It came as a surprise when we crossed into Slovakia, Country #24, as we thought we still had much further to drive before the border. The road slowly descended into the valley below, with tanks and other military equipment mounted on columns, facing back down towards Slovakia.
We came to Slovakia now, rather than later, to join our friend’s wedding. We’d missed his first wedding in London, so we tried our hardest to be here for this one. It meant a little pushing of the schedule in the past few weeks, but the timing worked out really well for us to not have to rush/skip too much.
We knew that we’d be spending a few days here with our friends, so we thought we’d take the opportunity to book Gunter in for some maintenance. Plus, it was an added bonus that the labour rates here are much, much more affordable than back in London. We were worried at first how we’d manage the timing of the repairs, but we were generously offered a room to stay in with our friend’s family – and Bartošovce was to become our home for the next week.
We’d hoped to be able to arrive early enough for the mechanic to grab the necessary parts today, but we were just too late. In typical poor timing for us, we’d arrived just ahead of a long weekend, with all shops closing tomorrow, and not much hope of us getting much done before Monday. Thankfully the mechanic was an incredibly hard working man, and got started on the long list I’d prepared earlier.
Our first real tourist stop here in Slovakia was to the thermal baths here. I miss the hot springs of Japan – but no way near as much as Risa does. It was just a different experience to that in Japan, where bathing is near enough a religion. The waters were still natural, but instead of the tranquillity of baths, there was a large heated pool. Upon paying, you are given a wrist band that is your entry to the pool, as well as the key for a locker. You’re also required to scan out, stopping you from over-staying.
There were several different places that the water would crash out of, like a waterfall, as well as Jacuzzi like jets around the perimeter. It was warm, but certainly not hot – I think from memory it was low thirties.
It was pointless to compare the two, as they are completely different, only featuring heated mineral waters. Time flew, and before we knew it, our two-hour pass had nearly expired.
After the hot bath/pool, we gorged on pre-dinner ice-cream in the nearby beautiful old town of Bardejov. We were shocked at how early the sun was setting here in Slovakia. The Scandinavian nights are long gone, and the sun has set now by 7:30PM, with darkness following soon after.
We returned home to some fantastic home cooked Slovakian food – what is it called? And some not so fantastic Slovakian spirits.
We slept an incredible night’s sleep in the giant bed in our guest room. Our van is spacious enough (given it’s comparatively small size), however, it’s still a vehicle, and the suspension rocks as we move around during the evening. You become accustomed to it, but not having these micro interruptions made for such a refreshing night’s sleep.
Before taking off on adventures, we quickly helped our friend and his family with an interesting Slovakian wedding tradition – gift wedding cakes. OK, cake at a wedding isn’t new, nor is giving some as gifts, but the scale of the cakes (and the gifts) blew our minds. There were some 2,000 pieces here that were going to be eaten at the wedding tomorrow, as well as sent as gifts to the neighbours that were unable to attend. We were encouraged to sample the cakes, which I did – I didn’t have to be asked twice.
The sun was shining, and we felt like we’d returned to summer again after all those weeks up north. It was amazing the difference it made to our moods to be in the sunshine and clear skies again – however, it wasn’t too long until we remembered how uncomfortable the heat can be for being a tourist.
We donned a layer of sunscreen, and wandered the amazing town square of Bardejov. It’s fair to say that we’ve seen our fair share of market squares in the past 150-days, but there haven’t been too many prettier than here. It was an enormous open space, surrounded by beautiful coloured buildings. There was also only the barest hint of advertising ruining the appearance of these beautiful facias. It felt so wonderfully authentic.
While the main square was certainly the highlight, there was more to see and do in town – like eat ice-cream, or walk the ramparts, or just visit the John Lennon street.
We’d also become so accustomed to being surrounded by other tourists, so when we had this area almost to ourselves, it felt confusing. We couldn’t quite understand why it wasn’t more popular.
After returning to their home, we were not only treated with further Slovakian hospitality and amazing food, we were also amazed by the rural lifestyle they live. In the rear of the garden was a large pig pen, chickens, a small garden with fruit and vegetables – but Risa was undoubtably most excited about the month old kittens, and took any free moment over the next week to play with them.
The big day! Actually, it was less of a traditional wedding, and more of a reception and party. There was to be no church service, nor other religious formalities – these had already taken place in London.
The drinking started early, with shots of vodka being poured in the coach on the drive to town – but at least it was already after noon. We’d already had some shots before leaving the house, and I was starting to worry about keeping up with the pace.
While we saw them this morning as they were getting ready, the bride and groom looked beautiful as they walked into the venue. Upon arrival, they were given some plates by the staff – only to have them drop it onto the floor just before they received it. They were then given dustpan and broom to clean it up, before having it dropped into a bag with no bottom – and having to clean it up once more.
And, what followed? Ten hours of fun; drinking, dancing, and eating.
They had a live band, and it was embarrassing how good everyone here could dance. We were well and truly put to shame, struggling to even do a basic three-step waltz, while they glided and spun around the room with such grace.
