In Cluj- Journey’s End

I had planned to cycle to Cluj-Napoca and end the tour there with a visit to my cousin, but the previous day had taken too much out of me. I awoke stiff and with a sore back and headed straight to the station in Baia Mare. The lady at the desk spoke excellent English and had a fully functioning system, which informed us that bikes were only taken on the afternoon train so I had to wait around most of the day, eventually arriving in Cluj about 9.30pm.

This gave me a chance to visit the enthnographic museum in the Baia Mare, and, next to it, the village museum, with its entire restored traditional village, complete with wooden church. It was not however so different from the buildings I have already seen still very much alive around the village of Breb.

In the Village Museum, Baia Mare- note the hang-glider circling the wooden spire!

I spent a couple of days in Cluj, exploring the old town, the fine cafes and restaurants, and walking and cycling to some of the viewing points around the city.

The Matthias Corvinus monument in front of St. Michael’s Church. Corvinus was the  15th Century Hungarian King, born in Cluj

IMG_2460 Traditional folk dance in front of St. Michael’s Church

At the botanic gardens

Views of the city from Cetatuia Hill, the spire of St. Michael’s visible in the centre

Cluj is a pleasant and seemingly quite affluent and cosmopolitan city to visit. There is a lot of construction visible around the more fashionable areas away from the centre with many expensive-looking properties. Prices for food and drink similar to Bratislava, no shortage of great places to eat and drink and delicious food, including great gulash, the national dish of sarmale, cabbage leaves stuffed with mince, and amazing mici, grilled mince meat rolls.

The city lies in a hollow so whichever way you leave involves a climb. An hour’s walk up the hill north of the railway station, close to where I was staying, takes you quickly out of the city through more quiet residential areas, with traditional houses with their steep shingled roofs, and quickly into extensive fruit orchards- some old and abandoned, some new and intensively managed behind high fences, and grazing land with shepherds and their flocks. From here there are terrific views across the city and beyond to the Carpthian mountains.

So after a brief taste of this fascinating country I headed back to Bratislava by train, via Budapest. This was not without its own adventure- it took two hours to buy the train ticket, apparently caused by confusion over the bicycle reservation! Once again, only later trains (the 14.45) would take bikes- this was established very early on. This required an overnight stay in Budapest.

The lady at the sole international ticket window did not speak English, and spent a simply extraordinary amount of time pouring over the regulations, scrutinising documents, making calls, consulting with colleagues, all the while the queue of people behind me, some of whom needed tickets for that day, grew increasingly agitated. (Actually they were very patient and did not blame me at all).

You would have thought this was the first time a bike had ever travelled on this train, and yet when I finally got on it the next day, there was a clearly marked carriage for bikes with about 8 racks for them. The train was half-an-hour late, then was held up for nearly three hours just over the Hungarian border- no information as to why, some problem on the track ahead. I was able to spend the time chatting with another cycle tourist on the train- the first really I had met on the whole tour- heading back to his home in Hungary, and we were able to get out and buy some beers to while away the time.

I finally arrived back in Bratislava yesterday (23.8) after another great tour.

Lessons learned and things to consider for future trips: don’t rely just on a GPS! Try to plan routes much more carefully, otherwise there is a real danger of meeting either busy roads or unrideable off-road sections. This may mean sticking more to tried-and-tested long-distance cycle routes in future.

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Off road to Baia Mare

I don’t like, on my travels, to be defeated, to have to turn back.

Dervla Murphy- Through the Embers of Chaos, Balkan Journeys

I left the very friendly and sociable campsite at Breb after another great home-farm breakfast, feeling refreshed and ready to hit the road.

Creasta Cropula The Cock’s Comb

Little did I know this was to be the toughest day of the whole trip.

I followed the GPS out of the campsite and along the gravel tracks typical of this village, through the usual bucolic scenes of haystacks and wildflower meadows.

I was kind of assuming I would soon return to tarmac of some kind and meander through villages as I had on the way up to Breb.

Except that the tracks didn’t end, and almost immediately became unrideable, because of deep tractor-ruts, many of which had filled with water in the previous couple of night’s heavy rain. Frequently sections were flooded. I either had to steer the bike precariously along the narrow central ridge or engage in increasingly long detours through the fields. Soon the way began to steepen, the ruts deepen.

