Figuring that with 12 crew and 2 skippers, we would take two cruisers with 8 aboard each and there would be little to do for the day but look at the water, I went to Hanover, PA for the day instead on a road by my…
In contrast to the flight there, I felt very relaxed when I boarded the plane home. Sunlight was streaming in. The flight attendants were extremely friendly and joked in flawless English and Spanish. A couple of guys brought instruments on board and the coolest flight attendant, a bald guy who’d just said something witty in Spanish, quipped, “In-flight entertainment!” as he helped put up an accordion. It was a rather festive environment that almost made me feel happy to be suddenly flying home for no reason my heart could understand.
I lied – Madrid was my final stop. I was only there for a night and had to get up so early that I stayed in, but it didn’t stop me from being tempted. Madrid, not New York, is the city that never sleeps. On a Thursday morning I woke up at 6AM and people were still shouting outside from the night before.
Much in the way people say, “Munich or Berlin?” and “Krakow or Warsaw?” there’s a sort of competition between Barcelona and Madrid. Most people preferred Barcelona and wrote Madrid off as just a big city. I only met two people who were the other way around, and quickly discovered that I was as well.
It is just a big city, but it completely lacks any pretension. It’s amazing. Madrid is business, ridiculously, almost Paris-level expensive, but it’s confusingly laid back. People are friendly, and very pragmatic. If you have any illusions about life Madrid would be a good place to come kill them.
From Zdiar I took a little bus to Zakopane, another ski town in the Tatras, this time on the Polish side. I was en route to Krakow, Poland’s cultural center, a place I never expected to visit.
Everyone told me they liked Krakow; it was some people’s favorite city. It wasn’t big. With no data or otherwise plan for Poland I decided to walk around until I found a hostel again.
Krakow wasn’t small. Soon I was mooching free WiFi in a café and back on hostelworld, a site I’d avoided for so long, until I found a place in the Old Town. But, I hated it after a night and while wandering stumbled into another hostel; I had a good feeling about its bright blue and yellow paint and walked inside right then to book the rest of my nights. It was much better, but had no more than ten guests; fewer people were backpacking now that it was October. Krakow was packed for that one weekend, but only because all of France seemed to fly out for a getaway, as England had done to Bratislava.
With a week left on the road, I went in the opposite direction I should’ve been going in and headed east to revisit the Ginger Monkey for two days. By the time I got to the Poprad bus station, twilight was encroaching, it was cold, the gypsies were emerging, and I had another hour to wait alone for the bus. At least it’s not raining, I thought to myself. Sure enough, by the time the bus pulled up beside Zdiar’s petrol station, the biggest rainstorm I’d yet hit was pouring down buckets and I tumbled into the Ginger Monkey’s bright kitchen dripping, shivering, and sporting soaked shoes.
I again met (Czech) Dan the manager, Ivan, and a dance party in the kitchen. We drank through a bottle of something clear with a worm sinking at the bottom that Kevin had left behind, possibly the best drink I’ve ever had. Under its mysterious influence I made the split decision to extend my trip after all and volunteer at the Ginger Monkey for the next three weeks, Vegas wedding style.
After Bratislava, I came back to Olomouc and Poets’ Corner. It was a reunion and then some; Stacey, Katka, and Dave whom I’d randomly let in Budapest were still there, as were Ivan and David, two guys I’d gotten lost with in Budapest who’d gone their separate ways and ended up in Olomouc on the same night. Stuart, a long-time guest, was sitting in his usual chair as he was when I first saw him. Two new guys, Oskar from Australia and Randy from Texas, were loving Olomouc, too.
So began a few great days, filled with massive cooking projects involving the entire hostel and nights at Metro playing foosball and drinking through the club’s supply of beer. The students had returned; one night they could offer us only bottles.
I was on my way to the beautiful town of Banska Stiavonica in Slovakia, a UNESCO World Heritage Site (AKA really beautiful), when the train out of Bled was late. Trains in Eastern Europe were late half the time, but when they involved Slovenia they were late every time.
Ulrica, a German woman who’d gone hiking around here while her boyfriend was stuck at work, was my unplanned travel buddy. Together we arrived at the Plan B Café outside the train station in the Austrian town of Villach and explored it for the hour we had. Villach seemed to exist entirely around its train station. The view from the river was nice, but other than that it was several streets of restaurants and shops, a church, and nothing else. Where I expected to see houses on the outskirts were bare mountains. Where was the woman with a briefcase going so quickly? The only reason I can see anyone visiting Villach is to wait for another train.
My itinerary was blank again, when someone in Budapest recommended Lake Bled in Slovenia. The first thing I saw off the Bled station was the Julian Alps, a smaller mountain range in northern Slovenia. Bled itself is a tiny, very popular tourist town built around a small but beautiful glacial lake of the same name, for which it is famous.
Lake Bled is an almost unbelievable shade of turquoise, so jewel bright I thought they must be throwing chemicals into it. But no, it’s the result of a high algae concentration. In the middle sits a little island, lush with trees and just big enough to stably hold an old church. People swim there or row across on canoes or pletnas, romantic little rentable boats lining the lake’s shore. Along the lake’s almost perfect perimeter is a cliff on one side, atop of which sits Bled Castle. This view – the castle, the island and its church, is a postcard, and likely one you’ve already seen.
When I arrived in the crazy night-time traffic of Budapest, all the buildings looked like massive stone slabs. When I woke up the next morning and set out to explore, I met the most incredible architecture I’d seen. Every building weighs a million pounds in stone and is crested with impossibly intricate carvings. Budapest is like a stone forest, but it’s spacious and not oppressive. You never feel cloistered, or that people are looking at you. In fact, nobody seems to care what you’re doing. Budapest has an immediately noticeable laid back attitude stemming from the fact that life is less regulated. How so, you ask? For one, unlike meticulous Switzerland there aren’t lines painted all over the streets to tell you how far your pedestrian feet can venture into the road before you’re in the cars’ way. Walk where you want; move when a car comes.
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.