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Serpentine National Park

Transperth – or public transport in WA to be more general is NOT brilliant. In Slovakia – a country you wouldn’t expect to have a well organised or easy to use transport far trumps what Perth has to offer. In Slovakia I went on a number of adventures – weekends and day trips, and although sometimes complicated ( there are a number of posts offering examples of this in Slovakia Stories ) they were never impossible. My point being that I have found it incredibly hard – in fact impossible to have adventures that don’t require a set of wheels. Places of interest are simply not served by public transport – or at least they are but require a number of changes, lengthy transits or not enough time to meet connections or return trips. In Slovakia I travelled far and wide on a network of trains, trams and buses and never found anywhere I couldn’t get to.

So on Friday night, after pulling my hair out trying to find somewhere I could get to and spend a reasonable amount of time in – I texted a friend on the off chance they wanted to accompany me on a day out… and drive their car there and back. Fortunately the response was positive, making me very happy to set my alarm early for Saturday morning.
I needn’t have bothered as I was awoken at some antisocial hour by an incredibly loud thunderstorm, that seemed to be directly above my head, shaking my little cabin.

Two hours later, when the thunder, lightning and torrential rain had ceased chariot arrived and we set off for Serpentine Falls.

First stop was Serpentine Dam. A vast expanse of water on the Serpentine river whose catchment is one of the major supplies of drinking water for Perth. Do not quote or correct me on this please – I don’t make notes when I go exploring – I remember and recount information and openly admit to getting it wrong sometimes!

This dam was not on my do list – didn’t even know it was there. We stumbled upon it first of all, missing a turning and completely bypassing the falls. A wrong turn worth taking I believe…

Serpentine Dam

Serpentine Dam

Serpentine Dam

Next came the falls. Entering the national park from the opposite side we pulled up into the central picnic area – a smell of sausages on the barbecues greeting us as we assessed the trail maps. There was a damp, yet pleasant smell in the air – of fresh, green plants – ready to spring into bloom. It reminded me so much of Železná studničk – Bratislava Forest Park – and a wonderful day I had spent hiking there at the beginning of Spring some time ago.

We took an alternative path to get a higher view of the Falls, only to realise that the easier, simpler route led you to a far better viewing platform – purposely built with steps into the upper pool for warmer days when the water invites you for a swim. It wasn’t particularly cold – so with a little more planning ( bikini and a towel ) I could have been persuaded to have a dip. I have had a waterfall swim already which was up near Cairns (QLD) last year, so that box had already been ticked. Thankfully.

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After an ample amount of time taking in the scene and sitting on a rock that plenty of other people wanted to sit on, we headed off on another trail. A 6km, grade 4 hike up to Baldwin’s Bluff. This very much reminded me of my hiking weekend, again in Slovakia – in Terchova where the weather, climate and hiking grades were similar. Yes – it has been 2 years since I have enjoyed a good hike!
Our trail was a steep, stony path up the side of a gorge to a lookout over the waterfalls and Kitty’s Gorge. It was flanked either side with nature’s display of Spring bursting into bloom. The smell was worthy of being bottled – a fragrant reminder that Spring has sprung and Summer will be arriving fairly soon. The humidity and threat of rain enhanced the aroma and as the climb evened out, the flowers grew brighter and smelt fresher.

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I could have joined the masses who stopped to photograph every flower, but I would have bored my companion to tears and I wouldn’t have enjoyed the exhilarating high I got as I sprang onwards – pain in my back or legs totally eradicated as my heightened senses absorbed everything available. I don’t get what they call Runner’s High – but what I feel when I walk or hike in a place of natural beauty is something I imagine can be equated to that feeling.

view from Baldwin's Bluff

Serpentine Falls

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Perth in the distance - 50 km away

Long distance Perth

The walk down had a few slips and slides, but no injuries were obtained other than a large bite I, of course, (wouldn’t be anyone else) received right on the kneecap of my still sore ice skating knee!

I snapped away at a few views and flowers, as an excuse to catch my unfit breath but was disinterested in hiking behind my camera lens so hope the atmosphere has been sufficiently captured from my relatively spontaneous, yet wonderfully rewarding day in the park!

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banska stiavnica

Banská Štiavnica

A pleasant mining town in the middle of Slovakia, 240 km, 3 ½ hours by bus from Bratislava acted as our host for a very relaxing weekend away.

