The best hostel yet!
I was intrigued about the hostel i was planning to stay at on the Slovakian side of the Tatra mountains. It was described in the travel guide as a place not to be missed however you can never quite be sure when you read things like this and often they are too good to be true. This particular hostel was in a brightly coloured wooden mountain house in a small village near the top of a pass through the mountains. I knew as soon as I arrived that on this occasion the travel guide was right. I was greeted at lunchtime by 4 or 5 people sitting on a wooden deck out the front chilling in the sunshine the precursor to this has been my greeting from wally the hostel dog. He had been in the middle of a game of fetch when I arrived but took time out to come and bark like crazy at me (I think it was the cycling gear). Anyway before I could say anything the questions had started flying at me from all corners "did you cycle all the way up here?" "where have you come from?" "are you mad?"
. Then i was bombarded with things to do. "You must be hungry after all that riding? Do you like pizza? We are going tonight, there is an XXL pizza challenge, you probably have the appetite to do that" "do you want to go paint-balling? We are going later". I stood there slightly overcome by the friendliness and chatted for about 20 minutes when one of the group who it turns out works there said "so do you want a bed then?" I don't think I have ever had a more relaxed welcome to a hostel. The building itself was old and a bit wonky, everything inside had been fixed, built or bodged by other travellers who came through so it really looked like a proper backpackers and had the chilled out "vibe". I hadn't really turned round to admire the view but of course it was amazing looking back across the valley over the Tatra mountains. Because of it's location it attracted exactly the right kind of people, the more adventurous sorts that didn't mind hopping on local buses and going a bit out of the way to get there. Other cool features were communal meals an outrageously large DVD collection, an honesty bar and as all good hostels should have a guitar!! (i hadn't picked one up for a few months so i was in heaven). These were just some of the reasons people were finding it very hard to leave. I think everyone there had extended their stay, the best was a woman who had been there a massive 3 weeks, every evening saying "right I'm going tomorrow" then waking up, looking at the view and thinking "nah, it can wait another day"
. Unfortunately I could only stay 2 nights as i had my rendezvous in Zakopane about 40 kilometres away, I was actually glad to have an excuse to leave otherwise I would probably still be there now. The XXL pizza challenge
It was all a bit manic with so much going on, and i was quite knackered from the climb up as it was situated near the top of a mountain pass over the mountains. Because of this I declined on the paint-ball but I did go out for pizza in the evening. Everyone was talking about the pizza challenge, basically there was a really nice quirky pizza restaurant in the eves of another little house in the village. It was a very cool place with lots of random things hanging from the beams, and lots of local people eating there. The restaurant did a special XXL pizza which was 50cm across and weighed a whopping 1.5kg. The hostel had taken it on themselves to start a tally of how many people from each country had managed to finish this humongous pizza (obviously single handedly and without any repercussions, if you know what i mean). For the very fast people they also put a time (i think the fastest was an astonishing 9 minutes by an American guy, no surprises there!) I decided not to get temped as I can only eat (and afford) so much pizza and if I bought it I would have to finish the whole thing, due to my determined nature, then I probably wouldn't have been able to cycle for a few days. In fact there was only one taker out of the 10 or so people going, a British girl! She kept saying "I'm so hungry I really think I can do this". Many people myself included though there was no way she would be able to do it but sure enough slice by slice (actually two or three slices at a time, she made pizza sandwiches so it looked like there was less) it began to disappear. It took a while but after 50 minutes or so when she was finishing the last mouthful we were all quite surprised and very impressed
. It was a great hostel and I shall be going back, maybe for some chilled out skiing one winter. So what was the name of this wondrous place?..... I'm not telling........well ok then, it's The Ginger Monkey (see even the name is cool). Mischievous mountain men
