I already wrote about this little adventure, but the story is worth another visit, and so is the entire region of the High Tatra Mountain Range. These enormous rocky peaks, along with the Białka River, create a natural border between Poland and Slovakia. And to our surprise, it was not so easy to cross.
Two years ago, Dan and I decided to take an overnight train to Krákow as our first vacation since moving to Budapest. Krákow was a dream city, and you can see from these photos just how much we enjoyed it. Our time wandering the city’s historical cobblestones was far too short. It was filled with incredible architecture, intriguing stories, friendly locals, and some of the best food we’ve had in Europe. But as tradition goes, we always try to pair a city adventure with one found in nature.
Our next stop was the small mountain town of Zakopane, a kitschy vacation destination that is, in my opinion, at its best in early November’s off-season. The harvest sun was all aglow and the surrounding mountains made for dreamy scenery. The air was clean and the trails deserted. The daytime sun warmed us while nightfall brought freezing temperatures. It was a nature oasis that we had nearly all to ourselves, and where we learned a very interesting lesson. And it was our first introduction to the incredible beauty of the High Tatras, a place we would find ourselves returning to less than a year later.
Back in Krákow, we had hunkered down in a little cafe, a map of the region sprawled across our table as we sipped cappuccinos and plotted our next move. It all appeared so simple: hop a bus from Zakopane to Poprad in central Slovakia, and catch the train to the country’s smaller, eastern city of Košice. From there, we’d catch an early train back to Budapest. It was a perfect plan.
As we all know, however, plans can quickly fall apart. After arriving in Zakopane, we learned that the buses had stopped running. There was no direct route from Zakopane to Poprad, and all we got from the customer service agent was a shrug and a sarcastic “good luck”. I was a new expat, and when faced with a travel challenge, my mind went into hyper American organization mode as I considered all options. No direct route? No buses crossing the border? A taxi would be far too expensive. Hmmmm…. I eventually suggested skipping Slovakia altogether.
But, thanks to Dan’s investigative research and calm demeanor, we made a decision that I have since adopted into regular practice. It’s too easy to fall back on the safest solution that my mind can concoct without considering where my own two feet are standing. I was in small-town Southern Poland in Central/Eastern Europe. Things don’t run on a clock here. Efficiency is interpreted in different ways. The best thing we could do is give up control and put ourselves at the mercy of the culture.
We did just that, trusting local advice, and before we knew it, we were snacking on giant donuts as we relaxed and listened to the murmur of nature surrounding us. Dan’s research lead us to a mini bus who’s randomized route (we leave when it gets full) followed the Białka river. A little pleading and pointing to the map convinced the bus driver to swerve to a hasty stop at a rusty, blue bridge. He pointed his finger to the other side as he sped off. Backpacks on, we trudged across the bridge, not a person nor vehicle in sight.
We were lucky. The sun had broken through the clouds and warmed the rocks along the river’s shore. We sat for a long time, four hours to be exact, as we waited for a different bus to retrieve us on the Slovakian side. We had a taxi company’s phone number in hand just in case, but eventually a large bus pulled into sight just as the cloud cover was returning and the temperature dropping.
That solitude in nature, tucked into the forest of the High Tatrys, all alone with nothing to do but sit, ponder, and enjoy the peace of the river, will always be a favorite memory of mine. And it was a good lesson. I think about it all the time and I now regularly practice giving up control as I travel. Some of the best travel moments I’ve experienced was when I did this. And, traveling slow without a strict agenda, accepting hiccups and mishaps, allows you to see more and truly experience the place.
Plus, that bus ride gave us a reason to return. I thought the Polish side of the Tatrys was beautiful, but the Slovakian side reigns. As our bus swerved and climbed, dipped and turned through the mountains, we witnessed mesmerizing scenery pass by. Vast valleys spread out across the horizon as jagged peaks rose up in such dramatic fashion. The autumn foliage was at its best, bright hues hanging overhead, leaves dancing on the street as we scurried by. The smell of snow hung in the air. Pastel architecture rose from the depths of the forests, giving us just mere glimpses of their historic beauty. It was love at first sight.
Our bus arrived in Poprad as dusk hit, the sky transforming into cool tones of purple and blue. The mountains sat behind us, giants settling into their slumber at the edge of the valley. I couldn’t stop looking. The full journey had been a tad emotional, one that began with a little panic, but eventually led to tranquility and awe. Our train to Košice arrived and we claimed seats near the window. As we pulled away from the station, the train rocking gently, I watched the peaks disappear from view, darkness engulfing them.
I’m curious: what’s the greatest travel lesson you’ve learned?