I thought, as I warily eyed the dark, near-vertical, slippery rock face in my path. The only way was up, and the only way up was a rusty chain which had obviously seen rough years and better days since it was bolted in place. The icy rain was so dense that our collective vision was reduced to a grey, watery blur.
It was time to turn back. We didn’t.
After a summer of European museums I wanted to go somewhere that wasn’t within 10 minutes of an international transport hub, wasn’t on the mainstream radar, wasn’t sweaty and crowded like the cities on everyone’s high-season bucket list.
I decided to take a bus from the Polish resort town of Zakopane, with stunning landscape and farmhouse scenes straight out of Brothers Grimm fairy tales, to Zdiar, a picturesque village in the Slovakian Tatra Mountains. Zdiar was hot, but the air had an exhilaratingly sharp bite to it that lets you know you are in the mountains, closer to the sky than the sea.
I found a hostel, Ginger Monkey, with a common room so cosy you could be in your own living room, if not for the superlatively dramatic view of imposing mountains right outside the window. The well-travelled staff were most likely to be found slouching on one of the sofas or beanbag chairs, swapping stories or pointing out the scrapbooks and folders full of tips and tales left by previous guests. But whenever something needed to be done, it was done without delay.
It was on their recommendation that I went in search of “The Goulash Man” on the first night.
I set off around hairpin roads in the twilight, searching for the words “Goulash Man” painted on a plastic sign over a smiling cartoon at a restaurant, takeaway or even food truck, incongruous in the lonely beauty of a high-altitude night.
“I enjoyed the rich, spicy goulash with the last of the obwarzanek bread I’d bought from a street seller in Rynek Glowny before I left Krakow that morning, and thought that food didn’t get any more authentic than this”
But “The Goulash Man,” rather than the name of a business, appeared to be the less-than-official name given to a local man who sells homemade goulash from his house.
I knocked on the window shutter, which was opened into a homely looking kitchen with an enormous black pot on top of an old-fashioned stove. The Goulash Man smiled, wordlessly took my lunchbox and filled it from the pot. Back at the hostel, I enjoyed the rich, spicy goulash with the last of the obwarzanek bread I’d bought from a street seller in Rynek Glowny before I left Krakow that morning, and thought that food didn’t get any more authentic than this.
Over breakfast the next morning, a group of us decided to go for a walk together. It started off as a gentle, scenic stroll through sunny woodland, crossing rustic bridges and admiring waterfalls as we shared the snacks we’d bought at the supermarket in Zdiar.
But without a map or a plan, we soon found ourselves on a tougher route than we were ready for. The temperature noticeably dropped to a level not believable for mid-July in Central Europe, and not compatible with shorts and tank tops.
The things we took for granted at kinder altitudes became a struggle. Walking. Breathing. Staying upright. The friendly banter and camaraderie we’d had on the lower slopes dried up as we grimly, quietly picked our way over rain-loosened soil and gravel and treacherous mud. There may have been a dazzling view, but my knees had taken too many scratches for me to look anywhere but the ground beneath my feet, and a layer of gloomy mud had oozed between my sandals and the soles of my feet, so that getting my shoes to grip the path was only half the battle. As my calf muscles started to burn and my skin to freeze, morbid clouds settled over my mood, leaving me feeling utterly defeated.
Then, whoever it was who was leading the bedraggled pack ran out of steam. In a slapstick moment, we crashed, domino-like, into each other. As we struggled to get back up, the drama of the view hit me like a punch in the stomach: the mountains were austere and severe, not pretty, but compellingly, dangerously beautiful. The dark grey of the peak on the other side of the ravine stretched so high to where it pierced the sky that you couldn’t take it all in in one look. For a few precious moments, that sight made every problem seem tiny and trivial.
But it wasn’t perfect. Deforestation had left an ugly mark on these otherwise magnificent surroundings. Among the rich, dark green of the conifers on the lower slopes, you could make out strangely barren patches. At the start of the climb, we’d passed a logging facility, with ugly machinery, horizontal piles of trunks and brown stumps left in the churned-up soil like amputated limbs.
As we continued our climb, it started to snow. It didn’t feel like we had walked into a cloud. It felt like the clouds were sentient and malicious and had come for us. I’d always known mountains could become quickly dangerous, and I knew we weren’t equipped for these conditions.
To go on was irresponsible madness, but I couldn’t convince the others that this unpleasantness could very quickly turn into real danger, if it hadn’t already. They were going on, and to go back alone felt just as much like suicide as to stay with them.
My saviours came down out of a cloud: she, short but sturdy; he, tall and thin; both with grey hair, high cheekbones, dressed and equipped for the mountain.
Bright eyes under strong brows took in our ill-equipped group incredulously before speaking, first in Czech and then English. We shouldn’t go on, especially in those clothes, they told us. They were going back down, and they strongly advised us to come with them.
The rest of my predominantly male group locked eyes in a silent challenge. I’m macho, I’m not backing down. But I had already proven to myself that I wasn’t macho. I wished my group luck and descended with the Czech couple.
The man, Erik, took one look at me and announced I “badly need first aid.” I badly needed an airlift; first aid wouldn’t cut it. He fished a spare rain poncho out of his rucksack and handed me a hip flask. The thin sheet of plastic afforded a surprising amount of shelter and protection, and as the warmth from the brandy slipped down my throat and through my torso and limbs, I felt stronger and braver, and finally understood why rescue dogs would be sent through the snow with little bottles round their necks.
Erik walked in front, scouting out the best route; his reserved wife, whose name I never learnt, indicated that I should go in front of her. I scrutinized the ground before me, stepping my pink sandals into the impressions left by Erik’s boots. Never before or since have I felt such immense gratitude to strangers, or been so unable to find words powerful enough to express the gravity of my thanks.
Every so often, Erik would turn around, he and his wife would confer in quickie Czech, and they would call a temporary halt for refreshments. Water first, to quench thirst, “first aid,” and sometimes some nuts or dried fruit. I felt a little wretched during those breaks; they were being so generous but I had nothing to share.
When we eventually left the clouds behind, the going was less tough, and we could talk. We spoke about science—Erik and I were both researchers, though he was a professor and I just a PhD student—as well as the region’s history, our cultures, lives and families. The Prague Spring of 1968, a historical moment when the Czechoslovakian government made efforts to lessen Soviet Russia’s overwhelming influence, wasn’t described anywhere near as grippingly in my high school history book as by Erik, who lived through it; as often happens when you travel through Eastern Europe, I was reminded that history, sometimes, is not that old.
The conversation became so interesting I forgot I was once scared of this trek, and as the hike went from dangerous to merely difficult we developed a firm camaraderie. When we said goodbye in Zdiar, it felt like we had parted ways too soon.
In those final moments, Erik’s wife spoke in English for the first time. “Some very good advice for you: for the mountain, you need the proper shoes.”
I’ve certainly learned that. But I’ve also learned that no travel guide or history book, or even solo travel, can make a place as fascinating as its people can.