The weather had been beautiful for days so it was no surprise that when it came time to leave there was persistent heavy rain! Luckily I didn't have far to go and the views (or glimpses of views through the mist) were spectacular. Zakopane is right next to the Tatra mountains but on the Polish side (the border between Poland and Slovakia runs along the top of the mountain range) and is a really nice mountain town. It has lots of ski slopes so come winter it becomes a winter playground and is the main destination for Polish skiers. This is exactly how Emilia (the Polish girl i met in the Ukraine) had come to know the place, she had been lots of times over the years so knew all the best things to do and places to see. It makes a nice change to visit somewhere with a native speaker and I very much enjoyed being able to relax and not have employ my point and smile communication to buy things and find out information. Zakopane is well known for it's mountain men. The mountain men are well known for being very manly men, big, strong and handsome. It also goes without saying that they are fearless, not shy at all and apparently very good with the ladies (they were trying to chat Emilia up although she was reluctant to tell me exactly what they were saying). They dress in traditional mountain clothes, are all really talented at playing instruments and singing and form little mountain bands. Most restaurants will have one of these bands playing as entertainment throughout the evening. We heard a few bands but the best was at a small restaurant a little way from the town centre
. It was in a traditional wooden cabin which was impressive in itself. The walls were only about 4 feet high with a massive steep roof on top. An very small arch shaped door was the entrance causing everyone to stoop to get through. Inside was very impressive (although a vegetarians worst nightmare) there was just about every mountain animal imaginable stuffed and nailed to the ceiling. As well as this were all manner of old tools and devices as well as a huge cooking pot that would easily be at home in a witches lair. There was a big round stone fireplace in the centre with a roaring log fire. The tables and benches were all fashioned out of tree trunks. In the corner was the mountain band with two fiddles an accordion and a double bass. One fiddle player was the band leader, he was a youngish guy who looked very cheeky, but I am informed he was also very funny. Their songs were all about women and the mountains and all very clever (if you understand what they are saying, even Emilia was struggling as they have their own dialect of Polish with lots of strange words, so its like us listening to a crazy Scottish person). They were doing requests and sang one lady a Polish birthday song (similar to happy birthday). The traditional mountain food is mostly big lumps of grilled meat which very much suited my appetite
(some of the restaurants even have the grill over the open fire in the middle of the restaurant so you can watch you food being cooked)
. The band, venue and company were amazing and it made eating out much more interesting than usual and really rather special. It's a long way down
One thing that Zakopane is very proud of is it's ski jump. There are actually three, a couple of baby ones for beginners and practising but the main attraction is the full sized jump which sits on a hill behind the town. It hosts lots of competitions such as the ski jumping world cup. We decided to go to the top to see what the view is like for the jumpers. To get up there, helpfully there is a ski lift. This in itself was interesting, I have never been skiing so never had the experience of sitting on what looks like a garden bench tens of meters above the ground. I wasn't the biggest fan, going down is the worst as you can see all the way back down the hill (it's quite a long way down, and I'm not so great with heights). The ski jump was insane I cant understand why people would want to throw themselves off it. We saw the bench the jumpers launch themselves from and admired the view they see as they set off, looking at the people walking around near the bottom, so small they look like ants. It's crazy to think that often some of the best jumpers are kids (its probably not only to do with the fact the are very light but more that they have absolutely no common sense so practically flying wearing only a pair of skis seems like a good idea to them). I don't know how people even discover they are any good at it, especially as there is no way of telling without doing it, I think it takes a special kind of person personally! At the top you get a great view of Zakopane and all the surrounding hills dotted with log cabins. The Tatra Mountains
One of the premier tourist attractions is the cable car into the mountains
. It's pretty massive and gains 900m of altitude during the 20 minute trip taking you up to around 2000m. Of course young fit people walk up, something Emilia has done lots of times. Walking is actually one of the main activities in the summer as many of the peaks are easily accessible and as the mountain range is only 14km long it's compact and a perfect place to go if your a keen hiker! Unfortunately we didn't have the right footwear for a full on hike so decided to "take the escalator" as I like to refer to the cable car, along with all the fat, old annoying tourists who were out of breath just waiting in a queue (i don't like tourists even though technically i am one). We went in the afternoon and as we neared the base station Emilia said "I hope the queue isn't too long", "queue?" I replied, people that know me will know that I am very much like my dad and can stand queuing (dad would much rather be moving than queuing, which on a number of occasions has resulted in either getting lost or doing an extra 50 miles due to spontaneous changes in route to avoid a traffic jam). The cable car is so popular that apparently in the summer the queue can be up to 9 hours! (which is mad, how can people spend a whole day of their holiday in a queue? especially as it only takes a few hours to walk up). As it was not peak tourist season the queue was short (only and hour and a half!) Emilia could see from the look on my face as I said "its fine we can wait" that it blatantly wasn't. Luckily when you have your own personal tour guide there is always a back up plan. "I know a place" she said and off we walked. The weather was great and I was a very happy to now be walking through the forest instead of sitting in a queue imagining what it would look like to be in a cable car above it! The spot she was on about was perfect, an alpine meadow part the way up the mountain with a view of the cable cars going up and down. The sun was shining and the afternoon was spent sitting in the grass watching the world go by in a relatively quiet and tourist free spot, very much a perfect day
