6th AUGUST 2018
We wake early at Monika’s as her first floor flat is on the noisy main road into the centre of Nowy Sacz. She looks dog tired, but still cooks up a breakfast of scrambled egg on toast with onion and tomato, for which I am very grateful. I say Goodbye and take the pot-holed and busy road out of town, trudging along slowly until I reach a petrol station at a roundabout. A queue has backed up on the road leading from Slovakia which makes me wonder why I’m entering a country when it seems that everyone else is leaving. It also reminds me to spend the last of my remaining zloty coins as I’ll have no use for them again once I leave Poland. I don’t have quite enough for a proper feed, so my last Polish transaction involves only me and two chocolate bars. The girl who served me gets to keep the rest of my change.
As I get closer to the border the road gets slightly hillier, but also becomes an awful lot quieter. I cross a bridge over the Poprad River, which provides a natural boundary between the two countries and am greeted by signage at the halfway point telling me that I’m now crossing into Slovakia. My main thought at this point is that I’m relieved to have made it through Poland after all the horror stories and warnings I received about its roads and drivers. Of course that advice wasn’t given without reason – in broad terms the main roads were fast and dangerous, while the country roads were mostly slow and bumpy. My job was to pick a way through the country from North to South using a mixture of both, although going so far East that the locals spoke Russian was possibly slightly excessive.
I’ve only ridden a few hundred metres from the border when the road starts to snake it’s way up a densely forested hill. There are some shady sections that I feel thankful for and some exposed sections that have me dripping with sweat as I climb. I just keep plodding upwards and reach the summit after 8km, before a long downhill takes me into my first Slovakian villages. Quite often when crossing a border the two countries seem to merge into one another, but going into Slovakia feels immediately different. The landscape is certainly more mountainous and, once I’m over that first big hill, the country just feels generally poorer. Houses look older and in some disrepair compared with Poland, while most towns look a little unkempt and run-down. And, although it’s only 20km since the border, even the people look a couple of shades darker. At first I think they look almost Indian, but then realise it’s more of a Romany gypsy or dark Mediterranean colour.
There’s a fair bit of cloud cover by mid-afternoon, which is good for cycling but not so good for seeing the dark, spiky mountain range rising to my right. I keep getting tantalising glimpses through the gloom, but only ever for a few minutes before clouds return to re-shroud the view. The road has been following a river upstream, but a steady tailwind pushes me along nicely until I reach the village of Vrbov. I check into a guesthouse, where a Dutch guy and his Slovakian wife rent out rooms on the first floor of their house. He tells me about the Vrbov thermal springs, and the thought of languishing my tired limbs in hot mineral water prompts me to make tomorrow a Rest Day. I go for a pizza and a beer in one of the village’s two restaurants and am delighted to find that the beer costs just over a pound for half a litre.
When my Rest Day arrives I have big plans to visit the thermal hot springs and possibly even cycle to the next town and back to withdraw some Euros as we’ve changed currencies again. The cycling plan is quickly shelved though, as the whole point of a Rest Day is to stay off the bike and let your body recover. Instead I go to the village store, where a language barrier sees me using a lot of pointing and thumbs-up gestures to secure what I want. In amongst my purchases I buy spaghetti and what I think is a jar of tomato flavoured pasta sauce. When I open the jar though, I find that it contains only red peppers in their own watery thin juices. Nonetheless, it doesn’t go to waste and at least adds a bit of colour to the spaghetti. After lunch I start to feel unexpectedly tired and crash out for two hours. On waking I find that I now have absolutely no motivation to walk to the hot springs whatsoever. Short of staying in bed, I don’t think my Rest Day could have been any more lethargic.
On the day I leave Vrbov I finally get to see the mountain range – The High Tatras – that have been hidden by cloud for the past two days. Jagged and majestic, there are more than twenty peaks which form a large chunk of the border between Slovakia and Poland. In the distance today they’ve taken on an almost dark blue or purple colour as they point up into the light blue sky. I wish they’d been visible for the whole three days as they are spectacular and I’ve not seen anything even resembling a mountain since Finland.
My ride is going to take me over The Low Tatras, which aren’t as grand or spectacular as their big cousins but will still pose a test for me on a bike. I take a minor country road and pass through a poor, untidy village where small brown children are playing outside with no clothes on. As I cycle past their front yard a posse of eight or nine run to the road while shouting and waving at me. Some of them could be street urchins straight out of Oliver Twist.
All morning I’ve been making small climbs and descents in a fierce, draining heat but all that changes shortly after Vernar. As I leave the village a roadsign tells me to expect an uphill gradient of twelve percent for the next 5km, and consequently my capacity for swearing out loud is once again triggered. I stop beside the sign to take on some water and prepare myself to get into a slow, plodding rhythm. The climb is definitely twelve percent in some sections, but thankfully a lot of it is less steep. I stop on a number of occasions, either for water or to wipe away the rivers of sweat that are running off my brow, into my eyes and down my cheeks and nose. I’m losing so much moisture through my pores I’m beginning to resemble a wet sponge that is being squeezed. By the summit I’m only fit to stand there for a few minutes as a breathless, dripping mess. I also see a sign saying there will now be a downhill gradient of twelve percent, but this time only for 2km. I feel like I have been thoroughly ripped off after all the effort and time taken on the 5km ascent. There’s not even a decent view from up here as the tree coverage is so thick.
However, what the sign didn’t tell me was that after the 2km steep slope I’d then have almost 20km of gradual downhill to follow. Even when it appears to have flattened out I can see that the road is following a river once again, only this time it’s flowing downstream and therefore downhill. On the outskirts of some towns there are scattered pockets of folk standing along the roadside with catering sized tubs of blueberries and lingonberries for sale. It must have taken them ages to pick enough to fill those containers. There are also trays of what looks like batches of flat, home-made doughnuts on offer too, but I don’t want to stop and break my momentum when I’m flying along so effortlessly.
I get to the town of Brezno where I check in to a building above a courtyard that is primarily a restaurant but also rents out rooms. One young waitress has been given the task of dealing with me as she is the only staff member that can speak English well enough. She shows me the room and explains everything fluently, although she does get terribly confused when trying to explain the uses of all five keys on my set. As a result of her recommendation I eat in the restaurant and choose a tasting plate of cheeses, onion, tomatoes, chorizo and a type of fried, long mushrooms that have the same texture as bamboo shoots. All of this is washed down with another pound-a-pint beer while I sit and watch the everyday goings on in the courtyard below.
The Wi-Fi in our building isn’t connecting so I move to a hotel on the main square to use theirs and, just to be polite, order another beer. It turns out the internet here is almost as bad, with only Google Maps and Facebook working so I head back to my room. I attempt the simple job of eating a sandwich, but my co-ordination is all over the place. Most of it ends up as crumbs on the floor and, while I’m giggling, I realise that I feel half-pissed after two pints ! By 9.00pm I’m fast asleep with the lights on and my contact lenses still in my eyes. A combination of today’s heat and hills has dehydrated me so much that beer has gone straight into my bloodstream to replace all the lost fluids. I wake around 3.00am, take an enormous drink of water, remove the contacts that are now stuck to my dry eyes and turn off the lights. I’ll be mortified if I have a two pint hangover tomorrow.