Across the Invisible Land...
- Categorized in: September 2011
Do you know anything about the Slovak Republic?
I didn’t when I woke up on the morning I intended to enter this little country. By the time I left it four days later, having cycled from one end to the other, in many ways I was none the wiser.
However, one might try to characterise Slovakia like this.
She has had the unfortunate fate of being set amongst nations and peoples of altogether stronger character. Bloodier histories, brighter coloured landscapes, richer flavours, greater writers, more prolific artists, grander architecture, bigger business, mightier warriors, snowier mountains, prettier girls, better sportsmen – Slovakia’s neighbours have them all in varying measures.
And so, if you ever find yourself, like me, bent on cutting a line through the old heart of Europe, Slovakia is not going to be the country that leaves the deepest impression.
Nevertheless, stood on her own, away from the dazzling crowd, if you put a bit of time into her, she repays your attention with some hidden gems, and a certain charm that makes you hope you may see her again some day.
It is an exercise of quite astounding confusion to try to get your head around the history of this little country. In many ways, to speak of Slovakia as a distinct and coherent country, as it now exists, is (at least historically) artificial. This region, framed on the west and south by a grand sweep of the river Danube, and on the north and east by the Carpathian and High Tatra mountains, has seen more conquerors come and go than almost any other portion of Europe.
The Celts, the Romans, the Hun, the Avars (who are they?), the Moravians, and then the Magyars took turns in overrunning this land. When the music stopped – at least for ten centuries or so – it seemed the Magyars (or Hungarians) would be overlords to the Slovaks, and Slovakia remained a part of Hungary and then the Austro-Hungarian Empire right up until its collapse after the First World War.
But during this period, more outlanders arrived to have their fun – the Mongols and then the Ottoman Turks. After WW1 the new nation of Czechoslovakia was formed (briefly), which lasted as long as it took Hitler to warm up his country’s taste for a touch more lebensraum. Czechoslovakia then split again, with Slovakia existing as a puppet regime to Nazi Germany during the Second World War, despatching as much as 98% of its Jewish population to the death camps.
When the Red Army “liberated” Slovakia in April 1945, its fate as a satellite state of the USSR for the next 45 years had already been sealed at the conference table in Yalta.
But the merry-go-round wasn’t quite over.
With the blossoming of the Prague Spring in 1968, the Russians rolled in and gave any signs of life a good dose of Round-Up, killing off this liberalising movement before it could take root, dividing Czechoslovakia into a federation of the Czech Soviet Socialist Republic and the Slovak Soviet Socialist Republic, and returning both peoples to a prolonged Soviet winter that lasted until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989.
At this point, as another popular movement grew in confidence and numbers, the troops of the one-party Communist states finally succumbed to the floral assault of the Velvet Revolution, and the joy of the new democratic republic of Czechoslovakia was restored.
However, the Czech and Slovak marital bliss barely outlasted the honeymoon, and soon both parties were suing for a Velvet Divorce, which took effect on January 1, 1993. The new Czech Republic got the house, the car and the paintings; the Slovak Republic got the garden and the tools in the shed. A rough deal, but whadda they gonna do?
Since then, Slovakia has gone its merry way, joined the EU, signed up for the Euro (Lord, have mercy), welcomed in foreign capital and industry, and has seen (in the last 10 years at least) some of the highest economic growth in Europe – earning the nickname, the “Tatra Tiger” amongst foreign investors. Right now, it looks in moderately good shape for the future with a decent car manufacturing industry underpinning its economy. That is, unless it goes down the pan with everyone else after Greece, Italy, Spain and Portugal have fallen apart.
Whatever its future, the country somehow has yet to overcome its international anonymity.
If you check out a list of great Slovak writers, composers, politicians, national heroes, artists, saints and scientists, my hat goes off to you if you recognise a single name. I thought I knew one – Gregor Mendel (the grandfather of modern genetics) – but it turns out he was Austrian. St Cyril, the father of the Cyrillic alphabet, seemed like a sure bet, but apparently he was Byzantine.
So there you go…..
More than you are likely to know or ever need to know about Slovak history.
Short of supporting a “Slovak Awareness Day” I don’t know what else I can do in service to this little country, save give you a brief description of what I saw on my ride through there.
So I suppose I’d better get on with that.
These days, crossing into the European Union is a bit like crossing into the Roman Empire. The boundary is heavily guarded and symbolic of The Edge…..