. We did decide to give the cable car another go and figured an early start would be the best way to beat the masses. A 7 o'clock start wasn't so bad for a cycle tourer who has been getting up at that time for months, it's slightly harder if you are a student who has been on holidays all summer! We managed to get up and by the time we had walked there is was just before nine. Luckily there were hardly any people queuing and within 20 minutes we were stepping into the glass sided car. The weather was shaping up to be as good if not better than he previous day (it's quite rare to get such sunny clear weather in the mountains). Despite my expectations, not all of the people on the cable car were lazy tourists, many were full on ramblers complete with walking poles, nap sacks and silly bobble hats. They use it as a way to get straight into the mountains so they can spend the whole day walking at altitude (still a cheat if you ask me). The views on the way up are stunning and it really is an amazing experience. Because it's a long way to the top you have to switch cars half way. Reaching the top isn't dissimilar to being on top of Snowdon in that there is the same cafe and gift shop set up accompanied by a large number of people that really don't look like they should be on the top of a mountain. They are easy to spot as they are usually dressed in Armani, a shell suit or hardly dressed at all (the previous day it had been -2 degrees on top). We headed to the furthest peak to escape the crowds as best as possible and sat and admired the view
. The view was awesome, and as all the peaks are a similar size you can look down the entire length of the mountain range. There was snow on a few of the mountains and you could just make out walking paths winding their way to some peaks. The ridge we were on also formed the border between Poland and Slovakia so technically we were sitting south of the White markers and therefore in Slovakia (its what the S stands for in the picture) which was kind of neat although who knows what they would do if passport checks were required to cross the border. Holiday from a Holiday
We ended up spending a week in Zakopane, and it was really nice to have a holiday from holiday if that makes sense. I made sure i used Emilia's translating skills to their full potential (cheeky i know but she didn't seem to mind), i got the brake on my bike repaired (the front brake had only been semi working for about 2 months so i decided i should probably do something about it) and bought some new clothes to help with the colder weather. Buying outdoor clothes often proves awkward in many countries as there are only a few specialist shops, however in Zakopane every other shop is an outdoor retailer, it is any gear heads paradise (i am very much a "gear head") so poor old Emilia had to endure visiting pretty much every outdoor shop in town to try and hunt down exactly the right gear
. I was also introduced to all sorts of yummy Polish food and of course some more Polish vodka (there are a lot of different ones to try, on this particular occasion it was peppermint vodka which straight is a bit like drinking mouth wash but when mixed with apple juice its pretty tasty) and i even managed to pick up a few words of Polish some of which would have be useful when i was trying to sort out my doctors appointment, Proszę czy mogę się widzieć z lekarzem kobiet seksowny, który mówi po angielsku? (Please could i see a sexy female doctor who speaks English? i think but my memory isn't so good). Unfortunately i somehow became partly crippled ( i think i trapped a nerve in my neck) so i couldn't straighten my head fully, apart from meaning i had to walk round looking a bit special and wincing every time i tried to look round, it also destroyed our plans of playing tennis which i was really looking forward to (although i get the feeling Emilia is a bit of a tennis ace, so i probably avoided getting embarrassed). After such a relaxing week in great company it was hard to get back on the bike and venture off into the mountains again on my own. Luckily during the week i had been on the phone with my parents and my mum and sister decided to come and make a spontaneous visit to Bratislava for my birthday. So once again i found myself with the pressure of a deadline to meet. To add extra pressure i wanted to visit the Czech Republic and add it to the list of countries i been to, i would have to do it on the way making for a few big days of riding
. A rainy ride to Bratislava boosted by beer
