Roadtrip with the ‘rents: Albania

After five days of hiking in the Albanian mountains and staying on sheep farms, we all enjoyed hot showers and the return to civilization in Podgorica. My parents both fell ill with a mysterious gastrointestinal bug on our return to Montenegro, and we endured our worst housing glitch of the entire trip with a last-minute Airbnb cancellation and a nonresponsive Agoda host, but (silly us) we were confident things would soon look upward, and had booked a rental car for the next eight days for a leisurely drive to visit the highlights of Albania.

Albania mapWe connected capitals on the first day of our roadtrip, stopping only once on the three-hour drive from Podgorica (the capital of Montenegro) to Tirana (the capital of Albania) to view an amazing Ottoman bridge outside Shkoder:

IMG_4550I had corresponded over the previous several months with the parents of a coworker of mine who worked at the American embassy in Tirana and were generous enough to send lots of advice on hiking and biking in the area as well as meeting us in person when we came to town. We spent a pleasant afternoon with Carl, visiting the giant nuclear bunker complex built by the dictator Enver Hoxha and then walking downtown to see the Pyramid, originally built as the Enver Hoxha museum by his daughter and son-in-law but now abandoned and graffiti’ed and used as a climbing gym.

IMG_4557It was our first introduction to the turbulent history of Albania: the most Muslim country in Europe, occupied by Ottomans for hundreds of years until declaring independence in 1912, Albania was then occupied briefly by Italy before WWII and regained independence at the end of the war only to be ruled under the iron fist of Communist dictator Enver Hoxha, who originally allied with China and Russia but then completely shut off Albania from the rest of the world after China and Russia got too soft (as evidenced by Nixon’s visit to China and Khrushchev’s Thaw). Fearful of invasion, Hoxha spent the period from 1967 to 1985 building 200,000 concrete bunkers throughout Albania, many of which still survive today. Imports and exports were nonexistent, and every Albanian home looked largely identical because all the furniture was made in the same factories, with only a choice of three sizes and colors.

When Communism collapsed in 1991, kids would take turns trying out the same piece of chewing gum, and people used the colorful Coke cans to spruce up their living room decor. (Our guide asserted that Albanians’ poor driving grew from their isolation from the modern world!) Unfortunately for Albanians, the end of Communism wasn’t the end of their suffering: a government-endorsed pyramid scheme collapsed in 1997, causing some 70% of the population to lose their life savings and sending the country into complete anarchy and chaos. Italy intervened and things stabilized, with a tremendous amount of development occurring over the last 20 years. Blogs we’d read about driving in Albania only a few years ago were completely outdated, and several times we found ourselves on new multilane highways that didn’t exist on Google Maps at all. (We also found Google Maps telling us to turn the wrong way down a number of one-way streets, presumably because merely observing traffic patterns was insufficient to tell Google about the streets’ directionality, given low rates of adherence to traffic laws.)

Thus introduced to Albanian history, we left Tirana the following morning for the UNESCO world heritage town of Berat, the Ottoman “city of a thousand windows.” Matching white houses with brown roofs climbed uphill to a castle perched above the river, with an entire village within the castle walls! It was picturesque and fairly quiet, with cats wandering the cobbled streets, and made for a good midday stop before we continued on to the coast at Vlore.

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We had a quiet night in Vlore as my parents continued to recover from stomach bugs, then headed down the coast. The drive was absolutely gorgeous, with crystal clear turquoise water, tremendous views from a mountain pass, and a three-pointed Ali Pasha fortress to explore as we made our way down the coast.

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We spent two nights in Sarande, in the far southern coast of Albania, in a luxurious 3 bedroom apartment with fabulous views of the city and beach. It was the perfect place to have built extra time into the schedule, as Michael and I soon fell victim to aforementioned stomach bug, and the four of us had little energy for much exploration, though we did make a day trip to the (you guessed it, UNESCO) ruins at Butrint.

The view from our apartment in Sarande
The view from our apartment in Sarande

From Sarande we headed inland to Gjirokaster, a sister city to Berat and jointly named as a UNESCO world heritage site. It’s better known but I found it less enchanting, perhaps because I was unable to find the ruins of the Ali Pasha aqueduct and because our dinner restaurant was out of all but three dishes. Nonetheless, we had a pleasant afternoon wandering the castle and the cobbled streets and admiring the unique Ottoman architecture.

