea that stood out, and it had nothing to do with medical science.
And it was Wojcik’s suggested that galvanised Jan into action.
The clear out.
Jan had long driven her mad with his hoarding.
She owned little beyond a few simple clothes. A few books. Dylan and Cohen on vinyl.
Jan had books, bikes, music, a boat, numerous fishing rods, a billards cue with no tip, more suits than he’d ever wear, dress shirts though they never dressed in that way, beautiful ties, and shoes, so many shoes.
He had the loft, the basement and the garage. Down the road he had a tin garage that used to be his dad’s workshop. His van was full of tools he didn’t use. And at the allotment there weren’t many gardening implements in his shed, but there was a heck of a lot of stuff.
But then it started to disappear.
Big stuff first.
Wojcik bought the boat (not the doctor, another Wojcik).
Some guy turned up one day and took a lot of clothes. Suits, shoes, all the flashy bits. They never suited him anyway.
He sold a bike at the market, and another to a friend.
He moved many of his books into the van, but then next time she rode in it the back was empty.
All the time he assured her that he was finally bowing to her wishes.
Eryka was too weak to be bothered too much, and never asked if he got a good price.
She didn’t even ask when Jan demolished and levelled his dad’s old garage. The garage he’d been so proud of when he took it on.
Her spirits sank to a new low when, without him mentioning it, she saw a caravan manoeuvred to where the shed once stood.
Not a shiny new caravan.
A shoddy, old, moss covered caravan, covered in stickers from some previous owners’ tours. A caravan that looked like it’s next trip should be to the scrapyard.
It was to be their new home.
Jan’s excitement was bubbling over when he came in to call her.
Eryka was dreading what he had to say.
It was worse than she’d even feared.
Jan had given their landlord notice on their house.
In just a few weeks they were to head south into Slovakia.
Through the High Tatras.
To a small village called Lucky.
A village where Jan’s friend Wojick had lived as a boy.
They’re there still.
On the 15thof May Jan began to drive the caravan, hitched to his van, from Gdansk all the way through Poland. They stopped at some of the great cities they’d never seen. They enjoyed themselves for the first time in a very long time, even though they had very little money.
They stayed in the Slovak town of Lomnica in the High Tatras.
The first night either of them had spent outside Poland in their whole lives.
It was her birthday.
She drank vodka with him for the first time in over two years.
Although the language was different, they could still talk to people, laughing at the little, and sometimes, big differences in expression and nuance, as well as learning new words.
The excitement of the new took them both by surprise. That alone helped Eryka, and she’d long since forgiven him for the massive change he brought to their lives.
In mid June they finally pulled off the big roads and drove through the little village of Lucky that Jan had been talking about.
The road began to climb towards the wooded hills. As it did so the road got worse, hardly more than a track, the potholes shaking the old van.
Then, just as Wojcik had promised, there was a rough parking area on the left. It was defined by big logs making a large square. There was a communal cooking area for visitors of which there were three couples, all in their vans. One of the vans was Polish.
Once parked, and with the van stable, Jan asked her to put on her swimming costume under her clothes.
Although it was a strange request Eryka found she trusted her love more after their three weeks on the road than she’d ever done before. She pulled on the cossie that hadn’t been worn for several years, and slipped his old denim shirt over the top, she put her feet into her sandals.
Jan walked her the 200 metres up to the warm spring, knowing it would be just as Wojick had described, even though he was so far from home.
He had no idea what the waters could do, but he believed the saying that “Like Jesus, ghosts are there if you want them to be” and he wanted the waters to do something for his girl.
They have bathed in the pool every day for 30 minutes or so, three times a day.
Often they’re alone, especially when it rains, but sometimes there’ll be a crowd, telling tales in many different languages. Sometimes there are people there all night, but Eryka and Jan are usually in bed too early to know.
It’s now late September. Jan works a few hours in the bar of the village. During July and August Eryka collected a small fee for the parking area which she shared with the owner.
They live an extremely simple life. Jan has lost weight, while Eryka has gained a little. She is still in pain, but she brims with life.
Jan is insulating a friend’s apple store, it’s where they’ll live for the winter.
**On the resilience of dogs – just after I was writing about Polly a fellow walked by with his two legged Collie! It had a pram wheeled harness at the back and just used its two front legs. Wow!