I had planned a route which meant i could take in the Czech Republic but it was over 400 km in 4 days and i was unsure of just how many hills there would be. As if this wasn't enough the nice weather which we had all week in Zakopane was changing leading to some interesting riding. I actually had my wettest couple of days yet. It later turns out that the whole of this part of the world was getting a soaking Hungry especially (it was the rain that lead to the toxic mud debacle). It had been raining all day and i was pretty wet however as the early afternoon approached it got heavier, and heavier, and heavier and continued like his for an hour or so, i couldn't help but laugh to myself it was actually quite funny in a way. Initially i tried to take some cover figuring it was a shower but soon realised i had no such luck so took a deep breath, manned up, put my head down and pedalled. I was still making pretty good progress, it was the day before my mum and sister were flying into Bratislava so i wanted to leave myself with a short final day of riding, but this was obviously somewhat affected by the weather. By the time it was starting to get dark i was more than wet, completely saturated just about sums it up, and i decided that i should at least make the most of it and get my last couple of Czech beers
. I pulled up to a petrol station and walked in. I began to wonder why the woman at the counter was scowling at me and quite obviously talking about me to the customer she was serving. I hadn't given it a second thought but soon realised she had obviously just finished cleaning the floor, the superbly shiny mirror like floor now came complete with a wet muddy trail retracing my steps back towards to the door via the crisps shelf and cake shelf (i didn't feel like healthy eating). I pondered what to do but was in no mood for compromising so i continued to shuffle round from the drinks section to the chocolate section, trying not to dip over all the merchandise. As expected her service was anything but polite so to piss her off even more i just gave her a big smile and strode confidently back out into the torrential down pore, as though it was a totally normal thing to be doing in weather like this. My campsite was about as wet as you can get.....in the middle of a lake! Well not exactly but it looks this way from google. I was struggling to find a place to say when i spotted a small grassy lane leading across the middle of a man made lake, i followed it down and found a sheltered spot with a lake on both sides and a motorway at the far end, it wasn't the best campsite ever, but i was pretty sure i would be getting any visitors in the night. The downside was that there was foot deep grass so by the time i had put my tent up and got inside everything was soaked including the floor of my tent and certain parts of my sleeping bag. Luckily i had got beyond caring and was just looking forward to arriving in Bratislava the next day seeing my family and having the luxury of not sleeping in a dorm room for once. The Czech Republic was not all bad, the beer was good and i did pass though some very spectacular old vineyards which stretched for miles along one ridge which must have had the magical position and soil for good grapes. Home at last.....well not quite
It was quite strange to arrive at a hostel and see my mum and sister sitting there, but it was great to see some familiar faces
. The remainder of the first day was mostly spent catching up and allowed me to do some washing so that i didn't smell like a tramp for the rest of the week. The next day was the 28th of September, just another day for most people but not me, its my birthday! so i had a nice lazy morning in bed to get the day off to a good start. Unfortunately due to cheap flight luggage restrictions the few presents i got mainly came from a Tesco hypermarket next to a hostel, these included the most bizarre looking orange spiky fruit called a kiwano. My mum knows me too well and its exactly the kind of bizarre thing i love, i had actually commented on them when i saw them in the supermarket the day before, much to her amusement as she already had one sitting in a cupboard in the hostel. I did however get the best birthday present i could ever wish for......Marmite!!!!! (if you don't know what it is, you have never lived, you should try it, it might just change your life, or make you feel ill but either way its an experience you will never forget). If you hadn't guess already from my user name on this very blogging site, I'm slightly addicted to the black stuff, and when I'm back home i start every day with Marmite on toast. I hadn't eaten Marmite for 3 months and it was my one request from home. As we were sitting having the slightly strange combination of kiwano, Marmite on toast and cake for breakfast my mum noticed a poster on the wall with all the ice hockey fixtures which were being played in Bratislava. As luck would have it one of these happened to be that afternoon so they asked me if i fancied going as a birthday treat
