What: hiking in Slovakia and a bit of the Czech Republic
Where: from Žilina to Trenčín, Slovakia
When: May 5-11, 2019 (7 days)
Distance: about 131 miles
Highlights: our first backpacking trip in Eastern Europe
Christine’s article on hiking the E-3 in Eastern Europe.
GPX files of the E-3 and E-8 are available from various internet sources.
A useful website for walking in Slovakia.
As for all our trips, we used our two favorite mapping tools: CalTopo.com to prepare gpx data and printed maps, and Gaia GPS while hiking.
Why we went
We have hiked in many places around the world and are always looking for new places to go walking. Our acquaintance Christine had recently completed a very long walk across Eastern Europe on the E-3 and wrote an informative and generally positive article about her experiences. We had never taken a long hike in Eastern Europe, so we decided to give it a try.
We had planned to hike for six weeks in Slovakia. After one week we both felt uninspired and agreed to abandon the walk and spend the remaining five weeks backpacking in France instead. Details are below.
This was our first trip where I did not look forward to another day of walking and I have given much thought to why this was so.
Our other trips have been full of unexpected and delightful surprises, ranging from extraordinarily generous people to five-star campsites to beautiful manhole covers to a flock of 500 Oystercatchers roosting close to our tent.
In Slovakia, there was nothing bad, but of our seven days on the trail I can think of only one wonderful thing that caught me by surprise: a local Slovakian band playing Texas Bluegrass music in a café. The band was cheerful and appeared to be having fun even though the patrons were quiet and reserved.
Few people made any effort to interact with us, even though I persisted in smiling and cheerfully said hello or dobré to everybody we passed; there was no hostility, but also very little warmth. Engaging warmly with strangers is a very important factor when I travel, and I was disappointed by the lack of connection.
Our joint age was 130 years during this trip. As we get older, walking up and down hills becomes increasingly difficult and I want the rewards to be correspondingly greater. Ten years ago, I would have forgiven the lack of stellar scenery, delightful events, or warm interactions and enjoyed the simple process of walking through a landscape, but this time I really did not want to face yet another wet day of walking up and down hills. I usually am a very optimistic person, but I lost hope that things would change significantly for the better.
I do not regret our decision to cancel our planned walk and was very satisfied with the five weeks we spent on the coast of Brittany.
For me, it was a very difficult decision to abandon this walk, as I prefer to complete whatever task I start. Quitting the hike was psychologically traumatic, but a logical conclusion as I never got into the groove of this walk. Normally, within a day or two of starting a long walk, it becomes my life and focus. I accept the joys and the problems as parts of an immersive experience; in a lot of ways, the little details do not really matter. On this trip, I never achieved that merging into the walk that is so important. In the end, I just could not justify continuing on.
Long ago, we got some advice from an experienced outdoors person: never make a decision to abandon a trip after a hard day; wait until the next morning and you usually will be able to put your choices into a better perspective. This has proven true on a few occasions, encouraging us to carry on despite difficulties and ultimately to have a rewarding experience. In this case, we waited a full week, and when morning dawned on the 8th day we still could find no compelling reason to finish the walk. We made a decision to abandon our plan and go somewhere else for the remaining five weeks of our holiday. In hindsight I believe we made the right choice.
An Unexpected Change in Plans
Our original plan was for a six-week trip walking west to east across most of Slovakia and returning back to our starting point by a more northerly route. Along the way, we would cross into both the Czech Republic and Poland and do a traverse through the High Tatras, the most significant range in the region. This is the first time we have abandoned a long walk prior to its completion for reasons other than illness or injury.
We spent a great deal of time mapping the route and researching resupply options, and we arrived in Slovakia well prepared for the trip. After a week of walking, we acknowledged to each other that this trip just was not suiting us. Our dissatisfaction was the sum of a lot of relatively minor issues.
The scenery was pleasant, but not outstanding or memorable. Most of the walking was in managed forests that had been planted in the last forty years or so. They were quite green and well established, but were essentially mono-cultures that after a while started to be too repetitive. Imagining spending much of the next five weeks in very similar habitat was not compelling. The High Tatras are a reported to be an attractive mountain range, but they were several weeks in our future and would take us only a few days to cross them and actually be in the high mountains.
We found the cultural landscape to be uninteresting. The agricultural fields were pleasing, but not novel. The small towns were generally tidy, but very dull architecturally. We found nothing that caught us by surprise, such as the artistic man-hole covers that delighted us every day in Japan. The few older buildings we passed were underwhelming. We have spent enough time walking in Europe that another typical old castle or fort or church is no longer fascinating. The food was adequate but not memorable.
We had precipitation for most of our first day and the rain turned to snow when we reached 1200 meters. The snow was sticking and we were soon walking though several inches of it. This was an unexpected and apparently quite late snowfall for the area. At 1300 meters elevation we started to encounter remnants of the previous winter’s snowpack. Although this was not a significant problem, later in the trip we would be hiking above 2000 meters and we were not prepared for extended walking on snow. Five days into our trip, a couple of English-speaking local hikers told us that several of the places on our route were still snow covered and were unlikely to melt out in the next couple of weeks. They told us that winter had been abnormally late that year.