The edge of what exactly is perhaps less certain, but nevertheless it is the limit of something. Once you are in, you really are in (thanks to the Schengen Agreement). Yet congealed around the EU’s eastern frontiers, like a technicolor outer crust, are a hundred thousand little trade shops, each offering an array of goods at knock-down prices for those EU citizens that can be bothered to make a short day-trip crossing past the control posts to take advantage of these bargain basement prices.
The border stores begin...
Despite setting out from the Ukrainian border town of Uzhgorod in good time on yet another sunny morning, my first run at the border was barred on the grounds that I was on a bicycle, and people on bicycles are considered pedestrians, not vehicles.
“Not to worry,” said the border guard as he turned me away, “there’s a pedestrian crossing about 40km south of here. If that one is closed, there’s another about 50km to the north.”
Wonderful. A couple of hours and a large number of wrong turns later I found myself cycling uncertainly towards a tiny village, apparently situated next to a very large white fence, but which otherwise gave no signs that I was on the right track.
I remained doubtful until, almost yards within the border control kiosks I suddenly saw up ahead, the trading stores began. Although there weren’t many, they did seem to appear out of nowhere. The stores felt incongruous after passing through a series of torpid-looking hamlets, where the most exciting thing likely to happen would be some old babushka being knocked over by the village pig.
Nevertheless they were all doing a busy trade in everything from washing powder to Puma trainers, electronic batteries to handbags and who knows what else besides.
Catering to a Slovak's every need...
I walked my bike past these stores, quietly excited about crossing this important frontier.
All the pedestrian traffic was one way. The other way. It was still early in the day and the Slovaks had yet to fill their goodie bags and return over the border. I was stopped by the Ukrainian border guard and had what was to be my final conversation in Russian. He was pretty animated and wanted to know all about my kit, my journey and where I was going. I told him I was in a bit of a rush to meet my friends so we could get to the Oktoberfest in Munich before it finished.
"Oh it starts today," he said. "If you make it, enjoy your first beer."
With a firm shake of the hand, it was bye bye to the land of Borsh, and with a wave of my British passport I was passed the Slovak border police and into the EU.
The ride for the rest of the day was very different.
Everywhere there were fields of maize, some harvested, some still standing, full and ready to be cut. The land was mostly quite flat, though late in the afternoon the hills began to rise up, and I was forced into a grinding climb up and out of one valley and over into another, their hilltops spread about with dark green forests.
The villages were neat and small. The little houses were bland and functional. Each settlement had little charm: the curving golden kupals of the Ukrainian churches were replaced with rather dull looking buildings of little detail and short dumpy spires, if they had one at all.
The faces changed. It was a Sunday and there was barely anyone around as I hopped from village to village. Shops and restaurants were closed. Everything seemed very quiet. But sometimes I would see women or children near the road, their complexions darker, their hair black, stockier in build. The unmistakable look of Romany people appeared more and more frequently too – soulful looking eyes under tightly fastened headscarves.
Eventually the road dropped into a fast descent and I was drawing closer and closer in the late afternoon sun to the city of Kosice (pronounced “Koshitsa”).
Recognised as the second city of Slovakia, after Bratislava, Kosice doesn’t promise much on its approach but in fact it holds a remarkably attractive and interesting old city centre.
The cathedral gardens, Kosice.
Once I’d got installed and cleaned up in the cheapest hotel in town, I stepped out in time to catch the last of the evening light.
My stroll took me first past a symbol of the new Central Europe – my “first” Marks & Spencers store; followed by a symbol of the old – the easternmost Gothic cathedral in Europe.
This grand old building dominates the entire old city. Dedicated to St Elizabeth of Hungary, this old Catholic cathedral is certainly an impressive sight.
I poked my head through the heavy doors, and was a little surprised to see an evening mass in full progress. Even more surprising was that the church was absolutely packed to the gunnels. With the choral evensong flying up to the rafters high above and a furnace of candles blazing, it was actually a heart-warming sight to see this church put to the use for which it was always intended. Glorifying God.
The south side of the cathedral of St Elizabeth
Feeling inspired and a little bit holy, I tiptoed in and managed to find myself a seat at the end of one of the pews near the back.
At precisely the moment that my bottom hit the bench, the entire congregation stood up in unison, said something unintelligible in Slovak, followed by a loud “Amen” and all started filing out.
