November 27, 2018

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Slovakia had already stunned us with it’s quiet alpine towns and its challenging mountain trails, but it had more in store for us to enjoy before we’d head back home.

Here’s what happened next.

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We woke early, showered, tidied up, and said goodbye to our glammed up, luxurious, definitely haunted apartment complex and walked down to the train station. Our backpacks, now feeling more like a part of us than not, sat comfortably against our backs, the sun already rising in the bright blue sky. We would miss this place but we were excited to see what came next.

We would be heading first to a city called Poprad, then swap trains onto a village called Vydrník. First though, our train had to arrive on time as our crossover only allowed minutes in between this change.

It did not.

The plan had been that our new hosts would pick us up at Vydrník station at a specific time and then drive us over to the accommodation as it was a little way out from the station. However with our train delayed and our transfer uncertain we had to tell our hosts that we weren’t sure now when we would be arriving and that we’d figure out our own way from the station to the accommodation. With that done the train pulled up. We piled on, found our seats, and settled in for the short trip to Poprad. In Poprad we ran out of the train, hoping against hope that our original train would still be at its platform. Seeing a platform that advertised the same departure time as our train we hoped for the best and ran up the steps to see the train waiting. We asked the conductor if it was heading to Vydrník, it was, so we rushed on board. The train began to move as we fell into our seats. Turns out we would make it at the original time after all…except now we had no ride. We’d figure it out. First though we watched autumn pass by our windows. Yellows and orange and red, and some remaining green filled the view with it’s golden splendor. The train trundled along and I could barely focus on my book due to this gorgeous countryside.

We pulled into Vydrník and the lady Holly and I jumped out to find that, sure enough, our message had been received and no car waited for us. Unfortunately, not much else did either. Not only was Vydrník a speck of a village, it was also centered further afield than the station and in the opposite direction from our own village, Hrabušice. We started walking, following a large two lane road lined with apple trees loaded with fruit, the ground likewise littered with it’s fallen and forgotten bounty. Our backpacks, which had felt so comfortable and familiar that morning began to drag against our shoulders as the dirt crunched beneath our feet. The sun was now well up, warm but not hot. We scanned the hilly landscape, still able to see the mountains we had traversed days earlier on the horizon. It was, all told, a nice walk. We made it into Hrabušice, pointing out the small shops and restaurants we would hopefully visit during our time here, then past towards our accommodation. We rang the doorbell. A young woman greeted us, excited by the prospect of meeting Australians; conveying this excitement in good but limited english while telling us how far we must have come. Her excitement was a joy and soon infected us, overriding our own tiredness. The accommodation was simple compared to the penthouse we had left that morning, but comfortable and welcome.

Hrabušice is located on the outskirts of the Slovak Paradise National Park, our reason for being there. It is also, as we were to learn, small, old-fashioned, and quaint. We walked its entirety within an hour, circling around the outskirts of the town and through it’s housed streets, spotting many cute dogs, and one sheep, in the front yards. While it did have the aforementioned shops and restaurants, they seemed to come from a time in the not so distant past. The first shop we went to was tiny, it’s shelves full of basic stock, all visible from behind a rope. This shop was like those from before my time, where you’d point out to the proprietor your list of items and they would collect and bag them for you. Quaint? Yes. Convenient? Less so. Mostly thanks to the language barrier. Our Slovak was, and unfortunately remains, non-existent, so when the shop lady asked us what we wanted we weren’t one hundred percent sure what she was asking, nor knew how to answer. Luckily, through a lot of pointing and miming, we were able to purchase what we needed and for a remarkably cheap price. The restaurants were pleasantly more english friendly, usually even having english menus, and full of rich, meaty, delicious food, and cold frothy beers. It’s smalltown-ness and isolation was a quiet pleasure, knowing soon that we would be in its opposite, back home in a city where our time and attention would be demanded from many sources. I think of it’s paddocked outskirts and star filled sky now and wish I could go back, just for an instant, and breath in its fresh country air.

While Hrabušice was lovely, the Slovak Paradise National Park was where the real treasure lay. The entrance to the park was located just a few kilometers from where we were staying, so the next morning we packed a lunch and headed out into the foggy air. The road took us past yet more apple trees and paddocks that contained, surprisingly, Highland cows. We had seen these beautiful rust coloured beasts first in Scotland, months ago, and, Holly especially, had fallen in love with them. It was somehow right that we were seeing them now, at the end of our trip, making our adventure seem that it had come full circle. We feed them some of the fallen apples, causing one to follow us for quite a way, before we turned off and headed toward the park.