After a couple of hours the track emptied into a meadow. Plenty of trees, mainly alder and less plum, and haystacks everywhere. The GPS route disappeared into the thickets and at this point I seriously considered turning back, but, remembering Dervla Murphy’s (whose book I had only just finished) reluctance to be defeated, I left the bike to scout a way out, eventually picking up another track. It didn’t follow the GPS route exactly but looked as though it would probably join up eventually.

The track dipped down to a stream where I rested and refreshed myself, washing the mud out of my sandals. Shortly, a tractor with trailer and small mowing machine came lumbering along, EE workmen waving and calling in greeting.

Soon after, the climbing got much harder, heading straight up the hillside below the prominent ridge known as the Cock’s Comb or Creasta Cropupulai, it’s highest peak Mount Guntâi (1443m) which I was getting increasingly good views of.

To the north, the views were also opening out spectacularly- but I could still clearly see the church in Breb! After 3 hours of mainly pushing I had managed to cover only 8kms, with 300m of climbing still to go.

A tinkling of bells, at first sounding like bicycle bells, announced a flock of sheep, accompanied by giant but apparently quite friendly Pyrenean sheep dogs, and a shepherd who gestured to me where on earth do you think you are going?!

The only option was onwards and upwards.

And then the real climbing started. Incredibly, the route required a near-vertical climb up a *hiking path*. In fact much of the route so far had clearly been designated a hiking path by Kamoot as in “Turn left onto the hiking path” -yet this was supposed to be a bike touring route, not even a mountain bike route! First it was sending me onto the highway earlier in this trip, now it wants me to scale Everest. With bike.

Kamoot – ist Kaput!

I had little choice but to attempt it, but seriously questioned if I would manage. The only way was to find a firm footing on the grassy bank, then push the bike up by brute force with just my arms, take a step and repeat, all the while struggling not to slide back down again.

I was making progress, then saw another obstacle- right where the path was steepest, a fallen beech tree blocked the route, almost as if placed there deliberately. With great effort, I reached the tree and lay the bike down on its side, removed all the bags and placed them on the other side of the tree. Somehow, scrabbling and scraping, I managed to weave the bike sideways through the branches, which were still too green and too large to move.

A mighty clap of thunder destroyed the stillness and I felt the first raindrops.

If I don’t get past this before the rain starts in earnest, I’ll never be able to drag the bike up this slope!

Working now on adrenalin, I scooted up the last 20m of the really steep part and pitched the bike on its stand in a level clearing before returning for the bags. I took cover in the bushes while the storm abated, thankfully after only a short time.

By this stage I was half expecting the Black Knight to be the next challenge I would encounter. I was losing strength and could not repeat anything as severe.

By now I was however less than 80m from the top, and soon I met a surprisingly well-surfaced gravel track which, of all novelties, actually allowed me to sit on the bike for short spells.

I topped out at 1080m. The views to north were spectacular, the Cock’s Comb towering immediately above me to the south.

This is the hardest “bike” day I have had since last summer’s epic track through the Picos des Europa culminating in a Night in an Abandoned Village. At least I was getting down the other side on this occasion.

Kneck and shoulders sore, back aching, ankles blistered from the sandal straps after all the walking and dragging, I knew I was gong no further than Baia Mare tonight- downhill all the way from here, and beautiful evening for it. At first slowly and cautiously over the loose gravel, which turned to broken cobbles, then firmer gravel, and suddenly I was on smooth tarmac and racing down a series of switchbacks through the forest before the last long straight into town.

I dived into the first penzíon I saw then walked into town for some sustenance. Baia Mare seems a really nice town, with a large square surrounded by restaurant and bar terraces. There is a stage with music and dancing looking set to go on late into the night.

Rest Day in Breb

August 16th Sighetu to Breb, 30kms, 492m elevation

The campsite in Breb sounded like a good place a rest so I bought some supplies and headed up into the hills.

The transformation in road conditions was extraordinary- who would have thought you could build roads with smooth surfaces making it pleasant to cycle on? There was still traffic but nothing like as bad as I had had in Ukraine.

The last few kilometres were tough though as I left the main road and followed windy rolling gravel tracks with lots of steep inclines, but through gorgeous countryside marked by giant haystacks whose profile often seemed to mirror the distant ridges. Eventually I came to signs for Babu Maramures.

