green grass girded by
tired toi toi, shiny flax and thirsty gum
dirty bare legs, arms and feet
slapping, clashing, thudding
chasing oval ball
boys, dad and uncle battle it out
in time honoured ritual
ball bounces against the house
kids scream ‘out’
grandad proudly sits
on shaded sideline
sucking his Speight’s through
yellow decaying teeth
shouting & spitting the score
burnt white skin
Otago sun slides
behind black beech
and boys becoming men
It was a peaceful night’s sleep, however we still woke up kind of early. Our plan was to return to Oravice and bathe out our aches and pains in those lovely looking hot-pools. But first I wanted to return to Štrbské Pleso and get the photo we forgot to take. It turned out there were two possible routes around the mountain and Štrbské Pleso was right in the middle of them. So we opted for driving most of the previous week’s bike trip just to take that one photo.
We started with the switch-backs just up the road from our guest-house. Drove past the places where my gears were not working and the bus drove me off the road. It really was an up, around, up some more and then back the other way. My car GPS looked like it had been programmed by a totally drunk technician who just drew squiggly lines and circles across the screen.
Then when we got to the spot where I found water in my sleeping bag we diverted from our cycle route and headed south down the 960 to the Slovak border. When planning this was a road I had considered riding along. I was glad we hadn’t as our detour via Červený Kláštor was much prettier and took us into countryside which we did not see anywhere else on the journey.
Eventually we turned west and back into the High Tatras. It really was one long slow climb, reluctantly we drove past J&T BANKA Café and their excellent Tonino Lamborghini coffee. The slow climb eventually stumbled upon the same random intersection that had previously confused me. We turned north and drove those couple of steep switch-backs. I have no idea why Sharon felt so good when we cycled this portion, I still look back at it as an ugly day’s cycling.
We stopped at our lunch stop, did not sit on the seats with the wet paint and took the forgotten photos of the lake. It really was worth returning for the photo. On the day I knew we could have ridden a couple more kilometres up the road and possibly see something much more beautiful, but my legs just did not have it in them. Now was our chance. After about five minutes of driving we stumbled upon a village infested with swarms of brightly clad tourists being held up by walking poles whilst they buzzed around innocuous souvenir stands. We did a quick u-turn and sped out of there before this horrific picture became etched in our memories.
It was a pleasant drive all the way downhill. Liptovský Hrádok and Liptovský Mikuláš proved to be just as horrible to drive through as they had been to cycle through, which is a shame, as they are both at the base of the mountains and could be lovely places if a little money was spent on their infrastructure.
The next thing on the adventure was the gloriously steep and long road up the mountain. Somehow we were not quite sure if our memories had recorded it correctly, surely we were not stupid enough to do what we thought we had done and climb that big nasty sucker on our pannier-laden bicycles. Just so there could be no future arguments we decided to video it. Oh my goodness when driving it and changing from third to second gear, we realised that cycling this mountain was indeed a totally insane thing to do. If you listen carefully to the video you can hear Sharon quietly trying to tell me to slow down. The mountain was high, steep and had lots of switch-backs. It was even scary in the car. It took a long time to climb and once again the GPS sucking onto my windscreen appeared totally drunk.
The car flew past our peppercorn-steaks at ‘Koliba Holica’ and down the hill. Zeberec was still just as sleepy and as cute as we had left it. We turned east out of town and headed to the hot-pools.
Driving into Oravice one couldn’t help but notice the crowds. They were almost all entirely over sixty, overweight and under-clothed. Our quiet dip in mountain hot-pools had suddenly become a wet-squeeze at a senior citizens bathing suit party. The place was packed, it consisted of two pools, lots of sunbathing beds and was all nicely fenced in behind wire-netting. I cannot help but think that the fence was to stop overweight bikini-clad seniors from escaping and terrorising the town.
The changing rooms cost yet more money and we were almost out of Euro. A plan B needed to be found, fortunately there was an outside changing booth. It was made of plastic, started at knee-hight and could fit just one person. It did just fine. I was first in the water and could immediately feel all those aching muscles. I could also feel some other stuff, there were bucket-loads of dry skin floating through the pool and great big globs of slime, it seemed to be a mixture of body-fat, dirt, hair and dry skin. I can only describe it as gross. However having a long history with hot-pools I was determined to enjoy these. I found a spot where I could focus on the mountains, and sat there, let my leg muscles literally unwind whilst my arms were kept busy creating small waves as I chased away slimy globs of people grease. The experience was truly relaxing, hilarious and terrifying.