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On our last day in Albania, we stopped first at another Ali Pasha viaduct and then at the Greek ruins of Apollonia, founded in 588 BC (!) and prosperous until the third century AD, when its harbor began to silt up. It made for a good lunch spot before we headed back to Tirana for the night, where we’d stored the bike suitcases after mailing them from Poland a few weeks ago.

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From Tirana we drove back into Montenegro, but not before stopping at Shkoder’s imposing castle for lunch. Legend has it that when three brothers set about building the castle, they agreed that a human sacrifice was necessary and decided that (a) whoever’s wife brought them lunch the next day would be the chosen one and (b) none of them would tell their wives, as they all took turns bringing lunch in an irregular pattern. Of course the two older brothers secretly told their wives, and the youngest brother’s wife, Rozafa, was chosen to be buried within the walls of the castle. Hence its name Rozafa Castle. Lovely, eh? But it did make for a beautiful lunch spot, and we stopped at a few towns along the coast in the afternoon as we made our way north.

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The old town of Budva, where fortress abuts beach
The old town of Budva, where fortress abuts beach

P1110119Our last day of the roadtrip was spent in Kotor, a beautiful – and much more visited – town on the Montenegro coast. A former Venetian stronghold, it boasts a well-preserved old town and a stunning fortress built into the mountains above town with a series of walls and staircases. We climbed up the old walls in the morning, returning to old town just as it started to rain and hiding in a tavern for lunch before starting the serpentine drive up two dozen tight switchbacks on a barely-two-lane road up into Crna Gora, the namesake of Montenegro. The views – both from our walk and from the drive – were absolutely jaw-dropping.

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And so our roadtrip ended on September 28, as we drove back into Podgorica and back to the Airbnb where our adventures with my parents had begun. Luckily, we all felt largely recovered from our stomach bug as we drove into Podgorica. Feeling better was somewhat mandatory, as the next morning we embarked on our next adventure: biking through the hills of the Montenegro coast!

Hiking the Accursed Mountains in Albania

I know, I know, we left you in Romania and now I’m talking about Albania. We finished our biking in Fagaras and spent the next three days in transit: first a 9-hour train ride to traverse 400 km in Romania to Timisoara (yes, Romanian trains are slow) and then a series of trains to Belgrade and onward to Podgorica. The largest hiccup was that the train from Romania to cross the Serbian border turned out to have been discontinued in August, so we had to take one train from Timisoara to a town near the border, then bike as fast as humanly possible across the border to catch the last train of the night to Belgrade. But we made it, had a rainy night in Belgrade, and spent the following day on a train into Montenegro.

Of course, with four trains and a bicycle ride, our journey took a lot more than 18 hours!
Of course, with four trains and a bicycle ride, our journey took a lot more than 18 hours!

In Podgorica, we met up with my parents, who’d flown in from Santa Barbara, and then headed out the next day across the border to Shkoder, Albania, where we spent the night and then took a shuttle up into the mountains on a winding semi-paved road. After two hours’ drive, we climbed out of the shuttle and onto a waiting ferry for an absolutely spectacular ride across Lake Koman. The steep, rugged mountains descended all the way to the lakeshore. I took way too many pictures!

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P1080604At the other end of the ferry, we hopped onto another shuttle that dropped us by the side of the road, from which, in theory, we could walk to our night’s accommodation, a rustic homestay in the tiny village of Dragobi. After asking a few locals, we managed to find Fariz’s house, where we settled into a surprisingly comfortable night after going for a short hike up the side valley and then sharing dinner with Fariz himself.

Next we set out on our three-day loop hike, first along the river and up a gentle incline to our next night’s homestay, and then more steeply up and over a mountain to a sheep farm where we spent the following night. The weather was perfect and the scenery was stunning, with rugged mountains and alpine meadows framed by stony peaks. Our hosts fed us well, almost exclusively with food grown on their own land or milked from their own sheep and cows!

