A long journey, but worth it

Trip Start Nov 15, 2005
Trip End Aug 15, 2008

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Sunday, August 13, 2006

Possibly my most frustrating day of travelling yet. And I do mean a whole day.

Having arranged to meet with Simon, one of my Prague flatmates, in Banksa Stiavnica on a sunday, it probably wasn't the most sensible idea to go to the Sziget festival on the saturday night. But I did anyway. With a massive two hours of sleep, I had to set off for the station. Right from the word go, no form of transport went well for me.

First off, the metro line I needed was under repair, so I was supposed to get a bus between two stations. Not too difficult, one would have thought, and simply a case of getting out of the station and jumping on any bus stopping outside I was told by the helpful information people. I did this. The bus immediately turned around and took me back the way I had come. Slightly put off by this, I decided it best to walk to the next metro stop instead of risking ending up in the middle of nowhere and missing my train. Not that I should have worried. I managed to miss the train quite successfully without that happening.

For those of you planning on taking a train out of Budapest at any point, turn up well in advance. I thought that getting there and standing in a queue no more than 15 people deep, 40 minutes before my train was due to leave would have been plenty of time. I was quite, quite wrong. Partly due to the rather antiquated ticketing system that involved hand writing half the ticket, and partly due to the inconsiderate bastard ahead of me in the queue, who took a good 15 minutes to buy his ticket, I didn't get to the ticket window until 15 minutes after my train had left. In theory, no big problem, as there was another one going about an hour later. Having arranged to meet Simon at 5 and it being a 12 departure, I thought that seemed like plenty of time.

I was wrong. Partly due to lack of sleep, I didn't consider the possibility of heading directly north until it was too late, so bought a ticket to Bratislava. This only takes a couple of hours on a fast train (the one I had planned to get). On the slow train (the one I ended up on), it takes 4 and a half hours, including an utterly pointless stop somewhere close to the border for no reason for about an hour. I arrived in Bratislava about the time I was meant to be meeting Simon, and after finding out the connection to Banska Stiavnica would take a further 4 hours to get there, I emailed to say I would be late and hoped he would get it before wasting too much time at the station.

With the situation as it was, there was nothing that I could do but jump on the train and wait for it to get me there. It didn't do this. I had to make a connection in some small town, which would have been fine had the train actually stopped there. I don't think I've ever been on a train that didn't stop at the scheduled stations before. Instead, I jumped off at some other station it did stop at, a few minutes later than my stop, assuming this was the right place and the train was just late. The train had pulled off again by the time I realised my mistake.

The people working in this back end of nowhere station informed me that as it was a sunday, there were no more trains or buses running that day. They offered to let me sleep in the station overnight, which I would have doen had it not been for the thought of Simon waiting patiently at the station for me, so I ended up jumping in a hideously expensive taxi (twice the price of my train tickets thus far today) only to find he had (quite sensibly) left.

So, 12 hours after leaving Budapest, not more than 100km away, I ended up in the middle of small town Slovakia on a cold night with no idea where I might find a place to sleep, and very few signs of life. I walked around in mild panic for a while and popped into a couple of bars in the hopes of finding someone that spoke english, or could direct me to a pension or hostel. I found no-one that could. Sitting on the steps of a church, I was contemplating sleeping rough for the night when I heard voices. Irish voices. They seemed so out of place, but at that point, so welcome. Bizzarely, they turned out to be a group of scouts, though what they were doing in Banska Stiavnica I never quite determined. They did lead me to the scout house, though, where I ended up with a rather nice room to myself for the night. Isn't it strange how things sometimes work out?

Bit of an epic journey for such a pathetically small distance.

After all that, at least it was worth the journey. Described by someone I met as being like Cesky Krumlov was ten years ago, I can now understand that. A small and peaceful ex-mining town, it has a similarly sleepy, laid back feel, as if the outside world doesn't touch the place and they don't really care. I imagine it would be very easy to get caught up in the feeling if you stayed there long enough. Very little going on, but with a couple of nice cafes empty enough that they don't mind you taking two hours over a cup of coffee and a few bars (though admittedly not as much choice as Krumlov had even in the depths of winter) that don't seem to close until the customers want to go home, these people seem to be trying to turn relaxation into an art form.

Maybe not quite as scenic as Krumlov and not quite as much to do, there is one big thing in it's favour: the lack of english being spoken. Not normally a good thing, but here it was a definite positive for the fact that it meant the town has not yet been invaded by the hordes that crowd Krumlov, and the locals actually seem genuinely interested in why you're there. It also means they are occasionally confused by the (perfectly normal) questions you might ask. After seeing a recurring motif about town of a salamander, is it not natural to ask what it's all about? In a mining exhibition? We thought so, but we were met with a rather unpleasant look and, in an offended tone "This is a mining exposition!". We did find out what they were all about in the end. It was all to do with the legend of the founding of the town as a mining settlement, but I'll spare you the details.

Most of our time in BS (as I like to call it) was spent just ambling around or sitting in cafes/bars, but we did manage to do a couple of active things with our time. For a start, we climbed up to a church on a hill just outside of town. The guy in tourist info seemed a little upset when we asked him how to get there. When pressed, he admitted that the stations of the cross on the walk up to the church had recently been stolen, and seemed genuinely pained by this. I desperately wanted to ask why anyone would steal them, but thought it best not to for fear he may burst into tears. Despite the lack of religious paraphinalia, the views over the surrounding countryside were really quite nice.

The only other active part of our visit involved going on a tour of the old mine, now sadly no longer profitable enough to be still in use. This brought back memories of Gadime cave, as we were the only english speakers on the tour, so had our own personal guide to the detriment of anyone that wanted to ask questions, it seemed. We appreciated it though, and we even got to wear completely unnecessary hard hats and trench coats, and even got a torch to carry to make us feel all adventurous. The guides english was actually pretty good this time, though it did make me laugh that every time we went to move on to a new part of the mine he would beckon us forward and say in an unintentionally impatient tone "Come on!".

I could write plenty more about this place, about all the under-age students in the bars or the very, very drunk Slovaks we met at a church, but I think I've written enough for now. Well done for reading this far!
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