Afterwards we walked to a small outdoor restaurant to buy lunch. Of course we couldn’t read Slovak so were forced to buy from looking at pictures hanging on the outside of the caravan-kitchen. I pointed to a picture with a big plate of different kinds of Slovakian sausages. What I got was one nice little sausage, it tasted good, but I was disappointed.
Carrying a bag full of stories we drove out of town. Before long we stumbled upon a couple of rather desperate looking hitch-hikers. Our Polish was almost non-existent and their English though considerably better was not that good. As best as we could work out they had got lost in the Polish mountains and somehow ended up quite far away in Slovakia, they didn’t seem to have any gear with them other than a small water bottle and some chocolate. Their phone did not have roaming so was not working. They asked me to take them to the next town, after a little conversation we drove them back into Poland and dropped them off at a random bus stop where they had agreed by phone to meet their sister. It was all a bit funny.
After the sausage debacle I was keen to try buy some of the smoked cheese we had spotted the day before and I new just the place to buy it. We pulled off the busy main road into a very narrow and short gravel driveway. In front of us stood a tiny windowless smoking log-cabin. I walked on in like a native Pol. In the middle of the floor was a fire-pit supporting a small smoking fire, to the right was an old grubby bed covered with a grubbier blanket and against the back wall was a collection of old wooden chests. No-one was in there, so following the sound of banging I wandered outside to find an even grubbier old man chopping firewood. I looked at him, opened my mouth and realised that I had no idea what the Polish word for cheese was. So in English I said ‘cheese’. He didn’t say a word and scurried away inside, I followed. He walked to the back of the hut to an old oily wooden chest, stuck his grubby fingers in there and pulled out an egg-shaped block of, you-guessed-it, grubby cheese. He opened up another chest that I was sure was full of old tools, grabbed a well used plastic bag and shoved the cheese in it. I handed him five złot, he shook his head ‘no’ and grunted what I presume was an amount. I opened my wallet, and pulled out a few notes, he went straight to the biggest note and took it. The guy didn’t strike me as that clever, however when he saw one, he was sure as hang intelligent enough to recognise and take advantage of an incredibly stupid foreigner.
The first thing I did upon returning to the guest-house was wash the cheese and throw out its smelly old bag. I waited until just the right moment, sliced the cheese and ate some. Oh gosh what a taste. It could be best described as the taste of oyster shells that had been harvested from an oil-field and then burnt to charcoal with household rubbish. The cheese was mildly gross, oily and incredibly salty. I was royally ripped off, by a clever grubby old man.
Oh well such are the adventures of travel. We pulled back out onto the road and allowed ourselves to be swept up in the throngs of Zakopane bound traffic.
It was a good day and an even better cycle trip. If you are planning to cycle around the Tatras, really the only thing you need to remember is ‘what the Pols lack in their driving they make up for in their personality and what the Slovaks lack in their personality they make up for in their driving’.
Day 3 Up, Up & Up
Day 4 Into the Heavens
Day 5 Quiet Pizza
Day 6 Polish Roads
Day 7 The After Chapter
Again there was not a hurry to rise on this our final day of our trip. The penzión only had net curtains and we were woken early by subtle European sun shining radiantly through our window. Nothing else to do really but saddle-up.
It was so so nice to not have to pack our tent, sleeping bags and Therm-a-rests away, we were on the road in under half the time it usually took us.
I was pretty sure that this day was going to be a slow gradual climb all the way back to Zakopane. Immediately we started ascending. The mountains were again on our right, but this time they were casting long shadows towards us. The morning was a wee bit chilly as we cycled in-between a river and pastoral land.
Even though the road undulated upwards we managed to overtake a dray being pulled by two horses. It is always a special moment overtaking a horse and cart and this was Sharon’s first. I have learnt that horses and their often drunk drivers know to listen for cars and trucks, however a quiet bicycle can often spook them both. So while still quite a distance behind I tinkled my bell and said dobrý deň. Slowly and quietly the two drivers turned around, almost smiled and gave me a peaceful nod as I sailed by.
Very soon the undulations turned into a climb and in some cases quite steep. We disappeared into a forest alongside more mountain streams and felt the temperature drop dramatically. I was very thankful for my sleeves and wind-proof gilet. Without any warning we summitted and dropped rather quickly out of the forest into the small slightly odd thermal pool village of Oravice.
There were two thermal parks here. We arrived at 9:50. The first park, a rather old-fashioned place, opened at 11:00 and beside it, the big new Meander Thermal Park opened at 10:00. It was a no-brainer – we waited the few minutes for the posh place to open. I asked the young lady at reception where we could leave our bikes? At first she said that she did not know and then after thinking about it she said outside in the bike stands. Her bad attitude instantly started grating me. I followed up by asking where could we leave our panniers? She told me there were lockers, but our panniers would not fit in. She was just an employee and had no intentions of looking for a solution. We decided it was not worth it and cycled back to the old-fashioned hot-pools and hummed and hawed for a few minutes about waiting for hour for it to open. It is a good thing that we did not wait, because unbeknown to us our watches were still set on the wrong time zone, which would have meant a two hour wait. We were only 30 kilometres away from Zakopane and decided to instead drive back in the morning.
