After Olomouc, I went to the Ginger Monkey Hostel in a mountain village called Zdiar, right in the Tatra Mountains on the Polish-Slovak border. I hadn’t planned to visit Slovakia at all, but there was a flier in the bathroom door of Poets’ for this place, and the time seemed ripe to get away from towns and spend some time in nature. Plus, I was told I had to go there.
It was an all day trip, with a 4.5 hour ride on a slow train to the city of Poprad, then an hour-long bus ride to Zdiar. From the bus stop it was a short hike past the petrol station, the white, crumbling village church, and, just behind that, the hostel, a colorful cabin attached to another colorful cabin belonging to the Ginger Monkey’s Slovak neighbors. The first thing that happened when I came up to the porch was that I was attacked (lovingly) by two dogs, one being Wally, the hostel dog, and the other a black lab belonging to the local gardener. A bunch of people were sitting on the porch under the wooden monkey plaque, talking, and staring out at the row of mountains directly facing the hostel. It had taken me a good five minutes to walk up the Ginger Monkey’s driveway in the first place because I stopped a dozen times to turn around for that very view and take photos from every possible angle, capturing all the minute changes that suddenly jump out when you move five paces.
Zdiar is a very popular resort town. The Ginger Monkey is Zdiar’s only hostel, but every other cabin of this long village stretched along a single main street seemed to be a pension. I think there were a hundred altogether. Come winter people flock there for the skiing and snowboarding and ice climbing opportunities, the same as the Alps offer but for 1/3 of the price. Though the Alps are much bigger, I enjoyed the Tatras more; they felt remote, untouched, less frequented, despite the constant stream of people coming in to escape to the great outdoors. Every time I rode the bus it was half filled with young locals in climbing and backpacking gear.
In the summer, people came to the Ginger Monkey to hike and get away. It’s a place to unwind and people have spent entire afternoons just sitting on the porch, playing with Wally and staring at the mountains while someone else played guitar or ukulele, and not feeling like a day was wasted.
During the day the hostel emptied. I’d arrived too late in the afternoon to go on a long hike, so within minutes found myself lying on the porch with Wally and Kevin the cat (a figure of much contention), staring at the mountains, writing down first impressions of my amazing surroundings, and finally giving in to baking in the sun. Here I met Mitch again, and Kevin the German, both fun guys.
This was a different sort of place, off the beaten path, and half the people seemed to know each other already by virtue of being long-term travelers. By long-term I mean months in this area alone. Lying in my relaxed stupor I half-heard someone say, “He met some locals with a glider and took off, ended up in Budapest a couple days later,” about a friend of theirs named Dave. Such were the kind of people this place attracted: adventurous types and single travelers without a set itinerary.
Maybe it’s the similar outlooks, the communal atmosphere of the place, or a combination, but the majority of people who came there felt like they were visiting friends. The hostel itself is a reason to go and another of the few places that felt more like home.
During the summer, nights followed a strict alternating schedule of partying one night and relaxing the next. I arrived on an off night and as people came back from their hikes they settled into the lounge and the kitchen and the porch, where the stargazing was prime and the summer air comfortable. On quiet nights, people put on a movie in the colorful lounge and had a couple of beers. We sat around in the kitchen until 3 in the morning listening to music.
The next day, I took Wally on the forest walk, a moderate 3-4 hour hike. We reached the top of a hill covered in wildflowers, looking down on the long multicolored snake of Zdiar and out at the mountains fading into silhouettes. It’s one of the most beautiful views I’ve ever beheld. Zdiar offers that at any time of the year, but I must say I see photos of it right now, covered in snow, and wish I were there.
In a village, little establishments become bigger. Pizzeria Rustika was the go-to place for dinner, a dimly lit restaurant in the roof of a cabin we invaded almost every night to watch the few people who provided the entertainment by taking the XXL pizza challenge: eating and keeping down a 52 cm wide pizza with at least 3 toppings for the glory of adding a tally for their country. Australia is winning by a long shot, and in second is the UK. The US is unimpressive, but this is not because we have a shortage of heavy eaters; it’s because most of the people visiting the Ginger Monkey are Australians and Englanders.
After that, we headed back and the participants went to lie on their beds and await death while the rest of us gathered in the kitchen to play drinking games and put on music. You couldn’t call the Ginger Monkey a party hostel, but it has the best parties, with onesies and colorful hats and table dancing.
With great nights come terrible mornings, though, and, dumbfounded as to how, I watched the same blurred faces from the night before get up at 7AM and go on an all day hike (which I guess is the best hangover cure). I had to make a small detour back to Olomouc, where I’d left my outlet adapter, camera battery, and charger (nothing important, you know), and had myself a quiet night at Poets’, awaiting death. But there have been far worse detours; the next morning before heading back to the Ginger Monkey, Stacey and I got coffee at Café 87 with the wittiest gay couple from London in existence. They sort of looked like Daniel Radcliffe and Rupert Grint. Daniel Radcliffe busted out the endless stream of witty comments and Rupert Grint played the well-timed deadpan.
Every possible train and bus connection that day was late. I arrived at the Poprad bus station missing the bus by minutes and had to wait nearly two hours for the next bus as the station revealed itself the meeting place of gypsies under cover of night. Well after 9PM I trundled back to the hostel, where what was happening but another party? Minutes after I sat down to relax, people ran through the hall shouting about “onesie time!” That was when I noticed the entire wall covered in onesie ski suits in all colors. The only one that fit me was a white onesie made for short people (but let me tell you, not short women). I ran into another familiar face that night, a guy also writing a travel blog I’d met in Olomouc on the night of the pornographer, named Alex, who couldn’t stop laughing at my using the onesie to stay warm and substitute for clean clothes. It was one of the best things about traveling, to unexpectedly run into people you’ve already met making similar circles.
Another fun night and thankfully a fun morning, too, led to, well, a bittersweet afternoon, as everyone was leaving Zdiar and saying their goodbyes. Mitch and Kevin were going to Ukraine; I was going to Budapest (another suggestion I hadn’t planned on).
Like the Tent Village in Interlaken, the hostel is staffed by travelers who are passing through, fall in love with the place, and stay to help out for a few weeks in exchange for free lodging before moving on. It’s an ideal way to travel cheaply. As we sat around talking before leaving I remember Mitch asking me if I would ever consider doing the same, and I said I definitely would. You couldn’t say no to the scenery.