Thursday, September 2, 2010

"Rafting": Uz Tatry a Polsko!

[The Tatra mountains and Poland already!]

Yes, the title counts as Slovak, because that's what they called what we were doing on the water, even though it wasn't! I'm finally going to attempt this post, but I might have to do it in parts... we'll see. I'm hoping time has abridged my memory a little. Let's hope!


Tibor and I left the flat at 2 PM, but we didn't get on the open road until 4:30 or so because there were lots of little errands to do, i.e., a trailer with canoes to attach, friends to pick up, etc. Tibor's friend Peter (aka Fi Fi) came with us. (Ruth stayed at home because she had to study for the big exams.)

And... we drove across the entire country. In America, I'd figured it would take three or four hours to drive the length of Slovakia; but then, I was betting on 60+ mph the whole way and straight as the crow flies. It took much longer, as you can imagine. Most freeways were at 80 km/hr. (48 mph)--and a lot of it wasn't freeway. Still, we drove across the entire country in an evening! Shorter than driving from Olympia to Walla Walla...

I still had jet lag, so a fair amount of the way there I was passed out in the backseat. But when I was conscious, I got to enjoy watching the landscape rise... Western Slovakia, where Nitra is, is comparatively pretty darn flat, with the few hills there are as notable landmarks (ex: Zobor). Within 65 km, you get to Banska Bystrica in Central Slovakia. The difference is incredible! Banska Bystrica is enveloped by towering, forested hills. Very beautiful; haunting, even. I appreciated Banska Bystrica's stare mesto, as seen from the freeway. That was the nicest city I saw on the way there. Of course I was mentally comparing everything to Nitra, and everything was falling short for me. Nitra is wonderful!

As you move East, the hills become mountains, and they just keep getting bigger. It was dark by the time we got to the High Tatras, the jewels of Slovakia. They get up past 10,000 feet and look like the Alps when they've got snow on them. Unfortunately, that night it was both dark and foggy, so I couldn't see them at all. (Luckily, I did on the way home...)

And then we crossed the border into Poland! No border checks at all (I never had to produce my passport in the three days), but an obvious shift into another country. For one thing, the radio immediately became Polish, and the language on all the signs changed. But beyond that, the Polish town right there on the border was so radically different from a Slovak town. More on that later. It was 10:30 at night, and Tibor stopped at an ATM to get some zlotys. Come on, Poland, use the Euro!

The campsite was right next to the Dunaj (Danube). In the dark I saw a sea of tents and people clumped around a fire as we started to unload everything and pitch our own tents. Tibor gestured to the sea. "All my friends," he said. I thought he was exaggerating; there must have been fifty! As I found out later, he was no liar.

I woke up and dressed at seven, geared for the early starts I'm used to backpacking with my own family. I was disappointed, however: most people got up and stretched at nine or so. After a very leisurely breakfast, we finally drove to the starting point, which was back in Slovakia. We were going to canoe back to our campsite. We launched at 12:30.

I was in a canoe with Tibor that was shaped like a dragon; it was named the Loch Ness. Tibor, of course, was bow, as that's the position that actually does the hard things like steering. I was glad for my experience with canoeing last summer in the Boundary Waters in Minnesota, because this was definitely a step up. I had found canoeing pretty dull on the lakes before (so slow compared to rowing!), but this time we were canoeing whitewater! We were going fast. I learned new skills, like how to paddle in the troughs of waves. So much fun! Maybe someday I'll get a kayak and a helmet and do the real stuff, like one of the guys there, Jozef, was doing.

The scenery was pretty spectacular too. We were in a gorge with huge granite cliffs rising up before us. One of the banks of the river was Poland, and one was Slovakia. Alongside our twenty-five odd canoes and kayaks there were also traditional wood rafts for tourists. The wood rafts seated twelve, with two men to ferry them like gondolas, with long wood poles. That looked like fun.

The big challenge of the day was called Janosik's Revenge, after Juraj Janosik, a (in?)famous character in Slovak history. What I'd read about him, he was a rabble rouser of sorts, and finally was condemned to be hanged by his rib. It took him three days to die; on the third day, he received a pardon from the governor, but it was too late for him. His last words were "You have baked me; now you must eat me!" Tibor called him an outlaw. I don't know. So, to get back to the story, this part of the river was named after him because it was so treacherous. If people flipped there, as they often did, they would blame it on Janosik. It happened to Martin and Juraj (not an extraordinary coincidence in names, as it means 'George'), and I heard Martin mutter the man's name.

But we survived Janosik! It looked like a cauldron in the water, frothing and sucking things into it. To be honest, it scared me. Oh no, it's going to suck to flip here... But miraculously, surely due to Tibor's navigational finesse, it went fine. I did get splashed, but it felt good. The weather was perfect, bright and sunny but not uncomfortably so, and I dried in minutes.

