The guy making me a coffee at his street bar said:”You don’t look like a normal tourist. You riding a bike?”. When I told him my story in one sentence, he said “You probably need a good strong coffee then. Going to Vienna after here? You’ll find us in Vienna too…look us up”.
Then I walked into an outlet advertising street food, and ordered myself a Morrocan tagine, to fuel the legs to climb the enormous hill to Hrad Castle where, amongst the many exhibits in the museum, was this….
…and I thought, what an interesting use of the term ‘portable’. But a couple of cabinets away was a display of the first Bratislava Cycling Club founded in 1888, all lined up for the start of a race, and if you look carefully you’ll probably recognise one of them as being Peter Sagan’s great great grandfather….
There are towers to climb in Bratislava too. To get to the top of the Castle tower, you need a special kind of steely determination, and the Town Hall tower will reward you with lofty views over squares….
….and interesting roofs whose pitches make them look like church steeples…
And when you see some poor fellow trying to crawl out of a street drain, it is very tempting to just stroke him on the head to comfort him (as everyone does). What was he doing down there anyway?
And when you are bored with museums and towers and men crawling out of drains, you can join the crowds to catch bubbles, and contribute to this young man’s beer fund
…..believe me, people openly ask for money for their beer fund….they know you know they will spend the euro you give them on the next can of beer. So why not be honest about it….
Tomorrow, it’s goodbye Bratislava, hello Vienna…..with 60km of the Danube trail in between.
As my final destination, Bratislava was always going to be my second choice (behind Prague), but a persistent headwind across Poland dictated terms and conditions, so here I am, at the notional end of my journey.
But wait a minute, Vienna is only 60km away along the Danube, on Eurovelo 6. Flat, scenic and designed for cyclists, the only drawback being that I would be going upstream….. OK, not because it goes imperceptibly uphill (probably by only 10-20 metres), but because the vast majority of the annual 38,000 cyclists that follow the route go downstream, which is bound to complicate my progress if I have to go against the flow. But still….
Quite apart from the attraction of bagging yet another country and capital city, Vienna is a bigger transport hub than Bratislava, thus making it an obvious finishing point, with a greater chance of getting home by train and boat. Going overland will be more expensive than flying, and certainly more time consuming, but then I could simply change my thinking about that and regard it as part of the journey….in other words an integral segment of the whole adventure.
Last night, in the town of Pezinok, I was welcomed by an enthusiastic Slovak couple, called Michal and Eva, who are expecting their first baby in December. Michal came out to meet me on a borrowed electric mountain bike, one that he had been testing in the local hills, to see if he might be interested in one for himself.
The conversation over supper ranged from riding bikes to politics, and amongst the many fascinating (and disturbing) things I learned about Slovakia was the surprising popularity of its up-and-coming far right party, the Kotleba People’s Party, which has a double cross insignia that was used by an old Slovak fascist party during the war.
Slovakia spent more than 50 years subjected to the brutality of, first, the German Nazis, then the Soviet system, but people are clearly forgetting all that. The People’s Party ideology is underpinned by extreme nationalism, fundamental Christianity, hate for the Roma people, and a total rejection of western liberal democracy. What does that remind you of?
Tomorrow will be a day for exploring Bratislava.
Now tell me, what do you know about Slovak wines…..never heard of them? If not, join the club. When did you last see a bottle of Slovak wine in your local supermarket? The reason why not is because the Slovaks keep it all for themselves. How selfish is that? But I’ve just discovered their dark little secret….in a wine museum in Pezinok, where I am spending the night.
For the ‘exorbitant’ fee of €3 (senior fee, of course), I was given a very informative audio guide to the excellent displays about the history and production of wine in Slovakia, and at the end I had a glass of the local Riesling thrust into my hand. Pity about the lack of pretzels….
