Day 35 - A ride over the High Tatras

Wednesday 30th July 2014

We are tempted to stay another day at Orava but really it is time to move on. Another storm in late afternoon caught me out as I went looking for a location to get a long distance shot of the castle. More soaked clothing doh!

The castle from the back

Farewell Orava

There is a lot of mistrust in these eastern areas of Europe. Maybe a sign of worse times in the past, but gates are locked at night. The restaurant terrace where I sit writing this has all it's benches, tables and umbrellas firmly screwed to the decking. Hotels ask for payment for rooms in advance. Bars and cafés expect payment as you are served. Always keep your entrance tickets because sure enough some official will ask to see it again inside whichever tourist attraction you are visiting.

Yet the countries are slowly upgrading to more western standards. Slovakia is the farthest along that road now. Romania and Hungary a little farther behind.

The most obvious sign to the casual traveller is the state of the roads. Where EU grants and partnerships have occurred the roads are beautifully built and have all the safety and signage you may expect in a country like Austria. Thus right turns have on and off slip roads or lanes and left turns have central turn off lanes with pedestrian refuges. There are lots of no overtaking stretches and junction have speed limits. And the roads have definable edges, either kerbs or storm drains.

In Romania you may find a perfect highway like this but turn off into a side street in a village and you enter a different world of mud roads, horse shit and craters like small swimming pools.

No doubt there are lots of other improvements that are not so visible to the casual visitor. But there are other slightly irritating features that haven't changed. Even in quite swish hotels and pensions the new toilet paper is invariably lousy, wood pulp pressed and recycled from, well probably old toilet paper. There are no chairs in bedrooms or drinking glasses in bathrooms.

On the menus everything is optional and charged for; ketchup 40c, slice of bread 30c, milk 20c, especially noticeable in the morning where you assume wrongly that butter will be available with a bread-based breakfast only to find you have to ask and pay extra for it. It's all very cheap so it's not an issue, just strange for visitors from the west.

These are very much subjective opinions, drawn from precious little experience of course. We were warned by a lot of folks who had not actually been there to be very wary in Romania. That gypsies would steal the wheels from our bikes while we were still riding them, and so on. Romania is certainly the poorest country we have visited but we found the people we met the most friendly, helpful and generous on the whole tour so far.

The old guy who shared his own food with us on the Transfăgărășan. Our smiling host who supplied us with all the excellent palinka we could drink with no charge, and the young Budapest couple with their flagons of good homemade wines for all to share.

As I said before, I like Romania. The people are very proud of their nation and keen to give a good impression to passing strangers. It's certainly not the impression so insidiously promoted by the red top press back in Britain. The Romanians we spoke to freely admit that the Romany people are a big problem for them too and are quietly pleased that so many gypsies have migrated from Romania since the borders were opened.

Ok back to the journey. We decide to go and find the little logging steam railway that was originally on yesterday's plan. It's in the Orava region and we loop up to the north before turning south west on beautiful roads through rolling foothills to the west of the High Tatras.

The rolling Orava hills
We turn off up a small track into the forest. It's 6 kilometres to the lower station. When we arrive we find we have just missed the train

 It won't be back again for another 2 hours, so sadly we decide to leave. The black clouds are gathering again and we want to ride the high mountains before the day is done

So we continue south looking for a road to the east that will take us back to the high stuff.
At the forest railway
It is a lovely ride through the foothills, always climbing beside streams that crash and splash down to the valleys, swollen with all the recent rain.

Engage Ewan and Charley mode

Coffee stop
We climb up a pass above Lake Liptovska and stop at a lookout at perhaps the highest point. After the wonderful scenery of the Orava region it is a bit disappointing. A few years ago massive storms felled the trees over huge areas of the high peaks and much of what we see is a devastated wasteland.

Climbing up towards the High tatras
Heavy logging trucks grind up and down the slopes. There is still a lot of clearance to be done. Some years ago I was in Yosemite National Park with my son Jake and we drove through large areas that had been devastated by forest fires. There the policy was to leave nature to deal with the problem, as she has for millennia.

Here it is different because the trees simply fell, they did not burn. As a result it all looks just ugly.

We ride down from the high peak and ride across the valley heading for the Low Tatra range a few miles to the south. Several fellow travellers have told us that the Low Tatras are much prettier than the higher mountains on the Slovak-Polish border  We'll see if they are right.

Alpine views
Deforestation in the High Tatras
Our road takes us to the 14th century walled town of Levoca. It's a pretty place. We enquire at a hotel within the walls where a sign says 'Rooms €30'. But suddenly the price has become €46. Including breakfast? No, breakfast extra.

So no thanks. Goodbye Levoce. We weren't born yesterday.

Auto Camping Levoca
In the hills a few kilometres north of Levoca we come across Auto Camping Levoca. There is a pension too and a restaurant. Here a room is €19.50 and breakfast €4.50. That's
more like it. 


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