19th July The road to Slovakia
We’ve stayed the last few days with Mickey’s friend in Kraków. It’s been lovely to spend time with Agnieszka and her boys in their family home. She and her husband very ably continued Poland’s good treatment of us by opening their home and feeding us large quantities of delicious food. And all done in an easy going ‘nothing is an inconvenience’ way that I’m slowly becoming more comfortable with.
The call of the road
As warming as our time with them was we both feel the road calling. So, after fond farewells and a picture on my bike for her eldest we head off towards Slovakia. After the drab and dreary countenance of the last few days the sun is a welcome sight. Although the heat serves to highlight the dirt and congestion of the city’s roads. It’s a long straight road out of Kraków on the number 7. But, as boring as the riding should be my head is having none of it. The sun is shining, the wind is in my face and a new country is on the horizon. I take an eye off the traffic to gaze ahead down the pin-straight road, shimmering with heat haze, towards the mountains in the distance. The Tatras and our goal for today.
To say the Slovakian border is understated is an understatement. I ride through it, thinking it’s roadworks. Only as I wonder why the police are hanging around do I realise it’s the border. I nod and smile at the guard and he returns my greeting affably. A second later, Mickey pulls alongside to shout affirmation of what I’ve just figured out. We decide not to stop though. There’s not a lot to see there and we stopped just down the road to fill up, not realising we were so close to Slovakia.
New country, new rules
Signs change again and I realise two things. First, I don’t know whether the motorway signs are green or blue here (it alternates throughout Europe depending on country). And second, I can’t remember whether we need a vignette to ride on the motorways here. This road routes me onto another that I become increasingly convinced is a motorway. B*gger! I feel panic rising at the thought of having to explain to a police officer why we’re disregarding the rules. Not to mention the financial cost of such a simple mistake. Then common sense kicks in. The best I can do is get off at the next exit and hope we don’t see an officer. The problem is the next exit also seems to look like it might be onto a motorway. Thoroughly confused and unable to stop I shrug it off – nothing I can do, no point worrying.
Eventually the confusion resolves itself and we get onto a road that couldn’t be a motorway no matter how hard you squint at it. A little further up my gut speaks up to suggest we’re heading in the wrong direction. I stop, check, and sure enough, confirm the mistake. A few miles down the road I realise the reason for the mistake. This is the first country where the towns marked on the road signs bear no correspondence to the towns marked in large font on the map. I’m through ‘Navigating: the basics’, now on to the more advanced levels! Necessity is the mother of invention (and learning) though and I quickly adjust my map reading. I also begin to mind the unintentional ‘diversions’ far less.
We continue on minor roads and get a treat for our efforts. Craggy hills fall away to reveal open, rolling fields pierced by winding roads. And forest. Everywhere I look there’s forest. I still have to pinch myself sometimes as everything feels so much like a dream. The changing landscape, the breath-taking beauty of it all. The green. The vast blocks of textured green which, when viewed more closely explodes into a plethora of details. It’s like an optical illusion revealing itself bit by bit as my eye searches and adjusts, hungry to appreciate it all. The subtle and indescribable differences between countries too. My written description of it all pales into comparison with the memories that are evoked as I type. Not for the first time I wish I were a better wordsmith and that language wasn’t such an inefficient tool to communicate the richness of life experienced.
… and hidden gems
We round a corner to be confronted by a huge, imposing, now crumbling red brick structure set back from the road in the middle of a field. I stop. I know Mickey will be itching to see it close-up. He turns around to investigate and I follow, as agreed, after a few moments pass without him returning. There is a little information sign by the road and a wire fence blocking access to the field. But the wire can be unhooked so we take this and the information point to mean that access is allowed. There is a farmer working the adjacent field so we’ll be told promptly enough if we are trespassing. I’m more concerned by being cornered by one of the many cows that deposits suggest are resident in the field.
The red brick structure is even more impressive close up, standing easily three storeys high with the footprint of a good sized mansion house and hollowed out inside. The foundry chimney is still intact and gives me a strange perspective as it funnels my gaze up towards the sky. Like looking down the wrong end of a telescope. I look out from my vantage point after scrambling over the long disintegrated steps to be rewarded by a good overview of the wide open landscape. It feels a little lonely here, a building forged for activity and enterprise, deserted, a near forgotten remnant of a different time that is now quietly sinking back into the ground.
Slovakia is not a country I’ve ever really considered before, just another faraway country I know nothing about beyond that it exists. I’m beginning to wonder if this is the best way to visit a country, a blank canvas, free from expectation or prejudice.
I fall in love with it within hours of entering, and my admiration deepens over the course of our days here. It’s a stunning country. Our campsite for the night at Borová Sihoť is the stuff of camping dreams. A spacious grassy expanse with ample shade, backing onto a pleasantly bubbling river that invites you in to it. Forest clad craggy hills that rise sharply, almost aggressively, out of the ground to tower with a benign dignity over our humble tent. We stay an extra day to explore the forest trails behind us and over the next 48 hours I gaze often at those hills wondering what they’ve seen and what inhabits them. It also crosses my mind to wonder if I could get an enduro bike up there but I suspect that my skill level makes that particular thought a better day dream than a reality.
Making time to explore and meet people
The next day, exploring the trails in the mountains behind we discover we’re in bear country – an uneasy feeling, no matter how much I reason that bears are unlikely to want to come down onto an oft-used footpath. We meet a pair of animated Polish men up who ask us to take their picture and pass the time, taking my mind off furry assailants. They’re easy conversationalists and one tells us of his travels as well as his love of this area. He boasts the miracle powers of the spring water here in Lipovský Hrádok, proudly telling us that he is actually 68 years old but the waters every year keep him young. I must admit he looks good on his 68 years.
Back at the campsite people are friendly and we chat to a Czech biker with a few words and sign language. He’s a biker too and we explain our undertaking to him and he laughs heartily in appreciation. We give him our details and he gets in touch a few days later, sending us pictures of his rides. I doubt I will ever tire of the grace shown by strangers in their willingness to engage with us.
Time to move on
Despite our Iranian visa expiry date pressing we might have stayed longer in this eden were it not for our peace being shattered by a Europop disco that started at 4 pm and continued into the night. It seems to be a feature of our camping that loud parties follow us, or perhaps it’s just a feature of European campsites, with outdoor spaces a preferred choice and campsites a logical option. Whilst this party disrupted us far less than others, it seemed the cruellest on the backdrop of such idyllic serenity. Perhaps the fates knew we were settling in just a little too much and knew we needed to be on our way. The world often seems to subtly steer us, once we are quiet and still enough to feel the nudge of opportunity and free enough to respond to it.