Friday 3/6

In a rather more sober frame of mind than has been usual, we set off early for Slovakia. The temptation of another eggs Viennese in the square is there but it would take too long and we don't fancy the walk into town in our bike gear just for coffee and eggs, no matter how nice. We don't even consider a Hotel Stalin breakfast.

The first challenge is getting out of Krakow! The roads go all over the place and the signage system isn't exactly clear, eventually drying out unexpectedly. I'm sure this is something that foreigners driving in England are familiar with, so its difficult to make real complaints but its a definite pain in the wossnames. After 15 mins of messing about and only the one U-turn in a little suburb we had no business being in anyhow, we're on the road South for the border. Hurrah!

This really is the road to the border. In fact its almost the road to Bratislava. We'll be on the same road all the way to Slovakia and will stay on it for much of the trip through there as well. Most of the distance in Poland is dual carriageway and we absolutely harpoon the bikes along it. After some distance in not many miles, the road starts to vary between dual and single carriageway. We've reached the parts under heavy construction. Clearly this road will be dual carriageway all the way to the border in a year or so. Soon enough this ends too and we're on a normal single carriageway road.

We pass a group of men standing in the middle of the road and providing an explanation for one of the reasons Polish roads are bumpy and, er, rugged all the time and scarily short of grip some of the time as well. They are effecting 'repairs'. To be more precise they are going from pothole to pothole, pouring some tarmac in, covering it with hot tar and maybe throwing a little gravel on top. They then move on. Riding over these very short term 'repairs' is worrying anyhow (thank goodness its not raining) as the surface ends up like the stuff used for overbanding in the UK - smooth and utterly grip-free. When its hot and loose as well...

Somewhere around 10:30 am we pull off the road and stop for breakfast. The place we choose is on top of a lightly wooded hill overlooking the plain before the border and is a hotel-cum-restaurant. Scrambled eggs and coffee for two please! And jolly good it is too. While Jerry goes to block the toilets, I realise that Polish daytime TV, on in the background, is covering British slang. "Leave it out John" sounds very funny in a thick Polish accent, especially as the chap teaching it to the Richard-&-Judy-alikes is putting a sometimes cockney, sometimes Essex emphasis on the pronunciations. Fascinating :)

Anyhow, so we've had a 40 minute or so rest and then we're off. Given that we're close to the border now, just after 11 am, and that today's destination is Bratislava (it may mean crossing a whole country but its just not that far), we discuss our concerns that we may be there rather earlier than is desirable. As it happens, events conspire to change that, and all for the better as we shall see.

We cross the hot, open plain to the border and get our passports stamped into Slovakia. Jerry gets a Poland exit stamp too, whilst I forget to ask for one. Curses!

Just a few miles after the border we stop for a drink of water at the side of the road by a farmhouse with a bus stop out the front. The house looks rather like the Brighton pavilion was just picked up and plonked down in rural Slovakia. As we stop, a three generational family walk up to the bus stop where we're sheltering from the sun and begin to talk in English! Out, I think, of sheer perversity we don't to enlighten them, finish our water and ride off towards the mountains.

The plain continues for a few miles into Slovakia but we are soon climbing into the Tatra mountains. This is an astonishingly pretty range. The villages look somehow Austrian or Tyrolean (perhaps a relic of the influence of the late Austro-Hungarian empire of which this must surely have been a part) and the mountains seem to be complimentary to this - although I know its more the other way round, somehow that's the way it feels. One of those happy occasions when the general style of the buildings suits the countryside into which they have been placed. Its a lovely area, it really is, with good riding too. An immediate entry into my "places to return to" list. We round a corner to find a tall meadow rising smoothly out of the valley in front of us with a high peak behind it. For a moment it looks as though you could step off the meadow and onto the peak, as if in some delirious hiking trance. As we continue to go right and this passes to my left hand side, I think about stopping and taking a picture but realise that no camera could encompass the scale of it all - at least not one wielded by me.

In places, then, the Slovakians have surpassed themselves in the harmony of their environment. In others, well... A beautiful valley, round a nice tight bend to .. a small steelworks. No attempt to camouflage or disguise, it just squats there. Yuk. Reminds me of parts of the Peak District.

A few more miles of pleasant countryside and we come over a river and into a sort of ribbon town. We have to turn right here and after I do so, I realise I can no longer see Jerry behind me. I assume he's stopped for the lights, pull over and wait but they cycle several times and still there's no sign of him. I go back, vaguely undecided whether or not to be worried and find he's parked up on the side of the road, fiddling with something. As we came round from the bridge, the visor retaining mechanism on one side of his helmet abandoned ship. A vigorous application of insulting tape resolves this temporarily. Shoei design immediately shows itself to be damn good as unlike when my helmet lost a visor attachment back in England, Jerry is perfectly able to raise or lower the chin bar without damaging the tape holding the visor on.