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P1100944We had a comfortable night in a regular hotel in Valbona before setting out on the hike that brings thousands of visitors to the area: the hike up over the pass from Valbona to Theth, covering on foot a span unconnected by roads, through spectacular mountain scenery. The walk was easier than expected, and we arrived in Theth by 2 in the afternoon for a relaxing evening of reading and watching the clouds roll in for a nighttime thunderstorm. We’d really lucked out on the weather for our hikes!

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From Theth we chartered a 4WD taxi to take us up the rutted, rocky road out of the valley and then on increasingly well-paved roads back to Podgorica. In the end we had four days of hiking and 6 nights away from our base in Podgorica, from which we’d head out the next morning for a week of driving through the Albanian countryside. My parents were a bit under the weather, but Michael and I still felt healthy as we did the grocery shopping and ate a tasty Italian dinner.

#latergram: Architecture of Cluj-Napoca

Before our week of biking in Transylvania, we spent a day in the city of Cluj-Napoca, a bustling town of 400,000 that is host to many students (and, as it happened, to the Eurobasket basketball tournament during the week of our visit). With all the students around, we heard more English in Cluj than we had anywhere else since leaving the US, though almost none of it was accented in American.

The region had prospered in the late 1800s, leaving it with a legacy of beautiful buildings. We spent the day relaxing, buying train tickets, doing laundry, and giving ourselves a walking tour of town. The forecast rain was slow to arrive but came in with a bang, and we sheltered in a church for a windy downpour! The skies quickly cleared, though, and we continued our walking tour before picking up groceries to make ourselves salad for dinner. After two weeks of eating pierogis and roasted meats in Poland, Slovakia, and Hungary, a simple Greek salad hit the spot!

Belatedly, here are some of the lovely buildings around Cluj, several just across the street from our Airbnb! You can see a few Communist-era brutalist masterpieces and some Art Deco sprinkled in among the turrets …

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Biking Transylvania: delightful at last

Despite getting off to a rocky start (entailing mud, busy highways, and bicycle discombobulation), our bicycling through Transylvania ended up being quite lovely. We rode from Alba Iulia to Miercurea Sibiului, took a train into Sibiu to avoid a busy highway, and over the next three days rode from Sibiu to Biertan to Sighisoara and on to Fagaras, from which we will start our train journey to Montenegro. Map:

The roads were quiet backroads, mostly paved, and wound through valleys of tiny villages dotted with fortified churches. Back in the 13th through 15th centuries, the area was populated by Germans and these Transylvanian Saxons built fortifications around the churches in their local villages as protection from the Ottoman invasions. Originally there were 300 such churches in this region, of which about 150 still exist. We probably saw twenty over four days of biking, and I could imagine putting together a wonderful bike trip through this region just winding your way from one fortified church to another!

The first fortified church we visited, and a UNESCO world heritage site, in Câlnic.
The first fortified church we visited, and a UNESCO world heritage site, in Câlnic.

In addition to the fortified churches, we had overnights in three impressive medieval towns: Sibiu, with a gorgeous church and a well-preserved walled inner city of Baroque and Renaissance buildings; Sighisoara, with nine different towers for the different craftsmen’s guilds; and Fagaras, whose main point of interest is a huge 13th-17th century citadel complete with a moat full of swans. And in Alba Iulia, we explored the star-shaped fort at the center of town, built in the 1720s, before heading out for the day.

The 12th century Gothic cathedral in Alba Iulia
The 12th century Gothic cathedral in Alba Iulia
The walls of Sibiu
The walls of Sibiu
The fortress in Făgăraș
The fortress in Făgăraș
A view over Sighisoara's old town
A view over Sighisoara’s old town
The most elaborate of the fortified churches, in Biertan.
The most elaborate of the fortified churches, in Biertan.

 

 

Views of the fort in Alba Iulia:

Scenes from our third day biking, from Alba Iulia to Mercurea Sibiului:

Sibiu’s medieval town was amazing:

Our ride from Sibiu to Biertan and the next day to Sighisoara took us by a multitude of tiny villages and fortified churches:

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Sighisoara was impressive but much less vibrant than Sibiu, with mostly tourists wandering the narrow streets. I really liked the clock tower.

And finally, our last day biking!

And now we hop on a series of trains to get us from Romania to Serbia and on to Montenegro – wish us luck!