The medieval mining town found fame the first time in the 14th century and is now a tourist attraction which UNESCO declared a world heritage site in 1972. It comes complete with epic views, tea houses, pensions, one hostel and steep picturesque cobbled streets.

Due to said steep cobbled streets, the bus drops you off a good mile out of the centre. By the time we’d lonely planet-mapped our way to the hostel we were well in need of a good sit-down. The journey here had been hassle free, making a seamless change in Ziar nad Hronom onto a local bus for the last 40 km, which wound up and down and meandered through hilly forest land with breath taking views before plonking us in the not-so-picturesque industrial part of town.

Arriving at the hostel there was a green post-it note addressed to me from Barbora, who runs Hostel6 telling me she was out the back gardening and to come and find her when we’d arrived. Her and Bucci, her dog, greeted me warmly, equally covered in mud and happy to welcome their new guests. After dealing with keys, dropping bags off and Barbora saying “Pay me when you want” we headed back down the cobbled streets with her map, towards much needed caffeine fix at “Crazy Lady” coffee shop – that’s a translation by the way. Time passes quickly in these places and afternoon swiftly becomes evening when you are pacing the streets of a town as charming as this: eager to turn every corner and look down every street. Alas we realised that by the time we’d done all the outside things in the sunshine all the indoor attractions had closed. Still, we had managed a walk around the old castle as an art festival was packing up its things and then hiked up to the new castle to admire more spectacular views, after visiting a wooden Bethlehem moving model and worked up a good appetite for bryndzové halušky, one of Slovakia’s national dishes. Hard to describe, but, the “Bethlehem is a small room with a miniature carved moving Bethlehem scene. I say miniature and I mean it takes up 3 walls of the room and details every type of worker and activity related to the nativity scene.   

I had previously tried and disliked bryndzové halušky in Bratislava, likening it to overcooked macaroni cheese with very strong cheese sauce. Horrified by this description, Barbora sent us to a pension where I must try it again, because “this is where we make the cheese”. I am pleased I gave it another shot as this was a truly different culinary experience, which I had with venison, at a ridiculously cheap price. This didn’t seem right until I sat down and thought about the number of Bambis there are jumping around central Slovakia and was heartened by the fact that what was on my plate would have been running round a forest days before, not living in a factory. At least I hope so and please do NOT feel free to correct me on this one.

The next morning, after a later night than planned (wine at 1.50€/glass) we spent the morning (afternoon) on the terrace of a tea house which boasted 100 different types of tea. Again epic views over the town as we enjoyed a truly relaxing hour before heading to the bus station ( this time by taxi!) en route to our booking at Sklene Teplice – one of Slovakia’s many, very cheap, mineral water spas.

This was possibly the best 7.50€ I’ve ever spent. The whole village is basically a spa complex, with its selling point as the only cave bath in Slovakia. The description was slightly deceiving I have to say, as I was really hoping we would literally be crawling into a cave to have a bath! The Lonely Planet increased my disappointment by promoting it as a Splunking Spa, so when I stepped into a tiled pool, with one wall as part of a cave, I deemed rather less primitive than imagined. We entered the building, which was half cave, half modern spa. The assistant took our tickets and said something incomprehensible and to my surprise didn’t speak a word of English. She managed to relay instructions by mime and being good teachers we managed to communicate equally. Then pointing took over mime as some instructions were written in English. We showered and entered the “cave”. I say it like this as it only had one wall of cave, in which 42 C of calcium and magnesium rich water was running down and filling the pool. 20minutes was recommended but 42 degrees in a confined space meant I lasted a little less than recommended. The assistant showed us silently into the “relaxation” room, where we were wrapped in blankets, laid down and left to listen to relaxing music and enjoy a large fish tank on one wall of the cave. 20 minutes later we found ourselves sitting on massage chairs that I kid you not massaged everything from your head to your bottom, and your hands to your feet for 20 minutes. Feeling fully refreshed and satisfied on exit food was whole heartedly enjoyed before waiting for the bus in the sunshine to take us home…

ghosts and ghouls

Bojnice Castle

Another overdue blog post about a castle I visited weeks ago.

Every May, Bojnice castle holds the International Festival of Ghosts and Spirits. For an international festival, I was fairly surprised to not encounter a single person who spoke English, or any information presented in perhaps the most international language, but anyway…

A hot Spring day and a two day festival that most of Slovakia had come to participate in meant even jumping the queue involved a standing time of 2.5 hours (and that’s jumping in a less than half way!). Time was passed with occasional trips to numerous stalls littering the area selling honey wine, ice cream, corn on the cob, barbecued food, candy floss and pancakes to name but a few. I guess they thought about it, but somewhat stupidly didn’t think to offer anyone toilet facilities. I wonder about the Slovaks: they so often get it almost right.

