Friday, June 5, 2009

Hiking and Scrambling and Eating, oh my! aka: the rest of the Slovakia trip!

Our train ride to Poprad from Bratislava was uneventful. The scenery was gorgeous and the hills grew as we traveled farther east. We caught a commuter train deep into the High Tatras as a steady rain fell. Naturally, this meant that there wasn't that much of the Tatras to see, as it was covered in clouds.

So, the original plan was to get a bus ride to Podbanske so that we could hike a path called the Tatranska Magistrala across the tallest mountain range in Slovakia. In the summer this bus runs 3 times a day. In the second week of May, it doesn't.

Plan B: take a bus or a train into the High Tatras to a town near our first night's stay. This worked well, but due to set- backs, we didn't get into town until around 5:30 pm. The hiking information office was closed, and we couldn't start hiking without a map (and who would want to, in the rain), so we got a room for the night with a plan to continue on the Magistrala in the morning, once we had our map.

That night, we discovered the best bar ever... The hostel manager, cook, and their friend were all just hanging out in this bar decorated with several boar skins, small stuffed rodents, and more Antlers than you could shake a stick at. We don’t speak Slovak, they don’t speak English, so we communicated in broken German that we all learned waaay back in high school (I see no potential problem with this… do you?). These kindly, and already tipsy, gentlemen decided it was their obligation to teach us about Slovakian liquor! (You can imagine how much fun our German conversation was, as it became increasingly drunken as the night went on) … and I became increasingly aware that the friend guy was hitting on me…

So... In the morning we went to the Forestry Information Center and learned that the Magistrala trail was closed until June 17th. So the rain and trouble with the Bus schedule was Providence!

Plan C: Day hike to a wonderful waterfall above tree line and less than 1 Km (1/2 mile) from the Polish border, gourmet lunch in tourist central around a beautiful alpine lake, then hike up to a chalet for the night! The High Tatras are 6- 8000 feet tall and very similar to the White Mountains but they are much younger and have more dirt. So I suppose we shouldn't have been surprised that the trails were closed due to snow... In fact, we rather enjoyed post-holing through the snow (there is not nearly enough snow in Kentucky) on our way to the waterfall and up the Chalet. We even took a trip further up a pass as far as the trails were open to get an amazing view of the valley below and Slovensky Raj on the other side. We “skied” down the trail until we were post-holing again. There’s a lot to see in these mountains, but we were too early. We’ll just have to go back sometime…

From there we headed back to Poprad to catch a bus for Slovensky Raj. There is a direct bus. We knew there should be one. But the “helpful” little lady behind the informacie counter gave us one with a connection. Which we tried to take; instead of listening to our guts and applying ourselves to the foreign bus schedules with funny little symbols. Oops. Lesson learned. Second lesson: pay attention and don’t fall asleep on the bus! You might miss your stop and get off 10miles from where you wanted to be… In an urban suburb stop nowhere near interesting… but Providence struck again, and we found that there was a bus that went from the stop we were stranded at all the way to where we were going! I kid you not! No sweat! We stocked up on Kofola (have I mentioned we LOVE this stuff?) and hiked out to find a hostel.

And find a hostel we did! A little piece of heaven on earth! The girl working the front desk spoke (what in Slovakia is considered) impeccable English, there were real mattresses on the beds (have we mentioned that in other hotels the mattresses are made of 3 cushions with particleboard sandwiching some leettle springs like old Studebaker cushions: one for your head and shoulders, one under the butt, and the last to get the gangly end), and the food was fantastic! We also got to watch tv from bed in our room! In SPANISH! Well, we watched a little of House, MD in Slovak then switched to the “international news” which was in Spanish. Then Friends started in Spanish… very weird…

In the morning we set out to hike the beautiful gorges of Slovensky Raj. Of all the outdoorsy things we did, this may have been my favorite! Those who know my childhood stomping grounds know my love of the Polarbear Caves in New Hampshire, or Mahoosic Notch or the Beehive Mountain trail in Maine. All the platforms and narrow areas to squeeze through and metal added to the rock to make it easier… this is of the same ilk, only on CRACK! There are 8 gorges in the park and the trails are one way heading uphill. We managed to cover enough ground to hike 2 of the gorges and found some lovely scenery and views along the way. We had some lovely views of the High Tatras, capped in clouds and lost in thought. Then we happened into some old ruins of a monastery! We explored around the ruins, enjoying the signage (actually in English!) describing how it had started early in the 1000’s and had been used until it was ordered destroyed and abandoned sometime in the 1400’s! Very cool stuff to walk around and peer into their cellars and kitchens… oh, so while climbing the second gorge we passed a nun! Major props to the nun in her blue summer habit (read here full length dress and veil that went down to her waist) hiking up what we considered a fun clamor, but definitely to be done in PANTS… and she was making GOOD time too!

We sped back to the hostel for a last, wonderful lunch of Slovakian fare (this was the only place where I trusted the English enough to determine that the potato latkes were gluten free- and OHHH SOOO TASTY!!!!) The best part about Czech and Slovakia is that the traditional foods all involve cream sauces NOT thickened with flour… yummmm. I’ve been craving cream sauces since we got back and since I have been traveling for work and haven’t been out to the store yet in any real capacity, it means Indian and Thai foods that are rich and delicious… but back to Slovakia… delicious and decadent cream sauces. So glad I don’t eat kosher, because this is some FABULOUS eats!

