Slovakia: A nature lover’s paradise

It is a lovely sunny day. The weather forecast is great, except for the days that I was going to be in Bratislava. Train travel is really luxurious here. Added to my luxury was the delicious sandwiches Lenka had packed for me. I had a little tip from her regarding trains in Czech. She recommended Radiojet trains. They were cheaper and the food available on them was affordable and delicious. Well, too late for me but hope this tidbit helps you.

The view as soon as I entered Slovakia was breathtaking. How did I know I was in Slovakia? There was a random check at the border. Cops came in and all the foreign looking people like me, were asked to show their passport, visa and tickets. So, back to the gorgeous scenery. Lakes, mountains, green meadows. Sigh…

 

That was the nature. But as we came closer to towns, I could see decrepit houses, malnourished children and dirty dwellings, just like most Indian cities or towns present themselves. My first stop was Poprad. As soon as I alighted the train, I had the view of the great Tatras, the mountain range, Poprad is nestled in. Snow capped mountains. I couldn’t wait for my trek tomorrow. I was couchsurfing with a family here. I was in touch with the dad, Branko. I found their house quite easily. Branko and Kadri lived with their two adorable children in a very swanky, modern flat. I absolutely loved their house. This was the first place I was literally couchsurfing. My bed was a couch by the day and doubled as a bed by the night.

The Tatras

It was still quite early in the day. Too late for a trek but too early to stay in. I showed Branko my list of “To do” in Poprad. He told me that I could go to Kezmarok which was just 20 minutes away by train and gave me the train timings, to and fro. As soon as I got out of the station, I was shocked with my surroundings. When the train was reaching the station, I could see multiple slums. Once out, there were homeless people all around. For the first time in my travels, I was scared to get my camera out. I felt anyone could just grab it and run away. I switched on the map and walked as quickly as my legs could carry me.

Kezmarok has a wooden church which is a UNESCO heritage site. Pictures aren’t allowed inside, but a bunch of students were busy clicking away. I didn’t have the heart to do it, knowing well, why it was prohibited. Mostly it is to preserve the interiors. Please do google the Evangelical church of the holy trinity and check it out. It has exceptional wall paintings and wood carvings.

Wooden church

Once back in Poprad, I went hunting for food. After walking around randomly, I came to a restaurant called Hodovna and ordered myself a Beer pork collar roast, served with cabbage patties and sauce with a mug of Pilsner. My only meal of the day apart from the sandwiches Lenka had given me. During the dinner, a got a message and on auto reflex I pressed “No” and then realized that my data had stopped working. The sim I had taken in Prague was useless now. A friend in India tried to help me, joining my efforts to try and reactivate it. But it was pointless. It was time to bid goodbye to data connection.

Meal of the day

Post dinner I got home and met the whole family properly. Another couchsurfer, a British girl, named Annabelle was staying with us too. She had been hitchhiking through Europe for the past month or so. Her last stop before Poprad was at a farm run by a Dutch family. She was travelling with no fixed itinerary and was at the last of her savings. She couldn’t afford to pay for accommodation and preferably not for travelling either. I just couldn’t imagine doing what she was doing. I thought I was on a shoe string budget, but she was taking it to another level. Well, it’s another matter that we can’t really compare the Rupee to Pound. She was hitchhiking through towns and going wherever the roads took her. What an adventure!!

Once the kids were sent to bed, Branko took out all his maps to help us plan our itinerary. It was evident that he was an avid trekker and was almost an encyclopedia when it came to this region. He recommended I drop Kosice, my next destination from my itinerary and stay back so I would have time to go atleast on one trek. I didn’t even blink before I decided to follow Branko’s advice. What’s the point if you don’t listen to the locals?

He showed the various treks we could do on his map. My favourite, which caught my attention immediately was the trek/hike in the Slovak Paradise National park. It was quite intense and extremely adventurous, but unfortunately I didn’t have the time to do it. Branko told us about another trek, which had the best trail but I couldn’t do it as there was still snow there and I didn’t have the right gear for it. I was quite tempted to go buy some. But, luckily I talked myself out of it. Another one, which had an overnight stay at a cabin, where all trekkers drank and sang late into the night and then started trekking at the break of dawn. By now, I knew I was going to come to Slovakia again. The Poprad-Tatry stretch needs at least 10 days, if you want to do it any justice.

Next morning, I took the early train to Strebske Pleso. I missed the direct train and so had to take the one via Stary Smokovec. The train is chugging along a hill, the incline so obvious that you feel like you are in an amusement park, but a ride which is super slow. On both sides there are deep coniferous forests, which clears every now and then to give us a peek of tiny hamlets set in the middle of nowhere. The other stations we came across on the way, didn’t even have platforms. It was a just a thin strip of cemented land with forests on both sides. The train was full of people in proper hiking gear and I was in cotton pants and Keds. (#facepalm) Well, it is what it is. Not going to let it ruin my experience. I was here to have fun. And that’s what I intended to do.

