07. In the hills of Slovakia

 


1. A bit of adventure
2. Košice
3. Prešov
4. Krompachy
5. Low Tatras
6. High Tatras
7. Slovensky Raj
8. Cycling to Poland

1. A bit of adventure


Since couple of weeks, I often orientate myself with the sun rather than checking my map. Being outside every day, I get use to know naturally which direction I am following. Right now, I am in a field surrounded by other fields and forests. I can see a village, quite far from here but I have no idea of how to reach it. I decide to head to the nearby forest and start riding on a track but it quickly becomes too hard!

The way I took in the forest... do you see the deer?

I soon have to get off the bike and push it uphill, avoiding ruts and puddles of mud. I could spend the whole day pushing my bike on such path with no progress so I decide to turn back… Going downhill isn’t much easier and it just started to rain, but as soon as I’m out of the forest, things are getting better. The path in the fields is going downhill. Soon I reach a village and the speakers along the main road play : “all by myself! Don’t wanna be, all by myself… anymore”, it feels like a nice welcome!

2. Košice


I think I start to get use to cycling big cities. As I arrive in Košice, I take it easy despite the traffic, going from big avenues to commercial areas, from industrial areas to residential districts, I cycle on the street as well as on the pavement and basically everywhere I can. Košice is the second largest city in Slovakia, its suburb is pretty chaotic but the city centre is pretty nice. From the first moment, I like Košice much more than Bratislava. I don’t really know why, probably because here it feels much more like the Slovakia I imagined.

Gypsy dances

These days, there’s the Wold Championship of Ice Hockey in Košice and the Slovaks are big hockey fans, the city is pretty alive with of lot of people in streets. I don’t care much about hockey but I enjoy the celebration atmosphere in the streets.

Slovak victory in Košice

I spend four wonderful days in Košice because I was welcomed by a very nice family, Mikuláš, Lenka and their two kids Jakob and Klára. Mikuláš is an artist, musician, talented photographer, tea lover, Qigong enthusiast. To live with Mikuláš’s family is like being plunged in a world full of colours, games, music and happiness. I find them so beautifully, so much in harmony and I see in the eyes of Mikuláš so much love when he looks at his wife or his kids. This family is really shining with love and it moves me a lot. I will never forget the smile of Klára, 5 years old, running in the living room to wish me “Dobrú noc” before heading to sleep.

As I ate so many of the delicious Slovak dishes cooked by Lenka, I decided to cook a French quiche and chocolate mousse for the family. I spend most of my time talking with Mikuláš and drinking tea but I also learn to play a bit of accordion and guitar. One evening, we went out to a čajovna (tea house) and, with a friend of Mikuláš, played some music. Two guitars and one violin, they start improvising on the basic melody I play, a Czech song I learned in Brno with Tina. The result is just great and for a moment I feel like carried away…

Mikuláš playing piano

When I hold Mikuláš in my arms before leaving, my heart is shaking. We share the same fight to live our dreams, the same fight against all these too conventional thoughts… I’ve learned a lot with this family. On my bike, I watch people in the street, everybody heading somewhere, all these lives intertwined, I feel so deeply human, infinitely small and fully happy… I think of Nicolas Bouvier whose sentences make me dream since years : ”Le voyage ne vous apprendra rien si vous ne lui laissez pas le droit de vous détruire. Un voyage est comme un naufrage, et ceux dont le bateau n’a jamais coulé ne sauront jamais rien de la mer.”

An hour later, I forgot about Bouvier and I’m still lost in the Suburb of Košice. I ask a young guy in the street if he can advise me what direction I should follow to get to Prešov by the countryside. He asks me to wait for five minutes, run to his home and comes back on his bike. My new friend is called Jakob. We are cycling together until the next village, Jakob is very happy to hear about my travel and he asks me a lot of questions: “Aren’t you missing your home? Your family?”
Jakob, if you only knew, I try not to ask myself such questions. I don’t even really know where my home is… but of course I miss some people.