Biking Transylvania, day 2: Campia Turzii to Alba Iulia

Things we learned today:

  1. Always allow more time than you think you’ll need. (We keep forgetting this one.)
  2. Yesterday’s mud was not anomalous. At one point I had to carry both of my panniers and the bike because it had accumulated so much mud that the wheels no longer turned.
  3. For all we found Slovakia’s “long-distance cycleways” to be a mixed bag of dirt roads, they’ve got nothing on Romania’s. Disused mud path? Let’s call it a long-distance cycleway! Yes, this was the mud.
  4. When you’re super excited for a bumpy dirt road because it’s so much better than what you’ve just been riding on, you’re in bad shape.
  5. Biking on a narrow shoulder of a busy highway is like single track, except that if you fall to the left you’ll die. Luckily, we didn’t fall, just got honked at by lots of trucks.
  6. It ain’t over ’til it’s over. About 800m from our hotel, the bolt that holds my seat sheared in half, causing the seat to fall off completely, followed in quick succession by yours truly. Luckily, I wasn’t badly hurt. But seriously? A bolt shearing in half??

Here’s to better luck tomorrow. As we speak, Michael is combining Street View with komoot to try to build a route that avoids both the busy highway and the mud.

Biking Transylvania, part 1: Cluj-Napoca to Campia Turzii

After a day of relaxing in Cluj-Napoca, doing laundry and admiring the interesting architecture, we set out for our six-day Romanian bicycle adventure. Here’s a map to give you an idea of where we are and where we’re headed:

Screen Shot 2017-09-04 at 8.56.05 PMToday’s ride was a short one, just 55km from Cluj-Napoca to the small town of Campia Turzii, but it turned out to be tremendously varied.

The first ten or fifteen miles out of town took us up into the hills surrounding Cluj, then along rolling country roads through beautiful villages teeming with plum and pear trees and elderly women in scarves and skirts collecting fallen fruits from where they had landed overnight. We had a lovely view down over a few small towns to some distant mountains, and very few cars were to be seen.

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That blissful ride soon came to an end as we merged onto a four-lane highway, which we’d thought wouldn’t have too much traffic because of the nearby autoroute, and figured would likely have a shoulder. Wrong on both counts – we biked miserably up over a small hill as trucks and buses hurtled by us too close for comfort. We pulled over at our first chance, a small truck stop, and took a breath. Desperate for any option that didn’t involve getting back on the narrow shoulder and hoping to live, I explored a small farm road that seemed to lead the direction we were headed. It seemed to be still in use, and from Google Maps’ satellite view it appeared to probably lead into the next small town, paralleling the dreaded highway.

On the dirt road before it got sticky!
On the dirt road before it got sticky!

So we set off on the narrow dirt farm track, up over the crest of a small hill and into the valley below. We walked our bikes and as we headed down the hill they became increasingly encrusted in the stickiest mud I’ve ever encountered. At one point Michael’s tires seemed to pull the entire hillside onto his back wheel, with a clod of mud the size of a fist gathering on his back brakes. But anything was preferable to the freeway at this point, and we continued on down the hill into town as it started to drizzle. We celebrated when the road turned a corner to meet a paved road (huzzah!) but then spent half an hour slowly scraping the accumulated inch-thick mud off our bikes and shoes in the rain. Ah, lovely.

But the rain soon faded, and we took a short detour into Cheile Turenilor, a gorge cut through limestone and karst with spectacular rock formations on either side of the narrow valley. The road was dirt but had enough rocks in it to keep from sticking to us; we’re really learning to differentiate between all qualities of biking surfaces!

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From the gorge we avoided the highway on side roads – mostly dirt, some mud, some rocks – to the salt mine of Turda, in continuous use from the Middle Ages to the early 20th century and now converted into a tourist destination complete with Ferris wheel, boating lake, minigolf, and bowling — all underground. Ridiculousness of this setup aside, the mine was beautiful and fascinating, with rippled patterns of salt on the walls and some of the original machinery used to extract salt and transport mined salt to the surface. We spent an hour wandering through kilometer-long tunnels and climbing down hundred-foot-tall staircases to explore various cavities in the mine, marveling at its scale and at the salt coating that everything left in there long enough seemed to acquire.

Stalactites of salt!
Stalactites of salt!