Once I got to Strebske Pleso, first stop, breakfast. I was famished and didn’t have the energy to look around for the cheapest options available. I went into the first big restaurant which came my way and ordered a double egg and ham omelette. Full and satisfied, it was time to start my trek up to Skok waterfall. At the beginning of the trail, there was another track, where I noticed, there were resorts and guest houses. A lot of couples were strolling around, hand in hand. I decided to hold the hand of my camera and click away to glory. Pictures of the nature and not the couples. Pictures I just realized (I think)I have lost. Oh wait! I found some of them! I had transferred a few on my phone. Luckily have those. Phew!

The trail was very relaxed and simple. Unfortunately, that’s all my shoes could take right now. There were even old people and young kids on the trail. I am really looking forward to bringing my son here in the next few years. There was an old gentleman, must have been atleast in his late 60s. I could barely keep up with him. He is totally my inspiration now. There were people with dogs too. I wondered how it would be to bring my Reiko here. DISASTER!! This was the way of their life. While we went to malls and the movies, these guys went outdoors, spending time on adventure activities. I wish I had these options back home.

 

Once I was on the top, I sat under the warm sun for a while. Warm, not by Indian standards. it was 6 degrees, but I had broken into a sweat with the vigorous hike. It was so serene to sit by the waterfall, hearing the gentle burble and splash of the water against the rocks. Dogs were rolling around playing and couples were sitting having a picnic. I decided to move on, before this happy feeling fades and I start missing my family and friends. I loved how people, random strangers said hello to you when you passed by, smiled at you. I was moved with the multiple smiles and Dobry den (Good day in Czech) coming my way all day. If some random stranger behaved the same way back home, I would think either he/she is crazy or has some sinister motive.

 

On the walk to the station, I had a bout of shopping fever no. 3 (1 in Prague, 2 in Cesky Krumlov) I shopped for my family, friends, friends kids (also like my family) Poorer than I was in the morning, I knew it was time to leave.

Once back at Poprad, I went to the Supermarket, an idea given by Annabelle. Broke people’s hack. Apparently, most people’s hack. But, this was not my ideal way of spending my vacation. Eating out, enjoying the local cuisines, trying out new flavours is a big part of my experience. But, I wasn’t in a position to do that anymore. So, I went to the store and bought myself some soup, a sandwich and some fruits. Yesterday, I had taken an Orange (Vodafone for us) sim, which wasn’t working. So, I went back to the store today, asking them to look into it.  After a few calls, the girl tells me that the sim won’t work on my phone and she can’t do anything more. I give her a piece of my mind, tell her that this is the worst customer service I have seen in my life. She asks me to call customer care, I tell her it’s her responsibility and she should do that. She sighs, looks at me and returns me my money. Job well done Deepika Rao!! Don’t you mess with an Indian!!

 

At home, Branko, Kadri and I sat talking about India, tolerance, travelling and finding oneself. They had traveled through India years ago and were sharing their experience, which was quite similar to what most foreigners face and go through in our country. I absolutely loved how they believe in the principle of “Family before individual” ( I coined that term, at least in this post) which was quite evident. They spent a lot of time together and every weekend they went out on little excursions with the kids, exploring their world.

Next morning I was off to see the Ice caves. I had to take a train to Liptovsky mikulas and then a bus. I had so many goddamn coins by now that they kept spilling out of my purse. After a similar embarrassing episode in the bus, I was on my way to the Demanovka Cave of Liberty. The landscape was spectacular and I was dreaming of a road trip here. How great would it be to cruise around in an open top car!! The cave, was just not worth it. I had paid 18 Euros for entry with my camera. The guide spoke only in Slovak and I was pissed. The saving grace…I still got to see some magnificent stalactite and stalagmite formations and a gorgeous underground river.

Underground river

Next, I took a bus and I went to the Demanovska Ice caves. I was hungry and decided to grab lunch at the restaurant outside the entrance. The cheapest thing on the menu was Halusky for 6 Euros. Aaaarggghh!! I am so so broke. No point crying now, is it? Miss fancy shmancy, I think you should just stick to exploring India for a while. Now, let’s just enjoy this moment, shall we?

Halusky

The restaurant was set next to a river, it was a bright and sunny day. There was a park next to the restaurant full of kids playing around. I was literally in tears. I was missing my son. It was way too long and couldn’t wait to get home and hold him.

 

To access the caves we have to climb up a steep incline. After that heavy Halusky meal, I was scared I would throw up with the exertion. But, I kept reminding myself to think of the awesome calf muscles I might get with this workout. In the cave, climate change had played spoilt sport. There were barely any ice formations. The guide told us the same and all of us were quite dissapointed. All we could see was a big slab of ice. Well, a few more of my hard earned rupees for nothing.