I was greeted by Evelyn from the Netherlands, who told me they had been here for seven years. It is a lovely spot in beautiful countryside with views to surrounding hills thr hg the hedgerows of plums and walnuts. There are just a couple of small camping fields, pretty full as you might expect at the height of the season.

This was my first trial of my new tent, and no sooner had I pitched it under a plum tree than it was put through its first test as a thunderstorm broke. The rain lasted another couple of hours. I cooked some rice and had an early night, th ugh there was a lot of activity for some. Hours, from children cooking sausages on sticks on a campfire, a traditional folk dance celebration going on in the neighbours’ field, and even heavy construction machinery working on a timber house just over the hedge going on well into the night.

So not the most restful of nights but the tent held up well. I walked over a couple of fields where a neighboring penzion serves breakfast to the campers -eggs, tiny sausages like miniature chipolatas, delicious but only the thickness of a pencil, a mushroom sauce, blueberry jam, hot milk all fresh from the farm, and bread from the village.

Breb is an interesting village spread out over quite an area. There are no doubt plenty of hiking and biking opportunities but I contented myself with a gentle stroll around the village. There a number of hostels and penzions catering to a modest tourist industry, some construction in evidence, artisans, anti beer yard with giant trunks piled high, but mainly small farmers, building hay-stacks by hand, tending sheep, picking plums (probably for alcohol). Plums provided refreshment straight from the tree for the whole walk.

The Wooden church in Breb dates from the 15th century and boasts one of the highest wooden spires in Europe

Into Romania

August 14th Khust to Tyachiv 298.8kms, flat

August 15th Tyachiv to Sighetu Marmetiei, Romania

I needed a break from The Road. There didn’t seem to be any point in hauling myself any further along that busy dusty road in the heat just to get to Romania, so I found my way to the Khust train station and bought a ticket for Solotvyno, the last town before the border, for about €1.

Buying the ticket was fun in itself. The lady in the booth was very bubbly and amused at the whole exchange, and together with a helpful passenger, much hilarity was had in transcribing my name into the Cyrillic script.

The station was fairly quiet. I had an hour to wait so dozed in he waiting room, wondering if the train would be on time. Sure enough, about ten-past-midday there was some activity, passengers gathering their bags, a conductress appeared in a jaunty red cap and little lollipop stick, and a very impressive train rolled into the station, a dozen carriages in length.

There wasn’t really a platform as such, I was standing more or less standing on the rails and the conductor from the train stepped down right next to me. I indicated the bicycle and whether It was to go on this carriage- there was no obvious bike carriage. She indicated yes, and once the passengers had alighted, I went to lift up the bike.

He problem is, these were very high carriages- it required a lift of at least 1.5m, and more given the large size of wheels. I hadn’t removed any of the bags, so that is quite a weight. My first attempt was nowhere near, I grabbed the bike at the lowest point on the frame I could and went to try again, but I would still need help from the conductor at least to guide the handle bars through the doorway. But instead, she abruptly brushed me aside, closed the door and I was left to watch the train pull away without me! Unbelievable- I have never failed to get a bike on a train before, I just couldn’t believe I didn’t get any help.

There was was nothing I could do, no one speaks English, the train had gone. There is only one train each day to Tyachiv, where I would have needed to change.

After a coffee to help nurse my wounds, I set off on the bike, the only realistic alternative (I guess a taxi would have been an option if I was really pushed for time). It was thankfully a little cooler and flat all the way to Tyachiv, so a relaxed 30kms.

Room with a view in Tyachiv- Gold-domed church with the hills in Romania behind

In the evening, I dined at the Grillhouse and Bar, a fine establishment with beautiful timber beams, tables and chairs. The proprietor had a little English, enough to explain he had worked on the building himself for over a year, built the wood-fired oven. “Summer is good here, winter is bad!” he said, indicating knee-deep high snow- but in fact he meant the reverse from the point of view of his business.

As I left, another customer asked me to write something and sign a piece of paper to show I had been were very pleased to have a rare western visitor it seemed.