And then we made for Campia Turzii, a town with no particular claim to fame but with a comfortable and inexpensive pension from which I’m writing. For our first day of biking after a two-day hiatus, it was not too bad! Our muscles remain intact and our energy levels high. We’ll see about tomorrow …

From Slovak Paradise to Hungary and beyond …

After several days of bicycling in Slovakia, we learned that despite being well-marked and incredibly well-mapped, with bicycle maps of the region posted in every village and even at some isolated intersections, the bicycle routes of the country varied dramatically in quality and pavement type. Our offroad adventure en route to Spis Castle was not entirely an anomaly, and we traversed every sort of pavement, from smooth macadam to single-track dirt paths to grass and gravel as we traversed the eastern part of the country.

A sample bicycle map, this one from Hrabusice. We took the red dotted route in from Spisska Nova Ves and then the left-hand blue route through the park to points #3 and #4, then followed the red dots past #2.
A sample bicycle map, this one from Hrabusice. We took the red dotted route in from Spisska Nova Ves and then the left-hand blue route through the park to points #3 and #4, then followed the red dots past #2.

Our first day’s adventure was across Slovak Paradise, slowly climbing over a 3,000-foot pass to the southern side of the national park. Trees lined the road the whole way, providing welcome shade as we made our way up the gradual but steady slope, and the descent into Stratena was smooth, with the pavement a patchwork of repairs but nonetheless largely intact.

At the highest point!
At the highest point!

After dropping our bags at our pension for the night, we biked back uphill a few miles to the Dobšinská ice cave, a UNESCO world heritage site and a very striking one, with layers of ice a hundred feet thick and giant caverns once used for figure skating year round! We were glad to have brought all our warm clothes, though the temperature in the cave was just above freezing. It felt like walking through a glacier, with layers and layers of ice on all sides. Photos weren’t allowed so here are a few from the internet:

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By three in the afternoon we’d finished at the cave and biked back to our hotel, with striking rock cliffs above us at the edge of the Slovak Paradise plateau, and it was such a beautiful day that we decided to strike out on a short hike up to a viewpoint above the hills. We quickly climbed between the cliffs and through the forest to a series of caves and to the top of a prominent rock outcrop with views over all of Slovak Paradise and all the way to Spis Castle. Our hike brought us back out to a section of road we’d biked three times already, an old road built in 1840 but converted to a bike-and-hiking “educational path” when a tunnel was built through the rock nearby. It hugged the sides of a narrow gorge, with eight different bridges over the stream below and placards on geology, flora, and fauna. By 6 o’clock or so we were back at the pension, where we couldn’t figure out how to run the sauna but had a lovely hot shower and a dinner of pizza, kielbasa, and langos, the amazingly delicious Hungarian incarnation of fried dough, usually served with a smear of garlic butter. Pretty much the best garlic bread in the world!

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View from the top of Havrania Skala. Spis Castle is just visible in the top right.
View from the top of Havrania Skala. Spis Castle is just visible in the top right.

Our next day’s ride took us down a long valley to Kosice, the second-largest city in Slovakia and by far the largest on its eastern side. Beyond the sheer variety of riding surfaces – dirt, grass, rocks – that had been labeled as “suitable for road bikes” on the signs, the valley was a study in contrasts to our riding on the north side of Slovensky Raj: a series of former mining towns ranging from downright poor to just getting by. After one long series of bumpy, grassy dirt roads, we realized that Michael’s pannier had fallen apart, with two of the screws that hold the rack in place having fallen off! Luckily it was a relatively simple fix, but we’re definitely starting to learn about the different things that can go wrong in long-distance bicycling! We stopped for lunch in a field and continued on to Gelnica, where the castle we’d looked forward to was visible above town but largely in ruins, and finished our ride in Margecany, where we hopped on a thirty-minute train ride into Kosice on the nicest train yet: USB ports, outlets, and a screen showing the current and next stations! It was lovely and we enjoyed whipping rapidly through the countryside after hours of bicycling slowly on less-than-paved routes.

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Kosice itself was a lovely surprise, with a beautiful elongated town square boasting a gorgeous cathedral (the easternmost western-style cathedral in Central Europe, according to Wikipedia) and a number of other gorgeous buildings. People were out in throngs, eating ice cream and shopping and visiting a recreated 1918 army train that was on special exhibit. We stopped and had a trdelnik before biking out of town a little ways to our hotel for the night, where we dined on pork schnitzel and blue cheese farfalle and slept soundly.