To my surprise the next 7.7 kilometres to Vitanová were all downhill. I think by this stage of the trip we were not taking so much in and were a little focused on getting to the guest-house. I had noticed rain-clouds in the sky a few hours previously and they seemed to be heading our way. Vitanová was where we turned a clear right and started seeing road signs for Poland. Right on this intersection was a short sharp discouraging climb. At the top was a few metres of scrub. It is always harder to find good toilet stops in pastoral land. So with a little desperation and little hesitation I went and had a chat with the cows.
Perhaps the highlight of my trip came in Hladovka. We came over the crest of a hill to see a long downhill stretch. I said to Sharon this is not good, if we go down then we need to go up. Sure enough we entered the village, crossed a creek and were presented with a long 12% climb. Just after I had changed down into first gear a severe looking little old man driving something that looked like a cross between a lawnmower and rotary hoe hauling a trailer full of hay pulled out from behind and proceeded to overtake me. I quickly grabbed hold of the trailer’s rear right. I greeted the old codger with a dobrý deň. He did not hear me, he was leaning forward into the wind and concentrating with everything he had. When he thought he had overtaken me he pulled right and drove me into the gutter. Fortunately just in time I managed to let go, drop behind him, dig on my peddles and grab the rear left of the trailer. This lovely old fella pulled me all the way to the top of the hill before pulling into someone’s house. It was not quite a free ride, I still had to peddle a little to keep my balance, but was so thankful that I was able to tick something else off my bucket-list. Sharon on the other-hand had to labour up the last serious climb of our journey all by herself.
The border came quickly and was a relic of the days when there actually was a manned border. The road was lined with old cheap liquor stores and currency exchanges. It was only the third international border I had crossed on a bike, so it was still exciting for me and a great chance for the ‘I was here’ photo.
As soon as we hit Poland we were greeted by another beautiful cycle track, much the same as the one we cycled when leaving the country. It lasted about a kilometre, but because of the steep downhill gradient and it going up and down over driveways, I decided to stick to the road.
Very quickly we hit Chochołów. The first thing we saw upon entering the town was a café with three middle-aged foreign female cyclists sitting out the front enjoying a coffee. They could have been English and looked quite out-of-place.
The village itself was beautiful, it was full of log houses with steep roofs and surrounded by flower gardens. It was quite possibly the prettiest village we have ever cycled through. We were not the only people to see the beauty of the place, it was also crawling with bus-loads of tourists. The only thing somewhat out of place was a very English-looking stone church.
We returned to the café that had since been vacated by its sporty middle-aged women. The menu had sausage and sauerkraut on it, this made a perfect second breakfast and was washed down with perhaps the best espresso I have had. It also marked the return of friendly welcoming Polish service.
The final 15 kilometres of our trip was ugly, Polish roads are narrow and not pleasant for cycling. Most of the trip was uphill, overcast and with cars lining up to find safe places to overtake us. This section of road was almost one long Zakopane suburbia, I hated it. There were a lot of other cyclists on the road, most of them day-trippers.
I spotted a temporary speed-camera quietly sitting on the side of the road, I smiled and pointed it out to Sharon. At the same time a car sped past, it flashed and now my grinning mug is probably providing amusement to small town Polish police.
The pace needed to be picked up as the sky was positively overcast now. Part of me wanted to get rained on, I wanted to test out the water-proofness of my new front pannier and wanted to see how we would handle bad weather. But God loves my wife, knew what was up-ahead and had other plans.
We cycled into a slight headwind past many tiny windowless log cabins which were puffing smoke out their doors and chimneys. They just seemed to be scattered across the fields. People seemed to be stopping and buying something from them, I was curious, so stopped and asked another cyclist. They were selling smoked sheep’s cheese.
The next stop was a grovelly no-name tourist-infested dot on the map. There were lots and lots of buses and micro-buses, seemingly billions of people dressed ready to base-jump off Everest and lots of ‘no parking’ signs. There were even ‘no cycling’ signs, we were not welcome and did not really want to be. So we ate some food and I asked a young couple if it was all uphill into Zakopane or not. They said it was and thankfully they were wrong. We climbed a minor hill and then it was all downhill into the city.
