I’ve enjoyed visiting Bratislava immensely and the friendly hostel staff, especially Marianne, have contributed in no small way to this, but I am becoming city exhausted and once again I feel the isolation of being invisible in a big city.
The four hour train journey is pleasant and as we head out of Bratislava and make our way slowly up to the mountains I am rewarded with beautiful views; quaint villages, green countryside and perfect blue lakes. As hilly country slowly becomes mountainous, the striking High Tatras finally dominate the landscape, their spectacularly rugged summits still snow capped at the highest points.
I am staying in the Aqualand Pension, so named as it is perfectly located next to Poprad Tatry’s massive Aqua City centre. The Pension is a combination of hotel rooms and hostel dorms and I am delighted to find that my small dorm of four bunks has its very own little kitchen/living space as well as an en suite and I look forward to relaxing in a little bit of comfort.
It is a lovely sunny afternoon when I arrive, albeit at the higher altitude the temperature is notably cooler than I’ve been used to. Nonetheless Poprad Tatry is alive with hustle and bustle. It has a small Town Square dominated by St Egidius Church and surrounded by alfresco cafes and restaurants and everyone is out basking in the sunshine.
Street Musicians fill the air with traditional music and I really like this small low key but vibrant centre, so I stop to enjoy some tasty Slovakian food and wine while I take in the atmosphere.
The forecast is not good for visiting the mountains, with low cloud and rain predicted for the next couple of days. I am disappointed, but am certain I will be happy here for a few days in the rain, so I extend my booking to allow for a visit when the weather is due to clear. Sure enough, I wake up to rain the following morning and the mountains are almost invisible under the low cover of rain clouds.
I am on a mission to write, so Marián, the receptionist who checked me in, directs me to a cafe which he feels would have the perfect ambiance for me to spend my time writing. The Groteska Art Caffe, is an artists cafe with low armchairs, sofas and coffee tables, Parisian style cafe chairs and small square tables are scattered about. Colourful umbrellas hang upside down from the ceiling, interesting pieces of artwork hang on the walls and 1930s music plays in the background. It is indeed the ideal setting and the friendly waitress is happy for me to stay as long as I want.
I am enjoying writing and spend hours sitting there, happy that the words are flowing well, clearly stimulated by the inspirational ambience. Occasionally I order a coffee, strong but smooth and full of flavour and after the third cup I have to stop myself fearing the physical effects of too much caffeine. Instead, as a reward for a good day’s writing, I eventually switch to a glass of full bodied red wine, served in a tall elegant glass just how I like it, and I smile happily, feeling at one with the world!
After stopping off for something to eat on the way home I return to the dorm to find it has filled up and there are people, sleeping bodies and packs everywhere. The tiny kitchen/living area has been taken over and there is no space for me so I venture out into the reception where there are some seating areas. The Pension sells wine and I settle in with a glass to chat with Marián. Despite the age difference we get along well and we spend several hours talking about many topics while he tops up my wine glass. He is a deep thinking young man with strong ideas, ideals and aspirations. He also has a natural draw towards art and the arts and I find him fascinating to talk to.
By the time I return to the dorm, although it is not particularly late everyone else is asleep and I find myself tiptoeing around trying to avoid squeaky floorboards as I settle in to bed. As I happily drift off to sleep I replay the enjoyable day in my head.
The following morning I awake feeling a little under the weather; perhaps a little bit too much wine consumed, but there’s something else and I can’t put my finger on it. Everyone else has either left or is leaving and I am soon on my own in the dorm. It is another rainy day and quite miserable and being at a high altitude the temperature has also become quite cold.
I am not in a writing mood today, but there is a small medieval festival on in the next village, Spisska Sobota, an easy walking distance from the Pension so as the rain clears for a bit I head out to visit it. There are a few stalls selling traditional food and wares and a little puppet show attracting the children, but I am soon bored and head back to Poprad Tatry.
Despite it being Saturday afternoon most of the shops are closed and it has become a ghost town, a sharp contrast to the vibrant atmosphere on my arrival. I take refuge in the modern shopping centre for a little while, but this also bores me. My mood is sinking and “The Black Creature” is stirring, its dark negative whisperings trying to drag me into its festering pit. I know the Black Creature is a manifestation of my grieving for my recent losses. Nowadays I mostly just have sad moments, shedding a quiet tear in private before facing the world again. However very occasionally and without warning I seem to plummet into a deep desperate state of inconsolable grief and melancholy which is impossible to fight off. It never fails to perplex me that I can be as happy and positive one minute as I was yesterday and then suddenly feel as low as I do today without any apparent reason.