Our ride out of town the next morning was full of excitement, when we first realized that the route komoot had chosen for us was a glass-scattered dirt trail from an industrial site and then, on rerouting, learned that the bridge depicted on Google maps did not actually exist. Undeterred, Michael mapped out a route along an old cycle route along the river, and we pedaled our way along old dirt roads and a long stretch of single-track to finally reach a road and a bridge over the river!

Seriously, this is our route?
Seriously, this is our route?

We passed millions upon millions of dead and dying sunflowers as we climbed out of the valley to Slanec, home of a 13th century ruined castle in the middle of restoration, where we hiked up to the ruins and then paused for lunch at one of what turned out to be a long series of bicycle rest areas on the incredibly nice – and wonderfully smoothly paved – bike route across the border into Hungary.

Slanec castle!
Slanec castle!
Actually, it looked more like this, perched well above us, but we hiked up.
Actually, it looked more like this, perched high on a hill, but we biked down and then hiked up.
At the border into Hungary!
At the border into Hungary!

Once in Hungary, we cycled on quiet rural roads to another castle, this one fully restored and perched high on a hill over the town of Fuzer.

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We settled for admiration of the castle from below this time around, and as we cycled southeast we soon found ourselves on an honest-to-goodness rail trail for bicycles, complete with stands for bird watching. It was lovely and relaxing and surrounded by yet more sunflowers. This would have been absolutely gorgeous a month ago, before they started to wilt! We stopped for crepes and beer in Satoraljaujhely before taking another bike path all the way to Sarospatak, our home for the night, where our hotel turned out to be in a beautiful old college building – and had air conditioning, of which we made delighted use. Our dinner involved a treat for both of us – gazpacho and a bottle of an IPA – and we took a short walk around town before heading back to our room.

The building we stayed in! (Our side was much less ornate!)
The building we stayed in! (Our side was much less ornate!)

By now we were entering the plains of Hungary, and it was HOT. We got an early start, with a short visit to the castle at Sarospatak, and cycled on the EuroVelo route on a backroad all the way into Tokaj, the center of the UNESCO-listed wine region we’d visited by car two years ago when I spoke at a conference in Budapest. We took a break from our picnic lunches and ate royally: chicken cordon bleu, a traditional Hungarian pasta of cottage cheese and bacon, and an amazing cold sour cherry soup that struck the perfect note for lunch on a hot day. Most importantly, we looked up whether there was a train from Tokaj to Nyiregyhaza, our destination for the night, and decided to take a nice cool train ride instead of biking along the main road in the hot hot sun. Of course from the train windows we could see that there was actually a lovely paved bicycle path alongside the main road we would have taken, but it had little shade and we were glad to be on the train instead!

Vineyards around Tokaj
Vineyards around Tokaj

Our joy at having taken the train was especially strong when we finally emerged from the Nyiregyhaza train station two and a half hours later, after working with two ticket agents, one information desk, and three helpful fellow passengers who worked as translators, with tickets for our train the following day. It turns out that Michael’s skill at navigating train schedules to figure out which ones accommodate bikes is unmatched – even by the professionals who sell train tickets! They repeatedly refused to sell us tickets, saying that the train would not take bicycles, even as we pointed out that the schedule said it could carry bicycles internationally

Train layout clearly showing bicycle car
Train layout clearly showing bicycle car

(although not domestically) and showed a
diagram of the train layout that was posted on the station wall. Eventually – somehow – they said, “oh wait, maybe it’s possible!” and spent ten minutes on the phone and then another fifteen sorting out the tickets with things like our full home address. And now I am writing this from the train into Romania, where we managed to obtain seat reservations and bicycle reservations and now have our bicycles safely stowed in a bicycle car — where they are the only bicycles because no one can figure out how to actually sell the tickets for them! We feel victorious.

langosAlso I managed to eat langos two more times in our 36 hours in Hungary, so life is good.

