By Brianna 21/August/16 Slovakia
Leaving Bratislava meant we were now free agents. Being spontaneous came at a price in Western Europe but now the pre-booked accommodation and transportation we'd organised whilst still in the UK had run out. We were able to continue our journey in any way we saw fit, as long as we roughly headed East, of course. Naturally, this resulted in us ending up in a country we never expected to be in...
Cheddar took it upon himself to decide our next destination. After a read of our Bible, Lonely Planet, he pitched to us staying at The Grand Praha - a 4 star hotel in the High Tatras with an infinity pool, jacuzzi, chandeliers and golden toilets (probably). The mountain scenery surrounding the hotel looked amazing so we compromised and found a nearby campsite instead. This compromise didn't go down too well at first but all that was forgotten once we boarded the train. We were all convinced we'd accidentally stumbled across platform 9 3/4. I half-expected Hermione to wander into our 6 person compartment with red velvet-clad seats and let me know I had dirt on my nose. Carriage after carriage snaked around Slovakian countyside until we reached Poprad station. From there, we switched to a TEZ, a sort-of mountain tram that scuttled through the hills, carrying skiers in the winter and hikers in the summer. A lot of hikers. Picture the 5:30 Jubilee line from London Bridge and then add two massive backpacks, two medium ones and three days worth of food shopping. That was us. But the stress of hitting multiple people with our multiple bags immediately disappeared once we arrived at the campsite. The cool, crisp air coupled with the sounds of gushing water and picturesque scenery made for the kind of camping we'd been looking for.
We bought a map of the mountain range to try and plan a bit of hiking for the following few days. Finally, a use for all those Duke of Edinburgh skills I thought I'd never need again! Being a total loser, I love a map and had a great time the next day working out the perfect route for us. Cheddar, who, like all Irish mice, has an in-built compass, also helped us get our bearings and we set off for the hills. It was a steep climb, up past disused cable cars and along over-grown pistes. Alex, who had never been skiing before, found it bizarre to picture how the slopes would look in winter, covered in skiers and snow. He found it even more bizarre that hiking from 800m to 2000m may be a little hard on his already-achy legs. At the highest point of our route we were a little miffed to be joined by swarms of tourists. Yes, we are fully aware that we are included in the 'tourist' category, but sheer volume of people, many of which arrived by cable car, detracted from our sense our accomplishment after 'tackling the 3 hour ascent to base-camp' as Alex liked to put it. Drama queen.
The rest of the hike was a bit easier on the calves but more of the same story; pretty, North America-esque scenery that you had to fight through crowds to enjoy. We had a great time nonetheless and returned to our tent exhausted and ready for dinner. Noticing that we were cooking sat on plastic Aldi bags, a couple of Brits who were caravanning their way around Europe very kindly took pity on us and offered the use of their table and chairs for the evening. The kindness of strangers has always been one of our favourite things about travelling and when it's something you experience everywhere you go, it really helps to restore your faith in humanity.
Hiking had to be put on hold the next day due to the first episode in a series of logistical nightmares. Heading out of Slovakia and into Romania turned out not to be the simple hop across the border we'd envisaged. Consulting our bible and looking online, all possible paths across the country seemed time-consuming, stressful and expensive. We were moving on the day after and needed a solution asap. In the end, Alex came to the rescue with the idea of bussing across the Ukrainian border instead, getting a train from there to Moldova and saving Romania for a bit later in our trip. Problem solved! And after a bumpy, rainy 5:00am start to that day, by the time we reached the border things were definitely looking more positive. Exiting Shengen was our first proper 'stamp-worthy' crossing and took about an hour to get through, which was nothing compared to the horrific traffic people entering the EU were experiencing on the other side of the road. Once across, it only took the 10 minute drive to Uzhhorod station to know Ukraine was going to be an interesting place. In those 10 minutes we saw: a Disney Princess' castle, an impressively grotesque limo, some seriously communist apartment buildings and many Russian Orthodox churches caked in gold. With so much going on, we were a little bit gutted not to be spending more time here. We needn't have worried about that.
When we reached the station ticket office we tried to book our train to Moldova for the very same evening. Our Ukrainian is, frankly, non-existent, but we tried to make up for the language barrier with a lot of exaggerated gesturing, Google translate and note-passing. The only response we got from all of this was 'nyet'. We were at a loss. Giving up, we went to another ticket booth where our lack of linguistic knowledge was more tolerated. The broken communication was enough to inform us that the train we had planned to get was completely booked up for the next week and we were better off making our way to Moldova from Lviv. Relieved to have our next destination worked out, we went in search of accommodation for the night, baffled but excited about how all our plans had been completely tossed out the window. We had no idea what the next few days would hold, and, looking back on it now, any expectations we did have were all very, very wrong. But that's travel for you!
Well, it wasn't quite the route we'd had in mind, but at least we're still going East! Until next time amigos!