For seven days, we had a lot of cloudy skies and daily intermittent light rain. This in itself would not normally deter us, after all, we have walked in Scotland, but the inclement weather contributed to our feeling that things seemed dull and grey.
Finally, we found the people to be generally very reserved. To be clear, nobody was ever deliberately rude, hostile, mean or otherwise unpleasant. We met some cheerful and friendly folks. However, most people were very uninterested in engaging with us in any way. We understand that there is a significant language barrier, but we had the same barrier in Turkey and Japan and never felt the lack of an ability to connect with the locals as we did in Slovakia. This was probably the most important factor in our decision to abandon the trip.
On our seventh day we arrived in Trenčín in good spirits but without much enthusiasm. We spent the night in a very friendly pension. As is our habit, we got up at dawn but we delayed our departure due to heavy rainfall. While waiting for a break in the rain, we studied the 10-day weather forecast and it predicted moderate to heavy rain every day. We independently came to the conclusion that the walk was not inspiring us and decided to abandon the route; it was not a controversial decision.
We discussed going home early and we also considered finding another European trail where we could spend our remaining five weeks. After a couple hours of internet research, we decided to go to France and walk the western sections of the GR-34; we had hiked the eastern portion in 2007 and had enjoyed it thoroughly. It was easy to book transport from Trenčín to Roscoff, France and to download a GPX track for the GR-34. This proved to be a good decision and we had a very enjoyable walk on the French coast.
We would like to emphasize that there was nothing fundamentally wrong with the area. The extensive trail network was in excellent condition and well-marked. Many others have walked in the region and had good experiences, but this walk just did not suit us.
Notes for Potential Hikers
The Caltopo map has the track of what we actually walked. It also includes our intended route and waymarks for cafes, grocery stores, and possible lodging.
We flew to Vienna and from there took a train to Bratislava. From Bratislava, take another train to either Trenčín or Žilina. The trains were comfortable and on time. If you purchase your tickets ahead of time on the internet, you can save a worthwhile amount of money.
We chose Žilina as our starting point and walked counterclockwise so as to put crossing the High Tatras as late as possible. This would have given the higher altitude snow more time to melt. Otherwise, the route should work as well walking in the other direction or starting in Trenčín. Both Trenčín and Žilina have big grocery stores for buying supplies and have a variety of places to stay before starting a walk.
Our route includes portions of both the E-3 and E-8 which are major trans-European waymarked long distance trails. Part of walk included portions of the Cesta Hrdinov Slovenského Národného Povstania, or Cesta SNP, which is a very well waymarked and important Slovakian national trail crossing the entire country. This trail commemorates the actions of Slovak partisans during World War II. Our planned route also included the Tatranská Magistrála, the main trail crossing the High Tatras.
On the ground
We found the trails to be generally well marked, easy to follow, well maintained and obviously used by others. Some sections were very steep and went up and down fall lines without the benefit of any switchbacks. We did encounter one stretch that was quite hazardous given the snowy conditions; the trail descended a long and very steep hill where the wet and slippery soil was covered with a layer of loose leaves with fresh snow on top of them. No matter what we did, our feet were constantly sliding out from under us and we each fell numerous times, we were both lucky to get to the bottom without injury. That said, we encountered no technical difficulties requiring climbing or scrambling. All significant stream crossings were bridged.
There were lots of trail signs and usually they were easy to interpret. Sometimes the signs directed us off of our downloaded tracks, but that is to be expected and we never got lost. In some cases, the trails included multiple described overlapping routes, so the trail name displayed on the sign might not be the one that we expected. As is common in Europe, the signs rarely gave a distance to a destination; instead they had an expected walking time.
We wild camped on six nights and never had any significant difficulties in finding a site. Nobody seemed to care where we camped and we saw an occasional tent set up at other unofficial campsites.
Having mapped the possible stores and cafes ahead of time, it was easy to determine how much food to buy and carry. Grocery items and café bills were relatively inexpensive, especially compared to those in western Europe. Be aware is that while Slovakia uses the Euro, as of this writing the Czech Republic does not. We did not know this and it created a slightly awkward situation when we tried to pay a bill in the CR and had only Euros and some US dollars.
We encountered very few people who spoke any English. We bought a SIM card from giffgaff prior to departing, installed it at home, and it worked satisfactorily.
The birding was good, with lots species in evidence. As it was spring, the morning dawn chorus was excellent.
I think it is great that you love hiking, a meditation for life, and this abandonment proves that you do hike not because it’s what you are used to, but because it’s what you truly enjoy. Tuff and melancolic decision, but it (should) feel liberating too.
Karem – thanks for your note and encouraging words.