Next day, cooler again and over-cast. Another 30kms to the border, the route hugging the Tisa river which marks the border with Romania. Approaching Sighetu, I passed dozens of huge mansions, either finished, with landscaped gardens, or in various states on construction. Pity all this money hasn’t attracted more to improve the roads! “Bumpy” would barely begin to explain the experience of the past few days…

The GPS route took me off the main road and down a much worse gravel track for the last few kms, very slow going, and then I was at the checkpoint. Waved through after a passport check by the Ukrainians, I was welcomed with a jolly “Hello!” on the Romanian side, the jolly inspector professing he was “fanatical” about cycling, and happily telling me how to say Bunâ Ziua! Or “Hello!”in Romanian.

The river Tisa, looking west from the border bridge

Immediately, the quality of the roads improved a hundred-fold as I rode into Sighetu. Soon after, I dived into a cafe as deafening claps of thunder was followed by torrential rain for over an hour. A couple of young Russian lady backpackers came to shelter also. They were biologists from Moscow, working in something to do with genetics in diagnosis, a little above my head. They recommended a good campsite which I might get to tomorrow.

As I cycled out of town towards my accommodation, my first puncture- not just of this trip, first ever for this bike, which I bought last December. The culprit: glass. Fortunately at the guest house there was a large garage for me to fix it at my leisure.

The long, hot and dusty road to Khust

13th August Mukachevo-Khust

70.6kms, 595m elevation

Shaqir seemed rather shocked by my beer-absorption rate – but then he hadn’t just pedalled fifty-five miles.

Dervla Murphy “Through the Embers of Chaos- Balkan Journeys

The choice the past couple of days has been either the busy main road – the H09-with a sort-of-hard shoulder of variable quality, or almost unrideable off-road sections along farm tracks with tractor ruts a foot deep, loose gravel and impossible uphill gradients.

Energy-wise, I was feeling good this morning, but the heat soon wore me down. Cycling in 30degrees C is not joke when there is little shade. I did take a couple of off-road sections which gave pleasant respite from the constant traffic, and took me through bucolic scenes of goats and vegetable gardens and hay and orchards, but energy levels dictated the need to actually cover some miles without collapsing so I mainly stayed on the main road.

A tough teacher, I slowly made my peace with this road through the day as I came to experience its many guises: a fierce and dangerous monster of thundering trucks forcing me onto its gravel shoulder of dubious quality, a manoeuvre itself often fraught with risk as I needed to negotiate substantial bumps and lips in the tarmac;

then at times the eye in the storm as the traffic calmed for a few minutes, and I was left in peace and stillness with time to explore my surroundings and admire the views of the surrounding hills, especially later in the day;

and most of all as a place not just of speed and transit and passing through but of community, trade and livelihood, as seen in the many, often tiny, roadside stalls selling seasonal produce. In short, this is not just a road, but a place where people live.

Nearly all the houses along the road, and in the region, have vine trellises, along with fruit and vegetable gardens, and a typical stall, on a small table or two, consist of bowls of tomatoes, apples, plums, peppers, along with plastic bottles of homemade wine, jars of jam or other preserves, and occasionally milk. Once I had to wait while cows were driven to or back from milking along the road.

Parousels mark stalls of local produce along The Road

I stopped at a rather different stall, one selling what we would call birch besoms or brooms,which here you often see people using to sweep the pathways in front of their houses. I have made them myself, using dried birch twigs for the brush, in my craft-making days.

This lady was kind enough to let me take her photo, and gave me a smile and a thumbs up for it. She was clearly very skilled and doing a good trade, as a car stopped to buy a couple while I was there. In the short time and with limited common language (she used quite a few words I know from Slovak) she told me her father was in America, working, she didn’t know if he would come back, she would never be able to go herself, lacking the documents- “no Green Card”. This is no romantic lifestyle, but a tough necessity.

Exhausted, having found little to eat along the way (language making everything harder anyway) and desperate to get out of the heat, I make it to Khust about 5.30pm, glad to have a shower followed by an evening of dedicated calorific replenishment.

*A note on Safety

Without the gravel shoulder, which was present about 90% of the time, the H09 would absolutely not be a road suitable for cycling down. In the morning, I spent a lot of time on the gravel, which was slower, but safe and mainly ok as a surface to ride on. Later, the road broadened out and I was able to use the tarmac more, gaining much better rolling speeds, but always with the option to duck into the gravel if need be when the trucks came. Mainly, traffic gave me enough space- they are used to local cyclists, who often, bizarrely, seem to think it perfectly ok to ride along on the wrong side of the road! Talk about blazé. A couple of times I had to swerve to avoid them coming right at me- as if the trucks were not bad enough!

