Cycling East Part 5 – Slovakia

Slovakia was a country I knew very little about before we visited. We planned nothing regarding the route. We did however know from the relief map on our GPS that mountains lay in the north like in the picture below. image There was a delay arriving into the country after the whole  spoke mangling incident at the Zoo that I mentioned last time. As a result we camped just 3km short of the border in the Czech Republic by a little village with a small ski resort.  It was a campground that time forgot, ringed by little wooden chalets. The old man in charge, resplendent in a complete red Adidas tracksuit, was friendly as he carefully wrote down our details in the ancient log book. We had spent all our Czech crowns so it cost us the inflated sum of €5. image The border sits at about 1200m and the climb up is direct, it really took no prisoners as it wound its way through a dense forest. The tall firs offered precious shade on a day that was already scorching hot at 8am! Our legs took a hammering just trying to spin in the easiest gear as it went on and on. image Finally we arrived at the border sign in the forest and as Slovakia arrived so the road deteriorated, a theme that continued across the country. A kilometre later at a bigger Slovakian ski area and finally the countryside was offering up interesting mountain views, regardless of our complaining muscles it was a welcome change and rejuvenated our efforts, resulting in a 140km day across the north of the country. image We also climbed up hill in the afternoon rain showers next to an old logging railway. They wouldn’t take bikes on the train so we slogged up the pretty rough ‘road’. image From our discussions and observations Slovakia might have the Euro but appeared to lag behind the Czech Republic economically. One young woman we spoke too said it wasn’t a country for educated people and she felt like socialism had never left, mainly because nothing ever works, this seems a bit harsh from what we saw. Another person commented on how Czech republic obtained the industrial heart of the former Czechoslovakia, who in turn had gained the bulk of the industrial infrastructure after the fall of the Austrian-Hungarian empire post WW1 so we’re much better set up. Anyway I digress; it is true that Slovakia has a huge rate of emigration and we found few people here spoke a word of English – rather unsurprisingly as only Russian was taught at school until recently. In the rural areas we experienced the same feeling of unapproachability or frostiness that we found in the Czech Republic, in so much as smiles or waves were never returned as we passed by. As we learnt in CZ, it’s probably not unfriendly just a cultural apprehensiveness especially in the older generation. After finally finishing our epic first day we camped by a huge reservoir near the town of Namestovo and enjoyed a sunset and an ice cream sundae, while watching a selection of Poles, Slovaks and Hungarians fishing or playing in boats. This was the sunset! image The next day we had hoped to cross the reservoir dam as a short cut but despite our attempts to ride between the workmen it was firmly closed for repair. We took the long detour south east through green hills and pretty villages. It was then that I created the trip’s theme tune: We’re halfway way there and we’re cycling east Livin’ on a bike… etc. It’s based on the Bon Jovi classic, obviously. I also created a new Slovakian national anthem but its under review by the government so I can’t disclose it here. Anyway, we detoured back north again into the stunning Tatras national park. We wild camped just inside the boundary at about 1000m and miles from any towns, our highest camp spot yet! This was the sunrise at 8am. image We awoke to find that firstly, that my air mat had burst, and secondly that the nearby path was busy at 6.30am with hikers, mushroom pickers and other randoms off the local bus. Between the trees looking out of our tent door was the peak of Slovakia’s highest mountain the 2600m, Gerlachovsky stit. image As we rode on we passed many cars parked up on the roadside, with their owners off mushroom picking in the forest. It wasn’t one type they were after, like morrells, but fungi of all shapes and sizes filled their wicker baskets. We entered the High Tatras region and detoured up to the village of Strskbe Pleso at a lofty 1350m, another new high! This is a popular resort town in a great spot, sadly some eyesore hotels ruin the views a bit. We bought a marshmallow ice cream sandwich, a doughnut and mistakenly some carbonated water and sat by the lake playing with my new polarising filter for the camera. image The road we followed wound its way along the foot of the jagged rocky peaks of the Tatras and we passed some grand old hotels set along an old cog railway. The area was enjoying a revival of sorts, back from the previous 1920s tourist boom. image Heading down to the notable old town of Kezmarok we toured into the deserted centre with its UNESCO listed church and the picture postcard mediaeval castle. There was literally tumbleweed in the streets on a Saturday afternoon. I looked in a bike shop for a wider tyre but found none, then as we enjoyed a particularly heart attack inducing meaty cheese sandwich, the bike shop owner ran across the square with some 28mm tyres for me, it was super kind and I felt bad refusing but they were absolute junk with the puncture protection of a balloon! That afternoon we crossed the central grassy plains and climbed uphill to camp in the newish Slovakia Raj national park. The nearby villages seemed to host a number of poorer encampments and the area felt different to me, it had more of an edge with a few older kids shouting and aggressively waving for us to stop. The national park itself was heaving with tourists. The attractions here are rickety ladders up waterfalls, limestone gorges, caves and large areas of ancient beech forests. Here was a break in the forest with some meadowsalive with flowers and bugs. image At the park we met a friendly Kiwi couple from Christchurch touring in their campervan; they chase summer, spending 6 months in Europe and 6 in NZ – not a bad set up! Theirs was also the first GB-plated vehicle we had seen since Holland. While chatting I tried to fix our third puncture of the trip, yet again this was not the tyres fault but some sneaky grit inside the rim. image In the morning we climbed a remote twisty road up through ancient beech forests for 20km where you almost expected to see Robin Hood swing by. On this rough and isolated route I was also keenly watching the forest after reading the warning signs about the large lynxes, black bears, wolves and the often deadly pine martins that lurked in the area. Sadly we saw nothing apart from the odd rock fall. At the top the road passed through alpine meadows full of wild flowers and alive with insects, before winding down through steep limestone gorges as the sun beat down on us. Here I was trying to bed the tyre after fixing the puncture, it was hot work. image Unfortunately the slowly approaching Hungarian border got even further away for us after our route was blocked by a huge car race! It was a hill climb event with all sorts of modified entrants from Le Mans style racers to home made F1/go-karts, Ferraris, Porsches, VW Golfs etc. We watched and listened for a while planning a detour at the same time. The perverse highlight was when the cars overheated after stopping at the top, bursting into clouds of smoke and quickly being covered with powder! image The resulting detour was only 15km more but added two blistering 450m climbs. It did however lead us on a great quiet road between forest and villages that showcased the real beauty of Slovakia. There was also a selection of aristocratic houses, castles and interesting churches all from around the 15th century. image After a calorie loaded pizza of bacon,  salami, egg and two generic cheeses we arrived on the final climb out of Slovakia but too late to reach far into Hungary. This was also the day we discovered Kofola, a great tasting Czech cola with an aniseed-like after taste – shame we discovered it so late. image I think we selected a great route in Slovakia and saw some of the finest natural scenery of the trip so far. We crossed the country quickly so it felt like our stay was almost too short, however it is good to be making progress east. The weather was mixed but gradually has been more sunny as we crossed the country,here was one of the super heavy rain storms we had. image On leaving it felt like we passed another milestone on our journey, because Slovakia was the final country where we could use our French Euro account. From here on it was local currencies or gold bullion. We are averaging just over 100km a day so reaching Tbilisi in late August is still on track. However the last few weeks of relentless riding have taken their toll on our legs and the temperatures are also soaring at the moment – it has been well over 30 for three days – so the riding has drained us even more than normal. We decided we need some time off the bikes to recharge our batteries in time for Romania and heading south, so we planned a detour west into the hot spring bath houses and epic culture of Budapest.


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