In summer the park is busy, with an entrance fee and a couple of small streets full of bars and souvenir shops that you must traverse before heading into the wilds. But this was autumn, and so, with visitor numbers drastically lower, the streets were empty, as was the entrance booth. We walked through the deserted area, walked along the tree line, through grass thick and wet with morning dew, and into the park.

One thing you should know about the Slovak Paradise National Park is that it is full of gorges, and while other countries may situate its walks above these ridges in the landscape, Slovakia thought the best views were from inside them. They were not wrong. But, you may be saying, wouldn’t the gorges be full of water from time to time? And you, now, would not be wrong. Which is why these gorges are decked out with wooden bridges, ladders, winding steps built into the rock face, and chains to help you traverse the rocky water way.

It was amazing. It felt like a giant adventure park, like we had been transported inside a Crash Bandicoot game, following a path that required us to step, jump, and climb, to make our way to the finish line. Add to this the ridiculous beauty of the landscape, the incredible autumn colours, and the soft musical rainfall of the falling leaves, and you have one of the greatest days I have ever lived.

I could go into more detail, describing the throbbing wellspring of joy in my chest as we passed through that well named paradise, taking photos at almost every step. Instead I think it’s easier to just show you those photos as they can say more than I ever could.

We spent more days in this idyllic little part of the globe, went on more walks, had more funny little experiences, found more animals to pat. We continued on, through Košice and Budapest, and made our way back to Vienna, and then to Melbourne. Home.

Part of me wants to tell you all about it, in unnecessary, potentially painful, detail, mostly in an attempt to relive the experience. But, I’m learning, that’s just not possible. One, because I am a flawed beast with a not so picture perfect memory, and two, because experiences are only ever once in a lifetime, and can never be repeated. The river of time flows on and we can never walk through it at the same point twice. The closest we can come is this, stories and memories and photos.

Which is plenty.

And the beauty of it all is that once those experiences have been lived, their ours forever. I may go back to my workaday job, get pulled down into routine, look at my phone too much and get stuck in traffic, but the fact that I have done these things and visited those places still remains. I will even die one day, and all those stories and memories and photos will undoubtedly be lost to time, but they still happened. They will always have happened. And that gives me solace, because I will be lost to time one day too, but I will always have existed.

As will these words.

Thanks for reading them.

Talk soon,

Damian

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November 8, 2018

 

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Holly and I have returned home. I am currently sitting on our familiar couch in our unchanged lounge room, eating an apple and writing this post. It is six thirty in the morning before my first day back at work. But rather than talk about that I’d like to talk about Slovakia and the final leg of our trip. A leg filled with incredible natural beauty, increasingly more rest days, and a journey over a mountain.

Let’s begin.

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While most of our travels had been meticulously researched, planned, and booked many months ago by the Lady Holly, the final leg was not. The final leg was going to be spontaneous, we would be spontaneous, we knew we would because we had pencilled it in to our diaries. Because that’s how spontaneity works, you plan it. The original idea was that close to the date we would go on skyscanner, look at the cheapest flights out of Vienna, book one, then leave the next day. Except, as you may have gathered, we’re not all that good at spontaneity and so during our time in Germany we cracked and booked some things. I’m glad we did.

What we booked was a number of trains leaving from Vienna, making their way through Slovakia, before getting a bus down to Budapest in Hungary. From the start we knew we liked Slovakia, mostly because their train network was so incredibly cheap we even decided to bump ourselves up to first class, which cost a dollar or so more. We also booked in our accomodation for this leg, granting ourselves seven days at our first location; the longest time we would have spent anywhere for the last couple of months. It was exciting, mostly because we didn’t really know what to expect. We knew we wanted to see more mountains, and that we wanted to rest more–as our months of being on the move were starting to wear us down–and Slovakia seemed to hit both of those notes; being both mountainous and quieter than some places. But that was it. Beyond that it was a mystery. One that would prove to have many treasures hidden within it.

