Finally I understand Slovakian Saturdays.
Whereas in Britain everyone seems to go to the shops, here the shops all shut.
Saturday is the day when people get married.
And if you’re not getting married you, hope to be invited to someone else’s wedding where you might meet someone to marry.
Otherwise you go to the shopping centres, because they don’t close and it’s warmer in there than out on the streets. Even Tesco was rammed with people and the store here is about the size of a small town.
I woke up wondering why on earth I’d switched the heating off during the night. It was six degrees in the van, and it wasn’t tempting me out from under the covers.
Polly had other ideas and was banging around in her cone of shame, insisting that I pay her some attention, and more importantly that I take her out.
It’s a dull day and I know I’ll have to drive a few miles to get the batteries back up to charge. Solar, surprisingly, depends on the sun, and there is unlikely to be any today.
We drove to Tatranska Polianka, a village about ten miles away, and above where we stayed when she was operated on the first time. Thinking that Polianka was a good named place to leave her for a while, I parked there. Then, after pulling on some layers, I started heading skywards on foot.
Shivering Sunday Stroll.
It was a constant steep pull for an hour and a half to get to Velicke Pleso. At times it was freezing cold. But then all zips were opened in the woods where the shelter allowed body heat to build. And when I got to the lake I was treated to a few minutes of sunshine – bliss.
There were two potential routes back. An exciting trail, or a less interesting track that was close to qualifying as a road.
I started on the trail.
This must have been the sort of thing Tolkein had in mind as Gandalf led his furry toed friends through the various mountains of Lord of the Rings. Even though it’s 40 years since I read the book, their struggles were immediately called to mind as I started crossing these paths.
Ten minutes into the clamber across this exciting landscape I glanced down towards the valley.
And saw nothing.
Nothing at all.
A thick fog was rolling up from below.
Suddenly the easier track became awfully attractive. Easier to walk, and much easier to follow. I retraced my last ten minutes and descended a track which I could have found my way along no matter how dense the fog.
As it was the 16km walk took the best part of four hours. I didn’t need the longer trail.
The trail I’ve been building up to is part of the wonderfully named Tatranska Magistrala, or simply The Red Route. This 42km trail from west to east can be seen at quite a distance as a dark line running high across the mountains.
I hadn’t realised that it was a well known route, I’d simply spotted what must be a path and wanted to get to it.
The route I’d chosen was also attractive as its high point is the 1751m Skalnate Pleso ski station that Minty and I took the cable car to on her birthday.
Bloody hell it was hard!
20kms of either steady uphill, or stupidly steep downhill.
Hard. But one of the most fulfilling, magnificent walks I have ever done.
I grinned from ear to ear on most of the climbs, rewarded at first by glimpses of the view, and then for the last couple of miles simply uninterrupted splendour looking down from 1750m and across tens of miles of Slovakian beauty.
Unfortunately the descent via the ski run was horrible!
Far too steep for walking.
Even the crazy fell runner types were doing a side step, feet at 90 degrees to the slope.
There was a longer, and probably easier, route, but Polly was waiting, and I can’t pretend I knocked off the 20kms in just an hour or two.
I now would very much like to do the full 42km hike – Paul? Are you up for it? A silly thing to ask, Paul is one of those daft fell runner types who’d skip along the whole route as I was puffing and panting up the first climb.
A couple of notes on a good hike in Slovakia.
Distance is given in time not kms. How they do this I don’t know as everyone has their own pace, but so far the estimates have proved as unnervingly accurate as the little bit on Google Maps that tells you when you’ll arrive somewhere.
I wonder if the signs secretly give everyone a different time?
Just as in Norway, if the details say that people of moderate fitness can complete a route, picture the “moderately fit” people at a national athletics meeting. None of the trails that I’ve tried have been easy, and at times the Magistrala is very hard indeed. Climbing 400m in just 1km on the path yesterday certainly warmed the muscles, especially on broken granite paving.
Roll this rolling home.
9am Tuesday morning.
Polly and KC are back at the vet.
In anticipation of the right results I’ve filled the tanks with fuel, and water.
And it’s a tentative yes!
Pavol, the vet, is nervous of us travelling, but says it looks like we’ve taken good care of Polly so far.
He wants weekly photos. Hey, that’s OK.
I’m overjoyed. It’s a good job I’d written down the questions I had for his partner Zuzana or I’d have just fled the surgery there and then. I would have forgotten to ask about the next few weeks of dog care.
Providing her wound heals completely we then have at least three months before she can have a bigger version of the same operation done again. That means in total, assuming the new op is a complete success, the poor pooch will have been out of action for eight months. That’s a heck of a proportion of her life, but the great thing is – she doesn’t seem bothered, it’s only us who are fretting. She has even stopped trying to rip her cone from her neck now.
No stopping us.
We set off, retracing the route we’d taken from Hungary when her hideous flesh eating disease had set in.
