Today we decided that we’d have a sort of half day of cycling and get to a place called Martin, just the other side of the Mala Fatra mountains. We planned to have a look around the town, which is the centre of Slovakian folk culture and visit the museum there that we thought looked interesting.
The planned short cycling day gave us the opportunity to have a better look around Zilina before we left. The poor weather had continued throughout the night and it was a dull, drizzly morning, but we were determined to see what we could see of the town and as usual when we have the chance, we fuelled up on the inclusive breakfast before venturing out. It is a really nice old town, certainly with enough to do for a couple of days. We actually think a nice tour over a week-or-so would be to fly into Bratislava and then take the train to Trencin and Zilina, staying in each for a couple of days. There is also a load of mountain biking and hiking to be done around each of them as well as spas and accommodation; and food is pretty cheap, so good value for money. One note, the Slovakian tourism industry is about as advanced as the Czech Republic, so not very!
One rather surprising feature of the centre of town was the well in the centre of the main square, which has a metal structure over it to stop people falling in. It’s not the well or the metal structure that is the surprise, but the hundreds of padlocks attaches to it. You find this sort of thing all over the place where people have proposed, but to find them in such numbers attached to the well in the middle of a semi-unknown town in northern Slovakia, we think is surprising!
The weather forecast for the day was not inspiring as the BBC app screen shot shows.
However, we have come to realise that the BBC err on the side of pessimism when it comes to weather, so though we assumed it was going to rain, it probably wasn’t going to be quite as bad as they predicted. We usually get a second opinion on the weather and so also use the AccuWeather app, which errs very much on the side of optimism. This showed us that today was going to be sunny all day with no chance of rain until the late evening…so we had to assume that it’s going to be somewhere in the middle and hope for the best!
Unfortunatley however, in this case the BBC was the more accurate one, except that the thunder and lightning didn’t materialise so we headed off in rain – and it continued all morning. This meant that we only got glimpses of the surrounding mountains through mist, cloud and rain. The road north and west to Martin was to take us through a constriction between the mountains and this worried me somewhat as it is the only route, so likely to be very busy. We kept off the main road until the last minute and it was as we were coming into the very small village of Nezbudska Lucka that I spotted a train station. Perhaps a better option than the juggernaut-laden (at least that’s what I imagined it to be like) main road would be to take the train. We decided to stop and investigate and with the use of Google translate (yet again!) we managed to figure out that there was a train to Vrutky, on the other side of the hills near Martin, and that the next one was in 10 minutes time (after that we’d have to wait 4 hours). The decision to take the train was sort of made for us by the ticket lady who had already started to sort our tickets out, so …oh well we may as well get on it! Note the smiling face in the picture pre-train journey…
The train pulled up and we found the bike storage area and then we had to figure out how to get two fully-loaded bikes up 3 very steep steps and through a very narrow door, which was barely wide enough to get the panniers through. Brute force and ignorance is the best way of describing what happen next, but that is nothing to what happened when we got off at the other end. The 8-or-so minute ride was uneventful, though we did get to see the road, which was busy enough but, looked definitely doable on bikes (we saw a couple of cyclists on it from the train) – so perhaps we had been a bit too hasty in taking the train option? I can’t say that I didn’t feel a bit aggrieved. The train was an interesting experience if nothing else, and the journey was only about 10km long – and a mere 70c for the ticket each.
As we approached the destination station other passengers got up to get off. We let them go ahead of us and saw that there was a queue of people waiting to get onboard. Had we not started the process of hauling our bikes off, there is no doubt that they would have pushed passed us to get on. There was one woman who almost succeeded, but we held strong! So, we man-handled our bikes onto the thinnest platform in the world – it must have been less than 1.5m wide and in the middle of the tracks as about a dozen people watched us struggle with the weight and bulk; some even tutted and stomped off to a different door. One bloke did appear to hold the door open, but that was only so he could get on as soon as we were out of the way! Even in London, the home of relatively grumpy commuters, someone would definitely help in a situation like this. Feeling a bit hassled and annoyed we went to the station cafe for a coffee/tea to be served by the nicest young girl behind the counter – what a difference in a matter of minutes!
