21.11.2009 - 22.11.2009
There was at least one dichotomy of the Eastern European approach to human interaction. First of all, the cold expressions one would encounter on a daily basis could range from a simple wide-eyed stare, to a shop cashier dumping your change and receipt down on the counter whilst facing the other way, leaving your waiting hand begrudgingly empty. The flip side of this frostiness is the welcoming hospitality experienced in hostels, homes and random open conversations with total strangers. It's as if they save it up all week waiting for the right time to bestow all their goodwill in one day. I was about to receive the latter on my train ride from Olomouc to Poprad in Slovakia.
"Je tu volno?" I asked, on entering the 6 person cabin. Eastern Europeans appreciate a dash of good manners and it is considered good manners to ask if a seat is available before sitting down. This was a 4 hour journey, I was getting comfy. Fortunately the trains in this part of the world are kept well and nicely heated. The cabin layout gave a more intimate journey experience with your fellow passengers when compared with the open carriages back home. Having said that, once you've said hello and asked for a seat, you could sit through an entire 8 hour journey without another word. But when it came to hoisting your bag onto your shoulder and leaving, almost everyone without exception, in my experience, said goodbye- "na shledanou" in Czech or "dovidena" in Slovak. Clinging to such manners helped me warm to the Czechs, it's a shame we've lost that back home.
A stream of traditional Czech villages slowly swept past the window. Built on the gentle slopes of Southern Moravia, I noticed each home had a pile of firewood lined up on one exterior wall, often at head height and 2 or 3 logs deep. Through the other window the setting sun caused the wispy clouds to glow from behind and hang like smoldering marshmallows above a distant line of pine trees outlining the hilltops in silhouette. The outline of each forest-lined ridge heading off into the distance was more faded than the one before. The occasional plume of white smoke from the traditional chimneys set the scene as a visual canvas that will be forever ingrained on my mind.
Paying for the train ticket took me down to my last 35 crowns, this was money-management defined. My first encounter with a Slovak on home turf came as a young lady slid open the cabin door and asked me something in her native tongue. I gestured there was a seat available. Actually there were 5 seats available, this was politeness gone mad, but I liked it.
Whether it's the huge backpack, the reading of the guidebook or something in my eyes, the girl was in no doubt that I was a foreigner. Just as I was reading the statement "the youth of Slovakia are warm and open" she piped-up and asked me where I was from. I was used to this. Fellow travellers always have at least 4 set questions they can ask of any other backpacker. "Where are you from?" "Where have you come from?" "Where are you going?" And "how long are you travelling for?" It was so much nicer to be asked by a local. We quickly rattled through the Q&A's and started talking about the huge bandage on her finger. That's it. The ice was broken. Ask something unconventional and the slippery surface of shallow conversation becomes thinner until it breaks and you arrive at the next level of colloquialism.
The embarrassed exhalation of reminiscence suggested she had a funny story to tell. The bottom line was it involved drink and she fell down. She was a snowboard instructor in winter and studied the rest of the time. It was second nature for people in these parts to know how to stay upright on snow. She asked to take a look at my guidebook. Another breathy giggle and a quick glance over to me, "have you seen this?" she asked. She quoted "the Slovak youth are warm and open". This seemed to amuse her. One nation summarising the dominant characteristic of another nation's people was always strange one. I had been in this situation before. Pavlina and Tom in Teplice were enthralled at reading the things my book quoted about the Czech nation. I think it's the kind of delineation which puts a mirror up to the reader and forces either a modest concurrence or complete denial. It was interesting to learn some local perspectives, but I realised one thing, when it came to a local's opinion about themself the truth was always in the eye of the judge. These were just contextual opinions at the end of the day. She was, however, conforming to the opinion in question so far.
Her friend came to join us in the cabin, laid down, wrapped herself up in her jacket and scarf and fell asleep. "She has a hangover" said the girl. "She had too much to drink and now she has a migraine. We're going to the hospital to get her an injection and then going to another party". I was beginning to build-up an impression already and we'd only been over the border for maybe 10 minutes. Slovak kids were confident and unfazed.
I eagerly waited for the long announcement which blared from the cabin speakers. I was listening for one word- 'Poprad'. My destination, Poprad, was the central hub for all things involving the Tatra mountains. It was not pretty. But then, it was dark and I was at a bus station. Nevertheless, I decided not to stay here but instead to take a local bus to Levoca where I might track down a hostel I had read about there. It was getting late, but I was starting to get used to wandering down dark lanes with my compass as a guide. Anyway, If in doubt, follow someone else. I found the bus station across a muddy field using this method. The thing you're looking for can be just around the corner, but if you don't know it's there you're relying on blind luck more than anything else to find it.
