High Tatras

Trip Start Mar 04, 2008
Trip End Oct 06, 2008

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Flag of Poland  , Southern Poland,
Friday, May 30, 2008

Greetings all,

Sorry for the long delay on entries. Easy internet access hasn't crossed our path at opportune times. We are now in Krakow, Poland, however, and internet cafes are everywhere. We travelled NE from Budapest, into the hills of Hungary. We passed through the highest peaks Hungary has to offer (the Bukk Hills), which were spectactular but not terribly impressive height-wise. Heading north, we experienced Slovakia and the "High Tatras". We skirted along peaks of 2500 m+ on our way to Poland.

We spent 2 nights in downtown Budapest with a private room on the penthouse floor of an antiquated highrise. The building had one of those interior courtyards with the catwalks around the inner perimeter. Presumably age had caused the catwalks to slant in towards the courtyard, which made for treacherous walking, especially in the rain. A wild goose chase around the city to find an O-ring for our stove made for an evening departure from the city. We only made it 14 km 'out of town' before the sun set and we set up camp in a field behind a gas station. Things picked up from here though.

Hungary is dreadfully flat until one makes it to the north where it borders with Slovakia. The foothills for the Tatra Range are called the Bukk Hills - a beautiful karst region with relatively high peaks, dense lush forests and a maze of small creek valleys. Definitely a must see area of Hungary. Our first night in the highlands we had a shocking encounter with the local wildlife. A wild boar came roaming into our camp spot on his evening stroll. We locked eyes for a brief second, both our stomachs dropped I'm sure, and then he was off.

We also had an encounter with some fellow Canadians along this stretch. Josef and his wife Violet, Hungarian-Canadians of seven years, noticed our flag and pulled over to say hi. More than welcoming, the two offered us info on scenic routes in the area and even a shower and a BBQ at their farm. Anxious to get into the famous hills, we regretably declined but will surely drop in if we find ourselves nearby again.

Camp spots in the Bukk abound, but wild camping isn't technically legal. The lowland areas are also very wet and rains are frequent and heavy, so one must be careful not to set up on a future floodway. Getting a fire going took some work, but man, was it worth it! The moisture of the area gets right down into your bones. Dead and hanging limbs make for good firewood. Even then they were too moist to start up. I spent a half hour making wood shavings before we got any flames.

Getting to Slovakia from the Bukk brought us through the Aggteleki Karst region, the home of world famous cave systems and underground rivers. We stopped at a couple, but were not exited by the tourist caves with the artificial lighting. Instead we hiked up into the hills and looked for our own caves. Found one, but it was only a couple of metres deep. Defeated, we lifted our spirits with a bowl of Hungarian goulash.

Crossing into Slovakia was uneventful. The old border post was still there, but was nothing more than a roof and an aboandoned kiosk. The ride through Slovakia was a gradual climb up river valleys and beautiful farmland. There is a drastic discrepancy between the economic classes here. Some towns are full blown shanty villages with garbage filled creeks and rampant unemployment while just up the road there will be a beautiful, traditional village. We met a very kind couple, half German, half Tennesseean, with their extended family here. Oscar, Petra and crew congratulated us on our trip, offered some helpful insights on the road ahead through the "roof of Europe", and even a free camp spot should we pass through their part of Germany. Oh, and gave us each a bottle of good ol' American apple juice from the orchards of Washington State!

Northern Slovakia is the gateway to the High Tatras. This made for tough riding conditions, but beautiful views and gorgeous little mountain villages. Poprad is situated in a wide valley right at the base of the highest peaks in the Tatras. The town itself is ugly as sin, but the backdrop makes up for it. As we left town to find camp, the cloud and the rains set in blocking our view of the mountains. Bummer. We had a wonderful spot though- up on a west facing hill with only the wide valley separating us from the two and a half kilometre high peaks. That night we had our second wild boar encounter. This one was a little more frightening. The boar happened upon us about the same time, dusk. I guess he smelt our dinner cooking and he came looking. When he saw that the food source was guarded, he let out a banshee wail and fled into the trees. He continued howling and shrieking nearby as Ainaz jumped in the tent and shut the zippers, leaving me out in the rain and cold wearing my inconveniently conspicuous red rain jacket. Knife in hand, I stood guard over our food. The boar slowly made his exit, howling the whole time.

All the next day as we wound our way through the mountains towards Poland, the clouds hung low. Not good for viewing the peaks, in fact we could scarcely make out the road ahead of us, but it made for a High Tatra mountain mood. We had hot chili for lunch in a sheltered bus stop in the town of Zdiar, the gateway to the Tatras.

The drop out of the Tatras was a little bittersweet. I suppose it was a net downhill ride, but man, does Poland sure make you work for your downhills. My theory is that Poland got the short end of the stick when it came to splitting up the Tatras (all the good peaks are in Slovakia), so they built the road up and over all of the ridges that they could to give the impression of a mountainous highway.

It was a long day for us through and out of the mountains. By the time we got to the town of Nowy Targ it was time to get water and look for camp. We spotted a bus station, and in I went to fill up the dromedary bag. Europe has this annoying pay-toilet scheme set up in many public areas. It goes against my principles. Perhaps I would set principles aside if the prices were reasonable, but costs are upwards of 0.50 Euros! Anyway, I enter the main floor of the bus station. No one there but me, the guy at the cigarette counter and a woman of questionable morals, well past her prime, occupying her time by feeding the video slots and chain smoking her L&M 100's. The tight white jeans, high heels and low slung hot pink shirt, not to mention the purple eye shadow, clearly marked her as the "evening tour guide" for willing and solvent transients that were new to town. I walked past her to the washrooms as she tapped her foot to the 80's top 40 soundtrack playing loudly over the PA. "Moving on up, your moving on out! Time to break free! Nothing can stop me!". This lady was definitely a free-bird, woman power kind of gal. I proceeed to fill up the water bag. As I was filling, I noticed the sign above the door displaying the costs for using the toilet. Not having any Polish currency yet, I figured I may be in some trouble. "I just won't use the toilet then", I thought "and besides, no one is out there to collect the money". Sure enough, as I left the men's room the prostitute had turned cleaning lady. Make no mistake, this was her bathroom. She started frantically spraying the air with her cleaner to drive home that point. When it became obvious that I didn't intend on paying, even if I could have, the situation became very awkward. The cleaning bottle was now aimed at my face. She was demanding payment for her services, and I was playing charades with her trying to explain that I did not, in fact, use the toilet in the traditional sense. Use your imagination. Curse words on her part and uncontrolled laughter on my part ensued. All of a sudden a crowd had gathered near my exit point. I turned my back and fled as she cussed and yelled and sprayed her cleaner. 80's top 40 hits continued over the loudspeaker.

So now we're in Krakow. Cool town, but then Europe is full of cool towns. We're not sure what to do from here. North to Warsaw to visit friends, and perhaps onwards to Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia?!? Ferry to Denmark?!? West to Prague?!? West to Berlin?!? I think we'll head west for a day, anyway, and check out Auschwitz. Any suggestions?
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