Hmm….great timing. Since I hadn’t been to a formal service since Bishkek back in Kyrgyzstan, I felt a little bit thwarted but was then happy to spend a few minutes gawping at all the religious sculptures, carvings and artwork with which the cathedral was filled.
Madonna and child
The central squares of Kosice are a fairly typical Central European affair. Terraced bars and restaurants all tastefully laid out, with a cobbled walkway running the length of the main street, lined by carefully restored facades reminiscent of its history as part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, with a couple of fountains along the way.
The old centre of Kosice
By the time I was walking back to my bed, I was beginning to like the place. I thought to myself that Slovakia might have some more interesting features than I had been led to believe. (By this, I refer very specifically to my semi-Magyar friend’s enquiry, “Slovakia? Why would you want to go through there? It’s total sh1t!”)
Chacun à son goût.
Anyway, the following day was a pretty full-on day of riding. More agriculture – the maize harvest was underway in earnest – hills and small mountains, flowing rivers, hilltop castles and distant woodland. This kind of countryside, attractive in its own way, continued on as I made my way along the perfectly-surfaced European roads to no place in particular. I was simply heading west.
Another hilltop castle, on the road west
Eventually I had a stopover for the night in a little town called Lucenec – a non-descript place which left no great impression on me, except for the fact that I had now entered a land where ordering only one dish in a restaurant was probably enough. A massive pizza and an enormous bowl of pasta later and they could have rolled me home like a beachball.
By my count, I was only two days’ out from Vienna – my main objective for the moment, and the end of an intense section of the whole journey. Just about 3,000km on the nose in 28 days.
This did draw my focus a bit, which may explain why I glossed over (and through) Slovakia without paying much attention. Added to this, I couldn’t speak to anyone. Russian didn’t seem to be understood by anyone (in this day and age why would it?) and while the Slovaks knew some English it wasn’t good enough to make for sparkling conversation.
And yet, Slovakia wasn’t to be dismissed quite so easily.
As the day cleared up, I continued north and the west into higher country. Hills were becoming mountains. I passed my “first” Tesco supermarket. “The end must be in sight,” I thought.
And then I got kicked off the road. I usually think things are worth pushing as far as they will go – at least when it comes to traffic control. But it seemed I had met my match in the Slovakian Highway Police.
They weren’t accepting any excuses for why I should continue on my way along the A road – undoubtedly the faster and flatter way towards the western capital of Bratislava. The fact that it was to be shared with articulated lorries travelling at 120kph didn’t seem to me a compelling reason to deviate from my route. The policemen thought otherwise.
“The next exit is 500m further on the right. Make sure you take it,” I was told.
“….and put on your helmet, young man!”
I guess they had a point.
I’m actually very glad they did.
Taking the exit, and a couple of false turns later, I managed to identify the country road that led to the mountain mining town of Banská Stiavnica.
20km steady climb.
I stripped down to my waist, put on my sun glasses as a few sunbeams decided to break out through the thinning clouds, and determined to find out just how fit I had become.
The answer was: “pretty damn…...”.
Following alongside a lovely little mountain stream flowing in the opposite direction, I practically charged along past thick meadows, evergreen copses and wooded slopes.
Up out of the saddle as the kilometres ticked by, I couldn’t suppress a kind of essential thrill, feeling my body able to do more, in fact far more than I ever imagined. It has been some time since I’ve taken sport very seriously, but suddenly I was reminded of why it is so compelling to get your body in this kind of condition.
The human body is an amazing thing! We’ve all got one, and we should look after it.
Fun as this was, the 20km did eventually grind the energy out of me. The last couple of kilometres kicked up the tarmac into a brutal gradient, and I rounded out over the top at barely a walking pace.
Time for a break. I dropped down the other side of the hill into the centre of Banská Stiavnica. It was a jumbled town, spread up and down the valley with no clear centre visible from the hilltop. But following the signs, I eventually wiggled this way and that till I seemed to be on one of the main streets – a cobbled way running uphill to a big church and then an open square.
Typical street in Banska Stiavnica
It is a charming place. The wooded valley sides were visible in the distance, rising up behind the town buildings. But the hotels and houses loomed above the cobbled street, painted in blues and yellows and oranges and green. It was all very colourful, and reminded me of the town in the movie Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, where the wicked child-catcher comes to sniff out any more chubby children to put in his cage. (Apologies if you have no idea what I am referring to.) This is perhaps not so surprising since the real location used for this scene is only a short distance away over the border in the Czech Republic.