It started spitting as we hit Zakopane, the roads seemed to get narrower, the traffic got heavier and the footpath and road become crowded with unpredictable camera-waving pedestrians. I tried to offer encouragement to Sharon, telling her it wasn’t far to go and that the mesh on the back of her gilet was supposed to be waterproof. It didn’t help, I could see Sharon was terrified and hating it. There were large trucks on the now slippery road who had nowhere else to go but through us.
As we rode through the town, I tried to keep off the road and cycled along the footpath and through car-parks, but in the end the only viable option was to get off and push. We were very glad when we entered the lane to our guest-house, I picked up the pace a little, partly because I like to finish strong and partly to open the gate for a suffering Sharon.
I tinkled my bell as I went in. Our host quickly appeared, told us she was cooking, gave us the key and disappeared again. We cycled to the back-door, propped my camera on an old box and took our ‘after’ photograph. No sooner had the motor-drive ceased working, than the heavens opened. In a downpour we quickly relieved the bikes of their burdensome panniers.
I had left a bottle of excellent Lithuanian beer in the fridge, we popped the top to celebrate as the doorbell rang. It was our host, she knew the beer was in the fridge and had brought some smoked sheep’s cheese to go with it. We were tired, the cheese was good and we really appreciated the sentiment.
It was not a physically challenging day and scenically was quite pleasant until we hit Poland. Once it grew overcast and the Polish traffic picked up it was thoroughly miserable, now I was ready for a rest day.
Our final day was 52.94 kilometres, an average speed of 13.21 kilometres-per-hour and a top speed of 55.8 kilometres-per-hour.
The trip total was 289.37 kilometres with an average of 48.23 kilometres per day including our rest day. Excluding our rest day we averaged 55.48 kilometres per day. The daily average was quite low, this reflected that we were riding through mountains, I am not sure if together we would have liked to have added too many more kilometres to our days.
It was a wonderful trip and I recommend it to anyone who would like a cycle adventure. That one major mountain was steep and long and is not for the faint-hearted, but hey, give it a go.
Day 3 Up, Up & Up
Day 4 Into the Heavens
Day 5 Quiet Pizza
Day 6 Polish Roads
Day 7 The After Chapter
The cool early morning sun woke us. It was a peaceful kind of waking, realising that the tent was dry, nothing needed to be packed and we didn’t have to cycle anywhere. I rolled over in our comfy bed and went back to sleep. Much later I awoke again, grabbed my book, puffed up my pillow and read.
Eventually I rose, cooked a ham and egg breakfast, percolated our coffee, we ate then settled on the balcony with our coffee and read. It was wonderful, but nowhere near as fun and relaxing as spinning the cogs and watching the road pass beneath us. I ventured outside, found my bike and set about repairing my peddle-clips, it was a five minute job that I have been meaning to do for the past 12 months. Then of course to test them, I needed to take the bike for a very quick spin through the village and around the ski-fields. I felt both naked and free without my panniers.
I returned to the penzión, read a little more and set about convincing Sharon to cycle four or so kilometres up the hill to an ethnographic museum. Quite soon afterwards we were both back on the road.
The museum was a lovely wee place, with lots of old traditional log buildings, a beautiful church and many cheap souvenir shops. I had to pay a camera fee, this resulted in taking way too many photos. It was also quite strange and a little painful reacquainting ourselves with our walking legs. A lot of the path was gravel, which meant when I walked the metal cleats on the soles of my cycling shoes made an interesting clicking noise. I must have been quite a sight hobbling and clicking about.
It was a lovely cool ride through the trees and back down the hill. There seemed to be a senior citizens cycle-club cycling back. We rode past many Lycra-clad old men steaming their way up the hill. Beyond the museum apparently there is quite a climb. The old guys looked kind of humorous, but at least they were out there doing it and I so hope I can be as fit as they looked when I reach their age.
We cycled a different way through the village, again past many two-storied pastel-coloured houses. In my experience Slovakians keep to themselves, this was a Sunday, we overtook many church-goers strolling home seemingly studying their shoes. We stopped at a pizza shop, braved the bad service and enjoyed a long slow and very delicious pizza. The afternoon was wiled away on our penzión balcony resting, reading and watching the ‘Tour of Spain’ cycle race. The light turned soft in the early evening and I ventured out one final time for an hour of taking photos.
It was a very relaxing ‘forced’ rest-day and a chance to have a good poke around a village. If I could have, I would have done more miles in the saddle instead, but we were kind of hemmed in by a notoriously busy European road called the E77. The day off was a good test run before we eventually do our first big bike ride and are actually riding long enough to need a rest day. I was also thankful for my Kindle. It was super light-weight and allowed me to take a variety of books with me.