The drinking was mostly shots of vodka, which I found hard to judge. At one point, I was starting to feel in danger, so I filled my shot glass with water instead. But, the neighbouring table saw through my ruse, sniffing my shot glass and declaring it to be water. We didn’t know any Slovakian, but one word we did quickly pick up was na zdravie – which when drinking, is probably all we really needed to know, and was certainly said a few times, followed by 50mL of vodka, or some Slovakian fruit firewater and a horrible burning sensation down into our stomachs.
It was a fantastic day, and fortunately we didn’t end up too drunk, nor make a mess of ourselves. Thanks again for the invitation!
The weather had turned somewhat yesterday and overnight, and we learnt that the heat and sunshine wasn’t always here. It did make sleeping in a little easier though. Surprisingly, everyone was fine this morning – maybe the dancing helped burn it off before bed.
Understandably, we didn’t get up to much today, other than more eating, and another visit to a spa in neighbouring town Prešov. This spa was much, much bigger, and being a rainy Sunday, was super busy. It was a little warmer than our first spa visit, but still below body temperature – the Japanese baths we’re used to are 42-44˚. Still, it was just the relaxation our bodies needed after a big day yesterday.
Our friends had to return to London today, so we shared one final breakfast with them before their departure. Our van wasn’t going to be ready for a few days yet, so this gave us a chance to read up on our future travel plans, as well as just take it easy for a few days.
After lunch, with our friends already back in England, our friend’s little sister had the job of being our English translator and tour guide. We went to a nearby historic wooden church, which from the exterior was much like the one we’d seen in Poland a few days ago – but much smaller scale. The caretaker popped into the rear of the church, and suddenly an English audio guide started playing, explaining the history of this church. It was nice to learn a little more about the church and the area, rather than see it as something pretty to photograph – which it was.
This was followed up with a visit to a nearby farm where Risa got to ride one of their horses. I gave it a miss. I’ve ridden a horse a few times now, including Kyrgyzstan and Mongolia, and I would much rather travel on two wheels. But, the girls loved it, so I was happy to let them have fun.
We stopped by the mechanic to get a feeling of how much time we’d be spending here in Bartošovce. Gunter was up on the hoist, with all the wheels off, as well as timing belt and accessories removed at the front. Our mechanic still felt comfortable about finishing up in the next two days.
Our last stop of the day was a quick visit to their field, where our friend’s dad was busy ploughing the field. The poor little tractor was working hard – as was his dad.
We’d wanted to return the favour from all the fantastic hospitality we’d received the past few days by cooking some Japanese food – and when I saw we, I mostly mean Risa, with me helping by staying out of the way. Unfortunately, there isn’t really any unique nor exciting Australian food that I can make. Finding octopus for takoyaki here in Eastern Slovakia wasn’t possible, thankfully the unlabelled tin we suspected of being octopus was octopus. Risa got to work, and made up a batch of takoyaki as well as some okonomiyaki. They’d never seen anything like this before, and loved watching the katsuobushi dance on the hot food. As always, it was delicious – even their dad who doesn’t much like seafood enjoyed it!
Not only had we been provided with a roof to sleep under, we’d also been given a loan of their car. This allowed us to travel and see a little of Slovakia while Gunter was being repaired. Fortunately, there were quite a few sights worth seeing within a short drive of their house.
A little over an hours drive, and we spotted the imposing walls of Spiš Castle perched high upon a hill. We’ve certainly seen quite a few hilltop castles on this trip, but still, this one was impressive, both due to the size, as well as the prominence over the lands below.
The castle was mostly in ruins, having been left for several centuries. Tickets allowed you to wander through the grounds, and into some of the exhibitions that described the food and etiquette of the age, as well as some darker exhibits about torture methods and devices.
It was incredible looking out of some of the windows at the sprawling walls below, with the verdant farmland beyond. We weren’t too far from the High Tatras, but with the cloud and haze today, it wasn’t possible to see much beyond the densely forested rolling hills.
We also found a new animal, which looked a little like a miniature marmot. I’ve never heard of a spermophile, but if we stood still for long enough, we could see them running all over the place, making their final preparations, as winter is coming.
It was possible to climb narrow stairs of the central tower. The views from the top were incredible. However, with the weather rapidly turning sour, it was cold, wet and exceptionally windy, so we didn’t stay to appreciate them for too long.
We took one last walk to the very bottom of the castle grounds before making a hasty retreat.
Not much further from the castle was the UNESCO listed old town of Levoča. The gentle drizzle that we’d left at Spiš had now turned into torrential rain. We sat it out for a while, with it reducing slightly, but not stopping. The forecast predicted it was set to continue for some time, so I thought I’d just grin and bear it. Fortunately, not long after I’d payed for parking the rain subsided as quickly as it began.
We’d missed our last opportunity to visit the church, which is only possible on guided tours. So, instead we wandered around the old square, admiring the pretty buildings that lined the perimeter. Whether it was due to the weather or not I’m uncertain, but it wasn’t as pretty as Bardejov – even though they seemed to enjoy more tourism here.
