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A Slovakian Sojourn
Following a tour of a pair of Europe's greatest cities, the Colorado boys sought a natural retreat. On a bit of a whim we decided on Slovakia and took off back east across the continent. The Tatra Mountains in the center of the country offered a respite from the bustle and commotion of city life, as well as some much needed fresh air. We seized the opportunity to take a break from the travel grind and post up amidst the dense Slovak forests.
Our time in Slovakia certainly began with a bang: after catching a sleepless night train from Prague, we caught a bus to Ždiar and our lodging for the next five days, the lovable Ginger Monkey Hostel, located next to the town church. The small valley town of Ždiar is home to a ski lift, a few shops, restaurants, grocery stores, small pensions, and is cute as a button. Upon arriving at the hostel we were immediately treated to a free hot breakfast (three good things) around the full table in the small kitchen. The communal atmosphere was perfect for quickly establishing friendships, and over breakfast we naturally decided, exhausted and sleep deprived, to join the group for a seven-hour hike through the nearby mountains. We dumped our bags and set off with our new crew, which included three English girls, a Swede, four Aussies, a Belgian, a Dutchman, and an American ex-pat from Japan. Tied together by a love for adventure, camaraderie, and the outdoors, the group bonded quickly, with ample time on the hike spent trading travel stories, perceptions and observations of different cultures, and lessons and descriptions of long-lost homes. The hike itself wound through a dense, rainy forest that was shrouded in a massive fog. We quickly started up Stare Spielko, a tall peak overlooking the town, and the trail became quite steep, made more difficult by the mud resulting from the ever present moisture hanging in the air. Threatening cloud cover never produced rain, yet as we climbed higher visibility dropped to a few yards in each direction. The combination of low temperatures, high humidity, and a fairly strenuous hike yielded quite a full body experience that helped stave off the all too recent memory of the previous night. We summited the peak and descended back through the mist into an extensive basin that eventually yielded a mountain restaurant situated next to a stunning lake surrounded by jagged, sheer mountains covered in fog. We lunched on excellent and cheap soup and goulash and finished the hike walking down alongside a small creek. We caught a bus back to the hostel, having spent a full day making some great new friends. The Ginger Monkey quickly won our hearts over with its small, cozy, intimate atmosphere so foreign to the large city hostels we had just come from.
After some much needed rest, Griff and I hiked up the small ski mountain, reaching a ridge that we then traversed, seeing some great views of the valley along the way. The trail was dotted with raspberries and wildflowers, and while not quite Colorado, the simple track offered a pleasant afternoon, especially when combined with another trail alongside the river from the previous day's hike. We dined at the Goulash Man, a small shack in town manned by a single employee, where orders were placed through a small window that was literally a hole in the wall. After a short time the man emerged from the smoking kitchen with steaming bowls of goulash and bread. The goulash, my first authentic bowl, was spicy, fatty, and delicious, filled with potatoes, a few "vegetables" (some chunks of celery), and obvious amounts of paprika. Eaten with bread it made for a hearty, very filling meal. That night, it being Friday, the entire hostel fit into three cabs and went up to club called Humno, an eclectic establishment that was basically a mountain hut ringed with holiday lights and converted into a restaurant and dance club. The dance floor was located on the bottom floor of the building below the restaurant, seen through a rectangular opening in the middle of the upper level. Directly above the dancing hung an upside-down Cadillac Escalade, rumored to be Madonna's. We arrived just as the music was starting and were treated to a little old man dancing on stage next to the two models from the liquor company sponsoring the evening, a scene right out of Austin Powers. The whole experience was a wild mix of strange local Slovaks and the international collection that is the Ginger Monkey, a large group joined by the hostel staff that quickly became my favorite part of our Slovakian stay.
The next day after a recovery breakfast we took a much needed "wellness day", reading, and watching English football (soccer) with Scotsmen, streamed online off an employee's computer (from Bristol, he happened to be a rabid Chelsea fan). The day was reminiscent of NFL Sundays back in the States and it was great to breathe some fresh mountain air and relax. The day concluded with a sunset game of football (soccer) on a dirt-covered hockey rink with phenomenal views of the surrounding mountains. Although the "Americans" (we picked up a Canadian named Roy) fell to the UK squad, it was a great evening followed up by some home-cooked pasta. We went to sleep refreshed by the great scenery and affable company.