Every bus in this region seemed to place religious importance on having as many trinkets as possible hanging from every perceivable surface near the front window. Mini boxing gloves, teddy bears, Catholic crosses, trolls, you name it and you might actually find it. Getting off the bus in Levoca I had absolutely no clue where I was. This was a residential area with no signposts. Just flats and houses. So again, I consulted the compass, which by this point had developed an annoying bubble which affected the direction of the arrow. So I promptly followed a young lady up the hill. Call it luck, or good judgment but I emerged on the main road near the city walls. I was now on the map. Levoca's medieval walls stood resolute and well-preserved. It was the King of Hungary in the 1200's that brought in the Saxons to the Eastern Kingdom areas to keep the Tatars at bay. Bloody good job, these walls still stood in impressive fashion.
It's always difficult when walking behind a woman in the street, especially in the dark, not to make her feel like you're a psycho who's going to boot her into the back of a van. I made my steps drag, I sniffed, I lightly coughed, I was as disinterested in her as I could possibly make myself appear. The spooky street lights and lack of anybody else on the path consistently worked against my efforts to let her know I was a nice man. I just wanted to see where she went so I could hopefully get to the centre. After about 20 minutes I realised I could have just asked, but then that would have been too easy.
I was getting close to the hostel, the fog filled the air as if the clouds had fallen out of the sky down to street level. The traditional lanterns cast an eerie orange orb of luminescence every twenty yards. The trees had lost their leaves and their skeletal form silhouetted against the fiery haziness. Walking beneath old buildings and sizeable churches I could barely make out their lines through the mist. A hanging wooden sign emerged in the distance. 'Oaza Hostel'. I had arrived, cold, hot, stuffy, sweaty and freezing all at the same time and in different body parts.
I rang the bell. I silently prayed it would be open. A shadow moved on the other side of the patterned glass. "Yes!" I said to myself. The door swung open. "Hello" was all I could think to say and then I stuttered. The young girl, no older than 15 asked me "are you looking for accommodation?" Again, a simple "yes" was all I could respond with. The problem was I was partly embarrassed for not having practiced any Slovak and in my eagerness to get out of the cold air I spoke instinctively in English without asking first. This second encounter with a young Slovak was even more impressive than the first. The girl took her time to explain everything in understandable grammar, much like a teenager in a foreign language exam. I wondered where the adults were, but she was doing so well and I was humbled and grateful for the warm hospitality. It was a lovely place.
She led me through the modern, spacious but cosy house the family lived in, down the garden path and into the large annexe at the back where the self-contained accommodation was. I had a room with 2 beds and more pine-covered walls. There wasn't a single other guest anywhere to be seen. It was unbelievably quiet, clean, and homely. The girl came back with my two euros change and grasping a small plate, "we made err cake, so...here, you can have", she smiled genuinely and passed it to me. My eyebrows raised with an indebted look of thanks. I was absolutely famished. I felt like a part of the family within 3 minutes of walking through the door. I definitely landed on my feet with this place, it was a great find.
In the morning I was well on my way to meeting the entire family, two daughters, one son and a very smiley Mother of all three. "I'd like to go and see Spisske Podhradie Hrad" I said. Spissky Hrad was a Castle and one of the largest in Eastern Europe. From the road, if I could see it through the fog, I'm sure I would have been in awe at its sheer size. The castle was another of UNESCO's World Heritage listed buildings. The oldest mention of the castle dates back to 1209. It sits majestically 200m above the surrounding town of Spissky Podhradie and an overall 634m above sea level. The amazing thing about this site is that 40,000 years ago there were already people living on this big mound of rock before castles ever existed. The castle managed to resist the Tatar incursions quite successfully. The Tatars were a Turkic ethnic group originally coming from the North-Eastern Gobi. They were part of Genghis Khan's Mongol Empire in the 13th century and moved Westwards by his grandson Batu Khan. They now have a presence in Central and far Eastern Europe, most heavily populated in Russia and numbering over 5 million there alone in the present day. My hosts selflessly began to research the opening times of the castle and the bus timetable, inviting me into their house while they grouped together to pool all available information. As it turned out today was the last day Spissky Hrad would be open to the public.
30 minutes later I found myself getting off the bus at the small castle town. The fog had not lifted from the night before. It hid any geographical clue as to the whereabouts of the looming stone structure. I knew it was there, I knew it was ginormous but I had to rely on local directions, which amounted to pointing fingers and gestured turns to tell me so. A small group of Roma children played in the road on rusty tricycles. 'Roma' was the term for the Central and Eastern European gypsy population. They faced discrimination from other ethnic groups as their level of social integration was very low and consequently 75% of Roma people live in poverty in ghetto areas, adding to the problem of petty crime such as pickpocketing. I walked through the street and turned up into an ascending hill entrance. The afternoon sun was dipping quite swiftly, I was going to have to get a move on if I wanted to step foot inside.