That said, it requires constant alertness and concentration, and in this heat, definitely not a Sunday ride in the park.

Mukachevo

12th August Uzhhorod to Mukachevo, 45kms

A straightforward and relatively easy ride SE to Mukachevo, half along back country roads, half along the main road with reasonable shoulder. Very hot but nice cooling breeze most of the time on the bike. Flat the whole way.

Borsch! Must be in the East

A slight mishap over dinner last night involving me knocking a porcelain napkin holder off the table, for which I was charged 100 UAH (about €3), plus an extra helping of fried cheese and a beer resulted in me being short a few euros to pay my bill. As a result I had to cycle off in the morning in search of an ATM. It was actually very pleasant in the morning breeze although already warm, and I wanted to have a quick look at Uzhhorod anyway, just 6kms up the road.

As I paused on the bridge to take a photo, a group of Slovenians who spotted my bike cake over to chat- the first question being, “how did you cross the border?” -they had also come with bikes, along with support vehicles in convey, to the other crossing and had had to throw the bikes in the vehicles when they found they could not cross there. They had ridden 160kms yesterday! There seemed to be about a dozen of them, said they do a big tour every year.

The bridge and river at Uzhhorod

The ride to Mukachevo, a city of about 86,000, was fairly uneventful, something of a recovery ride after the past week. I was not in the mood for climbing much again just yet! It was quite pleasant meandering on backroads through sleepy villages and farmland with distant hills as before, although the state of some of the roads has to be seen to be believed. And people in the UK complain about potholes? Come to Ukraine…

The last 20kms were mainly on the main road, but although quite busy and fast there was half a hard shoulder (by which I mean about 1m behind a white line) and a wide strip of good rideable gravel next to it, so plenty of route diverted me to a “bike path” on the other side of the road for the last few kms but it was so uneven, despite being tarred, and extremely overgrown- mainly with knotweed- that I reverted to the road for the last bit.

Wooden church

Took a little while to find to find the Hotel and Restaurant Velure and when I did, for the first time ever, they had no record of my reservation despite my having received a confirmation from Booking.com. No problem, I had not paid upfront and they had a room.

I spent the evening wondering along the river and through the town. The river was being made good use of by bathers. In the town, I had one of the best ice creams I have ever had.

Latorica River, Mukachevo

Iron bench outside theatre, Mukachevo

Into Ukraine

Day 11 Kosice – Vyšné Revištia, 87.3kms, 752m elevation

I took time in the morning to have a quick look around the centre of Kosice, namely the Cathedral and next to it, the famous “Singing Fountain” with its soothing chimes. A very pleasant relaxing place to start the day.

The ride out of the city started very easily on a bike path along the canal, but soon I was back on a busy road for most of the day. There was one big climb later in the morning, followed by an amazing descent, otherwise not so hilly as the previous day, but the legs were tired and it was much hotter- at 32degrees the hottest day of the tour so far. Apart from a couple of short off-road breaks from the main road, this was very much a case of just getting the head down and covering the miles along largely straight and flat but very busy roads with little space for a cyclist pushed into the broken edges.

A town called Lucky…

In Sečovce, the first sizeable town, I stopped for a break but there was not much in the way of restaurants open at that hour (only pizza- the other restaurant I asked at wasn’t opening until 4pm). Anyway, the heat had spoiled my appetite. I sat in a bar and dozed for a while. When I got back on the bike the punishing heat had begun to abate a little, the shadows lengthening and I pushed onto Michalovce. This was a bigger town again, but the large central square lacked any bars with terraces, although I did manag a slice of pizza. I found a gaming bar nearby to cool off in, then set off on the last leg. Finally I had the roads to myself and it was a really pleasant end to the ride in the evening sun, through expansive farmland flanked by the ubiquitous apple trees and edged by distant hills.

I received a warm welcome at the Ubytovanie Motel in the tiny village of Vyšné Revištia. The proprietor’s mother was called to interpret- she had run a restaurant in New Jersey for many years, more recently returning to her home village- the house she had grown up in was just opposite the Penzión. She spoke with an Italian-American accent, like someone out of the Godfather.