We agree that we'll stop at the first bike shop we see to try and sort out a repair. Back to the lights, turn right and on for a mile and I see one just as we're about to pass it. Another of my speciality hopelessly-illegal manoeuvres to get in the correct lane and we're stopping on the apron of the warehouse style building next door. After all my praise for Slovakia, its worth mentioning that this particular place, Ruzomberok, is abominably ugly. Perhaps its the industrial area on the outside of a town we've not seen, but whatever the reason, its still nasty - albeit nasty with lovely mountains just behind.

They don't stock Shoei spares, so we leave. Between exiting the building and departing, we both drink some water and just as I finish also disposing of some fluids, in a spectacular example of good timing my bank call me on my mobile:

"Hello! You took some money out in Poland yesterday."
"Are you actually in Poland?"
"But I was yesterday"
"Oh good. Just checking!"

And off we go.

The main road goes off on a big loop here, so we take a side turning that will cut across it and use much more interesting roads. Just beyond the turning is a positively hugely tall man with an improbably enormous afro. He stands on the side of the road, hitchhiking. He looks madly out of place, like he was kidnapped by aliens from a Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers cartoon back in 1973 and has just been returned where he stood.

We're now on a beautiful road, winding its way along a valley but my appreciation of it is somewhat dulled by the steady orange light on my dashboard. It first flickered on at a trip reading of 180 miles and it now says 210. I've never run the bike out so I've no real idea how much further I'll get. I'm rather relieved when we approach the edges of Banska Stiavnica and see a petrol station for the first time in ages. We pull in and I try to put the Capo on its centrestand, but the sheer weight of all the kit I have it loaded up with bends the activating lever, leaving the bike wobbly and lopsided. Not an unknown fault, but a damned irritating one. Sigh. No centrestand for the rest of the trip then :(

Two pretty girls in their late teens or early twenties are sitting in a little cafe area to the side of the filling station. Every time a car comes in they wander over and languidly drape themselves in a vaguely disinterested way over the car wing or the pump. I can't tell if they're whores (we've seen a number of these waiting for truckers outside towns on main routes) or trying to blag a ride or what. Curiously ineffective behaviour, whatever they're doing, because everyone just ignores them.

Off we set and just a few hundred yards later Jerry gets all overexcited. Turns out he's seen a bike shop - in fact not just a bike shop but a shiny and very modern looking Ducati dealership!

We turn in on the off-chance that they sell Shoei spares. The very nice lady that runs the place (and speaks excellent English by the way) explains that they don't but very nicely offers us a cold drink, which we're most grateful to accept. While we're drinking, she talks to the others and explains that their engineer thinks he can make a replacement part! There's no way we can afford to turn this offer down and anyhow its a pleasant place to stop for a while. In fact it takes the engineer some puzzled looks, a furious cutting down of bolts, two trips (helmetless, of course; nutter fast, naturally) off somewhere on his KTM off-road bike, what sounds like a few muffled swear words and 3/4 hr of labour for him to do just that. The shop won't accept payment and he won't take a tip. Aren't people amazing?

During this time we chat with the owner and watch various people totter out on test rides. One young lad going out on a 749 without any more protective gear than a lid nearly lobs it about 40 feet from the dealership. There were a lot of tense faces during the time he was out, I can tell you! When he does come back, he almost immediately goes out on something else.

Conversation reveals that they've been there just over a year and a half and are the only Ducati dealership in Slovakia. Last year they sold four bikes all year. This year they have sold 6 already, so business is picking up, which means the Slovakian economy must be doing all right. Ducatis are, after all, luxury items when all's said & done. I ask about Ducati's latest and ugliest bike, the MultiStrada, noticing its the only model that they haven't got there. That's because they've already sold every one they can get, including the demo bike!

We set off on the mountain road to Levice. As we start climbing up, the lad who earlier had nearly lobbed the 749 comes in the opposite direction. He doesn't look overly confidence inspiring, frankly. Anyhow, the road to Levice turns out to win my award for Best Road of the Trip. Its long, it twists, it turns and the views are astonishing. The road surface is pretty good too, considering, and definitely grippy. I hit what's laughably called the 'zone' pretty quickly and just belt off.