3. Prešov


After wishing good luck to Jakob for his exams, I continue my way to Prešov, heading north from Košice. In Prešov, I cross the whole city and ask many times for directions to the people in the street. It takes me ages to reach the house of Branislav who actually lived in a village couple of kilometres north of Prešov . Branislav lives with his two parents and, when I reach his home, his parents greet me from the garden with a huge smile. Branislav insists on offering me his room and my own bathroom. So much comfort… Too much comfort! I would never have imagined such thing before leaving.

Church of Prešov

It seems obvious to me that our sedentary way of life is a key aspect when it comes to controlling our lives. When people, locked at home, have no contact with the world except for what they read in the newspaper or what they see on TV, then they are ready to believe and agree with whatever we tell them. I’m thinking of a fish in a bowl, a fish to whom we would tell that the oceans are dangerous and polluted, full of huge ugly fishes ready to kill. If I was this fish, I would probably feel quite comfortable in my bowl and not wishing to leave it… It’s actually true, the oceans are polluted and there are big fishes, but the oceans are much more than that. Most of the time, the media don’t lie so much, they just show what they want to show and we believe it but hey, we are not stuck in a bowl! Every day we can learn about others, the real thing is just there, we can touch it, interact and discover, and in these conditions this is a shame to believe everything we are told… If my travel had only one impact, I would like to give to some lethargic people some envy to taste life and see by themselves that the world is just there and full of good people.

Prešov

I could let go of my desperation for thirty paragraphs but I should rather get back to Prešov for a minute. When Branislav takes his accordion and plays Yann Tiersen, I feel back in for a moment… By the way, what do French know about Slovakia? I hear them from laughing at how stupid Americans are but isn’t it just a way to feel better about their own ignorance? When I tell Slovaks that many people in France have never heard even of Tatras mountains and even ignore that there are mountains in Slovakia, they open their eyes in disbelief. I could as well tell them that some people even mix Slovakia with Slovenia but I don’t dare to make a fool of French in front of these guys who know so much about France and our culture. By the way, in Košice, Mikulaš was also playing Yann Tiersen with his accordion.

4. Krompachy


Because I still didn’t say it, Prešov was a really lovely city to hang around! I’ve been wondering for a while where are these beautiful Slovak girls everybody talks about but I know, they are in Presov! 😉
Back on my bike, I’m heading to the mountains. Branislav’s mum gave me a sandwich, a huge chocolate bar and biscuits for the road. I feel sometimes embarrassed to be given so much. What do I give? Hum… On the road I enjoy spring, the trees in blossom and the flowers in the fields.

On the road in Central Slovakia

Really the landscapes are wonderful but the temperatures went down so much since I left the Hungarian plain. Today I put on my winter jacket and hiking boots. In the villages, kids are on their way to school but when they see me they start running and ask me tons of questions.

I carefully chose my itinerary in order to see many Roma villages, however, I am quite careful when it comes to taking pictures after all the warnings I received from Slovaks. Before reaching Krompachy, I pass by a Gypsy village which I find absolutely wonderful and atypical. No houses, only small wooden huts not even separated by any fence. It looks like they have neither water nor electricity. A lot of people are outside, standing around a fire. I feel all these pairs of eyes following me. I feel like an intruder and this time I don’t dare to stop, so I just continue my way.

David, a Roma boy near his village

A moment later I see Gypsy women on the road, they are wearing very colourful dresses and scarves and they carry on their back enormous amounts of branches gathered in blankets. I see in the forest some kids gathering berries and later I meet David, a gypsy boy who explains me in very simple English that the life is very hard here in the village, that they don’t have jobs. I see his eyes sparkling when he talks to me about his kids and his wife… Communication can change so much the way you perceive others. I am so glad that I am not listening to all the terrible prejudice I hear about Gypsies, because in just few minutes, I already feel that David is a good guy. I’m glad that I spoke to him…

In Krompachy, I am welcome by Lenka and her mum and I am once again treated like a prince. Lenka leaves me her room for the night and offer me some wine and a delicious goat cheese manufactured by her friend who is a shepherd. Since centuries, Slovak shepherds are producing traditional cheese from the mountains but this knowledge is about to disappear because the traditional methods for producing cheese don’t respect the drastic European norms. Being a shepherd in a Slovakia, you don’t have the chance neither the money to be heard and be allowed exceptions as it is done for French cheese for example. Goat cheese is not an isolated case, everywhere in Eastern Europe, we are depriving people of their best and more natural food in the name of safety norms. This is only profitable for supermarkets selling tasteless Edam-like cheese which actually end up making people sick! In developed countries, our healthcare expenses are on the way to exceed the food expenses. People are dying in the name of profit… There are so many things we should be fighting for and yet so much resignation. I wonder if the fact that we have too many things to fight for only anaesthetizes the desire to fight.