Sunday we set off to Slovensky Raj National Park with Roy and a teacher from Ohio named Rebecca to hike a famous gorge I had read about in the guidebook. Unfortunately the entire day was a succession of misses. We failed to catch the early bus from Ždiar to Poprad, the largest city in the region, resulting in us missing the train to our hike we were supposed to catch. A walk around Poprad yielded a pretty, small city completely shut down on Sundays. When we finally got on a train, almost an hour elapsed before we figured out we had blown by the correct stop. We exited the train at a small town in the middle of nowhere and with a few hours to kill before the next train back decided to abandon the gorge and simply hike where we were. We wound through a series of nice if unimpressive forests and fields and caught the return train and bus to Ždiar, retuning after dark hungry and tired. A slightly helter-skelter day was all good spent in the Slovak countryside, with some friends from the Monkey in tow. The day was salvaged that night by our first international fantasy football (football) draft, which saw Griffin and I hunched in a small corner of a hostel in the middle of Slovakia, fighting patchy wi-fi, and surrounded by babbling Europeans that knew next to nothing about football (American). Our partners were both in South America, with my cousin Ben in Cuzco, Peru and Joe in Bolivia, and the draft was a nerve wrenching experience carrying all of its usual stressors made worse by a divide of time and communication. However, after probably the most fun draft our league has ever seen, in my opinion, the League is back, and I will have at least one constant from back home to tide me through a Spanish semester.
Despite the chaos of the previous adventure, the final section in Slovakia and essentially our trip saw a rebound with one of the best days of the entire month. Braving a forecast of rain and confronted by the omnipresent morning cloud cover of Ždiar we set out to conquer the gorge. We sprinted down the road to catch the early bus to Poprad, which allowed the timely boarding of the correct train to Kosicé (our mistake from the earlier attempt) and a smooth, well-marked hike through a stunning landscape. After hiking from the train through the town of Spisske Tomasovce (it does exist after all) we descended down a steep set of switchbacks to a river in the middle of the national park. We clambered up and down steep ladders and small platforms jutting out of granite walls carved out by the gorge, often using chains to maneuver around protruding crags and to pull ourselves up narrow, steep sections of slippery rock. There were rickety old bridges and small, cascading waterfalls, and after passing by an old monastery and traversing a nice overlook of the valley we finished the tough final section of the trek to return to the train. The entire day provided a very diverse hike with a severely varied landscape, gorgeous ( :] ) views and absolutely little traffic and distractions from the overwhelmingly peaceful neature on another cool, overcast, humid Slovakian summer day. We finished the day with some more home cooking and an evening spent watching Chelsea-Manchester United roughly streamed on a computer in a room full of Irish and Englishmen of all ages. The match (soccer) was viewed with a surprisingly quiet intensity occasionally broken with bursts of incomprehensible profanity-laced exclamations in various brogues and accents. Ending in a tie no feelings were hurt and confrontations were thankfully avoided. The final non-travel day of my time with Griff was spent outside, with reflections on our trip as well as life in general, far from home but fully entrenched in the world away from the Boulder Bubble.
Slovakia is a low-key, quiet country that, after splitting from the Czech Republic in 1993 due to ethnic differences, (languages and customs are related but noticeably different) has grown into a solid if unspectacular state full of a grim, hard working population and foreigners from all over Europe and the world arriving to experience the charms of the Tatras. The culture of the Tatra region has a muted feel to it, spent in the beauty of the mountains. Food is thick and tasty, with pork and local ewe's cheese filling traditional dishes such as goulash and potato dumplings cooked in sour cream and bacon. Our time at the Ginger Monkey was enjoyable beyond explanation. The intimacy of the hostel was truly memorable, with a constant stream of activities to pursue, people to meet, and laughs to relish. I was awed by the ability of a small hostel (with occupancy for about 25) in the middle of an extremely remote location to attract so many like-minded individuals interested in being outgoing and learning more about the world. When all else failed it was never a bad option to lay out on the deck next to the church and in the shadow of the mountains, laughing and watching the hours melt away in a continuous stream of natural bliss. It was an absolute treat to spend five days in Slovakia (who would have guessed) and the time there was a great way to close out an amazing month with some peace and quiet, a great experience to wrap up what has turned out to be a crazy summer before Griff and I head off to Turkey and Spain to begin school. The Monkey will always hold a special place in my heart, and I am thankful for the wonderful time spent in the High Tatras.
From the grandeur of Vienna,