We ride the train all day today to Cluj-Napoca, Romania, from which we will head out on a six-day bike adventure after one day of rest. My sense is that we’ll go further along the spectrum away from Germany’s impeccable bicycle infrastructure, past Slovakia’s incredible network of bicycle paths that just sometimes could use some grooming, to a series of unmarked dirt and asphalt roads, but we’ll see! We’re excited to discover Transylvania — and we hope to have equal (or maybe even greater) success in buying our next round of bicycle train tickets …

Slovak Paradise: day 1

Remember when we visited Czech Paradise, strewn with cool rock formations and ruined castles? Well, when we found its Slovak counterpart on the map, of course we couldn’t pass it by. So we spent two nights in Hrabusice on the northern side of the national park, then plan to bike across the park to Stratena on the southern side tomorrow.

One of many caves
One of many caves

On Monday we were still a bit tired from our cross-country biking adventures the previous day, so we planned a 5-hour hike up to a 13th-century castle then through a few river gorges to the ruins of a 14th-century monastery. It turned out the castle was no longer much of a castle, but the gorges were quite the experience, with metal stepladders and cables clinging to cliffsides. The last part took us up a steep gorge with a half-dozen waterfalls, each of which had a steep ladder beside it to enable our ascent. It’s not a good spot for those with a fear of heights!

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Our reward at the top was this lovely meadow, with panoramic views of the Tatras, a restored monastery in the foreground, and a snack bar selling beer to enrich our picnic lunch.

IMG_4012We had a lovely hike on an absolutely perfect day – 70 degrees and sunny – and were glad to rest from biking for 24 hours as we prepared to bike across a different part of Slovak Paradise tomorrow.

Venturing into Slovakia

Well, yesterday wasn’t the best day for us, but I have to say that if it turns out to be the worst day of our bike trip we will have been incredibly lucky.

After crossing into Slovakia on our first day of biking, we headed deeper into Slovak territory from the town of Kezmarok to Hrabusice via Spis Castle. Doesn’t that make it seem like Spis Castle is on the way? No such luck.

Ignore the walking time, but here's our bike route!
Ignore the walking time, but here’s our bike route!

The day started out with a later start than we’d planned; Michael hadn’t slept well and so we got out the door at 10:15 instead of 8. With 6 hours of biking ahead of us, that made for a long day, but we figured we could fit everything in. Our road out of town was lovely, a quiet back road where we passed ten cyclists and maybe two cars, and we turned onto another back road marked as a cycleway that slowly climbed up into the hills above Kezmarok, with sights like a herd of cows and the site of an abandoned Russian village that had existed from the 1200s until 1952. It was perfect – gentle enough of a grade that we could easily bike up the 8km to the top of the hill. Until we got near the top and the nice pavement disintegrated into a crumbling strip of asphalt surrounded by small rocks, and stayed that way for the next 10km. Descending the hill was a challenge – my hands are too small to hold onto the brakes all the time! – but we made it down into the valley in one piece and said, phew, well, glad we survived that.

Our first stop was in the UNESCO-listed town of Levoča, where a beautiful church and town hall form the center of a walled town on a hill. We biked around the central area, chatting briefly with two Danish retirees who were very interested in our folding bicycles and taking photos, then had a picnic lunch on the square. Michael had brought a beer with him!

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We’d had good luck on bike routes so far, so we weren’t too worried when we headed out of town. But soon our paved road turned into dirt …

Michael didn't fall, he's just taking a picture on that hill over there.
Michael didn’t fall, he’s just taking a picture on that hill over there.

… and then steep dirt we had to walk up …

IMG_3968… and more dirt …

That's our route, coming from the left.
That’s our route, coming from the left.

… and then it became just grass!

A "bike route" according to komoot!
A “bike route” according to komoot!

We soldiered on through the edge of a grass field, which clearly was still traveled every so often by hapless bikers like us who were following an old map. Eventually the route came out at a paved road that went underneath the freeway. I glided down and up the other side, only to turn back and find that Michael was not behind me, still not behind me, still not there. With visions of bicycle accidents in my head, I turned back to find Michael walking toward me completely intact, but with a flat tire on his back wheel from all that cross-country riding. We settled into the shade of the overpass and changed our first flat tire. Not bad after several long weeks of riding, but still a drag on a day when we’d gotten a late start.

