10th AUGUST 2018
I’m continuing on my Westward course today as heading South will take me straight towards Budapest in Hungary with it’s sprawling population of nearly two million people. Athough it’s meant to be a beautiful city, negotiating my way through on a bike will be stressful and is something I’d rather avoid. This means I’ll be spending almost a week in Slovakia, which is unusual for someone cycling North to South as you could easily race across the skinny part of the country in two days. However, by crossing diagonally I’m consciously opting for more mountains in order to avoid a large city.
I leave Banksa Bystrica using a road that runs parallel to the motorway and head towards the town of Zvolen, where a large medieval castle dominates the path out of town. Fortified on a hill above rows of railway tracks, it looks slightly otherworldly with its uniform rectanglular shape and white coloured exterior. After getting through Zvolen I’m slowed by a slight uphill, a fresh breezy headwind and a temperature that’s been steadily increasing as the day wears on. I’m aiming for a place called Levice today, but when I reach a junction I find that the road has been closed – this is communicated to me via a roadsign with a large ‘X’ through the town name using what looks like red sticky-tape. There had been no previous indication of a road closure until I reached the turn off, which seems to be an irritatingly common occurrence on this trip.
Luckily, I find a detour on Google Maps that will add only 15km of distance to my day. This is certainly manageable but it does mean cycling for an extra hour in thirty-five degree heat. I try to conserve energy by trundling slowly round the diversion, which proves a fortunate piece of foresight with the hills I’m about to climb. As the road begins to slant upwards I get into that usual slow, plodding rhythm I use for creeping up steep slopes. The route twists and turns round a series of tight corners and hairpin bends which often leads to me crossing to the wrong side of the road just so I can cycle in the shade.
The sound of an approaching siren gives me yet another excuse to stop for a breather, and I wait at the roadside until an ancient fire engine rumbles up the hill and crawls past me. I lumber sluggishly on, and within a few minutes I find the old fire engine has joined an ambulance at the scene of an accident. A motorcyclist is lying on the opposite side of the road having come off his bike on a downhill bend. He’s being lifted onto a stretcher as I cycle past and screams out in pain, which I take to be a good sign as at least he’s conscious and will probably be OK. I don’t stop as there’s really nothing I can contribute in addition to the emergency services already taking care of him. Seeing this type of thing always gets me thinking about how vulnerable I am as a cyclist and how quickly things can go wrong.
I reach the summit a knackered, sweaty mess and am relieved that I can simply freewheel on the long descent and let the wind cool me down. Having just passed the stricken motorcyclist I’m a little more careful going round corners but I still fly down straights grinning like a fool. The downhill gets me to within 10km of my destination, but I struggle with this short distance after expending so much energy on climbing hills in a baking heat earlier. I am pooped.
When I do reach Levice I find an ugly, run-down city full of graffiti and closed businesses. My accommodation is a hotel / restaurant where the lady owner discovers that I don’t speak Slovakian, so tries conversing in a mixture of German and broken English which is almost as confusing. I manage to roughly translate that the restaurant is closed tonight and that I can leave my bike in a covered storage area amidst a disjointed collection of tables and chairs. The whole building is ring-fenced like a fortress, which would seem to be a sensible precaution judging by the surrounding neighbourhood. In addition to the prison-like aesthetics, I can’t help but notice the amount of cats that are sitting around the property. It’s a little disconcerting and feels like I have stepped into the middle of a Stephen King film.
I’m not game to venture outside the compound after dark, so I finish all my road food leftovers for dinner before falling asleep in my first bath of the trip. The evening air is so hot and heavy with humidity that I don’t move far from the relieving airflow of a pedestal fan all night. Nevertheless, I’m hoping that this stickiness will be cleared by a huge rainstorm that is forecast to arrive overnight. I’m also hoping that it will be polite enough to have moved on by tomorrow morning.
I wake to see a flood of puddles outside, so it clearly chucked it down last night without me hearing a sound. I go downstairs for buffet breakfast and begin my usual gluttonous quest to eat as much as I can. These All You Can Eat breakfasts really don’t take hungry cyclists into account. Two French ladies nibble on pastries and sip coffee while I make multiple trips to the food table and return with a full plate each time. As I’m eating I’m disturbed to see even more cats than yesterday dotted round the courtyard. There must be a dozen of the creatures just sitting there quietly and watching me. It really is quite sinister. Just as horrible is the pungent aroma of cat urine that has been soaked by overnight rain and whose smell now seems to permeate the air.
As I cycle out of Levice I pass yet more graffiti, industrial greyness and derelict buildings just to reinforce the town’s ugliness. At this point I realise that it’s not just the courtyard of my accommodation that smells, but the entire town. Normally when it rains after a long dry spell the ground releases a wonderful grassy, earthy smell into the air. In Levice it appears to have released the smell of cat piss.
After yesterday’s scorching hill cycle, my ride today is a relatively flat and easy 55km. I use country roads for the most part and pass some fields of sunflowers that have begun to wither. The crop would have looked spectacular in full bright yellow bloom, but look dull and a little bit creepy now that the flowers are dying. I think the killer plants in Day of the Triffids could easily have been inspired by these macabre armies of dead sunflowers.
Today’s unsettling plant theme continues during one of my rest stops, when I’m slightly repulsed to notice green patches on the inside of one of my water bottles. I’m not exactly thorough with cleaning the containers and quite often any water I haven’t drunk will sit overnight before I just top it up the following morning. Added to this is the fact that my bottles can spend up to eight hours every day in direct sunlight, meaning that the most transparent one has now started to grow a colony of green algae in the base. I’m quite disgusted by this state of affairs and resolve to have a proper cleaning session tonight.
I get to Nove Zamky by early afternoon, stock up on food and then go for a wander round town to find that the town centre consists almost solely of a big open square and a church. When walking after a long cycle I tend to trudge around rather stiffly and slowly, but today I lose track of the number of trips or stumbles I have – either my legs are so tired that I can’t lift them or all this time spent on a bike has impaired my ability to walk properly !
At night I clean my water bottles carefully with hot soapy water in an effort to remove the offending green patches. A Google search then informs me that drinking green algae isn’t harmful and that it may even contain calcium and magnesium which are rich nutrients for the body. Still, it’s my last cycling day in Slovakia tomorrow and I’d much rather I wasn’t joined on the journey by some uninvited microbes in my water bottles.