With Lenka in Krompachy

The next morning, I see that Lenka also prepared me a sandwich and cakes for the way. I can’t believe that, everywhere I go, people are so good to strangers.

5. Low Tatras


Back on the road with a Slovak scarf attached on my bike, I head to Poprad. Every day it gets a little colder as I get closer to the mountains.

In the Slovak countryside

I’m firstly heading north, cycling on a small road because I don’t want to miss the scenic panorama on the castle of Spišský hrad.

Spišský hrad

The castle is so beautiful that I decide to make a break in a field nearby and eat the sandwich Lenka gave me earlier this morning. Later, I’m heading east to the High Tatras, the highest mountain chains in central Europe. The landscape of central Slovakia is a delight, rolling green hills all around me. I definitely prefer to cycle in hilly regions rather than crossing flat land. Of course I am a little slower but this is so beautiful, this is the Slovakia I have dreamt of!

While I wander the streets of Levoca, admiring ornamented buildings along the paved street, I see a car coming towards me. The driver looks at me with astonished look but I’m use to it, people don’t see that often such overloaded bikes. A couple of seconds later, I hear the loud noise of a crash so I turn and see that the woman driving just crashed in a car that was park in the street ! What the…?! Hopefully, the driver and the passenger are both fine. They get out of the car and the woman burst in tears in the arms of her husband. I feel so useless here that I decide to leave and continue my way.

Levoča

The sun is lowering on the horizon right in front of me. I am not use to cycle westwards, it feel like if it is the morning! During the last 30 kilometres before Poprad, I keep thinking of this woman crying in the arms of her husband. People here earn sometimes less than 2 euro per hour and cars cost the same price as anywhere else.

Spišský Štvrtok, on the road to Poprad

Without gloves, the last kilometres are really hard, it is so cold that I don’t feel my fingers and I stop every five minutes by the road to blow hot air in my hands. It can’t believe it, just a week ago I was cycling in flip flops and tee shirt and today my thermometer merrily displays 0 degrees! Welcome to Poprad!

6. High Tatras


As soon as I reach the centre of Poprad, a man shouts something to me in Slovak. I wonder for a second and then I realize that I am standing by chance in the street where Martina lives and this man is his dad asking me to get in. Fine, I don’t want to stay any longer in the freezing cold so I get in! The family of Martina lives in a huge house from the 16th century located in the historical centre of Poprad. The thick stone walls are ornamented with wood and it feels so good to be there, in such a warm environment drinking a tea in front of the chimney. We have dinner and couple of shots of slivovice. Martina lived in France and speaks French perfectly. When I ask her what surprised her about French people when she was in France, she answers: “They are exhibitionists!”

Last week when I was in Košice, I decided with Tina to organise a hiking trip for couple of days in the mountains of Slovakia. It is 3am that night when Tina finally arrives in Poprad from Brno. When I wake in the morning after a very short night and open the window of our room, I am left speechless watching the magical mountain scenery in front of me. Yesterday, when I arrived in Poprad, it was already dark and I haven’t seen anything of the High Tatras. I didn’t expect the landscape to be so nice… Unfortunately, they forecast a lot of snow in the mountains and we have no equipment. Also, Martina’s father tells us that he called his friends in the mountains and they identified one morning of this week the footprints of 8 different bears around their cottage. During this period of the year, the bears are especially hungry and Martina’s father advises us not to camp in the area. We finally decide to go for a short trip in the Tatras and continue our hiking trip further south in Slovensky Raj, there should be no snow and no bear!