Looking back at Levoca
Looking back at Levoca

When our route turned back into dirt on the far side of the freeway, we gave up on our nice little side route and headed up to the main highway – not the freeway, but a state route alongside it, with a decent amount of traffic but also a good-sized shoulder. We soon turned off onto another small country road, this one mostly paved except for some hairy bits down a steep hill into Buglovce. The highlight, however, was that starting here we had crackerjack views of our destination, Spis Castle, the largest in Central Europe. What a castle! We rode closer and closer and got better and better views of its amazing construction.

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Sadly, it was almost 4pm and our ride to Hrabusice was another 2.5 hours, so we didn’t ride all the way up to the castle, and instead turned back after some great views of the castle perched on a hill. Our route back took us by a hugely popular “sheep dairy chalet” and then a set of mineral springs bubbling ferociously and smelling of sulfur, then along the main road and some side roads to another small town, where a friendly old man persistently tried to help us with our bike route despite the fact that we didn’t speak a word of Slovak. He soon roped a whole carful of retirees into pointing at the map with us, and we headed on down the road.

The mineral springs
The mineral springs

We took a variety of busy roads and back routes to Spisska Nova Ves, then a wonderfully labeled bike route that cut 10 miles of road down to 3 miles but which was paved with concrete blocks that made us go bump-bump-bump-bump down the road! By this time it was starting to get a bit dark, so we turned on our lights and just powered through it – and were actually relieved when the road turned to ungraded dirt instead of the concrete slabs!

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We arrived in Hrabusice just after sunset, having spent the last few miles wondering whether the town would have any restaurants or we’d have to survive on making a quesadilla from the tortillas, cheese, and salami left over from lunch. But joy! o joy! The hotel owners sent us to a nearby pizzeria, where we feasted on pizza with sheep cheese and smoked cheese and bacon and kielbasa and reveled in the fact that despite roads made of rocks and dirt and grass and concrete, flat tire and all, we’d made it! After dinner I collapsed straight into bed and slept for almost 10 hours.

Biking the Tatras to Slovakia

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Our day began early, with a 6am alarm and setting out riding shortly after 7 in an effort to beat the traffic headed hiking in the mountains for the weekend. We didn’t entirely succeed – we were passed by dozens of minibuses and private cars driving up to the glacial lake of Morskie Oko, the most famous hike in the Zakopane area – but we were nonetheless glad to miss the worst of the crowds and to beat the heat of the day. Three long uphills and a few downhills and we had crossed the border into Slovakia and descended the other side, passing through a ski resort village and then following a narrow old road converted to a bike route just off the main road down into the valley.

At the top of our last big hill! Note distant mountains.
At the top of our last big hill! Note distant mountains.

img_3895.jpgOnly a few miles after our side trail rejoined the main road, a beautiful new bike path took us the rest of the way into Spissky Bela, where we stopped for some sightseeing of a beautiful old church and its bell tower. Multilingual signs everywhere let us discover the town’s rich history, like a mathematician who invented lenses used in telescopes and a doctor who treated the Roma and also did taxidermy and archeology and mountaineering in his spare time.

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On the road out of town we stumbled on a castle that is now part of the national art gallery. We never did figure out how to get into the actual museum, but we had a lovely stroll through the riverside sculpture garden and a very relaxing beer and lemonade on the shaded terrace in the castle courtyard.

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Across from the castle - a church with Renaissance bell tower!
Across from the castle – a church with Renaissance bell tower!

And then our amazing komoot app found that by turning for 50 yards down a bumpy side road we could join a perfectly groomed bike trail, which took us across a suspension bridge and directly to our hotel in Kezmarok. It’s called the Pension Andrea, though Michael insists the name was not a factor in his decision.

IMG_2658Leaving at 7 meant we got here at 2, giving us plenty of time to walk around town and admire the many historical churches (one designated by UNESCO) and the impressive town castle as well as enjoying 40-cent ice cream cones and picking up groceries for breakfast tomorrow. Dinner brought us the Slovak specialties of pork coated in mashed herbed potatoes and deep fried (yum!) and sheep cheese pierogis with bacon and onion, followed by Nutella crepes. Plus soup and two beers, for $16. I like Slovakia.

Tomorrow we bike to Spis castle, one of Slovakia’s more famous sights. Hopefully tonight’s lighting doesn’t develop into too exciting a storm!