She’ll be coming around the mountains: cycling High Tatras
Adventure travel can transform relationships. Last year Hannah and I forged a special bond when we swam together in the ‘sea of love’ in Estonia thus ensuring that according to legend we will love each other for ever, something Hannah still reminds me of regularly. But this year she’s fallen in love with someone else, a Slovakian travelling companion she calls Slobby.
Who is Slobby?
Slobby first joined us in Vienna, shortly before we crossed the Slovakian border the first time, reassuring us our preconceptions about his country would be challenged.
“You will discover beauty and nature and simple life in my homeland,” he explained, “We have a music of our own and you will come to love it and to love Slovakia like I do.”
But at the time we were not convinced; our guidebooks were less positive and prior experiences in Slovakia and last year in the Baltics told us we should be prepared for anything.
And we were. And we were challenged and surprised. Our ride across Slovakia was both tough and beautiful; they don’t call this place the rooftop of Central Europe for nothing, but the rewards of cycling in the hills and mountains certainly outweighed the effort we put in to get there. And the roads were good, and the weather fine, and accommodation affordable, and traffic light, and food good. Mostly. Apart from the fat soup.
Riding high in the Tatras
Riding around the High Tatras through the ski resorts of Strbske Pleso, Stary Smokovec and Tatra Lominica we were charmed by the village like atmospheres and traditional wooden houses and hotels, and excited by the chance to ride chairlifts, cablecars and the Tatrabob.
“I told you you would like my country,” said Slobby and he was right.
Juxtapositions of old and new
Riding around to the East, towards the border with Poland we stayed a night in old Zdiar, a long, thin mountain settlement strung out for several kilometres along an ever rising road. Here since the 16th century, this village was once famed for its folk traditions and traditional timber cottages, all dark wood brightened with striking red, white and blue graphic decorations, now sadly becoming eclipsed by the attractions of a developing ski resort.
The village has a strange vibe, a juxtaposition of old and new that somehow symbolises wider changes. Staying in a traditional looking Penzion we had an evening meal of traditional mountain food served in a folksy environment by an old lady wearing a dress and bonnet that looked right out of the 16th century.
From our room at night we were lulled to sleep not by folk songs but by karaoke before waking to a peasant breakfast. And as we were leaving town Hannah got a traditional mountain scolding for nearly breaking a traditional fence before we rode off to the border past glossy pine villas, ski lifts and cafes that payed no heed to tradition.
Something beautiful can be ugly
“It is mixed feeling yes?” says Slobby as we stopped to play in one last river before the border with Poland. Hannah had one of her duck faces on as a result of an argument over who was to put their hand in the crisp bag first. Slobby knelt down to talk to her, “But you know it is complicated, like your face now. Sometimes it is not so beautiful, but I still love it.”
With Slobby looking right at her, Hannah couldn’t hold her lips tight and started to smile. “Oh no,” said Slobby, “Now you make me sad.” He pursed his lips and quacked at her, “I have lost the beauty of your duck lips. See how something ugly can also be beautiful, yes? And something beautiful sometimes ugly.”
And so on and into Poland
Over dinner in Zdiar an hour spent studying the map with a magnifiying glass produced a scribbled altitude profile chart that Hannah was using to manage expectations for our last mountain day. It looked a big day, 50km and four climbs up and then downhill to reach the border and reach Poland’s top mountain resort, Zakopane. I’d been looking forward to Zakopane for a while; a friend of Kirstie’s told us she spent her honeymoon there and together with the guidebook descriptions I had formed a picture in my head of a lively, romantic, folksy mountain resort. But imagination’s a dangerous and unreliable guide.
Crossing the line
Crossing the border Slobby was miserable, “We leave Slovakia now. And you will see, Poland is different country. Border is only line but it make things different.”
The first thing we noticed different was the traffic density. Just 100 metres into Poland and the number of cars, coaches and minibuses increased four fold, mostly heading to and from the Morskie Oko, an enchanting lake high in the mountains that is one of Zakopanes big tourist trips. But it wasn’t the traffic density that worried us, there was a marked difference in driving style too, much faster, more aggressive and with less consideration for those on two wheels. Forced to ride in the gutter we could now almost touch overtaking vehicles as they showed as little concern for their own safety as they did for ours, overtaking two and three at a time with no regard for double white lines and blind corners.
Some of the worst driving I’ve experienced
I’ve never experienced driving like it in all my years of riding and feared we’d soon be contacting personal injury solicitors. It certainly made for a stressful ride down to Zakopane and an unpalatable introduction to Poland, but nothing compared to the madness of Zakopane itself. This was no village, no quaint resort but a full blown tourist playground packed with thousands and thousands of holiday makers all out for a good time shopping at the hundreds of souvenir stalls and Zorb ball pools there just to keep them entertained.
Tired and irritable we pitched for the night in the first campsite we could find and went to sleep tired, disappointed and worried about how to get to Krakow alive given the Polish driving habits.
A new day, a flying new start?
Sunday morning dawned wet and misty. Overnight rain compounded the miserable feelings of the night before, until out looking for a breakfast that wasn’t candy floss, pretzel or pierogie we stumbled upon Sunday morning ski jumping practice just over the road from the campsite.
Are they flying?
“Are those men flying?” asked Hannah as we stood mesmerised in front of the training jumps, watching helmeted boys and girls not much older than Cameron rattle down jump tracks in skin tight flying suits and take off into the morning mist. Time stopped as they glided through the morning air, heads up, arms behind, skidding over the air until with a quiver their skis straightened, and they landed with a whoosh, skidding to a halt in front of us.
The best of them were sticks of kids, bodies made to minimise wind resistance, so much so it looked like a sport for Cameron whose wiry frame and relative weightlessness could be a real benefit in a sport like this. We took him by chairlift to the top of the main ski jump to see if he might have the stomach for it, but peering down through the clouds looking for Zakopane it was clear none of us felt we had what it takes to fly down there. So we returned to the bikes to ride instead.
The madness of Zakopane
If you think launching yourself off a ski jump is madness then you should try cycling tandems down the main drag of Zakopane. Once we turned onto the drag with all its shops, cafés, restaurants, souvenir stalls and Zorb ball pools, there was no question of turning back. Not because we didn’t want to but because the dense crowds of tourists enjoying a Sunday afternoon stroll made it physically impossible. There was no romance and no village life here, and none of the beautiful Zakopane architecture to be seen, just outright commercialism the likes of which we hadn’t tasted since Budapest.
“I told you this,” said Slobby as thirty minutes later we finally funnelled out the other end of main street, “I told you Poland different, yes? What you think of my country now?”
You don’t always get what you want or what you expect
Like I said, adventure travel changes relationships and confounds expectations. I expected a tough time in Slovakia but fell in love with the place. And looked forward to Zakopane and was disappointed. And somehow silly old Slobby knew this all along. You don’t always get what you want, nor want what you get, or like what you think you want. And thank goodness, for if travel fails to stimulate, surprise, intrigue or confound, then what’s the point?
We rode out of Zakopane, all silently hoping Poland would surprise us more positively soon.
“Slobby?” asked Hannah as we dodged the traffic heading out of town, “Will you be coming with us across all of Poland?”
With all the traffic noise it took a moment to find the silence needed for the answer to be heard.
“Yes my little Duck Face,” I said, “I love my country but will go anywhere for you too.”
I guess we all like to hang onto things we’ve grown fond of.
“Dad?” asked Cameron a few moments later in the next gap in the traffic, “Why do you still do that silly Slobby voice when we’ve left Slovakia?”