Sojourn to Slovakia: Strolling Through Old Bardejov and Hitchhiker Woes

People, be aware: Slovakia—the entire nation of 5.5 million people—closes at 10PM. It doesn’t matter if it’s Friday night or Saturday or whatever. The stuff you want will not be open or available at night. In my experience, you’ve got to get your kicks before four hours after six or it’s no dice.

Can a Sleeper Get a Break Round Here?

Staying overnight in Bardejov was a near disaster. My bus reached this eastern Slovakian town around 10PM, which is right when its main guesthouse for cheapskates, like me, closed. I banged on the guesthouses door for 10 minutes, yelling for assistance, begging for a bed, but no answer came from the darkness. I then visited some deadbeat local bar and roused a band of Slovak young men by talking excitedly and waving my arms for ‘telephone, telephone’, and one of them let me use his mobile. While his friends were laughing about the strange cameo of a bearded blond man from America in their bar, I called the guesthouse in desperation. They actually picked up but the woman, who sounded like she was Ms. Swan from Mad TV, pinched out a response that basically said they were full up. So, I gave back the mobile and said goodbye to the confused Slovak men, and searched around for new options in some residential area to the north of the old town. I found another guesthouse but things were looking really bad; this one was not only dark, but it was gated and locked. I tried banging on the gate door and yelling, but it was just useless. Getting frantic can make people insanely courageous, so I found two guys on the street and butchered the Slavic phrases I know to communicate that I needed their phone to call the guesthouse. These dudes were kind of incredulous that they had been ambushed by a random American on Saturday night, but nevertheless they tried to help and contributed to the tiny noisemaking I had done with wolf-whistles and louder banging on the gate. This, along with incessant calling of the owner of the guesthouse, finally got someone to respond to our calls. Fifteen minutes after I had showed up, a thin man dressed in lycra biking shorts—like an athletic-looking Josef Fritzl—stepped out of the house and let me in. We negotiated a room on the spot, luckily it wasn’t a sporty dungeon, and thereafter I got to bed quickly.

Bardejov: the Sights, or the Lack Thereof

Bardejov is a lot like the town Bruges in Belgium: it’s the kind of place where you don’t really do anything except for wander around. Wander to the restaurant, eat some fried cheese, walk around the back alleys, see some more old buildings that are heavily restored, take a look at the church, wow it’s a church I’ve never seen a church before look a bloody man on a cross who is he, woah that’s a big pigeon, etc. Nothing struck me as notable about Bardejov, in comparison to other medieval towns with remnants of city walls and cute little timber-frame houses, except for its massive fucking town square. You could fit everyone who lives in Bardejov in that town square and still have room for a stage and a beer garden. It’s just ridiculous, and I can’t see how or why the medieval town planners thought that that would maximize space utilization in a time when cities needed to be compact to be defended well.

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After I tired of walking the same old cobbled streets, I spent an hour or so at the nearby spa town of Bardejovske Kupele where throngs of people had congregated for an early summer saunter and a taste of the town’s curative mineral waters. In northern Slovakia and southern Poland, residents flock to mineral spas (Not sauna/Jacuzzi spas) where the drinking the water is purported to be beneficial—healing digestion problems, gastrointestinal diseases, blindness, rabies, that kind of stuff. So I went for a little hike in the nearby woods and had a drink at the popular watering hole, where people are so crazy about this water that they bring 10 liters of empty bottles to fill for home. The water types even have names, like ‘Medical Water’, which suckers the people into thinking that they really do work. Yea, it’s pretty stupid, but people go nuts for unproven medical cure-alls all over the world, America included.

(Not) Hitchhiking back to Poland:

I was a happy man filled up with miracle water and ready to face the last and biggest challenge of my trip: getting back to Poland in one evening in time for work starting at 7AM the next day. Now here’s the background of this conundrum: for unknown reasons, the amount of transport between Poland and Slovakia is next to nil, especially in the border areas. This is bound to provoke head-scratching and maybe a curses from travelers without cars, and all you can really do is a) walk between the countries, or b) hitchhike. Well boys and girls, believe it or not but I had to walk into Poland because not a goddamn soul would pick me up!

From Bardejov, I took a local bus down the road north to a village coincidentally named Tarnov (Like my town in Poland) and got off there to go towards the border. It was 8km away and I was sure someone would pick me up as I walked along the way—how wrong I was. At least 30 cars zoomed by me into Poland that Sunday evening without even slowing down, and they were almost all guarantee-ably Polish. Although the weather was glorious and the musky smell of the country was a nice companion, my increasingly sweaty and lethargic walk northwards took me from feeling let down to straight up hateful at the Polish drivers and their lack of empathy for me. Each kilometer of distance doubled my antipathy for the cold-hearted vacationers, and thus I crossed the border in the deep of a forest on a road that I was forced to tread through alone.

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In light of my irritating bad luck on the Slovakian side of the line, it was utterly amazing when after walking 25 meters into Poland, a Volkswagen slowed to a stop next to my outstretched arm and a pretty Polish woman leaned out of the window. “Can you speak English?” I asked in Polish. The answer – yes! Sure enough, this lady and her husband were heading right towards my waypoint home, being the resort town of Krynica. I gleefully jumped into the backseat of their car, and I bet those Poles could have smelled my excitement had the stench of my body odor not putrefied the interior. In spite of my stink, I cordially chatted with the wife while simultaneously reinvesting faith in the Polish people. Everything had become a-okay in the course of ten seconds, and the small talk about the woman’s work experience in England felt like a gift after hours spent frustrated and alone.

The two let me out at a pub in downtown Krynica and the scene was just about perfect: the summer hills were awash in sunlight and the traditional wooden homes stood warm and inviting all around me. Families of merrymakers were jostling down the park paths and boulevards with yipping children at their sides, and the restaurant terraces were slowly filling up with pleased-looking dinner guests ready for some pizza and beer. I scored myself a salami pizza and ate it with pleasure on the steps of the bus station, looking out over the town creek. From the moment those Poles picked me up, my problems seemed to disappear, and I got home safe and sound around 10PM feeling like my Slovakian adventure was a job well done. Everyone knows that ‘all’s well that ends well, so eternal cheers to whoever you are that let me stink up your ride!

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