9th AUGUST 2018
I wake up feeling neither rested nor hungover. I’m in an unthinking, robotic daze and go about my morning routines on auto-pilot. Normally I’d be paying a visit to the loo by this point, but I’m quite shocked to find that my bladder is empty. The litre of beer I drank must have been absorbed straight into my system as it tried to rehydrate from a day of climbing steep hills in thirty-three degree heat. Anyway, that’s my excuse for feeling drunk on two pints. I can also feel a cold sore brewing, which is a sure sign that I am feeling a bit run-down. Lucky, then, that today I only have to ride 40km to my Warm Showers hosts in the city of Banská Bystrica.
I’m staying with a family called the Mazanecs and, from reading feedback from their previous guests, it sounds like Jan and Evit will be a lovely couple. When I put in my request to be hosted I was answered almost immediately with a refreshingly open ‘Hi Rob, you are welcome at our place !’ I can tell I’m going to like them just from the tone of the messages. The ride to their home is uneventful though, save for cycling along Slovakia’s Route 66, which has tacky motels and souvenir shops that borrow heavily from the original Route 66 in America. I reach Banská Bystrica by mid-afternoon, find it’s bigger than I expected and spend a while negotiating the town centre before I get to the correct street. Jan meets me outside their block of flats, puts my bike in the basement storage locker and invites me inside.
As with most Warm Showers hosts, Jan and Evit are also fellow cyclists and therefore know the simple needs of a bike tourer. I have a shower, put my dirty clothes into the washing machine and Jan then cooks up a huge pot of carbohydrate-laden spaghetti. Into that we mix a tin of tomatoey mashed bean pulp, which he says takes him back to eating cheap, student meals at university. It tastes really good though, especially with grated cheese on top and I’m actively encouraged to eat a super-sized helping because he knows I need the calories for cycling. By this time Evit has arrived home with two sleeping children who are transferred straight from her car to their beds. It’s not long before a tired Jan joins them in their slumber.
With the rest of the household having an afternoon nap, Evit has a chance to tell me all about her and Jan’s year and a half cycle trip in the Americas. At the time they had been living in Boston and working as seasonal guides on a whale watching boat. When their contracts ended they sailed on a friend’s yacht down the East coast of the USA, berthed in Haiti where they bought a pair of old ramshackle bikes and then cycled across Cuba. From there they moved on to Mexico, bought sturdier bikes and carried on riding through Central America, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Chile. It sounds like such a brilliant trip and it piques my sense of wanderlust just that little bit more. What I like most about these two people is that their sense of adventure didn’t just die out when they had kids – they’ve already taken cycle trips to Italy and Vienna with the children in tow and the eldest boy, Janko, could ride a bike without stabilisers at two years old. What is more astonishing is that now with a three year old, a toddler and another on the way they are already planning their next cycling expedition in Iran. I find it inspiring that these two ordinary people are so positive about doing extraordinary things, although it does make my little jaunt through Europe seem very routine in comparison.
When the kids wake up, young Koloman is endearingly shy at first but soon transforms into an energetic, smiling little dude. He’s only one year old but is a chunky little beefcake, brought on by the fact that he will eat any food that gets within his grabbing range – salads, veggies and even green olives are all dispatched with great enthusiasm. We sit downstairs at a table outside their flat and have salmon salad for dinner, before returning indoors as darkness falls. The evening is spent chatting about travelling, life in general and also addressing the all-important issue of whether the ‘Loch Ness Creature’ exists or not. Citing no scientific evidence whatsoever, I tell them it’s such a huge body of water that anything could be living in there. We’re still talking at midnight with Janko fast asleep and sprawled on the couch between us. Before I go to bed Evit asks me to sign a guestbook that they use as a keepsake and memento from all their Warm Showers guests. I have a look through all the other messages first and am not at all surprised to find an outpouring of compliments and appreciation. I scribble my entry, but find it quite difficult thinking up new words to try and describe how positive, friendly and welcoming the Mazanec family have been. This feeling is compounded when they insist I should have the kids’ room all to myself, while all four of them share the main bedroom.
The next morning for breakfast we have bread with pate and a sort of light coloured Swiss Roll option that uses sunflower seeds instead of chocolate as a filling. Then I’m introduced to another family tradition whereby every guest pins a home-made paper flag into a wall map to show which country they’re from. I dutifully stick a small blue flag halfway up the West Coast of Scotland. This map is also like a giant scratchcard, where you can scratch off the original gold coloured surface of every country you’ve visited to reveal it in greater detail underneath, which is a concept that really appeals. Amongst their other wall decorations is a Slovakian flag which they received as a present from their boss at the whale watching tours. This flag then accompanied them from Boston and was tied to one of their bikes for the entire journey through Central and South America. It was caught up in the bike’s chain a few times and received various other injuries so it does look a bit old and battered, but nevertheless it’s still a great souvenir from their trip. I toyed with the idea of having a Scotland flag patch on my panniers but then decided against it. Part of me regrets not doing that now, especially when I hear how often their Slovakian flag acted as an ice-breaker in new surroundings.
Jan has to leave early so I shake his hand and thank him wholeheartedly for his hospitality. Evit and the kids come downstairs with me when I leave to say Goodbye and to spend some time playing outside. She looks at the gel seat cover on my saddle and has a good laugh when I tell her I also wear two pairs of padded cycling shorts to cushion my rear. ‘You spoil your ass’ is her unsympathetic verdict.
I leave Banská Bystrica full of optimism and with my faith in human nature renewed somewhat. I probably only spent half a day in total with the Mazanecs, but I already know it will be one of the highlights of my time in Slovakia. It’s just good for the soul to have met such a genuinely charming family.