What's left after its glory days.
The town of Banská Stiavnica is an almost perfectly preserved late medieval town. This whole area had a history in silver mining which stretched back as far as the Huns in the early first millennia, but the town developed and flourished rapidly from the 15th through to the end of the 17th century, thanks to the discovery of gold in the surrounding hills and the subsequent gold rush. It then slowly faded in power and prosperity as the gold mines ran dry, leaving the town as a sort of freeze-frame of that period. It remains so picturesque that the town and its surrounding were proclaimed a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993.
For all this, I wasn’t interested enough to hang around here and lose a day of rest in Vienna, so after a rapid devouring of my third pizza in as many days, I was back off up the hill, and up to the pass that would release me into the country to the west.
I cleared this without much trouble and then had such a fun descent, freewheeling along for around 25km, following beech-wood switchbacks with barely another vehicle for company. The afternoon air was golden and warm; the sun had intensified and made beautiful shards of light that cut through the heavy green canopy overhead.
An empty road on the way downhill
As I came to the first villages, I raced past more wooden dwellings, where mountain stream water troughs stood in front of elaborate carvings of ancient saints and visceral images of the Crucifixion. (Surely the single most commemorated historical event across all of Eurasia.)
Eventually the road ran out into the valley bottom and I turned to follow the last and biggest of the tributaries that would flow into the River Danube less than 100km further on.
Evening pressed on, and despite relative good going, I had left myself a big chunk to do before I would reach the town of Nitra, my last stop-over in Slovakia. My exuberant “fitness check” had left my legs pretty empty so I ground out the last couple of dozen kilometres covered in a thick slather of sweat and dead mosquitoes (clouds of which I had to plough through in the twilight hour).
Nitra itself is one of the major towns in Slovakia, an old ecclesiastical and political centre of power, where the first Christian church in this country was founded way back in 830AD, apparently for political reasons by an atheistic Moravian prince. Whatever its beginnings, the town had come to be something of a religious centre over the centuries, and the old town is characterised by its high density of churches, often fortified against attack.
Given a bit more time, there are a few sights to see, but nothing (I fear) that would seriously impress the reader.
At the fourth attempt, I found a hotel with a free room, gorged myself on the most enormous bowl of pasta I’d seen in months (they do like big portions in Slovakia) and went to bed very excited that the following evening I would be in Vienna.
It was a happy day as I rose bright and early, and was away following the signs for Bratislava – the capital that sits squashed up against the western Slovak border astride the banks of the Danube.
I was trying to do my best to stick to the traffic regulations and stay on minor roads and off the highways, but a tricky diversion threw me back onto the A road again, so I figured I would follow it for as long as I was able.
This seemed to work fine since there was a hard shoulder which I could ride along quite safely, but later in the morning I missed another opportunity to follow the legal route, which led a little further to the south of the main road taken by the faster traffic.
I supposed it wouldn’t really matter so long as nothing greatly changed. Unfortunately about 40km from Bratislava it did.
Here the signs led me off the highway and onto an expressway. Even as I was rather recklessly curling around the slip road to join the main flow of traffic, the sound of hundreds of cars, buses and lorries was many times louder than any other road I had yet been on. The complete absence of any other cyclists was also a notable feature.
I think I really do live under the illusion that nothing seriously bad can happen to me on the road. This may be a very unwise way to live, but if I am ever going to learn my lesson, it will be because of what was about to follow.
Slovakian motorists are a helpful bunch, as indeed are Austrians and the French. They very kindly let me know, by way of a violent blaring of their horns, almost as soon as I came onto the main expressway that, in fact, this was both not allowed and a seriously bad idea.
It was hard to make any gesture that might communicate the sense that “I know, I know” while I clung to my handlebars for dear life, since there simply was no hard shoulder on this road. Instead I had to steer my over-laden pushbike down an orange stripe on the edge of the road, no more than a foot in width, in which was set a multitude of tiny bumps that serve to wake up sleepy drivers when they stray from their lane.
Needless to say, there are more peaceful ways to go for a bike ride. As the juggernauts and buses whooshed past my wobbling elbow, I did reflect that it might have been a good idea to wear my helmet that morning. (The pesky strap was broken but still.)
However, you could say I am both brave as well as foolhardy – or perhaps these combine to make me stupid – because I refused three opportunities to vacate this expressway horror, figuring that if I could just stand it for another 10km I could take the junction I really needed, and then would be able to follow a quieter route direct into Bratislava.