Back then Amanda and I were too stressed to absorb the scenery, but I remembered the switchbacks and knew it would be a good road to take on a calmer day. The Narodny National Park is the Low Tatras Park, and I could happily spend a few weeks walking the trails here too. Simply driving through on the R66 and then R72 roads was a beautiful thing.
All too soon we were in Hungary and the awful roads were soon giving us both a good shaking. For speed through the flatlands we took the motorway and we’re now at the official centre of the country.
There’s a stone carved to that effect under the ancient failed space rocket in the field next to the van.
The field where a randy stag is standing bellowing his love torn heart out to any doe who’ll have him. I reckon I’ll need to go and have a word soon, it’s getting late after all.
I need not have worried about the stag, a warm southerly wind whipped into a mad storm and soon I had to abandon the radio as the noise of the gale drowned out all else. It wasn’t a calm sleep, but I did see my stag in the morning. And a fine fellow he was too, his antlers are at their best, adding 30% or more to his impression of size.
I’m usually very happy to be on the M5 heading south, though today it was to take me to the Romanian border rather than to Exeter.
A drive of a few hours through flat lands wouldn’t normally inspire, but this afternoon the sky was magnificent, the stands of trees were beautiful, and I was listening to Talk Talk’s elegiac masterpiece Spirit of Eden. When the album came out in 1988 I didn’t pay it that much attention, they were a pop band after all. Then Guy Garvey covered it a few months ago on 6Music and since giving it another go I can’t get enough of it. How interesting that EMI sued the band for technical incompetence when they’d finished recording the album, and it subsequently went on to become an absolute classic.
I feel I’ve abused Hungary, driving across in two stints, with little exploration. But we’ll be back next year.
After so many non-event crossings between countries I was surprised to see a full on border. Then I remembered how protectionist Hungary has become in its efforts to prevent refugees from entering the country. It took about 40 minutes to get through the border from Hungary to Romania, but there was a nine mile queue of trucks to enter Hungary.
I reckon that any car trying to get through would have had a five hour wait, probably more.
And people we know have voted to have similar queues in the UK!
When I finally got to the control and told the guard I was going to Arad he told me “Eat some good traditional food at Ratio.”
You ignore border guards at your peril, so that’s where I am now, having a most tasty beef stew, heavy on paprika, with polenta, cabbage salad, and an excellent local Cabernet. Thank you Mr Border Guard.
On the way to the centre I felt more most nervous driving than I have in a long while. It felt so foreign.
Ancient trams seem to descend from all over.
There’s a priority system, except I can’t work it out, other than the obvious, and that’s that trams have priority over everything. Not even the traffic lights make sense.
There are so many big vans, apparently to get around city weight limits.
And pedestrian crossings – which are you supposed to stop at? I take no risks and stop at all, but then get the horn from other drivers.
Most of the city looks pretty knackered, and the riverside where I’ve parked has that air of abandonment you feel at any resort town in winter.
Love in the dirt.
Arad is dirty, crumbling, and beautiful. There’s Art Nouveau, neo-gothic, neo-classical, baroque and some Soviet brutalist too. In the centre interesting architecture abounds.
A stroll brought the town to life, an hour or so in the restaurant made it better. And by bed time I was interested in the place, enjoying it, and looking forward to the morning.
Many of the central boulevard houses have been beautifully painted, though all a long time ago. The gentle decay is becoming. I imagine it a hundred years ago, a rich city built on wealth from its train and carriage factories, but then it was brought to its knees by communism and the insane regime of Ceausescu.
It has yet to enjoy the investment of some of the other beautiful old cities such as those we saw in Poland, but I hope it’s only a matter of time.
It actually is crumbling. I saw masonry fall from a fading building onto cars below. The bridge across the Mures River has holes in it where the old Soviet era concrete has given up.
And yet great shops and restaurants reside behind these aging facades. Exquisite patisseries, fine fashions, and my restaurant, Ratio.
Ratio’s not as cheap as I became used to in Slovakia, but it’s probably the best place in town, and it’s certainly worth every penny, or Lei as the currency is called.
I’m reading Patrick Leigh Fermour’s (PLF) Between the Woods and the Water, The second part of his journey on foot through Hungary, then Romania to the Danube and on to Constantinople as it was then. During last night’s read he mentioned the Baths of Hercules. A quick look on Google revealed it to be vaguely on my route – so I decided I’d head there after breakfast.
Well, I drove about 140 miles but after that I had to stop. I was exhausted.
Small roads through town after town take it out of you. Especially when close attention to the actual road is vital. Often there are evil potholes, broken edges, and old train tracks crossing the road. Each needs to be swerved, or slowed down for, and of course the cars approaching have the same issue and will often be on your side of the road until the last moment. The other drivers all have to get there first, wherever there is, and they’ll overtake at every opportunity. When that other driver is behind the wheel of a 40 tonne truck and it’s a small road it can be a tad alarming.