Marián is on rostered days off now so I don’t have him to talk to and I am starting to find that with the turn of the weather so, it appears, has peoples friendliness and when my friendly smiles are met with icy cold disregard and averted looks I start to feel very lonely and isolated. I return to the dorm to find a solitary young man is my new dorm mate. He is from Munich in Germany and can speak very good English so my mood lifts slightly anticipating, with Munich in common, we might chat, but he appears very disgruntled to be sharing the dorms common area with me, clearly isn’t interested in conversation and quickly retreats to an area in reception as far away from me as possible! His only interaction thereafter being visibly reluctant and resentful responses to my polite “goodnight” or “good morning” and I really begin to dislike him, as it seems he does me.
The following morning, despite still feeling extremely low it is my last day here and time to visit the mountains. The weather has cleared as promised and I catch the little electric train which connects Poprad Tatry with the various villages and ski resorts higher up along the mountain side.
Enjoying lovely views of the luscious green valley below, beautiful mountain side pine forests and abundant groves of wild blue Lupins, it takes me an hour and half to get all the way to Strbske Pleso, a pretty little ski resort village at the end of the track which is beside an equally pretty lake with a walking path around it.
It is Sunday and families, friends and couples are out en masse enjoying the sunny weather after the rain. It is lovely to be back in nature, surrounded by forest covered mountains, embracing the smell of the pine trees and the sound of the chirping of birds as I stroll around the shimmering blue lake.
But I also find it really hard to be walking in nature without my faithful dog Nelson and I imagine him at each shallow part of the lake paddling in and swimming out, dragging large sticks twice his size back to carry to the next bit where he finds an even bigger stick. Mum is also talking to me as I walk along, her voice speaking wise words in her mischievous Scottish lilt. I miss them both terribly and the Black Creature is in full swing now! So as I take the bitter sweet walk around the lake, embracing the beauty of the environment and enjoy the warmth of the sunshine, salty tears trickle quietly down my face as my heart aches. I am relieved I am wearing sunglasses and that no one notices my tears as we pass but in reality no one has noticed me anyway and I am for once grateful to be invisible.
There is no doubt however, that mountain air and being by water and nature does help the soul and by the time I return to Poprad Tatry I am in much better spirits. However I am dreading another gloomy evening spent with unfriendly Mr Munich and after stopping at a restaurant to have something to eat I reluctantly return to my dormitory full of dread for another gloomy evening.
However when I arrive back I find I have additional room mates. There are a couple of girls in the bedroom and another girl is preparing herself something to eat in the kitchen. Mr Munich, much to my relief, is nowhere to be seen. Immediately the atmosphere is brighter and making myself a cup of tea I chat to the girl who is cooking and am delighted to find she is from Canberra in Australia.
She is open and friendly and is soon telling me about her incredible nine month trip. She isn’t quite twenty years old yet, but has already been away from home for nearly five months and has travelled far and wide including visiting South Africa, India and Jordan. I admire her maturity and confidence and we have a lot of travel stories to tell each other and before I realise it the Black Creature has finally receded into its festering pit, leaving me behind!
Mr Munich returns while we are discussing Berlin and decides to join in the conversation! Perhaps he has an older woman phobia, I don’t know, but he certainly comes alive and embraces talking to pretty young Teagan, cleverly muscling in on the conversation. I am feeling pleasantly sleepy after a day of fresh air and exercise, so I soon retreat to bed, happy to leave them chatting.
The easiest way for me to get to Budapest is to return to Bratislava and Teagan is going there too so the following day we travel together enjoying each others easy companionship on the four hour train journey. When we arrive in Bratislava we say our fairwells, wishing each other happy travels, as Teagan heads to her hostel and I return to Hostel Possonium where I am greeted with a warm hug by Marianne before she promptly pours me a welcoming drink!
My time in the High Tatras has been an emotional roller coaster and I am relieved to be back in a positive emotional place. On reflection I realise that with the exception of the few people who have shown me warmth and kindness during my stay in Slovakia, on the whole I have found people to be quite austere.
I wonder if it is for them a throwback from the distrustful days of the Iron Curtain or whether it is me in my own grieving state who is emanating a closed or unfriendly persona. Whatever the reason, I have felt quite isolated, which in turn has made me more susceptible to the Black Creature.
It occurs to me that while I am happy to travel alone and be in my own company, positive responsive interaction with others is vital to my emotional wellbeing. Whether it is simply a friendly smile in passing or a brief but kind exchange of words, I need interaction with others and to know that I am a part of something bigger than just myself.
I am leaving Bratislava tomorrow and much as I have enjoyed it, I have found travelling solo through Slovakia emotionally challenging. Reflecting upon this I truly hope that it is not me that is the root cause of my own isolation and as I enthusiastically look forward to moving on to Budapest in Hungary, I hope I will find a warmer reception there.