One of the seriously important criteria of a good road is that it have decent length. No point in the road being high quality if it only takes 10 mins to go from one end to the other. Fortunately this road is nice and long, giving no breather from the coiled and curled ascent and then descent for about 25 miles. At the bottom of the small mountain we've crossed is a plain and a long, undulating road that leads to the town of Levice.

Beards. For many years I had a beard but I've not worn one for around 6 years. This trip seemed like a good, low-impact opportunity to re-grow a beard & see how I like it. I don't much. Already I have borrowed Jerry's razor to trim the thing & now I've decided that I'll buy one when I can. Don't worry, there is a point to this.

Its time for a late lunch and we're out of water too. As we approach Levice we turn onto the bypass and I see an absolutely enormous Tesco's. Seems like a good place to get food (and shaving equipment) so we pull in.

Stopping and parking up in the 100% shade free car park reveals just how hot it actually is. We hurry over to the shop entrance where there appears to be a cafe. Turns out they only serve drinks so I order 2 waters while Jerry nips off for a minute. When he returns and the drinks are gone, we go inside. Turns out that Jerry also needs some socks so we look for them first. No problem, the clothing section is right in front of us and socks can't be that hard to find, can they? Hah! 10 minutes later Jerry finally encounters the sock area at the back of the store and several aisles along. I grab a razor and foam and then we get sausage, cheese and bread rolls for a snack lunch. Nice.

We stand by the bikes and scoff our lunch. While we do an ancient car rolls up and parks nearby. A late 40s couple get out and head off for the supermarket. The woman is all high heels, short skirt, enormous beehive of hair & more slap than can be imaged in one place at one time. A true vision of slapper horribleness. In the car they leave an old lady to sit and swelter in the heat. We lunch under her beady eye. She didn't like the look of us, I can tell.

We're now riding out of the Tatra mountains and into Slovakia, part II: the plains. Its flat, its not overly attractive and its disgracefully hot. I ride with my jacket 1/2 unzipped and the cuffs undone. The air is so warm that even the breeze has no cooling effect. There's a lot more traffic now, which doesn't help and by the time we've made it to Bratislava its quite late in the afternoon. I don't know if the heat has got to me or if its my usual idiocy resurfacing but I just can't seem to find a hotel for us to stay in. I see a sign here and a sign there but seem to have difficulty finding an actual hotel. The only one I do find makes me blanche at the prices. We move on. Eventually we come to a modern looking building on the river, next to a bridge with a flying saucer on it. It looks OK, the price of the room is OK - well, only a bit pricey as opposed to extortionate. We book a twin room, park our bikes in the underground car park and shower. A damn cold shower for me to get rid of the excess temperature that has built up during the day.

Its not that late, certainly not enough for the sun to be going down yet, so we decide to walk into town to eat. We find the way easily enough - just follow the Beautiful People. They're all out on parade, slowly walking up and down the streets of a central area by an old church and the bridge. They go to see and to be seen and by golly there's a lot of looking around going on. I've never quite seen anything like this before. As we walk, we try to find somewhere to eat. Some places look too expensive (or their menus do) whilst some are just plain crowded. We are restricted somewhat because we both want to eat outdoors and there are less attractive outdoor seating areas than might be expected. These are old buildings and the streets are too narrow to accept too much of that sort of thing.

Eventually we stop dithering and take a table. The menu comes out and we order a little drink and contemplate our food. Jerry orders mushroom soup and I order, well, who cares. The point here is that Jerry orders mushroom soup. Not, in itself a big deal. He likes mushroom soup and probably has it often. Personally I'm not so big on it myself but there we go.

It turns out that this particular bowl of grey goo is the finest bowl of mushroom soup Jerry's ever had and possibly the finest single item of food he can ever recall. Now my pate was jolly nice, in fact it was excellent, as was the rest of the meal, but it wasn't up to the standard of that soup. Er, apparently.

We finish our meal, pay the surprisingly not awful bill, Jerry re-advises me of the superlative nature of the mushroom soup at this particular establishment, the Beautiful People thin out rather as its now dark and they've gone to find light so they can be seen once more and we walk back to the hotel. Jerry is bushwhacked, no doubt exhausted by the effort needed to fully appreciate the mushroom soup and returns to the hotel room. I am also knackered but not sleepy. Damn. I decide that the only thing to do is go for a walk.

I walk along the river embankment for a distance in either direction, being a bit aimless really. The bridge with the flying saucer looks a bit different in the dark. I watch a barge go by, have a last drink in the hotel bar (hot chocolate actually) and go off to the room. I am asleep in seconds.

Image of route

Mapsource .gdb file of track

Next day