Week 7 – Slovakia After Two Years

Week 7: Monday 10/08 – Sun 16/08

You have to know that our first common great adventure consisted in crossing Slovakia hitch-hiking in order to enter Ukraine. It was about two weeks after we first met, we were both in Vienna. G just cycled from Monza to Vienna in 4 days to visit some friends, M was heading north after having hitch-hiked from France to Croatia. M plan was to cross Slovakia in order to reach Ukraine, G didn’t have any plan yet.

The result was the two hitch-hiking from Bratislava to Košice just to realize that we needed our passports to enter Ukraine, which we didn’t have. Therefore, more hitch-hiking in Slovakia, then Poland and Czech Republic.

Our memories of Slovakia are the countryside, the green hills, the woods, the rivers, waiting under the hot sun to be driven somewhere by workers heading home from Bratislava. And more… amazing sunsets, castles and nice people not speaking a word of English.

High Tatras National Park – Monday

The first thing we found once back are the sunsets and the green landscape. Our goal is the same as two years ago, reaching Ukraine while enjoying the beauties of Slovakia. This time we have an advantage, the van, which means freedom of choice on where to stop and where to go -which we are realizing is not always an advantage. Anyway, this summer, unlikely two years ago, we have the chance to visit High Tatras National Park, for this reason in the morning we drive until Tatranská Lomnica. It is a small village at the bottom of Tatras most beautiful valleys, it is also the last station of an active train line starting in Poprad. It is also home to the largest ski station of Slovakia. And it is exactly in the parking of the ski station that we are going to spend our night -it is free and we are once again in a national park. We manage to park there at around 11 which is a bit late to start our walk towards ‘the most romantic place in Slovakia’. Zelenó Pleso is an alpine lake dominated by Tatras highest peaks. Its waters are clear and flows down Dolina Zeleného plesa, which is the valley we hike through to reach the lake itself. The walk from the parking is quite long -about 20km round trip- but presents no difficulties: the path is large, easy, and of a regular steepness, which allows to not feel at all the 600m of climb. The trail follows the river Zeleny into the forest until the small dam where the lake forms at 1551m, on its side the mountain hut.

If on the one hand we do agree that it is a beautiful place; on the other hand, we believe that all the people gathering here today, and the big hut kind of ruin the atmosphere. We will discover later that this Monday it’s a national festivity dedicated to the workers that died in mines accidents. This explains the crowd all around Tatranská Lomnica and all along the trail.

Stará Ľubovňa’s Castle – Tuesday

A misunderstanding, the excessive crowd and the heat made us drive until Stará Ľubovňa. From the 900m on the sea level of Tatranská Lomnica, we descend to the 532m of this city on the border with Poland. It is for due to its strategic location that we are visiting it. Indeed, on the hill dominating the town -200m higher- rises a large castle which built during the 14th century and controlled by Polish governors to protect Polish trade routes and the crown jewels. The entrance fees are quite high -the castle, the exhibition, the parking…

Luckily enough, we find a nice place where to spend what remains of the afternoon and the night. It’s a small fishers’ lake just outside the town. We follow small countryside road for a few hundred metres into the corn fields until the small brown lake. A sign forbids to swim, however, locals are swimming there and, when we ask a friendly Slovak about it he laughs and tells us that he comes there only to bath. He takes his t-shirt off and dive.

The night is calm and long.

Two UNESCO sites: Bardejov and Hervatov – Wednesday

Hrad Plaveč is a castle -or better, what remains of one- located on a hill just in front of the town of Plaveč, on the other side of Poprad river. From the road the tower seems the only solid thing remaining to the fortification, however, once we are in front of it we realize that the half we couldn’t see from the road is actually missing. The castle is under renovation.