The town hall and church were elaborately decorated, as were some of the buildings surrounding the square, but it didn’t have that beautiful coherence that really made an impact for us in Bardejov.
Before we returned to Bartosovce, we made a quick trip up to see the town from above. It didn’t look far, as we could see the church from in the town below, but getting there took some time, and a little effort. And, ultimately, the views weren’t really worth it – at least not today.
We were starting to get a little restless, not quite knowing when we would be able to leave. Fortunately we were made to feel very welcome in our friend’s family home. We felt a little guilty waking up at 9AM, long after the rest of the family had gone to work/school.
Hervartov Wooden Church
We were starting to run out of things that we wanted to see within short range of town. There was however a highly recommended wooden church only a short drive away in the town of Hervartov.
We made a quick trip out along the beautiful backcountry roads that wound and weaved through the green hills and valleys. The town was tiny, and it didn’t take long to find the historic wooden church. Again, it was quite a similar design to the ones we’d seen in the past week, but it feel older, especially with it being surrounded by large trees.
However, we weren’t able to go inside. We tried calling the caretaker numbers listed on the door, as well as visiting the neighbouring information centre, but we weren’t able to get in contact with anyone. We managed a sneak inside the window, and could see some beautiful large frescos on the walls.
It was a little disappointing to miss out, but just seeing the large exterior structure was enjoyable in itself.
Our mechanic had run into problems repairing the hand brake cable that we’d damaged back in Portugal – yes, I’ve been living with an impotent hand brake for nearly five months. As it’s a custom motorhome chassis, it requires a new custom cable, and not an off-the-shelf product. But, the timing belt has been replaced, as well as the engine mount, the exhaust leak, and a tightening of the sagging rear suspension.
We were told that the mechanic would definitely finish our van today. We eagerly sat at home waiting for it to be ready to continue on our travels, only to spend the day in silent anticipation.
Fortunately we were invited to spend time with another branch of our friend’s family. Their son had spent some time living in London, and was able to help us speak with the mechanic in English, as well as help with translations when we went to visit his families beautiful home in a neighbouring village.
The lifestyle here is so different to that of London, and I wonder if the stress and discomfort is worth it. There might not be much money to be made here, but there is enough, and they seem genuinely happy – which I can’t say about London. Anyway, London was never going to be home for us anyway – I guess we’ll eventually return to Australia or Japan.
Back to it. We were spoilt yet again, with freshly baked bread, cakes and food from their land. After devouring this, we were invited to go visit their beehives. We had a brief encounter with some beehives while trekking in Kyrgyzstan, with Risa being stung on the top of her head. I wasn’t worried about visiting, but it stayed in the back of my mind. We jumped into their little 4WD and headed up through the paddocks and into the forest on the edge of town. It was great fun in the little Suzuki, which made easy work of the messy trails.
On the way, we got some of the stats from their farm. I can’t lie, I was absolutely shocked when I heard that they had produced some 4,500kg of honey last year! I had no idea that bees could be so productive.
We donned our safety gear, started a small fire in the smoker, and went about learning more about the beehives, and beekeeping in general.
Again, I was completely oblivious as to how much work is required of a beekeeper. I just thought that you put them in a hive, and wait for the honey. But, they require attention, and there are many tricks needed to maximise production. Also, to maintain population when there are no flowers around, the bees are fed a large dose of sugary liquid.
It’s all recorded in his notebook, carefully monitoring which ones were given food, as well as which ones have had honey harvested – among other things.
Oh, and for the record, no bee stings this time!
After returning to their home, back in town, we were shown one of their giant pumpkins that is absolutely out of control in their garden! This thing was as big as an adult in a foetal position. It was beautiful to look out over the nature of the Slovakian countryside as the sun began to set. We sampled some more food and drinks, including some home made honey liquor – which was amazing!
We’d received word that our mechanic was going to work through the night until our van was ready. I felt bad that he was going to stay working late, but it turned out that it wasn’t just a matter of getting us back on the road – we were also taking up precious space in his workshop needed for other jobs! Around 10:30PM, the mechanic arrived with Gunter. Our friend’s little sister was dragged out of bed to help translate – essentially everything was OK, and we’re good to go. We’d had the timing belt replaced, a new handbrake cable, brakes checked/serviced, suspension adjusted, engine mounts checked/replaced, exhaust leak repaired, and oil leak from sump looked at – and it only cost us €500. I was given a quote just to replace the timing belt in London for £500.
We tried not to stay up too late so that we could start the morning fresh and make our way to the Tatras.
We tried, but still were quite slow getting up and about for the day. I gave Gunter a quick wash, though, to be honest, I couldn’t really tell what had/hadn’t been washed. I think I need something stronger to really get the grime off.
We’d been here in Bartosovce with the Švirk family for just over a week, and when the time came to say goodbye, we were genuinely sad to be leaving. We came to feel part of the extended family, and once again had been the recipients of truly amazing hospitality – it shall not be forgotten!