The served fast food which I was very grateful for, devouring burger then a tortilla kebab- both pretty good- along with a beer. Later, another beer appeared on the counter and it was indicated to me that a customer had bought it for me. When later another one appeared I had to turn it down- I’d had enough! “But if he asks, just say you drank it”.

I had come here with the intention of crossing the border into Ukraine and going straight to Uzhhorod but after googling around I realised this was not possible. To cross with a bike I would have to re-route further south- not a huge problem as it is flat riding, but a good job I found out before arriving at the border.

August 11th

Vyšné Revištia to Kholmok, Ukraine

69kms, 131m elevation.

Having crossed Slovakia in 11 days, today I cross into the Ukraine.

Tired legs and weary body, but a flat ride all day and mercifully a few degrees cooler due to a lot of cloud. Perhaps most welcome of all, very quiet roads with almost no traffic as I zig-zagged my way south along the border, distant Carpathian foothills visible to the east.

The quiet villages I passed through often had a mixture of extremely run-down or abandoned houses opposite freshly painted nice-looking houses with neatly kept gardens, often with fruit and vegetables. Strimmers were out in force especially around the church grounds. As I approached the border, wisteria, in full bloom, seemed to be the climber of choice.

The border itself was a quiet affair, just passport checks, no questions asked, not a word spoken beyond “Dobre den.” On the other side, a row of Euro shops selling cheap clothes, and incongruously wedding dresses, displayed their wares. Must be very slow trade, this is a very quiet crossing, at least on. Saturday.

I was worried I would now have to cycle along a busy main road to my digs in Kholmok, but fortunately it was not that busy today and had half a hard shoulder.

The Kruiz Motel seems a pretty plush place compared to what I am used to, but cheap at €17. I have not changed any money but they are happy to accept euros. The young woman at reception has the worst manner of any I have ever met, exuding nothing but contempt and a “why should I even have to waste my time with the likes of you?”- the rest of the staff seem nice and normal, but no one here speaks any English it seems. Still, the room is fine, with working AC, and I have just enjoyed a top-notch meal with beer for about €17- probably quite dear for Ukraine!

So far, quite a fun time in Ukraine!

Levoca-Kosice

Epic ride, great day with big mileage, huge climbs and fabulous scenery.

Trans-Slovakia

Day 9 Levoca- Kosice, 88kms, 1,496m elevation

I started the day with an extra climb up to the Gothic Church of St James, high above Levoca, despite it being a serious bit of extra climbing. In fact the lady who came to do breakfast in the Penzión had to suppress a laugh at the though of me cycling up there- “has your bike battery?” It was a lovely ride though through oak woods, very quiet at that time in the morning, although I was hoping I might get views back as far as the Tatras- and maybe there would have been, but the church was also surrounded by large trees, with only the view on the south side back down to the town remaining clear.

The town itself has a great deal of historic interest, with the intact town walls and several other buildings dated back to the 15th century, and some interesting architecture. I had walked around the evening before.

Part of the old wall, with St.James Basilica visible on the hill above the town

After a fast spin back down the hill I set off direction Kosice. At the top of another climb taking me out of the town I paused to watch a horse -drawn farmer spinning hay. This made me feel I was now entering the east, a different part of Slovakia.

After a few miles I turned off the main road and cut cross-country. The first section was a sublime off-road stretch, taking me through farmland burgeoning with wheat and corn, and presenting wide open landscapes, including a view back across to the 12th century Spiš Castle, further adding to the sense of riding through a different time.

This was terrific riding as I glided down and then rejoined the road to pass through the villages and small towns of Bistrany and then Spišska Vlachy. Here I saw my first gypsies, along with a much more impoverished impression than elsewhere in Slovakia, dilapidated buildings and dark-skinned children running barefoot through the town square. Continuing onto Krompachy, I passed what looked effectively like a large gypsie shanty-town on the way in.

In the centre of town I found a restaurant and had an extended lunch while waiting for a thunderstorm to pass. The day had started hot seeing me apply sunscreen at my first coffee break, but after the storm it continued cooler but muggy.