We had another early night as we prepared for our final day in the saddle. On our rest day I cycled 12 kilometres, with an average of 12.18 kilometres-per-hour and a maximum speed of 33.59 kilometres-per-hour.
Day 3 Up, Up & Up
Day 4 Into the Heavens
Day 5 Quiet Pizza
Day 6 Polish Roads
Day 7 The After Chapter
It was another chilly start. There was ice on our tent, panniers and even my shampoo was frozen. I was slow to get out of bed, but once I was out I was very quick to get dressed. It was so chilly that I needed to wear my trousers, shirt, sleeves, long-sleeve-tee, gilet and jacket. But I loved the frosty mornings.
Sharon went and made coffee while I downed the tent, erected the clothesline and threw the damp tent inner over it. Then I moved my bike into the sun and lay the fly over that. By this time coffee was ready, so we settled down and ate our muesli bars, drank our coffee and watched the sun dance with wild spruce and do a remarkably good job of not shining on our tent. We were fortunate, we did manage to mostly dry our tent before leaving.
First stop was Vavrišovo in search of yoghurt for our second breakfast. The cute little shop was packed, I grabbed our yoghurt and got in line. It seemed that everyone was buying fresh bread and ham which while we all waited, was being shaved off the bone. There was also a priority line where certain special people could walk in and get served immediately. After waiting a good five minutes and only moving a couple of places up the long line, I ditched the yoghurt and we made for the next village. We had a mountain to climb and I did not really want to waste time watching ham being delicately sliced, wrapped in paper and sold.
We slowly and perhaps a little reluctantly rode out of town, I liked the place and would have liked to have stayed longer. Very soon we found ourselves on a busy road shakily riding under an autostrada before coming across a long narrow bridge. The bridge was so narrow that cars could not overtake us on it. We were hungry and finding the Saturday morning traffic a little frustrating. We dived onto an empty side-road as soon as we could. We purchased our yoghurt and cycled into the city centre of a bustling Liptovský Hrádok. Though the day had well and truly heated up, it was not a very pleasant break. We quickly cycled west out of town, smiling and waving at all the cyclists heading east for a day in the mountains. The road was very busy, we tried to cycle close together to make it easier for passing cars and were very relieved to find the markings of an old and worn cycle lane painted onto the road. We put out heads down and butts up as we rushed through roundabouts and traffic lights, dodging and being dodged by trucks and cars. We were very stuffed but very happy to see the back of Liptovský Mikuláš. My plan had been to get past the busy part of this city and find a quaint wee café to stop for a coffee. We didn’t find anything quaint or wee and ended up stopping at a church on the very edge of town.
From here we picked up a lovely cycle path that took us directly to a water park that adults without children would never dream of going into. It was packed with families enjoying their weekend, the road got notably quieter as we left it in the distance. The road was undulating, though always heading up. On the left was a large lake and on the right once again were the mountains. I knew that at one stage today we were either going to go through them or over them. I allowed the lake and weekend cyclists to take my attention.
Still searching for coffee we stopped at Liptovská Sielnica. The town was not much more than a very large and nice lakeside camping ground. We could see some temporary cafés on the lake-front staying open in hope of straggling post-summer tourists. After finding our way through the fence we stopped at one. We had a beautiful view of a very blue tranquil lake, which like us was being harassed by loud commercial music and an irritating sweaty man leaning branches against the café wall and then snapping them under his feet. Good coffee was not to be found, but they did have large handles of Kofola.
We were already over halfway to our destination and it was still morning. Things were looking good. We turned north, travelled trough some lovely villages, over some creeks and through rows of deciduous trees just starting to turn their leaves towards autumn. It was beautiful and one of the favourite parts of my journey. As we rode I was continually searching the mountains for a pass. I was following the blue road line on my home-printed Google map and could see that very soon the line went all squiggly. It was about this time when Sharon spotted a sign that informed us that there was a restaurant ahead. Sharon is very goal-focused, so suspecting that we were about to climb a mountain we decided to stop have a snack and then aim for the restaurant and enjoy a long lazy lunch.
Right at the base of the mountain we found a kiosk that sold the fantastic turbo-boosting drug of Kofola. I drank as much as I could, had another muesli bar and ate the donated power-bar. We sat there in the sun for about twenty minutes, during this time a couple of experienced cyclists on light-weight bicycles stopped, had a drink, ate a banana and then got their photos taken in front of the mountain. This made me very nervous, so I returned to the kiosk and asked the young fella there ‘how far until the top’? His reply was ‘seven kilometres’. My bottom lip dropped and my head hung, I looked into his eyes pleading for a different answer. He obliged, corrected himself and informed me that it was nine kilometres to the top.
