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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