The whole region, in fact, reminded me of the Alsace, and the vineyards growing along the slopes of the Vosges mountains. These vineyards grow on the slopes of the Little Carpathians, and the wines all have a similar character to the Alsatian wines…
I also learned about, and sampled, the first stage of production after the pressing, which produced what they translated into English as ‘the scrumpy’, a low alcohol beverage given to the vineyard workers as replacement for water….a bit like the small beer given to English farm workers in former times.
Last night, in Smolenice, I was hosted by an English family, resident in Slovakia for the last 6 years, and very happily settled. Mark and Suzanne’s 7 year old daughter, Zoe, was 1 when they arrived, so now has a native fluency in Slovak, and was proud to include their new kitten, Lily, in the photo.
No, not the piece by Mendelssohn, but an actual march by real people. As I approached the village of Chetelnica, I could hear a band playing in the distance, and just imagined it was rehearsal day for the local musicians. However, when I dropped steeply down into the village centre, I met this very colourful procession walking along the road,
and right in the middle were the bride and groom. Lots of them shouted comments in my direction, which were either disparaging of my appearance or were an invitation to join the party…I’d like to think it was the latter.
About half of today’s 80km route was one of my favourite kinds of road, peppered with steep climbs, commanding views over the countryside, and tyre-burning descents….better known as ‘lumpy’ in the cycling community.
It also happened to be a favourite with that other biking community, the motorcyclists. Hundreds passed me, oblivious of the many shrines to the memory of their fellow bikers who have lost their lives on this stretch. And invariably, they ‘hunt’ in packs….they always roar past in groups…
So here are a few things that Slovakia is famous for: Peter Sagan, one of the most talented of elite cyclists, and certainly the most entertaining; the Slovak language has given us two very common words, ‘robot‘ and ‘pistol‘. And its capital, Bratislava, stands on the border of two other independent nations, Hungary and Austria. And don’t confuse Slovakia with Slovenia (which, apparently, many do) and in case you still haven’t caught up with history, it’s been separated from the Czech Republic since 1993. Here endeth the lesson….
I was prepared for a long, fast descent….I knew it was on the menu for the day. However, Google maps couldn’t provide a cycling option in Slovakia, the only option that gives an elevation profile of the route ahead, so I used the ‘terrain’ format to help identify ascents and descents.
Before the continuous fast stuff started, there was a switching of valleys, which meant another horrendously steep climb up and over, but once that was out of the way, after a 15km fast descent, there was continuous gradual descending for the rest of the day.
After 110km, I got to Trencin an hour before dark, to find the only campsite had closed for the winter 4 days ago, and every hotel and hostel I contacted or visited was either full or closed. This created a predicament that required a bit of creative thinking and a strong coffee.
So I decided to wait for dark and do a stealth pitch of my tent, but then chanced by a service station, and went in to have a coffee and consider my options. The girl behind the counter spoke good English, so I enlisted her support…. Between serving customers and checking the internet, she kindly made a few calls for me and eventually found a vacancy in a penzión just three doors away.
What I ended up with (despite its unpromising name) was a suite of two bedrooms, a kitchenette and bathroom for a very reasonable €30…..and he let me sleep with my bicycle….🤩
Having dropped from the high Tatras, I am now in an entirely different climate zone. The layers came off gradually as I lost altitude, from a few degrees above freezing, I ended up in a relatively balmy 18C.
I am the luckiest guy in Slovakia (well, now that I’m here). As I began the long, arduous climb up to the border, there were several occasions when the weather threatened my progress. But, despite all the threats and icy cold showers, I persisted, climbed over the border (topping out at 700 metres, 2,300ft) and hurtled down the other side into the town of Cadca, when the heavens opened, and the temperature immediately dropped some 10 degrees….the day ended icily cold…..I mean icily cold. That’s why I am the luckiest guy…..I could easily have been caught by that at the highest point of the ride, totally exposed, no shelter…it simply doesn’t bear thinking about.
So I grabbed myself a 15 euro room, and have just munched my way through the biggest pizza I’ve ever eaten in my life…
But I will let the pictures of the day tell their own story…