We had no option but to cycle onwards and upwards. I emptied as much of my water onto the ground as I could, got my photo taken, jammed a picture of mountain top shish-kebabs into my head, clipped in and started heading over the bridge. My bike was heavy, this hill was long and very steep. I stood on my peddles and dug deep, it only took minutes until my lungs were totally empty. I sat on my saddle again, relaxed and got my breathing under control. In an attempt to look over my shoulder I wobbled right across the road, but did manage to see Sharon down the hill pushing her bike. This was the perfect face-saving opportunity for me to stop and rest. I had travelled all of 400 metres up the road and was totally stuffed. It seemed that around every corner was another 100 metre vertical straight. Sweat was running down my left arm, hitting my watch, flowing over it and disappearing into my glove. Up, up and up we climbed, it was relentless and never-ending. Then finally I came around a corner and there was the summit, just metres in front of me. I screamed the news back to Sharon, pulled off the road, unclipped and waited for my breathing to stabilise.
Sharon caught up and was probably thinking the same thing as I was starting to; it was a strange summit. Unbeknown to us, we were under halfway up the mountain, the next 200 metres was a soft downhill before the pain started again. After another couple of kilometres we had to stop. Both of us had been gasping for air and were way out of our cycling-league. We sat in the gutter for about ten minutes, gulping water, sucking boiled sweets and watching the millions of passing weekend motorcyclists. Most of the climb we were amongst trees and could not get a good idea of how far we had come and had yet to climb. Often we had concrete retainer walls beside us and signs warning of falling rocks. I was thankful that it was yet another beautiful day and was loving the challenge, the sweet and high altitude breathlessness. This was heaven for me and I was eager to see the Pearly Gates of the summit. As the tree-line thinned and a expansive valley and stunning lake vista panned out over my left shoulder, I knew we were close.
On the horizon I could see a collection of about 15 buggered cyclists; all encouraging each other as they rode into a rest area. This was surely the summit. When I arrived they were all looking towards their friends arriving from the other side. They all rode light bicycles with small under-seat bags attached, they had two support vehicles and a couple of people strewn out in deck chairs. The last thing they were expecting to see was two idiot Kiwis fully laden with a week’s worth of gear, churning their lowest gears and sweating rivers of eye-stinging liquid. When they saw us their mouths hung open in disbelief. Then some of the braver ones came over and started taking photos of my bike, its six panniers and stupid rider. After that some of them wanted their photos taken with my bike and yet others started lifting my bike to get a sense of the weight I had just dragged up the mountain. No one spoke English, so we grunted and hand-waved our way through the conversations of ‘where have you come from’ and ‘where are you going”. They were day trippers doing a circular route over the mountain, along a valley and then back over a smaller mountain.
The next stats are a bit shaky, but from the bottom of the mountain to the top was a 600 metre climb over seven kilometres of road and took us three hours to climb. We still had not found Sharon’s restaurant.
I was aware I had not actually seen the other side of the mountain yet, so just before leaving I asked how long was it to the top. The answer was another kilometre. It was not as steep and in comparison to what we had just conquered it was nothing. As we left the rest area all the cyclists cheered and clapped us out, one of them even helped by pushing Sharon up the start of the hill. The descent was pretty much vertical and lasted about one short kilometre before it turned uphill again. We didn’t care because on top of that hill we could see a large restaurant surrounded by beer umbrellas and motorbikes. I got there first and again as I rode through the carpark towards the outdoor seating I felt the instant respect of the many tame quiet Slovakian motorcyclists. As I parked our bicycles amongst Harleys and BMW Paris to Dakar motorbikes, I quietly thought this maybe the only time my Lithuanian-made Panther could hold its own in such a crowd.
The feeling of accomplishment was quickly drowned out by the hunger-pangs screaming for attention in my stomach. We managed to find a table in the shade on a balcony overlooking rolling hills and a ski-field. We had been given money from Australian friends for a meal-out on our holiday. I had been keeping this a secret from Sharon, now was the time to tell here. This extra money allowed us to buy peppercorn steak, non-alcoholic beer and a cup of coffee. My feet were hurting after being clipped in for such an ordeal, so I took off my shoes, stuck them up on a spare chair, lent back against the wall and wiped the sweat off me. We lounged for about an hour in the cool mountain breeze before sadly saying goodbye to such a refreshing place.