After an ice cream in Plaveč -0.50€ the scoop- we drive until Bardejov. The city-centre is listed in UNESCO World Heritage List and is protected under the Bardejov Town Conservation Reserve. It’s the second time we are visiting it and for the second time we are amazed by the perfectly preserved old town, all surrounded by ancient walls. Not a building has been rebuilt in a different style than the original one. Everything seems to be like in the 14th century when the old town reached its maximum extension. The houses, the side-walks, and, of course, the Bazilika svätého Egídia, the cathedral around which the town was built. This church was built in 1206 by the monks of Koprzywnica and was entertained by Germans, when they occupied the region in the late 14th century.

Despite its beauty and its historical value, this city is not visited by many foreigners. When we told the owner of the pub where we are drinking a beer after walking all-around the ancient streets that we are from Italy and France, he was definitely surprised. He happily welcomed us to Slovakia and Bardejov and wished us luck for our trip. We feel bad not to speak Slovakian, people here are more than welcoming, but not many speak English…

Meeting again our friends in Hervatov – Thursday

Yesterday, after visiting Bardejov we came back -2 years later- in Hervatov, a small village at the bottom of beautiful hills lost between the fields and the forest. We parked the van in front of the wooden church and started looking for our friends’ house. By the way, this church -in perfect Carpathian style- is protected by UNESCO since 2008. It was built during the XVI century and is perfectly preserved. Inside all the walls are painted in the Roman Catholic style representing some episode of Saint Francis of Assisi’s life, to whom the church is dedicated.

We walked the narrow street in the sunset sun and spotted the beautiful house on the left. We walked-by, looked in the garden to be sure it’s them, walked back… And it’s Maria that through the window recognizes us and run out the door to welcome us. You have to know that we didn’t exchange our numbers, we just had their address that we used to send them a postcard 2 years ago. We didn’t see each other for exactly two years -when they hosted us for 2 days- but it’s immediately like we are close friends. It’s impossible to escape Slovakian hospitality, the way they share everything they have knowing very little of you is just surprising. From our experience it’s very rare to feel so welcomed in Europe, these are the people that gave us the most in the most natural way.

In practice, this means that Maria immediately invited us in, called her kids to come and say hello, the kids ran to meet us and to welcome us. Maria prepared to eat, to drink, and more to eat. We ended up talking all the afternoon -in Italian, Maria worked a few seasons in Italy- until 11pm, when the kids went to bed and we did the same.

We spend the next morning talking again about what we are doing, how we happened to be in Hervatov again and how everything is going in our lives. Unfortunately, Eduard is working in Bratislava and won’t be back before Tuesday, we will not be able to see him. After a large breakfast and playing with the kids we all go walking in the forest. The hill dominating the small village (517 inhabitants) is higher that what it seems: from the 450m on the sea level of Hervatov, we reach Kundračina, 930m. The forest is reach and shades all the trail, which is particularly pleasant -it’s getting very hot. Every few kilometres there are picnic tables, and at the summit a bivouac with an amazing view over the surrounding hills and mountains. We end up walking and running with the kids for more than 10km. They start giving signs of tiredness only on the way back to Hervatov, not too far from the village.

We spend the evening talking again, eating, and drinking a bit of vodka. Maria takes care of us as if we were her closest friends. We really feel at home. Unfortunately, we received a positive answer from a farm we want to volunteer for in Ukraine and we are leaving tomorrow to be there in a bit less than a week… The kids and Maria are sad to hear this, they would have liked us to stay at least until Eduard comes back.

Towards Košice – Friday

Leaving Hervatov is hard. Maria prepares for us scrambled eggs with vegetables (paprika, onions and tomatoes), one of the best breakfast we had since we left. We talk a bit more, play with the kids and decide to leave around 11. She gives us a box full with preserved food she prepared herself: jam, the vegetable mix she put in the scrambled eggs for breakfast, jarred resins, a snack for the way, the remaining vodka and two beers. Jarred food is perfect for the van, it doesn’t need refrigeration and is life-saver when lost in the countryside. We thank her 100 times for everything. Promising that we will see each other again, we leave for Košice. Along the way, we miss the kids, Maria and the beautiful village of Hervatov.