Walking up a vague trail on a hill with no end in sight was a strange feeling. I looked behind me, there was nothing but thick fog. I was in the middle of my own visible space, nothing else inhabited that space but a patch of grass, some bushes and a whole load if silence. After roughly 15 minutes of determined rambling a yellowy glowing object appeared up ahead of me. I stopped and stared, then took a few more steps and stared some more. The castle reflected the low afternoon sun's rays like a ghostly apparition. Breathing deeply and with the occasional "woa" I sauntered on. At the top of the hill the entrance sign read 'This gate is closed, please use the East entrance'. "Flippin 'eck!" Knowing how big this castle was, I was convinced it would take me the rest of the day to get around to it. I followed the East arrow on my compass along the castle wall on a precarious grass trail and surprisingly within 10 minutes reached the east entrance. Closed. "Ahoj?" I said in a loud voice through the castle gates. I knew that from November onwards the castle was only open via appointment or invitation and the Skoda in the courtyard gave hope that someone might let me in for a wander. No such luck. I guess they were busy reloading the canons or something.
I told myself that admiring the structure was much better from the outside anyway. The view of the surrounding hills was glorious. The tree-topped slopes were interlaced with a silky blanket of thick white fog which moved and transformed with surprising alacrity. It gracefully slid up the hills, occasionally engulfing the entire landscape, a trillion microscopic droplets of precipitation glistened in the setting sun which shone like an underpowered 20 watt bulb in the thick atmosphere. I stood there in reverence on a rocky outcrop gazing at the distant Tatras which revealed their faded peaks. There was nothing but me and the landscape. The silence was overwhelming, an emotional experience.
The light levels were falling and I had hoped that the castle would be lit in grandiose yellows and golds in the night sky. I waited and waited until the darker stages of twilight. Looking over my shoulder at the murky pathway that awaited my reluctant descent. Nothing happened, the hills silent, and the air becoming blacker and more foreboding my the second. The moon provided the only source of light, generously reflecting the sun's rays from over the horizon. I had to leave. I took the first few steps downwards into the mist. It was a scene right out of 'American Werewolf in London'. The further I walked, the more the castle began to disappear into the night behind me, leaving me surrounded again in the chilling moonlit fog. I hoped the trail would not disappear beneath my feet and at this point I remembered that bears were present in most mountainous areas of Slovakia. A secretive life made it difficult for experts to determine their exact number, maybe 700-900, but they were absolutely a part of this ecosystem. I just didn't want to be a part of their diet. So far the only bears I had seen were captive in Cesky Krumlov castle moat.
The faint hint of street lighting came into sight and the familiar streets developed beneath my feet. At the bus stop were a group of Slovaks waiting patiently for the next bus, my thoughts of possibly having to hitch home disappeared. I noticed the bus drivers were all starting to look the same. Thick jumper, moustached upper lip and deeply unfulfilled expression.
The next morning I left Levoca to stay in the Tatra mountains at a hostel I just couldn't resist- The Ginger Monkey. I had no idea there was a hostel named after my Father. Maybe it was something to do with the cold weather. My Dad was super-human, he would regularly walk out into a British winter wearing a short sleeved shirt made of the thinnest cotton you could buy. It must be the copious body hair that kept him warm. God forbid the sun should come out. He wasn't accustomed to that at all. I was aware that the Tatra mountains were out there somewhere, but so far the days had been so misty that I hadn't seen a thing. I stood at Poprad bus station, turned around and bam! There they were. Within the space of one or two minutes the entire block of alpine fog lifted and revealed the shining Tatras in full panoramic glory. My perspective shifted, I now knew I was in the mountains and didn't have to take anyone's word for it. The Tatras were only 25km wide and so the long formation of snow-capped peaks look distinctly like they were dropped here from another planet. The rest of this region was hilly but paled in comparison to the mountains themselves. Gerlachovsky stit sat proudly at 2654m in the Carpathian range. It really was the most beautiful sight.
Random people came up to me, presumably asking about the regularity of the buses, I couldn't understand a word. "Nerozumiem" became a useful phrase. It meant I didn't understand. Even if I spoke Slovak the bus schedule was filled with so many symbols which denoted important additional information about the each service, none of which were explained in a key at the bottom, that I wouldn't be able to tell them anyway. That might spoil the game. I'm sure they took pleasure in allowing us to guess what the hell it all meant.
It was at that moment I realised. That this was it, the symbolic mini facet that symbolised this whole journey so far. A series of letters, expressions, greetings, gestures and idiosyncrasies that left you wondering the meaning, the reason, what did it all mean? This was the point, and I was going to find out.