I soon understood the reason for the lengthy queue. You enter the castle in groups of 30 and are taken on a tour of the darkened castle, to watch a series of re-enactments (75mins worth actually) of stories involving the ghosts of past castle residents. It’s all based around the May Ball, which a distant queen held as a reunion for all previous inhabitants of the castle. The tour, songs and theatre all performed in Slovak meant that I don’t have much evidence of actual stories to share, but I did indeed enjoy the general idea. We were lead through each room, where we were shown some aspect of each character’s life: either their death or a significant moment, complete with trip down a dark corridor where dead people jump out and touch you, take your hand or just try to scare the shit out of you. One of the final rooms was indeed the ballroom, where all the characters are assembled and the audience are also invited to dance. I was propositioned by a dead man, who tried to take my hand. I politely declined, as I really couldn’t imagine the conversation I would have whilst ballroom dancing with a dead Slovak lord from the 17th Century….

Being an adult it was a thoroughly enjoyable experience, save for the silly people who thought it a good idea to take their unsuspecting children on a ghost tour where “dead” people jump out in your face. There were some hysterical children whose parents should have been sent home in my opinion.

The town Bojnice doesn’t have anything to offer worth writing home about, but had certainly cashed in on the expected volume of people with an array of market stalls offering you a range of local and mainstream products. I was particularly taken (as were my companions) but two jewellery makers, dressed somewhat traditionally making pieces out of glass and precious stones. I stood fascinated watching a man make glass beads out of pieces of coloured glass with a blow torch. Wanting to buy that I then spotted what his wife was making: beautifully unique hand crafted pieces with precious stones and metal. Next time you see me, check out my fabulous Turquoise angel necklace!

I am starting to love Slovakia more and more for its quite literal hidden gems here and there. It really is a country that needs to be discovered and with time running out I will be frantically squeezing in as much as I can….

Until next time….

x

What a difference the sunshine makes…

Jan 12th

What a difference the sunshine makes!

Today was what we could call my first “real” day, in that off I went this morning to class after class, navigating my way around Bratislava on the bus, the tram and the trolley bus to destinations I can’t pronounce and places I can’t locate on the map!

But without the damp mist that seemed to hover around like a bad smell, the buildings were certainly a different shade of grey and bathed in sunlight the whole city was a totally different place.

I set off this morning, my first class having been cancelled the night before, allowing me a generous lie-in until 7.30. I made it into town on bus 95 in plenty of time, marvelling all the way at buildings I hadn’t even noticed before. Off I hopped to make my change at the tram stop, deliberately missing the one I saw approaching, so I could smugly stand and wait knowing I had aeons of time. Tram 12 rattles into its stop, on I get eagerly checking my timetable against stops. It turns left. Did it turn left on Monday? No, having just missed one, the director and I had walked onto another stop for another line. Ok, no problem I think, scanning the screen for my stop. Doesn’t appear. That’s odd. Double check schedule and destination. Yes I am on the right one. Left again. This can’t be right. Off I get, whip out my street map and now I really am on an adventure and a mission. I’ve just got off the tram at a random stop in the middle of a city I have not yet explored and I need to get to a class in 45 mins. Best mistake I have made! I locate the stop I had used on Monday, for Tram 5, and race along cobbled streets towards it. This is Bratislava! Here are the lovely buildings I’ve seen in images of this city, the old churches and cobbled streets. Fabulous, but no time to marvel, got a tram to catch at 19 mins past! I race up the steps recognising the stop from another angle and skip across the road as the tram approaches. Phew. Wait a minute, this tram doesn’t list my stop either, I realise as we jerk into a tunnel. Ho hum. What to do. I soon realise that only the MAIN stops scroll across the screen and the dear old tram stops at them all. This is confirmed as I step off at destination stop Svanterova and number 12 comes squeaking up behind it. Oh well, learnt something about the trams. Along I skip, still very pleased with myself. I still have 20 mins till class and will arrive with more than enough time. This nasty looking housing estate is not a glum as it was in the fog, in fact the buildings are painted rather oddly in oranges and yellows. Yes… orange and yellow tower blocks. The school looks much cleaner and brighter as I approach and again I smile to myself at how easy this all is. I arrive slip on shoe covers. The Children remember my name and take very well to my new English Only policy (and strict it is too!).