Our first stop was Štrba, located at the base of the Upper Tatra mountains. Our accomodation wasn’t in Štrba proper, but a smaller village a short distance away called Tatranská Štrba. To call it sleepy would be appropriate; almost deserted, even more so. Our apartment was in a large complex, with views overlooking the Tatras. Across from it was a hotel which featured a “mini zoo”, with animals ranging from peacocks to goats–with nothing in between, as they just had peacocks and goats. Calling it a zoo might be a bit rich but it was a welcome delight nonetheless. The apartment was excessively affordable, well under budget compared to most of our other stays, and yet was the nicest, most lavish, accommodation we’d had the whole trip. It featured an enormous balcony with exceptional views, a very blinged up kitchen, with purple LED lights under the bench and an incredible coffee machine, two bathrooms, one of which had a large bath and mood lighting, and one of the best beds we’d slept in the whole trip. We played it cool as the host showed us around and explained how everything worked, but then broke into giddy giggles as soon as she waved goodbye. We would have seven days here and the place was paradise. And remember how I said the town was almost deserted? Well that went double for our apartment complex. Despite having four levels of apartments, we didn’t see a single soul the whole time we were there. Not once did we pass someone in the hall or share an elevator ride. Never did we catch anyone entering or leaving their apartment or have to hold the door for someone. We did hear noises though, and occasionally voices. Obviously ghosts, which just made us even more excited to stay there. Back to the town for a second, while it may have been deserted it was also gorgeous. Alpine and lush and rich with autumn colours, blue skies filled with sun shone down on us as we walked it’s quiet streets and took in the impressive natural scenery. And overlooking it all was the Tatras. On that first day we looked up at those mountains, keen to cross their craggy peaks.

Day one was rest day/buy groceries day/get all giddy about our killer accomodation day. Day two was our first journey up towards the mountain. We took a cute little train twenty minutes to its base where another tiny town sat, Štrbské Pleso. This town was larger, but again somewhat deserted, we assume due to it being off peak. While the weather was perfect for walking, the locals, we take it, are more interested in their winter sports, which is when the two towns would really fill up. This was a reconnaissance mission for us as we knew the next day we would get up early and return to do an epic sixteen kilometer walk over the mountain. Which brings us to day three.

The alarm went off at five, we packed bags, made a lunch, and were on the tiny train by six am, and back at the base of the mountain and walking by six thirty. The walk started through a fairytale forest, rocks and staircases of twisting roots lined the path, all shadowed by the centuries old trees reaching up around us. If Hansel and Gretel had skipped on through there it would have been little suprise. As we climbed the terrain changed, the forest making way for grasslands. The sun had yet to break the mountain peaks so we walked in shadow as we made our way up. The landscape began sparser still, grassland changing to rock. We saw a small waterfall leading into the stream we had been following and were surprised to see the track led up beside it. Right up in fact, as chains had been installed for us to climb with. We secured our backpacks and made it to the top of the mountain right as the sun broke free to shine down on us. It was perfect. It also wasn’t the top.

From our new platao we could see we still had much further to go. So on we went. We passed blissful pools of water, stark blue against the mountains grey. And on we went. We traversed over a field of rocks, boulders resting against boulders as far as we could see, the yellow markers revealing a path through them like we were adventurers in a video game. And on we went. We headed up, our legs starting to weary as they took high steps up a rocky staircase on the edge of a cliff face. And on we went. We scrambled over another false top–incredibly high now but not quite at the peak–and found an even larger pool, this one partly iced over and as reflective as a mirror. And on we went. We passed onto more rocks, these ones more uneven, the trail curving and hard to keep a track of. And on we went. Into snow, which hid the path even more, climbing more than walking now as we saw what we thought must be the top, but refused to believe the mountain after all its false promises. And on we went, until we got to a peak, a sharp ridge with an insane incline that we would have to climb over. More chains had been installed, and cold and exhilarated and more than a little tired, we pulled our bodies over the mountain.

Then there was the matter of getting down. The other side of the ridge proved just as steep as the side we had just traversed, but now we were going down, with gravity a little too keen to assist us. Falling was a very real risk, not helped by pebbly rubble beneath our feet. All of this combined caused Holly’s vertigo to kick in and panic to flare. She seized up, teared up, and for a moment thought she wouldn’t be able to do it. I knew she could. I know she can beat most mountains. I took her bag, she took some deep breaths, and with me speaking words of encouragement she took a shaky step down. Then another. And another. Until we were past the worst, and, while still far from flat, were on more solid ground. And on we went.

Our legs were past weary, past tired, and into angry and sore by the time we made it down and across to our end point, the top of the chairlift. Here was situated a beer house, because of course there was, this is Europe, and so we sat and drank and rested our legs.

The day, while tiring, had been one of extreme and rewarding experiences. We had climbed over a mountain and seen various shades of its beauty along the way. It was a day worth doing, worth remembering, and worth writing about.

Next time I’ll tell you what we did next.

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Talk soon,

Damian