Hiking trip in the High Tatras

It feels so good to breathe fresh air once more! I haven’t seen rocky and snowy mountains since I left Switzerland. Each time I am in the mountains, I realize how much I have been missing it. Really, every day since I am in Slovakia, this country surprises me so much! Tina explains me that the panorama in this area of the High Tatras was even nicer before 2004. In November 2004, the wind blew at 230 km/h on the south side of the High Tatras and the tempest left a naked strip of 40 to 50 km. The forest is still devastated today. We walk until a deep blue lake and well and see no bear, no snow, just a stunning scenery 🙂

7. Slovensky Raj


Slovensky Raj is a national park located in the south of Poprad. In less than an hour we manage to reach Hrabišice, a village nearby.

High Tatras from Hrabišice

I should admit that hitchhiking works better whit the company of a young girl than with a hairy or beardy buddy! The weather is grey when we enter the forest. Tina came here many times already and she knows the mountains.

hiking in Slovensky Raj

The area is too rocky to camp, we need to walk fast and reach Kláštorisko monastery before night. The path quickly becomes tinier as we get deeper in the gorge, we walk along cliffs on some grids suspended above the precipice, climb ladder after ladder, cross suspended bridges over the gorge, walk on shaky wooden logs above rivers, it feels sometimes like Indiana Jones. Despite the rain, I am amazed by the celestial beauty of nature. Slovensky Raj means “Slovak Paradise” and I understand why.

Slovensky Raj is for those who love ladders and suspended briges

We finally reach the monastery at night. The monks aren’t here yet so we decide to pitch our tent nearby and prepare food. I am starving. We cook some kind of soup mixed with jahly, a very common cereal in Czech Republic, it is called Millet in English. My shoulders hurt. I’ve been carrying about 8 litres of water all day but I don’t regret it because we didn’t find a single source on the way!

a salamander by the road in Slovensky Raj

The next day we continue our walk and it becomes more adventurous even than yesterday. Neither the rain nor the cold could break our enthusiasm in this little escapade. This hiking trip in Slovensky Raj is today one of the most beautiful moment of my travel 🙂

Before Tina leaves for Brno, we talk about the possibilities to travel together. She might cancel the plans she made for summer and join my adventure by bicycle. For now, I will continue my way to Poland. My front pannier is still broken since last month in southern Slovakia and I will receive a new one in Krakow, at Vookie’s place.

8. Cycling to Poland


After spending one last day with Martina and her family, I leave Poprad and cycle around High Tatras chain by the East. The weather is sunny again and the view on the mountains with the deep green of the fields of the valley is wonderful.

High Tatras on the way to Kežmarok

Soon I reach Kežmarok where I am welcomed by Jan-Filip and his family. They are my last hosts before Poland. Jan-Filip is stuck at home because of a broken leg. His mum is a very talented artist and their flat looks a bit like an art gallery, which does not to displease me! I am so thankful to all the families who hosted me during my journey across Slovakia, they were incredibly generous and hospitable.

Two days later, I leave Kežmarok and continue my way north. I cycle on small destroyed roads which go up and down the mountains nearby Roma villages. During the afternoon, I reach the top of a hill and sit down at a wooden table to eat couple of Horalky – some delicious wafers you can find in Czech Republic and Slovakia. The area seems perfect to pitch the tent so I decide to take it easy and stay here for the night.

Gypsies on the road

When I unpack the tent, I discover with disgust the stinky decomposing body of a huge purple slug from Slovensky Raj. Bah!
Couple of hours later, wrapped in my sleeping bag, I hear some noise near the tent, then a huge and deep roar “WRRAOUWWW!”. I stop breathing, listening to the smallest noise from outside and trying to convince myself that bears don’t eat humans, I should take it easy. I packed my food in a bag and suspended it to a tree, away from the tent, but my clothes and panniers smell of food. A bit later I receive a message from Tina telling me “JP, you know what to do if you’re attacked by a bear”. Of course I know, but I would prefer if it was… I don’t know… a rabbit?

The following morning, I wake up glad nobody ate me during the night and I keep smiling when packing my tent under the rain. The day will be tough because I should reach Zakopane in Poland before night, which means almost 100 kilometres in the mountains.

Rainy day

I follow the Polish border, cross many picturesque mountain villages with a lot of wooden houses.

Wooden houses in the Tatras

From time to time there are places with less fog and I can enjoy the beautiful panorama that the road offers on the mountains. I am leaving Slovakia full of great memories. I love Slovakia!

Javorina's Church in the Tatras



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