Damn you climate change!!
Evening back at Branko and Kadri’s place we sat around talking about various things. Branko had made dinner. Apparently he did every weekend to give Kadri a break from the housework. He had made some delicious soup and all of us had dinner together. I was off tomorrow morning to the next stop Spisske Podhradie. It was time to bid goodbye to Branko and Kadri’s lovely family and the so very adventurous Anabelle.

 

Bye bye lovelies

Next day, I took a bus to Podhradie. I had a gorgeous view. Meadows with cows grazing on it, a church spire in the horizon. The only not cool thing… the bus driver was texting!!

I had an Airbnb booking at Podhradie. I was staying with Miro and his little son in their house. Miro owns and runs a joint in the small town, called Dabar. It is quite a landmark, you can even see street signs for it. I was given his son’s room. I had a bed with little beetles painted on the wall and a bathroom where Winnie the pooh stared at me while I showered. There wasn’t anything to do in this town except for the castle and it was too late to do that today. The blanket smelled so good, wonder what is the detergent they used. With nothing to do and inviting, fragrant bed right next to me,I curled up with my next episode of GOT.

Next morning, I ate a breakfast of bread, cheese, ham and the most delicious ever Strawberry jam and was on my way to the castle. It was such a glorious day! Sunny, with a breathtaking view at every step. I took a complicated route there and had to fight through thorns and rocks and creepy crawlies.
Pictures couldn’t do justice to what my eyes were seeing. I tried my hand at taking some selfies, and well, I think I did a decent enough job. Nope, I am not sharing any of it here!!

 
I took an audio guide and walked through the castle. Spissky Hrad or the Spis castle is a UNESCO heritage site which is the oldest and largest castle in Central Europe. I was tanned as hell by now. The audio guide narrated a love story of a prince and princess which ended tragically. I started to cry. Like tears rolling down my face. I knew I was physically and emotionally exhausted. I need people. I need my people. I wanted to get back home. But cause I had already come this far, I would straighten up and keep on trucking.
 
Castle kitchen
View to kill for. And people did.

 

Chapel

 

 

Castle grounds

 

 

 

 

 

Branko had recommended checking out Drevenik, beautiful rock formations hidden in trees opposite the castle. There was little trail up a hillock and to get there I had to pass the parking lot where the old man at the curio store took a look at me and started screaming out Bollywood stars’ names. He didn’t have a shirt on and claimed he was Salman Khan! Hilarious!! I saw a bunch of cute biker grandpas.

The trail to the Dreveniks is quite interesting and a bit scary. I could hear rustling sounds from the forest and I was walking on a thin trail which was marked by a yellow ribbon. Just when I was wondering if being attacked by a bear would be my greatest adventure this trip, there came out these beautiful rock formations. I sat there for a while and played around with my lenses taking pictures of the castle.

Grandpa Bikers

 

Drevenik

 

On my way back, I walked through the town looking for a restaurant or a store to buy some food. Found nothing. I got back home starving. Miro had already informed me that he would be going to his sister’s place with his son and the whole house was mine. When he realized I hadn’t eaten anything, he went to his sister’s house, packed some food for me. Some is an understatement. It was a sausage fest. Ermmm, not the kinds you are thinking about. The sausages one can eat. God No! Sausages made from pigs!! Goddamn it! What’s the right way to explain? I hope you know what I am talking about.

After a super filling meal, I went into his backyard and sunbathed. Just when I was sure the bathing was turning into burning, I went into his Bar (It was shut that day) and checked it out. Loved the place. Coffee and wine, board games on the tables, playpen for the kids. Why can’t we have something like this back home?

Sunbathing view

After a satisfying, beautiful and emotional day, it was time to go to bed to wake up at a godforsaken hour tomorrow morning.

So up at 3, I had a bus to Poprad at 4 and a train to Bratislava from there. Miro came to see me off at the station. I had a real tough time dragging my million bags on the bus and then to the train. Bratislava was cold and wet. I found my hostel quite easily. I was staying at the Freddy Hostel. The check in was at 2 and I still had a long way to go for it. I put my bags in their locker and went in search for some food and money. Had delicious pancakes with fruits and cream at Stur cafe and it was time to start swiping my card. But, it wouldn’t work. the debit, credit, none of them!! I paid it with my dwindling cash stash and the next stops were the multiple ATM machines on the street. Same story. So, next I went to the bank and exchanged all my remaining CZK to Euros.

 

Hostel common room

Frankly I don’t remember much of my time in Bratislava. I was in a haze. Not the good kinds. I had lost interest and the weather was not helping. So, the highlights of Bratislava..

