I opened Google Maps on my phone in the basement-level hostel in Zakopane and discovered a problem. The only way out of this quaint Polish resort town by rail was back the way I’d come. The only viable way out, towards Slovakia, meant traversing the mountains by small private bus; I’d have to break with my two-month commitment to trains for the short journey.
The bus took me over the spectacular High Tatras and delivered me at a tiny nondescript station in a town called Poprad. As it turned out, it was a small price to pay. And the perfect introduction into a week of touring Slovakia by rail.
Poprad station was throughly underwhelming. I’d chosen the city for its cheap hostel, proximity to the mountains, and the daily trains that could connect me with Slovakia’s small villages and larger cities. I stepped off the bus and realised I had little idea where my accommodation was, and no way to find out without wifi.
It was shortly before 6pm on a Friday. It appeared as if much of the dusty bus station had closed up shop for the weekend. I looked around for someone to ask, but the handful of passengers who had alighted with me had filtered off into the late afternoon sunlight.
I muttered something about my dislike for buses and pulled out my phone. Any kind of wifi seemed unlikely in a station as deserted and remote as this, but I had few other options. I needed to siphon just enough internet from somewhere to at least give me directions to my pre-booked accommodation for the night.
Miraculously a single bar appeared on my phone. And then another. And before I knew it, I had Google’s walking directions to a tiny restaurant where I’d find the key to my humble accommodation in Poprad.
The woman in the neighborhood restaurant couldn’t speak English. But she knew I was there for the room upstairs, and so she handed me the key and pointed me to the door around the corner. I trudged up the creaking wooden stairs, following the sound of a hissing pan and the smell of frying meat.
Upstairs a crew of Romanian bricklayers was cooking up a feast after a day of hard labour nearby. They looked up as I arrived, and then continued their conversation.
I walked towards a room in the corner of the communal house and pushed open the thin wooden door. Inside I met a longhaired bearded German man called Wolf. He was hunched over a large map on the floor of the room.
‘No English,’ he said, holding out a hand in greeting.
He motioned towards a mattress on the floor in the corner and shrugged. A thin see-through curtain hung over the large window which was slightly ajar. The warm summer outside, and Wolf’s weathered hiking boots by his bed, necessitated it being open, in spite of the loud traffic and early karaoke party taking place across the road.
Through a combination of online translation apps and broken English, Wolf informed me that he was walking to Thailand as a protest to his ex-girlfriend’s imprisonment. ‘But tomorrow,’ he said. ‘We go for a hike. Slovak Paradise. You coming?’
We rose early the next morning. The night had been a restless one with all-night drag racing on the street outside and the continuation of the karaoke party until the early hours. Though on a rest day of his greater mission, Wolf was determined to hike. A visit to a place called Slovak Paradise was hard for me to resist. We threw a few supplies in our backpacks and walked in the sunrise to the train station.
We hopped aboard a rusted regional train, and rode it until a small town that bordered on the reserve. And for the rest of the day we trudged through vast pine plantations and natural forests, up steep muddy hills, through daisy fields, and down impossible embankments. Eventually, we admitted we were lost.
From one hilltop we noticed a small restaurant at a lake below. We pulled in tired, sweaty, and with no idea of where we were. We mulled over the options with a few cold beers, including walking the 25 kilometers back to our starting point. Fortunately, we agreed to beat a retreat to a nearby bus stop.
Another morning in Poprad a French guest, Sarah, told me she was visiting a popular castle in the area. It seemed like a good alternative to another misguided walk in the woods with Wolf. Again, a small regional train, combined with a short bus ride, got us to the foot of this incredible attraction.
Abandoned in 1760, Spiš Castle is now a popular tourist attraction in Slovakia. The ruins form one of the largest castle sites in central Europe. The history, views, and understated beauty of the countryside kept us walking the walls and exploring nearby villages for the entire day until eventually we boarded a train back to our base in Poprad.
Eventually the late night drag races and mattress on the floor got the better of me. My two companions were moving off too. Wolf caught a ride with the bricklayers to continue his walk to Thailand, and Sarah headed north to Poland for the last few days of her journey.
I boarded an early morning train for the Slovakian capital. The trains in these parts have a special kind of charm and the scenery outside was phenomenal. Green fields, blue skies and cotton wool white clouds heralded my arrival to Bratislava. After three days exploring the capital’s beautiful architecture, quirky attractions, interesting history and absorbing the idyllic location on the famous Danube river, my time in Slovakia was up. But with its easy rail routes and endless natural beauty, I was in no doubt that it would soon feature in a future Eurail trip.