We got the direct bus back to Poprad, and took a night train back to Praha. Night train left at 720pm and arrived in Praha at 4am (groan!). We had 3 conductors rotate through while on the train, so they kept entering our compartment (imagine a slightly run-down and aged version of the compartments on the Hogwarts express [complete with red pleather seat covers] if you haven’t ridden second class on a European train!) to check our ticket. This meant getting up every hour roughly and handing them our tickets AGAIN. By around 230 they figured it out and stopped bothering us. But what we didn’t expect were the police. We had seen LOTS of police both in the cities and on public transport all through our trip. Their presence is visible and much more pervasive than in the US, but we had never had any reason to give them any more than a passing thought. They were just that friendly police ociffer… I’m not as think as you drunk I am… you know, someone else’s problem but not ours… WELL. Here’s the audio (at least my memory of it) of events as they unfolded:

-Whoosh! Slam! BROINNNNNG! (those were the sounds of the door being opened more forcefully than necessary and the lights being turned on. The conductors were at least kind enough not to turn the lights on….)

-Squeek, Squeek, Squeek (me rubbing my eyes)

-“ZBRZSKTRISKA BRZRTISTAZBRTITSKY DRZBRIATSKA!” (police officer trying to communicate briskly and authoritatively with us… as if that hadn’t been established by turning the very bright light)

-“Prosim, English… oder Deutsch?” (me, requesting politely a language I might possibly understand)


-Curt hands the little man our train tickets in his half-asleep state. (this is what he has done every time we’ve been woken up on this ride and it had always worked before…)

-“NO!” the little man hands the tickets back

-grind grind grind (cogs turning in little man’s head) “passport.”

-“OH!” (duh, why didn’t we think of that…) rumble rumble (we get out and hand him our passports. He procedes to look at them and punch our id codes into his little handheld electronic doo-hicky thing)


-*ominous silence*

-I blearily blink a few times, trying to clear my head and wake up enough in my sleep-deprived state for a conversation I know I can’t understand in Czech when well rested…

-clomp clomp clomp (2 other police officers come over to see what is taking our little man so long and does he need back-up?)

brzasejrqntbkfasdiotrjt ska (whispers between police officers)

-slink slink slink (other officers moving away)

-flip, flip, grind grind grind (officer flipping through our passport stamps looking for our stamp of entry [which he can’t find, mind you, because the idiots at customs in Amsterdam stamped it over the 30 other stamps opposite the India visa and it is all a blur there now] and thinking very hard.)

-ffft, ffft (officer fingering his handcuffs with the caress of a lover, contemplating how much fun it would be to arrest us, but not worth all the paperwork??? This is pure speculation, but HONESTLY, he was starting to freak me out a little)

-“Next Apache!” (I have no idea how that is spelled, but that’s what it sounds like and it means “here you go” in Czech)

-STOMP stomp (as he moves to the next compartment). Whoosh! Slam! Broinnng!

So THAT was exciting… and harmless… THANK GOODNESS! And led to much quiet contemplation about the police and our desire for security and how that might differ given the political upheaval in these countries vs. the US… and how the huge numbers of police may or may not be comforting to all the czeck people in the way that traffic cops may or may not be comforting in the US…blah, blah, blah, did I mention he was fingering his HANDCUFFS! So, when we were returning to the US, I asked the nice lady behind the *very tall* (woot!, go height advantage!) customs desk to stamp a *different* page, she LAUGHED at me and went right on ahead and stamped it over all the other stamps again anyway, and I sighed, because no one is going to try and arrest me on the other side of the gate in the airport… and if they had wanted to, at least they probably would have been able to speak english…

Anywho, back in Praha, we checked back into the clown and bard, slept until 8 or 9 in the morning (mmmm) and got up to tour the jewish district on a cloudy overcast day. There are about 8 museums in old temples and you can’t take any pictures… but the best part is that in the one working temple there is supposed to be a GOLEM that lives in the rafters. He’s made out of clay from the river by one of the old rabbi’s (whose gravestone can be seen in the graveyard… part of the museum tour) of the temple and he is supposed to protect it. COOL! I WANT A LITTLE GOLEM TO PROTECT MY HOUSE! Well, I wasn’t willing to buy one of the little overpriced clay golems they had for sale (most were made in china anyway…) so I am still trying to decide if a Batman or Spiderman action figurine would be equal to the task… No, I’d better hold out for wolverine. He’s the best American equivalent for non-Jewish households…

The Jewish museums are a MUST if you are going to Prague, though. Seriously. It is incredibly moving (and depressing) to see all the history there. And a cloudy, overcast, drippy day sets the mood for sadness and contemplation like none-other. I don’t really have words for all the thoughts in my head in relation to that day, but yowza… just go if you ever get the chance…

Our last night in town we ate dinner at the lesbian Mecca in Prague. Then we headed to the bar for one last shot of absinth (which we had avoided since our first encounter of not-tasty-ness) and the bartender actually spoke English and taught us a better way of drinking it (it involves a sugar cube and a metal spoon and lots of FIRE!). this is a much improved beverage now….

And had a fairly uneventful flight home. So that was the second half of our trip! TADA! Our lawn was up to my waist when we arrived in our driveway, and Leeloo is still a little stuck to my side. Poor girl. I’m ready to go back! pictures to follow soon!