We found our pension for the night and decided that this was a good time to have a rest. Though we’d planned to look around Martin and the folk museum (which is outdoors) the rain was relentless and it seemed a bad idea to venture out, especially when we were warm, dry and comfortable, so we had a lazy afternoon doing absolutely nothing while it rained, and rained, and rained! So, a good decision to find somewhere dry to hide from it.
We were up at normal time next morning and looked out on yet more rain, but decided to grin and bear it and put our sweat gear on (it’s still pretty humid) and head south. We found an alternative route to the main road, which meant skirting the very western edge of the Low Tatra mountain range (more of them in a later blog), which meant there were still plenty of hills, some of which were reminiscent of Norway, though not as long. Tough nonetheless.
We were heading for Branska Bystrica, which had caught our interest as the centre of the resistance against the Nazis during the Second World War. We also had our first success on Warmshower.org. Warmshowers is an online community of, mainly, cyclists that help out other cyclists with a selection of accommodation, food, use of tools, cycling information and, of course, a warm shower. Users can be either or both a host or a guest; we are currently just the latter, but intend to become the former when we get home. Anyway we had been in touch with Jan in Branska Bystrica and he had agreed to host us for two nights though he, and his family, would be away for the second night.
We had another very glamorous bus stop lunch at Turcianske Teplice…it’s almost become the norm now!
The road after that gets squeezed between mountains so I was expecting some hills and traffic. The hills were definitely there, all 16km of up, followed by the same down, but the traffic was surprisingly light. As we climbed higher we headed into rain clouds so things got moist again! But was actually a really nice ride through steep sided, green valleys.
Once we got to Branska Bystrica the trepidation of meeting our host kicked and I think we both felt a bit nervous. Jan met us next to the apartment block where he lives and helped us put our bikes in the basement and our bags into the apartment. It was nice weather by this point and his family (wife Evit, oldest son Janko (3yrs) and younger son Koloman (14mths)) were outside in the play park. Jan showed us around, assumed righty that we needed a shower, and left us to it and told us to join them when we were done, which was a great start to making us feel at ease!
We showered and met the rest of the gang outside and there started a really fantastic 36 hours getting to know these lovely people. Jan and Evit spent part of their honeymoon cycling 9,000km in South America and more recently covered over 1,000km through the hilly bits of the Austrian Alps on a semi-recumbent tandem (more of this in a minute). Apart from the cycling during their honeymoon they also hitched a lift on a catamaran in the Caribbean and other crazy stuff, so there was no lack of conversation. Since having Janko three years ago they have been inviting weary cyclists into their home through Warmshowers in order to, as they put it, “bring the world to them”. By doing this they are exposing their childern to lots of visitors from different cultures with different languages and also they are “giving back” something to the world after so many people helped them out during their own travels. We think this is a wonderful philosophy. We can certainly take a load of leaves out of their book with regards their hospitality…
Jan and Evit gave up their own bedroom for us and slept in with the boys, fed us with amazing food and gave us a tour of Branska Bystrica, which included a climb up the clock tower in the town centre – which was a first for Jan!
He is also keen on bikes and when he tried our bikes out commented on the brakes not being in great shape, so he rang his bike mechanic and organised repairs for that day….something we could not have done without his help. They had planned to leave on Friday to do some camping with friends and family, but Janko was poorly with a nasty ear infection, so they decided to stay put. Had he been well Jan and Evit would have left us in their apartment on our own, but as it was, we had a second lovely evening with them. Jan even let us loose on his semi-recumbent tandem and offered it to us for a couple of days if we wanted to use it.
Tempting as the offer was we declined as we didn’t feel confident that we’d be handing it back to him in one piece! However, it has got us thinking that our next bike might be a tandem of some shape!
One rather more practical thing that we found out from Jan and Evit was that the road between Zilina and Martin is closed to cyclists. Even though we’d seen a couple of cyclists on it on our way through they were there illegally and apparently the road is very narrow and very busy with heavy traffic, so our short train journey was the right decision, by mistake – so I no longer feel quite so aggrieved!
We had an amazing time with them and have learned lots from them and we hope to see them again when we return from our journey. Check out our favourite picture, especially Koloman’s face! All four of them are there, a poorly Janko can be seen on the couch in the background.