From the restaurant it was all glorious, glorious downhill to our destination. As the descent started I said to myself that speed wise I have nothing to prove and that I should simply lean on my brakes and play it safe. Shortly after saying this I hit a 30 kilometre-per-hour corner. I was going so fast that my eyes were filling up with wind, insects and tears. I could not read my speedometer, totally misjudged the corner, hit it way too fast and hard on the brakes, swerved totally onto the wrong side of the road trying to gain control of my bike. Riding down a hill with six uneven pannier has about the same stability as riding an upright piano on castors. At the bottom of the hill I went flying past a sign that mentioned the 40 kilometre-per-hour zone had finished. In front of a rather ugly quarry I stopped, wiped the sweat and insects out of my eyes and off both the inside and outside of my sunglasses. Once I regained my sight I quickly focused on my speedometer to check just how stupid I had been. Indeed I was 58.34 kilometres-per-hour stupid, that is the fastest my pannier-strewn upright piano has ever travelled.
The two of us glided into Zuberec feeling remarkably refreshed. We stopped at a corner shop, worried that everything would be closed the next day, Sunday. Though a little bit late I also managed to purchase a topographical map and could now work out where the mountains were.
Zuberec was a gorgeous alpine village with narrow streets and many log-houses. We followed our map up such a street until we came to ‘Penzión ROHÁČ‘ and our beds. I had had all kinds of trouble booking this place. It seems that in this part of the world it is a little hard to get the guest-houses to reply to your emails and commit to your bookings. I even called the owner to confirm and spoke pure google-translator Slovakian. My neighbour called to confirm the booking a second time, he spoke to them in Polish. When we arrived we didn’t actually get what we had booked. What we did get was very comfortable, with a balcony, view of the mountains and it was cheaper. To my surprise our host’s husband actually spoke English thus negating all my previous hard work trying to translate everything into Slovakian.
Of course the first thing we did was unpack our damp sleeping bags and tent and aired them out on the spare beds. Then it was time for our pot-noodle supper. We were tired and spent the evening watching the BBC World Service and US Open tennis before retiring for a very very early night.
As I closed my eyes and drifted into my dreams my legs were recycling the day’s 54.03 kilometres with an average speed of 14.14 kilometres-per-hour.
Day 3 Up, Up & Up
Day 4 Into the Heavens
Day 5 Quiet Pizza
Day 6 Polish Roads
Day 7 The After Chapter
Click on map for more detail.
This was my hardest day, my body was screaming for carbohydrates, my butt was sick of the saddle it was straddled over and I was not ready for the 22 kilometres of gradual uphill ahead of me.
My new red hat had given me a cosy sleep and dawn greeted us with cool morning sun. First thing again was to erect the clothesline and hang up our wet tent fly. Whilst waiting for the sun to burn the evening’s condensation off our tent we were able to somewhat relaxingly pack our bikes, percolate our coffee and eat our muesli bars.
It was an uphill kilometre back to the main road, cycling towards mountains bathed in soft autumn sun. However I did not really notice them, I was much more interested in watching the pro-cycling team that immediately overtook me, time-trailing their way up the hill and around a wobbling Sharon.
The top of the hill provided us with a busy tee-intersection, a railway line and loose gravel. This coupled with a small breakfast and tired legs was the perfect combination to send Sharon sliding sideways along the gravel with her bike on top of her. She was a bit miffed and grazed, but alright. Her chain had come off and stubbornly demanded quite some time before it was willing to go back on.
We climbed back on our bikes and slowly peddled our way up into the next village searching for yoghurt and our second breakfast. The village was just too small and tired to have a shop so we climbed another 4.2 kilometres and continued our search in Vysoke Tatry. There was a huge beautiful-to-me sign on the hill that said something like ‘supermarket’. The store was located up a bank with no obvious entrance so I cycled off through the restaurants and outdoor stores searching for a cycle-friendly entrance. I signalled my direction for the distant Sharon and disappeared back downhill. Sharon misread my hand actions and promptly got lost. Fortunately Sharon knows that there is only one person in all of Eastern European who is willing to release the Australian ‘Cooee’ signal at the top of his lungs. Upon hearing her screeching husband, she turned around and followed the call back to the elusive front door of the supermarket.
We ate our breakfast in the sunshine on the roadside. Now it was time to search for a coffee with a view. Well, the view was just okay, however the sun was shining and we could wheel our bikes right to the table. This was good, because I had a wee repair I needed to do. Though maybe this was not the most appropriate place to do, unbeknown to us we were in the café of the ‘Grand Hotel Starý Smokovec‘. This is perhaps the poshest place my bike has been repaired in. It was a wonderful stop with excellent coffee and excellent service. Another customer ordered a sandwich, we took one look at it and immediately ordered our third breakfast of an absolutely delicious shared ham and cheese sandwich.
Perhaps we could have spent the rest of the day in this delightful spot, however the road beckoned.