I crossed the river Hornád at Javklovce, then the first of two more big climbs, in between which I descended to the beautiful Ružin dam, named after the village that was flooded in its construction in 1967.

Javklovce

Ružin dam

There are apple trees everywhere in this part of Slovakia, I have never seen so many, dotted along hedgerows, old trees bordering every farmed field, in gardens and parks, not crabs but cultivars, trees heavy with fruit. Lorries driving under their branches spill dozens across the road causing me to break and swerve to avoid skidding on them.

Heavily-laden apple trees everywhere

For much of the second half of the day I was on a road with fast-moving traffic, not especially heavy, but this remains the one downs side of an otherwise amazing day. One more big climb, my legs screaming by now, an another amazing descent through thickly forested hills as far as the eye can see down into Kosice, Slovakia’s second city, arriving at my digs just as another storm broke.

Štrba-Poprad-Levoca

Trans-Slovakia Day 8, August 8th, Štrba- Levoca, 50kms, 410m elevation

In light if my low energy levels the previous day, and to take time to see a bit more of the mountains, I took a day off from the bike. Forest Hills pension was a nice quiet place to say, albeit a bit run down, but had a peaceful garden by a burbling brook which made for a relaxing morning which I was happy to spend reading Mark Beaumont’s just published account of his recent record-breaking cycle race Around the World in 80 Days.

The pension was being managed by a young Czech student, Magda, who suggested I take the train to the ski resort at Štrbske Pleso. The station was literally across the road, and return trip just €2. This was the steepest train journey I remember ever taking, winding up through the forests the the Lake at about 1350m. It is certainly a beautiful place, stunningly scenic, the weather much clearer affording fine views of the Tatras, but in equal measure an extremely busy tourist trap.

Still low on energy I spent a couple of hours walking around the lake getting some photos but didn’t venture on any of the more strenuous hikes- stories of queuing with hundreds of other hikers to make ascents up some sections had rather put me off anyway. The mountains will still be there for another visit sometime.

On my return to the hostel I saw Magda had a chess set out. Judging from the position on the board, from a book she was studying, she was a pretty decent player, but unfortunately had to go out so we didn’t get a chance to play.

This morning I was feeling more or less ok so set off on the bike again, more or less free-wheeling the first 10kms and then following a very easy and pleasant well-surfaced bike path around the back of Svit which followed the river most of the way into Poprad.

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Here I dived into a bike shop to get my gears tweaked, and also picked up some mineral salts in tablet form for adding to my water bottle. Not only do they make the water taste delicious, but I really felt they did the trick and my energy was fully restored by the afternoon. Placebo or otherwise, I’ll take it.

I took a couple of hours to have lunch and take a look around Poprad which seemed a very quiet town, attractive old architecture with the stunning backdrop of the Tatras.

Centre of Poprad

Church and old buildings with wooden eves in Podtatranské

Continuing in the much warmer afternoon, the road got busier in sections , and not always with a hard shoulder, and the landscape more rolling, with tough climbs and fast descents. I had to work as always in climbing, but recovered quickly. It certainly felt good to have energy again and by 3pm I arrived at the picturesque and interesting town of Levoca, where I am staying at the Villa Fam Penzíon, a real great gem of a place, quiet, with garden and large kitchen and amazing value.

Levoca

Through the High Tatras

I headed few kms east on the main road out of town before turning off on the 537 leading into the mountains, staying on this road with a few dirt track diversions for the whole day. The road was very quiet. No rain today but overcast and pleasant cool conditions, almost chilly higher up.

The High Tatras, running up to the Polish border, are the smallest alpine mountain range in Europe, spanning only some 50kms east to west. The highest peak is Gerlachovský štít, at 2665m.

It was great to finally approach the mountains, though my route only took me to 1250m in elevation. As I began to climb the mainly quite gradual gradients on the well-surfaced road, I experienced very low energy- possibly a lack of electrolytes, something I do not have with me and have in fact never used but should try to pick up in Poprad, the next town.

Fortunately I only had a modest target for the day. Pacing myself with frequent rests and low gears, I gradually climbed up to be rewarded with some great views of the rugged peaks to the north and wide open vista to the south. This route hardly gives more than a taste of these mountains but was all I could manage for today. A timber gazebo by a pool near the top provided an ideal spot to brew up a coffee before a long thrilling descent.