I left Vienna under blue skies and brilliant sunshine. Hallelujah! The night before had involved much late-night drinking and talking, so I left late after a leisurely breakfast. I'd also found a Guide du Routard for Slovakia in the hostel, so marked the highlights on my map, and talked bikes with a Mexican guy who's planning a trip through South America on his V-Strom.
Leaving Vienna was relatively straightforward, and I followed the Danube east, though it was hidden for most of the way. I wanted to avoid Bratislava, so had picked what my map terms a `local border crossing` to enter Slovakia. It had occurred to me that this might be a waste of time on a Sunday, but sunshine makes you easy going so I tried anyway.
No doubt it would have been closed not long ago, but EU entry has removed the need for border guards. The border itself is a river, and you cross via a tiny ferry - basically a raft with an outboard motor. My brain has finally accepted that the more daunting a situation the more confidently I have to ride, and I made my way on board with no hesitation or deviation.
Slovakian roads are somewhat hit and miss: most are perfectly accesptable, but you'll occasionally find very good and very bad sections. The countryside in the western half has been largely uninspiring: roads follow the broad flat valleys, taking you tantslisingly close to the hills but rarely actually in them, instead feeding you through endless small towns with huge trucks.
The first thing I noticed in Slovakia was bikes. Lots of cruisers, but also hundreds and hundreds of sportsbikes. As I rounded the crest of a hill after a particularly twisty section I realised why: this was clearly a Sunday run, not only for locals but also for Czech and Austrian bikers.
I found my first port of call, a castle in Casta, with no real difficulty, and spent a pleasant hour wandering. They also have falconry displays, so I sat in the sun and watched eagles, hawks and owls swoop around.
Then the difficulties began. My map has hundreds of campsites marked on it, but it would seem most, especially the more remote and appealing ones, no longer exist. At the first place I triued I was directed to one not far away, and even found a signpost. Only one though, and I rode round for a long time, asked some locals, and had to take my panniers off to squeeze round some barriers before finally finding some tents and a small bar. A happy drunk local dragged me in, and would have kept me there indefinitely, but luckily the barmaid spoke excellent English, and explained that the tents belonged to fishermen. She directed me to yet another place, but I decided to give up, head for the nearest town and find a hotel.
Halfway there I noticed three BMWs in my wing mirrors. They stayed with me all the way to Trnava, where we all stopped and decided to join forces in finding a hotel. The three were Germans heading for Azerbaijan, where one of their fathers is an ambassador. After riding round town we established there was only one hotel open, so we went for it.
The next morning we headed our seperate ways. I wandered round Trnava, which is very pretty, then failed to find a UNESCO World Heritage castle. I succeeded on my second castle, which was closed but picturesque, and also made it to Cismany, a small village where they paint their houses with abstract designs in white.
I was fully prepared to have to find a hotel, but amazingly passed an open, operational campsite! After four days packed and wet, the tent was damp and musty, and the thermarest had started to go molday. Everything dried and aired, but a huge storm overnight meant I had to wait while the sun warmed up and dried everything again. The birds liked it though, and kept perching on the tent to sing!
Eastern Slovakia is infinitely more picturesque than western slovakia. Almost immediately after leaving my campsite I was riding through a beautiful valley on the edge of the Mala Fatra national park. I finally managed to visit a castle, at Oravsky Podzamok. It was first built in the fifteenth century, teetering on a rock above the village, and it's everything a medival fortress should be, with a drawbridge, turrets, and rooms full of swords.
The guided tour was greatly enlivened by the presence of lots of people to talk to. Chris is an American, also a biker, with a Slovakian wife, and he loved the idea of having a life where you can take three months off to travel! I think American get a lot less holiday than we do, so even three weeks would be a long trip. The other couple was also mixed: Duncan is English and his girlfirend Lunu (I think!) is Slovakian. I clicked with them straight away, and whe we parted got a hug from Duncan and a kiss from Lunu, which I found very touching.
After that the rain set in - thunder and lightning and a downpour so heavy I had to shelter in a bus stop for a while. Eventually the storm and I parted ways, though I did later encounter a road flooded not with water but with very thin, slippery mud, meaning the bike and I are now rather reddish-brown in colour! There was enough blue sky to make me decided to stick to my plan of riding through the Tatras, which was definitely the right decision as it's a stunning place. The sun was warming wet roads and trees, so mist hung in the valleys while the snowy peaks rose to sharp points above me.
Duncan and Lunu had warned me that more storms were forecast that night, so I found a small pension in the village of Dedinsky, on the edge of a reservoir in the beautiful Slovak Paradise national park. The pension was run by Jozef, a wonderfully eccentric old man, who danced around and used me as translator for the two Australians who later joined me in the restaurant.
The original plan for today was to make it over to Ukraine, however at the Dominca cave, one of the biggest in the world, I met a group of Slovak students, who had spotted me and my bike elswhere the day before. They invited me to join their tour, so I did, and Martin, Mayo and Lucas, as well as their teacher, made my visit far more memorable than it would otherwise have been!
The tour took longer than expected, so I will spend the rest of today riding round scenic roads, and spend the night near the border, ready to attack Ukraine tomorrow!
Posted by Laura Bennitt at May 20, 2009 01:43 PM GMT