The place where I wanted to sleep didn’t have a hint of phone signal, so I carried on. Now I’m in a layby, as yet unsure whether it’ll do for the night.
It was certainly good enough for dinner though – a fillet of smoked salmon on a bed of beluga lentils, with a heap of broccoli. Oh yea baby, we eat well.
Well I did end up sleeping in the layby.
I slept in my clothes in case there was some urgent need to move on, or the Police came and helped me make that decision.
I was unnerved by the number of cars pulling over for ten minutes, leaving their engines running, then moving on. Each put me on edge.
A nervous night in your clothes is not ideal. But once every now and then it’s OK.
Waking this morning in the national park to bright low autumn sunshine my fears seemed unfounded. In fact my heart soared once more at the beauty of my surroundings.
And I learned why there were so many cars stopping briefly.
There’s a spring at the end of the layby and people come to fill big water containers there. At other such places I spotted today there were cages of plastic bottles for people to fill and take away. Re-use.
On the drive to Baile Herculane I felt I’d been allowed to take ArchieVan on a drive through the 1920s.
There were ox carts, I haven’t seen that since Portugal in 1988.
Many people use horse and carts, not to be quaint, but because that’s what they have.
And then there are the hay ricks – beautiful antiquated things that I expect to come to life and wobble off down the field.
The old people with their animal drawn carts.
The old people’s children drive knackered Dacias.
The Dacia driver’s children drive English or German registered Audis and BWMs at top speed across the countryside to visit their families, showing off their new wealth from wherever they have found success.
So fast the change.
So incongruous the old man with driving the cart, iPhone in hand.
PLF was here in 1933 and described it as a place where people came to be seen. He described the highest heels, fine perfumes, and outrageous hats.
The Romans founded the town, and then it was rediscovered in the 1720s by the Austro Hungarians after they’d finally sent the Turks packing. Many of the fine buildings in the tight high sided valley are from the 1820s and onwards, and unfortunately most are in dire need of repair. Even the communist era tower block hotels are looking worse for wear. I wasn’t sure whether some were in use or not.
Yet still many come to take the waters.
There are unromantic concrete pools along the river where the warm sulphurous springs burst forth.
In places the pools are simply a ring of stones in the river where the spring emerges. And in each there were a good number of people bathing.
It’s a curious sight, but it’s a pleasant experience.
My final refuge for this week’s post is outside the national park visitor centre, where ArchieVan is nestled alongside two serious looking German overland trucks.
We’re feeling calm and happy.
And a Saturday too.
Having posted the big Six Months Report I’ve saved this post for Sunday.
Great. Saturday afternoon was a beauty.
The river Cerna cut the extremely deep gorge through the Domogled National Park, and the Baile Hurculane. Leaving the town you remain in the gorge for a number of miles. The cliffs gradually fall back as the river matures from raging torrent to a more sedate, wider flow.
Then suddenly the cliffs fall away, everything opens up and all seems to be water. We have arrived at Europe’s greatest river, the mighty Danube.
This stretch of the river was once treacherous and many ships foundered here. That was until a joint initiative between Serbia and Romania built a dam creating a massive hydroelectric scheme, and taming the wild river to a flat, and much wider, lake (and migrating 23,000 villagers whose homes are now beneath the water).
After a quick walk around the river port of Orsova, we pointed away from our destination towards Dubova, more about the town tomorrow (or next week).
Secure for the night.
I headed for the Mehedinti campsite, driving along the riverbank, looking across to Serbia. I had little expectation that the site would be open, and it wasn’t, but the owner was there working.
“I’m closed.” he said.
I asked if I could stay anyway.
He asked if I spoke Italian.
I had a go.
Our Italian was at about the same level – pretty low, but we managed.
I asked again. “Can I stay anyway?”
He said “Why not?”
I asked “How much?”
He said “How about a beer, a beer would be nice.”
We shook hands.
I love it!
He’s building a shower and toilet block for next year.
At the moment both are rudimentary Sterling Board cabins, but hey, what more do you need?
And after the freezing nights of earlier this week, it was great to be back at 22 degrees.
Wherever you look in Romania there are dogs.
Not quite wild, but not belonging to anyone either.
In the countryside they bark long into the night.
On roadsides there’ll be a few living at a lay-by.
And every house seems to have a few more.
They’re rarely frightening.
They look like they live well.
They’re just there, and it’s interesting to see.
It has been an incredibly varied week. Quite wonderful.
The Romanian rubbish problem.
Hey Florin, now that you’ve tided all the shit out of the garage shall we take it to the dump tomorrow?”
“Nice idea Alina, but I have a better one. How about you get some food together and we’ll drive out to a beauty spot. I can scatter the rubbish all over while you lay out a nice picnic. It’ll be lovely.”