We cycled up and up and up and up. It was not steep, it was a gradual first-gear-climb that gradually zapped the strength right out of my legs. The mountains were draped in subtle European sunshine and the valley was sparkling like a clear evening sky as it reflected sunlight off distant cars zooming along a motorway. All of this beauty did nothing for my morale, I was fading and fading quick. There is a cool narrow-gauge railway which for part of the time ran parallel to the road. A little blue train overtook us, I waved and the driver gave a long toot on his horn. This helped so much.
Eventually we arrived at an intersection that was not on my map. After studying my map and applying good-old-fashioned Kiwi logic we followed the road up a steep incline with ugly switch-backs. Once again I was up the hill first and waited for Sharon in front of a little lake. It was lunch time and our bodies needed sustenance. A five-minute search provided us with seats in front of the lake. Right beside the seats was a small billboard supporting a detailed map with a big ‘you-are-here’ arrow stamped in the middle of it. It took me all of two seconds to realise that we had taken the wrong turn and the last 1.2 kilometres of switch-backs had been a total waste of energy-zapping time.
Sharon didn’t seem to be tired at all and loved the quiet tranquil lake reflecting green pine-trees, ragged rocky mountains and lazy-hazy blue sky. I devoured my lunch of noodles, mashed cheesy potatoes and a cuppa camomile tea. Perhaps a little less tired we returned to our bikes and headed back down the hill. There were two things from the pit-stop that we had not realised. First, in my tiredness I had forgotten to take a photo. Second the seats that we were sitting on had recently been painted and left blotches of orange paint on our backsides.
The downhill was very welcome and as we zoomed along the next 14 kilometres, we almost didn’t notice the beautiful mauve coloured roadside flowers backdropped by sparse spruce and the ever-present Tatra mountains.
After enjoying travelling 56 kilometres-per-hour, it was time to wait for Sharon. I walked up the road and waited by a beautifully clear rushing mountain river. Eventually Sharon arrived and we veered off the main road past a busy wee bus stop and randomly followed café signs into the forest.
We found a sweet wee café that looked like it accidentally came into existence. It was getting late in the day and we needed energy. To our surprise they had no Coke or Coca-Cola products. The waitress spoke almost no English but was able to direct us to a wonder sarsaparilla-flavoured drink called Kofola. I have no idea what was in it, however it did seem to chuck our legs into turbo-charge. We flew along the next 10 kilometres of mountain stream-flanked road. Our next stop was in the European Union-funded extremely picturesque town of Pribylina. Slowly we rode narrow quiet streets and slowly we soaked in the pastel coloured Slovakian houses searching for a shop. The village was again full of Romani. I stopped in front of a stream at a bus stop and asked some loitering men for directions to the shop. Across the language divide the chaps were very friendly. One of them was wearing a ‘Sydney Olympics’ tee-shirt. I tried to communicate with him that I was in Sydney at the time of the Olympics. His reply was to pull a few coins out of his pocket and to ask for more money. Slightly slimed I smiled and rode back to the shop. I didn’t quite feel safe here, so asked Sharon to be quick inside.
Our next stop was just four kilometres down the road in a rather pretty unkempt village called Vavrišovo, interesting enough this village was full of white middle-class people. On the outskirts of Vavrišovo was the rather Autocamping Vavrišovo. Rather tired we rode in under a pleasant row of leafy trees. It was difficult to find how to check-in, eventually we found someone who spoke English and informed us that we needed to call the number on the wall.
Another guest volunteered to make the call for us and informed us we would have to wait an hour or until 19:00. So we wandered inside, put our Radlers in the fridge and used their excellent showers.
I almost pitched the tent, but could not get the final pegs into the rocky ground. So moved the tent to a softer spot that was quite close to a fire-pit. Shortly afterwards a bunch of blokes carrying beer and firewood waltzed on over and starting building a fire in the pit. This was way too close for comfort. I was tired, hungry and cranky and suggested to Sharon that we just pack up, leave and find another place to spend the night.
It turned out that just 800 metres further along the road was another camping ground called ATC Vavrišovo (dolný kemp). Again we could not work out how to check-in, but with the help of some friendly Czechs, found the manager. He did not seem that keen on serving us and at the time we were quite unsure how much the night was going to cost us. This camping ground was a lot quieter and had soft ground. We pitched the tent quickly and settled down for our evening meal and Radler in the cold mountain air.
The day consisted of 55.41 kilometres with an average speed of 14.76 and a maxium speed of 56.40 kilometres-per-hour.
Day 3 Up, Up & Up
Day 4 Into the Heavens
Day 5 Quiet Pizza
Day 6 Polish Roads
Day 7 The After Chapter