The painter. This street artist, Italian man, asked me if I wanted my portrait sketched. I smiled, said no thank you and started moving on. He did an exaggerated jump, told me I was beautiful ( my smile, more so. Blush blush) and offered to do it for free. When I politely declined that too, he offered to take me out for a coffee. Well, my coffee experience with the Macedonian whacko in Berlin had taught me a very valuable lesson and I wasn’t falling for that again. Time to do my best version of brisk walking.

 

 

Man at work. Not anymore.

 

 

 

 

The blue church. My favourite favourite place. So goddamn beautiful. I probably shouldn’t use goddamn while describing the house of god, you think?

 

 

 

 

 

The UFO observation deck. I didn’t go here. Cause it was too far to walk and I was too broke to pay for transport. And mainly, cause I got too engrossed watching this couple, stark naked, doing the deed in one of the cabins of the cruise ships docked by the bridge. Hey, what?! Not my fault! They should have drawn the curtains!!

 

Yup. That is the cruise ship

The guy from Marseilles. Sigh. French men. Sigh. We met for the first time and spoke for a few minutes just when he was leaving. He was very disappointed that we hadn’t met a day before. Sigh

The guy from South Korea. Weirdo alert!! I had came across this guy on my first day while he was checking in. He was in my room and like most people do in hostels, we were sharing our travel stories. Each time I walked by him, he spread his arms like he was going to hug me, complete Shahrukh Khan style. I am a very light sleeper and every time I opened my eyes in the night, I could see this guy, on his bed (Bunk bed opposite mine), glasses on, staring at me. Next morning, he wanted to have breakfast with me and kinda tried to imply that I would have to pay for it. FO!

The other girl from Singapore. She introduced me to a great offline map app and thanks to her, my last day of the trip was manageable.

Trip to Vienna. On Branko’s recommendation, I went on a day  trip to Vienna from Bratislava. the bus ticket is just 5 Euros. I couldn’t find my bus and had given up hope, and was planning where to go next when another bus driver came up to help me and guided me to the right one. It was a great drive with windmills on the sides. There was a bunch of Spaniards in the bus who were having a great time laughing and talking. I decided, next time onwards, solo trips should not last more than a week. I start missing people and get home sick after that. I just saw a few places quickly in Vienna. Didn’t have the time to explore it well.

 

Vienna State Opera

 

 

Vienna State Opera

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

St.Stephen’s Cathedral

 

 

St.Stephen’s Cathedral

 

 

St.Stephen’s Cathedral

 

St.Stephen’s Cathedral

 

Theseus Temple

 

Hofburg Palace

 

Theseus Temple

 

 

 

 

Museumsquartier
Leoplod Museum – Museumsquartier

 

 

Dream come true

 

Mozart
View from the Biergarten
The guy who passed out in St.Stephen’s cathedral. This guy just fell flat on the floor, completely unresponsive to anything the people around him did. Splashing water, slapping his face. The security came in and carried him away. The general talk was that the man was drugged out. 

Shopping fever no.4 #facepalm

 

Love across the generations in Vienna. (In the train, from the bus drop point to the city center) I saw how affection was being displayed by couples from two different generations. This old couple, holding hands and sitting while these teenagers… The boy had his hand between the girl’s legs like it was nothing more than just holding hands. To come to think of it, this was probably just lust and had no love involved in it. (I am getting old!)

And that’s love.

The old man in Vienna. I had my meal at the most affordable place I could find. But once I had ordered my meal, I came to know that they did not have WiFi. So, post my meal, I went hunting for a restaurant with WiFi as I needed it to book my ticket to Bratislava. There were many, but I couldn’t access it without ordering some thing. So, I went into a cafe and ordered a glass of wine while my phone charged. A pleasant looking old man, on the table next to me asked me to join him and started talking about his life, he was from Egypt n bla bla. It was all nice till he suggested that he would show me around Vienna and I could spend the night at his. So, off I ran with him following me till the local train station.

Cappuccino in Vienna

 

Ravioli with sheep cheese and prosciutto

Siti and family. The train from Vienna to Bratislava had auto shutting doors, like most trains there. I missed boarding it and the doors were shut. I didn’t know what to do and couldn’t think of shelling another 13 Euros for the next train. Luckily the next compartment had a manual door and I got through it. In the cabin I was sitting, I met Siti and her family. A Malaysian family living in Ireland where Siti is studying and so her family has moved there with her. We had a great time talking about various things and are still in touch, thanks to Facebook.

New friends

That’s it. Next day I was off to Prague and then off to India. I went crazy shopping at the duty free and met an interesting Argentinian guy on my flight who presently lives in New Zealand and is madly in love with his girlfriend and adores her daughter. 🙂

A must have!! Sweet, moist absolutely drool worthy cake.

 

Heaven!!!

So, here I was, back home. Exhausted, broke but happy. Fridge door fuller with the new magnets and my soul content with the memories and now back in the presence of my loved ones.

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