We stopped for lunch at 2:30 at a Slovak restauracia (Polish: restauracja). I had gulas (goulash) and knedla, my first experience with the latter. What a great combination--topped off with Kofola. The restaurant was right next to a very old, very famous, Slovak monastery, sometime-home of the monk Cyprian. I can't remember all of Cyprian's accomplishments, or when exactly he lived (medieval?), but he's legendary. Places all over the country are named after him. There's a Slovak movie that came out recently called Legenda which is about his life, and it was actually filmed there in the monastery.

Tibor took me to the monastery's museum, which I enjoyed. The main sanctuary was under construction, so too bad there, but I got to see plenty of other rooms and many artifacts, like ancient habits, rosary beads, statues, and Bibles.

It was a calmer two hour stretch after lunch to get back to the campsite. I had a nice shower and changed into my warm clothes. The campsite was like an RV park (except very few RV's), in that it had water stations, showers, and toilets. I like taking the grit out of camping. Sleeping in a tent is luxurious if you're clean.

We went out to dinner at a Polish restauracja. The price miracle continues over the border! The food was excellent, and while I'm not totally up to date on my Euro-to -zloty conversion, I think it was dirt cheap as well. It's interesting that Poles and Slovaks can understand each other pretty well. The languages look so different in writing ("w" is only used for foreign words in Slovak, but it seems like every word in Polish requires a few!), but they sound similar. One of the most common Slovak words ever is "dobre," which means good/okay/fine/yes/so/alright, etc. (pronounced doe-bray), and the Czech version is "dobre," with a little "v" over the "r" (pronounced dobr-shjay). The Poles apparently use it just as much, and they pronounce it like the Czechs.


Day Two! I went to bed at 8:30 because I was exhausted with jet lag and I slept for twelve hours. This time, we launched from the campsite, and both banks of the river were Poland. None of the striking crags from the day before, but beautiful pastoral scenery. Poland is unbelievable like that. Rolling hills dotted with haystacks, forests: gold and green in perfect interplay.

Despite Janosik's Revenge the day before, Day Two's rapids were more intense. There came a time when we were going over a large waterfall, and there were stones on all sides; it was finally too much for our little canoe, and we flipped! Which felt great, since the water was just the right temperature. Not to worry, we were wearing lifevests. And that definitely was important, since the current was so strong. I remembered Tibor's teachings and held tight to my paddle, and let go of the canoe. Everyone else was waiting on the beach, and after they helped drag in the canoe, I was hailed as a hero for quickly snatching Tibor's pivo (beer) as it had floated by.

I got a change of clothes and then we paddled on. For lunch, we dragged the boats up a rocky waterfall and then walked a short distance along the road to a Polish restauracja. Good food and good ice cream.

I can't remember any other highlights from Day Two, so I'll wrap it up. We ended at a kayak park, where they had two long runs for rafters and intense kayakers--obstacles to navigate around, poles to aim through, and nothing but rapids. It looked like fun! We pulled the boats up to the lawn there and left them there for the night. That morning the men had negotiated the car logistics, so the cars were all parked there to drive us back to the campsite.

For dinner, we went into the Polish town. As I said, it was very different from a Slovak one... But how so, it's hard to explain to you people who haven't seen either! Hmm. Well, Slovak buildings tend to have red tile roofs. In Poland, everything was brown and white. With a very characteristic slant to all the roofs; the kind I associate with Austrian chalets. The huge church, which dominated the town, looked pretty modern. Not the classic Eastern Orthodox ones just about every Slovak town seems to have. I think that's where my descriptive skills end. You'll just have to visit, and see for yourself...


I woke up about thirty seconds before the bells began. The campsite was actually directly across from the giant church. I could not believe how loud the bells were. I think I actually got hearing damage. And they went on and on and on and on... Seven whole minutes, by my watch. I had forgotten it was Sunday... I don't think any such excuses from Polish worshipers could hold up with that church. It definitely made sure no one slept in with a guilt-free conscience. And, to my further disbelief, an hour later, at eight, the bells started again. "Only" five minutes this time. I liked the novelty of it, in that you can't get that in America, but I couldn't actually find the bells pretty. They were just obnoxious.

Several of the young people had left the night before, and several of the older people were staying behind to do the kayak park, so when we set out on the last day, it was with only about five canoes. A word about the departures: when one twenty-something guy left, he went around to every single last person (about fifty), and shook hands, or hugged, or kissed cheeks, very sincerely, with a salutation. This is what is expected. The proper response is for the other person to stand up when this is going on. I failed to do so... But hey, he came to me first. How was I supposed to know?

And this is one tiny illustration of the extremely tight-knit community. It really was a family of friends. So cliche, but so true. You had to be there.

That morning we packed up everything. I had enjoyed a top-of-the-line sleeping bag, Thermorest, Thermorest pillow, and tent, furnished by Tibor's outfitter store. Very nice.

I think Day Three had the most intense rapids of all. And, would you know it, we flipped again. We were going over a waterfall and I was swearing in my mind, thinking there is no way I can make it out of this alive. Supplement "alive" for "dry," and I was right, but not for the reasons I thought. I found out afterwards that Tibor had gone to push away a rock with his paddle, and the handle had actually snapped right off. Everyone noted that the fiberglass had failed where my sturdy wood paddle had stood the test.