. Although i had been to Canada and watched lots of ice hockey on the television i never managed to see a game in person as every time i went to a big city their team was playing away, so i was exited by the opportunity to finally watch some. I should probably mention that ice hockey is pretty much the biggest sport in Slovakia and in fact there are also teams in lots of the other countries nearby such as Croatia and the Czech Republic. So after a wander round town (which involved rather too much girlie shopping for my liking, it was MY birthday after all) we went to get some tickets. The game was at the rather unusual time of 17:30, i have no idea why as most people were struggling to get there after work. I was lucky as my mum and sister had endured a rather lengthy trip across Bratislava on the public transport from the airport so knew exactly how the trams and buses worked making for a pain free trip to the stadium. The main stadium in Bratislava was undergoing a reconstruction as Slovakia is hosting the 2011 ice hockey world championship. This meant that the game was being played in a smaller practice stadium. It was good for us as it meant we were nice and close to the action and got a really good view. European ice hockey is a bit different from its North American cousin, as one Canadian put it, "its so boring there's hardly any fighting" indeed there was only some mild violence although when you are used to watching more refined sports it still seems pretty brutal as you watch people being squashed against the plexiglass. The upside of the lack of brute force is that the players have to be more skilful and there is much more stick work involved. Ice hockey is such a fun sport to watch with music during stoppages and the big screens for replays. I especially love how the music and videos they play tie in with what is happening on the rink. My favourite was a video they showed when there was a bit of a fight brewing, it was a selection of old movie clips of people being slapped round the face with wet fish and women having handbag fights, which was hilarious
. The two teams playing were HC Slovan Bratislava vs HK Poprad which is a town near Tatra mountains. There was lots of goal action with the score ending up at 4 - 3 to the home team. One end of the stadium was reserved for hardcore fans, who came equipped with drums, banners, massive flags (10m long) and a shirtless guy with a megaphone leading all manner of chants which I'm sure were suitably amusing/rude. The actual hockey was really fun to watch and you don't appreciate how much the puck is airborne until you are admiring it from near ground level, i have no idea how the goal keepers see it. Well in fact they don't always as we found out when one keep couldn't react fast enough and end up getting the puck straight in the grill of his helmet, it was so hard it knocked him backwards. I enjoyed watching my mother who had offered to take me to the ice hockey as a birthday treat making out she didn't have the slightest of interests herself, but was there shouting when there was fouls and ohhing and arrring when there were shots on goal, i almost think she enjoyed it more that i did. The evening was spent at a Cuban restaurant (which actually i later found out was one of the best in town) sipping rum based cocktails and listening to Cuban music. All in all it was a great day and much more memorable than your average birthday. I am a music man i come from far away.......what can you play.....i can play....the leaf
My mum and sister are also big fans of live music and as we were staying in the blues Hostel, Wednesday night meant a live blues concert in the hostel bar which was very handy. We also managed to catch a free concert in town which was pretty interesting. It was a Romanian blues folk band which was quite unusual in itself. It was part of a Romanian exchange, so there was a whole orchestra of Romanian kids in the crowd
. The band were really good, especially when they were playing blues (the Romanian folk was not quite so good). The most interesting thing however was an old guy who looked like he should be sat on a porch in the midwest with a large brown bottle marked XXX. He was wearing a straw hat, denim braces and had a big bushy white beard and pop belly. This however was not the most interesting thing about him, what was very unusual was his choice of instrument....the leaf! If (as i expect) you are unfamiliar with this instrument, it is exactly what it says on the tin, a leaf simply put between the teeth a then blown on crating a whistling sound, like blowing on a blade of grass. It is what happens if you leave a Romanian shepherd in a field with nothing to do and only a leaf to play with. This guy was crazy but he was to his credit pretty good and able to hold a tune (a very crazy Romanian one, but a tune). Probably more amusing was his dancing when the rest of the band were playing blues. It was similar to the dancing performed by an intoxicated husband at a wedding but somehow a bit more impressive, if you can imagine what that looks like. Despite being a tad nippy it was really good especially as it was free. We also did some of the tourist attractions in town, took a walk up to the castle which is perched on hill behind the town, and nicely illuminated at night. Another tourist attraction which cannot be missed is the "man at work" a cheeky bronze statue of of a man peering out of an imaginary man whole in the pavement watching passers by. Unfortunately when we saw it was more the "men at work" as there was a strange guy, pretending to be the man at work (read wearing a gold hat and sitting inside an imaginary manhole) but it was quite funny to see the lengths people will go to, to try and get some of the tourists hard earned cash. It was a great 4 days and really nice to catch up with the family and not think about travelling for a while, and i think they appreciate the opportunity to go somewhere unusual.