Two hours later, I saunter, yes saunter because I have 2 hours to get to my next class back to the tram stop. This time I hop on Bus 83 for about 12 minutes and get off at a totally random place Sokolska to then catch the trolley bus. At least I am seeing the city now, although cleaner windows would be nice. I’m not looking forward to the next class cos a fellow teacher “helpfully” warned me that they were difficult to teach and the class was miles away from anything. When I arrive at Trnavska I spot a café next to the bus stop (He told me he’d walked for miles to find one!). It takes ages to cross a rather complicated road and as I am still 45 mins early I enter the “fresh food market”. This is weird. It’s nearly empty bar about 10 open shops which either sell fruit, veg, bread or a combination of the lot. There are some stalls selling food with tables too, but I am only brave enough to buy a mandarin and a pastry. It’s going to take a while since I answer every question with “Si”, greet people with “hola” and thank people… you know how it goes.

The class itself is fine. I enter an enormous building, which is the central office for a big bank. Hand over my passport (rather annoyingly have been told to carry this with me at all times for my business classes) and make my way towards elevator D, floor 5. Not as easy as it seems, as when I get out of the lift I realise I am stuck, cos my security pass doesn’t allow me to enter the next part, so I wait for a student to arrive. The class is in a glass cubicle, in the middle of an open plan office. I can’t scratch my bottom when I write on the board, not that I do normally…

After that class, I have to navigate my way back out and then find bus stop 50. This drops me at another random location Wustenrot where I whip out my street map (this is a street map, bought here, NOT a tourist guide) and enjoy working my way back to school. It’s now 3.40 and I have a substitute class to cover in less than an hour and everyone wants to know how I got on today. How nicely annoying. One to one class takes place in a classroom at the top of the building, to which I am given a special key. Student is waiting when I arrive. He is surprised I am not Mike, but after that initial confusion, the hour flies by.

5.30, can’t go home yet cos photocopies have to be made for my 7.30 class tomorrow nd everything I taught today has to be typed into the online agenda.

A busy, but enjoyable day was had by me, finished off with a quick trip into Tesco near school. I don’t have the time to wander round with my dictionary so I shamefully collect TESCO items that I recognise and totter off to the bus stop having bought more than I intended to…

Photos in aorder of appearance are…

View from my bedroom window,

My block of flats

Waiting for the tram at 9am ( before I thought i’d buggered it up and got on the wrong one…)

Bratislava Castle from the balcony

Orange tower blocks of Batkova, near the school I teach at 3x week.

13th Floor!

24 hours in…

So…. 24 hours in…how does it feel?

Well, it so rarely fits the pictures you had in your head and this is like none of the images I conjured up of a fairy-tale-like city with a rising castle and crispy air and smiling people and either a wintery snow covered landscape or a crisp deep blue sky.

Yes, I DO live in the “eastern block”, as in I live in a place that from first glance you would assume to be a NASTY council estate. Petrˇzalka. Yes, grey tower blocks, litter and badly parked cars. I live on the 13th floor of a building whose entrance would make you not really wish to proceed.

The journey into the centre is pretty ugly until you actually get to the bus stop in the centre where there are some nicer looking buildings. The tram is pretty nasty looking, often with graffiti or advertising cleaning products. Not the quaint rickety wooden tram you picture trundling along cobbled streets.

The weather has been grey, damp and misty, so hasn’t painted the city in the prettiest light.

The “school”, as in the primary school where I am teaching is on another of these delightful housing estates, again where at first glance you wouldn’t want your child walking there alone. BUT on entering, you are encapsulated by the most charming environment: decorated beautifully and delightfully inviting for children. You are instructed to wear slippers in the primary area, or cover your shoes, and although the paint wasn’t painted in perfectly straight lines, the rooms are bright and colourful and a wonderful atmosphere for the children.

Of course I must mention TESCO. It IS the world here. It’s not just a supermarket. It’s like El Corte Ingles in the centre with a floor for toiletries , another for clothes and an acre for the actual supermarket. In my “local” one, a hypermarket, I could buy iceskates, a treadmill, a double bed or just a packet of stock cubes. I could also sit down in the café and check my email, pop next door to pizza hut, or even have myself a haircut.

I remain optimistic. I arrived open-minded and I am determined to leave knowledgeable of the culture, surrounding countries and of course a better teacher.

Oh and I have a Kindergarten class times 2 tomorrow. Three Year olds!

xx