This flipping was much more dramatic than the first. They all said I'd been baptized the first time--does that mean the second counted for confirmation? I think it's funny, too, that when I went over on Day Two, my last word above water was "NIE!" ("no!"). On Day Three, my last gasp was in English, and not as nice a word. And rather deserved. It was actually a little scary in the first tumultuous moments as I was in a tumble of rocks and rapids. I remembered to keep a hold of my paddle; the canoe was taken by the river, and had it been just the two of us, without many friends there to catch the boat as it floated past, it would have been gone forever.

The current was strong and swimming was futile, so I again remembered my teachings and made sure I was going feet-first, in case of rocks. I looked back and saw Tibor had simply stood up in the rocks on the waterfall. I lack such skills. As I floated, I had time to reflect how lucky I'd been that I hadn't hit my head on any of the many rocks. My shins were badly skinned (they're still healing, two weeks later, and it's not pretty), but no concussion! As I approached where the others were moored on the bank, I started swimming across the current. Twenty-some feet was hard work! But I got there.

No need for a change of clothes this time, since I was actually wearing my swimsuit. The water felt so good, but it left nasty algae all over me-- that was not clean water. (During Day Three especially, there was so much trash, mainly clothes, along the banks and caught up in the trees on shore, from when the river rose.)

I got clean clothes once I was dry, and then Tibor, Fi Fi, and I hit the road again to come home. We went first to lunch/dinner at an incredibly nice restauracja; I grabbed a pamphlet just so I would be able to remember the name. I'm convinced it must be in some Rick Steves book, and I just want to see if I'm right. It was pretty unheard of, but Tibor managed to convince the waitress on my behalf to box up my leftover dumplings. Which was good, since there were so many!

It wasn't 5:30 before we actually started the journey. It was the reverse of the way there, in that everything I'd missed in the darkness before, I got to see; but Nitra was very dark indeed at 11:30 when we got in! There was one view, at the top of a hill looking down on a huge Polish valley, that completely took my breath away. Pastoral perfection. Forests and fields and little mountain villages nested in hills... Really, everyone needs to go to Poland.

Actually, Eastern Slovakia was much the same, it just didn't have that one view to imprint itself on me. Instead, I have several. The High Tatras were shrouded in fog at the top, so I couldn't see the snowy parts of them or really tell how high they were, but I got to see most of them. And the conclusion I came to is that they're so very striking because they seem to be alone. This is a mountain range where you can see clearly where it starts and ends. You can take it in at one time. It looks like just a few mountains, maybe six across. Huge. As tall as you want them. In the middle of nothing. Can you imagine?

I mean, of course it's not "nothing." There are hills everywhere. Eastern and Central Slovakia are nothing but. But still, they're just hills. The High Tatras are so far above (haha, pun) and beyond, it might as well be flat. They were awesome. I hope I get to see them in winter, when they're completely snow-covered.

And Eastern Slovakia, which I pretty much missed on the way there, turned out to be really charming. The villages and towns were so quaint. And I'm not using that word in the false, euphemistic sense. I was surprised to pass through Spisska Stara Ves and see that it was a pretty decently-sized town. I'd only heard of Spisska Nova Ves before, the village at the base of the immense ruins of Spis castle. "Stara" means "old," and "Nova" means "new"... I would have assumed the older place would be smaller? And at the base of castle ruins? Hmm...

There was Liptovsky Mikulas, which I'd read in the guidebooks as being known for its skiing. But when actually there, it seemed like Tatraland, a theme park, was the main attraction. Maybe different seasonal focuses.

We missed Zilina, but I'm going there in a few weeks for the Rotary inbound conference, so I'm excited for that. Zilina is tied with Nitra for population as the third/fourth largest city in Slovakia. It seemed like the signs for Zilina were so soon after we'd left Kosice (second largest city--we skirted it on the freeway). Zilina is definitely Central, Kosice is definitely Eastern... one of those "Wow, it's a small country!" moments.

And finally back in Nitra, dropping Fi Fi off and arriving at the precise time Ruth was taking the dogs out for a last walk before bed. I was soooo tired, but my filthiness (all that algae, you know) won out and I used my last reserves of energy to take a shower. And then we left at ten the next morning for the cottage in Sklene. And that was how it went.

Well, that was a little long. Imagine how it would have been if I'd written it all up the moment I got home, with five times as many details fresh in my mind! Though that took me a lot less time than I thought it would have. Good! I'm hungry. I think it's time to warm up my gulas and knedla leftovers from yesterday's lunch...

Much love!


  1. You write beautifully. Consider me a fan.

  2. Such exquisite experiences you've had! Thanks for recording them for us to share in. Love, mom.

  3. That river at Polish/Slovak border is Dunajec (not Dunaj- Danube - which is in Vienna/Bratislava/Budapest)

  4. Ahh! Nevedila som ze su odlisne! Myslila som ze Dunaj a Dunajec su iste! Dakujem pre informacia. :)