When eventually I saw the junction coming up, it came as an enormous relief; for my wrists from their vice-like grip, and my mind from its vice-like concentration on the stupid orange stripe.
“Phew!” I thought. “I’m there. And without getting stopped by the police.”
Or so I thought. Not more than 200m from the junction, and suddenly a white car mounted with lights and a green stripe down its side crept forward to station itself on the apex of the slip road.
Okey dokey. Time to play dumb foreigner. Shouldn’t be too hard, since only a real dumb foreigner would actually be in the position I was now in.
A beckoning finger.
I drew up alongside the police car as they got out.
“Anglitsky,” I said.
“This is an expressway,” one of them began in stilted English. “Bicycles no allowed. It is dangerous. Bicycles illegal.” I think he wagged his finger.
“I’m very sorry. I got on the road by mistake. I was following signs to Bratislava. I’ve been trying to find a way off it.”
“But we saw on camera. You joined at Trnava. You pass three junctions already.”
Hmmm. So I did. For a moment I was genuinely lost for words.
“Well….you see…..I want to go to Bratislava.” Lame.
“It is 60 euro fine for bicycle on expressway.”
By a great stroke of luck I happened to know I had zero euros on me.
“I don’t have any….,” I said and was about to offer dollars instead (because I am stupid), but he waved his hand and said he’d let me off.
At which point, the small glint of victory began to shine through the fog of my stupidity.
They took down my details, looked me firmly in the eye and said, “Now don’t do it again!”
Toadying obsequiously in gratitude, I mounted up and headed off up the road.
You may be sure that I will never venture my bicycle onto another motorway as long as I live.
Not long afterwards I was rolling into Bratislava for lunch. It may be that Bratislava has a lot to offer a visitor who is willing to persevere, but I can’t say I was drawn by anything in the two hours or so I spent cycling through and beyond this city. Of all the European capital cities I have been through, this is probably this least characteristic and easily the least arresting.
The east bank of the Danube, Bratislava
But I am willing to admit that I didn’t give it a fair shot. So perhaps there is more. There must be.
However, I had my tail up and was now racing to get to Vienna, only 60km away upstream along the Danube.
When you come to the border of Austria, it is a wonderful thing.
Enter Lower Austria
I don’t know why I love this country so much. It holds an affection for me quite out of proportion with anything I know about it, or the number of Austrian friends that I have. Yet there is something magical about it.
Crossing the border, you step over a line in history. You leave the old Soviet Union and enter a realm that managed to remain free from the doleful affects of command economies, the shade of Soviet military power, and Communist party states.
Instead, the road is immediately better surfaced, the fields are tidier and better maintained, the air is cleaner, the first village has precise house and shop frontages with every window frame freshly painted, the grass cut and healthy, the church clock strikes the hour with a clinical ring.
Obviously Austria was the richest country I had yet come to, which is where all this comes from. Yet I can only describe the pleasure of entering this country as something like sliding into an enormous bed with crisp clean sheets.
There is an enveloping sense of comfort and delight. You almost want to wiggle around in pleasure as your senses take in everything around you. Being on my bicycle, instead of wiggling, I settled for bellowing out small snippets of various Mozart arias that came to mind.
And so on to Vienna.
Just over the Austrian border...and the 15,000km mark
A short afternoon ride past these clipped fields and immaculate vineyards and through those ordered little towns, and I was finally weaving my way deeper into this grand old imperial metropolis. Bicycles, trams and cars all contend for the space along the elegant boulevards and leafy avenues, which seem to increase in grandeur as you progress towards the centre of the city.
Entering Vienna - and trying not to get run over for the second time in a day.
Eventually I navigated my way up to the looming old spires of the Maria vom Siege Kirche from which it was only a couple of paces to the hostel where I would stay in the 15th district, the Hotel Ruthensteiner.
Approaching Maria vom Siege Kirche, Vienna
Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised that this was the most efficiently run hostel I have ever been to.
As I got myself installed, I thought back to my boat ride to Sochi on the Black Sea coast of Russia. I remembered how far away the city of Vienna had seemed. I had 28 days to cover 3,000km. That is a lot of turns of the crank.
But here I was. I had arrived with four days to spare before my brothers and friends arrived to join me for the next leg to Munich.
In one of the most beautiful cities in the world.
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