For lunch we stop just outside a small village not far from Košice. We park the van in a road used by the tractors working in the surrounding fields, a few metres from the railway. We cook a huge eggplant with onions and curry and eat it with bread. We then reach the city, find a free parking and have a beer in a beautiful pub just outside the city-centre.

Košice -the second largest city of Slovakia- is beautiful in the sunset light and later at night. There are a lot of people going out, it’s Friday, it’s warm and the city turns around us pleasantly.

This city was born on the river Hornád in the early 13th century and hosts the largest church in Slovakia. Dóm svätej Alžbety -Saint Elizabeth Cathedral- is also the oldest building in the city and the largest Gothic-style in Slovakia. What strikes us the most is the colourful roof shining in the late sun.

We enjoy a quiet night in a parking just outside the city centre.

Not entering Ukraine, once again… – Saturday

After having drunk the most expensive coffee of our lives -we didn’t expect it from a city in which a beer in the centre costs around 1.50/1.80 euros-, we walk a bit more in the town and M buys some heavy-duty pants for working in a second-hand shop. Košice city centre is full of second-hand clothing shops where you can find whatever piece of clothing you are looking for, and very cheap. M finds some blue flared pants for 50 euro cents that fit her perfectly. We can now hit the road to reach our daily destination: Zemplínska šírava a beautiful artificial lake not far from Ukraine. Lakes in Central Europe are not deep, this one reaches a maximum depth of 14,7m, for us coming from Alpine lakes regions it sounds ridiculous. We decide to go for the south shore and to park at the bottom of a dead-end road. From the parking we hear screams and noises of people playing in the water. When we reach the shore we change our mind and decide to look for another spot. Here, indeed, people are leaving their dirt literally everywhere. There is waste all over the place: plastic bags, rotten food, dirty toilet paper, destroyed shoes and cloths… It smells bad and the smoke of people making barbecues is unpleasant. Even if the water is clean and full of fishes, we take the van and drive until the northern shore. Here we find a camping where we have a beer, a lángos and stay for the night. The water of the lake is amazing. Not particularly clear, but rich with animals and algae, it’s the perfect temperature to swim and the grass grows until the very end of the shore, dipping in the water. The owners of the camping are fun, therefore, we stop by to talk a bit -finally someone speaking English in Slovakia. They announce us that our dream of entering Ukraine is not achievable… Basically the country is open to European travellers, we could enter; however, none of the neighbouring countries accepts people coming from Ukraine. Those who enter one of the bordering countries have to undergo a ‘state quarantine’, spending 14 days in a government agreed building. In addition we need a health insurance covering the possible health expenses that the state might undergo in case we contract Covid.

The situation is getting worse in the Balkans, Hungary is controlling the borders, Romania entered the ‘red colour state list’, for having a growing number of cases… We realise that we should have checked again before heading to Ukraine how the situation was going. Everywhere we read that it’s suggested not to travel. We spend an hour or more checking for the latest news and decide not to risk any further and to avoid entering Ukraine.

Two years ago we couldn’t enter the country because we weren’t prepared -the both of us didn’t have their passport-, now because of covid…

The sunset is spectacular and the night calm.

Back in Hungary – Sunday

After a morning swim, we decide to head to Hungary in order to reach Romania and visit the Carpathians and in particular Transylvania. However, along the way we read more about the health situation and decide to head towards Italy, where we would have a place to spend a new quarantine, in case that will be necessary. The cases in Romania are growing, in Bulgaria and Greece as well. Our plans are just messed up by this whole situation. Our daily destination is Ugornyai Szabadstrand. Here we find a beautiful parking lot on the shore of the river Tisza. Ugornyai Szabadstrand twenty years ago was living its golden ages, it was the most beautiful beach on Tisza, with cafes, bars, restaurants and tourist accommodations… Today it’s living its decline, half abandoned, the bars half closed, the river probably more polluted. However, it’s nice to spend our afternoon here, bathing in the cold waters and drinking a beer with the last lángos of our trip.

Showering in the parking lot is pleasant, there is nobody around. Eaten by the mosquitoes we spend the evening inside the van.

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